“Kindness in Any Language” Yom Kippur Morning 2022

My Grandmom Freda, of blessed memory, taught me many things. How to knit and crochet, and how to cook and bake. How to celebrate every happy occasion with family that you possibly can. How to stand fast in the face of challenges like loss and illness and not let setbacks deter or define me.

But I have carried one particular lesson of hers throughout my life. It’s an adage you probably can complete with me:

“If you can’t say something kind about someone . . .

Don’t say anything at all.”

I try my best to hold to that teaching. But this morning, on Yom Kippur, I have to acknowledge that sometimes an unkind word will slip, and for that I am sorry. I don’t always get it right.

But then again, neither did Grandmom Freda. She actually did sometimes say unkind things about people. But if I was in earshot, she just said them in Yiddish. When she would switch to Yiddish talking to Grandpop Mike or to one of her friends, I knew what was going on – just not who, what or when.

Still, if she had to talk smack in code, it taught me just how powerful words can be. Kind words break the ice, open hearts, begin conversations, and initiate lasting relationships. Unkind words have the opposite effect.

Kindness is the last of the four values on which I’m speaking in my sermons during these Days of Awe, inspired by historian Howard Zinn and his lesson about bringing hope to dark times.

The last few years have been dark and scary for all of us, and if our Days of Awe give us anything, it is an opening to a more hopeful future. Zinn wrote:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”[1]

When we emphasize kindness, we not only determine our own lives, but those of others as well. And there’s no better example of that than this morning’s Torah portion.

Moses has spent the entirety of the book of Deuteronomy on a vengeful spree, rewriting history to reflect perceived wrongs done to him by the Israelite nation — recalcitrant and stubborn and obstinate and unfaithful, as they are. In modern British slang, we would say that Deuteronomy is Moses “being a mood” for 34 chapters. In Parashat Nitzavim, he looks like he’s lobbing more verbal hand grenades before he goes. The fact that our reading today is heavily redacted to emphasize the positive gives us a clue as to the rest of it.

But let’s take a closer look, to suss out what I think is an undercurrent of kindness in Moses’s words. And let’s start at the beginning.

You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God . . . to enter into the covenant of the Eternal, which God is making with you this day.

We talk about the overt language of “nitzavim” as “standing at attention” – like mustering an army to go to battle. It’s the same word we see in the uprising led by Korach, when mutineers Dathan and Abiram “stand” at the entrance of their tents as Moses threatens the rebels with destruction.

But here, Moses is very careful with his words: Atem nitzavyim, hayom kulchem: You stand here today, all of you. Today, I am not calling you to attention to separate out the sacred from the profane, the faithful from the faithless. Today I am uniting you – men, women and children, the highborn and the low-born, all of you together, and bringing every single one of you in covenant with God. As the 19th century Polish rabbi Joseph Saul Nathansohn taught, “Thus Moses is saying: ‘You stand this day’ – [because] all of you, both great and small, are worthy of this.”[2]

But if that’s true, why do the people need a second covenant right before they enter the Promised Land? Wasn’t the covenant at Mount Sinai, with all that thunder and lighting and the sound of the shofar, good enough?

Well, yes…but. The Polish Hasidic Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain wrote a century ago:

“When two friends make a covenant, it is not for the present, for a time when they are very close, but for the future, because sometimes, as time passes, their feeling of closeness dissolves . . . once [the Israelites] entered Eretz Yisrael . . . even though there would be times when all would be dark and they would be tossed about throughout the world, the Jews would still maintain love of God within themselves.”[3]

Again, we see here kindness on Moses’s part. Keep in mind that this is not the generation that had stood at Sinai – the ones who, because they were born in slavery, needed all that thunder and lightning to convince them to say yes to God. These were people born free, and under God’s protection. Moses trusted that all they needed was a kind reassurance to say yes for themselves and for their children: both with those who are standing here with us this day and those who are not here with us this day.

Moses is assuring them here that their children will enjoy God’s protection as well. And that’s especially important right now, because they realize that Moses won’t be there to take care of them. Moses soothes their worries and promises: Joshua will look after them on God’s behalf.

Later on in our reading, Moses calls heaven and earth to witness the vows the people make – whether they choose life or death, blessing or curse. In other words, whether they will follow God’s laws or not. The fact is that Moses knows these people all too well. He knows some of them will sin; some will lose faith. But he promises, in verses we do not read today, that no matter how far they stray and where they may end up, they have the chance to repent and return.

“Then,” says Moses, “the Eternal God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love God with all your heart and soul that you may live.”[4]

This is love, not fear. This is kindness, not callousness.

