The Power We Give – Rosh Hashanah 5781

This is the recorded sermon I gave for Rosh Hashanah (first day) services at Congregation Neveh Shalom, with the text included below.

It begins, I suppose, with a person called – well, I don’t like saying the name if I can help it. No one does. People are still scared. See, there was this wizard who went bad. As bad as you could go. Worse. Worse than worse.

If you can name where that quote came from, 10 points to your house.

Yes, it’s from Harry Potter. I had actually never read the Harry Potter series until this past year, when Shiri became enthralled to the point of obsession. She never read them either of course, she had just heard about the stories from her friends with older siblings. I figured she’d want to read it at some point (perhaps judging by the fact that her go-to dress-up outfit is always Hermionie Granger) and that I should read it first so we could discuss it and I could know where all the scary parts were. So off I went on the Hogwarts Express, so to speak. 

If you’ve read the books or seen the movies, you know that the character who draws you in, the one that keeps you turning the pages and excited for the next chapter isn’t the title character. It’s someone who most of the other characters don’t even want to acknowledge by name. The character who holds the most attention and seemingly the most power is called Lord Voldemort. If you’re not familiar with the plot, Voldemort is the supervillain of the story, and so terrified is the wizarding community that they don’t call him by name, but instead refer to him as “You-Know-Who” or “He who shall not be named.” The fear, the danger, the violence mostly centers around the one character everyone is afraid to talk about.

It’s the sort of superstition we see all over the place, not just in fanciful fiction. It might be as innocent as not wanting to say something for fear of jinxing it. We’ll be discussing home repairs, and Duncan will say something like, “At least our old refrigerator hasn’t died yet.” That’s when I shoot him the death stare and quietly mouth obscenities at him that you don’t often hear from rabbis. Of course those words don’t actually affect the operation of our appliances, but why take any chances, right?

This “let’s not talk about it” fear can also take much more sinister forms. We don’t want to admit there are problems of racism, gender bias, patriarchy, anti-Semitism in the basic systems that govern and guide our lives. But what happens is that by refusing to name it, own it, and then deal with it as it happens, we let it reach a boiling point, and it causes much greater damage. 

I feel at this point I should acknowledge, as you may have heard from various sources, Harry Potter’s author J.K. Rowling has been outspoken and somewhat controversial about her viewpoints on current issues. While I don’t agree with many of the stances she’s taken, I think we can still say she was successful in providing us with this metaphor about what can happen when our problems and fears go undiscussed.

However, she’s not the first storyteller to use this device. Our very own core narrative shares the story of Amalek. The Amalekites, as told in the Torah, were a nomadic group living in the Sinai desert and the part of the Negev that was south of Judah. We know very little about them outside of what is specifically mentioned in the Torah, but we do know that the Amalekites staged a sneak attack on the weak and defenseless lagging at the rear of the migrating Israelites. It was an attack that showed Amalek to be uncommonly ruthless, and by today’s standards would certainly be considered a war criminal. 

When we read about Amalek in chapter 25 of Deuteronomy, we encounter the following: 

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

“Blot out the memory.” “Do not forget.” Is it me, or is that confusing? It seems contradictory. How do we simultaneously remember Amalek while blocking out his name? It seems incongruous that we’d be able to do both. It’s not like Judaism doesn’t give double directives. We have plenty of those in the Torah, the one that comes to mind first, “shamor v’zachor.” This phrase from “Lecha Dodi” comes from both iterations of the 10 Commandments. In Exodus, we are to zachor Shabbat, remember the Sabbath, and in Deuteronomy, we are to shamor Shabbat, guard the Sabbath. Though the two versions aren’t identical, we can do both of these things. We can actively guard or keep, and we can remember. But with Amalek, the ideas of blotting out and remembering – they seem to be in direct violation of each other. Why would the Torah encourage us to remember and forget?

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it should, but it’s not from the Torah. We’re given a similar instruction on Purim, when we’re commanded to read the Megillah and say the name Haman, while also drowning out the name. So perhaps this tradition of Purim can help shed some light on how we can both remember and blot out.

At Purim we’re taught to blur the lines between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai. And this isn’t just about getting drunk, it’s about telling a more complete story, one with representations of both good and bad. We don’t want to focus solely on the evil, and yet to revel in the victory without being able to reflect on the lesson learned would be a disservice to future generations.

