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Dear Jonah, Micah, and Toby,

I remember the day eight years ago when the older two of you walked into the kitchen to find me crying while reading the newspaper. You had never seen me cry before, and you asked why I was crying, and I told you it was because something happened that I never thought would happen in my lifetime: America elected a black man President. I was so proud of our country then, so grateful to witness that day, so optimistic about what it meant for you and for us all.

Last night and this morning I find myself crying a different kind of tears. It feels like everything that I felt that night eight years ago has been inverted, turned upside down and inside out. We have lived through another moment in history, another moment I never thought would happen in my lifetime: America elected Ahashverosh as President. This morning I am so deeply fearful for America, for the world, for the Jewish people, for all of us, for you.

And I find myself wondering what to tell you. Toby, you turn 4 years old tomorrow. And you asked me yesterday, “Is Donald Trump a bad guy?” And I hedged, because I knew that this was a possibility, that he could actually win, even if I didn’t want to admit it. And how can I raise a child in a country where I have to honestly say, yes, the President a bad man, a violent man, an unthinking man, a man I would never want you to emulate?

Jonah and Micah, as you left for school this morning, for the first time in my life I wondered whether it was a good idea for you to wear kippot outside. On this anniversary of Kristallnacht, I found myself, for the first time, feeling that Jews are truly not safe in America, that we will ultimately become targets of populist violence. How I do I protect you today?

Mama and I both woke up early this morning, after a night of little sleep. And we turned to each other and asked, What do we do? I think the answer is actually in the first part of that sentence: We turn to each other. Because in each other we can find strength, and in each other we can find faith.

I find myself this morning drawing strength from the teaching of my rebbe, Yitz Greenberg. Yitz has always been a relentless optimist, even as has seen reality more accurately than anyone else. Yitz taught me, and many other people, that at the moments when God seems to be most hidden, God is actually most present—but we have to look harder. I feel like this is one of those moments: we have to look harder than we have before, and God is there. God is with us in our fear, God is with us in our mourning. And God calls to us to do the things that God does: comfort those in pain, feed those who are hungry, heal those who are sick, make whole those who are broken.

I fear the next four years will be dark times. And I fear the damage that will be done in those four years will be deep and lasting. But our ancestors have always found the strength to see light in the darkness, and to persevere. That takes faith. I have faith in you, as I hope you have faith in me. I have faith because we are images of God.

You have been born into a time when we have seen obvious manifestations of those images. Now we are entering a time when those images may be more hidden, when they will undoubtedly be challenged. But they are there, they are resilient, and if we stick together, if we lift up and strengthen those images within us and within others, we too will bring about a brighter time.

I love you, and I’m with you.

Abba

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The cover of the Economist a couple of weeks ago read, “Trust Machine.” And as my work in large part deals with how to help people to trust each other, and how to build communities in which people trust each other, I was interested: What was this machine they were talking about? And how did it build trust?

It turns out the article was about Bitcoin, the digital currency that you may have heard about and, if you’re like me, haven’t thought about all that much. Bitcoin is one of those things that tech innovators understand and the rest of us are too luddite to really pay attention to. But, as with many other things tech innovators talk about, it’s something we should be paying attention to. And that was the Economist’s point.

Bitcoin runs on a technology (Israeli-pioneered, of course) called blockchain. If you google “blockchain technology for dummies” (as I did), you come to an article that explains it this way:

At the moment, the ownership of rights are registered by trusted third parties. Money is registered by banks, real estate by the land register, specific contracts by notary public etc. If you want to change ownership, you need to contact the trusted third party, follow the right procedures and the trusted third party will transfer ownership. On the blockchain, the knowledge of ownership is shared with everybody. Everybody has his ‘personal’ register of who owns what. On a regular basis, all ‘personal’ registers are compared to correct errors and ensure agreement about the ‘truth’.

When there is a transaction, both the buyer and the seller broadcast the transaction and everybody has to update his ‘personal’ register, after checking if the transaction is broadcast according to the agreed procedures. The last step is for all ‘personal’ registers to be mutually compared again. When there is disagreement about the content, the most common register is accepted as being the ‘truth’.

This is the technology that the Economist heralded as a breakthrough—not just for currency, but for the way the world works in even broader ways. As the Economist put it: “The blockchain lets people who have no particular confidence in each other collaborate without having to go through a neutral central authority. Simply put, it is a machine for creating trust.”

We are living through an age of transformation in the way trust works. The institutions that were once repositories of trust—our banks, newspapers, media networks, political parties, police, companies, religious institutions—are showing their unfitness for the age. This is an era when information is widely available, when the tools for creating and broadcasting our own voices are readily accessible, when the expectation for transparency is greater, and more justified, than ever before. And so we aren’t willing to give these institutions a free pass anymore—a free pass to control information, to control politics, even to control currency. We don’t trust them.

