Remembering Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz

One of my favorite memories of my time at HUC-JIR was watching Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz make his lunch on Thursdays. As everyone chowed down on bagels and shmear, Dr. Borowitz meticulously prepared a bowl of grapenuts, bringing his own bowl and spoon, cereal box, a quart of milk, and jar of cinnamon. If anyone stared as he did this, he would say gruffly, “It’s heart healthy.”

I heard this afternoon that Dr. Borowitz, my teacher, has passed away. I began to post my hesped  (remembrance) on Facebook, as my friends and colleagues were doing, but found I had too much to say about this literal and figurative giant of the Reform movement.

He was firm in his ideas about worship and language, among other things. Once, after a cantorial student gave a beautiful “sermon-in-song” in lieu of a spoken sermon, Rabbi Borowitz got up and said, in his deep voice, “I think there ought to be a sermon,” and proceeded to give one extemporaneously.

When Rabbi Josh Strom and I led Birkat Hamazon at Thursday lunch, using the familiar, campy, chaverai n’varech “friends let us bless,” instead of the more formal, rabotai n’varech, “gentlemen/rabbis, let us bless,” he cornered us and asked, sincerely, “Am I your chaver?” (Rabbi Peter Rigler shared that he had a similar experience).

While Dr. Borowitz was certainly principled, he was also open-minded. He didn’t sign ordination certificates, except by special request, for ideological reasons surrounding LGBT ordination, but he let us challenge him, and we were all privileged to watch him evolve on this matter. After years of students pointing out that LGBT individuals were also building Jewish families, he changed his mind.

He was convinced that the Jewish people were not producing enough children to replace those lost in the Holocaust, a drum he pounded publicly often enough that I’m pretty sure that’s why I have a little brother (my mother heard this claim at a Hadassah luncheon, but we can’t confirm that he was the source that inspired her to have a third).

I had the pleasure of studying one-on-one with Dr. Borowitz, quite by accident, when I was the only person to show up for the first day of his Mishneh Torah class. It was a privilege to have him as my chevruta (though not, as he pointed out, my chaver) as I learned Hilchot Teshvua, which is probably the most used volume in my rabbinic library other than the TaNaKh.

He wrote extensive notes in the margins of our essays in flowing, purple script, which to me felt incongruous with his gruff exterior, and always made me feel like there was another side to him.

Dr. Borowitz was possibly the most intimidating intellectual figure I’ve ever studied with, large in stature with a booming voice, but I occasionally caught him letting his guard down: making faces at a student’s baby, or laughing as he watched us try on costumes to imitate our professors at the Purimshpiel.

He was filled with gentle wisdom that I still carry with me. When visiting his class as a prospective student, there was a loud commotion in the hallway, someone screaming. It was something the rest of the class was used to, someone with a chronic condition, but still, we all wanted to jump up and offer help, even though our help would have been useless and possibly harmful. Dr. Borowitz reminded us, in a quote I’ve applied to many things, “It’s not your tikkun (I.e. not yours to fix).”

I spent senior week in college reading Renewing the Covenant (exciting times at Brandeis!), and was inspired by his model of leadership found here. He argued that being a rabbi was just as much about making space for others as it was about what you had to bring to the table. Though I cannot find the article I wrote responding to his theory, I can tell you here that it shaped the way I think about education and leadership.

I’ve had the privilege of watching Dr. Borowitz granddaughter, rabbinical student Emily Langowitz, preach at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. While she is certainly an incredible almost-rabbi in her own right, she also carries on something of his stature, his brilliance, and his eloquence. I always went home after her sermons inspired (and, to be honest, intimidated).

Every year, as the fifth-year students scrambled for jobs in an increasingly dismal market, Dr. Borowitz would post a photograph of himself taken around the time of his ordination, “Last student in rabbinical class to be placed. Placed after ordination.” As if to say, “Everything is going to be alright. I turned out fine, didn’t I?

Yes, you did. Dr. Borowitz. And, thanks to you, so did we.

I can’t attend his funeral. I’m officiating at one myself, for an unaffiliated family seeking comfort in tradition. I think he’d have wanted it that way.

Zecher tzaddik livracha. May the memory of this righteous man be a blessing.

 

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Publicizing the Miracle #pirsumhanes

Check out my Chanukah video:

Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Chanukah!

