Friday, November 11, 2016

After the Election

Fifty nine million people.  Fifty nine million people.  That is the number of people, at a minimum, who are unhappy with the results of Tuesday's election.

I’m sure there is a similar segment of the population that is perfectly ecstatic.   It’s a slightly smaller crowd, because while Donald Trump amassed the needed total of states to win in the Electoral College, Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote.  But there is indeed a group that is happy, and I honestly congratulate them, and Mr. Trump, on this electoral victory. 

To some degree that's the nature of elections, and the democratic process.  One group is going to be elated at their candidate’s victory, and the other is going to be disappointed that the sixteen months or so of energy that they’ve invested in an individual did not bear fruit.

I’ll be perfectly honest: I fully expected that after the election, I would be consoling Donald Trump’s supporters-- not myself and my fellow Democrats.  That’s what the polls had led us to believe, and though I don’t like to become overconfident in such situations—and I don’t personally think that was the Clinton campaign’s intent either, by the way—the math simply did not work in Secretary Clinton’s favor.

It’s no small feat to get fifty nine million people to believe in you, to trust you and share a vision with you, and we can admire Secretary Clinton for amassing that great following.  But that doesn’t change the fact that, come January 20, she won’t be the one getting inaugurated.  Again, I congratulate Mr. Trump on this achievement, and I pray with all my heart that he will prove to be a unifying president.

Some have asked whether I would be writing the same sort of messages if my preferred candidate had won, and Mr. Trump had been defeated.  And for the most part, yes, my message would be the same.  The shading of the map on election night, the pie charts and graphs and constantly dissected images showed wide chasms between various groups in our country.  And unless we make a concerted effort to close those gaps and heal those wounds, the rifts can only grow wider.  More than a century-and-a-half ago, Abraham Lincoln stood in Springfield, Illinois and proclaimed, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Today, it once again falls to us to shore up the very foundations of our house, these United States of America, and to ensure that our house continues to stand.  We owe it to our past, we owe it to ourselves, and most significantly, we owe it to our children…our future.

On this Shabbat following the election we read the portion known as Lech Lecha.  Abraham- at this point named Abram- is called by God to leave his homeland, his birthplace, his father’s house and to go forward into uncharted territory.  The story is for us, and indeed for all of the Abrahamic Western religions, the start of our national story.  America, too, has a national story and both those who rejoice in Tuesday's results and those who mourn them are—and must be-- included in that story.  This has been one of the most fractious elections in recent memory-- perhaps in all of American democratic history-- and so we must ask ourselves what steps must we take to ensure that this grand experiment, which is of course only 240 years old, will long endure.  We must ask ourselves what steps must be taken to make sure that the principles of life liberty and the pursuit of happiness continue to be available for all, and how we can come together and heal as a nation when so many people have different views of what that American promise really means.

We've all got work to do.  We don't get to be citizens just once every four years.  The right and the obligation of citizenship carries with it the imperative that we remain involved in the electoral process.  If you're celebrating, go ahead and celebrate, but come January 21 you’ve got work to do.  If you’re mourning, that too is understandable.  I personally am feeling deeply saddened and unsettled.  But come January 21 we've got work to do.  If you held your nose and voted for the winning candidate, or even for the losing one, then come January 21 you’ve got work to do to put politicians’ feet to the fire to demand of them better options.  If you voted for a third-party candidate you've got work to do on January 21 to help elevate those third parties to be mainstreamed choices so that in future elections you have a fair representation of your voice.   And if you stayed home from the election, well I'm a bit disappointed in you, to be honest, but you, too have work to do to restore your faith in the electoral process.  And, of course, our work can start right now; we need not wait until the inauguration.  Get out there and advocate for the change that you wish to see in the system.  We must not be a nation of blue states and red states, we must not be a nation that pits extremes against one another.  Rather we must find a way to come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Most of you know that I prefer not to live my life as an alarmist.  Some of you respond to world news differently than I, but I have not typically been one who likes to always be looking over my shoulder.  When we were debating whether to post a sign for for our synagogue that would be visible from the road, some expressed concern about making ourselves so publicly visible.  I felt that it was appropriate to express pride in our existence, and I continue to do so through my involvement in the community and my devotion to interfaith work.  But the embrace of candidate Trump by white supremacists and anti Semites cannot be ignored.  There already have been isolated reports since the election of swastikas and other Nazi symbols appearing on public property throughout the country, of Muslims and people of color being harassed and physically assaulted, and of people of foreign descent being cursed at and told to “go home.”  Jewish journalists and public figures have been targeted with grotesque Holocaust references and have been vilified on social media.  Not all of this hate can be verifiably traced to Mr. Trump’s supporters, but his failure (thus far) to reject the language and ideologies of his alt-right supporters has tacitly given permission for such sentiments to fester.  Mr. Trump, as the newly-elected leader of this great melting pot of a country, should reassure all of its people by coming out firmly and strongly against such hate.  Because even for an optimist such as myself, it’s feeling pretty scary out there.

