“Jews and Giraffes” – Shabbat Shemini, Friday April 21, 2017

We generally reserve the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Haya Sham” – a great miracle happened there – for Chanukah and the story of the miracle of the oil lamp. But this year, we found ourselves using the phrase in the middle of Passover. Nes Gadol Haya Sham. On Shabbat Pesach, a great miracle happened . . . at Animal Adventure Park near Binghamton, New York. April the Giraffe finally gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy.

The birth had been anticipated for months. The Park set up a giraffe –cam (aptly sponsored by Toys R Us), so that we could sit and watch for hours at a time, for weeks and months on end, as April got bigger, started pacing, set up her birthing area, and finally gave birth standing up, to a big strapping boy who was soon on his feet and nursing. Daddy Oliver, in the next room over, seemed to lord over the whole scene with pride.

So what’s this all about? Why all the fuss about a baby giraffe? Well, for one thing, it was clearly the power of social networking and the bright idea of the crew at Animal Adventure Park to let everyone watch, for weeks on end, 24-7. That could have backfired on them if something had gone wrong. They were lucky, but also pretty courageous. If you thought people were not excited about baby animals, they are now. And not just giraffes. Fiona, the baby hippo born prematurely at the Cincinnati Zoo, has been getting an awful lot of on-line love, too, with the team’s daily updates and video feeds. I’m pleased to tell you that she’s now enjoying the indoor pool, consuming 360 ounces of formula a day, along with some hay, and as of Tuesday was up to 166 pounds. And you can find all that information on Fiona’s own blog.

So yes, some of it was the confluence of social media and baby-animal adorableness. But I’d like to think there was another factor at play: parents teaching their children the art of patience.

The day the April’s baby was born was also the first day of children’s fishing season at Reservoir Park, across the street from our house. As hundreds of kids and their parents and grandparents kept one eye on their lines, they kept the other on the facebook feeds on their phones. The volunteers were watching, too, and made sure they announced to the crowd when the giraffe was finally born.

And on the live feed, people from all over the world added comments about how their children – aged 3, or 5 or 9 – had been watching with them all this time and broke out into shouts and whoops when they saw the baby giraffe’s spindly legs emerge. Giraffe-watching had become a family pastime. One that, like fishing at the reservoir, requires a degree of patience that we presume kids today simply don’t have. And that, too, may be a great miracle.

Kids are bombarded with so much that comes at them so quickly. It’s the nature of social media, but also the nature of the rest of their lives. They are shuttled between schools and endless activities. Weekends are highly structured. Full participation in everything is required. And they are terrified to miss even a day of school, for fear they’ll be too far behind even the next day. It’s not the kids’ fault. Their parents have an ever growing number of responsibilities, and their teachers are inundated with bureaucratic demands. The intense pressure on adults inevitably filters down to the children. Everybody is stressed. Everybody is moving a mile a minute.

The latest unfortunate trend in urban life is pedestrians being hit by cars – because so many people are crossing the street with their headphones on and their eyes on their phone screens.

In an article in Atlantic Magazine, Jessica Lahey lamented what she called “childish impatience” – which she also applied to adults. She looked for guidance to Harvard humanities professor Jennifer L. Roberts, who not only writes about the power of patience but also tries to teach it in her classroom. While students are being pushed toward “immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity,” she wrote, “I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”

For one assignment, Professor Roberts had her students write a research paper that required an immersive assignment. They were to write on one work of art, and they had to spend three hours studying it. Three hours! No distractions, no texting, no chatting, just three hours examining a painting for its nuances and its underlying beauties.

Can you imagine the kids you know doing that? I have a better question for you. Can you imagine yourself doing that. Taking the time to immerse yourself fully, for hours on end, in one experience that leads you to a deeper understanding of something special and beautiful? Can you?

Well, that’s exactly the gift that the giraffe cam gave us. But as Jessica Lahey wrote, “access is not synonymous with learning.” It took more than just an occasional peek in, to see what was really going on. It took patience to sit there for long stretches of time to pick up on April’s physical signals that maybe she was getting ready for birth. Was her movement changing? Was she nesting? Was she pacing? Did her body look different? What about changes in her eating habits?

