A Psalm of Thanks

[Thank you to Rabbi Rachel Barenblat for providing the Psalm writing workshop in which I could write this. Thank you to both Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus for providing me prayer space in which to feel like this last Shabbat.]

What a wonder - brokenness
What a luxury - despair

Most days I don’t have the time
I can’t bother with wallowing
I can’t allow myself to sink
There’s so much else calling

Still, in the deeps
In the fractures
With a little time I find space
And some relief
Some solace in feeling
Anything that is only mine

With a second, when I am not needed
I am be grateful
For hurts and sadness

My breaks are mendable 
My grief is not so great
Facing the world
Listening to my tiny breakings 
I can see them for what they are


Dig Deeper, Find Holiness, Reinvent

Erev Yom Kippur
10 Tishrei 5779
Tuesday, September 19, 2018
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

This time of year, I find myself sifting through the memories of faces of my family, the smells of my childhood homes or even the ocean, all surrounded by aspects of love and connection, warmth and embraces. Some of these memories are poignant, bittersweet, and some simply evocative of days gone by. These are the sacred landscapes of my life - some of which might even include listening to the beautiful voices of cantors and possibly wise words of rabbis on the High Holy Days and the aroma of old prayer books and the aging wood scent of pews.

We come together tonight at the beginning of Yom Kippur to deeply experience holiness. The sacred in Judaism is much more than just a religious thing - it is specialness that emerges from all our important memories and experiences.

Right here as we are encountering the holiness of our year, the memories of being together on this day, here in this sanctuary and others, with the people around us, everyone present for us even those who’ve passed, and with the meanings that swirl around in the air like eddying currents in a tide pool - we could easily say that this was the point. That this is what we’ve come here for. Yet, in this place and time laden with the past and our experiences, we must go deeper.

Since moving to Buffalo, Ginny and I have marveled at all of the connections we find running through Western New York - friends and acquaintances from other places who turn out to be from here.

Last year a college friend visited us. It turned out that he grew up in North Buffalo. In fact, he grew up on the street where we now live.

Just a month ago I connected with a rabbi who was eager to help me as a Buffalonian since some of his relatives hailed from Eggertsville.

One of our closest friends from when we lived in Northern Nevada grew up in Amherst and graduated from Park School.

We have begun to say that all roads lead through Buffalo.

It is really no surprise then, that a singer-songwriter whom I loved in my twenties, Ani DiFranco, is a Buffalo person too. In one of my favorite of her songs, she sings:

go back…and dig deeper, dig deeper this time
down beneath the impossible pain of our history
beneath unknown bones, beneath the bedrock of the mystery
…beneath the good and the kind and the stupid and the cruel
there's a fire just waiting for fuel.

[Ani DiFranco, Fuel, from, Little Plastic Castle, 1998]

We are here to connect with meaning and go deeply into ourselves - to find out what is really ours and what isn’t. To claim for ourselves the meanings in our memories, to separate out what is ours and what we need to leave behind, and to figure out how to use it better.

We must get past all of the things that distract us, and all that we use as excuses, and uncover ourselves in this moment of truth.

The world offers us many distractions and they are so easy to follow down and away from the work we hope to accomplish. Things get in the way. In the course of explaining ourselves we can so easily shift blame and duck responsibility. Our apologies come with excuses and justifications before we even speak them.

Much in the news today, a term has re-emerged. It is called “whataboutism” and is an old Soviet propaganda technique of deflecting criticism by pointing out faults in critics. The Soviet Union’s spokespeople would dodge questions about how they treated their people by saying, in the 1960’s, “Look at the racism in the United States.”

There is no “whataboutism” on Yom Kippur. When we go beneath the surface to face our selves, our consciences, our senses of the universe, God, we don’t get to deflect the critique - we must face the self-assessment. We call this cheshbon ha-nefesh - an accounting of the soul.

Self-accounting is frightening. One of my teachers, Rabbi Richard Hirsh, said that people don’t fear change, we fear loss. To face ourselves, to get rid of the distractions and the excuses, is to experience a loss of all the band-aids that we use to hold ourselves together. Think about one of the things that the famous comedian George Carlin, may his memory be for a blessing, said, “Try to get through the day without nine good rationalizations.” We have to drop the rationalizations and face ourselves. And we have to do more than draw up a list of self-criticisms. Being honest with ourselves, getting rid of the easy answers to who we are and what we do, also means being generous and merciful to our selves.