But of course we don’t really trust each other either. Anyone can tell a story and create a warped version of the truth. The same tools that make those institutions obsolete also make it hard to trust things we read and see on the internet, or politicians who aren’t part of political parties, or vigilantes who don’t trust the police and therefore take the law into their own hands.

So we don’t trust our institutions, and we don’t really trust each other. And all of that comes against a backdrop of the Shoah, which sent shockwaves of distrust through families and our entire people that still reverberate today; agains the backdrop of the blacklivesmatter movement, which has exposed how deep distrust of authority justifiably runs in America; and against the backdrop of climate change which, to me anyway, makes it difficult to trust that the world will even be inhabitable for my children and grandchildren.

Talk about a trust deficit. This is a trust desert.

But the world can’t work without trust. Tov l’hodot lashem… l’hagid baboker hasdekha v’emunatcha ba-leilot. It is a good thing, a necessary thing, to praise the trustworthiness of the world that God has created. To be unable to trust makes the world unlivable. The ability to trust is the first thing we learn as infants—to trust that milk will come when we’re hungry. And then as children—to trust that our parents will return for us after they leave us with someone else. And then as we find partners—to trust that we can be physically and emotionally vulnerable with someone else. And in our old age—to trust that others will care for our bodies, our finances, our legacies after we’re gone. To be unable to trust in these things leads us to fear and anxiety, to a dangerous and ugly world.

The impulse to trust is deeply woven into our makeup. We want to trust, but we live in an age when that is increasingly difficult for us, both individually and collectively. So what to do? How do we trust?

It turns out, of course, that these are not new questions. They are questions at the heart of the Torah, from the moment that Adam and Eve question their trust in God and cause God to distrust them; to the first covenant with Noah, the first act of trust-building in the Torah; to Abraham’s episodes of trusting and questioning God. But the life of Jacob presents us with the deepest and most nuanced stories of what trust means, how it is threatened, and how we live as adults in a world that requires trust, but in which trust is no simple thing to manage.

Parshat Toldot tells us of how Jacob tests, and violates, Isaac’s trust by tricking him. Lavan then breaches Jacob’s trust in Parshat Vayetzei, when he gives Jacob Leah instead of Rachel. But the apex of these stories about trust comes in Parshat Vayishlach, when Jacob doesn’t know Esau’s intentions: he certainly seems to coming to do violence. And given that, we can reasonably ask why Jacob doesn’t simply fight—why even try to make peace? He knows Esau is coming to kill him; he takes all sorts of precautions; why even bother with the diplomacy? To which the answer might be: because Jacob can’t live without trusting anymore. It has taken too high a toll. As the midrash quoted by Rashi memorably puts it: vayira Yaakov me’od vayetzer lo—vayira shema yehareg, vayetzer lo shema yaharog; he feared that he would be killed, and it troubled him that he would be a killer. Jacob has been on the run for twenty years. He grew up in a dysfunctional family before that. He is a mature man now, and a kill-or-be-killed world is not one he can tolerate anymore. He has to try to trust.

And it turns out, at least according to the pshat of the story, that Esau feels similarly. Despite Hazal’s best attempts to vilify him, the story as we read it in Bereshit indicates that the two brothers have grown up, that Jacob has apologized to Esau and that Esau has accepted his apology. They’ve built a modicum of trust. Are they going to move in together? No. Is it a warm relationship? Not exactly. But they trust another enough, and they demonstrate their adulthood in honoring the trust of their father by coming together to bury him.

Jacob and Esau do this without any external institutions mediating for them. Rather, their moment of rapprochement happens through a very physical encounter: Vayipol al-tzavarav vayishakehu, vayivku, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they cried. The intimacy here is a tikkun for the intimate moment when Jacob betrayed Isaac and Esau in chapter 28, a moment that also involved close touching and tears. And perhaps there is a further lesson to us in this: Trust-building doesn’t happen simply in the mind of one of the parties, though that individual work—wrestling with our angels—is essential. But that is only one part of the work; the other part involves actual encounter, physical encounter, with the presence of the other. It isn’t enough to say the right things in a Facebook post; as Jacob and Esau show us, genuine trust-building requires real physical presence.

