Survivor Guilt – Parshat Noach 5779

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Survivor guilt (sometimes called survivor syndrome) is a term that describes feelings of guilt that result from a person believing they have done something wrong by surviving a tragic event which other people did not survive. Survivor guilt is not uncommon among survivors of large scale events like terrorist acts, war, and natural disasters, but it can also work its way into very personal tragedies, affecting the friends and family of those who died by suicide, for example.

There are countless destructive incidents that plague our world and plenty of stories of someone who was supposed to be on that flight or in that building but wasn’t. Sometimes those survivors carry around a tremendous amount of guilt on top of the grief as they continue to live while others perished, and harboring these feelings can lead to alienation or worse.

This week we read the story of Noah in Parshat Noach. This second section of text in the entire Torah takes us through the story of the flood, building the ark, saving his family and the animals, sending out a dove, and God’s promise to never do this again. We learn of the generations of Noah and how humanity moved on to create the next piece of the narrative, the Tower of Bavel. After the Tower of Bavel we see that the nations are scattered, and then the Torah quickly moves us through the 10 generations between Noah and Abraham, where the rest of our narrative history takes off.

Back to Noah, there is an interesting “blip” in Noah’s character in Parshat Noach. The flood is over, Noah and his sons come off the boat, and Noah finds his family alone in the world. The first thing Noah does after they disembark is to plant a vineyard. Chapter 9, verses 20-25 describe his subsequent behavior as a drunken stupor full of acts of impropriety. Apparently Noah and his sons find themselves needing to cope with their loneliness, and they turn to a vice to get them through. The sages imagine that Noah was overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding a destroyed world. This may have been mixed with feelings of isolation and simultaneously feelings of guilt that so many perished while he survived.

When we find ourselves in Noah’s position, feeling alone, angry, or guilty about our own life circumstances, it’s helpful to have coping mechanisms in place ahead of time. It’s challenging to push through a traumatic experience, but finding healthy ways to cope with our emotions is essential.

As a personal note, know that my door and inbox are always open. It’s our job as a community, and as a community we are always here to support one another. That’s how we survive.

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And It Was Enough – Parshat Bereshit 5779

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Do you ever have those moments when you feel like you’re going nonstop and still not getting it all done? That definitely happens to me – those days when I wonder if I’m giving enough of myself to my job, to my family, to my husband, to me. And even if I’m able to check things off the to-do list, I feel defeated, thinking nothing is quite as great as I wanted it to be. Usually this happens when I’m approaching the deadline for several projects at once, and it’s crunch time. I get this feeling in my core that I’m being pulled in a million different directions, but I want everything to be just right. If I stop to focus on one project, everything else suffers. I know I’m only human, but it’s terrible to think I’m letting down my family or my community when I’m unable to make sure every detail is perfect or I can’t be at every event, program, or service. What if I could actually step back and say, “This is good”? Not great, not perfect, but just good enough?

This week we read Parshat Bereshit, the first portion of the Torah. We are wowed with the story of creation, the time and care God put into creating each day, each being exactly as planned. We learn about the first humans and their experience in the Garden of Eden, how they learned to build, grow, and exist together. The Torah continues with the story of Cain and Abel, the fist sibling rivalry gone awry, and the very real consequences put into place after each of these events. God is like a parent birthing new life or like a CEO organizing her staff, figuring out each day what is necessary to be done and when there is time to stop, step back, and simply take it all in.

When we talk about the story of creation, we tend to think of the seventh day as the only time God rested. But since this parshah suggests different creative acts on each day, there must have been at least a brief rest between each day. In fact, as God goes about the creation of the world, God pauses at the end of each day and says, “It was good.” On day one there was the simple separation, and then a stop until day two. On day two there’s more creation, and it was good. Day three, a little bit more. You get the idea. There is something remarkable in the fact that God was able to stop at the end of each day of creation, take in what had been done, and simply stop until it was time to add the next layer.

Sometimes we feel as if we live nonstop lives in a world that also never stops. With tiny computers in our hands all day, there is always an email to be answered, a Facebook post to check, bills to pay, and work do be done. It’s not easy to simply slow down, let alone stop. How can we possibly let go of our desire to produce more, and instead look at what we’ve produced and say it is good? Parshat Bereshit teaches us that we must. Each day, we must take note of when we’ve done enough for the day and give ourselves the permission to step back, take it all in, and celebrate our accomplishments. If God can save some of the work for tomorrow, so can we.

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story – Yom Kippur 5779

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This is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur, September 19, 2018. You can listen using the player below or read the text.