You had to sit and watch to figure it out for yourself, just as you’d have to study a painting for hours to fully understand the intentional uses of texture and color, light and shadow, the mottled features of an aging face, or the grace of an outstretched hand.

To know the story – and not just a few facts – takes patience that we sometimes forget we have.

And that’s why the giraffe baby’s birth was glorious – not just because it happened, which is a miracle in itself, but that it happened on Passover, when we Jews are asked to be at our most patient. When, the hagaddah tells us, we must deal with questions from children who are smart or smart-aleck, eager or bored, sweet or grouchy. When we re-enact our history with such detail that, if we forget to emphasize the pesach, the matzah and the maror, the rabbis tell us we have not fulfilled our responsibility to pass the tale down from generation to generation.

Or take this week’s Torah portion, parashat Shemini, which begins with the ninth chapter of Leviticus. The sanctification of the high priests in the tabernacle already has been going on for eight days. Eight days of offerings and incense, of precision in all the rituals and recitations. Aaron did his job – but his sons, Nadav and Avihu, apparently got impatient. After watching what their father did at God’s command, they decided to freelance, to create their own fire offerings – not ordained by God – with the tragic result that they themselves were consumed by the flames.

And after all that was over, when everyone was stunned into silence by the boy’s deaths, God laid out for the people – in excruciating detail – the laws of kashrut. What could be eaten and what was forbidden.

That cows are okay but camels are not. That fish have to have fins and scales. That birds in general are okay – but not a vulture and especially not a black vulture. Oh, and no eating mice. As if.

We don’t follow exactly these rules anymore. But really studying this whole chapter of 47 long verses, about yes to this animal and no to that one, teaches us the underlying concept that we ought to pay attention to what we eat. That there is a sanctity in preparing food for our families, as much as there was in preparing offerings to God.

The point is that everything that God teaches us requires patience. If the people thought the Ten Commandments were the be-all and end-all, they were mistaken. They were just the general categories. The mitzvot that follow, about everything from the food we eat to the way we treat our neighbors, to marriage and family law – that stuff matters. The details matter.

The rabbis count up 613 commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It took patience for the Israelites to learn how to integrate them into their daily lives – which may be one reason they needed those 40 years in the wilderness. It takes the patience of a lifetime for us, too, not just to fly through the words of Torah, as they’re chanted in Hebrew from an old scroll every Shabbat, but to sit with them and wrestle with them and question them and find the underlying meaning in them. What takes Torah from a dusty old history book to God’s moral compass? We do.

It takes a lot of patience to be a Jew, just as it does to be a parent, or a child, or a teacher, or a student, or a zookeeper watching for those tell-tale changes that a baby giraffe or a baby hippo is about to be born.

To use Jessica Lahey’s example of teaching a novel like Great Expectations, “we can ease our students back into the skill of patience by asking them to stick with stories that don’t answer all their questions on page one.”

What’s true of literature is true of life. And what’s true for students is true for us all. Access may be quick and easy, but learning is a journey. We Jews ought to know that by now. But the miracle of April and Oliver’s baby giraffe is a beautiful reminder. The miracle was not just the moment of birth: It was the millions of people of all ages, all around the world, patiently sharing the journey together in preparation for that moment.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

“A Winter’s Tale” Shabbat HaGadol Friday, April 7th, 2017

So, one afternoon in Camden, Don and I wandered into the great little local coffee shop that’s tucked into the back room of a fantastic local used book store on the main street going through town. We’d ordered our coffees and I must have mentioned something about having had my guitar lesson across the street. To which the morning barista, who was still hanging out there, pointed at me, mouth agape, and cried out, “Oh, you must be the rabbi!” Such was my 15 minutes of fame (no more than that) during winter sabbatical.

I’m used to female rabbis still being a novelty, 45 years after Sally Priesand was ordained in Cincinnati. But a rabbi (stam) being in town is still fodder for local gossip in Camden, South Carolina. Apparently my guitar teacher, Rusty, joins a group of men-of-a-certain-age (who are basically now my age) for a chat session and a cuppa joe every morning. And when he shared the news with the group that he was teaching a rabbi – “well the heck you say!” was pretty much the communal response.