At the same time, I recognize my privilege as a straight white man who is not outwardly identifiable as a Jew when I walk down the street (save for the fact that my communal involvement has, perhaps, made me more recognizable).  If indeed there is an after-effect of this election, and it becomes more acceptable for racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and the like to be expressed openly, then it is incumbent upon me—incumbent upon all of us—that we stand up for our friends of color, the women in our lives, our LGBTQ friends, and our Muslim brothers and sisters in addition to standing up for ourselves.  We must remain firm in our resolve: this is not us.  We will not cede our country to the path of hatred, fear, and violence.

I pray that Mr. Trump can lead as a unifier, and that he can repudiate the nasty rhetoric that emerged from some of his supporters throughout the campaign.  I hope that calm can prevail throughout our nation and that we can be united by our common humanity rather than being divided by our decisions at the ballot box.

Ani ma’amin b’emunah shleimah b’vi-at ha-mashiach.  V’af al pi she-yit-ma-mei-ah, im kol zeh achake lo.  I believe with full faith that a messianic age will come when all shall live in harmony and peace and be recognized for their innate goodness—and “God-ness.”  And even though that time may seem long-delayed, I continue to wait for it, and to work for it.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

V'HaSn'eh Einenu Ukal- Kol Nidre 2016

V’Ha-S’neh Einenu U’kal
Kol Nidre
October 11, 2016
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, Illinois

When representatives from eighteen Jewish families met in the Grand Army of the Republic Hall on February 7, 1904[1] to charter this congregation, few of them could have imagined a gathering such as this.  While Jews had gotten together for High Holiday services in homes and rented spaces since at least 1885, it was not until 1904 that the leaders of the community felt that they had the need, and the financial stability, to formally organize as a congregation.  As we come together to worship one hundred twelve years later, we are grateful for their passion and their vision, even as we look toward the future.

In selecting a name for the congregation, the individuals gathered that day looked to the venerable Sinai Congregation in Chicago, which had been founded in 1861[2].  They hoped to emulate that synagogue’s success.  But Sinai also serves as an apt name for a Jewish congregation because of its importance in Jewish history.  Mount Sinai, of course, is where the revelation of the Torah is said to have taken place.

And “Sinai” is said to be connected to another Biblical word, “sneh,” which is used to refer to the burning bush.  You’ll recall that when Moses looks upon the bush, it is engulfed in flame.  Yet Moses’ interest is particularly drawn because despite the conflagration, “ha-s’neh einenu u’kal,” “the bush was not consumed.”[3]

There’s a reading in the Reform liturgy that speaks to the miracle of the burning bush.  It states in part:
Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles…
Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.
And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:
How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it![4]
This prayer reminds us that the sneh, the burning bush, is ever-present in our lives, beckoning us to approach the world with a sense of awe and wonder.  Through the ages, as in the biblical text, the sneh itself continues to exist, despite being subjected to extreme conditions.

Over the years, the same could be said for this very congregation.  Though financial circumstances and social circumstances have shifted, though key employers such as the university and Carle Hospital have had their own ups and downs, though pillars of our community have passed on or moved away, and though in 1971 our original building at Clark and State was destroyed by fire, ha-sneh einenu ukal—the core of our congregation has not been consumed, but rather has continued to thrive.

As I begin my fourth year with this holy congregation, I’d like to take a moment to think about the future of Sinai Temple.  How can we build for the next hundred years and beyond, adapting to the needs of our community, while remaining true to our core ideals?  What steps shall we take to keep our progressive Jewish values alive in the heartland?

These High Holidays are a time for personal introspection and reflection.  We engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our souls, as we reflect on what our successes and achievements have been in the past, and honestly evaluate where we need to make improvements for the future.  Tonight, we’ll also engage in a bit of cheshbon ha-kehillah, an accounting of our congregation.

Throughout our holiday season, we return to an anthem based on Psalm 122: Samachti b’omrim li, beit Adonai neilech—“I rejoiced when they said to me, ‘Come, let us go to God’s house.’”  It should be a joy to come into Sinai Temple—whether you are here for worship, or religious school, or a social event, or just to drop off something in the office.  You deserve to be greeted warmly whenever you call or visit—as I hope you were this evening.  We are always happy to see familiar faces at Sinai; you are an important part of the fabric of our community.  And if you are newly exploring Sinai, or visiting from out of town, welcome!  We are so honored that you’ve chosen to worship with us tonight, and we hope we’ve helped you to feel at home.

We will continue to build a vibrant home here for all the Jews, and explorers of Judaism, who reside in East Central Illinois.  We will honor our storied heritage, even as we prepare to meet the needs and challenges of American Jewry in the 21st century.  It is doubtful that our founders in 1904 could have envisioned the wide tent that our congregation has established today.  But we pledge to embrace all who wish to cast their lot with us: straight, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning; those born Jewish and those choosing Judaism; spouses and partners of Jews who, though they practice another faith, nonetheless welcome Judaism into their homes; Jews of every race and skin tone, and Jews of every denominational stripe.  We celebrate the wide variety of people in our midst.  V’ha-sneh einenu ukal- and Sinai’s core essence remains, and our diversity enriches our experience.

Along with our diverse personalities, we are pleased to celebrate our disparate modes of expressing our Jewish beliefs and ideals.  I am proud to be part of this congregation that offers a wide range of liturgical choices: from the Egalitarian Traditional Minyan to our Reform services, to the English service that was the brainchild of Judy and Peter Braunfeld and will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary in November, to our Shabbat Rocks and Next Dor! worship opportunities for our students.  This year, we will introduce our Friday Night Feasts: on the first Friday of each month, you are invited to join us for an early Kabbalat Shabbat service, followed by a chance to enjoy Shabbat dinner as a community and socialize with all of your Sinai Temple friends.

And with our different modes of worship come distinct ways of connecting with the divine through music.  In any given month you may hear traditional nusach chants; classic melodies from Martha and our soloists; selections from our Shabbat Singers choir; contemporary melodies from the Shabbat Family Folk Singers; and guitar-driven music from Larry Adleston, Jessica Kopolow, Ethan Soloveychik, and Kayla Israel, who help to lead our younger worshippers.  We continue to build our musical repertoire, melding familiar melodies that have stood the test of time with contemporary compositions that cast well-known liturgies in a new light.  We innovate, while always acknowledging our roots.  V’ha-sneh einenu ukal- and Sinai shall continue to thrive.

We will offer exciting, incisive, and significant educational programming, beginning with our youngest students in Hand-in-Hand and progressing through adult learning opportunities.  Our Hebrew and Religious School students, under the guidance of Rabbi Jody and her staff, will continue to get the knowledge and skills they need to lead proud and meaningful Jewish lives.  We will constantly strive to innovate and will remain abreast of current trends in education, so that we may meet the needs of all of our learners.  Recognizing that learning does not stop when one completes grade school, we will also continue to provide adult education opportunities, from our Saturday morning Torah study group to our Sunday morning Talmud classes to our Sunday adult ed gatherings and our monthly “News and Nosh” discussions.  We were thrilled to welcome Rabbi Sally Priesand a few weeks ago, and will welcome Rabbi Gary Zola as our Steinberg scholar-in-residence in the spring.

We will support the land of Israel and her people, and to embrace her promise as a homeland for the Jewish people and a beacon of democracy in that region.  We pledge to continue to discuss and debate the best ways for her to be true to that mission.  We recognize that we may be critical of her leaders and their policies while steadfastly championing her continued existence.  We will advocate for political leadership that strives toward peace for all peoples, and we will work to support social policies that recognize the broad range of Jewish expression within the land of Israel, and work to promote policies and procedures that further egalitarianism and religious pluralism.  We acknowledge the essential humanity of all those living in the area—Israeli and Palestinian; Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze; those of every faith, gender, and political stripe—and we seek to lift up those programs and causes that will affirm this truth for all those who call this region home.  We know that we are not homogenous in our opinions regarding Israel and her role in American Jewish life, and we seek to provide a safe space to explore such issues in a respectful manner.  V’ha-sneh einenu ukal- and Sinai shall continue to thrive.

