Here are the songs for this week’s parsha in order of the narrative of the story, with a little explanation of how these songs help illuminate the people Israel’s flirtation with idol worship, Moses’ acquisition and subsequent destruction of the tablets, and the rekindling of the covenant with G-d through the revelation of G-d’s face, manner, and name. Enjoy + Shabbat Shalom!Read More
Rabbi Ariana delivered this sermon January 26/20 Shvat Shabbat morning for Parshat Yitro, at Homewood Friends.
I want to tell you a story, (as told by Eliezer Steinman.)
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement in the 18th century, was once asked: "Why is it that chassidim burst into song and dance at the slightest provocation? Is this the behavior of a healthy individual?"
The Baal Shem Tov responded with a story:
Once, a musician came to town—a musician of great but unknown talent. He stood on a street corner and began to play.
Those who stopped to listen could not tear themselves away, and soon a large crowd stood enthralled by the glorious music whose equal they had never heard. Before long they were moving to its rhythm, and the entire street was transformed into a dancing mass of humanity.
A man walking a ways away, out of reach of the music, wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the townspeople jumping up and down, waving their arms and turning in circles in middle of the street?
"Chassidim," concluded the Baal Shem Tov, "are moved by the melody that issues forth from every creature in G!d's creation. If this makes them appear mad to those with less who cannot understand, should they therefore cease to dance?”
The problems with what this story claims about “sanity” and “wellness,” sometimes the things that bring joy are surprising, hard to measure, unexpected.
Over the past month, Ever and I have been deep in the cleaning of our home. We bought and moved into our house at the end of July, and then a sort of big deal set of holidays came around in September, maybe you’ve heard of them, and blasted a path through the house. Many of you saw our home in various states of this moving in, including one August/Elul song circle where there was a big hole in the wall and we nestled folding chairs between boxes of High Holy Day prayer books.
So this past month, we dug through closets, hung art, and put papers where papers go. We vacuum corners untouched for decades, sorted books, placed dangly earrings in a place reserved for just them.
I will share with you today, before the Torah, Hashem, and our beloved community, that we have an entire box marked “sentimental backpacks.” Yes, that would be a box filled with preschool fish shaped backpacks, a 3rd grade Cal Ripkin backpack, a thrifted army tote with very cool and very punk buttons from high school, a handmade quilted messenger bag that was the subject of a college admission essay. If you ever wondered what a Cancer/Pisces household was like, it’s a box marked “sentimental backpacks.”
And if you’ve turned on Netflix, or been on any corner of the internet over the past month, you may have noticed a new show that has captured America’s New Years Resolution attention: “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Across the world, people are cleaning their houses, because this professional is showing them how. The ikar, the core message of her work is to:
Keep only those things that speak to the heart, and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service – then let them go.
This has resulted in a wave of house cleaning, donations to thrift stores, think pieces, memes, and questions about what does it mean to let something go, and how do you know when something “sparks joy.”
Kondo on her website writes:
People around the world have been drawn to this philosophy not only due to its effectiveness, but also because it places great importance on being mindful, introspective and forward-looking.
The show follows Marie Kondo as she goes into American homes, and helps their inhabitants confront the clutter, mess, and overwhelm of life. Sounds familiar, like grandpa Yitro in this week’s parsha, who comes into Moses’ life, sees his overwhelm at a system that doesn’t work, and brings in help from the outside, to establish a system that does work. This week’s parsha shows us two systems of rule--one that a human being tries to shoulder alone and fails, and one that from the very outset is given to the entire people.
Kondo’s demand to let things go was met with derision by many. At one point she is quoted as saying that one should keep only 30 books. “I should only keep 30 books?!” the internet panicked.
Instead, she explained:
The most important part of this process of tidying is to always think about what you have and about the discovery of your sense of value, what you value that is important. So it’s not so much what I personally think about books. The question you should be asking is what do you think about books.
How we structure our days, our homes, is a reflection of our values. When those values are challenged, and we react in anger, we are able to see where we truly stand. Clarify our values.
Marie Kondo’s question, grounded in Shinto teaching from Japan, asks us to see our obligation to each object, acknowledge the identity and spirit in each physical object. “Does it bring you joy” does not demand if an item brings simple pleasure of the immediate, but does it bring a lasting, long-term feeling. So perhaps we start there--that there is something about mindfulness, introspection, and anticipation that are the roots of joy. Joy is a nuanced emotion, with depth, texture, and is not just about being happy.
Margaret Dilloway wrote in a piece for the Huffington Post this Tuesday, “What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’” that core to the practices Kondo describes, thanking objects for the role they play in our lives, if only passing, is rooted deeply in religious practice. Dilloway writes:
Kami are Shinto spirits present everywhere — in humans, in nature, even in inanimate objects. At an early age, I understood this to mean that all creations were miracles of a sort.
Kondo teaches that material goods are not a means for attaining happiness and urges people to appreciate what they have, a method she intends to lead to contentment, not burnout.
Happiness cannot be the only element of joy. Long term satisfaction, fulfilling commitments, feeling aligned in our values, connected to the past and the future, are all elements of joy beyond an ecstatic feeling. Happiness is great, sure! But it is not the only pursuit. Joy is a feeling of being in alignment, that flows from a meaningful life. You must not be happy to be joyful.
Take Yom Kippur, for example. That is a joyous day! The most joyful day of the year for the Jewish people, because teshuva, return, is truly possible. It is not a day of fun, of relaxing, but it can still be a joyous day, in which we take stock of our spiritual lives, do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting for the soul, do a spiritual inventory.
And take mitzvot, commandments, things we are drawn close to and obligated to! They can bring joy, but maybe not always happiness. That might be ok, actually. There are 39 melachot, 39 kinds of labor forbidden on Shabbat. And our wise teachers drew fences upon fences around those 39 melachot found in Torah to keep us from doing any activity that might be accidentally creative labor on Shabbat.
No creative labor on Shabbat--this translates for some as no cooking food on Shabbat. Meaning cooking happens during the work week, squeezed into free hours.
No work means no carrying on Shabbat--this means like my great Zeide did, some pin their house key onto their shirt instead of carrying it in their hand or pocket, or spend the energy to erect and maintain an eruv, a border wire that permits carrying.
No creation means no making fire--or turning off and on lights, meaning some plan far in advance with automatic timers, or leave certain lights on over Shabbat.
How is this an oneg Shabbat, delighting in Shabbat? What’s happy about all this?!
What if we realized we were obligated to mitzvot not just because they made us feel good? For some of us, our relationship to mitzvot is one of learning, exploring, and taking on the practices that feel like commandments--we opt into to a relationship with mitzvot. For others of us, we feel chiyyuv, obligated to mitzvot, from a force of history or G!d greater than our own moment in time. Regardless of how your approach mitzvot, there is joy that comes from observance, that doesn’t mean you’re happy. You’re in shul on Yom Kippur, or you’re hustling and rearranging your life to make Shabbat morning or a dinner happen. We don’t do mitzvot because they’re like candy, we do mitzvot because we are obligated to them, to other people, to Hashem. If we think we only do things because they feel good then we are doing a cheaper version of what life could be. There must be more to life than just pursuing fleeting happiness.
A core critique I’ve heard in response to Marie Kondo’s Art of Tidying Up is that being able to get to choose what you get rid of is a luxury for the well off. What about when you cannot afford to let go of that which does not bring you joy? What about when you’re forced to get rid of what does? What about when the choices you make are for survival, not your ethical values beyond that? In a piece called “Can You Marie Kondo When You’re Poor” by Keshia Naurana Badalge on Vice, she writes that:
Poverty necessitates a little bit of hoarding, sometimes.” She explains that “Marie Kondo also mentions to thank the objects you own that you don’t like, for they teach you about what you do like. My issue with this: What if one has little money to buy things they like.
In this piece, the author is not ready to get rid of this philosophy all together.
I agree with Marie Kondo’s philosophy of a clear space giving you a clear mind. But I was constantly hungry and looking for food, and this incessant worry about money is the biggest obstacle to a joyful life.
All people have the capacity to take stock of their spiritual lives, their material lives, and see how their values are playing out, it is a luxury to be able to make decisions based on this information. When we look to the poor to answer for poverty, we are asking the wrong question.
We must eradicate poverty, not the poor.
The question must be instead “does capitalism bring me joy?” The answer is no, of course, because the values you hold are not in line with such a world. This week’s parsha reminds us that a small group of people’s burnout, or suffering, is unacceptable to the entire people. For all to be joyful, all must have the resources space, and dignity to thrive. There is more to joy than it being purely personal. Joy is relational.
And then there are the possessions we keep, the things we do, the families or communities we continue to be a part of though they bring us no joy, but because at one point, they helped us survive. The behaviors we hold on to not by choice, but because they kept us from falling over the cliff. For those things, we account, and we offer gratitude for our cleverness that has allowed us to survive.
The work then will present itself, as it always does, when we are weighed down by relationships, practices, and habits we developed years ago, but no longer serve us. Before we begin to lay them down, bag them up, slough them off, we must show gratitude to the things which have helped us make it to this point, or get to a place of communal learning or practice or relationship repair or whatever it may be. The challenge is to get brave enough to lay it down and to name it is no longer serving you.
Maybe you spent years being pushed away, unaccepted, hurt, ignored in religious spaces, and the tool that helped you survive became “I don’t like to be in religious space, I’m not that religious.” Maybe if you’re now finding places where you are rejoiced in, honored, seen, you are challenged to re-discover your spiritual self. Honor that tool of disinterest that protected you from heartbreak. Maybe you developed a lack of trust to survive a lifetime of violence. Maybe if you’re now finding people and chosen family and places where safety becomes a reality, not a story you once heard, you can begin to re-train, and trust your instincts. Honor that tool of vigilance that protected you from pain.
And after you thank those tools, you make a tashlich. You cast off that which is no longer of service to you, is inappropriate to you, clutters your field of vision.
For the mess, the clutter, the objects we keep and the things we are ready to purge, we must offer up gratitude.Gratitude is fundamental to joy.
I believe it is time to stop trying to be happy. I want to invite you to take a serious, analytical look at your life, your behavior. Take a spiritual inventory, a cheshbon hanefesh. It is your life to look at. Account for the choices you make that you are proud of, the relationships that bring you closer to the person you want to be, obligations you fulfill that enrich your community. And look for that which does the opposite. Find that which does not bring you joy, even if it brings you happiness. What happiness is standing in the way of real joy?
Together we can stop asking the white-washed version of the question, “what makes me happy,” and ask instead, “what makes us joyful?” What is the real work that brings our values and ourselves into alignment?
To close as we opened, another chassidic teaching explaining Psalm 126:2-3:
"...then they will say among the nations, 'G‑d has done great things with [the Jews]' Indeed, G‑d has done great things with us; we were joyous."33
Why has G‑d "done great things with us"? Why have we merited redemption?