The response was the same at the hair salon and the furniture store. With the requisite follow-up question: “So…you’re Jewish…???”

Of course there’s not much call for a rabbi in Camden, South Carolina. To say there is a handful of Jews it town would be, as we were told by one of them, a ‘generous count.’ There’s a beautiful little Temple building – just a chapel, really – that is only open for lay-led worship on the High Holy days. But in a town that is still “highly churched,” as they say, a rabbi is a novelty worth talking about.

Which may be why I spent most of my time at home.

Thanks to your generosity, I had the opportunity to spend four months at our Camden home, studying, reading, writing, and synthesizing texts that ranged from ancient to modern, from famous to very obscure, and from clear to “what in the world is that?” The only break was to fly to southern California for a few days, to be Don’s cheering section as he graduated from Concord Law School in late February. Have I ever mentioned how proud I am of him? No? Well, I am.

And while Don was studying to take the bar exam that week, I was able to get about 140 pages into dissertation, finally seeing a light at the end of a tunnel that has taken me 20 years to travel.

First, let me tell you a little bit about my topic. In Hebrew we call it n’filat apayim: the prayer act of falling to the ground, face on the floor, in complete physical supplication. I know, not a Reform Judaism thing. But a very Jewish thing from the time of the Bible onward.

I’ve always been interested in how we offer supplications before God. Asking for God’s mercy is often considered the purest form of prayer. And it turns out it doesn’t need a single word to be spoken.

In the Tanakh we see encounter many situations, from Abraham to Joshua, where God appears or speaks to a chosen person, who is so overcome by the experience that all he can do is fall on his face, often unable to say a word. It’s a posture of a human before a god, of a slave before a master, of a subject before a ruler – one that was common throughout the ancient world. It was adopted by those who crafted the stories in our Bible – as a way to say, yes, we too fall before our sovereign. But our sovereign is God, and God alone. And we believe that when we prostrate before God in all sincerity, God will grant our request.

The physical act of prostration IS a form of prayer – one that is important, one that works.

And so it became part of the formal worship of God after the close of the Hebrew Bible. At the Temple in Jerusalem, every day when the offerings were made on the altar and the incense was lit, not only the priests but also ordinary people seeking God’s favor prostrated themselves. Here’s what we know from the Mishnah:

“When they [the Levites] reached the end of a chapter [of Psalms], they would blow [a set of blasts] and the people [as a whole, ha-am] would bow in prostration. At the end of every chapter, they would blow a [set of blasts], and at the end of each set of blasts [the people] would bow in prostration.”

At Qumran, where the sect known as Essenes had removed themselves, to purify themselves for a coming apocalypse in which they alone would be spared, their so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls” record their prayer services. And the instructions to the prayer leaders remind them that n’filat apayim – the stance of supplication – is a crucial element of worship each and every day.

The Mishnah and the Talmud, written and redacted in the centuries after the Temple was destroyed, are inspired by the prayer prostration of priests but also of prophets. The daily prayer routine the rabbis created was based on the daily routine of the prophet Daniel, who was sent into exile and feared for his life. Here’s what the Book of Daniel says:

“So when Daniel learned that the decree had been drawn up, he went into his house, where the windows of the upper chamber opened in the direction of Jerusalem and where, three times each day, he bent down on his knees and prayed and gave thanks before his God for all he had received, as was his custom to do. Then these men gathered and found Daniel praying for mercy and supplicating himself before his God.”

This is essentially what became daily prayer as we know it. By the time the first actual prayer books were put together in the early middle ages, the act of n’filat apayim – of falling on one’s face and pleading with God – was already an established part of community worship. After we recite the Amidah, we are told to fall on our faces, say our own private prayers, and recite psalms and prayers of supplication with the congregation.

The mystics of the late middle ages took n’filat apayim even farther. They believed the worshiper should be so deep into the physical act of supplication that emotionally, it would be a near-death experience, bringing you closer to God.