This blurring of the lines and of the names also forces us to really examine who is to blame. For example, we don’t generally throw King Achashverosh into either the hero or villain column, but by allowing Haman to craft his extermination plan, is he not also guilty through his silence? To stand by is the opposite of to speak up, and no matter how advanced and connected our world becomes, we never seem to learn that lesson.

Haman, Amalek, Voldemort – we give them power when we only follow one part of the instruction. When we blot them out and then subsequently forget them, or when we remember them but don’t do anything about it. How many times have you heard you have to learn from your past so you don’t make the same mistakes in the future? We say the name, and we drown it out. We call out injustice, and we shout it down.

Tragically, we’ve become too good at just the “drowning it out” part without the “calling it by name” part. As we were thrown into the insanity of COVID-19, it revealed not only how broken our healthcare system is, but made abundantly clear cracks in our education system, our expectations of family work/life balance, our housing markets, and access to food. 

Then on top of racial and economic disparities made worse by the pandemic, George Floyd was murdered. While it was on one hand the latest evidence of unchecked police brutality, it also became the boiling point for the issue of systemic racism. 

I’d like to hope that maybe we’ve finally reached the point where we’re not leaving off half of the equation. Maybe we’re starting to do more than just remember, we’re starting to blot out. Maybe we’re not just shouting “boo,” we’re actually learning from the past.

Let’s be clear, though. Merely saying the name of the problem doesn’t make it go away. As in the case of Lord Voldemort, having Harry say his name wasn’t enough. It was only when Harry Potter was brave and bold enough to continue to say the name without fear that he was able to finally get enough buy in from the whole wizarding world to actually stand up and do something.

Social media has allowed us to become a passively reactionary society. What I mean is we rush to react and label people and actions we don’t agree with. But without any real change or even discussion behind it, engaging in this kind of virtue signaling doesn’t count as “saying the name of the issue.” These things don’t help anyone, they only drive bigger wedges between us.

I’m not suggesting we stop calling out injustice. I’m suggesting we call out these issues, these fears, these hypocrisies by name, and then back up those words with real data and real actions. It’s helpful to remember that not every issue affects me individually, but that doesn’t give me license to ignore it. We simply cannot pretend that problems don’t exist because we don’t say their names. That just allows the issue – and the fear of the issue – to grow. My Harry Potter quote at the start was from one of the early chapters of the first book. By the end of the first book, Harry learns a valuable lesson. Professor Dumbledore tells him, “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”

This year, in 5781, we must continue to name the problems. We must relentlessly call them what they are. Don’t give them more power through silence. Voice with voice, hand in hand, we will work to achieve greater justice. Blot out AND do not forget.

Wind, Air, Breath

Each year as we approach the High Holy Day season, I am drawn to a particular theme. This year, as the holidays come right after the birthday season in our home (two in August, two in September), the idea of the “birthday of the world” is especially resonant with me. As we’ve had all four human birthdays in our house, we’ve celebrated with cake and candles, but this was the first year we couldn’t blow out candles.

We’re all hyper aware of how COVID-19 spreads, and we’ve been avoiding expelling air and fluid particles around others for the last six months. We wear masks to keep our breath from hurting others and theirs from hurting us. We learned this lesson early on, but it didn’t stop there. In Portland and in other cities, it wasn’t just COVID-19 that took our breath away, so to speak. Protestors everywhere have faced tear gas as a way of silencing rallying cries. try and silence protestors. 

Yet still, we continued on. At home we hunkered down and embraced the quiet neighborhood streets. With all the family time on our hands, after just a little practice we soon had a new bicycle rider among us and an expert balance biker. We embraced the outdoors for parade parties to celebrate friends and go on hikes. We loved playing on our sprinkler pad out front and having socially distant and safe outdoor playdates with friends. 

Despite the crazy of COVID-19, despite the social unrest over racial injustice, we were able to provide relief and some normalcy for our kids. Our big kid even went to day camp this summer, and was able to wear her mask and stay safe the whole time. 

We were hopeful when school started for both kids that in-person connection would soon follow. Our first grader started online and looked forward to outdoor, physically distant chances to see her friends outside of school hours. Our preschooler started in-person preschool in the amazing program he’s been part of since he was 1. It wasn’t the exact same routine, but it was a routine nonetheless. Our kids were happier, and things were more manageable. 

And then . . . 

