Winter descends…

An embroidery for this winter day: God covers the Sky with Clouds   © 2015weather-sm

The text I chose from Psalm 147 includes portions of verses 8, 16 and 17:  “God covers the sky with clouds, and prepares rain for the Earth, bestows snow as a blanket of wool, and throws hail like breadcrumbs.”  It was stitched for my daughter Aviva, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, and her husband, Justin.

I love snow: the damp smell in the air just before it flurries down, the crunch of boots across a snowy yard, the peaceful quiet when a city settles down to watch the snow accumulate.  But snow (and hail and rain) can be destructive, and indeed, the full sense of the Psalm’s verses reflects that.  “Who can withstand God’s cold?” asks the Psalmist at the end of verse 17.

I did not stitch the text of this question; rather, I selected phrases from within the verses that conveyed a gentler sense of nature, the magic and beauty of precipitation.  When is the cold precipitation a peaceful, sensory treat, and when is it a threat?  We can control some of our response: when we pause to enjoy God’s nature, when we provide warm clothes to those in need, when we ensure that clean rain falls on healthy farms, when we treat the earth and its climate with care.

“Who can withstand God’s cold?”  The Psalmist leaves that question unanswered, but reassures us in the next verses that God will dispatch a word to melt any threatening ice, and indeed, will share more words – God’s stories, statutes and laws.  “Hallelujah!” concludes the Psalm.

(Text from my book, Embroidery and Sacred Text, © 2017, available at .)


I’m with Lot’s Wife.

The story of Lot’s wife is told in Genesis 19:15-26.    She looked back.

I would have looked back, too.  In fact, a lot of times I look back when the past is behind me.  Or I refuse to hustle onward, ambling along and denying reality, like Lot.  Or I’m overcome with nostalgia and longing.  So I’m with Lot’s wife.

But Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt.

Some of this is clearly Lot’s fault.  He could barely get his family out of the city in time, and in fact leaves behind two married daughters. The angels urge him on, but the word describing his reaction is vayitmamah  – he still delayed (19:16) – with a shalshelet trop (cantillation) mark to boot, a rare, wavering sound, representing all the noise in Lot’s head. The angels then give him specific instructions to flee and to not look back, lest he be swept away. Their warning is spoken to Lot, and phrased in male singular conjugations.  And the bumbling, deer-in-the-headlights Lot never relays this information to his wife and family.

Lot’s wife never had a chance.

Commentators accuse her of voyeurism, perhaps even empathy for the depraved citizenry of Sodom.  But Lot’s wife was a mother, someone who raised a family in that town, who saw her daughters married there, daughters now dying in the town’s catastrophic destruction.

Wouldn’t you have looked back?

And now – a word for looking back:

hiraeth (n): a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return; a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past (from the Welsh).

The Avodah Service of Yom Kippur

I’m preparing a teaching session for the Ohr Kodesh Tikkun Leil Shavuot about the Avodah service, and looked back on some thoughts I shared at the Fabrangen Yom Kippur service in 2013. Here they are:

 Remarks before the Avodah service

Fabrangen Havurah, Washington DC 2013   Rachel Braun

A general introduction:  Hello, my name is Rachel, and now is the time for the Avodah service. It begins on page 606. In studying the Avodah service this year, I realized how deeply moved I am by it. So I want to share some ideas about it and then, some of the music.

The Avodah text is a piyyut, a classic Hebrew poem of late Antiquity that might have been borne of a competitiveness among payyetanim to produce a piyyut yet more obscure, more ornate, and more Midrashically esoteric. Our piyyut, here, is one of many Avodah piyyutim that have been composed over centuries. I did not realize there were so many, but given the poetic imperative, it makes sense. This summer, I read this book, Avodah: Ancient Poems for Yom Kippur, by Swartz and Yahalom, published by Penn State Press. It is a scholarly tome that introduces Avodah literature and then translates and annotates 8 Avodah poems from the 4th through 7th centuries. This effort is not ancient, however: now I’m holding up a book called Avodah, by Rabbi Menachem Creditor, which is a poem , presented over 24 illustrated pages, published in 2012. So the genre of Avodah poetry prevails.

