Personal Inoculations

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Primarily still working from home, I am not out a lot and certainly not out in crowds. Except for last Friday. That was when I returned to Squirrel Hill to get my second vaccine. Due to social distancing, the line extended down the block – ages spanning adulthood, differing physical abilities, religions, skin tones, economic status. It was a sea of Americanism edging toward the door.

When I got to the door and then entered, I was focused on the process and following the procedure carefully. Don’t put anything on this table. Use this pen. Take your form off the paper. How many hundreds of time had he said that just that day? I thanked him, expressed my wish that he stay safe, and sat in my seat, studying “patience” as that was the next middah (soul trait) I was to teach the following week. Then I was called forward. The nurse checked in with me, I said the blessing to myself, and then she administered the shot. I thanked her and expressed my wish that she stay safe. Then I was directed where to sit and walked over, book in hand, ironically anxious to get back to “patience.”

And then she said “hello.” It was my friend from the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh here in Monroeville. It was so nice to see each other; it had been so long and I had almost forgotten what I had been missing for over a year: all of the interfaith gatherings that were not only meetings. The small talk. The reminder that Ramadan was soon to start. Being welcomed into one another’s houses of worship with kindness, prayer, and traditional food. We wished each other well and I wished her a peaceful Ramadan and we each sat in our chairs and then went on our separate ways.

It took me a few days to think about how our encounter may have appeared to onlookers. Maybe it was not unusual for them or maybe it was: a traditionally-dressed Muslim woman and a kippah-clad Jewish woman so joyful to see one another.

In that room, so much had occurred: patience, gratitude, blessing, diversity, selfcare, equality, friendship. To me, it is a miracle that the vaccines have been developed, proven and administered so quickly. Can we take that idea forward and make our own miracles? If each of us would devote even a bit of our day to developing the soul traits that showed up in that room, we would each be doing our part to inoculate our world against the not-so-invisible viruses of hate, racism, inequality.

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Why Shouldn’t This Night Be Different From All Other Nights?

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

I learned that the four questions are optional.  They were meant to be an if-all-else-fails to get the children’s attention, then break glass (so to speak) and use this emergency device.  Yet not one of us could imagine a Seder without the four questions.

Therefore, we must see them as a beginning not an end.  The four questions are meant to answer the simple child just as other questions are meant to respond to the other children.  Of course, no child–or adult–is “simple” (or any of the other labels) but rather at that moment that person is trying to get involved, trying to begin at step 1, trying to get engaged and has the wherewithal to bring to his/her lips “Why on this night are we only eating matzah…eating bitter herbs…dipping our foods twice…leaning?” Think of the courage it takes to ask the entry question, especially if you think everyone else knows the answer.  And we all know, that is never the case.  Never are you the only one that doesn’t know the answer!

The questions are a doorway, a way into the story, into the experience.  That is always the way with questions that are asked with respectful inquiry.  The key is how we answer.

I like this interpretation from

Perhaps the Haggadah deliberately provides caricatures of four types of children to teach us something about the care we must take when we answer questions. Each person at our Seder is coming from a different place. This one is older and more experienced. That one has never been to Seder before. That other one was sick and did not expect to make it to Seder, but is there. That one never learned to read Hebrew, and that one knows French.

By telling us the story of the four children, each with a distinct question and each with a distinct answer, the Haggadah is telling us to accept each person where they are and to begin from there. The questions that are asked must be addressed, and the questions that are not asked must be addressed.

After we open the door for Elijah and if he has not yet come, the Seder will end.  Then there will be dishes and matzah crumbs everywhere, filled Tupperware and sleepy children and still there must be lingering questions.  The rabbis taught that when Elijah comes, his job is not only to announce the Messiah but to answer unanswerable questions.  So let’s continue asking questions and seeking answers not just about the Seder but about, well, everything until he joins us at the table, sits back with his personalized cup of wine and joins in the conversation.

Happy Passover!

