December 6, 2015
We hope you enjoy these Chanukah gifts from Havurah members Ilene Safyan and Margie Rosenthal.
You can find more songs from “Just In Time for Chanukah!” and the entire CD here at CDBaby.
Ilene Safyan and Margie Rosenthal have generously provided these songs for the Havurah community to listen to and enjoy. However, copyright restrictions require that none of the music be downloaded, recorded or shared. The right to listen to and enjoy these songs does not grant nor imply the grant of a license to further download, record or share these songs with any third party. All use is only for personal enjoyment.
October 7, 2015
If you were with us at Havurah on Monday night for our Simchat Torah celebration, you know how happy and sweet it was – for people of all ages, babies and beyond. You can find photos from the evening here on our Facebook page. Thank you, Beth Hamon, for taking many photos too!
If you also took photos on Monday night, please consider sending some to Havurah’s office or adding them directly to our Simchat Torah photo album on Facebook.
Many thanks to Rabbi Joey, Roger Brewer, and musicians Haley Westeiner, Andrew Gehrz and Justin Bulava. And thank you to new member Debra Shein and her team of greeters, set-up helpers, and food planners: Karen and Alan Westerman, Roberta Kaplan, Fran Berg, Robbin DeWeese, Sarah Wetherson, Marc Becker, Arleen Slive and Dick Mastbrook, Jacqui Loran, and all who planned to help but were called away at the last minute.
September 28, 2015
Simchat Torah Celebration
With Baby Blessings & the Band ‘Haley’s Planet’
Monday, Oct. 5
6:30 pm, Potluck Dessert Oneg
7:00-8:00 pm, Service & Music
August 4, 2015
In addition to our annual Tzedakah project for High Holidays (our second year collecting necessities for Goose Hollow shelter), Havurah will also engage with the Goose Hollow Shelter in a direct service project. Goose Hollow Family Shelter, managed by Portland Homeless Family Solutions (PHFS), is located at the First United Methodist Church of Portland, and has been operating as a shelter since 1994. Goose Hollow is a community-based shelter and has volunteers from many organizations of faith, volunteer groups, students, and other members of the community.
Thirteen Havurah members attended an hour-long volunteer orientation on July 21. Several of these people volunteered at the shelter on July 30. They brought a pre-cooked dinner to serve to the seven families and staff, about 25 people. They ate with the “guests,” as the families are called, helped them do their laundry, spent time with some amazing children, and engaged with the parents as was comfortable. One of our members took the overnight shift, arriving around 7:30 pm and leaving around 7:30 am the following morning.
Children under 13 can volunteer with one of their parents or guardians. Goose Hollow is open to having supervised children experience how a homeless shelter looks and feels.
We are hoping to provide a full “one night team” of 8-10 volunteers monthly on either a Monday or Thursday night. If you are interested in more information and/or want to attend a volunteer orientation, please contact Gloria Halper.
November 5, 2014
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775
“Rosh Hashanah Intentions”
L’Shanah tova tikatevu. A very sweet New Year.
Havurah Shalom’s theme for the High Holidays is, once more, mad’leek—the ancient Hebrew verb meaning “to kindle,” or “to ignite.” To kindle or ignite is to wring light from darkness, to pull a bright new year from the dark hat of the old. Rosh HaShanah represents another attempt to live our lives with purpose and meaning and caring and love, and our resolve to help create a refreshed, bright congregation and to move the world out from under the shade of malice and inaction.
As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
In the darkness between Israel and Palestine, we need the light from our difficult self-reflection during the Days of Awe so that we may see a way forward for our peoples.
In the darkness that is ebola, that is Putin, that is ISIS, that is the spectre of racial hatred, that is the fist of unremorseful power, we need the light shed by submitting ourselves to these great prayers that we repeat each year so that we may see a way forward.
In the darkness of the terrible and growing gap between rich and poor in our country and the world, we need the light we have won by coming together again as a congregation to see a way forward.
As Roethke concluded his poem: “A fallen man, I climb out of my fear./The mind enters itself, and God the mind./And one is One, free in the tearing wind.”
Here is a story of a Dubrovner Rebbe:
Elul in the Pale of Settlement was dark and damp, and nearing the end of the month, with Erev Rosh Hashanah imminent, the Dubrovner Rebbe sat in his library, surrounded by its shelves of dozens of folios of Talmud, and Mishnah bound in floppy leather human to the touch. Drained by a long day of study, sapped by his memory of his own failures, worn by what the world had wrought on his town and its people that year, he worried about how he would be able to lead himself and his community into the reflection and renewal summoned by the Days of Awe.
He worried and worried. The Dubrovner Rebbe’s study began to fill with the smoke of his worry which grew thicker and thicker until his doubt was darkness visible. The night and its silence wore on. Unable to bear the acrid stillness of his solitary worry, suffocated by the silence of its smoke, the desperate and lonely Rebbe thought, “Avinu, ha av harachaman,” and then, unbidden, his mind filled with the sonorous sound all the people of Dubrovno together singing, over and over, the prayer Avinu Malkenu: “Avinu Malkenu, honey-nu va-aneynu….” Suddenly, where there had been isolating, suffocating smoke, there was fire, there was light, where there was lonely weakness in the face of the world’s darkness, there was power. As he imagined his congregation singing together, the Rebbe’s study ignited into dawn. It was then he knew they could dance together through the Days of Awe, trying once more to repair themselves and their world.”
And so we begin the Days of Awe, perhaps clouded at first by the smoke of anxiety as we face our spiritual and our worldly tasks. We have ten days for reviewing our finite lives. These services serve as our window to the infinite. Inside our smoke of worry, how miniscule and brief, how solitary we are! Yet, as part of our community and of our tradition’s immeasurable continuity, how grand and precious and full of light are our lives, full enough to face the world’s challenges. The renewal of the world depends on us together, our Teshuvah (Returning), our Tefillah (Prayer), and our Tzedakah (Justice).
And so, over these next ten days, let us take strength and feel hope on these Days of Awe, trusting in the genius of these days, these prayers, this music, and our own togetherness to kindle the light we will need to see our way and repair our world.
