Yom Kippur: Basketball, 12 steps, and more

This week’s posting was written by my sister Batya Salzman Levy,  a deep thinker and terrific writer. Can’t read it all now? Print it out and read it slowly, carefully, on Yom Kippur. Wishing you all an easy fast, a gmar chatima tovah, as I express eternal love and gratitude for my little sister.

Years ago, my son’s 7th grade Bible teacher, well-loved by her secular, Israeli public school class, was asked, “Why do we have Yom Kippur?”  Her answer: “So we can suffer.” End of story.

I was appalled.  Her answer was the antithesis of everything I think about Yom Kippur, yet I couldn’t (and still can’t) get this idea across to my Israeli, secular, or even religious acquaintances.  So I’ll try to finally put it down here, and hopefully, at least I won’t feel like I can’t explain myself.

Yom Kippur is NOT about suffering. But first, a bit about basketball, 12-step programs, and embarrassment.

To play basketball, you need to fully accept one rule: when you make a foul, you must raise your hand.  You absolutely have to agree to this, in order to play the game. When you make a mistake, step over a line, push another player, etc, you must raise your hand and identify yourself as the offender.  “Yeah, that was me.” If you don’t, your fellow players won’t trust you, the officials won’t trust you, and any good team simply won’t let you play with them. If you want to play the game, you have to not only admit to yourself that you screwed up, you must take public responsibility for it, right away, that very second, there on the court, in the middle of the game and loud enough for everyone to hear.

Judaism, and many belief systems and spiritual traditions, are very clear on one point: that the fouls that matter are discernable within three separate but interwoven relationships: between you and yourself, you and others, and you and, ok, let’s say the Divine/Universe. Three separate but complementary relationships, areas within which and between which we have ample room to screw up.  Three “teams”, if you will. The Cosmos and me, you and me, and the me/us in the mirror.

And here’s where raising your hand at your own foul gets really, really hard.  Looking under the inner-soul rocks, down where it’s sticky and dark, in an often most uncomfortable way, will ye or nil ye, until we see what’s hiding there.  For me, sometimes this is my foul, as I demand that others be as brutally honest as I try to be. More often than not, however, it’s what gets me through the really hard patches.  Telling the brutal truth to myself about being sneaky or mean or stubborn allows me to see how others experience my fouls, and it tempers me. It forces me off of the me-only team, and shoves me onto the me-you team.  Usually it’s more brutal for me than for you, believe me. It forces me to consider how my own fouls affect those outside of myself. I’ll get back to what basketball and fouls have to do with Yom Kippur. Bear with me.

Anyone familiar with 12-step programs knows that the reasoning behind them is to be brutally honest (there it is again) about yourself before you can mend, or heal, or deal with an addiction.  It’s fair to say that we not only can be addicted to our own behaviors; most of us are, whether we know and/or admit it or not.  We are addicted to our anger, our bitterness, our superiority, our sense of who we are. At this point, it’s not important whether or not you believe in the God/higher power/Supreme Being, etc. of these programs.  The process of self-knowledge is the point here.

Step #4 is about as close to Yom Kippur as you can get:  “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.”  This is not step 11, or 12. This is right after you accept that you have a problem. Right up there in the beginning, way before you can even think about healing.  For Yom Kippur, we could say that this is right after we accept that we’re human, with human failings. Not a problem or addiction exactly, but you get the idea.

But that inventory to and about yourself is only the first hurdle.  Right away, Number 5 keeps going: “Admit to God (or the inescapable, all-knowing eye of the Cosmos), to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs”.  There are those three relationships, right there.

Admit to yourself the exact nature of your wrongs. Let’s look at the you-and-me team, first, because oddly enough, it’s actually the easiest to describe.   I’ve gossiped. I’ve lost my temper with you. I’ve been impatient. I’ve thought ugly things about others. I acted stubbornly, childishly, selfishly, disrespectfully.  There were times when I was mean, petty, and yes, stupid. I cheated, or lied, or took what I had no right to take. Not always, not perhaps even often, but over the past year it happened and, yes, that was me.  Brutal honesty (read: self-knowledge) absolutely compels me to raise my hand and admit it.

