I spent last week on an island #BlogElul 1: Prepare

No, it didn’t travel through either time or space, there were no polar bears, and people seemed to age in a normal way–it was a much more ordinary island.  And it was where I found myself with a long-time friend and her 2 daughters for (just under) a week of camping.  Camping is not something that is in my comfort zone.  It was not my first time, but I think I can count on one hand the time that I have camped.  And it was great.  I’m guessing this will not be the only post this month about the experience.  Being away for a week allowed me to appreciate the world more, to refresh myself physically and mentally, and to return home in a way that was full of renewal.

One thing I learned (which, had I thought about it, I probably already knew, but actually doing this concretized the concept), is that when you’re camping, being prepared is the key to everything.  You need to pack everything you might need–especially when you are camping on an island, and you need to take a boat to get to any other place you might want to go.  And you need to set up your camp so that you can be ready when night falls.  And you need to have emergency items (and know what to do with them).  And you need to remember to take a flashlight with you when you leave your tent in the afternoon, so that you have it when it gets dark.  And you need to plan everything ahead of time.  When it starts to drizzle, you need to prep the area so that you (and your supplies) don’t get too wet.  When you want to cook, you either need a propane stove top or to light a fire (we used both at different times).  And you need to make sure you have enough wood to have a fire that lasts as long as you need it.  It takes a lot of preparation.

But then, time just happens.  We had very little planned schedule.  And sometimes things were spontaneous.  We would do what we felt called to do–going for an afternoon swim, reading, chatting, laughing (a lot), playing games…And sometimes we just sat around and did nothing.  And at night, after the dishes from dinner had been cleaned in the lake (so that we had them for the next morning, and so that they didn’t attract critters), we would eat some smores, put out the fire, and then go star gazing.

I think it is because everything was prepared beforehand that everything was able to just happen that way.  And I think it’s the same with the High Holy Days.  If we prepare, we can let the holidays happen.

Now, I realize that I have more to prepare than the average Jew in the pew–but I’m not really talking about making sure that the services are well planned and that my sermons are written and that my robe is clean and relatively wrinkle-free.  All that, too, but it’s more about the mental preparation.  Which is why I participate in this project each year.

If I focus on myself and my life…If I think about the messages of t’shuvah (repentance) and take part in deep and real heshbon hanefesh (an accounting of one’s life), then when I read the words in the prayer book and hear the music and listen to the sound of the shofar, I already have a sense of where I’m headed.  And my own thoughts won’t get in the way of prayer.  The holidays will happen as they happen–and I can allow myself to get wrapped up in them in a way that doesn’t require as much conscious thought in the moment.

Because I have prepared.  And I am (or will be) ready.

And, like a week of camping let me get away from so much of my usual life, the holidays can enable me to get away in a different way–in order to have a similar sense of renewal.

Thanks to @imabima for this annual project and this text explaining it: The Jewish month of Elul, which precedes the High Holy Days, is traditionally a time of renewal and reflection. It offers a chance for spiritual preparation for the Days of Awe. It is traditional to begin one’s preparation for the High Holy Days during this month with prayers of forgiveness, but I like to think of it as a whole-person preparation activity. We look to begin the year with a clean slate, starting anew, refreshed. All month, along with others, I’ll be blogging a thought or two for each day to help with the month of preparation.  

If you follow @imabima on twitter, you’ll get to see links to all of the #blogelul posts!



Pokemon Go Play and Have Fun

Like millions of other people, I downloaded Pokemon Go onto my phone this week.  I did it partly because I was interested in how technology was being used, partly because I work with young people and feel it is important for me to know their cultural language, and partly because–to be honest–it looked kind of fun.  And, I admit, it is.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, or have heard of Pokemon but don’t know anything about it, here is a good primer.  If you don’t feel like clicking, the game is an augmented reality game, based on a decades old children’s card collection game.  It’s essentially a global virtual scavenger hunt, in which you find collectable creatures in real places through your phone, and make them stronger through training and fighting with other virtual creatures.  Anyone that has heard of this new craze seems to have an opinion on it.

There have been articles on how houses of worship, like synagogues, mosques, and churches, have been designated as poke-stops or gyms–and the essential meaning of that (especially with a description being given of their historical significance, which begs the question of the balance in religion between history and relevance), not to mention how many houses of worship are utilizing this opportunity; articles questioning the safety of the game, both in terms of people not paying attention to where they are walking, in terms of people being theoretically lured into dangerous situations, and in terms of the information that might be digitally shared; pieces about how wonderful it is that people are getting outside, walking, and interacting with each other towards shared goals; much written about how some people are inappropriate in the places that they play and the way they behave; and many opinions shared about the games and its relative place in modern society.

