What Are You Paying Attention To?
Rosh HaShanah 5780/2019
Abraham was relaxing one evening when his phone vibrated with a text message. “Can I call you?” “Sure.”
The call went something like this:
“Take your son…” “The one who lives at home or the one who’s moved away?”
“Your only one…” “I’ve still got two, and each is the only child of his mother”
“The one you really love” “Do I even have to say that I love them both?”
“OK already! Take Isaac, and get going to the land of Moriah, and offer him up there as an offering on one of the hills that I will tell you about.” (Connection fades out…)
Abraham turned to Sarah — but she had her earbuds in and was playing a game on her device, so he decided it was easier just to set an alarm for early next morning and be gone. It was a really difficult journey; Abraham was torn between wanting to tell Isaac what was going on and trying not to think about it himself; so mostly he posted photos of the trip on Facebook and watched the GPS; and anyway Isaac was listening to music and posting on Snapchat. On the third day Abraham’s phone pinged a notification to look up, and there was the mountain.
Things got tense after that. Abraham told the donkey-wranglers to hang out for a while, and they promptly sat down and stared at their screens. Abraham and Isaac started to climb, not looking at each other. At one point Isaac took off one headphone and said, “Dad?” Abraham sighed and stopped reading the sensational story about child sacrifice that he had googled, and said, “I’m here.” “What’s going on? You’ve got a knife, you’ve got wood, but I don’t see a baby goat for the offering.” Sigh. “God will see to the kid for the offering, son.” And the two of them got busy with their devices again and walked on.
Well, you know what happened at the top of the mountain. Isaac stayed focussed at his screen so he wouldn’t notice what was going on, and Abraham stuck in his earbuds and turned up the music so he wouldn’t hear his child’s cry. Then Abraham reached out his hand and picked up the knife to butcher his son.
God’s angel had to call his name two times to get his attention! Abraham snatched the earbuds out and listened, and then he actually looked up and around. There was a ram with its horns caught in the bushes behind him. Isaac was saved.
It could have happened like that.
Recently I read about former employees of Google, Facebook and Twitter who have taken major steps to disconnect themselves and their families from the internet. Research tells us that we touch, swipe, or tap our phones over 2500 times a day. And these tech folks are well aware that almost every time you look at a screen, websites and mobile apps are using sneaky tricks to keep your attention focussed on them. These are the some of the very people who invented technology’s addictive features. Like the “Like” button. And they know that the “attention economy” trades in our most precious human resources: our time and attention.
There’s even a disturbing piece of research which suggests that simply having our cell phones within reach — out of sight, turned off — can diminish our thinking capacity. Not because we are consciously aware of them, but because our phones have become so relevant to our lives that part of our brainpower may be occupied with preventing us from thinking about them. Is our phone addiction making us stupid?
I am not suggesting that there was ever evil intent behind the invention of social media or smartphones. They’ve transformed our lives in tremendously beneficial ways, and have become essential tools for knowledge and connection. But even with the best of intentions, the companies that create and administer this technology are under intense pressure to compete for our attention. And it’s harming our society and ourselves. The Center for Humane Technology, which was founded by some of these “tech defectors,” tells us, “Hidden designs hijack our attention, manipulate our choices, and destabilize real world communities.” And it’s all so that someone else can amass more money or power — or both. It happens directly, by manipulating our choices, and indirectly, by distracting us from injustice.
We now know that the 2016 election included sneaky uses of social media to sway voters. Not just to influence people directly, but to whip up outrage and polarization, because sensational extremes grab everybody’s attention, supporters and critics alike. And when our emotions are riled up, we make decisions based more on instinct and feelings than on thought. Both the US election and the British “Brexit” vote appear to have been affected by this.
A small aside: The same kind of psychological insight and manipulation is being used right now in a telephone scam in our area. A young person calls an elder, posing as their grandchild who is distraught because they are stuck overseas and need money for a plane ticket, or they’ve been arrested and need money for bail. The caller is using more than simple trickery; they are attempting to activate strong emotions which can overwhelm rational thought. Please be on guard against this kind of scam, and share the word: it is almost certainly not your grandchild calling you.
Our phones have become our digital slot machines. Every time a little red notification dot appears, do you feel the need to find out what it’s telling you? (Red is hardwired in the human brain as an alarm color.) Do you just have to respond to that internet troll? Do you enjoy keeping your streaks going from day to day — games played, puzzles solved, Snapchat? Snapchat streaks are particularly insidious because your friend’s streak also gets broken if you break yours, adding social pressure to keep it going. Do you play the same game for hours, trying to reach the next level? The attention economy thrives on these “feedback loops”: Reward-based behaviors that activate the pleasure centers of our brains, the same neurological pathways stimulated by gambling or drug use. All of these are designed to lure us in again and again, to become habits and perhaps compulsions. For some people they become literal addictions, requiring detox and rehab.
Drug addiction is overall more lethal than internet addiction. But mobile apps and the internet are everywhere, and we keep our phones with us nearly every waking moment. The rise of the attention economy has the capacity to affect society on an unprecedented scale. And it’s all so new that we are the lab rats. Google turned 21 this week, which means it’s younger than most people in this room.
So the question is, If the people who built these technologies and understand how they lure us in are taking radical steps to wean themselves off their screens, how much are the rest of us actually exercising free will around our devices? How much are we triggered, manipulated, persuaded and maybe even coerced by our information technologies?
And the gravest injury to our lives comes from the reality that human beings have limited bandwidth. Our screen habits can affect our ability to think clearly; and screen time affects our relationships, and the time we have available to do, create, to enjoy, and to be.
Rosh HaShanah is our yearly “reset” button. We come here to be shaken free of our tunnel vision, our usual habits, our unexamined life. Teshuvah, the work of self-examination, restoration, and change, is a soft re-boot. The shofar and the prayers of Rosh HaShanah are a wake-up call and a process to get ourselves out of our bad habits and onto a life-affirming path.
Paying attention is not just about banishing distraction. The ancient root of the word “attention” means “to stretch.” The idea is of “stretching your mind” toward something. It requires an act of will.
