Sunday, September 24, 2017

Yom Kippur 5778

The Yom Kippur vidui—a collective, liturgical confession of our failings—has an important role to play in this sacred season.  As Rabbi David Jaffe notes, its two communal admissions of general wrongdoing from aleph to tav communicate that we are not alone in our foibles and mistakes; we are part of a community of imperfect people trying to do better.

Yet the fixed, plural language can be problematic, too.  Confessing together following the words in the prayer book can all too easily turn into a rote, ritualistic exercise with little relation to our individual realities. 

For this reason, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov urged his followers to compose and voice a personal, verbal confession of their own failings before every Rosh Hashanah.  I invite you to engage in this practice this week, before returning to CABI for Yom Kippur on Friday night and Saturday. 

Here is some guidance from Rabbi Jaffe:

Take a good look at your life in the past year, and acknowledge one or two things that went very well, and one or two things you need to change. . . . Then identify one or two soul traits that go along with each item.  For example, if you acknowledge that you speak disrespectfully to your adolescent children and your goal is to speak with them like you would speak with an adult, the soul trait might be savlanut/patience or kavod/respect.  Then think of one concrete action you could take on a regular basis to strengthen your patience or respect. Continue this with all the items you acknowledged.  You now have a personal spiritual action plan for the year!

I write all this down on an index card and bring it with me to Yom Kippur prayers.  After reciting the set vidui in the prayer book, I take out my index card and say my own personal vidui.  I pray to God for forgiveness for where I missed the mark and for help in growing the soul qualities I need in order to make my vision a reality in the next year.  

I encourage you to try this for Yom Kippur.  Bring your index card, tuck it into your prayer book, and contemplate it during the communal confessions—and any other times when your mind wanders during the long day.  It will help make the holiday a richer opportunity for personal transformation.


And one more suggestion for Yom Kippur: Wear white. 

What underlies this ancient custom? Rabbi Rachel Barenblat offers two possibilities:

Some say that we wear white on Yom Kippur to be like the angels. We yearn to ascend, to be lighter, more clear and transparent. Another interpretation is that we wear white on Yom Kippur as an approximation of the white garments in which we will be buried. Wearing white is a reminder of our mortality. As we face death, we become more honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.  On Yom Kippur, wearing the garments we will wear when we die is a stark reminder that we stand every day on the edge of life and death.

I’ll add one more possibility.  White light is, in fact, composed of all the colors of the rainbow.  In that sense, white is not so much the absence of color as its full complement.  On Yom Kippur, we embrace all of humankind, and acknowledge that each of us, in Whitman’s memorable phrase, contains multitudes.  This is a time to celebrate human diversity at large and the diverse and often contradictory nature of each of our own, unique internal lives.

May we all be sealed for blessing in this sacred season.

Pray (Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778)

It’s Shabbos morning and much to my surprise, I am leading the davening at the Chor Shul, the only functioning synagogue in Kaunas, Lithuania.  I’d planned to slip quietly in and out, but as I enter the lobby an elderly gentleman greets me in Hebrew:

?יהודי––Are you Jewish? 

?להתפלל באת––Did you come to pray?

?עברית מדבר––Do you speak Hebrew?
            קצת––A little—obviously.

?ציבור שליחDo you daven?  Please lead us.
Next thing you know, I, an American Reform rabbi, am conducting the Orthodox Shacharit service for the last vestige of Jews in the city where my great great grandfather, Rabbi Judel Finkelstein taught Torah over a century ago.

He davened in much humbler quarters, in the impoverished Jewish neighborhood of Slabodka, just across the river that my daughter and I paddled into town.  I like to believe that my forebears would have been proud of me, chanting my way through the liturgy, from the opening blessings to Adon Olam.  I’m extraordinarily honored and deeply moved by this opportunity.

And yet I’m also struck by a profound dissonance between the words that I’m singing aloud from the siddur and the reality just outside—and even within—these synagogue walls.

Following the traditional liturgy:

I chant—Baruch atah Adonai, Ozer Yisrael b’gvurah—Praised are You, Holy One, who girds Israel with strength.