There are those that this it is wonderful, and those that think it is dangerous and indicative of everything that is wrong in society.

What has struck me has been the number of people that have described it in negative terms, not because of its theoretical danger, but because they don’t see it as having a purpose.  I saw one comment on the facebook post of a friend in which the person said, quite bluntly, “Pokemon is for idiots.”  And that’s where I take issue.  Play the game or don’t play the game, but why be judgmental over the choices of others to engage in this particular activity or not.  And, more importantly, when did we, as a culture, lose the importance of fun and play?

Children instinctively know how to play.  It’s one of the first things we do.  But, as we grow older, play becomes unacceptable.  And I think that’s sad.  Play is good.  Play is important. Fun is a good thing, no matter your age.  I think this game and its popularity is a good reminder of that–it’s a vehicle through which people of a variety of ages are remembering how to play a game.  And I think that’s a good thing.

There is even evidence that playing this game is good for your mental health.  And that it can help those who often have trouble socializing to be engaged and social.  But even without that, isn’t it enough that people are enjoying this game?

We need to stop judging people for finding enjoyment in different ways.  Breaks are important (see: Shabbat) and fun is good for us.  We need to remember the glee that we found in childhood through play and recognize that such happiness can be found when we are adults as well.  This is not shameful.  We should not feel shame for playing this game.  We should not shame others for enjoying this game, or any game (that doesn’t harm others) for that matter.  And if we don’t like it, that’s ok too–but then find other ways to play and have fun.  And don’t yuck someone else’s yum.

Let’s bring some fun back into the world.   Looking around the world these days, I think that there is little question that we need it.

In A World Torn By Violence And Pain

I’m no Lin Manuel

I can’t write sonnets on stage

I can’t free verse my thoughts verbally

Sharing my innermost voice aloud

word by word

on the spot

But my words build up

In my head and pour out

And now and then I write them down

Even more rarely I share them.

And my thoughts right now are unclear

My feelings are a haze of uncertainty

The pain of my soul is a mess of confusion

Combined with the joy of my own life and personal joy

Unsure how to combine the conflict of

Joy and hope and enthusiasm mixed with tragedy and pain.

I want to understand

Those that are so against my beliefs

Those with whom I disagree on each and every opinion

I cannot comprehend how they feel pain like mine from every headline

Yet urge others to vote for the point against mine.

How can someone strive to be good

and yet support what I find hateful

What I see to be so full of dread

That I cannot understand its support.

And it is so hard, near impossible, to enter conversation

To try to gain understanding

To strive for empathetic listening

We are so trained to just disagree and reject.

But then how do we find that moment

In which we can join

And find hope

And yet I continue to hope

And find hope in hope

And even when the others don’t listen

Even when the very questions I ask are rejected

I continue

And continue to ask and to talk and to answer and to give

my own opinions

And listen to those other than mine

Because that is where I believe we find hope.

And that is the only hope

And wherever we vote,

We will be as one in the long run.

And from empathy comes sympathy and I know this

and I try to remember this

And I try to remind others of this

And it remains a challenge to sympathize with those who seem non-empathetic

Even when my own sense of inclusion instructs me

That they are just trying their best

To create a world that is just

That is perfected

That is whole.

And love is love is love

Creeps forth in its own petty pace and overrides

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

which attempts its doom and dread

And yet love and hope and promise must burst forth.

And the light of their candle remains, day by day, signifying everything.

And so I continue

to continue

and continue

To try.

And to build.

And to try.

#BlogExodus Hide

Sometimes, we are reminded that it often the best moments that are hidden throughout the day–scattered about for us to notice them.

Hearing the voices of children singing the Sh’ma; listening to their answers, both profound and silly, of what kind of freedom they want in their lives and the world…and how they can help get there; realizing the blessing of health and celebrating having gotten through past healing; seeing a picture which brings back a rush of sweet memories; hearing steel drums of a collection of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim children and teens from the Galilee; receiving an unexpected compliment from a surprising source; a flower blooming in the grass…

So many moments that often we pass by without noticing.  But like the Afikomen, we need to seek them out and find them in the crevices of life.  And like Moses wandering down a dirt path and seeing a bush that burned and kept burning, we need to stop and see the miracle on the side of the road.