Rosh Hashanah 5775
Haverim, the rains have arrived. School is upon us. Our schedules are full. Homework must get done. Work responsibilities pile up. And, each year I feel some guilt that these are the thoughts that monopolize my attention as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach. The fact that we call this period The Days of Awe only increases a sense of inadequacy in preparing for the momentous tasks at hand: tefilah – prayer; teshuvah – repentance; tzedakah – acts of justice. It’s wonderful that our community provides an opportunity to begin this process in Elul, that month before the hagim when we are invited to participate in the selihot services that help us to reorient ourselves toward the sacred time we enter tonight. And yet, I have been preoccupied with carpool schedules and project deadlines. Getting to Rosh Hashanah often feels like a race against the clock more than an opportunity for thoughtful and deliberate meditation. For me at least, Rosh Hashanah often confronts as much as it invites.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur confront us in more ways than one. In the Torah, we read of our forbearers abandoning their children. Our prayers hearken directly to the animal sacrifice that stands at the origin of our observance and from which our very notion of prayer derives. However those prayers are beautifully adapted, poetically translated into English, and metaphorically interpreted we spend much of the days ahead petitioning a father-God (Avenu Malkenu) who decides our fates and who might be moved by angels and souls living in the world to come. As much as we try to identify with all this, through dynamic traditions of creative interpretation that are as old as anything we would call Judaism, Rosh Hashanah places us – or, at least, me – in a world that is as foreign as it is familiar. I can imagine being no other place tonight, but to be honest I also don’t quite know what I’m doing here.
For many of us, perhaps particularly here at Havurah, it takes work to feel comfortable in the world imagined by Rosh Hashanah. I feel honored and privileged to be part of a community that takes this work seriously and fortunate to have teachers, rabbis, and friends that support and challenge me in the effort. We will wrestle with biblical stories that serve as cautionary tales as much as models for our own action. We will suggest alternative readings when prayers seem inaccessible, either too arcane or counter the ethics we embrace. We will ease into Yom Kippur as the still, small voice of a violin echoes in this chamber. Again and again, we will search for today’s meaning in texts and practices that were created in and for a vastly different world. We won’t hesitate to push back when the bridges between those worlds and ours seem unclear or weak. Many of us can help me finish the phrase (so please do) that serves as one of our founding Reconstructionist mantras: “The past has a vote not…a veto.” And so we make ourselves feel comfortably part of a democratic community in the American mold, replete with a lively electoral metaphor.
And still I am not at ease. This, you may remind me, is the whole point of Yamin Nora’im, the days of awe. Awe is not meant to be experienced like an old movie, with a bag of popcorn, a glass of wine, and the prospect of sleeping-in the next morning. Whatever teshuvah might mean – and let’s be honest that translating it awkwardly as repentance doesn’t necessarily help much – we can agree that it begins with acknowledging the palpable expressions of our worst selves. And then, whether or not we believe in the judge-god whom we will soon be addressing, isn’t this the time to recognize the frailty of our lives and accept the profound limits of our will? Isn’t the blaring shofar, not the soft violin, the primary instrument of this disorienting time?
So, if Rosh Hashannah shocks, isn’t that how it should be? If we don’t feel up to the task, isn’t that to be expected? Maybe, but I think there’s something more that shapes the challenge in my case. It’s not because I am a stranger to the world of Jewish prayer. Though I am hardly in the synagogue habit, shul (as it went in my family) has always been more than a once or twice a year affair. At various points in my life, I have been a regular: one summer at Camp Ramah, where I laid tefillin every morning; over long periods during the years I have lived in North Africa, studying how Judaism is experienced in Morocco today. I have realized, if only fleetingly, the full experiential power of tefilah, when it feels as though the prayer is chanting me more than I am chanting the prayer; the melody so familiar my lips move themselves, the voices so aligned that I can’t distinguish mine from others. I am welcoming Shabbat with a minyan in a small apartment turned synagogue in Casablanca. I am sitting cross-legged by a lake in the Berkshires. I am singing kol haneshamah at Havurah with a daughter on my lap. It is next week at Ne’illah, when in that altered-state at the very end of a Yom Kippur fast I close my eyes and am not sure where my body ends and everything else begins.
So, it’s not that I feel out of place in prayer. Rather, it’s the notion that somehow today’s prayer is supposed to be more important, that this day is somehow more sacred than others. The signs are clear: services are longer, the crowds are bigger, the stakes are higher. These will be our utterances: “Who shall live an who shall die;” “Our vows are no longer vows;” “Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them—and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment.” I won’t pretend to know what these words mean, either for those who wrote them or for we struggling readers today. But whatever they mean, we have bulged beyond our modest space on 18th avenue because now, this Wednesday night, matters more than most. If we can reasonably say this night is more powerful than others – why else are we drawn here? – then I expect I am not alone in being suspicious of power and the rituals through which it is expressed.
As someone who usually roots for the underdog, Rosh Hashanah provokes me to think about the ostensibly lesser holidays. After the crescendo of Yom Kippur, things will begin to taper off with Sukkot. There will still be good crowds, but we’ll all fit back into our cozy Havurah home. I will probably be dancing with the Torah at Simhat Torah, but unlike tonight something else might take precedence. Pesah will come, and there’s a chance that I’ll take the opportunity to kindle my Sephardic spirit and pray the first morning at Ahavat Achim. By the time of Shavuot in late spring, it’s likely I won’t realize the holiday is upon us until the day itself and, to be honest, I may forget altogether. My point is not that I feel guilty about this haphazard observance (I don’t), still less to cajole anyone into spending more time at Havurah (though there’s nothing wrong with that). My point is that Rosh Hashannah is a perfect example of a paradox at the heart of Jewish time and space. We recognize that holiness is everywhere and always present in equal measure and yet we act as though it is distributed unevenly throughout the year, concentrated in some times and places more than others. We know that teshuva (there’s that word again) is not reserved for a few short hours, and yet we’ll move on to other themes on other holy days. On Havdallah at Havurah, we’ll thank a God who differentiates the holy (kodesh) from the mundane (khol), when earlier in the day we may have taught our kids in Shabbat School that kedusha (holiness) is never separable from the world it penetrates.
So much is this tension a part of our tradition that it has been a major theme of Jewish stories throughout the ages. One Hassidic tale tells of a married couple preparing to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur night. They have made arrangements to have their young child watched by a local girl, but as the time of the prayer comes nearer, the babysitter does not show up. They become worried: What will happen if they miss the most sacred night of the Jewish calendar? What will God think of them? How will they be able to face the other members of their community?
The couple decides to leave the baby alone in the house and take their chances. They arrive in the Synagogue to a great disturbance: the sun is setting and the Grand Rabbi has still not arrived. After much fretting, someone is sent to look for the rabbi. Walking up and down the empty thoroughfares of the Shtetl, the scout hears the cooing of a baby coming from an open window. Moving closer to the window, he sees the Rebbe swaying in a rocking chair with the baby on his lap! “What,” asks the scout, “are you doing here?” The Rebbe responds that as he was walking to synagogue, he heard the cries of the baby. Upon discovering the apartment empty and the baby abandoned, he entered to care for the child. “This,” he explains, “is where God would expect me to be.”