And that may be why the Economist is so excited about blockchains and bitcoins. For generations now, we have allowed abstractions—these institutions, these repositories of trust—to do the work of trust-building for us. We put our faith in banks and police and newspapers, and yes, rabbis, and we didn’t ask too many questions. Perhaps we didn’t feel a need to witness for ourselves, to do the work of knowing and checking and verifying, the work of trust-building and trust-maintenance. But the world has changed. And if we are to live in it, and if we are to be make it a world in which we can trust, we are going to have to do more of that work. In Jacob and Esau, we gleam a lesson into what the work of trust-building is.

This dvar torah was originally given at Kol Sasson Congregation.

Zman Simchateinu

“The simcha, the joy, of Sukkot (zman simchateinu/the time of our rejoicing) is the means by which we receive with a full heart.”

So says the Sefas Emes. Intriguing, isn’t it, that he doesn’t tell us what we receive, but rather simply the reality that we do.

Sukkot is the season of receiving, and specifically receiving with the heart. Our sukkah is a place we receive guests, both those physically and temporally with us, and those who join us from times and places our bodies don’t inhabit. This season of gathering is the time we receive everyone and everything with full hearts:

the night sky

Jews of all varieties

people of all colors and shapes and tongues

chirping birds and crickets, buzzing bees and flies,

the foraging skunk and raccoon.

But it is not the receiving of a host who retains control of the gates. No: On Rosh Hashanah our hearts were broken open to hear the voice of the other (it was written). On Yom Kippur we allowed the Holy to mend our hearts and bring them peace (it was sealed). And now on Sukkot, those supple listening hearts we asked for are finally working—opening and closing, opening and closing, living and dying, born and reborn and reborn again, with each breath and beat.

And our hearts are generous, and they are humble at the same time: Generous because we share life with our fellow pilgrims on the planet, and humble for the same reason.

So we open our sukkot and receive our guests, not because we can close the doors, but because we joyfully accept the futility in doing so. Hevel havalim, hakol havel.

There’s a Hasidishe vort I’ve never seen, but only because I haven’t read it yet: The motion of the lulav is from the heart and out to the world and back again. Three times in six directions: Chai. Out and in and out again. Breathing, beating.

The lulav is lo lev: Our heart is the heart of the holy, and the heart of the divine is ours. And the lulav is lu lev: Would that we had hearts this open, hearts that could give and receive this way all year.

Our hearts are fullest when they are broken open.

Zman simchateinu.

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Delivered at Kol Sasson Congregation.

(You can view all of the sources cited in this sermon here.)

That day I saw beneath dark clouds

the passing light over the water

and I heard the voice of the world speak out,

I knew then, as I had before

life is no passing memory of what has been

nor the remaining pages in a great book

waiting to be read.

It is the opening of eyes long closed.

It is the vision of far off things

seen for the silence they hold.

It is the heart after years

of secret conversing

speaking out loud in the clear air.

It is Moses in the desert

fallen to his knees before the lit bush.

It is the man throwing away his shoes

as if to enter heaven

and finding himself astonished,

opened at last,

fallen in love with solid ground.

(David Whyte, “The Opening of Eyes,” From Songs for Coming Home. © Many Rivers Press, 1984.)

This is going to be a different kind of drasha.

Because the pain and heartbreak of the world are too overwhelming today.

The pain and the heartbreak are too overwhelming, when we see Syrian babies floating in the water.

“When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.”

The pain and the heartbreak are too overwhelming, when we see black men and women and children beaten and murdered by police, day after day after day.

In all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

The pain and the heartbreak are too overwhelming, when hear how debased our political discourse has become, when the leaders of our state allow the hungry and the ill to suffer because they can’t agree on a budget, when our leaders cannot speak to us honestly about the sacrifices we will have to make for our future and our children’s future.

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.

Our heart breaks at the condition of our world today. Our heart breaks. God’s heart breaks. It is too overwhelming, and our heart, God’s heart, breaks. (more…)

light glow cracked glass MGD©Hanerot halalu anu madlikin… Hanerot halalu kodesh hem, v’ein lanu reshut l’hishtamesh bahem, elah lirotam bilvad

These lights we kindle… These lights are holy, and we are not allowed to use them, but only to look upon them.

As we light the Hanukah candles this year, I’m struck by this phrase that we say traditionally just after we kindle the flames: ein lanu reshut. We are not allowed / We are not permitted / We have no authority to use these lights; they are to be held at a distance, the object of our gaze rather than the instruments of our bodies.

It strikes me that this is a most unusual phrase. I can think of nowhere else in Jewish ritual life that we find the same language, the words “we have no authority.” The closest we come, perhaps, is the bitul (nullification) of hametz before Passover, when we declare “All hametz in my possession… is now as dust of the earth.” Yet there, among other differences, the emphasis is on the devaluing of the object—making it as dust of the earth—whereas here the act serves to intensify the value of the light, making it holy. In the Passover case we make hametz hefker, ownerless; in the Hanukah case we make the light hekdesh, consecrated.