#BlogExodus: Start, Honor, Purify, Grow

I know I’m a bit behind on getting started Blogging Exodus, but I’m excited to take part in this annual project again.  Thanks, ImaBima for organizing this for us this year and each year that you’ve done it!! And here are the first 4 days of Nisan, all rolled into one!

A wise friend once told me that when you notice moments of internal tension, to forgive yourself, and let go.

Internal tension can hurt us–not only mentally, but physically.  And it can block us from moving forward.  It can keep us stuck in the narrow places.  It is only when we notice that it is there, acknowledge it, forgive ourselves for having it (and, perhaps, for not even noticing it before), and then we can let it go and move on.

The Sefat Emet, the great Hasidic sage of the 19th century,  as translated by Arthur Green in The Language of Truth, wrote about Pesach, that the, “Exodus from Egypt never ends.”

How true this is–for the process of noticing, forgiving, and letting go is one that never ends.  No matter how hard we try, we have moments of tension.  The key is to notice them.

And so, we START by noticing; we HONOR ourselves by forgiving ourselves; we PURIFY ourselves by letting go; and then, and only then, do we allow ourselves to GROW.

#HamForSeder Part 2: The Ten Plagues of Egypt

This was actually the first song that came to me that inspired the creation of a few Hamilton based seder songs.  The Ten Duel Commandments just fit so well with The Ten Plagues of Egypt, I couldn’t resist the idea.  And I wasn’t about to throw away my shot…to have some seder fun.

One, two, three, four
Five, six, seven, eight, nine…

It’s the Ten Plagues of Egypt
It’s the Ten Plagues of Egypt

Number one!

The blood: in all of the water
Nothing to drink at all; things would only get hotter

Number two!

And then frogs, many frogs,  more every second
They were in every place, to all over they were beckoned.

Number three!

Within seconds lice all over the place
So much itching in their hair…
Itching over here and there
More than commonplace, specially tween their hairs
Most lice die before getting at the roots!

Number four!

The wild beasts, or maybe flies
Make sure to stay indoors! Don’t go outside
It’s kind of like a dance, avoiding them to your ability
The livestock and the people did not have invincibility


Plague made the cattle all sick
The diseased cows made the place full of ick

Number six!

Boils that appeared on everyone’s skin
On each person and their kin. On their leg and arm and chin.


Hail from the sky.
Steady coming down with thunder and fire
Falling on everyone not inside

Number eight!

Locusts came and then they ate
Everything left, all the trees that they could locate…

Hey it’s Moses!

Hello Pharaoh, sir

Can we agree that plagues are dumb and not in nature?

But you have to let my people go, Pharaoh

All my slaves? We both know that’s absurd, sir

Hang on, how many folks died because your hardened heart was ruinous?

Okay, so we’re doin’ this

Number nine!

Darkness you could feel, no one could see
Not even who their neighbor might be

We count
One two three four
Five six seven eight nine


Firstborn: Death!

Bonus! The karaoke version of the song, if you want to attempt to use this!


As I close out Purim and start to consider Pesach, I’m finding myself a bit Hamilton obsessed (I know I’m not alone).  And, as I’m still in a song parody state of mind, I’m working on a few Hamilton Seder Songs.  This is still, very much, a work in progress, but curious what you think!! Please share your thoughts and suggestions. I’ll share the final product when it’s done (and the future songs to come).

Here’s the youtube video of The Story of Tonight, so you can sing along:


We may not eat before our seder!


We may not eat before our seder!


But we will gladly tell the tale!


But we will gladly tell the tale!


And when our children tell this story…


And when our children tell this story…


They’ll tell the story like tonight


Let’s tell another way tonight


Let’s tell another way tonight


Let’s tell another way tonight


Drink 4 cups for freedom

Something that our people had to gain

4 promises God told us

Drink 4 cups to those promises

God told us God would exit us

Telling this story now tonight

We tell this story now tonight

Drink 4 cups for freedom

God said God would deliver us away

And God will still redeem you

Let’s have another glass tonight

Raise a glass to four promises

God will make a people out of us

Who tells this story now tonight

Let’s have another glass tonight

We’ll tell the story now tonight

Drink 4 cups for freedom

We’ll tell the story now tonight

Drink 4 cups for freedom

We’ll tell the story now tonight

We’ll tell the story now—


New Year

It’s a new year.  I suppose I could have resolutions or huge accomplishments I want to see this year, but none of that rings true.  I don’t make a big deal out of the secular new year.  While there have been years in which I have taken part of huge celebrations (Times Square and, more memorably, Sydney, Australia), my favorite new years eves have been those spent with dear ones.  Heck, even the big celebrations were most memorable because of those with whom I spent them.