Another set of traditions further places the apparent magnitude of Rosh Hashanah in proper proportion. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written,” we say, underscoring how our efforts today may sway the eternal scribe of our fates. But this is just an opening, because we know that the opportunity extends forward at least ten days, when “on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” And then, when the gates of heaven seem to be closing during ne’ilah at the end of Yom Kippur, the finality of the process is deferred yet again in some traditions. Yom Kippur is linked with the holiday that follows in a tradition that enjoins us to begin building the Sukkah immediately after the breakfast. Then, seven days of Sukkoth and Simhat Torah are bridged by a holiday known as Shemini Atzeret, which is known in Morocco as a “Yom Kippur ha-Katan,” or “little Yom Kippur,” and celebrated with an all-night vigil of study, prayer, and chanting. This, it is held, is the very last chance to extend the spiritual work begun on Rosh Hashannah before the gates of heaven are truly closed. Or are they? Other traditions hold that Shabbat is every week the holiest time of year, attached so fervently to teshuvah that the messiah’s coming will be foreshadowed by our collective observance of the day as an expression of our intimate relationship with holiness. Every Shabbat is itself a Rosh Hashanah katan, a little Rosh Hashannah, when the opportunity for renewal is just as strong.
But what is this renewal, a word that many prefer to repentance as a translation for teshuvah? In case it’s not yet clear, Rosh Hahannah confronts me largely because I have never fully understood this process that is at the heart of the matter. An etymological approach, looking to the root (shoresh) of this semetic word, suggests a notion – shuv – of doing something again. But doesn’t teshuvah often require changing in a certain direction for the first time? Repentance is off putting, not only because of the fire and brimstone world it evokes but because its use is so restricted to occasions like this one it can only sound didactic. Rosh Hashannah stirs not only the fear that I will fail in the task of teshuvah; tonight also stirs the fear I don’t even know precisely what the task is. And friends, much as I had hoped the process of getting ready to stand here tonight would lead to some clarity, I have none to offer.
All I have to offer – and it’s really not much – is this. Take the hand of someone sitting next to you: a daughter or a father; a sister or brother; a friend or a stranger. Go ahead. Squeeze hard and feel lucky that we’ve made it here together. Take the days ahead seriously, but don’t worry about getting it all done. Whatever teshuvah is, this isn’t our last chance to find out. It’s our first.
‘Rosh Hashanah Address’
Andrine de la Rocha
“We are afraid of things that cannot harm us, and we know it; and we crave things that cannot help us, and we know it. But actually, it is something within us that we are afraid of, and it is something within us that we crave.”
On the First New Moon of the year, it is recorded.
And on the Day of Atonement – At-One-ment – it is locked in.
~ How many shall leave their earthly bodies, and how many shall arrive
~ Who shall thrive and who shall simply take up space
~ Who shall be fulfilled and who empty
~ Who shall burn with passion, and who shall burn out
~ Who shall rise bravely with the tide, and who shall drown in a pool of tears
~ Who shall be impaled on the sword of their anger
~ Who shall be devoured by the beasts of jealousy and bitterness
~ Who shall be starved for love, and who shall thirst for acknowledgment
~ Who shall be shaken by the tremors of progress, and who shall be plagued by the dogma of convention
~ Who shall be choked by fear, and who shall be battered by self-doubt
~ Who shall rest in contentment, and who shall wander searching for distraction
~ Who shall be tranquil in their mind, and who shall be agitated
~ Who shall find comfort, and who shall be apprehensive
~ Who shall feel deprived, and who shall be rich in spirit and health
~ Who shall be humiliated by their choices, and who shall be exalted through their growth.
But Returning to Introspective Prayer & a commitment to Righteous Justice can change the harshness of the verdict, and redirect the course of a life.
May we be granted the wisdom to Turn toward Contemplation and follow Justice so that we may Authentically Live.
Andrine de la Rocha
Leviticus 23:24 reads “Speak to the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, the first day of the month, will be a Shabbat/rest for you, a remembrance of shofar blasts, a distinguished/designated/holy assembly.”
So, here we are, setting aside this day, these days, this time, distinguishing it from the other days of the year where we go to work, school, hang out in the garden, the gym, the coffee shop or brewpub. We’ve been prepping all morning, if not all week, if not the whole month of Elul, at least all morning for this part of the service – zicharon truah – the memorial of the blast.
In ancient times the shofar was used to call the people together for assemblies, and to give instructions to contingents of troops in battle. Today in Portland it is sounded to call us together, and to awaken us to our inner battle between inertia and interest.
The distinct sound of the shofar is both unique and familiar to those who know it. Its homely piercing cry may not be melodic or tuneful, but it cuts into the listener’s consciousness like an aural blade and stirs an adrenaline surge to action. Maimonides heard this message in the shofar’s notes: “Awake you sleepers from your sleep and arise you slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds and return in repentance… examine your souls, mend your ways and your actions.”
As we hear the blast of the shofar, consider each of the calls as an embodiment of your path: Tekiah is the long steady note that says, “I’m here, I’m whole, I’m solid.” Shevarim literally means ‘broken’ or ‘crushed’ and is like a wailing cry as our hearts break when we realize all the ways that we have come up short of our potential this past year. Teruah’s staccato blasts act as bread crumbs, or bite-sized baby-steps, that can lead us back to the path we are meant to walk. The final Tekiah returns us to that solid, wholeness, the Oneness of All.
Please join me in the blessing in the middle of page 245.
“Baruch ata Adonai Eh-lo-hei-nu meh-lekh ha-o-lam ah-share kid-e-sha-nu
b-mits-vo-tav ve-tzi-va-nu leash-moe-ah kol shofar”
“Blessed are you, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and who has commanded us to hear the voice of the shofar.”
“Ba-ruch a-ta Adonai, Eh-lo-hei-nu meh-lech ha-o-lam
sheh-heh-cheh-ya-nu v’ki-y’manu v’higi-anu la-zman ha-zeh.”
We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this season.
Tekiah Shevarim Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Teruah Tekiah
Listen to the Voice of the Shofar! The Tekiah blast waking us from our comfort, complacency and cynicism. More compelling even than the sound of an incoming text message, or the custom ring tone of a loved one!
The broken Shevarim call, reminding us that there are shattered elements of the Divine in all things and it is our work – Tikkun Olam – to discover the Divine pieces and repair the world.
Teruah, a vibration like an earthquake shaking our core, asking us to stir things up, get out of our rut and make a change toward a higher calling. Teshuvah is to Turn, often interpreted as a Re-turn or going back, but let us commit today not to go Back-wards to where we’ve been but instead to Turn For-ward toward the path we now will walk, shaking off the past and setting our sights on the future.
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Hear the call of the Shofar! Like a medieval trumpet fanfare Tekiah announcing the appearance of Royalty; Turn your attention to the impending approach of All-Encompassing Authority, the Unconditional Sovereignty of the interconnectedness of All Things.
Listen to the Shevarim cries of a Fractured Whole longing to be One again. Feel the sorrow of your infant self, separated from the Source of Nourishment and Nurturing that can feed and sustain you, if only you can Re-Connect with that Wholeness.
Pick up the Pieces of the Teruah bursts, the morsels that will, step-by-step, lead you back to the Connection that feels both familiar and unique, a stuttering blast like striking the flint which ignites the Spark of your potential, kindling The Divine that resides in you, becoming a strong and steady flame, roaring like the final blast.
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
Ashrey ha-am yod’eh teruah
Adonai b’or panekha y’haleykhun
Blessed are the people who hear the Shofar,
Called to walk in the light of The Divine presence.
Kol Nidre 5775
“Yom Kippur Intentions”
For on this / particular day
Atonement / will be made for you all / to purify / you
From all / your wrongdoings.
In the presence of / Adonai
You will purified and cleansed
A stopping time / Of all stopping times / It is / for you,
And you shall make yourselves vulnerable / In your bodies and souls
It is a law / for all time and all space.
We take this time out of our lives
we find ourselves in due
to our impatience,
We take this time out of our lives
to our current limitations,
we affect others with
Our unconsidered words,
our thoughtless deeds,
our selfish intentions.
We take this time out of our lives
we deprive the world of
We take this time out of our lives
To become vulnerable.
Vulnerable to our yearnings for change,
Vulnerable to our longings to stay the same.
And vulnerable to our greatest limitation of all – the finite time that we have here on this earth.
Together, we can take courage to come clean,
Together, we can pray toward the freedom that comes from being purified.
We take this time out of our lives
So that we may be
More fully in our lives.
For on this / particular day
Atonement / will be made for you all / to purify / you
From all / your wrongdoings.
In the presence of / Adonai
You will purified and cleansed.
A stopping time / Of all stopping times / It is / for you,
And you shall make yourselves vulnerable / In your bodies and souls
It is a law / for all time and all space.
My family makes the drive from Portland to Eastern Oregon to visit my husband’s father and other family members several times a year. We drive along the Columbia River surrounded by high basalt cliffs and soft hills. Sometimes it is sparkling like a carnival, sometimes the water is metallic with much of the scenery just a flash behind an endless screen of precipitation. If there are just seven wonders in the world, I am pretty sure that the gorge is one of them. And this incredible river, is to me, a symbol of tshuvah which literally means return and is the bedrock to the concept of repentance in Judaism and of course central to our understanding of the meaning of Yom Kippur.
The Columbia Plateau originated with enormous outpourings of lava. During the Ice Age the water and ice carved the rock as the ice advanced and retreated. By the end of all this there were graceful sloping meadows and a glacial river, narrow and deep. Maps show that the water extended in a multitude of channels towards the ocean, like little fingers reaching to a long and gradual shore. It must have been lovely. Then about 15,000 years ago there was a series of apocalyptic floods. They wiped out everything in the way.
These floods, the Missoula floods, were the result of periodic and sudden ruptures of the ice dam east of the plateau. Science writers, imagining the impact of these floods that occurred over a 2000-year period, explain that there were masses of ice, rock and water 500 feet tall moving with a velocity of 50 miles an hour.
Today, it is hard to imagine the intense and sudden violence that created the gorge. The Columbia River seems the way it should be, beautiful and mighty. We can’t see what it was like before, although we know that the channel is wider and deeper. The river, the dams, those forces of nature do not ask to be forgiven for the sudden devastation and the subsequent change over time. But if they did, the landscape has done so, completely integrating and accommodating the flooding. Returning the river to its place in nature and geography.
Tshuvah- return. Slicha- forgiveness. For those moments when we are like a breaking dam, when there is a crack or a fissure that gives way to unbearable pressure, how can we start again, asking for forgiveness and rebuilding. How do we return to ourselves and each other, even and especially after we have changed? How do we accomplish all this in a context of relationship, the river and the shore touching and transforming each other by definition- permanently.
Tshuvah means return or to turn and during the high holidays it is how we talk about repentance. The idea is that we can return to our relationships with each other, with God, and our true goodness if we truly repent and that this restores balance to our frequently imbalanced world. Even though I find the concept of tshuvah complicated, that is, a word that means both return and repentance, Jewish law is of course specific. If we have wronged a person we must approach that person who we have wronged. And there are three discrete steps: acknowledging the sin, feeling true remorse, and committing not to do it again. Tshuva is our chance to be pardoned and to return, to restore balance in our relationships.
Forgiveness or slicha is absolutely necessary to restore that balance as well. Forgiveness is as much a commandment as asking to be pardoned. And of course the act of forgiving is also not without rules. If someone has asked you, really genuinely asked you for forgiveness then you must forgive them. If, after three requests you don’t, then they are forgiven anyway and the person who withheld forgiveness must now seek her own forgiveness. Being able to change or return through repentance and forgiveness are powerful aspects of being human. These gifts allow us to transcend our experience and make something new.
Why is this so hard? Even some of the smallest acts of tshuvah and slicha feel as powerful as a breaking dam, not to mention truly life changing or large scale events. And why are we here, doing this very individual work in community, in services together.
Apologies are hard because there is generally a commitment to change connected to that apology. As I said a minute ago, in Jewish law a true apology requires that we make a serious effort not to create that same mistake or hurt again. That means, most likely, giving something up. Something that we do, or want, maybe even something we think. It can be as simple as not saying hurtful words again or as complicated as giving up unfair power in a relationship. A real apology leads to a new balance. And gives us that opportunity to “return” or “turn” to become better.
Forgiveness is even tougher. It is a longer view and also requires commitment. We know and understand our own wounds. We may ruminate on them. Contextualizing them, so that they are not a stand-alone pain but exist as something we can understand and let go, requires empathy and a belief that the world is full of meaningful human connections but we are not the center of these connections. Forgiveness means we know we are more than what has happened to us. There are reams of articles about how to forgive, why to forgive, in Jewish texts, in other faiths, in the self-help bookshelves of Powells.
Judaism goes further than linking the acts of repentance and forgiveness – it requires us to think of this action as a conversation, in the context of relationship and community. We ask for and grant forgiveness because our relationships to each other matter. The conversation is an act of intimacy, of faith, a continued stake in the future of the world. It gives us the chance to be there for each other, to help each other, even when it is hard or when it hurts. We know that our experiences, good and bad, tremblingly beautiful as well as tremendously horrible, shape us and make us who we are. The ice dam breaks and the water rushes in, devastating and cleansing, and we come out different. It can happen quickly, it can manifest slowly. We collect our hurts the way that debris collects along a riverbank. Tshuvah and slicha help to wash it away, downstream, into the ocean of who we are together.
Here today, many of us, certainly including me, can think of those opportunities to ask for forgiveness and to forgive. Of course we spend time thinking about our individual and personal experiences at this time of year. But as Jews we are also compelled to speak out about the world. These conversations are not simple. As Jews we have much at stake in the dialogue our country is having right now around immigration rights and citizenship, around race and opportunity. As Jews we have much at stake in the devastating situation in Israel and Palestine. All of these conversations, if they are to have meaning and a possible shift in outcomes, must include tshuvah and seicha. And however we move forward, or not, it will shape and reshape our landscape for generations.
Let me take you back to the Columbia River Gorge because it has become a fixture in my family’s observance of Yom Kippur. As an adult I learned to love Yom Kippur, this opportunity to focus on something deep and important, with people I care about, from sunset to sunset. I loved it much less as a child. So initially to keep my family engaged , but now because it is very meaningful to John and I as well, we join a few families and go to special place to hike in the gorge the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Then we break fast with dear friends who live in Stevenson, overlooking the Columbia River, as the light diminishes into dusk. We talk, sometimes sing a little, maybe eat more, the sky getting darker and darker. And then my family drives home, along I-84, the gorge just a shadow of itself outside the windows of our car. During that ride home it feels like I am headed back into my life, into all the mistakes I will make but haven’t made just yet, into all the sweetness too.
This year is different. My husband’s father, my father-in-law, died this week at the age of 83, his children at his side. John came home to fetch us, and we are joining our family there tomorrow. If it were not for John’s father, who has been absolutely committed to family gatherings, we would not have had the opportunity to drive to Baker City, along the gorge, so frequently. Sometimes, depending on the weather, that drive is a long drive. But tomorrow that drive will be long for a different reason. I know that when we leave Baker City we will be different. That this change, the loss of John’s father, happened so quickly and that it will manifest changes in our lives over time. Return, forgiveness and acceptance, are all part of this shift connected to a man we loved very much. There are so many ways for us to consider tshuvah and slicha.
L’shanah Tovah. May you have a sweet year.
Yom Kippur 5775
Basic to Yom Kippur is the idea of forgiveness. During the next 24 hours we recite the Al Het 10 times, covering a litany of infractions or sins and then ask for forgiveness…”Silach lanu, Mehal lanu, Kapper lanu”. It sounds easy. But what do these Hebrew words mean? How can we interpret them in a way that will help us deal with our actions in the past year.
One Hebrew root translated as “to forgive” is kaper (pear), meaning to “wash away”. In the times of the Temple, blood was used for this purpose. Sacrifices used the blood of animal, and the Altar was sprinkled with blood to remove the old evils and start anew.
Why blood and not water? Blood is symbolic then as it still is today for life. Massive loss of blood is associated with death. If you cut an artery, life literally pulses away from you in a very visual way. And paradoxically we can also see massive amounts of bleeding without death in another situation. What a miracle birth is, to see a new life emerge from a torrent of blood. Blood was the perfect medium for the High Priest to use to wash away the year’s sins.
But now we don’t have sacrifices. We no longer have the convenient (and visceral, right there in front of us) altar that would allow our sins to be cleansed from afar. We don’t have a high priest to vicariously wash away or sins. Without some mechanism to deal with it, we are still burdened with our sins, as well as the sins perpetrated against us. It’s left up to us alone to handle this problem. These sins, if not dealt with, weigh us down and fester (or if taken the extreme are avenged). Forgiveness is the start of healing.
When we recite the Al Het…Silach lanu, Mechal lanu, Kappur lanu, what are we saying? Are these just meaningless words that we do by rote, or can we dig down for deeper meaning. Even though on the surface the 3 verbs are synonymous with forgiveness, there are nuances among them.
Silach has as its roots “to sprinkle or to water”. This would denote a mild covering up of the sin. Perhaps just making it smell a little nicer. Let’s put a little perfume on it and maybe no one will notice it. If it doesn’t smell any more, maybe it will be forgotten.
Mechal, on the other hand, has as its root to wipe out. This would denote “erasing the sin as if it never existed”. But the results of the sin can’t be erased. The collateral damage remains. If someone or something has been physically or emotionally damaged, that remains even if the sin itself is atoned for. Forgiving ourselves for our sins, as well as forgiving others for their sins to us, doesn’t mean you forget. It can, however, help us lighten the load…start the healing process. The results of deception, fraud, cruelty, and to the extreme, murder, can’t be undone by just expunging the sin.
So we see that forgiveness needs to be more than Silach, just cleaning up the sin, and less than Mechal, blotting the sin out and pretending it never happened.
This brings us back to Kaper, whose Hebrew root means rubbing off or washing away. It is from this word that we get Yom Kippur. This would imply the need for a thorough cleansing, akin to a scrubbing. Take the sin, examine it, look at it from all angles and, as if mechanically washing it, scrub through the veneer and expose it. Expose the sin to the light and start the healing process. A related word, kapparah, means to ransom. Not only must it be exposed, but a payment must be made. We used to pay with a sacrifice, but now we must pay by asking from deep within our souls for forgiveness. We call the day of atonement Yom Kippur – and not Yom Silach or Yom Mechal because it is this – to be cleansed and to be accountable – that allows the healing to begin.
For all these sins, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, start us on the path to redemption.
The love we speak of in the Shema prayers is not of the Hallmark variety, easy and cute. It is love that requires continued commitment and effort. Forgiveness, at the core of Yom Kippur, is part of that commitment.
Do you believe in Alexander Pope’s words:
“To err is human, to forgive, divine?”
Forgiveness often involves one person asking to be forgiven and another person granting it. Whether it is forgiving another, another forgiving us, or us forgiving ourselves, this is sometimes easier said than done.
One image of the beauty and the power of being forgiven is found in a poem titled:
To My Mother by Wendell Berry which reads:
I was your rebellious son,
do you remember? Sometimes
I wonder if you do remember,
so complete has your forgiveness been.
So complete has your forgiveness been
I wonder sometimes if it did not
precede my wrong, and I erred,
safe found, within your love,
prepared ahead of me, the way home,
or my bed at night, so that almost
I should forgive you, who perhaps
foresaw the worst that I might do,
and forgave before I could act,
causing me to smile now, looking back,
to see how paltry was my worst,
compared to your forgiveness of it
already given. And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,
where, for that, the leaves are,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
It can be a huge challenge to forgive another person or to forgive ourselves. To be forgiven is a blessing.
We are all fallible humans. Without forgetting our errors and the errors of others, on this Yom Kippur we begin again. May we dare to ask for Forgiveness and may we stretch to Forgive others so we can all begin again.
Lisa and David Ellenberg
True story. Ten days ago, I was defeated. I was facing a lifetime in jail–for a crime that deserved no forgiveness. I will spare you all the details and the confusion I endured for a time, unclear. Because it finally happened, as if walking slowly up stairs, that I gradually awoke from this nightmare. I doubted that the relief was real, for throughout the ordeal I had many times tried, and failed, to prove to myself that I was sleeping. But I had been; and now fully awake, on the sunny first day of Rosh Hashanah, I searched for significance. I realized that the dream didn’t just happen to me; in fact, my brain created this nightmare. I realized I create other traps for myself, and see no way out. It gave me renewed energy for understanding the purpose of the Al Chet. I see it as a call to work internally and with the support of others to find pathways out of well-constructed prisons, and to feel the sweet relief of a fresh start, as I did that morning.
There is wisdom in our practice of openly owning the multitude of our failures, with each other and for each other. We need to speak these words aloud and to know that the universe hears them.
We all get caught in old patterns and paradigms. We join together to declare that which we wish to forgive, to help each other find pathways out.
We are responsible for our deeds,
we are responsible for granting forgiveness,
we are responsible for forgiving ourselves.
In the past year we have missed the mark more times than we want to admit….
By not being sufficiently gentle with our actions and language;
By not being pliant and flexible, but obstinate, stark, and unbending;
By sustaining great focus on injustices we feel have been inflicted on us while quickly, even easily, distancing ourselves from greater injustices throughout the world;
By not fighting for feminism, against hunger, for decent living standards, against abuse.
By accepting the status quo, seeing the continuation of poverty, oppression, prejudice, inequality and violence as givens, instead of demanding action against them to be a global necessity;
By accepting defeatist thinking and the comfortable ache of despair.
By thinking without acting when action is needed;
By spending more time criticizing and arguing than in doing the hard work of problem solving;
By reading words of vitriol, cultivating hot indignation;
By avidly supporting one side or the other in a conflict, rather than being pro peace;
By rejecting the intellectual discomfort that might prod us into growing;
By indulging in intellectual argument without humility or consideration of the views of others;
By not embracing those who need it, and not allowing ourselves to be embraced;
By not recognizing the inherent potential in each person regardless of background;
By judging others based on surface, not character;
By not celebrating every body’s beauty, with all the quirks and imperfections;
By not listening to others because we deem them annoying or unattractive;
Or because we are already convinced there is no value in their perspective;
By enjoying gossip and embellishing complaints, while avoiding efforts to pursue positive goals for ourselves;
By being a bystander rather than an upstander, due to fear of embarrassment or judgment;
By not being kind to everyone who crosses our wandering paths;
By failing to be kinder than necessary;
By rushing through meals mindlessly and without blessing;
By disrespecting our health when we reach for food out of boredom rather than intent,
By not embracing Shabbat, a time for family calm and spiritual focus;
and too easily giving in to the lure of secular events;
By not walking, running, leaping, climbing or dancing while we remain able;
By using our voices in anger, for faultfinding, or criticism more often than in praise, for prayer, or song;
By crying more often than laughing until we cry;
By focusing more on consumption than the appreciation and care of that which we already possess,
By not celebrating the bounty that surrounds us, and being wasteful with precious resources, while living in homes overflowing with abundance, when so many live without basic needs being met;
By expecting better and more from others, but not offering our help when we are able;
By missing opportunities to reach out to others, while taking ample time to indulge in luxuries;
By blinding ourselves to compassionate choices due to focus on our own pain;
By dwelling on internal hurt when all around us the world is desperate for healing,
By staying inside our buildings when connecting with nature strengthens and expands our hearts, bodies, and minds;
By failing to protect our planet;
By repeating negative patterns instead of learning from experience, because it would require deep reflection on root causes of the pain;
By living in anticipation, and letting anxiety rule us;
By not being grateful despite uncountable blessings;
For all of these, eternal Source of Forgiveness
Help us know ourselves to be pardoned
Help us feel in our bones that we are forgiven
Remind us always that we are already at one with You.
Blessed is the light in the universe
Radiant is the light in each person
Powerful is the combined focus of us all.
‘Yom Kippur Address’
One question I get asked a lot as a senior in high school is, “what college do you want to go to next year?” I’ve been asked this question since eighth grade, because I’ve always been tall and adults would forget how old I was. I’ve been asked it probably one hundred times by now…and I still have no idea where I want to go. I can give you a general region, a 1,500 mile long area of the United States, but even that is up for debate. In fact, until the end of this summer, I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what I wanted to study.
This all comes down to the fact that I don’t know where I want to be next year. I don’t know what kind of person I want to be, or what I see myself doing. Our society puts a lot of pressure on 16-17 year olds. What school you go to and city you live in and what you major in makes a huge impact on your life. We make children, minors, look years into the future and guess who they’ll want to be.
It’s a similar challenge, the challenge of reflection, that Judaism puts on all of us, year after year in the time of Yom Kippur. We are asked to return to ourselves and reflect on how we missed the mark, what wrongs we committed, who we have harmed and need to apologize to, and what we have to ask God for forgiveness for. We can always make change. We can always come back to our core.
I don’t have too much trouble identifying where I’ve messed up. It’s not hard for me to find the actions I’ve felt guilty or sad about committing. I can remember the occasions where I’ve hurt others, or not lived up to myself.
On Yom Kippur we’re also supposed to ask the people we’ve harmed for forgiveness. This is okay for me too.
What is hard for me is knowing when to make amends. At what point are you supposed to apologize? At what point have you done something wrong enough that it warrants an apology? We can’t say sorry for everything; at some point apologizing isn’t helpful to the other person, it’s annoying. I’m sorry I thought your napkin was my napkin and I used it. I’m sorry I text messaged you in incomplete grammar. No, we can’t do that.