You might also want to check out the Vassar Temple YouTube Channel, where my amazing Ritual Committee put together eight videos for the eight nights of Chanukah!

The hashtag I’ve been using this Chanukah is #pirsumhanes, or “publicizing the miracle.” This is one of the major mitzvot of Chanukah, the commandment to let the whole world know the miracles we’ve experienced by placing our chanukiyah in the window. I still don’t have a safe window set-up yet, nor do I get much time in my house to light, so I’ve been publicizing the miracle on Instagram. 

Each night, as I post a picture of my chanukiyah, I think of something miraculous about that day, whether it’s something silly like finding a lost glove, or something profound like a kind word from a professor, getting a few minutes to myself to write, or the couple I met who believes that their love is a miracle.

It’s been a really wonderful exercise for me, as I pretty much want to spend this time of year curled up under a blanket drinking tea (also a miracle, when I get to do that!). Not to mention that synagogues get busy, and rabbis get tired, as Chanukah approaches. Everyone is running on empty; we’re not sure if our oil will last the winter.

Publicizing the miracle reminded me that there are miracles, small and large, happening all the time, if I could just pull my head out from under the blanket (or behind the computer) to see them!

This past Sunday at Religious School, the seventh graders were talking about prayer, and they read a list of prayer-related quotes, including one of my favorite quotes by Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” I wasn’t sure if any of the kids would choose it from the list, or even read it in the first place. But (by some miracle!) one student did, and he talked about how it made him think about how we should take notice of the world around us.

I’ve been taking that to heart this week. And guess what? There’s some pretty amazing stuff happening.

Here is my annual tzedaka menorah, eight causes for eight nights, to bring a little more light into the world.

  1. North Carolina Art Therapy Institute: This is in honor of my North Carolina friends, to my creative friends, and to my friends in helping professions. I always give to this organization around this time of year, to support my amazing friend Hillary Rubesin and the work she does with refugees. This year, her work is all the more important, as it is all the more difficult to be an immigrant in the United States right now.
  2. Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: My sister-in-law, Christine, asked that her gift go to help refugees this year, and HIAS has become my go-to for such contributions. They have a special resource page for Chanukah too! This is for my family, since we were once immigrants, too.
  3. Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism: The lobbying arm of the Reform movement, this donation is to help initiatives that will stop the epidemic of gun violence in our country. They also have a special Chanukah Social Justice Gift Guide.
  4. Israel Religious Action Center: The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. This organization fights for religious freedom, civil rights and pluralism in the State of Israel. You can also join this fight by joining the #myrighttolight campaign and telling Prime Minister Netanyahu to include women in the public lighting at the Western Wall.
  5. Planned Parenthood: Women’s reproductive rights and health are under attack, and if the government won’t fund universal access to life-saving health-care, I’ll do it myself! This gift is in honor of all of the strong women and dedicated health care professionals in my life.
  6. URJ Six Points Sci-Tech Academy: In honor of Brett Lubarsky, my favorite Commissioner of Superhero Education, and the camping system that made each of us who we are today, and allowed us to (almost) meet 12 years ago!
  7. Jewish Women International: This is one of my favorite places to give, as they provide books to libraries in domestic violence shelters, supporting literacy, financial independence, and healthy relationships. Not easy to find all that in one non-profit! This is in honor of my grandmother, Anne.
  8. Vassar Temple: I’m in a new home this year, and a new community, and the people at Vassar Temple have welcomed me with open arms, open minds, and a great deal of support. This gift supports our Hineini Fund, for our youth programs, and our Social Action Fund.

Chag Urim Sameach! Happy Festival of Lights! May you have many miracles to publicize!

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A Human Being is Always Dangerous

Cross-posted to The Vassar Temple Blog. My sermon in response to recent acts of gun violence. With thanks to Rabbi Rebecca Reice, who originally explained to me the concept of tam and mu’ad.

I didn’t want to talk about gun violence tonight. I actually started writing another sermon, one connecting the Torah portion to a book I was reading, which is one of my favorite ways to preach. But even as I wrote, there was a nagging feeling that I should be writing about the incidents in California and Colorado Springs this past week. I pushed the urge down, saying to myself that it’s too controversial to discuss this so early in my tenure here. That I’m too busy this week to do the topic justice. That I’m just not ready.

And then I heard myself say, “Finish the sermon you were writing. There will be another shooting. It’s not like you’ll miss your opportunity.” And that thought was too much for me to bear.

Three years ago, almost to the week, I stood on the bimah in North Carolina and mourned for the young victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Our parasha, like this one, was from the Joseph narrative, and I spoke about Jacob’s perceived loss of his son and the unimaginably terrible pain of losing a child. I urged my community to take action to prevent future massacres. And I prayed, quite fiercely, that I would never have to give a sermon like that again.

And here we are.

It isn’t one particularly earth-shattering tragedy that has pushed me to speak this evening, the way the Sandy Hook shooting did three years ago. It is not that one of the recent shootings targeted a women’s health clinic, which touches on issues close to my heart. It is not even that, despite all their prayers and statements of support, our lawmakers failed to pass any sensible gun legislation in the wake of these attacks. It is that there have been so many shootings in the last year that I no longer even feel the need to click on the headlines.

There have been 12,236 deaths from gun violence in 2015, and nearly twice that number of gun-related injuries. And the year is not over.

The British journalist Dan Hodges put it best when he said: “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” Gun violence has become the white noise in the background of American society. And that is unacceptable.

Gun violence photoRabbi Jeff Salkin writes that silence is not an option in this situation, nor are sending our prayers and thoughts adequate. “Prayer and good thoughts,” he writes, “are too easy. They are cheap. I want to hear screaming. I want to hear crying. I want to hear moaning.”

Lamentation is a timeless and appropriate Jewish response to senseless destruction. But that is also not enough. Our tradition demands that, when our fellow human beings are in danger, we take action.

This is not a left or right issue, or at least, it shouldn’t be. This is a human issue. This is an American issue. And this is a Jewish issue.

This is a Jewish issue, not because the Bible preaches non-violence. The Bible is loaded with violence. It is not a Jewish issue because the Bible advocates peace and tolerance. The Bible demands war and conquest and the smashing of foreign idols.

This is a Jewish issue, because the Bible is a book that demands the taking of responsibility, as individuals, and as a community, for that which has the potential to do harm. And strangely enough, we learn this from the Torah’s teachings on animal husbandry.

We read in Exodus that if an ox gores a person, the ox is put to death, and the owner is not held accountable. However, if the owner was previously aware that the ox was a danger to human beings, the owner, too, would be put to death, because the owner did not protect people from an animal the owner knew to be dangerous (Ex. 21:28-29).

This leads to a discussion in the Mishnah about how we interact with animals that are safe (tam) verses animals that are known to be dangerous (mu’ad). The distinction is important, because if an animal is mu’ad, its owner is responsible for keeping it from causing people harm, and held accountable, even to the point of capital punishment, if that animal hurts someone.

The rabbis ask: What is a tam [animal], and what is one which is mu’ad?  “A mu’ad [animal] is any one about which people have given testimony for three days. And a tam one is that which has refrained [from doing damage] on three days,” the words of R. Judah.  R. Meir says, “A mu’ad animal is one against which people have given testimony for three times.  And a tam one is any which infants or nurslings can touch without its goring them” (M. Bava Kamma 2:4).

Some species of animal are always considered mu’ad, unless they can be trained, while others are considered mu’ad only for certain behaviors that are typical to their species: kicking, pushing, or eating something it is known to eat (M. Bava Kamma 1:4).

A firearm may not be an animal. But a firearm is, without question, mu’ad.

Firearms have not gone three days without doing damage. In fact, only 336 days into the year, there had been 355 mass shootings, more than one for every day of the year. On Wednesday, the day of the San Bernadino shooting, there was also a shooting in Savannah, GA, which killed one woman and injured three men, and barely made the news.

Firearms are not something a child can touch without injury. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Vermont finds that 110 children under 14 are killed accidentally by guns each year, while another study estimates that seven children and teens are shot to death each day, whether accidentally or on purpose.

And unlike a mu’ad animal, guns are only tam, safe, in the most particular of circumstances: in the right hands, with the proper training, and with every possible safety measure. And unlike a mu’ad animal, which might be used for agriculture or transportation, a firearm, particularly an assault weapon, does not have any purpose other than to kill living beings, specifically humans.

This does not mean that there is no place for gun ownership in our society, though I personally wish that I lived in a world where gun ownership was rare. Something mu’ad is not something that cannot exist and must be destroyed. Rather, it is something that must be contained and regulated in order to ensure public safety. And if that cannot be accomplished, the owner of that which is mu’ad is held responsible for the damage caused.

As they conclude their conversation about which animals are tam and mu’ad, the rabbis say something chilling: A human being is always mu’ad, whether s/he causes damage unintentionally or intentionally, whether awake or asleep.  If a person blinds another person’s eye or breaks another person’s property, s/he pays full damages (M. Bava Kamma 2:6).

This tells us something heartbreaking that we probably already knew about ourselves: we can be dangerous, and we frequently hurt others. But this passage also reminds us of something vitally important. We are responsible for the damage we cause even when it is unintentional. We are responsible even when our eyes are closed. We are responsible even when we don’t click on the headline.

We often say that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But we must amend that. People who make it easier for dangerous people to obtain guns kill people.

We may not own firearms ourselves, or we may own them and care for them in a safe and law-abiding manner. We may not provide firearms to others. But we are citizens of this nation, where the gun murder rate is 20 times that of any other developed country. We are citizens of a nation where, even in the wake of 20 children being shot in their elementary school classrooms, an assault weapons ban could not be passed in our Senate. We are citizens of a nation where, even after five mass shootings in a seven-day period, no legislation regarding background checks could even be discussed. If we knowingly allow this epidemic of gun violence to continue, when we have the power to stop it, we are just as responsible as the person who is pulling the trigger. We know that we are mu’ad. We cannot neglect our responsibility to protect people from harm.

I will not say definitively what each of us needs to do. We are a politically diverse community, and I know that we differ in our opinions about the root of this problem. I will only say that, as Jews, we cannot do nothing. We must hold ourselves accountable, and we must hold our government accountable as well.

If we believe that this is a mental health issue, we must demand increased funding for inpatient and outpatient mental health care in this country.

If we believe this is an illegal trafficking issue, then we must demand greater enforcement of firearm trafficking laws.

If we believe that certain weapons are always mu’ad, we must demand bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

And if we believe, as the rabbis did, that human beings are always mu’ad, we must demand stricter regulations on who can purchase a firearm and when. For instance, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is currently working on legislation that will make it more difficult for stalkers and domestic abusers to purchase weapons. Currently, such provisions only apply to those who have abused their spouses, not to those who abuse their domestic or dating partners, which leaves nearly half of the potential victims completely unprotected.

After Shabbat, I urge you to visit the Religious Action Center to show your support for this, and other, legislation aimed at preventing gun violence. NFTY, our youth movement, also has a campaign for gun violence prevention.

No, this will not stop every mass shooting, or every act of domestic violence, or every purposeful or accidental shooting of a child. But if our actions could prevent even one unnecessary death or injury, why would we not act? And if we know the dangers posed by our existing laws, and we do not act to prevent even one shooting, what does that make us?

It makes us mu’ad.

 

Further Reading and Action:

On Guns, We’re Not Even Trying

 

Are Bullet Proof Blankets the Solution?

Gun Violence By the Numbers

Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence

Gun Violence Archive

Missouri State Rep Files Bill to Put Gun Sales Under Exact Same Restrictions as Abortions

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What I learned from a case of URJ Biennial FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

Cross-posted to The Vassar Temple Blog.

Not everyone I know attended the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2015 Biennial Convention, but it felt that way. I ran into people from every school, youth program, and synagogue I’ve ever worked with or attended. My friends and colleagues who missed it complained of a condition called “Biennial FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).”

The Biennial Uniform: Black blazer, large nametag, and ribbons from every Jewish program I've ever been a part of.

The Biennial Uniform: Black blazer, large nametag, and ribbons from every Jewish program I’ve ever been a part of.

We at the Biennial weren’t immune to FOMO. At any given time, there were 20 different sessions to attend, on four specialized tracks: Audacious Hospitality, Strengthening Congregations, Engaging our Youth, and Repairing Our World. There were concerts, exhibits, shopping, and services, stretching from 7:15 a.m. to well after midnight. Often, I’d run into someone on my way to an event and end up reconnecting instead.

Though I was excited to be in Orlando, I was lucky if I got outside for 15 minutes each day. I spent an hour in the pool total. I never made it to Disney.

So I was glad when we arrived at Shabbat which, while not exactly restful, brought everyone together for a shared Shabbat worship experience.

Biennial services are not to be missed: 5,000 Jews gather together, music is led by a choir, a band and the leaders of our movement, spontaneous horas break out so often that I’m not sure we can call them “spontaneous” anymore. It is the closest a Reform Jew will ever get to a tent revival.

These massive tefillot don’t just create an inspiring prayer experience in the moment. They set the trends for the next two years: with new music, new uses of technology in prayer, and new challenges to address as a movement.

The four tracks were integrated masterfully into the service: young people from NFTY and our college programs read Torah and spoke eloquently about issues such as gun violence prevention and the negative impacts of standardized testing on minorities.

The most powerful moment came when Rabbi Rick Jacobs called upon various groups to recite the Torah blessings, gathered around Torah scrolls stationed throughout the ballroom.

The first aliyah was for people like me: born and bred in the Reform movement and loved every minute of it (a lot of rabbis in this group). The second aliyah was for those who had grown up in the movement, but hadn’t been engaged in it, until a person or program got them fired up about Reform Judaism (quite a few Jewish professionals in this group, too).

The third aliyah was for people who came to Reform Judaism from the outside: people who were raised in another religious tradition, people who were raised in another movement, and people who grew up with no affiliation at all–Jewish or otherwise.

Since Biennial is a conference for the movement’s leadership, one would think that the first two groups would be the largest. But far and away the largest group was the last one, the group composed of those who were at one time on the margins, and somehow, against all odds, found their way in.
Watching this massive group of people chant the Torah blessings, I started to have a different kind of FOMO. This Fear of Missing Out was for all the connections I wasn’t making, all of the members–and potential members–of our community we weren’t reaching. For every person reaching out to place their hands on one of the Torah scrolls, there had to be at least ten who had never made it in the door.

Just four months into my current rabbinic position, I began to wonder: Who is out there that we have yet to welcome into our tents? What sparks have we not yet kindled in those who sit in our pews, or in those who have yet to walk through our doors? And what barriers– physical, socioeconomic and spiritual–were keeping us apart from one another?

After the blessings were chanted, we read the story of Abraham sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac, and I thought about how each of the story’s main characters shows audacious hospitality: Eliezar, who travels to a distant land to lead a young person toward her destiny; Rebecca, who rushes to meet the needs of a weary traveler; Abraham, who sends out an emissary to find the right person to continue his family’s traditions; and Isaac, who invites someone new into his tent, and loves her unconditionally.

In the 21st century, we need to be all of the characters in this story: reaching out and inviting in, providing sustenance and showing love.

If we don’t, think of all we might miss out on.

If you have Biennial FOMO, check out some of the videos below, or others on the URJ YouTube Channel.

Shabbat Evening Services at the URJ Biennial. 

Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ Keynote Address, including dancers!

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Trick or Treat: Halloween and Audacious Hospitality

My d’var Torah on parashat Vayera from our Shabbat evening services. Cross-posted to The Vassar Temple Blog.

Each year, I get into an argument with my students about the merits of Purim versus Halloween. If you think about it logically, it makes far more sense to dress up and go house to house giving people candy than to bang on people’s doors and demand it. I never win this argument; just as I never win the argument that a headband with ears on it does not turn a mini-dress into a cat costume.

I don’t have anything against Halloween—or Jewish children’s participation in it. I don’t necessarily think Jewish schools should include it in the curriculum, but an American Jewish child trick-or-treating poses no spiritual threat for me.

I have happy memories of attempting to keep my costume visible under a puffy winter coat, of the spooky house where the local Drivers’ Ed teacher served hot apple cider out of a cobwebbed punch bowl, and of the annual post-trick-or-treat candy exchange with my brothers.

Now, for the first time, I’m preparing to experience Halloween from the other side of the door. And as I read this week’s Torah portion, I wondered: How would Abraham and Sarah welcome their trick-or-treaters?

Abraham and Sarah are known for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, or what our movement now calls “audacious hospitality.” That distinction stems from this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, where Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers into their home, who tell them that, after decades of infertility, they will finally have a child of their own.

Abraham, in this scene, is 99 years old, and recovering from major surgery. And yet, these few lines are punctuated with words for speed. Abraham runs from his tent to greet the wayfarers, he hurries to Sarah and tells her to hurry and make cakes for the guests. He runs to the flock and chooses a calf to serve the travelers, which his servant hurries to prepare. Though he does not yet know that the strangers are messengers from God, he offers them the royal treatment: water for drinking and bathing their feet, curds and milk and fatted calf to eat—there is no kashrut yet—and a place to rest under a shady tree. And though he is a pretty important person himself, Abraham even waits on the men as they eat (Gen. 18: 1-8).

The plain text shows that Abraham and Sarah go above and beyond to make their guests feel welcome. The rabbis craft legend upon legend of Abraham and Sarah opening their home to strangers and going out of their way to help those in need.

Some say that Abraham and Sarah’s tents were open on all sides, so that no one would have to go around in circles looking for a way in. They provided not only what the guests were accustomed to, but the finest of everything: wine, wheat bread, and meat. And they did not simply sit there and wait for guests to arrive: they went out into the world to invite people in, even setting up way-stations along the road where people could eat, drink and rest, wherever they happened to be (BOL 679:361, Avot 1:15/ARN 7).

In fact, the tamarisk or eshel tree that Abraham plants at the end of chapter 21 is said to be a wordplay on she-al, “asking,” as in “whatever you ask for, I will give you.” Or eshel could be an acronym for achilah (eating), shtiyah (drinking), and linah (lodging) or l’vayah (accompanying) depending on which rabbi you ask (Legends of the Jews v. 248, n. 225, EC 117, Plaut 145). Once the travelers had finished enjoying whatever Abraham and Sarah had provided for them, they were encouraged not to thank their hosts, but to praise God who had provided everything (Sotah 10a). Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality reminds us that food and drink and shelter are not ours to give, but God’s to share.

Is this how it feels to approach our door?

So how might the Jewish tradition help us to practice hachnasat orchim in our homes on Halloween? And what can the opening of our homes on Halloween teach us about audacious hospitality in our Jewish community?

First of all, what do you say when you open the door? I was an imaginative kid who loved dressing up, and often trick-or-treated as obscure literary characters or in costumes I had made myself, long after I should have been “too old.” And I speak from experience when I say that there is no more heartbreaking question for a costumed child than, “What are you supposed to be?”

These people weren’t trying to be mean or dismissive. They were just curious. They wanted to know what I was trying to be so that they could react appropriately.

Likewise, when people come into our synagogue, we’re curious to know who they are, so that we can respond accordingly. We strive to welcome people of all ages and backgrounds, all gender identities and sexual orientations, and from families of all shapes, sizes and compositions. Naturally, when we meet someone whose identity doesn’t fit into our preconceived notion of Jewish-ness, gender, or family, we’re curious.

When we ask questions like, “How did you become Jewish?” “Are your children adopted?” “Why is your last name McCarthy?” we may just be trying to get to know someone. But even our most basic questions may hit a nerve: when we ask a single person where his or her partner is, when we ask an infertile couple about their children, or when we ask a person of color when he or she converted, not realizing that this isn’t always the case.

Just as we might better welcome a trick-or-treater by saying, “What a great costume! Tell me more about it!” we might better welcome a new person to our synagogue by saying, “We are so glad you’re here! Tell us about yourself!” This sends the message to our children, and our guests: You are welcome in our home, we want you to be comfortable being whoever it is that you are, and we hope that you will tell us your story in your own time.

Click the pumpkin for more information.

Once someone is in the door, we, like Abraham and Sarah, want to provide them with the best of everything, and whatever it is that they need. This year, the Food Allergy Research and Education organization has asked that houses put out a teal pumpkin (or a sign with a teal pumpkin on it) to let trick-or-treaters know that there are non-food treats available for children with life-threatening food allergies.

This, also, has applications in the synagogue. We should strive to meet the needs of our guests: with allergy-friendly snacks, accessible facilities, and transliterated or large-print siddurim for those who struggle with Hebrew or reading. This also applies to the language we use: “partner” and “parent” rather than wife, husband, mother or father; “person from another faith background,” rather than “non-Jew.” By expanding our language, we are less likely to exclude someone who doesn’t fit into our original boxes.

And like putting the teal pumpkin on the porch, we need to let potential guests know that we are welcoming. What does it say on our lawn, on our door, on our website to let people know that we have what they need, and that we can provide a safe space for people in the LGBT community, for interfaith families, and for people with special needs. What would it be like to put on our front door: Come in! We have an elevator and gluten free cookies!?!

And if we were truly to be like the Abraham and Sarah of legend, we may not even want to make our trick-or-treaters come all the way to our house. In some communities, neighborhood groups set up a “trunk-or-treat” so that younger children can go from car to car in a lighted parking lot, rather than wander through a dark cul-de-sac, ringing doorbells.

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Life is Messy: A Drash for Shabbat Shuvah

This was my sermon this past Friday night. Laundry and dishes are done now, and houseguests gone, but the shoes remain.

“As you begin the year, so shall you end it.”

I’m not sure exactly where this adage comes from, or even whether it refers to the Jewish New Year or the secular one. But around this time of year, it gets lodged in my brain, reminding me to tie up loose ends and take care of business before the sounding of the shofar. We are fortunate that the beginning of our year stretches from the beginning of Elul to the end of Yom Kippur—forty days—giving us plenty of time to get our affairs in order. Even if we hit the snooze alarm until Rosh Hashana, we still have the ten days of repentance to make things right. Now is the allotted time to make apologies and write thank you notes, to settle debts and give to tzedakah, so that we can begin the year with a clean slate.

And now is also the time to clean the house.

For some reason, that is what I think of when I hear, “As you begin the year, so shall you end it.” Though I’ve never been much of a neat-freak, I wouldn’t want to go to Rosh Hashana services with the bed unmade or the dishes undone. In fact, when I get blocked writing sermons, I might even clean out the drawers of the fridge or empty out the closet for Goodwill. (My other procrastinatory activity is cooking, which sometimes counterbalances the cleaning, as I teach myself to caramelize onions or make pudding from scratch).

This year, I didn’t have much time to procrastinate, and I was fortunate enough to be able to hire someone to do a good deep clean of my new apartment in preparation for the holiday. The cleaning, however, took place on Wednesday, a good four days before the start of the New Year, giving me WAY too much time to mess it up again.

By Sunday morning, the laundry basket was overflowing and the dishwasher was full. The kitchen countertops, just days earlier scrubbed clean, even under the burners of the stove, were smeared with traces of turmeric and pomegranate. There were onion peels and thyme leaves scattered across the kitchen floor. Boxes of new shoes were stacked against the wall of the bedroom, waiting either to be worn for the holiday, or sent back to the store. Piles of paper were strewn everywhere: bills, magazines I need to cancel, and notes for my sermons.

I had houseguests too, adding suitcases, toiletries, and extra towels to the mix. It was a mess, and it made me anxious about the starting the New Year off on the wrong foot.

I didn’t grow up in a super neat household. My mother decorated our house with placards that read, “Dull women have immaculate homes,” or, “My house is clean enough to be healthy and messy enough to be happy.” Our house was a happy tornado of Play Doh, Matchbox cars, and Barbie heads; every surface covered with family photographs, notes scribbled on the back of junk mail envelopes, and piles upon piles of unread magazines.house_cleaning

So I trace my obsession with cleaning for the holiday to a series called All of a Kind Family, which my mother and I read when I was growing up. The books told the story of five sisters and a brother growing up Jewish in New York City at the turn of the century. In one chapter, the girls are charged with cleaning the house for Shabbat. (The brother is still a baby at this point). As they dust and mop and polish, one sister turns to the other and tells her the legend of the Shabbat angels:

Every Shabbat, when a man comes home from synagogue, there are two angels with him, one on each shoulder: a good angel and a bad angel. If the house is spotless, the table set, and the children smiling and freshly scrubbed, the good angel says, “May it be so next Shabbat,” and the bad angel has to say, “Amen.” But if the house is messy and the children unruly, the bad angel will say, “May it be so next Shabbat,” and the good angel has to say, “Amen.”

I have a number of problems with this story: it puts an undue pressure on the women of the house to get things in order while the men are away at shul. It places too much emphasis on an ideal of domestic bliss and makes no mention of the spiritual aspects of Shabbat.

It also implies that one can get caught in a cycle of bad Shabbatot or bad years. In this season of change, we need to know that, no matter how Shabbat or Rosh Hashana starts, if we truly desire to change our ways, we can turn things around, and make the next one better.