And this is difficult too. We are here tonight, beating our chests, literally, confessing our sins. I have a much easier time accepting that I need to be more generous to others. Tonight, we have to be more accepting, more giving, more forgiving, of our own flaws. We are here to do the work together, to support each other as we face the mirror of our souls. We support one another in the work we do on our own. The time and place and the company helps, and so do the words of the service.

We started this evening with Kol Nidrei:

“All vows - 
…that we take upon ourselves…
we regret them and for all of them we repent.
Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone;
they are not valid and they are not binding.
Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves;
and our oaths they shall not be oaths.”

Kol Nidrei - the sound of the words in Aramaic is haunting, the music echoes through the chambers of our hearts and the depths of our souls, and the meaning of the words has made impressions for generations. We declare our oaths to be null and void - we relieve ourselves from the obligations we make. Historically anti-Semites have used this declaration as proof of Jews’ sinister and corrupt nature - that we would declare our business obligations null and void and use this as a religious justification to cheat and steal. Rabbis always clarify that the oaths we declare void are only those that we make with ourselves. We understand that in the year to come, as in the year gone by, we will bind ourselves to things that we cannot complete. We seek to be forgiving to our past, present, and future selves.

The turning of the year, the process of returning to do repentance, to atone, to make ourselves whole enough to go into the next year with holiness, requires us to unbind ourselves from promises that we can’t keep to our selves. We must start fresh and new.

Connect with the power of this day, cut away the things that hold us back, dig deep, so that we confront ourselves with clarity and generosity and compassion - all of this we do in order to begin again, to reinvent ourselves. We are on a journey to create something sacred.

Mark Goldman, a member of our community, said something about this just this past week. On Saturday evening we were celebrating Havdalah, the ritual with the braided candle, spices, and wine, which marks the transition between Shabbat and the rest of the week, as well as doing Tashlich, the symbolic casting away of last year’s bad behavior into the water, on the bridge by the Naval Museum at Canalside. We have been making Havdalah in places throughout Buffalo - Delaware Park, at the Black Rock Canal and Broderick Parks - for the sake of “spiritual place-making” - connecting the everyday and wondrous in our city, with the everyday and sacred in Judaism. As we were talking about this, Mark said that “Where memory and meaning connect, the place becomes sacred.”

Listen to Mark again - when memory and meaning connect, we get holiness.

This is profoundly true and wonderfully Jewish.

Our hope with the Havdalah series this summer was to create memories in places with meaningful experiences - to connect the Jewish ideas about holiness with the meaningful places and experiences here in Buffalo - to bring a little bit of holiness into our lives through meaningful memories.

We make places and moments holy by what we do and experience in those times and locations.

The Day of Atonement is the beginning of our journey to create something sacred in the coming year. To turn the memories evoked by this time into a meaningful experience that leads us into holiness as individuals. We need to be better, holier, in the days, weeks, and months to come. We must connect to our past in a powerful way, we must not be dragged down by excuses and other baggage that holds us back, and we must care for ourselves with compassion in this process.

The setting out on this journey is imperative. To do anything less is to allow us to be stuck in the past, and so abandon the future. We must look forward while holding on to what came before, without being held back.

We must reinvent ourselves.

Beneath it all, beneath all of those vows that bind us to our own courses of action, we unknot ourselves, we see what it is like to go into the New Year with fewer fetters tying us down.

So what do we find when we dig deeper in order to reinvent?

We start with the cores of ourselves, the parts that have been put together and crafted and buffeted - the centers that have triumphed and survived. When we unbind and uncover we attempt to honestly face who we are beneath it all - who we are, who we have always been, and who we hope to become.

Underneath all of the surfaces and strata, the layers of obligations and oaths that we have placed upon ourselves in the last year, that we might place upon ourselves in the next year, we clarify what is truly us. What we have built and what we still need to work on. What needs to be preserved, maybe renovated a bit, and what can be jettisoned entirely as a failed experiment.