Because "we were joyful."
Redemption will only come when we are joyful--meaning our actions are aligned with our values. We begin to prepare to move into the month of Adar, and we will sing about the joy that increases in Adar.
In this season, a kavvanah, an intention:
May our actions match our values,
May we find clarity on the world we wish to see and how we are called to move through it,
and may we come to feel true, deep joy.
Kein yehi ratzon, so may it be.
It's been an amazing season from Rosh Hashanah to New Years, and your year-end contributions will help Hinenu continue to flourish!
Make your donation here: http://hinenubaltimore.org/donate
Thank you so much, and see you real soon!
At first, I may not seem like a typical candidate for membership in an upstart shul like Hinenu. I’m 43 years old, married with two sons, and—perhaps most notably—I already belong to another shul, Reservoir Hill’s Beth Am, where I am co-chair of the Social Action Committee.
Indeed, Beth Am meets many of my family’s needs: My boys attend Hebrew School there (“The Jewish Discovery Lab”), we enjoy Shabbat morning services in the beautiful, historic sanctuary, and I’ve appreciated working with clergy and fellow members on criminal justice and immigration issues, among others.
And yet, I am here for Hinenu!
From the moment I met Rabbi Ariana Katz and the other founding members of Hinenu, I knew I had found another home—who says you can only have one?
In this home, queer Jews, Jews of color, interfaith couples and families, and non-Jews were welcomed and loved like in no other Jewish community I’ve ever known. In this home, values of equity, racial justice, and solidarity were lived, loved, and integrated into every decision we made. In this home, I found a willingness—indeed, a desire—to openly talk about Israel/Palestine and express solidarity with Palestinians in a Jewish context.
As I have watched this community come into existence over the past year, I have become more and more convinced that Hinenu is an essential addition to Jewish Baltimore. While traditional shuls locally and around the country are closing and consolidating, Hinenu represents a new kind of Jewish community, one that allows Jews of all backgrounds to be their full selves, and I am here forit.
Join us and become a member of Hinenu today. The Founding Membership Drive closes on Friday, August 3rd at sundown!
Whether you belong to another shul or not, I encourage you to become a member of Hinenu. There’s no rule that says we can only have one Jewish home—indeed, Hinenu’s bylaws explicitly encourage members to take the financial obligations of other shul memberships into account when deciding their membership level with Hinenu. So, join us and be here for Hinenu!
Don't want to pay membership dues online? Mixed up by the form? Email firstname.lastname@example.org!
We are balancing, together, on a tightrope stretched between the world we are in now, and the world we long to see, and we are carrying the tools we have to balance and to steady.Read More
The following description of the Baltimore City Lulav was written by Hinenu member Vanessa Lubiner about their creation of a locally sourced lulav. All are welcome to shake the Baltimore lulav or a traditional lulav in the Hinenu sukkah all week, at 802 Gorsuch Avenue.
A lulav is a physical metaphor for the body. Each component represents different aspects of the body--the heart, the spine, the eyes, and the lips--which also represents the four letters that comprise the unpronounceable name of creation (yud hay vav hay). The lulav is shaken to the four corners (north, south, east, and west), up and down, and made with the four species (arba minim). This puts our bodies in relationship with place, earth, and in orientation to each other. How do we want be in our environments this year? What moments/actions bring us into a state of unity?
Consider this lulav your plant ally this season. There is great power in reconnecting ourselves to the animal and spiritual body through the plant-life that surrounds us. As we say, hinenu--we are here. These are the plants of Baltimore, the place we make our home. With a lulav of local plants, we honor the Piscataway, the Susquehannock, the spirits of other indigenous peoples and enslaved peoples of this place. We honor the people and architecture of Baltimore City.
This holiday of Sukkot celebrates the wild, the harvest, and the shelter.
THE ETROG = THE APPLE
Of the body: The Heart
Of the senses: Smell and Taste
Of the name: 2nd Hay
Apple and honey for a sweet new year. Apple of the hearty root cellar. These apples are Roxbury Russet and Maiden’s Blush--two heirloom species (over two hundred years old) that are grown in Carroll Park in Pigtown. I help to steward this space as part of my work. This orchard is complicated and important because it is a historical replica of the Mount Claire orchard which stood there over a hundred years ago, which was cared for by enslaved people. I chose to pick apples from this orchard in order to acknowledge the struggles for justice and equity in Baltimore City. These apples represent resilience. These apples were also harvested with volunteers from Pigtown and shared with food pantries around the city.
THE DATE PALM = THE CAT TAIL
Of the body: The Spine
Of the senses: Taste and No Smell
Of the name: Vav
Although it was difficult to choose species for every component of the lulav, I had a particular challenge in finding a branch that followed all the rules and offered a similar feeling to shaking a date palm, which is a particular experience. Though a cat tail is technically not a tree, I thought it was more important to create the whoosing, sturdy, shaking sensation. At first, I considered choosing mulberry, gingko biloba, or fig because all of these trees fruit (which is a rule), and because I wanted to represent the spine as something curvy and malleable, slithering and movable. I ultimately chose the cat tail because it is edible and strong. It is a mighty wetland creature--filterer of rainwater and companion to pollinators. This cat tail was harvested from a farm in Clifton Park that I have worked with for years.
THE MYRTLE = THE JUNIPER
Of the body: The Eyes
Of the senses: Smell and No Taste
Of the name: Yud
I remember pulling juniper berries from a tree outside my grandmother’s house and rolling them in between my fingers. The smell lingered long after I left, and the smell reminded me that it had not been so long since I was there. With the passing of the equinox, I find myself bracing for the days getting shorter. The evergreen of juniper reminds me of the life happening underneath the surface of winter. Though juniper has taste, it was more important for me to create a distinctly fragrant experience that invokes the aliveness of the calm yet teeming cold. Juniper is also a wakening scent, encouraging us to open our eyes and our senses. There are three branches with three clusters of leaves, perhaps to acknowledge our two seeing eyes and the other ways we can see. This juniper was also harvested from the farm in Clifton Park.
THE WILLOW = THE WILLOW
Of the body: The Lips
Of the senses: No Taste and No Smell
Of the name: 1st Hay
This willow was harvested on 33rd Street in front of Punjab Market and Papa Johns--my favorite place to slow pace on my walk to the Wyman Park Dell. I chose to keep the traditional weeping willow as part of the lulav because it honors grief and death while also supporting healing and growth. If you steep willow in water, the tea can be used to encourage the roots of other plants to strengthen and deepen. That same enzyme has been used to relieve pain for thousands of years! This is the salicin of aspirin that we still use today. Willow is also used to make drawing charcoal and its flowers are nectary edible. This magical tree, as well as all four species, have a relationship with wetlands and streams. If you have ever wondered what brought willow to the juncture of Barclay and 33rd, willow protects the bay from stormwater runoff with their super powerful filtration roots. It also felt important to honor willow as a Jewish tradition--where the present and the past find each other and make sense together.
Also, the yarn that binds the lulav was dyed with merigold from Sarah Magida’s Garden.
I hope this lulav feels like a magic wand, even if just for a few short minutes.
The following sermon was given by Rabbi Ariana Katz at Hinenu on September 18, 2018 at Kol Nidre, erev Yom Kippur.
I thought I’d begin this morning by talking about a revolutionary leader, who led a failed, but powerful revolt.
The story goes like this:
And it once was that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road in the Roman Empire, following the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and they heard the sound of the multitudes of Rome a distance away. The city was so large that they were able to hear its raucousness from a great distance.
And the other Sages began weeping and Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: WHY are you laughing?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: And you, WHY are you weeping?
They said to him: Our enemy, those Romans, who worship false gods, are secure and happy in this giant city, while for us, our Holy Temple is burnt. We should not weep?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing. If the people who cause such destruction and transgress God’s will are so rewarded, imagine how much more we who perform God’s will, will be rewarded!
The Talmud relates another story, in which the rabbis were walking to Jerusalem after the destruction of the second temple. They see the the destroyed husk of the holy temple, and rend their garments in mourning. They see a fox--a wild animal run out, and they are inconsolable.
Rabbi Akiva, begins to laugh.
They said to him: WHY are you laughing?
Rabbi Akiva said to them: And you, WHY are you weeping? Our prophets, Uriah and Zechariah, prophesied first the destruction would come, and then our ultimate redemption. Without first proving Uriah’s destruction, we would not have proof of our redemption.
Hearing that, Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues said to him, ‘Akiva, you have comforted us. Akiva, you have comforted us.’ (Makot 24a-b)
In the brokenness, we sometimes find hope. In the lamenting of what has been destroyed, there is sometimes a Rabbi Akiva in us, who sees promise in the desolation. Rabbi Akiva sees that an intact, whole, operational holy temple was ultimately not going to bring comfort. Seeing the destruction of it had greater promise. An imperfect world offers us more opportunity for creative solutions. The dynamism that emerges from catastrophe, like Rabbi Akiba’s double back flip connection of prophet to prophet all while standing in the ashes of the crumbling Temple, is another one of our survival strategies. Combating perfectionism, embracing the crashing of how we thought life was supposed to be, who we thought we were supposed to be, what we thought the world was supposed to be, will help us survive this time of great turning. Our strategy for survival can come from imagining ourselves standing in the smoking charred remains of our holy temple, our closest place on this earth to Divinity, shoulder to shoulder with Rabbi Akiva, and laughing.
This is not to say violence, tragedy, attack is just “imperfection,” this is not to say the dispersal of a people is a minor inconvenience, the distancing of any holy people from any holy place a laughing matter. But the dynamic responses to imperfect situations is itself holy. Repair.
Rabbi Akiva, in this story, is a practitioner of emergent strategy. Emergent strategy, as defined by adrienne marie brown in her book of the same time, is a way of describing plans of action, personal practices and collective organizing tools that account for constant change and rely on the strength of relationship for adaptation (23).
This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we’ve been learning tools for surviving times of great turning. I’ve discussed listening to ancestors, pulling on collective prior knowledge. I’ve taught about chesed, lovingkindness, giving care and receiving care. One more tool we can add to our arsenal of survival strategies this year: combatting, casting off, stamping out, perfectionism.
Judaism and Perfection
We have acted wrongly, we have been untrue, we have gained unlawfully, we have defamed, we have harmed others, we have wrought injustice, we have zealously transgressed, we have hurt, and we have told lies.
Judaism doesn’t demand perfection. What it is that our liturgy demands is that we take accountability for our actions and our inactions. When our negative thoughts lead to hurtful actions, it is then we must make teshuvah. But Judaism can’t penalize you for thinking things. Or asking questions--an extension of thinking, verbalising a question. A good question, that unhinges, unearths, uncovers greater truth about our world is a gift to be praised, not punished.
Judaism does not expect perfection. Perfection, in this world, is impossible. Not because of a fatal human flaw, I believe, but because some things are not for us to come to know. For example, the sound of the tetragramaton, the four letter name of God yud and hey and vav and hey. Some perfection, we just can’t know. Like the sound the world will hum when a whole peace falls upon the earth.
We cannot expect perfection. Even the wake up call of our shofar, the building block sound of the universe, is comprised of shattering. TKIYAH! Wholeness. Fullness. TERUAH! A shattering, into pieces. Fissures that cannot hold back, that break. SHEVARIM! A complete breaking, scattered pieces, broken. TEKIAH! And amidst that brokenness, a fullness. A new kind of wholeness.
We cannot expect perfection. Our lunar/solar calendar, based on the turning of the moon, governs the rhythm of our ritual and spiritual and often emotional lives. The artist Grace D Chin offers this quote, inspired by the moon: You do not need to be whole to be perfect. For us, perhaps, you do not need to be perfect to be whole, full and glowing like the moon. You do not need to strive for a remote, unreachable idea before you are worthy of being blessed. The monthly blessing of the new moon ends with this:
“Praised are you, O Lord, who renews new moons.”
Inherent in discarding perfectionism is the blessing of renewal. A second chance. A repair, and opportunity to try again. Rather than a stagnated beam of light never changing, we are challenged to learn from the presence of the bright full moon in the sky, and challenged to learn from the darkness of the new moon. It is at the beginning of the moon’s journey that we bless, exalt, and praise. It is at the beginning of trying again that we can offer blessing.
We cannot expect perfection. Our tradition calls us to always remember the destruction of the Temple. Some families keep a corner of their homes unpainted, always, to recall that there is still an unfinished, unperfected corner of our hearts. When a couple smashes glasses under the wedding chuppah, it serves as a reminder of the destruction of the temple, and a world still in need of support finding wholeness.
We talk a lot about teshuvah this season. Returning, repairing. Returning to our best selves, returning to connection to Divinity, repairing our relationships with ourselves, each other, and with God. In a time when we are supposed to be asking to be sealed in the book of life for good and well being, we are actively admitting our faults, planning to do better. Why don’t we do this 6 months before Yom Kippur? Why combine the work of teshuvah with the time when our fates will be decided?
The work is itself the blessing. The reflection, the repair is itself the reward. The difficulty of this time is the entire reason itself.
Kabbalah, our mystical tradition, teaches that the closest a human being can get to the inconceivable all-encompassing unity of God is through the process of teshuvah. Rabbi Ya’akov, quoted in the Pirkei Avot, the Wisdom of our Sages, says "One moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the world to come” (4:17). Perfect behavior, thoughts, lives, would steal from us the opportunity to make teshuvah. Perfectionism takes from us the very gift of life--being so delightfully, strangely, imperfectly human.
When I was 20 I heard the famous quote from the Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, often paraphrased to say, “there is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” Every time I hear this, I feel my whole body just settle, my heart drop to my stomach. “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” What could this mean? How could something broken be whole? How could teshuva in this world be better than life in the world to come? How could a rabbi stand and laugh in the charred remains of the holy temple?
That of us that is deemed broken is most holy.
Ableism and Perfectionism
When we cast off the bonds to perfectionism, we begin to know one another better. We begin to know ourselves better. When we no longer imagine perfection as an achievable reality, we begin to move through the world more easily. Treat each other more kindly.
I invite you to think of a time that you expected perfection from yourself. It could be years ago, when making a big choice. It could be even from today, an idealized image of how you wanted your experience in shul to go, or how your practice on Yom Kippur would feel. Get to know that expectation.
Now realize that it might not really happen that way. Remember how it felt when perfection wasn’t reached. When you felt like you failed. See yourself among the wreckage of the temple you erected to exalt Perfected Ideas.
Now imagine the best laugh you’ve ever heard. Can you picture the face of the person laughing, or hear it burst out of them? Picture that laugh, instead. Maybe you smile or start to chuckle. Maybe you laugh for real--a laugh that banishes the desolation of imperfection. That welcomes imperfection like a friend.
Maybe you know all this too well already. Perfectionism is a myth, put forward by world that tells us we must conform to the norm, that is established by those who wield power, demand all “others” conform to fit the mold. This abelist, cis-sexist, misogynist, fat phobic white supremacist culture sets the definition on perfection, and then limits and restricts our bodies and our lives accordingly. None of us are perfect. Why do we keep trying?
In the coming year I am particularly committed to learning about how perfectionism is linked to ableism, in its demands for one way of moving through the world, one schedule of the day to conform to the speed of, one way of thinking and feeling and communicating. How our communities explicitly and implicitly establish and sustain non-accessible spaces through our expectations of ourselves and others. How our communities explicitly and implicitly hold a single belief of what a perfected body or mind does.
I am sitting with again and again the words of Mia Mingus from her 2011 keynote address at the Femmes of Color symposium. Mia Mingus is a writer, educator and community organizer for disability justice and transformative justice. She is a queer physically disabled korean woman transracial and transnational adoptee from the Caribbean. I am internalizing, and re-reading, to begin to learn what I can about this violence of the perfected image of a body, or a life. She closes her remarks on ugliness in a way that speaks to what we must lay down from perfectionism
If you leave with anything today, leave with this: you are magnificent. There is magnificence in our ugliness. There is power in it, far greater than beauty can ever wield. Work to not be afraid of the Ugly—in each other or ourselves. Work to learn from it, to value it. Know that every time we turn away from ugliness, we turn away from ourselves. And always remember this: I would rather you be magnificent, than beautiful, any day of the week. I would rather you be ugly—magnificently ugly.