That said, there’s something about the year switching from one year to another that makes me pause and consider.  It’s not quite like the cheshbon hanefesh that I do around Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year, for those new to the blog or to Judaism).  That’s a whole different category.  For me, there’s something about the year of regular time going from one to another than makes me think in a more general, perhaps more surface-centered way, about the year that was and the year to come.

And that comes with goals.  Because, for me, I can’t think of stepping forward without thinking of what I’m stepping towards.  And I’m in a really good place right now–and I plan to continue to step forward towards more positives.

And, really, that’s my goal.  To be more positive.  I know bad things will happen.  I realize that crap is a part of life.  But I also realize, I firmly believe, that what we make of that crap is a vital aspect of how we choose to live.  That’s not to say we shouldn’t be sad.  It’s not to say we shouldn’t have bad days.  Those are part of life–emotions are normal and even negative emotions are good to feel.  Ignoring them, suppressing them, only leads to them seeping out in ways that aren’t good for anyone.  But, in the long run, we can’t let the bad days take over our lives.  And, more importantly, we can’t let a bad attitude take an unimportant instant and make it a factor in controlling us.

We are the masters of our own destinies.  That’s not to say we control everything that happens–we don’t.  We can’t.  But we do control our attitudes.  We do control how we respond to others, to life, and even to ourselves.

I determine to be more positive this year.  To look at the good in life, even when it is really hard to see.  To pause and breathe when something frustrates me, so that I can move past it and not let it ruin my day.  To smile at myself and remind myself how many good things I have in my life.  To know, every day, what a blessing it is to be alive in this world–and to know that I can work to make it even better.

Also, I hope to write more.  That’s not a promise. That’s not a resolution.  It is a hope–but maybe having willed it, it will be no dream.



For the first time in recent memory, perhaps the first time in my life, I feel helpless.  I see the headlines of horror telling what is happening in this world, and I honestly have no good response–no good answers.

I see the shootings, I see the wars, I see the refugees, I see the hunger, I see the poverty, I see the illness…and I don’t know what to do.

I mean, I act.  I see what’s going on and I go into motion.  I lobby.  I teach. I sign letters.   I write letters.  I make posts.  I give donations.  I raise money.  I pray.  And while I don’t believe in an interventionist diety (at least not today, my personal theology is subject to change), I still pray–in part because it serves as an internal reminder to act.  To do something.  But then I come back to the same helpless feeling of not knowing what to do.

Too many people are dying.  Too many people are suffering.  And no matter what I do, it doesn’t feel like enough.

I remember my idealism of younger years, in which I felt I could make a difference.  I want that back.  I want to really believe that, “You and I can change the world,” and that even if I can’t change the whole world, if I change my corner, it will make a real difference.

But that is so, so hard to believe these days.

Tonight, I facilitated a discussion of adults about how we balance the communal and personal needs of worship and prayer.  Based on reading from Making Prayer Real, we concluded with an exercise of writing our own psalms.  The exercise in the book focused on yearning, but I left the instruction open to those in the class.  And those who shared had written beautiful texts of internal prayer.  I didn’t share mine, but it was a text of yearning, although I did not expect it to be.

It was a text of wanting what I had once felt.  In retrospect, it was a psalm, a poem, a prayer, which expressed my internal need for connection–for the ability to see the world and to do something.  And for that action to have meaning.

I want to change the world.  I want to take action that matters.  I want my prayer to call me to further action that makes a difference.  I want to have back that feeling that those things that I do actually change the world.

And I need to believe in a world where that is possible.  I need to.  It is so hard.  And every horrific story of death and destruction and bad things happening makes it so much harder.  But I keep trying.

And even in these moments of great doubt, at least I can doubt.  And at least I can be angry at that doubt and angry at this world and shed tears and offer primal screams at the horror around me.

And, in the dark moments, I can see a look of pure joy on the face of a child.  And I can hear squeals of glee in those children.  And listen to adults offer pure and personal insights into the nature of worship.  And taste the first bite of latke in this season of miracles and light.