The west coast began to burn. A week ago was the last time my kids stepped outside. A week ago was the last time we could take a deep breath. Why?

Because ten days ago a windstorm made wildfires exponentially worse, and they got scarily close.

Eight days ago we learned that fires were even in the Portland metro area southeast of us.

Eight days ago our preschool closed because the air quality was so bad even the inside wasn’t safe.

Seven days ago we listened as our kids asked us to close all the blinds because looking outside was “too scary” because the smoke made the sun spooky and the sky dark.

Seven days ago my daughter had her birthday, and instead of a birthday car parade, I stood outside with three layered masks and an iPad so she could connect with the friends who dared to drive by. 

As my dear friend lamented, “They took away outside!” Yes, now the smoke, fires, and hazardous air quality has even taken away outside. 

Ruach Elohim. When we read about creation in the Torah, we read about the spirit, the wind of God. This wind seems to be the opposite. This wind has taken away our air. This wind has actually condensed our usable space to four walls. We can’t take a deep breath. We can’t actually breathe. 

And we’re the fortunate ones. We were far enough from the fires themselves to be out of danger and not have to evacuate. We’ve got a house that has fairy decent seals. We’ve got community. We’ve got income that supports us. Yet our kids, like so many in our area, have had almost every outlet, every sense of normalcy, taken away from them with the latest devastating layer on 5780/2020 . 

The reason I’m writing this is because I’ve heard from numerous people saying they can’t imagine what life is like right now. I’ll tell you – it’s not fun. Our kids are already screened out because of school, and they’ve had their fill of yoga, art, games, and pillow forts. 

I’m writing this because perspective is everything. In Portland, we’ve been living with awful, off-the-charts hazardous air quality for a week. In other parts of the world, this happens almost year long. We need to change this.

I’m writing for our dog, Stanley, the ten-year-old “puppy” who can’t breathe when we go outside, but who still needs to go outside. 

I write because I needed to decide this week if it was better to wear a KN95 mask plus another double-layer mask inside for a funeral and risk COVID-19 exposure or be outside in the same situation and risk the over 500 AQI reading. 

I write because I can see what’s coming, and the mental health of adults and children needs to be a top priority for this country right now.

I write because I officiated a wedding for a beautiful couple twelve days ago, and it was windy but beautiful, and overnight those winds took the beauty and replaced it with danger. 

I write because we must listen to each other, and use our voices as the ruach, as the spirit that whispers elements of change to one another. The wind, the Spirit of God, is now the voice that tells us climate change is real, mental health must become a priority, and our world will cease to exist if we don’t take this seriously.

I write because, simply, we need to be aware of what’s happening in our world, and we need to tell each other’s stories. 

The word “shanah” in Hebrew happens to share a root with the words for “year,” “change,” and “learning.” May this be the year when we learn about how we can work together, support one another, and make change for a better tomorrow. 

Conversations About the End – Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech

Every night at bedtime, I tuck my kids in with a deep snuggle and we recite the same words “I love you forever and ever with my whole heart.” One evening, this prompted my daughter to ask me if her Papa loved her. She believes he did, even though he died before she was even an inkling in my mind. This led to a conversation (on a six-year-old level) about death, relationships, the lasting effects of love, and how “forever and ever” can be a feeling of love even when I’m not necessarily by her side. As you can see, our pillow talk is light and easy going! 

It isn’t easy to talk about death, especially when it involves thinking about our own or the possibility that loved ones might have to learn how to live without us. However, we learn in the Torah that not only are we obligated to try and face this reality, we must prepare for it.

This week we read Parshiyot Nitzavim and Vayelech, the two parshiyot that often surround the High Holy Days. Parshat Nitzavim reminds us that we always have a choice in life and that the proper path is to repent, to follow the rules, and to generally be good people. Parshat Vayelech teaches us about Moses’s process to transfer leadership to Joshua, and the final words he will share as the leader of the Israelite nation. The final words begin his goodbye to the people Israel.

These last few chapters are Moses’s way of letting the Israelite nation know that he won’t be with them forever, and they need to prepare for the time when he won’t be physically present. The last time Moses left the Israelites to go up the mountain for an extended absence, they were fearful and fraught. They broke the Commandments, created their own rules, and ended up in chaos. This time, Moses wants to ensure that the nation has the strength, faith, and guidance to move forward without issue.

