Saturday, September 18, 2010

Walking the Turtle (Kol Nidre 5771)

Kol Nidre 5771: “Walking the Turtle”

Introduction: Silence as an Endangered Species

As our already frenetic world gets ever faster and louder, we are rapidly losing our last bastions of stillness. No one knows this better than acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, who has spent over thirty years crossing the continent with a portable sound meter, taking the sonic pulse of America. He is searching for quiet, for places devoid of human noise, where the only sounds are those of wind and waves, rustling leaves, bugling elk and whistling birds, the songs of streams and the drip-drip-drip of melting snow. But the silence he seeks is quickly becoming an endangered species. Even our precious national parks are suffering from increasing noise pollution, from cars and snowmobiles and airplanes passing overhead. There are now only a dozen places left in the lower forty- eight states where one can listen for fifteen minutes or more without being disturbed by man-made noise.

The World is Too Much With Us

I suspect that this sad fact comes as little surprise to most of us, for we are experiencing similar losses in our personal lives, which are becoming noisier and more frenzied at a truly alarming rate. We are awash in a deluge of email and internet, texts and tweets and twitters, i-pods, smart phones, apps and X-boxes, big screens and microchips. We are Bluetoothed, surround-sounded, unremittingly linked in and logged on. It is hard to even remember when spam was a treif lunch meat, a web was something spun by a spider, a blackberry was a fruit, and a friend was a person who you actually knew and spent time with. We have a bad collective case of TMI, Too Much Information, delivered on demand by an omnipresent media that frequently fails to distinguish between the significant and the trivial, or even between truth and rumor—all at a pace and volume that we cannot possibly take in. We are, in short, bombarded by a relentless, cacophonous din, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

It is enough to give anyone a headache, and slowly but surely, we are coming to realize that this torrent of technology exacts a toll. Although the science is still young, and far from conclusive, many researchers now suggest that our constantly wired world is re-routing our brains in some deleterious ways. How, exactly, this is happening, and whether these effects are permanent remains unclear, but one thing is certain: for all of the very real benefits of the new technologies, which can miraculously connect us to billions of other people all over the globe, there is a cost. Tools designed to save time leave us busier than ever. We are forfeiting the precious moments we once used to reflect on our choices, as our attention spans grow shorter and our craving for nonstop stimulation more intense. Rehab centers are filling up with internet addicts who struggle to tear themselves away from their computers and hand-held devices even to eat and sleep. They represent extreme cases, but there are many moments when we catch glimpses of such addiction in our behavior. Who among us has never felt the compulsion to check our email every ten minutes, or stayed on the cell phone while behind the wheel, when we knew we should be directing our full focus on our driving. Meanwhile, studies now show that as we accumulate ever more Facebook friends, we lose close confidants. Here, as in so much of life, more is not better. The more people we know casually, on line, the lonelier we get. Real intimacy demands things that texting and email cannot convey: patience, sensitivity, devotion, and awareness of subtle shifts in mood and tone.

Alas, paradoxically, our mad rush for efficiency doesn’t even make us more efficient. To the contrary: research indicates that when we multi-task, we believe that we are increasing our productivity, but are mostly fooling ourselves. With too much multi-tasking, we only end up doing a lot of different things badly, while experiencing profound stress and exhaustion along the way. William Wordsworth’s lament of two centuries ago rings with ever greater urgency: “The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

Reading Cereal Boxes

And yet. . . as easy as it is to point to technology as the catalyst for our frenetic lives, to do so would be to confuse a symptom with the root cause. Our cutting edge toys certainly exacerbate the problem, but they did not produce it. They are, after all, our own inventions, which spring from, and reflect, our desires. Our noisy, high-speed, wired world mirrors our interior landscapes at least as much as it shapes them. We create our environment in our own likeness; if it is defined by its harsh volume and relentless pace, this is largely because we, ourselves, tend to be acutely uncomfortable with silence and stillness. Too much quiet unnerves us, and we are all adept at filling the void with distractions, even if, in the absence of technology, we pack it with our own cavalcade of trivial thoughts.

Jon Kabat Zinn describes this experience in his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. He writes: The impulse frequently arises in me to squeeze another this or that into each moment. . . That impulse would have me eat breakfast with my eyes riveted to the cereal box, reading for the hundredth time the dietary value of the contents. . . this impulse doesn’t care what it feeds on, as long as it’s feeding. The newspaper is an even better draw, or the LL Bean catalogue. . . It scavenges to fill time, conspires with my mind to keep me unconscious, just enough to fill or overfill my belly while I actually miss breakfast.

We have all been there, staring at that cereal box, our minds desperate for diversions, for any excuse to steer away from stillness. I experience this every fall on my annual retreat to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Logically, it makes no sense. The monastery is the quietest place I know, located sixteen miles off the nearest road at the mouth of a towering red rock canyon. And that’s the whole point—I go there for the silence, which the monks guard zealously. And yet, immediately upon my arrival, my mind kicks into high gear and I start compiling lists of things to do, books to read, essays to write, and ideas to contemplate. This is invariably how I spend my first two days on retreat: ceaselessly striving to be “productive.” Only after considerable time passes, usually by the morning of the third day, am I able to step back, calm my hyper-active mind, and enjoy the quiet.

When it comes to creating distractions, we are all geniuses. Indeed, our brains are so devious that they can even employ otherwise praiseworthy ideas and activities to disrupt reflective silence. A few months ago, I spent an entire prayer session in my study obsessing over the placement of my tefillin, which, for some reason, just didn’t feel right that morning. Laying tefillin usually enriches my spiritual life, as a physical reminder to focus on my prayers, but that day, my tefillin were the cereal box diverting me from quiet mindfulness.

Why does this happen? Why the constant temptation to use whatever we have on hand—even sacred objects and activities—to generate noise when what we really need is stillness? Why, for we who call ourselves human beings, does doing come so much easier than being?

The Roots of Our Fear: The Denial of Death

The Dutch-born Catholic priest and professor Henri Nouwen suggests that our discomfort with silence is rooted in fear. In his anthology, The Only Necessary Thing, he writes:

As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. . . In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses, and rejections. This chaos can be so frightening and disturbing that we can hardly wait to get busy again, to run to our friends, our work, and other distractions.

Like Father Nouwen, I believe that a great deal of fear lurks just beneath the surface of our frenetic lives. We use our technology—and our chores and lists and reading of cereal boxes and even our friendships—to mask the painful thoughts that would otherwise bubble up from our inner lives. We run from stillness because it lifts the veil that hides our deepest, darkest anxieties.

Rabbi Alan Lew expresses this powerfully in his book about these Days of Awe, This Is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. Echoing Henri Nouwen, and the anthropologist Ernest Becker, Rabbi Lew argues that our obsession with keeping busy is at heart a denial of death—which is, in the end, both futile and destructive:

Against death, which we see as the ultimate emptiness, we offer up the acquisition of objects.

Against death, which we see as the end of all feeling, we offer up the pursuit of pleasure.

Against death, which we see as the final stillness, we offer up a ceaseless rage of activity.

Consequently, we’ve become a nation of workaholics, a people who have come to believe that we can conquer death by dint of our own powers, by a ceaseless swirl of activities. To rest is to die, so we never permit ourselves a moment’s rest, a moment’s quiet.

But in the process we give up our souls, for in spite of our constant effort, there is failure and death all around us. We try not to see it, but the psychic squint we have to make in order to do this reduces everything in the line of sight; not just the void we are trying to ignore. And this squinting requires a tremendous expenditure of energy, energy we desperately need. It never works anyway. Sooner or later we will find ourselves tied to a chair under the bare bulb of the truth.

The Still, Small Voice

As Father Nouwen and Rabbi Lew both teach us, our existential anxiety is intense, and our desire to throw up distractions to evade it is powerful. The culture of avoidance that we have so carefully constructed conspires against our higher calling to confront our fear. Yet if we choose that default option and steer clear of stillness and reflection, we do, indeed, sacrifice our souls and deaden ourselves to the things that matter most. The signature prayer of these Days of Awe, Unetaneh Tokef, proclaims: “The great shofar is sounded, a still, small voice is heard.” The origins of this phrase lie in a passage from the book of First Kings. The prophet Elijah is on the run, hiding in a cave, when God pays him a visit. As it is written, “God passed by and a mighty wind split the mountains—but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake—but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire—but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still, small voice.” These holy days remind us that God is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire or even in the shofar blast. Holiness does not dwell amidst the sound and the fury; it reveals itself subtly in the calm that follows, when the noise dies down. The still, small voice continues to speak to us, everywhere and always. But most of the time, we do not hear it because our world is too loud and we are moving too quickly.

Perhaps that is why the watchword of our faith is Shema—Listen! This is our Jewish mission: to be still, to listen to one another, to our own better angels, and to hear in them the whispering voice of the Holy One. The Pslamist declares, “Be still and know that I am God.” The corollary to his teaching is both obvious and difficult: until we learn to embrace the silence, God remains out of reach.

Stillness, Restored

So how and where do we start to restore stillness to our lives? As Hillel taught, “If not now, when?” If ever there was a day to begin making space for quiet reflection, this is it. Virtually everything we do on Yom Kippur—the fasting, the long hours of prayer, the white shroud-like garments that remind us of our mortality—the whole package is about facing our fear of death and failure head on. There is always the danger of using the words of the liturgy as a distraction from doing this soul work, for like my tefillin, the prayer book can used to this unfortunate purpose when we obsess over its minutiae and their correct performance. But when we maintain our focus on the lessons at the heart of this most sacred day, the traditional prayers and rituals support our introspection and our slow but steady turning in teshuvah.

Today is also Shabbat, which may be Judaism’s greatest gift to humankind. In our cacophonous, wired world, Shabbat’s call to set aside an entire day for rest and renewal is more radical than ever. Our tradition explains the basis for Shabbat with two different but complementary phrases. First, it is zicharon l’ma-aseh b’reishit—a reminder of the work of creation. The implication is clear: the world will not end if we unplug. Our fast-paced labors are not nearly as important as fool ourselves into thinking. If God, the Creator, can take a day off, we can, too. And second, Shabbat is zecher y’tziat mitzrayim—a remembrance of our leaving Egypt. Just as God liberated us from Egyptian bondage, so can we free ourselves from our self-imposed enslavement to our own high tech creations.

If this sounds overwhelming, think small. I know that no one here, including myself, is likely to become shomer shabbes—strictly, traditionally Shabbat-observant—next weekend. But I am suggesting that we draw on our tradition in incremental ways to instill our lives with Shabbat shalom—with real Shabbat peace and tranquility. Try keeping your computer or cell phone off for at least part of the day. Use the occasion to refrain from spending money, to take a break from our incessantly commercial culture. Instead of driving to the store, slow down and walk to the park with family or friends—and leave the I-pod and the earphones at home. No matter where we start, Shabbat can help us experience the counter-cultural power of Judaism’s core message.

Then, just as the spices at havdallah carry the sweet fragrance of Shabbat into the rest of the week, so, too, can we infuse our working days with Shabbat moments. Let’s set aside some specific times and places as technology-free. We can limit the intervals for checking email, shut down our phones when we get in the car, keep our computers and other devices away from our dinner tables. When we commit ourselves to such small but significant practices, we carve out opportunities to rest and reflect, to stop doing and start being. And when we enter those portable sanctuaries in space and time, we can engage in the opposite of multi-tasking, which is mindfulness, the art of performing the humblest of tasks with rapt, full attention. Pet the dog. Play the flute. Peel an orange. Wash the dishes. What matters is not the content of the task at hand but that we do it with all of our hearts and souls It all comes down to being fully present in the moment, telling ourselves, “This is it.” As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us, gateways to holiness are everywhere. Wherever you go, there you are.

Other Voices, Born of Light

And what do we do when our old fears intrude upon our hard-won moments of stillness and reflection, as they are so wont to do? We muster all of our faith and courage and wait them out. As Henri Nouwen reminds us, if we face our fears with patience and purpose, they, too, can teach us, and eventually, they make way for better, brighter possibilities:

If we have the discipline to stay put and not let those dark voices intimidate us, they gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of the light.

These voices speak of peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, joy, hope, forgiveness, and most of all, love. They might at first seem small and insignificant, and we may have a hard time trusting them. However, they are very persistent and they will grow stronger if we keep listening. They come from a very deep place and from very far. They have been speaking to us since before we were born, and they reveal to us that there is no darkness in the One who sent us into the world, only light.

In short, our challenge is to endure, to sit with the darkness and despair without running away or yielding to the distractions—and in so doing, through the stillness, transform ourselves.

Conclusion: Walking the Turtle

Gordon Hempton travels the world in search of silence; fortunately, we need not go so far. As much as we need the special wild and quiet places that he is helping to preserve, we can find the ordinary, every day stillness that we require in our own back yards. All we have to do is unplug, slow down, and listen attentively.

In his moving memoir, The Counsel of Dads, Bruce Feiler tells the story of the flaneur, a new type of pedestrian that took to the streets of Paris in the 1840s. The flaneur’s calling was to amble through parks and arcades as slowly as possible, observing every detail. Their destination was not a place but a state of mind, defined by quiet reflection. To help them in their quest, each flaneur would take a turtle on his walk—and let the reptile set the pace.

On this Yom Kippur, this sacred Shabbat, I pray that we find ways to walk with turtles in the coming months. In this new year, 5771, may we draw on the wisdom of our tradition and our own courage and resolution to restore our souls through the blessing of stillness. And in so doing, may we hear, again, the beautiful whispers of God.

I conclude with the words of Pablo Neruda, from his poem, “Keeping Quiet”:

Keeping Quiet

And now we will count to twelve and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines,
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Now I'll count up to twelve,
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mosques and Synagogues

This piece, which was published in the Idaho Statesman on September 11, 2010, was co-written with my friend Dr. Said Ahmed Zaid, of the Islamic Center of Idaho

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, Americans, for the most part, drew together with a sense of common purpose. We realized that the aim of the terrorists who perpetrated this evil was to use the ultimate weapon—fear—to divide, and thereby weaken, our nation, and we denied them that victory. Accounts of this brutal attack duly noted that Jews and Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, and Hindus and non-believers were all among the victims, and people of all faiths heroically guided and assisted one another amidst the rubble. To his great credit, President Bush adamantly refused to cast aspersions on America’s Islamic community. He asserted unequivocally, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. Islam is a religion of peace.” In this spirit, all across our nation, we gathered to listen and learn from one another. It was during this season of both grief and unity that the two of us writing this article first met. Then, as now, we did not agree on all of the great issues of the day. But we recognized one another as neighbors and began to forge a friendship that has continued to grow and deepen over the passing years.

Alas, nearly a decade later, an ill wind of anger and intolerance threatens to unravel America’s social fabric and thereby deliver the terrorists a belated victory. We are both deeply troubled by those who would diminish our nation’s precious legacy of religious liberty by blocking the construction of an Islamic Center and mosque two blocks north of Ground Zero. Like Rabbi David Ellenson, writing in the Washington Post, we believe that while visceral feelings around this tragically sacred site are understandable, “to refuse to allow this project to go forward would suggest that all Muslims are terrorists or covert supporters of terrorism, and that an Islamic House of God cannot preach and practice divinely inspired values of justice, freedom and human dignity for all races and religions. This is patently un-American and should not be tolerated.” We are distressed by cynical and opportunistic politicians and media outlets that are using this controversy to fan the flames of xenophobia and bigotry. It is imperative that we do not allow their demagogic statements to go unchallenged, or to poison our own communities.

Our founders came to the new world in search of religious liberty, and established this nation on a foundation of hope. In their wisdom, they enshrined freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights that defines the mission of America. Many of our people—Jews and Muslims—came to these shores because of that promise of religious liberty, and many have died to defend it. We therefore feel called to speak out when that defining national virtue is threatened. Once we start to circumscribe one group’s free religious expression on the basis of “not in my backyard,” we risk losing that freedom everywhere.

At the root of our current national unrest lies a great deal of fear and insecurity. We live, in many ways, in troubled times. But let us take note: rage and bitterness cannot assuage our fears by scapegoating an entire group that is part and parcel of our national fabric. The only way to move past them is to acknowledge and address them, honestly and openly, and in so doing, cultivate fear’s opposite: courage and faith. We desperately need real faith, not the narrow-minded triumphalism that would deny to other religious communities the rights and privileges we claim for our own, but the generous spirit at the heart of every great religious community which teaches that we are all equally children of the Merciful One.

And so, standing together as Muslim and Jew, we say plainly and unambiguously: build the mosque. And build synagogues and churches and ashrams and temples and meditation halls and humanist gathering places. Build them all, houses of worship of every faith and creed. And then recognize that it is only after they are built that the real work begins—the sacred labor of inviting one another into our respective homes and sharing our traditions. As we build sanctuaries, let us also build bridges, listening to and learning from one another.

The great Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open? Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking.” May the citizens of Boise and beyond lead by example, moving from fear to faith, and from angry divisiveness to the unity that we call shalom and salaam and peace.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

“After these Things. . .”—Testing, Fear, and Failure (A Late Love Letter)

In the end, we all failed. Although our love was great, our fear proved even stronger. Driven by anxiety, we tried the trust of those we held most dear. Today, with the benefit of almost four thousand years of hindsight, it seems obvious: once the testing started, failure was inevitable.

But at the time, it didn’t feel that way. Despite our advanced ages, we were deeply insecure and unprepared to overcome or even recognize our limitations. Beneath his heroic exterior, my husband Abraham, the world’s first Jew and legendary father of nations was riddled with doubt over whether he was worthy of God’s election and love. Behind my laughter at bearing a child at ninety years old lay a lifetime of fear: where would we wind up, following a calling from a God who demanded so much of us in exchange for something so vague and unrealized—the long delayed promise of a land for our posterity. At thirty-seven, Isaac, the miraculous son of our old age was not yet even a man in earnest. And truth be told, God Herself always struck me as a nervous wreck. After twenty long human generations and one genocidal flood’s worth of experience—that whole disaster with Noah—it turned out She still had a lot to learn.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Our tragic endings were no foregone conclusion; they did not ordain the course of our lives. We made our own choices as we proceeded along our shared journey—some shrewd, some foolish, and everything in between. Yes, there was plenty of pain, but we were also blessed with extraordinary moments of beauty, hope, and contentment. And even though, ultimately, Abraham and God and I all succumbed to our fears, our collective story may yet prove redemptive—if you, my children, take it to heart and learn from our mistakes, which still seem to plague so many of you. So come, sit awhile with me, your foremother Sarah. Listen as I share my tale, which is yours as well, for if you are courageous, faithful, and wise enough, you may yet re-write the ending.


In the beginning, in our beginning, we were young and adventurous and desperately in love. Abraham—or Avram, as he was still known back then—and I were powerfully drawn to one another from the moment we met at the local watering hole. As we got to know one another better, we came to see that, as is so often the case, our mutual attraction sprang from a common history. We shared a lot. For starters, it turned out that we were cousins, which was, back in our day, reason enough to get married. But more importantly, we recognized in one another significant parts of ourselves. We were both iconoclasts, at odds with our more traditional families. Avram was strong and outspoken, and unlike most of his peers, he possessed enough self-confidence to be comfortable with a woman who shared those traits. When most men sought wives to be maids and mothers, he wanted a partner, which suited me perfectly. And we both felt the pull of the open road. We never really fit in with the crowd in Haran, and as the years went by, as we remained childless, our lack of offspring rendered us shameful to our own kin. For all of these reasons, and a few other little personal ones, we tired of our ancestral country and its hide-bound allegiance to the old ways. Like many of our descendents—like many of you—we were eager to leave our birthplace, to make a new start, to strike out for a life of our own making.

So I was more than willing to play my part when my husband informed me that God had told him that we must abandon our homeland and settle in the distant land of Canaan, which was, at the time, a provincial backwater. I was so thrilled to hear the news, I didn’t even ask him about who this “God” character was, or when and where he had started speaking with her; I had no idea, then, of how prominent a role she would come to play in our relationship. All I knew is that I wanted out, and this seemed as good a reason to go as any. I would later come to regret my lack of curiosity, to wish that we had discussed this decision as we had the rest of our life choices up until this point, talking openly and in detail about the move and God’s role in it. But in the moment, I mustered provisions, gathered the livestock, prepared our team of hired hands, and said farewell to friends and family.

The trip itself went off without a hitch. The weather was perfect, our flocks enjoyed abundant pasturelands along the way, highwaymen and vicious beats left us alone, and our entire clan made excellent time. When we arrived in Canaan, we marveled at our safe passage, and at the beauty of the land, which, to our surprise, flowed with milk and honey. We pitched our tents, settled down, prospered, and shared our blessings with our new neighbors.

It was, in short, an idyll, quite wonderful while it lasted, and to our great fortune, it lasted for many years. We became wealthy, acquired a large entourage, forged new friendships, and made a good name for ourselves. Abraham and I achieved all of this together. Our partnership felt unbreakable and our household overflowed with love.


Even now, with centuries of hindsight, I cannot identify exactly when things started to change. There was no such single moment in time, no one initial breach of trust, no defining act of betrayal that eventually brought us down. The shift occurred so gradually we could not see it happening; it was as if an underground spring of suspicious waters eroded away the solid rock of our love’s foundation, at a rate imperceptible to the human eye. Somehow, with the passage of time and a dose of benign neglect, we unknowingly empowered our separate fears rather than our shared hopes. Abraham started spending longer and longer hours with his God, which left increasingly little time for me. He said nothing, but I felt his growing impatience with my requests for his companionship. And the more he left my by myself, the more I came to brood over—and resent—our childlessness. In my deepening loneliness, with middle age encroaching on both of us, I pined for a son or daughter. But I found myself paralyzed by my fear, unable to confide this longing to my husband—just as he could not bring himself to share with me his longing for God. And so, instead of trusting in the love that had always sustained us, we began to test it.


Finally, after many years of slow, incremental deterioration, our partnership began to visibly unravel. I knew we were in trouble when my husband asked me to leave home again, to travel with him to the land of Egypt. My sense of foreboding proved well-founded as we approached the border, when he shocked me with an appalling request. Worried that some powerful Egyptian would desire me and murder him in order to take me as his wife, Abraham asked me to engage in a high-stakes game of deception: “Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well on your account and my life will be spared because of you.”

I could not believe these words coming from my husband’s mouth; as I heard them, my stomach sank and I was overwhelmed by nausea and loathing. He was asking me—telling me—to lie, to sacrifice myself, my body, my heart, my integrity, for his personal gain. I wanted to scream: “If Egypt is that awful, that dangerous and morally bankrupt, why do you ask me to accompany you there? If you must go down to Egypt to forage for food, go by yourself!” But I could see the fear written on his face. He was terrified, and in his terror, he was testing me. Our years of subtle but costly drifting apart had brought us to this wretched place. Now he was too afraid to open a heart-to-heart conversation with me, and I met his fear with my own.

Through his silence, I could hear the test. In words unspoken, he pressed me: “If you love me, you will descend and deceive for me, in Egypt’s dark and narrow land.” And in my silence, I answered, “Yes, I will go.”

So as you know, as Torah tells, I went, and thereby passed his test. But even as I passed, I grieved, and wept alone in my alien room for our fraying, failing love.


Eventually, we came home to Canaan. I dried my tears. Life went on. We enjoyed prosperity and endured famine, fought wars and established peace. To the outside world, Abraham and I remained model partners and, indeed, we had much to be thankful for. But in private, we continued to try one another in countless small ways, and the silence and neglect born of our fears fed our lingering resentments.

I bear my share of responsibility for that. I let my long-standing anger and anxiety get the better of me when I exacted my own trial. “Abraham,” I grumbled, “For all the time that God demands of you, She sure doesn’t offer much in return. If She’s so great, why can’t She give us a child? You keep telling me that She has promised this, but we’re getting old and I’m thinking She’s all talk and no action. Maybe She’s jealous and wants to keep all of your love for Herself.” Then, before he could respond, I laid out a test for him, by way of a request: “Take my handmaid, Hagar, and bear me a child with her.” He hesitated and as he absorbed my proposal, I recognized the fear in his eyes. I knew that I had said enough. He read my unspoken thoughts with painful clarity: “If you love me, you will do whatever it takes to provide me with a child.” And in his frightened silence, I easily deciphered his pained reply of “Yes.”

Nine moths later, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, who I raised as my son. Then, against all odds, I became pregnant and bore my own child, Isaac. The more I loved him, flesh of my own flesh, the more loathsome both Hagar and Ishmael became to me. Finally I tested my husband again, demanding that he cast them out. Again, he said nothing. But again, he complied with my request. And again, in posing and passing that test, we both really failed, for our testing only eroded the trust that it purported to prove. Our sorrow and silence deepened, the rift between us became a chasm, and our long-suffering love was dealt a mortal blow. Once again, we turned away from one another. Fatefully, I turned toward Isaac and Abraham turned to God. And so we set the stage for our tragic final act.


Alas, I was right: God was well-intentioned but every bit as insecure as we were. This may be hard for you to comprehend all these years later, after centuries of philosophers and theologians insisting that she is all-knowing and all-powerful. But if She was omniscient and omnipotent, She would have recognized my husband’s unbounded love for Her and trusted rather than doubting it. She not have needed to unleash that awful trial that shattered us all.

No, God was neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. She proved Herself to be, tragically, just like us, the frail creatures that She created in Her image: fearful and jealous for Abraham’s affections. Even after a lifetime of my husband’s loyalty, Her insecurity drove Her to test his love. And so, in the twilight of our lives, at nightfall, she came to Abraham with that terrible last request: “Take your son, your only one, who you love, and sacrifice him on the mountain that I will show you.”

You know the rest of the story. You have just retold it this morning, as you do every year on Rosh Hashanah. It is now as much a part of your shared history as it is my own.

No one said a word. Abraham, who had confronted God so bravely when She told him of Her plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, silently acquiesced to Her unimaginable trial. Isaac bore the wood upon which he would be his own burnt offering, then lay soundless and motionless as his father laid the knife’s cold steel upon his throat. God, too, was silent. At the last minute, She sent a messenger to stop the slaughter, but She, Herself, said nothing. As for me—well, in their separate silences, God and my husband and my son all conspired to keep me in the dark. I did not know a thing about the whole unspeakable affair until after it was over and done.

Torah teaches that we passed the test. Superficially, I suppose that is true: we all did what was asked of us. But as I lamented when I began, at a deeper and more enduring level, we all failed. Our fear proved stronger than our love. Once the testing started, our failure was inevitable, for when we test the ones we love, we do so out of fear and lack of faith in them. We can never prove ourselves enough. We should have trusted rather than tested one another.

Torah tells us this, too, as it presents the heartbreaking aftermath of the last trial. After that fateful hour on Mount Moriah, Abraham came home alone. He and Isaac never met again. He and God never shared another word. My son spent the rest of his life in a kind of perpetual dusk, strangely passive, half-blind, and incapable of decisive action, rarely speaking with God at all. Me? The midrash recounts my distressing end. When Abraham finally returned to me, unaccompanied, pale and forlorn, he told me in a trembling whisper all that had transpired. I tried to take in his words. I looked desperately, pleading, one last time, into his grieving eyes, then surrendered my soul to the Angel of Death. And though you were not born at the time, you continue to know the steep price of our trial. As the poet Haim Gouri has written, we bequeathed that hour to you, our offspring. Your heritage includes our fear and our difficulties in speaking of it, our dangerous temptation to test one another, our struggles, in difficult times, to trust in the power of our love. You are born with a knife in your hearts.


Alas, over the centuries, our story has been re-experienced and retold in countless variations, but always to the same sad ends. It is the subject of drama, poetry, and prose, fables and fairy tales. You know it from the Princess and the Pea, and Othello and Desdemona. Talmudic commentaries offer another version, the tragic tale of Rabbi Meir and his brilliant wife, Bruriah. Doubting her love, he devised a test, and sent one of his students to seduce her. When, after many frustrated attempts, the student finally succeeded in undermining Bruriah’s faithfulness, she committed suicide out of shame and Rabbi Meir went into life-long exile. So many trials, so many tears. Over three millennia of so much suffering, so much like my own. When will you, my descendents, come to see that testing only breaks the love that it purports to prove?


And yet I have not lost faith in you, my children. As I listen to you share our story here again today, I feel a rebirth of hope, for history need not be destiny. Look, for example, to God Herself, for in the wake of our tragedy, She learned from Her mistakes and grew in wisdom, trust, and forbearance. She continued to reach out to humankind, and as She matured, Her love became unconditional, unbound by jealous and circumstance as it had been with us. Yes, She still got angry at times, at Rebecca and Jacob and Moses and Miriam and David and all the prophets, poets, preachers, princes, and myriad ordinary people who followed. But She no longer allowed her rage to compel her to try the ones she loved. Occasionally, as with Job, She slipped up, and to this day, she still makes some serious mistakes. But what matters more is that She continues to grow in Her every encounter with you, Her beloved partners in creation. And in so doing, She urges you to do the same.

Yes, like Abraham and me, you will all endure troubled times. Your relationships, like ours, will wax and wane over the years. You will all suffer through prolonged dry spells, when you will be sorely tempted to succumb to your fears.

But you need not give in to that temptation. Where we were silent, you can speak, honestly and tenderly with one another. As hard as it is, you can acknowledge and address your fears, and in so doing, deny them the source of their power, for they thrive in silence and darkness, but wither in the daylight of open conversation. When you are lonely and afraid, instead of subjecting the people you love to the kinds of small trials we impose all the time, and which they cannot possibly pass, reach out to them. Instead of assuming they know your feelings, share them. Instead of expecting your loved ones to automatically give you want and need, ask them. Instead of letting your anger simmer against friends and family, tell them what angers and upsets you. Give the ones you love a chance: love them first and let them love you back. Respond to others’ failings with forgiveness. And when insecurity and mistrust raise their ugly heads, as they inevitably will, to try to seduce you into testing your family and friends, know that the only real test is the one that rests up on your own shoulders. It consists of just this: mustering your courage to reach out and share your hearts and souls, more than ever, through the doubt and despair. For that is what it means to love unconditionally. And the ultimate lesson of my own journey is that any love which is less than unconditional is, in the end, no love at all. This is the way you take the knife out of your own heart.


In just a few moments, as your service draws to a close, you will recall our trial one final time, with the sounding of the shofar. The raw cry of the ram’s horn brings it all back, the testing and the struggle and the unfiltered pain, for the shofar’s voice echoes my own. Indeed, the Rabbis teach that the shattered staccato notes of t’ruah correspond to the three times I wailed in grief upon hearing of that last trial, just before I died.

But that staccato t’ruah is not the end of the shofar’s sounding. We conclude with a single long blast, tekiah g’dolah. Its proud, unbroken sound is a clarion call to wholeness, hope, and healing. As its notes fill the room, listen, and know that it is in your power to transform our pain and suffering into something redemptive. “Choose love and trust”, the shofar cries, and in so doing, re-write our story. Be faithful, courageous, and wise, my children, and you will have passed the only test that really matters. The shofar calls you to live and to love, unconditionally and without fear. Now listen, for me, and follow its call.

Rosh hashanah evening sermon

This is Just to Say: The Perils and Possibilities of Apology

Rosh Hashanah Evening 5771

Introduction: When “I’m sorry” Isn’t

It is customary for many Jews, during this High Holy Day season, to offer friends and acquaintances a formulaic statement of apology: “I am sorry for anything I may have said or done that hurt or offended you. Please forgive me.”

In past years, when tendered such requests, I have responded in kind: “And for any pain and offense that I have caused you, I, too, am sorry.”

But tonight I wish to inform you that I will no longer extend this reply. After serious reflection, I have come to believe that this kind of prescribed contrition—at least when taken at face value—falls far short of a genuine apology and is therefore not in keeping with core Jewish values. I recognize that I am as guilty here as anyone, but I am also confident that we can all do so much better.

Indeed, I now see this ritualistic exchange as a classic example of the apology that does not really apologize. Sadly, we have all experienced this phenomenon, because we humans are so very good at inadequate apologies. How could we fail to master this depressing skill? We learn so early, from the first time our aggrieved parents insist that we apologize to a friend or sibling, and we storm out, with gritted teeth, angrily grunting, “I’m sorry. . .”

If we aspire to something higher, to master the art of real repentance, we must acknowledge how challenging it is to apologize thoughtfully and honestly. On this Rosh Hashanah eve, on the cusp of these Days of Awe, when we seek the path of true teshuvah--of sincerely regretting, confessing, and transforming our poor behavior—we might begin by examining what constitutes a genuine apology and what fails to make the grade.

“This is Just to Say”—“Apology” without Regret

Last year, the radio program, “This American Life” dedicated an entire show to “apologies that aren’t.” The last segment opened with the reporter, Sean Cole, sharing a famous poem by William Carlos Williams. As the story goes, Williams originally wrote it as a note to his wife, which he left taped to the refrigerator door. It reads:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in

the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

What a classic ersatz apology! The writer knows full well that his wife was saving those plums, yet immediately after a perfunctory request for forgiveness, he rubs salt into the wound by boasting of how much he enjoyed them. This outrageous chutzpah has helped make “This is Just to Say” one of the most parodied bits of American prose. It almost dares the reader to come up with ever more absurd non-apologies, and the radio show concluded with some very witty examples. To share just one, by the poet Kenneth Koch:

This is Just to Say

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer

I am sorry but it was morning, and I had nothing to do

and its wooden beams were so inviting

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg

Forgive me. I was clumsy and

I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor

Such amusing, over-the-top satire invites our laughter. But just beneath the surface of the humor, it also evokes an uneasy familiarity. We recognize ourselves as the real butts of this joke. For who among us has not offered, in a slightly less ridiculous manner, just such a hollow apology, with no real feeling of regret?

I’m Sorry You are Mad at Me—A Cornucopia of Bad Apologies

And this is only one mode of failed apologies. Alas, we contrive so many ways to express our contrition badly. Writer Alina Tugend critiques a few in a piece she wrote for the New York Times. She reminds us that anything beginning with “I want to apologize” is no more an apology than “I want to lose weight” is a loss of weight. Statements like “I’m sorry that you are upset,” or “It’s too bad that you feel that way” are even worse. Their sorrow is feigned. Instead of demonstrating real remorse on the part of the speaker, they patronizingly imply that the injured party is just too sensitive. When we lament to those we’ve hurt: “I’m agonizing about this. I’ve been losing sleep, I feel so bad,” we insinuate to the wronged party that they are guilty of causing us distress.

What are some of the other hallmarks of inadequate or insincere apologies? My colleague, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, offers a helpful compendium. One sure sign is the use of the passive voice, the eternal fallback of scandal-ridden politicians, failed generals, and corrupt CEOs. This is the source of that most ubiquitous—and insidious—of all non-apologies, the classic three word cop out: “Mistakes were made.” As if the speaker had nothing to do with those mistakes, and no responsibility for their consequences! We shudder when we hear such statements coming from the mouths of BP executives, and yet we so often offer much the same to the friends, family, and co-workers who suffer the brunt of our own misdeeds.

Our words of regret also fall short when they minimize the offense or conclude with efforts of self-justification. You know, in the end, this wasn’t such a big deal; still, I’m sorry” is not really sorry. And any request for forgiveness with a but or even though at its center is more about ego than contrition. “I apologize even though I didn’t do it on purpose. . . I had a hard day” does not pass mustard. Nor do vague and incomplete admissions of offenses. In order to be effective, apologies need to be concrete. They must acknowledge specific misdeeds and the pain they caused rather than vaguely referencing general misbehavior. This is why the traditional formula, with which I began this evening—“I apologize for anything I might have said or done”—fails the true teshuvah test. Such generalizations let us to absolve ourselves without really confronting the damage that we have done; they relieve us of the hard but necessary labor of reflecting on what we are really sorry about. To apologize, generically, for everything is, in the end, to apologize for nothing.

The Medium Matters

In making amends, the words we choose create a world of difference. The way that we deliver those words also matters deeply. As any parent knows all too well, the measure of sincerity in “I’m sorry” often lies in the speaker’s tone. Even the best acting can rarely mask disingenuous intentions for very long. And the importance of tone points to the inadequacy of cyber apologies. When showing remorse, it is usually best to speak face to face, to confess one’s misdeeds directly to the offended party. When an expression of regret requires more reflective time and perspective, an old-fashioned, carefully crafted letter of apology can be very effective. And in making amends long distance, sometimes the best that we can do is to talk by telephone. But when we use e-mail and text messaging to say “I’m sorry” we betray a kind of moral laziness or cowardice. If we hurt another person, we owe them our full presence when we ask for their forgiveness.

The Bottom Line: A Failure to Accept Responsibility

This is, no doubt, just a small sample of the manifold ways we contrive to apologize without really apologizing. But in the end, the same root cause underlies all of these misguided approaches. Each is, in its own way, just another expression of our ultimate failure to accept responsibility for our faults. The sincerity of our contrition is always measured by the extent to which we acknowledge and own our sins. This requires insight, courage, and conviction. Without these things, true teshuvah is simply not possible. But with them, when are reflective, open and honest, we can slowly but surely transform ourselves.

The Way Begins with Sincere Words

So how do we begin to apologize well, and then translate our words into consistent and concrete actions? In her article, Alina Tugend concludes: “A good apology always has the same essentials. These include an acknowledgment of the fault or offense, regret and responsibility for it — and, if possible, a way to fix the problem.”

The great medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, elaborates on this theme in his monumental code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah. He notes that the process of teshuvah commences with a vidui, a verbal confession—so that one’s inward resolution is given outward, public expression. “Even when we brought sacrifices for our sins,” he reminds us, “back in the days of the Great Temple, the sacrifices did not atone for the sins unless we made a verbal confession of them. And he adds, “To make such a verbal confession without sincerely committing to change our hearts and our deeds is like going into the ritual bath with an unclean animal in one’s hand.” Just as we can’t be purified while holding fast to impurity, an apology that is not heart-felt and translated into action is worse than a waste of time. (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:9-10)

Deeds Must Follow

In short, the way begins with words. Intention is not enough; as Talmud teaches, “D’varim sh’b’lev, aynam d’varim—thoughts in the heart—unarticulated words—are as if they do not exist.” Teshuvah starts with an expression of contrition offered out loud, directly to those we have offended, in a manner that acknowledges our transgressions clearly, concretely, and without excuses. This, alone, is no easy task. But even when well chosen and courageously spoken, words are not enough. They are only a beginning. The final ingredient of an effective apology, which is both the hardest and the most important, is the follow through. After we sincerely express our remorse, it is incumbent upon us to do everything in our power to make restitution to those we have hurt and then embrace the long term challenge of improving our behavior, repairing our faults, and healing what is broken in ourselves, our communities, and our battered but still beautiful world. Dorothy Kripke put it very well in her elegant children’s book, Let’s Talk About God:

God and friends and parents

Forgive wrong things we do

If we can say, “I’m sorry,”

And really mean it, too.

A strong, solid apology, in which the offending party accepts full responsibility for their transgressions, can open the process of true teshuvah. It is the first step toward restitution, reconciliation, and renewal. While words cannot undue the past, they can help transform the future. And when they set the course for a significant shift in action, when they pave the way for holy deeds, they change everything.

All Real Life is Meeting: A Story of Teshuvah

Consider this story from the life of Martin Buber, one of the greatest Jewish teachers and philosophers of the twentieth century. It is said that early in his teaching career, Buber would sit alone in his office for many hours each day, immersed in prayer and study. One morning, a student knocked on his door, seeking a meeting with the professor. Buber took a short break from his labors to talk with the young man. The student asked a few brief questions; the teacher listened—or so he thought—and offered a succinct response. The student thanked him for his time and left, and Martin Buber, feeling that all had gone well, returned to his work. The next day, Buber discovered that hours after leaving his office, the student had committed suicide.

This news threw Martin Buber into shock and despair. He closed his books, and sat silently, in deep grief and reflection. Over and over, he asked himself: What can a person offer to a fellow human being in need? After living with this question for many days, Buber finally arrived at the answer that would change his life. He realized that when someone who is suffering goes to another person for help, the sufferer seeks, above all, a caring and listening presence, through which he or she comes to understand that even when all feels lost, life has meaning.

With that insight, Buber’s entire spiritual orientation shifted. He realized that his calling—and ours, too—is to truly listen to others, to devote one’s full time and attention to really hearing people, to meeting them, heart and soul. He wrote and spoke publicly about his remorse over his student’s death, and the major theme of his magnum opus, I and Thou is that human life finds meaning in relationships, that we experience God most fully in encounters with one another. Buber’s failure with that one student, and the true expression of contrition that followed, led him to the essence of his later philosophy: “All real life is meeting.” Transformed by his regret and his commitment to learning from it, he strove to be fully available and present to whatever and whomever life brought his way. His experience awakened him to the cries and needs of all people, and of all God’s creation. Out of a single failure, which he honestly acknowledged, and for which he consistently called himself to account, his life became a remarkable model of giving.

Martin Buber’s story is, like the man himself, somewhat larger than life. Most of our personal tales of teshuvah are far less dramatic. Yet each of our sins and shortcomings, no matter how mundane, offers a potential portal to this same journey: from regret and remorse through restitution and re-dedication to renewal and, we pray, redemption. We, too, can transform ourselves, beginning with our failings. And the process of transformation starts when we accept responsibility for our failures with a strong, direct apology, offered with sincere contrition and a clear commitment to changing our ways.

Conclusion: Conversations and Commitments

This brings me back, full circle, to that formulaic request with which I began: I am sorry for anything I may have said or done that hurt or offended you. Please forgive me.” While, as I have noted, I think the vague, generic nature of these traditional words renders them ineffective as apology, I still believe that they possess one significant piece of redeeming value. Their virtue lies as an opening, a conversation starter, an invitation to engage in a deeper process that can move both parties toward real repentance and growth.

So please, feel free to approach me and offer those words, or something similar, during these Days of Awe; just don’t expect a quick and easy response. Instead, I will suggest: let’s take some time to sit and talk, to share our hurts and regrets. Let us look specifically at concrete instances in which one or both of us either intentionally or inadvertently wronged the other. And then let us think about ways to reconcile and move forward, stronger for having listened to and learned from one another. Let’s have these conversations, you and I, and let’s initiate them with our families and our friends and our community in this sacred season. Our tradition refers to the time between now and Yom Kippur as the Ten Days of Repentance. I encourage us all to make the most of this time by reflecting on our failures of the past year. Let us consider: What have I done to cause harm? What is my responsibility? As we conduct this personal accounting, let us be specific in citing our failures, and careful to avoid rationalizing or minimizing the choices that we have since come to regret. Then, before Yom Kippur arrives next week, let us make every effort to recognize at least one act of wrongdoing, one personal failure that caused unnecessary pain to someone close to us. May we muster the strength we need to acknowledge our failures verbally, in writing or in speech, to seek out those injured by our misdeeds, to apologize, and to make amends. If you are not ready to do this through direct engagement, then try writing a letter of apology. What matters most is that we accept our fair share of responsibility and open the conversation sincerely.

Tonight, we celebrate a new year, 5771. I pray that it will be one in which our faults and failings are diminished, our wise choices and acts of kindness ever increased. And when, as is inevitable, we do err in ways that create suffering for one another and for ourselves, may God help us to find the courage to apologize well, and the commitment to stay the course of reconciliation and renewal.

Ken y’hi ratzon