And maybe, from those moments, I can grasp onto hope.  I need to.  Because I don’t like being hopeless.  And I need to keep trying–even when I don’t feel like anything I do is enough.

Because, at some point, it needs to be.  Because it’s all I can do.  And, really, I have to believe that the world was made with the ability to heal…With the ability of us to heal it.

Once Upon a Time: Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5776

Delivered on Rosh Hashanah Morning at Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington, DE.

Once upon a time…

Once upon a time, the Baal Shem-Tov, would go to a certain part of a certain forest to meditate, when he saw a threat of misfortune for the people. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune was averted.

Later, when his disciple, the Magid of Mezritch, also faced a threat, he too wished to intercede with heaven.  So he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer,” and again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still a generation later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save the people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then, in the next generation, it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.

Elie Wiesel, in his telling of this story, adds a profound postscript: God made man because he loves stories.

Despite the gender-non-neutrality of the statement, it is a brilliant comment.  In fact, because of the non-neutral, “he,” which could be modifying either God or man.  Its ambiguity offers 2 equally true concepts, that God loves stories and that we love stories.

On the one hand, he offers this idea that God loves stories and so created humans so that we will provide them through our living.

Dr Stephen Crites, the late religious scholar and teacher of moral science, wrote in an article titled, “The Narrative Quality of Experience,” that “the formal quality of experience through time is inherently narrative.”  The idea that humanity exists in order to live and so tell the story of humanity is compelling.  That there is a sense of cosmic joy because of by simply living, we become a story.  We are the story of the universe.

And, on the other hand, this equally compelling idea: that God created humans because of our own love for stories.  And, truly, we love stories.  I saw how you all sat up a little straighter, moved forward in your seats, cocked your heads up slightly at the words, “once upon a time.” Those words mean that there is a story coming.  And we, naturally, want to hear it.  It is a vital aspect of human nature—this desire to hear stories and to tell them.   And, truly, people are the only ones who can tell stories.  Perhaps, because of that, God created us—and, perhaps, the ability to tell and retell and enjoy stories is not just a human desire, but is our purpose.  Our mandate.

It is not only what we always have done, but also what we must do.  And perhaps the joy of stories, the love of stories, between God and humanity is symbiotic.  The universe maybe needs stories as much as we do.

We need stories because they teach us.  They inform us.  They provide a lens through which to see and understand the world—and a way through which we can offer new ideas to others.  They have real power for us and whether they are factual or not, they possess a reality that is beyond fact.  Whether or not they accurately describe something that happened—they contain their own truth.  In some way, all stories are true.  Even the ones born by another’s imagination.

Driving this summer in my move from San Antonio, TX to Wilmington, Delaware, I certainly found myself in need of stories to fill the endless hours in the car.  Upon the recommendation of several friends, I found myself listening to “Welcome to Night Vale,” a quirky, independent podcast, which tells the story of the town of Night Vale, somewhere in America, through a fictional community radio broadcast.  The town of Night Vale is somewhat akin to Lake Wobegon from Prairie Home Companion meets Sisely, Alaska from Northern Exposure meets Twin Peaks with a dose of the X-Files thrown in.  During my drive, part way through Arkansas, I became hooked and listened to the whole thing—the podcast is interesting and entertaining and thought provoking—it is good story telling.

Sermon inspiration, by the way, sometimes comes at unexpected moments and from unlikely sources, as was the case when I listened to a recent episode of the podcast, which articulated this idea of the power of stories and our need for them.  Cecil, the narrator of the show, comments:

Before everything, before even humans, there were stories. A creature at a fire conjuring a world with nothing but its voice and a listener’s imagination. And now, me, and thousands like me, in little booths and rooms and mics and screens all over the world, doing the same for a family of listeners, connected as all families are, primarily by the stories we tell each other.

And after, after fire, and death, or whatever happens next, after the wiping clean or the gradual decay, after the after…when there are only a few creatures left, there will be one at a fire, telling a story to what family it has left. It was the first thing, and it will be the last.

Stay tuned next for more stories being told to you all of the time – whether you are aware of them or not. And from whatever fiction it is that we happen to be living together tonight, goodnight.

Life is full of stories—whether we recognize them or not.  They are all around us and we take them in.  And we share them.  And we tell them.  And they become truths that belong to all of us.