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Welcome Home, Kind Of

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

To: Jews by Choice
From: Israel
Subject: Welcome Home, Kind Of

On Monday, March 1, per the Times of Israel (3/1/21): the Israeli Supreme Court voted to allow for Conservative and Reform conversions to be accepted regarding the Law of Return and citizenship.  There are many question that might arise from this sentence, not the least of which is: why would this decision be before the Supreme Court? To further confuse (and upset) matters, this is what was written about Shas: “The ultra-Orthodox party vows to initiate legislation to overturn the court’s ruling, and also to support legislation that will prevent the court from intervening in such matters in the future.”  This begs the follow-up question: why would this decision be before the legislature?

It is time to pause and thank God (irony intended) that we live in a place that separates Church and State.  America’s first Amendment, though often tested, stands firm: our government cannot impose religion on us or keep us from practicing our religions (within limits).

Given the lack of separation of “church” and state in Israel, I stand with Yesh Atid’s (a political party) Yair Lapid, who notes, “A sane government will put an end to the ridiculous situation whereby Israel is the only democracy in the world without freedom of religion for Jews.”  To which I say: Amen!  Selah!

Sadly, these are the words of the Chief Sephardi and Ashkenazi Rabbis who seem to have a difficult time loving their fellow Jews as themselves, to say nothing of their feelings about Gentiles: “What the Reform and Conservative [movements] term ‘conversion’ is nothing but a falsification of Judaism and will mean including thousands of Gentiles among the people of Israel,” says Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau says: “Those who converted through Reform conversions and the like are not Jewish. No High Court decision will change that fact.”

I believe their concern is the slide down what they would see as the slippery slope: will Reform and Conservative Rabbis in Israel soon be able to perform weddings and officiate at funerals?  More so, I believe their concern is about losing power.

With this news, let us sing.  Am Yisrael, Chai! (The people Israel lives!)  While “Israel” here usually means “the Jewish people,” let it mean both Israel the modern nation and the Jewish people, for we are them and they are us.  Let us be equal to other Jews in the Jewish State.    Let us sing and dance and visit and yes, even move to Israel if we want to.

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Where Did Schmoozing Go?

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

We used to schmooze. And we were good at it. Perhaps even experts.

As much as many of us see one another via Zoom, we don’t schmooze before or after a class or service, while standing at the oneg table, during a mitzvah project or passing in the halls. When we do have time to share, we have become quieter; there is less to say. As one person noted, we can’t talk about the restaurants we tried or the activities we did. Then, suddenly, we gained our voices, but the topic narrowed: Have you gotten the vaccine? Did you have a reaction? Can you help me find a place to get the vaccine?

Where did schmoozing go?

Here are my thoughts: because of the layers of the struggles we are all facing on top of the layers of personal struggles which did not simply vanish, small talk has gone by the wayside. Talking about thoughts, feelings and issues of import require more than a schmooze. We are thinking not only about health but about mortality. We are concerned about our economic futures – our own, our loved ones’, our towns’ our country’s. We are witnesses to unfairness – for example as people get the vaccine who are not eligible leaving less doses for those in most immediate need. We want our children – not only those in our families but our nation’s children – to be able to get back to school safely and continue their education. We wonder how we can do more than shake our heads in disbelief and despair that people of color make up more of the proportion of front line workers while not having access to the vaccine and therefore are more likely to get sick and even die. We want to hug our children and grandchildren. We worry about the political present and future of our beloved country. And…and…and…

Schmoozing would take our mind off some of these big, aching questions even for a few minutes. But let us hear the message that our situation is pleading with us to hear: we must invest our time and energy in these all-important conversations. It might take planning a family meeting or contacting a governmental official or reviewing our finances. After all, we have the time if we put together the few minutes we would have schmoozed here and there.

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The Proof is in the Pudding

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Do you like pudding? And when you think of pudding, do you think more of bread pudding or of the gelatinous dessert that goes well with whipped cream or in a pie? I never ate much pudding. But when I think of pudding, I think of the small box of Jell-O pudding that, when you add milk, is magically – and artificially – transformed into pudding.

The reason I am thinking about pudding at all is because of the phrase “the proof is in the pudding.” I searched for the background and here is what I found (NPR 8/24/12): First of all, in Britain, dating back centuries, pudding meant more than a sweet dessert; pudding referred to a kind of sausage, filling the intestines of some animal with minced meat and other things. (As a vegetarian, I will swallow my comment.) Over the years, the original proverb has evolved. The original was the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It was shortened to the proof of the pudding, and then here in America, it morphed again to the proof is in the pudding.

More than the food, it is the intention that is important. Where is your proof? How do you discover truth? What is your proof of truth?

With questions of “what is truth?” inundating us, let us recognize the importance of first-hand knowledge. If that is not possible since we cannot personally witness everything, let us research the background of the sources – which must be plural! Not just one source! That way we gain some perspective, some flavoring of the truth, to continue our metaphor.

Yet truth alone without context falls short. Instead, the context should be just as it says in the Haftarah blessing about the prophets: emet v’tzedek – truth and justice/righteousness. If you make an effort to become known as someone whose words and deeds are based on the marriage of truth and justice, then you should even be allowed two desserts.

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The Rainbow (Parashat Noach 5781)

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Parashat Noach 5781

I am sorry to say, but I have a problem with the rainbow in the Noah’s Ark story. And I love rainbows. After every rain when the sky begins to clear, I go outside seeking rainbows.

I am ready with our rainbow blessing: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to [Your] covenant, and keeps [Your] promise.

At the end of the Noah’s Ark story, this is what we read (Genesis 9:9-17):

“I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come,

10 and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth.

11 I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

12 God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come.

13 I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.

14 When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds,

15 I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.

17 That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”

The issue I have with the rainbow is that it shows up too late. It shows up when God brings clouds over the earth… but I, who look for rainbows know that the rainbow comes after the storm. The storm is already over.

Therefore, this sign of the covenant seems to be less about God remembering the covenant, than a reminder to us, to humanity. We need to do our part before the rains begin.

The Torah Haiku writers came to the same conclusion in what seems to be a rhetorical question:

The rainbow’s a sign
But is it to remind man
Or to remind G-d?

So the question is: what is our side of the covenant? God will not wipe out the earth and we…?
Going back to the text:

6:5 Adonai saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth,

and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.

6:11 The earth became corrupt before God;

the earth was filled with lawlessness.

To what do these words refer: wickedness, corrupt, lawlessness? Per our commentaries: lewdness and idolatry, robbery, abusing women

On this beautifully warm sunny day let us look around. We see wickedness. We see corruption. We hear untruths. We witness lawlessness. We see women being abused. And it is about to start raining.

Per Jewish belief, even if we are not perpetrators, we are responsible. Abraham Joshua Heschel said: Some are guilty, all are responsible.

We need to take action. We need to continue educating ourselves. When the listening gets hard, we need to listen harder. We need to vote. We need to mark tragedy – our own such as October 27 and our fellow Americans’ tragedies and do everything in our power to prevent them in the future. We need to work toward meriting the same description Noah had: righteous, blameless in his age and walking with God.

And then, when we look up at rainbows, we will know that the covenant was two-sided.

We will say: Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,

who remembers the covenant, and is faithful to [Your] covenant, and keeps [Your] promise.

And perhaps God will respond: Blessed are you, humanity who I created, who remembers the covenant, is faithful to your covenant and keeps your promise.

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Words Create (Kol Nidre 5781)

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Kol Nidre 5781

Most services don’t have names.

Last night, Kol Nidre “All Vows,” is named for the words and accompanying haunting tune

which pleads with God: “if after honest effort we fail to keep our vows, promises and oaths, may we be freed of them.” Its language comes in part from Numbers 30:1 (Matot): “If a householder makes a vow (neder) to Adonai or takes an oath (shavuah) imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests (Essays on Ethics, Matot) that there in the book of Numbers, the details of vows seem oddly placed. We would have just read about the last stages of the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land; how to divide that land once we’ve arrived; Moses would have just been told to prepare for his death and appoint Joshua as his successor.

There is a calendar of sacrifices – all preparation for entering the land. And then… vows??

