Writing Your Ethical Will – Parshat Vayelech 5780

Writing-Your-Ethical-Will

Passing down the life lessons I’ve learned to my children and loved ones is a unique challenge. Of all the things I want to share with those who come after me, sharing my thoughts on how to live life seems simultaneously deeply satisfying, yet extremely complicated. But as daunting as it is, I know how important it is.

It still upsets me that when my father died, he didn’t create an ethical will for me. He was my rock, my go-to person for problem solving. I longed for his voice. I sat at my computer for weeks writing down all the lessons he had taught me, and I came up with a list of 100 phrases, book titles, or statements from my memories of him that resonated with me. These 100 statements lived on my wall as I finished my graduate programs and on the desktop of every computer I’ve ever had. I pasted them below for your reference and enjoyment. When I’m having a rough day or I’m unsure of a decision, I turn to the list. At the very least it gives me a smile, and in the best moments it helps me to think through a problem just like we were sitting together. While I still wish my father had done the work of collecting these himself, my active role in creating this list has meant the world to me, and to this day when I’m teaching, I teach in his honor.

We’re nearing the end of the Torah, and Moses and God are trying to get in all their last “tidbits of love” for the Israelite nation. The end of the Torah is filled with poems and lessons learned, rules for remembering, and nostalgia for what once was. The name of the parshah, Vayelech, means “and he went.” The focus is on Moses going to the mountain and what his death will look like. And the lesson is what he taught the people and how he will be remembered. As we read Parshat Vayelech this week, we are reminded of how essential it is to be clear about what your values and morals are as the next generation takes over.

I purposefully wrote a slightly shorter d’var Torah this week so you could use the extra time to sit with a loved one and write down your vision and mission for life. Create something that will live on and go after you as a blessing.

Steven Posen’s Words of Wisdom

1. Always wake up with a smile 35. Acceptance 69. The whole shebang
2. Laugh good hard belly laughs 36. Since you were a little girl, parents check in on you always 70. Mourn the past, live in the present
3. I mean it Eviee, you gotta breathe 37. Overpacking isn’t good 71. Rabbi or plumber, there is a leak to fix
4. Take time on one word, one blessing 38. Growing up is hard 72. Shabbat is for resting
5. Tell people you love them 39. Being a grown-up is harder 73. Just throw your money out
6. Roots: know where you are from 40. Transitions are a part of life 74. Orange pants; wear your mistakes; bleach and black
7. Wings: fly to the world 41. Chronically intermittent 75. Backwards is better
8. Who moved my cheese 42. Chart it out 76. Slow down
9. Gung-ho 43. Indulge once in a while 77. Facilitate
10. For what it’s worth (FWIW) 44. Children are a blessing 78. Make your own decisions
11. Perfect pride in everything 45. Perseverance 79. A parent’s job is never done
12. Everything can be summed up in a bullet point 46. Singing in the shower is the best place to practice nusach 80. Compete with yourself; you are your best competitor
13. Dreams are attainable 47. Importance of a note card 81. Who are you; genetics
14. Nachos or nachas 48. Know your weaknesses 82. LOVE LIFE; celebrate it
15. Listen and hear 49. Grow your strengths 83. God’s hands
16. Learn to watch 50. Smell the green 84. Holy vessels; what we are
17. Space it out 51. Pick your battles 85. TRY IT
18. Door off the hinges; you loose 52. Sometimes it feels like gas; learning is hard, but always comes 86. Don’t separate from the community, embrace them
19. Stand up straight 53. Prioritize addiction 87. PROJECT YOURSELF
20. Aleinu length; modesty 54. Hold my hand 88. Career is not life
21. Love the one you’re with 55. Feeling like a dead duck 89. I’m always flying overhead
22. Parents can learn from children 56. Doing instead of learning, or vice versa 90. On your way, don’t know where
23. Forgiveness 57. Time is of the essence 91. Bless you
24. Love the little things 58. BE ON TIME 92. LIVE YOUR LIFE
25. Beauty of prayer 59. Always say THANK YOU 93. Share your opinion
26. Copyright your heart 60. Let it out 94. Give thanks daily
27. Challenges, not a sickness 61. GO BLUE!!! 95. Enhance yourself naturally
28. Pack it up and take it with you 62. Sometimes you fail 96. WHO YOU ARE is not where you are
29. Change is good 63. Own it: actions, words 97. Knowledge and wisdom are different
30. Fly higher than the plane 64. Savor it: life 98. Say it in a rhyme
31. It is O.K. to leave 65. Problem solving; frame of mind 99. Make it fun, they’ll come back
32. Betzelem elohim; we are all created in God’s image 66. Tradition: the way WE do it 100. KNOW THAT I LOVE YOU
33. Family is life 67. Use your words  
34. Fun is what YOU make it 68. Belief; trust in God  