Yom Kippur must be a day of liberation for our souls as we embrace the New Year as we celebrate our history, our starting point and foundation, and make progress in the sacred places of our own inner geographies, seek and create meaning that moves us forward from the past into a better future, and make new memories that expand upon and celebrate and honor the ones we already have.

We come here today to find greater meaning in the New Year. We start in our hearts, dig deeper, and then, taking what worked best before, we reinvent to find the sacred in what was, what is, and what can be for all of us in a better year to come.

We craft this holiness in ourselves, and we craft it together as a community.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may we find a holy link from the past to the future on this day of meaning and memory.

Be vulnerable, be uncomfortable, lead with sympathy

Brene Brown, the noted researcher in the field of vulnerability, says that being imperfect is about being vulnerable, and that the most dangerous myth about vulnerability is that it equals weakness. She says, to the contrary, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weaknesses.” (From Being a Good Boss in Hard Times)

Enter our vulnerabilities and walk with our discomforts - especially in the reaching out to people with whom we might disagree.

Ahava Raba with Cantor Yanky Lemmer

Still haven't gotten your tickets yet for Ahava Raba this Sunday evening, November 6, 7:00 PM at North Park Theatre?

Let Cantor Penny Myers convince you with her interview with Jay Moran from WBFO - Buffalo's source for NPR.


Sunday, November 6

7:00 PM

North Park Theatre, 1428 Hertel Ave., Buffalo NY

Ahava Raba is a richly vibrant musical group from NYC that features Cantor Yaakov ‘Yanky’ Lemmer, trumpeter Frank London and clarinetist Michael Winograd. Ahava Raba has been touring Europe, Israel and performing at various Jewish Culture festivals including the highly proclaimed Krakow Jewish Culture Festival. It is a marriage of Klezmer, Chazzanut, with an old school feel yet a refreshing energy and vibe. 

Tickets: $54 Premium | $36 Deluxe | $18 General Admission 

Tickets can be purchased at North Park Theatre and 

online at www.northparktheatre.org 


Congregation Beth Abraham, Congregation Shir Shalom, Jewish Discovery Center, 
The Kadimah Academy, Kehillat Ohr Tzion, Saranac Synagogue, Temple Beth Tzedek,
Temple Beth Zion, and the Buffalo Jewish Federation. 

Thinking Torah for This Week

July 22-23, 2016 / 17 Tammuz 5776
Parashat Balak
The Book of Numbers Chapter 22, Verse 2 – Chapter 25, Verse 9 

What can we possibly learn from a story about a talking donkey?

I suppose this is really a silly question, considering the huge number of popular books, movies, and television shows that feature speaking animals, many of which are also classic and powerful vehicles for profound instructions (see Aesop’s Fables, Daniel the Tiger, or Zootopia).

In this week’s Torah reading the talking donkey is the only one who sees that an angel with a burning sword is threatening her rider Bilaam.

Sometimes we need the wisdom of simple creatures to remind us to open up our eyes and see what is really going on around us. This story reminds us that insight can be found everywhere, and that listening deeply may allow us to learn from everyone and everything.

Let us all try to breathe, watch, listen, and open our minds to what we can learn. 

Wishing everyone a truly wonderful week filled with blessings of open minds and well-being,

Walk with balance, walk with strength

Yesterday was the Tenth Day of the Omer - tiferet in g'vurah - balanced beauty in strength.

At our Talmud lunch today, we studied the midrash about Abraham breaking idols (Bereishit Rabah 38:13).

The conclusion focuses on the power of Abraham's connection with God - Abraham walks through a fire unscathed on account of his spiritual prowess.

Perhaps the strength that we can find is one that allows us to find the difficult path through hazardous places - both within and without. This is strength that relies on balance - endurance that allows us to choose our steps and paths wisely.

Finding the right footing helps us walk with strength.

Inner balance leads to strong steps in the right direction.

Seek Strength

The Ninth Day of the Omer - strength within strength.

Pursuing strength, hardness, justice, often requires discipline - it is important to push ourselves.

With all our fuzzy language about kindness and love, we still know that at the core of our work we must pursue it with determination and rigor.