Last year I opened my Yom Kippur sermon by quoting the movie Moana. I mentioned that the music was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created Hamilton, but that I had not yet been fortunate enough to see Hamilton. Well, a lot can happen in a year. I’m going to say upfront this sermon is about Hamilton. But not the man, the musical, because – hear me out – they’re not really the same thing. Hamilton didn’t become a sensation and win 11 Tonys because it was about the secretary of the treasury. Hamilton is really about leaving a legacy. It’s about how we tell our stories.

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” That’s the final song. It has a little Unetaneh Tokef in it, doesn’t it? Who lives, who dies, who by water, who by fire.

I know my timing for this sermon seems a little off since the musical has been around since 2015. I’ll give you a little background as to why I’m just now making this connection this year. I was late to the Hamilton bandwagon, which may be surprising if you know I love musicals. I love going to musicals. I married into a family of theater buffs. For Duncan’s parents, a successful trip to New York means 7 plays in 6 days.

Perhaps I didn’t let myself get sucked into the hype for this very reason. On top of that, I was one of the few people who didn’t start listening to the cast album years before I saw the show. I didn’t want to fall in love and become obsessed with something there was little chance of me seeing live any time soon.

Then I got the text message. Good friends who asked nonchalantly, “Are you busy on April 8 in the evening?” Maybe you’re aware – I keep somewhat of a crazy schedule. But it just so happened we were free. I responded, “Yes, why?” “We have 2 extra tickets to Hamilton, be our dates?” And suddenly my obsession was set free.

My plan was to catch up and listen to the music beforehand to get a sense of the movement of the show. So that’s what I did as I prepared for Passover. I had no idea just listening to the music of this story of one of our founding fathers would bring me to tears.

The musical Hamilton is essentially a biography of the founding father Alexander Hamilton, told from the years 1776 when Hamilton arrived in New York, through Hamilton’s death in 1804. It covers the work that became his lasting legacy on America. And it was the final reprise song: “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who tells your story” that spoke to me as I listened and prepared the matzo balls.

The stories of who we are that are told after we’re gone depend on how we’re viewed when we’re here. Now, for most of us, it won’t be history telling the story, but it will be anyone who knew us. And if you want to leave a legacy, you have to create that legacy while you’re alive. Aaron Burr, who ultimately kills Hamilton in a duel, laments that although he won the duel, he’s the one who’s the villain of the story.

In the next to last song, Burr sings:

Death doesn’t discriminate

Between the sinners and the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes

History obliterates

In every picture it paints

It paints me and all my mistakes

When Alexander aimed

At the sky

He may have been the first one to die

But I’m the one who paid for it

The story we hear is because of the way history chose to tell the story.  

Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. There I was in the kitchen, preparing the traditional culinary story of freedom from bondage, as I listened to the story of America’s freedom. And what I realized as I was cooking is that I was telling my own story through the work of my hands.  I realized Passover isn’t just the Exodus story. It’s my story that I tell through recipes my parents and grandparents passed down to me. My story is the continuation of each of their stories. Who lives, who dies, who tells their story.

Once I listened to it, I wasn’t surprised at all that I got hooked and immediately started seeing the Jewish connections. Life stories just have a way of doing that – they grab me. For most people the The Diary of Anne Frank was required reading at some point, but for me it was one of the first books I remember reading over and over again. I remember reading each entry and imagining myself there with her. I was sharing that experience. Even with historical fiction like The Red Tent or Rashi’s Daughters, I felt closer to my own story through these narratives. When an author is able to tell the story of someone’s life in a way that makes you feel as though your were lifelong friends with that person, that’s magic.

It’s no wonder that I became a rabbi. I fell in love with reading the same story – I’ve read it 36 times now – and understanding in layer after layer how I was connected to the Torah. And for me, as a rabbi and a parent, practically my whole life is about legacy – the one I’ve inherited and the one I want to leave.

When I’m giving a d’var Torah on the week’s parshah, part of my job as I see it is to connect the Torah in some way to our story today. Each portion, each holiday has its own narrative that can resonate with our own relationships. When I officiate at a funeral, my primary job is to help tell the story. When I sit with a family, I learn about a person’s legacy told through their childhood, courtship, career, family life, ambitions. And it’s the people who are left to remember you, the ones you leave the legacy to, they craft the story.

A famous Jewish story tells us of the man who was planting a carob tree and was interrupted by an onlooker who asks, “Why are you planting a carob tree? It takes 70 years to grow, you’ll never even enjoy it.” The man responds, “I have great memories eating dried carob as a child on Tu B’shevat. Those carob trees were planted by people who wanted to leave a gift for the generations to come. I am planting this tree as a gift for the generations who will be living seventy years from now. Then they can enjoy eating carob on Tu B’Shevat, too. Just as my parents and grandparents planted trees for me, so I plant trees for my children and grandchildren.”

