5779 High Holy Days

Imperfect and Whole: Yom Kippur Sermon 5779

The following sermon was given by Rabbi Ariana Katz at Hinenu on September 18, 2018 at Kol Nidre, erev Yom Kippur.

Good morning.

I thought I’d begin this morning by talking about a revolutionary leader, who led a failed, but powerful revolt.

Rabbi Akiva.

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
Ashamnu niggun

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.

Finding Goldberg: Kol Nidre Sermon 5779

The following sermon was given by Rabbi Ariana Katz at Hinenu on September 18, 2018 at Kol Nidre, erev Yom Kippur.

Gut yontif.

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.

First--some Talmud.

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.

Hayom Harat Olam, This is the Day The World Was Created: Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5779

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.

Teshuvah and the Great Turning: Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5779

The following sermon was given by Rabbi Ariana Katz at Hinenu on September 10, 2018 on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.

Shanah tovah. In the lineage of our people who speak not first of our own lives, but the lives of those who came before us, I’d like to share with you the story of Herschel Stiefel.

Herschel was my great-great zeide, my mother’s mother’s father. Herschel was born July 15, 1899 in Snitkov, Ukraine, then Russia, 4,795 miles from where we are in this very moment. When Herschel, or Tzvi ben Menachem Mendel as they called him in shul, was a young man, he tried to leave home. Twice.

The first time, Herschel decided to leave because of the increasing anti Jewish violence of pogroms, the sudden quotas and restricted access to education, crushing restrictions to shtetls--the results of the Edict of Expulsion against the Jews in nearby Kiev, just 224 miles way. He left because of the coming forcible “draft”--a knock at the door, into the Cossak army, a guaranteed inevitability. So Herschel left, and traveled to British Mandate Palestine.

But when he arrived at the border, his immigration papers were not in order. So they sent him back to Russia.

But he decided to leave again. This time, he did not have enough money to get from Eastern Europe back to the land about which he prayed and planned his whole young life. So, he walked.

Herschel is reported to have said that he liked walking through Turkey the best, and held a fondness for the country the rest of his life. I wonder if Herschel was terrified when he walked the 2,337 miles, passing through countries whose borders have long since changed. I wonder if he felt sick, bouncing in the back of wagons as he hitchhiked to cover more ground, I wonder if he had enough layers, as he moved through climates and languages and cultures. I wonder if Herschel felt fear when he made it into the Aretz, the land. Because after traversing 2,337 miles, he made it.

I wonder if Herschel ever felt fear’s twin, awe. I wonder if he prayed, what he prayed when he arrived. I wonder if he was so tired, he could barely look up.

Herschel struggled to find work and then ended up working in the port of Haifa for a few years, but reported that it was not what he expected. He loved living there, loved his neighbors, but knew there were political changes he wanted to see, but knew he couldn’t impact. Realized it was not the place he wanted to be. I wonder what the stories he heard from Israel/Palestine were, the promise, the opportunity for a young Jewish man from Russia looking for a chance, for safety. I wonder if he felt disappointed. Or angry. Or embarrassed, that it was not the place for him.

So what did Herschel do, not loving his life as a dock worker in 1920’s Haifa? He kept journeying. He packed up, and left. Herschel left Haifa October 1, 1923 and arrived in the Port of Providence, RI on the 1st of November, 1923 at the age of 24 years old, on a boat called the Asia. He became a citizen of the US on March 19, 1925, where he changed his name from Herschel Stiefelman to Harry Stiefel. In 1926, at the age of 27, he married my great-great bubbie Pessie Gorberg, who immigrated to the US before they would meet, but was born into a rabbinic family just 108 miles away from Snitkov in the great Jewish town of Ostropol. They settled in Philadelphia, they owned a grocery store in Powelton Village, 4,709 miles from Snitkov, and lived above it with their children. Herschel of Snitkov and Pessie of Ostropol. Many times Pessie of Ostropol made milkshakes for her granddaughter, my mother, on Shabbes, when her husband was at shul. Once their grocery store was robbed and Herschel of Snitkov was beaten. Herschel learned how to play chess on a computer in 1987 weeks before he died, davvened every morning at the shtiebl around the corner, filled kiddush cups to overflowing at Passover.

I wonder if Herschel ever felt like he was from a place. Was he from Snitkov, Haifa, Philadelphia? Was Herschel from the Journey, was his origin and his becoming and his destination the Midbar, the wilderness, the path? Was he from the place called Leaving?

I wonder how Herschel expereinced fear. Bone chilling, flee or be consumed, all is lost fear. I wonder if that’s what made him keep working till he found a kind of safety, as complicated as it might be.

Herschel Knew: The Great Turning
A few years ago, I gave a sermon that declared “I don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.” Bold, confident, I declared to the assembled college students in front of me that while it might feel like the world is ending, while our liturgy printed in black ink on white page before us tells us so, we must fight the urge to believe it. “So you tell me, over and over and over again my friend, that you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction” that’s what Barry McGuire sang.

I was wrong. It’s the season for admitting when we’re wrong, and so before you now, I’ll share I was wrong. We are on the eve, indeed.

Over the past year, we have watched this city shake.

Over the past year, we have watched our country wage a violence many of us know all too well personally, and more of us have only feared.

Over the past year, we have watched our world heat, cool, tremble, and change.

And over the past year, we have wondered, where are we amidst it all?

Over the past year, our relationships have changed, failed, soared, morphed.

Over the past year we have become different, or stagnated, or overcome, or grown to unimaginable heights.

Over the past year, we have wondered, where am I, amidst it all?

We are certainly in a time of great turning. The eco-philosopher Dr Joanna Macy, scholar of systems theory, Buddhism, and deep ecology, teaches of the Great Turning. She explains that there have been three major revolutions that have shaped our world--the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and our time now. The Great Turning, when environmental collapse, when the extractionist capitalist death machines has brought us to the very brink. This great turning that Dr. Macy describes is not the falling over the edge into chaos, but rather the great turning of consciousness rising, people rising, power rising. We are in a time of great turning, and that means great change. Transition. The pain of one way of being dying and another beginning. This change is not all good as we know, it is not all bad, but it is all change. Dr. Macy calls on us to see this time of Great Turning as historic as the time of agricultural settlement, industrialization.

In this season in our year of turning, we might be a little more flexible to see how change can be not all bad, not all horror, in as much as it is never all good. “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. ” writes Octavia Butler of blessed memory, in the Parable of the Sower. “The only lasting truth is change. This Great Turning is a time of change. Our planet, our country, and our lives are changing and we don’t yet know if it will be l’chayyim, for life, or l’mavet, for death, as our liturgy asks. We see great unrest and the cost of human lives, and wonder, what is it all for? We ask “where am I most of use in this change?” “How can I keep myself and my family safe?” “How can I protect others?” “Where are we headed?”

We are in a season, a 10 day stretch of our own great turning. Tonight, the world is new. The world is changing before our very eyes, and there is  loss. There is a feeling of “oh, but I’m not ready!” So much is left undone in the past year. So many goals not met, so many dishes left dirty, plans yet to be followed through on.

“So you tell me over and over and over again my friend…”

We might be on the eve, on the edge. We might be teetering. It might not be as bad as we thought, if we can begin to find answers by asking one another some of the following:

During times of great turning what tools do we rely on?

How do we find stability in a changing world, how do we find empathy and tenderness in a culture that prefers we be hard to one another?  

How do we survive? How do we change? How do we turn the tides?

What are the best practices for living into the best versions of ourselves and our values that we can?

Ancestors Have the Answers

We are reaching out, over the next 10 days from erev Rosh Hashanah to the end of Yom Kippur, for connection to each other, to ourselves and the parts we have neglected, reaching out to God. And we will begin to find answers to this question, what tools do we have for survival during times such as these?

בכל דור ודור, “In every generation,” we are called to see our ancestors stories in our own time.

Because this is not the first time anyone has ever felt this way. Our collective ancestry have seen this before, truly. And by ancestors, I mean the ones who came before us--connected to us through blood or by choice, known in this lifetime or met only after their death, in family photo albums, names we carry, or stories read. The stories we guess at that were never told because of misplaced shame, or generational trauma. They have travelled on foot, by boat, by wagon, by plane. Border crossers, or those who stay put. Our collective ancestry have survived, war, being kicked out of homes, kicked out of countries. Survived fire, flood, famine, plague. Survived familial dispute, violence between family, changing nations, changing custom, changing languages. Our collective ancestry has survived.”We are a red sea parter, a bridge people,” said the poet Kevin Coval. We can get from one place to another, be it spiritual or physical.

There is much more knowledge we can bring into the conversation.

Our liturgy calls out to our collective claimed ancestry, our mothers and fathers in the Torah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Jacob. We remind, plead, beg God to “zocher chasdei Avot v’Imot,” remember the goodness of our ancestors. In our Amidah prayer, the central prayer of each service, we bless God as the God of our ancestors--the collective Source we pray to now is the same one that Avraham, Sarah….prayed to. Before we say any other blessings, we invoke our lineage, the people who got us to this moment. We rely on credit with God--”remember how much you loved clever Leah? That’s got to count for something!” In our liturgy, and in our lives, our ancestors are not remote concepts that we talk about. No, we pray these words, call on these ancestors to intervene for us, are in deep relationship with those who came before us. And if we call on them, why can we not call on them for some survival strategies?

Join me, close your eyes if you’re comfortable, as we call in our ancestors into this room.

Imagine a beloved grandparent, parent, ancestor you’ve only seen a picture of.

Imagine a historical figure who has been a guide to you. Invite them in to this room, let them sit beside you, fill in the empty seats, the blank places around the wall.

Welcome, you all. Thank you for filling this space.

You know more than ever, we need you here. We need to learn from your wisdom, how you have managed a time of turning. How did you stay connected to tradition? To your neighbors? What foods sustained you during times of great shift? What songs did you sing while marching? How did you learn to go inside yourself to survive?