Now, I know this seems really foreign to most of you. Me, too. The only time I’ve ever seen a full prostration in a Reform congregation was during Yom Kippur in Jerusalem, when we moved all the chairs out for the afternoon service – and when we came to the three recitations of the prayers of the priests at the Temple, everyone went down flat. I understand from Annette Shaw that you did have an interim rabbi once who did the same thing. And I gather it somewhat took you by surprise.

But here’s what I find so interesting. Movement – gesture, posture, dance, waving, stomping – and, yes, prostrating — is an important part of so many religious traditions today. Movement is central to the way black Baptists pray. And Muslims. And traditional Jews. The only way Reform Jews experience it is at Jewish summer camp, when they’re encouraged to experiment with prayer through movement and music. Prayer with no words. Prayer with intent. Prayer with purpose.

I’m not suggesting every Shabbat here should be like summer camp, or that we clear the chairs on Yom Kippur afternoon.

In fact, you may have noticed that I kept things pretty comfortable tonight, for our first Shabbat together in four months. But what I am suggesting is that maybe there’s a way to explore different ways we express ourselves to God on Shabbat. Maybe it’s movement. Maybe it’s music. Not to take away from our prayers – but to enhance them.

Thinking outside the box, and outside the walls of this sanctuary – that’s why I’m studying and writing and synthesizing. It’s not just an academic exercise for me – although it’s one I’d certainly like to finish up this summer. But I want the end of reading and writing to be the beginning of questioning and experimenting. We’ve got a wonderful group here tonight. But we don’t, always. I’m glad to think this means you missed me. But I don’t want us to slip back into old routines.

Thinking outside the box, and outside the walls of this sanctuary – that’s what sabbatical was really about. Not everybody has the ability to take four months off and do something completely different. But deviating from routine is a good thing. It’s a form of self-care – and that, I highly recommend.

Yes, I spent a lot of time at the computer or with my face in a book. But I also balanced that with eating well, walking often, honing my guitar skills with a great teacher, getting a good haircut, and meeting people at the coffee shop tucked inside the book store, all with a unique story to tell.

Each of us can find rejuvenation and inspiration in unlikely places and situations. But we need to open ourselves to that. Deviate from routine, have the courage and determination to take the time for sabbatical, no matter how long and no matter how far.

Passover is the perfect time to start. It’s about our physical redemption, from slavery to freedom. But it’s also about emotional release, too. Of no longer being a slave to routine and tradition. Of being unafraid to walk through the river bed to whatever waited us on the other side. If our ancestors had not had the courage to take that chance, we would not be here today, remembering the gift of freedom they have given to us. The freedom of sabbatical takes all kinds of forms. The fifth question for this year’s Seder might be: What’s yours?

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will. Let us enjoy a meaningful Passover. And let us say together: Amen.


©   Audrey R. Korotkin 2017

My Beauty Parlor Ladies Were Right

Last Friday, I went to the beauty parlor for my monthly cut and color. It is the hub of social mingling in my little town in rural Pennsylvania, the place to go for news about everybody’s family, and what’s on peoples’ minds. Here’s what I posted immediately afterward on our Facebook rabbis’ chat room:

“If you want to know what people think about the election, go to the beauty parlor. Here is what I learned today: Hillary will be indicted after the election (for what? don’t know). Wikileaks has been proven to not have any Russian connections (What is wikileaks anyway?). ATT-DirecTV has been blacking out the Fox morning show. Did you see that Hillary ad with the children? How can she say she supports children when she supports late-term abortions? Trump will clean things up in Washington. If you don’t live in a white, rural area of the country, just know that this is how a lot of my neighbors feel. This is not deep thinking, it’s visceral, and it’s real.”

As it turns out, the ladies at my beauty parlor represent a larger sector of the American electorate than many of my colleagues and friends in larger and bluer cities thought. They were among those who helped elect Donald Trump as president on Tuesday. In fact, they are the prototype of the Trump voter that Ezra Klein of Vox described so well in a recent podcast: They live in rural, overwhelmingly white, communities; and while they may be better off than some of their neighbors, they see poverty, need, and job loss all around them.

My neighbors are not mean people. They care about their families and their friends. Many care for ill parents, help out their kids, and are active in civic and church life. And I don’t think they’re angry so much as scared. Good-paying blue-collar jobs have been disappearing at an alarming rate, including in the coal industry, for a generation now. The Great Recession supposedly ended years ago, but here in rural Central Pennsylvania, people haven’t clawed back what they lost. These are people who have worked hard their entire lives to achieve the American Dream. But they see that dream slipping away. They are not better off than their parents were, and their children are struggling more still. There’s an unfairness about the way the country has “recovered” that they resent, and that showed at the polls.

Political scientist Kathy Cramer has been studying rural Wisconsin for years for her new book, The Politics of Resentment,” which she talked about recently in The Washington Post. Substitute Pennsylvania for Wisconsin and mining for logging, and she’s hit the bullseye on what she calls “rural consciousness.”

“Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult. I’m doing what I was told I should do in order to be a good American and get ahead, but I’m not getting what I was told I would get.”

Yes, there is more. Their notion of what America should be is shaped by my neighbors’ own lives – white, rural, conservative, gun-owning, church-going. It is anathema to someone like me who grew up in a politically progressive household and lived in racially and culturally mixed communities. We moved around – a lot. I went to a dozen schools before college, including three on military bases in the Far East during the Vietnam War. My dad, a behavioral psychologist, was engaged in the work of bridging racial and ethnic divides both within the army ranks and between Americans and the host populations of Okinawans and Koreans. When we returned stateside, the suburban D.C. neighborhood we moved to was populated with mid-level embassy employees and their families, of every ethnicity, religion, and home country imaginable.

The last eight years also have shaped and heightened divisions. For progressives like me, we have rejoiced in the presidency of Barack Obama. We are heartened by the pushback against discriminatory laws – the courts’ overturning of horrific state abortion restrictions designed to control, demean, and objectify women, as well as the courts’ rejection of voter-restriction laws that deliberately targeted the poor, the young, the elderly, and people of color who vote Democratic. And we were overjoyed when the Supreme Court ruled, in essence, that love is love is love. A President Hillary Clinton, we believed, would continue to lead the country in a progressive, inclusive direction.

But for many of my neighbors, these were all signs that America was losing its way, the way they had known for generations. This was a president who didn’t look like them, who wasn’t raised like them – who, in the words of my husband’s cousin, was “your Mr. Obama,” never “our President Obama.” This was a Supreme Court that rejected all that their church doctrine had taught about the sanctity of life, even life unborn, and the abomination of homosexuality. And this was a political elite – of both parties – that was ignoring their struggles, their pain, their needs. As Kathy Cramer put it,

“What I heard from my conversations is that, in these three elements of resentment — I’m not getting my fair share of power, stuff or respect — there’s race and economics intertwined in each of those ideas.

“It’s not just resentment toward people of color. It’s resentment toward elites, city people. And maybe the best way to explain how these things are intertwined is through noticing how much conceptions of hard work and deservingness matter for the way these resentments matter to politics.”

I harbor no illusions about the fact that there are racists and bigots and misogynists in our midst. That they have been emboldened by political pandering is terrifying and contemptible. But it would be a mistake to simply dismiss all Trump supporters as such, which serves only to limit our ability and opportunity to understand the identities and fears of others.

And while we decry the fact-free nature of our public discourse, we need to understand that, for my neighbors – and for yours – the issue is less about facts than about feeling. It’s less about policy than about place. As Cramer said, “All of us, even well-educated, politically sophisticated people interpret facts through our own perspectives, our sense of what who we are, our own identities.”

I happen to serve a congregation with a wide political spectrum in the pews, from Woodstock alumni to the current and immediate past presidents of the local Tea Party. I make it a point not to unduly antagonize. I frame my arguments for what I believe in, based on what I believe the Jewish tradition teaches us about issues of justice, fairness, inclusion, and the inherent and equal worth of every human being.

That will not change. If anything, I will redouble my efforts to let the prophetic conscience of our faith ring out from my pulpit. Justice, justice, shall we pursue. We shall love our neighbors as ourselves. We shall look after the poor, the widow, the orphan – those on the fringes of society who are often forgotten, neglected, or tossed aside.

