New For Yom Kippur: Isaiah 57:14-58:14 Reimagined

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Stop for just this moment
and consider:
the roads you are traveling
will not lead you to my kingdom.
You journey so proudly
so blindly
through this barren land
and I can abide it
no longer.

Your false piety
has become unbearable to me.
You look up to the skies,
you say all the right prayers
yet somehow you cannot see
that the world is coming apart
all around you.

You look for me endlessly,
you ask me to show you the way;
how can you be so eager to know me
yet so unwilling to see my face
in the one who is standing
right next to you?

You fast on this holy day of yours
while children go hungry in your own city
and families line up for bags of grain.
You pray for your martyrs,
you recite Yizkor and Kaddish
then sell handguns and Apache helicopters,
and profit from the blood they spill.

You call for inclusion and compassion
while you build a system of racism
and oppression that grows
without end.
You march for peace
but refuse to see the difference
between the hollow peace
of domination and control
and the true peace
of justice for all.

You advocate for human rights
in far off lands
and yet you lock up and shoot down
black and brown bodies
in your own backyard.
You chant from your holy texts:
“do not oppress because
we were once oppressed”
while you occupy another people.
You wield your legacy of victimhood
like a weapon
as you expel and expropriate,
build checkpoints and demolish homes.

You preach of freedom
and democracy
and yet you treat the world
as your personal fiefdom.
you topple governments of nations
that refuse to serve your interests,
prop up tyrannical regimes
to ensure your hegemony.

Your fast today is meaningless to me.
Do you really think this is the fast I desire:
to forgo food for one day
to intone the same prayers
to your confess the same sins
year after year?
Do you believe such a fast,
will make a difference?

No, this is the fast I desire,
dismantle your systems of oppression
open wide your prisons,
tear down your separation walls,
destroy your weapons of death
let justice rule in your streets.

Open wide the vaults and
share your abundant wealth so that
all are fed and clothed and sheltered.
Bring in the immigrants,
let the refugees return home
at long last.

These are the sacred sacrifices
I have been asking of you all along.
Do you think you are up to the task?
Will you offer them to me?
Will you let go of your old ways,
your hollow meaningless rituals
and find the courage to worship
with offerings that I truly require?

Are you ready to spread my healing
across this broken bleeding world,
to stop looking forward and behind,
and venture into the dark places
you would never dare to tread,
only to realize you yourselves have been
dwelling there all along?
Do you have the strength to say
to the ones whom you find there:
hineini
here I am, here I am,
here I am.

These sacrifices you offer up to me
cannot possibly be sustained.
Your well will run dry,
the source of your very lives
will be depleted and soon
you will have nothing left to give.

So let these wells dry up,
seek out the springs that give forth
life giving waters without end.
Restore the foundations of my world
Tear down the walls you have built,
Rebuild the homes you have destroyed
Erase the borders that you have drawn.

Open your sidewalks and pathways,
your roads and highways,
clear the way for all
to find their way without fear
and you will discover a place
you never dreamed could
ever possibly exist:

the place where the low is brought high
and the high is brought low:
the kingdom of heaven
that dwells right here
on earth.


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:

Read the rest of this entry »


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.


The Path to Healing is Justice

Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods.      (Isaiah 1:6)

These opening verses from Isaiah, are part of the Haftarah portion for this Shabbat.  It is the final of the so-called “Haftarot of Affliction” that precede Tisha B’Av – the most grief-stricken of Jewish festivals.

Like the Biblical book of Lamentations, our Haftarah is filled to overflowing with fierce divine judgement and and overwhelming sense of communal self-pity and shame:

Ah sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! They have forsaken the Lord, Spurned the Holy One of Israel, Turned their backs (on God). (1:4)

Beginning next week, however, our Haftarah portions will offer messages not of affliction, but of healing and consolation. From this point on, these portions will guide us all the way into the High Holiday season itself. In a sense, the Jewish calendar is currently in a spiritual rhythm that moves us on a journey from pain to healing.