We will affirm our commitment to works of social justice, in support of our sacred calling l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, to restore the world to wholeness according to God’s vision.  This will be realized through discrete projects such as holding blood drives, providing food for the hungry through our High Holiday campaign for the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, and participating in the Habitat for Humanity build.  But it will also be articulated in long-range efforts, such as seeking partnerships in our community across the boundaries of faith, race, sexual and gender orientation, and socio-economic status.  We will work with our Christian and Muslim friends and neighbors; we will work with the LGBT community.  We will work with the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and the international community.  We will work with all those who are marginalized by our society.  When we are good partners in our community, we are strengthened and enriched.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “That which draws us nearer to our fellow man is this - that the deep heart in one answers the deep heart in another, that we find we have a common nature, one life that runs through all individuals, which is indeed Divine.”[5] V’ha-sneh einenu ukal- and Sinai shall continue to thrive.

We will always look upon ourselves as a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community.  We will rejoice together in times of simcha and we will provide uplift to one another in times of sadness and struggle.  We will seek out opportunities to socialize and strengthen our connections to one another.

But all of these affirmations that we make will have little resonance if we do not ensure that this building, our congregational home, is capable of providing for the needs of this community well into the future.  As you are hopefully aware, we have recently begun to explore modifications to our building—with a particular focus on our sacred spaces and our outdoor gardens—with an eye toward bringing them into the 21st century.  The first phase of this effort is visioning: several dozen of you were present on a recent Sunday morning when Sanford Hess facilitated a discussion of our most pressing needs.  We appreciate the feedback that we received, and we will continue to provide opportunities for everyone to share opinions and insights.

Some of the changes will be purely aesthetic and cosmetic: this building was dedicated in April of 1975; it is my understanding that the last significant upgrade to our public spaces was in 2003 with the installation of our beautiful ark doors in the sanctuary.  Carpeting and many other fixtures are still original, from when the facility opened.  We note with love and appreciation the hard work, tireless energy, and generous financial contributions given by so many that originally constructed this building.  Now it is time to develop a vision for how we and future generations will experience this space.

There are practical needs, as well, that will shape how we move forward.  Much of the work to be done revolves around the theme of accessibility. The bimah must be more accessible to those who have difficulties with mobility, so that all may have the opportunity to enjoy an aliyah, a birthday blessing, or any other pulpit honor.  The lighting in the sanctuary and pods must be improved and our audio systems upgraded.

Better video capabilities will eventually allow us to livestream services and programs; if there are congregants who can’t come to Sinai for an event, we’ll bring Sinai to them!  Our outdoor spaces, including the Cohen, Neuman, and Einhorn gardens, will be improved in order to make them more visually appealing, easier to maintain, and practical as event space.  Each step of the way, every effort will be made to inform and elicit input from all of us.  And though changes will be made—and that’s sometimes difficult to embrace when you are emotionally, spiritually, or historically attached to a place or an idea—I assure you that ha-sneh einenu ukal-  our core essence shall remain unchanged, and Sinai shall continue to thrive.

Some of the changes that that need to be made won’t seem quite as exciting because they involve operational systems that most of us do not usually see (so long as they are running properly).  For instance, to heat and cool a building of this size requires a great deal of HVAC infrastructure.  It behooves us to plan ahead for maintenance and repair of these systems.  There are roofing and electrical issues that are to be expected in an aging building, but need to be addressed.

Many of us have fulfilled our building fund pledges, and several have responded to last year’s call for additional capital to help with maintenance.  This generosity is greatly appreciated.  And of course, we are all grateful to those seated among us today who were contributors to the campaign that originally provided for the construction of this building, and those who supported the addition of the Davis Chapel and the new classroom wing in the late 1990s.  With this new campaign, we seek to continue to celebrate our past, while planning for a bright tomorrow.

You may recall that on Rosh Hashanah, I shared the Talmudic story of Honi, who ridiculed a man for planting carob trees whose fruit he would never personally enjoy.  The man chastised Honi, reminding him that carob trees existed when he was born, and that it was important to plant for forthcoming generations.  Our upcoming campaign will only be successful if we if we can each embrace this reality: it is incumbent upon each of us to help prepare for the future, even if we may not fully reap the benefits ourselves.

