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.


An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

Tonight I want to talk about fear.

Yom Kippur can be a fearful day. We are afraid of being hungry. We are afraid of being thirsty. How many of us are already counting the hours until we can eat?

We can be very afraid on this day.

What if we’re hungry? What if we’re thirsty? What if after all those words, after all that singing, after all the rabbi’s exhortations to do teshuva–what if, after all that, I feel nothing? What if God doesn’t answer me? What if God doesn’t exist? What if all of this is a load of hooey?

It’s a terrifying thought. It inspires fear in our hearts.

And the roots of this day prompt us to think about fear.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.'”

Moses is on Mount Sinai. He has been gone for nearly 40 days. And finally they can’t take it anymore: “We don’t know what has happened to him,” the Israelites say. Lo yadanu meh haya lo. We don’t know. Not knowing is the root of their fear. They are plagued by doubts: What if he doesn’t come back? What if he fell off the mountain? What if God killed him? What will we do?

And so, to ease their not knowing, they make themselves a pacifier: they build the golden calf.

This is the greatest sin in the Torah. It prompts Moses to seek God’s forgiveness, which establishes the model of teshuva for us here today. That sin, building the Golden Calf, is rooted in fear. The fear of losing control. The fear of not knowing.


I was honored yesterday to give the invocation at the Northwestern baccalaureate service, held in advance of Commencement. In my invocation, I talked about the important image in Jewish thought of God as teacher: melamed Torah l’amo Yisrael, Who teaches Torah to God’s people Israel. I talked about the exquisite divine mystery inherent in a moment of teaching and learning, a moment as profound as that of creation. And I exhorted the graduates to emulate God, not only in God’s attributes of mercy and kindness, but to be like God the teacher–to recognize that we are all teachers.

In the Torah portion of Shelach (Num. 13-15), we witness one of the profound moments when God is not so much the teacher, as the learner. Moses is the one who instructs God, and in so doing he teaches us–and God Himself.

You will recall that after the spies bring back their report of the land of Israel and the people lose faith in their ability to conquer the land, God declares to Moses: “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they” (Num. 14:11-12). Moses’s response is instructive–to God and to us. He says:

“Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, LORD, are with these people and that you, LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’

 “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now” (Num. 14:13-19).

It is worth looking closely at this response. Moses does not immediately appeal to God’s mercy, or to the contradiction between God’s espoused attributes of forgiveness and His anger at the Israelites in this moment. No–he first puts the situation within a political context: What will the Egyptians think? What will the Canaanites think? It would be a shonda for the goyim!

What is Moses doing here? Rashi interprets him to mean that the Egyptians would conclude that in fact they had not sinned in their treatment of the Israelites, and thus the message of God’s actions in the Exodus would be lost. Ramban understands Moses to mean something slightly different: the Egyptians would think that the Canaanite gods were stronger than their own, and would thus exchange one idolatry for another. In either case, however, the fundamental message is the same: God’s goal in the Exodus had been to make Egypt, and by extension the world, recognize that God was the unique and absolute power in the universe. If God didn’t make good on delivering the Israelites into the promised land, then all God’s actions would not only be for naught, but God’s goal would be set back.

It is only after he has made this political point that Moses goes for the moral argument: God, in our most intimate moment, when You revealed Your glory to me, You told me that your essence is compassion and forgiveness. You’re contradicting Yourself–in fact, You’re not being Yourself. So be Yourself, don’t give in to the temptation of anger, and forgive these people.

And amazingly–or perhaps not so amazingly after all–God agrees: “The LORD replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked” (Num. 14:20).

This is a radical moment–Moses teaches God. And Moses does it with the patience and courage of a teacher: he lets the issue ripen. He recognizes that God is angry at Israel, and so he doesn’t immediately seek forgiveness for Israel. Rather, he first helps God to realize the mistake God would be making; and then he reminds God to be Godself, and to turn back to Israel in forgiveness.

The first time I met Parker Palmer, he asked me to think of a moment with a student that had been a particularly effective one in my teaching. And then he asked me a question I had never thought to ask. Where most people would ask, “What did you do as a teacher to make that moment?” Parker instead asked me, “What was it about that student that enabled your teaching to work?”