Lin Manuel Miranda also uses a version of this teaching in Hamilton, with the line:

Legacy. What is a legacy?

It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see

What you do, who you were, and how you are remembered are tied together through connections you’ve made throughout your lifetime. In this season of introspection, we are called to examine our own story. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite during Musaf of the High Holidays, reminds us that our lives are finite. We are not immortal. The way we will all leave this world remains to be seen, but our stories, the marks we make in the world, will be measured by teshuva, tefillah, tzedakah.

Teshuva is often translated as repentance, but it really means to return, to look back and then turn forward. Our story is told in part by the ways in which we learn from our mistakes, and not only change our behavior, but teach others to do the same.  

Tefillah, prayer life, is the way in which you engage in spiritual community. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have perfect attendance at daily minyan, although that’s nice. Tefillah is the way in which you turn yourself over to a higher power. This is the recognition that as amazing as you are, you are not God. Rather, you are a part of a community of people who share faith and understanding. Tefillah is your guts, your core, your beliefs. And just like with teshuva, it’s through your moral compass that you teach others how to connect too.  

Finally, tzedakah. What will the story of your giving be? Were you an active community member, giving of your time and expertise? Will your story be one of investment of wealth or wisdom, through your talent or your time? Our stories are told through how we give of ourselves.  

While most of us will never have a smash broadway musical made of our life’s story, believe me there will be a story to tell. A story about who you were and what you did. As we begin Yizkor, we recall the stories of those whose memories live on because we tell their story. Who lives, who dies, who tells your story? And what story will they tell?

Hide and Seek – Parshat Ha’Azinu 5779

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I have a very vivid memory from when I was a teenager of my father questioning how I could be so kind one day and so moody or rude the next. I believe his exact words were, “How come everyone else is always telling us what a kind and polite young woman you are, but at home all you do is rant and act out?” It was like an adolescent game of hide and seek. I could turn on the charm for others, act gracefully and politely most of the time when in public, but at home, where I felt most comfortable, I often let down my guard and had my teenage angst in full flare-up mode. I got called out for the poor behavior, but the good behavior, which was merely the expectation, didn’t get praise. Of course now as a parent, it sounds like I’m describing Shiri’s behavior, so I guess what goes around comes around!

We often compare the relationship of God and the Israelite people to that of parent and child, so naturally this includes the teenage years. This week we read the Torah portion that is the final parshah of the year that is read on a Shabbat morning, Parshat Ha’Azinu. Parshat Ha’Azinu is a poem which warns of the consequences of the negative behavior of the Israelites and informs them of the blessings that will result from good behavior. The text ends with Moshe ascending the mountain into the clouds as he takes his leave of the Israelite nation. This parshah is the link between generations, between new and old leadership, and between living on earth (in the land of Israel), and living with God (on top of the mountain in the heavens).  

In the midst of this poetry, God sets up the ultimate game of hide and seek. Chapter 32, verse 20 reads, “And I will hide My countenance from them, and see how they fare in the end.” God is literally saying, “I am going to hide myself from the Israelites. I will not come out and be active or present in their world until I see how their behavior will be. Game on!”

If God is hiding from humankind until they show themselves as worthy, the question is what is worthy? At a basic level, we know it means following the mitzvot and being kind to one another. It means demonstrating the behavior that is encapsulated in the text of the Torah. That is what brings God back into a world in which God is hidden.

As we embrace a new year and a new cycle of Torah, the challenge is on once again. We can choose behavior that is self-centered and reckless, or we can seek to bring justice, mercy, compassion, joy, and love into the world. Then, perhaps only then, will parent and child be reunited.  

The Marshmallow Test – Rosh Hashanah 5779

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This is the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 10, 2018. You can listen using the player below or read the text.

Marshmallows are my secret weapon. The only surefire way to get both of my kids to do something they aren’t particularly fond of doing is with the promise of a marshmallow. I know it goes against a lot of sound parenting advice to use food as a motivator, but I’m pretty sure there’s an exception for marshmallows. You can look it up.

The problem is Shiri and Matan are at two very different stages. Only Shiri can really grasp what it means to get different types of rewards for different actions. But they both understand marshmallows. There’s something about the way the cloudlike sweetness melts in their mouths that can get them to do just about anything we ask. And for parents, marshmallows are great too. They don’t get gooey until they’re super hot, and the ones from Trader Joe’s are kosher and vegan. I give marshmallows all the credit for saving our tushes several times on a recent long trip. Kids getting too rowdy at shul? Pass a marshmallow. It may not be long-lasting peace, but we take what we can get.  

