Yesterday was National Coming Out Day. There are still many places where coming out as L or G or B or T or Q is a very scary proposition. Being gay in Uganda can get you killed. Being any kind of queer in the wrong small town in the U.S. can still be extremely scary and unpleasant. And far too many young people are rejected by parents and other relatives for being gay or lesbian: I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea that some people throw away their children, but it definitely happens.
We’re about to embark on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur, when we spend 24 hours with the fact of our human fallibility, with our failed efforts at reform, with all the mess of being human. We do this in the context of a lot of God-language: God as Ruler, God as Judge, God as Parent (and those are just the gender-neutral options!)
For those for whom God-language is difficult or a barrier to good spiritual work, I’m offering a post I originally published last summer on the Women’s Rabbinic Network blog. How you fit this into your Yom Kippur reflections is up to you. Just remember that metaphors are only that – metaphors. The quest itself, the quest for holiness — that’s real.
Atheism is in fashion these days. About a quarter of my Intro to Judaism students worry that I will find out that they do not believe in God. Another quarter are deeply suspicious of something they call “organized religion” because it is “the source of all the trouble in the world.” They are all serious, thoughtful people, and something has brought them to my class despite their misgivings: a need to explore Jewish roots, an important relationship, or a profound feeling of connection to Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.
And yet there is this god thing: I have begun to think of it as The Godzilla Problem.
A young friend of mine recently commented on Facebook that her phone now autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.” I sat and looked at that post, and it dawned on me that THAT was a perfect distillation of the problem: the god that my students refer to so distastefully is a monster god who blasts and condemns and punishes very much like the Japanese monster with whom it shares three letters. Like Godzilla, he is scary but not real.
I don’t worship that god. There are people who do worship it. They believe that there is a Big Person who will blast and punish evildoers. They talk with relish about that god’s opinions and predict his actions at some future time. They act in the name of that god and do terrible things to other people “for their own good.” Those people espouse many different religions; they cherry-pick the Torah and other scriptures for proof-texts. Unfortunately they are noisy people and for many, they have become the voice of religion.
The God I worship, whose title I will capitalize, is more enigmatic: this God shines through every experience that leaves me with my jaw hanging open. I witness God in the smell of a newborn baby, in the power of an earthquake, in our questions at at the side of an open grave. I witness God in acts of selflessness and acts of courage. Abraham Joshua Heschel described this notion of God much better than I ever shall when he wrote about “radical amazement.”
Torah is the process of Jews reaching toward the Wonder: it is a dance between the amazed People and the Object of their amazement. I believe that the best way our ancestors could come up with to relate to Wonder was to personify God, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore holiness. They made a covenant with God, with commandments to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the amazingness of the universe. Our tradition warns again and again against falling in love with mere images. It is fierce about idolatry, in which human beings invest an object with the power or priority of the Great Mystery.
Heartbreaking evil has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. I believe firmly that such acts are acts of idolatry: that so-called “god” is indeed “Godzilla.”
As a rabbi, as a teacher, my challenge is to wedge past the monster and lead my students through the door to amazement and questions. In our amazement with this world, with the questions of love and death, we may indeed approach the truth of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One.
- The Godzilla Problem (womensrabbinicnetwork.wordpress.com)
Justice, Justice you shall pursue. – Deuteronomy 16:20
Twice in the last month I have had experiences that made me wonder where justice might be found.
One was this morning. I went to register voters at the Emeryville Community Action Program, where folks were taking numbers and lining up for a distribution of food from the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Everyone I talked with was already registered to vote, but I had some interesting conversations.
My politics are way left of center, but I try to challenge my assumptions. This was a golden opportunity to do just that: I’m at a place that is literally handing out free food and free (used) clothing. I looked at the group and asked myself, “Where could each of these people get a job, if there were jobs to be had?”
The only person I saw there under the age of 60 was a charming young man who was setting up. I did not ask if he was a volunteer or a paid worker, but he was definitely working. Everyone else looked quite a bit older than me (57). I also noticed that every hand I shook was callused; these people had done some hard work in their day. Many were both elderly and disabled. There were also a fair number of Asian elderly ladies who did not speak English — but even if they had, I can’t picture them working at Starbucks.
For the life of me, I can’t imagine what any of them would be doing without help from someone, nor can I imagine that there’s anything wrong with them getting help. But I’d rather see them at the grocery store with food stamps than standing in line on the street, waiting for the Food Bank handout. Old people should be treated with dignity, or so I was taught.
That brings me to the second experience: at the Veteran’s Administration. I’ll blog that one tomorrow.
Justice, justice you will pursue.
Where is the justice? It sure isn’t standing out there on San Pablo Ave, waiting patiently for a little food.
Look in the mirror. Look at the face that looks back at you. What do you see?
Do you see a person
— who needs sleep?
— who needs to see a doctor?
— who drinks too much?
— who eats unhealthfully?
— who is too tired to know what she needs?
— who is depressed?
— who needs regular exercise and doesn’t get it?
— who hasn’t laughed in HOW long?
— who is secretly struggling with something he hopes no one else will notice?
— who needs help and won’t ask for it?
— who has been offered help but refuses to accept it?
— who is lonely?
— who is frightened about something?
— who hasn’t had a day off in HOW long?
Modern secular culture encourages us not to take care of ourselves. We see advertisements for unhealthy foods, for “fun” gambling, for TV shows that are on late at night. We get caught up in the push for certain kinds of success. With our families scattered all over the country or the world, care for children or elders often falls on one or two family members, who get no help or relief. We avoid admitting to depression, mental illness, disabilities, because of the stigma they carry. We avoid asking for help because that would involve admitting that we need it.
These are sins against ourselves. When we fail to get enough sleep, good food, and enough exercise, we forget that our bodies are limited, that we are setting ourselves up for illness. When we fail to ask for or accept help, not only do we hurt ourselves, but we keep others from having the opportunity to do a mitzvah.
Ask: What could I change in my life so that I could get enough sleep? Help taking care of my aged parents? Help doing whatever it is I need to do to take care of myself?
Then make a plan. Do it.
If the answer to that question is, “Nothing,” or “I don’t know” then make an appointment to talk with someone who can help you find options: a rabbi, a therapist, a counselor, a friend. Admit how hard it’s all gotten to someone who won’t tell on you. Ask them to help you find some ways to lighten the burden. Those ways exist, whether you can see them or not.
Make the call. Do it.
For sins against God, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone: those include the sins against ourselves.
Someone is waiting for you, and for me, in the mirror.
Rosh HaShanah is coming, and the temple bulletin says about something called Selichot. What’s that? Do I want to attend?:
1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.” The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah.
2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white, or white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes. We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.
3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach (tune), listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Student Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.
4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list jogs the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. While I am not responsible for the sins of my neighbor, he and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so his sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.
5. WHY IS IT HELD SO LATE AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service. Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”
6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if you don’t believe in God, you may need to deal with things you have done. If you find the idea of a God who sits in judgment problematic or even ridiculous, that’s OK. When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance. All the sins listed in the vidui (list of sins) are things that left unchecked will have bad consequences and hurt someone. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility (ask forgiveness), and take action to fix and prevent in the future.
7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. It is usually not a long service. But more than anything else, it is a service with a very distinct purpose: to get us ready to change our ways for the better. This is not your usual synagogue service. Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.
L’Shana Tova Umetuka! I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!
- Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days (coffeeshoprabbi.com)
Is the change just what’s leftover, or is it a generous bonus?
What do I leave behind me, not just on cafe tables, but in every room where I spend time? Do people smile when they see what I’ve left, or do they feel cheated?
These are questions worth asking. Everywhere I go, I leave something “on the table.” It may be just a feeling or an impression but it affects others. How do others feel when I’ve left the room?
What do I leave behind me? Hurt feelings, or warmth? Pain, or relief? Confusion, or confidence?
If I don’t like the answers to those questions, what needs to change?
This post originally appeared on Kol Isha, the blog of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.
As I perched on the hospital gurney, I reviewed the facts: the SUV slipped into the space ahead of me on the crowded highway and then braked abruptly. Its lights glowed red as I pressed and then stomped my own brakes. Time slowed as my car slammed into the SUV.
Air bags will save your life, but to do so they punch your chest like a champion boxer. For a 57 year old woman, chest pains demand a trip to the ER, even if they come after an encounter with an airbag. Once I got to the hospital, they decided I wasn’t dying, but they wanted to keep me for a bit “for observation.” That’s how I wound up parked on a gurney, meditating on the seriousness of driving a car.
Until the afternoon of April 17, I prided myself on my good driving record, but it was no more than a nice report card. I seldom thought about the fact that when I’m driving I hold the lives of other human beings in my hands, and others hold mine.
The Torah regards life and health as precious gifts. Deuteronomy 22:8 commands us to put railings on the high places in our houses to prevent accidents. The rabbis of the Talmud went even further in Bava Kamma 15b, saying that one should not keep anything dangerous, neither a biting dog nor an unsafe ladder. PIkuach nefesh, the preservation of life, is such an important mitzvah that it can override almost any other mitzvah: better to violate the Sabbath than to let someone bleed to death, for instance.
And yet that afternoon, I had climbed into my little car with its 3,000 pounds of steel, and barely gave it a thought. I had been driving for 41 years, and driving had become routine. I didn’t speed or break the law. I didn’t chat on my cell phone or fix my makeup as I drove. But neither did I ever reflect that I was holding the lives of others in my hands.
Sitting on that gurney, I began to see that driving is a sacred activity, or it should be. Driving mindfully, aware of the lives flowing with me and past me on the highway, could be a form of worship of the One who created all those lives. Conversely, driving carelessly, driving distracted, or driving sleepy is chillul Hashem, a desecration of the Name of God, because it invites the destruction of life given by God. Its very heedlessness is blasphemy.
I never found out why that car stopped so suddenly. All I know is that no one in the other car was injured, my car was totalled, and I was lucky that I only had bruises. I am grateful that it was no worse.
Since that day, when I get in the car, I murmur what I have come to think of as the Freeway Blessing, a blessing to remind me to bring holy mindfulness to this sacred task:
Baruch Ata, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, hanoten l’chol chaim.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, Giver of life to all.
“Choose life!” we are told in Deuteronomy. Behind the wheel of a car we each have that choice. I could have died on the freeway, but instead I was blessed: blessed with renewed awareness of the sacredness of life, and the responsibility we each have to preserve life.