Your Presence is Requested – Rosh Hashanah 5780

your-presence

This is the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, September 30, 2019.

I want to try a quick exercise with you. I’m going to name a significant date in history, and I want you to think of where you were and what you were doing on that day. Try to recreate the scene in your mind with as much detail as possible. 

Ayeka (Where are you?): For those over 70, where were you on D-Day? For those over 50, where were you when the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon? For those of you over the age of 18, where were you on 9/11? 

Early in the Torah, God asks a simple question to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God says “Ayeka?” Where are you? Well, we know where they are physically. Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden, and they have just broken the rules. They lost themselves in a moment of curiosity and adventure. They forgot the rules, and thus their safety, and it takes God to call them back into the present. So it’s not just “Where are you?” It’s “Where were you?” “Where was your mindset when this came to be?” And this question has resonated throughout generations.

Often we use location or movement-based language to describe emotional intent. Think about something as simple as saying “I’m going to do something.” No, you’re not actually going anywhere, that’s simply how we show intent, with movement. “Where are you?” doesn’t always mean I can’t see you. Sometimes it means “Where is your focus?” or “Where are you in your life?” 

The same goes for the response, the reassurance of “Here I am.” “Hineni.” It’s another concept that appears several times in the Torah, and it isn’t necessarily referring to physical presence. 

On Rosh Hashanah, when we read the terrifying tale of the Akeda, Abraham’s answer to God and to his son, Isaac, is “Hineni.” Literally he’s saying “Here I am,” but this single word is more about Abraham being completely present for both God and for his son. He’s present enough for God that he takes on this formidable task, and he’s present enough for his son that he actually stops when the angel says stop. Whether it’s “Ayeka” for Adam and Eve or the “Hineni” for Abraham, what does it mean to be aware of where you are? Of who you are? 

When I was growing up, my family had a tradition of going out to a fancy dinner twice a year with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, other milestones. My grandparents would plan it, and the restaurant they chose was called Opus One. It’s not open anymore, but thirty years ago this was the premier restaurant in downtown Detroit. It had a maître d’, fancy full-course meals, dimmed lights, and delicious steak.

I remember the first time I was old enough to join in on this fun night out. I can picture every detail. The dress I wore had puffy sleeves and flower print. I had socks with lace around the bottom and my fanciest patent leather shoes. I remember asking the waiter if they had A1 sauce to go with my steak. After dinner the waiter brought around a huge cart with samples of all the dessert offerings for us to choose from, and I remember seeing a chocolate mousse with large chunks of chocolate on the top and knowing I must have that “stuff in a cup,” whatever it was. To this day my family still calls chocolate mousse “stuff in a cup.” By the way, aren’t you glad this isn’t my Yom Kippur sermon?

The most vivid of all these moments was the trick my cousin and I pulled on my aunt. My Tanta was notorious for slipping off her shoes under the table wherever she went. After she took one of them off, my cousin Scott and I stole her shoe and passed it around the table. When she tried to get up to go to the bathroom, her shoe was nowhere to be found. She couldn’t go, she was stuck at the table. She looked everywhere and just about gave up until they brought out dessert, and under the silver cloche, there was her silk shoe. As if the shoe was saying, “Hineini – here I am!”

