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Addressing the Education Funding Crisis, Rosh HaShanah 5774

posted Sep 10, 2013, 11:43 AM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Rosh HaShanah 5774, Addressing the Education Funding Crisis, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

A story from Isaac Peretz, a Yiddish writer of the late-19th century:


Every Friday, during the month of Elul – the month of introspection that precedes the High Holidays-the Rabbi of Nemirov would vanish. He was nowhere to be seen – not in the synagogue, not in the streets, nowhere.  The villagers wondered, “Where could the Rabbi be?”  The people agreed: In heaven, no doubt.  During the month of Elul, he would ascend to heaven to pray on behalf of his village, to beseech God to bring peace in the New Year.

One villager, unsatisfied with this answer, decided to find out himself.

That same night, the villager snuck into the Rabbi's home, slid under the Rabbi's bed, and waited.  He stayed up all night, waiting to find out where the rabbi disappeared to. 

Just before dawn, the Rabbi awoke, got out of bed, and began to dress.  The villager saw that strangely, the rabbi put on work pants, high boots, a big hat, a coat, and a wide belt.  The villager was astonished when the rabbi put a rope in his pocket, tucked an ax in his belt, and left the house. The villager followed.

The Rabbi crept in the shadows to the woods at the edge of town.  The villager watched with amazement as the Rabbi took the ax, chopped down a small tree, and split it into logs and then bundled the wood, tied it with the rope, put it on his back, and began walking.

The rabbi stopped beside a small broken-down shack and knocked at the window.

"Who is there?" asked the frightened, sick woman inside.

"I, Vassil the peasant," answered the Rabbi, entering the house. "I have wood to sell."

"I am a poor widow. Where will I get the money to pay for wood?" she asked.

"I'll lend it to you," replied the Rabbi.

"How will I pay you back?" asked the woman.

"I will trust you," said the Rabbi.

The Rabbi put the wood into the oven, kindled the fire, and left without a word.

Now whenever anyone reports that the Rabbi has disappeared and gone to heaven, the villager simply adds,

"Heaven? If not higher." 

This story offers a deep and important lesson for this season.  It is set during the month of Elul—the holy time of self-accounting that ushers us into the holiest days of the year.  Because these days are centered on inwardness and personal efforts toward change, one might think that the High Holidays are a time to shut out the outside world and focus on the self and God.  But Peretz’s story illustrates that this is not the case.  Our prayers and petitions are not enough alone: we need to be engaged in righteousness, we need to be engaged with others.  With our deeds, we have the possibility of transcending our world and reaching heaven. 

Though it is a modern story, this concept is not new—it is as old as the holidays themselves. Earlier in the service, we recited the stirring words of Untane Tokef and prayed: “Teshuvah, Tefillah UTzedekah Ma’avirin Et Ro’ah HaGezera” “Teshuvah- Repentance; Tefillah – Prayer; Tzedakah- charity or righteous deeds, from the root “tzedek” – justice-- can avert the severity of the judgment of the day.” Teshuvah- turning and tefillah- prayer—we would expect them to be part of this list. 

Tzedakah is not as obvious.  Just as Peretz teaches us, so does our liturgy: tzedakah is an essential component in our work toward transformation on these Holy Days. In fact, this is precisely the time to consider what is broken and what we can fix; to move from apathy to action. Without tzedek and tzedakah (justice and righteousness), our task on the High Holidays is incomplete.

This Rosh HaShanah, as we consider what our “tzedek”/“tzedakah” work will be and how we can make our world better, I would like to raise a social justice issue which I believe demands our attention and our involvement: the crisis in Philadelphia public education.  An unprecedented funding crisis has left our school system in dire straits.  Crippling budget cuts have led to school closings and unprecedented layoffs.  A new school year is set to start in just four days, yet the immediate future remains uncertain and the long term future seems bleak

You may be thinking to yourself: “While Philly schools are in trouble, why this issue in particular?” “Why should I spend time and attention on the Philly school crisis, especially if I don’t have children at all, have grown children, or have children who attend private school or suburban public schools?”  I understand those concerns—there are a lot of issues that need our attention and this issue may not touch upon everyone’s lives in a direct way.

Yet, I believe education is an issue that demands our empathy and involvement for three reasons.  First, the education crisis is one of, if not the, biggest threats to the families of Philadelphia in the current moment and one of the biggest threats to the prosperity of our city for the future.  Second, I believe that what is happening speaks to the heart of our greatest Jewish values and  urges us into action.  No matter what our station and life and whether this issue affects us “directly”, we are people who care about justice and who are part of “Kol Tzedek,” a community that seeks to be “a Voice of Justice” in our neighborhood and city.  And lastly, I truly believe that if we work strategically and thoughtfully, that we can win a victory and make a difference in the lives of Philadelphia’s children.

Some of the folks in this room have been intimately involved in this struggle for the past few months, while others of us are newer to the conversation. For more details, I encourage you to read the online journal the Notebook or go to one of the websites printed on the handout.  For now, here is a basic overview of the problem:

The Philadelphia School System is now dealing with the worst funding crisis it has ever faced, a crisis that threatens the safety and well-being of the majority of its 200,000 students.  There are many reasons for the enormous deficits, but the primary factor is the fact that Governor Corbett has cut $1.2 BILLON dollars in education since coming into office.   While almost every school district in the state is affected, the schools in more middle-class and wealthy districts are more able to make up the funding deficits through property taxes.  Philadelphia, which is the country’s poorest large city in America, cannot. 

A budget gap of $304 million led to drastic actions by the District in May: closing 24 schools and firing 3,800 workers, one-fifth of its workforce.  While some money has been found since May, it has only come through the city and is only a fraction of what is needed for schools to function properly. 

Nurses, guidance counselors, aides, safety staff, school secretaries, librarians have been the primary casualties of the layoffs.  Cuts have also put arts, music, and sports programs in jeopardy and leave literally no funding for basic supplies like paper and pencils. 

These cuts translate to no teacher aides like Sheila Armstrong.  Sheila Armstrong, a mother and a former school aide who was one of the 3,800 employees laid off, gave testimony at a town hall meeting hosted by POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild, about one month ago.  As a teacher’s aide, Ms. Armstrong would work with those children struggling in class and give them additional support. She told the story of working with a particular student. 

The teacher, stressed from managing an overcrowded classroom, had lost tolerance for this child whose antics took her attention away from the rest of the class and had labeled him a “problem student.” Ms. Armstrong, in working with the student, came to realize he wasn’t a problem child at all.  He was actually gifted – and was acting about because of stresses at home. She began to give him extra work and challenged him to see himself as a smart, good student instead of a misfit. Over time, he began to believe it too.  She advocated to the teacher on his behalf until she began to understand this student’s true potential.  Now, instead of being a “problem child” in detention at the end of the day, he is in a program for talented and gifted students.  Because she was there and because she cared, Ms. Armstrong gave this child the possibility of a future he could never have dreamed about himself

At that same town hall meeting, we also heard from a student: a third grader named Sharon Tyler.  She shared a story from the first grade.  Sharon was being bullied by some kids in her class.  Afraid and anxious, she went to the guidance counselor and shared her concerns.  The guidance counselor jumped into action and brought together all the kids in her class for a “lunch-brunch” where she facilitated an open and honest conversation among the young students. That one get together changed everything – and the kids were much kinder to each other from that day forward.  Most importantly, Sharon knew that if she ever had a problem, she knew where to turn. 

Let us imagine for ourselves: What would it have been like if when we were applying for college or navigating financial aid, there was no guidance counselor to help us?  What would it have been like if we went to a school that had no music, no art, not theatre, no sports teams?  Can we imagine doing research without the help of librarians? How might we have fared in a school environment with increasingly large classroom sizes and overextended staaff?

Jewish tradition and values teach us that we can and we must do better.  Judaism is a spiritual tradition in love with learning and with utmost respect for students and teachers.  Our ancestors had a lot to say about the value of educating our future generations and raising them with a sense of torah, of wisdom.  One teaching I particularly like is from Resh Lakish, a rabbinic sage, who spoke in the name of Rabbi Judah.  He said: “The world endures only because of the breath of schoolchildren.” He also said: “One many not neglect schoolchildren even in order to build the Holy Temple”  What I take from this passage is that learning is the most important activity there is, and that we must never abandon our children—even for the most holy activity in the world – because our future depends on them.

Valuing our children means investing in their education.   Unfortunately, our elected officials are choosing a different kind of investment for our city’s children.  While Corbett cut $1.2 billion for education, he allocated $400 million towards the building of a new prison in Montgomery County.  There is a great irony in the fact that this prison will have a librarian, while most of our schools will not.  There is even greater irony in the fact that studies have shown that money invested in early education saves the state byreducing costs related to crime, drug use – those things that land young adults in jail in the first place.   

Jewish tradition also teaches that we are to pursue justice by helping the poor and militating against the differences between “the haves” and “the have nots.”  As it says in the book of Deuteronomy, “If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates…you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand to him.” In so many other passages, we are told to do what we can to balance the scales, to build a more equitable society. 

When funding is further cut or withheld, all schools suffer, but those schools already stressed suffer more, those districts with fewer resources are all but abandoned.  This is not just an issue of education but an issue of economic and racial justice.  Low-income and children of color are disproportionately affected by the cuts. School closings primarily impact African-American and Latino students, leaving them to cross dangerous streets to get to another school. 

The repercussions of this kind of inequality are profound.  With poor education and increasing lack of access, fewer low-income children will have the opportunity to go to college or graduate with the skills to enter the workforce.  It will be harder and harder for people to escape poverty.  This all translates to probable increase in crime, violence, joblessness, hopelessness. Reverend Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel Congregation in South Philadelphia, has called the struggle to combat Philadelphia’s Education crisis a modern day civil rights movement.

While my concern is with all of the city’s children, I am less worried about my own children or many of the children within our community than I am about the tens of thousands of kids whose futures will be diminished through continued disinvestment.

I am frustrated that I live in a world in which we invest more in prisons than in education.  I am angry that the zip code in which a person lives determines whether or not he or she will receive a good education.  I want to live in a society that values learning, honors children and gives them the opportunities they need to succeed and fulfill their God-given potential.

Now, here is some good news.  As I mentioned earlier, I truly believe we have an opportunity to move things in the right direction. First, we can act to address the immediate crisis: make phone calls, write letters, and support teachers, parents, and students that are organizing actions.  Over the past five months, there has been some excellent organizing and advocacy.  Young children, including Kol Tzedek’s own, have gone to the City Council and knocked on their doors until they had to come out.  

One KT mom told me this story: Her and her child went with a group of students to knock on city council’s doors to advocate for education.  Her city councilwoman came out and spoke to the children, giving them the gifts of pencils -- which, as this mom pointed out, is sadly needed because with budget cuts, they won’t have pencils!!  The council woman asked the girl what school she went to.  The 3rd grader said, “Penn Alexander.”  The council person retorted, “Oh! That’s a very good school, it’s one of my favorites.”  This wise 3rd grader retorted, “Excuse me, but I don’t think you have favorite schools. I think all the schools should be good schools.”

Even as we respond to the crisis in front of us for this school year, we also need solutions that will reach the dream of the 3rd grader: good schools for everyone.  Kol Tzedek is a founding member of POWER, (Philadelphians to Organize Witness Empower and Rebuild), is an organization made up of 41 congregations working across religious, class, racial, geographic lines to build a city of opportunity for everyone – with no one left behind.  Education has been a key area of organizing for POWER for the past year.  For the last few months, a group has been studying education funding and considering strategies for long-term change.  This team has recommended that POWER take on a multi-year campaign that would involve civic engagement and advocacy for a fair and transparent funding formula.

POWER’s first goal is to make education the number ONE issue in the coming Governor’s election.  Through public forums with candidates of both parties; phone banking, voter turn-out, we will mobilize people to show up and vote on the issue of education.  POWER is already connecting with partner organizations around Pennsylvania to make this a state-wide effort.  This is not about political partisanship—just like Kol Tzedek, POWER is a non-profit and will not endorse a candidate.  But we can make sure that people come out and exercise their power as citizens – and in doing so, God-willing, put someone in office that cares about our children and will invest in their future.

The longer-term strategy is to work with partners across the state to achieve a fair and equitable funding formula. A fair and equitable funding formula is a way in which a state distributes funds by taking into account rates of poverty, the numbers of English as a second language and the number of special needs students per district.  A fair funding formula is a long-term solution to the problem of funding – it mandates that the state give money to districts based on facts and data and not on political whim.  This is about giving all children, whether rich or poor, black, white, Latino, access to good education.

These are campaigns that we can be involved in as individuals and as a Kol Tzedek community.  We can sign up to phone bank or do neighborhood door knocking; we can talk to our friends and neighbors about the stakes of the primary election.  Down the road, there will likely be opportunities to go to Harrisburg and speak about the importance of fair and equitable funding. 

