40 years ago I began rabbinical school. I was surprised to hear many of my classmates articulate that, since childhood, they felt called to enter the rabbinate. I myself had no such calling or self-awareness. I did, however, have a deep affinity for practicing my Judaism and passionately living a Jewish life meaningful and central to my existence.
And as early as I can remember I was bound to, and with, Israel. I knew that Israel was the place for me to live my best Jewish life. I knew that as soon as I could, I would move to Israel permanently. I wanted my career to be in Israel. I wanted to live and celebrate in Jewish time, to love, laugh, and cultivate my most important relationships with Hebrew rolling off my tongue and pulsing through my heart. I wanted to raise my children in Israel. As a child I did not have an inkling that I would one day become a rabbi, but I knew definitively that I would make Aliyah and settle in Israel.
I traveled to Israel at every opportunity, with my family as a child, independently in high school, college, and of course in graduate school. Ultimately it would not be until after receiving rabbinic ordination, when my peers were applying for congregational positions throughout the United States, that I chose my rabbinic position in Haifa. I moved to Israel with my cat Pandora, my books, and my bicycle. I worked for one year as the assistant Rabbi of Ohel Avraham, a Reform community synagogue affiliated with the Leo Baeck high school. The following year I accepted two part time positions, the pulpit of a shul in the village of Tivon and as the Rabbi of Har Halutz, a Planned Intentional Reform Community in the Galilee, working with Israeli-born Israelis along with Israeli immigrants, all of whom wanted to live a progressive, Jewish life free from religious coercion.
My life in Israel shaped not only my career but also my happiness and the person I would become. Three of my five children were born and lived their formative years in Israel. Some of my closest friendships were forged during those years. The work that I did, the rabbi that I became, and my deepest most core values were shaped by those 13 years. I was happy and living a life that I cherished in my beloved homeland. At that time I was the third female to serve as a congregational Rabbi in Israel.
In my spare time, and as part of my calling as an Israeli woman and mother, I volunteered in a shelter for domestic violence. Most of the women and children we sheltered were from the ultra-Orthodox communities. As a rabbinic leader working in the Galilee, where Arab-Israelis constitute a majority of the population, it was natural for me to lean into our best Jewish values and further programs of coexistence with Jewish and Arab neighbors. I believed that my contributions to Israeli society, both professional and personal, made my country better. You should know that, though I paid taxes, worked, had family serving in the IDF, and lived as an Israeli citizen for years, I and my Reform and Conservative rabbinic colleagues were not recognized by the State of Israel. Still, I persisted.
Israel will always be my first true love, she is my home. I belonged in Israel in a way that I had never experienced in the United States. It’s not that I didn’t struggle. I was an immigrant. I had to work hard to be fully fluent and express myself eloquently in Hebrew. I had to prove myself as a rabbinic leader in a place where Reform Judaism was not recognized. All too frequently I had to field patronizing and condescending comments. On more occasions than one I endured spitting, screaming, and threats by other Jews because I wore a Kippah or because I was not dressed to their liking. And I struggled financially, trying to make a living as a Reform Rabbi not recognized by our own country, a country that, to this day, does not recognize the authenticity and validity of my and your Reform Jewish identity and practice. Every Shabbat or holiday service, brit, wedding or funeral which I officiated was an act of civil disobedience.
I understood my life and career to be an act of defiance, and I battled with purpose and conviction. I had hoped that I was part of something bigger than myself, a betterment of my beloved Israel. I hoped that I was making a difference.
26 years ago I left Israel, a challenging and deeply personal decision. But even after returning to the States, my commitment as a Zionist remained steadfast. I still believed that Israel was the best place for a Jew to live an actualized and integrated life, a home for our people to thrive and build a sustainable future.
It is with trepidation and a broken heart that I stand here today and admit that I am no longer convinced that this is true.
As a Jewish nation we have always prided ourselves on our Jewish values communicated in the Torah and codified in the Talmud: the prioritization of life, a fierce commitment to liberty and freedom, a rejection of violence against innocent people, a passion to protect and pursue equity and justice for ourselves and for the most vulnerable in our midst. Israel’s Declaration of Independence expressly commits to the safeguarding of the rights of all its inhabitants, to the upholding of full social and political equality of all citizens without distinction of race, creed, or gender. It guarantees full freedom of conscience, worship, education, and cultures. The Israeli Declaration of Independence expressly commits to being a beacon of ethical living, a light unto the nations.