Think of God’s role in this as the energy that’s always trying to lure us into making good choices, always inviting us to pay attention to what really matters. But God doesn’t grab our attention like sensational news does. In order to refocus, we have to resist what’s clamoring for our attention. So did the prophet Elijah, standing in the opening of a cave wondering where his life was going (I Kings 19:11-12): First there was a strong wind that sent boulders crashing and breaking; then there was an earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire. But none of those sensational, attention-grabbing things represented God’s presence: God was in the still, small voice.
Being here, today, helps us clear our minds and gives us the opportunity to hear the still, small voice that has our best interests at heart.
And as much as we’re hardwired to be hoodwinked, we are also hardwired to care. There are rewards in this direction too, positive feedback loops that, with time and effort, can help us develop new habits, and support us in living an intentional life that maximizes meaningful relationship and compassion and justice.
So get savvy about attention hijacking. Work on not letting your emotions dictate your screen time. Jewish poet Merle Feld wrote:
out of the corner
of my eye
I get a glimpse
of my life.
In a flash
in a moment—
I see it clearly.
I make a shopping list
or rent a video.
Quickly, I look away.
Merle Feld, “Over There”
Be willing to be present in your own life.
Protect your eyes with the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look at something at least 20 feet away. Set an alarm to remind you to move every hour, even if it’s just to the bathroom and back, and leave the phone behind while you walk. Same thing outside: put it in your pocket and notice what’s going on around you.
Don’t overdose on the news or social media. Your parent or grandparent might have read three newspapers a day because that was the way to be an informed citizen, but now we’re surrounded by nearly infinite news delivery, and a lot of what’s delivered is irrelevant to your life. If you find yourself getting all worked up over the behavior of someone you don’t know personally, consider taking a break.
And turn off all notifications that don’t tell you that a live human being is trying to get in touch with you in real time. You can search the web for “take a break” apps to retrain your screen habits, and yes, I know that’s ironic, but useful. And look up “humane technology.” Just take a break from your research every 15 or 20 minutes.
In the Torah’s story, we don’t know why Abraham didn’t talk to Sarah. We don’t know why the angel had to call Abraham twice to get his attention. We don’t know why Abraham didn’t see the ram until he looked up. But we know that God is calling us to look up; to extricate ourselves from the thicket of compulsion that is growing up around us; to stay “woke” to injustice in the world, without overdosing on toxic news or confrontation; and to be awake and alive to the richness and beauty of the world around us, and to participate fully in our relationships with the people we love.
We know this is God’s will already; may we work hard on making it our own will this year.
Reasons for Hope (Why I Am an Optimist)
Rosh HaShanah 5779/2018
I got a phone call 3 weeks ago from Rob Brill, City Desk and Religion editor of the Times-Union. He asked me, in words rather blunter than these: Don’t you think that things are pretty messed up right now? Do you see any hope?
You may have seen my answer in Saturday’s “Faces of Faith” column. Yes, I said. Yes, to both. Yes, things are pretty messed up. Parts of the world appear to be descending into chaos. At home,
“It seems that the United States is disuniting. The last presidential election only made clear what many have feared – that we’re becoming two Americas, each angry with the other, and neither trusting the other’s basic humanity and good intentions. Today Americans increasingly view their political opponents not only as misguided, but also as bad people whose ways of thinking are both dangerous and incomprehensible. This degree of civic rancor threatens our democracy.”
(That’s a quote, and I’ll cite the source later.)
But I do have hope. In fact, I am a congenital optimist. And I am going to do my best this morning to give you an “optimism transplant,” sharing what keeps me going, with the fervent wish that you will be able to nurture hope inside yourself as well. Because we need each one of us to be at our most hopeful in order to navigate the tricky waters we are in.
When our current president won the 2016 election, many people I spoke to were completely shocked and caught off guard. More than once I heard someone say, “I thought we were past this.” Past things like race-baiting, immigrant-bashing, and publicly demeaning women — or at least, past the time when those things were said in public discourse with impunity. Past the danger of dismantling equal access to healthcare and education, protections for workers and for the environment.
It seems in many ways that a better future is receding. Millenials — loosely defined, people who are now ages 18 to 38, born 1980-2000 — are the first generation in recent US history whose economic expectations are lower than that of their parents. NY Times columnist David Brooks met last winter with students at top US universities and wrote about them:
Their lived experience includes the Iraq war, the financial crisis, police brutality and Donald Trump — a series of moments when the big institutions failed to provide basic security, competence and accountability. “We’re the school shooting generation,” one Harvard student told me. Another said: “Wall Street tanked the country and no one got punished.”
And yet many Millenials are dedicating their lives to social change; an overwhelming majority see it as their duty to make the world a better place. You make doing good an integral part of how you live: The careers you choose, the products you buy, and the ways you spend your free time.
Baby boomers — or as Madeleine Albright likes to call us, “Perennials” — have a different set of lived experiences. The last 60 years, beginning roughly with the election of John F. Kennedy, have seen incredible progress in civil rights for African-Americans, equality between men and women, environmental protection, GLBTQ rights, and more. The mid-20th century saw US income and wealth distribution at a relatively stable level of inequality for several decades. The expanding multiculturalism that began with the identity politics of the 1960s seemed to be leading to a future of mutual respect. We’ve had real reasons to believe our world is getting better.
Which means that it is horribly depressing if you think that all that progress may be evaporating.
And there are plenty of reasons why people of good, will regardless of age or political leaning, may be depressed and anxious. David Brooks wrote of Millennials:
I was also struck by pervasive but subtle hunger for a change in the emotional tenor of life. “We’re more connected but we’re more apart,” one student lamented. Again and again, students expressed a hunger for social and emotional bonding, for a shift from guilt and accusation toward empathy. “How do you create relationship?” one student asked. That may be the longing that undergirds all others.