Before we get overwhelmed with skepticism, let us give ourselves permission to image: What would it be like for us to look back in a year or two or three and see a real change? To see a future brighter for all the children of our city?   If each of us does a small part, our collective efforts will make a difference and God willing, we will be able to say: We helped make our city and our world a better place.

Further, let us see this process as the beginning of a much larger fight for the soul of Philadelphia’s education.  We know there are many more problems with schools than funding, including an too much focus on standards and testing and the privatization of the education system.  Let us solve the funding crisis so that we can put out a long-term vision for education in Philaelphia that ensures that all children in this city have the opportunity to learn, to succeed, to be challenged, to be engaged, and to thrive.   

On Rosh HaShanah, we are called upon to repent and to turn, to pray our heartfelt prayers, and to align ourselves with Tzedek-justice and to engage in righteous deeds.   On Rosh HaShanah, we are called to look into our communities, examine what is broken, and see how we might be a part of fixing it.  On this day, as we are called upon to make new commitments for a new Year of sweetness for us and for the world. 

Earlier in the service, I gave a blessing to all the children of the congregation.  At this time, I would like to give a blessing to all the children in our city and to all of us

May the Holy One of Blessing Bless all of the children of our city.  As they begin a new school year in just a few short days, grant them protection, safety, and security.  Grant them loving support and a sense of hopefulness.  Grant them opportunities to learn and be challenged, to teach and to grow.  Bless them with a love of learning and with teachers who show them their own unique potential. Grant them blessing, success, and honor.  

May the Holy One of Blessing bless us and inspire us.  May we feel that our destiny is tied to the young children of this city as well as the young children of this country.  May we feel moved to act on their behalf to bring about a more equitable, fair and just world for our children to inherit.  May we help even out the scales of justice so that all people will be granted access to good schools and an excellent education.  May the work of our hands be blessed.  Amen. 

Help.Thanks.Wow: Entering the Gates of Tefillah (Prayer) on The High Holidays, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5774

posted Sep 10, 2013, 11:25 AM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann   [ updated Sep 10, 2013, 11:25 AM ]

Help.Thanks.Wow: Entering the Gates of Tefillah (Prayer)

on The High Holidays, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann 5774


Rabbi Mike Commins teaches, “Prayer expresses desire.  Holy desire: or an end to an illness or for a peaceful world, to live in joy and to behave well, or to find connection with God.” 

Tonight, we usher in The Yamim Nora’im, these days of Awe, which are a time for reflection and transformation.  Unlike many other Jewish holidays, the main address of celebration and commemoration is the synagogue and the primary activity of the community is tefillahprayer.  On the High Holidays, prayer is the vehicle for us to express those– our desires for change and transformation; our desires for a new start on this New Year; our desires to become more deeply aligned to our Source and our intentions.   It is a vehicle for us to experience change and transformation.

The intense focus of the prayer on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur provides opportunities for meaning, connection, transcendence.  It also creates particular challenges for us.  Even with the beautiful singing of niggunim (wordless melodies) and the personal reflections we, it is easy to feel lost, alienated, frustrated.  For some of us, Hebrew is a barrier – if we lack fluency or comfort with Hebrew, we might feel alienated or disconnected because we don’t understand what we are saying!  For some, we lack familiarity with the prayers, many of which come around only twice a year, or with the melodies. Others among us may stumble over God-imagery in the ancient prayers we have inherited or we may feel unsure of what, if anything, we are praying to.

Yet, we are spending this evening and will likely continue to invest many hours of our life over the next week and a half in synagogue (not to mention the future years) with a prayerbook in our hands, trying to make sense of it.  How might we make our experience of prayer meaningful, connective?  How might we connect to the liturgy in what that will help us open our hearts, so that we can do that deep work of soul-searching that is at the heart of the holidays?

I want to share a teaching that has given me a new way into understanding the experience of prayer on the High Holy Days.  The teaching comes from perhaps an unexpected source: Anne Lamott, who is a contemporary author of both secular and spiritual books and a progressive, religious Christian.  Lamott, in her most recent book, argues that there are only three essential prayers and in the words of our tradition “all the rest is commentary.”  Her three prayers are actually just three words:  




In the book by that title, Lamott says, “I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.”

Lamott argues that these three simple prayers are all a person needs to be in the presence of and communication with one’s Higher Power.  Whether said privately or in a group, whether one believes in a God that actively hears or not, praying the words “Help. Thanks. Wow” helps us to experience connection, relief, and hope.  Lamott says, “These [prayers are] all I ever need, besides the silence, the pain, and the pause sufficient for me to stop, close my eyes, and turn inward.” (8)

You may be wondering how Lamott’s teaching relates to the journey of prayer that we take on the High Holidays.  I mean, just take a look at our prayerbook!  No, I mean really—take a look at the machzor (HH prayerbook) in your hands or that is resting nearby. Feel the weight of this prayerbook in your hands.  Prayers upon prayers upon prayers, words upon words upon words.  Did you know that our prayerbook has eleven different versions of the Amidah, our standing prayer?

If you were to go to the last page of our machzor, you will find that there are one thousand two hundred and seventy five pages in this prayerbook. 

Three words. One thousand two hundred and seventy pages.   Clearly, Jews are not so skilled at this keeping prayer simple idea!  

Instead of a guidebook for personal prayer, Jewish tradition gives us thousands of years of history, philosophy, poetry, theology brought together in one book – one giant book!

But like in the car rear view mirror, “objects in view are much closer than they appear.”  Reading Lamott’s book, I realized that nearly all of the prayers we say on these holidays are meditations on these three core themes.  Granted, we may have a lot more words than Lamott might believe is necessary, but fundamentally our prayers are expressions of desire for connection – they are aimed at helping us say, “Help me!” “Thanks for everything!” and “Wow.”  And thinking about our liturgy in this way may help bring us back to those basics – to the key ideas – so that prayer can be the opening, the calling out – the profound experience it is meant to be.

Let’s look at each of Lamott’s simple prayers and find some of the connections to High Holiday prayer --


As Lamott describes, HELP is what we say when life seems hopeless, with brokenness, pain, and illness all around us and sometimes in our lives and families; when frustration mounts over the intransience of government; when we feel we have lost our way.  Crying out for help is a natural and healthy response to the realization that we have reached our limits or come to understand that the direction of our life is off course.  

What’s especially powerful about HELP is that just saying it releases us and frees us from the intense pressure we put on ourselves to do and be everything.   In Lamott’s words: “There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting that you’ve reached a place of great unknowing.  This is where restoration can begin.” (14)  When we can call out and say “Help,” we begin our healing.

Asking for “help,” in my mind, is an underlying theme of the High Holiday prayers.  Reciting “HaMelech,” asserting God’s sovereignty over the world, or when we bow all the way onto the ground during the Grand Aleynu on Yom Kippur is an invitation to surrender.  By standing in the face of what is greater than us, we learn the difficult lesson that we are not completely in control over our lives and our destiny. 

Perhaps the most poignant prayer of “HELP” is Avinu Malkenu, our Parent, our Sovereign which we sing throughout the holidays.  The haunting melody moves me to tears almost every time we sing it together.  But the most powerful recitation in my experience is during Neilah, the final service on Yom Kippur.  Both exhausted from fasting and spiritually invigorated from the intensity of the day, we recite Avinu Malkenu with all the strength we can muster.  At this moment of vulnerability, we call out as if to say: We have fasted, we have done our turning, we have reached out to others, we have reached inside our own souls—we have done everything we can.  Now we turn to God and say: help us—help us by granting us forgiveness, help us by shedding some light into our darkness; help us to learn to be better people.  We are merely human—we need help from a power greater than ourselves.   And in calling out, we feel relief.

Saying “Help” is very, very hard – perhaps especially as progressive Jews who may not necessarily believe in a God that can swoop from the sky and solve our problems. But just because God might not be able to change our fate does not mean that we do not need help- that we don’t need strength, that we don’t need God’s love, strength, belief in us – that we don’t need our friends, our community to make it through.   And that is especially why it is so important.


Lamott speaks about the many experiences that illicit the prayer “thanks.” Sometimes, she says, it is a simple “woooh” breath of air when we realize something that could have gone south, didn’t and we are standing on solid ground.  There is gratitude for the big and little things that make our lives work, like friends and neighbors, good colleagues, good food.  And sometimes, just sometimes- a miracle might happen – and we can say “thank you” in the face of life’s difficulties.  When we say “Thank you,” we transform from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.  With a simple acknowledgment, we find that the orientation of our life and our relationship with the world has shifted.  

It is not difficult to find the expressions of thanksgiving in our High Holiday machzor – there are pages and pages of them.  This is especially true during the first part of our service, Pezukei DeZimra, verses of praise, which is a collection of readings, psalms, liturgy meant to illicit our gratitude and habituate us toward praise.  The crescendo of this section is the Nishmat prayer, in which we utter possibly the greatest words of Jewish liturgy (IMHO):

“Were our mouths oceans of song, our tongues alive with exultation like the water’s waves, our lips filled full of praises like the heaven’s dome, our eyes lit up like sun and moon…we would never have sufficient praise for you, Divine One. Nor could we bless your name enough for even one small measure of the thousands upon thousands of the times of goodness that you have provided for me and those who came before me.” 

Beginning our prayer practice with gratitude, we find our way through own self-centeredness and confusion into a sense of ourselves as part of a larger whole. 

Gratitude does not always come easily. Perhaps this is especially true on these days of seriousness and self-judgment.  But there it is on page after page – to help us understand that there is never a moment in which gratitude doesn’t open our soul, that there is never a moment in which thanksgiving does not help us put our life in perspective.  And in that spirit, praying “Thanks” on the high holidays helps us ground our teshuvah, our work for change, in what’s working and what’s possible.     


Wow is a prayer that expresses our wonder at the world, at the beauty of life and Creation.  We say “wow” because as Lamott says, we are “almost speechless, but not quite.” (73)  Wow might come in the form of “What a beautiful sunset”  or “Wow! Look at those newly blooming tulips.”  In this way, Lamott’s simple prayer of “Thanks” is similar to the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teachings about the stance of prayer as radical amazement and awe. In both cases, saying “wow” is an articulation of our being in world that is much greater than ourselves and of cultivating sensitivity to the small and large miracles that appear in our lives every day.  

A prayer of “wow” is what we say tomorrow when we boldly sing, “HaYom Harat Olam!” “WOW!  Today the world is being born!”  Everything is possible.  The instrument of “wow” is the shofar, which rocks us to the core and beckons us to awaken to life and to awaken to responsibility!

Lamott describes another kind of “wow” prayer, an expression of awe at the mystery of life, at facing the unknown.   These “ww” moments are more subtle but also very deep.

On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we hear the haunting prayer “Untane Tokef” prayer.  We read each year: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…who will live and who will die…who shall die by water, who by fire, who by hunger, who by thirst…who shall be humbled and who shall be raised up.”  When I hear Untane Tokef, there are no words—except “wow.”  “Wow” at realizing the profundity of what we are up to these high holidays. 

Confronting our own mortality, confronting the mortality of those we love, we stand in awe of the natural forces of life, stand in the presence of the mystery of life and death.  In being present to the preciousness of life, we say:  Wow, life is precious, time is a gift.  Wow, we better start living the life we want, NOW.   This “wow” helps us wake up and live our lives with more intention.  It helps us become once again awakened to wonder and to the gift of life.

There are many other examples of Help, Thanks, and Wow throughout the prayer experience of the High Holidays, and I invite you as we join together through the coming days and week, to wander through the prayerbook and find those moments and connect to the simplicity of our heart’s desire.   I invite you to consider that each prayer is an expression of desire for connection, for intimacy, for amazement. 

And if do become overwhelmed or lost or bogged down by the words or unsure of how to connect with the prayers, I invite you to follow Lamott’s advice and “keep your prayer simple.” 

Focus on the three prayers. Focus on the desires deep in your heart.

Help!  Help me find a way, a better path.  

Thanks!  Thank you for this beautiful gift of life, as confusing and difficult as it can be sometimes, I am grateful for it. 

Wow!  There is so much beauty in the world – the world is truly amazing and life is surely a gift I do not want to take for granted.

May the journey through these days be one of meaningful and soulful personal and communal prayer.  May our entrance into the gates of prayer bring us great meaning and wonder.  May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart received and be blessed.  Amen.       

Jacob & Esau: From Conflict to Reconciliation

posted Nov 19, 2012, 6:42 AM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann   [ updated Nov 19, 2012, 6:50 AM ]

Parshat Toldot, November 17, 2012

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Kol Tzedek Synagogue

“Jacob & Esau: From Conflict to Reconciliation”

 Shabbat Shalom.  A Sabbath of Peace.

We say these words each Shabbat, most of the time taking for granted that peace is the circumstance of our lives; it is the norm in which we experience life.