And the truth is, this is messy. This life, this struggling to survive, this wondering how we’re all going to make it through this world together. This is messy, this having a body, having to fit in to rigid systems, fighting the stories we tell ourselves about how we should be.
But Mingus and Rabbi Akiva tell us this much: in the mess, in the truth telling, in the desolation, there is survival.
PERFECTION is not a Jewish value.
Blessing for Imperfection
That which is broken offers a greater knowledge of wholeness. That which is shattered only knows about what it means to be full and intact. May we wander through the ruins of our Temples, and not weep but rejoice and laugh, for we know a perfected world is so far from this one, but dwelling in the ruins, and finding beauty among the fallen trees, is the most human, the most holy, the most perfect we can be.
We will build a new world from the ashes of the old, like Rabbi Akiva on the steps.
So this year, may we be blessed with imperfection. This year may we be strengthened to see all our cracks, all the light that comes in (Leonard Cohen z’l). This year may we fail miserably, and repair together. This year may we come to know the word shalem, whole, is the twin of the word shalom, peace. May we find peace in our wholeness. Keyn yehi ratzon.
The following sermon was given by Rabbi Ariana Katz at Hinenu on September 18, 2018 at Kol Nidre, erev Yom Kippur.
I am about to exercise my rabbinic privilege on this the holiest night of the year, and I am going to do so by telling you a corny joke.
This joke recently came to mind when I was talking with a member of our shul about why we come to shul. The joke goes like this:
A child is talking to her father, and says: Dad, how come you go to shul? Her father says, “What kind of a question is that?” The child says, “ I know you are a non-believer, an atheist, an agnostic, or whatever; so why would you go to shul?”
The child’s father says, “Goldberg goes to shul.” The child says, “So what? What kind of an answer is that?” The father says, “Goldberg goes to shul to talk to God; I go to shul to talk to Goldberg!”
See, I love this joke. I love this joke because its not really even that big a joke. Some of us come to shul to talk to God. Some of us come to shul to talk to Goldberg. As you’ve heard me say by now, hopefully, there is nothing older than a Jewish atheist! There is nothing more Jewish than a Jewish athiest. And I’m not convinced that coming to shul just to talk to Goldberg is much of a problem, honestly.
This is the moment to say that when we are called to pray, called to sing our hearts out and vocalize through ancient words our hearts deepest yearnings, find our stories in the stories of our claimed collective forebears, that we need each other to do so. We do need each other to pray, to really yearn, seek, ask, and allow ourselves to find the answers we so need. Your prayers in the shower, or after near misses from what could have been major traffic accidents, those prayers are just as holy. But there is something we are all getting to know a bit better this year about what it can mean to pray in loving community. It resonates louder off the walls, flows easier from our lips, allows us to spend less energy bobbing and weaving out of fear for what painful message might be said to us, and just be able to show up.
There are so many elements that make up a community, but just one of them is prayer. Many elements that turn us from a group of people into a sanctified, beloved congregation. I love that phrase, “beloved community.” I use it all the time, b’shem, in the name of Dr. MLK Jr. Beloved community, and its connections to the concept of covenantal community, is as Rabbi Sid Schwartz describes is:
A group of people who intentionally enter into a mutual obligatory relationship in which they commit to: a) a common mission; and b) give of their time and psychic energy to support the viability of the group and the material and spiritual needs of the members of the group.
The goal--what we are building toward, is not VICTORY. Is not ABSOLUTE POWER. The end is dwelling in beloved community, supporting the material and spiritual needs of the members of our group. If that is not an image of the world to come…
It is not enough to come to shul to just pray--but oh, the praying can sure be sweeter in beloved community.
But it is not enough to come to shul to pray. Honestly. You could davven at home, or join a minyan and never stay for the oneg, never go to a study session, be an anonymous prayer at the back of the room. It is not enough to come to shul to pray. You may cross off your daily obligation from the list, but you’re not yotzei, complete. What, then does it mean to attend shul?
The answer for us is at the intersection of religious obligation and beloved community. One example:
The kaddish prayer is written in Aramaic, and comes in four forms. You’ve heard it-- yitkadal vyitkadash shmei rabah…The kaddish is said as a doorway between parts of the service. To sanctify the end of learning, the Kaddish d’Rabanan. To sanctify one part of a service and entering into another, the hatzi kaddish. To mark the end of the amidah prayer, kaddish titkabal, that our prayers should be received. To mark the end of a reading of scriptural texts, or to be recited by mourners, the Kaddish Shalem, also known as the Kaddish Yatom, mourner’s kaddish. Almost exactly similar, save a paragraph or two, these prayers are paradoxically identical translations. How could the mourner’s kaddish say the same things as a prayer said to distinguish between parts of a service? A prayer that holds the heartbreak of generations upon generations, to be said at other times and mean other things?
Due to the importance of the words of the kaddish, sanctifying the holiness of God, we must extend extreme care when saying the words the congregation calls in response, yehei shmei rabbah mevorach l’olam v’ed. The Shulchan Aruch, codex of law and practice, tells us it is because of this we must be careful to not let our minds wander or chatter. In the Talmud (Shabbat 119b,) says that anyone who answers "Amen, Yehei Shemei rabba…" with complete concentration, that a harsh decree of seventy years of judgment against them is torn up. Not bad.
Why is that? Perhaps its the merit of declaring “May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.” Perhaps, in the context of the mourner’s kaddish, that the communal response comes out of love for the mourner. Where religious obligation and beloved community meet. If you have ever said the mourner’s kaddish, you know what i feels like to stumble, or coast, through the words, and know to wait for the chorus of hearing your community chime in with the right phrase, you know a phrase as simple as one that declares “may His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity” can say a lot more, when you hear your community call it out.
When I was sitting with so many of you for the past 2 years over coffees, asking “what is it you need in a synagogue community,” I heard this one idea over and over again.
“I don’t need anymore friends.”
“I don’t need anymore friends! What I need is people that I can be accountable to. That are accountable to me.”
What I heard from you again and again over countless lattes was this idea that there is friendship, and then there is communityship. Covenantal, beloved community, that not only checks in, but shows up. Shows out. Is present, consistent, and reliable.
What does this mean?
This means when we are missing, we will be noticed.
This means when we are sick, we will be supported with meals, rides to the doctor, listening ears.
This means when we are hurting, we will be surrounded with comfort, understanding.
This means when we are broke, just so, so broke, we will find our community gathering to help pay our bills.
This means when we are stuck out in the cold, we will have more than enough places to rest and sleep.
This means that when we have to move, we will have many hands packing boxes.
Do you do these things for your friends? Sure, I hope so. We help our friends pack, call them when we notice they haven’t been around much lately. Do we do this for near-strangers? Probably not as much.
“I don’t need anymore friends.”
Maybe like me, you’re new year, and actually yes do need friends--but stay with me on this. What is the category beyond friendship, that somehow brings with it a different kind, not better, but holier, value? This spot, where mutual aid and personal practice meet, is where beloved community dwells.
This discussion we land in is in the process of arguing about Moses burial, which is in some tellings done by an anonymous stranger, in some tellings, by God Godsself. So right before the part we’ll play with, Rabbi Chama bar Ḥanina asks this question: how can we truly “walk in God’s ways? God is elsewhere described as a vengeful, firey God!” Unapproachable!
So, Rabbi Chama explains to us:
He explains: Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He.
He provides several examples. Just as He clothes the naked, as it is written: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21), so too,should you clothe the naked.
Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick, as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: “And the Lord appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick.
Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, as it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11), so too, should you console mourners.
Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, as it is written: “And he was buried in the valley in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:6), so too, should you bury the dead.
Through this classic play by play device, Rabbi Chama bar Chanina shows us four instances we can learn about God’s attributes. When Adam and Eve are naked in the garden of Eden, God clothes the naked. When Abraham is recovering from his circumcision, God visits him personally, visits the sick. When Isaac is mourning his father Abraham, God comforts him. And when Moses dies, God buries him. When we behave in these ways, we are behaving like the Divine. When we do these actions, we are Godly beings. When we accept these things, accept care, comfort, we are in a Divine cycle of care.
I stand before you tonight to tell you we have had enough praying. We need to talk to Goldberg more. And more than that--when you go to shul, and see that Goldberg isn’t there, we need to follow up with Goldberg. Find out if he’s ok. Listen deeply for the answers.
It is a fact that within our congregation, even in our first year of convening, we have failed each other. We are soaring and flying and building beyond our wildest dreams, yes. But this year, we must account for the harm we have done. “This is not the fast I desire,” proclaims Isaiah in our haftorah tomorrow morning. “Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers!” (Isaiah 58:4).
There are members of our congregation who have been ignored, overlooked. Members of our congregation who come to events over and over without being engaged, having their name remembered, asked after. We can talk a big talk, work on our most in-line political values statements, plan amazing parties, study beautiful texts and make sparks fly, but if we are not being KIND, extending lovingkindness and care to one another, if we are not accepting care when it is offered with a full heart, we have failed.
We can repair.
We can repair with those we have hurt. We can prove our teshuvah, complete our teshuvah, by doing better next time. Extending words of welcome. Invitations to join at your small shmoozing circle. Remembering details about the person next to you. “I don’t need anymore friends.” What we do need, what will help us survive, are covenanted relationships. Above my desk hangs a print, “Small Acts Transform the World.” It is, like Pirkei Avot teaches, that the space between two people that can transform. Sanctify.
This year it is no small act to extend care. To invite someone in our community to a service at Hinenu, or to a meal at your home. To call someone who you haven’t seen for a few weeks to check in. To reach out to a mourner not just the week of shiva, but a random night three months later, just to see how they’re doing. To follow up, to follow up again, to come knocking until you know a dear one is alright. To not just surface level check the box.
This is not straightforward stuff. It is awkward to ask for. Awkward still to offer. We live in a world in which independence is the value, and interdependence is weakness. But all of us know personally of times we have given care, and times we have received it. Over our lifetimes, may they be long, healthy, and blessed, we have and will continue to both give and receive acts of chesed, loving kindness. We are never only one role, no matter what.
If you are not familiar with the language of care work, of the holy white fire on black fire--often invisible, often feminized, always needed, take 5779 to familiarize yourself with it. Who do you expect care from, without realizing? When do niceties, or favors, happen for you without your acknowledgement? How often do you extend the same loving kindness to others, without expectation of praise? How can you care for others as you so generously are extended care?
This year it is no small act to receive care. To ask for a ride to the grocery store. To let people at shul know you’re hurting, and prayers for healing and text messages would go a long way. To ask for childcare support.