In the political arena, there is compelling evidence that Russia manipulated the outcome of the last presidential election, using social media platforms to pander to, and increase, the polarization between Americans of differing views. That polarization continues to be exacerbated by the absolute nonsense that is spewed from the White House daily. The lines between fact and rumor, reliable reporting and infotainment, are deliberately and routinely blurred in the service of power and profit. Economic inequality has skyrocketed in the past 40 years. This is not a random fluctuation of the market; laws have been changed to make this happen.
It is at this point that Jewish tradition steps in and says, “Take a deep breath and calm yourself. ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9) We have seen this before. Setbacks are inevitable, but positive change is real.”
We are heirs to a tradition that routinely invites us to think about 3,000 years of story and history, teaching us to have a perspective that sees beyond the surface of “now.”
We are the people whose “master story” begins with a fearful Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites because we were immigrants, having forgotten or never learned how an immigrant named Joseph had once saved his nation during a famine. We are the descendents of Abraham and Sarah, who found it hard to believe that their experiment with ethical monotheism would even survive to a second generation. But it did, and here we are. Our stories remind us that while individual lives meander back and forth, sustainable progress is measured over lifetimes and generations. “Once we were enslaved, now we are free.” The way things are right now is not the way they always have been, nor always will be.
I feel tremendous hope when I talk with and learn from people a generation younger than I am — Millennials, again. The 1960s were a time of radical change, but there’s one pervasive word today that wasn’t part of the conversation in the ’60s: sustainability. Sustainability in food and farms, in the economy, in urban planning and social networks. I believe that what’s being built today has a good chance of lasting, but that means it’s growing more slowly. That growth continues quietly even during times when the only thing that’s obviously increasing is discord and divisiveness. Millenials tend to trust people who are local, on the ground, rather than big institutions. This, too, is part of growing sustainable change. And it’s one reason that communities like Berith Sholom have an important part to play. We are an ecosystem in which relationships can flourish, in which hope and optimism can be nurtured (and, when necessary, resurrected. Like this morning).
On a more personal level, I have seen changes in my lifetime that I never imagined I would live to see. Judy and I had a civil union in Vermont 18 years ago, which was unexpected enough. Now we’re legally married, and over two dozen countries have legalized same-sex marriage. Could I have dreamed of that when I first came out over three decades ago? Never! I have hopes that, like slavery which once was almost universal and is now almost universally condemned, this is a change that will not be rolled back.
This is my 22nd High Holy Days in Troy, and I’ve watched this city go from mostly-empty storefronts to new restaurants opening faster than I can keep track of them. People are walking their dogs in all weather, and there’s a veterinarian on River Street. I now keep a spare bicycle helmet in my office so that I can use the Bikeshare bicycles when I’m having coffee with someone. The people who are moving in downtown are young and old, multicultural and multiethnic.
My optimism also grows from having had the privilege of over two decades in this congregation sharing people’s joys and sorrows. I have been present at or heard the stories of turning points in many people’s lives, and my experience tells me that, given a chance, most humans are caring and compassionate. Fear and anger can mess up anyone’s perspective, but they are (thank God) not the reality that defines most lives. Bad things happen. But more good things do. Most of the time, most things go right for most people.
Remaining aware of this is terribly important because it supports gratitude and resilience. There’s all kinds of wonderful research about the power of gratitude to keep our lives on a positive track. Actively cultivating an awareness of what’s good shifts not only our mind-set but our behavior, our feelings as well as our thoughts. In Judaism this is the principle of Hakarat HaTov, “Recognizing the Goodness” in our lives. It underlies many mitzvot. For instance, when we say HaMotzi or another blessing before eating, we are reminding ourselves that, with our help, healthy food grows from the earth! Furthermore, that food is in front of us and we are about to eat it! What a wonderful thing to notice! Another example: the traditional Jewish prayer for starting the day is Modah ani l’fanecha... I am grateful that I have woken up today and I am still breathing. Thank you, God, for keeping faith with me through another night. And toward the end of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer we just finished, is the prayer that begins Modim anachnu lach — We thank You, God, for all your gifts, morning, noon and night, from generation to generation, l’dor va-dor. We are surrounded by everyday miracles.
An “attitude of gratitude” doesn’t mean you’ve stopped caring about what’s wrong with the world. What it does is give you the strength and energy and resilience to actually do something about it.
A Protestant colleague once asked me why it seemed so easy to get members of Berith Sholom involved in social justice work, compared to her experience with her congregation. In addition to our perspective of hope, I think it’s because the basic building block of Judaism is the mitzvah — technically “commandment,” often used to mean “good deed,” and perhaps best understood today as an obligation or responsibility as seen through a Jewish lens. Of the traditional 613 mitzvot, all but a few are actions: Things you do, or don’t do. I think religions tend to have an area in which they specialize, and Judaism’s specialty is action. There are ritual actions to support you in your own life and to bring community together, and there are practical actions to nurture that community and to leave this world better than we found it. Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good, find expression in action, in Judaism; and action supports us in recognizing the good.
All this is not to say that suffering isn’t real or that oppression can be ignored. Things do get better, but that’s largely because people stand up and make a difference. The escape from Egypt became our Jewish “master story” in order to teach us: “Once we were enslaved, now we’re free — now go out and make that true for everyone.” In other words, leave the world better than you found it.
Part of the challenge of maintaining hope and optimism is to focus on action at a scale where you can make a difference, rather than being overwhelmed by the magnitude of all the things that need to be done. A couple of millenia ago, Rabbi Tarfone declared one of my favorite quotations of all time. It begins: Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor — The responsibility is not all sitting on your shoulders. It’s not your job to complete the work. You simply can’t.
Take that in. You and I, and all people of good will, can not and will not accomplish everything that is needed. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just reality.
But Rabbi Tarfone went on: V’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah. But you are absolutely required to keep trying. We have no permission to quit! Because you and I, and all people of good will, can and will accomplish something.
Sometimes it seems like we are getting nowhere. When that happens, please stop and think about how much worse off the world would be if we all simply quit trying. Your efforts matter.