And when Moses challenges the people to choose between life and good over death and evil, he moves from the plural to the singular – Natati l’faneicha hayom: This day I set this choice before you, and you, and you. Why does he do that? Because even this challenge, Moses couches in the intentional language of kindness. As the Gaon of Vilna teaches: “This verse is in the singular to teach that even when confusion reigns and people sin, each individual is required to strengthen himself and to know that God has made a covenant with him and speaks to him.”[5]

Moses brings the entire nation together to help them see just how strong they are individually and as one people – and will be, when he is gone. He invokes a divine covenant so that they can be assured of God’s care, now and for the future. He fully acknowledges that he knows they’ll get into trouble – but if they turn from sin, God will always welcome them back with a warm embrace. He cautions them that hard times will come but encourages them: You can do this.

Here, now, Moses puts away the language of recrimination and anger. He’s gotten that all out of his system. He does not want his Book of Life to end this way. He wants to leave them – and he wants to leave his life – with tenderness and forgiveness. With words of kindness. With hope for dark times.

And so this is our message from Torah on this day of Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. God asks each of us: How will you spend your days on earth? How will you leave it? How will the people who love you, who rely on you – how will they remember you?

“Compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”

Ken yehi ratson. May this be the blessing that God bestows upon us this day, as we embark on a year of hope. Let us say together: Amen.

######

©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 208.

[2] Torah Gems, Vol III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, trans. Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing, 1992), p. 297

[3] Ibid., p. 300.

[4] Deut. 30:6

[5] Ibid, pp. 307-308.

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“The Courage to Step Up” — Kol Nidre, Tuesday, October 5, 2022

Baseball – a wise man once said – is like life. Some day, you will find yourself called to the plate with the score tied, in the bottom of the ninth. You, and you alone, can make the difference for your team. And you never know when you will get that call.

That wise man was Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a great rabbi and a good friend. As a rabbi, he was an iconoclast who took progressive and sometimes provocative stances on issues of social justice and Jewish peoplehood. As a native of the south side of Chicago, he was a dyed-in-the-wool White Sox fan. Rabbi Wolf understood the parallels between sports and life. He especially understood the courage it takes to be the brave individual who is willing to be in the spotlight for a team sport.

Courage is the third of four traits that historian Howard Zinn identified as crucial to finding hope in these difficult times.[1] At Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of the first two traits: compassion and sacrifice. Tomorrow morning, I’ll talk about the last one, kindness. But tonight, I speak of courage – because I believe that this is the great challenge we meet on Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement.

Courage may be easy to spot if you’re a baseball player in the spotlight. All you have to do is think of the week Aaron Judge of the Yankees just had. It took him a full week to get from 60 home runs to the record-tying 61, and to do it every day in front of Roger Maris’s family. Every at-bat was nationally broadcast and critiqued by national media.

After Wednesday’s game, Roger Maris, Jr. kidded Judge, “Why did you wait so long?” But all kidding aside, I think the seven-game home-run drought he suffered teaches us something important. As Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal observed the next morning:

“A baseball record means something because baseball, at its core, is a game of achievement wrapped in regular failure. No one is promised a home run. The best hitters get hits merely 30 percent of the time, and ace pitchers have ugly afternoons on the hill. It’s an old game that enforces humility, and that might be the best thing about it. It’s good to be reminded of this now and then.”[2]

That’s it. That’s the key to courage. Courage is the ability to know in advance that you’re going to succeed only a third of the time, that people will watch you fail and maybe criticize you for it, and that you’re going to go ahead anyway and try, every single time, to succeed.

Life, too, is a “game of achievement wrapped in regular failure.” And when we stand here at the open Ark tonight, we acknowledge our failures of the past but not just that. The words of Kol Nidre are the key:

“Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make and the obligations we incur to You, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them.”

We are not asking God tonight just to forgive our failings for this past year. We are courageously acknowledging to God that we know we’re going to mess stuff up this year. A lot.

But we say: We will try our best, God. Please, don’t count it against us that we are only human. Because that’s the way you created us. Give us, O God, the courage to succeed humbly and fail gracefully – and then get up and do it all over again.

We may see a guy like Aaron Judge and think that his courage, like his bat speed, is something that comes naturally to him. And Judaism does teach that courage is a trait with which God endows every human being. But don’t expect it to just appear like magic at times when we need it. It’s part of the spark of divine light inside each of us that needs to be cultivated and encouraged. In Hebrew we call it ometz or ometz lev – literally “strength of heart.” Having that courage – growing that courage inside of us — does not make us immune to failure. It doesn’t mean we’re not afraid to fail. Of course we are. Fear of failure is part of our nature, too. But out of that fear comes our strength. as my colleague Rabbi Marc Margolius teaches:

“Simply observing the fact that we are afraid, without judging ourselves for that emotion, offers the possibility of acting in a way that is not determined by that fear. That is ometz lev – doing that which is right and just, even in the face of challenging emotions.”[3]

Baseball requires courage, whether your 12 or 30, whether you’re a kid or a pro, whether you’re winning or losing. Or whether you’re just walking onto the field. Rabbi Wolf knew that baseball really is like life. All of us play team sports in one way or another – for a family, a company, a congregation – and yet each of us is judged by our individual achievements on behalf of everybody else.