Moses takes the time to share a plan of blessings and reminders to the people. He calls out the mourning they will feel and reminds them that while it would be easy to return to their “wicked ways,” it’s essential that they maintain faith and understanding in God’s protection. 

So too must we remind our loved ones that we will always love and support them. One way we do that is through tangible, concrete assurances like wills, trusts, and mementos like photos, videos and letters. Another way is by reminding our loved ones now that even once we’re not physically together, which may be painful at times, the love and connection will always be there.

Uncover Your Eyes – Parshat Ki Tavo 5780

I’ve always found the ways in which we think and talk about our senses and how they can deceive us as interesting and often humorous. Think of phrases like “hiding in plain sight” or “it’s always in the last place you look.” To me, these are more than just pithy observational cliches. They speak to what it means to “see” versus what it means to bear witness to the world. We can “see” a lot happening around us, but rarely do we stop to actually take it in, think about its meaning, and react to the need presented before us. When we walk around the world with our eyes truly opened, we not only observe injustice and hatred, suffering and strife, but we are then motivated to take action and work toward change. 

As the traditional morning blessing from the siddur (prayer book) reads, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the world, who opens our eyes.” Each morning we thank God for the opportunity first to take in the beauty of creation, and second to move beyond that to begin to actually see the work that we can do to make our world a different, and perhaps better place. 

This is evident in our Torah portion for the week, Parshat Ki Tavo. This week we read the section of the Torah that again reminds us of the blessings and curses that come to us as we choose to follow or ignore the laws of the Torah. Specifically we learn of the requirement to make an offering of first fruits for the priests in the Beit HaMikdash, and the different ways in which we are supposed to thank God and give praise (before prayer was a daily thing). Finally, the text reminds us of how we’re supposed to take time to rebuke one another when we’ve taken a misstep and the ways in which we can do so with compassion and kindness.

As the text nears the end, Moses begins his third giant speech to the Israelite nation. He shares: “To this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” Abraham Joshua Heschel interprets this to mean “the ability to understand, to see or hear the divine significance of events, may be granted or withheld from man. One may see great wonders but remain entirely insensitive.” 

In other words, as human beings we often see the world with our eyes, but remain blind to the problems right in front of us. As the wise Torah sage Paul Simon expressed about another of the five senses, “Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

Parshat Ki Tavo is the yearly reminder that it’s not enough to use our senses passively; we must open our eyes and ears to really see the true world around us – the good, the bad, and what we can work together to fix.

Team Building According to Torah – Parshat Ki Teitzei 5780

I have worked in many different offices and organizations in my career as a rabbi and educator. One of the universal truths I’ve learned from working in different organizational environments is that the people determine the mood and attitude of the office more than the work itself. And this general atmosphere effects productivity too because the morale of an office can change the quality of work people do and their satisfaction while doing it.

When I was in my Masters in Education program, we spoke a lot about the culture of the place and how happy teachers resulted in happy students. As an administrator and a rabbi, part of my job is to make sure that staff members feel appreciated and respected. That goes a long way to making sure the work gets done and the team works together.

This is a lesson not lost on the Israelites in the Torah. This week, Parshat Ki Teitzei shares a number of laws to govern society. We receive laws about war and taking care of hostages, laws about our clothing, laws about family relationships between parents and children, laws about taking care of the poor, and so much more. Ki Teitzei is actually the Torah portion with the most number of mitzvot within it, but the recurring theme is the desire and ways in which we should execute the mitzvot prescribed to us. 

Towards the end of the parshah we receive a list of miscellaneous laws. They talk about a variety of potential situations, like asylum for escaped slaves, lending at interest, and prostitution. One that stuck out to me was the sanctity of military camps. When you think of a nation’s military, you don’t often think of a holy or sanctified space. And yet, the Torah teaches in chapter 23, verse 15: “Since the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you, let your camp be holy; let Him not find anything unseemly among you and turn away from you.”

Clearly, a military needs to work as a well-oiled machine with unified vision and purpose. Their mission must be explicitly defined, and most importantly, according to the Torah, there should be an atmosphere of respect. The work environment determines their success. 

Parshat Ki Teitzei suggests that when we go out into the world to join forces with others working for common goals, we must do it with purpose and lead those around us to a place of sacred partnership. Building a team of any kind requires establishing a collaborative purpose, vision, and mission. The Torah reminds us that when we have this, morale is high, productivity evident, and outcomes incredible.