 Sadly, this Shabbat is not a Shabbat of peace – for our brothers and sisters in Israel and our brothers and sisters in Palestine.  Where one marks the beginning of this most recent round of bitter conflict and violence depends much on one’s perspective or narrative.  But in the most simplistic version, this new round of violence began when an increasing number of rockets from Gaza into Israel instigated retaliation on the part of Israel against Hamas.  These targeted attacks on Hamas leaders have put Palestinian civilians into harm’s way.  The attacks on Hamas and the civilian injuries and casualties in turn have led to rocket fire.  These rockets are for the first time in decades reaching Tel Aviv and for the first time in Israel’s history hitting Jerusalem—the rocket fire is endangering and killing civilians which in turn leads to more attacks on Gaza –more deaths, more injuries all around. 

This Shabbat, Israelis wished each other a “Shabbat Shalom” in miklatot—shelters, huddled in together not knowing what would come next.  This Shabbat, Palestinians spent the day in fear, not knowing whether they would be a casualty of an attack on Gaza’s political infrastructure.  This is certainly not a Shabbat Shalom for those in harm’s way, those who are filled with fear for their lives and the lives of their families.

 Perhaps what’s even more heartbreaking about the current situation is the fact that this “new” round of conflict seems strangely and eerily familiar to previous ones.  Certainly, some facts on the ground may have changed but there are some ways in which it feels like a “repeat” button has been pressed. 

 As these two peoples enter into another deadly cycle of escalating violence, we in America are watching by the sidelines – with varying levels of heartbreak and engagement.  Whether we are deeply engaged or connected to those people and those lands or not, we wonder: how do we make sense of this?  Will be ever be able to break the cycle of violence?

 This Shabbat, I am not intending to weigh in on who is right or who is wrong or who is “how right” or who is “how wrong”.  I have my own opinions and I trust that many of us have our own sensibility about these things and if not, there is an ample supply of twitter feeds, blogs, and articles that we could read and analyze. What I want to do today is do what Jews have done for thousands of years and do every week and for some, every day – which is to look to the torah to see what we might find to help us make sense of the events which are happening in our world and help gives us some inspiration for the journey.

 This week’s Torah Portion is Toldot.  Jews all around the world are reading about the famous conflict between the two brothers Jacob and Esau. In a very sad and painful way, this parsha seems particularly appropriate.  Here is the story of two brothers who fight for dominance over the other.  While they are two individuals, they are also much more than that—they represent as is said in the beginning of our torah portion, “two nations…two separate peoples” that will struggle and fight with one another for dominance.  They are both struggling over a perceived inheritance – a birthright and a blessing that seems to be able to go only to one and not the other.  Even though Jacob is, according to the torah, the predetermined winner of the inheritance and blessing, his route to achieving it is tainted with haughtiness – (he demands his brother sell him his birthright when he is at the point of desperate hunger) and trickery – (in order to get the blessing, he cooperated in an elaborate scheme concocted by his mother).  While he is the determined winner, he achieves his success through unscrupulous means.  Esau finishes the story in tears, completely shaken by his father’s rejection of him in light of Jacob’s victory.  His hurt and pain give way to anger and he sets his mind to kill Jacob if he were to ever see him again.  Hearing this, Rebekah sends Jacob away.  Now, Jacob is in exile – from the brother who shared his womb.

 While the story is so very different than our own, we can hear some of the resonances: two peoples living side by side who are destined to struggle with each other, who are driven through fear and distrust to hate each other.  Two brothers with two different narratives of their relationship to their inheritance.  Two brothers that seem inevitably bound to despise each other for eternity.  

 And sadly, at this moment in the story, the torah doesn’t necessarily have anything uplifting to say about this situation or this relationship.  This is a story that begins and ends in tragedy.  In the womb, it is determined that they will struggle with each other and Jacob will win dominance over Esau.  In the end of the parsha, we find this tragedy manifested – Jacob does win but is now a man with a tainted past, having won his birthright in the way he did and Esau—an angry and lost soul determined to get revenge.  It seems as though the only resolution to this conflict will inevitably be a tragic one.

 This is where our torah portion ends, but it is not where the story ends.  Fast forward: years have passed; Jacob has many life experiences since that time, including serving his father-in-law Laban in order to marry Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel.  He builds his patriarchy with two additional maidservants and acquires many possessions and fathers many children. While we don’t know as much about Esau’s journey in between, we find him next standing with four hundred other men – clearly he has a strong clan.  These two brothers are destined to meet each other as Jacob crosses into the country of Edom, the country of his brother, in the story we read in two weeks, during Parshat Vayishlach.  Even though many years have passed, given their rocky past and the fear and ill feelings held one by the other, we might expect that tragic ending that seemed to be the determined fate at the end of Toldot.  But instead something else really unexpected unfolds. 

Jacob sends messengers to Esau to inform him that his family is crossing over.  The messengers come back saying Esau is coming out to meet Jacob, along with four hundred of Esau’s closest friends.  Jacob naturally fears for his life and begins to divide his family and his possessions up in case Esau were to overtake them.  Interestingly, the famous torah commentator Rashi says that Jacob feared both for his life and for the damage he might cause Esau if his own anger and resentment were to take over.   Given this and given Esau’s resentment over the past (which we might guess has been brewing and growing since that day), it is natural for us to expect a physical altercation that is not going to end well.  

But this is not what happens at all.  Instead, Jacob looks up, sees Esau, and chooses to act of out of his best instincts – bowing his head on the ground as a sign of respectful greeting (and perhaps apology) to Esau.  Now for the even more amazing part: Esau runs to greet him!  The torah says that Esau embraces Jacob, falls on his neck, and kisses him.  And then, these two grown men, with their families and community around them, start weeping.  Instead of a moment of violence, there is an experience of forgiveness.  Instead of a moment of anger, there is an experience of reconciliation.

 A story that started out as a Greek tragedy—with a seemingly pre-determined fated outcome ultimately ends with a loving embrace.  The past hasn’t been erased but a new future is created.

Clearly it is impossible to – and not my ambition to—draw direct parallels between Jacob and Esau to the Israelis and Palestinian conflict.  It would be oversimplistic to say that these people are just “two brothers that misunderstand each other” or that just “have a bad history” – and if they only listened to their best instincts, they could solve their problems.  I would love to believe this but it is a lot more complicated than that. That said, I think we can and should draw out lessons from this story to help us find hope and inspiration to work toward a brighter future for everyone in the region.  In my understanding, this story, the long view that takes us from Toldot to Vayishlach, is a teaching about the ever-present possibility of tikkun, repair and reconciliation.  What seems like the most intractable, impenetrable conflict is transformed and forgiven.  There can be no greater lesson for today.

Sadly, I believe that we will see much more violence in the coming weeks before this conflict is over and many more lives lost. Sadly, I think we will see many more people digging their heels in and refusing to stop and listen to the other side.  But what I am hoping we can never lose in the midst of all of this is our hope that one day a brighter future can be created.  

It is worth noting that between Jacob learning he would see Esau and the confrontation itself, Jacob had his famous wrestling match with a mysterious being and is transformed into his new name and identity “Israel.”  Whatever happened in that wrestling match, Jacob had to do a lot of soul searching and hard work to get to a place that he could confront Esau and bow his head to him.  We don’t know much about Esau’s story but we can guess he had to do a lot of introspection and teshuvah (forgiveness, repentance) in order to move from wanting revenge on his brother to embracing him and kissing his neck.  In thinking about issues as daunting as the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians, we know the road is going to be long and hard and challenging but Esau and Jacob show that it is always possible to move from hardened hearts or hearts full of fear to hearts open and willing to move forward. 

In the face of a repeated cycle of violence; in the face of ongoing conflict and conflicting narratives; we can choose to believe that things will never change or we have the choice to believe in what seems impossible.  And perhaps in choosing what seems impossible, we will be moved to act as agents of that change.  

Shabbat SHALOM.

Embracing Brokenness, Finding Healing: Kol Nidre Sermon 2012

posted Oct 9, 2012, 2:10 PM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann   [ updated Oct 9, 2012, 6:46 PM ]

Embracing Brokenness, Finding Tikkun (Healing)

Kol Nidre 5773 (2012), Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann


Recently, I had a particularly poignant pastoral encounter.  A man came to me for some guidance.  He had recently lost a dear friend, who died quite suddenly and well before his time.  He was struggling in his relationship to his adult son, with whom relations were strained and communication was infrequent.  These losses and disappointments brought up pain from his past, and she shared the pain of losing his mother at a young age.  After I spent some time listening with compassion, he looked at me with sincerity and sadness and asked: “Rabbi, why is there so much suffering in life?  Why is there so much brokenness in the world?” 

 Of course, I could not and would not pretend to have the answer to one of life’s greatest mysteries and existential dilemmas.  So, instead, I took a breath.  I held his hand.  And I shared with him the teaching of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic on “Shevirat HaKelim”—the breaking of the vessels.  Rabbi Luria revolutionized Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and bequeathed influential and quite radical teachings to future generations, including this interpretation of the traditional Creation story:

While the process of Creation was underway, Rabbi Luria taught, light-- that emanated from the Divine-- was poured into vessels that were meant to contain that light.  These vessels however could not contain the intensity of God’s light and ultimately shattered, falling into pieces onto the earth.  We may not be able to see these pieces, but according to Luria, they are there, and human beings can, through their actions, lift up those divine sparks and enact healing and repair. 

 This story may be best known to us through the term “tikkun olam,” repair of our (broken) world – an idea that has become adopted into contemporary Jewish life and discourse.  While the tikkun olam teaching is most often linked to social action and social justice, Luria’s original teaching involved two shatterings and two types of repair – tikkun ha-olam (repair the larger world) and tikkun hanefesh (repair of our soul.) 

It is the aspect that addresses the brokenness of our souls that I wanted to lift up for this man who came to me in pain and for all of us this evening. 

 According to Rabbi Luria, at the very heart of Creation – of the origin of all life—is a shattering, a breaking.  Brokenness is literally part of the fabric of life, woven into our experience of the world.  I find this unflinching acceptance of brokenness -- seeing it as intrinsic to creativity and to life-- as incredibly comforting.  Instead of feeling isolated, we can gather strength from knowing that brokenness is instead just part of the human experience.  There is no person that is immune from it; there is no person who has not experienced some kind of fracture in their own lives, some kind of disconnect.  This is simply how it is. 

Offering this teaching, I turned to the man in my office and said: “The question is not “Why is there brokenness and suffering in our world,” rather: “How are we to deal with or respond to those broken places in our hearts and souls?  How might we find healing and wholeness?”  

These questions are universal – yet they also feel so particular to this day, Yom Kippur and even more so, Kol Nidre night.  The contemporary poet Merle Feld says that on Kol Nidre, we stand before God “naked,” “without disguise, without embellishment.”  With the vulnerability that comes from entering into the holiest day of the year, a day of self-examination and truth telling, comes a sense of honesty about the places of pain and hurt in our lives.  Even those who consider ourselves lucky or blessed, whose days are more happy than frustrating, may come to synagogue on Yom Kippur full of memories of losses and disappointments experienced over the course of our lives.  Tonight is a time in which we can more readily tap into our own brokenness. 

By “brokenness,” I mean any kind of loss, pain, struggle, or disappointment.  They are, as Estelle Frankel, a Jewish therapist and author, says: “times when our lives, as we have known them, are shattered by the intrusion of fate or disappointment.”  These shatterings could include the loss of a loved one, whether recent or decades ago; traumatic experiences we have suffered through in our life; strained or lost relationships; loss of possessions or hope; rejection in all its forms; pregnancy loss or struggles with infertility; divorce or separation; ongoing struggle with illness of oneself or a loved one; disappointments at our sense of “success” or “accomplishment” for our lives. 

We are also affected by the brokenness that exists in our society, including homophobia, transphobia, the breakdown of civility in our culture; the brokenness in Washington DC. 

 I want to take a moment of pause here and invite you to think about what is in your heart tonight, what you are bringing with you, what brokenness you are holding tonight – perhaps something I mentioned or didn’t mention.

 Perhaps one of the reasons we feel safe to feel and acknowledge our brokenness on Kol Nidre is because Jewish tradition itself gives space and honor to our broken places. There are powerful Jewish teachings that instruct us not to run away from our pain or our lost longing, not to try to hide our brokenness – rather to embrace it and to wrest meaning and blessing out of it.  In fact, some teachings even indicate that the way toward healing and transcendence is through bringing our whole selves to God.  Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, a rebbe and spiritual teacher of the early 19th century aptly said: “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.”      

 There is a wonderful midrash, commentary/story on the torah, which illustrates this idea.  It is a teaching about the two sets of tablets the Israelites received on Mt. Sinai. 

First, we start with the story in our torah.  Let me paint the picture for you:  The Israelites – newly freed from slavery -- are wandering in the wilderness for over a month.  As you may remember, these former slaves are not the easiest group to please.  Moses has gone up to Mount Sinai to commune with God.  Well, a bit too much time goes by and Israelites get restless and decide to take matters into their own hands.  They demand that Aaron build an idol for them – a calf made from the jewelry taken out of Egypt.  What does Aaron do? He acquiesces!  I invite you to see it in your mind’s eye: Here are the dancing, idolatrous Israelites, utterly unprepared for the commandments they are about to receive. 

Soon, their merry-making becomes known to God and not surprisingly, God becomes very, very angry.  Moses also learns what happened and begins to plead on behalf of the Israelites, begging God for mercy and understanding.  God finally gives in to Moses’ pleas.  Now, Moses heads down to his people.  Then, Moses goes down – and as soon as he sees the terrible scene-- his compassion disappears and his anger is stirred.  Seeing the Israelites’ baseless behavior, he hurls the two tablets onto the ground, smashing them into pieces. 

After some time & reconciliation, God asks Moses to carve out two new stone tablets for the people.  

It is noteworthy that the torah—normally full of great details—does not say anything about what happens to the first set of tablets.  We are left to wonder: In the wake of that dramatic moment, what happened to those shards?  Did someone clean them up and throw them away? Were they left on the ground?  Buried?         

The silent spaces in the torah are of course, fodder for the interpretation of later generations.  With incredible insight, the rabbis of the Talmud tell us that the broken tablets were placed in the ark alongside the two new tablets.  And these two sets of tablets, both broken and whole, traveled with the people into the Promised Land.

What an incredible image – what an evocative teaching!  It is my understanding that our ancient rabbis were not trying to simply solve the problem of a textual oversight.  Rather, the rabbis were teaching us a profound message about brokenness, about mistakes, about shame, saying:  Do not bury your broken places.  Instead, you should honor them.  Our rabbis tell us the Israelites put the broken pieces (it could have been hundreds of them!) into the aron hakodesh—the holy ark – the most sacred place for the wandering nation, the place in which we found connection with the Divine.  We cannot give them any more seat of honor than to be right next to (or as some commentators say, as the foundation for) the whole tablets, the instruction of the law.  It is as if to say: Our broken places are part of us – cherish them and hold them with loving care.

This is a teaching that deeply moves and touches me. I know that when I am confronted with the broken, unseemly parts of myself, parts I am ashamed of – my natural inclination is to try to bury them or put them aside.  I am guessing I am not alone.  How many times have we pretended to be “ok” when we are not? How many times do we bury our own feelings of pain or hurt, not giving ourselves the permission to accept, acknowledge our feelings?  Yet, according to the wisdom of this midrash, this act of burying our pain, burying our hurt does not serve us and does not serve God.  Instead we are to treat them with tenderness, to honor them as real, authentic and integral to who we are. 

The ark becomes an embodiment of our own hearts-- that are whole in their brokenness.   

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a contemporary theologian, adds another dimension to this teaching on wholeness and brokenness. He adds to the Kotzker’s statement, saying: “There is nothing as whole as an OPEN broken heart.”  Rabbi Greenberg here addresses a powerful truth: the broken places that we have experienced in our lives can be opportunities for blessings and healing, if we keep our heart open to them.

I want to be clear. The notion that the bad things that happen in our lives are given to us in order for us to learn from them or for some greater purpose is not an ideology that I ascribe to or want to promote.  I am not suggesting that the disappointments or tragedies in life occur for the purpose of instruction or testing.  This does not, in my mind, negate our ability to learn from them, to grow from them, even to wrest from them a blessing. 

As Parker Palmer, a contemporary teacher and writer, says, “Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.  Knowing this give me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours – need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.” 

Many people know that I lost my father, quite suddenly, 12 years ago.  My father had just turned 60.  Until a few months before, he had never had any serious health issues.  He was being treated for heart disease but died from a rare allergic reaction to a medication, given to him in the course of that treatment.  Just like with so many of the tragic events that have happened in the lives of people in this room, there are no words to adequately describe the enormity of sadness, regret, longing that surround my father’s death. 

Within the experience of profound loss and grief, I also experienced incredible moments of blessing.  I vividly remember how, on the first day of shiva, the president of my father’s Brith Shalom lodge (whom I have never met) took me aside and told me how my father spoke so proudly of his daughter, the future rabbi.  My father died just weeks before I was beginning rabbinical school, and while I sensed his happiness, I also knew that as a more assimilated Jew without much Jewish background, he didn’t necessarily understand my religious and spiritual fervor.  I never heard him express his pride to me directly.  In a fleeting moment, this man gave me a gift that will literally last me a lifetime.  Another blessing was seeing how much my father’s gentle presence impacted people – including the people who worked at the front desk of the tennis club where my father played on Sundays – who somehow found out about his death and made the time to attend his funeral in order to express their own grief, shock and sadness.  Another blessing, was hearing my mother speak for the first (and probably last) time in public, sharing words, broken up by tears, at my father’s unveiling. 

Above and beyond the blessings I received from others, my father’s death was also a great spiritual opening for me.  During that year, I gave myself over to my grief – I just let it wash over me.  There were not enough times in the day I could cry or talk or cry again.  Wearing the patience of close friends and even family, I found myself alone with my feelings.  So, I imagined that God was an accompanying presence and I began to talk aloud as if to a friend. Without realizing it or intending it or willing it, I found myself supported by an unseen Source of Support and Comfort. This experience was transformative – and I only think it was possible because I was in such an open, vulnerable space.

I share my story as an invitation to find blessings in the many forms they can come to us, even and perhaps especially in moments of pain or struggle.  Often, the blessings are found in the comfort of family or friends or unexpected sources of support.  Sometimes the blessing is in finding forgiveness, of self and of others, that helps us heal ourselves or a broken relationship. Sometimes the blessing might be finding a spiritual opening.  Perhaps the blessing is finding the inner resources and courage we didn’t know we had to deal with a past or ongoing struggle. 

In the paradigm of Rabbi Luria and the shattering he describes, the moments in which we can lift up from darkness light, finding blessings in our pain or wisdom through hard times, are moments of tikkun hanefesh, healing of our souls.  When we forgive ourselves or others, when we find wisdom and strength even in the midst of struggle, we can lift up those broken shards and make them holy once again.  This is a window to healing and to transformation.     

The possibility of tikkun is present every day, but perhaps especially on these Days of Awe.  These days of Awe have real, significant power and promise.  They offer us the chance to go deep inside ourselves, reflect, and redirect.  It is said that we can remake ourselves during the 10 Days of Teshuvah-- that we can truly begin again or change the course of direction of our lives.  These are days that can wake us up from our spiritual slumber and rattle us into awareness and into action.  If we take the call of these days seriously, we might yet be transformed.    

So, I ask us, all of us with broken hearts or broken souls or struggles that we wrestle with or memories of loss that we hold – I ask us:  Can we make our heart into an aron hakodesh, a holy ark, which has the capacity to hold darkness and light together, broken and whole together?  Can we seek blessing in challenge?  Can we imagine, even visualize, what healing might look for us, in this coming year?  Who might we need to forgive, ourselves included, in order to lift up the fallen spark?  What pathways might we need to create for ourselves to move forward on a journey of healing? 

As I asked the man who visited me a few weeks ago: The question is not why is there brokenness, rather what are going to do with that brokenness?  How are we to deal with or respond to those broken places in our hearts and souls? 

I hope and pray that on this Yom Kippur, a day of reconciliation, we can embrace our broken places and seek healing.  

May all of us – our whole selves – broken and whole pieces together – be honored.  

May our broken hearts become open to wisdom, strength, and blessing. 

May we be inscribed for a year – and a lifetime—of broken wholeness, of healing and transformation.

Shofar as a Wake-Up Call: Gun Violence & Inequality

posted Oct 9, 2012, 10:53 AM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Sermon on Waking Up: Gun Violence & Inequality

Rosh Hashanah 5773, Rabbi Lauren, Kol Tzedek


 “Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! 

O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! 

Search your deeds and turn in Teshuvah….

Look to your souls and better your ways and actions.[1]   


Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish commentator, wrote these words about the SHOFAR, reflecting on the power and potency of this humble hollow instrument.

 According to Maimonides, it is as if the Shofar cries to us: Yo!!!!  Stop sleeping!  Wake up!  Today, on Yom HaDin -- The Day of Judgment -- it’s time to face some difficult truths!  It’s time to awaken to what we may be consciously or unconsciously ignoring!  It’s time to examine our own actions and inactions!  It’s time for us to change our path so that we are better serving God and Truth.

This Rosh HaShanah, as the shofar is sounded, I am aware of what I hard truths I am awakening to.  For through the very process of preparing for the High Holidays, I have found myself in the midst a “wake-up call,” which is shaking me out of my complacency and calling me into action.  Today, I want to share that wake-up call with you.

 My journey toward waking up began on July 21.  I was staying with the kids at my mom’s house the evening before.  When I woke up the next morning, my mother told me about the shooting at the midnight showing of Batman in Colorado.  Jon, my husband, a fan of the recent Batman movies, had been planning to go to a midnight showing that opening night.  I breathed a sigh of relief – he didn’t go!  He was safe!   Now, even though there were no incidents in any Philadelphia movie theatre– the very idea of a mass shooting 1700 miles away from us was enough to shake me up to the idea that I could lose him in a split second.  The randomness of the violence, the idea of innocent people doing the most American thing possible – watching a Hollywood Blockbuster -- just all seemed so crazy and unbelievable.  I joined with much of the nation in the shock of this tragedy.

And then, the summer continued and the shootings continued.  A terrible assault motivated by hate and ignorance left six members of a Sikh religious community dead. Then, on August 24, a disgruntled former employee fired a gun in the middle of Manhattan, shooting eight people and killing one.  Three days later, a Baltimore, Maryland boy opened fire on the first day of school.

 The fact that these incidents occurred so close in time, compounded by the complete silence of either presidential candidate on the issue of gun control, propelled my desire to address the growing violence in one of my talks on the High Holidays. 

 My initial focus turned to the proliferation of guns in our country, the easy access of guns and of course, the illegal sale of guns that enables those with criminal backgrounds, mental illness, or who are underage to acquire firearms.  In that process, I learned some harrowing statistics.  There are nearly 90 guns for every 100 people in this country.[2]  More than 30 people are shot and murdered each day, half of them are between the ages of 18 and 35.  In Philadelphia, on the average, at least one person has been murdered every day over the last 25 years — and more than three-quarters of them have been killed with a gun.[3]      

 But  in my search, something happened – something moved me, challenged me, even changed me – that was learning about – understanding --the interconnection of gun violence and inequality.  The way in which these two toxic aspects of our society (easy access of guns and vast economic and racial inequalities) co-mingle, creating a society that ignores, devalues, and abandons poor and minority communities. 

One article, a commentary by Gary Younger in The Nation, written in the aftermath of the Aurora shootings was particularly enlightening and instructive.  Younger critiques the culture of “shock” in relationship to gun violence in America, saying that while violence like the massacre in Aurora is abhorrent, it is not at all shocking or random.  Violence and death due to guns is part of the fabric of our country – it happens all the time, every day, it’s just that we don’t necessarily hear about it. 

 Younger notes that the night after the Aurora shooting, twenty two people were shot, three fatally, in Chicago.  The Philadelphia organization GunCrisis, which through photos and journalism, brings to light the seemingly ceaseless violence in our city, noted that in the four weeks after Aurora, there were more than 115 victims of gun violence in Philadelphia– and there were more than 140 shootings in the city of brotherly love in the month of August alone.

Younger debunks the notion that guns and gun access is the only thing responsible for the violence of our society.  He points out there are other countries with a high number of gun ownership --countries like Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland-- that do not have a high number of gun murders.  Younger writes, “What links America’s high concentration of guns and relatively high level of gun deaths are the country’s high levels of inequality, segregation and poverty.” 

In his article, Younger says words that sting with painful truth: “There are places in America where you are supposed to be safe—shopping malls, suburban schools, cinemas – and there are places where people are expected to be vulnerable: poor black and Latino neighborhoods.  The possibility of arbitrary death…is just understood as the price you pay for being black or Latino in America.” 

The experience of reading this and really taking it in – was like having a loud, piercing tekiah gedola sounded right in my ear. 

Here I was in disbelief about a movie theatre shooting—which of course was terrible and heinous —but I didn’t know about those crimes that happened in my own city, not to mention other cities, in the days and weeks following.  One of the reasons I decided to live and raise a family in the city is so that I specifically wouldn’t be sheltered from these truths -- How could I so easily tune out and keep segmented the realities that are so close to me – literally, just a few blocks away from where I live, shop, walk, pray?

Admittedly, the reality of violence and its pervasiveness in our city and the country is not “new information.”  I do live in Philadelphia after all, the most violent city in the country.  I even had direct exposure to some of what goes on every day through pastoral work at The Hospital of University of Pennsylvania which I did after graduation from rabbinical school.  During the monthly overnight visits, I saw teenagers coming in with bullet wounds.  I was there with families who were arrived to learn that their son or brother or father had been shot and was going into emergency surgery which may or may not save them.  And since then, from the safety of my own home on 45th Street, I have heard noises coming from a close distance, and hoped upon hope that they were fireworks or a car backfiring but knowing that was likely not the case. 

 Yet, there is a difference between “knowing” – with my mind -- and “knowing” with my heart and soul.  It is the difference between on the one hand, having some nebulous understanding of a national problem and on the other hand, being present with the magnitude of what’s happening day to day, being affected by the stories and by the tragedy of it all. It is letting my heart open to the pain of sons and daughters lost, of hope lost.

I want to share a story I heard over the last few weeks which was particular affecting. Marla Davis Bellamy, director of CeaseFire PA, tells a story that speaks to the brokenness of a society in which violence is normalized.[4]   She describes the scene a case worker witnessed while hanging signs on a street in North Philly.  It was a nice summer day, people were sitting on stoops and about 100 kids were playing on the playground.  Suddenly, a young man took out a gun and opened fire.  All the kids ducked.  When the shooting stopped, the kids simply got up and started playing again—like nothing had happened at all.  Not a single parent or guardian came out to take their child inside, not a single child ran home to take comfort or protection from an elder.  No person reacted as if this was anything out of the ordinary.   Can we imagine if such a thing happened at Clark Park?  

 Another story that touched me deeply was the story of Kianna Burns, a teenager who spoke in an interview on Radio Times about witnessing her father’s murder (which happened as he intervened to break up a fight involving her brother) and who herself was shot in the leg trying to escape the incident.  Despite the gruesome details of the story—of which I will spare you – what hit home most was her sharing how she is afraid to leave her house because of the violence that surrounds her .  She travels to and from school, still hoping to graduate, but other than that—she stays at home as much as possible.  It is near impossible for me to imagine that a young person –who should be hanging out with her friends and doing what teenagers do – feels that she can only “make it out alive” is if she stays inside as much as possible. 

Coming to a new understanding and opening my heart to these and other stories, -- I have woken up.  And I am angry.  I am angry that I live in a country in which people are dying every day, kids fear for their lives, and safety is elusive.  I am ashamed and upset that I, an educated, progressive person who cares about inequality, can live in such blissful ignorance of my own privilege, that I can so easily ignore this problem.  I am deeply pained that we live in a society where poverty is a predictor of not only your future success but of your future survival. 

 And at the risk of being hutzpadik, I think that all of us should also be angry --and pained and saddened by what goes on just a few blocks from where we are sitting and all over our city and our country.  We should be angry that teenagers use guns because they feel they have no other way.  We should be disturbed by the fact that our media mourns shootings that are deemed “out of the ordinary” but doesn’t take special note of the day after day murders that happen in poor and primarily African-American neighborhoods.   

 We should be saddened by the fact that children are “accustomed” to the sounds of gunshots and the rituals of funerals.  In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.  Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.”[5]

But this is not where the wake-up call ends. This is where call begins.  Being angry or frustrated or pained or dissatisfied can be a good thing – but only if it spurs us into action, only if we choose to take those raw emotions and channel it for something that is better.  

 This is, in fact, what Maimonides teaches us about the shofar.  He says that the piercing blast of the shofar call to us, beckoning:  Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep!  O you slumberers, awake from your slumber!  Search your deeds and turn in Teshuvah….Look to your souls and better your ways and actions.   The call of the shofar is actually twofold: the first call is to wake up: the second call is to turn our wakefulness into action.  We are to look to our souls, to discern what it is that we can do, and to better our ways and actions.  

In the spirit of this teaching and in the hopes that we can turn and better our actions, I want to offer some direction for how we might stay awake and engaged in the coming year and beyond. 

 It may sound simple, but in order to stay awake, we need to know what is going on in our city.  If we do not educate ourselves and stay informed, it will be easy for the violence in our city to fade again into the distance. 

 Through this process of discernment and education, I learned about an invaluable resource for keeping me informed. GunCrisis.org, through photos and daily updates and analysis, documents the crisis of gun violence in Philadelphia, filling in the gaps in the media’s coverage of the problem.  Using awareness as a tool, we can speak out and challenge the culture of our media which deems some events “tragic” while others not even “newsworthy”.  We can let our voices be heard against both the proliferation of guns (especially illegal guns) in our society and about the interconnection of gun violence and inequality.  When an incident happens around the country, we can name the truth that gun violence is not a “random event” but a crisis that threatens the lives of our young people and diminishes our future.

Being aware of the problem is an important step, being aware of solutions is even more vital.  It behooves us to know about and to support people and organizations that are making a difference.  Through this process, I have learned about organizations like CeaseFirePA, which aims to stem the tide of gun violence in Philly’s 22cd district, the most violent in the city, and to raise awareness of this issue on the city and state level.  A month ago, I didn’t even know about this organization; now, I plan on giving my support financially and through participating in the advocacy work they do. Supporting those who are doing work in the field to seek peace and change communities is integral way we can stay awake and engaged on the issue.  As our tradition teaches, giving tzedakah is not an act of charity – it is about using our resources to balance out the scales, to move us toward a more just (Tzedek) and equal.

Perhaps most importantly, we can also join with others to address the problems in our neighborhoods and communities.  In particular, we can connect with Heeding God’s Call, a Philadelphia organization made up of churches, synagogues, and mosques, whose mission is “to inspire hope, raise voices, and take action to end gun violence.”[6]  After a spike in violence or a particular incident, members of Heeding God’s Call will go out to the spot in which the homicide took place and literally stand witness, in order to both humanize the losses that happen day after day and to draw media attention to these underreported crimes.

I did not know when I started to write and share my story that the High Holidays this year bookends International Peace Day, which is this coming Friday, September 21.  In honor of this international day, Heeding God’s Call is holding a ‘Walk and Witness Against Gun Violence.’  There will be a gathering in this neighborhood of West/Southwest Philly and joining in prayer, song, and silence at Cedar Park – just two blocks from Calvary!—They will be marching to at least two of the sites of local shootings and lighting candles for all 242 murder victims that have taken place so far in 2012.  I plan to be there – and I hope you will join me.  While standing witness to those who died will be harrowing, I imagine seeing people join together across religious, racial, and economic lines will be heartening and inspiring.

 I anticipate what some of you may be thinking:  Rabbi Lauren, even these actions will not truly alleviate the crisis in our city and our nation.  This problem is too complicated, too entrenched for us to really make an impact.  I definitely understand this concern.  And I feel that fatigue that comes when looking at problems that seem beyond what I can do to fix.

 But, in the face of the enormity and intractability of injustice and inequality, I take comfort and inspiration from the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, who said: “Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?  Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally; not only publicly, but also privately; not only occasionally, but regularly. What we need is the involvement of every one of us as individuals.”  

As Heschel points to: it is not the task of someone else “over there” to change what needs to be change: it is our task.  To remember that it is not someone else’s responsibility to care for our neighbor: it is our responsibility.  To recognize that while we cannot necessarily complete the task, we are not free to abandon it.[7]   

 This year, when we hear the piercing blasts of the shofar:

 Let us awaken out of our sleep!  May we be able to fully listen, to be present with what is difficult and challenging in our city and in our world so that we can be true and faithful witnesses.  

 Let us look at our souls and turn in Teshuvah!  Let us look inside and consider what each one of us can do to better our neighborhood, our city, our world.  Let us turn toward the problem and not away from it.

 Let us examine our deeds and better our ways!  Let the shofar blast be a clarion call to action.  May those actions, no matter how seemingly small, inspire us, our neighbors, and our community.  May this Rosh HaShanah be a year of blessing, of equality, justice, and peace for all who dwell on earth. 

[1] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4

[2] Gary Younger, “With Aurora, Another Mass Killing Shocks America. Why? The Nation, July 25, 2012.

[3] Guncrisis.org

[4] Interview on Radio Times, August 24, 2012

[5] Martin Luther King, “Where do we go from here,” Speech to Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967

[7] Pirke Avot 2:21

Is this Not the Fast I Desire: Justice & Voter Rights

posted Oct 9, 2012, 10:47 AM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

Is this Not the Fast: Justice & Voter Rights

 Yom Kippur 5773/2012

Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann  

Just a few moments ago, we heard the powerful and stirring words of Isaiah.  Isaiah, like many other Hebrew prophets, stands aside and above the community, able to see the faults of the nation and from that place, calls those who are not heeding God’s ways to task.  In our text, Isaiah sees a community of people who may be accomplishing the rituals they are supposed to perform but who are violating the ethical dimension of God’s law.  He specifically highlights the way in which a community is oppressing those who are less vulnerable and society and gives them the clear reminder that their role as religious people stretches well beyond the gates of their own home.  The fast that God desires is one in which we share our resources, where we look upon the most vulnerable in society, those who are threatened by outside forces and to help offer protection.


Every year, when we hear Isaiah’s words, it is a reminder to us that the religious and the ethical are united and that the Jewish sacred tradition places responsibilities and obligations onto us, to help ameliorate the oppression that is happening in our society and to work toward a just society.  Then, as Isaiah famously says, then our light will burst forth like the dawn, then we will cry out and God will say: Hineni, Here I am!

In the passage we read on the holiest day of the year, Isaiah speaks about this obligation in terms that may be familiar to us and that have resonances in other parts of our tradition—giving bread to the hungry, clothing the naked, offering shelter.  But he also speaks about a broad vision for justice: unlocking the chains of wickedness, loosening exploitation, freeing the oppressed.  Isaiah reminds us that our obligation is to both to help and to transform.


Isaiah’s prophecy also reminds us – perhaps even more so in a world without prophets or prophesies—of our obligation to call out the injustices we see happening in our society.  The injustice that I want to highlight and think together about for a moment or two – and what I perceive Isaiah might come to talk to us about if he were alive this Yom Kippur – is the oppression happening in our society through the vehicle of voter suppression.  Across our country, (currently still on the books in 23 states) a series of strict laws have been introduced and in many cases, upheld, across the country, to require photo IDs with current addresses, in order to vote in November.    

At first glance, this doesn’t sound like an egregious thing.  I do not necessarily believe that all efforts to stop voter fraud are necessarily oppressive or that there may not be some way in the future to figure out a just system that could work.  But, these laws (which have been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike) were pushed through swiftly – without plan to make sure that everyone eligible to vote can vote, without the time necessary to give the information and distribute a proper ID to those.  As has been discussed over the news and even in the mouths of politicians, it does not appear so coincidental – for who might be affected – seniors, minorities, students have particular party leanings. Those that introduced these laws did not have democratic motivations, rather political, and partisan, motivations.   

Because of these laws, millions of people (including students, minorities, senior citizens, people with disabilities) will be deterred from voting or denied the ability to cast their ballot.  A new study,[1] published on September 12, states that with these voter ID laws, as many as 700,000 young minorities (under 30 years of age) would be unable to cast a ballot in November.  If the Pennsylvania law is upheld, it is estimated that 37,000-44,000 young minority voters will be impacted and experts state that up to 43% of eligible voters, or up to 1 million people, could be affected in our state alone.  If this many voters could be impacted in Pennsylvania, can we even imagine how many might be across the country? 


Another deeply troubling part of this new  initiative is that it reminds me of the ways in which voter suppression have been used in our country to keep people with less power from having a voice.  Even after African-Americans were granted the right to vote after Civil Rights, there were (and have remained) tactics of intimidation --both through legal and non-legal means-- aimed at keeping them from voting. It reminds me that people suffered and died in order to earn the right to vote for those who were denied – and make this a right of any citizen.

It is not a partisan stance to object to these laws.  Because taking away a person’s right to vote, the basic way we express ourselves in a free country, is a threat to our values and a threat to our democracy.  Because passing laws without offering a path of access is a form of injustice.


Isaiah the prophet told us to loosen the chains of oppression and to do what we could to ameliorate the inequalities we see.  In that spirit, I want to offer us a few suggestions as to how we might not only call out this kind of oppression but also work toward a more just outcome.

First, we need to register to vote & help to register others.  Second, we can work to help educate people about these laws and to help get out the vote.  Kol Tzedek is part of an organization called POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild.  POWER is very involved in this issue and we are working with them (and their national team PECO) on this issue.  They have information on those who may be at risk for this law and are helping congregations such as ours organize to educate community members and get out the vote.  


As we speak, the lower court judge is reviewing the PA voter ID law. Many, many briefs have been sent; much advocacy has already happened. It is now in the hands of this judge.  If the judge upholds this law, it is upon us to work diligently to offset the impact of the law—to help educate and get out the vote.  If the judge recognizes that the law places an unfair burden on people and would disenfranchise voters, yes, there will be a victory and a reason to celebrate!  Yet, even if this happens, (God willing), I want to still invite us to hear Isaiah’s voice ringing clear.  This is still a national problem, with laws upheld in many other states.  And, this issue will come up again, likely in the next election cycle in April. This is an invitation for us to be aware, diligent and pro-active.  


Further, the fact that the right to vote has been threatened in our state (and remains in other states) can still be a wakeup call to remember the preciousness of democracy and the need for us as Jews and allies to, in that spirit, help people access their vote by getting involved with turnout efforts for this important election.


This Yom Kippur, I pray that we be filled with the vision and gumption of Isaiah; that we remember our sacred duty as inheritors of this sacred tradition and that we find ways to ameliorate the inequalities in our society and work toward a future filled with justice. In the words of Isaiah: “Then our righteousness will travel before you, and the glory of the almighty will encompass you…  You will be like a well-watered garden, a spring whose waters never fail.”


Gmar Hatima Tova!                                                             


Finding Perspective, Hopefulness, and Inpsiration for a New Year Kol Nidre, 5772, R. Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

posted Nov 11, 2011, 11:31 AM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann   [ updated Nov 11, 2011, 11:31 AM by Zoe Cohen ]

Kol Nidre 5772/2011

Several weeks ago, my mother looked at me, and with a sense of intensity and urgency asked: “In your High Holiday sermon, can you talk about how to cope in such tough times?  About how to find hope and perspective when things feel so hopeless?” 

Something about my mom’s question-and her earnestness, the worry I could hear in her voice—stopped me and gave me pause to think.

Now, my mom doesn’t usually lobby me for sermon topics. In fact, I’m not sure she has even once, in ten years, offered a specific suggestion or idea.  So I knew that I needed to pay attention. 

Even more striking than my mother’s special request for the holidays was my immediate sense that she was not alone in her feelings of frustration, helplessness and hopelessness.  With unemployment remaining steadily at 9.8% nationally and 10.8% for Philadelphia and many more who are jobless; with federal, state, and local cuts to social and educational programs; with the gap between those who have and those who don’t have widening with each year; with the number of uninsured people (close to 50 million) on the rise and approaching its all time-high, with a global debt crisis which experts just this week warned were going to throw the U.S. back into recession, it understandable that we enter this High Holiday season with feelings of insecurity and worry.  It is easy to understand why people are Occupying Wall Street.  

Perhaps even worse than our troubled economy is the vitriol and gridlock in Washington, where ideology trumps service, where acrimony and political posturing dominate; where politicians seek to balance the budget on the backs of working and middle class.  As someone I spoke to the other day said, “It seems as if the corrupting influences of money and power are more intense than they have ever been before.”  In light of these global concerns, combined with our own personal struggles, I imagine that many of us may be wondering, as my mother is, how to cope in these times? How to find meaning and hope?

 Kol Nidre is the time when we pause from our daily lives, reflect on this past year and the year going forward, and seek meaning through our shared tradition.  How might the wisdom of our ancestors come to bear on our lives and help us shape a better future for us and our society?  What might our tradition have to teach us about where to find the strength, courage, and faith to move forward with our lives in a positive direction?  Kol Nidre is also the time we seek personal transformation.  Can we transform our anxiety and fear into perseverance; our hopelessness into hopefulness; our anger and frustration into determination?

 So I would like to answer my mom’s question—which is likely a question many of us share – by highlighting three aspects of Jewish tradition that help me find solace, strength, and courage when facing difficult times.   I share these because I believe these teachings can serve as spiritual resources for us, to help us find perspective, lift us up, and restore hope and inspiration as we enter the New Year. 

The First Teaching: Looking to Jewish History

There is a great Yiddish folktale that goes like this:

A poor man lives with his large family in a small hut. The noise and fighting is driving him crazy so he goes to the rabbi to help him solve his problem.  The rabbi asks if he has any animals and the man says, "Yes, some chickens, geese and ducks." "Bring them into the hut with you." The man is confused, but trusts in the wise rabbi and does what he says. With the chickens, geese and ducks in the small hut the noise only gets worse until the man has to go back to the rabbi. "Rabbi, I can't stand the noise! It's too much." "Do you have any other animals?" asked the rabbi.  "I have a goat." Says the man. "Bring the goat into your home." Again the man is confused, but does as the rabbi says.  Again the noise gets worse and the man returns to the rabbi and complains. "Rabbi, why did you tell me to bring the goat into my house? The noise is even worse than before!" "Do you have a cow?" the rabbi asks. Exhausted and frustrated, the man replies yes. Again the rabbi tells him to bring the animal into his home and again the poor man complies.

Time passes and the small hut is even more crowded and noisy than ever and finally the man goes back to the rabbi.  "Rabbi, I'm going crazy. There's no room and the noise is out of control!"  "Put the animals back outside."  Relieved, the man rushes home and puts the animals back into the yard. That night the man and his family have the most perfect night of rest. The next day he rushes to tell the rabbi.  "Rabbi," the man says, "I slept so well last night. I finally had some peace and quiet."  "Just remember," the rabbi replied, "When you think things are bad, remember: it could always be worse."

I love telling this story not only because of it is an entertaining way to teach a life lesson, but because it is a quintessionally/such a “Jewish” message.  Things can always be worse! Things have been worse!  When I look around at the circumstances around me that seem so dire, so disappointing, it is helpful to hear this lesson, (it could always be worse!) straight out of the mouths of Jews a century ago who in many ways had a much tougher time than we do today.  This kind of perspective helps me put my personal struggles and our societal ones into perspective, which in turn enables me to relax and breathe and have faith that “this too shall pass.”    

Being a part of Jewish history is not only a teaching that “things have been worse,” it is a reminder that over and over again, against all odds, Jews have survived incredibly dark and challenging times.  As Rabbi Robert Levin says, “The continued survival of the Jews alone is an argument against despair, a warrant for human hope.”  If the Jewish people have endured so much throughout our history and survived, so can we survive these challenges and come out stronger as individuals and as a people. This sense of perspective and hopefulness is articulated by Rabbi Toba Spitzer when she says, “It is helpful to me to place myself in the millennia-old course of Jewish history and ritual.  There have been such great highs and such devastating lows for our people, for the world, during the past few thousand years- and yet, our traditions have endured, our people as endured, as has the hope that perhaps this year will be the year when, finally, we human beings get it right.  This is the great gift of being part of such an ancient tradition. We have the long view, the understanding that the momentary highs and lows of history are not all that there is.”

Drawing on the strength of our ancestors does not make the problems of our world go away and may not even diminish them.  But, seeing the “long view” can help give us perspective, relieve some of our anxiety and worry, and strengthen us to face what needs to be faced. 


Teaching 2: The Theology of Perpetual Renewal

At their core, the High Holy Days are about the possibility of renewal.  That with the blank slate of the New Year and teshuvah, repentance, all things are possible.  That no matter how intractable something might seem, they can change.  That no matter how stuck we are in our lives, we can get un-stuck, we can find a new way. 

This concept, that the world renews itself every year, is part of a larger Jewish theology about the perpetual and ever-present possibility for change and redirection.  Not only every year, but every day.  In the morning service in our liturgy, we say “B’Tuvo M’chadesh B’chol Yom Tamid Ma’aseh v’reishit”: Every day the work of Creation is renewed.  Our ancestors saw creation not as a singular act, rather as an ongoing process.  If each day is entirely different than the next, therefore, each day, we have an opportunity to start all over again.

Further, our tradition expands, not only is every day new, but each moment is full of unknown possibilities.  Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, a Hasidic master, teaches [on the verse “Kol HaNeshama T’Hallel Yah: Every Soul or Breath Praises God”] that we are renewed, with each and every breath.  According to Levi Yitzhak’s interpretation, each moment we breathe is an opportunity to experience teshuvah, change or redirection and therefore, at each moment, we can become new creatures.  Can we imagine if we truly took this teaching to heart and saw every breath, every moment full of possibility and newness?!  That things can change at any minute, that those problems in our lives and those problems in our society that we think are intractable, impervious to change are simply not so. 

For me, this theology of change is an inspiration for radical hope. Why can’t this be the year where wars cease, where people act toward each other as if they are btselem elohim, made in the divine image? Why NOT? Why can’t this be the year that human beings get it together and begin to express their divine purpose, to love and to build, to cherish and to care for the stranger and one another?  Why is 5772 not the year when things shift and change?  

The concept of “Why not” is not simplistic or far-fetched.  I invite you to consider the incredibly dramatic changes that have taken place in our world in this past year.  Would anyone sitting in these seats last year have thought to themselves that this would be the year in which peaceful, non-violent, courageous protests would come to the Middle East, ousting oppressive regimes and paving the way for a new society affords dignity and freedom to its people? 

Would anyone have dreamt that these revolutions would have inspired Israelis to camp out in tents, on the wealthiest street in Tel Aviv, demanding economic justice and fairness in their country, leading to a mass protest that would involve close to half-a-million Israeli citizens, including Sephardi and Ashkenzi, Arab and Jewish, young and old to come together and demand change?  And could we have imagined that these acts would inspire a nascent movement being born in the United States right now?  (As we sit here, several Kol Tzedek members and other Jews and allies are observing Kol Nidre Services at Occupy Philadelphia and we wish them also a Shana Tova and G’mar Tov!)  

While we know the march toward sustainable and substantive change will be long and will involve some steps backwards as we move forwards, we can have hope, faith and trust that the road is leading toward greater freedom and equality for all.  As Martin Luther King so beautifully said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

On this Kol Nidre evening, when we seek to be transformed and to be uplifted, I invite us to consider taking this teaching into our hearts, that no matter how challenging things may seem, no matter how intractable, there is always the possibility for change, there is always a reason to hope. 

Teaching 3: The Power of our Individual and Communal Actions

One of the most inspiring parts of Judaism for me is the very fact that our people, our religion, three thousand years of history starts with one person.  One individual had a hunch, an intuition, a “calling” that things could be different. That people God could be accessed anywhere and everywhere, that people could be a blessing to others.  And from there, life as we knew it changed.  Whether Abraham was a “historic figure” is irrelevant; the idea that one person could change the world is a story worth teaching from generation to generation. 

 Further, what’s even better than one person changing the world?  People changing the world, together.  After all, the central narrative of the Jewish people is the story of the Exodus from Egypt.  Though Moses is a central organizer, the Exodus cannot happen without people who, though scared and afraid, find the courage to leave the narrow places and forge a new path. 

 This central Jewish narrative, which has been a source of inspiration for many liberation movements, has come to signify the power of people to rewrite their fate, to topple structures of power, and to change the course of things.  As Michael Walzer so beautifully says (a quote that I have taught from time to time): “We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibilities of politics and about is proper form: -first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that ‘the way to the land is through the wilderness.’ There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”

I want to share with you a story about people in our city coming together to make a difference.  It is the story of POWER, P. O. W. E. R., Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild, a new grassroots, faith-based organization, of which Kol Tzedek is a founding member.  Eighteen months ago, an organizer [from the national network of PICO/faith-based community organizations] came to Philadelphia and began talking to some religious leaders about the possibility of an organization in which people could lift up their faith and their values for the purposes of addressing and correcting the disparities and injustices in our city.  Thirty-five clergy decided to take a leap of faith and began identifying leaders in their congregations to be involved in this effort.  Soon, two-hundred and fifty leaders (which included several KT members!) received training in community organizing skills and were invited to have one-to-one conversations with members of their congregation about issues of concern to them.  By the fall of 2010, those efforts resulted in over 1,000 conversations with people about their fears and hopes for our city.  Through these conversations and meetings with experts, POWER leaders decided to narrow its initial focus to addressing joblessness, setting its ambitious goal for the promotion and creation of 10,000 new jobs in the next five years. 

Just two weeks ago, I, along with about 20 other Kol Tzedek members, attended the organization’s Founding Convention.  All my dreams and hopes for this event were surpassed.  As I approached Tindley Temple on Broad Street that evening, I saw bus after bus pulled up, dropping off dozens of passengers at a time. Entering the building, navigating my way through crowds of people, I saw people that truly represent the diversity of this city— of all religious, economic, racial, geographic lines.  As the crowds came pouring in, a gospel choir sang, people clapped their hands and reached out to each other in friendship. The night was filled with beautiful prayers, inspiring reflections, personal testimonials, and fiery speeches.  Every speaker, even Mayor Nutter (who was kept to a strict time limit and asked to make commitments to the organization) drew upon the sources of their tradition that point them to seek justice and righteousness.  It was, for me, a holy experience.  

In total, about two thousand people were gathered in that church that night.  Two thousand!  That just doesn’t happen in Philly, right?!  Two thousand people acknowledging the problems our city is facing and lift up solutions that we can accomplish together.   Two-thousand people recognizing that we cannot accomplish anything unless we join together toward common goals.  P.O.W.E.R. is now poised to make positive changes in our city.  But just as our tradition instructs, power lies in people coming together to make a difference.  Our actions matter.  P.O.W.E.R will only be successful if those people in all 40 member congregations participate in bringing the organization’s agenda forward.  Kol Tzedek is part of this effort.  On this night, when we contemplate the direction of our lives in the coming year, I want to challenge each of us to get involved with this effort —attend or plan an action, do one-on-one relationship building for example.  Regardless of our time and resources, we can all find ways – big or small—to get involved.  By doing so, we can live up to our name, “Kol Tzedek: Voice of Justice.”  By doing so, we can help make Philadelphia, as the P.O.W.E.R. slogan says, “a city that works for everyone.”


I want to conclude with a prayer from Rebbe Nachman of Bretzlov and a wish for all of us for the New Year:

 Architect of the world, author of her story,

Grant me the courage to participate in the world’s design,

To join in the unfolding of her story.

How I want to share in the responsibility of this world—

To pray for her welfare, to care for her needs, to safeguard her treasures,

To work for her rectification.

            --Rebbe Nachman of Bretzlov

 May this year be filled with courage and hope.  May we be granted the ability to see the long-view, the understanding that renewal and change are always available to us and the world, the confidence to see that our actions matter, the courage to join with others to an unknown promised land and the perseverance to keep doing what needs to be done, day in and day out, to heal ourselves and our world.


What I Learned About Teshuvah from a Pre-Schooler: Rosh HaShanah 5772

posted Nov 8, 2011, 12:28 PM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann   [ updated Nov 8, 2011, 12:28 PM by Zoe Cohen ]

7 Things I learned about Teshuvah/High Holidays from a Pre-Schooler

            Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Rosh HaShanah 5772


Shana Tova!  It is wonderful to see so many new and returning faces here at Kol Tzedek.  This year, the holidays feel especially like a time of reconnection and reunion.  As many of you know, Jon and I welcomed our second child, Nadiv, on June 30 who joined big sister Aviel, who turned four in September.   

 Every year, as we move toward a new year and a new High Holiday season, I am amazed and awed by the majesty and power of these sacred days.  Tradition asks us, every year, to dig deep inside our souls so that we can return to being the best and most authentic versions of ourselves.  We are asked to forgive and to be forgiven, to turn ourselves into new directions.  We are reminded that anything is possible for ourselves and our communities in the New Year.

In the course of my rabbinate and my life, I have studied many beautiful and inspiring texts and prayers about the meaning of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, and about teshuva, the process or reflection, renewal and change that is at the heart of these days.  Yet, I always find that I learn the most about teshuvah and the power of the High Holidays from experiences in my life.  Three years ago after the first year of my daughter’s life, I shared some of the “torah” that I learned about the Days of Awe from my first year of parenting. This year too-- perhaps because I spent the months leading up the holidays focused on family – I found myself coming back to lessons I learned about Teshuvah from parenting-- this time, from parenting a curious, intelligent, and willful pre-schooler.     

I share these stories and lessons because I believe that in the particular, we can sense the universal; because I believe these stories can help illuminate different aspects of the High Holidays and invite us to imagine what is possible for us in the New Year. Here are 7 lessons I have learned about Teshuvah & the High Holidays from a pre-schooler:

1.      Live with Awe

 One of the great joys, I find, about parenting a pre-schooler is going to fun places like the zoo, the science museum, the aquarium.  One of the less joyful aspects of parenting is going to these places over and over and over again.      

Recently, my daughter and I went to the Camden Aquarium to see, among other things, the giant hippos.  She was very excited.  I was less so, in part because we have seen those hippos probably at least 20 times and let’s be honest: they don’t do all that much but sit there.  When we entered into the hippo area and she caught sight of one of those ginormous creatures, she shouted with joy, as if it were the first time she ever saw them: “YAY! The hippos are out! Look!  Look! They are so cool!”  I took a breath, looked at those hippos, and remembered how awesome they are indeed.

 Rosh HaShanah is also called HaYom HaRat Olam, the day the world was birthed into being.  On this day, today, we celebrate the grandeur of creation, the beauty of our earth, and the awesomeness of every living being on this planet.  Rosh HaShanah is an invitation into seeing the world with “radical amazement,” to offer a phrase by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.     

Children seem to naturally intuit an awareness of the greatness of Creation, the wonder of the tiniest bug and the majesty of the largest creatures.  We grown-ups may have moments of such awareness, but often are distracted with the busy-ness of our lives to notice or we allow things we see regularly to become “ordinary.”  Today, our ancestors taught, is the anniversary of the world’s birth.  But just as our tradition teaches that creation was not a onetime event, rather an ongoing act, we have the opportunity on this New Year to experience awe and wonder, not only today but every day. 

 2.      Know when to say “no.”

About a year ago, I took Aviel and her first cousin to Dutch Wonderland, an amusement park. Now let me explain: Alexa, Aviel’s only first cousin, is 18 months older than her, and in Aviel’s eyes, can do no wrong.  Everything that Alexa does, Aviel wants to do.  Everything that Alexa says, Aviel repeats. You get the idea!  Now, at Dutch Wonderland, Alexa, the older, adventurous cousin went on every roller coaster in the park!  Any ride she saw, she was willing to try.  Interestingly, Aviel, who would normally follow her cousin’s every move, was very clear: No roller coasters for me.  No matter how much pushing or prodding from her older cousin, she would not budge.  Not only did Aviel know her limits, she made no excuses or apologies.  She simply said “No.”

 Over the High Holidays, we examine where we have missed the mark. One of the ways we often “miss the mark” in life is in regards to our own boundaries.  I hear over and over again in my conversations with friends and Kol Tzedek members that saying “no” for many of us is exceedingly challenging.  Without negative intentions, we say “yes” when we mean “no” – often in order to make others happy, often because we really want to do something, yet we are not aware in the moment that our doing so will stretch us beyond what we can take on at a particular moment.  At this time of year, when we think about turning and moving in the right directions, can we be more in touch with our needs and our own limits?  Can we get back to or cultivate the honesty and self-acceptance of a three year old who knows how and when to say “no”?

3.      Face the Monsters.

 About six months ago, Aviel, who was normally quite easy to put to bed, suddenly became frightened and paralyzed at bedtime.  She cried and cried and would not let Jon or I leave the room.  “Aviel, what’s going on?”  “I’m scared.” she said.  I asked, “What are you scared of?”  She responded, “Monsters.” 

 Jon and I looked at each other, not quite sure how to respond.  After a second pause, I blurted out what I thought might comfort her (and what made sense to me as a rational adult), “Sweetie, there aren’t any monsters! There is nothing to be afraid of!”  

 Well, not surprisingly, that didn’t help!  In fact, it made things worse that night. After some more time and cuddling, we got her to sleep finally that night.  I then did what every thoughtful parent would do: I did a Google search! One site I trust read, “Never tell your children that there aren’t really monsters.”  Woops! I guess I missed the mark on that one!  It went on to explain that monsters are very real for young children.  When someone tells a child that there are no monsters, this only invalidates the child’s fear, rather than giving her resources to cope with them. 

 The next night, Aviel and I worked together to make a big, very clear sign on her door: “No Monsters allowed.”  We hung the sign on her door and talked to the monsters before she went to sleep. “Monsters! You are not allowed in Aviel’s room so please go away!”  We repeated this process every night for many weeks, adding other tricks that helped her sure up her courage.  While she is still afraid from time to time, she is learning to face her fears and becoming stronger because of it.

 We call these days in Hebrew “Yamim Nora’im,” “Nora’im” comes from the word “yirah,” which means fear.  These are fear-inspiring days in many ways.  Through the internal process of teshuvah, we are invited to look each for him or herself at what is holding us back from being who we are, from doing what needs to be done—what are we afraid of? Failure? Intimacy?  Lonlineness?  Can we face those fears for the sake of our growth and happiness?   

And on a very tangible level, the holidays are about facing the ultimate fear: the fear of death.  We see this in the imagery of the Book of Life and Death and when we wear a kittel on Yom Kippur, but perhaps this is most keenly felt when we recite the Untane Tokef prayer [we recited earlier]: which reads, “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die…”  Boom! There it is in front of us—the fear we often ignore or dismiss or deny-- the reality of our mortality and that of our loved ones.  It is truly scary to face the unknown, to come to terms with our vulnerability.  It is extremely hard to face the fears that get in our way.  But we have clear choice: We can choose to say “No monsters here!”  “Everything’s ok!”  Or we can look right at our fears, we can own them, and we can find the courage to face them.  And God willing, doing so will inspire us live our lives more fully and more intentionally.


4.      Use Your Words.

Aviel recently fell down a set of our steps and was both shocked and hurt.  After an initial few minutes of comforting and kissing boo-boos, I walked her over to the steps so she could tell the steps exactly how she felt about that. “I didn’t like that, steps!” she said emphatically.  When I first saw one of Aviel’s teachers doing this a few years ago, I thought this tactic – of communicating one’s feelings to inanimate objects-- was a bit funny and strange, yet I also saw it as an effective tool.  After all, we want our children to acknowledge and express their feelings.  We want to give them the tools to deal with hurts and injuries, physical or emotional, so that they can thrive in a world in which they will inevitably fall down, over and over again.

As I have coached Aviel to express her feelings, I have also become aware of how much I myself could benefit from this coaching.  I am sure I am not alone in this: how many times do we use our words wisely, do we speak our needs and feelings to the person who needs to hear them?  There are many situations in which instead of expressing our thoughts and feelings, we withhold.  Other times, instead of expressing to the one who has wronged us we might turn to others and engage in LaShon HaRah, gossip.     

When we engage in teshuvah, we are asked to think about what we have done wrong, not only with our actions but also with our tongues.  On Yom Kippur, when we recite the Al Heyt prayer, a litany of our wrongdoings, there is a striking number that have to do with sins of speech.  All of these sins of speech can be contrasted with positive and direct speech that helps us express our feelings and experience connection.  This process of self-reflection and of confessional invites us to see what is possible if we were to use our words wisely.

5.      Forgive quickly.

A few weeks ago, Aviel was having a play date with her best friend Henry.  Aviel and Henry are very close and typically play very well together.  But this time, things were not going so well.  Henry took Aviel’s toy car; then he pulled her hair.  Aviel was livid.  I mean you should have seen her!  She put one hand over the other, stamped her feet, and screamed, “I’m mad!”  She then proceeded to walk away and tell me Henry wasn’t her friend anymore.  In about 10 seconds, Henry came up to Aviel and offered a simple apology.  Arms still crossed, enjoying her own drama, I wasn’t sure what she would do.  But she took a breath and said, “Ok.”  They held hands and continued with their play date. 

The heart of teshuvah is forgiveness: asking for forgiveness from others and oneself.  And while it is not a requirement to forgive others, it is encouraged to do so.  Not only for their sake, but for the sake of one’s own healing and wholeness.

Of course, the fights and arguments between three year olds are much more simple and straightforward than the fights and disagreements between adults.  Having someone take your toys is not the moral equivalent of someone lying to you or hurting you, for example.  Yet, I wonder: can we learn from young children who forgive as easily as they anger?  Who really can give someone who asks for it a blank slate, a new beginning?  Can we free ourselves by forgiving others?  


6.      Embracing the Passing of the Years

Aviel spent about 11 months counting down to her fourth birthday.  She would say “I’m three and a 1/4!”  Then, “I am three and a half!”  Then, “three and ¾!”  And my favorite, for the month of August, Aviel would tell friends and strangers alike, “I am three and eleven-twelfths!”  Now, she goes up to people randomly on the street and says, “Guess what? I am FOUR!” in the most excited voice, so that even the most disinterested stranger smiles. 

As Aviel was growing more and more excited to turn four, I noticed my own internal resistance.  To quote the great Fiddler on the Roof, “Sunrise, Sunset: Where is this little girl I carried?”  If these four years have passed this quickly, in the blink of an eye, pretty soon, she will be in college!  I am not ready!  Can we please press the PAUSE button?  Or at least slow motion?  And, if I am being completely honest, I was resistant not just for her but for myself.  If Aviel is four, that means I am getting up there too!       

Every year, without fail, Rosh Hashanah arrives and invites us to celebrate another year of the earth turning.  The holiday teaches us:  We cannot stop the clock, nor should we.  We can look to the past but what’s even better, we can make the most of our present and we can determine our future.  And further, why should we resist the passage of time when this year is full of possibilities that we cannot yet imagine?!  There is no going backwards, only forwards.  Embrace it with joy!       

7.      The Freedom to Choose.

As a parent of a pre-schooler, I am always providing choices.  Aviel, do you want a purple or pink shirt today? Do you want a banana or an apple for breakfast? Noodles or a hot dog for dinner?  Sometimes though, Aviel gets a different kind of choice.  For example, a few nights ago, at 7:30pm, Aviel wanted to play outside for an hour. I knew she needed to start bedtime soon. I made my offer: “Aviel, you can choose to play outside for 15 minutes or not play outside at all.”  With a sigh—and a grin—“Ok, I choose 15 minutes.”

Teshuva, in the aspect of turning and changing directions in our lives is a true affirmation of our free will as human beings.  We are not forever stuck in a particular pattern or habit; in a problematic relationship or work situation.  We are not victims of our situations.  We have the capacity to choose.   

Inevitably, there are many situations in which we do not exercise as much or maybe even any control over and sometimes the circumstances of our lives limit our choices, yet the message remains: we still have choices.  We can choose to be angry or resentful or we can choose to embrace and grow with our challenges.  We can choose to stay too long in the mode of self-pity or we can recognize that things just happen and it’s ok.  As Sylvia Boorstein, a Jewish teacher of mindfulness, writes, “The moment in which my mind acknowledges ‘This isn’t what I wanted, but it’s what I got’ is the point in which suffering disappears….Having given up the fight for another reality, it is free to allow space for new possibilities to come into view.”[i]  We have the power to choose. 


Over Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we repeat and sing these words from the Book of Lamentations: “HaShivenu Elecha V’Nashuva, Hadesh yameninu k’kedem. Return us, O Holy One, and we will return; renew our days as before.” 

K’kedem -- "as before," can also be interpreted as “like when we were young.”  Return us, Holy One, to the spirit of our youth.   This High Holiday season, may we be able to turn and return, to change and to choose, to grow and to learn, to accept and to love, to forgive and be forgiven, to bless and be a blessing, and let us say Amen.

[i]Sylvia Boorstein,  Happiness is an Inside Job.

Two Pockets: A Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5772

posted Nov 8, 2011, 12:16 PM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann   [ updated Nov 8, 2011, 12:16 PM by Zoe Cohen ]

Two Pockets, Erev Rosh HaShanah 5772

                                                                        Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

 Tonight, we begin the Aseret Y’mei Teshuva, the 10 Days of Repentance.  The mission of these 10 days is to enact change: to apologize and reconcile; to reflect and redirect; to renew ourselves and renew our commitments to others and to tikkun olam (healing our broken world).  The promise of these days is equally powerful.  In the words of the midrash:

“The Holy One said to Israel: Remake yourselves through teshuvah (turning or repentance) during the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and I will regard you as a newly made creature.”   

 When I think about the challenge and the possibility of these 10 days and of the promise of a New Year, I feel excited and hopeful.  At the same time, when I consider all that needs to be changed in myself and in the world, I also feel overwhelmed and intimidated.  I imagine that many of us approach these holidays with a similar mix of emotions.  On the one hand, we may say to ourselves, “This is it. This is the year that I am finally going to -- FILL IN THE BLANK: Exercise more, take better care of myself, spend more time with my loved ones, become more involved with a cause I am passionate about.  On the other hand, we may say to ourselves, “I have been coming to services on Rosh HaShanah services every year for 5, 10, 20, 50 years and I have never --FILL IN THE BLANK: Exercised more, taken up that hobby, reconciled with that family member, made that change in my life that I really wanted to.  So why bother trying? 

Most likely, we find ourselves somewhere in the middle.  We earnestly want to make change, but we know it is not easy and that we have not always been successful.  We genuinely seek to make a difference in our communities and the world, yet we recognize our time and energy is limited.  Given all of this, how do we make the most of these 10 days?   

Tonight, I want to offer a teaching that has helped me gain a sense of perspective and purpose through this season, that I hope will be meaningful to you.  It is the teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershycha, a hassidic leader and teacher of the 18th century. He taught: "Every person should have two pockets. In one, [there should be a note that says] bishvili nivra ha'olam, 'for my sake was the world created.' In the second, [there should be a note that says] anokhi k’afar va'efer, 'I am dust and ashes.' One must know how to use them, each one in its proper place and right time.”  It is said that Rabbi Bunem would take out each note as he needed, to help build his sense of worth or quiet his ego.  I want to invite us to consider what it might be like to try on this practice, at this most sacred time of year.

 “V’anochi K’afar v’efer: I am but dust and ashes.” 

 Written on one pocket are the sobering words from the Torah, “I am but dust and ashes.”  These words remind us of truths we might always want to face—that we human beings are mortal and that our days on this earth are short; that we are small in the face of the cosmos, that our actions are not as significant as we might hope them to be.  A stark reality. 

 Yet, in my mind, the affirmation of our lowliness and insignificance need not lead us to depression or self-negation, rather toward a stance of profound humility.  Martin Buber tells the story about a disciple who confessed to the Sage, “I try so hard to atone. I try to wrestle with temptation. I try but I do not succeed.  I remain mired in the mud of transgression.  Help me extricate myself from sin and to truly repent.”  The sage answered, “Perhaps, my dear friend, you are thinking only of yourself.  How about forgetting yourself and thinking of the world?”[i] 

 As Buber wisely communicates, this work of teshuvah is not all about you!  Stop beating your chest for your own wrongdoings, as if you were responsible for the world’s faults.  Remember, there is a greater universe out there to tap into and to work to heal. Recognizing our limitations can also help us put our lofty goals to change the world in some perspective.  Many of us, me included, take on the worries and the burdens of the world on our shoulders.  We want as Rebbe Nachman said so beautifully, “to participate in the world’s redemption.” 

Our desire to feed the hungry and fight injustice comes from a place of deep caring and concern. Yet, when our desire to heal our broken world comes into conflict with the limitations of our time and the intractability of society’s ills, we risk fatigue, frustration, and burn-out.  For me, looking into this pocket enables me to breathe again, to remember that I am just one person, doing the very best I can.  It helps me lift Herculean –like expectations off myself and others so that I can set realistic goals to make a difference in the best way that I can.   This slip of paper reminds us that we human beings are merely mortal, that we can only do so much.

Lest we end up feeling disparaged or despondent about the impact of our actions or the significance of our teshuvah, we turn to the other pocket, on which is written:

“Bishvili Nivra Ha’olam.”  For MY sake, the world was created.

Especially at this season the year, when we examine our deeds and try to turn toward the good, it is so affirming to hear these words: For my sake, the world was created. 

There is a midrash that I think demonstrates this message well:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: “An entourage of angels always walks in front of people, and messengers call out.”  And what do they say?” “They say, ‘Make way for the image of the Holy Blessed One.’”[ii]

Let’s consider this image: that the lofty, otherworldly angels have the distinct pleasure and honor of walking in front of us in order to announce our  God-like presence to others.  The angels, in this passage, serve us—and they announce our very worth, saying that each human beings is significant because each one is a manifestation of the Divine.  This story demonstrates, in my mind, the message of this second pocket.  Each one of us is created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine; each one of us is utterly unique and as such has something distinct and unique to contribute to the world. 

 The phrase on this pocket can give us confidence to recognize and utilize our unique talents and gifts toward tikkun, healing of self and healing of the world.  Moreover, it can remind us that we are capable of making the changes we need to make.  It doesn’t matter if we have made a mess of our entire life, we can turn it around.  It doesn’t make a difference if we have said we will change over and over yet haven’t, because this could be the year.  We have the resources within ourselves to do what needs to be done.  This is the teaching that invites us to dream big for ourselves and for this world for 5772 and beyond.  Who says we cannot profoundly make a difference?  If the first pocket instills in us the quality of “humility,” then this is the pocket of hutzpah!      

 Rabbi Simcha Bunem’s teaching ends with the instruction: “One should know how to use [the two pockets], each one in its proper place and right time.” When we are feeling down-hearted, down-trodden or insecure, Rabbi Bunem teaches, dig into this pocket and find these words: For My Sake the world was created!  When we feel like too much depends on us or notice our ego seeking gratification or assurance, we can dig into the other pocket and remind ourselves: I/we are but dust and ashes.   

 The ultimate goal of course is that we find a balance between these two extremes.  In this way, I can see the two pockets as two measures on either end of a scale.  When we have an excessive amount of humility so that it leads to self-negation or low-self esteem, we need to tip the scales to get back into balance. And when we have an excessive amount of ego and self-worth so that we lose sight of others or of God, we remind ourselves of the other truth, so we can restore that balance.  Ultimately, we seek a place of integration and wholeness so that we can walk in the world, full of a sense of self-worth, but also aware of our limitations, inspired with courage and hutzpah to take on what seems impossible while also filled with compassion for our own brokenness.   

 In honor of Rabbi Simcha Bunem and in honor of the work we are here to do over these holy days, I want to invite you to take home this practice.  And so, we will momentarily be handing out slips of paper with the words written on it: “For my sake the world was created” and “I am but dust and ashes.”  During these ten days—and maybe beyond—place these two slips of paper in your clothes or pants pocket and use them in the moments you need them.  Look into those pockets to inspire you to be bold and audacious and humble and aware.

 May we be blessed during these holy days and beyond to be able to examine our lives, to turn and return with honesty and with integrity, with humility and with hutzpah.  Shana Tova!         



[i] Martin Buber, Hasidism and Modern Man, page 162

[ii] Midrash Deuteronomy Rabbah, Reeh 4

Following God's laws: Creating a Just Society

posted May 27, 2011, 12:36 PM by Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann   [ updated May 27, 2011, 12:38 PM by Zoe Cohen ]

D’var Torah Parshat Behukotai 5771, May 21, 2011, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann

At the end of a long series of laws and instructions in which the Israelite people are instructed to be an “am kedusha,” “ a holy nation,”Moses gathers the people around and impresses upon them the seriousness of instructions that God has given them. 

“Im B’hukotai telechu, v’et mitzvotai tishm’ru va’asitem otam…”

“If you walk in God’s ways and observe these mitzvot and do them…” then things will go well with you: you will be granted blessing and sustenance, satisfaction, security and tranquility, peace and strength, and a sense of God’s presence. 

If you do not, well, let’s just say: things will not go well for you.  You will be spurned, cast down; you will suffer! 

Many people over the centuries have taken issue with this torah portion, with its conception of Divine reward and punishment and its chastisements.  I certainly agree believe there are theological assumptions in this text that we do not share and I recognize that the descriptions of the curses for non-compliance feels weighty and harsh. 

At the same time, this torah portion seems to be sounding an alarm—maybe a sort of shofar blast— with a message that we as a society need to hear, especially at this moment in time.  It is a message about the way we are to create and structure our society, about the way we are to treat one another-- and the blessings or curses that flow forth from our choices in this regard.

I read this passage as God calling forth the people, exasperated, with one more chance to get the message across, saying:

“YO!  Hey you!  Since you have left Egypt, I have been telling you over and over again how to live together, righteously.  Remember when I told you in no uncertain terms that ‘you should not oppress the stranger, the orphan or the widow?’  Remember all those times I told you to create dignified means by which people that have less can take care of themselves, like being able to go into the vineyards of those who are prospering and take what they need to survive and thrive, without fear?  Remember all those things that I have been telling you—if you do them, you are going to create a kind, compassionate society in which even those with less can experience some abundance.  But if you don’t, you are going to suffer and cause suffering.  I have given you the tools, now you choose.”

This message cannot be timelier than it is right now.  In the past few months, as the country has begun its efforts to rein in spending and states are trying to balance their budgets, we have seen an alarming trend of proposed and real cuts that affect the middle and lower classes, especially those who are most vulnerable: seniors, children, and the poor.  This situation has hit home especially in the past month, as threats to our public school system in Philadelphia become more and more real.  This affects those of us who are line for those schools with resources but even more those who are already underserved. 

I want to be clear that I understand in a difficult economy that sacrifices need to be made.  And I understand that it not healthy or responsible for us to amass deficits that future generations will have to contend with.  That said, the fact that the balancing of those budgets and the “tightening of the belt” seems to automatically fall on the working class and on those who are most vulnerable is deeply troubling and unacceptable— AND it is against the values and instructions that our Torah outlines.

“Im Buhukotai telechu, v’et mitzvotai tishm’ru va’asitem otam…”  If you follow my paths, my instructions, they will lead to blessing. What are those paths, those mitzvot that are outlined by our discerning ancestors in the torah?  What are some of those ways in which we are instructed to create a flourishing society?

“You must not ill-treat any widow or orphan.  If you mistreat them, I will heed their outcry.” (Exodus 22:21-22)

“You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.”(Exodus 23:6)

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the Lord your God.”(Leviticus 19:9-10 & 23:22)

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

“You shall hallow the fiftieth year.  Proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you: each shall return to his holding and each shall return to his family.” (Leviticus 25:10)

“Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Lord am your God.”        (Leviticus 25:17)

The Torah is unequivocal when it speaks about the vision for society.  Parshat Behukotai becomes an alarm or a shofar blast, reminding us of the power of our choices.  We can choose to continue to move down the path we are on, of balancing our budgets on the backs of those who need the most, but if we do, we should be warned: people will suffer, and because we are connected to everyone else, we all suffer. 

Or we can choose to move in a new direction, where our concerns for fiscal responsibility are balanced with an ethos of compassion and caring, especially for those who are most vulnerable.  We we can try to lessen the disparities between the most wealthy and the most needy.  We can try to address the system causes of hunger and poverty and set up some basic security measures for all people.  And if we do, then people will thrive and then, we as a society can truly be an am kedusha, a holy people.

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