Category Archives: Divrei 5774

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur 5774

By Joel Grossman

When I was visiting my mother in Israel this past summer, her brother, my uncle Shimmy, also came by to visit. My Uncle Shimmy is a retired chazzan, and led High Holiday services at various shuls for many years. He told me the following story. One year, just before Kol Nidrei, the rabbi came up to him and said: “Shimmy, if I have done anything to hurt you during this past year, if I have said anything that might have offended you, if I mistreated you in any way during the past year, Shimmy. . . Get Over It!” So in that spirit I say to all of you in the kahal today, if I have done anything during this past year to offend you or hurt you in any way, please, GET OVER IT! Well, actually, please forgive me.

I want to note at the outset four inspirations for my dvar torah this morning. First is an article that appeared in the New Yorker this past January which concerned, among other things, whether the New York Jets football team was wise to keep quarterback Mark Sanchez. The second inspiration was the dvar torah given two weeks ago by Sal Litvak on parshat Nitzavim. Sal focused on a portion of Nitzavim, Chapter 30 of D’varim, that has always been a text that speaks to me, and Sal’s dvar torah was moving and meaningful. The third inspiration was a short dvar torah by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz which appeared in the shul’s bulletin on the same Shabbat as Sal’s dvar torah, and which led me to a fascinating commentary by the Ramban, Nachmanides, that is at the center of my words today. And finally, the fourth inspiration is the first sentence of this morning’s Haftorah, from the book of Isaiah Chapter 57 verse 14 in which the prophet says, in God’s name: “solu solu panu derech harimu michshol miderech ami” meaning: build up, build up a highway, clear a road, remove all obstacles from the road of my people. In particular I will focus on the words harimu michshol– “remove all obstacles.”

Before going into these sources, I want to raise one question which has puzzled me: why doesn’t the yearly cycle of Torah readings, beginning with the first parsha in Bereshit and ending with the last parsha in D’varim, commence on Rosh Hashono? After all, it’s a new year, why not start the annual reading of the Torah then? Why wait for 3 weeks until Simchat Torah—a holiday not mentioned anywhere in the Torah– to conclude D’varim and begin Bereshit? I will come back to that question later.

Let me start with the very inspiring and moving words set forth in Chapter 30 of D’varim. Because this is a long passage, I will for the most part give you only the English translation, reading excerpts from verses 1 through 14:

“When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you–…and you return to the Lord your God –v’shavta ad adosehm elokecha–…then the Lord will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. …then the Lord your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your children to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul –b’chol levavcha uv’chol nafshecha–. …For this commandment–ki hamitzvah ha’zot–which I command you this day is not too baffling for you nor is it beyond reach. Lo bashamayim hu…it is not in the heavens, that you should say who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it… v’lo me’ever layam hu—and it is not beyond the sea that you should say who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it. No, the thing is very close to you b’ficha u’vilvavcha la’asoto—it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe it.”

I found Sal’s discussion of these verses to be quite wonderful. The Torah, Jewish law, the great body of Jewish wisdom in the Talmud, the decision to live a Jewish life, may seem so hard to grasp, so intimidating, so far away from our own reality. But the Torah tells us lo bashamayim hu—it’s not up in heaven, v’lo me’ever layam hu—it’s not across the sea, ki karov elecha hadavar me’od—this thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart. Those two phrases—lo bashamayim hu—it’s not up in heaven, v’lo me’ever layam hu—and it’s not across the sea, ki karov elecha hadavar me’od—this thing is VERY close to you—have always been moving and comforting to me. And I have always viewed them as a reference to our entire religion. We are not a religion where only the priests or the clergy have access to the holy books and rituals. The Torah and all of Judaism is open to all of us, and it’s not far away, it’s very close to us.

After enjoying Sal’s dvar torah, I picked up the shul bulletin and read Rabbi Berkowitz’ dvar torah, which led me to the source, the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah. I came away with a whole new understanding of this passage, one that is particularly appropriate for Yom Kippur. The Ramban focuses on the literal meaning of the phrase ki hamitzvah hazot—for this commandment—is not in the heavens, or across the sea. He says that this passage is not about Judaism in general or the Torah in general but is about one specific mitzvah. And that mitzvah is t’shuva. The Ramban focuses on the very beginning of the passage in which God says “v’shavta ad hashem elockecha”—when you return to God, that is, when you do t’shuva. Since the passage begins, in effect, when you do t’shuva, and goes on to refer “hamitzvah hazot” to “this mitzvah” the passage is about t’shuva.