If you are not familiar with the swaddling warmth of receiving care, the ease it can bring, the knots it might undo in your chest and shoulders, take 5779 to familiarize yourself with it. How could you open up to trust it when care comes, rapping on the window like an insistent bird? How can you allow others to care for you as you so generously offer care?
This year we have another chance.
To respond with full focus and concentration to the kaddish, say “yehei shmei rabbah mevorach l’olam vaed.” To see the seventy year decree against us torn up.
This year we have another chance.
To weave networks of kinship, interdependence, vulnerability, and strength, and to weave those bonds through acts of loving kindness.
This year we have another chance.
To forgive each other when we mess up. To ask for what we need. To get proud, to get brave. To lift each other up. To behave like God--whoever She may be. To transform the world through our small actions.
May this be a year in which we see the face of God in one another, and act accordingly.
The following sermon was given by Rabbi Ariana Katz at Hinenu on September 9, 2018 on the eve Rosh HaShanah.
Hayom Harat Olam. This is the day the world was created.
We have made it to a new year, the anniversary of the creation of the world, the commemoration of the Big Bang. Shanah tovah!
It is a blessing to be with you tonight. Truly, an awe inspiring moment.
I am an over-shehecheyanu’er. Some of you may know this, that I can find an opportunity to say the blessing for first moments at any given chance. Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Source of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion. Words of awe, gratitude, noticing, we said them together with Lena just earlier tonight upon lighting the candles.
The Shehecheyanu blessing is said, traditionally:
At the new year
The beginning of a holiday
The first performance of certain mitzvot in a year, like sitting in a sukkah, eating matzah, or lighting the candles on Hanukkah.
Eating a new fresh fruit for the first time since Rosh Hashanah!
Seeing a friend who has not been seen in thirty days.
Acquiring a new home, or new articles of clothing or utensils
The birth of a child
During a ritual immersion in a mikveh as part of a conversion
Generally, when doing or experiencing something that occurs infrequently from which one derives pleasure or benefit.
The Shecheyanu could, and has, also be said:
When you have new guests over to your house for the first time, so you say the blessing right after lighting candles even if no one is expecting it and they realize its a prayer of gratitude for their friendship
When your candidate for city council wins, and you bless amidst the falling balloons under your breath
Under the chuppah
When you tie your tichel to cover your hair the morning that you get ordained
Leaving the house in gender affirming clothing for the first time
Seeing your partner with fresh eyes after a fight, making it through a time of protracted miscommunication
Learning a riff on the guitar and getting it right for the first time
Figuring out a multiplication table after much work
Our tradition teaches we should say 100 blessings each day. Blessings upon waking up, studying, praying, eating, digesting, using the bathroom, performing mitzvot, seeing wonderous acts of creation like rainbows or the sea. The shehecheyanu, while traditionally less common than every day, is one of those blessings. What an opportunity our tradition gives us, to 100 times a day offer up praise for the world around us, to sanctify our meals, the workings of our bodies, the rhythms of the earth and our year. What an opportunity for gratitude, for constant renewal, a chance to refocus, reflect, recommit. That is a wrench in the plan, an interruption of the everyday slog. That is a trapdoor out of complacency, much like Rosh Hashanah is a trap door out of the neverending each-next-day of our year. We stop time with ritual, with blessing.
The weekday shacharit liturgy proclaims מחדש בטובו כל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית, every day God renews with God’s goodness the acts of creation. Which is to say--every day, creation is renewed. Which is to day--there is always a reason to celebrate a new beginning. Because we are, in each day, each week, each month, each year, renewing ourselves.
Today the world is created. Tonight, right here, in 5779, we celebrate the world we have the opportunity to create at Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl. We celebrate this amazing moment in the history of our community--the culmination of a year and a half of work exploring what kind of congregation we might want to see, a year and a half of meeting new people, re-meeting each other with new questions, of cramming onto small porches in Govans in the August heat, around tables at Red Emma’s old location to study Sodom and Gomorrah, a year and a half of building. We mark the beginning of a new year, where so many people drawn to this place, at this moment, at this time, declare “we need each other.” “We belong here.”
Today the world is created. And we know it was not created out of nothing. Genesis 1:2 says:
וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְהֹ֑ום וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם
Now the earth was tohu va’vohu, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
I so love that image, of the quiet quiet world, dark dark waters, and the very spirit of God a breath away from breaking the surface of the water.
Abraham bar Hiyya in the 12th century explains that tohu va’vohu is not “nothingness,” but “matter and form.” The universe was created out of matter and form. The stuff of our community in this moment, has existed already in many different ways already. Our work moving into the new year is to continue to celebrate as we form, to do the hard work of creating and nurturing, and the harder work of dwelling, healing, appreciating, blessing.
We can honor the newness of our congregation while knowing it took a lot of hard won experience to get here, in all our lives. We know the work of creating is messy stuff-and so while we may seem like a finely tuned machine, your rachmunus, compassion, as we learn how to grow to serve each other fully is so appreciated. We know the work of creating is messy stuff, and so, we can give each other permission to bring our messiness to dwell with one another.
Today the world is created. Tonight, in our first breaths of 5779, we celebrate a new year. The first things we’ll do in this year are declare blessings--not go out dancing, though that will come soon enough with Simchat Torah, or to cover ourselves in sequins and revel--though that will come less soon, on Purim. No, we rejoice in the new year with blessing.
So there is much to bless. Each other, for showing up and continuing to show up. Each day, for it brings great opportunity to shape the world around us. Blessings on all of us, as we move into this new year, this new phase of our life together. Shanah tovah.