Our politics may be polarized, and we may have distinctly different views on the role that government can and ought to play in making peoples’ lives better. But we can and must come together, as Americans, as Jews, and as human beings. We have been through worse. And we have survived and even thrived from these conflicts. We must do so again.





Life on a See-Saw: Yom Kippur Morning 2016

From the big picture window in our living room, Don and I are blessed with a beautiful view of Reservoir Park. To the right are walking trails that lead back to the municipal pool and the roller-hockey rink from which, on a cool day with the windows open, we can hear the clank of skates and sticks, and the laughter of camaraderie.

In front of us is the reservoir itself. On sunny days, the surface is like antique glass, rippled from the wake of the resident ducks and bubbles from the fish for which they dive. And to the left, there’s the playground. When the weather turns warm each spring, and then cool again in the fall, parents and grandparents spend hours with the kids, helping them navigate the jungle gym, pushing them on the swings, and catching them at the bottom of the slides.

But one piece of playground equipment sits solitary, unused, its paint flaking. I never, ever see anyone on the see-saw.

It never occurred to me until very recently, when I read an essay by Carole Leskin, who recalled that, when she was a little girl and her father would take her to the playground, she loved the swings and hated the seesaw. The swings, she wrote, “were magic carpets for me . . . I could fly! If I wanted to, I could pump my little legs really hard and soon I was up in the clouds.” But, she wrote, when her dad took her to the seesaw, she was terrified. He’d put her on one side and he – tall and lanky – would sit on the other and tell her: “Here we go, Carole, Hang on!” She remembers hanging on for dear life as she was shot into space, afraid that she would come crashing down to the ground.

Carole Leskin is writing as a woman in old age. And when she thinks about the schoolyard now, she imagines that terror on the seesaw as a struggle between her, trying to keep a level head and her feet on the ground, and Father Time, trying to fling her into the air, where she has no control.

But when I see that lonely old seesaw in Reservoir Park, I think about it a little bit differently. And I wonder about the message it sends, not just to children but to all of us at all stages of life.

You see, when little kids first come to the park, they don’t know how to navigate the playground. They need the help of grown-ups: to push them on the swings, to catch them at the bottom of the slides. But slowly, they develop their own skills. They learn, as Carole Leskin did, how to pump their little legs so that they can propel themselves into the sky on the swing set. They learn how to climb up and down on the jungle gym without falling or getting bruised or scraped. They learn how to plant their feet at the bottom of the slide so they don’t go tumbling head-first into the dirt.

But you can’t do that on the seesaw. The seesaw is the one thing in the playground you can never learn to navigate all by yourself. If the goal is teaching children that they can learn to do everything without anybody’s help, then no wonder the see-saw sits alone.

Aye, but here’s the rub: You cannot go through life thinking that you can accomplish everything all on your own, without help from anybody to boost you up, keep you steady, or wipe off the dirt and dress your wounds when you slip and fall.

The seesaw, I would argue, is the single most useful and necessary piece of equipment on the playground. It should get the most use, not the least. Because it teaches us we ought to learn to navigate life like we do the playground – with help from somebody else.

It seems natural for little kids to want to be independent, and that’s a good thing. Don’s granddaughter Rachel visited our house when she was 18 months old, and the two phrases that came out of her mouth were “I do” and “I eat” – both with an exclamation point at the end. They learn, over time, to get on the bus by themselves, to navigate going from class to class with different teachers and different classmates, to keep their own schedules and their own checkbooks, to pay their own bills and make their own way in the world.

But I wonder if we do kids a disservice if we emphasize independence at the expense of co-dependence. Not in a negative, clinical sense, but in the sense that we create healthy lives for ourselves when we learn to trust and help others, and let others trust and help us.

Columnist David Brooks calls this “being in covenant” – just the language we use in Judaism. It’s language he draws from a new book by Marcia Pally of New York University, which I mentioned last week when I spoke on the binding of Isaac. In Commonwealth and Covenant, Pally suggests that what we really want in life is what she calls “separability amid situatedness.” That’s a fancy way of saying that we want to go off and do our own thing and explore the world in our own way – but we want to do all of that knowing that we can come home to healthy, loving, families and welcoming communities that give structure and meaning to our lives. And this, too, is fundamental to Judaism.