Rabbi Sacks suggests that this placement is because “the problem, to which the Torah is an answer is: “Can freedom and order coexist in the human sphere?” In other words, how will they actually live in the land?That problem cries out to us now. We who long to go out, to exercise our freedoms to gather and pursue life, liberty and happiness, even to be together in our own sanctuary on Yom Kippur wrestle with the constraints under which we now live. How do we have online school and go to work? How do we go to work and keep our families safe? How do we follow conflicting government messages? What do we do about a state of affairs that leave the minimum-wagers to keep out the mask-non-wearers? How do we ensure that our vote is counted? Freedom and chaos.

Sacks contrasts pre-flood freedom and chaos – think Noah – and Egyptian order without freedom – think Pharaoh. Someday, we may contrast pre and post-Covid – whether there is a vaccine as for polio or a treatment as for AIDS. Someday, but not yet. Freedom and chaos.

So can freedom and order coexist? The answer is: Yes, if we take control where we can. And where we can start is with our language.

Rabbi Sacks quotes a philosopher named J.L. Austin who uses the term “performative utterance” – to indicate using language not to describe something but to do something. Just as God spoke and the world came to be: “Let there be light and there was light.” That is so important that it is prayed each morning: “Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world came to be. Blessed is God!”

We too have the power of performative utterances: “Behold you are betrothed to me” – causes two to be married. After study and rituals, “I accept Judaism to the exclusion of all other religions” makes one a Jew. “I am sorry” repairs a relationship.

Adding two more verses of that morning prayer: “Blessed is the One Who spoke and the world came to be. Blessed is God! Blessed is the One Who maintains creation. Blessed is the One Whose words are deeds; Whose decrees are fulfillments.”

So too, a promise. If I make a promise to you to do something, I am creating something that did not exist before: an obligation, a vow, a commitment. My words become deeds, godlike.

Per Sacks: That is where the balance of freedom and order coexist: when a promise is made. When I promise, I freely place myself under an obligation and if I keep that promise and develop the reputation of promise-keeper, I have removed a bit of unpredictability/chaos from the world. When human beings make commitments, the result is order not chaos. As Rabbi Sacks says, “Freedom depends on people keeping their word.” We are free to make promises and in turn freedom depends on us keeping our promises.

Per Rabbi Sacks (p. 267): “If trust breaks down, social relationships break down.  Society will then depend on law enforcement agencies or some other use of force. When force is widely used, society is no longer free.”

This sounds eerily like the America we are living in. The more force, the less freedom, not the other way around.

He continues: “The only way free human beings can form collaborative and cooperative relationships without recourse to force is by the use of verbal undertakings honoured by those who make them.”

Our country is at a sore loss of trust. But each of us can make a difference.

Sacks writes: “A free society depends on trust.  Trust depends on keeping your word. That is how humans imitate God – by using language to create.  Words create moral obligations, and moral obligations, undertaken responsibly and honoured faithfully,  create the possibility of a free society.”

Sometimes it is hard to keep our word. That is where Kol Nidre comes in: “if, after honest effort…” The problem is more when we promise but we don’t really mean it. We vow but we know our words are like mist…

Commandment #3 says: “You shall not take God’s name in vain.” What does that mean? It is not about swearing when you stub your toe, it is about abusing God’s sacred name. There should be a caption before God’s name: Use with caution.

So: if you make a promise and don’t keep it, is that taking God’s name in vain… even if you didn’t include God’s name in the promise? I believe the answer is a clear “yes.” An unkept promise takes God’s name in vain.

But we must dig deeper. Beyond breaking promises, when we uses words that hurt and incite we are taking God’s name in vain because we are most probably saying things we don’t mean.

From the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “Everything we see, hear, or feel is affected by our biases. We all have unique experiences that have shaped our version of the truth and created the lens through which we see the world. Humans operate on bias, either consciously or subconsciously.

Explicit Bias are biases that you are consciously aware of, and that you admit to yourself and potentially others.

Implicit Bias is biases that are subtly expressed. We don’t initially detect or intend implicit biases, but they can become more apparent with tools and careful self-introspection.”

Let us think about the words and expressions that come out of our mouths.

“I heard Dr. Kristen Syrett, a Rutgers University linguist speak of systemic bias. Think of the words that have come into our common language…

Peanut gallery – where Blacks were forced to sit in the back of the theater. Master bedroom.

Blacklisted. Just take that last one: think of what it must feel like for an African American to hear non-African Americans say: blacklisted.

Language can include – or exclude.

Dr. Syrett invites us to think about pronouns: If you stick to using expressions that you know convey a particular way of thinking about people then you’re really conveying something else which is that I don’t care enough about what matters to you to change the way I’m speaking.

For us women, what do we feel when we hear “manning the booth,” grandfathered in, congressman, hysterical?

Or for those of us who are against gun violence: Expressions like “pull the trigger,” “shoot down the ideas” and “ I have set my sights on you” make our skin crawl and weaponize society.

We are made in the image of God,  God who uses words to create. If using hurtful words isn’t breaking the third commandment, isn’t breaking our promise to love our neighbor as ourselves, I don’t know what is.

Words count. Words set expectations and continue stereotypes, perpetrate systemic racism weaponize society and ultimately take God’s name in vain.

Here’s an easy fix: Say: “please don’t use that phrase.” You have the power to infuse respect. You have the power to create something out of nothing: You can create a promise or make a commitment. You can bring order to chaos, trust to relationships. You are creating freedom through order.

Kol Nidre: All vows is a message, a warning, an invitation: be intentional about what your words create.

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Filling the Cracks: Systemic Change (Rosh HaShanah AM 5781)

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Rosh HaShanah Morning 5781

The cracks were showing before but we could ignore them more easily.

We knew that when people said “that is a good neighborhood” it meant that people of color didn’t live there. We knew that people of color didn’t get adequate health care not only due to lack of affordable insurance but because studies show that physicians don’t believe their complaints. We knew that social media can be antisocial. We knew.

We knew that zip codes determined people’s health more than genetics or other factors. We knew that people of color are disproportionately not included in medical studies. We knew that global warming is causing changed weather patterns, killing species and affecting our water and air. We knew.

We knew that there are barriers keeping many American citizens from voting. We knew that black lives were being taken by our justice system in far greater proportions than white lives – from the streets to the cells. We knew that gentrification disproportionately leaves people of color without affordable places to live. We knew.

We knew that hatred is mobile and even during lockdown can find us via the internet. We knew that education systems were unequal. We knew that there were food deserts in highly populated places. We knew.

We knew that Neo-Nazis and the KKK were marching in the streets. We knew there are anti-Israel folks on both the far right and the far left. We knew that our broken immigration system was tearing children out of the arms of their parents. We knew.

And on the High Holy Days, to say we didn’t know or to close our eyes is a sin.

The cracks were showing before –

Before Covid-19

Before Black Lives Matter marches

Before campuses at which students were afraid to stand up for Israel closed

Before immigrant families were torn apart

Before we saw empty shelves and limits to purchasing which exist to this day

Before we said out loud that front line workers – in grocery stores and emergency rooms – are our heroes

Before we saw forest fires in California stoked by drought and storms like Hurricane Laura fueled by warmer waters

We are good at filling cracks: We donate food to Cross Roads Food Pantry. We donate clothing and household items to the Braddock Free Store. We advocate for all students at Gateway

and all religions before the Council. We compost. We save energy. We donate to Hillel and the NAACP and the League of Women’s Voters and Make a Wish.

We have a litany – a beautiful litany – of filling the cracks of society. But we have to do more.

Filling cracks is not only temporary, it is limited, a short term solution, as anyone who sees potholes reappear in the spring knows. We have to make systemic change.

We know the story. There is a lovely town by a river. Some townsfolk are standing by the river when they see some human bodies being dragged under by the current – people are drowning! – so they rush over and pull the bodies out. But while they’re in the middle, more bodies come along that need to be pulled out the river. So they have a town meeting. They decide to post life guards to save people. But still the bodies come. So they have another meeting, realizing that they need to stop pulling bodies out and get to the root of the problem. They send a contingent upstream to find out why people are falling into the river in the first place. If you can stop so many people falling in upstream, you won’t have to do so much work pulling bodies out downstream.

America cannot afford to look at cracks and respond with temporary solutions.

A hungry family?  Stock the food pantry.  But why are they hungry? Another beloved animal on the endangered species list?  Send a donation.  But why are they endangered? More kids of color with asthma?  Lower the drug costs.  But why can’t they breathe? Black teens learning to drive fearful of encounters with the police?  Teach them to put both hands on the wheel if stopped and not to wear a hoodie.  But why are they stopped? People equating Israel with apartheid or Nazi Germany? Stand up to them and explain why the comparison is not only wrong, it is unconscionable. But why don’t they know the facts?

We have to make systemic change. And it is in our blood… Well, at least in our history.

I recently picked up the book, so aptly titled Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 By Norman Lebrecht.

This is how it starts: “Between the middle of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a handful of men and women changed the way we see the world.  Some of their names are on our lips for all time: Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka.  Others have vanished from our collective memory, but their important endures in our daily lives. Without Karl Landsteiner, for instance, there would be no blood transfusions or major surgery, without Paul Ehrlich, no chemotherapy; without Siegfried Marcus, no motorcar; without Rosalind Franklin, no model of DNA; without Fritz Haber, not enough food to sustain life on Earth; without Genevieve Halevy, no grand opera; without Emanuel Deutsch, no State of Israel.” (p. vii-viii)

Why do these Jewish names stand out as shapers of history? The author describes it this way: “A Jew, steeped in concerns for collective survival, is free to go where angels fear to tread, thinking, Well, what’s the worst thing they can do to me? (p. x)

He writes, “If Jews happen to excel in any particular area, it is generally a consequence of culture and experience rather than DNA.   Jews learned from adversity to think differently from others, and, maybe, harder.  The composer Gustav Mahler was fond of saying, “A Jew is like a man with a short arm.  He has to swim harder to reach the shore.”  Anxiety acts on them like an Egyptian taskmaster in the book of Exodus.  It goads them to acts of genius. (p. xii)

We are anxious. Anxious about Covid-19 and political vitriol and racism and anti-Semitism and family concerns. But we are not anxious as were the people described in this book: We are largely safe and at ease even if less than comfortable at the moment.

Here is the challenge: We want to be insiders. We don’t want to be different from our neighbors or at least not very different. Yet the more comfortable we are, the more complacent. The more complacent, the less Jewish.

To be a Jew is to respond. It is to find our voice and find partners and stick with it for the long haul until the system is fixed. To be a Jew is to think big and bold and beyond and use our resources to do nothing less than repair the world.

Today: choose a crack in society. Sadly, there are so many to choose from. Make a plan to fill the crack and keep filling it – as you will need to do – as you work on a long term solution.On this birthday of the world, may we do nothing less commit to repairing the world.

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A New Life Span (Sukkot 5781)

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Sukkot Morning 5781

Did you hear it? The Book of Life was just sealed.

5 days ago as dark descended on Yom Kippur, our Yizkor candle went out. Once again already, our frailty stands before us, challenging, inviting.

What is our lifespan? What is the length of our days? Per Psalm 144 with a little gender equality inserted…:

Adonai, what is a human being

that You should care about her,


that You should think of her?

A human is like a breath;

her days are like a passing shadow.

In the timing of the universe, the human life span lasts a moment.

Ecclesiastes, traditionally read on Sukkot, begins:

The words of Koheleth son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Utter futility!—said Koheleth— Utter futility! All is futile!

What real value is there for a man

In all the gains he makes beneath the sun?

In the timing of the universe, the human life span lasts a moment. The question ever before us and particularly pointed now given Covid-19, unrest, economic closures, and Memorial services: how do we make that life meaningful?

The Mishnah lays out the ideal life span…well, for a male:

At 5 years of age the study of Scripture;

At 10 the study of Mishnah;

At 13 subject to the commandments;

At 15 the study of Talmud;

At 18 the bridal canopy;

At 20 for pursuit [of livelihood];

At 30 the peak of strength;

At 40 wisdom;

At 50 able to give counsel;

At 60 old age;

At 70 fullness of years;

At 80 the age of “strength”;

At 90 a bent body;

At 100, as good as dead and gone completely out of the world. (Avot 5.20)

Many times, we have discussed the message of that lifespan. How focused on study they were – a singular focus through age 17. Yes, it is a problem that our character gets married at age 18 before earning a livelihood at age 20. Unless there is a sizable trust fund, they are living in the in-laws’ basement. We wonder how they were so advanced to have wisdom at age 40 and are offended that the only description at age 90 is “bent”. We won’t even discuss what they say about age 100…

The ideal Jewish male’s life in the year 200 moved from milestones to a focus on the gift of wisdom – well, at least until he was 60 and the breakdown of the body.

What if this were the life span:

At 5, learning to ride a bike and starting religious school.

At 8, going to summer camp despite my fear.

At 9, going back to summer camp because it is my second home.

At 13, after Bat Mitzvah, becoming a madrich at religious school.
At 17, getting my license with its freedom and responsibility

and realizing that my Black friend has to have “the talk” that I don’t.

At 18, starting college.  But maybe college isn’t for me… so I will start trade school or go straight into the job market.  I’ll probably be criticized for that.

At 22, taking a job that influences the rest of my work life.

At 31, meeting my love.

At 37, taking on the name Daddy.

At 42, being downsized and its accompanying fear.

At 43, starting new training and finding work in a field I never imagined I would enter.  I think I’m content.

At 47, beginning to volunteer in the community

At 49, the 13th anniversary of not having a drink.

At 63, taking on a new name: “Grandpa.”

At 64, burying one of my closest friends who was supposed to retire next year but died suddenly of a heart attack.

At 65, enjoying retirement cake and a new beginning.

At 67, going to coffee to celebrate the 4th anniversary of a friendship who is ½ my age.

At 69, celebrating 5 years in remission.

At 72, the 3rd anniversary of learning to play Bridge.

At 73 being celebrated as “volunteer of the year.”

At 77, learning how to use Zoom.

At 84, calling the person I met freshman year of high school to celebrate our 70 years of friendship.

At 92, celebrating our 60th anniversary surrounded by our 2 children and 5 grandchildren plus nieces, nephews and friends.

This life span speaks of relationships and the hard work of leaving addiction behind,

struggling with illness, and finding meaningful work both paid and volunteer. The entirety of this lifespan is growing and stretching, looking forward while marking milestones. Every year adds and imagines and reaches out and discovers life.

Next week, we will bring together Yizkor: memory with Simcha: joy. What is our lifespan?  What is the length of our days? What we make it.


Posted in Selected Sermons | Comments Off on A New Life Span (Sukkot 5781)

Words Count

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Mask. Pandemic. Synchronous. Asynchronous. Insurrection. Fake news. Suppression. Zoom. Tweet. Uprising. This is just a portion of the new vocabulary that swirls around us in print, on our devices, through the news and in conversation 24/7. These are words that either held another meaning or words that we rarely used or heard until the past few years or in some cases, weeks.

This list makes me think of Elie Wiesel’s introduction to Night  “…I knew I must bear witness. I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle.  It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language.  But how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy?  Hunger-thirst-fear-transport-selection-fire-chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning but in those times, they meant something else.”  (p. ix)

This is not a comparison to the Holocaust.  The enemy we face appears when good people stay silent and the air is choked with words of hate and exclusion and isolation and sound bites. We need to do more to understand the words and what is behind them.  We too must bear witness.  Words count.  Words stand for something.  So let us make our voices heard. Let us choose our words carefully. Let us flood the sound waves with other words; uplifting, building, inclusionary, kind words.

Let us use words like: Kindness. Respect. Virtue. Hope. Integrity. Trust. Neighbor. Investment in the future. Goodness. Diversity. Words reflect our reality. Let us use words to shape a new reality.

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