A Prayer for Yom Hashoah

(photo: Margaret Bourke-White)

(photo: Margaret Bourke-White)

Oh, Spirit of mercy,
whose presence dwells
in the highest heights
and the darkest depths:

Shelter the souls
of all who were oppressed and murdered
during the years of the Shoah.

May the memory of those who were
singled out, persecuted and destroyed
be sanctified for goodness
and for peace:

Jews, gays, lesbians
and political dissidents;
communists, socialists,
labor leaders and Soviet prisoners of war;
resistance fighters, Roma,
Freemasons and Jehovah’s Witnesses;
the disabled of mind and body;
the homeless, the unemployed
and the unwanted…

May all who were once left vulnerable
remain protected beneath the soft wings of your presence
that they may rest in peace.

Spirit of Compassion,
help us to mourn their loss in such a way
that our fears and our hopes will become indistinguishable
from the fears and the hopes of all who are oppressed.

Help us turn isolation into wholeness,
division into fellowship
and bitterness into healing waters of liberation
for all humanity.

Amen.

Tu B’shvat in the Diaspora: Celebrating the Unseen

snowtrees

In the land of Israel, the “harbinger of Spring” festival of Tu B’shvat is marked at this time of year by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms through the central and northern parts of the land. Those of us, however, who live in the northern hemisphere diaspora, often celebrate Tu B’shvat surrounded by several inches of white snow and leaf-less trees. Is this any way to celebrate a harbinger of Spring?

I’ll suggest that it is. I actually find it very profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the depths of a Chicago winter. It reminds me that even during this dark, cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees – although this fructification process might not be as visually spectacular as the proliferation of white almond blossoms exploding across the countryside, I believe this invisible life-giving energy is eminently worth acknowledging – and celebrating.

I took the picture above this morning while walking my dog.  They may not be gorgeous almond blossoms, but I’d like to think that these bare, snow covered elms are wonderful spiritual teachers in their own right. All hail the unseen forces of our rebirth and Happy Tu B’shvat!

Yes Virginia, Maybe Hanukkah IS the Jewish Christmas…

Christmas-Hanukkah

Among the most interesting and smart articles I’ve read about Hanukkah this year is a piece by JTS Rabbinical Student Benjamin Resnick in the Forward, in which he argues there is every reason – and in fact good historical precedence – for Jews to appreciate the beauty of Christmas even as they celebrate Hanukkah.

Resnick writes:

I say this as a committed, observant Jew and as a future rabbi. As someone who spends a great deal of time engaged in ritual, there are a handful of ritual moments that — year in and year out, and regardless of where I am physically, emotionally or spiritually — never fail to move me. The beginning of ma’ariv on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, is one. The smell of latkes is another. And the first time I hear the rum-pum-pum-pum of “The Little Drummer Boy“ is a third.

The fact is that Hanukkah menorahs and Christmas trees, “Maoz Tzur” and “Jingle Bell Rock,” potato pancakes and chow mein have become intertwined in the seasonal consciousness of American Jews. And while a great many contemporary Jewish voices go to great lengths to convince us that Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas,” I would argue, from both a historical perspective and a spiritual one, that such protestations do a disservice to the very traditions they venerate.

I actually came out of this particular closet (admittedly in a much less erudite manner) several years ago when I confessed that I love listening to Christmas songs – particularly those of the aching, melancholic variety:

Is it perverse or at all sacreligious for a rabbi to be confessing his love for songs such as these? I dunno, don’t you think there’s something of a Jewish quality to them? Maybe it’s their quasi-exilic yearning (not to mention the fact that most of them were written by Jews anyhow.)

So that’s my seasonal guilty pleasure confession. And lest you judge me too quickly here, just take the test yourself. Check out James Taylor’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” or “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” as sung by Sarah McLachlan. (Man, that last line gets me every time…)

So have yourself a Happy Little Hanukkah now…

On Sukkot: Turn and Turn Again

On Sukkot eve, some selections from Ecclesiastes to help you celebrate this time of our rejoicing…

a generation goes a generation comes
but the earth remains forever
the sun rises the sun sets and
glides back to where it rises again
southward blowing turning northward ever
turning blows the wind
on its rounds the wind returns

all streams flow into the sea but
the sea is never full
to the place from which they flow
there they will flow back again

(Ecclesiastes 1:4-7)

Wrestling Our Way Home: A Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5773

From my Erev Yom Kippur sermon last Tuesday:

I’ve often thought that there’s (a different Torah portion) that is just as appropriate – perhaps even more appropriate – for Yom Kippur.  I’m referring to the famous episode in the 32nd and 33rdchapters of Genesis, when Jacob wrestles on a riverbank with a mysterious stranger the night before he meets up with his estranged twin brother Esau.