These commitments must be actualized, valued, prioritized, and upheld by Israelis of each generation. Tragically these foundational pillars have too often been ignored and sidelined by rationalizing security concerns, prioritizing political calculations and power plays. Each demographic group looked to its own parochial interests at the expense of the founding principles. The secular Israeli public has been otherwise occupied, following careers, serving in the army, making money, raising a family, enjoying the good things of life and de facto ignoring injustices that became part of the fabric of Israeli society. The secular right wing and Orthodox coalitions have demonstrated their willingness to concede these founding values in order to form coalitions. True to form, Benjamin Netanyahu formed his most recent ruling coalition empowering Kahanists, convicted criminals, and dangerous racists.
Today the Israeli government seeks to destroy the very essence of its founding principles.
The present government’s policies demonstrate an abject indifference to Arab life. It embraces a regressive reality for women. In policy and practice it recognizes only the ultra-Orthodox way of life and attacks other Jewish expressions, no less non-Jewish faith practices.
The Israel that I loved from its inception has had Arab MK’s in the Knesset and was committed to affirmative action programs for Arab-Israelis in higher education. Today Arab-Israelis are openly treated as second-class citizens. Ministers in the government actively work to block funding for Arab universities, and Arab villages routinely receive inferior funds for addressing infrastructure, education, and cultural agendas. Leading members of the current government openly promote ethnic cleansing and Jewish supremacy, sending their clear message that they do not believe Arab-Israelis have any place in Israel.
The reality in the occupied territories is even more egregious; Jewish settlers have taken upon themselves the role of Jewish terrorists, intimidating, threatening, attacking, beating, and killing Palestinians with impunity. And unlike Palestinian terrorists, Jewish terrorists are seldom arrested, indicted, or punished. Members of the present government have not only protected these Jewish perpetrators of violence but even condoned and justified their criminal and terrorist behavior.
My beloved Israel, a model of egalitarianism from its inception, was a place where women commanded equality; they worked the land side-by-side with men as chalutzim, served in the military, defied glass ceilings in the IDF, social movements, business, and politics. While we in the United States have yet to embrace the idea of a woman President, in 1969 Golda Meir was elected the fourth Prime Minister of Israel. Yet in the face of 75 years of women’s voices, today the haredi ministers of Netanyahu’s government are running headfirst into a deteriorating reality for Israeli women. Instances repeatedly arise in which women are forced to ride in the back of public trains and buses, and they are routinely directed to give up their seats on planes in deference to ultra-Orthodox men. Today, both in the army and in public venues, there is a concerted movement to prevent women from speaking or singing in public forums. In the modern Israel the haredim have even imposed gender segregation on public sidewalks in a number of communities. Images of women on billboards have been blackened out, and women in public spaces are berated, shamed, and coerced to comply with dress codes imposed by the ultra-Orthodox. With a mere five women serving in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, there is a movement challenging a women’s place in politics altogether. In August, Mayor Aliza Bloch was attacked by an ultra-Orthodox mob when in her official capacity she visited a new haredi school building. In July, MK Sharren Haskel was removed from the podium while addressing the Knesset, banned from speaking because she was holding her sleeping baby.
My beloved Israel, while far from perfect, strove to be a safe haven for immigrants, providing asylum to refugees and protecting the rights of minorities. As a stronghold of sanity and leaning on our best Jewish values, we honored the Divine in every person, guaranteeing safety, freedom, legitimacy, protections, and rights for the LGBTQ community. Today members of this Knesset have made it their mission to cancel gay pride events, further legislation impinging upon LGBTQ expressions and rights, and actively bar LGBTQ couples from marriage equality and the right to adopt children. When MK Amir Ohana was sworn in as the first ever gay speaker of the Knesset, lawmakers from the Netanyahu coalition staged a protest walk-out. Israel is overturning decades of social precedence and national policies that had protected and secured the rights of LBGTQ individuals and couples to appease the sentiments of far-right, religious zealots.
From its inception 75 years ago Israel has striven to balance its commitment to be a thriving modern nation while remaining a spiritual homeland and safe haven for all Jewish people, to advocate for equal rights for all citizens, regardless of religious or secular persuasion. This is the Israel with which I am aligned.
Yet today Israel is led by the most radical, racist government in its history, embracing a regressive platform of discrimination, extremism, racism, and ignorance. As Jews we once believed that neighboring enemy countries posed an existential threat to Israel’s survival, today the existential threat comes from within.
With an attempt to weaken the Judiciary, embolden the ruling party, promote legislation to censor the media, and establish the mores of the haredim upon the broader population, today’s government has forfeited the sacred commitments that we once held as fundamental to Israel’s existence and has thoroughly undermined our basic shared Jewish values. The singular democracy that Israel was heralded to be is in peril.
It is hard to hear these truths. I share them with you out of love and loyalty, with profound concern and as a wake-up call.
We, Israelis and world Jewry, must see the current government as a consequence of our complicity and inaction of the past. To be silent is to be complicit.
This past week Israelis took to the streets for the 37th consecutive week, protesting the destructive forces of Judicial reform and expressing unwavering support for a democratic Israel. What are we American Jews, lovers of Israel prepared to do? I do not accept that we cannot criticize Israel if we are living in America. Turning a blind eye to the injustices of the Netanyahu government is complicity itself. We must make our voices heard with love, concern, and loyalty. I am imploring every member of this reform congregation, this New Year, to join ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionist of America. A 50 dollar annual contribution makes the statement that your family supports Israel, specifically an Israel that aligns with Reform Jewish values, Reform Jewish communities, and the pursuit of issues of justice and tikkun olam in Israel. Even better, ask your Board Members to adopt an ARZA membership check-off box or an opt out option on CEHV’s congregational membership forms. Donate to IRAC, Israel’s Religious Action Center, which is fighting every day for justice in Israel. These are two Reform Jewish organizations doing groundbreaking justice work. But there are a plethora of additional worthy organizations that further the Israel we believe in, Women of the Wall, Rabbis for Human Rights, Roots/Judur/Shorashim, Coalition of Women for Peace, the Parent’s Circle-Family Forum, Seeds of Peace, Children of Peace, Ir Shalem Co-Existence, Ta’ayush Arab Jewish Partnership. Our support of Israel is essential and where you direct your charitable giving is critical. Become educated and discerning about how you direct your tzedakah. Vet any group that asks for your money to assure that the organization recognizes you and your family as authentic Jews; be certain that you are donating to a cause that stands for and furthers your Jewish values.
Immediately after Sukkot I will be traveling to Israel. I plan to join the 43rd week of protests with people of every walk of life and age, speaking out in support of a democratic Israel. But don’t wait to hear about my trip in October. Next week, on Friday September 22nd at 8:30 AM in front of the United Nations, I invite you to join me in New York City as we communicate a resounding message of “UneXeptable” to Bibi Netanyahu when he comes to address the United Nations. As supporters of Israel, we must communicate an unequivocal message to Netanyahu, to our American legislators, and to the White House that we American Reform Jews reject the current government’s racism, inequality, injustice, and religious coercion.
We must have optimism because we and seven million Israelis are raising our voices in protest. If Israel is to have a future, then it is time for Kahanists and Orthodox extremists to be removed from positions of leadership and for a government to be formed that reflects the voices of all nine million citizens. For Israel to have a viable future, it must once again reflect and work towards our best shared Jewish values.
So long as within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sings, so long as the eye looks eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope is not lost, the hope of two thousand years, to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
כל עוד בלבב פנימה נפש יהודי הומיה ולפאתי מזרח קדימה עין לציון צופיה עוד לא אבדה תקותנו התקוה בת שנות תשקנוהב ה
At 8:00 AM on June 18th an adventure submarine called the Titan began its descent toward the sensationalized remains of the 1912 Titanic shipwreck. It carried five passengers, businessman Hamish Harding, French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet, OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, and Dawood’s 19-year-old son Suleman. Theirs was an elite adventure for which each passenger paid a fare of $250,000.
105 minutes into its descent, the Titan submersible stopped responding to communication from its support vessel. Days later we would learn that as the adventure submarine lost communications, the U.S. Navy detected a sound on its sonar congruent with a catastrophic implosion.
Still, the Navy determined that any chance to save a life was worth every effort. Our Jewish teachings concur; Talmud Sanhedrin 37A declares, “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the entire world.” And so a full-throated, international search-and-rescue operation ensued.
For four days the world was transfixed. There was an outpouring of concern and support. Within hours there was a race to respond; no fewer than nine rescue vessels descended to the area, dispatched by multiple nations, among them the United States, Canada, France, Britain, and Germany. The unfolding of the event was broadcast ad-infinitum in the 24/7 news cycle to which we have become accustomed. There was an international countdown surmising the number of hours of oxygen remaining for the lost submersible. As the fate of the five on board was envisioned, talking heads wove together a profile of the CEO Stockton Rush together with the French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet. From the reporting we were convinced that if the vessel were intact these men would devise strategies for extending their oxygen and sending out intentional, discernable distress signals, perhaps even the very banging sounds detected in and around the debris region of the Titanic. The world turned its attention with bated breath, waiting to learn the fate of these five individuals.
You remember the incident. Do you remember how the details filled the airwaves and the news cycle? Do you also remember that there was another tragedy that happened simultaneously, just hours before the Titan tragedy? Do you remember what it was?
On June 10th, a fishing boat, the Adriana, left Libya. Days later the Adriana was sailing in international waters off the coast of Greece when a distress call was sent to an international rescue support charity alarm phone. There were an estimated 750 migrants aboard, overwhelmingly Pakistanis but also Egyptians, Syrians, Afghans, and Palestinians. But these Middle Easterners were different from Shahzada and Suleman Dawood. They had not paid $250,000 to participate in adventure tourism. They were refugees, fleeing for their lives in the hopes of reaching the shores of safety. The fishing boat for which they paid their life savings was never intended to carry passengers, no less 750 souls. The Adriana was carrying well above the safety capacity for a vessel of this nature.
At some point early in their journey, someone on the Adriana sent out a distress signal. Reports state that the passengers aboard the Adriana did not have food or water. In response two merchant ships approached the Adriana and offered assistance. The Adriana was headed to Italy where the migrants were seeking asylum. Captains and crews of these vessels only receive payment for transporting migrants upon reaching their final destination. This scenario created callous disregard for the human souls on the Adriana, their welfare superseded by monetary compensation.
Notwithstanding the crisis, those in charge of the Adriana were determined to continue on their treacherous journey. The Greek Coast Guard was aware of the large number of migrants aboard the boat. The vessel’s distress was explicit. The BBC reported that the boat had not moved for at least seven hours. A New York Times investigation would reveal that authorities watched and listened for 13 hours as the boat lost power and drifted aimlessly. On June 14th, the boat capsized and sank. No one aboard the boat was wearing a life jacket.
“Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the entire world.”
Of the 750 on board there were 104 survivors and 82 confirmed dead. Upwards of 500 additional souls, including at least 100 children, are presumed dead. Perhaps you remember the details: the smugglers had kept the woman and children locked in the hold below deck for the entire journey.
If the details of the Adriana are fuzzy for you it may be because, while there was 24/7 coverage of the Titan search and rescue for five super wealthy adventure tourists, there was lackluster anemic coverage of the Adriana even as more than 500 souls sank to their watery grave.
As the Adriana sank and hundreds of people died, the coast guard and the world willingly watched, or perhaps didn’t watch. The woman and children descended, locked in the underbelly of the sinking fishing boat. Drowning is a form of death by suffocation. The lungs take in water, ultimately interfering with breathing. The lungs become heavy, and oxygen stops being delivered to the heart. Without the supply of oxygen, the body shuts down. The average person can hold their breath for around 30 seconds. A person in excellent health can perhaps hold their breath for 2 minutes. A person submerged in water for 4 to 6 minutes will endure brain damage and eventually death. Those children and women did not have the privilege of instantaneous death, they most probably struggled in the locked hold as it filled with water, and once submerged they drowned. Tell me one name that you can recall from the hundreds of souls that drowned on the Adriana.
The world was riveted by the fate of Hamish Harding, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, Stockton Rush, Shahzada Dawood, and Suleman Dawood. Thousands of articles appeared about the Titan, but we hardly batted an eye as 500 desperate refugees died at sea. The Coast Guard is analyzing the remains of the Titan, and when the investigation has concluded these remains will be released to the passengers’ families. Conversely it was determined that recovering the bodies of those who were drowned in the belly of the Adriana would be far too costly and difficult. Al m’komam yavo-u b’shalom, בשלוםשקמםליובא ע ; the refugees fleeing violence and poverty in search of safe haven have come to their final resting place at the bottom of the sea. Where is our international accountability for these human beings? Can you imagine a world in which we believed that the 500 souls that perished in the underbelly of the Adriana were considered as worthy as the five that perished in the Titan. That isn’t our world today.
To paraphrase from Judith Sunderland, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, the world wasn’t concerned about refugees, but the story of wealthy adventurers at the bottom of the ocean was a riveting tale. Yet this ocean tale serves as a mirror reflecting our society’s bankrupt values. From where do you draw your values?
Pirke Avot 1:2 teaches, “On three things the world is sustained, on study, on prayer, and on acts of loving kindness.” Our Judaism provides us with the means for living with a set of values that can sustain us.
Why are you here today? What do you hope to hear on this Rosh Hashanah? What is the value, purpose, and efficacy of your connection to this synagogue? We live in a flawed world, a confusing world, a world in which our actions are dictated not by inherent values but instead by commodities and profit. A world in which we move at an increasingly frenetic pace without taking responsibility for our actions and beliefs. You are here today to take stock, to engage in cheshbon nefesh, a soul accounting. I beg you not to relegate your Judaism to the High Holidays alone. I implore you not to leave your values at the door. Your Jewish identity, practice, and values are fundamental to who you are, what you believe, and what you must do. And your connection with this place ultimately provides you with the opportunity to clarify, prioritize, embrace, and live the very values that you instinctively discern to be dearest.
We must begin with study; it is the one mitzvah of the 613 with which we are commanded to engage each and every day. Learning is the privilege and responsibility of understanding the values communicated to you as a Jew.
Do you believe that it is your responsibility to provide a Jewish education to your children and the next generation? Then teach in our Jewish Learning Adventure and volunteer for special projects, holidays, and celebrations. Better yet, be a model of Jewish values and embrace Jewish learning for yourself; choose to engage in Adult Jewish Learning throughout the week at CEHV and on Saturday mornings with Torah study.
With learning we are challenged to establish a regular prayer practice. Through prayer we cultivate humility, gratitude, and perspective. Through prayer we begin to understand our connection to that which is bigger than ourselves. The commitment to contemplative introspection underscores our lives. And Jewish prayer is intimately connected to our sense of community.
Do you believe that there ought to be a Beit Knesset, a place in which Jews gather for study, prayer, inspirational experiences, life cycle, culture, social engagement, and programming? Do you want a place to which you can come in celebration and in loss? Then support this place, volunteer, step up to be in leadership, work on a committee, be generous, and prioritize your charitable giving to your synagogue. Pirkei Avot 1:14 teaches us, “If not now, when? If not you, then who?”
Learning and prayer lay the foundation for action. Do you believe in Tikun Olam, your Jewish responsibility for participating in repairing the world? I ask you to accept the challenge of CEHV’s Tikun Olam Committee and participate in at least one act of repairing the world every month in this upcoming year. You will experience how that participation meaningfully enhances your connection to your Jewish soul, identity, and community.
Like anything that you hold dear, anything that is important to you, Jewish values must be prioritized to survive. You must practice them with active intention if you hope for substantive impact on your life.
Do you believe that your Jewish values require a response to “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger” (Exodus 22:21), the most vulnerable in your midst? Do you believe that your Jewish values of compassion, justice, spirituality, mindfulness, gratitude, and being in balance with yourself, your family, your community, and your world are a priority for you? If you do not do it, it will not be. Show up.
Walk the walk and dare to lean in. This is the opportunity that your synagogue offers you. Your Jewish values and identity, when prioritized and practiced, can inform and transform your life. Next week when you are reading the news, filter the headlines through your Jewish values.
If you root yourself today, next week, and next month in your Jewish values, teachings, and community, together we can forge a way of life congruent with that which we truly believe and the way in which we hope to inhabit this world.
Ha-skeit, be silent. And shema, listen.
This is the season of listening. We listen to the sound of the shofar piercing our conscience. We listen to the searing melody of Kol Nidre cracking open our souls. We listen to our family, friends, and neighbors as we embark on acts of teshuvah, attempting to right the wrongs of our words, actions, and deeds of last year. And this evening we stand naked and exposed before our Creator, hoping to engage with the Presence of the Divine One.
God asked the prophet Elijah, “What are you doing here?”
Elijah, like each of us, is courageous, heroic, insightful, hardworking, and steadfast.
We encounter Elijah in I Kings as he stands up to King Ahab. Elijah is a healer of unequaled proportions; he even has the uncanny ability to bring the dead back to life. As the protector of children, the weak, and the vulnerable we invite Elijah into our presence when celebrating a Brit Milah and Brit Bat, rituals for entering our newborn children into the covenant. And each year on Passover Elijah is welcomed by every Jewish household when we open the doors of our home during the seder.
Elijah is our fabled hero. And like each of us Elijah is busy, overworked, and underappreciated as he tries to do good. Elijah yearns for wholeness and peace. Like each of us, Elijah is searching and hoping for transformation.
What are you doing here? You have been propelling yourself forward non-stop, balancing commitments to work and family, trying to meet everyone’s needs. Tonight you have the opportunity to stand still, just for a moment, to be silent and listen.[a contemplative silence]
What do you hear? What does Elijah hear when he stands still? In I Kings 19:11-12 we learn, “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Eternal; but the Eternal was not in the wind. After the wind - an earthquake; but the Eternal was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake - fire; but the Eternal was not in the fire. And after the fire - a still thin sound, kol d’mamah daka.”
Our tradition suggests that through hearing kol d’mamah daka we encounter the Source. Our western culture is built on the experience of the visual; seeing is believing. Understandings are calibrated by insight, foresight, and hindsight. Diametrically opposed to this, the fundamentals of Judaism are built on the theology that the Eternal cannot be seen. Our theology communicates that God has no form or physical manifestation. The Source is infinite. In grappling with the question of how to encounter God, Rabbi Jonathan Sachs z”l describes our Judaism as a religion of listening, stating, “There is something profoundly spiritual about listening.”
Speaking and listening are forms of engagement; they create a relationship which forms the foundation of the Jewish faith.
What do you hear? Tonight is considered the holiest of nights; these Days of Awe propel you to your Beit Knesset, to your Jewish congregation, to your Jewish consciousness. We will spend the entire day of Yom Kippur together in this prayer space on the Day of Atonement. Rabbi Sachs suggests, “We can enter into a relationship with God, even though God is infinite and we are finite, because we are linked by words. In revelation, God speaks to us. In prayer, we speak to God.” Could it be that you are here with a desire, a need, or perhaps even a curiosity for an encounter with your Creator?
God is not found in the mighty wind, the earthquake, or the fire. We live in the cacophony of life, pulled in every direction by commitments, responsibilities, promises, yearnings, and seductions; overwhelmed at every moment by the noise. We have become practiced at running a mile a minute, balancing career, significant others, children, and perhaps even some well deserved self-care. But we have - for the most part - forfeited the curiosity, desire, or even compelling need to be still, to be prayerful, to be practiced in devotion and listening. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. What if I were to remind you that according to our Jewish conviction, the very principle and foundation for connectivity with the Source of Sacredness is rooted in the ability to be still and listen. God is found in the kol d’mamah daka. Kol d’mamah daka, literally, the voice of thin silence. Idiomatically, a whisper or utter silence.
Listen.[a contemplative silence]
What do you hear? I knew that I would become a rabbi after experiencing the birth of a child, after having the privilege of accompanying a person through their last breaths as they let go of their hold on life, after spending time alone in the Sinai desert. In each of these instances my surroundings were suspended in the all-consuming stillness of the encounter. I knew from the
formative power of the sounds of silence that I could align myself with the Source of Sacredness. I hoped that in knowing the Spiritual, having encountered deep transformative silence, I would be endowed with the wisdom to inspire, encourage, support, and draw you into the mystery, empower you to choose to walk a life of Jewish practice and observance.
Shema; listen. There is a fundamental, foundational power in silence. The whisper from God is virtually indiscernible. In Parashat Ki Tavo Deuteronomy 27:1 it states, “ V’haya im shamo-ah tish-ma b’kol Adonai. “It shall be if you hear the voice of Adonai.” This passage reminds us that there are consequences when we do not listen and transformational blessings when we do. But we must be willing to practice silence, to hold this space as an antidote to the pace and demands of life that are part of living, to train ourselves in the prayerful act of listening, in order to be able to hear. Be silent; ha-skeit. And listen; Shema (Deuteronomy 27:9). This is the purpose of Yom Kippur, and this is the purpose of Shabbat. Rabbi Lyle S. Rothman asks, “are we able to remain silent long enough so that we can begin to listen and actually start to hear.”
Aaron’s sons die and he is silent; vayidom Aharon (Leviticus 10:3).
Dr. Gail Brenner grapples with the concept of d’mamah, complete stillness. She challenges us to recognize that silence, the thin small voice, is not the voice in our head, nor the story we create that justifies our actions. She reminds us that kol d’mamah daka may not be logical nor what we are propelled to do out of fear or neediness. The thin small voice must be more than a wave of emotion of the moment. Kol d’mamah daka goes beyond an inner voice, it is the moment that the stillness connects us to something bigger, an encounter with a deep inner wisdom of listening for Emet, the Divine Oneness that transcends the beginning, the middle, and the end.
What are you doing here? Ultimately I cannot provide you with the answer. How do we each take our own accomplishments and disappointments, our blessings and our grief, the many demands on our lives and our core values, and shape a life that transcends the daily acts of living and elevates us toward the Sacred.
In grappling with the challenges of listening for kol d’mamah daka, current statistics suggest that on average Americans check their phone 144 times per day. 89% of Americans will check their phone in the first ten minutes of waking up. Half of all Americans say they are addicted to their cell phones. The average American spends over seven hours a day and as much as nine and a half hours staring at a screen each day. Reputable health experts recommend less than two hours of screen time each day. Rev. Cheryl L. Hauer cautions that our lifestyle lures us away from any regular prayer practice in which hearts are opened. Imagine how you, your family, and your life could be changed if you were willing to commit to a daily prayer practice, if you would dare engage in the Jewish mitzvah of saying a beracha before eating and birkat ha-mazon, expressing grace after a meal. Imagine how your life and your family’s life together could be changed if you were committed to the Jewish practice of observing Shabbat, of praying not just on Yom Kippur, but each and every Sabbath.
What do you hear? You chose to be here on the Days of Awe because you are Jewish in your kishkas, in your orientation to life and the world. The rituals and traditions, the communal experience of being connected to Jewish community powers you to feel connected to your Jewish values. You showed up this evening mindful and trying to understand where you have been this past year, to discern missteps, mistakes, moments that you have missed the mark. You stand here today processing regret. You sit in your Sanctuary open to, touched by, and connected with, a sense of reverence and awe. But do we know how to be silent? Do we know how to listen? Ha-sket; be silent. V’shema; listen.[a contemplative silence]
The word shema appears no less than 92 times in the Book of Deuteronomy. Listening is at the core of our relationship with God and the foundation of our faith. The Hebrew word shema is ultimately untranslatable into English, but conjures up the following: hear, listen, pay attention, understand, internalize, respond, obey, practice, do. What will you do with your encounter with the stillness, these shared moments and experience of the Days of Awe.
The Torah records that immediately before God uttered the Ten Commandments, there was thunder, lightning, and the increasingly loud sound of a shofar. Yet our tradition responds that at the actual moment in which the Torah was given and we encountered the Divine, the entire world was silent. “The birds did not chirp, the angels stopped their song, the waves of the sea did not crash upon the shore, and no one spoke”
Only when you can be still and hear the sounds of silence, stilling the activities and the mind, can you truly know what you need to do. This is when we hear the voice of the Eternal.
What are you doing here? Shema; listen and the answer will emerge in the hours and the days and the weeks and the practice that is informed, inspired and blossoming from this moment of knowing, wisdom, stillness, and revelation.