We must find that core of discipline, the spark of motivation that helps us push through to our next level, whatever and wherever that might be.

Strength can be a value - rigor can be a priority - finding the sources to persist requires us to dig deep.

Be determined. Persevere.

Strength starts with kindness

[Yesterday's Omer Counting Reflection]

A week devoted to our internal upright nature, the part of us that holds up rigorous standards, and seeks justice.

This is the week of g'vurah - the strong arm of our personalities.

The first day of every week of the Omer starts with chesed - loving-kindness.

When we start with kindness, our justice will be tempered with mercy.

When we start with love, our high standards will be softened with forgiveness.

When we start with compassion, our strict clinging to rules will be infused with a bending that is stronger than any easily snapped brittleness.

Let our strength be guided by love. 

The Practice of Kindness

"The appearance of things changes according to the emotions, and thus we see magic and beauty in them, while the magic and beauty are really in ourselves."
~ Khalil Gibran

On the Seventh Day of the Omer, doing in the area of loving-kindness, and on each week's seventh day, we work on the connection between theory and practice.

Bringing all our thoughts of loving-kindness into reality, into the world of malchut, the sphere in which all our thoughts get put into practice, requires us to recognize the goodness that we ourselves can author in reality.

We can act of out love , devotion, and kindness, when we connect with the boundless mystery within our hearts and souls that allows us to give and care for ourselves and others.

The Building Blocks of Kindness

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”  ~ C.G. Jung

Today, the Sixth Day of the Omer, is the day focused on yesod, balanced foundation and the interpreter of all those abstract ideas of the more profound mystical spheres into something practical.

How do we bring the idea of universal loving kindness into our minds as a "doing" instead of a "thinking" or "feeling"?

All actions start with a spark within us - even our on the spot reactions are rooted deeply inside. To consciously bring compassion and loving-kindness from our best selves into the world of action requires conscious balancing and internal negotiating - the job of that foundational interpreter, yesod.

A solid foundation takes an uneven footing on the earth to create a level place for a building and yesod helps us build a solid place within our minds to bring constructive and kind actions into the world.

Listen, learn, love

Hod - which is grace and smallness, humility, is our focus in the sphere of love and kindness today (we are leaving behind the fifth day of the Omer and entering the sixth tonight).

Humility can be a source of sympathy: "I can't possibly understand what's going on with someone else. I must silence all my voices to listen and understand who they are, what they feel, and what they need from me."

In order to be loving and compassionate we must meet people where they are, not where we think they are.

Listen and learn so that we can love. 

Loving Starts Within

On the Fourth Day of the Omer, as we think about netzach - the self at the center of things - in chesed - loving-kindness, I remember that I cannot give what I do not have.

Without caring about and for myself, I cannot offer caring to others.

Without loving something about myself, I cannot love others.

We begin with the self, and we must move on to love and care others from a foundation within.

Balanced Caring

The third day of the week focuses on the idea of tiferet - the harmony that comes when all things are balanced. Harmony in the area of loving-kindness - an important and occasionally subtle idea.

Devoting ourselves to caring for one another can drain our resources for self-care. When we work in a caring field - and probably every job today has an aspect of caring for one another - we can over-extend at the expense of other areas as well.

To find harmony as we care and devote ourselves to kindness is to understand that there is such a thing as too much. Giving until it hurts is not a solution.

Give, take stock, and take care, so that we can continue to be kind and loving another day.

Counting and Caring

Today is the First Day of the Omer, a Jewish period of counting and reflecting that connects the liberation of Passover to the receiving of the Covenant at Mount Sinai on Shavuot.

Each of the days of the seven weeks of the Counting have been given a theme by Jewish mystics. The first week and first day are both devoted to the idea of chesed in Hebrew, or loving-kindness, in English.

Just what is loving-kindness?

In the culture of the Jewish Bible, a colleague of mine, Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, pointed out that "love" can be better understood to be devotional loyalty - as in "You must love God" and describing that love by talking about upholding the Covenant between the Universe and the Jewish People.

So we can talk about chesed as noticing what the world and the people around us need most, and offering it with care and devotion, and with no expectation of compensation.