I happen to have an oddly accurate memory when it comes to day-to-day life, but this particular evening I remember down to the very last detail. I’d tell you to check my Facebook profile and look for the pictures to confirm, but this was in the early 1990s when there was no Facebook or selfie taking. We don’t have pictures of this moment, just my 8 or 9-year-old self being so fully present in that moment that I could savor each minute and hold the memory as a film in my own mind decades later.

Let’s go back quite a bit before that pre-Facebook night. In 1839, a dapper-looking Robert Cornelius set up his camera at the back of his dad’s gas lamp importing business in Philadelphia. He readied the camera, sprinted into the frame, and sat on a stool for a minute before returning to the camera. His reward for these few minutes of casual photography? The world’s first selfie.

From camera obscura to the digital camera, photography has come a long way. In the decades since its invention, it has helped shape both how we see the world and how we live in it.

The first photograph documented is from 1810, taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Using a camera he designed, he captured an image on a piece of paper that was coated in silver chloride. Unfortunately, we don’t have the photographic evidence because the paper eventually darkened until the image disappeared altogether. From there, photography continued to grow and change, and thus was born a new method of visual story telling that used light and chemicals rather than paint and paintbrush. 

Today, we’ve all become citizen archivists, and for better or worse our children and grandchildren will be able to see just how cute or hilarious or embarrassing any moment of their childhood was just by scrolling back through Google Drive.

Duncan and I are usually so quick to take out our phones to capture any given moment that it’s fairly common for us to hear, “Mommy, take a picture of me!” We rush to record the school performances or that silly thing the three-year-old just said. And they really do become precious memories to look back on as the baby faces transform and mature into young adults. I’ve even been known to take a selfie or two. If it’s a particularly great hair day or I’m in a beautiful location, I’m likely to take out the phone and snap a quick pic of me enjoying the moment. 

But I’m curious, what does that mean for those special moments like the ones I remember so vividly? How does snapping a photo affect Ayeka?  Can you fully answer Hineini if you’re focused on the picture? There’s no photograph that could have retold the shoe story with as much detail as I remember in my head. I suppose we could have had a video of the moment when Tanta’s show was revealed on the serving platter, but then someone would’ve had to have been behind the camera, not fully enjoying the moment themselves. With each innovation of the camera lens, with the increasing ease of holding your memories through pictures and film, what happens to our brain’s ability to connect and store information? 

When you compare studies done in the last few years, there’s some debate as to whether taking as many pictures as we do helps or harms our memories. Some research suggests that photography acts as a surrogate memory, meaning we actually remember less, while other experiments show that taking photos – or even just having a camera on-hand – means you remember more of what you see, but less of what you hear. 

But carrying around expensive cameras with us every day doesn’t just have these intangible, debatable effects. It also can have real and devastating physical consequences. Last year NPR did a study of news reports between October, 2011 and November, 2017, which concluded that in those six years there were 259 selfie deaths reported globally, with the highest occurrences in India followed by Russia, the United States, and Pakistan.

While 259 people dying over the course of six years is a pretty small percent of the planet’s population and total deaths during that time, I still find this number to be absolutely mind-blowing. We’re not talking about cancer or car accidents here. We’re saying that 43 people died each year simply trying to take a picture of themselves. It is something our brains are already built to do: be present and remember. Ayeka?

Besides the life and death safety issue, which, again, is pretty rare but crazy that it happens at all, being present has other benefits. It’s not just for us, it’s for the people we’re being present for. Rabbi Rachel Wiesenberg, a rabbinical colleague in Long Island, teaches that the gift of your attention is a precious one. And the choice to withhold this gift can have major repercussions in our relationships. Hineini

Similarly, Rabbi Brett Krichiver from Indianapolis writes, “When we miss the chance to be present with our closest loved ones, we may not notice the damage done until it is too late to repair. We may not notice the distance that begins to grow, the hurt born, hope lost. Our distraction causes those we love to withdraw, the Divine presence that once lived in the space between us starts to fade.” Check in- when you’re with family- Ayeka?  Can you respond Hineini?