Parker’s question is a reminder to us that this story is not only about Moses as an exemplary teacher. It is also about God as a learner. Hillel the Elder said, “The embarrassed cannot learn, and the haughty cannot teach” (Avot 2:5). We know that teaching requires courage. But Hillel reminds us, as does God, that learning does as well. To truly learn, especially in profound moments, one must courageously admit that one is incomplete, that one can change and grow. In the interaction between Moses and God in the Torah portion of Shelach, it is none other than God who humbly teaches us the essence of learning.

Shabbat shalom.


The coincidence of parashat Acharei Mot and the Shabbat before Passover (Shabbat HaGadol) prompts comparisons between Yom Kippur and Pesach. Acharei Mot provides the basis for Yom Kippur, a day of innui, affliction. Pesach, which arrives Monday night, is when we eat lechem oni, the bread of affliction.

Yom Kippur is a deeply personal holiday in many respects. It is the day when we each, individually, account for our actions and renew our relationship with God. It has a national aspect as well, but this is in large measure subordinated to the personal—this despite the fact that the holiday is generally observed in large communal settings, most notably synagogue. Passover, by contrast, is our national holiday. While there is an important individual aspect to it, the thrust of the holiday is national renewal and remembrance of the national narrative. In contrast to Yom Kippur, Passover is observed primarily in the home, not in the synagogue.

Whereas the Yom Kippur ritual is fixed and essentially unchanging from year to year, the Seder invites and encourages play and change within its structure. The Kohen Gadol performed the same ritual year after year in the ancient Temple, and we read the same words about his activities year after year. But the Haggadah of the Seder is reprinted with new commentaries, new midrash, new ideas every year, and no two seders ever look the same.

The Mishnah draws a further comparison between the two holidays in analyzing the preparation undertaken for each:

We do not worry that a mouse may have dragged hametz from house to house or from place to place, for if we did, we would have to worry that hametz had been dragged from courtyard to courtyard or from city to city, and there would be no end to the matter. (Mishnah Pesachim 1:2)

Seven days before Yom Kippur they would take the High Priest from his house to the Palhedrin Chamber. They would appoint another priest to act in his stead in case he became unfit to perform the service. Rabbi Yehudah says: They would even appoint another wife for him, in case his wife died, since the Torah says, “And he will atone for himself and his household” (Lev. 16). His wife is his household. The Sages replied, “If so, there would be no end to the matter.”

The discussion of the Rabbis in both these cases elaborates on one of the challenges common to both Pesach and Yom Kippur: the yearning for finality and the insecurity of uncertainty. Despite all our cleaning, despite all our preparations, nothing is static—hametz could land on our doorstep as we begin the seder, something could happen to the High Priest’s wife as he enters the Holy of Holies. These things are beyond our control, and yet we worry lest they happen. The position of Rabbi Yehudah, and the unspoken position rebutted by the Mishnah in Pesachim, give voice to these doubts and uncertainties: batten down the hatches, take every possible precaution, you can never be too prepared. But then the voice of reality sets in, and the Sages rule: If so, there would be no end to the matter.

We are likely not worried about mice, and we are not concerned today that something might happen to the High Priests. Yet our insecurities remain: Did we clean enough? Did we ask for forgiveness from everyone whom we wronged? We can always do more. Yet the Torah responds to human needs on human scale: At a certain point, we have to say enough is enough. At Yom Kippur, that exercise is known as accepting forgiveness, truly believing that God has granted selicha and mechila. At Pesach, it comes in the form of bitul: on the morning before Passover, we relinquish ownership of all our hametz, such that, as Maimonides says, we could see a loaf of bread on our dining room table and have no thought that it belongs to us.

Yom Kippur and Pesach are two moments of our most intense encounters with the Jewish calendar, when we are challenged to find the point of integration between ourselves and the larger covenantal community of the Jewish people throughout space and time—a community that includes Jews throughout the ages and the God who took us out of Egypt and forgives us year after year. Each holiday emphasizes a different dimension of this process, but the endpoint in both is renewal and temimut, integrity.

Chag sameach.

One of the most important and rewarding parts of my work as a Hillel rabbi is studying Torah with students. In addition to the talks and discussions I regularly lead, over the years I have maintained many individual havrutot, or study partners, with undergraduates. The topics under study have ranged from the Bible to Mishnah and Talmud to Jewish philosophy. And while it is a commonplace among Jewish educators to invoke the Talmudic saying, “I have learned from my students most of all,” there’s a reason it’s a commonplace—it’s true.