Society has a whole formula for apologies: you say you’re sorry, and you mean it. Sometimes with a Hallmark card, followed by a hug. But an apology goes farther than saying you’re sorry. It’s a promise. A promise that in the future you will not make that same mistake again, and will act in a better way. It’s a promise to change yourself.
In addition to the regular Yom Kippur themes of repentance and forgiveness, this year we are adding in the theme of “mad’leek”, the Hebrew word for kindle or ignite. Yes, for those of you paying attention that was the same theme as last year, but it’s an important one, so here we are at light and sparks and ignition again.
We use mad’leek to bring light and warmth and goodness into the world, to transform a dark room so we can eat with our family, to remember a friend who’s no longer on earth with us. We can choose to ignite a candle alone in our room, or to light it in front of entire communities. We have the power to choose who sees our candle and who doesn’t, whose face we light up and whose stays in the shadows.
We can also take the idea of igniting a candle less literally. A candle can be inside of you, something that lights up at times and remains still, cold, and dark at others. These candles inside every one of us—some have a candle made of homemade natural beeswax from a local bee farm, some have a lavender scented one—well these candles have the ability to govern our lives. They tell us when we like something, when we’re inspired, they tell us when we’re in love, when we’re angry and when we’re passionate. If you asked me why I haven’t found a college yet, well, that’s because my candle hasn’t been lit up by one yet. And if you ask me how I know what I want to study, it’s because one night my candle was.
On that night, a summer night this last August, I was biking around with my friend Daniel. Towards the end of the evening, we went to Dutch Bros Coffee for a drink that was definitely more sugar than coffee, and then we were heading home. As we were approaching 33rd to turn left and go up a ramp, two police cars followed us, turned on their flashing lights, and pulled us over. We got off our bikes, and a policeman got out of one of the cars.
He told us we had been biking without lights, which was incredibly unsafe, since the road we were on had a lot of car traffic. This was interesting to me, as I had both front and back lights, and they were both turned on. I demonstrated this to him. The officer said that the lights weren’t strong enough, even though they were from a reputable bike store, and that Daniel’s bike still didn’t have any lights.
We were asked for identification and we both complied. The officer asked Daniel if he’d had anything to drink that night, and Daniel said no. The policeman said, “y’know, I’m a pretty nice guy, but I don’t appreciate liars. Let me ask you again, did you have anything to drink tonight?” Daniel said no. The officer asked me and I said no. I wasn’t challenged.
The officer took out his pad, and asked Daniel for his full legal name, and wrote it down. The officer asked Daniel if he’d had any interaction with the police before. The officer didn’t write down my name or ask for my legal history.
He went back to the car and returned to us. He asked Daniel if he had any drugs or guns on him. The officer did not ask me, although I was the one with the backpack and Daniel just had his jean pockets for storage.
The officer let us go, telling Daniel to get bike lights. Since the officer had pulled us over for going on an unsafe route, I asked him what the safest way home would be. He directed us to continue on the same route that we had been going on.
At this time I’d like to add that my friend Daniel is a black male. The policeman had been white male.
That night, Daniel experienced racial profiling, and I had been there to bear witness. Daniel and I got back on our bikes and biked until we split up to go our separate ways home. As I biked alone on the peaceful, balmy night, I felt a spark inside myself. My candle had lit up. It lit up so much that it hurt my insides. I was in pain. In pain that this was the world that some people lived in every single day. I started crying. I was so upset at how differently the police had treated Daniel and I. I was so upset because Ferguson was starting to feel very close to home.
As I pedaled right foot, left foot, right foot, I asked myself “How can I stop things like this from happening? How can I change this part of our society?” I thought back to when my mother Barbara told me that the best part of her job is cross-examining an evil boss in front of her client, the employee. She told me even when she loses, her clients are so happy because they got to see their wrongful boss get verbally attacked. That night, more than anything, I wanted to cross-examine the policemen, in front of Daniel. This is why I want to study law.
Not too long ago, I could’ve been in Daniel’s place. Growing up as a Jew at the turn of the 21st century, I haven’t faced any large-scale anti-Semitism. Obviously I am not a Holocaust survivor, or the child of one. I’ve had the fear of attack instilled in me my whole life. Seeing the swastika, even in Native American art, makes me flinch. World War II movies make me nauseous. And now with the Israel-inspired anti-Semitism in France and Florida and other places, the fragility of the Jewish people is more visible.
Eighty years ago, we could’ve all been Daniels. We could’ve all been innocently partaking in an activity like bike riding, and be pulled over for a made up reason, and prosecuted. We are all very very lucky that Judaism isn’t as visible as dark skin color. We are all very very lucky that our society more or less accepts us.
I’m brought back to my question of when to apologize. People of color are owed a big apology. They’re owed a big promise, that our society will change to fully accept them. But who owes that apology? Maybe we’ve never committed a hate crime, or even microaggressional, small-scale racism. Do we still owe people of color that promise of change?
Yes. On my school’s Constitution team, we were taught the idea of “enlightened self-interest”. This is the idea that by helping our community, we help ourselves. It doesn’t mean that if you burned down a hospital you must rebuild it. It means that no matter who did the burning—the destruction—we all help rebuild. And by doing this, we’re bettering our own lives as well as others’.
Now it’s a new year. Year 5775. We must reflect and decide who to apologize to and what for, and determine what we’re going to try our very best to change about ourselves. What I ask is that this year, we look outside of our families and friends, and think bigger picture. Not just what are we going to improve about ourselves, but what we are going to improve in our world. After all, we were once strangers in a strange land. We were once wrongly judged based on our religion. We owe it to our community to ignite our interior candles, and start something new to help the other Daniels out there.
“Jonah the Sailor”
A few years ago I was packing dry bags for my first solo rowing trip, a four day expedition from Seattle to Port Townsend. As I stowed my marine radio and emergency light, I glanced up and caught a worried look on my wife’s face.
“So – what do you do if you’re in the middle of the shipping lanes, and you see one of those ginormous container ships coming toward you?” Kate asked.
“Oh that’s easy,” I grinned. “You just row like crazy!” “Besides,” I continued, “ships are the least of my concerns.”
Kate narrowed her eyes, unconvinced by this bit of macho posturing.