On the see-saw of life, it’s the comfort of knowing that there’s somebody on the other side who’s there to keep you balanced and safe.

As Brooks points out, we live in a world where autonomy and individuality reign supreme, where people are increasingly separated and isolated by social and economic forces, yes, but also by new technologies like the internet. People spend more time alone, either because they’re forced to or because they choose to. Individuality was supposed to empower people, but Brooks sees the opposite happening. “People are often plagued by a sense of powerlessness, a loss of efficacy,” he writes. “It turns out that people can effectively pursue their goals only when they know who they are – when they have firm identities. Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric. It’s hard to live daringly when your very foundation is fluid and at risk.”

That’s where covenant comes in. And it’s a different type of relationship than we are accustomed to in our society, where the art of making a deal can be a best-seller but the craft of creating covenant is relegated to the back of the bookstore, in the more obscure realms of sociology and religion. As Brooks puts it:

“People in a contract provide one another services, but people in a covenant delight in offering gifts. Out of love of country, soldiers offer the gift of their service. Out of love of their craft, teachers offer students the gift of their attention.”

Living in covenant with other people is, as it turns out, as important in the secular parts of our lives as it is in this sanctuary. It’s just more obvious when we are in a religious setting, overtly talking about commitments of faith.

This morning’s Torah reading – “Nitzavim,” from The Book of Deuteronomy — re-emphasizes the spirit of the covenant by challenging us to stand up for what’s right and just. The Torah deliberately uses the plural in the Hebrew: Each of us has a responsibility, but we fulfill that responsibility in community. And in the afternoon reading from the Holiness Code of Leviticus chapter 19, we are challenged to see covenant in all of our relationships – faithfulness to family; support for the disabled, the poor, the hungry; justice in judgment. Not because we have contracts with these people but because we have a covenant with them through God:

קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם

You all shall be holy, as I, Adonai Your God, am holy.

Once again, the command is to each of us, but the Hebrew is in the plural. Twice over, the Torah brings us this “separability amid situatedness.” As Marcia Pally writes, “God’s spirit of righteousness and care is given to the nation through the gift of the commandments to help it carry out what God knows it can (be righteous and a means to the blessing of humanity).”

Torah’s repeated message of “separability amid situatedness” is fundamental to the way we live as Jews. Not just here in this sanctuary, where we speak the language of covenant most openly – but, most importantly, when we leave this overtly holy space and time and create holy space and time the rest of the year, in the rest of our lives.

As Marcia Pally notes, a contract protects interests, but a covenant protects relationships. That’s exactly what the prophet Isaiah expressed in the Haftarah of consolation and hope just a couple of weeks ago, in the lead-up to the Days of Awe:

For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall the covenant of my peace – the b’rit sh-lomi – be removed, says the Eternal who has mercy on you. (Isaiah 54:10)

Isaiah’s message prepared us for the commitments we make today. That’s the thing about a covenant: you can always count on it in a way that you cannot with a contract. Contracts can be broken, dissolved, nullified. But covenant stands fast. When you are in covenant with the person on the other end of the see-saw, you know he or she will be there to keep you balanced and safe.

It is covenant, David Brooks notes, that “preserves individual freedom while strengthening social solidarity.” Today, we Jews reaffirm the covenant with God that is reflected in our behavior toward others. But for the world to be redeemed – for the world to be a better, safer, more peaceful place like that playground across the street – we must be challenged to create covenants with others that stretch across the ties of family, community, religion, race, and income.

If we are to be the holy people that God commands us to be, we must understand that it does not matter that the person on the other side of the see-saw is a family member, a close friend, or just someone who relies on us to see to their sense of safety and balance.

When I was a kid, I used to see other kids sitting on one side of the see-saw, waiting for somebody else to come and play. And we always did, whether we knew them or not. It was a way we met new people, and build new relationships – based from the beginning on mutual trust. We didn’t understand the language of covenant when we were five years old. But that’s what we were doing. Maybe it’s time to put a fresh coat of paint on the see-saw, oil the squeaks out of it, and make it important again.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin