On Kol Nidre we begin a 25-hour pursuit of a common goal: improvement. We want to be better, we want to do better, and we want a better world.

My problem is that I have trouble distinguishing the lofty and sacred goal of just being better from my need to work toward perfection.

You might ask: “What’s wrong with trying to be perfect?” Being ambitious, competitive and striving for ever-higher goals is seen as positive attributes. Striving for perfection may help us to accomplish more. Yet, so much is lost when perfectionism governs our lives.

You might not be a perfectionist. If not, bravo or brava – that is a character trait you have surpassed. Even if you are not so defined, I’m fairly certain you know someone who is. The perfectionism of a friend or relative or co-worker can make your life more difficult as well. The perfectionist has little sympathy for anything that is merely good and disdains the adequate.

Film director Stanley Kubrick is a perfectionist. He holds the worlds record for 148 takes in filming the same scene of the movie The Shining; 148 times! Steve Jobs was a well-known perfectionist who was not only miserable himself but made the lives of all around him miserable.

Their perfectionism discarded the passion to live well in favor of striving to be flawless. Imperfection was not their problem. Hatred of imperfection was the problem.

John Cleese of Monty Python fame wrote: “The problem was that I carried around with me a tendency to feel that other people’s respect for me would vanish if what I did was second rate. And while I accept that this “perfectionism” is likely to stimulate the production of better work, it doesn’t, unfortunately, go hand in hand with a relaxed and happy attitude to life.”

The pursuit of perfection expunges joy and strips us of understanding. Why? Because the perfectionist thinks that only when I achieve perfection, will I feel good about myself. Striving for perfection inhibits one from experiencing joy. Rather they pursue the avoidance of the feeling of guilt and shame that we might experience if we were merely adequate or sufficient. The perfectionist is not capable of actually enjoying an activity or achievement for its own sake, since they will always be convinced that they are not doing it as well as they should.

Neither are our bodies perfect. Nor will they be. Imperfection lies in every cell, in every breath.

Our bodies reflect the truth of life, that in any moment we are a mixture of the miraculous creation and the imperfect conception.

In Jewish thought, perfection is found in only one place, the nefesh, the soul. The soul resides in that imperfect body of yours. It means that we play the game of life with the cards we are given. That is difficult for the perfectionist to accept.

Psychologists have documented this state of mind, which may cause depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders and even suicidal thoughts.

The striving for perfection is learned at a relatively young age in educational institutions and religious settings and in social media. It is a vicious cycle. We learn to strive for perfection. Because we are merely human, we react to unmet expectations with feelings of failure, rejection and disappointment. As a result the perfectionist might try even harder to be perfect. One person can be satisfied, and even proud of a superior, albeit non-perfect, performance, while the perfectionist experiences it as a humiliating defeat.

And my experience tells me that many live on this razor’s edge of psychological trauma related to the perfection complex to which they subscribe. Impressionist landscape painter Claude Monet once declared, “My life has been nothing but a failure, and all that’s left for me to do is to destroy my paintings before I disappear.” Monet was a perfectionist.

The pursuit of the perfect may become a desperate attempt to gain the recognition and acceptance or love that we crave. It may be the love of parents, the love of our peers, the approval of teachers or the love of God.

I believe that the skill of being merely human is becoming a lost art. Our attention is perpetually drawn to the best. Television is inundated with competitions to be the best. We go to concerts of performers who are the greatest. Our personal interactions are to be irreproachable. In our professions, our work product must be impeccable. I won’t ask how many doctors or lawyers or other professionals in this room live in fear of being sued or have been sued because mistakes are always possible when we are not perfect.

Making mistakes, our doubts and regrets are not a pathology but part of the ebb and flow of human experience.

And when we are disappointed, when we exhibit our weaknesses, when we are in pain – what do we do? Let’s say you just made a mistake at work, you feel awful and on the way home you run into a friend. “Hey, Evan, nice to see you. How are you doing?” “I’M OK! I’M GREAT!” (actually I am not okay). Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with our pain, how to express our disappointment, so we pretend. We pretend that all is well. We don’t mention how distressed we are because we think that we need to have all of the answers to demonstrate that we are intellectually and emotionally equipped to master the world.

There are further ramifications to this perfection complex.

If we can’t accept our own weaknesses, we are less likely to accept the weakness of others. When we are unable to adapt to our own limitations, we are more prone to being impatient with the limitations of others.

When we can’t fully accept our own frailties, we also have trouble appreciating our talents and contributions. Parker Palmer is well known as a keen observer and a brilliant interpreter of spiritual communities. He holds 11 PhDs! Palmer is a practicing Quaker. In conversation with Krista Tippett he described his own perfectionism in deeply personal and unpolished terms. Palmer reported that when someone says to him “You are so successful. You have written so well! That would leave Palmer feeling even more depressed (more depressed) because he would feel that he has just defrauded another person who, “if they really knew me,” said Palmer, “they’d know what a schmuck I am.” Palmer explained that the experience of being complimented would cast Palmer further into the darkness where he already resides.

Perfectionism is not the Jewish way. In the Talmud, we learn who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot. Pirke Avot 4:1.

There is the story of the yeshiva bucher in Israel, the Talmud student, who desires so much to have the knowledge of the Rosh Yeshiva, the head of his school. He reads in our tradition of great leaders and scholars who stay up all night studying. Psalm 119 even teaches that King David rose at midnight to study! So this yeshiva bucher turned day into night in his pursuit of perfect knowledge. The Rosh Yeshiva heard of his unusual habits and called the student to his office. The Rosh Yeshiva acknowledged the history of great leaders and scholars who studied at night and the student was thrilled to have what seemed to be the Rosh Yeshiva’s approval. But then the Rosh Yeshiva said: All this is true, but… – But there is a factor that needs to be the main consideration and overrides all other considerations – to be a normal person! In past centuries, explained the Rosh, this was normal behavior for serious learners, but today this is no longer normal, and therefore all your arguments and justifications are irrelevant and if you persist the end will be dreadful!

For the obsessive yeshiva bucher, for the perfectionist at work, there are corrective measures.

First, accept mistakes as present moment learning experiences. It is what it is. The moment will pass. Gam zeh ya’avor – is a Jewish adage meaning “this too shall pass.” Nothing really endures.

In Hebrew, the word we might use for perfection is shleimut, but it really means wholeness. Perfection in the Jewish sense is the pursuit of wholeness. And wholeness is acceptance of who we are and to commit oneself to work on our tikkun, or individual refinement. Shleimut can also be understood as requiring that one take a balanced and harmonious approach to life and not focusing on perfectionism in any one character or activity.

Mistakes are just another flavor of reality. We can’t avoid them. We don’t have to define our selves by them. Rabbi Jay Michaelson teaches that real joy comes from relaxing the bonds of ought and allowing the bliss of is.

Our imperfections need not have a strangle hold on us. Not all of the consequences of our mistakes will get better – there will be ongoing effects of injury or hardship. But with acceptance, our lives will seem simpler. Calmness and clarity bring their own rewards. When we fail, when we lose, we can also use the opportunity to feel more authentic, more connected. When we are merely on a path of striving to do better, we open ourselves to more possibilities. Surrender is not defeat. When we relinquish the ego, surrender the need to control, know, understand and dominate, we are better equipped to experiment, explore, connect and better engage with the world.

Second, the perfectionist can learn to be okay with sharing their fullest selves. The key to sharing is to create safe relationships. A safe relationship is one where we listen attentively and without judgment. We can trust in relationships when we ourselves allow others to express their pain; all we have to do is to listen well and to be present with them in their suffering. Then we too will be better able to share our beautiful imperfections. We should all be working on creating safe relationships to promote sharing and caring.

The goal of life is not to achieve excellence in all we do. Religion, and Judaism in particular, is a way of speaking about how we address our faults in an endless cycle of humans being human.

There is no character in all of Torah and Tanakh who is perfect. Not Abraham, not Moses, and certainly not King David. Yet, as the humanity of each is fully on display in their stories, their errors become instructive moments in history. Our tradition unpacks these episodes as insights into repentance and improvement. Moses is taught to say the thirteen virtues of God: Adonai Adonai El Rachum, v’chanun. King David learns to acknowledge his failings, repent and then move on. In each biblical lesson our relationship with God can shape a healthier relationship with ourselves.

In our tradition there is the story that each of us is connected to the Divine by a thin imperceptible rope. When we act poorly, the rope starts to fray. When we repent the rope doubles up on itself creating a knot that more securely attaches us to God. And the more the rope is knotted the shorter it becomes. The shorter the rope, the shorter the distance between us and God. It is the imperfect person who is drawn closest to God.

These High Holidays, and this day, Yom Kippur, are certainly about repentance, teshuvah. And the implications are so much more than being sorry for our sins. The real impact of this experience is not to make perfection our goal but to work on the conditions and disorders that inhibit us from being fully human.

In my moral and spiritual imagination, we are all working tirelessly to be kinder to each other, to be guardians of our planet, and protectors of truth. But these are daydreams not realities. We often hide from our potential by focusing on our need to be perfect in all we attempt to do. If I can’t achieve something flawlessly, I might not attempt to do anything at all. The world can’t wait.

We’re never ready, and we are never perfect, despite this, we go forward.

The pursuit of perfection is deceptive. We withdraw from the world when we focus on perfection. We stand alone even when we are together.

The acceptance of imperfection is not an excuse to desist from the tasks at hand. We who are imperfect will forever be challenged by moral dilemmas and existential threats. Human interactions with each other and with this planet will always cause tension and damage. As individuals we will falter. When there is repair to do, we need to work together, with all of our individual strengths and imperfections.

We will all suffer through dark nights of the soul, those times when heartache challenges our faith in a loving and redeeming God. We suffer more when we stand alone. We find healing and comfort when we come together.

To overcome this isolating perfectionist pursuit, we have to learn to be okay with feeling badly. Here’s an example: One of the least observed days on the Hebrew calendar is Tisha B’av, the day we recall the destruction of the first and second temples. We read the book of Lamentations, written by Jeremiah. It begins: “How lonely sits the city.” Yet, Tisha B’av is when the tears of a generation pool together and flood the collective soul with sadness. While I don’t hope for the rebuilding of the Temple, I find the Tisha B’av experience to be an essential exercise for the Jewish soul. The memory of destruction, the rush of sadness, can be motivators to create a better world.

But much of our modern society rejects lamenting. Ours is the pursuit of the perfect life, the happiest existence, the richest purse, and the textbook smile. Lamenting has little place in the super human world.

As we try to control this messy world in which we live, we are tugged and torn by desires and needs and holes we fill with excess. Yom Kippur is the day when we withdraw from all of the pursuits and struggles. We stop trying to control the chaos and idiosyncrasy of the world and focus on the crevices in our own souls.

Life is not perfect. Life is unsettled, transitory, ever changing, Life is by definition messy, always on the verge of chaos and amazement. The only constant about life is that existence happens on the razor edge of catastrophe. The cancer, the car accident, the economic crash – these create the wounds that provide the opportunity to become more whole. Only when we emerge through the most extreme experiences of life’s imperfection are we able to more profoundly live our lives in our imperfect bodies, with all of life’s flaws and grace. When we are forced to confront imperfection, we can also live lives that are more deeply rooted, contented, and dynamic.

If we want to live better, wiser and not just smarter, we have to end the perfection obsession. What if we wake up to the reality that we don’t have to look and act perfect? Rather, it would be so wonderful if we accepted and embraced the messy human way our lives unfold. We should be called to our best selves, not some perfect version of the person we have created in our minds. Vulnerability and even suffering may be the elements of spiritual growth and personal wisdom. We need to know our flaws as much as our strengths. That is what makes hope reasonable and lived virtue possible.

We would open ourselves to more love; love for ourselves, accepting the love of others, and loving others unconditionally. And we need each other to figure this out. We will not merely live but thrive if we are able to engage in fully honest, caring relationships.

What if we could find greater contentment in our lives? I believe that it would be hard to contain ourselves, when we strip back the limitations of doubt, shame and fear. When we no longer hold ourselves back because we are okay with being imperfect, it is possible that we will love more, soar more, create more, repair more, and support others more.

Father Killian McDonnell, a Benedictine monk wrote a poem that captures how I am feeling now. Its title: Perfection, Perfection.

I have had it with perfection.

I have packed my bags.

I am out of here.

Gone.

As certain as rain

Will make you wet

Perfection will do you

In.

. . .

I’ve handed in my notice

Given back my keys,

Signed my severance check, I

Quit.

Hints I could have taken:

Even the perfect chiseled form of

Michelangelo’s radiant David,

Squints,

The Venus de Milo

Has no arms,

The Liberty Bell is

Cracked.

In this New Year, may you engage each other more fully, find the wholeness of your being a perfectly imperfect person, and never desist from the tasks at hand to repair the brokenness in this world.

Amen.

(with recognition of Krista Tippett whose exploration of spiritual life gave me the framing for this talk.)

Each year before Rosh Hashanah I visit the relatives in cemeteries in New York. I go with a sense of obligation. I arrive with anticipation that memory will bring a joyful connection. I visit with the hope that they are guiding me and supporting me. For the past fifteen years the experience was much the same. Placing stones, speaking their names, a quiet prayer, standing silent, noticing the weather, and checking it off the list.

I was in New York in early September. Having taken the train to New York, I hadn’t considered how I would make the trip out to Queens. A friend, who is also a Rabbi, came to my assistance and offered to be my driver.

The first cemetery visit is always to my father. He is interred at Mt. Lebanon Cemetery in Queens. Leaving Manhattan at 9 in the morning and heading toward Long Island is a treat – there is nearly no traffic. We turn off Myrtle Avenue into the cemetery, passing the chapel building and maintenance garage on the left. Before us is a long rose granite wall. That’s where dad is, in the wall. In front of the wall are small cement benches. Scattered below the wall are a few pebbles and rocks left in memorial.

Perhaps you didn’t think Jews are interred above ground. Let me explain.

The day of the funeral; it was Sunday, December 14, 2003 and the weather was cold and it was snowing. The forecast was for the snow to intensify with blizzard conditions. The cemetery advised that they would not be able to open a gravesite in the cold, snowy weather. Our alternative was to purchase a vault – a hole in a wall. A granite panel is pried away, the coffin slides in and the panel is reset.

There is a ramp leading from the parking area to the wall. Each time I visit and ascend the ramp I remember that day. When the hearse pulled up the snow was already deep enough to make driving hazardous. The hearse had trouble approaching the ramp and several family friends grabbed shovels and cleared the way.

In the middle of this stressful, sad situation, there was a moment of laughter. You see, my father’s career was spent in the plastics packaging industry. When the rear door to the hearse opened we saw that the coffin was in a huge plastic bag. It seemed that even in death, Dad would be in plastic packaging.

I bring those memories to my annual cemetery visits. Place the stone, say the name, offer a prayer, stand in silence, and notice the weather, . . .

This year was different.

We parked next to the maintenance shed and headed up the ramp. On the cement bench sat an older man, legs crossed, hunched over, arms crossed on his lap. He was folded up onto himself. He wasn’t moving. He wasn’t speaking. He was sitting in vigil.

I thought of how when visiting an art museum, you notice the people standing still, fixed and contemplating each painting. As you move through you might try to get close to the art but not block the view of the people already standing there. You keep your gaze on the art as well and you don’t make eye contact.

We didn’t want to cross between this solitary figure and the grave of whomever he was there to visit. We hesitated. We waited. And then we walked slowly past to the far end of the wall, to the spot that is my father’s resting place.

I placed a stone on the ground. I said his name. We offered the el maleh prayer, singing softly but just loud enough for the other gentleman to hear as well. I noticed the fine weather that day. I was ready to leave. And so we walked toward the car, back down the ramp.

But we didn’t leave. We looked back at this sad figure sitting on the bench. He glanced toward us and then shifting his gaze, he looked to the wall again. We had to return.

William Blake wrote: Can I see another’s woe and not be in sorrow too? Can I see another’s grief, and not seek for kind relief?

Back up the ramp, I slowly approached him. “Sir, I was wondering if we could offer a prayer on your behalf? We are both rabbis.”

“Yes” he replied.

I kneeled down toward the ground. My friend sat on the ground.

“May I ask your name?”

“Marty”

“Marty, Who are you here to visit?”

“My wife”

“Which one is she?”

“Right there – Jill Stone”

I look to the engraved name on the wall and read the dates of birth and death. She had died about two years prior. Marty was sobbing. This man’s grief was unrelenting, unremitting.

“Can you tell us a bit about her?”

“She was wonderful. We were married for 38 years. She was a schoolteacher. We didn’t have children of our own but her students, she loved them like they were her children, they were her children. We were both teachers. She had just retired before she died.”

“Was she ill?”

“No. Or we didn’t know she was ill. She told me she wasn’t feeling well. We didn’t think much of it. And she died, she died in my arms.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Is there anyone else to whom you are close?”

“I have a younger brother. He calls me every weekend, to make sure that I am alive.”

“You’ve suffered a terrible loss. And you are here for Jill today.”

And then came the response that shook me.

“I’m here every day. I promised her I would come. I’ve been here everyday since she died except for Saturday when the cemetery is closed. I arrive at 7:30 when the gates open and I leave at 4:30 when the gates close.”

So many thoughts came to mind. Judgmental ones – don’t waste your life sitting here. Sympathetic ones – I’ve never before witnessed such grief. Curious ones – I wonder what it is like to love someone so much that I would visit their grave every day, six days a week, all day long.

Now I begin to notice that he is wearing a Ralph Lauren jacket and shirt but they are worn and dirty. His hair hasn’t been cut in a long time. He has neither a water bottle with him, or bag of food.