I know what you’re thinking. You want a marshmallow now, don’t you? Or maybe you’re thinking about a famous experiment about delayed gratification, the marshmallow test. If you’re not familiar with the marshmallow test, it was a series of studies done in the 60s and 70s at Stanford in which a marshmallow or other treat would be placed in front of a child. The child could choose to eat the marshmallow right then, or if the child could delay gratification and wait 15 minutes, the child would be given two marshmallows.

Here’s what they found with this original test. Demonstrating the willpower not to eat the sugary treat seemed to be a predictor of the kid’s scholastic ability, specifically their future SAT scores. In other words, this test seemed to show a correlation between the ability of a child to delay gratification and how well he would succeed later in life.

First of all, if I were to run this test on my children, I’m pretty sure they would fail. But how can you blame them when our entire world is instant gratification? As society and technology evolve together, we have more and more opportunities to get anything we want as fast as we want it. Craving a favorite food and don’t want to leave the house or office? You’re not limited to restaurants that offer delivery anymore. Use DoorDash or Uber Eats and get practically anything delivered.

Want to watch a TV show, but forget to DVR it? No problem, you can stream it online. What the heck, just binge the entire series on Netflix. And forget about stressing over taking perfect photos on your camera or waiting for a roll of film to be developed.

We’ve gotten so used to the instant life that even fast things seem slow. I’m sure I’m not the only one who experiences the excruciating pain of awaiting an important email response by checking my phone every 30 seconds to see if it came through.

It seems like technology itself will never catch up to the level of our expectations for it. Our world is becoming one where we have limited patience to wait and see what happens next. With the ease of email, text messaging, and Twitter, we share our thoughts instantaneously, and we seek feedback immediately. But with this quick-to-share, quick-to-respond mentality, we seem to forget the whole point of communication in the first place. We forget to actually read what others are writing. That means our search for instant gratification can lead us to miss really important human cues, sometimes cries for help or connection.

When the Israelites are in the process of accepting the commandments of Torah and Jewish life from God, they respond to Moses by saying, “Kol asher diber haShem, na’aseh v’nishmah.” All that God has said, we will do and we will listen. The mandate of Judaism isn’t merely to “do this, don’t do that.” Our mandate is to do good in our world and listen to those around us as well as to God. The mitzvot we observe have an active component that we accomplish by doing, and a reactive component that we accomplish by listening, by actually opening our ears to calls for help.  

Where do the marshmallows come in? Well, if you’re thinking it sounds ridiculous to claim that eating a marshmallow or waiting in order to eat two marshmallows can have an impact on your SAT score, you’re not alone. Researchers from NYU and UC Irvine thought so too, and they decided to redo the experiment, but with ten times the number of participants and taking into account factors like the social and economic background of these kids. You know what they found? Delayed gratification wasn’t the determiner of success. Success was the determiner of delayed gratification.

When they accounted for things like household income, the kids who came from families who were better off or better educated were, on average, the ones who performed better. For example, among the kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for the second marshmallow did no better in the long run than those who ate the first marshmallow right away. By the same token, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited also did no better than those who ate right away.

How do we give our children and ourselves the best chance at success? It’s not by teaching them to delay gratification. It’s by teaching them to consider consequences and ask “Why”. Think about what happens if you eat this dessert. Will it mean no dessert later? Will it mean a greater risk of cavities? If you’ve considered the options and still want to eat the marshmallow, for goodness sakes, eat the marshmallow.

And when it comes to communication, if there’s something on your mind that you think needs to be said, sleep on it first. Talk it over with someone else. Roll it around in your mind, and if you still think it’s worth saying, then say it. Where we run into trouble is when we speak first, and then consider the consequences after it’s too late.

Na’aseh v’nishma – do, and listen. Yes, have an opinion and get things done, but also have compassion and get to know people. Who says that your opinion is more valid than someone else’s? It’s easy to be passionate about a topic, and when we’re passionate and have something to say, we want to push it out into the world in a fury of keyboard strokes. We want to be the first one to comment.

As we enter this new year, I have a challenge for all of us. Why not be the first one to listen? Instead of rushing to comment, how about if we rush to understand? How about if we rush to consider? Instead of talking louder and louder in order to be heard, what if we spoke less and less in order for someone else to be heard? In this new year, what if we could ask how someone is doing, and not be on to the next thought in our heads before they have a chance to say, “Great, thanks” or “Actually, not so well, and I could really use a friend right about now.”

To me, the updated marshmallow test is much less about who’s right when it comes to delayed gratification, and much more about having enough information to create an accurate study in the first place. It’s not a test of the children. It’s a test of us. Can we see that some people are struggling to put food on the table? Can we see how much where we come from is affecting where we have the ability to go?

In this new year, let’s slow down the assumptions and the immediate feedback. Instead, let’s rush to accept and acknowledge. Let us stumble over each other being the first to listen.

Shanah tova.