This year one of my student havrutot is a philosophy major, and we are learning the Mei Hashlioach of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the nineteenth century Hasidic master also known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe. Mei Hashiloach is a commentary on the weekly Torah portion. But it is not so much a commentary as, like other Hasidic works, a creative meditation on big, eternal questions, by means of the words of the written Torah.

While he is beautiful and provocative, the Ishbitzer is also incredibly challenging—particularly if you are a linear thinker looking for a scientific sort of analysis. One of his main theological premises is that human beings are ultimately vessels for God’s will. In one of his more famous formulations, he suggests that Zimri, the Israelite who was publicly fornicating with a Midianite woman and was killed by the priest Pinchas in an act of righteous zealotry (see Num. 25), was not actually sinning, because God had willed it. This line of thinking is where the Ishbitzer crosses a line into dangerous territory.

But in other places, he offers compelling challenges to the ways we traditionally approach Torah and the world. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Ishbitzer’s commentary on the revelation at Sinai is breathtaking in the way it meditates on the limits of language and history. His approach to the Mishkan helps us see the deeper questions in its symbolism: What does it mean to have a body? How does the symbolism of clothing and furniture help us experience the gap between our desires and our ethics?

Parshat Ki Tissa, recounting the incident of the Golden Calf, provides yet another twist on these questions. How can we, who have bodies, who think and speak in language, relate to a God who doesn’t have a body, who exists beyond time, space, and language? Going further, into the real heart of Ki Tissa—Moses’s incredible encounter with God, and God’s act of grace in forgiving the people of Israel—the Ishbitzer prompts us to ask, How do we understand God’s forgiveness? How do we understand our own capacity for righteousness and grace, which exists alongside our capacity for self-interest, exploitation and sin? Particularly for the Ishbitzer, who sees God as the force behind everything, how do we understand the gap between our potential and our reality?

His answers can be beguiling. God created Moses with the attributes (middot) to be able to accept the words of Torah, he says. And at the moment of Moses’s plea for the people, God recognized those attributes in Moses and showed him grace. It’s confusing: Why does God need to recognize those attributes in Moses, if God was the one who put them there? Doesn’t that suggest that God forgets God’s own actions? And isn’t that a problem if God is all-knowing?

My havruta and I circled around this question repeatedly during our hour reading the Mei Hashiloach. I tried to suggest that this linear approach—trying to understand the sequence of events—was not going to work, because it’s not following the questions of the Ishbitzer. He isn’t trying to explain what God is, he isn’t engaging in speculative metaphysics. He’s offering a meditation. It’s more poetry than prose.

Being a parent, I have an inarticulable intuition of the Ishbitzer’s gesture: I have had hopes and dreams and visions of the future for my children, which I may forget at various moments, but which are brought back into consciousness at other moments—moments which I would identify as hen, grace. How that works is a mystery, and that’s precisely what makes the idea of hen so powerful. This is the essence of God that God cannot show Moses, the mystery par excellence: “I will be show grace unto whom I will show grace, and will show mercy unto whom I shall show mercy.” (Ex. 33:19)

At this stage of my life, the question “What is the nature of the universe?” is less important to me than the question, “How does this approach help me live a better life?” Perhaps this betrays my philosophical affinity for pragmatism, a la William James or John Dewey. Perhaps it also represents a certain surrendering of control: in seeking to explain the universe, we often seek to control it. By easing off on the quest for explanation, and accepting the fact that I cannot really ever know the workings of world with certainty, I find I can actually get to a more fruitful place in being a servant of God.

Shabbat shalom.

The name of Neilah is ironic. Neilah refers to the locking of the gates. As the sun sets, the gates of the city are locked, the gates of heaven are locked. But as we will say in a few moments during the amidah, we implore God: p’tach lanu sha’ar b’et neilat sha’ar: Open the gates at the time when they would be locked.

Open. Open is the theme of Neilah, just as it has been for all of Yom Kippur. From the moment of Kol Nidrei, when we opened up by throwing off the fetters of our vows, to the viduy, when we have opened ourselves to critique, to the avodah, when we open ourselves to the historical moment of the beit hamikdash and transport ourselves there through the opening of imagination: openness has been our theme. P’tach lanu sha’ar b’et neilat sha’ar.

We stand here now, at this moment, as open as we will be all year. We sense the openness of the bride and groom on their wedding day, for this is the day of our wedding with the Ribbono shel Olam. It is the day of forgiveness, of renewal, of letting go, of being open. We stand here at Neilah tired and exhilarated, the way we stand near the end of the wedding: we don’t want it to end. As hungry as we are, as tired as we are, these are the last moments for us to be together in this special way: b’ahava v’achva, b’shalom v’reut.