This story also ignores one crucial thing: that life is messy. Life with six kids in a tenement on the Lower East Side must have been messy. Having three kids under the age of six in a Pennsylvania suburb was definitely messy. And life today, even in a home all by myself, is messy. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Messiness can be a reminder of all of our blessings.

As we mopped chocolate off the counter and scraped pomegranate stains off the white cabinets, I realized that this mess was a happy one. I was blessed to have loved ones spending the holiday with me. We were blessed to have abundant food to eat. I felt blessed that I had finally made an entire meal in which I burned nothing and everyone took seconds. Even the piles of paper accumulating in the corners were a reminder that I was finally doing the meaningful, creative work that I had longed for over the last few years.

Which is not to say that all messiness is good. No celebration is without its reminders of who is missing, who is hurting, and who might not be with us next year. There is always uncertainty on the horizon. What kind of a mess will our lives be next year at this time? But that is all the more reason not to postpone our festivities until the house is clean, or the transitional period is over. We celebrate even in the midst of life’s messes.

This is what teshuva feels like.

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This time of year is also when we are encouraged to go deeper into the messiness of life. Teshuva is not a neat process. It is kind of like cleaning out the top drawer, the one where we throw everything that cannot be categorized or made useful. If we leave everything as it is, no one will be able to see the mess from the outside, but we know it’s there. Teshuva is when we dump the drawer all over the floor and figure out what is worth keeping, what needs to be fixed, and what must be thrown away. The result is that things get messier before we can get organized.

And we never get it exactly right on the first try. We know that not everything we put back in the drawer is worth keeping; we know that, the next time we need something, it will be that exact thing that we threw away; and we know that, by next week, we’ll have tossed something else useless in there because we don’t know what else to do with it. That top drawer is never going to be exactly how we want it. But once in awhile, we dump it out, we explore its contents, and we try again.

Teshuva requires us to take a hard look at the messiness in ourselves, knowing that we might only be able to attack one cluttered corner at a time, knowing that we are making new messes even as we clean up the old ones. And teshuva requires us to sort out the messes we’ve made with other people. This might mean opening old wounds, making ourselves vulnerable to the people we have hurt or who have hurt us, exposing ourselves to the possibility of pain and rejection. Teshuva is messy. But teshuva, that digging deeper into the mess, is also the only way we can really get things cleaned up.

“As you begin the year, so shall you end it.”

Regardless of what we’ve gotten in order and what we have yet to scrub clean, the confessions of the High Holy Days give us a chance to start fresh. Isaiah tells us, “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white. Be they red as dyed wool, they can become like fleece” (Isaiah 1:18).

Teshuva offers us the opportunity to wipe the slate clean. But there’s a reason we do it every year. Life is messy, we are messy, and as we begin the new year, it is hopeless to pray that we’ll be able to keep our lives free of mess for an entire year. Rather, let us pray for the courage to live fully within that mess, to dig deep into it when we need to, to sort things out, and to embrace it when we can, to find the blessings within it.

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Spiritual Housecleaning: A Tashlich Ritual for Kids #blogelul

Shana Tovah to Everyone!

Tashlich is one our lesser-known High Holy Day rituals (kind of like Selichot), so I thought I’d make a video to explain. Right after Rosh Hashana–and presumably after we’ve made all of our apologies and fixed all of the things we’ve broken–we go to a moving body of water: a lake, a river, or an ocean. We take breadcrumbs and cast them into the water (The word tashlich means “to cast away”), symbolically letting go of our sins or anything else we don’t want to take with us into the coming year.

When I was in college, someone in my chavurah taught me a beautiful ritual you can do without a river, lake, ocean, or bread. Writing our sins on paper with washable marker, we were able to make them “disappear” with the help of warm, soapy water.

With our mistakes and regrets washed away, we are able to start the New Year off with a clean slate. And when we’re finished casting away, we can start to think about what we want to write in the coming year–and do that with a permanent marker!

Here’s demonstration below (iMovie cut off the top of my head, but you’ll get the point).

Vassar Temple and Vassar College Jewish Student Union will be performing tashlich at Sunset Lake at Vassar College at 4 p.m. on Monday, September 14th. All are welcome to celebrate the New Year with us!

Wishing all of you a happy, healthy, safe and sweet New Year! L’shana tova tikatevu.

P.S. In 1997, Richard Israel z”l created a list of different kinds of bread for different kinds of sins. This is more for adults.

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