And that brings us to #9, the real kicker: “Make direct amends to [those I’ve harmed] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”   So, it’s not enough to quietly say to ourselves, yes, my foul, that was me. No, we have to physically go to that person, wherever possible, and stammer out an acknowledgement of our own bad behavior to their faces, and make a meaningful apology.

Isn’t that what we demand of the little ones?  Drag that six year old over to the other kid and solemnly insist they apologize to the other’s face? And if we sense any insincerity, we give the evil eye, adding “and mean it, this time!” We are not trying to shame or humiliate the child – we are simply (hah!) insisting that he follow the rules on life’s court. Acknowledge the foul, look the injured party in the eye, take responsibility, and show remorse.  In other words, Yom Kippur. The question is, can we be our own parent, and demand it of ourselves? And mean it this time?

The Universe-and-me team has its own list, and it’s often harder to discern these fouls, but make no mistake, once you look, they’re right there, staring back at you.  Maybe it’s pouring that motor oil down the sink, because it was too much trouble to take it to the recycling place. Maybe it was jeering someone else’s faith. Maybe it was scoffing at fate, taking one more unbelievably stupid chance and assuming your number would never come up.  Admit it, you’ve thumbed your nose at the Universe,/God/Supreme Being/whatever. We usually do this by placing ourselves outside of Creation, outside of the Universe, outside of the spiritual condition. When we look with trepidation at ourselves here, it’s quite a kick in the existential pants to realize humbly that yes, indeed, we were foolish and careless with the Universe and its wonders. We arrogantly placed ourselves outside of and separate from Creation.  Raise your hands and repeat, “Yeah, that was me.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that Yom Kippur is about cultivating a sense of embarrassment.  Again, not shame, humiliation, or even suffering.  It’s about that same “you should be ashamed of yourself” parental admonition, that sense that our behavior was something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by.  The idea is not to beat ourselves up through self-loathing, but to bring ourselves to a place where we recognize that what we did/said/thought, etc. was less than the best we could be. A stumble.  A behavioral fart, you could say. A momentary loss of control which resulted in a bad smell in the universe, and yeah, that was me. This requires a strong enough sense of self awareness, so that however mortifying it may be at the moment, honestly admitting our foibles and faux pas to ourselves and others is ultimately more freeing.  Why? Because the little lies we tell ourselves and others (“It wasn’t me”, “I didn’t know”) have the power to be self-fulfilling, and have the creeping ability to have power over us, even when we think we’re in control. Leavened with judicious compassion, the truth – however momentarily brutal – really will set you free.

The self-honesty, the litany of our own bad behavior, the too-truthful mirror we look into, seeing ourselves warts and all, is HARD.  The “fearless moral inventory” is usually a direct threat to who and what we think we are. Owning our weaknesses and moral shortcomings is one of the hardest things anyone can do, which is why so few of us do it.  Yom Kippur knows this. Yom Kippur repeats the words of fear and trepidation and the quivering sense of our inadequacies for hours. Some say it’s to make you feel small and miserable – I strongly disagree. I say it’s to force you to look in that mirror and prevent any face-saving squirming away from who you see there.  

By the way, this is why we fast.  Me personally, I have a little something here and there on Yom Kippur.  Fasting with no water in the hot Israeli still-summer for 24 hours makes me quite ill, nauseous, migraines, etc.  The goal is not to cause ourselves to suffer.  The reason we fast, as well as we can, is to strip away the slick excuses (“Can I go? It’s lunchtime”) that make it all too easy to skimp on the tasks.  We fast to remind ourselves – our meat selves – that some things are so hard to do, so soul-scary, that we need to make sure nothing gets in our way to skew our attention, to take our eyes off the prize.  We have to float up into the ether of the soul to do Yom Kippur, to truly exist on a different plane, and there can be no distractions, especially by our physical bodies.