The service begins with a summary of our history, from Creation to the Temple period. Follow along on pages 606 through 610 (Aigen Mahzor), and you see it covers these events: Creation, Eden, Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah, Tower of Babel, Abraham, Egypt, Sinai, Golden Calf, establishment of the priesthood among the Levites, and finally the service of the High Priest in the Temple at Yom Kippur, which we call Avodah.

Next, the text re-enacts the service of the High Priest and his three confessions. The first one is his personal confession, for himself and his household, on pages 611 to 612. He confesses over the head of a bull, and using first person, uses the formula we have borrowed throughout the High Holiday liturgy: Hatati, Aviti, Pashati: I have sinned, I have done wrong, I have transgressed. The people are in attendance, and they respond “barukh shem k’vod malchuto le’olam va’ed (“Blessed be the Name of God’s sovereign Presence forever and ever”), while the Priest utters the name of God.

On page 614, the second confession begins. It is in this part of the ritual that two goats are presented, and one goat is selected, by lot, for Azazel and another for sacrifice. The goat for Azazel will be taken to the wilderness by an ‘ish iti’ – a designated person, or perhaps, to cheat using a Hebrew homonym, ‘a man for his time’. The service around the goat was the choice for the YK morning Torah reading. This second confession uses the same musical motifs and vocab “ve’hah, hayah omer – ana hashem hatati aviti, pashati” (and thus did he say : O God, I have sinned, I have done wrong, I have transgressed). This time he extends his confession to include “bnai aharon”, all of the priestly entourage. The Israelites are still in attendance, and repeat the “barukh shem” passage as before.

Next comes the third confessional, beginning on page 617. The material is similar, and this time, the High Priest makes his confession on behalf of all the Israelites. The three verbs for sinning switch to plural conjugation – the people have sinned, the people have done wrong, the people have transgressed. – hat’u, avu, pash’u. The High Priest utters the Ineffable Name as the people again sing “Barukh Shem Kavod….” The goat that had been designated “for the Eternal” is slaughtered after he makes his confession.
That’s a general introduction to the Avodah service: contents and style.

Connections to our lives today:  Here’s some of what I learned, and thought and wondered about when I considered the liturgy:

The poem begins with the history of Creation and ends with the High Priest performing the Avodah ritual. How extraordinary for the Priest to imagine that his work was so important, that all of the history of Creation led to that very moment. Do we ever have that feeling about the discharge of our own responsibilities — that what we are doing, right now, matters so much that history was primed to produce it? Take a moment now to identify what aspect of your life is something that the history of humanity has been preparing for.

The three confessions are sung in increasingly louder volume, just like Kol Nidre. So the confession on behalf of the people is the one that is sung in the loudest, most urgent tone. That’s a good thought for us – it would be human tendency for us to sing the loudest for our own wellbeing, as in the High Priest’s first confessional, and perhaps run out of steam by the time we paid attention to the community’s needs, his THIRD confession. Take a moment now to think about how you can be louder about your community’s needs and quieter about your own.


The High Priest has this important role, but nobody voted for him. In fact, he could be quite the ignoramus. The Mishna in Yoma discusses just what the sages of his time did to support the High Priest. If the high priest was wise, the elders trained him all night in the laws of his Avodah service, but if he was an ignoramus, they told him parables about kings and prophets. In either case, the elders still respected his role. Take a moment to think about whether YOU are able to recognize the spiritual gifts of many varieties of minds.


A statistician considers Avodah:  My final observation about the Avodah service is the part that grabs me the most. I am always intrigued by the use of lots to determine the outcomes for the two goats. I think that’s because I’ve been trained as a statistician, and now I teach AP Statistics. One goat will be slaughtered and one will be sent into the wilderness (and in later rabbinic imagination, pushed off the cliff), and those outcomes are determined randomly, by chance.