Take a moment with your beloved guests. Listen to them. Thank them.

Ancestors, stay with us on this journey. Linger here tonight as we sing, accompany your beloveds home. Teach us.

We do not have to come up with new ideas from scratch. The powerhouse organizers and healers in Baltimore Letrice Gant and Erricka Bridgeford from Baltimore Ceasefire teach “don’t ask why isn’t the work happening, ask “who is already doing this, and how can I learn from them and help?” We are calling out for help in this moment in history, and this moment in our year.

Remembering stories from our ancestors, in Torah, in political history, in biological family, reminds us that we are not the first. Affirms that yes, things are bad. That yes, things are as bad as they have ever been, but we are not alone, they are still here to help us and walk alongside us.

Look up.

So we may, in fact, be on the eve. But we hold stories of balance, survival, grace. Let us focus instead on the balance. This is what the Great Turning calls us to notice--not crisis, but the turning in the face of it.

In the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the story of the Akedah is traditionally read, the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham. In the span of one chapter, we read a story of violence and abuse that takes generations  to heal from, that we still to this day remember. God calls to Abraham by name, and he answers simply “hineni,” here I am. In swift fashion, Abraham is instructed from the very words of God to “take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Breisheet 22:2)

And so he does. He saddles up the donkeys, brings two servants and his son, chops the firewood, and heads out to do one of the two most horrific things this parent will do to his sons over our high holy day readings. Abraham ditches the servants at the base of the mountain, and hands his son the firewood. Abraham carries the knife. The two of them ascend the mountain, verse by verse our horror builds. Crisis is coming, decision and violence, disobedience or pure faith. Abraham and Isaac come to the crest of Mount Moriah, and Isaac asks, Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

It is only once Isaac is tied up, his father’s arm raised over him with knife in hand, the whole world about to change based on what happens, that a voice calls out:

וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֜יו מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֣ם ׀ אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי׃

Then an angel of the LORD called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he answered, “Here I am.”

In this moment of great turning, of disaster immanent, of it all about to change forever as we know it, our ancestor Abraham has an out.

And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”

An interruption to his pattern of behavior in this moment, and for the past dozen chapters of his life as written on our Torah. The interruption comes not a moment too late. Abraham is called to look up. Look up from the crisis, his son bound below him, the certain plummet. In Abraham’s case, he is called to look up by a messenger of God, called out of the depths, the muck, the error, and the panic, pulled out of crisis.

Abraham knows he must sacrifice something. Perhaps he is already in the ritual and cannot stop even because of instructions from some heavenly voice. Perhaps because his patterns are so ingrained, because he is so focused on looking down, he is so ready for this crisis, so geared up for the crash, he must do something.

But the solution presents itself, like our solutions will present themselves, when we truly look, listen for the voices that call us to look up from meditating on the crash.

When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

It is because of this ram offering, made on the top of Mount Moriah, offered up to a vengeful, tearful God while Isaac weeps covered in a blanket under a tree, that we blow the shofar. The ram’s horn. The cry of the potential crash, the wake up call that demands we look up.

When we hear the shofar blasts, we are awakened by that ram again and again. The sound as old as the entire universe, as infinite as love, and bold as making a new choice and shattering an old pattern. The shofar calls us back to the moment of Abraham’s offering. At a moment of great turning, when crisis might strike, we can look out to find solutions.

When I hear the shofar blasts, I am awakened by the chance to see a way out, again and again. I am awakened by the cries that Herschel heard when he knew it was time to leave. To find a way. When Herschel looked up, what did he see?

Answering the call
In the next 10 days, we reach out to one another. We reach back into history to grab the hands of our ancestors. We reach into ourselves and explore our depths. We stretch out into the fullness of Creation. We dip our toes in the eternality of this time, this liminal in between space between the new year and the closing of the Book. In the next 10 days we will uncover, lift up, exalt, and praise the tools we have to rely on during times of great turning. We will hear the call of the shofar as a reminder that in times of crisis, there have been creative, dynamic, emergent solutions to survive. We will seek the tools we need in our relationships to repair, shift, heal, change. We will ask ourselves about who we are, and what this turning of the year demands from us.

May there be a ram in the thicket. May there be a wedge in the cogs. May there be a blast from a shofar that calls us out of the cycles of harm, the patterns of violence, the seemingly unending march toward destruction and crash. May we be blessed to hear the calls of one another’s hearts, calling us to wake up. May we accompany each other on the path. May we be treated kindly by this lifetime.

When Herschel knew it was time to leave, to change, he went, he shifted, answered the call of his future, his unfolding, his grounding. When Avraham was called, he said HINENI. This year, we respond, we vow to look up, to answer the call that is saving us from the edge, the fall, the brink, the crisis. This year, when we called by brilliant creative dynamic solutions that call us close to ourselves, closer to one another, we answer the call. We say Hinenu.

May we be written and sealed in the Book of Life for goodness, health, connection, safety. Shanah tovah.