There are, however, a few things that soften the task, and make it doable, for those who are brave of heart and mind.  One is that Yom Kippur is a group task. Alone, we would be too scared and lonely to do this incredibly difficult deed, and it would be too easy to dabble a bit and go, convincing ourselves that we’d done what was needful.  As a group, we can know that all of us are in the same place, literally. We can look around and see that we are (probably) no more or no less venal than the next guy, and that we can take comfort from the great equalizer of shared experience.  Also, being in a group for Yom Kippur’s tasks reminds us that sin (however you want to define the word) can be – and often is – a community responsibility. We can behave very, very badly as a group too, and the public moral inventory of our community is as difficult and harsh as that of our individual selves. Raising our collective hands, saying, “Yeah, that was US” is as potent as any other self -awareness.

Of course, not all bad behavior is equal.  Mistakes, stumbles, faux pas, etc, are inevitable and we really only need to say “ooops, sorry, my bad”.  Honestly mean it, and you’re good to go. It’s the deeper, more slippery stuff within us all that is so hard to come to terms with, and it’s oh so very hard to be brutally honest about it – with ourselves, with each other, with the karma-inducing comeuppance waiting just around the corner.

Over the last year, we have caused cracks in our selves, our relationships and our world.   Some of us have broken, some have shattered; others quietly limp along, protecting that sore, tender part that got twisted.  None of us, however, has gone through the last year unscathed. Sometimes what has done the damage is out of our control, and Yom Kippur is not for that.  Yom Kippur is for the damage WE have caused, to our selves, our community and our world. It’s so hard, so wrenching to admit our farts and fouls that we shy away and do our utmost to avoid such reckoning.  Yom Kippur, should we choose to accept it, makes us open the door to our soul, look unflinchingly at what we find, take responsibility for it, and then gives us a path out. Whether you believe or put faith in the “After all, God loves you” comforts, or whether you don’t, the process of self awareness and honesty is its own, mindful path of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. These steps need to be taken before we can start healing the cracks and breaks that are inevitable in life.

Some people believe in and take comfort in the idea that they will be judged.  Others don’t. Doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that you walk the walk now.  It matters that you find the courage now to be brutally honest with yourself. It matters that even if you do it once a year, the ability and propensity for honesty accompanies you the rest of the time.  The key is intention, willingly putting yourself through Yom Kippur’s paces.

A game with no rules is easy.  One with moral parameters is much harder, but it sweetens the pot when you play it well. You like the liturgy and the congregation? Great. You hate it?  Ok. Take moral inventory anyway. Find the ones you need to speak to, say the words, and mean them. Find that inner mirror and respect it and yourself enough to be brutally honest about what you see there. Cultivate a sense of embarrassment, so when you step out of bounds, you know it, and it bothers you. Going through life never really looking at yourself means you’ll also never have, or need, the courage to redeem yourself, better yourself, in your own eyes and in the eyes of those who love you.  

Being inscribed in the Book of Life really means embracing who you truly are, and learning to forgive yourself anyway, living a well-examined life. You can only do this for yourself. Yom Kippur is not about judgment or damnation, not about shame or hating yourself, and most assuredly not about suffering.  It’s about courage and forgiveness and compassion and generosity with oneself and others. It’s about being mindful of the frailty of being human, and about finally embracing the fact that the cracks in our hearts are the only places where love can seep through.

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Shana Tovah – Happy New Year

5779Our trip around the sun has come full course, and here we are at the threshold again. Beginnings and endings. We’re ending the book of Deuteronomy, will be starting Genesis soon. We’re ending 5778, starting 5779.

As we get to the end of the year, we are swamped with preparations for the New Year – cooking, cleaning, reflecting, connecting. But there is actually a Torah portion this Shabbat, and it has some of my most favorite texts:  Surely this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us, and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it. (Deut 30:11-14)

I hope, if nothing else, as you read these Shabbat musings around the course of the year, you realize that Torah is not so far away, that it’s indeed close to you, in your mouth and heart. Its relevance is astounding some weeks. It takes tangling and wrangling, study and thought, but it’s not too hard, it’s not too distant. It’s right there for us all.