Earlier this summer, I pulled out my folder of service notes from two decades of leading Fabrangen Hi Ho services. I was looking for something I had done once in a Musaf service, long ago. The page of my service notes was printed on the back of some notes from a statistics class I was teaching at the time. On it was written the following definition:

Random Process: We call a phenomenon ‘random’ if individual outcomes are uncertain, but there is nonetheless, a regular distribution of outcomes within the population.

That kind of describes the experience of the goats. You draw lots for two goats. You know that one will be sacrificed for the sins of the people, and one will be sent into the wilderness. But in advance, you couldn’t predict the outcome for any one particular goat. That fits my definition of random process.

Here’s another example about the distribution of outcomes in a population and the uncertainty of individual outcomes: You live in a community of Jews, with some assembled somewhere together for Yom Kippur, and some not. We know, from our reading of Unetanah Tokef, that we will have different outcomes this year, among us. Some will live, some will die. Some will be healthy, some ill. Some will be enriched, some will bear a burden. We figure that in the population of Jews, those will be the outcomes. But in advance, you couldn’t predict the outcome for any one of us.

Whether God knows the outcome for any one Jew is a big controversy in our engagement with High Holiday liturgy. That’s one reason why unetana tokef, for example, is so difficult to engage with. Suffice to say that for me, randomness seems to explain a lot both in my professional life and in my theology.

So now I want to think about the random outcomes of the Avodah ritual from the goats’ perspective.

One goat is going to pay a heavy price – it will be sacrificed, and its blood flung on the altar. Sometimes we feel that way and we see it in human outcomes around the world. Through no fault of our own, we ‘pick up the tab’ for other people’s mistakes, for their negligence, laziness, ill-intent, and warmongering. A soldier might have this experience.

The second goat is also burdened with the legacy of the people’s sins, laid on its shoulders by the High Priest. When we are like that that goat, we need to make our way in a sometimes unfamiliar, hostile wilderness, and we’re stuck with the consequences of other people’s mistakes, along with our own. Sometimes those mistakes represent legacy from history that we did not animate, but we nevertheless inherited. Some of those mistakes came from others close to us, and they need us now to be strong and share the burden. Some of those mistakes came to us because of our own mishaps and deeds, and even though Aaron or we confess them, those mistakes are learned from, but not erased.

Think, now, about an outcome you’ve experienced that came to you through no fault of your own, and has seemingly been randomly dropped on your shoulder. Perhaps it is a personal struggle with disease; perhaps it is the murky mess of some family matter; perhaps it is national political decision-making that has unhappily filtered down to your life. Take a moment to ponder: how will you wander through the wilderness with this random burden, fair or not, placed on you?

Now let’s sing selections of the Avodah service.

A BIT OF PURIM TORAH!! Asymptotic Methods of Approximating π (pi) as an Indicator of the Superiority of the Latke over the Hamantash: Lessons from (le’havdil) Greek Mathematics

Remarks by Rachel Braun at the Jewish Study Center Latke-Hamantash Debate 2016, Washington, DC

Please click:  Latke Hamantashen debate remarks

2016_03 Latke hamantashen debate Robin Helzner, Rachel, Susan Barocas, Chuck Feinberg

Participants:  Robyn Helzner, Rachel Braun, Susan Barocas, Rabbi Chuck Feinberg

Happy Purim!


Shemot: Sharing values, sharing risks

In parashat Shemot, a remarkable mother-daughter duo emerges, demonstrating a level of collaboration that, with all its attention on parent-child interactions, the book of Genesis had not presented.  What differs in the story of Moses’ mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, is the backdrop of political oppression and indeed, attempted genocide.

Their story unfolds in a few terse verses.  “The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months.  When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch.  She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile.  And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him (Exodus 2:2-4).”

The commentators, of course, fill in the gaps.  Some midrashim say that Miriam initiated her decision to stay by the little basket, putting her in the position to approach Pharoah’s daughter and save her brother’s life.  Such an action would be consistent with other traditional insights into Miriam’s resolve.  The Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 12a teaches that Amram and Yocheved separated after Pharoah’s decrees that the boys be thrown in the river, despairing of having any children.  But the young Miriam urged her parents to remarry and to resume childbearing, citing the value of female babies.  Rabbi Chuck Feinberg suggested to me that perhaps Miriam felt compelled to follow the small ark’s journey down the Nile, given her role in promoting her parents’ reunion.