I praise—Ahavah rabbah ahavtanu Adonai Eloheynu—How deeply have you loved us, gracing us with abiding compassion

And I plead—Tzur Yisrael, kuma b’ezrat Yisrael—O Rock of Israel, rise in support of Israel, and deliver us as You promised

Yet even as I chant and praise and plead these reverent phrases, I tremble inwardly, knowing that seventy-five years ago, in this very place, pious Jews sang and praised and repeatedly pleaded—and Divine strength and compassion and deliverance did not come.

Back then, the city was home to nearly 37,000 Jews—over a quarter of the local population.  There were forty thriving synagogues, and countless other communities of Jewish Bundists, socialists, communists, Zionists and free-thinkers.  Today there’s just this one shul, short of a minyan this Shabbos morning: seven old men and me, gathered in a dingy side room because it would be too dispiriting for such a tiny remnant to daven in the ornate, spacious sanctuary.

So how do we understand this disconnect between devout words and destroyed worlds?  Should we really pray as if nothing happened in the fall of 1941, when the Jews of Kovno and Slabodka—believers and atheists, young and old, men, women, and children were indiscriminately shot into ditches at the Ninth Fort, just outside of town, and buried in the yawning pits that they’d dug in advance of their own deaths?


How do I deal with this dissonance?  Sometimes on our Lithuanian river journey I am tempted to overlook it, to daven in blissful ignorance.  When I don my tallit and tefillin each morning at our riverside campsites, it is not so hard to imagine that the horrors of the past never happened. Where torrents of innocent Jewish blood once flowed, a peaceful new day dawns.  The birds sing. The sun shines. The forest is lovely in the dappled light. Nature is clearly oblivious to the scourges of human history; I could readily follow suit.  Why trouble my prayer with the burden of what took place here three-quarters of a century ago when it’s all grown over, buried beneath fragrant pine needles and wild flowers?

And yet I can’t compartmentalize this way.  I won’t suspend my skepticism.  I will not pray as if the siddur’s words and the world outside were one.  I cannot, in good faith, naively sing the praises of a God who rewards the righteous, punishes the wicked and deliverers His beloved people Israel as promised.  Instead, I wrestle with the words of the tradition—because I believe that is precisely what our tradition demands of us.

What does the Holy One ask when we turn to Her in prayer?

Talmud teaches: God desires the heart. 

To pray from the heart is to speak the truth—to acknowledge the discord as well as the beauty, to question even as we praise.

To pray from the heart is to direct our heavenly intentions into earthly action, to translate our words into the work of healing, justice and peace-making. 

To pray from the heart is to commit ourselves to a spiritual path that is both entirely honest and deeply consequential. 

God desires the heart.

And the heart, my friends, is a very complicated thing.

Genuine prayer is relentlessly, and sometimes painfully true.  If it equivocates or falsifies, it’s empty flattery.  Seemingly pious words cut off from the reality of lived experience are at best hollow and at worst hypocritical.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The divorce of liturgy and living, of prayer and practice, is more than a scandal; it is a disaster.”  It is, therefore, no accident that Jewish law teaches: A person should only pray in a house with windows (BT Berachot 34b).  Prayer desperately needs the world’s changing light—and its darkness, too.  Walled off from the rest of experience, without windows, our praise and petitions inevitably ring false.  This is unacceptable for a liturgical tradition that daily declares: Adonai Eloheychem Emet—The Holy One, Your God, is Truth.


Authentic prayer is also fierce, insurgent and insistent.  If it’s complacent or, God forbid, boring, it becomes a trite, irrelevant mockery of itself.  Again, Rabbi Heschel: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive. . .   The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.” 


On paper, this seems straightforward enough.  Who would argue with the notion that prayer should be truthful, relevant and consequential?  Yet in practice, it’s tricky, because when we Jews worship in community, we don’t make up the words as we go; we daven from a liturgical script, written over the course of two millenia, that can sometimes feel a little archaic.  Our challenge is to find contemporary value in these ancient words.

The first and most critical means toward this end is to recognize that traditional Jewish prayer is far more poetry than prose.  If I took the words of the siddur at face value, I’d reject 99% of it out of hand.  On a literal level, nearly everything in the liturgy is problematic.  But our prayer book is not intended to be read this way; it speaks almost entirely in metaphor. In our flimsy attempts to personalize the power that undergirds in the universe, we reluctantly describe God as Avinu Malkeinu, as paradoxically both intimately loving, like a good parent, and awe-inspiring as a powerful ruler.  Because we want to believe that the world is founded on justice, we haltingly approach God as a judge.  And so our services for this sacred season often portray God in concrete human terms—but the Holy One, who has neither body nor image and may be more verb than noun, is not a King or a Rock or a Father or a Judge or anything else that our tradition poetically calls Her.

What is God?  We don’t know. That’s precisely why prayer employs metaphor, which is always open to new interpretations and multiple understandings. By reminding us of our limitations, poetic language helps keep us from falling into idolatry.   As Catholic theologian Richard Rohr notes:

All language about God is necessarily symbolic and figurative. . . in service of the unsayable. When it comes to comprehending God and the great mysteries of love and death, knowing has to be balanced by unknowing. Words can only point a finger toward the moon; they are not the moon or even its light. They are that by which we begin to see the moon and its light.


Approaching our traditional liturgy as poetry makes it possible for progressive Jews to pray with integrity, to daven with words that are not literally but experientially true.  Yet that is not enough.  God desires the heart.    Even when we read metaphorically, it is not sufficient to merely recite what’s printed on the prayer book’s venerable pages.  Our challenge is, as Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman teaches, to go beyond the text—to embrace and wrestle with the Holy, to sway and shuckle, to praise and rage and question and sing out loud until we embody the words and, with all of our heart and soul and might, translate them into radical action in the wider world.


The story is told of a Hasidic master walking along a cobbled shtetl street when a cry pierces the chilly night.  It’s the wailing of a baby, and it’s coming from the home of one of the rebbe’s students.

The master rushes into the house and sees his disciple facing the wall, enraptured in his evening prayers.  Across the room, the baby cries and cries—until the rabbi walks over, cradles her in his arms, and gently rocks her to sleep.

When the student finally emerges from his davening, he’s mortified to find his rebbe standing by his side, holding his newborn daughter.  “Master!” he exclaims, “What are you doing here?”

The rebbe replies: “I was passing by when I heard her wailing.  So I entered and found her alone.”

“Rebbe,” says the young man, “I was so engrossed in my prayers, I did not even hear her.”

To which the master replies: “My dear student, if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer.”


Halfway through the Shabbos morning service that I am leading at the Kovno Chor Shul, I experience a kind of epiphany. With the force of revelation, I recognize that the vexing disparity between the siddur’s devout phrases and the hell that unfolded just outside these walls is not the problem; it’s an urgent invitation.  The dissonance is both the medium and the message.   If my praying deafens me to that disharmony, like the student to his baby’s cries, the prayer is fatally flawed.  I realize that my God is found right there, at the center of the incongruity—calling us, frail mortals, to step into the breach.  To serve this God is not to simply praise what is, but to prayerfully envision what should be—and to labor, in partnership with the Holy One, to make the ancient words ring true.  We affirm the wisdom and compassion of our tradition with full intention, lamrot ha-kol, despite the horrors of our history.

And so I pray to the God who lives in the gaps:

I sing Mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai—Who is like you, Eternal One. . . Israel’s Liberator?
And as I chant these words that our ancestors sang as they marched to freedom at the Sea of Reeds, I recall and reaffirm my obligation to labor on behalf of all whose liberation is not yet fully realized.

I praise Modim anachnu lach—We thank you, Compassionate One, for our lives which are in your hand.
And as I offer my gratitude, I silently add the words of our Reform siddur: 
“Teach us to give thanks for what we have by sharing it with those who are in need.”

I proclaim Adonai Yimloch l’olam va’ed—You shall reign forever, Holy Sovereign.
And with this proclamation, I take responsibility for my abundant shortcomings. 
I commit myself to the sacred work of tikkun olam, of striving for wholeness and healing in our badly broken world. 

And I acknowledge Yotzer or u-vorei choshech—Creator of all, who fashions light and forms the dark—and with these words, I pray, O Holy One, for the courage to seek You in both, for while I readily find you in the light, the darkness is difficult.

Dear God, it’s dark out there.


Which is why we need authentic, challenging, heartfelt prayer to illuminate the nightfall.

In an age of pervasive and pernicious lies emanating from our nation’s highest corridors of power, we need prayerful words and deeds to cut through the duplicity and demand the truth.

And in a season of who by fire and who by water, as our world drowns and scorches in floods and infernos of our own making, we need prayer’s subversive power to rouse us out of our complacency.

It’s dark out there.

In Kovno.

In Israel.

In Houston and South Florida.

In Washington, DC.

And Boise. 

And all across America.

But this morning, on the threshold of a new year, our gathering in prayerful community calls us to hope.  So in that spirit, I conclude with Rabbi Heschel, yet again, from his essay, “On Prayer”, penned in 1970 but more prophetically relevant today than ever:

The spiritual blackout is increasing daily.  Opportunism prevails, callousness expands, the sense of the holy is melting away.  We no longer know how to resist the vulgar, how to say no in the name of a higher yes.  Our roots are in a state of decay.  We have lost the sense of the holy.

This is an age of spiritual blackout, a blackout of God.  We have entered not only the dark night of the soul, but also the dark night of society.  We must seek out ways of preserving the strong and deep truth of a living God theology in the midst of the blackout.   For the darkness is neither final nor complete. . . Our power is in coming upon single sparks and occasional rays, upon moments full of God’s grace and radiance.

We are called to bring together the sparks to preserve single moments of radiance and keep them alive in our lives, to defy absurdity and despair, and to wait for God to say again: Let there be light.

And there will be light.

Turn (Rosh Hashanah Evening 5778)

 Author Elizabeth Gilbert captured the essence of her life-changing trip through Italy, India, and Indonesia in her memoir’s three-verb title: Eat, Pray, Love.  Looking back on my month-long kayaking adventure through Lithuania with my daughter Rosa, I aspire to Ms. Gilbert’s eloquent economy. Tonight and through the coming Days of Awe, I’ll be offering my reflections on our pilgrimage.  I am profoundly thankful to you, my congregational family, for granting me the generous sabbatical that made this possible; I consider it a great privilege to share what I learned there, along the rivers of my ancestral homeland.  Our expedition became a meditation on history and memory, love and loss.  It was an upstream journey back in time and place, a mirror on our present American Jewish moment and, I pray, a source of inspiration for our shared future.   With due deference, then, to both Ms. Gilbert and the traditional Unetaneh Tokef prayer, I invite you to join me on a three part travelogue through Lithuania that I’m calling Teshuvah, Tefillah,  Tzedakah.  Or, in English: Turn, Pray, Liberate.

I begin tonight, as we commence in our prayer book, with teshuvah—the turning.


Journal entry, Monday, June 5.  A little over halfway through our expedition, Rosa and I struggle through one of our most challenging stretches.

We hit a series of sluggish meanders, followed by long, nondescript straightaways, with ferocious headwinds howling upstream.  We're on a kind of riparian treadmill, paddling with all of our might just to maintain our place. The water feels dense and viscous, like we we're stuck in a bog.  Since the dam, the Nevezis River has seriously stagnated; it's now, essentially, a long, narrow lake with almost no trace of current.  Every time we finally reach the end of a straightway, after an excruciating effort, we turn, hopeful for a moment, either right or left—only to forlornly behold the same hideous collection of radio towers we've been seeing since lunch, hours ago.  Whenever it seems we might pass them, there they are, somehow still in front of us, like giant upthrust middle fingers taunting us, defiant maledictions from the spiteful earth.  

What are we doing on this river, wrestling with wind and water and history? Why have we returned to the land that my great great grandfather, Rabbi Judel Girsch Finkelstein, fled with his family over a century ago?  In 1874, he taught Torah in the shtetl of Babtai, here on the Nevezis.  Sixty-seven years later, in the summer of 1941, the town’s mayor extorted his Jewish residents for money, then presided over their slaughter and threw them into pits dug into these riverbanks

What are we doing here, surrounded by specters of a once-grand Jewish presence decimated by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators? Is it possible to go back, against the current, to explore the headwaters and return with a report that might transform what lies ahead? The rivers witnessed it all, the senseless slaughter, and the centuries of Litvak life that gave us pious yeshivot and secular Yiddish literature, Zionism and socialism, tradition and Enlightenment.  Is that past firmly and forever fixed—or is it, we pray, like the river itself, fluid, cutting fresh channels, carving new directions.

Like the river, we are turning and returning, pressing forward, eddying back.

What are we doing here? 


Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us that history is dynamic.  He writes:

Over time, things change meaning.  I am reminded of how one of my children took a rare book I loved and innocently used a few pages of it for a coloring book. I was furious.  But now, as I reflect on those scribblings, they bring not only nostalgia but tenderness. . . In this way, the present can change the past.  Teshuvah, the act of returning to whom you were meant to be can change who we were. . . Obviously we cannot undo the past.  What is done is done.  But what we do now about what we did then, while not altering the past deed itself, can place it into a new context of meaning.

Or, as William Faulkner put it more succinctly: “The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.”  We can’t revive the dead.  But we can wrestle new inspiration from their lives, cut tragically short before their time.


Laima Ardaviciene believes wholeheartedly in the power of the past to change the present. 

She teaches English to high school seniors in Kedainiai, where my great great grandfather was born. Known in Yiddish as Keidan, for centuries it was steeped in Jewish culture.  Jews comprised nearly half of the local population—until the summer of 1941, when the Nazis and their Lithuanian accomplices massacred 2076 Keidaners in the forest outside of town.  Today not a single Jew remains.

Yet Laima will not allow her students to forget the legacy of Keidan’s Jewish community.   As a teacher, she developed a strong interest in her city’s heritage and has used the Facebook group Roots in Keidan to connect with descendants of Keidaners’ living all around the world.  As Rosa and I paddled into town on the Nevezis, I posted a picture on that Facebook site; a few minutes later, Laima generously offered to provide us with guided tour.

We meet her the next morning in the plaza fronting two restored eighteenth century synagogues.  Laima greets us warmly, in excellent English, then lovingly leads us into the former shul that’s now a museum and cultural center.  Over the next few hours, she walks us through the narrow cobbled streets of Keidan’s Jewish quarter, past what were once Jewish homes, shops, and courtyards.  She points out a house with vestiges of a sukkah attached, and the cheder where the Vilna Gaon learned as a boy.  We follow the banks of the Nevezis upstream and cross through an expanse of fields to the old Jewish cemetery where my Finkelstein ancestors were buried over a century and a half ago.  Laima comments: “These were the lucky ones, who died of natural causes, unlike those who followed them, murdered in the forest by the Nazis and their own Lithuanian neighbors.” 

We stop at Laima’s high school and enter her classroom, which is decorated with Lithuanian and Israeli flags, a silver menorah, and numerous awards from human rights organizations.  On the back wall, there’s an astonishing, student-designed and painted mural of a tree, composed of the surnames of the Jewish families who populated the city before the war; below it is a banner festooned with the proud Yiddish phrase beloved to generations of those Jews: Ich bin Keidaner—I am from Keidan!  Laima shows us the projects that she and her class have taken on in recent years: they have made a ghost map of Jewish Keidan, a video exploring the role of Jewish women in the local community, and their own Lithuanian translations of pre-war Yiddish poetry.  Laima’s students have celebrated Jewish festivals over cyberspace with a Hebrew school in Australia, and reached out to the Jewish grandchildren and great grandchildren of their former neighbors.