Both, of course, involve an act of surrender, giving up our reshut, our authority, our agency, our ownership. Both remind us that, when we take away the constructs of law and language, there is no ownership—ki li ha’aretz, the earth belongs not to us, but to the Divine. Yet where the process of searching for (with a candle!), destroying, and nullifying hametz is intended to get all of it out of our reshut, our home and property, the Hanukah candles must remain within our homes—or, more precisely, on the threshold of our homes, pointing both inward to us and outward to the world. One cannot fulfill Pesach with hametz in one’s home; but one can only fulfill Hanukah by having a lit hanukiah in the home.

Thus, though Hanukah partakes of a similar impulse of surrender as the pre-Pesach ritual, it functions differently. We don’t’ hide away the Hanukah light as we do the hametz; rather we make it front and center, the object of our reflection. Once we let go of our hametz, we aim not to encounter it again. But once we light the Hanukah candles, the whole point is to encounter them, to see them, to gaze upon them.

Both Pesach and Hanukah are centered in and around the home, around family and children. And as we see here, both involve a verbal, willful repurposing of something in our home. I understand this dimension as a call to be aware of the paradox of being in exile and truly at home at the same time. My colleague Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell brought to my attention a teaching of the Sefas Emes that points us in this direction, emphasizing the Talmud’s instruction that the hanukiah is to be placed on the threshold of the home, opposite the mezuzah. According to the Sefas Emes, the light of Hanukah is the light of the menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem, now emerging from our mikdash me’at, our tiny temple, our home, accompanied by the song of the Temple, Hallel, which we recite all eight days of Hanukah.

We’re aware, of course, that we’re not in the Temple. But, as long as the candles burn, we treat them as kodesh, the stuff of the Temple. We partake of the same playacting, the same dreammaking, as that central word in the Haggadah: We must see ourselves as if, k’ilu, we are there, as if, k’ilu, this is the light of the place where we are most connected with the Divine, the source of our inspiration, and the inspiration for our gratitude.

Hag Urim Sameach! Wishing you a joyous and inspired Hanukah!

What’s the Point?
A Call for Responsibility in a post-Shoah, pre-Climate Change World
Rabbi Josh Feigelson
Kol Sasson Congregation
Rosh Hashanah 5775

I. The Abyss
You of course remember the story of the two Jews sitting on a park bench, discussing the fate of their people.

“How miserable is our lot,” said one. “Pogroms, plagues, quotas, discrimination, Hitler, the Klan… Sometimes I think we’d be getter off if we’d never been born.”

“Sure,” said his friend. “But who has that much luck—maybe one in fifty thousand?”

(Big Book of Jewish Humor, p. 61, for those following along.)

I was having lunch last week with a friend. And like one of those jokes about old Jewish men sitting on a park bench in Minsk, we found ourselves feeling pretty despondent about the state of the world. Israel and Gaza, ISIS and the West, Russia and the West, climate change and our very existence—as the old punchline goes, “Look who thinks he’s a nothing.”

My friend noted that what’s so troubling is that the nature of our challenges feels so enormous, unsolvable even. As one writer observed recently, the bitter irony seems to be that our capacity to solve our problems is inversely proportional to the size of the problem: just when we need ways to make communal decisions the most, our decision-making systems seem to be the most broken.

So it leads many of us to a sense of despair, a sense that we’re running out of time, that we’re not going to solve these problems. And on any day, but especially on Rosh Hashanah, despair leads us to ask ourselves, “What’s the point?”

What’s the point, I find myself wondering, in teaching or writing, in posting on Facebook, in voting?

What’s the point in having and raising children, in paying tens of thousands of dollars a year in day school tuition?

What’s the point in attending a Kol Sasson committee meeting?

What’s the point in all that cooking, in fasting on Yom Kippur, in putting up the sukkah, in keeping 3 sets of 3-day Yom Tovs over the next month?

I mean, it’s nice and all, and I certainly feel responsible for my kids and our community and the things and people I was reared to respect. But if the oceans are going to rise, and Manhattan is going to be under water, and all of southern Florida will need to be relocated, and our crops won’t grow, and God knows what diseases will be unleashed as the permafrost melts in Siberia… Well, seriously, what’s the point?

Part of me wants to apologize for being a downer. But I would feel dishonest not naming the abyss that I, and so many others, feel us staring into. And let’s face it: today is Rosh Hashanah. Today, we tell ourselves, we’re on trial for our lives. So maybe, just maybe, we should get serious about that, let it really sink in, and force ourselves to stare into that abyss ahead.

Yet that leads us to the question of the hour: Why are we here, in this room? On this day of our reacclaiming God as our sovereign, how do we understand what’s going on? Because it seems pretty hard to make God the ruler over a world in such lousy shape.

(more…)

**Note: the blog post is PG. The video clip is not.

As Jonah (11) and I were driving to school this morning, we came up with an idea for the seder that I thought was a good one to share. One kids activity I’ve seen in various haggadot is to invite children to interview the grownups about the Exodus, as though they were news reporters covering the event. Given the preponderance of sports media in our home, Jonah and I played with the idea of making it specifically a sports interview (with the requisite sports interview answers by athletes). For example:

REPORTER: Moses, you’ve just won the Ten Plagues contest! How does it feel?

MOSES: Well Al, it feels really special, of course. I mean, we’ve been working at this for a long time, and to see this moment come true–well, it’s just something we’re going to remember for years and years, I’m sure. I imagine my grandkids–heck, maybe even their grandkids–will be talking about this one.

REPORTER: This was really an amazing victory. Tell me about your game plan taking on the Egyptians.

MOSES: Well, you know, we just wanted to stick with what got us here, you know? Focus on the fundamentals, work together as a team, believe in each other. The Egyptians are an amazing squad, with a really oppressive defense. We just had to be patient, take the opportunities when they came our way. And, you know, have faith.

REPORTER: In the first half, it looked like you might get an early victory. What happened after the fifth plague?

MOSES: Well, it was definitely looking good those first few plagues. I mean, after the blood and the frogs, we figured Pharaoh was ready to cave. But, as I said, they’re a tenacious bunch, and it seems like they just really stiffened their resolve and bore down on their game plan even more. So we knew we were in for a long struggle.

REPORTER: Let’s talk about that tenth plague. Take us inside your thought process on that one.

MOSES: Well, you know, that was the scariest of the whole bunch. I mean, we felt like we just had to huddle up and let the Good Lord do the work. We established good protection for our team, and then the play just took its course. I wouldn’t exactly call it a Hail Mary or anything, but… It was a real test of our resolve.

REPORTER: So you’ve got this championship under your belt. What’s the next step?

MOSES: Well, Al, we just want to take it one step at a time. There are still more majors to win: the Sinai championships are coming up, and after that the Canaan marathon. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. But I just think, with this team, anything is possible. And at the end of the day, I just really want to say that I thank God–I mean, God was really on our side in this one.

REPORTER: Thanks Moses, and congratulations again on the championship. Best of luck to you and the Israelites.

MOSES: Thanks Al.

REPORTER: Moses, on winning the Ten Plagues championship over Pharaoh and the Egyptians. An instant classic, isn’t it Heather? Back to you in the studio.

We don’t normally think of teshuva when we think of Pesach. We associate teshuva with Elul, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pesach, by contrast, we associate with she’elot, questions. As the Mishnah says, v’kan ha-ben shoel et aviv, here the child asks his father. My Pesach preparation in the last few years has focused a lot on those questions—the kinds of questions we ask and the way we ask them. And I think many people take this opportunity to focus on the power of questioning: the way questions break down assumptions, open up possibilities, and thus reflect some basic ideas we have about freedom. To be free is to be able to question.

Answers: Reducing Anxiety

But this year I find myself thinking about answers, teshuvot. Answers are as complicated as questions. On one level, we think of answers as stopping that which questions start, as when a student solves the answer to a problem on her math homework. Answers like this can feel tremendously satisfying, because they reduce our anxiety. The moment of answering is a moment of stabilizing something that was previously unstable, closing a hole that was previously open.

On another level, just as answers can create islands in the waterways opened by questions, they are only oases—they demand further questions. Think of a chess match. White moves, and in so doing asks a question of black: What will you do now? Then black moves, and asks the same question of white. The players repeat this question-and-answer back and forth, and each answer becomes a question, each question an answer, until checkmate: the unanswerable question.

Both these models are evoked in Rabbi Elazar’s instruction in Pirkei Avot: Da mah lehashiv l’apikoros, Know how to answer a heretic (Avot  2:14). The heretic and the believer are not engaged in a dialogue in which they are both searching for something in common. The answer here is weapon, a sword to parry the thrust of the questioner—and the hole he could open by using it. It carries the satisfying sense of argumentation, where questions and answers score points on the way to a victory or defeat.

Question-and-answer as game is one kind of dialogue, most familiar to us as debate, or perhaps witty banter. Humor is also in this family. All of these variants of question-and-answer depend on the parties maintaining a certain distance, from which they can launch their arrows and raise their shields. If they draw too close, the questions-and-answer dialogue would take on a different form: not that of repartee or verbal duel, but of a more intimate conversation.

Question-and-Answer as Intimate Conversation

The goal of this more intimate variety is not to score points or keep the conversation going for the sake of the game, but to commune, to understand and be understood. This is a very different kind of question-and-answer. Here questions may not demand answers, but might simply linger. And answers may not stabilize an unstable situation, but rather seek to be heard and appreciated.

“If you see your fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep straying, do not ignore it but hashev tashiv lo, be sure to take it back to its owner. If they do not live near you or if you do not know who owns it, take it home with you and keep it ad drosh achikha oto, until they come looking for it, v’hashevoto lo, then give it back. Do the same if you find their donkey or cloak or l’chol avedat achicha asher tovad mimenu,  anything else they have lost. Do not ignore it.” (Deuteronomy 22:1-3)

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov reads this passage to refer to the process of teshuva: We lose parts of our souls as we go through life, and the work of the righteous is to help restore, l’hashiv, those lost pieces of us to ourselves (or, our selves). The language of soul repair fits well with the spirit of the High Holidays. But it also informs our understanding of the she’ela u-teshuva of Pesach: in asking and answering, we are restoring parts of ourselves, and restoring parts of our interlocutors to themselves.

This is further reflected in the language of avedah, that which is lost. Arami oved avi, begins the central Torah text of the Haggadah (Deuteronomy 26). The Mishnah instructs us to expound, doresh, on this short history of the Jewish people’s journey to Egypt, their enslavement there, and their liberation by God. These first words are Rabbinically interpreted as either “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean,” in which case it refers to Jacob, or “An Aramean sought to destroy my ancestor,” in which case it refers to Laban. The language of oved is derived from the same root, ABD, as the word avedah, a lost object—or a lost part of the soul, in Rebbe Nachman’s expansive understanding. And according to the verse in Deuteronomy, the teshuva can only happen ad drosh achikha, when we demand it.

What Kind of Answers Do We Seek?

If a teshuva is not simply a move in a game, but rather the process of restoring the lost part of ourselves, that which makes us oved, wandering, then the questions and answers in which we engage on Seder night are not simply about satisfying curiosity about this or that rule, or the historical reason for this or that custom. Our process of she’ela u-teshuva is about something far deeper, something that emerges from our own derisha, what we demand of ourselves, our interlocutors, and the Torah. Through our question-and-answer, we recognize that each of us is also an oved, there is something out there for which we must search. And each of us is able to offer teshuva, to help recover the part of us that is missing. This happens through a process of derisha and midrash.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. v’heshiv lev avot al banaim, v’lev banim al avotam: He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” These closing verses of the book of Malachi are the culmination of the haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat immediately before Pesach. The teshuva of our seder conversation is this teshuva: not merely questions and answers about facts (as in the most common question: Is this kosher for Passover?), or questions and answers to score points (“Do you know how many times the Torah instructs us to remember we were slaves in Egypt? Let me show you what I know.”), but questions and answers that reflect and propel the relationship of parents and children, and of the ultimate Parent with all children. This is teshuva not merely as answer, but more as return, reply, response—evoking the sense of responsibility we have toward one another as members of the covenant. This the teshuva that Pesach demands of us.

Chag kasher v’sameach, and may we all be blessed with genuine she’elot u-teshuvot this Pesach.

A few weeks ago our son Micah couldn’t sleep. So after a fitful hour of tossing and turning, he finally came downstairs and lay down on the sofa. And of course he was asleep within seconds. Half an hour later I picked him up to carry him back upstairs to his bed. At 7 years old, Micah is reaching the point where I can no longer comfortably carry him. (Okay, I couldn’t really do it comfortably at 6 either.) But, perhaps sensing precisely that this was likely one of my last opportunities to carry the sleeping child who for the last seven years has been my youngest, I made an extra effort to carry him instead of asking him to walk up on his own. We made it to the top of the stairs, and I put him in his bed.

There is something about sleeping children: we look at them and see innocence, we pick them up and feel protective and intimate. I remember moments when my children were younger, holding them in a rocking chair, willing myself to remember the feeling of the moment, sensing just how ephemeral it was. To hold a child, to carry a sleeping toddler to bed, is one of the great tender moments of life, overflowing with a feeling of generosity. We sense the holy in such moments.

I find myself thinking about children, and about carrying, on this Yom Kippur.

When we think of children and holidays, we usually think of Pesach. Of course, Pesach is a child-centered holiday, with its games and questions, its special foods and many meals. The youngest child asks the Four Questions; the cleverest child negotiates the best deal for returning the afikomen. Many a Jewish parent has carried a sleeping child from the couch to the bedroom at the end of the seder.

Not so Yom Kippur. Unlike Pesach, Yom Kippur is a quintessentially non-child-centered holiday. Parents of young children are challenged to figure out what to do with their kids on Yom Kippur, because Yom Kippur is made for adults: there is no meal, there are no stories, no games, no question-and-answer. Even when the grownups aren’t in shul, fasting makes them low-energy and not particularly available to children. Likewise the substance of Yom Kippur is for grownups. The concept of teshuva is a hard one for children to engage. To think about teshuva requires a long view, an ability to be self-reflective, to take in the scope of one’s actions in the past year, and to judge oneself. While children can grasp the idea of being sorry and granting forgiveness, the fullness of the idea of teshuva isn’t something to expect of a 7-year old.

Yet on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our metaphors are frequently parental: k’rachem av al banim, ken terachem aleinu: As a father has mercy on his children, so may You have mercy on us. Or the many times we say avinu malkeinu, our father, our king. Or consider Rabbi Akiva’s famous words at the end of the Mishnah in Yoma: “Who purifies you? Your father in heaven!” This is language unique to the High Holidays. At Pesach we refer to Hashem as God, and ourselves as God’s servants. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, alongside the image of God as king and ruler, we evoke a different relationship, that of parent and child.

The language of carrying is also central on these days. In our selichot we repeatedly refer to God the way God describes Godself: nosei avon, the one who carries sin. We draw this language from two accounts in the Torah: God’s forgiveness after the sin of the Golden Calf, and God’s second act of forgiveness after the sin of the spies. In both instances, God refers to Godself as the one who carries sin.

The language of carrying is also evoked in the verse from Micah that we read in our Haftarah Yom Kippur afternoon, and in the central sacrificial act of Yom Kippur, the confession of Israel’s sins on the head of the se’ir l’azazel, the scapegoat: “The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place.”

The midrash reminds us of the earliest episode when this language is used. It comes in the story of Cain. Just after Cain has killed his brother Hevel, God famously asks him, “Where is Hevel your brother?” And Cain responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God tells Cain that his brother’s blood is crying out from the earth, and condemns Cain to be a wander, na v’nad, in the midst of the earth.

But, says the midrash, Cain prays.

Rabbi Eliezer said: See how great is the power of prayer. If it cannot transform everything, it at least transforms half. Cain stood over Hevel his brother and killed him. The decree went out against him: “Na v’nad, a wanderer you will be in the earth.” Immediately Cain stood and confessed before the Holy Blessed One, saying, “My sin is too great to carry.” He said, Master of the Universe, you carry the entire world, but my sin you will not carry? Did you not write, “Who bears sin and passes over wrongdoing?”  Forgive my sin, for it is great! Immediately he found mercy before the Holy Blessed One, who took away the Na part of the decree, for it is written, “And he lived in the land of Nod.” From here you learn how great is prayer before the Holy Blessed One. (Deut. Rabba 8:1)

Cain’s plaintive words in this midrash are striking. Helpless, overcome, he cries out to God: My sin is too great to bear. The burden is too heavy. I can’t carry it. And then he reminds God that God is the ultimate carrier: the one who is sovel, who bears the burdens of the world; the one who is nosei avon, who carries sin away. Cain does not ask God to carry him: just the opposite, Cain will have to carry himself. But God agrees to carry his sin, to lessen the severity of the decree. Cain will not have to carry the burden of both his own life and the sin he has committed. God grants forgiveness, God carries away Cain’s sin, and his burden is eased.

This is an adult moment. Cain’s forgiveness does not mean he recovers his childlike innocence. The very next verse of the story tells us as much: “And Cain knew his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Hanoch.” Immediately after his forgiveness, Cain finds a place to live, the land of Nod, and engages in the most basic definition of biological maturity, reproduction. He then has a son whose name signifies education. Cain does not become a child again. He becomes an adult, doing adult things, taking adult responsibilities. He finds a place to live. He has a child. He teaches his child. In just a few verses, Cain transforms from the teenager who kills his brother and shirks responsibility into a responsible adult who has children and educates them.

Yet the touchstone for this assumption of adulthood is an ironic twist. In order to become a fully responsible adult, Cain has to first surrender himself to God. He has to let go of the power he thinks he has–the power he has just proven, the power to kill–and acknowledge that in the presence of God, in the presence of ultimate conscience, ultimate judgment, he is powerless. In surrendering his power, Cain in effect becomes a small child again: the small child who is powerless, who is utterly dependent. The small child who cannot fight off sleep. The small child who needs us to carry him. This powerless small child is precisely the being that evokes our sympathy, our rachmanus, our tender love.

Cain is not a child, and his moment of returning to a child’s state is not permanent, but temporary. Through this moment of throwing himself on God’s mercy, of acknowledging his powerlessness, Cain is transformed. He is forgiven. He is redeemed. He grows up. By allowing God to carry his sin, and by begging God to carry it, Cain becomes capable of carrying himself.

There’s a famous Christian poem about a person having a dream of walking on the beach, looking back on the footprints of the journey. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, those of God and the person walking. Sometimes there were only one. As the poem famously puts it, “During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I think we too easily resist this kind of language in Judaism. We’re more fond of intellectual arguments and text-heavy formulations of symbolism and signification. In the Modern Orthodox community, in particular, we tend to over-intellectualize the experience of the High Holidays. In doing so, we too often miss the core experience, the basic move that this time is about. It is about allowing ourselves to be carried.

Yom Kippur is about enabling God to forgive us of our sins, those accretions that build up in our adult lives of power. To be an adult is to be a bar da’at, one who knows. The old maxim goes that knowledge is power, but it is not simply an aphorism. To know is to be powerful. That’s what it means to be an adult, to have agency and to exercise it. But as the story of Cain poignantly illustrates, our knowledge, our power, the very thing that makes us tzelem elokim, can be used to dominate, to control, even to kill. That is the inherent dilemma of power. The corruptions that knowledge and power engender, those are our sins.

The great possibility of teshuva on Yom Kippur is to acknowledge those corruptions, and then to allow God to carry them away. It is about returning, for a moment, to being a child–not with a child’s innocence, but with a child’s capacity for surrendering. It is about giving up our da’at for a moment, liberating ourselves from the false trappings of our knowledge and power, and allowing ourselves to be ultimately powerless–on this day, this Shabbat shabbaton.

The other night, I took Micah and Jonah to their first night baseball game. Jonah caught a foul ball. The Tigers held off the White Sox. We stayed until the end. When we got home after 11 p.m., Micah threw himself on the couch and began to fall asleep. This time I looked at him and knew that I couldn’t carry him. He’s too big now, and I’m no weightlifter. I had to rouse him and help him walk up the stairs on his own two feet.

As we experience this Yom Kippur, I pray that we can all find the emotional and spiritual place where we can let ourselves be carried. Where we can stop being adults so fearful of losing power, and remember what it is to be a child who trusts in her parents to carry her.
Gemar chatima tova.

I delivered this dvar Torah this past Shabbat at Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie, IL.

 

I. Stumbling On Big Questions

In 2005, four weeks after I received semikha, two weeks after our second son was born, my wife Natalie and I moved to Evanston. As the new rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, there were many things to do, many people to meet. But the biggest thing to do, programmatically anyway, was prepare for the High Holidays.

Like many campuses, Northwestern has an area where theater groups, political groups, fraternities and sororities hang big painted sheets to announce their upcoming events: “Party at Sig Ep Saturday night!” or “Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Thursday to Sunday in Shanley.” So to publicize the High Holidays, I figured we could hang a painted sheet, something like, “Yom Kippur, Wednesday. Repent!”

But a funny thing happened on the way to Yom Kippur. We realized two things: First, we could afford to make something slightly nicer than a painted sheet. So we printed an 8-foot by 3-foot banner at Kinkos. Second, instead of making a statement, we could ask a question.

Statements and announcements, it seemed to me, could linger in the air and easily be ignored. A question, by contrast, enters into the mind. You can’t walk by a question, a good question, and ignore it with the same ease that you ignore a statement. The old TV ad is a perfect case in point. “It’s 10 pm: do you know where your children are?” is far more evocative than “It’s 10 pm. Make sure your kids are safe.”

So we made a banner that asked what we thought was the basic question of the High Holidays: What will you do better this year? Underneath we wrote, Experience the High Holidays, and we listed the website for Hillel.

It turned out that this banner, created in my first weeks as a rabbi on campus, would be the seed of a much larger project, one that has influenced my professional career and my approach to education, leadership, community, and spiritual life. A little over a year ago, I left Northwestern Hillel to lead the national development of Ask Big Questions, which this year will be active on over 20 campuses, training over 100 students in the skills of text-centered reflective community conversation, and reaching tens of thousands of people from various walks of life in-person, online, and in print.

As we journey through this Elul, I want to go back to that Elul seven years ago. Here we are again in Elul. Here we are again, preparing for the High Holidays. Here we are again, a full shemitta cycle later, with the chance to discover, or rediscover, some Big Questions.

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