More ominously, though, other commentators speak to Yocheved’s instructions that in my mind, specifically put Miriam at risk in her role of watching the baby.  Sha’arei Aharon identifies Yocheved as entrusting Miriam to watch over the basket, to make sure that the rushing water does not overturn it and drown the baby.  The Bechor Schor argues that Yocheved insisted that her daughter Miriam stand by the shore and keep watch.  Rabbeinu Bachya and the Netziv also support this role for Yocheved.

Is the latter version correct?  If so, Yocheved’s directive astonishes me.  Miriam was seven years old, and one might think that her parent’s primary role was to protect her.  Yet Yocheved assigns Miriam to this dangerous duty, placing one child at risk to protect another.  I began to wonder: how do normal family behaviors change in times of, or in response to, political oppression, even genocide?   This is surely a challenge for Jews throughout our history.

Some of the questions I have about family choices and political risk feel very personal.  Would I have been willing to have my house be a stop on the Underground Railroad, for example?   Would the age of children in my household have mattered in that choice?  If I was a German, would I have put my family at risk to shelter a Jewish family during World War II?  Would I have put my children in a different kind of risk – a risk for an adulthood that I might not respect — had I not?

Can parents consent to, or, like Yocheved vis-à-vis Miram, directly entangle their children in risky behaviors for a political cause, especially ones that parents endorse?  I think back on my own experiences, traveling to Soviet Union to visit refuseniks when I was 21.  My mother had to give her consent for my participation to the Philadelphia Hillel, which facilitated the trip, yet as the day of departure approached, worried aloud about what would happen to me.  I remember how foolish I thought she was – what could happen to me, after all, a US citizen?  It wasn’t hard, years later, to recognize the exasperated tone of voice I had used in that conversation, as one of my children countered my concerns over a planned expedition.  In contrast, Yocheved is not just consenting to Miriam’s watchful presence, but demanding it!

Millennia after Miriam, another Jewish mother and child, in agreement on the son’s actions to counter political oppression, have a story that did not end as well.  Carolyn Goodman was the mother of slain civil rights activist Andrew Goodman, who was killed along with James Chaney and Michael Schwerner trying to register black voters in Mississippi.  She wrote a memoir of her life, My Mantlepiece, with co-author Brad Herzog.  In a 2014 essay in Cornell Alumni Magazine, Herzog later reflected, “I found myself captivated by the notion of a mother’s internal battle – role model vs. protector – when considering whether or not to permit her son to volunteer in Mississippi.  “My son wanted to be a beacon of light in the heart of darkness,” Carolyn later told me.  “How could I deny him?” …. Carolyn’s legacy will forever be tied to her son’s death in Mississippi, but it is also evident in the activist passion and courage she instilled in her son, the qualities that spurred him to volunteer in the first place.  As she explained:  “I allowed him to go there, and I was both guilt-ridden and proud, and I devoted the rest of my life to making sure he did not die in vain.  I permitted him to go to Mississippi because that is who he was.  And it is who I was, too.”

Carolyn Goodman’s last comment – ‘And that is who I was, too’ – suggests a fluidity of identity and purpose between mother and son, and one I found mirrored in the story of Yocheved and Miriam.

In contrast, consider the experience of Moses and his sons, Gershon and Eliezer.  Trying to protect his sons, Moses left them in Midian, and they missed the experiences of slavery, the Exodus, and the giving of Torah.  Professor Adrian Ziderman of Bar-Ilan University, in a drash on parashat Yitro, acknowledges Moses’ natural inclination to protect his sons from hardship and danger.  Yet he wonders whether this caution accounts for the sons’ near-absence of mention in Torah and for their lack of future leadership in the Israelite community.

Our parasha describes a relationship of unusual collaboration and near-interchangeability of roles between mother and daughter.  Tellingly, we do not get the same sense of the relationship of  Yocheved and Moses.  Richard Elliott Friedman, in a close reading of the text, reminds us that Pharoah’s daughter did indeed name the baby Moses, but not until he was returned to her after three years of Yocheved’s care.  Prior to that, the story only refers to ‘hayeled’ – the boy.  Did Amram and Yocheved hesitate to name their child, perhaps in anticipatory grief that he would one day be torn away from them?  That, tragically, can also be a model of family relationships in times of oppression.


Adonai was in this place…

This week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei, includes the verse: Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati (28:16).  The Lord was in this place, and I did not know it.

My question is:  Why was Jacob initially unaware of God’s presence in that place?

Makom means place.  It appears 6 times in this brief story.  With the exception of holy sites in Israel, Jews don’t often focus on connecting God to physical space or place.  We orient holiness to time, not only in the rhythm of our lives but even as a metaphor for perceiving God.

For example, Adon Olam, the greatest or, at least, most successful liturgical piyyut, presents a time portrait of God.  In one of his lectures, Rabbi Reuven Kimelman has made a convincing case for interpreting the word olam as time and not as space.   The piyyut incorporates time-linked words like b’terem and l’et, and switches tenses between past, present and future, as with (malakh, nikra) or (hayah/hoveh/yihye).

Even ‘Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh’ – the way God introduces Godself to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14), suggests that God is about time.  JPS does not translate this Name, and Alter gives it as “I will be Who I will be,” a name that moves toward the future.  This time-oriented Name contrasts with the space-oriented Name, HaMakom (literally, “The Place”), that we sometimes give God.  And I would argue that Moses’ experience of God at the burning bush, with its emphasis on time, is greater than Jacob’s at his rock, where we focus on place.

In fact, Judaism consistently values time over place.  Thinking back to the Creation story: when God reviews God’s Creation, we are told “vayar ki tov” – and God saw that it was tov, good.  In contrast, when God creates the Sabbath, we understand that “vayivarekh A’ et yom hashvi’i vayikadesh oto”  — God blessed the 7th day and hallowed it.  That’s a step up from ‘tov’.

But Jacob’s experience surprises me.  Why does he say of God’s presence at the rock, “v’anochi lo yadati” (I did not know it)?  I am surprised by his question because Jacob strikes me as a person more natural at interpreting space than time.

In fact, he’s a person who has trouble with timing.

–There’s the timing of his birth; despite efforts at grabbing Esau’s heel, he can’t pull off being born first.

–When he marries, he’s stymied because of the timing of Leah and Rachel’s births.

–When he comes to his old age, his time is filled with bitterness despite his many gifts in life.

–He endures long years without Joseph, describing himself as someone living on earth but whose spirit has gone down to She’ol.

Indeed, time is hard on Jacob.

In contrast, in the physical and material world, Jacob enjoys great success.

–Jacob uses porridge to buy Esau’s birthright.

–Jacob wears animal skins to fake Esau’s appearance to receive his father’s blessing.

–Unlike his father, he’s the one who can roll stones off the mouths of wells to impress his intended.

–In dividing the flocks with Laban, he breeds the goats to his advantage.

–Unlike his forebears, he is prolific father of many.

But at the rock, in this special place,  Jacob cries, “v’anochi lo yadati‘”, initially unaware of an experience linked to the physical world.

Traditional commentators are not as surprised as I am.  They explain that Jacob is self-critical, aware of his short-comings.  Seforno suggests that Jacob lamented not having prepared himself to receive the revelation he experienced. Rashi suggests that Jacob regretted having fallen asleep in such a holy place.  Samuel David Luzzato wonders whether Jacob was ashamed for having regretted having to sleep in the open field instead of recognizing the holiness of the place.

These comments seem to me just to excuse Jacob.  He has a real problem:  how can you experience God’s presence connected to a place?  How is God “ba”makom – in a space?

I love the images of God that connect to timelessness.  But even an image of God as space is revealing, though difficult.  The Midrash Bereishit Rabba 68:12 says, for example, “The Holy One, Blessed is God, is the place of the world, but God’s world is not God’s place.”  Perhaps this means that God envelopes the world, but the world does not exhaust him.  God is infinite in space, too, as well as in time. Maybe Jacob’s experience is this: We experience the flow of time, so we have a sense that time is limitless in the universe.  But that is not our experience of space, so it’s harder to imagine how God can be in physical space and yet not bound by it.

And so this pasuk, ‘yesh adonai bamakom hazeh v’anokhi lo yadati – is potent with images that ask us to extend our ability to perceive God.

(Please visit an adjacent post to see the accompanying embroidery for this drash, Jacob’s Ladder.)


“Do I HAVE to be happy?” Thoughts for Sukkot

This essay first appeared in the 2004 issue of Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism (


Sukkot is zeman simchateinu, the season of our joy, the holiday when we are commanded to be happy. I never thought too much about the oddity of being commanded to be happy until Sukkot 1993/5754. I had just two months earlier gone into clinical remission from non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and in three odd ways during that experience, Sukkot had crept into my subconscious.

The first time was immediately after I was diagnosed, in March 1993. I returned home from the initial doctor’s appointment, and spent the next two days organizing my affairs. I filed bills, laid out life insurance forms in obvious places, balanced checkbooks and organized credit card receipts. I brought the photo album up to date, a practice I maintained over the next five years on the eve of every semi-annual CAT-scan.   (Rabbi Eliezer says, “Repent a day before your death” but I maintain, “Update your photo album a day before your death.”) Then, I went to Victoria’s Secret and bought a pair of satin pajamas. I walked away from the cash register thinking “Well, I started off doing Yom Kippur, and now I’ve just done Sukkot.” I couldn’t verbalize what satin pajamas had to do with Sukkot, though at the time the parallels seemed obvious to me.

That spring, a woman I knew who was being treated for Hodgkins disease finished her course of chemotherapy, a few months before I did. I took her out for lunch, and was puzzled to see her mood so agitated rather than celebratory. I asked her why she wasn’t happy about her remission. For me at the time, getting past chemo would surely be a joyous triumph. “Look,” she badgered me. “Why should I be happy just because I don’t have cancer anymore? I’m thirty-four years old. I wasn’t SUPPOSED to get cancer in the first place!” Her hostility surprised me, and I responded with a wry, “Well, I’m 35, that must explain it!” She glared at me and I thought I should say something quick. At the time, I was benefiting greatly from a support group sponsored by the Lymphoma Foundation of America, so I suggested to her that she might attend as well, or find another suitable group. Among the ones I listed for her was the organization “Make Today Count.” Her reaction was instant and angry. “I don’t want to ‘make today count,’”, she growled. “I want to waste today, just like everyone else gets to do.” Instantly I got a flash of thinking about Sukkot.

Next, when I went into clinical remission that summer, I started calling the Jewish bookstores in July, asking what prices they were offering on pre-made s’khakh (organic roofing for the sukkah). The owner said, “Lady! It’s July! Why are you worried about s’khakh? Call me in September.” I didn’t have a good answer for him. I imagined explaining to him that perhaps I would be dead in September, so I needed to order the s’khakh now. I imagined him responding “Lady!” Nu, so why would you need the s’khakh then, anyway?” So I sheepishly agreed to call back in September, and quietly hung up. That Sukkot seemed to resonate so much that season puzzled me.

Satin pajamas are luxurious. Is Sukkot? Well, certain aspects are. It’s a week of relaxing into the evening with good foods and friends, after a tough ten or forty day season of teshuvah. Finally, it seems that we get to waste a little time after all that work of self-examination. From a kid’s point of view, it’s downright fun. We build a funny booth, sleep and eat outdoors, decorate it, and parade around in shul during hoshanot. Secure in the sukkah with a wafting steamy stew and bundled in tightly with friends, we sense the same cloud of protection with which God guided us through the wilderness.

But like any good Jewish symbol, the sukkah has two-sided imagery. Matzah, for example, is both the bread of affliction, lechem ‘oni, yet also a symbol of our freedom. What about Sukkot? Sitting in a sukkah, we symbolically experience God’s protection, yet we sit vulnerably outdoors under an open roof. The stew is thick and steamy, but dried leaves from the s’khakh are falling in. We recall celebrating the harvest together as pilgrims in Jerusalem, yet we are also reminded of the Exodus, of taking the risk of fleeing to the wilderness.

So being happy is not so apparent. It’s psychologically demanding to be happy precisely when your physical protection is the most fragile. With a certain resignation you learn to be content with the harvest you have, when the work is behind you, finished, and past second-guessing.

It’s a bit like being congratulated on having just survived cancer, while meanwhile you’re wondering how soon you’ll have the nerve to waste a day, just like everyone else gets to do.

*   *   *   *   *

Is Sukkot a logical choice of festivals to follow Yom Kippur? Here you’ve been holed up in shul, contemplating how you’ve lived your life, and now you have to go out into the world and make life happen again, informed by the paradigm of the day. But part of you resists. You seemed to be getting along just fine before Yom Kippur, why did living have to become so urgent? It’s like going into remission, and trying to figure out how to resume life again. You weren’t supposed to get cancer, after all, as my friend said, so why should life have to be different now?

Yes, Sukkot is a guide for life after Yom Kippur, precisely because it presents so many different images. The food is warm and plentiful; the booth is flimsy and open to the elements. You waste a little time in the evening; in the morning Hallel you declare zeh ha-yom asah Adonai—this is the day God made. You are secure under the protection of the Cloud of Glory that covered the sukkot of the wandering Israelites; yet you are wandering through enemy territory over harsh terrain. The work of the harvest has been accomplished, but now it must last you through the oncoming, unknown winter. In the megillah reading for the festival, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) promises that you’ll have a time to laugh; he warns darkly that there is a time to weep. It would be delusory giddiness to rejoice only in that which is fun and secure; it is happiness to recognize that the festival is both the warm stew and the dried leaves that fall in it.

It is not natural or easy to submit to that distinction. It helps to be commanded.

Yizkor 5776

Remarks at the Fabrangen havurah Yom Kippur yizkor service
in memory of Morton Eisenberg, z”l

Yizkor seems at odds with the rest of the day. Our focus these ten days is a very specific period: the past year, and the year ahead. Our moniker – l’shana tova tihatemu – may we be sealed for a good year—focuses on staying alive and doing that well.

Yizkor is different. It looks back at the totality of a life, one, indeed, that is over. And so we are here, not with resolutions, but with memories.

So one question I have always had is, why do we say yizkor on Yom Kippur?

Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, in her essay in the Jewish Lights book, May God Remember (‘Yizkor’), contrasted the memorial work done at funerals, shiva and sheloshim with that done in yizkor. In the immediacy of death, we work with our community to solidify our impression of the person we lost. But the work of yizkor is different.  Our memories are no longer so acute, and the immediate desire to document everything has passed. Instead (Rabbi Gelfand explains), with yizkor we allow those memories to adapt, providing, essentially, an ONGOING connection with the memory of a loved one, even one who has been dead many years. With yizkor, we enact an evolution of our relationship with those we have lost, rather than thinking that the relationship is frozen in time. I think that this idea is critically important – that we will spend several minutes trying to sustain some kind of ongoing connection with someone important to us, someone who is now dead.

Rabbi Gelfand goes on to cite neurological research, teaching us that brain pathways and neural firings actually physically change as we retrieve, reinterpret, and re-store our memories. Memory is not just about information retrieval – it relies on our capacity to build new neuronal connections to past experiences.   So at the end of yizkor, our brains will be physically different. It occurs to me, on this day that we evaluate the conduct of our lives and immerse ourselves in the imperative of teshuva, that perhaps yizkor is the only one of today’s activities that we are sure we’ll be changed by, in the year ahead.

But if we want to bust past the molecular level, it’s reasonable to ask: What do those memories have to do with how we evaluate our lives, right now? And what can they mean for our future, or at least, for the coming year? In other words – why do yizkor on Yom Kippur?

I have a lot of trouble answering that question. In fact, one of my kids made gentle fun of me for volunteering to lead the yizkor service. He reminded me of what I have said each year, each season: I really don’t like the yizkor service.

That’s because there are two critical people I realize I don’t know very well when I say yizkor: the person I’m saying yizkor for, and myself.

One of the people I say yizkor for is my father, who died 35 years ago. Over the years, I have tried to sustain memories of my father in many ways. I view photographs, reread my notes and the cards I got after his death, endeavor to remember specific interactions, even leaf through his stamp album. But I have to admit: I don’t know the person I’m saying-yizkor-for well anymore. So much time has passed, that perhaps I’ve truly forgotten a lot about him. But more to the point: So much time has passed, that my intimate knowledge of what he was like, when I was a teenager and then a college student, doesn’t tell me what I would really like to know about him, now that I’m middle-aged. What I need to know about him and from him, now in my life, is simply unavailable. It was never experienced, it was never recorded in a neural firing. Rabbi Gelfand’s analysis speaks very deeply to me; I have to do a lot of hard work to have an ongoing relationship with my father’s memory.

The other person I don’t know very well when I say yizkor, is me. When my dad was alive, my life was anchored in his, and it was a comfortable mooring. There are other people to think about whom, frankly, I am much less fond of. I might describe those people in nautical terms too, as lighthouses to avoid – as if they were a warning of imminent danger, reminding me to change course by living a life in sharp contrast to theirs.

What I’m saying is, some of the people we say yizkor for brought us a lot of self-understanding. They made it easy to understand ourselves and to chart a path forward by their examples, good or bad. And now they are missing. Their presence was an important part of the design of our lives, and now, we don’t have that that part of us anymore.  We are alone at sea, trying to figure out how to sail.

Our efforts on Yom Kippur generally are directed toward trying to know ourselves better and to change ourselves. Can Rabbi Gelfand’s directive help us in that task, now that it is yizkor? Can we reach back in our memories and know ourselves a little better? Can our evolving conversation with the memory of someone we loved and lost make it clearer to ourselves how to move forward?

It’s time to read two poems.

Please turn to page 559 of your mahzor, to the second poem by Yehuda Amichai. Amichai talks about our bodies, and I hope you’ll understand his remarks about the cells of our bodies in terms of the neurological characteristics of memory, and not just DNA.

When a man dies, they say of him, “He was gathered unto his ancestors.”
As long as he is alive, his ancestors are gathered within him;
each and every cell of his body and soul is an emissary
of one of his countless ancestors from the beginning of all the generations.

And now a poem by Merle Feld, from her book A Spiritual Life:


It’s almost midnight
and I’m sitting here in the living room
keeping your yahrzeit candle company.
It’s so many years now
I closed my eyes to remember
something real about you
and you know what I thought of?
I saw you ironing –
It was his underwear!
When I was a girl I wondered if someday
I’d love someone enough to iron his underwear.
Well, I’ve been married twenty years
and I love him very much
but I don’t iron his underwear,
I don’t even turn it right side out,
I don’t even fold it,
I sort of stuff it in the drawer.
Truly I love him very much
but I still think what I thought when I was 11 –
no one sees your underwear.
I’m all grown up now,
completely grown up now,
and still I don’t get it—
no one sees your underwear.
I’m not being critical,
I’m not making fun,
It’s just that we both have to face it –
I’m a different kind of wife.
You’re gone,
and he’s gone,
the foyer is gone,
the ironing board is gone,
and the underwear is gone.
All that remains is me,
sitting in this chair,
looking at the yahrzeit candle,

Please rise if you are able and if you’d like. It’s time to be alone with individual memories.

Ki Anu Amekha — for we are Your people

The beloved piyyut “Ki Anu Amekha” is found in the Yom Kippur liturgy. Its core message is intimacy and reciprocity with God. These dual effects reach their apex in the last line “anu ma’amirekha ve’atah ma’amireinu” – ‘we are Your bespoken ones, and You are our bespoken One’. As is typical of the liturgy, the piyyut is phrased in the plural. Perhaps this signals that we are describing relationships with God that we achieve through our shared stake in the Jewish people. Or perhaps, the pluralization tells us that in contrast to other types of intimacy, our relationship with God is uncompetitive and unencroached by jealousy.