And stories exist in a timeless, almost eternal way.  I remember when my high school English teacher taught us that we should always write about fiction in the present tense—because in reality, all parts of of a work of fiction exist as present.  We cannot say that a character died—because if we start the story over at the beginning, that character is still alive.  Stories exist outside of time, and yet are a vital part of the fabric of our own time.  Each story we hear helps to create each moment of our own lives.

And whether or not we are aware that our own, individual stories are a piece of the of the universal tale that is told, we constantly come across the stories of others, even as we tell our own. And even when the stories of others become our own.  Even when stories are shared by a group—passed on from generation to generation—so that even if we weren’t there, it’s almost as if it has become part of our own memory.  The story becomes ours.

And even if we can’t remember the place in the forest, we still tell the story—generations later.  And the real power exists not in the forest, or the fire, or the prayer—but in the story itself.  And that story becomes part of who we are, as we constantly write and rewrite the Book of Life.

These High Holy Days give us the chance to consider those stories—and how we will write the next chapters.  “Days are like scrolls, write on them only what you want remembered,” wrote Bachya ibn Pakuda in the 11th century.  And while scrolls have become pages have become screens—the essence of this idea remains true and relevant, that each day we live, we tell our story.  And that story unfolds throughout our lives—sometimes with unexpected plot twists, but always with the opportunity to ourselves change the narrative.

As Rabbi Laura Geller writes:

Our book of life doesn’t begin today. It began when you were born. Some of the chapters were written by other people: your parents, siblings and teachers. But the message of Rosh Hashana is that everything can be made new again, that much of your book is written every day – by the choices you make. The book is not written and sealed, you get to edit it, decide what parts you want to emphasize and remember, and maybe even which parts you want to leave behind. Shana Tova means a good year and a good change. Today you can change your life. It is never too late.

Indeed, we can change our lives, change our stories.  And we can change the way we hear stories.

Sometimes, that change is possible because of a new lens through which we come to view a story that once seemed familiar.  Just like reading a beloved childhood book as a teenager or an adult gives an entirely new understanding of it (for better or for worse), the same is true of life.  Experience filters the stories we hear.  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer us the opportunity to consider that lens.

Rabbi Alan Lew of sacred memory tells a story of hiking with his son, in which a storm suddenly came, causing them to take shelter from the rain in a shack. While the rabbi looked out the window at the view outside, his son looked at the window itself, and all the life forms that were crawling around there. He compares this to the act of Teshuva, of turning within to create change within ourselves: “…It is a shifting of our gaze from the world itself to the window through which we see it, because that window, the screen of consciousness, is not just a blank, transparent medium.  Rather it is a world unto itself, a world teeming with life, and that life affects what we see.”

The window of our minds determines how we hear stories—what we take from them and learn from them.

And this is equally true for the stories that we tell ourselves.  Sometimes, we need to change the negatives scripts that run through our minds, or reframe truths that we once believed.

We need to continually reframe the stories we hear—to examine not just the view, but the window.  To refocus the stories that we hear from others and also that exist for us alone, the ones we tell ourselves—the stories of our minds.  And, perhaps, to come to change the way we retell them, to others and especially to ourselves.

And this idea, by the way, exists in a real way.  Memories are essentially stories.  In a recent study, scientists at Northwestern University demonstrated that our memories have a life of their own. We have long informally known that human memory is notoriously fallible—but what these scientists demonstrated is that when we remember something from our past, we are actually remembering the memory—not the event itself.  So that those events that we have remembered the most, are actually the memories that have been shaped by our present experience and the way that we have recalled the past.  Our brain edits and reframes our memories in order to fit into our current reality each time we recall them.  The more we tell a story, the more true it becomes.

And so, during this High Holy Day season, may we become more aware of this power we possess—the power to tell stories that shape reality—for ourselves and for those around us.  Let us consider: What is the story that we want to tell, in order to make change within ourselves and in order to influence the change we wish to see in this world.

Once upon a time, Moses told the Israelites a story—it was the story of freedom. His story helped them to envision a reality that was different from the only one they knew.  It was with this story that Moses was able to part the waters of the Sea of Reeds, and inspire the people to move forward—to march into freedom.

Moses told the people this story and inspired them—they passed it on to their children and on and on through the generations. The story of having been strangers, that calls us to create better lives for all people.

Once upon a time, a couple got married.  When one spouse died in a different state, the other wanted to be recognized as the legal spouse on the death certificate—so that the story of public record matched the story of reality. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal for couples to get married, regardless of gender.  The story of equality.