That courage that comes from the heart. Ometz lev is whatallows use all those other traits we’ve been talking about during these days of awe: kindness, compassion, sacrifice. Without courage, none of the rest of this would be possible. Knowing in advance that we are likely to fail a good part of the time is what Yom Kippur, these Days of Awe, and this Jewish life is all about.

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of how our smallness in the face of the enormity of the universe makes every single act even more important. Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz wrote about how very courageous that is:

“Courage comes from realizing that our role in the universe is unique but limited. Yet, it’s this limitation that allows us to excel beyond our wildest dreams. It allows us to pursue our destiny. And whether we know it or not, courage is the engine that allows us to move forward perpetually, with intentionality, with compassion, and with the knowledge that meaning is found through navigating the tribulations of living a full, active life.”[4]

In his post-home run column this week, Jason Gay wrote of the unique unpredictability of baseball, and how you can’t force history to happen. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes courage. As we learned in the movie “Bull Durham”: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. But you always go back to the ballpark the next day.

The first time I met Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, I had just arrived in Chicago. I was part of a special welcome ceremony for new colleagues in the sukkah at KAM Isaiah Israel, Arnie’s old congregation on the South Side. In his gruff, deep voice, he placed his hands over me in blessing and said, “We’re glad you’re here! We really need you!”

You never know when you’ll be the one someone else needs. That’s the courage of the heart, the ometz lev, that we call upon — as God calls upon us to step forward on this Day of Atonement. Do not be the one of whom God asks, “Why did you wait so long?”

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.

#####

©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 208.

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/aaron-judge-61-home-runs-roger-maris-yankees-11664451718?mod=panda_wsj_author_alert

[3] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/cultivating-jewish-courage-ometz-lev/

[4] https://www.jewishideas.org/article/jewish-imperative-cultivate-courage

“Sacrifice Shared: The Akedah” Rosh Hashanah Morning 2022

As I mentioned last night, my sermons for these Days of Awe reflect the struggles we have had, as individuals and as a sacred community, for the past two and a half years. They are built around a quote from historian Howard Zinn in his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage and kindness.”

Last night, I spoke of compassion as the fundamental trait God implants within each of us. This morning, I turn to sacrifice – which God calls on each of us to perform, at some point in our lives, to preserve and protect the lives of others.

Sacrifice is at the heart of this morning’s Torah portion, the Akedah, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac. Whose sacrifice it is – well, that is a question that’s been debated for thousands of years. And it deserves our attention today.

We know the basics of the story as the Torah tells it. God calls on Abraham to take his beloved son, Isaac, for whom he had prayed for so long, and sacrifice him on a far-off high altar that God would guide him to. Abraham and Isaac make the three-day journey with their servants – but walk alone up the mountain, where Abraham binds Isaac to the altar and raises the knife to slaughter him.

At the very last second, an angel of God calls to Abraham, lauding him for his faith and allowing him to sacrifice a ram – which magically appears in the nearby thicket – in place of his son. And the angel promises Abraham an everlasting covenant because of his faith.

But the story is jarring and disturbing. Does our Israelite God really ask for child sacrifice, like so many of the gods of the ancient world? Does our first forefather really act without questioning God’s order or motive? Does Isaac really go so willingly – or so ignorantly – to his death? Why didn’t Sarah have a say in all of this – or even know about it? Why did the Torah’s redactors deliberately include such a troubling and discordant passage, when the narrative flow of the Book of Genesis would have been just fine without it? And why did they then fail to mention it a single time in the rest of the Torah? Why did they, so to speak, “set it and forget it”? And how in the world does such a disturbing little episode then come to be the foundation for three monotheistic religions?

We might find some of these answers when we ask the initial one: Whose sacrifice does the Akedah describe? I would suggest there are several possible answers.

  1. Abraham’s Sacrifice

On the face of it, the answer is simple: Abraham, who has waited and prayed and cajoled God for this child for so long, is making the greatest sacrifice anyone can imagine. He is slaughtering a beloved son – the only son of him and Sarah. He is not only bringing untold tragedy into his home, he is cutting off the conduit for the future blessings that God has promised him: generations of his seed, the land, the eternal covenant. God has given, and now God is taking away. Abraham doesn’t know why he’s being tested – or maybe punished — this way. But the Torah depicts this as a clear test of his obedience to God.