Think about that – no one is supposed to go to the heavens or across the seas and get the Torah for us. We don’t hand that over to someone else. It’s ours. It’s in our hands, in our eyes, our mouths and heart. We speak its truths when we speak out for the vulnerable in our communities. It’s in our hearts as we feel for the stranger in our midst. It’s in our minds as we turn our attention/intention to Shabbat in whatever way makes it holy and separate. It’s in our hands, as we work to make this a better world.

Next month, we begin Bereshit/Genesis again. We read the description of a new world created, new creatures, including the human. We are created with minds, heads, hearts, and mouths. As we read these familiar lines, remember back to these past few weeks, when Moses taught verse after verse about creating a just and righteous society.  Each day, with Torah in our mouths and hearts, we can re-create what Genesis describes.

I wish you all who read and share these thoughts a year of joy, health, triumph over challenges, acknowledgement of blessings, gatherings full of loving faces, bounty in the dishes, and sweet memories of those no longer at the table.

Shana Tovah, 5779.


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Selichot 5778

5779Here it is – snuck up on us, again…right on time, just like it always does. We read parasha Ki Tivo this Shabbat, but Saturday night starts the roller coaster ride known as the High Holidays.

So, instead of looking at Ki Tavo, though there’s some great stuff in there, I’ll place a few words for your consideration about Selichot and the coming 5779.

One addition to the service is reciting the “Thirteen Attributes,” a list of God’s thirteen attributes of mercy that were revealed to Moses after the sin of the golden calf (Ex 34:6-7): Ha-Shem[1], Ha-shem [2], God [3], merciful [4], and gracious [5], long-suffering [6], abundant in goodness [7] and truth [8], keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation [9], forgiving iniquity [10] and transgression [11] and sin [12], who cleanses [13].  God’s name is listed as an attribute unto itself, several times (Ha-Shem and God), noting the different roles God plays – ruler, creator, etc.  These attributes remind us and God that we are asking to be forgiven for missing the mark this past year in (oh so many, for me) many ways.

Selichot is a doorway, a moment of transitions, as we leave one year behind and begin another. Transitions are risky – moving from one state to another state of being. Think about birth…and death. We mark transitions, and often “bless” them, in that we need blessings to protect or comfort or surround us as we transition from one place to another, one time to another.

I spent last weekend quite happily in Wisconsin at the new residential Limmud Chicago+MW. There were a couple of sessions about mikveh. Mikveh (the ritual immersion) traditionally had specific uses – the monthly immersion for married women, conversion, and preparation for holidays. Now, there are so many more: after surgery, after a miscarriage, after taking part in Tahara (washing a body), after a divorce, after abuse, etc. These are all moments of transitions, and the immersion in sweet, natural water is like a soft cloak that is both comforting and warm, and slightly jarring, making us pay attention.

So, this weekend for those who will take part in Selichot, may this be a comforting cloak of and a slight jar to the soul.

For now, please forgive me for doing anything that offended or harmed you in this last year. Wishing all of you a year of learning, (find your local Limmud, or travel to the nearest one..you won’t regret it!), sweetness, a little bit of spice, joy, hugs when you cry, laughing until you cry, and calm existence in your world. May God forgive us all, may we forgive each other, and may 5779 be a year of goodness and peace in the world.


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Ki Tetzei: You shall not remain indifferent

justice_iconThere are 72 commandments in this week’s parasha, Ki Tetzei. They cover a lot of ground, as you can imagine. What to do with a wandering ox. What to do when you go to war and want to take women as “booty” (or rather, what you can’t do) What to do when you make a loan to someone. What to do when you want a divorce. How to build a house, how to plant your field. And on and on.

You would think it would be hard to find a theme in these 72 commandments. There’s no real narrative here. We’re nearing the end of Deuteronomy, and it feels more like Moses’ brain dump. Or that flow of instructions as you send your child off to college….like the sheer list of what to do and not do will stick better if you cram them all in at the end.

I have some favorites here, too. One of them is “You shall not abuse a needy or destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to Adonai against you and you will incur guilt” (Deut 24:14-15) Here, we learn about the value of human dignity, even (especially?) when it comes to day laborers.

Another is “You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that Adonai your God is giving you.” (Deut 25:13-15) The idea here is that you have the same weights for selling as you do for buying.

When we studied this parasha a couple of years ago, one of the major revelations was this: Torah is not about ultimate truth. Torah is about character development.

The book of Deuteronomy, and this parasha, tells us how to build a just and righteous society, the whole goal of our narrative. It’s about shaping character, and when you shape your character, you shape your society. The two quotes above each end with a reference to God, and that your adherence to these precepts and rules directly affects your life on the land, the society you’re trying to build.

We are in the month of Elul when we take account of our own personal behavior prior to the High Holidays. Let’s not forget to take an account of our social behavior, too, and how we can move forward to that just and righteous society that is our imperative.

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Shofetim: Sigh

scales of justiceThere are a number of reasons why I love this week’s parasha, Shofetim. Yes, it was my daughter’s parasha, so there’s that. It has a whole section on military ethics, (chapter 20) which I teach as part of a full Jewish studies curriculum  at the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Center. I love teaching that text.

But today, some verses are just screaming at me.

The parasha says, for example, if you really want a King to rule over you, make sure he’s

  • Not a foreigner
  • Doesn’t have too many horses
  • Doesn’t have too many wives
  • Hasn’t amassed too much silver and gold to excess
  • Doesn’t act haughtily.


The parasha goes on to say that “if a man appears against another to testify maliciously and gives false testimony against him, the two parties to the dispute shall appear before God, before the priests and magistrates in authority at the time, and the magistrate shall make a thorough investigation. If the man who testified is a false witness, if he has testified falsely against his fellow, you shall do to him as he schemed to do to his fellow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst.” (Deut 19:16-19)

Again, I sigh. Testifiy. Court. False testimony. False witness. Thorough investigation by the authorities. Sweep out evil.

Ha! And you thought Torah wasn’t relevant! It doesn’t take much to apply Shofetim to relevant news of our lives and leaders today.

The  Torah portion pretty well speaks for itself. We haven’t been careful at all about who we’ve chosen to be our leader. And he has definitely created evil in our midst, which needs to be swept out…of office. Torah is telling us that we the people have a responsibility, not God, as to who our leaders are.

The midterm elections are less than 100 days away. Your responsibility is to vote. Your responsibility is to make sure your neighbors are registered and vote. No one…..no one….can legitimately sit this out. We don’t leave this to God; this is in our hands, on our heads, and on our feet, to act.

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Re’eh: Look for what you must do


Well, that’s encouraging, but 3 verses later we read, “If , however, there is a needy person among you…” (Deut 15:7), but hang on. Four verses later we read, “There will never cease to be needy ones in your land” (Deut 15:11)

So which is it? There won’t be any needy, there might be someone who’s needy, or there will always be someone who is needy?

There’s a clue in the text that follows each of these scenarios.

The first one – There shall be no needy among you, since Adonai your God  will bless you in the land …if only you need and take care to keep all this Instruction.” That is, it’s all theoretical. There won’t be any poor because God will bless you, if you keep  the instruction.

The next situation gets more concrete: “If there is a needy person, one of your kinsmen in the Land that God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman” Lend him whatever he needs. But then the text goes on to speak about the Shmitah year, the 7th year when all debts are forgiven. The text says not to let the fact that the Shmitah year is coming make you hold back from helping out, that the worry about not getting paid back would influence your help.   Finally, the third situation brings it all back to reality and simplicity.

There will always be needy, “which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy”

We started in Eden. And theoretically, if we’d stayed there, there would never be any needy. But we left the Garden and went into the real world. And in the real world, there are going to be people who need help. But what to do about them? Where is the guidance?

The second situation gives us that, but with something extra. The text tells us why you’re supposed to help others, but that also it is too easy to fall into thinking about yourself as you reach out your hand. “What if he never pays me back?” “Beware, lest you harbor the base thought…”

Then there’s the third situation. There will all ways be people who need help, and for them, you don’t think about getting paid back, you don’t think about what year it is, you just open your hand to the poor. But it’s a commandment. It’s a commandment because it may not come easily, but it’s the way we are supposed to treat each other. We’re not in Eden, where all was perfection.  The world needs healing, people need help, and The Torah tells us the truth – that we have a job to do in this world, and here’s how you begin to make it better.



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Matot Masei: Changing relationships

diasporaThis week’s parasha is a double one: Matot-Masei. We’re at the end of Bamidbar, coming to the end of our journey towards the Land. It’s been a long haul – 40 years, in fact. In that time, and entire generation has died out and a new one has been born. The old generation had a direct experience with slavery and Sinai, and of course, Moses as a younger man. This new generation is removed from all three. Where does this population get their connection to this goal…the Land long promised.. of their parents’ generation? What will that relationship be?

Recently, the Forward’s Jane Eisner wrote an article about a  new way of looking at those of us Jews in the Diaspora; indeed, she advocates taking the word itself out of our vocabulary altogether. It’s an old way of looking at our relationship to Israel, and a new one needs to be defined. The American Jewish community is home, not going anywhere, and forms one half of the entire world Jewish population.

We find a model for this relationship in this week’s parasha. In Chapter 32 of Numbers we read, “The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers…the land that Adonai has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country…’it would be a favor to us, they continued, if this land were given to your servants as a holding, do not move us across the Jordan’” (Num: 32:1-5)  They were not looking at land inside Canaan; to the contrary, they were on the east side of the Jordan, and wanted to stay there. It wasn’t in the original inheritance, in fact, but it was a good place to settle down. Moses asked if it was fair that their brothers go into the land and fight to settle there, while they stayed behind, so the Reubenites and Gadites agreed to help the other tribes in that endeavor, and then return to their land on the east side of the Jordan.

As Eisner says, “I do not suggest that the two parties should divorce, or even amicably separate and go their own ways. After seven decades, Israel has become an essential element of modern Jewish life far beyond Tel Aviv, in Toronto and Tucson and Tashkent; those of us who live outside The Land benefit enormously from its political, social, intellectual, economic and cultural achievements, from its spiritual centering, from its very being there. We turn away from it at our peril, and our detriment.

But seven decades on, the language of Israel and Diaspora, of center and periphery, hub and spoke, homeland and exile, no longer describes the lived reality of the majority of the world’s Jews who continue to reside and thrive outside Israel’s contested borders.”

Half the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel, and half here in the United States. We form two strong pillars of the community,  upon both of which the community depends. There is a lot to be said for living outside the Land. In fact, if you look at the major developments in Jewish thought, practice, commentary, etc you will find that they happened outside Israel, not inside. Think of Rashi, Maimonides, and Ibn Ezra. Think of the great centers of Jewish learning in Europe and Spain. Remember that it’s the Babylonian Talmud we follow in general, not the Jerusalem Talmud. Judaism flourished and grew and adapted and developed when we lived among others – that’s where the creativity was needed, so that we became (and still are) a living, vital community, instead of an ancient sect that died out.

It’s time we stopped thinking that we aren’t “good enough” just because we don’t live in Israel. It’s time Israelis learned more about what it takes to live a Jewish life by choice, and not by state. It’s time to stop thinking those of us outside Israel are “less than”. It’s not easy to re-define a relationship, especially one so long-held and heralded. But we must do that if that relationship between our two communities is to remain strong and mutually beneficial, and read to not only withstand challenges, but flourish and develop.



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