A colleague, Rabbi Sue Fendrick reminded me of this teaching. The rabbis tell us in the Talmud in Masekhet Sotah that just as God is merciful and gracious to human beings through acts of kindness and generosity and caring, so are we called to be kind and generous and caring to each other. Mah hu rahum v’hanun, af atah rahum v’hanun. And I would suggest that our obligation to act in God’s ways extends to the act of presence, of being present. Just as God is ever-present to us, so may we be ever-present to each other, not because we’re trying to emulate God’s omnipresence, but because it’s part of our humanity. With all our imperfections, our struggles, our failings, giving our attention, our presence, is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. Hineini

Jewish tradition even commands that we be there for one another. We have determined that particular occasions or tasks require a a minyan, to proceed. For things like Kaddish and Barchu, we need 10. For a beit din or a mezuman at the beginning of Birkat Ha-mazon, three are required. For havruta, we just need two. O havruta, o metuta, the rabbis tell us. Either thoughtful partnership or death. In other words, connection equals life.

Being completely present is hard. With all the distractions in the way today, it is perhaps the hardest thing for any of us to do, to put other things aside and be present. We even have apps that remind us to be mindful. How strange is that – one of the causes of our daily distractions is also attempting to offer a solution. But as the gates begin to close, the challenge is one of both Ayeka and Hineni. Mindfulness means asking each other “where are you?” and being able to answer “here I am.” 

I’d like to leave you with some words of poetry that beautifully illustrate what human to human presence means. The end of Marge Piercy’s poem “The Low Road,” provides a set of images of the various minyanim that can enable various gatherings and actions. Her words begin at the level of havruta, two people, and move towards an ever-widening definition of who we consider our “we”—a worthy challenge to us. 

Two people can keep each other sane

can give support, conviction,

love, massage, hope, sex.

Three people are a delegation

a cell, a wedge.

With four you can play games

and start a collective.

With six you can rent a whole house

have pie for dinner with no seconds

and make your own music.

Thirteen makes a circle,

a hundred fill a hall.

A thousand have solidarity

and your own newsletter;

ten thousand community

and your own papers;

a hundred thousand,

a network of communities;

a million our own world.

It goes one at a time.

It starts when you care to act.

It starts when you do it again

after they say no.

It starts when you say we

and know who you mean;

and each day you mean

one more.

Ayekah? Where are you?

 

For the Future – Parshat Nitzavim 5779

for-the-future.jpg

I love my challah recipe. It’s the best of both worlds – easy and delicious. The thing is, as often as we have other families over for Shabbat dinner, it’s hard to keep challah in the house long enough to enjoy it myself. This is why I always have a backup (or three) in the freezer. It really comes in handy for those times when I just don’t have the time to get a fresh one in the oven or when the oven itself decides to stop baking, both of which have happened, making me so glad I was prepared with extra.

So much of life consists of things we do to provide for the future, whether for us, our children, or our descendants. We buy life insurance, we set aside money for college, we plan for retirement. When we plan for our funerals, we even prepay in order to enjoy the credit card points now. So much of what we worry about as parents and grandparents is how today will impact tomorrow. But what does the future hold? No one really knows for sure. Yes, we have a basic understanding that how we treat the environment now will affect the planet’s livability down the road, and yes, we know that we can set aside funds for our own well-being, but ultimately, there is no real way of knowing what the future will bring.

The Torah spends almost the entirety of its books focusing on lessons to live a moral, ethical life and only looks toward the future with regard to the Israelites living in the land of Israel. This week we read Parshat Nitzavim, which teaches us this lesson quite clearly. It begins with God telling the Israelites about the covenant they are making together and how binding it is.

In chapter 29, verse 28 the Torah reads, “Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply the provisions of this teaching.” In other words, things done in secret are between you and God. Acts done in public are not only the problem of society, but become a burden on our future.

This is not meant to suggest that, in the example of the environment, private pollution is totally acceptable, but public pollution is not. What it teaches is that we all have the burden of holding each other accountable for our actions, including and especially the ones that affect our future. As we head into the new year, this week’s Torah reminds us that what we do in the world matters not just to our current society, but to all of those who will come after us.