My rabbi friend and I take the rabbinic approach – “Do you feel that Jill is with you?”

“Oh yes, we talk to each other. Sometimes we argue.”

“Do you feel Jill’s presence when you are not here at the cemetery?”

“Yes, sometimes I do.”

“Jill is with you everywhere, not just here at the cemetery.”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Perhaps you could honor Jill by doing something in her memory. Perhaps volunteering, teaching.”

“Yes, I have thought to do that, and I have done a bit of that. Maybe I could do more.”

We offered a prayer of comfort and we sat a while longer.

Finally, with regrets for leaving, we departed. Our friend crossed his legs the opposite way, folded his hands over each other and bowed his head toward his lap.

When we experience the death of a family member or someone we loved, we may be plunged into grief. The experience may be unimaginable and inexpressible. And yet, grieving is a part of the human experience.

Grief should be the way that bereaved people heal. We anticipate that there is always the potential for healing. We believe that we must come to terms with the loss, fashion a new relationship with the person that has died, and learn to live in the world again. Pain dulls with time we are told or at least we form a protective layer around the pain so that we can function again. A new normal emerges. Sometimes, there is personal growth, as the lesson of mourning teaches us how to be more compassionate human beings.

The Jewish tradition offers brilliant wisdom about the process of grieving and remembering. A fast burial, seven days of shiva, a month of Kaddish, a year of mourning. The cycle continues throughout the life of the mourner in Yikor Services and Yahrzeit observances. And our tradition offers limits: The Jewish mourning cycle allows for a phased recovery from loss.

Judaism is a religion focused on the living, not the deceased. We caution the mourner against excessive grief. “Weep not in excess for the dead, neither bemoan her too much,” said Jeremiah (22:10).

Talmud teaches that when a wedding procession and a funeral cortege meet at an intersection the wedding goes before the funeral. A person shouldn’t grieve too much. Living is paramount.

In our Jewish tradition we take a task-oriented approach to grief. The community performs mitzvoth – comforting the mourner. The mourners engage in rituals and prayers to give regularity to their days.

Judaism also places protective fences around grief. We shield the mourner so that they may grieve, weep, rant and rest. But the fences are also designed to protect against excess grief, to keep sadness from drowning us, removing us for engaging in this world. The boundaries around mourning rituals become less and less restrictive over time so mourners can return to their responsibilities, caring for themselves, engaging with others, even repairing the world – all of these are life-affirming.

Jewish law discourages us from visiting cemeteries too often. Mourning more than is required is characterized as a transgression against life! (Isaac Klein).

We come to Yom Kippur anticipating the Yizkor service. For some it is a difficult time of year. Holidays are celebrations, sometimes diminished when those loved ones with whom we have celebrated have died. Even worse may be the memory of those who died around this time of year. And every other family celebration to come, the bar or bat mitzvah, the weddings, the life cycle events – they aren’t there, the people who helped make these times special – not there to celebrate with us. Perhaps no one even mentions his or her name any more. In our tradition there are two deaths – the first is when the body is laid to rest. The second is when no one mentions that persons name any more.

Marty would likely utter Jill’s name with his last breath.

Marty was sitting vigil on a cement bench grieving for his wife Jill Stone. His grief was as tangible as the granite wall in front of him. His grief was so heavy his body was collapsed under the weight.

The psychologist might say that Marty was depressed. The philosopher might say that Marty had given up on life. The theologian might say that Marty had entered the dark night of the soul and had not emerged.

Time had not healed his wounds. Marty would not allow time to heal. He himself was drowning in a river of tears.

In Sefer Moed Katan, a medieval volume, we are advised “when a man indulges in excess grief for his dead, he will soon find himself weeping for another dead.” I suspect that Marty was weeping not just for his beloved Jill but also for himself, for a person that withdraws from the world sitting in the cemetery six days a week is one who is himself acting as if dead.

My experience at the cemetery that day has prompted many questions in my mind. What is our role as members of a wider community? In response to illness and loss, have we met our obligations when we attend a funeral, bring a cake to a shiva house, or say amen to the mourner’s Kaddish? Not just as Jews, but also as fellow human beings, how do we best affirm life in relationship to loss?

Honoring the dead is an expression of community beyond the bonds of personal relationship. You may have heard about what seems to be a new trend, attending the funeral of veterans who have no surviving family.

Joseph Walker, an airman who served from 1964 to 1968, passed away November 19, 2018. No family members to attend his burial could be found. So the cemetery hoped the community might make sure Walker, who was 72 when he died was not buried alone. “If you have the opportunity, please come out and attend,” the cemetery said on its Facebook page. News outlets estimated 5,000 people attended.

This year, the friends of Wayne Wilson of Niles, Michigan put a call out for community members to attend his funeral. They were expecting an additional 10 to 15 people to show up. Instead, about 3,000 people turned out to pay their respects to the Vietnam War veteran, who did not have any surviving family members.

Last week a funeral home in Sarasota Florida invited the public to a veteran’s service because he had no family. Nearly 2,000 people showed up to mourn Edward Pearson.

I spoke with a Rabbi in Sarasota, who was amazed by the turn out and bemused too. Where were all these people when Pearson was ill or dying? Isn’t it more important to attend to the living than to the dead?

I understood that lesson. It was more important to sit and talk to Marty Stone than to stand silently at my father’s crypt and comment on the weather.

We have only so much time and energy. So I would suggest that the most important mitzvah is attending to the living; to bring comfort, relief, and support. And not just to members of your family or even your close circle of friends. We should extend our capacity to help as widely as we can.

I am not here to criticize anyone in this room. In fact, many of you are part of a most extraordinary community of caring. One mention of an illness or a tragedy, and the outpouring of love and support can be astonishing. I tell rabbinic colleagues around the country about this community and they are amazed. We are selfless, devoted, and generous.

So I just want to add one more act of kindness to your list. I suggest one more undertaking. Some of you already do this. Extend yourself to people you don’t even know.

Truth is I nearly left that cemetery without so much as looking at Marty Stone. I was there for my own grieving process. I was imposing on another person to be my driver. I had another cemetery to visit and then it was time to prepare for Shabbat. I was all in my own head with virtuous thoughts, meeting obligations, and checking them off the list. And later I realized that nothing this year might affect me as profoundly as stopping to comfort a stranger in a cemetery.

There were new lessons to learn and old lessons to learn again. The new lesson was to value the people in my life more than ever before – not waiting a minute too long to express my love and demonstrate my caring. I am still struck by how much love Marty felt for his Jill. Sitting on a bench before a granite wall would be too late for me to express love.

The old lesson I needed to learn again is that I must value every person – the strangers, the ones that I have never met could be teachers, or even angels. Perhaps that is why the Torah reminds us 36 times to take care of the stranger. We tend to forget to help those who we don’t yet know. People are not abstractions. They are emotions and intellect, bodies and minds, all deserving of caring and respect.

The Jewish way in death and mourning is to remind us that we must value life – not just our life, not just the lives of those with whom we have a relationship, but also all life. I myself may have trouble living up to this standard I am setting out before you this day. But I see the blessings of caring and compassion. I see the curse of being scorned or alone. And I will forever remember this visit to the cemetery, before these High Holidays.

As we pray this day to God Adonai, El Rachum v’chanun – the God of comfort and grace, may these prayers remind us to bring healing and caring to all those whom we know and those we are yet to meet.

– Evan J. Krame, Rabbi

There are no rights in the Bible, there are commandments, obligations, and responsibilities, but no rights.

Rights are a newer, enlightenment idea, and they are a good thing, but when they are all we have, we get caught up in the ‘I voice’ and lose some perspective.

In the biblical worldview, I do not have the right to live, rather, you are commanded to not kill. I do not have the right to property, you are commanded to not steal. I do not have the right to a fair trial, you are commanded to establish courts and justice justice you must pursue. I do not have the right to an education, you have the obligation to teach. I do not have the right to healthcare, you are obligated to heal the sick. I do not have a right to proper housing, you have the obligation to house the homeless. I do not have the right to eat, you are commanded to feed the hungry.

I have the right to not be at Yom Kippur services, we all have the obligation to be at Yom Kippur services.

The difference between rights and obligations is not mere semantics. When we think through the lens of rights, we are thinking in the first person singular, I. I am the subject, the first reference point is me. I have a right to healthcare, housing, and food. When we think through the lens of obligations, the reference point is the other: The sick, the homeless, and the hungry.

Today is not about you, it’s about us. There is no I in Yom Kippur. Well, not in the Hebrew spelling. Today is not about me, it’s not about you, the starting point is not our individual sins. The voice of the liturgy today is the voice of we, and how we relate to each other. Today we focus on how we are doing, how are we doing when it comes to the obligations that undergird our collective life?

The mussar Rabbi Ira Stone of Philadelphia teaches that to be Jewish is to act on your infinite obligation to the other, and that joy lives in that obligation. The infinite obligation that does not ask, ‘what will happen to me if I act,’ rather, it asks, ‘what will happen to the other if I do not act.’

The check-in we are undergoing today is how are we doing as we relate to the infinite You. Are we fulfilling our obligations, will we be inscribed in the book of life?

Rabbi Michael Pollack

I happened upon a better understanding of Jewish identity while visiting Barcelona. In the course of a few days, my Catalan tour became an unexpected exploration of what it means to be Jewish.

Exiting the Barcelona airport, I hoisted a suitcase into the taxi.  My Magen David medallion necklace slid up and out of my shirt. I quickly tucked it back into my shirt. I was afraid of being identified as Jewish while visiting Europe.

Once in the cab, I removed the necklace and turned it around so as to hide the hebrew words. It reads, Shviti Hashem Knegdi Tamid – I will keep God before me always.  I’ll keep God next to me, but I’ll take the precaution of keeping the relationship private.

As we were driving toward the city center, the radio station began to play a familiar sounding melody. It was a klezmer song with Yiddish lyrics. Klezmer playing here in Barcelona? The music of Ashkenazi Jews in the land where the Sephardic Jews had been expelled over 500 years ago?

 Then the announcers interrupted the song to discuss an exhibition of Chagall paintings. Why of course they would play Klezmer! Chagall came from Vitebsk and painted scenes of the shtetl.  So the music of the shtetl was segue to the cultural discussion. I was welcomed to Barcelona, by way of the music of ancestors who trekked from shtetls in Poland, and Lithuania, and Ukraine.

On our first day, anxious to see this beautiful city, we began by walking on the main tourist street, las Ramblas, looking for a place to eat lunch. I had been warned that finding food suitable for us to eat would be a challenge.  Spanish cuisine is known for its ham in many forms.  And then we found our first kosher restaurant in Barcelona. Yes, our first meal in Catalonia would be kosher and meat. And it was delicious! I noticed that as the men would enter, they would pull a yarmulke from their pocket and place it on their heads. On a few I noticed the tzit tzit, fringes, were tucked into pants and pockets. I was not alone in hiding Jewish identity.

Dinnertime in Barcelona. Where to eat? My pork paranoia was still strong.  So we found the other Kosher restaurant in Barcelona. The line out the door was the real entertainment. Insistent Israelis, cordial Canadians, and lots of urgent conversations with the Maître d.

The highlight of Barcelona is La Sagrada Familia, the great modern church designed by Antonin Gaudi. We opted for a large group tour. An American family of 14 joined the group. Where are you from? We asked. “New Jersey. Well, I’m originally from the Bronx and my husband is from Brooklyn.”  That’s code for JEWISH! I thought I heard the guide say “Okay, lets have all of the Jews form group number two so you can visit the Church together.” “On your left is a mural depicting the scene where the Jews reject Jesus. Above you is The Last Judgment, where all who do not believe are sent down to hell.”  Then we find a portal adorned with the Lord’s Prayer in fifty languages – one of them Hebrew. Now I’m really thinking that this church is wonderful!

Another day and another Jewish identity moment followed. Daytrips from Barcelona include the Salvador Dali museum in Figueras near the French border. On the top floor, in a temporary exhibition, we were greeted with a sign “Aliyah” – picture after picture depicting evocative Israeli themed scenes. Israeli flags and David Ben Gurion were featured. Dali was commissioned to create a suite of paintings about Israel. This was a most unexpected moment of Jewish identity expressed through our association with Israel.

We next went to Girona. This 2000-year-old town is famous for its long Jewish history, home to the great scholar and kabbalist, Moses ben Nachman or Nachmanides.  Nachmanides, while known for his Torah and Talmud commentaries, and mystical teachings, was the protagonist of a most famous disputation – forced to debate with a priest who had converted from Judaism. It was a catch 22. If he lost the debate, Nachmanides would have imperiled the Jewish population. If he won, he himself was in danger. And so it was. After winning the debate Nachmanides fled Girona to live in Israel.

The Jewish quarter of the old city of Girona is partly build with large rough stones from the Roman times, on top of which are the smaller square cut stones of Medieval times. The remnant of Jewish Girona is found in its cold cut stones. The artifacts are in the Jewish museum – an ancient stone mikveh and Hebrew inscribed sarcophagus.

The museum tour opened a conversation about Jewish history with our guide. I tried to correct his misconception that it was the expulsion in 1492 that was the critical moment for Spanish Jewry. In fact, in 1391, most of the Jewish population of Christian Spain was threatened with death if they did not convert. In the following 100 years, most Jews in Spain were living as secret Jews. Unfamiliar with Catholicism, these crypto-Jews did not easily blend in with their neighbors. The expulsion of 1492 pushed out those that were suspected of backsliding or those who dared to maintain Jewish identity.

In a few days I had noticed the many ways I experience being Jewish, as a member of a religious community and as an identity – through fear and food, through community and culture, through history and histrionics – all provide connectivity among us. The stories of persecution – escaping the old country and arrival in a new world, from Spain or the Ukraine, are the tropes of the wandering, longing, Jewish zeitgeist. Connection to Israel, our Jewish homeland, comes as much through stories of wars and trips to Israel as it does from Torah and prayers for Zion. Our history, food, music and culture have coalesced us into a people.

And the future of Jewish membership and Jewish identity will be different. Stories of shtetl and struggle will fade. While finding a bagel shop in Barcelona may be surprising, it isn’t going to keep Jewish identity alive. What will connect the next generations with Judaism, and give them pride in being Jewish?

Younger generations ask about what meaning Judaism brings to our lives? Why should they be, act, or identify as Jews? It has to be something more than persecution and something more than meeting strangers and playing Jewish geography.  The why be Jewish question is not a question of membership in a club or tribe – it is a question of purpose.

In fact, the “why be Jewish?” question has always plagued us.  The Jews of Spain in 1391 asked themselves that question when lives were in the balance. But today’s question is being asked here, today in the United States, when Jews are generally powerful and comfortable.  Jew or Jew-ish is a choice. The Government does not impose Jewish identity with persecution.  Nor does Jewish identity even require a firm belief in an all-powerful God or the primacy of Torah.

An understanding of what it means to be Jewish is ever changing. In the 1390s in Spain, to be Jewish was to put one’s life on the line to have a relationship with God. In the 1990s, we thought that the goal of being Jewish was to perpetuate Judaism. We called it Jewish continuity. We were wrong.

For this age, I suggest that to be Jewish is to engage with the demands of the world which is currently a troubled planet.

Living in 5779 is to respond to existential questions. How does Judaism direct us to combat poverty and disease? What does Judaism say about protecting the environment? How does my Jewishness inform political choices in a time of resurgent fascism?

And Judaism has always had these issues in mind.  Life on this planet is a gift from God we are told to protect.  Our people’s story is typified by a defiance of tyrants like Pharaoh.  Our Torah teaches us dozens of times to aid the widow and the orphan and to welcome the stranger. An early commandment in Torah is at Exodus 22 when God says ‘You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their cry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans (Exodus 22:21-3).’

The core values have always been there. Yet, the associations we have with being Jews don’t always reflect those values. It is time to shift our focus on how we best live as Jews.

The Jewish identity of 5779 must be based upon shared ideals more than shared cuisine.  Our advocacy for human rights should compel us to gather as community.  Our defense of civil liberties can be a defining quality of our people.

If there is an issue confronting humanity, there is a Jewish nonprofit already formed.  COEJL for environmental advocacy, Hazon for food, Truah for human rights, HIAS on immigration, ADL to combat prejudice, . . . and we have organizations designed to train leaders – the David Project for Israel advocacy, Repair the World for tikkun olam, and Rabbi Gil Steinlauf just created Hineni, to train leaders on LGBTQ issues.

I don’t envision my role as Rabbi to be directing your political and philosophic choices. But my role is to help you reimagine Jewish identity in new ways. A powerful and economically sound community has the ability to make better this troubled world. Don’t tell me you are a bad Jew because you don’t go to synagogue regularly – Tell me you are a great Jew because you are an advocate for peace, justice, and protecting our planet.

If you think I am radical in emphasizing action over religious practice, I have proof texts from our tradition instructing us that advocacy is what it really means to know God.

God says of Abraham: “For I know him, that he will instruct his children and household after him to keep the way of the Lord, to do what is right and just. (Gen. 18:19).

Jeremiah says to know God, means to uphold justice for the poor and destitute (Jer. 22:16).  Rabbi Binyamin Lau explained that “Knowing God does not mean simply grasping Torah intellectually.  Knowledge of God emerges through action.”  Binyamin Lau Jeremiah: The fate of a Prophet, Maggid Books (2010) at p. 35.

This seemingly radical idea expands the religious act beyond the realms of prayer, meditation and seclusion and places it squarely within the sphere of social action and concern for others.  Both God and Jeremiah measure your religiosity by your attention to those around you.

Jeremiah said: A wise person should not revel in her wisdom, nor the strong in his strength, nor the wealthy in their riches.  For only in this should the reveler revel: understand and know Me, that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight – declares the Lord (Jer. 9:22-23).

Part of our teshuvah this Yom Kippur is for our failure to do enough. Just as the prophet Jeremiah declared:  ‘If you really mend your ways and your actions; then you execute justice between one person and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow (Jeremiah 7:5-6).’

The future of Judaism might not rely so much on whether or not you eat kosher schnitzel in Barcelona or can identify Jewish art in a museum. Rather, the next phase of Judaism must be based on living through the shared values that will improve the world. Your engagement in the issues confronting us, standing on a Jewish platform, joining with Jewish community, is the Jewish identity the world needs most. And that is what Jeremiah says it means to know God.

What actions we can take as individuals and communities toward this goal? It will be up to each of us to develop our own focus, be it poverty, hunger, equality, immigration, restoring democracy, freedom of the press, or protecting God’s creatures on our planet.

What we know from our tradition is that we need rituals to serve as reminders. The construct of Judaism is to sustain a daily practice not merely as religion whenever practical. So lets think about the Jewish rituals we have and keep them fresh.

For example, it is traditional before lighting Shabbat candles to put money in a charity box. Let’s make it modern: have your family pick a cause of the week and make a donation on Pay pal every Friday night.

For me kashruth is a daily reminder to think carefully about the impact of how I eat.  If keeping strictly kosher is not of interest, try keeping “ecokosher” – organic foods, less packaging, cut down on the red meat.  All of these will help the environment and do it as part of your Jewish journey.

Need a decorative theme for your next bar or bat mitzvah? Post pictures on Evite of the family marching together against gun violence or preparing food at a homeless shelter.

Better than my suggestions, when you go home, have a discussion about how you can change an existing Jewish ritual to serve as a reminder of your commitment to this world.

And what role do the Jewish Holidays have? The discussion in a sukkah should be how best to aid refugees, since we were refugees. (HIAS) The best theme for your Passover seder, may be “fighting tyrants since Pharaoh” (T’ruah).  The Torah you study for Shavuot, the holiday of diary foods, can be about choosing plant based foods instead of meat to protect the environment.

And some spend so much energy debating Jewish membership – is your mother Jewish, is your conversion acceptable.  How about we adjust the membership questions a bit?  Can we ask – what did your father teach you about being a responsible person? How will your being Jewish make you more aware of the need for caring in the world?

On our last night in Barcelona, we overheard the people at the next table discussing their plans for Rosh Hashanah. Of course, I had to say hello. She was from Philly and he was a Moroccan Jew living in LA. As we spoke about the food he lamented how his mother would be so upset at his eating trayf. But that night I felt I had a topic for a High Holiday talk.

Jewish identity has to mean something more than disappointing our mothers with what we eat. We don’t have to reinvent Judaism. We just have to apply it correctly to the year 5779. As you travel through 5779, make being Jewish a ritual of responsible engagement with the world.  Feel strong in that Jewish identity because your activism is a demonstration that you know God.

May we all live in health and strength so that we can report back in a year and tell each other of the ways in which we succeeded in making the world a better place.

R. Evan J. Krame

The Art of Asking (Rosh Hashanah 5779)

There was a recent best seller –The Art of Asking.  The book was written by Amanda Palmer, part of the music group The Dresden Dolls – yeah, I never heard of them either. Amanda Palmer did a TED talk and that got a lot of attention for the book.  Her theory was that there is an art of asking.  Asking creates opportunity.

Upon closer consideration, I thought about the corollary.  What about when we don’t ask. Our reluctance to ask or even our failure to ask may be about our own insecurities or reticence.  What if we came to see that there is something greater, even spiritual, about the art of asking?  And in reviewing the Torah stories of Abraham and Sarah, I found some insights.

We have the juxtaposition in this story of faith and despair.  Sarah has little faith that she will be a mother in her old age. (Footnote that thought – how our perceptions change as we age.)  When over-hearing Abraham’s conversation with God she laughs and questions:

וַתִּצְחַ֥ק שָׂרָ֖ה בְּקִרְבָּ֣הּ לֵאמֹ֑ר אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙ הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן׃

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?”

Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?’

הֲיִפָּלֵ֥א מֵיְהוָ֖ה דָּבָ֑ר לַמּוֹעֵ֞ד אָשׁ֥וּב אֵלֶ֛יךָ כָּעֵ֥ת חַיָּ֖ה וּלְשָׂרָ֥ה בֵֽן׃

Is anything too wondrous for the LORD?

Sarah questions and God answers with questions.  Now, that’s our Jewish tradition! Notice Sarah’s question was not a request for help or relief but a question of mocking and disbelief.  She’s been asking for a child for decades and she has lost hope. Then comes God’s response. God answers with a question as a reminder. God says know before whom you stand and have a little faith.  Despite her lack of hope, despite her doubt and questioning and disbelief, Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

The next set of questions in the Torah is Abraham arguing with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah – God, if there are 50 righteous will you save the city? If there are 40? Even if there are 10?  Holy questioning worthy of a God conversation.

And yet, despite Abraham’s pleading, not even 10 good people can be found in Sodom and Gomorra.

Today, on Rosh Hashanah we read the story where Sarah demands that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be sent out from the camp.  Abraham is reassured by God to do as Sarah says.

What I find missing is the art of asking. Sarah and Abraham are certainly adept at asking questions. But in this fateful instance, no questions are asked. In fact, there is a valuable lesson in what happens when asking and questioning is missing from our discourse.

Notice that Abraham who could ask questions of God about saving Sodom and Gomorra did not question God about the welfare of his son Ishmael.  Sarah who could ask for a child and question her own ability to give birth relies upon her own judgment to expel Ishmael.  And Hagar, powerless as a servant, does not ask anything of Abraham, not even mercy. What I see lacking from this story is that there is no questioning.  These people forgot how to ask a question.  And the failure to ask questions leads to troubling decision-making and conflicts.

I want to offer various aspects of asking – to encourage us to practice the art of asking and how the art of asking can improve this world and our lives.

The first art of asking we can consider is in the realm of relevancy.  Does the expulsion of Haggar remind you of the refugee crisis in Myanmar? Does the separation of Ishmael make you think of the asylum seekers separated from their children?  Does this ripping apart of a family make you think of abusive relationships within our society? Or the mistreatment of women of lower status or darker skin color?  Are we hearing the stories of Torah and asking of them how does this apply to us today? So the first art of asking I want to suggest for you in this year is asking how our tradition and our texts work for us today and guide us forward.

The second art of asking is about respectful engagement in a time of polarization. How about asking questions before forming or expressing opinions. The art of asking is the first step before advocacy.  The process of formulating questions helps us to figure out the truth of a matter. Intellectual curiosity, spiritual seeking and emotional pursuits are not merely worthy, they are necessary.  In formulating questions we test our own knowledge and we open ourselves to refining our preconceived notions and conclusions.

And asking questions of another is Godly.  God and Abraham question one another.  It is a defining characteristic of a loving relationship.  Asking a question is a way of showing respect to a fellow human being, demonstrating your interest in their ideas and walking with them on a path of discovery.

The third art of asking is potent and productive.  Asking is compelling.  It is human nature to want to engage through questions.  What do you know? What is your experience?  Can you help me?  Without the questions of our friends and family, we get lost inside our own head-scape and internal wandering.  When asked to engage, when asked to be present, when asked to be of assistance, we are given the opportunity to be our best and fullest selves.

Fourth, there is the art of asking as the key to forming deep connections and real community.  Earlier this year when my mom was facing some health problems, I thought to ask a few friends to check on her while Jodi and I took a much-needed break.  I felt badly asking – every one of us is so preoccupied and so busy.  But my asking was met with an outpouring of love from the community. In asking, we discovered loving-kindness and healing that was disposed to be expressed! When asking for help in a time of need, we give others the opportunity to do a mitzvah, and to express their caring in ways that are as necessary for the giver as for those receiving.

And I learned a corollary lesson about the art of asking.  As we age, asking is an admission of our human frailties. Asking can be seen as an admission that our own powers of cognition or physical strength have diminished.  So sometimes we need to invite questions of those who may not be able or eager to ask.  Inviting questions is also an example of loving kindness, and Godlinesss. There is a refined art of asking –  asking how can we be of help to one another.

And, finally, with regard to the art of asking, I recently learned this insight.  At the Passover seder when we speak of the four children, one of whom does not even know how to ask a question – what if that child has a cognitive challenge or other disability?  From that question I learned that the simple ability to ask a question is in itself a blessing that we take sometimes for granted.

In our prayers, in our tradition, we ask a lot of God.  Today we ask for a year of peace, a year of good health, a year of joy. With this model  it seems to me that the best we can do is to engage in holy conversations that begin with asking.  When someone has an opinion other than yours, ask him or her about it before disagreeing.  When you have a need that others can provide, ask for help and give them the opportunity to do a mitzvah.  And when someone does not have the strength to ask or so much pride that they dare not ask for assistance, be eager to ask how you can help.

I want to make 5779 the year of asking.  Before we offer our opinions, ask what others think.  Before we despair of our situations, ask for help.  And always be eager to ask how we can be of help to others.  With these guideposts, we can bring hopefulness back to our lives and God into our days.

Rabbi Evan Krame

Upon watching a documentary about World War One I learned that the United States entered the Great War because we believed in a greater good, a higher calling and a noble cause.  That war ended 100 years ago with a treaty creating a League of Nations to promote cooperation, acknowledge obligations, keep open and honorable relations, and maintain justice.

50 years later this country experienced an inner turmoil.  1968 was a threshold year when we awoke to the full power of the individual and non-violent protest. Students rose up from their seats and exited their classrooms, across this country to make their voices heard.  They demanded an end to the Vietnam War shaking campuses across the country. They called out for justice, freedom and equality. 1968 changed the way Americans understood their power to make the world a better place.

Not every year is a watershed year for the expansion of justice, freedom and equality. There are years of wandering without dedication to a greater good, a higher calling, or a noble cause.

For Jews, we have three thousand years or more of Torah guiding us toward creating a better world.  And we know from that Torah that there are times when our soul is expansive and other times when our soul is shortened or contracted.  Look at Bamidbar, Parshat Chukat, chapter 21, where the children of Israel are detoured away from Canaan and back through the wilderness. They become disconcerted and restless.  They complain again that they have been brought from Egypt to die.  They could have stayed and dined on figs, pomegranates and grapes – all of which were not likely the food of slaves. No matter, these wanderers are more concerned with the foods they desire, than accepting God’s good guidance toward a promised land.  The text tells us

וַתִּקְצַ֥ר נֶֽפֶשׁ־הָעָ֖ם בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃

Literally, the soul of the people shortened along the way. With their shortened souls, their exasperation and desperation, they were unable to sense beyond their own needs.  They were too concerned with personal comfort and not enough with God’s greater plan.  They complained bitterly.  God sent snakes to bite them and then a remedy, a snake raised high on a stick.

We recall from Genesis that the snake represents the evil tongue that spoke deceptively.  The mouths that complained bitterly enfeebled the efforts and would have wrecked the enterprise of the Jewish people to claim their homeland.

But the tongue that speaks evil is the same that can speak truth and justice.  And the image of the snake, that same snake that brings poisonous attack, could also be the source of healing.  And it is that same image that is the emblem of the American Medical Association.

And so we learn from this episode that the mouths that complained, that were used for destruction could also be used for constructive purposes. And the complaining, defeated people have a shortened soul.

What has happened to the soul of America and American Jews?  Has it expanded to meet our greatest potential for good or has it been cut short and contracted by a people who complain for the sake of their own self-interest?

In past years, I would say that the soul of our people has been shortened, contracted.  We have focused on advancement for our selves and our families.  We have demanded greater comforts, plucking the fruits of this land, and leaving greater disparity behind.  And our vigilance for a world of cooperation, obligation, relationship and justice has waned. Advocacy – showing up for peace, justice and equality – has often been replaced by check writing.  Until now.  Now, in 2018, it seems as if our souls are lengthening again and expanding.

It took time coming but 2018 may very well be a year of expanding souls like 1918 bringing the world an accord for peace (albeit temporary) and like 1968 with its radical awakening of the public and individual initiative to improve the world.  It just took some horrific events in 2018 to rouse the souls in us.

The zero tolerance immigration policy that has resulted in the separation of undocumented children from their parents at the US Mexico border is a gross violation of all manner of justice and compassion.  It is tantamount to child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination and contrary to all we hold to be holy, no matter what scriptures the Attorney General might cite.  And the people of this country are responding, in person, in kind, with money and with advocacy.  Representatives on Capitol Hill are reporting an outcry from across the country against such barbaric behavior. In the national debate over immigration, it is worthwhile to remember that the status of immigrant residents is not peripheral to the Torah, but central to it, where the status of the stranger is mentioned dozens of times.

The gun violence in this country has robbed us of young, beautiful lives. At Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, the students did not merely run from the building for their lives, they ran to the streets and Capitols for all our lives, advocating for an end to easy access to guns and controls to end gun violence. And then hundreds of thousands of us followed them into the streets as well. Leviticus 19 teaches us you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.

We heard the stories of women who have been degraded and exploited by men in power.  Doctors, movie moguls, politicians and businessmen who abused women are being pushed from their roles and made pariahs in society.  Men can no longer boast about what they grab with impunity.  #METOO has transformed the American Culture. In torah we learn of the equality of the sexes, as it says “Male and female God created them. And he blessed them and called them ‘Human’ when they were created.”

We have seen attempts to ban transsexuals from the military or deny gay couples a wedding cake.  Old prejudices die slowly and once again the Bible is used to support bigotry.  Instead, in solidarity and resistance, all people are fighting for a world and a future where everyone values the lives and well being of LGBTQ people. This is Pride month, a demonstration of celebrating each of us as respected individuals.  Danica Roem began serving in Virginia’s legislature this year as an openly trans person.  And corporate America gets it when the sign in Bloomingdales says we celebrate pride this month and every month.  And we give full honor to the text in Genesis 1:27 “So God created humanity in God’s image.”

It has been 50 years since 1968 when America expanded its soul. 2018 should be that kind of year. 50 years is an almost magical number in our tradition.  In a few weeks we will read about the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year in a cycle that brings freedom, justice and peace.

How can you make 2018 a year of soul expansion for us, for this country and for the world?

Get active, Get involved. Do what is inconvenient, like the rabbis I know planning trips to greet children at detention centers.

Do what takes effort, like voter registration drives and campaigning for candidates who share our values.

Wear out the soles of your shoes.  And keep growing your soul, the one that God placed in you.  When the soul is activated, we can see our way to the Promised Land and we are ready to march – even if the route is circuitous, even if we forfeit some of our luxuries, even if it takes away from our own comfort.

And the results may not come right away.  Change takes time.  We have come to expect instant gratification and one stop shopping. We became insular wanting everything our way from our hamburgers to our spiritual experiences.  Instant gratification and entitlement got us into this current mess, as we insulated ourselves from the needs of others in our communities, our country and this world.

But each demonstration is a leg of a journey, not a victory march.  Each call to your congressman is a conversation, and not a task completed.  Each person registered is another vote and not yet a landslide.

And when you are tired and want to retreat to the comforts of your life – Remember the cries of those refugee children separated from parents. Remember wailing of the parents who have lost children to gun violence.  Remember the pain of the women whose lives have been altered by sexual abuse.

Some quote scripture to support their unholy designs.  I want to quote Psalm 119, as inspiration for us all.  Eit laasot ladonai, . . . its time to do for God for they have violated God’s teaching, it is time to act for the Lord, even if we have to flip the Torah over.

  עֵת, לַעֲשׂוֹת לַיהוָה–    הֵפֵרוּ, תּוֹרָתֶךָ.

Being good is commendable but only when we are doing good is it useful.

I offer a portion of a prayer whose author is Rabbi Rachel Bearman.

I pray that we will be like Eve, who was willing to risk her safe existence in order to pursue knowledge.

I pray that we will be like Abraham and Sarah, who hurried to welcome strangers into their camp and rushed to prepare a meal for them.

I pray that we will be like Rebekah, who was judged as remarkable because of her kindness to a traveler.

I pray that we will be like Shifra and Puah, who refused to follow the commands of their ruler when he ordered them to deal cruelly with the mothers and children of a vulnerable people.

I pray that we will be like Reuel/Yitro, who encountered a wanderer fleeing from his home, brought him into his community, and treated him like family.

I pray that we will be like Caleb, who refused to accept the pessimism of his fellow leaders and who clung to his certainty that the future could be safer, brighter, and better.

I pray that we will be like Rahab, who hid strangers in her home when they were sought by those who wanted to harm them.

I pray that we will be like Abraham and Moses, who stood toe-to-toe with the power of the universe and confronted injustice with loud voices and sure hearts.

I pray that we will remember Rabbi Akivah’s teaching that the heart of the Torah, the verse at the center of the scroll and at the center of the Jewish tradition, is Leviticus 19:18 which says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is my prayer for all of us and for all those who hold the Bible as a sacred text.

May this be God’s will. May it be our will.  Amen.

Evan J. Krame

Jews are the resilient people.  Judaism is a religion of resilience.  We have been attacked, enslaved, and exiled.  And yet as a people we persist.  As a religion we have continued longer than any other and even thrived.

Why? Because we understand that resilience is something more than just survival.  It is a combination of factors that when taken together empower a person or a people to both confront and transcend adversity.  We have learned not merely to bounce back but to move forward.