If we are disturbed by this, we are not alone. The rabbis were troubled too. So much so that they insisted that, of course Abraham would argue for the life of his own son at least as vociferously as he did for the strangers of Sodom and Gomorrah! Plus, God seems unusually wordy here. Therefore, they decided, God’s words to Abraham could not have been commands but were merely one side of a vehement conversation, for which Abraham’s replies are presumed but not explicit.

Take your son                 Why, I have two sons!

Your only son                 Well, one is the son of this woman and the other is the son of that woman!

Your beloved one            Now how can a father possibly choose between them?

Take Isaac![1]

As Jon Levenson writes in his book Inheriting Abraham, the pain is so unbearable because, as the medieval Torah commentator Rabbi David Kimchi put it, Abraham “loved Isaac more than he loved himself.”[2]

But for Levenson, Abraham’s sacrifice is even greater than that:

“Abraham’s own destiny is so entwined with that of Isaac, and the ‘great nation’ that is eventually to descend from him, that the demand is even harder than the demand upon any other loving father to offer up his beloved son. Psychologically, what is asked is not only an inexpressibly painful act of sacrifice; it is also an act of self-sacrifice . . . it is Abraham’s very future, the very promise that issued from the mouth of God, with which he must part.”

  • Sarah’s Sacrifice

Jon Levenson’s description of the heartbreak of Abraham helps us understand his agony. But what about his wife, Sarah? What about her sacrifice? According to the Torah, she was blessed with this child of her old age because of her hospitality to God’s messengers as well as her husband’s. But also, according to the Torah, she is not party to God’s order, or to Abraham’s fulfillment of divine command. What did she know and when did she know it? And what impact did it have on her life?

Since Sarah is completely absent from this story in the Torah, her sacrifice has to be built through rabbinic writings. And there are plenty of them.

In one telling, Abraham does tell her he’s taking Isaac but not what he’s about to do to him. She sends them off with love and hope for their safe return.

But that is just too easy, isn’t it? The rabbis thought so too. So their Midrash gives us this:

“Satan went to Sarah and disguised himself as Isaac. When she saw him, she asked: “My son, what has your father done to you?”  He answered, “My father took me down into valleys and up a certain mountain . . . He set up an altar and arranged the kindling and bound me on it.  He then took the knife to slaughter me. If the Holy One had not called out, ‘Do not cast your hand on this boy,’ I would have been slaughtered.” He did not complete his sentence when Sarah’s soul had already gone from her.[3]

The Torah itself connects the near-sacrifice of Isaac at the end of Genesis chapter 22, to the death of his loving mother Sarah at the beginning of chapter 23.

This is not lost on the rabbis, who see that “Sarah died in Kiryat Arba and Abraham came to mourn Sarah and to weep for her”[4] – “came,” because he was nowhere near her when she needed him. We might say that Sarah herself was sacrificed to fulfill Abraham’s quest.

  • Isaac’s Sacrifice

So we see that the rabbis themselves re-imagine and re-write the story in many different ways. The rabbis also focused on the possibility that this is really Isaac’s sacrifice.

In one “reconsideration,” the rabbis look closely at the language of the Torah passage. Not once but twice along the three-day journey, the text tells us, וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו, and the two of them walked off together. The first time is when Abraham lays the wood for the sacrificial fire in Isaac’s arms. The second time follows almost immediately: Isaac sees the firestone and the wood but asks, “Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham answers cryptically: “God will see to the sheep, my son.” Or perhaps: “God will see to the sheep – my son.”

Yachdav, the rabbis recognize, means not just that the father and son are walking physically side by side, but that they are “together” in their understanding of what is about to happen.

Surely, Isaac is not an ignorant child. In fact, according to one midrash in the Talmud, Isaac selflessly offers himself up to ease his father’s pain:

“Rabbi Itzchak said, “At the time that Abraham sought to bind Isaac, his son, [the latter] said to him, ‘Father, I am a young man and I am concerned lest my body shake from fear of the knife and I will trouble you, and lest the slaughtering will be invalid and it will not be considered a sacrifice for you. Rather, tie me very well.’ Immediately, [the text says] ‘and he bound Isaac.’ Could he really tie up a man of twenty-six years (or even thirty-seven)? Clearly, it was with his consent.”[5]

But the rabbis don’t leave it there. In the rabbinic mind, Abraham was so intent on fulfilling his vow to God, that there was no stopping him – by an angel or any other means. And here the rabbis again closely examine the text, and the fact that Abraham names this site Adonai Yireh, “and God will see.”  Well, what is it that God sees? “I see the blood of the Binding of Isaac.[6] This early midrash – nearly two-thousand years old — imagines that Isaac was indeed sacrificed by his father, and only the tears of the angels in heaven resurrected him.

Here we have not just a sacrifice by Isaac but truly the sacrifice of Isaac – a story that later Christians will adopt as their own.