Anyone who’s read or studied this text will attest that it’s a phenomenal story with deliciously rich spiritual symbolism.  Indeed, I often find myself returning to this portion for its insights on forgiveness, reconciliation and personal transformation.  All of which, of course, are central themes to the Yom Kippur holiday.

So on this Yom Kippur eve, please allow me to submit this story as an alternative Torah portion for your spiritual consideration. I hope its lessons will help us all engage more deeply in the spiritual work that lays ahead this coming new year.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

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Monotheism and its Discontents: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773

From my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon last Sunday:

Isn’t it profoundly presumptuous to say our God is the only God?  I think we can all agree that right and wrong that should apply to everyone, without exceptions, but whose right and whose wrong are we talking about?  Why should our faith system – or any faith system – get to determine the will of this universal moral authority?  It’s all well and good to affirm that we all serve one universal God, but history is replete with examples of heinous acts committed by people of faith who believed the rest of the world should do their God’s bidding.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

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On a New Year of Healing, Hope and Transformation

From my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon five years ago:

Yes, our actions do make a difference. Every opening of a door, every act of peacemaking, every move we make to heal the world around us has the potential to create a sacred transformation. They can make a difference in ways we can see readily and in ways we will never truly know.

And lest I forget one more crucial point: such actions have the potential to transform our own lives as well. Isn’t that what this time is year all about in the end? That we need not surrender to the complex, often painful external events that too often enter our lives. That no matter what, we can start anew, that our actions do make a difference. I have said it before and I will it argue to anyone willing to listen: if our spiritual tradition stands for anything, it stands for the eternal possibilities of healing, of hope, of transformation. No matter what may happen in the world around us, we are not simply bystanders bearing witness to eternal cycles of occurrence and recurrence. We can break these cycles, we can re-chart our courses, in a myriad of small and not so small ways. And if we ever have any doubts about this, we gather and affirm this truth together every single new year.

And here we are. Another new year has arrived. Another door has opened before us. The gates have opened wide. Let’s join hands, step forward, and walk through them together.

Sending blessings for a New Year of healing, hope and transformation…

Must Listen for High Holidays: Galeet Darsahsti

Check out the latest musical offering of Persian Jewish singer Galeet Dardashti – a taste of her new live performance, Monajat.

From her website:

Monajat is inspired by the poetic prayers of Selihot, recited during the month preceding Jewish New Year. It is a time-specific concert and program that takes place during a period of deep reflection and spiritual preparation. In the project, she re-imagines the Selihot ritual in collaboration with an acclaimed ensemble of musicians, an electronic soundscape, and dynamic live video art. Monajat is a Persian word meaning an intimate dialogue with the Divine. Using Persian melodies and Hebrew texts, the work pays homage to her grandfather (Yona Dardashti, the most renowned singer of Persian classical music in Iran in his day). She performs some of the Persian piyutim (liturgical songs) traditionally chanted as part of the Selihot service, as well as other liturgical and non-liturgical Hebrew and Persian poetry set to new music. Through electronics, she defies time and performs with her grandfather.

Dardashti’s Persian-Jewish musical hybrid is nothing short of sublime. If you’re tempted by this preview, check out her album “The Naming,” in which sets her unique musical sights on stories of Biblical women.

All are Welcome Here

Occupy Wall St. Kol Nidre 2011 (photo by David A.M. Wilensky)

Some more of my new liturgy for the High Holidays. This one is an introduction to Kol Nidre:

Time now to summon the truth
that lies in the space between
our most exalted selves and
our darkest inclinations.

Time now to give each another permission
to open wide our hearts
and enter this most holy of holy places.
To bare our pain,
admit promises unkept, vows broken
and faith betrayed.

Within this sacred space in between
all are welcome:
the proud and the shamed,
those who fought their way
to the front of the line
and those left behind;
the joyful souls that sing out praises
and the wounded hearts that cry out
their pain.

Yes, you are welcome here.
In the space between the brightest day
and the darkest night
there is room
for all.

who shall live and who shall die

I see you standing there alone

eyes searching through the blankness
of a year stretching limitlessly on like a
book waiting to be written.

Don’t bother glancing behind.
Don’t pretend you’re unaware
that in a year’s time
a world can be shattered
or born anew.

Just gaze forward
and we’ll ask the questions together:
Will it be a year of curse
or a year of blessing?
Of wounding or
of healing?

Throw open your hands and
let your hopes and fears fly out
past the blank pages
of a year yet to be.
Dare to believe that we will all
be written for blessing in
the Book of Sweet, Sweet Life.

Now close your eyes and we’ll send off
this one audacious prayer:
May the new year bless us
with health, wholeness,
and peace.