I ended 2014 by making the trip from California to New Jersey to visit my father’s grave. I stood on frozen ground remembering the frigid day of his funeral fifteen years ago. On that day, Sylvia Heschel came up beside me at the graveside linking her arm in mine. I pulled her close thinking she sought the warmth of my body, but then she murmured: “I can see them now…” and I realized she was consoling me with her imagining of my father reunited, in death, with her deceased husband, my father’s beloved teacher and friend. In her minds eye these men who loved one another in life were loving one another’s company in death, sharing a scotch, perhaps, singing a niggun, most likely, surely talking about their life with God. Sylvia envisioned a continuity between worlds that I had not imagined until that moment. And in the years since, I have come to join Sylvia Heschel’s musing, finding comfort in imagining that Gan Eden is a welcoming community, a fellowship in the Beyond.
As we close out the secular year, we also close the book of Genesis, reading its last chapters this week, in which our patriarchal father Jacob dies and is “asaf el amav,” “gathered to his people.” His twelve sons carry Jacob’s embalmed body back to Canaan to the cave Abraham dedicated as the family burial plot. He joins his people, buried in the company of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah, the Cave of Machpelah just as much a community as the “old neighborhood” of the Jewish Cemetery where my father is buried at the feet of his in-laws and they at the feet of my grandmother’s parents, cousins and friends just across the grassy path.
The death of Jacob lends a transitory finality to the narrative of the patriarchs, but the trip back to the cave of Machpelah brings this ending ‘round to the beginning of the family story, indeed, to the beginning of biblical time, as, according to the Zohar, Adam and Eve are buried there as well. The Zohar describes Abraham’s accidental discovery of the cave while he is chasing a runaway calf. He follows his little charge into the cave, and once inside Abraham becomes aware of a glow that illuminates two burial mounds. As he pauses to acclimate to the light, the image of Adam rises up from one of the mounds and smiles at Abraham. The Zohar teaches that it is in response to Adam’s sweet gesture of welcome that Abraham decides: this will be his burial place.
In another passage we learn that the light by which Abraham sees Adam gesturing to him is a radiance streaming into the cave from an interior gateway to Paradise. The Cave of Machpelah is a portal to Gan Eden, residence of everlasting souls, and also the symbol of both the primordial beginning and the messianic end of time. In the Zohar’s midrashic spin, between culminating one story and opening the next, the Torah returns, in a liminal moment of narrative transition, to the cave with it’s secret door to Eden, remembering its root in God’s glorious Creation and acknowledging it’s promise of God’s redemption. The Torah marks the end of the patriarchal story as we mark our own milestones and comings of age, pausing to acknowledge what and who has brought us to a given moment, while holding that precious moment within the context of the fulfillment we imagine our futures yet to hold.
Last week I returned to my family’s burial plot, making a big trip at a ridiculously busy time. My life is moving forward but I went back, for a moment, just to sing a psalm with my dad, just to touch base, just to be a prodigal returned for the briefest moment before projecting myself forward. I think I heard him affirm a decision I have been wrestling with; I imagined my dear parent rising from his mound nodding as he smiled at me. And I will take that smile into my own next chapter, feeling my father standing at my back as I cross this threshold empowered to nurture the Eden that is coming.
I am emotionally fatigued by all the heartbreak of this past summer. I am drained by the tragedy of the bloodshed spilled in Israel and in Gaza. I am exhausted by the constant reports of slaughter and barbarism from ISIS, the civil war in Syria, and the separatist fighting in Ukraine. I am overwhelmed by the suffering of those stricken with Ebola in West Africa or with grief and anger in Ferguson. It seemed impossible to turn on the news this summer without some moral travesty dominating the headlines.
But with Rosh Hashanah rapidly approaching, I don’t want to stay focused on tragedy and heartbreak. I want to usher in the New Year with hope and optimism. And that is why I am joining thousands of other Jews in heading to the People’s Climate March in NYC on September 21st.
My wife recently asked me, “why do you care so much about climate change, when there are so many pressing issues that need to be addressed?” My initial reaction was to explain to her that I agreed with her that there were many issues demanding our national attention: from immigration reform to the minimum wage; from armed engagement with ISIS to fixing our failing schools. But of all these issues, none poses the existential threat of climate change. Rising sea levels, ferocious storms, and devastating droughts threaten billions of lives. The sheer enormity of the consequences requires us to prioritize climate change.
While true, I don’t think this answer does justice to the cause. There is something deeper, more amorphous, and less scientific that I believe animates me to care so much about climate change: its universalism. The climate doesn’t care if you are a believer in climate change or a skeptic; if you are religious or secular; wealthy or poor. It impacts all of us. And, conversely, climate change is not something any of us individually—not even the President—can remedy. It will take a movement, not unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the Women’s Rights Movement of the 70s, or the Gay Rights/Marriage Equality Movement of the 00s to galvanize a resistant and inert populace to change. The solutions to our warming climate are fairly simple—we need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, notably coal, and increase our usage of renewable sources of energy. But we have run out of time to do so one Prius at a time, one solar panel at a time, one LED lightbulb at a time. Climate change cannot be just a political or technocratic issue. We need to sound the proverbial shofar to alert us to the moral repugnancy of our present energy policies. We need to create a groundswell of righteous indignation!
Finally, as a rabbi, I find environmental advocacy to be theologically profound. My basic running theology is that God wants us to act as partners in bringing about the world God envisions. Perhaps nowhere is this relationship made more explicit than in Genesis 2:15, when God took Adam “and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work with the land and to protect it.” God entrusts us to be the stewards of the created world, so climate change advocacy, to me, is a sacred duty we dare not abdicate.
This brings us back to the People’s Climate March. Religious leaders from multiple faiths, along with secular environmentalists, labor leaders, and others, have convened what may well be the environmental march in history. The March will precede a critical UN summit on the climate crisis, and the hope is that if enough world leaders are overwhelmed by the power and passion of those at the March that they will be willing to take courageous action to sign a new climate treaty. But even if this doesn’t happen, even if no treaty emerges from the UN, we still can succeed. Through moral suasion, through “praying with our feet,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, we can make climate change into the next great transformative movement. May God grant us the wisdom and courage to make 5775 the year the world finally turns from stagnation to action. I hope to see you on the 21st!
Years ago, I faced a summer’s end with a series of five deaths in the tiny congregation I served as a young rabbi. High Holiday preparations that year were especially difficult. I remember the funeral director observing that deaths seemed to cluster around holiday times.
Liminal moments are fraught. Indeed, my own father and my brother each died within two weeks of Rosh Hashanah, both at a young age. Life and death are on my mind at this time of year.
This year brings a heightened consciousness of life and death. The barbaric beheadings of two American journalists terrorizes us. Massacres of thousands of innocents by fanatical Islamists are incomprehensible. How could this death cult come from a religious tradition?
David Brooks, (NY Times, 9/4/14) reflected, “By going beneath even the minimal standards of modern civilization, the militants in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…show contempt for us and our morality.” They terrorize us by their “unbounded violence,” denying our common humanity. Brooks observes: “ISIS will get inside our heads in the darkest way” because a beheading is “a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.”
At the New Year, we pray that the quality of our lives will align with our hopes and dreams through repentance. One High Holiday prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, written during dark times of violent persecution, imagines a heavenly court judging us on the New Year. It voices a deep fear that we may fall victim to a terrible fate or die with unfinished business. But it proclaims that “repentance, prayer and tzedakah” (righteous acts) can “avert the evil decree.”
We know that life is fragile; any day could unexpectedly be our last. We pray that we can complete our soul’s mission before we die. We yearn to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for good. We yearn for life. We have the power to shape the quality of our living, to fulfill our soul’s purpose.
Why does murder specifically by beheading make us so sick? David Brooks wrote, the “infusion of the spiritual and the material is mysterious.” For Jews, the human body is a “transcendent temple worthy of respect.” These murderous zealots violate our basic belief that life is good. “The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation.”
The Torah instructs, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the LORD your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God.” (Deuteronomy 30:19 – 20)
How will we cope this trauma and our fears this holiday? We will choose life, through repentance, prayer and tzedakah/righteous acts. Indeed, we will celebrate goodness and the potential for godliness. Our antidote to the cult of death is a life of faith in goodness.
One of the images found in the High Holiday liturgy is ‘The Book of Life’. The traditional language makes it sound like a kind of ledger, with accounts being recorded, added and subtracted. At the end of the accounting, God decides if we’ve enough credit in the bank to make it to the next year. If you grew up being taught it this way, as I was, you may be mightily put off by it all. All these invitations to engage more deeply in the High Holidays may be falling on resistant ears.
A number of years ago I arrived at the belief that if my experience of life and my way of understanding the world around me didn’t correlate with an ‘idea’ of God that I thought my tradition had conveyed through its liturgy and the philosophy of rabbis from centuries past, it was the old ideas that had to go. They were, after all, only the putting into human language of a God too ‘other’ to truly grasp, and so carried with them the limitations of the humans who wrote them. To truly have a relationship with God, I had to be present to my experience and trust it.
And so, I could no longer believe in a God filling out a ledger, at least not in a literal sense. But I liked the image of the ‘Book of Life’ and the pages that were filled. But I am the only one holding the pen. Whether I like what has been written, and whether what is still to be written will be worth reading is up to me. Sometimes we can be harder on ourselves than the God we imagine is forgiving us and erasing the bad lines and paragraphs to give us the chance for a re-write. But when we recognize our agency in writing our own Book, it can be incredibly freeing and empowering. For sure, we do not get to write every twist and turn in the plot. There are many things that life brings to us that are not of our design or our asking. But we write the response. We are always able to write the response.
Here is a radical proposal for the New Year, forget the guilt, instead, lean into what you love to become the best possible version of yourself.
The liturgy for the Jewish New Year has us taking a long hard look at all the mistakes we have made over the previous twelve months. Soul searching is good, but for the most part if we are honest we already know where our faults lie and if we were able to change them with ease, we would have already done so.
This is not to say that we should forgo striving to be our best selves. On the Jewish calendar, the month leading up to Rosh Hashana is called Elul in the Jewish calendar. One rabbinic interpretation of this name is that it is an acronym for the Hebrew Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me. A lovely romantic notion, the rabbis also take it to be a tribute to God’s love for us. It is not accidental that the month leading up to the New Year is one that takes love as a main theme. Love can be a powerful force for change, easier to embrace and more satisfying than guilt.
There are many ways to use love as a means of encouraging yourself to its best self. Love exists on many planes, elevating any one of them improves the world. Here are three concrete suggestions that focus on love of self, love in relationships, and love as an element of community.
Make a list of the things you love about yourself. The list should have no less than 5 significant things on it. Take time to think about each of these attributes, why do you love this about yourself? Generosity? Creativity? Silliness? Ambition? Consider how each of these qualities helps you be a positive presence in the world. Think back to a time in your life when those elements of your self were being fully expressed. Are you making the most of these gifts right now? Ask yourself what you might do expand the impact of that strength in the world. If you are struggling to make a list, then ask for help from those around you to do so.
Part of the process of preparing for the New Year is repairing relationships. While I believe that apologies are important, taking time to focus on what works in relationships is important as well. Set aside time with those with whom you are close. Tell them what you love and appreciate about them. Give them examples of how this strength inspires you, or affirms something about the world. The more concrete the better. Knowing they are appreciated and truly seen for who they are will help them start the year in a better place and will strengthen your relationship. If there is repairing to be done, spelling out the love first will set the stage for positive engagement.
What do you love to do? Lean into your talents to make a difference in the community around you. Volunteering can be about need but it can also be about sharing a passion and capacity. Play sports? Then offer to coach little league. Bake? Then bring cookies to firefighters, bread to shut ins. Sing? Take your talent to the local hospital. Sure any of this takes time, but if you volunteer to do what you love you will get a great bang for your buck. The parts of you that you love will have a chance to shine and your passion will inspire others. Studies show those who give feel great. The world will be a better place.
When love takes center stage, we poise ourselves for success. When we feel strong about ourselves we are more capable of hearing the criticism that will undoubtedly come. When we know we are loveable, loved and capable of sharing love then we can work toward making the New Year that Rosh Hashana ushers in, one of light, goodness and change.
During the Hebrew month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a number of bloggers are contributing to #BlogElul – a communal online project initiated by fellow ‘Rabbi Without Borders’, Phyllis Sommer. Each day of the month has been allocated a theme. Today’s theme is Love. You can read the daily contributions by following #BlogElul on Twitter. If you don’t use Twitter, a google search for #BlogElul will enable you to read many of the contributions.
Last year, Jewish musician and Spiritual Leader of Temple Shir Shalom, Oviedo, FL, Beth Schafer wrote a book called ‘Seven Sparks.’ Taking the 10 commandments as her inspiration, she re-cast them as seven sparks that can truly guide us toward what she has labeled, ‘Positive Jewish Living.’ The origins of both the book and the larger ‘Positive Jewish Living’ project was a belief that Beth held that Judaism was chock full of wisdom that we can truly live by, but our Jewish tradition can sometimes make it challenging to find your way into the complex, rabbinic texts, commentaries and interpretations of Torah in which this wisdom is found.
The first of the 10 commandments is more of a statement: ‘I am the Eternal Your God, who led you out of Egypt.’ From this, Beth extracts the first of her Seven Sparks: ‘I am free to love and be loved.’ She asks why God needs to make such a statement of introduction. Why does God need to introduce God-self? Perhaps because our people, newly freed from Egypt, have been distanced and need to be reintroduced. God frees us from slavery in order to reestablish a loving relationship (our covenant). Restoring love helps to bring healing to our broken world (tikkun olam). Our time of wandering in the wilderness was a time in which we were re-taught and re-membered how to love. We also learn how to receive love. ‘It’s hard to feel that you are loved, if you’ve spent all of your energy as a slave to something unhealthy. It’s hard to feel worthy when you are ensnared by self-doubt or self-criticism. When someone shares love with you, you need to know in your heart that you deserve it.” (Schafer, 2011).
At the end of each chapter, Beth includes a section called ‘Ignite!’ How do we ignite the spark of love in our day-to-day lives? These are her suggestions. How appropriate they are as a source of contemplation and inspiration as we prepare ourselves spiritually for a New Year:
- I love myself.
- I have immense potential to grow.
- I appreciate my quirks as well as my gifts.
- I am proud of both big and small accomplishments.
For your family:
- I express love generously and often.
- I approach disagreements from a loving perspective.
- I give without expecting anything in return.
- I extend courtesy and respect to both superiors and subordinates as part of my work.
- I extend amazing service to clients or customers as one of my many goals.
- I act naturally and honestly to promote a great environment.
At your Congregation:
- We welcome all who visit the congregation from the parking lot, to the phone, in meetings, services, and all written correspondence.
- We respond with immediate compassion and caring to those in need.
- We recognize special events such as birthdays, anniversaries, recovery from illness and special lifecycle moments as a community.