I have devoted my Kol Nidre sermon to talking about these plans for our Temple, and how I see Sinai developing over the next several years, because I believe in this place and what it has meant to so many generations of Jews here in East Central Illinois.  I believe in all of us, and our power to continue to create a loving and thriving community.  We will all need to share our ideas, our energy, and our enthusiasm.  And yes, we will need everyone’s financial commitment.

The development committee and the board are dedicated to finding donor opportunities that are accessible to all, no matter your personal finances.  We hope that everyone who cares about Sinai Temple—and all of us who are here tonight hopefully see ourselves as stakeholders—will find some manner in which each person and every household can participate.

If you are visiting with us from out of town this evening, or you are a local who has not yet affiliated with us, again we welcome you, and we invite you to share in our dream of a bright tomorrow.  For those who are so inclined, pre-stamped, pre-addressed donation envelopes are available outside the chapel and the sanctuary.  Funds received will be used to start off our building improvement campaign.

Rabbi Hillel taught, “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur, do not separate yourself from the community.”[6]As we enter the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, let us embrace one another in the spirit of the kehillah kedosha, the holy community in which we find ourselves.  Let us renew our commitment to making our congregation a vital center of Jewish life, worship, study, and celebration.  United in this commitment, we will continue to be strong.  V’ha-s’neh einenu ukal- and the light and essence of Sinai Temple will shine brightly for years to come.

[1] Amid the Alien Corn, (self-published history of Sinai Temple) p. 12-13
[3] See Exodus, chapter 3
[4] A reading by Chaim Stern, appearing in Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007).
[5] From The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 3 (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1991)
[6] Mishnah Avot 2:5

To the Class of 5777- Yom Kippur Morning

To the Class of 5777
Yom Kippur Morning
October 12, 2016
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, Illinois

I often get asked how I go about writing my sermons.  For me, it’s a process; crafting High Holiday sermons in particular is a task that is ongoing.  Throughout the year, I’m taking notes, collecting stories, consulting colleagues, and refining what messages I want to offer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  These are, after all, the most-attended services of the year, and so I strive to find a message that I feel will resonate with the greatest number of people.  The process is almost how I imagine it would feel to write and deliver a commencement address.

Now, that’s something I’ve never been asked to do.  But I’ve attended, listened to, and read enough graduation speeches over the years that I’ve begun to appreciate the way that their messages are crafted: rousing speeches that seek to inspire the listeners—graduates and well-wishers alike—to go out and do something truly monumental in the world.

As a rabbi, I hope to do the same with my sermon, particularly during the High Holidays.  I work to carefully select my words and my themes in the hopes that I can do justice to the awe of the day.  I strive to have my messages be complimentary to the liturgy and the music so that the overall experience of these Days of Awe becomes one of spiritual resonance and uplift.  If I succeed, you not only chat about it at the break-the-fast; you also take action to change yourself or to change the world for the better.

It’s a tall order, and I follow in the footsteps of giants—not only my predecessors in this particular congregation, but every rabbi, prophet, and teacher who ever stood before an assembly of our people and tried to impart wisdom to the masses.  All of us owe a debt to the skillfully crafted rhetoric of Moses (ironically, a man who early in his career protested that he was “slow of speech”).  In his valedictory addresses to the Israelites, which comprise the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy, he delivers several important charges to the people, seeking to impart a few last bits of wisdom during his waning days.

In the passage that we read today, Moses sounds like a graduation speaker.  Atem nitzavim,” he begins.  “You stand here today, all of you, assembled before Adonai your God.  The heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the strangers who are in your camp, from those who cut your wood to those who draw your water…”[1] It’s a bit like starting off, “Chancellor Jones, President Killeen, faculty, students, honored guests…” isn’t it?  Like any good speaker—at a commencement or elsewhere, Moses draws in the listeners by reminding them that they each have a stake in what he’s about to say, from those most established in the community all the way down to the those engaged in the manual labor needed to keep the community functioning.

In the case of the Torah, the message that Moses has come to convey is one of a covenantal relationship.  As he prepares for his imminent death, and transfers the mantle of leadership to Joshua, he urges all those assembled to pay heed, emphasizing that they are each a part of the sacred agreement between God and the Jewish people.  The blessings of God’s love and protection are extended to them all, and God’s teaching is accessible to them all.  Lo bashamayim hi,” Moses declares.  “It is not in the heavens.”[2]  The treasure of the Torah is not reserved for an elite few, but is offered to all in the Israelite community.

There were some equally powerful messages, with universal lessons, that were delivered during the spring cycle of graduations and commencements.  There is one in particular that I believe may be instructive to us and inspire us as we spend today engaged in the act of teshuvah.  It goes beyond the stereotypical generalities of “follow your passions” to charge the listeners—not just the graduates, but all the listeners—to make a difference in their world.  And isn’t that what we all seek to do, on this Yom Kippur and throughout our lives?  Don’t we all wish to know that we’ve made an impact, that there has been some higher purpose to our existence?

The text I want to focus upon was delivered at the University of California at Berkeley by the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I should share that Sheryl and I grew up together; we attended the same synagogue and the same high school, though she was a year ahead of me.  Though we have not remained close in adulthood, I have admired how she conducts herself in the public spotlight.

Sheryl is known not only for her work at Facebook but also for her book Lean In, and the movement it inspired.  But just over a year before her address at Berkeley, shewas faced with the loss of her spouse.  Sandberg’s husband, Dave, died from a sudden cardiac arrhythmia while on vacation.  She noted, “Dave’s death changed me in very profound ways. I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void—or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning.”[3]
Sandberg went on to talk to the graduates about resilience.  She reminded them, “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”[4]  Resilience is an important trait to draw upon during these High Holy Days.  As I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, we need to be willing to visit and re-visit our shortcomings and errors each year; this is the act of teshuvah.  And it can be daunting, even upsetting, to realize that we’re consistently “missing the mark.”  But resilience reminds us, just as our tradition does, that we have been given the power to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again.[5] 

Sheryl told the story of trying to make an arrangement for her child to participate in a father-son activity following Dave’s death.  She cried to a friend, “I don’t want alternatives, I want Dave!”  And her friend gently responded, “Option A is not available.  So let’s just kick the [heck] out of Option B.”[6]

Sometimes our best-laid plans will go awry.  Sometimes the options we long for are not actually available to us.  It is the way that we respond in those moments that shape our character.  Sandberg, quoting psychologist Martin Seligman, notes that researchers have pointed to three “P’s” that are critical to understanding how we bounce back from hardship.  I would argue that they are also crucial to processing what we wish to do when we make teshuvah.  These “three P’s” are personalization, pervasiveness and permanence.

The first P is personalization.  This is the tendency to believe that we are at fault for things that happen in our lives.  There is a fine line between this sort of personalization, which can be harmful, and taking responsibility when you have indeed done something wrong.  In fact, there’s a whole book of the Tanach dedicated to parsing this distinction—the book of Job—that we are currently studying in our Shabbat morning Torah study (all of you are welcome to join us)!

But personalization seems to be a natural human tendency.  In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the sad story of a college student who collapsed and died of an undetected aneurysm while jogging.  When Rabbi Kushner went to pay a condolence call to her parents, they asserted that they were facing God’s wrath because they had not fasted on Yom Kippur.[7]  In their grief-stricken struggle to find some meaning in their daughter’s death, they engaged in personalization, and decided that their actions (or lack thereof) had placed their daughter’s health in jeopardy.

Now, I want to add an important aside: this is not the God that Kushner, or I, believe in.  I cannot promise, much as I would like to, that none of us will see sadness or calamity this year.  But I don’t believe that those in this room who are not fasting today—whether by choice, or out of medical necessity, or for any other reason—are at any greater risk of misfortune than those who are observing the fast.

Personalization can be detrimental to teshuvah when we come to believe that our missteps are because of some internal failing.  If we are convinced that we are hard-wired for sin, so to speak, then we may eventually become disinclined to attempt any realignment of our behavior.  If we feel that there is no possible way to move beyond our misdeeds, if we classify it as an ingrained quality of sinfulness, then we may reject that teshuvah is a worthwhile endeavor. 