Let me mention for a moment the first verse of this morning’s haftorah, which I quoted early. Build a road and clear all obstacles from the road for my people—harimu michshol miderech ami. Clearly this passage refers to the obstacles to doing t’shuva. And there are many. Doing t’shuva can require an enormous effort to remove obstacles, obstacles which completely block our path.

One such obstacle is decribed in the New Yorker article which discusses the New York Jets and their quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The article, which is the financial column by James Surowicki, discusses what are referred to as “sunk costs.” As Surowicki explains, “sunk costs are hard to ignore… we often end up sticking with something when we’d be better off cutting our losses—sitting through a bad movie, say, just because we’ve paid for the ticket.” As an example he says that some people keep a foundering project alive because there’s always a chance that it will right itself. He tells us that some executives in the corporate world keep pursuing what is clearly a bad project because if they gave up the project it would be an admission that the project shouldn’t have been done in the first place. And of course, the writer uses Mark Sanchez as a prime example. Sanchez was a great college player, and he was drafted by the Jets with high expectations and a high salary. But he didn’t live up to those expectations. In March 2012, after he had a bad season, the Jets nevertheless renewed Sanchez’s contract for another year, guaranteeing him more than $8 million whether he plays or not. Of course, since this article was written last January, Surowicki could not have known that in fact the Jets would decide to start rookie Geno Smith instead of Sanchez, who would occupy a very expensive seat on the bench.

I found this article to be a wonderful illustration of what the prophet Isaiah meant when he said harimu michshol miderech ami—remove obstacles from the path of my people, obstacles to t’shuva. The obstacles have been placed there by us, and only we can remove them. Like the executive who planned a project, or like a football team that decided to renew the contract of a failing player, we have our own sunk costs. We have invested so much in who we are that it seems almost impossible for us to want to change.

This is where the Ramban’s understanding of the passage in Nitzavim is so powerful. Each of us has a vision of the person who we are right now, and each of us has a vision of the person who we want to be. Sometimes it seems that the second vision—the vision of who we want to be—is so far away it is hopeless to even try. We have our sunk costs, we are who we are, and we will not change. But, according to the Ramban, the Torah tells us that this mitzvah—the mitzvah of t’shuva—is not far from us. Let us go a little bit beyond the pshat, the literal meaning of the text. Lo bashamayim hu–That person who we want to be is not in the heavens. V’lo me’ever layam hu—and that person who we want to be is not across the sea. That person who we want to be is very very close to us. Harimu michshol miderech ami—let’s clear out the obstacles, the sunk costs, the overwhelming power of inertia, and the almost impossible task of saying “I was wrong.” “I need to cut my losses and move on.”

While that new person, that new vision of who we want to be seems so far away and unachievable, it’s not far at all. It’s very close. In fact, the Torah says, it’s b’ficha u’ vilvavcha la’asoto– it’s in our mouths and it’s in our hearts to do it. It’s already there. We have the tools, all we have to do is to use them.

It’s in our mouths—we can ask others for forgiveness, and we can tell others that we forgive them. Just as we have used our mouths to utter profanities and to hurt others we can use our power of speech to sing words of praise, to comfort others, to praise others. It’s not far from us, it’s right here inside us, la’asoto—we just have to do it. And just as we have used our hearts to love money, to love fame and glory, to love movie stars and baseball teams, so too we can use our hearts to love those around us, to love those we don’t even know but who need our help, and to love God. It’s not far from us. It’s right here inside us la-asoto—we can do it.

Let me conclude by going back to the question of why the Torah cycle ends and then re-starts on Simchat Torah, after the Yamim Noraim, and not with the beginning of the New Year. Right now in the Torah we are reading about the children of Israel, who have assembled to hear Moshe Rabbeinu’s final words. He is old, and God has told him that he will die soon, before the people enter the land of Canaan. The people are poised just outside the land, and they must be anxious. All they have known is slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert. They have no idea what this new land will be like. In fact, 10 out of 12 spies told them it would be a disaster. And perhaps most terrifying, their leader, Moshe, has told them that he isn’t coming into the land with them. So Moshe takes this last opportunity to instruct them. He warns them of the consequences of abandoning God’s laws and entices them to follow the laws with the promise of great rewards. But most of all he tells them lo bashamayim hu—all that God asks of you is not far away.

Why do we read this story at this time of year? Because the children of Israel poised at the entrance to the new land is in so many ways just like us, poised to enter a new year, a year of unknown events and unknown challenges. We say in the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer mi yichye u’mi yamut, who will live and who will die, who will be raised up and who will be brought down? Our lives in 5774 may not be as different from our lives in 5773 as the children of Israel’s lives in Canaan as compared to their lives wandering in the desert. But we share with them an uneasiness, an anxiety as we face the new year, as we try to transform the person who we are to the person who we want to be. Let us be comforted, as presumably they were, by the words of Moshe Rabbeinu—lo bashamayim hu, that person is not up in heaven, v’lo me’ever layam hu—that person is not across the sea—ki b’ficha u’vilvavcha—that person is right here, in our mouths and in our hearts. And finally that last and most difficult word—la’asoto—to do it. The tools are there, within our reach. All we need to do is to do it.

Gmar chatima tova

Kol Nidre

Kol Nidre 5774

by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat

Tonight, on the holiest night of the Jewish year, we stand before God, stripped of our comforts – without food and drink. We don’t even have a text. As we don’t read Torah tonight, we don’t even have a story through which to connect to God. That’s because the text is our story. The text is our year. We look back at the year that has passed, and forward to our hopes and aspirations for the coming year.

Depending on what kind of year we’ve had, we come to this moment from a very different place. When it was a hard year of grief or struggle, we hope for a new, better chapter to begin and pray for strength. When it was a wonderful year, we are grateful for the year that has passed, and hope that joy will continue in the coming year. Much of the time, we come to this night somewhere in between. We have things that we’re struggling with, regrets, or sadness, and yet gratitude for our blessings.

For me, this past year has been one of those years – with real highs and real lows. When I look back on the year, I ask myself: what have I learned? I realize that there are three significant moments that stood out as spiritual lessons. All three of those moments took place because of people in this room – in the Library Minyan. And they actually all happened within one month of each other. They made me realize the blessing that this community is in my life. As an expression of my gratitude, I wanted to share with you what I learned this year from you and how you have collectively inspired me.

So tonight I’m going to share with you those three stories which I hope will inspire you as they did to me. In the Tanach, the word malachim (angels) – is often used to refer to people who impart an important message, and who are usually not referred to by name. Often, there are three of them. I too had threemalachim this year – people who shared important messages with me, and I too am not going to refer to them by name. The Torah readings for both days of Rosh Hashanah refer to a malach, so it’s a fitting time of year to ask ourselves: who have been our malachim this past year and what have they taught us?

I’ll share with you my three malachim tonight.

1) As background to the first story, let me tell you a little bit about my childhood. I went to Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, in Maryland, where our esteemed Rabbi Malkus has gone to lead. And yet I’m sure, the school has changed a lot since I went there.

When I was in the fifth grade, the girls in my grade divided themselves into groups. The popular girls formed a clique called the “Lavender Ladies.” If you were not popular enough to be in the Lavender Ladies, then some of the girls formed the “Purple People,” and “the Silver Satins.” These spin off groups worked for the Lavender Ladies. I wasn’t cool enough to be in any of these groups. So at recess, the silver satins would stand at different parts of the playground and tell me that I wasn’t allowed to go on those parts of the playground because it belonged to the Lavendar Ladies. My middle school years were lonely, but thankfully my parents let me switch to another school for high school instead.

Fast forward to three years ago, I got a phone call out of the blue from a woman named Shira who went to Jewish day school with me. She had become a rabbi. I assumed that the context of the phone call was that she wanted to connect as colleagues. However, a few minutes of schmoozing into the phone call, she explained that there was a different reason for her call. She had run into my father (who is friends with her family) in Washington. My dad asked her how she liked our day school, and she said she really liked it. My dad responded: “Ilana hated it so much that we pulled her out. There was a group there called the Lavender Ladies that made her miserable.” What my dad didn’t realize was that Shira was the head of the Lavender Ladies. So Shira had called to say: ‘It’s Elul. The high holidays are coming, so I wanted to say I’m sorry.’ I was surprised, but told her not to worry about it. It was a long time ago.

Now, fast forward three years to this year. In March, I got an email from my stepmother that a friend from the Library Minyan had posted an article on her Facebook page that she thought I would want to see. The person (who I’ll call angel #1) had simply posted the article because she thought it was a powerful article – not realizing that she knew the people in the story. The article was called: “I was a mean girl: before I was a rabbi, I was a Lavender Lady.” The article recounts (without our names) Shira’s conversation with my father, how she lost sleep that night, how she thinks of me often, and how she’s trying to teach her daughter to be kinder than she was when we were kids.

More even than the phone call, what impacted me about the article was that three years after her encounter with my father, Shira was still reflecting on her behavior as a child. This gave me a chance to email Shira, thank her for the article and offer her forgiveness in a way that I couldn’t when I was surprised on the phone. Her article created a measure of healing in me about a dark chapter of my life. I realized that I had been heard, and my feelings had mattered. Without realizing it, my first angel was able to impact healing within me and between Shira and me.

A few lessons that come out of this story for me:

The first is the power of the Internet. We often talk about the power of the Internet for bad and there’s plenty of lashon hara (degrading speech) on the Internet. We don’t talk as much about the power of the Internet for good, as an instrument of Torah and of healing. With a simple click of the mouse, we have the power to bring healing to those we don’t even realize need it most.

This reminds me of the Shofar. When blowing a shofar, one blows into the small end, and the sound comes out the big end. The noise that you make to blow a shofar is a small sound, but it comes out louder. That’s why the shofar is the symbol of this season. It teaches us that small actions can have a big impact. We can awaken and heal people’s hearts who we don’t even realize we are reaching. My father had no idea what impact his one sentence remark would make on Shira; my first angel had no idea that posting the article on her Facebook page would have such an impact on me. The message of the Shofar is: Don’t underestimate the positive power of the smallest action.

The second lesson that comes out of this story is about the power of our tradition. If this story didn’t happen in a Jewish context, Shira could have certainly called me to say she was sorry. But our tradition made it so much easier. She could say: It’s the High Holiday season, and therefore I wanted to call. Our tradition gave her an excuse to call and gave us a vocabulary to make up with one another – which is what this season is all about.

I want you to imagine for a moment: What if everyone in this room (within the next two weeks before this holiday season concludes) made one phone call– for some kind of slight we made – whether it was recent or twenty years ago. Imagine how much healing could ensue.

Actually the telephone receiver is the same shape as the shofar. Each one of us has the power to make a big difference with smallest action. Let’s follow Shira’s example and pick up the phone.

2) The first story was about the Internet. This second story is about the power of the spoken word. This story took place at a Library Minyan bar mitzvah. Guests came from all over; the occasion was a reunion of old friends. During lunch I sat with several friends—one from here and a mutual friend who was visiting from out of town. I was seated a few seats away from these friends, so while it was clear to everyone that I could hear them, I wasn’t part of the conversation. My friend was there with her new baby, and I guess the topic of having children came up.

The friend from out of town (who I’ll call Angel #2) recounted the difficulty she’d had in conceiving her children and said, “We normally take it for granted that whenever one wants to have a baby, then you can, but that’s not the case. Actually it’s a miracle. Getting pregnant is a miracle. Carrying the baby to term is a miracle, and every year that they continue to be healthy is a miracle too.”

This angel’s words stayed with me, and during subsequent struggles, I found myself returning to her words and found that they served to snap my life back into perspective.

In her recent memoir, Maya Angelou described a similar moment in her life.

Maya Angelou recounts that as a young, single mom, she once got entirely overwhelmed. She went to see her voice teacher Willie, who gave her a pad and told her to write down your blessings. He said: “Write down: I can hear; think of all the millions of people all over the world who cannot hear a choir, a symphony or their own babies crying. Write ‘I can hear: Thank God.’ Then write down that you can see this pad, and think of all the people around the world who cannot see a waterfall or flowers blooming or their loved ones’ face. Write ‘I can see – thank God.’ Then write down that you can read. Think of the millions of people around the world who cannot read the news of the day or a letter from home.” Maya Angelou filled up the yellow pad with her blessings, and she calmed down.

Just as Maya Angelou made her list that day, this Yom Kippur is a good time to take stock and make our own mental list of our blessings. This community and its many angels are surely high on my list.

On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the Shofar 100 times each day, which correspond to the 100 blessings that we are supposed to say every day. Perhaps that’s why we blow the Shofar often on Rosh Hashanah and not on Yom Kippur until the very end. On Yom Kippur, we realize that we’re the Shofar. The Shofar is actually shaped like human esophagus and mouth. Our words go further than we thought. My second angel wasn’t even speaking to me. Neither of us could have known how much her words would mean to me. We all have the power of shofar every time we speak – in our casual conversations – to awaken other’s hearts and remind us of our blessings.

3) The third story is about direct speech. In the other stories, the people didn’t intend to communicate with me. In this story, someone spoke to me directly.

In March, I was asked to lead the Musaf service. Musaf is just a few pages long, and it isn’t hard for me to do. I was asked to lead a couple days before, and I thought nothing of it. When I lead Musaf, it wasn’t special in any way. I didn’t prepare or find new melodies or do anything different with it. Afterwards, an older gentleman came up to me, and said: ‘You lead so beautifully. Where I come from in Europe women were never allowed to lead services, and it was just so wonderful to hear you.’

I considered this a spiritual turning point in my year because he gave me historical perspective on that moment. What seemed to me like no big deal was actually a huge deal in the context of Jewish history. I was raised in an Egalitarian synagogue; I lead the whole service at my bat mitzvah. To me, it was always a given that I could do that, but if I had been born any earlier or into a different community, it would not have been a given at all. The fact that I got to lead Musaf or that I get to speak to you tonight is an enormous blessing.

More broadly, the fact that we get to be here tonight, assemble and pray without being afraid for our safety is an enormous privilege in scope of Jewish history and contemporary world. Just as my second angel reminded me what a miracle my family is, this third angel reminded me what a privilege it is to be able to participate in our faith.

What I learned from this story is that while I need to pray with people my own age (who have kids to play with my kids), I also need to pray with older people so that they can share with me their life’s wisdom and their historical and spiritual perspective. This interaction with this gentleman reminded me how special the Library Minyan is. Nowadays, when there are many services at once in a synagogue, what often happens is that people separate by age, and each age group prays in a different area. The treasure of Library Minyan is that it’s a place where young and old pray together.

The most powerful service for me this year was when Miriam Elkins gave a drash about Israel Independence Day and how she felt when she was a child when the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. Then Hannah Lande (who is in eighth grade) and her mother Mandy led Musaf, followed by the little kids who sang Adon Olam. We really had the feeling of dor l’dor, of generation to generation participating.

Whereas synagogue is a place to find people who have gone through what you have gone through, synagogue is also a place to find people who have gone through things you’ll never go through – who have lived in different times and places and who can provide perspective and help you appreciate the miracles in your life.

Some of you know that I gave a sermon last year where I gave a reading list of biblical novels. Recently, I’ve been reading memoirs and I made a list for you of these and the holiday on which I would recommend to read them. This change of genre began with Tom Fields-Meyer’s book, Following Ezra. I had known Tom for years at synagogue, and I was blown away by the wisdom of his story. This experience made me want to learn as much as I can from those around me. Looking around the room, I see collection of wisdom and life experience. My hope for the coming year is that we may learn from each others’ stories.

The stories I shared with you today all point to the same conclusion. We are all Shofars to one another. As we enter this New Year, share the Torah that’s in your heart. Listen to the Torah in other peoples’ hearts – whether in books, the Internet, the phone or by talking face to face. Let’s be angels to one another.

The high holiday liturgy teaches that: “B’shofar Gadol Yitakah v’kol dimmamah dakah yishamah: The great Shofar is sounded and a still, small voice is heard.” Actually, the reverse is also true. A small voice can be spoken and a Shofar blast can be heard. A word of wisdom, quietly spoken at Kiddush, on Facebook or at lunch can become a Shofar blast which awakens our hearts. In this coming year, may it be that Kol dimmamah dakah yitakah v’shofar gadol yishamah– A still small voice is spoken and a big shofar blast is heard. And let us say Amen.

Memoir List

Sukkot: Hope Will Find You by Rabbi Naomi Levi
Simchat Torah (or Father’s Day): Following Ezra by Tom Fields-Meyer
Chanukah: We Plan, God Laughs, by Rabbi Sherre Hirsch
Passover: Sacred Housekeeping by Harriet Rossetto
Yom Hashoah: How to Survive Anything by Rabbi David & Yetta Kane
Yom Ha’atsmaut: The 188th Crybaby Brigade by Joel Chasnoff
Mother’s Day: Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou
Shavuot: Blessings and Baby Steps by Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Tisha Ba’av and the Weeks of Consolation: Faith Unravels by Rabbi Daniel Greyber
Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur: The Holy Thief by Rabbi Mark Borovitz

Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah 5774: Writing Ourselves Into the Story

By Rabbi Miriyam Glazer

I’d like to begin today by sharing a poem with you, one that touches me deeply every time I read it. In “Remembering our Fathers,” Chava Pinchas Cohen weaves her own experience and memories into the core themes of our Rosh Hashanah Musaf. The poet wasn’t in shul for the holiday; she was in the delivery room, giving birth. To convey to you a sense of the rich texture of the poem but also so that non-Hebrew speakers can grasp it too, I’ll interweave some of the Hebrew with the English translation:

On Rosh Hashanah, I didn’t bow
My head for Malkhuyot, I was giving birth, the Melech was there alone.
I wrapped myself in Zichronot.. My father, my father –
Like a knight, he carried me on his shoulders
To see through the window of the Sephardic synagogue
At the end of Seven Mills street near the Yarkon
To be part of the kahal in white, breathing,
at the moment of Tru’ah
Blowing, contracting –
the hour of opening
And closing.

In the yard, flowering jasmine,
Mandarins and guava bore the fall with simple grace.
Rain has no fragrance; it’s the earth that gives forth
The smell of roots and of rot.
The rose petals flowing onto the airy soil
already knew that even if the wind sweeps away signs
Remembrance will come for goodness,
L’khayn, l’chesed, u’vikar l’rahamim,
grace, kindness, love, and above all,
tender mercy.

Did my father know then
Not to leave a child alone
Alongside a window noisy
From the blasts of the shofar within?
Did he know?

In a sudden moment of Elul
My father left –
And even when I have turned against him
My thoughts dwell on him still.

And so – though it’s not in the world’s order –
So many years later
At the moment of nursing [my baby]
I yearn for him still.

There it all is, the intimate integration of our human experience with the words, images, language of our sacred service, the finding of a pathway to deep truths about oneself, one’s longings, capacity to love, abiding sense of loss — in the powerful tropes of Zichronot – Memories, Remembrance — and Shofarot,the breath blown through the shofar to create a cry piercing our hearts and reaching to the heavens, like a mother crying out in the pain of labor, as her baby struggles to be born. Even when I have turned against him my thoughts dwell on him still, God says of us, God’s people, in Zichronot; in those words from the prophet Jeremiah, the poet finds language for the knotted complexity of her emotions about her own father.

If we are deeply attentive, if we allow ourselves to be as entirely present in our prayers, as entirely vulnerable as a woman in labor, we too can find truths of our being in Zichronot, the center of our Rosh Hashanah Musaf. We too can find truths about our own remembering and our being remembered, truths about the powerful call to Remember, and perhaps, too, truths about forgiveness.

Zichronot draws us into the heart of these Yamim Noraim because Remembering is the pulsebeat of the Jewish experience.

As Jews, Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us, we are not commanded to believe, we are commanded “to remember.”

Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
Remember what Amalek did to you.

In the words of the psalmist, By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

And, insistently, over and over again like a refrain, “Remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

169 times in our Bible, a version of the word Remember appears.

Paradoxically, however, as historian Yosef Haim Yerushalmi has written, our ability to remember is “the most fragile and capricious of our faculties” (as those of us who have reached a certain age undoubtedly can verify).

How do we deal with that paradox? On the one hand, we’re called upon, commanded, to remember, remember, remember, while, on the other, as vulnerable human beings our memories can be so askew, mere illusions, and we may so willfully fahggedaboudit?

How do we meet the challenge to make central to our way of being what is actually so fragile, so capricious, about us?

I believe that that our poets can show us the way …

For our contemporary poet, it was finding her own story of remembrance of childhood, loss, and love in the language of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf.

For a medieval poet, whose name has been lost to us, it was a way of seeing the Jewish story itself.

“A fire kindles within me as I recall – when I left Egypt,” he writes,

“But I raise laments as I remember – when I left Jerusalem

Moses sang a song that would never be forgotten – when I left Egypt,

Jeremiah mourned and cried out in grief, when I left Jerusalem.”

I left Egypt. I left Jerusalem.

What a profoundly different conception of the “I” our medieval poet offers us from the one we are most familiar with. American individualism and the linear historical paradigm of modernity – our intellectually-constructed separation of past, present, future — collaborate to create an image for us of a supposedly unique, bounded, self, ultimately on its own, with its short-lived history, its desires, anxieties, disappointments, triumphs.

Yet that sense of self is just a self-created illusion. To begin with we are all “a little world made cunningly of elements,” the self-same elements that compose the stars. Every human cell embodies the history of the universe, the whole human story. We share 99% of our genes with chimpanzees – and 25% with bananas!

And just as we, as humans, share our fundamental make-up with other living creatures (and fruits!), so, as our medieval poet suggests so movingly, every Jew, whether Jew by birth or Jew by choice, embodies the whole story of our people. I left Egypt. I left Jerusalem.

And that leads us to the paradox and the power at the heart of our Musaf. For the Jewish story is not linear; it is not what we think of as “history.” We – not merely our ancestors – were slaves unto Pharoah in Egypt. We were brought out with a “strong hand and an outstretched arm.” We stood at Sinai – and every once in a while we meet someone and are absolutely sure it is they who was standing right next to us. Our modern selves imagine us as time-bound; our Jewish souls know better.

And so our liturgist, our poet of the holy, in the Zichronot verses gathers together the texts of our tradition to depict the God we pray to today as Ultimate Reality, Vehicle and Container of infinite memory, knowing all that was, and is and will be – every deed of every creature, “every mystery from the moment of creation.” But lest we say that such a God is way too far away from us, way too abstract, the poet remarkably infuses that image with immense compassion: drawing on verses from Torah, Psalms, and Prophets, the poet evokes God as One who remembers not only Noah, but the faultless animals locked up so long in an ark; the God who hears our “agonized cry” as oppressed slaves; the God who in the vision of our prophet Jeremiah admits that loving is not easy, anger is real, and compassion matters.. Even when I speak against him…my heart reaches out to him, say the lines.

God remembers.

And so the lines of Zichronot implicitly call upon us to remember as well, to write ourselves into the story. How, when, where, do we act with “immense compassion’ for the innocent, the most vulnerable, the desperate survivor?

“God has made wondrous works to be remembered,” says Zichronot – what sense of wonder, what moments of wonder, what appreciation for God’s wondrous works, do we remember? Let us call upon them, see them, celebrate them, fill our hearts with gratitude for the blessing of them, praise the Creator of the Universe for them.

Remembering the “chesed” of our youth as a people, God wrestles with the maelstrom of feelings for us, anger, compassion, and yes, sweet love – When do we remember such chesed? When have we opened ourselves to affection, to gentle lovingkindness, to trust? What does it take for us to overcome anger in our own lives, let our heart become vulnerable, and reach out in love? How, when, where, do we act with “immense compassion”?

Do we love others with the fullness our liturgy portrays God loving us?

And just as vital as the love is the passion to help the oppressed. God heard the cry of the slaves. How, when, where, do we hear the “agonized cry” of the millions of slaves in the world today, and what actions do we take to help free them? The cry of the the 1.6 million children homeless every year in the United States, the 82,000 people homeless every night in our city?

Let us write ourselves into the Zichronot story. Let us, too, Remember all that we are and can be as fully alive beings on this planet earth, as covenanted Jews.

In the words of the Baal Shem Tov, “Redemption lies in remembering.”