Look around. This is our community. These are our brothers and sisters. These are the people to whom we are responsible. These are the people with whom we share some of the most intimate moments of our lives, the people whose joys and sorrows we share, the people who support us and comfort us. And in this minyan, we can say, these are even the people who know exactly what foods we like and don’t like.

This is a special group of people. The moment of Neilah is the beginning of the end, and the end of the beginning. It is the moment when we can be together in a unique way, in an open way, the way we are together at a wedding. We can pray for one another, we can pray for our kehilla, we can pray for our students, we can pray for klal yisrael. These prayers, uttered at this moment, are special prayers.

So let’s open the gates as they try to shut, let’s push them open and hold the moment a little longer. P’tach lanu sha’ar b’eit neilat sha’ar.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things

(Phillippians 4:8)
To put it mildly, it’s unusual for a rabbi to begin his Yom Kippur sermon by quoting the Christian Bible. The Torah, the High Holiday machzor, the Talmud, even the Big Book of Jewish Humor (which I’ve done). But Saint Paul? Really? Well, as we say at Hillel, we are distinctively Jewish and universally human. Chalk this up to the latter half.

But seriously folks, this is not a gratuitous quote from Paul’s Epistle to the Phillippians. Quaecumque Sunt Vera – Whatsoever things are true. These are the words on the seal of Northwestern University. They are the very motto of this place. And they come from this verse of St. Paul. “Whatsoever things are true: think on these things.”

Northwestern adopted these words as its motto in 1890. Presumably the trustees wanted Northwestern to be dedicated to truth. Harvard’s motto was veritas, truth; Yale’s was lux et veritas, light and truth. Northwestern, like other universities, was and remains about learning truth, searching for truth, knowing truth, and living by truth.

Of course we have a word for this in Hebrew, and it is emet. Emet in Hebrew is as powerful as truth is in English. The book of Deuteronomy refers to judges who “inquire, probe, and investigate thoroughly” (13:15) to arrive at truth. The Talmud goes further and determines that judges must actually perform seven separate inquiries to ascertain the truth in a case. They must check and check and check again. They must interrogate witnesses and check all the facts. They must be absolutely certain in their judgments. They must be true.

So finding the truth can be hard work. Like a science experiment or an archaeological dig, the truth is there to be discovered, and it must be measured and investigated and probed before we can be certain. In this conception, truth stands outside us, and we must use our tools of historical and scientific inquiry to find and verify it.

But there is another kind of truth, one that doesn’t stand outside us, but which emerges from within us. This is the truth of belief. This is the truth that tells us that our family and friends will be there for us when we need them. It is the truth that says we can always come home. It is the truth we experience when we tell the story of the Exodus at Pesach. It is the truth we rely on today, Yom Kippur—the truth that God will always forgive, if only we will return. (more…)

There’s a van I see regularly when I go to the gym with a bumper sticker that reads, “Remember who you wanted to be.” It’s a powerful little statement. In six words, it conveys one of the great challenges of adulthood in the modern era: the divergences between the life we hoped or dreamed of at one time, and the life that has emerged. For Freud, and for many of us, the gap between aspiration and reality becomes the source of neurosis, ‘unresolved conflicts.’

That’s on the other side of adulthood. At the outset, in the lives of the emerging adults with whom I work (and who I hope are reading this), the sense is less one of regret over dreams deferred than being overwhelmed at the dreams available. I spoke this morning with a senior about to graduate, who reflected on being a freshman and entering the college dining hall for the first time. “People have to learn not to drink three cups of soda, or not to eat five pieces of cake. College kids have to learn discipline.” So many options are available, so many possible choices, that the issue becomes less one of being enslaved to a future already scripted than paralyzed by a future without a direction. And discipline, rather than being imposed from without, is largely left to the individual to develop for him or herself.

This reality comes to mind as we read the opening words of this week’s double-parasha, Behar-Behukotai: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a sabbath of rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards.” (Leviticus 25:2-4) For six years we are to toil and labor, a reflection of the six days of the week on which we work. But in the seventh year, the land itself–and we, by extension–must rest.