Judaism offers us hope tempered with realism. Ani ma’amin, wrote Rabbi Moses Maimonides, 800 years ago. Ani ma’amin be-emunah shleymah — I believe with wholehearted, complete faith — b’vi’at haMashiach. In the coming of the Messiah. For him, it was a Redeemer, a go’el, a descendent of King David riding in on a white horse. (Or maybe there’s no horse.) For the modern Reform Movement, for me, I daresay for most of you, it’s not an individual, a go’el, but g’ulah, a time of redemption, the “Days of the Messiah” as they are called in Jewish tradition — that time of perfect peace and justice that we can imagine but have never seen.
Then Maimonides goes on to say: V’af al pi she-yitmameyah, im kol zeh, ani ma’amin. “And even though he tarry” — even though that day, that perfection, remains in the future; “even so, I believe.” It’s not going to happen today or tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up. In fact, I may not give up.
On the other end of the scale, our tradition also cautions us to be wary of declaring that the (metaphorical) Messiah has arrived. (I’m going to keep using the language of “messiah” but it’s a metaphor, alright?)
There is a teaching in the name of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who lived through the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70: “If you have a sapling in your hand and someone comes and tells you that the Messiah has arrived, first finish planting the tree and then go and welcome the Messiah.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 31b)
Carry out the practical, physical act of redeeming the world that is already in your hand, no matter what wild stories are circulating. This tree still needs to get into the ground; nobody else will do it for you, not even the messiah.
Some even say, “And then go and see if it really is the Messiah.” Don’t stop doing good work because a rumor has reached you that it might no longer be necessary.
And be patient. Trees don’t reach maturity overnight. Neither does humanity.
Jewish tradition even teaches us to temper our expectations of what a Messianic Era will look like. You may actually have to keep planting trees even after the Messiah arrives. One of the most famous descriptions is found in the book of Isaiah (2:2-4) and repeated in the book of Micah (4:1-3):
And it shall come to pass in the end of days, That the mountain of the Eternal’s house shall be established as the head of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all nations shall flow toward it.
And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Eternal, to the house of the God of Jacob, Who will teach us God’s ways, And we will walk in God’s paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, And the word of the Eternal One from Jerusalem.
And God will judge between the nations, and will settle disputes between many peoples. Then they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
In this imagined future world, when all people recognize Eternal truths, the reason that the nations to be able to beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning shears is simply this: “God will judge between the nations, and will settle disputes between many peoples.” It’s not that human nature will radically change, so that people have no more disputes. It’s that we will have learned to use non-violent means of resolving them.
That’s a rather tall order. But it is far more realistic, in my eyes, than to imagine that we will no longer ever get into conflicts.
Then, as the version in Micah continues, “everyone will sit beneath their vine or fig tree, and no one will frighten them.” (Micah 4:4) Each person will be treated with dignity and respect. One of the areas today where we can make a difference is rebuilding a society which respects everyone’s basic humanity and intrinsic worth. This concept is embedded in Judaism in the words b’tselem Elohim, the idea that each person is created “in God’s image.”
I’ve gotten involved with Better Angels, an organization founded in 2016 to bring together members of the “Red Tribe” and members of the “Blue Tribe” to really hear each other. In the face of the “disunity” I quoted at the beginning (it’s Better Angels’ description of what’s going on in our country right now), Better Angels is “a bipartisan citizen’s movement to unify our divided nation. … we’re building new ways to talk to one another, participate together in public life, and influence the direction of the nation.”
The point of Better Angels is not to change anybody’s political views but to re-humanize the other side: To understand why someone else sees the world the way they do, to help us begin to trust again in each other’s basic humanity and good intentions. To recognize and act on the idea that we are all created B’tselem Elohim.
And you know what? It works. There’s actually research-based evidence that when you listen to someone to try to understand where they’re coming from (as opposed to listening in order to argue), they are more able to listen to you the same way. This makes me really happy, because it’s what I’ve believed for years based on anecdotal evidence. Better Angels is just getting organized in the Capital District and I intend to volunteer with it during my upcoming sabbatical.
We stand here in the doorway of a new year. HaYom Harat Olam, our prayers say after each shofar blowing: Today the universe is conceived. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur offer us a powerful “spiritual technology” that is urgently needed in the world today. They celebrate the ability to “re-conceive,” to re-tune our perspective. They affirm that change is possible, that relationships can be repaired, that human beings can move our lives in new and positive directions. They come every year, not once in a lifetime, because we will never arrive at perfection, as individuals or a society or as a world. There will always be work to do. But they also come every year to renew in us ancient wisdom: We are not stuck in yesterday. Tomorrow can be different.
We need you. We need your effort. We need your hope, and your optimism, and your energy. I believe you have not given up, but it is grinding and tiring to constantly feel worried about what’s happening and what’s going to happen.
So you have to take care of yourself. And that’s part of why you’re here today, right? To drink from the well of community, and tradition, and hope. To refresh our faith. Not faith in a certain predictable outcome, and not faith that God, or the messiah, or anyone else, is automatically going to make it come out all right. Rather, our faith that this struggle, this process, this work, is the holiest thing we can be engaged in, and it is worthwhile to continue.
“What I found for myself I try to tell you:
Redemption and salvation are very near,
And the taste of them is in the world
That God created and laid before us.”
Let’s go plant a tree.
Israel — Kol Nidrey 5778/2017
♫ Shiru lanu mi-shirey Tziyon! Eych nashir al admat neychar?
By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
and we wept,
On willows in her midst
we hung up our instruments;
for our captors there asked us for songs,
and our tormentors, for amusement:
“Sing us one of the Songs of Zion.”
How can we sing one of Adonai’s songs
on foreign territory?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget;
let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t think about you,
if I don’t hold Jerusalem
higher than my greatest joy.
This was a song of exiles; a poem written by someone longing for home and for a life they would never see again. It’s about 2600 years old.
The following words were written in 2009, recorded by poet Warsan Shire — British-raised, Kenyan-born to Somali parents — after she visited with refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Congo in a deportation center. One person said:
When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. … I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.
“’Sing us one of the Songs of Zion.’ How can we sing one of Adonai’s songs on foreign territory?”