The connection between Isaac’s sacrifice and this day, Rosh Hashanah, our Day of Judgment, is clear in the rabbinic mind:

Rabbi Abbahu said: Why does one sound a blast with a shofar made from a ram’s horn on Rosh HaShana? The Holy One of Blessing, said: Sound a blast before Me with a shofar made from a ram’s horn, so that I will remember for you the binding of Isaac, son of Abraham, in whose stead a ram was sacrificed, and I will ascribe it to you as if you had bound yourselves before Me.[7]

“When the descendants of Isaac become involved in transgressions and bad deeds, may You remember for their benefit the Binding of Isaac and leave the Throne of Judgment for the Throne of Mercy, and, filled with compassion for them, may You have mercy upon them.”[8]

  • Our Sacrifice

The sacrifice at the heart of this story could be that of Abraham. Or Isaac. Or Sarah. But I think there’s a much bigger reason why it’s traditional to read the Akedah on Rosh Hashanah, on our Day of Judgment. And that is because this day, God is teaching us the value, and the need, of our own sacrifices to bring healing to this world.

In these Days of Awe, God asks us to sometimes sacrifice our comfort to alleviate someone else’s suffering. To sacrifice personal gain for the benefit of our neighbors. To sacrifice self-righteousness and our own ego for self-awareness and someone else’s dignity. To be willing to give up time or money or the use of our God-given skills for something from which we are unlikely to benefit. That’s what makes it a sacrifice. That’s what makes it meaningful.

Today is the day we celebrate the birthday of the world, and when we read the words of the Akedah, and when we heed the sound of the Shofar. That’s no coincidence. Let’s keep in mind that the mystics believe that what we do here on earth has cosmic consequences – affecting even God. So today, God is entrusting us with Creation itself. I said last night that every small act of compassion we take can have a huge impact. Now we realize that every small sacrifice we make can help save a world.  

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth. As we say together: Amen.

######

©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Bereshit Rabbi 55:7-8.

[2] Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity & Islam (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 69

[3] Midrash Tanhuma, Vayera 23.

[4] Genesis 23:2.

[5] Bereshit Rabbah 56:8-11

[6] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pischa 7.

[7] Bavli Rosh Hashanah 16a

[8] Leviticus Rabbah 29:9, Levenson p. 96.

“Compassion: It’s in the Stars” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 2022

Finally! For the first time in three years, we are physically together as a community for Rosh Hashanah. For prayer, for food, for celebration of the New Year. And for giving thanks. Thanks for the love we share for this congregation and for one another. Gratitude for the hope and support and perseverance with which we have supported one another. Appreciation for the strength we have shown as we have faced down challenges large and small, throughout this long siege of COVD in all of its stages and strains.

So for this year’s High Holy Days, I want to highlight, in my four sermons, four fundamental values we have lived out during this time -values that are both keenly Jewish and essentially human. All of them point to a message of hope for the future, no matter how hard our struggle has been these last few years. No matter how hard we may still be struggling.

I’m grateful to the legal journalist Dahlia Lithwick for identifying these values for me in an interview she did with Ezra Klein recently in The New York Times. She quoted from the memoir You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train, by historian and teacher Howard Zinn. This is what he said in his message of hope:

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”[1]

Compassion. Sacrifice. Courage. Kindness. Tonight, I start with a message of compassion. It is a message that calls on us not only to bear witness to the astonishing acts of goodness we have seen all around us in these past few years of struggle — but also to the urgency of the “still, small voice” with which God commands us to continue to act with compassion every single day.

For us, every single day starts today. The day on which we celebrate the birthday of the world and the rebirth of our souls. Today is the day on which we accept the torch of Torah from those who came before us, take a deep breath, and let its light and warmth guide us as we step forward onto a path whose way is not always clear.

Today is the day that God gives us to dig down deep within ourselves and find that mother lode of compassion that may be lying dormant, so that we can release it into the world.

And for that inspiration, God has given us the world itself.

All summer, we have been treated to the astonishingly brilliant and beautiful photos taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. But the Webb has brought us more than just a spectacular view of what’s out . . . there. It actually gives us insights into what’s in here – in ourselves. It physically shows us how compassion can guide our lives.

Just a few weeks ago, NASA captured incredible images of the so-called Cartwheel Galaxy. The Cartwheel is about 500-million light years away from us. Scientists think it used to be a normal spiral galaxy, like the Milky Way. But it acts like a cartwheel spinning around. That’s the result, apparently, of a high-speed collision between a large spiral galaxy and a smaller one.

The collision gave the Cartwheel two rings: a bright inner ring, and a colorful outer ring, in glamorous shades of orange and yellow, both expanding outward, with spiraling spokes of blue stars in between, connecting the two rings.[2]

But here’s the thing that struck me about the Cartwheel Galaxy. The smaller ring – the seemingly less consequential one, the one with less bling and pizazz – is actually the one that’s doing all the pushing. The energy of the galaxy comes from the center, and this core drives the rest of the Cartwheel. Without that core pushing and prodding, the Cartwheel could not be the great, magnificent galaxy that it is.

I think each of us kind of has a Cartwheel Galaxy inside of us. There’s an intense and powerful light that God has implanted at our core. It is the power of compassion – the essence of human existence, the command of Torah to love one another as we love ourselves.

It is our responsibility to access that light of compassion and let it guide us. It is our mission to use that force as part of the greater galaxy of humanity, moving forward toward a better world.

It’s an awesome power – and an overwhelming responsibility. The challenges and troubles of our world are so big – and we are so small. But we see how the small ring at the core of the Cartwheel can move an entire galaxy. And we know it can be done.

When we saw the first images from the Webb telescope this summer, science writer Shannon Stirone wrote in the New York Times:

“Viewing images like these can provide a profound sense of insignificance . . . they offer a sense of proportion and understanding of just how small we are on the grand scale.”[3]

But I think our relative smallness in the world makes every single act of compassion even more grand – in ways we might not even know.

Writing in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Catherine Pearson, told this story:

“In late August, Erin Alexander, 57, sat in the parking lot of a Target store in Fairfield, California, and wept. Her sister-in-law had recently died, and Ms. Alexander was having a hard day.

“A barista working at the Starbucks inside the Target was too. The espresso machine had broken down and she was clearly stressed. Ms. Alexander – who’d stopped crying and gone inside for some caffeine – smiled, ordered an iced green tea, and told her to hang in there. After picking up her order, she noticed a message on the cup: ‘Erin,” the barista had scrawled next to a heart, ‘your soul is golden.’

“’I’m not sure I even necessarily know what ‘your soul is golden,’ means,’ said Ms. Alexander, who laughed and cried while recalling the incident.

“But the warmth of that small and unexpected gesture, from a stranger who had no inkling of what she was going through, moved her deeply.”[4]

It turns out, writes Pearson, that a lot of the time we have absolutely no idea how a small act of compassion can change a person’s life – or at least make today a lot better. Scientific studies have shown that people who show compassion to someone else tend to underestimate just how much the recipient will appreciate it.

As psychologist Marisa Franco says: “We just don’t think the positive impact of our behaviors is as positive as it is.”

The studies referenced in Catherine Pearson’s article are based on small experiments and seemingly small acts – giving someone a ride home, baking cookies, buying someone a cup of coffee. The people who performed these acts of compassion consistently underestimated the impact they had. And one of the researchers, Amit Kumar, at UT Austin, concluded that “not knowing one’s positive impact can stand in the way of people engaging in the sorts of acts . . . in daily life.”

The bottom line is that no act of compassion, however small or unimportant it may seem to us, goes unnoticed. Sometimes it can change a person’s life forever. Sometimes, it just makes a bad day a little better.

And you don’t have to know how to bake cookies to do it. As Dr. Franco said in the article, “It’s about: What skills and talents do you already have? And how can you turn that into an offering for other people?”

I like the way she uses the word “offering.” I find that a very Jewish proposal. Remember that, in Biblical times, our offerings consisted of sacrifices brought to the priests at the Temple’s altar.

Wealthy people would bring dozens of fatted calves to cultivate God’s favor. But poor people who brought one turtledove or a handful of flour were welcomed, and treated, and blessed by God just the same. No offering was too small or too inconsequential for God.

The early rabbis taught that we cannot differentiate a “minor mitzvah” from a “major one.”[5] And it’s no different for us today.

I think of the simple acts of compassion we’ve witnessed during the COVID crisis, when all of our lives were impacted by isolation, illness, loneliness or even death – but we knew others needed help more.

Remember when toilet paper was in short supply because of hoarding? I can’t imagine having kids and no TP in the house. Word went out through the digital grapevine from the local carwash that had turned into a pop-up food bank that they were all out. Neighbors drove from all over the area just to drive through and drop off a twelve-pack.

Remember when people missed time at work or lost their jobs because their kids were home-schooling and they had no one to care for them? Word went out through the grapevine again, and up popped “Mutual Aid Blair County” on Facebook. Neighbors set up food banks on their porches and spread the word around town. Individuals posted where families could find infant formula or paper goods. The group is still active, with more than 750 members, because the need has not gone away, it’s only become more public. “Help is available to any and all who want/need it,” the site operators say. Need never takes a rest – and so neither can compassion.

Remember when we were all being encouraged to wash our hands thoroughly, wear masks any time we were in public places, and keep up with our COVID vaccines and boosters? That’s not just past tense. That’s all just as relevant right now. I promised my physician, when I saw him last week, that I’d quote him: “Wash your hands. Wear your masks. Keep up with your vaccines. That’s what we do for one another.”

Just as NASA was able to draw back the veil on unknown realms, we have the capacity to uncover previously unknown opportunities for forging relationships, for imbuing these relationships with compassion, and ultimately for lighting the lamp of hope for the future of the world we celebrate today.

Author Rebecca Solnit, who also was recommended reading by Dahlia Lithwick, put it this way:

“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative moments that could not be foreseen. . . hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen – and in the spaciousness of [that] uncertainty is room to act. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable . . . it is the belief that what we do matters – even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.”[6]

Our lives, like God’s universe, are full of twinkling lights full of brightness and clarity, that stun us with their beauty and power. They also are filled with dying stars shedding their gas and light as they weaken. And black holes that mark the places in our hearts where the people we loved once stood.

The fact is that, when we walk out of this sacred space tonight, we journey into a darkness that gives us no clue of what’s to come in the year 5783. There may be predictions. Or presumptions. Or probabilities.

But the broad space accorded to uncertainty in life is all the more reason for each of us to fill it with love, and hope, and let the spark with which God imbues each of us move us to act with compassion every day.

Like the inner ring of the Cartwheel Galaxy, the seeming smallness of our acts, performed purposefully day by day, drives the entire world forward to healing.  

As historian Howard Zinn concluded his memoir:

“If we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”[7]

I think this world deserves a marvelous victory. Don’t you?

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will in the universe and our own mission here on earth, whatever the New Year may bring. As we say together: Amen.

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©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 208.

[2] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2022/webb-captures-stellar-gymnastics-in-the-cartwheel-galaxy. Accessed September 5, 2022.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/12/opinion/nasa-james-webb-space-telescope-awe.html.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/02/well/family/random-acts-of-kindness.html.

[5] Pirke Avot 2:1.

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/15/rebecca-solnit-hope-in-the-dark-new-essay-embrace-unknown. Accessed September 5, 2022.

[7] Zinn, p. 208.

Watch Where You’re Going, Not Where You’ve Been –  Shabbat Masei Friday July 29, 2022

It’s always such a joy for me to see a leader of our country visiting Israel, as President Joe Biden did this past week. I don’t care about your political persuasion. For most of us American Jews, watching the president or vice president of the United States spending precious days in Eretz Yisrael is a real rush. It’s a source of pride, as both countries not only recognize the value of our strategic alliance, but also celebrate the connection in our shared values. Upholding democracy. Sustaining humanity. And fostering security.

When I was a rabbinical student studying in Israel for a year, I remember the excitement, the crowds, the energy throughout Israel when President Clinton came to celebrate the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, which he had helped to broker – a treaty that allowed a group of us student rabbis on winter break to be among the first to walk across the Israeli-Jordanian border, Israeli visas stamped into our passports, without trouble, and with a warm welcome.

The following spring, we were among dozens of Americans and Israelis gathered outside Prime Minister Rabin’s official residence to cheer Vice President Gore and his then-wife Tipper, as they came to Jerusalem to promote America’s efforts to bring peace to the region.

It was so wonderful and so important for us to know that they were experiencing Israel in all its modern vibrancy as well as honoring its past.

Which was why the media coverage of President Biden’s recent visit made me so sad.

We know that the president got a briefing on security and defense, including a close-up look at the Iron Dome missile defense system. We know he and his hosts joined in a virtual meeting with their counterparts in other countries to talk about regional priorities like food security and technology innovation. We know he took part in the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah games, the Jewish equivalent of the Olympics.

But the only news reports I saw were of his stop at Yad Vashem, where he honored the memory of the dead of the Shoah and met with several survivors of the Nazi genocide. It was emotional. It was important. But it is really the only visual content that most of us have of his visit to Israel.

Apparently, the president asked for the visit. But the Israeli leadership was very accommodating. For them, a prominent and highly publicized visit to Yad Vashem is requisite for any foreign dignitary that visits the Jewish homeland. You don’t go home without it.

My first thought was: Why? Why is this all that I’m seeing? Why is this the only thing the world will remember about this visit?

My friend and colleague Rabbi Jeff Salkin, who was in Israel at the time, thought the same thing. And as always, he has written magnificently about it.

In his on-line commentary this week, Rabbi Salkin answered the question this way:

“You, dear visitor,” he wrote, “are visiting Yad Vashem because it tells you why there must be an Israel. Yad Vashem is the story of Jewish powerlessness. We will never be powerless again. This is why there is an Israel.”[1]

I think he’s exactly right. But I also think there’s more to it. I’d suggest that requiring foreign leaders – especially Western leaders – to take part in the Yad Vashem photo op also has to do with guilt. The guilt of the Allies for allowing six million to die when they could have stepped in to stop it. When they –- when we — could have accepted millions of fleeing European Jews but closed our doors instead. When we could have bombed the rail lines that took Jews to the gas chambers. When we resisted allowing Jews to flee to what was then British Mandate Palestine. Never forget, President Biden was reminded, that America – that beacon of freedom and democracy — should have done more then and owes us more now.

And that, for me, is a problem. Because this message of why we need an Israel, why Israel should exist as a Jewish state, can easily be turned against us. It suggests that Israel only exists as a post-war colonialist enterprise, imposed on the Middle East by the victorious Western powers. This message is at the heart of growing antisemitism and Jew-hatred on the left, where many well-meaning people are being deluded by antisemites into condemning Israel and Zionism and Zionists and all  Jews as colonial racists who have stolen the land of the native Palestinian population and want to see them destroyed.

All of it is nonsense and lies, of course. But the PLO and the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have been very successful at promoting it . It has resonance among young people – even young Jews, even young rabbinic students. They agree to leave a huge part of their Jewish identities at the door, because they are so eager to be part of the coalition that is assailing us on the left, as white supremacists are on the right.

Nobody should be forced to do that. And if Israel were not, in some way, pushing that Shoah narrative so hard, maybe we’d be better equipped to educate so many well-meaning people who clearly know so little about the history of the Middle East, the Jewish people and our three-thousand-year connection to the land. Clearly, there’s a lot of ignorance about the modern state of Israel, where the majority of the Jewish population is not European Ashkenazic – that is, non-white. Obviously, there’s a lack of nuanced understanding that the modern Palestinian – Israeli conflict is one of competing valid historical narratives, not one of racism.

As Rabbi Salkin wrote, the sympathy of the world after the Shoah “lubricated the wheels of the creation for the state, but it was not solely responsible for creating the state . . . these stories that connect Israel with the Shoah are not wrong . . . but they are incomplete.”

I’m grateful to Rabbi Salkin for directing me to a decades-old essay by the late Rabbi David Hartman, whose name adorns a trans-denominational institute in Jerusalem where he was studying this summer. Rabbi Hartman challenged us to choose Auschwitz or choose Sinai.[2] Rabbi Salkin paraphrased the essay this way:

“Auschwitz is what they did to us. Sinai is what we did for ourselves.”

Auschwitz, I think, promotes the narrative of servitude and helplessness, while Sinai signifies empowerment and freedom.

I see the choices of this narrative in the start of this week’s Torah portion. Here, we end the Book of Numbers by starting with a long recap of the forty-year journey of our nation from servitude to freedom. Forty-two place-names are listed as stopping points along the way from Egypt to the Promised Land, to remind us what a long, difficult and tumultuous trek we successfully completed.

 In a Torah commentary several years ago, Jane West Walsh and Cantor Gershon Silins noted that at least two of the places are not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah and we have no idea where they were. They were important places of rest at the time – but they are other otherwise forgotten.[3] So why keep them in the story?

Well, maybe it goes back to what my Grandmom Freda used to say so often: “Watch where you’re going, not where you’ve been.” That was especially important for me because I’m such a klutz and I definitely would have tripped over my own feet or something else right in front of me, had I not been paying attention.

But I’ve always taken that wisdom as a life’s lesson. We are shaped by our experience, and memory can be a gift. But we need to be moving ahead, without getting entangled and tripping up in what we’ve left behind.

To add to what Rabbi Hartman wrote, then, Rithmah and Rimmon-perez might be the ancient equivalent of Auschwitz. They were places where we were alone, endangered, and exposed to threats all around us. They were places we survived.

They are stages in a narrative of fear and vulnerability that we always carry with us. But: Between Auschwitz and Sinai, I’ll always choose the latter to define my life as a Jew, and what I understand as God’s plan for me and for all who are part of B’nai Yisrael, whether by birth or by choice. We can say “never forget” and mean it – without being defined by it or restrained by it.

The fact is that, in our Parashah, the list of the 42 encampments is merely a prelude to the preparation that Moses will give us in the entire book of Deuteronomy, so that we can fulfill our destiny in the Promised Land, the land of Israel. Our destiny, our empowerment and our peoplehood also are parts of the narrative we always carry with us.

Sinai is the past, the present, and the future of Israel and the Jewish people of the world. Sinai is our life and our destiny. Sinai is what we create, every day – in politics, medicine, education, entertainment. And yes, fundamentally in faith, and in the covenant – our partnership with God – that continues to shape our world.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission here on earth, as we say together: Amen.

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©2022 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://religionnews.com/2022/07/25/biden-israel-yad-va-shem-holocaust/

[2] https://www.hartman.org.il/auschwitz-or-sinai/

[3] https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/torah-commentary/lost-stories