Likewise, the Torah continues, “Count off seven sabbaths of years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” (Lev. 25:8-10) During this Jubilee year, not only does the land rest, and not only do the people rest, but something even larger happens: liberty is proclaimed throughout the land. Specifically, the Torah states, “It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.” Land sales are effectivley cancelled, and everyone is to return to the plot of land from which their ancestors came. It is, in effect, pressing the reset button on society. That is the liberty of the Jubilee year–not to own, not to accumulate, not to exploit, but simply to be.

In his commentary on this passage, Rabbi Judah Loew, also called the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) explains why the Jubilee year is proclaimed not on Rosh Hashanah, as we might expect, but on the tenth of the month of Tishrei, on Yom Kippur: “The Jubilee and Yom Kippur—the two are really one: For the Jubilee is the return of each individual to his original state, to be as it was in the beginning. And so too with Yom Kippur: everyone returns to his original state. As the Holy One Blessed Be He atones for them, they return to their original state.” (Gur Aryeh Behar, s.v. “M’mashma”)

This is a utopian vision, to be sure. It is unclear whether the Jubilee year was ever actually implemented in ancient times. But the Torah’s vision is a profound one of what human life is really about: we work and toil while we number our days and our years. That is, we create a story, a context for our work. Knowing that the Sabbatical or Jubilee year is coming focuses us on those things that are most important, on work of value, on relationships of substance–because everything else is ultimatley ephemeral. By creating a rhythm for our lives, we discipline ourselves–we give shape to our dreams and dimensions to our visions.

The college dining hall, with its overwhelming choices, is a concrete example of the larger challenge for many emerging adults today: How to create structure and develop discipline on your own. For so many students, time is not a dimension to be considered–except when a deadline is approaching, when a paper is due or a test is about to happen. But in college you can make your own hours, you can choose your own courses, you can write your own story–all, in most cases, without being committed to anyone else in particular.

Yet, as the senior I talked with this morning realized, that’s not a healthy way to live. Time is the dimension that distinguishes human beings from the rest of Creation. To be human is to live in time. And to live in time, just as to live in space, requires discipline.The Sabbatical and the Jubilee, like Shabbat, exist to discipline us to live in time.

Shabbat shalom.

There are five possibilities. One: Adam fell.
Two: he was pushed. Three: he jumped. Four:
he looked over the edge, and one look silenced him.
Five: nothing worth mentioning happened to Adam.
The first, that he fell, is too simple. The fourth,
fear, we have tried. It’s useless. The fifth,
nothing happened, is dull. The possibilities are these:
he jumped or was pushed. And the difference between them
is only an issue of whether the demons
work from the inside out or from the outside
in: the one
theological question.

~ “Essay on Adam” by Robert Bringhurst (b. 1946)

My wife introduced me to this poem a number of years ago, and it has resonated with me ever since. What strikes me most about it is the subtlety to which it draws our attention: the line between what happens to us and what we make happen ourselves. Our modern sense of self is built on a notion of agency–our decisions as rational actors are what define us as human beings. Behavior which is irrational, behavior that is coerced, doesn’t carry the same legitimacy. In the modern world, the demons are meant to work only from within.

Yet, to borrow a phrase, “stuff happens.” Life is not only the story we write, the decisions we make for ourselves. As much, if not more, comes from what is beyond our control: the decisions made by our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them, that resulted in us being born in the time and place we were; the decisions of governments and armies and business people; the decisions of so many people beyond us. These decisions and events shape us.

I raise this now because this week’s double-parasha, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, dances around this point of decision. While last week’s parasha dealt with the things that happen to us, this week’s seems to focus more on that which is in our control: the people we sleep with, the ways we behave, the actions we take or fail to take to uphold the ideal of kedusha, holiness.

Central to the parasha of Acharei Mot is the Yom Kippur ritual. And at the center of that ritual is the casting of lots. Two identical goats–according to the Rabbis, identical in every respect–are brought forward, and lots are cast. One of them is to be sacrificed to God, the other will have the sins of all of Israel confessed upon it, and will be thrown over a cliff in the wilderness.

The word for lot in Hebrew is goral. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote movingly of the notion of a brit goral, a “covenant of fate.” One of the essential aspects of this covenant, and of Yom Kippur, is recognizing that our lives are not simply the stories we write for ourselves, though we must be responsible for that which is in our control. As important, if not more so, is realizing that our lives are a tapestry, woven of our own choices and those of others that wind up affecting us. We are not the authors of our destiny; “the universe” (the colloquial stand in for “God” these days) is.

This brings us back to the poem. The “one theological question” referred to is this one: where does our own story end and the story of another begin?

Shabbat shalom.