The knowledge of exile is built into Judaism. From slavery in Egypt to the Waters of Babylon, we have felt what it was to be an outsider. Since the Roman 10th Legion suppressed the Judean Revolt and destroyed the Second Temple nearly 2 millenia ago, Jews around the world have described themselves as living in Galut — in Exile or Diaspora. We have been strangers, outsiders, immigrants: sometimes welcomed and well-integrated, other times segregated and under pressure, periodically made the scapegoat. (A word which comes from the ancient ritual for Yom Kippur, when the sins of the nation were symbolically sent into the wilderness on the head of a goat.) However much we were at home in our host countries, we didn’t entirely belong. Jewish separateness was usually also enforced by laws which treated Jews differently than members of the majority culture. Sometimes the laws restricted where we could live and what jobs we could work at. Sometimes they required us to wear identifying clothing or pay a special tax. Not until modernity did we have the privilege of being governed by the same laws as our non-Jewish neighbors.
Torah teaches us “Avadim hayinu l’Far’o b’Mitzrayim: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” It commands us:
V’chi yagur it’cha ger b’ar-tz’chem…
“When a stranger” — an outsider, an immigrant, a non-Jew: someone not from your tribe or your culture, someone whose family probably speaks or recently spoke a different language. “When an outsider resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The outsider who lives with you shall be to you like one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am your Eternal God.”
Mitzvot regarding fair treatment of the stranger appear in 4 of the 5 books of the Torah. They are fundamental to the Jewish understanding of who we are and how we are supposed to act: Do not use the power of being the majority culture to oppress the minority, because you know what that’s like.
The Book of Deuteronomy sets the bar even higher: Tzedek, tzedek tirtof. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” It is not enough simply to love and avoid wronging the “other”; we must actively seek justice. The context makes it even clearer:
You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all the inhabited areas that your Eternal God is giving you, and they shall judge the nation with courts of justice. … Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live, and keep the land as your heritage.
Deuteronomy bluntly declares that administering justice is a basic requirement for thriving as a nation and maintaining a healthy connection between people and place. In the world of power and politics, Jewish ethics teach: Justice is something we must go out of our way to implement, and power must not be abused against the vulnerable.
A favorite example: About 3,000 years ago, when David became King over all the tribes of B’ney Yisra’el, the Israelites, he captured the independent city of Jerusalem held by the Canaanite tribe of Y’voos, and moved his capital there. After he had been king for some years, he received a prophecy directing him to make an offering on the threshing floor of one Aravna, a Y’vusi — that is, one of the original inhabitants. King David went to Aravna and announced that he had come to buy the land in order to build an altar. Aravna offered to give him both land and cattle, but the King refused, saying, “No, I will buy them from you at a proper price.”
The victorious monarch could have exercised eminent domain, but he did not. He respected personal property rights, and treated the vanquished on the same footing as the victor.
Beginning with the time of King David, the ancient Israelites had nearly a thousand years to work on putting this ethical stance into practice. But during Galut, the Diaspora of the past two millenia, Jewish political power existed only inside the bounds of local Jewish communities. In much the same way that Native American tribes have internal sovereignty, and tribal government has a direct relationship with the US government, so Jews in the countries where they were scattered had an internal self-government that dealt directly with the ruler of the host country.
And then, in 1948, there was once again a self-governing majority-Jewish population in that same land King David governed. And suddenly all the issues which had remained largely theoretical over the past 2000 years, issues of power and responsibility, the ethical treatment of minorities and the need for secure and defensible borders, became practical realities that had to be dealt with.
If you love Israel, this will be a difficult topic to listen to. If you are appalled by Israel, this will be a difficult topic to listen to. To quote Tikkun Magazine’s Passover Supplement from earlier this year, the issue of Israel and Palestine generates “apparently irreconcilable opinions and passions in the Jewish community as well as outside.”
So why bring up such a divisive issue on Yom Kippur? Two answers: Jewish community, and Jewish continuity.
The deep differences in how we think and feel about Israel and Palestine make it too easy to disrespect and dismiss the “other side.” If we don’t find ways to bridge our differences, we risk alienating portions of the Jewish community from each other.
That’s community. Now continuity: If we don’t talk about Palestine and Israel honestly, we risk alienating the next generation of American Jews from the Jewish community entirely. …You are activists, my friends. You embody that passionate sense of justice that motivated our Torah, our prophets, and many in this room. You call us to be true to Jewish values and ideals, to apply our ethics precisely when it is most difficult to do so. You will not permit us to love Israel uncritically; and you won’t be part of a Jewish community that excuses cruel, abusive, or oppressive behavior, even toward people whom we feel we have ample reason to fear.
On Yom Kippur we look deep into our souls, seeking to hold ourselves to the highest standards. This day declares that we need not be limited by the past. We remember and honor and learn from our past; but we cannot let it dictate our future.
Rabbi Hillel said: Im eyn ani li, mi li? If I don’t take care of myself, who will?
For those of you who were raised, as I was, with the Socialist and agricultural ideals of the chalutzim, the mostly European Jewish pioneers of the early 20th century; who know that Israel was a refuge for hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Sho’ah, the Holocaust, and feel safer knowing that if it ever happens again, we will have somewhere to flee that will automatically take us in; who marvel at the re-establishment of Hebrew as a language of daily life after hundreds of years of being used only for prayer and study, and take pride in the power of Jews to defend ourselves: The realities of Occupation will break your heart. For the past 50 years Israel has held Palestinians as non-citizens, without due process, free movement, or the right to vote for the government that controls their lives. It is terribly painful to see Israel’s failure to embody the highest values of the Jewish tradition. I have seen, and my heart has been broken. It hurts badly to acknowledge our own people as perpetrators of unnecessary violence.
It cannot be explained away as “security needs.” Nor are these reports manufactured or merely taken out of context by “enemies of Israel” or “antisemites dressed up as antiZionists.” The often-grim realities of Palestinian life in the territories are well-documented by Israeli, Jewish organizations: B’tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; and perhaps most powerfully, the organization of former IDF soldiers, “Breaking the Silence.”
If you love Israel, reading their reports is an awful experience. But not knowing will not lead to a better future. It is important to make time and space for grief, and for understanding. This is one of the things I hope to do this year at Berith Sholom.
Im eyn ani li, mi li?
Uch-she’ani li’atsmi, mah ani?
If I don’t take care of myself, who will?
But when my self-care morphs into self-centeredness, what have I become?
For those of you whose whose Jewish memory of being “strangers in a strange land” brings you to identify with the Palestinian people; whose commitment to pursuing justice demands that you recognize and work to end the everyday oppression of Palestinians living under Israeli Occupation: You are probably appalled, as I am, by the refusal of portions of American and Israeli Jewish communities to acknowledge or prioritize the injustice that accompanies Occupation. In the face of Israel’s vastly superior power, it may be hard for you to credit the trauma of Israelis along with that of Palestinians. If you see Ashkenazi Jews as protected by White Privilege, you may not understand the fear of antisemitismitic violence that many Jews still feel deeply — though Charlottesville may have clarified that a little.
You may be uncomfortable with the concept of a “majority Jewish country” that privileges one ethnic group over others. But as a recent opinion piece in “The Forward” reminds us:
Israel is not the only country on earth to face a tension between its desire to protect and nurture one ethno-religious community and its commitment to provide equality under the law. Many European democracies have immigration policies that favor a dominant ethnic group. Many have crosses on their flags….
Our goal should be to minimize the tension between Jewish statehood and liberal democracy as much as possible, while acknowledging that you can never erase it entirely….
V’im lo achshav, ey-matai??? And if not now, when?
I think the need to address Israel and Palestine has come to the forefront for me particularly as the next generation of Berith Sholom leaders has stepped up. While differences in perspective do not entirely follow generational lines, they play a part. Both Jewish community and Jewish continuity demand that we find ways to be respectful with each other across disagreement. Please let me know if you will help me plan educational events at Berith Sholom this cominng year.
We are supported in this difficult communal work by shared commitments to Jewish values:
We share an APPRECIATION FOR WHAT JEWISH TRADITION HAS TO OFFER. We are not “prisoners of the 21st century”; we have literally millenia of stories, teachings, and experience to draw from. The fact that you are here today tells me that you recognize that Jewish tradition is relevant to modern life.
We share a SENSE OF JUSTICE and a commitment to implementing it. “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live, and keep the land as your heritage.”
We share a commitment to DEFENDING THE VULNERABLE, even when we disagree about who is at risk: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
We share a commitment to PEACE. Our Bible declares, “Seek peace and pursue it.”
We share a COMMITMENT TO TIKKUN OLAM: To activism in its many forms. Peace and justice are things we run after. We do not sit back waiting for God to fix the world, we roll up our sleeves and jump in as God’s partner.
We share a belief in THE POWER OF INTROSPECTION in fostering personal and communal change. This is why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur: Jonah’s message to the people of Ninevah prompted them to assess and change their own behavior, and in doing so they changed the course of their future.
If you should say to me, “It’s all very well and good for the Jewish community to do this work, but what about the Palestinians?” I would answer: It is not our job to be Jonah to the Palestinian people. Whether or not the Palestinian people do their own internal work is up to them. Our job is to be Jonah to our own community, or rather communities: To push us to be the best we can possibly be.
The most important Jewish prayer is not addressed to God, but to ourselves: Sh’ma, Yisrael! Hey Jews! Hey Yisra’el! Sh’ma! LISTEN, and pay attention to Echad: the Oneness at the heart of all things; the Oneness of the human family.
The second paragraph of Sh’ma takes it a step further. V’hayah im shamoa tishma: “If you really, really listen … I will bless your land. But if you don’t, then you will perish quickly off the good land that Adonai is giving you.”
This kind of “really really” listening, in order to understand where the Other is coming from, is as much needed in the United States right now as it is needed in the Jewish community, in Israel, and in Palestine. Deep listening is an indispensable part of bringing blessing to the land. It is basic to staying grounded, to being rooted in what is.
When we take the Torah out, we sing Al shloshah d’varim ha-olam omed: The world stands on 3 things, Torah and worship and deeds of lovingkindness. But there is another “3 things” that one of our ancient rabbis said the world stands upon: on Justice, on Truth, and on Peace. May we unite our commitment to Justice with the courage to seek Truth, in order to bring Peace.
If you should ask: Why title the sermon “Israel”? — it’s because I’m talking to Jews about Israel: as it is, as it should be, and as it is perceived. I’m not addressing beliefs or stereotypes nor teaching about Palestinians; those are things that will, I hope, happen in conversation and learning this year. This is a preliminary, internal-to-the-community conversation. I’m not talking to people who identify primarily as activists instead of as Jews; I’m addressing Jews who were in the synagogue for the Kol Nidrey service on Yom Kippur (and guests).
You may disagree with my decision about the title, but I want you to know it was not out of unthinking habit.
 (Psalm 137, dsg translation adapted from Sefaria.org)
 (From “Conversations about home (at a deportation center)” accessed on 4 October 2017 at https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/warsan-shire/conversations-about-home-at-deportation-centre. See also this interview with the poet where she talks about the creation of her work: https://africainwords.com/2013/06/21/qa-poet-writer-and-educator-warsan-shire/)
 (Lev. 19:33-34)
 (Deuteronomy 16:20)
 (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)
 (2 Samuel 5. The name Urusalim predates King David’s time by 500 years, as attested in the correspondence between its ruler annd Pharoah preserved in the Amarna letters.)
 (2 Samuel 24:17-25)
 (Pirkey Avot 1:14)
 (Peter Beinart, “Why Is One Pro-Israel Group Desperate to Keep You From Watching This Video?” in The Forward, JUne 30, 2017, page 18. “The Jewish Daily Forward” was originally a Yiddish Socialist paper, and is still left-of-center.)
 (Tikkun Passover supplement 2017, p. 16)
 (Peter Beinart, “Why Is One Pro-Israel Group Desperate To Keep You From Watching This Video?” June 30, 2017, page 18. http://forward.com/opinion/375214/why-is-one-pro-israel-group-desperate-to-keep-you-from-watching-this-video/
 (Deuteronomy 16:20)
 (Exodus 23:9)
 (Psalms 34:15 — though in its original context it’s a description, not a command.)
 (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)
 (Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel, Pirkey Avot 1:18)
Rosh HaShanah 5778/2017
We’re about to spend some time visiting with Abraham and Sarah, the ancestral couple of the Jewish people. They have much to teach us. They were active elders, known for their hospitality to strangers and their willingness to stand up for what they thought was right. They had some amazing conversations with God. Sarah laughed and dared to contradict God. Abraham stood up for justice even when it meant arguing with God.
But many of their stories are about issues that arise within the family, and in those, their behavior can be seen to fall short. As parents, and again as Older Adults facing the end of life, Abraham and Sarah may be better role models for us of what not to do.
Our tradition recognizes that parenting is hard work. The rabbis of the Talmud gave a name to the tsuris, the troubles, that are inescapable when you’re a parent: Tsa’ar gidul banim, “the sorrow of raising children.”
Those same rabbis gave very specific directions to children on how to carry out the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em, honoring your parents. Much of the detail involves making sure that your parents continue to have their physical, social, and emotional needs met as they age, in a way that allows them to keep their dignity. The very fact that such a mitzvah exists attests to the fact that it’s not always easy to treat our aging parents with honor and respect.
Jewish tradition also addresses the general challenges inherent in end-of-life communication and decision-making.
We will not all become parents, but we are each someone’s child. And we will all, God willing, have the opportunity to experience aging. Let’s see what insight we can gather from our first ancestors about how to travel these life stages with dignity, with compassion, and with grace.
To begin with, Abraham and Sarah did not have it easy as parents. Before this morning’s story opens, they’ve had years of dealing with infertility, followed by surrogate motherhood and open adoption – a not uncommon scenario among wealthy people who needed an heir.
But the family dynamics didn’t work out well, and after Isaac is born, Abraham and Sarah disagree about how to proceed. In the end, adopted son Ishma’el and his birth mother Hagar are sent away. I want you to know, though, that both Judaism and Islam preserve traditions of later cooperation and visits between these two sides of Abraham’s family.
This morning’s story is the Akedah, The Binding of Isaac: The moment when Abraham believes he is required to slaughter Isaac and offer his body up as a burnt offering.
Responding to this awful situation is undoubtedly the biggest parenting challenge of Abraham’s life. When the Torah reading begins in a few minutes, I want you to notice what he does immediately after he gets the command.
Does he turn to Sarah, waking her if necessary, and talk it out with her? Does he challenge God? Does he speak openly with Isaac?
The next thing we hear, he’s getting up bright and early, taking donkey and servants and son, and heading off for the mountain.
He doesn’t ask for help. He doesn’t talk it over. He makes the decision by himself, sometime in the middle of the night: exhausted from lack of sleep, wild with grief, and feeling undoubtedly betrayed by the God who promised him a child in the first place.
Of course, one can argue that God’s behavior in this story isn’t the best role model, either. What kind of a God makes a demand like that? For today, I’m thinking about God as representing “circumstances” — parts of life that you don’t have control over, events that you cannot change; your only choice is how to deal with them. We all face such circumstances from time to time.
When you come to those moments, how do you go forward? Like Abraham, are you so used to “going it alone” that it doesn’t even occur to you to talk to anyone else?
We can do better than that. As the late Pete Seeger said, “Learn from the mistakes of others: You can’t live long enough to make ’em all yourself.” Having heard his story, we may be able to be Smarter than Abraham.
The end-of-life continuum is even more challenging to navigate, because lurking behind the day-to-day issues lies the inevitability of death. Few of us like to contemplate that. So it’s uncomfortable to think about our wishes for the last stage of our lives, and even harder to talk about it and make actual plans.
Abraham and Sarah avoid that conversation almost completely. Right after the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, Sarah dies, without warning. Apparently the couple hadn’t made any burial plans, because Abraham has to go to the local Hittites to buy a field and cave as a burial plot. He does everything by himself. He weeps and mourns for Sarah alone. He buys the plot. He buries Sarah. If servants or other members of his household help him, we don’t hear about it. There’s no report of him even contacting Isaac about his mother’s death!
Judaism has a lovely and long-standing tradition of conferring blessings on children in a parent’s old age. Isaac blesses his sons Jacob and Esau when he is too old to see very well. During Jacob’s final illness, he formally adopts his grandsons Ephraim and Menasheh and blesses them — with words we still use in blessing our sons, “May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh.” He gives specific instructions to Joseph about where he wants to be buried, back in Canaan in the cave with his parents and grandparents. Then he calls together the rest of his children and speaks to each son in turn.
When Joseph is a great-grandfather, he calls together his kin, now highly assimilated in Egypt, and requests that they take his bones with them when, in the distant future, they return to the land of their ancestors. Moses fulfills this request, and the book of Joshua records Joseph’s burial in a family plot.
What a contrast with Abraham’s priorities at the end of his life! After Sarah dies, Abraham marries a woman named Keturah and has several more sons. But Isaac is the designated heir, so before the end of his life, Abraham gives these other sons presents and sends them away. And that is all that Torah tells us about the end of Abraham’s life, except that he dies old and contented. There is no deathbed blessing, not even a conversation with Isaac about his wishes. Only arrangements for the disposition of his property.
Fortunately, Isaac has lived in the area most of his life, so he knows where Dad wants to be buried. He and Ishma’el, together, bury their father in the cave where Isaac’s mother Sarah is buried.
The dilemmas of being a human being haven’t changed a whole lot in the last few thousand years. That’s why we keep reading these stories and learning from them. The life challenges our ancestors faced, and the resources they could bring to bear, are more or less like our own.
But we have one huge resource that Abraham and Sarah did not: A Jewish community. They were one family; we have each other.