I particularly struck that unlike the book of Lamentations, which is essentially a litany of pain and shame, this week’s Haftarah actually offers a quintessentially prophetic call to justice:

Wash yourselves clean; put away your evil from before My eyes; cease to do wrong.

Learn to do good, seek justice; relieve the oppressed. Uphold the orphan’s rights; take up the widow’s cause.   (Isaiah 1:16-17)

In other words, our present woes can be directly traced to our own acts of injustice. As I read these verses, I’m reminded of the oft-made observation that the strength of a society can only be judged by the extent to which it protects its weakest citizens.  In much the same way, this week’s Haftarah teaches that our own vulnerability is irrevocably bound up with the most vulnerable members of our community.

As it turns out, the Haftarah for Yom Kippur comes from the book of Isaiah as well. I like to think of these two prophetic portions as “spiritual bookends” to this season. At the end of the Days of Awe, we will end with the same essential message with which we began – the way to healing and redemption is really quite simple:

No, this is the fast that I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; to clothe when you see the naked, and never forget your own flesh (Isaiah 58:6-7).


Yizkor and the Rhythms of Remembrance

As we do every year, JRC just observed a Yizkor (“Memorial”) service to mark the end of the Pesach holiday. This particular year, I introduced our memorial prayers by saying that mourning itself is something of an open-ended journey – and one that rarely unfolds in a predictable manner. I also pointed out that more recent research in the psychology of grief tends to reject the linear “Stages of Grief” approach made famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

From a recent piece in The New Yorker:

Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process—sometimes one that never fully ends.

I do believe that the notion of grief as an “ongoing process” is at the heart of the Yizkor memorial observance. It often feels to me that there is a powerful rhythm to the practice of saying memorial prayers during major four festivals of the year (Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot). Since each festival has its own unique spiritual themes, the process of ongoing Yizkor observance drives home the truth that grief is a cyclical – rather than linear – experience

Here is my own take on how this process resonates through the Jewish holiday season:

Yizkor of Yom Kippur – “Dwelling in the In-Between:” the Day of Atonement is, if you will, the spiritually rawest time of the Jewish calendar. It is the time in which we acknoweldge our mortality and look into the coming year with a potent emotional mix of awe and trepidation. The tenor of Yizkor for Yom Kippur thus resonates with the pain and uncertainty that inevitably comes with grief. In the juncture between a year past and a year yet to come, we allow ourselves to dwell in that “in-between place” between the past we know and the future we have yet to experience.

Yizkor of Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret – “Preparing for Winter:” Immediately after the harvest festival of Sukkot comes the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Our Yizkor prayers are recited during our preparation for winter – the season in which we construct the necessary protection and defenses for these cold, dark months. Yizkor for Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret honors these defenses – as well as the spiritual work we know we must do in order to make it through the long nights ahead.

Yizkor of Pesach – “Inevitability of Life Renewed:” On Passover we begin to see the green shoots of new life sprouting up from the previously hard, fallow earth. The natural world around us testifies to the inevitability of liberation – and we come to understand that this rebirth is indeed woven into the very fabric of creation. So too, with our own lives as we walk the path of the mourner: the Yizkor of Pesach comes to remind us that there is life after grief as surely as Spring follows Winter.

Yizkor of Shavuot – “Celebrating the Fruits of our Labor:” On Shavuot, we bring in the harvest. As Spring moves in to full bloom, we now begin to reap what we’ve sown. We now affirm that all of the hard work (and bereavement is nothing if not hard work) does indeed pay off if we do it in a spirit of openness and love. On this Yizkor, we celebrate the fruits of our labors – and rededicate ourselves to the journey ahead.

It’s a shame that the observance of Yizkor tends to be falling off among liberal Jews. I truly believe there is great spiritual resonance in these rituals – which cycle outward over the seasons and throughout the years. Even for those who are not traditionally observant Jews, there is real meaning to be found in these rhythms of remembrance.

The next Yizkor will occur in several weeks, on Shavuot. (May you reap a bountiful harvest…)