Monday, October 31, 2016

Make Yourself an Ark (Portion Noach)

Whenever people saw Noah occupying himself with the building of the ark—which took 120 years—they would ask: “Why are you building this boat?”  Noah would respond: “Because God is going to bring a flood upon the earth [unless you change your harmful ways].”

The people would respond: “What sort of flood?  If God sends a flood of fire, we know how to protect ourselves.  If it is a flood of waters, then if the waters bubble up from the earth, we will cover them with iron rods, and if they descend from above, we know a remedy against that, too.”
                                                  -Midrash Genesis Rabbah

Sometimes, to our detriment—or even our doom—we ignore what should be obvious warning signs.  In the midrash on this week’s Torah portion, Noach, Noah trys to warn his contemporaries about the coming deluge.  He builds the ark publicly, over a very long period of time, so that others might observe him and inquire about his efforts.  This works—they ask—but their response to his explanation is not what he expects.  When he tells them that God is preparing to wipe them out unless they repent, they insist they can thwart the floodwaters.  Instead of changing their behavior, they double down on it.  This deadly combination of arrogance and denial becomes the downfall of dor ha-mabul, the generation of the deluge.  Only Noah and his family will survive.

Alas, it seems we have not yet taken to heart the lesson of this Torah tale.  In the face of insurmountable scientific evidence of catastrophic climate change, our response so far looks stunningly similar to that of Noah’s contemporaries.  We deny the problem or arrogantly insist that we can use technology to overcome it.  Instead of examining and altering our misguided behavior at the root of the crisis, we either deny its existence or brazenly proclaim our faith in fanciful technological solutions. 

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught: Torah is not true because it actually happened, historically, as recorded; it is true in a deeper and more important sense—because it happens, in real time, to us.  The stories of Genesis—including Noah—have much to teach us, if we are willing to hear and contemplate the lessons they offer.  We need not repeat the errors of the flood generation—but time is running short, for us, as it did for them.  The hour is late, but disaster can still be averted if we summon the will. 

God tells Noah, “Aseh l’chah tevah.”  This is usually translated, in Torah, as “Make an ark for yourself.”  But the midrash reads it as simultaneously more literal and more metaphoric: “Make yourself an ark.”  By this interpretation, the Holy One is reminding us that each one of us can be a source of sanctuary and liberation.  May we speak—and act—on behalf of our little corner of the earth in this new year.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Justice and Mercy (Portion Bereshit)

As we begin a new Torah cycle, starting with Bereshit—“In the beginning”—I’m taking a new approach to this fall’s e-Torah.  Instead of focusing on a text taken directly from the portion, I’m going to share thoughts on a midrash—a rabbinic commentary—on the week’s parshah.  In our Jewish tradition, we believe that the Written Torah (Hebrew Scriptures) is inextricably bound with the Oral Torah—the corpus of commentary that continues to grow in our own time.  I invite you to join me here over the next few months as we journey through the lens of Oral Torah. 

This week’s passage comes from Louis Ginzberg’s anthology of Midrash, Legends of the Jews.  It suggests that the creation story detailed in Genesis does not constitute God’s first act of formation:

God made several worlds before ours, but ultimately destroyed them all, because God was not pleased with any of them until creating ours. But even this last world would have had no permanence, if God had executed the original Divine plan of ruling it according to the principle of strict justice. It was only after God realized that justice by itself would undermine the world that God tempered justice with mercy, and made them (justice and mercy) rule jointly.

This is an important message for us as we come to the end of our fall holy day season.  First of all, it points to the importance of second—and third and fourth—chances.   If even God went through a few drafts before successfully creating our world, then we, too, are naturally going to make our share of mistakes.  The important thing is to learn from them.  As Samuel Beckett famously wrote: “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

And second, the passage reminds us that a world governed by strict justice cannot endure.  Life is not entirely fair—and never will be.   If God judged us without mercy, none of us would pass the test.  So, too, in our appraisals of others—we should judge compassionately, otherwise we will quickly find ourselves friendless and alone.  As the old church billboard warns: “Husbands, if you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.”