And we have something else that they didn’t have: Wisdom from our inherited Jewish tradition, about grappling with life’s difficult moments.
Because we have heard these stories, we can be Smarter than Abraham. We can share our tsuris, our troubles, instead of feeling like we have to hide them. We can benefit from the experience of others who have walked a similar road.
And sometimes, just knowing that you’re not alone lightens the load. One of the most wonderful things one of my uncles ever told me, parenting-wise, was a story about a cousin, who is among the kindest, nicest, most thoughtful men you could ever know … a story about him as a 6-year-old boy, flat out on the dining room floor, having a full-blown temper tantrum. It made me feel so much better about my children’s behavior! It gave me hope.
Raising all children requires hard work and commitment. But some children are more difficult to raise and “launch” than the norm. Some of our children need far more support, or very different accommodations, than other children their age. Some will always need support.
Consider Isaac. One would assume that he was a child in the story of the Akedah, walking up the hill trustingly with his father. But rabbinic tradition says he’s 37! And it’s a not unreasonable reading of the storyline, because the next thing we hear about Isaac is that he’s returning home to get married, at age 40. Torah doesn’t tell us exactly how much time passes before he comes back, but clearly he was old enough to go off on his own, after that ghastly experience on the mountain.
But while it’s happening … he doesn’t act as you’d expect a grown man to act. And certainly not like your average teenager. Commentators have noted for generations that he’s not a very forceful character. He’s an adult child who lives with his parents until he’s … let’s say, 37, at which point something traumatic happens and he leaves for a while. Torah hints that he goes to stay with his half-brother Ishma’el. He asks only one simple question during the ordeal (“Where’s the sheep?”), and never talks about it afterwards. While he’s away, his mother dies and his father arranges his marriage. He comes home, gets married, falls in love with his wife, and sets up housekeeping in his dead mother’s tent.
Rivka (his wife Rebecca) is an outspoken and decisive woman who makes things happen. Isaac, on the other hand, prefers to avoid conflict. He generally reacts rather than taking the initiative; he’s socially awkward, and he seems to have difficulty reading body language. (Look at Genesis chapters 26 and 27.) He never really lives on his own.
You can almost read him as a person with a developmental disability, perhaps somewhere on the autism spectrum. One can only imagine the tsuris his parents had in raising him — because it’s never mentioned aloud.
When a child is different from the norm, parents can feel very isolated, and may also self-isolate. When you’re parenting a child whose way of being in the world is not the typical one — a child with a serious medical diagnosis, a child with an IEP, a child whose strengths are hidden behind unpredictable or unusual or non-compliant behavior — there are just too many days when you’re so busy and overwhelmed, trying to keep your head (and your child’s) above water, that you just have no time or energy left over to look for personal resources. Sometimes, like Abraham and Sarah, you may not even feel you can turn to your spouse for support.
And particularly in the Jewish community, where we have a deep-seated respect for the power of education, children who don’t follow the path of “graduate from high school, go to college, maybe get a master’s degree or PhD, enter a career” are not always looked upon with understanding — and sometimes, neither are their parents. So it’s often not easy to say, “My son dropped out of college” or “My daughter is in rehab.”
I’m proud that there is a great deal of compassion and plenty of room for difference at Berith Sholom. Yet even so, it is still not easy. I have felt for a couple of years that we need a support group for parents who find it difficult to speak of their children in public: a safe space, that’s easily accessible; one that’s here, in your Jewish home.
I’m glad to announce that this year, Berith Sholom will be hosting such a group, a place to talk about out-of-the-ordinary tsa’ar gidul banim. The stress and challenges of raising children whose lives don’t follow conventional paths. I call it: “Smarter Than Abraham.” He talked to nobody, but we can talk to each other.
And we don’t have to create this all on our own. Berith Sholom is one of 3 local congregations chosen by Jewish Family Services to be part of their pilot “JFS Without Walls” program. It gives us about 7 hours of JFS staff time every week, to be used as creatively as we can come up with; paid for by our local Jewish Federation, without cost to Berith Sholom members. Support groups? Drop-in counseling hours? Individual consultation? Centering JFS’s work here, at the synagogue, instead of in downtown Albany, will leverage the power of community in supporting individual and family health. We’re already working with a staff member to facilitate “Smarter than Abraham.” Let us know if you want to be part of this group.
I have experienced personally the power of such a group in our monthly “Sacred Aging” meetings. Over the past few years, Sacred Aging has supported Adult Caregivers in fulfilling the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em, honoring their parents, by helping them be their best selves as they accompany their parents on the end-of-life journey. Sacred Aging offers Jewish guidance and gives us a place to share thoughts and feelings about illness, and grief, and death.
Like Abraham and Sarah, Americans talk very little about these issues. We often encounter them for the first time when we ourselves are ill, or when suddenly we must make decisions after someone has died. We’re like Joseph’s descendants in Egypt: We probably know more about mummies and pyramids than about plain caskets and simple shrouds, palliative care, and end-of-life conversations.
It would help us to be more like Jacob and Joseph, and begin The Conversation about our wishes long before it is needed. It would help our children, and others who will care for us, to know ahead of time how we want to live at the end of our lives, what we do and don’t want for ourselves. Apparently Abraham assumed that his sons knew where he wanted to be buried. But we need to share our plans; and that means we need to think about them.
A decade ago, Berith Sholom sponsored a series of learning sessions titled “Starting at the End,” offering practical and spiritual guidance in end-of-life issues. We will begin again this October by joining the national “Conversation Sabbath,” a weekend sponsored by the Boston-based “Conversation Project.” It’s an organization founded by columnist Ellen Goodman and others, whose mission is to help people have values-centered conversations with loved ones about wishes for end-of-life care. The very conversations that Abraham and Sarah did not have.
Let us learn from their mistakes. May we prepare for our aging like Jacob and Joseph; may we be Smarter than Abraham about parenting our children. May we strengthen our community and learn from our tradition in order to make this good and sweet new year, the best year possible. Keyn y’hi ratzon: May God help us weave this hope into our shared reality.