As morning turns to afternoon, we walk along a dirt road to the forest at the city’s edge, where the massacre took place.  Laima brings her students here every year on September 23, Lithuania's Holocaust Memorial Day.  They take turns reading the names of the victims, carved, like white fire, into the copper memorial that marks this horrible, holy site.  I believe that when Laima and her students recite those names, they are, indeed, transforming the past.  Alas, they cannot resurrect the dead.  But they can posthumously affirm their human dignity, and in so doing, ignite the possibility that goodness might yet cast its light into even the darkest corners.

Today, the woods are quiet.  A gentle breeze rustles the pines.  I lay a Boise river stone to honor the dead.  I chant the mourners’ prayer, El Malei Rachamim—God full of Mercy. . .for those whose lives ended with none.   The birds sing with me.  Rosa and I weep.  Laima hugs us both.  And in her firm embrace, in this place so devoid of grace, I feel the power of hope.


Laima’s moral fortitude is rooted in the courage to pursue, proclaim, and teach the truth.    If we wish to illuminate the darkness of our past, we must muster the faith to address it head on.  Individually and communally, teshuvah starts when we take responsibility for our failings and admit the truth about who we’ve been.  As Maimonides taught in his Mishneh Torah: “A person who transgressed is obligated to confess, saying ‘I have sinned, I have done such-and-such, I am regretful for my actions.’” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:1).

Such confessions do not come easily to our lips.  In the face of harsh historical truths, it’s tempting to avert our gaze.  But this is not how we grow, not how we transform who we’ve been into who, deep within our souls, we’re called to become.


Not every Lithuanian is Laima Ardaviciene.   Many have yet to come to terms with their nation’s complicated past.  Between 1941 and 1944, over 95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population was massacred—a more total destruction than in any other country affected by the Shoah.  Historians attribute this extreme devastation to the locals’ all-too-eager collaboration with their Nazi occupiers.  Doctors, lawyers, professors and priests volunteered for Lithuanian paramilitary groups that ruthlessly murdered their longtime Jewish neighbors.  This horrific fact was largely brushed away during the post-war years of Russian occupation; even today, many Lithuanians still use that genuine legacy of suffering under the Soviets to excuse their parents’ and grandparents’ complicity in the Nazi genocide.  


But most of the young people we met on our trip are confronting their history with remarkably brave openness—and thereby reshaping their difficult past into a better future.  They remind me that sometimes, the work of teshuvah unfolds very slowly, over generations.

Rimantas Zirgulis, who designed the powerful memorial in the forest outside Kedainiai, now directs a human rights organization much like Boise’s own Wassmuth Center. 

Photographer Richard Schofield is a British ex-pat living in Kaunas, where he directs the International Centre for Litvak Photography.  He has dedicated his professional life to capturing the remnants of Lithuania’s Jewish past on film; for his “Back to Shul” project this summer, he hitchhiked across the country photographing one hundred former synagogues in twelve days. 

Justas Pipiras was our guardian angel.  He provided our kayak, helped us provision, and shuttled us countless hours down Lithuanian highways and dirt roads, to launch us at our put-ins and retrieve us from our take-outs.  He transformed our dream of paddling across Lithuania into a reality with his constant material and moral support—because, as a student at Vilnius University, he developed an interest
in his nation’s Jewish past and when I reached out to him, he saw an opportunity to explore that heritage more deeply through our eyes.

And since returning to America, I’ve been speaking with Agneska Avin, a Lithuanian grad student interning at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.  She read about our trip online and reached out to me:

Coming from Vilnius. . . we often encountered evidence of Jewish heritage. But our experiences were always very fragmented and episodic. We could feel the Jewish essence fluttering in the streets of our city but were never able to touch it. Moving to New York and meeting Jewish people with their roots in the Old Country was crucial in understanding our history and rethinking our self-identities as Lithuanians. Today, we feel a great responsibility to represent young future-oriented Lithuanians, willing to rebuild the past and present in order to create a brighter tomorrow for our country and Lithuanian-Jewish relations.


These resolute Lithuanians embody the possibility of teshuvah, our capacity to transform past failings, individual and communal, into future opportunities.  They inspire me—and remind me that, lest we be too quick to condemn Lithuanian bystanders, we have plenty of our own turning to do.  Before I leap to judge those now living in our former homes on Vilna’s Zydu Gatve, the Street of the Jews, I must remember that I, too, dwell on purloined property, brutally seized from its Native American owners.  We, Americans, tend to obfuscate and avoid our own nation’s original sins of slavery, genocide, and xenophobia.  I returned from my ancestral homeland that was decimated by the Nazis and their accomplices only to watch, just a few weeks later, as Nazis and Klansmen marched through the heart of my alma mater chanting “Jews will not replace us!”  I listened, stunned and appalled, to our president’s tepid response to that evil.  And I wrestle with my own complicity in the systemic racism woven into the fabric of our nation.  Before we criticize others, let us tend to our own gardens.

But my journeys have taught me that even the darkest chapters of our past can be prologue to a brighter future, if we confront them with integrity and courage. Over seventy years after the Shoah, there are still ample openings for teshuvah.  The descendants of the perpetrators have the opportunity to teach by example, like Laima, to acknowledge the sins of their ancestors, to stand up to racism and bigotry, and to lead us all in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice.  We Jews should stand with them, even as we honor our dead by recommitting our own lives to creative Jewish living, spiritual growth, and acts of lovingkindness.

On Monday, June 5, a couple days south of Kedainiai, I wrote about our effort to paddle down a tough stretch of stream, how we struggled to push past what I called a “hideous collection of radio towers” taunting us.  I asked myself: What are we doing here?

Two months after I posted this passage on my blog, I received a response from Harry Gorfine, an Australian fisheries biologist who I met in Vilnius.  Well after the fact, his words completely transformed the way I understood our adventure on the Nevezis.  He wrote:

Dear Dan:

I keep meaning to tell you about those radio masts that were driving you nuts as you and Rosa paddled between Babtai and Kaunas.  They were of critical importance to native Lithuanians during January 1991 as ordinary citizens mobilized in their campaign for independence from the oppressive Soviet regime.  Gorbachev ordered tanks from the Soviet military compounds to wrest back control from a native uprising.   Many came out to demonstrate and were maimed as the tanks driven by young Russians ran over them, crushing their limbs into the muddy ground. 

Those radio towers were the means by which the underground operatives of the de facto Lithuanian government in Kaunas desperately got a message to the West, to let them know what was happening as it unfolded.  Time was of the essence.   Without swift communication the world might have awoken to news about a large scale massacre.  That’s all history now, but as much as I am aware of what you were up against on that stretch of the river, had I been paddling beside you, I would have drawn motivation to persevere, for the demoralizing headwinds and cold, wet conditions that you faced were trivial in comparison to what others have endured in this land of our forebears.  I gather the towers remain in use today, but even if they were abandoned, I doubt that permission to demolish them would ever be granted, given the legacy of freedom that they helped to secure for the country.


What are we doing here, on the eve of this new year, wrestling with the changing winds and weather of our lives, looking forward, looking back? 

As Harry Gorfine and Laima Ardaviciene and so many others I’ve had the blessing to encounter on my sabbatical remind me, we are affirming that the past is not prologue to a fixed future.

We are remembering that with honest commitment, we can transform our failings—and those of our forebears—into the vision of a better world in the making.

And on the threshold of 5778, we are insisting, proudly and defiantly, that our task this Rosh Hashanah and beyond is not to make America or Judaism or even ourselves great again—not to restore such a mythical, idealized and ultimately false version of the past; our calling is acknowledge our flawed histories, to learn from our mistakes, and in so doing, begin to approach the true greatness we yet aspire to achieve.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that God speaks slowly in our lives, a syllable at a time.  It is not until we reach the end of life that we can read the sentence backward.  Our stories are not over until we write the final utterance, which has the capacity to change all that came before.

Tonight, my friends, as always, the Holy One lays the Book of Life open before us.

Each of us, you and I, choose the stories that we will inscribe.

May they be for a blessing.