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Schedule

 

Hoshana Rabah

Fri, Oct 6 • 9:00 a.m

 

Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah

Sat, Oct 7
9:00 a.m.  Shemini Atzeret
6:00 p.m. Seudah Shlishit Dinner
7:00 p.m. Erev Simchat Torah

Sun, Oct 8 • 10:00 a.m. Simchat Torah Extravaganza

 

5784 Yom Kippur Appeal

Etrog & Lulav order deadline has passed.

 

For everyone's comfort and safety, please keep bags to a minimum.
We ask that anyone not feeling well, please remain home and worship with us online. 

*Registration is required for programming, services, babysitting, and meals. Additional costs may apply.

High Holiday Donations

& Yizkor Book

High Holiday Appeal/Donations
Rodef Shalom's Yom Kippur appeal is
vital to our annual budget. Membership
dues make up about a third of our budget;
fundraising throughout the year, and
particularly during the holidays,
enables us to fulfill our mission and
continue our sacred work. Your generous
support is greatly appreciated. 

Click here for 5784 Yizkor Book.

Click here to donate.


 

New Inclusion Offerings at Rodef Shalom

The Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Committee is working hard and wants everyone to know what Rodef Shalom can provide!

We have assistive hearing devices to enhance the sound, ear plugs if you wish to lower the sound (disposable), magnifiers to help with the small print in the prayer books, and large print prayer books. There is a wheelchair if needed.

There is signage related to bathroom facilities, the infant room, and preschool classrooms in Braille and English.


 

JFS Jewish Disabilities Advocates Resources

As we approach the High Holy Days, our partners at JFS Jewish Disabilities Advocates encourage us to consider how we are fulfilling our own needs for social connections and challenge ourselves to ensure that others, especially those with disabilities who may be at risk of disconnection, also receive the benefits social connections provide.

Social Connection, Reflection, and Renewal in 5784

JFS Jewish Disabilities Advocates and the Blue Dove Foundation together prompt us to reflect on our own social connections amid the public health epidemic of loneliness and lack of connection, while also offering specific suggestions for supporting those who may be isolated or lonely.

Exploring Social Connectedness & Mental Wellness

JFS Donation Opportunity

You can support the JFS High Holiday donation drive this year by donating hygiene and food items. JFS has partnered with Justice Necessary to provide individuals and families who come to the Weinberg Food Pantry and the Mobile Food & Hygiene Pantry with personal care items. View the list of most needed items. Donations can be placed in the JFS collection bins at Rodef Shalom.


 

Sermons 5784

Lose Yourself
Rosh Hashanah 5784

 

A few weeks ago, I dropped Noa off for her second year at Brandeis. Last year on Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about first year drop off — you might remember the mixtape I gave my parents at college drop off, the Apple playlist Noa made me, saying shehechianu. It was all very emotional -- and prompted a sermon.

But now Noa’s in year two — and I’m thinking drop off is going to be super easy. I mean, she has all of these friends, including a fabulous roommate.

She knows what classes she’s taking and has almost chosen a major, she knows where to get her favorite coffee in the morning, she knows what fraternities put on the best crowded basement parties after Shabbat dinner at Hillel. It’s so different from first year of college, when all of these were unknowns. But when I left Noa last year, there was one thing I did know — pictures and fairy lights were hung and I’d helped her set up her room.

This year, I took Noa and her roommate Julia shopping and then out for dinner — and when I left, Noa still had a lot to set up. On her own. We raise our kids in the hopes that they will grow to independence, and she is well on her way.

During my time with Noa and Julia, (while I was not helping to hang fairy lights), we talked about the leadership positions they now hold in various clubs and the new activities they hope to try this year.

And I thought about the following —when I left Noa last year, I said — “You have these four amazing years in front of you. Go try things. Go find yourself!”

A year later, I realize that “go find yourself” wasn’t actually the full message I was striving to communicate.

Because that notion of finding ourselves is based on an idea that if we fully understand who we are as individuals, in our most authentic form, we can decisively live based on that, and we will be happy.

Self discovery leads to happiness, according to that plan.

The instruction to “go find yourself” stems from the idea that the most important part of my life is what I want. But that can’t possibly be a healthy message for members of teams, for communities, for families, for society.

If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that when people are isolated, when people don’t have community, and when people primarily concerned with themselves, they become deeply lonely.

When ppl live in spaces where connections between individuals and communities are weak, suicide rates go up. We are living in an epidemic of loneliness — and it is one of the leading causes of both physical and mental illness. “Loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and more lethal than consuming six alcoholic drinks a day, according to the surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy.

Loneliness is more dangerous for health than obesity, he says — and, alas, we have been growing more lonely.”

Conversely, when we sense that we are part of something bigger, that our feelings and longings and intentions are shared, we flourish.

So this year, my message to Noa and to Julia and to all of us is this — don’t focus on finding yourself. Insead, focus on losing yourself.

Figure out how your voice is part of something much much bigger — part of a community or a movement that has been here before you and will be here far after you.

Lose yourself so deeply that you realize you are part of something more important than your individualism. Lose yourself in something worthy of sacrifice.

Losing ourselves to the point of being willing to sacrifice is a central message of Judaism, and a central message of these high holy days.

Ours is a story of a people who for many centuries have known that we were part of something bigger. We have created a structure for living, for tzedakah, for acts of kindness, for counting a minyan, for supporting the bereaved, for celebrating a birth or a wedding or bnai mitzvah — it’s a system that reflects how Jewish individuals form a Jewish community.

We need ten people for a minyan, we make shiva calls to support one another. At a bat mitzvah — we sing “simin tov u’mazel Tov” to the family and then “u’vcohol Yisrael — and to all of the people Israel — because a celebration for a family is actually a celebration for our entire community. In today’s society of individualism, this concept may feel counter cultural and even radical.

It’s for this reason that I insist that all of my conversion candidates come to shul every week, adopt a practice of kashrut, volunteer, take part in communal holiday experiences

Being Jewish includes seeing ourselves as a small piece of a larger puzzle. And the puzzle needs each of our pieces, even when it is inconvenient and taxing.

But sacrificing our individual autonomy can be a hard concept for us moderns. We are way more comfortable thinking about what Judaism inspires in us than what Judaism demands of us. We like to ask — how does Judaism, how does study, how does prayer make me feel better?

This is what we can call Judaism as a tool for our own individual growth — which is lovely and has benefits, of course. But a full and complete Judaism actually asks something of us — asks us to see ourselves as part of a bigger story.

Today, as we begin 5784, I want us to stretch, and explore the idea of self sacrifice through some of our central Jewish texts, with the hope that we can adopt the idea that losing ourselves actually speaks to our souls deeply and is a critical first step towards truly finding ourselves.

Torah is filled with mythic stories of our heroes losing themselves in something bigger: Noah spends months consumed in the minutia of building an ark, pouring himself into a journey to save the planet. Abraham leaves his home and travels to another place to start the Jewish people. Judah says “take me instead of Benjamin” in order to save his beloved father from more pain. Hannah prays fervently for a child, her deepest dream in the world, but then gives that very child over to train to serve God and the Temple.

Let’s pause and consider Abraham —

Lech Lecha — first Abraham is asked to give up everything in his entire life. Sacrifice your past and present for a future, God says. And Abraham does this. He moves to another land, leaving his past —

And then God tells Abraham that he will be a father of a great nation — and Abraham wonders — who is the child who will carry on my lineage? Maybe Lot my nephew? Or Eliezer my servant?

Or Yishmael? But no — God says the child is Sarah’s son, Isaac. And Abraham loves this child more than life itself.

Dr. Micah Goodman teaches that there is a Second lech Lecha moment that comes next. God says “Hey Abraham. You sacrificed your whole life for the future — your future, the future of the Jewish people. and now I’m going to ask you to sacrifice that very thing that you built your life for. Isaac.

So here we are in our story and Isaac is about to lose his life — Abraham is about to lose everything he has based his life on — his whole purpose.

While the story of the binding of Isaac can be read as a polemic against child sacrifice—which was common at the time of the Torah—it is still a horrifying story.

It is entirely impossible to put ourselves into this myth and feel like Abraham – literally willing to climb the mountain and sacrifice our beloved child for God. And a God who would test us in this way is a very difficul God for us to relate to. But I don’t actually want us to take energy to try to imagine that today. Instead, I want us to try to understand this story as a critical metaphor, a symbol for us. The akeda is a story that is here to inspire us to live our lives with the willingness to make sacrifices for something greater than we are.

It’s a story that–in spite of its enormity–encourages us to identify in our own lives which relationships, ideals, and communities we are capable of making sacrifices for.

Because once we know what we are willing to sacrifice for — maybe even die for — we also begin to truly understand what we are prepared to base our life around and live for.

There is a second story of sacrifice that I want to share today, that is found in the second book of Samuel. Dr. Micah Goodman refers to this second story as “Akedat David” and teaches that we can understand deep principles about sacrifice and Judaism through the lens of this narrative. I found it inspiring to study this story with him this summer at Hartman, and today I want to share some of my learnings.

Like the binding of Isaac — I don’t read this literally, but rather I read it as a piece of sacred folklore through which we can learn valuable lessons.

Here is how this story goes:

God incites King David to count the people -- to take a census. Yet, God is angry with David for counting the people, and so after the counting, David is overcome with agony and guilt.

Woaaa — so that sounds crazy. God invites David to count, then tells him he shouldn’t have counted, and makes David suffer guilt and rejection.

Interestingly, when this same story is retold in Divre HaYamim, the Book of Chronicles, God is replaced with Satan — So it’s the character of Satan who incites David to count the people. I know some of us may have thought Satan doesn’t exist in Judaismz there’s that billboard down the street “stay for the lack of hell.” It’s true, we don’t really have hell — but Satan does appear here and there in our literature. A topic for another sermon—

Back to David — what is really wrong with his counting? Our rabbis in the Talmud teach that the issue here is that David didn’t count in the right manner using the half shekel, but instead counted the people directly. So it’s as if he had the people who worked for him point and say one. Two. three. There is actually a teaching that we are never supposed to literally count people in this way — so when we look around the room to see if there is a minyan, instead of counting we say — Hoshi’a et amecha u’varech et nahalatecha u’r’im ve’nase’im ad ha’olam.

Each person becomes a word in this verse from psalms.

So David counted directly — that’s one of his mistakes. But that’s not all. Our rabbis also suggest that he didn’t count for the right reasons. Ralbag writes that David only counted the people to feel good about himself — that he specifically wanted to know how many people were in his army to glorify his own ego.

Ramban and others teach that had David been counting people for a higher purpose, he would have been fine. But he was counting to pump up his own sense of success, and that was not ok.

So David counted. He messed up.

Our text then says

Vyach lev david oto -- David had a heart attack. Or maybe he had a guilt attack or a panic attack. He’s terrified he has just sinned and God is really really angry.

David is now suffering greatly and so he prays to God and says : ha’averna -- David asks God to relocate his sin.

Ok, so let’s talk for a minute about sin or transgression.

Judaism teaches that to sin or to transgress is to miss the mark, to miss our target. And so to get back on the right course, we do teshuvah — we literally return to our path.

Another metaphor is that sin is like dirt, and in order to fix it, we have to clean it. That is what it means to do kapara — the same root as Yom Kippur. We use kapara throughout our liturgy, as we pray for God to clean our souls.

A third metaphor is that sin is like weight — a weight that we cannot bear. The goal is then to relocate the weight and put it someplace else, where it can be held and won’t overwhelm.

David says he cannot carry the weight of his sin, and he begs God to please relocate it.

So what does God do?

God sends the prophet Gad…

And Gad says “Hey David. We can relocate the weight, but only through one of three punishments — You have a choice. Your pain from your sin can be relocated through either:

7 years of famine,

or

Three months of war and defeat by your enemy

Or

A short 3 day plague.

None of these are any good! David thinks about it and he really wants to end his suffering, so he chooses the plague.

So first, David sins by counting ppl and seeing them as instruments in service of his own emotional needs.

And then he experiences overwhelming guilt and heart pain.

When this feels too intense, God agrees to relocate David’s pain and allows David to choose the vehicle for doing this.

And David chooses a plague that causes pain and death to many — 70,000 deaths, according to the text.

David counts. Then he chooses to have others suffer because of his mistake. Both of these transgressions highlight David as a person who only sees others as instruments for his personal agenda.

In this story, the plague only stops when David himself changes. When he wakes up and says “I’m the one who sinned and all these people — these real human beings — are now suffering! Make it stop! Take me instead of them.”

David’s shift is manifested in his new willingness to suffer himself. To sacrifice himself.

And here’s the key — when David has this realization — the plague ends and David does not actually suffer any more. The lesson here is this: it was David’s willingness to be selfless, to suffer personally instead of having his community suffer, to take on the weight of the plague himself, that enabled the plague to finally end.

Micah Goodman emphasizes that In these two stories, neither David nor Abraham actually have to make a sacrifice. But both of them are willing to — they are both willing to lose themselves and give enormously.

David’s story goes even deeper, resonating with us in this particular season — it’s a story about transformation. In the beginning, David thinks the people are supposed to be there for him — to serve him. but he comes to realize — no!

David is supposed to be there to help the people.

These ancient stories from our tradition can inspire us this year.

In truth, 200 years from now, very very few of us will be remembered as individuals. It’s a hard reality to hold, but it’s true. We are but dust, a phrase we repeat on these Holy Days. But while our names may not be remembered, there will be ripple effects from our actions.

Our actions, our commitments, our words, our contributions — they make a profound and lasting impact.

There are so many ways to do this.

I want to share a story about Karen Green, z”l, Jeff’s beloved first wife. Karen and Jeff knew a woman named Gail from their shul in CA whose husband got an infection. He was a musician and didn’t have health insurance and so he didn't go to the ER. He died suddenly, at home, leaving a young, devastated wife. Gail was alone, and jobless, and she was going to lose her rental apartment.

Upon learning about this, Karen told Jeff that they needed to invite Gail to live with them. Karen had only been in California about a year, and barely knew Gail, but she insisted that this was the right thing to do. Gail and her cat lived with Karen and Jeff for a year. A difficult year of depression, substance abuse, and fruitless job searches. Karen took in Gail not because it was convenient. Not because they were lifelong friends.

But because Karen saw herself as part of something bigger. Because Karen knew what she was willing to sacrifice for another human being who had been dealt an unfair burden. Because, as she would say, “this is what Jews do.”

Karen Green is no longer in this world, but Gail is, and her life is far better because of the sacrifices Karen made. In fact, Gail is now living in Texas and teaching preschool, though she might easily have ended up unhoused and alone.

This is just one story, and I hesitated to tell it today because not all of us would feel that we could lose ourselves and sacrifice in this way. Maybe it’s an example that’s too great — an aspiration too high. For some of us it might be. But for Karen it wasn’t.

And that can inspire us to find the places where we can sacrifice, where we can give up a little of our self for something greater.

Second real life story: This past summer, during my two weeks in Israel, I was able to join the protest movement four unique times — once at the airport upon arriving, twice in Jerusalem, and once in Tel Aviv. Day after day, week after week, in both pouring rain and in intense heat, thousands upon thousands of people show up. Old people, young people, kids in strollers.

People with walkers. Religious families dressed modestly and secular hipsters with tattoos.

All of these people hold Israeli flags, asserting that they see their personal destiny as part of the destiny of the Israeli people. They all join together at the beginning and end of these gatherings, singing Hatikvah, asserting that each and every one of them is part of the hope and the future of this nation.

Let’s be clear, these protesters are making significant personal sacrifices. Many professionals are taking vacation time or unpaid leave to attend weekday protests.

The brother in law of my dear friend, a member of the airforce pilot protest group — goes early every Saturday to set up — when we were in Tel Aviv, the heat was scorching, but he had been outside all day.

When I was at the protest in Tel Aviv, I was surrounded by 150,000 other people — the largest group of Jews I have ever been with in a gathering. Each protester is a speck lost in a crowd — but each speck is vital, essential to creating something bigger and preserving the Israel that we all dream of.

The Israeli people really get that. Each voice matters. And so they keep showing up. Here in America, we don’t actually know how to protest with this kind of unwavering conviction and sacrifice. But we have this chance now to learn from our Israeli siblings.

The thing that Karen Green knew and that the protestors in Israel know — and that I want us all to really focus on this year — is this universal truth: We belong to one another.

We are part of something greater and our sacrifices demonstrate our deepest convictions. Only in the process of truly losing ourselves–giving part of ourselves away– can we achieve the clarity to begin to honestly find ourselves.

This year, Let’s ask ourselves — what is my purpose in this bigger web of humanity, and how can I lose myself in our communal joys, struggles and yearnings.

Let’s fully invest in what it means to be part of a Jewish people that has wrestled and celebrated and yearned — really yearned — for generations. A people who will, we pray, wrestle and celebrate and yearn through many many many generations to come.

It’s a year to really ask — in what spaces am I prepared to sacrifice for the greater good — for the betterment of other humans, for the future of science or literature or the arts, for a dynamic and supportive and animated and living Jewish community,

for our shifting climate and its impact on our grandchildren, for those who are suffering, for democracy in Israel and here in the United States.

Let’s have the courage and conviction to lose ourselves within our shared humanity and interconnectedness — and as a result, find ourselves in that sacred process.

 

Ye’ush: Saying “I Quit”
Kol Nidre 5784

 

I remember when things were falling apart. I went from sobbing in bed in a fetal position, to leading a shiva minyan for a congregant and feeling like I was the one who was dying. I had to leave because the smell of the food made me so nauseous.

After a year of divorce therapy, we sent a letter to the shul.

“After much thought and dedicated work on our marriage, Rick and I have decided to separate and embark on a new path for our family. This has been a very difficult time for us and we have put a lot of energy and tears into coming to this new reality. It is heartbreaking--and it also feels like where we need to be right now.”

The letter continued:

“We want you to know, first and foremost, that we are okay…. While we have both counseled couples going through such transitions, neither of us has been through this ourselves. Sometimes we feel really sad. Other times we are able to push forward with resilience.”

This isn’t a sermon about divorce per se. This is a sermon about holding on and letting go.

Nobody falls in love and gets married thinking they will get divorced. Nobody makes a friend planning for that friendship to end. People don’t generally begin career paths with a plan of taking a 180 degree turn. People don’t leave a home they love without serious thought and evaluation. And people don’t invest in fertility treatment with an end goal of giving up.

And yet, life happens. And sometimes quitting is the right option, even when it is really really hard.

When I was in 7th grade, I won the persistence award. I didn’t know that such an award existed before I received it, but I was pretty thrilled when my name was called — I felt honored to be seen as a hard worker, a person who did not give up.

Persistence has remained a central piece of my identity throughout my life, from academics to friendships to working towards professional goals. And so quitting on my marriage felt like a failure, and yet staying in a relationship that could not be revived seemed impossible. Then my friend Caroline reframed the situation. "Rachel," she said, "certainly getting divorced is ending your marriage. But in terminating your marriage, what you are really doing is refusing to quit on the rest of your life."

I have given a number of sermons about hope over the years. About the importance of harnessing hope, moving forward, and persevering at all costs. And there will be times in the future when I remind us of that — because there are many moments when we need to hear that exact message. But this evening, I don’t want to simply talk about the hope that comes with persistence — instead, I want to talk about both the value of holding on and the value of letting go. The value of persevering and also the value of stopping.It is often difficult to discern when to change tracks in our own personal lives — these are in fact some of the most difficult decisions of our existence.

To be gritty,’ writes the psychologist Angela Duckworth in her bestselling book Grit, ‘is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.’ We know that it is Persistence and hope that have led us to where we are as a civilization.

It is a value that is essential in relationships, in learning, and in discovery. When Jeff speaks to kids about the rocket industry, he starts with failure -- he teaches them that repeated failures and years of persistence led to success. A combination of working and failing and dreaming and working and failing and dreaming sent us to the moon, created satellites, and leveraged rockets. The state of Israel was founded after centuries of dreaming… and the desert has bloomed after years of hard work. We know dreams often come true only after substantial effort.

The word for perseverance in Hebrew is Hatmadah. And Judaism certainly supports this value.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is known for saying “Lo l’hityaesh! Never despair!”…. And there are stories upon stories about persistence.

There is a beautiful story in Avot de rabbi Natan that goes like this:

“ Akiva was tending his flock in the hills of Judah. He became thirsty and went to his favorite brook in the hills to take a drink. As he was drawing the crystal clear water in his palm and putting it to his mouth, something caught his eye. He saw drops of water falling on a huge stone – and directly where the drops were falling, there was a deep hole in the stone. Akiva was fascinated. He gazed at the drops, and at the stone.”

“What mighty power there is in a drop of water,” the shepherd thought. “Suppose I began to study the Torah, little by little, drop by drop. Do you think my stony heart would soften up the rock?”

Akiva went to study, persevered, and became Rabbi Akiva, the great Torah scholar.

And here’s another story: Our Torah is centered around a profound narrative of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at mount Sinai. As the legend goes, Moshe came down the mountain with those two tablets and smashed them, only to then go back up and beg God for a do-over. Together, they rewrote those tablets, and Moshe descended from the mountain with the tablets in one hand on Yom Kippur. God gave Moshe a second chance — encouraging us to keep going, to trek back up that mountain, to persist. These are beautiful and inspiring teachings. They carry within them deep wisdom of perseverance — and yet, this is only one form of wisdom.

Of course we should dream big, work hard, and strive for all that is important in our life, for our communities, and for humanity. But what about when our steadfast conviction to the dream actually hinders us, and prevents us from moving forward?

What about when focusing on one dream actually leads to the collapse for the rest of our lives? Sometimes letting go of one dream can make space for another.

While Judaism often promotes a commitment to sticking with it — Judaism also supports giving up. Giving up on darkness to make room for light.

We began this evening with the singing of Kol Nidre — annulling the vows of the past and pre-emptively annulling our vows of the future. The rabbis were really scared of vows for legal reasons. But I want to suggest that there is also a spiritual reason. Maybe a vow represents a dream. And for many of us, some of these vows or dreams are simply not realized. Yom Kippur therefore sets up a framework through which we can let go, and feel open to embracing new dreams–new, deep commitments. Kol Nidre sets us free from previous visions of ourselves and allows us to move forward with new visions, knowing that we may not get it exactly right, but we are trying.

One of the very first sugiyot — the very first sections I learned in the Talmud — was a sugiyha called eilu mitziyot. It begins eilu mittziyot Shelo v’elu chayav l’hkriz… these are the found items that you can keep, and these are the found items that you must announce in an effort to find their owners. The goal is to distinguish and make rules for how a finder must behave when coming across an item that doesn’t belong to him, but also which of their lost items a person can attempt to retrieve. It’s clear from this sugiyha that the Talmudic rabbis believed we should sometimes give up searching. The passage goes through various cases, explaining the different times when a person can realistically say “ye’ush” — I’m giving up on finding this lost item.

Dr. Marjorie Lehman teaches that the rabbis were actually concerned with something much deeper than the everyday lost items they used as examples. They were concerned with the loss of their Temple, the loss of their system of sacrifices. They were concerned with the real monumental personal and communal losses that happen in our worlds.

The Talmud introduces the idea that when someone utters ye’ush — they are giving up on finding a physical object, but the power of this word extends far beyond what is concrete.

The Talmud tells us that sometimes we need to be able to say “I’m closing this chapter” and ready to start again.

One of the greatest privileges I have as a rabbi is officiating at weddings. I just love them.

And yet, our tradition dedicated another full book of Talmud to gittin — to divorces. Judaism’s way of getting divorced is entirely imperfect in that it is not egalitarian, but divorce is not shunned — when marriages don’t work, there is a ceremony that frees two people to move forward independently. While we never want couples to be there, when they are, I feel privileged to be able to officiate at these short, clear ceremonies, through which an enormous opening is created.

These ceremonies invite hope and possibility for human beings with bruised and battered hearts.

When Rick and I did our get ceremony with a gentle and kind rabbi in Teaneck NJ, we were deeply grateful to have such a ritual of closure to lean on.

So why all of this focus -- pages and pages and pages of Talmud -- on saying ye’ush, despairing of hope, ending relationships?

Our tradition understands that sometimes when we persevere in a search, a career, a marriage, or a toxic relationship, we actually give up on something bigger.

Alternatively, when we stop… when we quit… we create space and fertile ground for new possibilities to grow.

According to the Talmud, when a person is ready, they can say Ye’ush — I relinquish hope in finding what I am seeking.

There isn’t a prescribed time for this. So too in our lives — we have the freedom to choose when to make those decisions about the realities that are most personal to us. In this way, ye’ush has incredibly redemptive power.

Yeush allows us to figure out what can be fixed and what cannot be — and enables us to release.

In the world of psychology, this is known as “goal adjustment capacity.” “Goal adjustment capacity – which psychologists see a beneficial form of ‘self-regulation’ or ‘self-management’ – encapsulates two key components: the ability to disengage from fruitless goals and the ability to re-engage in new, more productive goals.

This might be understood as an ability to move from one dream to another. Or sometimes, an ability to adjust how we are going to reach our dream, because our dream—-whether it be for fulfillment, marriage, friendship, career, or family—-often stays constant even as we radically redirect our path.

Annie Duke, the author of Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, advises: “Every goal needs a really good “unless.”

Like, “I’m going to train for a marathon unless it turns out that that makes me miserable and I really miss my family.” Or “I’m going to climb Mount Everest unless I don’t make it to the summit by 1 p.m.” Because we have to remember what the goal really is. The goal isn’t to get to the top of Everest. The goal is to get back down to the bottom alive so that you can climb more mountains in the future.”

Emma Garber began dancing at aged three. By the time she was a teenager, she knew she wanted to be a professional ballet dancer.

“The pressure of a high-intensity, pre-professional dance studio sometimes broke me, and there were multiple nights that I came home in tears, both physically and mentally exhausted. But I never considered quitting. Every time the going got tough, I would close my eyes and picture myself in the wings of my first professional performance.

I told myself everything would be worth it when I finally reached my goal.”

“…But then she hit a wall in her first year of college, and changed course. ‘I was like, I don’t think I want to do this for the rest of my life. I stood up, I walked out, I called my mom and I was like, I don’t even know what I want to do with my life anymore.’”

Ye’ush. Ye’ush to a professional longing and sense of artistic calling

Jonathan struggled deeply with certain aspects of his mother’s personality. For years he tried to change her. When he finally realized that he couldn’t and accepted her for who she was, with all her flaws, there was an opening. A possibility of a new kind of relationship.

Ye’ush to trying to change those we love.

After struggling with infertility for years, Seppi turned to IVF. She chose baby names and a birthing center, and she set up an adorable nursery in her home. But after the first cycle of IVF, her embryos were not viable.

“For Seppi, the detailed ovulation calendars and the despair that came with negative pregnancy tests became unbearable. The process worsened her fibroids and her endometriosis.

After weighing all her reproductive health concerns, she decided to end her attempts to get pregnant, a decision that initially plunged her into an all-encompassing grief.”

"I stopped to protect my physical, emotional and mental health. My heart would shatter every month when I'd get my period, and I didn't know how much more I could take. I'd spent my whole life dreaming about motherhood. ...

I stayed at my job so I'd have maternity leave -- I had held space in my life for a baby," she says. "Through therapy, grief work, and connecting with others in the childless community, I slowly started to create a new vision for my life. I chose myself and my wellbeing over holding onto the hope of a baby."

Ye’ush to a dream she held for herself and to a vision she had savored for her family.

In my time as a rabbi, I have seen people struggle for years in loveless marriages, trying desperately to make things work, often for the sake of their children -- people often feel stuck in what they say is “not good enough to stay but also not bad enough to leave.” Some of these folks have persevered, and have, through solid work, re-energized their relationships, not just for the kids, but also for them themselves.

But I’ve also seen many choose to end their marriages when they realized that they could actually be happier people and better parents on their own. That their partner did not love them in the ways that they deserved to be loved.

Ye’ush to a relationship that does not provide the love that each of us deserves.

I have seen grown children make the excruciating decision to end contact with abusive parents for the sake of their own well being. For the sake of their children’s well being. This is an act of self love. Not easy. But in these cases, the right path forward.

Ye’ush to a familial bond which is meant to be loving, and instead creates wounds and scars.

I have seen people struggle with friendships, unable to shift a toxic dynamic. Stepping back from such friendships can feel brutal, but many have shared with me that this has allowed them to find space in their lives for new connections.

Ye’ush to repeated patterns of hurt.

I’ve seen friends and colleagues stay in jobs that they don’t love because they are afraid they will not find anything that is truly better.

The dream that they had for how they would lead lies buried in their real concerns about moving their families, remaining economically stable, and starting over in a new community.

Ye’ush to a professional dream for the sake of family and the gift of stability.

And I have also seen colleagues say “I’m going to find a new job,” courageously leaving current positions and finding congregations that are a much better match -- spaces where they are truly able to actualize the dreams they had when they began their rabbinic journeys. Sometimes we need to close the door on one opportunity in order to be open to the next.

Ye’ush to fear and to a professional position just isn’t enough.

Saying yeush is not failing. Saying yeush is saying “I might be quitting on this particular experience or relationship or job, but I am doing this because I refuse to quit on the rest of my life. My life is worth more than persevering on this one particular path. Ye’ush can be the most persistent move of them all -- an expression of continued hope for what life can be.

Don’t get me wrong. Saying Yeush is not easy. From an early age, our society teaches us to “stick to it,” and that becomes part of our self worth. We all suffer from the “sunk cost fallacy,” that because we have already invested so much down this path, we just have to keep going. But remember, the sunk cost is sunk– we don’t have to sink the rest of our lives along with it. And often, it’s not even a “cost,” it’s our past, the decisions and experiences that have made us who we are. Even if they weren’t good, they likely helped us to learn and grow. Yeush isn’t something that our tradition takes lightly. But it is very Jewish. Just as Jewish as im tirtzu – to never give up hope and follow every dream to completion.

This year, my blessing for us is that we can have compassion for ourselves when struggling with these deep decisions. May we know in our hearts that there are times to hold on and times to let go, and may we have the strength and wisdom to discern the moments for each.

 

Barbie and Choosing to be Human
Yom Kippur 5784

 

My favorite party game is Two Truths and a Lie. Each person shares two little known facts about their life and one lie, and everyone has to guess which of the three statements are true and which one is false. (You know it’s going to be a winner Yom Kippur sermon when the rabbi begins by admitting that she loves a game that is focused on lying and deceiving people) No, but really, the fun part of the game is that you get to share outrageous truths — and you get to learn other people’s outrageous truths. So one of my go-to truths for this game — and I’m never going to be able to use it again after this sermon — is that when I was a kid, I made voice overs for Barbie doll commercials.

The year was 1987. I was living in London, England. I was in 7th grade, with thick bottle cap glasses, short dark curly hair, and a bit of an artsy, dorky, wanna be fashionista “I really wish my parents would buy me more Benetton and Esprit sweatshirts but they won’t” look. You might get that picture.

Definitely not the kid they typically cast in Barbie commercials. But a casting director came to the American school in London because they had cast the kid you would expect — cute blond girl — for some commercials — including the commercial for the red Barbie Ferrari which was about to hit the market. But here’s the catch — she was British, and so they needed American girls’ voices to dub in.

I auditioned and was thrilled beyond words to be cast. Later that week, they came back to my school and I spent an afternoon saying my lines over and over again into a 1980s recording device — “Oooo! Oo! Wow! Easy! Gorgeous hair.” — those were all of my lines. Over and over again. I remember this very clearly.

With my Barbie history, I was especially excited when Barbie was released this past summer.

Adin and I put on our pink suits, paused at a Starbucks drive through and arrived for a 9:15 am showing. As the previews ended, Adin turned to me and said “Mom, you’re going to cry.” He was right.

The essence of this year’s blockbuster sensation was — “choose to be human.” Being human means that you will have challenges, you will experience loss, you will face sadness — You may even have flat feet — but being human is worth all of that and more. Because you will feel. You will have a heart — a heart that will burst with love and break with grief. Real life is not supernatural and magic. It’s not always safe. But even when given an alternative, real human life is worth choosing, again and again and again.

So truly, I didn’t go to the Barbie movie thinking I might get a sermon out of it. Well, ok, so maybe I go through life thinking anything and everything might prompt a sermon, but I didn't expect this movie to contain so much inspiration and Torah.

But then that moment came -- and I cried. Because there was a truth from this move that pierced through so deeply… being human, with all of its struggles, is a gift.

This is a profoundly Jewish concept, and one that I want us to explore more deeply today.

So, what is this beautiful, complex, paradoxical experience of being human?

Being human means striving to write our own story -- our own book of life -- while knowing that there is much that we cannot control.

In Barbie land, Barbie and Ken are toys that have no real life span. They are created and they exist as they were created. But we humans are different. We grow and evolve throughout our lives. Our bodies shift, our hair grays, we develop wrinkles. We evolve in our ways of thinking and in our perspectives, in our passions, in our desires… There is so much that we get to write, that we get to own.

Yet there is also so much that we don’t.

In a land of toys, a toy maker creates a doll, and then a human plays with that doll, and controls that doll’s future. We can cut our doll’s hair, dress her, decide her occupation, and rehome her when we lose interest in playing.

But we humans don’t live in such a world. We were created with the spark of the divine and the enormous blessing of free will. We have choices, and other people also have choices -- and often other people’s choices impact us. There are accidents, disease -- we both struggle and thrive within a human centered world that is animated by the human condition. This means that when bad things happen -- when people lose their lives abruptly or prematurely, when people hurt one another -- we are reminded that we are not toys. And God is not a toy maker or a child, sitting on the floor cutting our hair and creating our destiny.

Rather, the God I imagine is crying with us when our lives go off course, when people are cruel, when our existence is shattered. As humans, we were blessed with the strength to reach out to God for comfort, for inspiration -- but I don’t envision a God who is magically reaching down to shift our realities.

Although there is no magic that can make everything in our world ok, we are blessed with the power to choose how we respond to our realities.

The stories we tell. The ways we frame our very existence. This ability to frame and respond to the events in our lives can be incredibly healing.

And yet — we will not always heal. Being human means accepting that we will all die. Every single one of us. The reality of our birth and the reality of our future death may in fact be the only two things that we all have in common.

In the movie, Barbie tells her creator, Denver native Ruth Hadler “I want to do the imagining; I don’t want to be the idea.”

“Ideas live forever, humans not so much,” Ruth warns Barbie.

Death is profoundly scary for most of us. In fact, for Barbie, thinking about death is what pushes her to explore the real world. The idea that there will be a time when we don’t exist — when we are no more — if we really sit with it, this can shake us to our core. And the fact is that not one of us knows what is beyond this life — we may or may not fervently believe in the eternal existence of the soul, but being human means acknowledging that not one of us truly knows.

In some ways this is why we humans have created a form of magical thinking — to help us reckon with our natural vulnerability and lack of control. We don’t live in the magical world of Barbie, where dolls live forever and only ever have perfectly hot water in their showers. But we yearn for magic; Magical thinking is a form of human self protection–a response to our frightening world. My friend Rabbi Annie Tucker invited me to explore magical thinking on a deeper level this year, and also to the work of author Joan Didion. Didion explains that magical thinking is a gentle way of soothing ourselves —

we tell ourselves that if we have certain thoughts or perform certain rituals, we can avoid Crisis. In Dideon’s memoir, she describes not being able to give away her husband’s shoes after he died, for fear that he might need them when he was resurrected.

A story: When I was a kid, my parents were VERY into wearing seat belts. I was never allowed to ride in the way back of the car (aka the trunk), and I always had to be buckled in in the back seat. This was well before it was a law, and certainly also before it was a popular approach to safety. I remember my mom saying “so and so was in an accident and went through the windshield… she wasn’t wearing her seat belt because she never thought it would happen to her.” I translated this message into magical thinking… if so and so didn’t think it would happen to her and it DID, then logically, if I always think it will happen to me, it won’t.

At the time, I was afraid of flying. So I ritualized a magical form of thinking — I would imagine bad outcomes when i got on a plane — a crash, an explosion — in order to magically prevent it from happening. In my young teenage brain, if I thought it could happen — then it wouldn’t. It sounds a little wacky at best, I know — but this kind of magical thinking — is quite common. Think about how many have worn a lucky item of clothing for a sporting event, made a wish on birthday candles, or skipped the 13th floor in a building design. All forms of magical thinking.

This magical thinking isn’t so different from what we have in our liturgy today. We say una tona tokef and name all of these horrible ways we might die. I grew up in a family where people were quick to assert their distaste for this prayer. In fact, I think this particular prayer has kept a number of people from returning to synagogue each year. So why do we say it? On some level, reciting this list of terrifying ways we might die is an acknowledgment that ppl will die, in this very community and throughout the world, in this coming year. It ideally builds our empathy and reverence for life. But that’s not the only reason we say it. It’s also magical thinking — if we name all of these terrible ways of dying, maybe we can ward off such terrible outcomes.

But here is the reason this prayer is really so hard for most of us — We say that teshuvah tefillah and tzedakah — repentance, prayer, and giving away money — can change the severity of the decree — but we know this is not actually the case. This too is a form of magical thinking — if we do these three things, we will be written in the mythical book. Yet we witness wonderful, generous, prayerful people who suffer and we witness cruel people who seem to lead joyful, successful lives. What kind of God would be keeping a checklist, deciding on a breast cancer diagnosis based on the amount of times a person has prayed each day? What kind of God would let an innocent child or a loving mother die — if that God was actually able to intervene? This just isn’t a God that I can believe in. I am therefore drawn to believing in a different kind of God — a God who, like us, is always in process of becoming. This God doesn’t intervene, but instead has given us the tools to create our own destinies.

We know that these acts — teshuvah, teffilah, and tzedakah — won’t ward off accidents or sickness -- even the rabbis who wrote this prayer knew this! But when terrible things happen, teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah can be part of our human toolbox — helpful tools that we can use for reaching out and both giving and gaining support.

Teshuvah teffilah and tzedaka remind us that being human means that while we may at times feel helpless, we also have an incredible propensity to be helpful — to be partners with God in healing this broken world. We can be God’s hands in this world. We can turn and return to one another — that’s teshuvah. We can build prayerful communities — using prayer and song as vehicles for connection— that’s teffilah. We can give generously — that’s tzedakah.

We have the power to reach out, build communities, and see ourselves as agents of goodness, agents of change, and agents of hope.

While the una tana tokef reflects our need for magical thinking, the vidui is an acceptance of our imperfection. Being human means that we are inherently imperfect. We will make mistakes.

Midrash Rabbah comments on ki Hine Ka Homer — the piyut in which we refer to ourselves as ka-homer be-yad ha-yotzer — like clay in the potters hand. The midrash says:

“Consider: if a potter makes a jar and leaves a pebble in it, when it comes out of the furnace it will leak from the hole left by the pebble and lose the liquid poured into it. Who caused the jar to leak…?” In other words, God created us with the pebble of imperfection, purposely making us flawed. We were created with space for improvement and growth.

We will try things that don’t work, we will get rejected from a job. We will say things we regret. We will hurt one another. Life is in fact messy, and while failing hurts, it can help us gain resilience and become stronger and better — but never perfect. Perfection is impossible for us humans, because with perfection, there is no room for more growth.

We are inherently flawed — which means we are all the more needy of kindness and love.

Rav Kook teaches

אין האדם מוכשר לשום כח רוחני שבעולם

בשלמות גדולה כזאת שהוא מוכשר לאמונה

ולאהבה

“A human being is not predisposed to any spiritual trait in the world more than faith & love.”

Being human means that we have the ability to show love, feel love, and be in love. In love with our friends, our children, our partner. To live in love.

When the Barbie movie ended, and the credits began to roll, Adin turned to me, and said “I cried too.” Being human means having an incredible capacity to not only feel emotion — but also to express emotion. We sometimes put up barriers to this, but we come closest to the essence of our humanity when we take those barriers down. If being human means we can dance with one another in joy, all the more so it means we can cry together in grief. I pray that we can continue to build a sanctuary here that is filled with potential for real vulnerability.

And so I leave you with this: being human means that we are each unique yet also deeply connected, we are broken yet also the ones who must fix the brokenness, we yearn for control but there is so much that we are not able to change. Being human means we strive to write our own story and make meaning wherever we can. Being human means that we have hearts that dance with joy and break in grief, that we have minds that are always searching for new ideas. Being human means that we have love within us and we have a calling to share that love and to feel that love from others. It is messy and frail and joyful and complicated. None of this is magic. But it is the deeper truth that elevates our humanity. And it’s the reason we choose to be human again and again and again.

Gamar Chatimah Tovah.

 

High Holiday Stream

Fri, March 1 2024 21 Adar I 5784