Everything went smoothly for the first few days of my trip. No ships were encountered and Terrapin, my 15’ rowing boat cut smoothly through the wind and water. The skyline of Seattle slowly receded. The Sound was no glassy lake, but conditions weren’t bad, either. As a long-time surfer and sailor, I knew what bad looked like, and like the sailors in Jonah, I knew when to be scared.
Late on my third day out, I had to leave the peninsula’s shore I’d been hugging to get over to the mainland, where Port Townsend lies. This required me to make a four- mile open water passage. And folks, an open water passage means what it sounds like: you, all alone, endless water, miles from shore. And I knew from past personal experience, there are no rescue whales in Puget Sound.
I traveled about half mile out into a shallow bay, near a place aptly named Foulweather Bluff, when the breeze picked up. The tops of the waves started to get blown off by the wind. I looked over my shoulder to see if perhaps this might be a temporary situation, but the rows of white caps were stacked up towards the horizon. I could only make slow northward progress, and Terrapin was starting to take spray over the bow, something that normally doesn’t happen. Rowing west caused water to jump over the edge of the boat onto my legs, which I could prevent only by constantly maneuvering the boat in a meandering fashion. I stared at the growing pool of water near my feet, trying to decide what to do.
For the first time since I set out from Seattle, I started to feel that I was doing something dangerous. I was scared by the chill of the salty water and by the immense forces at work around me. I realized that one good wave or mistake on my end would put me into the chilly bay and that would be my end. A cold trickle of sweat rolled down by neck.
I knew the sea wasn’t responsible for my decision, but I needed some guidance, so I started to think about Hashem, who doesn’t seem to meddle in the affairs of people these days, at least, not my affairs. Instead, I turned my thoughts inward. I wondered why I had put myself into this perilous predicament. I thought of my nice, warm, dry family and wished I was wearing the dry suit currently tucked away at the bottom of an inaccessible bag. And hoo boy, was I glad my wife wasn’t there to tell me what a fool I was. At least there was no ship involved.
There was really only one thing to do: row like crazy. Water continued to slop into the boat and the wind tried in vain to blow my hat off, but I finally made it away from the bay and out of the rough waves.
As often happens while my body is engaged in the steady rhythm of rowing, my mind wanders to things profound. It being fall, I found myself thinking about the sailors in the story of Jonah. How come, I’ve often pondered, no one ever talks about them? Maybe because historically, we Jews have been ardent landlubbers. Yet by not talking about them we’re missing something important.
Those sailors knew the fury and power of the sea. They knew the raw energy, the potency of the cold water, the strange, dangerous creatures that lay below, and the outright fear of an entity far greater than themselves. And when that storm in the story continues to rage, when they realize they may never make it to Tarshish – what do they do? To us they do something that seems strange: they essentially flip a coin to figure out whose fault it is. The sailor’s world is grounded in capriciousness. They live their lives from one moment to the next, never able to know what may come, having to make decisions based on the arbitrary winds and seas they encounter.
It cracks me up that when Jonah is found to be the party responsible for the storm, he promptly fesses up and instructs the sailors to give him the heave-ho. And as in my misadventure in the stormy sea, Jonah knows there’s no one to blame but himself. Ultimately blaming doesn’t help anyone, but taking responsibility does- to a point. That’s where that rescue whale comes in handy.
The sailors seem momentarily surprised by Jonah’s willingness accept blame for the storm. Maybe they expected him to make excuses, try to wiggle out of it. They need to talk about the situation. For just a moment, I can envision them in a modern light. They’re trying to find a place to make a plan: “OK everyone, let’s put our heads together in the conference room…” But this was no comfortable conference room: winds were howling, ropes were groaning, the boat heaving up and down, and as was probably the case here, old ships are notoriously creaky and full of strange noises, only likely to be accentuated by the storm. And yet, even in these dire conditions, the sailors hesitate to save themselves by sacrificing Jonah.
With the exception of Ruth, there are few instances in the Torah where non-Jews are portrayed in a positive light. Then there are these sailors. Men who show compassion for Jonah, as well as fear for his god. These guys are appalled at the notion of tossing their passenger overboard.
David Mostardi from Netivot Shalom in Berkeley writes, “I love that these pagan sailors are more Jewish than Jonah is. The sailors won’t even kill him: they’re Phoenicians, but they don’t kill him because it’s not the right thing to do.” The sailors need to be convinced that ejecting him from the ship is a good idea, even though Jonah himself has told them that keeping him aboard means risking their own lives.
These days we don’t often hear from Hashem – not the way Jonah did, anyway – but as a sailor, I feel that same sense of awe and powerlessness on the water that the sailors in the story did. I like that feeling. That fear leads to a certain kind of empathy for others, the kind the men on Jonah’s ship had: the realization that humans in tough, dangerous environments need to look out for one another when the waves are rising. I still frequently see that compassion among other sailors at the docks or on the water when I’m out sailing. Once I was on a multiple day trip with no chance of getting provisions when I discovered that my water jug had sprung a leak. While trying to stop the remaining water from leaking out, another boater I’d never met stopped to see what I was doing. In the end he gave me his jug so I could continue my trip safely.
That visceral impulse to help the stranger, perhaps comes more naturally to sailors who sense the mighty forces (god-like or otherwise) of the world than it does in our comfortable lives ashore. For Jonah these forces are literal, but for the rest of us, that storm and whale are more easily read metaphorically. We all encounter those storms in our life ashore: the argument with a loved one, the way we turn from a homeless person on the street, the conflict between what we know is right and what we find easiest for us to do.
When Jonah met that storm, he faced every sailor’s worst fears (no, that’s not the fear of running out of rum). He saw the billows and breakers, the waters close in, the depths, the very heart of the sea. Then he endured the enforced captivity and time of contemplation in the whale. Unlike so many unfortunate sailors, he returned and had a chance to alter his course.
For us, we choose the time of the Yamim Noraim as our chance to really wrestle with our own issues in the shadowy places of our minds. We have our chance to think about the big decisions in our lives. And we too can make up our minds on what to do when we step back into the stream of ordinary life.
Now, late in the day, we’re all feeling a little like the sailors in the storm: tired, hungry, and wondering if we’re going to get there in one piece. But Yom Kippur is not the end of the journey, it’s just one spot on the nautical charts of our lives. Do we know what we need to do in the coming year to be better people, to steer our own ships where they should go?
Me, I want to be like the sailors (minus the storm) and ask questions (though perhaps not so pointed). I want to show the same compassion to others that they did to Jonah, even when I feel like someone is wrong, because you never know until you hear them out.
So, when the whale spews us up on the shore tonight, I hope that after showering, we will go beyond thinking, but start to act more like the people we want to be in the new year.