Let us all find a moment to realize the great caring accomplished for our souls, our friends and family, and our larger communities, when we give out of compassion and devotion.

Entering Kabbalah starts again this month!

Seeking shelter during the time of Sukkot also means building it. The Sukkah is a sign of shelter because it requires being a good neighbor and dwelling among good neighbors. We invite in our ancestors in to help us be a person of integrity supported by traditions of good behavior. We open the sides to invite in our physical neighbors too. Finding the inner path that connects our actions, emotions, thoughts, and inspiration so that we are givers and receivers of shelter, that's a path in Jewish mysticism.

Want to learn more?

Check out Entering Kabbalah.

New Ways to Connect

Seeking a new approach to spiritual life and bringing meaning into our lives?

We have two new opportunities - one is a four session class exploring Kabbalah from a useful and scholarly perspective - how can Jewish mysticism affect my life for the better every day?
Find out - details and registration here:
Entering Kabbalah

Here is another new way to connect:
Lunch with Martin Buber
Monday, February 2, Noon - 1:15 PM
Bricktop's Restaurant, 6401 Morrison
"I and Thou" and lunch.
We will begin to read and discuss Martin Buber's majestic and humble approach to finding God in the world.
We will look at at the First Part (pages 53-85 in Walter Kaufman's translation).
Copies provided, no reading ahead required.

In these troubled times...

This quote from Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg's book, The Murmuring Deep, page ix, echoes and resonates:

In any vital encounter, much more is transacted than lies within the field of consciousness. As Hans-Georg Gadder often remarks, we "always already" belong to prejudices, wishes, and interests that close us to certain truths and open us to others. The complex interplay of forgetting and remembering, the traumatic departures from our own experience, all leave traces in our movements of communion with one another.

In Praise of Creation on Sukkot Evenings

On Shabbat of Sukkot we stand exposed
A people outside, under stars and moon,
staring up in awe, humble before You.
The light of day fades, evening rolls in,
The cycle of the world turns, night creeps up
into the sky. Our eyes open, soften.

The harvest of the summer hangs and frames
the signs that show the season soon to come.
Through the walls and ceiling of the Sukkah,
we sense Your miracles, depend on them.

What a great gift that we should be able
to draw so near to You in prayer.
How many walls stand between us, though God
fills all the world, still You seem so hidden,
Yet a single word of prayer topples all walls,
we reach between the leaves of the Sukkah,
our vulnerable bodies outside,
stretching in wonder, drawing near to You.

Praised are You, Adonai our God, who brings the evening.

Overcoming Fear

Yom Kippur Morning 5775 – Saturday, October 4, 2014
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

Ted called the rabbi about his wife Doris, who was dying in the hospital. Ted wasn’t a Temple member and was concerned about whether or not the rabbi could do Doris’ funeral.

“How is Doris?” the rabbi asked.

“Doris is dying. They say a day or two. Do I call over to the funeral home and make preparations now? We have cemetery plots but no funeral plans.”

“Is Doris in any pain? Is she awake and aware? Is she frightened?”

Ted still had more questions about the funeral. “Ted, Doris isn’t dead yet. The funeral director will be available later. What can we do for Doris now? Would you like me to visit her?”

Ted thought that a visit would be nice, but the rabbi shouldn’t make a special trip.

The rabbi found Doris alone in a room with two beds. “Hi Doris, I was in the hospital and heard you were here, so I thought I would come by and say hello. We met once before. Do you remember me?”

Doris opened her eyes fully. “Rabbi,” she managed to say.

“Yes.” He slid a chair close enough to the bed so he could sit and hold her hand. “How are you doing?” She didn’t answer, but she looked at him steadily. “Are you in pain?” Her eyes rolled up to the IV drip. The medication was adequate. “You don’t have to say anything. If it’s alright with you, I’ll sit here for a while. Is that all right?” She nodded.

Her eyes were open to him. Some of her history stared back at him. She knew why Ted had called the rabbi. It wasn’t the first time he had buried her.

There was no denial, but no acceptance either. Only resignation.

His eyes were open to her. She saw in them a reflection of her situation. She saw his concern and compassion. She knew he had made a special trip to see her.

“Would you like me to pray for you?” he asked her, still holding her hand.