Once upon a time, a few dozen rabbis raised $1,132,959 for childhood cancer research.  We did that because of a powerful story.  And while shaving our heads was an interesting sub-plot, what truly made our accomplishment possible was the story of a little boy with cancer, and his parents that told their family’s story not just to their friends and colleagues, but also to the world.  Inspiring so many of us, and inspiring so many others to support us.  The story of a future of superheroes who win in the end.

Once upon a time, and still today, we hear stories, too many stories, that tell us that there is so much change that must happen in this world.  Stories of people.  Stories of Syrian refugees, who just want to find a place to live and be safe.  Stories of a teenager in Israel being killed because she was supporting her friends.  Stories of a Palestinian family burned in their home.  Stories of women gathering defiantly to pray at the kotel, despite being threatened and even arrested.  Stories of anti-Semitic graffiti being painted on synagogues in San Antonio, and of the community that rallied around them.  Stories of black youth being targeted for walking through a neighborhood or attending a pool party.  Or of a black woman dying in a jail cell after being pulled over for failure to use a turn signal. Stories that must inspire us.  The stories of a world yet to be repaired.

Once upon a time, right now, we hear the story of the journey for justice, organized by the NAACP and the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism—a march from Selma to Washington this summer. Hundreds of rabbis have been carrying a Torah, on each step of the trip, remembering the stories told by the photos and the legacies and the stories of those who came before: Abraham Joshua Heschel walking beside Martin Luther King, as if his legs were praying; Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, then President of the Reform Movement, a man described by Social Justice leader Al Vorspan as, “…a disturber of sleep who brought discomfort to the comfortable,” who stood with King at a demonstration at Arlington National Cemetery, and himself carried a Torah; the 15 rabbis who spent the night in jail with King in St Augustine, FL for praying in an integrated group and sitting down at a table at a restaurant, who went because, as they themselves wrote, “They could not stay away.”  Stories of Chaney and Goodman and Schwerner….so many stories.

Those who are marching this summer have heard these stories and told them and retold them and have strived to out these ideals themselves.

Members of both groups have been educating and sharing wisdom and learning from and inspiring each other—with stories. The stories of history and hope.

Once upon a time, just a few days ago, we heard the story of Middle Passage, a disabled veteran who joined this Journey of Justice from the very beginning and carried an American flag, determined to march the entire way from Selma to Washington.  We heard how he took that name for himself to remember the route by which his forefathers were brought to this country.  And even though only connected through hearing about him, so many of us have been truly saddened to hear that he died of a heart attack after 922 miles.  Perhaps our collective sadness is a tribute to the power of stories—and his story has only strengthened the collective resolve to finish the journey.  The story of determination.[1]

On Wednesday, Rabbi Robinson and I will join in the final steps of this march.  Some of our teen leaders will be joining us, and I hope others of you will consider joining us, as well.  As we take a final step for justice and use the stories we’ve heard in order to create stories of our own.  The stories of trying to see ourselves as if we, too, were strangers in Egypt and marched towards freedom.

Because that’s what we do: we create stories. And we tell stories.

Once upon a time, Moses freed the slaves through tales of freedom. And once upon a time from generation to generation, we’ve told and retold that story so that we can continue to inspire more freedom in this world. And maybe, once upon a time in the future, we’ll know a world where no one is treated as the stranger.  In the meantime, we’ll tell the stories that can help to bring us there.

That’s the power of stories.  And that’s the responsibility of having heard them.

And so I invite you.  Consider the stories that you want to tell.  Consider their power and how you want to use them.  Consider the stories that are in your own mind that you want to change.  Consider the stories you want to tell through your life.  And consider how you will tell them. And how you will hear new stories. And how the story of the world will unfold.

Once upon a time, we heard a story.  And it inspired us to do something, and that inspired us to do something else, and somewhere along the way, we gained a new story.  And then we started to tell and retell it.  And it was sufficient.

As we enter this new year: may your life be holy, may your stories be sacred, and may you tell and retell your story, even as you rewrite it.  And may we remember that it is by not just telling our stories, but by living them and retelling them, that they begin to become reality.  And that it is by telling stories, that we are able to create selves that are better, and a world that is better.

And, through that, may we all live happily ever after.

[1] I did not end up using this paragraph in the spoken version of the sermon, but am keeping it in the printed text.

Sermon Anthem: