Sunday, October 23, 2011

Leaving the Ark

This week we read the story of Noah and the deluge. This is one of the Torah’s best-known tales. It is the subject of countless children’s books and songs, and with its colorful rainbow and menagerie of animals, it is a favorite of illustrators as well. I will admit I have always found this a bit odd, since it is also one of our tradition’s most troubling stories—in which God, to be blunt, commits genocide. The destruction of every living thing on earth is pretty much the opposite of cute.

One would think that after many months in tight closed quarters with a bunch of animals, Noah and his family would be eager to leave the ark as soon as the flood waters recede. But according to the Midrash, this is not the case. God must actually command Noah to leave, insisting: “Go out—leave the ark—you and your wife and your sons and your sons’ wives with you.” Noah is inclined to tarry in this big, smelly sealed wooden box; he only departs after God insists.

Why this reluctance? Some of the commentators suggest that Noah is afraid his descendants will again defile God’s newly-created world and bring another flood upon themselves. In other words, Noah is paralyzed by his fear of what the future may bring. Others propose that Noah has simply become accustomed to his admittedly unpleasant and yet comfortably familiar surroundings. For him, the terror of the unknown—the re-established world outside the ark—is more powerful than the desire to escape his difficult current situation.

So often we, too, find ourselves in these circumstances. Change is frightening. We choose the devil we ” know rather than setting off into the wilderness that we don’t.

But sometimes we simply must go forward. God—or fate, or circumstances, or life—knocks on the portal, as it were, and tells us that we have to come out, move ahead, and face the unknown. This is the way we grow. A new world cannot be born until Noah emerges, despite his fear. So, too, for us. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for the ark—“tevah”—also means a casket. To remain in that closed, familiar world is, essentially, to choose stagnancy and death over life.

In this season of new beginnings, may we find the strength, faith, and courage to leave our “arks.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Oh Mercy (Kol Nidre 5772)

Many years ago, my family gave me a memorable Father’s Day gift: a blue sweatshirt bearing the logo of the fictional “Maven University.” Just below the very official looking school seal is Maven U’s motto: “Opinion Over Knowledge!”

This is a classic Jewish gag, for there is something in our boisterous, Talmudic culture that underscores the humor. As the old saying goes, for every two Jews, there are at least three opinions. We are a people of pundits, a community of culture critics, with strong views on virtually everything. If ever you doubt this, just attend a Jewish meeting—any Jewish meeting—from the Israeli Knesset to the CABI board.

The sweatshirt still makes me laugh. It reminds me of the countless times that I have expounded on trivial matters about which I know astonishingly little. But just behind my amused smile lurks the disconcerting knowledge that the joke is really on me. When they chose this gift, my family knew me all too well.

Broaching strong opinions and making quick judgments is not always wrong; in some contexts it is absolutely critical. The ability to evaluate people and situations is one of our greatest, God-given gifts, essential to our wellbeing. We are constantly required to assess our surroundings, and to act on those assessments; our capacity to make such judgments is at the heart of being human. Torah recognizes this from the start, when our mythical forebears Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As I envision the scene, they began forming and expressing opinions the moment they ate from the fruit—“Hmm. . . a little bitter, no?”—and we mavens have not stopped since.

However, on this day of moral and spiritual accounting, I must confess that I have acted far too often on the basis of “opinion over knowledge.” I have come to see my tendency to judge others as a personal failing. While this attitude may have roots in our Jewish culture, it more frequently emerges out of deep-seated fears and insecurities. Rabbi Harold Schulweiss suggests that one of our tradition’s most essential words is efsher meaning “maybe,” because it enables us to state our perspective with humility while recognizing the legitimacy of differing approaches. Efsher—maybe—is all about suspending judgment, suppressing certainties, and mustering the ego strength to open ourselves to views other than our own.

For many of us, that efsher does not come easily. We act as if our opinions represent absolute, unchanging truths when, far more often, they reflect our entirely subjective personal preferences. The fact that others dress or recreate or eat or even vote differently does not entitle us to cast aspersions on them. And yet we do—and yet, I have—all the time, because passing judgment over other people is so much easier than conceding that their perspectives are as legitimate as our own. To genuinely listen to those with whom we disagree is to take a risk, to show our vulnerability—and this requires courage. As Jack Kornfeld and Christine Feldman note in their book, Soul Food:

“Judgment is the refuge and the weapon of self-righteousness and fear. We bolster a sense of superiority by dwelling upon the weaknesses of others. We defend our own sense of right through highlighting the imperfections of others. Our judgments are [frequently] the visible expression of our disconnection and separation from others, from our own hearts. They arise from fear, and are a breeding ground of pain, alienation and division.”

Alas, so often we fall prey to our self-righteousness and fear. We yield to the temptation to judge, too hastily, too harshly, and too often. And every time we do, we become more and more like Lionel Bengelsdorf, the pompous rabbi in Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America. As Roth brilliantly describes him: “He knows everything. Too bad he doesn’t know anything else.”

Rabbi Bengelsdorf would make an excellent dean at Maven University. Thankfully, most of us do not approach his level of arrogance, but we, too, pay a price when we raise opinion over knowledge. We cannot find contentment until we learn to suspend judgment. When our haste to judge deafens us to the diverse views of those around us, we harm our selves and our relationships in at least three important ways.


First, our judgmentalism makes us hypocrites. Perhaps God is virtuous enough to judge others without discrediting Herself, but the rest of us are not. As Rabbi Joseph Telushkin notes, “One reason many of us have a higher regard for our own character than that of others is that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their acts, especially those acts we find annoying.” I am certainly guilty of this transgression. To cite just one example: For my entire life, I have preached the importance of wearing bicycle helmets to my children, pointing out and disparaging helmetless riders to them. Imagine, then, how I felt when I found myself sitting on the back of a motorcycle weaving through the frenzied streets of Pokhara, Nepal in monsoon rains—without a helmet! Now, I was the guilty party! I still don’t think riding helmetless is a good idea. But I try to be gentler in my assessment of those who do it, affording them the benefit of the doubt and keeping my opinions to myself. If we wish to avoid the sin of gross hypocrisy, we should take to heart the wise words of Rebbe Wolf of Strikov: “Remember that you are not as good as you think you are, and the world is not as bad as you think it is.”


Judging makes us hypocrites. It also warps our worldview. In our over eagerness to pass judgment, we often isolate ourselves. As the Catholic priest and philosopher Henri Nouwen teaches, “Compassion cannot co-exist with judgment, because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, that prevents us from really being with the other.” Father Nouwen’s premise is so straightforward, though admittedly much harder to practice than to preach: when we judge our fellow men and women, we separate ourselves from them. The very act of evaluating them and their character transforms them from potential peers and partners into objects. To love another human being is to open oneself to him, to embrace her as she is, in all of her imperfect humanity. To judge another is, by contrast, to reduce him to a bundle of disparate parts and qualities, which we appraise to our advantage from a cool and comfortable distance. Judging throws up barriers. Loving tears them down. Judging is, in other words, the opposite of loving. Or, as a local church billboard recently warned: “Husbands, if you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.”

An old Irish folk tale succinctly demonstrates how harsh judgment distorts our vision. It tells of a man who suspected his neighbor’s son of stealing his missing axe. The man seethed every time he saw the boy, who dressed like a thief, walked like a thief, and talked like a thief. Then one day the man found the long-lost axe in the back corner of his tool shed. Of course the next time he ran into the neighbor boy, the man was amazed to see that in fact he dressed, walked, and talked just like any other young person.

How often our judgments pervert our perceptions and wreak havoc on our relationships! Our desire to be right so often comes at the expense of our happiness, for our rightness demands that others—even those we seek to love—be in the wrong. We grow in contentment and mentschlekheit when we learn to value compassion over criticism and humble wisdom over the maven’s arrogant expertise.


Finally, our impulse to judge others can serve as a crutch, a convenient distraction from the hard work of introspection, accounting, and will that we must take on in order to improve ourselves. It is easy to complain about Congress and the president, the Democrats or the Republicans, liberals or conservatives—though sometimes, God knows, they all deserve the criticism. It is harder, and far more praiseworthy, to actually do something about injustice. But even the honorable and essential activism that goes beyond words and challenges oppression can become tainted if it distracts us from addressing our personal failings. This is not to say that we should refrain from the mitzvah of healing our broken world; it is to suggest that we seek a balance in this work, reserving the time and energy required to conduct a thorough moral accounting of our selves. Before we condemn even the very real flaws of others, we should first tackle our own shortcomings.

This is the lesson of the pious Indian woman who came to Mahatma Gandhi and asked if he would speak with her son about eating too much sugar. Gandhi replied, “Wait one week, and then bring the boy to me.” After seven days had passed, she showed up with the child and Gandhi implored him, “My son, you must stop eating sugar.” Awed by the presence of the renowned Hindu holy man, the boy immediately did as he was told. A month later, the woman came back to Gandhi to offer her thanks. After expressing her deep gratitude, she inquired: “Tell me, why did you ask me to wait a week before bringing the boy to you?” To which Gandhi responded: “Because when you first came to see me, I, too, was eating too much sugar. I could not, in good faith, tell him to stop until I had done so myself.” So, too, should our social justice work begin at home. Before we judge others, we should strive for integrity in our own life choices.


The corrosive effects of judging too harshly and hastily are well illustrated in the classic tale of two Buddhists monks walking together on pilgrimage. One day they came upon a beautiful woman, sobbing by the bank of a raging river. She said she was afraid of drowning and asked if they would help her cross to the other side. Without saying a word, the older monk hoisted the woman up on his shoulders, carried her across the stream, then gently set her down. She thanked him and went on her way, and the two monks resumed their journey in silence.

For the next few hours, the older monk walked in perfect equanimity, enjoying the beautiful countryside, while the younger grew bitter and distracted. Finally, he could no longer could keep his silence and burst out, "How could you have done such a thing? We have taken vows of chastity. It is forbidden to even talk to a woman let alone touch one."

The older monk looked at the younger with a sad but loving smile and replied, "Brother, I set her down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?"

Like the young monk, we frequently set ourselves as the arbiters of good and bad, right and wrong. We bear the weight of our compulsions to judge, and they distort our vision, stunt our relationships, and degrade our capacity for empathy and love—yet, we, too, find it so very hard to set them down. Again and again, we succumb to our desire to be right, to claim the truth as our own and judge others by it. The great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai illustrates the danger of this very human tendency in his poem, Ha-makom sh’bo anu tzod-kim—In The Place Where We Are Right”. Listen to his words:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.


Our challenge is to leave “the place where we are right” for the world of doubts and loves and sacred whispers. As we prepare for this journey, it is important to note that we will sometimes return to where we began, for judgments and strong opinions have their rightful place. Life would be almost impossible without the ability to assess and evaluate our surroundings and the other people who populate them.

On a societal level, too, judgment is indispensible. Without judging, there is no prophetic voice, no call for social justice, no imperative to repair our broken world. Tikkun Olam begins when we see bigotry and oppression, and proclaim, in both words and deeds, “This is wrong; it must not stand!” From Moses to Martin Luther King to a new generation of activists working for economic and environmental justice even as we speak, people have always turned their judgments and opinions into action—fortified by the belief that they are fighting for what is right.

In other words, both the vicissitudes of every day life and the core principles of Jewish social ethics demand that we sometimes enter that barren land where no flowers grow, that “place where we are right.” And so we may experience a kind of creative tension, tugged between the sometimes-legitimate need to judge and the dangers of doing so. As the writer E.B. White so humorously put it, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it very hard to plan the day.”

So how do we live in this tension? How do we both improve and enjoy this broken and beautiful world that God has given us? Proper balance and perspective helps. While there is a time to judge and a time to refrain from judging, most of us tend to err on the side of judging too much. Our challenge in this new year is to focus our efforts on suspending judgment and being circumspect in expressing our opinions, particularly on matters we know little about. Maimonides offers a helpful analogy here. He notes that in order to straighten a bent reed, it is not enough to set it upright. One must, instead, bend it far to the other side and hold it there awhile, after which it will return to equilibrium. So, too, for us: if we who judge too hastily wish to break ourselves of this habit, we should start by going out of our way to avoid passing judgment whenever we can. And on those relatively infrequent occasions when we must still enter that “place where we are right” we should minimize our sojourn there, then return without further ado to the non-judgmental world of flowers and doubts and whispers.

Above all, when we are compelled to judge, we should do so generously, affording others the same benefit of the doubt that we would ask of them. In the Talmud’s words: “Dan et kol adam b’kaf z’chut—Judge everyone with the presumption of innocence.” When a person or incident can be viewed in multiple ways, we can make a conscientious effort to choose the interpretation that yields the most favorable assessment. Recognizing that this can be very difficult, we might follow the example of the great Hasidic Rebbe Elimelech of Lizhensk who began each day by praying: “May I see the good traits of others and not their defects.”


On this most sacred Yom Kippur day, time and again our liturgy pleads with God to leave the heavenly Seat of Judgment and to occupy, instead, the Throne of Kindness and Compassion. In this traditional imagery, we implore divine mercy because we know that in a world of strict judgment, we would all be found wanting. And so we ask God to be gracious to us, to suspend judgment, to hear us out and love us as we are, with all of our human imperfections.

My friends, tomorrow afternoon we will read in Torah: “K’doshim t’hiyuYou shall be holy, for I, the Eternal, your God, am holy.” This is our sacred calling: to strive for godliness. We should not, therefore, ask of God anything that we do not ourselves aspire towards. We who seek mercy must be merciful. We who plead for compassion must be compassionate. And we who ask that judgment be suspended on our behalf must ourselves suspend judgment on behalf of others.

And then. . .

. . . a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

The Rabbi's Tale--Response by Melissa Waylan

She looked at the expectant faces before her. The Rabbi found herself uncertain what to do next. As she stood there, frozen, her congregation became worried, “Rabbi?” they asked. “Rabbi? Are you okay?”, “Rabbi, what do you have?” Rabbi? “Why are we here?” “Rabbi?” “Rabbi?” RabbiRabbiRabbiRabbi.. the word echoed in her ears, becoming all she could hear...

A tug on her sleeve broke her reverie “Rabbi, What does it mean?” asked a small girl.

Then she knew exactly what she needed to do. She was a Rabbi. Rabbi. Teacher. Rabbi’s Teach. So she would teach. As Eijah taught her, so she would teach them.

She told them of her dreams, of the door and of it’s locks. She told them about the keys and the paths she walked to acquire each one. As she spoke the people didn’t just hear her words they shared her experiences. They too marched and sang and demanded in shrill and insistent voices the progress and transformation achieved by the Firebrands of their past. Standing beside them as they celebrated their triumphs and wept for their failures. Then they visited all the sacred places of their tradition starting with the tents of Abraham & Sarah and on through Rashi’s vineyard and into the new world seeing the continuous thread woven through history binding and recreating the Jewish people over and over again, with a different face, but always the same heart. Finally, they found themselves wandering the Sinai, the woods of medieval Poland, the streets of modern Jerusalem. At times they were alone. Other times they were surrounded by people they did not know. Often with empty hands but occasionally with a map in a language they could not read. Always feeling a little lost and a little found.

As she taught them each key in turn began to crumble in her hand. Slowly the copper key turned to ash, the water key to rust, and the gold key just faded away until each one was gone completely and her hands were empty.

When she finished she invited the congregation to come forward and open the doors together. They were confused, “With what? You had the keys and now they are gone. How can we open the door now?”

“The keys are not gone.” the Rabbi replied, “You have them now.” Surprised, each person searched their pockets and found they did, indeed, have all three keys.

“But what about you, Rabbi?” asked a concerned young man, “How will you open the locks?”

The Rabbi smiled a confident smile, “I will rely on you to take me with you into whatever future we find behind that door.” With that she gestured them forward.

As they approached the door with their keys the locks slid open in unison. As the great door swung open before them they were blinded by a great glare. It made them stumble back even tho they were at once eager and afraid of what might await them.

In a short time their vision adjusted and they saw the great light was nothing more than the sun, set high in the sky, on a bright spring day. Spread out before them was not the promised land, but their own town, their own country, their own world as they had left it. Full of the beauty and blight, kindness and chaos, hope and despair that define every day life.

Crestfallen, they turned to the Rabbi for an answer. “You said the beyond the door we would find Torah. But we only see before us the world, as it is today.”

“Yes.” explained the Rabbi. “Torah is not for a perfect place full of perfect people. Torah is for this world and for us as we are today. Now, go into the world with Torah and find your way.”

With no other option, the slightly disgruntled congregation went back to their lives. Lives which turned out to be not quite the same as when they left. Or rather, the world was exactly the same, but the people themselves were different. For they found as they went through their day to day lives occasionally they could feel the weight of those keys again. That reassuring tug reminding them they and their people carried the Torah with them where ever they went.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Head, the Hand, and the Heart

RH Morning 5772: The Head, the Hand, and the Heart

Over the course of my lifetime, I have attended a lot of graduations. As a student myself, then as a brother, a rabbi, a friend and a parent, I have listened to countless commencement addresses offered by a host of local dignitaries. Yet truth be told, with one exception, I can not remember a single significant detail from any of them. All of these speeches have been forgettable, including a couple that I only vaguely recall delivering myself. Graduation talks tend to offer tedious, clichéd formalities that only serve to delay the main event.

But oh, that one exception! I have contemplated it often since I first heard it almost fifteen years ago, and I continue to glean new insights every time I return to its wisdom.

Neither the school nor the speaker was famous. The speech got no coverage on CNN or NPR, or for that matter, Boise’s News Channel Seven. Although certainly deserving, it is not included in any anthologies of “Best Commencement Addresses of 1997.” Mine was the only Jewish family present for the event, and yet the words that defined it might have been drawn straight out of Jewish tradition—even though their author was Basque. The speaker was Miss Patti, the occasion: my daughter Tanya’s kindergarten graduation from Montessori House for Children. And her talk was entitled, “The Head, The Heart, and the Hand.”

With simple eloquence that masterfully moved both the six year olds and their proud parents, siblings, and grandparents, Miss Patti challenged us all to live well-balanced lives. She drew on Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education, with its holistic blend of intellect, emotion, and action.

“Use your heads,” she urged. Reflect on your past experience, plan for the future, develop self-awareness. Think about your choices and their consequences. This is the way we change and grow.

“Cherish your hearts,” she added. Cultivate kindness and compassion. Nurture your spirit. Acknowledge your full range of feelings and emotions. This is how we open ourselves to one another, and to the countless gifts the world offers every day, if we are receptive to its love and generous in returning it.

“And put your hands to work,” she concluded. Translate your thoughts and feelings and words into positive actions. Make a difference. Be quick to help others. Repair what is broken. Fix what is unfair. Create beauty.

That is why we are here and how we should live: by head and heart and hand.

I recall this speech every year when we chant Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer that is, perhaps, most emblematic of these Days of Awe. Little did Miss Patti know that her advice to her young charges and their families would always carry, for me, echoes of the most shattering, death-haunted poetry of the High Holy Day liturgy.

We’ve heard the terrifying and transformative words of Unetaneh Tokef earlier this morning. Were you paying attention? Their thunderous, raw language sounds a most disturbing wake up call:

Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day, for it is full of awe and dread. . .

You are Judge and Arbiter—You open the Book of Life and we pass like sheep beneath Your staff. . . as You consider and calculate, record and recount our every deed. . . and in so doing, decree the fate of every living thing:

Who shall live and who shall die. . .

Who by fire and who by water. . .

Who by hunger and who by thirst. . .

Who by strangling and who by stoning,. . .

Who will be tranquil and who will be troubled. . .

This chilling litany marks the chasm between Divine power and human frailty. It is, of course, metaphorical. God is not really a shepherd, we are not sheep, and the Book of Life is, as we would say, a virtual one. But the imagery relentlessly drives home the poet’s point: our lives are utterly fragile, and our fates are largely determined by forces infinitely greater than our selves.

And then comes the kicker, the phrase upon which the entire poem pivots:

U-teshuvah, u-tefillah, u-tzedakah ma’avirin et ro-ah ha-g’zerah

Repentance, prayer and charity temper the severity of the decree.

What does this line mean? What does it come to teach us?

One could take it as a promise of Divine reward for good behavior. According to this interpretation, sincere repentance, heartfelt prayer, and generous giving essentially buy us life, health, and prosperity. In other words, if we are virtuous enough, God will judge us favorably, enabling us to avert the decree for another year.

But such a reading does not hold.

To begin with, it is obvious that no one escapes the final judgment. No matter how radically we repent, how truly we pray, and how munificently we give, we will all perish. Pain and sorrow afflict every one of us; the only question is not “if” but how and when. The decree is irrevocable, issued, signed, and sealed at birth. And, alas, it is often anything but fair. Over the course of this new year, 5772, some of us will fall sick, many will endure difficult losses, and a few of us will die. That is not divine punishment; it is the way of flesh and blood.

To put it in the bluntest of terms: almost nothing we do, for good or for evil, will change the decree. There is no simple correlation between morality and mortality. To insist that doing mitzvot will assure long life and abundance—or that sinning will bring distress and death—is to deceive oneself. As the poet Mary Oliver puts it:

Above the modest house and the palace—the same darkness.

Above the evil man and the just, the same stars.

Above the child who will recover and the child who will

not recover, the same energies roll forward,

from one tragedy to the next and from one foolishness to the next.

Even worse, the illusory calculus of divine reward and punishment insinuates that those who suffer are themselves to blame for their unfortunate fate. The notion that God dishes out blessing and retribution according to our merits is therefore shortsighted at best, and, at worst, insulting. Our destinies are much more complicated, mysterious, and paradoxical than can be expressed in such falsely pious formulas. By any reasonable human reckoning, life is not fair—and while, repentance, prayer and charity are certainly virtues, they do not alter that fundamental reality.

Of course we are not the first generation to recognize this inequity. Life’s unfairness is not exactly breaking news. Our Talmudic sages lived in times and places steeped in much more death and disaster than our own. Women routinely died in childbirth. Many children never reached adulthood. Plague and pestilence decimated communities. Rabbis were tortured and killed for the crime of teaching Torah. And so our Sages struggled, at least as much as we do, to make sense of a world in which inexplicable afflictions strike down virtuous women, men, and children, while the depraved and merciless escaped unscathed.

The history of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer reflects the Rabbis’ wrestling with this age-old quandary. Five hundred years before Amnon of Mayence is said to have composed the words that we recited this morning, the Jerusalem Talmud offered an earlier version teaching that “repentance, prayer, and charity m’vatlin—abrogate or tear up—the decree.” But this first draft did not make the cut. Our revision shifts the verb from m’vatlin to ma’avirin—from abrogate to mitigate. This modification changes everything. With it, the Rabbis reject the illusion that doing good ensures a long and happy life. They concede: the decree stands, regardless of the merit of our deeds.

And yet. . . our deeds matter. While our choices cannot shield us from sorrow, they can temper our suffering and ease our passage. Repentance, prayer and charity won’t cure a disease or restore a loved one but they may attract people who console us in our grief, and thereby restore a sense of community, meaning, and peace. Nothing can stave away sadness and loss—but we can all find purpose and possibility in the portion that, for better and for worse, is ours. In the end, we cannot change the decree. But we retain the power to choose life and blessing in the days allotted us.

In other words, Unetaneh Tokef reminds us, oftentimes we do not create our circumstances. But we decide how to respond to them—and the choices that we make define who we are and what we will become.

Who shall live and who shall die? Each and every one of us. The challenge is to make the most of the unknown parcel of precious time we are allotted, to live each fleeting hour with awareness, intention, and integrity. For in truth, some people are as good as gone even as they go through the motions of walking this earth, while others remain vitally alive even while confined to their deathbeds. The wisdom of Unetaneh Tokef cannot rescue us from illness or death, but it can teach us to number our days, and live well—lest we die spiritually while we are still here.

Which brings me back to Miss Patti and her sage advice to the young graduates of Montessori House for Children. Although she did not know it, her categories of head, heart, and hand correspond beautifully to teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, the three activities that ease the decree’s severity.

Teshuvah is all about the head. It is the way of self-awareness, the radical notion that by focusing mind and will, we can improve ourselves, rise above our faults, and amend our failings. In the words of Rabbi Sharon Brous, teshuvah is the promise that: “You don’t have to be a static, stagnant being, dwelling in the mistakes of years past. You can affirm that life is dynamic and people change.” The process begins with a serious spiritual accounting, in which we weigh the consequences of our choices, good and bad. From there, we ask forgiveness from those we have hurt and grant it to those who have hurt us. And then comes hardest part of all: mustering and maintaining the mental discipline to stay on course from this new year to the next. It is difficult and demanding work, but the reward is great—for if we wish to be truly alive until we die, we must use our heads, to make teshuvah, to live the carefully and constantly examined life, to apply God’s gift of conscience and mind, to question, reflect, hope, and grow.

Tefillah is the language of the heart. It is the path of compassion and kindness, the power of emotion that gives the spirit wings. The truest prayer is our awe-filled silence when the world’s beauty takes our breath away. Tefillah is all that makes us sing and soar: candles, music, meditation, art, nature, relationship. It is about living and embracing mystery, about moving forward on faith when we are weary and cannot otherwise discern the way. Whenever we truly open our hearts, what they utter is a kind of prayer. Tefillah is the love that conquers loneliness; it is the heart’s miraculous capacity to both give and receive the comfort of community as we reach toward God and one another. This, too, is difficult work, and risky, for whenever we extend our hearts, we risk having them broken. But again, the reward is great—for if we wish to be truly alive until we die, we must, indeed, dare to open our hearts, to raise up our tefillah, our prayer, to receive and bless the countless gifts the world extends every day, and lovingly offer ourselves in return.

Tzedakah is the work of the hand. It is ethics in action, the way of renewal and repair. While much in life is inequitable and out of our control, tzedakah reminds us that our hands can make the world a little fairer. For Jews, this is not an option but an obligation. We must share our resources and give of ourselves. Tzedakah means standing hand in hand with our fellow citizens, living lightly on the earth, caring for the environment, fighting oppression, and recognizing that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Tzedakah is how we embody our Jewish values in the marketplace of daily life. Let us put our hands to healing, here in our local community, our state and nation, and in Israel, our Jewish homeland. As Talmud teaches, we need not complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it—for if we wish to be truly alive until we die, we must use our hands, to perform the sacred labor of tzedakah, to fix what is broken and sow seeds of justice and liberation.

On this first morning of the New Year, let us, then, affirm our holy calling, according to both Miss Patti and Rabbi Amnon of Mayence: teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah, the head, the heart, and the hand. For knowing that we will all die, our challenge is to live fully, here and now, embracing intellect, emotion, and action.

I conclude with the final paragraph of Ian Frazier’s wonderful memoir, Family. As the book draws to a close, he is sitting at his mother’s deathbed. Feeling the weight of her mortality—and his own—he recognizes in that sad and sacred moment what we live for. He writes:

Sooner or later I would die—I understood that now, clearly, the way you suddenly become aware of the sky and the diving board after the person in front of you has jumped—and my kids perhaps would see me off as I had seen my parents off, or perhaps not. And soon all the people who had accompanied me through life would be gone, too, and then even the people who had known us, and no one would remain on earth who had ever seen us, and those descended from us perhaps would know stories about us, perhaps once in a while they would pass by buildings where we had lived and they would mention that we had lived there. And then the stories would fade, and our graves would go untended, and the graves of those who had tended ours would go untended, and no one would guess what it had been like to wake before dawn in our breath-warmed bedrooms as the radiators clanked and our wives and husbands and children slept. And we would move from the nearer regions of the dead who are remembered into the farther regions of the forgotten, and on past those, into a space as white and big as the sky replicated forever. And all that would remain would be the love bravely expressed, and the moment when you danced and your heart danced with you.

Ken y’hi ratzon.