This week we return to our origins, beginning, yet again, the cycle of Torah with the story of creation.  May it inspire us to be more compassionate toward one another.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Confessing Together—Always Room for One More (Yom Kippur Am 5777)

A Jewish girl goes to synagogue with her father for the first time on Yom Kippur.  She’s eight or nine years old, and takes it all in with great curiosity.  Much of it moves her.  She’s enthralled by the white vestments, the large, elegantly-dressed crowd, the haunting music.  And mostly she loves being there with her father, sitting by his side, his soft tallit draped over her shoulder. 

Then the congregation crises for vidui, the communal confession of their past year’s failings.  They rap on their chests and chant the litany: Ashamnu.  Bagadnu.  Dibarnu dofi. . . . Al cheyt, al cheyt, al cheyt. . . We are arrogant, bigoted, cynical.  We’re robbed, lied, cheated, and stolen. . . on and on and on.

The girl is shocked.  With a deeply worried look, she turns to her father and cries, “Daddy, we’d better get out of here.  Everyone around us has done a lot of really bad stuff!”

The father smiles and reassures her: “My love, they’re not all guilty of everything they’re admitting.  This is just something we do together on Yom Kippur.”

“But why?” she persists, as only an eight year old can.  “Why do we beat ourselves up over mean things we didn’t even do?”

It’s a good question, and not just for children.  Conservative Rabbi Mark Greenspan composed a meditation on the subject that opens:

            I have a problem with the Vidui,
            the confessional prayer that we recite
            several times during Yom Kippur.
            It seems to me that for a confession to be honest
            It has to be sincere, heartfelt, and personal.
            I can’t sincerely confess someone else’s sins
            Nor can I simply read a generic list of sins.
            Yet this is what we seem to do in the Yom Kippur liturgy.
            My transgressions may or may not appear on that list
            And there is something disingenuous about confessing
            Sins that I did not commit, just because
            They are “on the list” and written in the plural. . .
Why do we read this list of confessions?

Why, indeed?  Why do we still recite that litany of transgressions, from aleph to tav,
from “A” to “Z”, repeatedly over the course of this long and solemn day?
This morning I’d like to offer three answers, three approaches I have learned from diverse and unexpected sources: a non-Jewish journalist from Connecticut, a local Christian clergy colleague, and a deceased longtime CABI member who I find myself missing a great deal this season.


I’ll start with the Colin McEnroe, columnist for the Hartford Courant and  host of a daily public radio show.  I heard him on one of my favorite Jewish podcasts, “Unorthodox”, where he appeared as the tongue-in-cheek “Gentile of the Week.”   After schmoozing about a variety of topics, the moderator, Mark Oppenheimer, asked Mr. McEnroe for his take on Donald Trump’s rise to political stardom.  McEnroe replied:

His persona was sculpted in the world of reality television—and reality TV is completely based on the idea of getting rid of somebody.  At the end, whether it’s “American Idol” or “Survivor” or “The Apprentice”—what happens at the end is you get rid of somebody.  And that’s a kind of tempting view, because in life, you can almost never get rid of anybody, right?  The people in your life—they’re not going anywhere.  The folks in your workplace, the people you like the least—they’re just not going anywhere.  They will be there tomorrow when you come to work.  The folks who most get on your nerves—they’re here to stay. So that’s why these shows are incredibly popular, because there’s this incredible fantasy—you can actually get rid of someone who’s a pain in the butt.  That’s the world that Trump comes out of, this fantasy world, in which he’s the guy who can make this happen
This illusion perpetuated by reality television is, of course, the antithesis of Jewish tradition.  We are inextricably bound in covenantal community with friends and foes and everything in between.  As Yom Kippur begins, before we chant Kol Nidre, we ask God for permission to pray with the Avaryanim—the sinners—which is to say, all of us.  If you can’t tolerate being in the presence of those who irritate you, you won’t thrive in the Jewish world.  As one of Boise’s former student rabbis, Mordecai Finley wrote in an insightful article:

One must start any conflict resolution with the commitment to the community, to emphasize the many benefits one receives and not focus on winning the conflict.  Conflicts and tensions are inevitable and even productive aspects of communities.  Conflicts mean that the participants are active, dedicated and have a stake; and the willingness to be reasonably unhappy means that one takes a more expansive view of these things.

If you’re Jewish—or really, as Colin McEnroe notes, if you’re human—you don’t always get your way, because in our communal lives, we’re not getting rid of anyone.  When we confess publicly, we remind ourselves of our obligation to learn to live together.

My favorite teaching on this topic comes from Rabbi Harold Kushner’s marvelous book, When All You’ve Wanted Isn’t Enough.  Kushner recounts how, just before Yom Kippur, he runs into an unaffiliated Jew who insists on sharing why he won’t be coming to services: “I tried to get involved in your synagogue but I found it to be full of hypocrites.”

To which Rabbi Kushner is tempted to respond: “True.  But there’s always room for one more.”

Instead, he notes: “A synagogue that only admitted saints would be like a hospital that admitted only healthy people. It would be a lot easier to run, and a more pleasant place to be, but I’m not sure we’d be doing job we’re here to do.”

Jointly confessing our transgressions reminds us that there’s always room for one more—that, like it or not, we’re not getting rid of anyone, that we’re in it for the long haul, together.

It also encourages us to open our hearts to one another.  My colleague, Rev. Andrew Kukla, senior pastor at Boise’s First Presbyterian Church, shared this in a post to my Facebook page.  He wrote:

I think the current state of political and social discourse affirms why public and communal confession is so important.  It’s owning that none of us has “arrived”; that we are all struggling to find the “better angels of our nature”.  Such communal ownership has the power to make the discourse less about
finger-pointing at them and more about looking at ourselves.
A unified prayer of confession is our mutual task of accountability and responsibility, and yes—of mercy and forgiveness.  Because somehow and some way, we have to make it okay for people to be less than perfect, so we can stop investing so much energy in armor.

How might we take the energy we waste on emotional armor, pitting ourselves against the world, and, instead, invest it in our common humanity? Rev. Kukla suggests we start by acknowledging our shared vulnerability.  Communally confessing our shortcomings is a step in that direction—even if, at first, we’re merely following a formulaic script without much real feeling.  As our Sages noted centuries ago, Lo lishma ba lishma—If we practice doing the right thing, even if our initial motivation is insincere, eventually we will do it with proper intention.   Even a rote public confession can help us start to stretch our atrophied “forgiveness muscles.”  The Yom Kippur vidui may, over time, inspire us to examine our own choices, take responsibility for our failings, and make amends to those we’ve hurt.

It can also nurture gratitude.  I’ve already quoted Rabbi Mark Greenspan’s challenge to the notion of communal confession but he ultimately affirms the practice as a path to gratefulness.  He reminds us:  

We do not shrink from taking advantage of rewards for the efforts of others. The same person who sits in a building he did not build, cooled by air conditioning he neither created nor paid for, reading words he did not write, will protest indignantly at discomforts visited upon him by someone else's mistake. We see our blessings as birthrights and our troubles as undeserved.

Perhaps we confess in the plural to bring home to us that interconnectedness is true in all ways: in sin, in punishment--and in virtue and reward. We seek to be good not only for our own soul, but to help those around us. You may beat your own chest, but the vibrations echo through the breast of everyone whom you know, and many whom you will never meet. Swift and sure are the currents that tie us to one another.

Swift and sure are the currents that tie us to one another.

This affirmation of our interconnectedness is at the heart of my third and final argument in defense of our Yom Kippur vidui.  It involves a scientific breakthrough I learned about in detail this past summer in the podcast Radiolab—but which I first encountered in its infancy through my dear friend Bob Parenti.

Many of you were lucky enough to know Bob, may his memory be for a blessing.  He was a stalwart CABI member, a past president, and original chairperson of the rabbinic search committee that hired me.  He was also an eminent botanist who did trailblazing work in the field of plant communication.  To walk in the woods with Bob—to see the world through his eyes—was to enter into a beloved secret kingdom.  He patiently taught me, in layman’s language, what he’d learned through rigorous scientific research: that plants communicate with one another.  Bob showed me that what we see is, as it were, the tip of the iceberg—a tiny fraction of an intricate, interconnected ecosystem.  When he began his academic career, this hypothesis was mostly met with scorn.  Plants talking? Nonsense.  But by the time he retired, the scientific community had begun to come around.

Bob would have reveled in the findings documented in the Radiolab episode.  It features the work of Professors Suzanne Simard and Teresa Ryan at the University of British Columbia.  They have mapped out the mechanics of what Bob intuited, a forest beneath the forest, in which plants converse in the language of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water.  Simard and Ryan discovered the medium for this communication: a web of tiny white tubes, barely visible to the eye, called mycorrhizal networks—essentially, mini-mushrooms.

When they plug their roots into these networks, trees become capable of amazing range of behaviors that stun even the most cynical biologists.  When life is good, and trees have extra sugar, they store it in these fungal cells.  When times are hard, the mycelium release this sugar to the trees so they have food amidst the famine.  If rising temperatures are stressing certain trees, they will send a warning signal through this web.  Dying trees dump their carbon into fungi in order to redistribute it to their healthier neighbors.   The nutrients don’t just get reapportioned, as one might expect, to the offspring of the dying tree, or even to other members of the same species.  Instead, they go to the forest’s strongest young trees of all varieties, which have a better chance of surviving global warming. 

Rabbi Adam Lavitt views this new botanical model through the lens of Jewish tradition.  He writes:

Torah teaches: “The human being is a tree of the field.”  As we learn more about them, the trees of the field invite us to cultivate aware participation in the web of interconnectedness in which we are naturally embedded.  All of our actions have consequences.  We, too, can plug into the micro-universe, the web of intricate connections, both out in the world and within our own lives.

And so we gather here, bound by the brit, by covenantal community, on this sacred Day of At-one-ment.  We confess our failings together, because it is our holy obligation to learn to live with one another in all our imperfection, to stop investing so much energy in armor, to recognize that our interconnection echoes the sometimes hidden oneness underlying all of God’s creation. 

We recite the vidui, the lengthy list of shortcomings, large and small, because our choice to acknowledge our mutual responsibility determines the difference between heaven and hell.
The story is told of an old woman who wished, more than anything, to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. All her life she prayed for this, until God finally agreed and sent a messenger to grant her request. The angel put a blindfold around her eyes, and said, "First you shall see hell."
When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was standing at the entrance to a great dining hall. The room was full of round tables, each piled high with the most delicious foods — main dishes, vegetables, fruits, breads, and desserts of all kinds! The smells that reached her nose were wonderful.
The old woman noticed that, in hell, there were people seated around those round tables. She saw that their bodies were thin, and their gaunt faces creased with frustration. Each person had an enormous, three foot-long spoon strapped to his or her arm. As a result, the people in hell could reach the food on those platters, but they could not get it into their mouths. As the old woman watched, she heard their  desperate, hungry moaning. "I've seen enough," she cried. "Please let me see heaven."
And so the angel reapplied the blindfold and declared, "Now you shall see heaven." When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was confused. For there she stood again, at the entrance to a great dining hall, with countless round tables piled high with the same lavish feast. And again, she saw that the people sitting just out of arm's reach of the food with those three-foot long spoons.
But as the old woman looked closer, she noticed that the people in heaven were beautifully healthy, with smiling, happy faces. As she watched, a joyous sound of laughter filled the air.
And soon the old woman was laughing too, for now she understood the difference between heaven and hell: the people in heaven were using those long spoons to feed one another.
The choice is ours.  Confess together—live with one another, as the frail, flawed, and deeply vulnerable creatures that we are—or wither away, spiritually-dead, isolated and alone. 
This morning God tells us: I set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse. 
Let us choose community, which despite—and even because of—our endless imperfections, is the only path toward life. 

Heaven awaits.

Our Strength, Our Song (Kol Nidre 5777/2016)

The older I get, the more I follow the old rule of thumb for backpacking: Go light.  Lay out only the things you think you’ll really need—then put away half.  Thirty years ago, while trekking the southern half of the Appalachian Trail, I learned to lessen my load by cutting off the handle of my toothbrush and removing the tabs from my tea bags—because when you’re carrying all of your possessions on your back, for weeks on end, you realize, with every bone of your body, that every little bit counts.  This is one of the reasons we go to the wilderness: to get back to basics, to pare away everything non-essential.

Imagine, then, our Israelite ancestors, leaving Egypt under duress, in the middle of the night.  Setting out for who knows where, for God knows how long—what do they choose to take along, when limited to what they can carry?  The bare essentials: unleavened dough, water bladders, goatskin tents, a few pieces of clothing.  And, at least in the case of the women:  musical instruments!

We know this because as they pass through the Sea of Reeds, just a few days after their departure, Miriam and the women dance, sing and celebrate to the beat of. . . tambourines!  How extraordinary: we flee Egypt in such haste we don’t even have time to let our bread rise, yet the women have the strength and wherewithal to pack the percussion section!  Thus Torah instructs us: music is not a luxury; it is, instead, a staple—as indispensable, for many of us, to the life of the spirit as food, water, and shelter are to the body.  Today, many evolutionary neurobiologists argue that music preceded speech in human development and continues to play a central role in shaping who we are.  Although I’m no scientist, I believe that music is as essential to our humanity as language—and that we Jews are not only a People of the Book but also a People of the Song.

Consider the convoluted history of Kol Nidre, the Hebrew/Aramaic prayer that opens—and gives its name to—this Yom Kippur evening service.  No one can trace the origins of this quasi-legalistic formula for annulling vows—but we do know that, from its first appearance, in 8th century Babylonia, most of the leading Sages opposed its inclusion in our liturgy.  In 879 CE, the editor of the very first siddur, Rav Amram Gaon, called it minhag shtus, a foolish custom.  Since then, many venerated rabbinic authorities have argued against Kol Nidre, dismissing it as a misguided practice that makes light of pledges and promises. 

And yet, despite centuries of vehement opposition from leading scholars, Kol Nidre endured—because the primal power of its melody trumped the rabbis’ reasoned resistance to its words.  The music is the message.  It opens with a fall, a descending minor tone, which continues for two full phrases—and then breaks way to a determined rise.  It acknowledges our pain and heartbreak, then lifts us with a heroic—even defiant—endurance, crescendoing into a hard-earned triumph.  As Rabbi Reuven Hammer teaches, “the emotional experience of Kol Nidre overwhelms any individual attempt to understand what is being said.”

What is the nature of the melody’s uncanny power? How did music inspire our foremothers to pack the percussion on their wilderness journey—and enable Kol Nidre to survive centuries of rabbinic effort to edit it away?
For starters, music is omnipresent.  While spoken language is limited to human beings, and perhaps a few of the higher mammals like chimps, whales and dolphins, music fills the natural world.  Creation’s song is an endless chorus of chirping insects, singing birds, rustling leaves, raging rivers, and so much more.  The great Hasidic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov would pray: “Master of the Universe, may it be my custom to go outdoors each day, where every tree and blade of grass chants to its Creator.”  And the Psalmist proclaimed in wonder: “The heavens sing of God’s glory.” While we humans fumble to give language to the world, the world offers up its gorgeous song with utmost and unceasing grace. So it has been, says Torah, since God chanted everything into existence, commencing with  “Va-yomer Elohim y’hi or, va-y’hi or—And God said, ‘Let there be light’—and there was light.”   From the beginning, forever and always, it’s wind and water, the rushing spirit of the Divine, singing us into being, humming through the vastness of the universe into our waiting heads and hearts.
Given music’s ubiquity, we should not be surprised at its special capacity to bring us together. 

Language often divides us, as Torah teaches with the Tower of Babel.   In a world awash with dialects and tongues, most of humanity cannot converse with one another.  And even for those lucky enough to share a common language, words may create barriers as much as bridges.   Speech descends into the realm of judgment, unconstructive criticism, and rigid dogma.  We lapse into dichotomies of right and wrong, self and other, us and them.  Doctrinal debates splinter religious communities,  and politics sunder families—and nations.  Even the Jewish people, with our proud Talmudic history of respectful argument are not immune to such discord.  Listen to the acrimonious dispute over the state of Israel currently raging in our Jewish press, institutions, and households—the language isn’t pretty.  Rancorous discourse and petty accusations make it ever harder for us to talk—and pray—together.  For us, and for all humanity, words too often harden into walls that set us apart.

Music can help us overcome such obstacles.  It transcends the failings of language; people who cannot speak to one another can sing and play and dance in beautiful harmony.  As the great 20th century folk troubadour Pete Seeger noted, “Music leaps over barriers of language, religion, and politics.”  Seeger spoke from deep experience.  He and his band, the Weavers, were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  In 1957, he was indicted for contempt of Congress, and his music was banned from mainstream TV and radio for nearly a decade.  But this did not silence his song.  Pete Seeger continued to sing out for peace, justice, and environmental responsibility well into the next millennium.  When he died in 2014, at the age of 94, President Obama memorialized him, lauding his steadfast belief in the music’s power to promote community and social change.  Speaking for so many of us, Obama concluded: “He always invited us to sing along.”
Daniel ben Yehuda Dayyan also invited us to sing along, over six hundred years ago. He wrote the hymn that concludes this evening’s service.  Like Kol Nidre, which opens it, Daniel ben Yehuda’s work illustrates music’s ability to take us where words cannot.

For centuries, the Rabbis tried to persuade the Jewish people to subscribe to a standard creed.  They imagined a universal profession of faith might unify us.  Their best candidate for that challenging task was Moses Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith.  Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, was the greatest Jewish scholar who ever lived—yet time after time, our Sages’ best efforts to canonize his words failed miserably.  The Jews in the pews simply refused to recite these principles; then, as now, we were just too strong-willed and opinionated to accept any fixed creed—even one penned by our most revered teacher.  Then, in 1404, the poet Daniel ben Yehudah had the brilliant idea to recast the Rambam’s principles in rhymed metric verse.  Soon thereafter, composers set it to music as Yigdal.   That hymn quickly secured the beloved place in the siddur that it had repeatedly failed to gain as prose.  The lesson is clear, and true to this day:  if you want people to profess words, even if they don’t necessarily believe them, arrange them to a catchy tune.  As both Daniel ben Yehuda and Pete Seeger taught: Creeds divide us, music invites us to sing along.

But music doesn’t just connect us with one another; it also helps integrate different aspects of ourselves.  Dr. Daniel Levitan is a former rock musician and producer with a PhD in neuroscience; he shares his research in his terrific book, This is Your Brain on Music.  Working with functional MRI technology, he and his colleagues have demonstrated that while sight, smell, speech and other human sensory operations occur in specific areas of our brains, musical activities light up everything from the cerebral cortex to the amygdala. Scientifically speaking,  music defies compartmentalization.  Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore summarizes these findings:

The aquamarine light of music floods through the brain, pooling in all the places where we feel, understand, remember, prefer, perceive, analyze, hope, and fear.  The part of the brain that reads music helps us read pain in a person’s face.  The place for perfect pitch is the same area the brain uses to understand language.  We remember a melody in the place we remember our children’s names.  The splashing edges of this great blue sea of music are the places where understanding can grow.

Many of us love music precisely because of its unique capacity to cross, confuse, and ultimately confound boundaries. I believe this is a large part of its eternal appeal for all kinds of religious communities.  For just as music blurs the regional borders that so often define our brains, so, too, does it transcend the artificial barriers  we draw between sacred and secular.  That’s why you can be deeply religious and still love secular show tunes, or avidly atheistic yet thrill to the passionate energy of a gospel choir.  Consider: when Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics for “Our Love is Here to Stay” just one month after the death of its composer, his beloved brother George—what kind of love, exactly, did he have in mind?  Is the song a pledge offered by a romantic young man to his lover?  Does it represent Ira’s loving lament for George?  Or is it something else entirely?  The chorus declares: “In time the Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, they’re only made of clay.  But our love is here to stay.”  Recently, a colleague reminded me that these words are remarkably similar to a passage from the book of Isaiah: “For the mountains may move, and the hills be shaken, but My love shall never depart from you.”  Was Ira Gershwin nodding to Scripture?  Did he unconsciously compose a sacred song?  Or is “Our Love is Here to Stay” all of the above, and more: romantic and fraternal, mournful and joyous, human and divine, all at the same time?

Music’s miraculous, mysterious ability to transcend boundaries—to integrate us—infuses it with transformative holiness.  It can rescue us, body and soul.  During one of the darkest periods of my life, I found solace playing my harmonica at a Sunday night blues jam.  I took comfort in the Psalms, that holy poetry perhaps composed upon King David’s harp—and in the wisdom of my teacher and therapist, Bruce Springsteen.  When I was at my lowest, I would crank up The Boss singing “Lonesome Day”, with its elegiac verses echoing my own sadness, then overcome in the end by the irresistibly triumphant chorus: “It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright.”  That music saved me from despair.
 And I am not alone.  For some of us, salvation comes through John Coltrane’s haunting wails of “A Love Supreme.”  For others, it arrives via Bach or Beethoven.  The vessel can be the muezzin’s call, a Buddhist chant or Hindu raga, Ave Maria or “Amazing Grace.”  It is the coal miner’s daughter, Loretta Lynn, and Luciano Pavarotti, the gospel chorus and the Motown band, rock and rap and R&B, Don Giovanni and “Tangled Up in Blue.”  It is sacred or secular—no, it is sacred and secular—and it is a priceless gift to us all.
The founder of Hasidism, Israel Baal Shem Tov, knew this.  He taught that music shatters the barricades of heaven.  He composed devekus niggunim, songs that transcend syllables and sound, and he shared them with his disciples, to help them lift their prayers into communion with the Holy One.  Nearly fifteen years ago, I experienced a taste of those songs and their transformative power, thanks to the writer, witness and teacher, Elie Wiesel, z”l, who died this past summer.  Mr. Wiesel grew up in the cradle of Hasidism, in a small town nestled in Romania’s Carpathian mountains.  His mother, Sarah, was the daughter of Dodye Feig, a prominent Vizhnitzer Hasid, sage, and storyteller.  
In his book, A Jew Today, Elie Wiesel paints an extraordinary portrait of his grandfather.  He describes the day, as a young boy, when he missed his zayde so much that he walked the seven kilometer journey to his farm, without his parents’ knowledge or permission, just to visit him.   Reb Dodye sent back a message with the next coachman to reassure the worried parents, then regaled Elie with tales of his great-grandfather, who took up the violin at the age of 70, and  entertained his family with klezmer and gypsy tunes.  And then they sang, Dodye Feig and Elie Wiesel, grandfather and grandson, together.
Fast forward almost seventy years.  Nobel-laureate Elie Wiesel comes to Boise to speak to a packed house at the Morrison Center shortly after 9/11.  His talk was exactly what one would expect.  He said what needed to be said, eloquently—as he had undoubtedly done on countless other occasions around the globe.  I don’t recall any of the specifics because the words, while instructive, simply weren’t that memorable. 

But during his short stay in our city, despite his jam-packed schedule, Mr. Wiesel somehow found the time to visit us here at CABI, to share an intimate half hour with the Jewish community.  Quite unlike the highly-polished speech he gave at Boise State, this talk was totally informal— just a wise old Jewish man lovingly shmoozing with his extended Jewish family.
Then time ran short and he prepared to head out for his next event.  But first he paused and asked us: “May I conclude with a niggun, a melody from my youth?” He took a deep breath, then shared a brief, beautiful story about a lullaby his mother sang to him when he was a boy. Then he sang, so softly at first, barely above a whisper. Who knew?—Elie Wiesel had the sweetest, most poignant singing voice!  You could hear the angels humming with him, and when he finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the shul. It was one of the most moving Jewish moments of my life, and I remain forever thankful for it.
From Kol Nidre to Yigdal, from the Baal Shem Tov to Elie Wiesel, music unites and integrates, because it speaks straight to the heart.

We know this here at CABI.  It’s why we applied for—and received—a prestigious grant from the Covenant Foundation to hire Nemmie Stieha as our music educator.  We’ve used Covenant money to bring in some of today’s most outstanding young Jewish musicians. Michelle Citron headlined at the Basque Center, and Nefesh Mountain joined us for last spring’s congregational retreat in McCall.  Josh Niehaus and Chava Mirel played at Feast of Torah and anchored our Idaho Jewish Festival.  And thanks to Nemmie’s leadership, this spring we will host a Purim visit from Pizmon, the fabulous co-ed, a cappella group from Columbia University, Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Meanwhile, week in and week out, we will do all we can to better infuse our Shabbat and holy day services—and other gatherings for study, socializing, and social justice—with vibrant Jewish music.  Because I believe that our spiritual growth and inspiration depend less on how much Hebrew—or which siddur—we use—and more on how enthusiastically and often we sing together. 
I want to encourage all of us here tonight—and those who are not here, too—to join with me and Nemmie and Elana Salzman and Oliver Thompson and Brad Wolf and the Moody Jews and all the rest of our CABI music lovers and music makers in the holy work of transforming and renewing our congregation with the amazing power of song.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, African-American demonstrators risked their lives in the deep south, facing down brutal white supremacists with remarkable courage.  When asked about the source of such bravery, Bernice Johnson Reagon, daughter of a Baptist minister and founder of the ensemble “Sweet Honey in the Rock”, points to the music.  She maintains that by singing hymns from the black church, the protestors conjured up an extraordinary collective strength.  The music created a kind of protective barrier between the demonstrators and the police, allowing the marchers to move beyond their fear.  As Ms. Reagon describes it: “Those songs do something to the material that you’re made of.  The singing connects you with a force in the universe that makes you different.  You become part of a community.  And then they can’t get to you.”
On Rosh Hashanah eve, I challenged us to go forth, into the wilderness together, to embrace a Jewish future articulated by diverse new voices that may strike us as strange and unfamiliar.  I acknowledged that this call is challenging—that it will take great faith to work through our fear, to embrace the unknown, and hold fast to our vision of a revitalized Jewish future. 
Tonight I reassure you that we can, indeed, muster that faith and courage—that we can find it, in no small part, through the gift of music.
Kathleen Dean Moore describes the unparalleled potential of that gift in her essay, “Another World Could Start Right Here”.  She writes:
A physicist will tell you what you already know.  That harmony has the power to shake the world.  Sing one clear note, and the same tone will hum in the window glass, in the electric wires, in the neighbor’s piano, in the pine needles—and the air will be changed forever.
 Let us go, then, into that wilderness, singing, as Miriam and the women sang at the Sea of Reeds.  Why did they pack their tambourines?  Because, in their wisdom, our mothers knew the journey ahead would demand the kind of bravery best-mustered through the power of song.
Imagine the scene on the shore of that distant sea: As the Egyptian army bore down upon them, our ancestors must have been seized by doubt and fear—until Miriam took up her timbrel, to dance and sing.  Then the rest of the women joined her, fortified by the courage of her song, and the music rose in a mighty crescendo, parting the waters and paving freedom’s way—even as it does, still, today.
And so, on this Yom Kippur eve, this sacred day of atonement—at-one-ment—let us, too, sing together:
Ozi v’zimrat Yah, va-y’hi li l’yeshua                                                                                      
God, my strength, and my song, shall be my liberation.