Her surprise was evident. She had never prayed before. She had no notion that someone else could pray for her. To her surprise, she wanted him to say a prayer. She sincerely wanted it. Her desire struggled with her notion of hypocrisy. All her life she had never seen the point of prayer. Now that she was dying, she welcomed prayer. For the moment, she was stuck between her desire and her disbelief. Her desire won out. More than anything else in the world, at that moment, she wanted a prayer. “Yes, I would like that.”

“What do you want me to pray for?” the rabbi asked, knowing how crucial that decision would be.

He felt her shock through her hand. It flashed across her face. She knew for a certainty that the gates of prayer were open. She had two choices. She could pray to die.

She could pray to live. She had known she could die. She had not known she could live.

The rabbi read the argument in her eyes. She had a good reason to die. Could she find a good reason to live? He saw and felt the shift in her when she found it. He didn’t know what her reason was, but she had found it.

“I want to live,” she said.

“Can you say that again, please?”

“I want to live.”

In that instant her prayer broke through. The rabbi sealed it with a quick prayer of healing. The rabbi’s words were unimportant. The real prayer had burst from Doris’ heart. The rabbi had been there as witness, and nothing more.

He squeezed her hand. “I’m going to leave now. I hope to see you again soon.” She smiled in response.

Doris recovered. The doctors called it a remarkable spontaneous remission. She lived another six months during which she healed a rift with a son from whom she had been estranged for years. The next time she came to die, the son was present to hold her hand. 

In this story originally told by one of my teachers, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz, in his novel, The Seventh Telling, Doris rediscovered her ability to choose. Choice is a fundamental aspect of our humanity, and our Judaism, and may be the most frightening thing we need to reclaim on this day.

We are about to talk about the “Power of this Day”, how it causes us to stand in awe, and full of dread. This is one of the culminations of the Days of Awe, and Un’taneh Tokef, one of the central prayers of these days, stands before us as a declaration of a great decree upon the year to come. Have we done what we needed to do in order to end up on the correct side of the statement, “Who shall live and who shall die”?

Have I done what I needed to do?

Can I face the year to come feeling like God will decree for me a good year?


You may not believe that a rabbi feels this way, but I do not actually believe this. In no way do I feel that there is a supreme personality weighing my year to come and deciding my fate for it and that if I do or don’t do something in particular at this moment, on this day, then my fate will be changed my some supernatural force.

Because, if I believed in such an idea, that God made a decree on October 4, 2014, on the basis of my level of sincere repentance, which would impact whether or not earthquake or plague struck my neighborhood in Charlotte sometime before the next year’s Yom Kippur, on September 23, 2015, (God forbid – I am both a rationalist AND STILL superstitious!), then my whole way of thinking the rest of the year wouldn’t work.

If my prayer or repentance could alter weather patterns, stock markets, or whether or not my family would suffer from hunger, then why would I do anything but pray?

What use would any of my actions be if I believed in the supernatural impact of prayer?

We know that this is not a choice for some being in the sky to make for us – it is ours to make – I must be the one to choose life. We must be the ones figure out how to navigate the twists of fate that will come our way, for better or for worse. And the prayer before us reminds us of that too – it concludes emphatically:

“But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, and RIGHTEOUS DEEDS, temper judgment’s severe decree.”

These words, sung out every year at the end of our worrying litany of potential fates remind us that when all is said and done, our fate is in our hands.

Maybe this is the problem.

While it may feel great to know that it is all up to us, I am frightened about it.

A day “full of dread” indeed – Yom Kippur, when we remind ourselves that the entirety of our year is in fact on us to improve or ruin.

On top of all of that, like Doris in the story, we must accept that this choice before us is real and that choosing makes a difference. Our prayers reflect our willingness to open ourselves to possibilities – to go beyond the fear of the worst-case scenario and accept that we can choose something else. We must make a choice even though we fear to do so.

There are so many fears out there – the notion that we might be less responsible for some of the things going on around us would be a comfort. Taking all that on is just one more thing to be anxious about.

The future often holds the worst of our fears.

The future leads to death. I fight that all the time, and I hope mostly in a healthy fashion. I even joke that the reason I am so serious about running is that I am fleeing from death. I want to live long to see our kids grow up and live as adults.

After all, I am a forty-four-year-old with a seven-year-old and a ten-month-old!

Is that a positive desire, or just another expression of our fear of everything going wrong? I am not sure.

I do know that when I face up to my fears, I accomplish things that are truly important.

I fear that my struggle with the memory of my father, with my anger and resentment towards him, gets in the way of me being a better person, a better husband, father, and rabbi.

On Sunday I ran twenty miles, yes, all at once, and so had a lot of time to listen to podcasts. One of them, an interview between “On Being”'s Krista Tippett and yoga instructor Seane Corn, who talks about taking yoga “Off the Mat and into the World”, highlighted Ms. Corn’s experience of coping with great difficulties. Her experiences reminded me that I needed to choose to forgive my father. I needed to choose transform whatever injury I felt I received from him into a gift, and even to be grateful for the things that I once thought were hurtful. I need to choose to live my life, and let his life, now over for seven years, be an asset for me. After all, I am the only one in the relationship now, I had better figure out a way to make it work to my advantage.

When I hear “Who shall live and who shall die” I can take it as an inspirational statement to choose a better life in the year to come. 

The rest of this frightening prayer goes beyond life and death and into quality of life:

“Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.”

This gets deep into the heart of our difficulties – every single one of us wants to come out on the right side of these. And we want these things answered for our families and friends too.

It would be terrifying to think that our demeanor and seriousness on this day, on the days leading up to this day over the last month of our repenting, would actually result in harmony or suffering for us for the next year.

We want to accomplish the thing that would make this all work out – it would be so great if there were ONE thing we could do today to accomplish this.

Not so simple though.

Think about the consequences of a wrong action.

This summer we watched an Israeli documentary, “The Gatekeepers” – interviews with former directors of the Shin Bet – the general security agency tasked with Israel intelligence and counter-terrorism in the occupied territories since 1967.

In one of the opening scenes, as a surveillance camera tracks a van, one of the Shin Bet directors talks about the decision to take action. He says:

“Acting out of fear means killing people who shouldn't be killed.

“People expect a decision, and by decision they usually mean ‘to act’. That's a decision. ‘Don't do it’ seems easier, but it's often harder.”

Our responsibility for others' lives isn't usually so self-evident. Others' lives are not directly in our hands. We are not pushing any buttons that can end someone else’s life at any moment.

Still, everyone's lives are in our hands, every moment, every action, every inaction – each of these makes a huge difference, even when we don’t notice it.

Fear leads us to not merely make the tough decision to not act, or to act rashly, fear leads is to turn away and wash our hands of the whole thing.

To see ourselves in this prayer, to see ourselves as responsible at all times – this is what we are asking of ourselves on this day. We feel dread, because we can make a difference. We ease our fears, as individuals and as a community, when we realize we are not alone. We are in it together.

This is one of my definitions of God.

Instead of imagining that God will suspend the rules of the world for us – change the course of the reality on which we depend – merely on the strength of our prayers today, let us use these moments to connect with each other, and remind one another that these connections are the point of Un’taneh Tokef.

God is in what we create when we connect.

“Who shall live and who shall die…” – who among us will remember the value of our lives, and the lives of those around us, and use every day to make those lives worth living.

“Who will be degraded and who exalted…” – who among us will reach past our fears of connecting to a person in need. Who among us will reach past our fears of asking for help, and bravely turn to someone when we are in need. We are truly here for each other – we must ask and we must answer.

This moment is not about how we pray but how we live.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson says:
“We are most God-like when we open ourselves up to the vulnerability of real relationships.”

When we open ourselves up to the choices and choose to connect with each other, with the world, with the sources of our fears and our hopes, then we can accomplish miracles, just like Doris did. We can choose life.

Feel our fear, because on this day we remind ourselves about the choices that lay in front of us every day of the year.

“But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, and RIGHTEOUS DEEDS, temper judgment’s severe decree.”

And we have the power to overcome this when we are open, when we find openings, when we offer openings – to our selves and to one another.

Take a leap, decide to overcome our fears in the year to come...

Take a leap, decide to overcome our fears in the year to come...