Notice the trajectory of the early Hebrews.  They went from slavery to freedom.  But freedom did not just mean running blithely through the Sinai.  They marched to Sinai where they accepted responsibility and took on the yoke of Torah.  The resilience of the Jewish people has followed a path from enslavement to responsibility.  With Torah, we coalesced as a people.  With responsibility, we undertook the duty to transform the world.

Imagine for a moment that you have lost your freedom.  Your liberty is gone.  Maybe it is house arrest, or you are a prisoner or perhaps in a concentration camp.  You endure extreme hardship.  Could you bounce back from such a major disruption in your life?  If you hit bottom, where bottom is a prison cell, are you able to push off of the floor and soar even higher?  As J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books who was living our of her car for a while, wrote: “rock bottom became the solid foundation upon which I rebuilt my life.”

What happens to a person who has been deprived of their liberty or even their identity, and survives to ultimately thrive? Let’s explore a few such biographies.

Example #1. Victor Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria in 1905.  Frankl earned a medical degree from the University of Vienna in 1930 and was put in charge of a Vienna hospital ward for the treatment of females who had attempted suicide.  When Germany seized control of Austria eight years later, the Nazis made Frankl head of the Rothschild Hospital.

Nine months later, Frankl, his wife and his parents were deported to Theresienstadt , and then to Auschwitz, 9 months more in Kaufering, a slave labor camp, and finally Turkheim. Frankl’s wife, his parents, and brother died in the concentration camps.

After the war and until his death in 1997, Frankl was highly decorated with honorary degrees and medals.  He lectured around the world and his 39 books were published in 40 languages.

Frankl learned that finding meaning and purpose in life is the foremost goal of those who thrive, not merely survive. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl wrote: “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.” After enduring the suffering in these camps, Frankl concluded that even in the most absurd, painful, and dehumanized situation, life has potential meaning and that, therefore, even suffering is meaningful. This conclusion served as a basis for his approach to psychology, an offshoot of Freudian analysis, called logotherapy.  He said, “What is to give light must endure burning.”  “What is to give light must endure burning.”

What was it that gave meaning to his life, even to his suffering? Frankl wrote about how during his slave labor, marching to work in the frozen pre-dawn hour, his thoughts turned to his wife and the love he felt for her.  In that moment he understood that “love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.” He wrote “the salvation of man is through love and in love. “  Frankl continue: I understand how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in contemplation of his beloved.” That insight during the darkest moments, gave Frankl the power to be resilient.  A loving relationship gave him a purpose that transcended merely surviving.

Frankl’s story is certainly one of being deprived of everything… down to having a number replace your name. But his understanding that meaning can be found even in suffering and it gave him the strength of resilience and then propelled him to undertake the life long project of bringing hope to many who have been in despair.  It is that next step that fascinates me- that the completion of resilience is not surviving but thriving in a way that takes on a yoke of responsibility to improve the world.

Frankl, who had been denied all aspects of freedom, understood that it is not sufficient to survive and it is not even enough to thrive.  In fact, Frankl was an advocate for making the world a better place because he understood that freedom by itself is insufficient.  Once free, it was his responsibility to share his knowledge and take on a leadership role.  In that regard, Viktor Frankl once recommended that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast of the United States be complemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast:

Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”

And so the corollary to resilience is responsibility, as resilience alone is insufficient.

Example # 2.   The leadership lesson from Nelson Mandela’s life is also one of resilience. Throughout decades of personal oppression and a situation that just about everyone would consider hopeless, Mandela never lost hope. He was steadfast in his belief that change would come – as long as he stayed strong. Mandela’s struggle against South Africa’s apartheid took him from the isolation of Robbins Island prison to the role of President. He never gave up on his resilience and rose to embrace his responsibility to bring meaning to his captivity.

At his trial in 1963, Mandela and his codefendants made a rather remarkable decision. Rather than pull out all the legal stops in an effort to beat the charges of treason against them, they decided to make a global statement, ostensibly admitting to treason and saying they did so because the apartheid law was immoral. At that trial Mandela told the world:

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He spent 27 years in prison. During that long imprisonment, he never wavered from his dream of racial equality.  There was purpose in his imprisonment and there was meaning in his suffering.  He had a goal, a vision, one that benefitted the world and one for which he was willing to die.

While very few human beings could ever approach Mandela’s level of commitment, resilience is a critical trait for leaders. Leaders must have the ability to remain committed to a vision even when logic suggests the vision will never be more than a dream.

Example #3.  That brings me to another survivor who took on the yoke of responsibility, Senator John McCain. McCain came from a military family; both his father and grandfather were Admirals.  Like Mandella, he too was a prisoner.   A Navy pilot, McCain was shot down over Vietnam – after ejecting from his plane with his right leg and right arm broken, he parachuted into a lake, where he sunk down about 20 feet.  He pushed off bottom and rose to the surface able to take a breath before sinking again.  He was wearing 50 pounds of equipment.  Finally he was able to inflate a life preserver and float.  After being pulled from the water, unable to stand, he was physically attacked and then delivered to the North Vietnamese.

McCain was a prisoner of war for five and a half years until his release on March 14, 1973.  The first two years were spent in solitary confinement. While he was offered early release because of his father’s notoriety as an Admiral, McCain refused.  He based his decision to remain in prison on the Code of Conduct, which says “you will not accept parole or amnesty,” and “you will not accept special favors.”  At his lowest point, suicidal, he agreed to write a confession of crimes.  That was the episode of his experience about which he has most agonized. His wartime injuries left permanent scars and he remains unable to raise his arms above his head.

McCain returned to the United States bent but not broken.  He was first elected to Congress from Arizona in 1982, and then to the United States Senate in 1986, where he has served for 30 years.  He was a candidate for President in 2008.

McCain knows about resiliency. According to McCain, it is impossible to demonstrate resilience unless you have gone through difficult times. McCain wrote about four things discovered during his journey of becoming a resilient leader:

1. With every struggle comes a tremendous opportunity. These are the times where you can choose to embrace the gift of adversity and use it to strengthen your abilities . . . This is your chance to do what is right, even when no one is looking.

2. Welcome the hard times with open arms and use them as a chance to grow yourself and develop the resiliency you need.

3. Your actions during a crisis serve as a model . . . If you show resilience others will take that lesson forward with them in the hopes of becoming more resilient themselves.

4. Learn from your failures. Adverse times are a great teacher.  Adversity is a better teacher than success” If you carefully evaluate every mistake, every failure, every obstacle, you will uncover a lesson that will be important for you to learn from to become a more resilient leader. All good leaders have scars on their leadership mantle.  Embrace those scars. Be proud of those scars. They show where you have been, and more importantly what you are capable of.

In this way, McCain has also come to the same conclusion as Victor Frankl, resilience is incomplete without taking on the mantle of responsibility; just as the pairing of resilience and responsibility is the mantra of the Jewish people.

Moreover, McCain embodies principles of shared responsibility.  No one can or should lead alone.  With regard to the last effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, McCain declared his opposition on this very principle. He said: “I believe we could do better working together, Republicans and Democrats, and have not yet really tried.”

Neither Mandela nor McCain has been a perfect leader.  Some who have suffered for a meaningful cause, and been resilient, are sometimes great disappointments.  And so, I offer one more biography of resilience; one that demands stricter scrutiny.

Example #4.  Aung San Suu Kyi is the State Counsellor of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.  This is a position akin to Prime Minister.  She is the youngest daughter of Aung San, father of the nation of Burma, who was assassinated in 1947 when Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old. Aung San Suu Kyi attended school abroad, including Oxford, married and had two children. She lived in London for two decades before returning home in 1988 to care for her ailing mother.  It was then that she was courted as an inspiring leader by the opposition to the ruling military junta.  Her platform was informed by Ghandi’s devotion to nonviolence and she worked for democratization.  In 1990, her party won a huge majority of seats in the parliament, but the military refused to hand over power.  Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years, separated from her husband and children who remained in England.  She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. While in captivity, Aung San Suu Kyi deepened her faith and her Buddhist practices.  In 1997, with her husband receiving a diagnosis of cancer, she was offered the opportunity to visit him but her subsequent return to Burma was likely to be blocked.  She never saw her husband again before he died in 1999.

For Aung San Suu Kyi, house arrest was meaningful, as it served the purpose of reminding the world that the ruling Junta was damaging Burma and extinguishing freedom.  In 1995 during a break in her house arrest, she spoke to a women’s conference in Beijing with the following words: “genuine tolerance requires an active effort to try to understand the point of view of others; it implies broad-mindedness and vision, as well as confidence in one’s own ability to meet new challenges without resorting to intransigence or violence.” Without resorting to intransigence or violence.

After her release in 2010 she ascended through political ranks to her current leadership role of Prime Minister.  In this sense, she has much in common with Nelson Mandela.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a story of resilience. And one would hope a story of responsibility as well. Her dedication to her country was extraordinary.  Yet, as a leader, however, she is described as harsh, cold-blooded, and extremely partisan. Aung San Suu Kyi has come under fierce criticism for her intransigence and support of violence.

Myanmar is a country of some 135 ethnicities.  Sadly, armed conflict has been the norm for much of its modern history.  When taking office Aung San Suu Kyi declared that she would resolve the country’s ethnic struggles as she said, “Our country is thirsty for peace.”  Yet, some of the conflicts have intensified. Most urgently is the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim group of over half a million people of Burma. This summer, in response to attacks by a small group of Rohingya militants, the army began a program of ethnic cleansing. Villages are burning, mass rapes have occurred and families are being slaughtered.  As of this morning 0ver 500,000 are estimated to have fled across the border to Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has denied access to aid for the beleaguered Rohingya. She has refused to criticize the Army.  Aung San Suu Kyi denied there was a problem and accused others of faking the record to advance the interest of terrorists.

Some say that Aung San Suu Kyi has no choice but to avoid confrontation with the Army.  The Army still controls much of the government and country’s infrastructure.  But Aung San Suu Kyi rose to power on a platform of criticizing the military.

She has rebuffed discussion of human rights.  She has failed to confront xenophobia and anti-Muslim bias.  She shirked the yoke of responsibility for the slaughter of innocent people.

While one might say that Aung San Suu Kyi is resilient, her understanding of the corresponding notion of responsibility is in doubt.  And so there are now calls for her Nobel Peace Prize to be rescinded.

By these examples of people who pushed off the bottom and rose to meet their destiny we learn resilience is incomplete without responsibility.  While we may be fascinated by stories of survival, honor goes to those who transcend by living a life of responsibility to principles of spreading the very freedom and protection of life that they themselves were denied.

These are stories of people who have been physically enslaved. Most everyone has been enslaved in some way.  Perhaps not as literal or extreme as a prison cell. But there is enslavement as to an addiction.  Enslavement to a family member who is abusive.  Enslavement to a failed idea that led to the wrong career path.  Enslavement to an illness that interrupts life plans. In some way each of us has had our freedom compromised by factors or situations or people.  And for those who have a vision for their lives, for those who find purpose in their existence, for those who can dare to discover meaning in suffering, there is resilience.  The arc from slavery does not end at freedom but rather at responsibility.

Have you been solicited for one of those Cancer walks recently? People who have been imprisoned by cancer can move forward by becoming advocates for cancer research and form teams to walk in support of funding.  That’s resilience and responsibility.

Another example is the person who loses their child or spouse to gun violence.  They are prisoners of grief and enslaved by their sorrow.  Look at Carolyn McCarthy.  On December 7, 1993, her husband, Dennis, was killed, and her son, Kevin, was severely injured on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train when Colin Ferguson opened fire on passengers. McCarthy responded to the crime by launching a campaign for more stringent gun control that eventually propelled her to Congress in 1996. Pushing off bottom and soaring ever higher.

Resilient people have the potential to rebuild not only their lives but build a better world.  They choose to live a life of tikun olam – to repair the world.

Finally, Sheryl Sandberg, author of Option B, knows something about resilience.  After the sudden death of her young husband she wrote about pushing forward after a traumatic event. She wrote: “We need to build resilience together, rooted in religion, rooted in schools, rooted in our health care institutions.”  I would add one more.  We need to build resilience together rooted in our government.  And further, I would add that while we uphold separation of church and state institutionally, our leaders, be they politicians, or university deans or hospital administrators, should be informed by the religious principles that value freedom and the sanctity of life, each and every life, be it a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian.

On this Day of Atonement, we are suggesting that with resilience should come a-tune-ment. As you do the inner work, realign yourself with the world around you. Does an episode of adversity change your priorities or do you go back to being the person you were? With regret about our own behavior think about increasing empathy for others? Can you find meaning in your suffering that propels you to help others have a better life?

As we read the unetaneh tokef prayer tomorrow, we ponder “who will live and who will die?” How do you make meaning of the “who will die”?  Can you bounce off that place of enslavement that was your personal experience of adversity and push yourself higher so as to benefit others.

A formula we might employ is right there on the same page of the machzor.  Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah. With teshuvah – not just making atonement but repair, and tefillah, by refining our intention with a daily practice of noticing and speaking of God’s creation with reverence and commitment, and with tzedakah, bringing forth justice and righteousness into the world.

Free yourself from enslavement and free those enslaved by tyranny.

Unlock the yokes of oppression and accept the yoke of responsibility.

Push off the bottom, for your own sake but more-so for the sake of others in this world.

Be inspired by those who have suffered and reached ever higher.

A prologue:

McCain underwent surgery in July for a brain tumor that was later found to be a form of glioblastoma, the same type of cancer that took the life of his former Senate colleague Edward M. Kennedy in 2009. McCain says doctors have given him a “very poor prognosis” as he battles brain cancer.

McCain says he has “feelings sometimes of fear of what happens,” but counters that with gratitude for having lived “a great life.”

May the coming year be for each of you one that you can experience as a great life. May you transcend any challenge, pushing off the bottom and rising higher, for your own survival and for the benefit of others who are struggling too. And may each of our lives be an example of Jewish resilience, moving not merely from enslavement to freedom but from adversity to responsibility.  With commitment to change, with the regular practice of connecting ourselves to the Divine project of creating a better world, and with righteousness as our guiding star, let’s each do our share to make 5778 a better year than the one before.

Hurricanes, Floods, Earthquakes –

Nuclear Weapons, Famines in Africa

In 5777 we witnessed the stresses and shocks that come with a new reality.  What distinguishes today’s threats from those of the past are the escalating rate at which they are occurring, the role of man as antagonist and the growing interconnectedness of our planet.

Yet, our Federal Emergency Management Agency responded skillfully, international aid agencies demonstrated their preparedness, and international diplomacy has continued to keep nuclear war at bay.

Dispute huge economic disruptions, the stock market reached new highs in the second greatest bull market in history, real estate values continued to soar, and the unemployment rate is near historic lows.

Fears of energy shortages will be alleviated by new solar and wind energy technologies. Threats of viruses have been quickly met by the Center for Disease Control.

One might say that this modern world is resilient.

As individuals, we can’t control the next disruption or catastrophe.  As they say Man plans and God laughs. However, we can control how we respond to these challenges, how we absorb the shocks of our world, and how quickly we spring back after a blow. In other words, we can control how resilient our institutions, communities, and people are against these disruptions. We must avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.

I am not certain if Humans are born resilient – but we certainly learn, adapt, and improve upon our resilience. Yet, despite all we know about resilience, there is much more we have to do, share and learn to put in place resilience strategies and, importantly, connect those strategies across sectors to successfully recover from the current and unknowable future risks we face.

Building resilience is not the task of a single actor or a single sector, no matter how innovative or passionate. Rather, building resilience requires us to be more flexible, responsive and robust; to live as individuals and communities who have the core skills required to adapt and cope.

Building resilience is not a luxury — it is a 5778 century imperative. And Judaism has a role to play.

We begin our year with an exploration of resiliency within the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah. Here we have the story of two women under stressful situations. As we read their stories notice which elements of resilience they exhibit or lack.  Remember there is no one person or situation that fits a single definition of resilience.  But there are characteristics or traits of resilient people such as these.

Resilient people do not try to control their lives. They surrender to the flow of the wind. They adjust their sails and ride the next wave of their life.

Resilient people often have a moral compass or a set of guiding principles.

Resilient people often have faith bridging the space between promise and fulfillment.

Resilient people often have a sense of humor, which allows them to laugh at themselves.

Resilient people have social supports, community or family upon whom they can rely and in whom they have trust and who give them honest advice.

Resilient people feel a mission calling or a meaning in their life.

Resilient people are aware of their situation, their surroundings and their relationships.

Resilient people have problem solving skills, and take advantage of opportunities.

Resilient people understand that stressful situations don’t define them.  They accept that life isn’t perfect.

Resilient people are compassionate and are altruistic, who gain strength from helping others.

Resilient people know when to ask for help when needed.

Resilient people have a sense of gratitude, which frames if not contains their discomfort or frustration.

After the torah and haftorah reading, let’s have a discussion about what traits of resilience appear in the story or are lacking in the characters.

Resilience allows us to redefine our relationship with God.

As we read Torah it seems that Sarah has many of the indicia of resilience.  She has faith in God, she has a community upon which she can rely, she is empowered and decisive, and she has a sense of humor.

Hagar is the stranger, the ger.  She is without community, without support and without faith.  When no one person comes to help her find resilience, it is the Angel of God that helps her to lift up her eyes, to see the well of water. Lifting up her eyes is more than seeing, just as that water is more than merely the sustenance she needs for life.  Seeing that well of water gives Hagar the encouragement to also be resilient, to have faith and to move forward. And her son, Ishmael, too will survive and thrive and will be the father of a nation.

May we all have faith in something greater than ourselves, and find the support we need in loving family and friends.  May we find the resilience in this coming year to meet whatever challenges life brings to us and to be of support to others in their efforts to confront adversity, hardship and illness.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame