You Shall Pursue

September 16, 2013

Ki Karov Elecha (Because it is Close to You: Yom Kippur D’var Torah 2013/ 5774)

Filed under: D'var Torah — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 7:02 pm

This summer, I worked at a Jewish sleep away camp in New Hampshire teaching Jewish rituals and values. And one week, I was teaching my twelve and thirteen-year-olds about, the stories that Jews tell about the Bible. As the opener to that lesson, I asked my campers how many of them found something from the Bible confusing. And, without fail, every hand in every bunk went up and the questions started pouring in. How could God allow Abraham to nearly sacrifice his son? Did the Exodus from Egypt really happen? How do we know that any of this is real, anyway?

I empathize with my campers, as I’m sure we all do. The Torah is confusing! There are stories that seem to contradict each other, and stories that simply seem to defy sense. The work is just so magical, and mystical, and tangled up, that it seems impossible to untangle at times.

So then how can Deuteronomy claim “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. 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?” Neither is it 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, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

How could the dense and confounding instruction of Torah be as close as our hearts and our mouths?

In this passage, the first sentence is often translated as “Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you.” The word that we translate as “baffling,” “niflait,” comes from the Hebrew word “feleh,” which means a “wonder” or a “miracle.”

This is a word that you have all heard before, although you may not remember where. In the Shirat HaYam, the song in which the Israelites celebrate their redemption from Egypt, the song from which we get our prayer Mi Chamocha, the Israelites exclaim that God is “norah tehilot, oseh feleh,” or “awesome in splendor, doing wonders.”

So, the redemption from Egypt is a “wonder.” The splitting of the Sea is a “wonder.” The Torah is not. What on earth could THIS mean?

When God claims that the Torah is not a “wonder,” God does not mean that the text is not wondrous and holy. Rather, God means to contrast “wondrous” with “close.” Rather than being a miracle like the splitting of the Sea that only God could do, the Torah is close by to our hearts. It is a text meant to reflect the stuff of our everyday life, and inject a little bit of Divinity into our mundane existence.

One of the things that I love about the Torah is how profoundly human it is. It is a record very real, very flawed people trying mightily, and sometimes failing, to build an authentic relationship with God. Whether it is Isaac misinterpreting the moral characters of his sons, or the Children of Israel rebelling in the desert, our ancestors often struggle deeply to find their way. They show fear and pain and doubt.

And yet they continue with the struggle. They continue to reach out towards God, hoping to find a peace and security in the land and relationship that God promises to them as a birthright.

One of the key beliefs of the Reconstructionist movement, which is the movement through which I will be ordained, is that our way of life, Judaism, is an “evolving religious civilization.” This means that, for a Reconstructionist Jew, Judaism is holy precisely because it is constructed by human beings, and because it changes over time. When we examine our writings in their historical context, they spring to life and become so much more than the words on the page.

And as they fill with life, they become more fully our own. I love our sacred texts precisely because they serve as a multifaceted and changing record of where Judaism has come from; a record of my ancestors’ grappling with the Divine.

The poems and songs and legal arguments and petty family squabbles of the Torah are so powerful precisely because they are so contradictory. When I think of Torah in all of its magnificent complexity, I think of my own psyche, and the psyches of those whom I know and love.

I cannot count the number of times that I have found myself holding holding two contradictory reactions at one time, and needing a complicated response to complicated feelings. For example, I don’t always have an easy relationship with God. In trying moments, like the after effects of Sandy Hook, I mostly want to scream and swear at the heavens, to ask, “What on Earth is wrong with You, that You would let this happen?” In those moments I find solace in the Bible. Not because it suggests that there is a reason for everything, but because it shows our forefathers and foremothers swearing and screaming just as loudly as I want to, and then continuing on in relationship with God.

And if I can need the Bible to help soothe my religious and ethical crises, think of how many opinions and stories are necessary to sustain the faith of the Jewish people!

THIS is what the Torah gives us; the perfect mirror and summation of the human drama reflected back at us through the lens of the divine. From the questioning bordering on cynicism of Ecclesiastes (where we get the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun”) to the erotic joy of the Song of Songs, there is a piece of every human emotion and experience for us to find in its letters.

This is why we read the Torah over and over again every year. To paraphrase Rabbi Barbara Penzner, “by studying Torah, as well as practicing Jewish rituals and acquiring Jewish religious objects, we can find an opening into a practice that will lead to our own unique Jewish experience.” As we read the stories of our ancestors and feel their religious and ethical concerns, we are bolstered in our own struggles with faith, to take the journey forward.

This is especially important on this day, the day of Yom Kippur. On this day, we are required to come before God and to confess our sins. And that is very very hard. But when we arrive, we are not alone.

As we read earlier in Nitzavim, the contract to follow the path of Torah and the path of Judaism is not just with us. It is “both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

When we doubt in our ability to follow this path, we can turn to Aaron, stone-faced and silent after a tragic accident during preparations for Yom Kippur claimed the lives of two of his sons. Or we can turn to the rabbis of the Talmud, haggling over what exactly the Torah meant to “afflict oneself” during this holiday. We can turn to David in his many lament psalms, reaching out to God and begging for the overthrow of his enemies. Or we can turn to the haunting and deeply familiar strains of Kol Nidre.

Each of these Jews had a very different answer of what to do when God called them to make an accounting of their sins. And yet each of them serves as an ancient model of how we can respond to that same call.

In this time of year, a time when we often feel alone with our sins, let us remember that we are not alone. We are standing with millions of supporters, whose voices have been left behind to help us continue along the path of the Jewish people. May we rely on them, and may we grow in strength from their example.

And may we remember that the help and strength that we need is not too wondrous, but rather very close to us, in our hearts and in our mouths, that we may do it.

Shabbat Shalom, and G’mar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed for blessing this year, and every year.


September 13, 2013

Excruciating Vulnerability (Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2103/ 5774)

I delivered this sermon on Rosh Hashanah at my congregational internship. It is based on this post. The full text of “the Seam of Skin and Scales” is here and you can find Benee Brown’s TED Talk here.

Shanah Tovah and a gut yontif  to all of you! I want to thank you for welcoming me to your community this year and for giving me a chance to learn with all of you. Let me start this morning with a story.

There was a rabbi named Abaye, and one day as he was walking through the fields of Persia, he came upon an unmarried man and woman walking along together. And Rabbi Abaye, who was concerned for their reputations, decided to follow along behind them to make sure that nothing improper happened.

He followed them. For NINE MILES.

The couple came to a fork in the road, said their goodbyes, and walked off, the man along his path, the woman along hers. Abaye was confused; why on earth didn’t he have to intervene? Surely any red blooded man in that situation would have tried to make a pass at that woman! And then he realized; it is not ANY man, it is him, he is the one who would have tried to take advantage of the situation, and of that woman.

This discovery led to a minor mental breakdown. He curled up in the doorframe of a nearby house and began to weep, when suddenly, one of his elders happened along. And the elder passed on some sage advice. “The greatest men of every generation,” he said “have the greatest evil inclinations.”

Imagine this, a rabbi and a pillar of the community publicly crying and confessing his sins, and being forgiven, not because his sin was not so bad, but because sinning is a part of life.

Contrast that with how we talk about sin in modern America, where you are either sinful or righteous, with no in-between.

It is an understatement to say the least, that this causes problems.

How many of us know the terror of saying something foolish, doing something that will elicit scorn, or showing even a moment of weakness? We believe that because we are fallible that we have failed. We are terrified of the thought that we might not be perfect, as anything less would make us unlovable and worthless. But there is not a single person on earth who is free from insecurities, flaws, and faults; who has not, from time to time, failed to live up to his or her best self.

I watched an online lecture recently by researcher/ storyteller Benee Brown in which she speaks movingly of what she calls “excruciating vulnerability.” In the course of her research on love and belonging, she discovers that in order to feel worthy of love and belonging, a person needs to exhibit the courage to show their imperfect selves and the compassion to love their authentic selves and the authentic selves of others.

What does this have to do with Rosh Hashanah? This is our time for excruciating vulnerability Judaism gives us a week and a half every year where we are commanded to let the mask slip. We have the opportunity to show the courage and compassion that might be lacking the other 355 days a year. The yearly process of the High Holy Days marks the pinnacle in an endless process of recognizing and reaffirming that life has scarred us in a million big and small ways, and that these scars lead us to live fearful sometimes, to be less loving, to not live fully up to our ideals.

So this morning I want to ask you two difficult quesitons:

How vulnerable are we willing to be to show our authentic selves?

How willing are we to admit our imperfections to others and especially to ourselves in order to lead fuller and healthier lives?

The six months leading up to my acceptance into rabbinical school were not easy for me. During a particularly difficult work situation, I broke down crying in my parents’ car on the way home from the train station, briefly considered quitting my job and moving home, then found myself a therapist instead. I was plagued with anxiety that I was failing at everything. And since starting school, I have not learned to “be healthy,” per se. Rather, I have learned that it is okay, normal, and natural to be flawed, and that I can still be loved and accepted as I am. And, ironically, letting go of my need to be perfect and digging down into my flaws and letting them show has helped me grow more as a human being than I ever thought possible.

Giving up and letting go can ONLY be transformative if it is not a private conversation between us and God. We are expected to back up our private shame with public action, and apologize to those whom we have wronged. But how many of us take the time to dig into excruciating vulnerability, and begin to repair the breaches with those whom we love? How many of us go the friends whose pain we have ignored, or the family with whom we have low level grudges that have lasted for years, or the neighbors who we have never bothered to get to know?

And our teshuva needs to go deeper even than that.

In the Torah, the Day of Atonement is not only for the sins of Jew against Jew, it is for the resident aliens as well.

What if teshuva meant not only showing vulnerability to those whom we love, but to open our interactions with acquaintances and even strangers to vulnerability as well? How much good we could do in the world, if only we could open ourselves to the possibility that we might be wrong?

Whenever I hear people speak of the “undeserving poor,” the people who need to work harder and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, I hear people who are terrified of admitting that they did not earn what they have entirely by hard work, but by luck and connections as well. Whenever I hear people defend bigoted statements by saying that they are not racist or sexist or homophobic, I hear their terror at admitting that they still have growing to do as a human being.

In a country where Congress passed 22 bills between January and August, a record low, where people shoot schools, bomb marathons, and kill teenagers for the crime of walking back from the convenience store, the need to be right triumphs over the need to do right, and the consequences are disastrous for those we need to care for most.

This is why personal confrontation and confession is so important. We stand before those whom we have wronged, and tell them that we are flawed and broken. And that mutual act of recognition, of two people looking back at one another and confessing their brokenness builds a stronger bond, a bond built on honesty.

And so, we start today. God is sharpening God’s quill, taking the scrolls down from off the shelf, and considering whether we will live or die.

And I exhort you all to live. Do not hold back for fear that your repentance will be unsuccessful, because the only way to have even hope of success is through that blinding fear and doubt.

Yes, choose life, that you may live. And choose love, that you may be loved. And choose the pain cracking open that shell because, in the words of Leonard Cohen, that’s how the light gets in.

I would like to leave you with an excerpt from a poem called “the Seam of Skin and Scales” from activist and clergywoman Elena Rose. In her poetic vision, it is the monsters, the flawed ones, who inherit the earth.

It is time to look the monstrous in the eye. It is time.

It is time to say that we are beautiful in our fierceness, and that we are our own. We are not the rejected of what we can never be. We are what we were meant to be. We are not pieces of wholes thrown together incorrectly. We are not mistakes.

We are not inferior knockoffs of someone else. If our monstrousness is frightening, then it is time we bare our teeth and draw that fear close to us and stop being so afraid of our fearsomeness that we fear everyone and everything else right back.

May we all live to see the day that we are free to accept our true selves, skin and scales and all.

Shanah Tovah.


September 14, 2012

President Obama’s High Holiday Address

Filed under: Jewish Communitty — Tags: , , — marleyweiner @ 1:33 am

So I’m busy freaking out about classes, lesson planning, and the High Holidays. But I wanted to share with you this Rosh Hashanah greeting from President Obama. Shanah Tovah everyone!

May 2, 2012

Gather the Broken

Filed under: Spirituality — Tags: , , , , — marleyweiner @ 3:20 am

Gather the Broken

A lovely blog for each day of counting the Omer. By Amichai Lau Lavie, of StorahTelling fame.

Create a free website or blog at