For the Future – Parshat Nitzavim 5779

for-the-future.jpg

I love my challah recipe. It’s the best of both worlds – easy and delicious. The thing is, as often as we have other families over for Shabbat dinner, it’s hard to keep challah in the house long enough to enjoy it myself. This is why I always have a backup (or three) in the freezer. It really comes in handy for those times when I just don’t have the time to get a fresh one in the oven or when the oven itself decides to stop baking, both of which have happened, making me so glad I was prepared with extra.

So much of life consists of things we do to provide for the future, whether for us, our children, or our descendants. We buy life insurance, we set aside money for college, we plan for retirement. When we plan for our funerals, we even prepay in order to enjoy the credit card points now. So much of what we worry about as parents and grandparents is how today will impact tomorrow. But what does the future hold? No one really knows for sure. Yes, we have a basic understanding that how we treat the environment now will affect the planet’s livability down the road, and yes, we know that we can set aside funds for our own well-being, but ultimately, there is no real way of knowing what the future will bring.

The Torah spends almost the entirety of its books focusing on lessons to live a moral, ethical life and only looks toward the future with regard to the Israelites living in the land of Israel. This week we read Parshat Nitzavim, which teaches us this lesson quite clearly. It begins with God telling the Israelites about the covenant they are making together and how binding it is.

In chapter 29, verse 28 the Torah reads, “Concealed acts concern the Lord our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply the provisions of this teaching.” In other words, things done in secret are between you and God. Acts done in public are not only the problem of society, but become a burden on our future.

This is not meant to suggest that, in the example of the environment, private pollution is totally acceptable, but public pollution is not. What it teaches is that we all have the burden of holding each other accountable for our actions, including and especially the ones that affect our future. As we head into the new year, this week’s Torah reminds us that what we do in the world matters not just to our current society, but to all of those who will come after us.

To See and Be Seen – Parshat Ki Tavo 5779

see-and-be-seen.jpg

When my children were little, we read a lot of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle. The bear goes around and shares what it sees in the world. A red bird, a blue horse, the bear lists all the animals it sees on his daily adventure. Between this book and games of “I Spy” we spent a lot of time practicing using our eyes to take in the world around us.

Each morning our daily prayers give us a list of bodily functions and sensory moments to give thanks for. The morning blessings can read like a checklist of your day: wake up, straighten and stretch our bodies out, put on clothes, eat breakfast, look at the world around us. Each of these is a unique blessing. I’m often struck by the words of the blessing about seeing, “Pokeach Ivrim.” Blessed is God, who opens the eyes of the blind. This is a curious prayer for a couple of reasons. Are we supposed to read it literally, believing that God actually causes blindness and then miraculous recovery? And if you haven’t experienced this miracle, why would you even say this blessing in the present tense anyway? I’ve often asked kids what it means to see, and their answers are always enlightening.

Parshat Ki Tavo, which we read this week, reminds us again 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 activity). 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.

Chapter 28, verse 26 takes into account the notion of blindness in a whole new way. “As a blind man gropes in the dark,” the verse reads. The question from the Talmud seems obvious: Isn’t a blind man equally disadvantaged both in daylight and in darkness? No, it answers, in daylight he can hope that others will see him and help him. In the dark, however, there will be no one to give help. In this way, the Torah suggests that the sense of sight is about more than observation and utility. To see the world and to see people also means to see their needs and their state of mind.

The Torah, in Parshat Ki Tavo, pushes us to look beyond the surface and into the nuances and deepness of the situations around us. We are asked first to look for poverty, hatred, injustice, and then not just see it, but stand up and make change.

When I teach the brachah of opening your eyes, I do an exercise asking everyone to close their eyes tightly for a while, then open them wide. The room usually appears brighter and looks a bit different. As I ask people to open their eyes I ask, what do you see?

So, close your eyes tightly, keep them closed, and then open them wide. What do you see? How will you help?