But our liturgy is designed to snap us back to reality.  None of us individually is unworthy of God’s attention and love.  It is our behavior that God rejects, not our being.  You’ll note that our liturgy is all composed in the plural: Ashamnuwe are guilty; Al chet she-chatanu, for the sin that we have committed.  No one is made to get up and say, “Yoo-hoo, over here…I’m the one who harbored evil thoughts yesterday…I’m the one who gossiped on July 16…I’m the one who behaved arrogantly last week.”  We collectively stand in contrition, asking God’s forgiveness, for we understand that sin is not personal.  When one person has done a wrong, the community accepts responsibility for getting that person back on track.

The second P is pervasiveness.  Sandberg speaks about it in the context of her grief, remarking that, “There’s no place to run or hide from the all-consuming sadness.”  Yet she notes that eventually she was able to see that “there were other things in my life that were not awful. My children and I were healthy. My friends and family were so loving and they carried us— quite literally at times.”[8]

It’s easy to see how the theory of pervasiveness could prevent one from accomplishing teshuvah.  If one believes that he or she is irredeemably “bad,” then why would that individual even bother to attempt to get back into God’s good graces?  But breaking free from the trap of pervasiveness requires us to recognize that just because something historically has always been so, that does not require it to continue to be so.  If one has always yielded to certain temptations, or continually disregards the needy, for instance, that need not mean that such behavior cannot be corrected.

A quote currently being popularized on the Internet maintains, “Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”[9]  The statement underscores the insidious nature of pervasiveness.  A fish, a child, any human being who is consistently led to believe something about himself or herself will soon have that imprinted on his or her psyche as truth.  So, someone who is continually scolded for wrong behavior or straying from what God desires, will come to believe that he or she is branded for life as sinful.  Indeed, many conservative faiths operate under such principles.  But we are fortunate to have a God who desires teshuvah.  As we have been taught, “[God says,] ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that they turn from their ways and live.’”[10]  We have been assured that if we merely make an effort—if we break through the pervasive messages that tell us we are not worthy—God will always receive us with love.

The third P is permanence—the belief that a feeling (or a behavior, or a condition of our lives) will last forever.  As Sandberg put it in her address, “We often project our current feelings out indefinitely—and experience what I think of as the second derivative of those feelings. We feel anxious—and then we feel anxious that we’re anxious. We feel sad—and then we feel sad that we’re sad. Instead, we should accept our feelings—but recognize that they will not last forever.”[11]  Overcoming the sense of permanence is significant to teshuvah, as well.  We need to assure ourselves that we start this New Year with a clean slate, that the way things have gone in the past year (or, perhaps, for the past several years) are not the way they will always be.

A parable holds that King Solomon, well-known for his wisdom and for his constant thirst for more knowledge, wished to compile all the teachings of the world into a single source.  His advisors eventually manage to distill everything down to a single three-word phrase, “Gam zeh ya’avor; this too shall pass.”[12]  Solomon has this inscribed on a ring that he wears for the rest of his life.  When things look good, and he feels powerful, it serves to remind him that fortunes may change quickly.  And when things are going poorly and he is upset, the ring assures him that he will not always feel this way.

So it is with us.  We can overcome the sense of permanence that holds us back.  We can remind ourselves, “Gam zeh ya’avor; this too shall pass.” 

We have begun the year five thousand seven hundred seventy-seven.  In Hebrew, those last two numbers are represented as ayin-zayin.  They spell the word “oz,” meaning “strength.”  May we each find the strength to engage in teshuvah that will be pleasing to ourselves and to God.  As Moses teaches at the conclusion of his address in Nitzavim, God has given us each the opportunity to choose life and goodness.  May this path indeed be our choice.  May we learn to overcome the “three P’s” that tend to hold us back from making positive changes in our lives.  May we, the class of 5777, be blessed with a happy, healthy, sweet, and meaningful New Year.

[1] Deuteronomy 29:10-11
[2] Deuteronomy 30:12
[3] Sheryl Sandberg, commencement speech delivered at the University of California at Berkeley, on May 14, 2016, retrieved from
[4] Ibid.
[5] An allusion to the 1936 Jerome Kern/ Dorothy Fields song “Pick Yourself Up.”
[6] Sandberg, op. cit.
[7] See Kushner, Harold When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Random House, 1981)
[8] Sandberg, op. cit.
[9] Though attributed to Albert Einstein, there is no evidence that he ever said or wrote this.  See
[10] Ezekiel 33:11
[11] Sandberg, op. cit.
[12] There are many versions of this folktale, which may originate in Persian tradition.  For one telling, see