D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Yom Kippur Morning
Highway 61 by Bob Dylan.
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you seem me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”
In his classic folk song Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan found inspiration in the biblical story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac – the story we read on the second day of RH. As a test of faith, God tells Abraham to take his favored son, Isaac to the top of a mountain in the land of Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice to God. In Dylan’s version, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son on Highway 61, known as the Blues Highway, extending from Minnesota to New Orleans. In the Torah, Abraham complies, and God rewards him by refusing to accept the sacrifice God had asked for, and instead promising to bless Abraham and his descendants,
כְּכֽוֹכְבֵ֣י הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְכַח֕וֹל אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־שְׂפַ֣ת הַיָּ֑ם וְהַרְבָּ֨ה אַרְבֶּ֤ה אֶת־זַֽרְעֲךָ֙.
and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore…..
This notion of sacrifice has come into sharp focus for us these last seven months. In particular, we have heard and read countless stories about essential workers and the sacrifices they have been making in order to save lives and in order to provide for us during this pandemic. Unfortunately, we have not always provided for them in delivering enough personal protective equipment, supplies, and resources to do their jobs. Although like Abraham, they heard God’s call, unlike his son Isaac, many of these workers have made the ultimate sacrifice – dying in the service of their country.
The Hebrew word for sacrifice korban, has evolved over time to be identified with three different but related meanings. In its early use korban referred to “sacrificing to” something—in many cases God. The sacrifices made were gifts-- an object, usually an animal, which was transferred from the human to the divine realm. “Sacrificing to” was meant to be a solemn show of gratitude and/or communion.
Later on the term was used more as “sacrificing for” -- giving up a vital interest for a higher cause, as in the story of Abraham, who was willing to give up his son for God, or as in essential workers who have been sacrificing themselves to help the country and mankind during the pandemic. “Sacrificing for” represents an offering made with the intention of achieving a particular purpose.
The third meaning of korban used in modern Hebrew, symbolizes not only an offering but also a victim of a crime, who I suppose you could say sacrificed their life for no particular purpose other than helping their killer fulfill his or her desire to kill.
In Judaism, the ritual of sacrifice reached an abrupt end with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem during the first century. Christianity replaced all sacrifices with one ultimate sacrificial event: the sacrifice of the son of God. That sacrifice eclipsed all previous ones. Christianity did not do away with the idea of sacrifice; it founded itself on the supreme sacrifice.
In this morning’s Torah portion we read about two goats used by the High Priest in the sacrificial ceremony—one designated for God and one designated for Azazel. The goat designated for God was sacrificed to God on the altar and the goat designated for Azazel? Well, after the High Priest laid his hands on the goat and transferred the sins of the Israelites to that goat, it was sent out into the wilderness. This is the origin of the word scapegoat or scapegoating -- putting all the blame on someone or something. The scapegoat was sacrificed to the wilderness in order to save the Israelites from their sins. Could it be that the essential workers of COVID-19 are modern day scapegoats sent off into the wilderness to do the jobs we cannot do or in some cases aren’t willing to do, to save us?
Each morning when I pray – when I daven – I read from a series of rabbinic texts designed for daily study. One of those texts comes from the Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 2:1):
Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said: The Holy One said to David: Solomon your son, is building the Temple. Is this not for the purpose of offering sacrifices there? The justice and righteousness of your actions are more precious to Me than sacrifices. And how do we know this? [because it says in Proverbs] To do what is right and just is more desirable to Adonai than sacrifice (Proverbs 21:3)
Of course, often times to do what is right and just, requires sacrifice. Whether that sacrifice means sitting on your couch, helping your neighbor, or sacrificing your life, to do what is right requires us to step outside our comfort zone or do what we need to do rather than what we want to do.
Early in the pandemic there was a lot of discussion centered around making sacrifices for the sake of our economy. We should sacrifice the elderly, the disabled, the vulnerable, the infirm, minorities, working class poor-- for the sake of the economy. It wasn’t so much that people would die, it was more that people should die. In a tweet back in March, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick wrote: Grandparents would be willing to die to save the economy for their grandchildren.
More recently we’ve heard talk about herd “mentality” – or more correctly, herd immunity – the willingness of some to sacrifice millions of American lives as a path towards eradicating this virus. Herd immunity occurs when the herd, a large portion of a community becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of the disease from person to person less likely. However, the more contagious a disease is, the greater the proportion of the population that would need to be immune to stop the spread of the disease.
Measles is a highly contagious illness and it's estimated that 94% of the population would have to be immune to interrupt the chain of transmission. With COVID-19 experts estimate that in the U.S., 70% of the population — more than 200 million people — would have to recover from COVID-19 to halt the epidemic. Millions of people would die before reaching herd immunity. Both Sweden and Britain pursued this strategy early on but abandoned it when officials saw it would not work. In addition, it isn’t yet clear whether being infected with the virus would make someone immune to future infection.
We have all made sacrifices during this pandemic and we will need to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In March and April, The Rutland Jewish Center celebrated two Zoom Bar Mitzvahs and as it happens both Torah portions, coming from the book of Leviticus, were focused on sacrifices. If you aren’t connecting to my words about sacrifice, maybe listening to some of what Sam and Ezra spoke about will do it for you.
Sam wrote: Sometimes …. we make sacrifices to benefit others……So here’s a challenge I pose to you. Try making a sacrifice today and every day to better the world. It can be small like taking the time out of your day to say kind words to a stranger or something as large as sacrificing your hard earned money and donating it to a charity. It doesn't matter what you do. The only thing that matters is that you do it.
Ezra interpreted sacrifice as being about rules: Modern society often rebels against being told what to do…... We like spontaneity and freedom more than rules. Rules can be hard and annoying like having to wake up at a certain time for school, and being marked tardy when you are 30 seconds late…….. Lots of rules are hard to follow. But rules aren’t all bad, they can help us know what to do especially in new situations. For example, we are all facing new rules today like not having large gatherings to prevent the spread of the virus. The rules help us know what to do.
COVID-19 is one of a number of crises facing us right now, but as both Sam and Ezra noted, you don’t have to be a first responder or an essential worker to make a sacrifice and help the world during these difficult times. It doesn’t matter where you offer your sacrifice -- on Mount Moriah, on Highway 61 or in Rutland, Vermont. It doesn’t matter if you choose to do it out of faith; out of a sense of duty; out of a desire to make a difference, or because it’s the right thing to do, the world needs you. So just do it. Make that sacrifice but more importantly, do what is right and just, because: To do what is right and just is more desirable to Adonai than sacrifice (Proverbs 21:3)
I began with the words of Bob Dylan and I will end with the words of Bob Dylan:
Blowin in the Wind by Bob Dylan
How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take 'til he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind
G’mar Chatima Tova, Wishing you all an easy fast.
 Moshe Halbertal. On Sacrifice. (Princeton : Oxford University Press, c2012) 1
 Ibid. 7
Kol Nidre Evening 5781
Power and glory by Phil Ochs
Come and take a walk with me through this green and growing land
Walk through the meadows and the mountains and the sand
Walk through the valleys and the rivers and the plains
Walk through the sun and walk through the rain
Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all (on us all)
In the book of Exodus, we read the story of Passover. We read about the Israelites’ exit from Egypt. After 400 years of slavery they finally have their first taste of freedom. So, what do they do with that first taste of freedom? Well, technically they celebrate by dancing and playing timbrels. I’ll give ‘em that. But three days later, when they arrive at Marah in the wilderness, they find the water tastes bitter. So, they complain. They whine. They pitch a fit. Ok, that’s understandable. The water tasted bitter. That would be disappointing after coming out of slavery.
Then, not long after that, they come to the wilderness of Sin, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from Egypt. (Ex. 16:1) They walk through a land filled with power and glory as written by Phil Ochs in the song I just sang, beauty that words cannot recall. Phil Ochs wrote those words about America but they fit just fine here. Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom, her glory shall rest on us all.
And what did the Israelites say in response to their new found freedom:
מִֽי־יִתֵּ֨ן מוּתֵ֤נוּ בְיַד־יְיָ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּשִׁבְתֵּ֨נוּ֙ עַל־סִ֣יר הַבָּשָׂ֔ר בְּאָכְלֵ֥נוּ לֶ֖חֶם לָשֹׂ֑בַע כִּי־הֽוֹצֵאתֶ֤ם אֹתָ֨נוּ֙ אֶל־הַמִּדְבָּ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה לְהָמִ֛ית אֶת־כָּל־הַקָּהָ֥ל הַזֶּ֖ה בָּֽרָעָֽב:
If only we had died in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into the wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death (Ex. 16:3)
Bottom line, the Israelites used their new found freedom in their new found land, to complain. And yes, we can laugh about the whiny Israelites. We can be annoyed about their pettiness and their impatience. But the truth is, they were free and they used their freedom to speak their minds. This was not something they could do so easily when they were slaves.
This past summer I traveled around Vermont—through as Phil Ochs wrote, this green and growing land. As a relatively new resident of Vermont, I took the opportunity since travel beyond the Vermont border is kind of a pain.
I traveled on two separate weeks. The first week I stayed in Sheffield just north of St. Johnsbury and the second week I was in St. Albans just north of Burlington. On both occasions I was close to Canada. When I was in Sheffield I took a drive up to Derby where I had read about the local library sitting both in the United States and in Canada. The building was of course closed but I could walk around outside.
Last week I talked about using our imagination during this pandemic. In this situation I used my imagination --seeing myself a former librarian, inside this beautiful library and I used my imagination to see myself cross over into one of my favorite vacation spots, Canada. But my imagination couldn’t ignore the police cars all over the town blocking any access to the border.
There is a peace arch on the border of Blaine, Washington and Surrey, British Columbia- a 67-foot high testament to the close ties between Canada and the United States. Inscribed on one side are the words – interesting to read on this Yom Kippur evening – May these gates never be closed, a reminder of the close to 5,525 miles of un-militarized border separating Canada and the U.S. For almost 100 years those words have been respected – until the pandemic shut down the border indefinitely.
Because of the pandemic US citizens are persona non grata in Canada. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that my movements are restricted at a border I have been crossing my whole life. But, do I think my civil rights are being violated because I can’t cross a border I’ve been crossing my entire life? I do not. Closing the border is keeping Americans and particularly Canadians, safe.
Yes, we live in a free society but does that mean we can do anything we want? Of course not. Does that mean those who enforce the law can do anything they want? Of course not. Does being told to wear a mask mean your civil rights are being violated? I say no. It certainly cannot compare with what happened to George Floyd, lying face down on the ground – who before succumbing to a policeman’s knee on his neck, cried out numerous times, I can’t breathe. Are our civil rights violated when it saves lives or when a man is killed by the police for no apparent reason?
As theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory wrote: We all share a supreme devotion to the hard-won freedoms of the American people. Yet to be worthy of retaining our freedoms we must not lose our understanding of the essential nature of freedom. Freedom means more than mere emancipation…… The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist in the fact that “I can act as I desire.” ….. [man] is free in doing; he is not free in doing evil. To choose evil is to fail to be free. Freedom is a gift which may be taken away from us and it has nothing to do with wearing a mask or not being able to attend a super spreader event.
I may have been restricted from crossing the border into Canada that day but I had nothing to fear from all those policemen. Unfortunately, that is not true for so many in this country who have to be on guard every time they leave their homes.
As Heschel also wrote: How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some, inevitably ends as inequality of all. Freedom is connected to equality.
We may believe in the Torah’s declaration to love your neighbor, but then we make it impossible for the people we are supposed to love, to be our neighbor. That includes right here in Vermont, right on our doorstep. Just in the last few weeks, Tabitha Moore, the president of the Rutland chapter of the NAACP has been forced to move out of her home because of continual racially motivated harassment, including threats, acts of vandalism and the targeting of her daughter on Facebook.
At Sinai God didn’t begin by saying, “I am the Lord your God Who created heaven and earth.” God began by saying, “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Judaism dares to think that freedom is the source of all being.
But freedom and equality as Tabitha Moore knows all too well, are challenges and oftentimes a burden against which we as a society sometimes rebel. As Heschel writes: We must bear many burdens to have the strength to carry out one act of freedom.
In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:9) we read: "Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he save an entire world." That's why we wear masks and that's why the world is in an uproar about George Floyd.
Philosopher and education reformer John Dewey once said: The serious threat to our democracy…. is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states…… The battlefield is …… here – within ourselves and our institutions.
On this Yom Kippur evening we ask for forgiveness from our sins. This year it feels as if asking for forgiveness isn't nearly enough. In some ways it doesn't feel like forgiveness even cuts it. We just need to do better. In so many ways our very lives depend on it. The battlefield is here within ourselves and our institutions.
I began with the words of Phil Ochs and I'll end with the words of Phil Ochs:
Days of Decision by Phil Ochs
Oh, the shadows of doubt are in many a mind
Lookin' for an answer they're never gonna find
But they'd better decide 'cause they're runnin' out of time
For these are the days of decision
There's a change in the wind, and a split in the road
You can do what's right or you can do what you are told
And the prize of the victory will belong to the bold
Yes, these are the days of decision.
G'mar Chatima Tova -- wishing all of you an easy fast.
 Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom. (New York : Rhinehart, 1941) 3
1] Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom. (New York : Rhinehart, 1941) 3
G’mar chatima Tova
 BBC News. “Americans Go Home: Tension at the Canada-US Border.” https://www.msn.com/en-xl/news/other/americans-go-home-tension-at-the-canada-us-border/ar-BB17TeUj (Accessed October 2020)
 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Insecurity of Freedom. (Philadelphia : JPS, 1966) 13
 Ibid. 87
 Ibid. 90
 Ibid. 12
 Ibid. 63
 Erich Fromm. Escape from Freedom. (New York : Rhinehart, 1941) 3
Rosh Hashanah morning 5781
I’m so lonesome I could cry – Hank Williams
Hear the lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry
In the 1960 Billy Wilder movie classic, The Apartment, C. C. Baxter played by Jack Lemmon, is a New York office drone with a bad cold. As a way to climb the corporate ladder, Baxter lends his apartment to his superiors so they can cheat on their wives. In the meantime, lonely Baxter pursues Fran Kubelik his office building’s elevator operator played by Shirley MacLaine, oblivious to the fact that she is the woman his own boss has been meeting in Baxter’s apartment.
The feelings of loneliness Baxter experiences are laid bare throughout the film and in a poignant moment, Fran Kubelik asks him if he eats alone. Gesturing to the television set, Baxter responds (and remember this is 1960), “No, sometimes I eat with Ed Sullivan.”
Let’s face it, loneliness has been with us as far back as the book of Genesis when God saw Adam by himself and said: It is not good for man to be alone. (Gen. 2:18).
But, while loneliness is often defined as a state of solitude or being by yourself, it can also be viewed as a state of mind. In other words, it isn’t necessarily about being alone. You can still feel alone in a room filled with people. On the flip side, many of us seek out solitude -- feel whole in solitude. Perhaps that’s why we are here in Vermont.
Loneliness can be situational – happening when one moves to a new city, leaves a relationship, loses a job, or when a loved one dies. But, feeling alone can also be chronic, when those feelings of loneliness and isolation don’t seem to go away.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav would often escape into the forest to commune with God in a process he called Hitbodedut, which translates as self-seclusion, and he was perfectly content. He even wrote about it. Since the beginning of the pandemic and our switch to Zoom Shabbat services, we read aloud and reflect every week on Reb Nachman’s prayer which begins:
Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass - among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong
Throughout much of Europe’s recorded history it was assumed that ultimate happiness was not to be expected from human relationships and institutions, but could only be found in man’s relation with the divine. In fact, many of the devout in Europe’s history believed that human relationships were an obstacle to communion with God. The founders of the monastic movement were the hermits of the Egyptian desert whose ideal of perfection was only to be achieved through a solitary life of contemplation.
While Judaism emphasizes public prayer, it also as in the example of Reb Nachman, encourages private prayer. The person who prays in private feels him or herself to be alone in the presence of God. Prayer is undertaken not with the intention of influencing God, but in order to produce a harmonious state of mind. In order to pray privately one needs the capacity to be alone if the brain is to function at its best, and if the individual is to fulfill his or her highest potential. But, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: modern man has not only forgotten how to be alone; he finds it even difficult to be with his fellow man.
The British historian Edward Gibbon once wrote: Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius. If you are a writer, a painter or sculptor, you have experienced what it means to be alone. Man is certainly a social being, and while interpersonal relationships are often considered the main or even the only source of human happiness, the lives of creative individuals often seem to run counter to this assumption.
This emphasis on intimate interpersonal relationships as the touchstone of health and happiness is a somewhat recent phenomenon. Earlier generations were preoccupied more with staying alive and earning a living to have much time to devote to the subtleties of personal relations.
John Bowlby, in his important work Attachment and Loss, concluded that from a biological point of view attachment behavior originated as a way to seek protection from predators. An isolated animal is more likely to be attacked by predators than one that stays together in a group. In humans of course, the attachment children have to parents is essential if the child is to survive. At the same time, most parents try to ensure their children have plenty of opportunity to encounter and play with other children.
Much has been written on the fear of being alone or the wish to be alone and less about the ability to be alone. All of us as human beings have an inner world of fantasy and imagination which is as important as interpersonal relationships in giving meaning to our lives. It’s part of what makes us human. Not surprisingly, this imaginative capacity tends to become particularly highly developed in gifted individuals who for whatever reason had solitary childhoods. Children who are isolated often invent imaginary companions or invent stories in which a variety of imaginary persons take part. Development of an imaginary world can sometimes serve as a retreat from unhappiness, a companion for loss, and a basis for later creative achievement.
In Judaism we experience being alone in the mourning process. When mourning a loved one it is traditional to except for a daily visit to the synagogue, stay at home while others feed and care for us. Coming to terms with loss is a difficult, painful, and largely solitary process which could be delayed if faced with distractions. Coming to terms with the loss of a loved one is essentially private because it is so much concerned with intimacies which were not, and could not be shared with others when the deceased partner was alive.
But, whether we each enjoy solitude or prefer being with others, when we experience separation we experience pain. When we experience unity we experience happiness.
These past seven months have challenged us in many ways, including dealing with loneliness or being alone. We’ve been challenged in ways we never expected. Even those of us who enjoy solitude, don’t necessarily want it 24/7 and those of us who thrive on being around others have been challenged to find ways to be alone. The bottom line is we’ve all been experiencing deprivation when it comes to our social lives and we all respond to it in our own unique ways. We may be lonely and some of us may enjoy solitude but we all need connection.
In her book The Anatomy of Loneliness, Teal Swan writes how separation is one of the pillars of loneliness. But it’s only a pillar of loneliness as long as we believe we are separate. If we instead picture God or source or however we understand God—if we can visualize that God is all there is – if we can stretch our minds to imagine a consciousness that has no beginning or end; that we are each a droplet in the ocean; then perhaps we can conceive that there is nothing that is not God.
The single biggest threat to our survival is not starvation, or thirst or exposure. The single biggest threat to our survival is isolation and fear is the number one most isolating experience on the planet. The more fearful we are, the more alone we are.
Pandemic or not, we are all One. I know it doesn’t feel that way. We listen to the news or watch the news and we hear how divided we are as a country and it’s fear that divides us. The truth is we are all connected. And if we cannot give each other a hug; shake each other’s hands; or look deeply into each other’s eyes, it’s important to not isolate for too long. It’s important to reach out.
I have spent considerable time these last seven months focused –no that’s not the right word – I have spent these last seven months obsessed with how we can stay connected as a community. I worry constantly about how to maintain those connections when we can’t touch each other; when we can’t sit close to each other; when we can’t break bread with each other.
But I believe in many ways we have stayed connected; perhaps not in the ways we would like; perhaps not in the numbers we would like, but we have. We don’t need to be isolated. The warm weather has helped and winter will challenge us again but we can do it. We can rid ourselves of fear and isolation. We can learn to be alone and not feel lonely. We can utilize our imaginations and dream up all kinds of ways to feel connected. We can take a song about loneliness and turn it into a song about hope:
I’m so Lonesome I could cry (reprise)
The silence of a falling star Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are I’m so lonesome ……. I could cry….. (UH UH! How about…)
(I’m alone but close nearby) or (You are there and so am I)
L’Shana Tova u-m’tukah – Wishing all of you a sweet and happy new year. We all need it.
 Anthony Storr. “Solitude, a Return to the Self” (New York : Free Press, 2005) 91
 Ibid. 39
 Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Insecurity of Freedom. (Philadelphia : JPS, 1966) 19
 Anthony Storr. “Solitude, a Return to the Self” (New York : Free Press, 2005) 12
 Ibid. 20
 Ibid. 27
 Ibid. 28
 Ibid. 114
 Ibid. 42
 Teal Swan. The Anatomy of Loneliness (London : Watkins, 2018) 22
 Ibid. 30
 Ibid. 97
Rosh Hashanah evening 5781
In a Ted Talk given in Apr. 2017, the author of Denying the Holocaust, historian Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, remarked on the Holocaust’s standing as the most thoroughly documented genocide in the world. If this is true, if the Holocaust is so well-documented, then we should believe the words of the victims—the survivors; we should believe the words of the bystanders—like the Poles who lived in villages and towns around the death camps; and surely we should believe the words of the perpetrators, the ones who at the end said I did it, we did it.
You would think that the most thoroughly documented genocide in the world would put an end to the question: Did the Holocaust really happen? And yet, Holocaust denial is a thing. These individuals and groups often parade themselves around as serious scholars, call themselves “historical revisionists” rather than deniers, and accuse their critics of trying to suppress inquiries into historical truth.
When Dr. Lipstadt called one of these so-called revisionists David Irving, a Holocaust denier, he took her to court. To win her case she traced footnotes from Irving’s writings back to their sources. What she found were altered dates and altered sequences of events. In the end, Lipstadt won her case and Irving was found to be a liar, a racist, and an anti-Semite.
Psychologist Dr. John Grohol defines denial as the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. While a functioning alcoholic will deny they have a drinking problem as a way to rebuff personal failings, a Holocaust denier skews the truth to promote a larger world view, one in which Jews are the bad guys. Denial involves both lying to ourselves and lying to others or as I like to put it, denying is just plain old lying.
But lying or not, denial can in some situations, function as a coping mechanism that gives us time to adjust to difficult circumstances. Soldiers often need to find a way to deny how dangerous war is, or anxiety would undermine them. Denial protects parents from the reality that their children could die for a multitude of reasons. The problem is that the longer we remain in denial the harder it is to overcome. And yes, denial can kill us as well as those for whom we are responsible.
What often drives denial is fear and fear leads to rigid thinking. Even though seat belts have been available for a long time, some drivers deny the thousands of times that seat belts have saved lives, in part because of the possibility they might occasionally trap us in a burning car.
Denial can lead to despair. When we free ourselves of denial, we are able to open our eyes and throw off the despair. We can begin to accept the truth and take responsibility for our predicament. Then we figure out what to do about it.
According to Deborah Lipstadt and many others, we are living through a time where denial is thriving and truth is on the defensive. This notion is expressed in a New Yorker cartoon where the host of a quiz show says to one of the contestants: "Yes, ma'am, you had the right answer. But your opponent yelled more loudly than you did, so he gets the point."
To experience positive change in our lives we need a reason to hope. Hopelessness feeds denial and denial often supports hopelessness. It has been noted that denial of both climate change and the coronavirus has followed a similar pattern:
If you see as I do, the Torah as relevant to our lives today, it will not surprise you to know it is filled with stories of denial, including the portions we read on Rosh Hashanah. Tomorrow morning is the story of Sarah giving birth to Isaac. After many years God’s promise about Abraham and Sarah having a child is finally fulfilled. But it doesn’t take long after Isaac’s birth for the happiness Sarah feels to turn to jealousy and fear. That jealousy and fear is directed towards Ishmael, the son Abraham has with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar.
Having difficulty becoming pregnant, Sarah encourages Abraham to have a child with Hagar. But now that she herself has a child, Sarah becomes jealous and encourages Abraham to drive Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, putting their lives in danger. You think maybe Sarah is in denial about her own role in this whole series of events?
The reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is one of the more famous stories in the Torah – the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. God tells Abraham to take his favored son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice to God. So much has been written about this story but it seems to me at its basic level, Abraham is in complete denial about his son’s imminent death. In the end God doesn’t allow the sacrifice to happen but how many parents would go as far as Abraham did in preparing their child to be sacrificed?
Over the next ten days we will look at denial and how it connects to three other topics that have been on mind for the past seven months – loneliness, freedom and sacrifice.
If we are lonely we can utilize denial as a way to convince ourselves to have a super spreader party and allow ourselves to engage in reckless encounters with others outside our family unit.
If we are proud we can use denial as an argument for preserving our freedom, our civil rights, and not wear a mask, as we interpret the notion of freedom for our own purposes.
If we are scared to make the sacrifices we need to make to power through this pandemic, we can use denial as a reason to not shelter in place and not do what is necessary for the betterment of our society.
Tomorrow morning, we will begin with Loneliness.
L’Shana Tova u-metukah
 Jack Wright. The Psychhology of Denial (CreateSpace, 2013) 125
 Ibid. 59
 Ibid. 133
 Ibid. 98
 Ibid. 105
 Ibid. 779
 Dana Nuccitelli. “Coronavirus Doubters Follow Climate Denial Playbook,” https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/04/coronavirus-doubters-follow-climate-denial-playbook/ (Accessed September 2020)
Serenity is not freedom from the storm but peace amid the storm
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are over. We have struggled and we have repented. We have forgiven and we have been forgiven. Having come out of this state of reflection we are now ready to begin the year by turning our introspection outward. We step outside our homes and joyously head into the holiday of Sukkot-- into nature and the Sukkah. Sukkot arrives five days after Yom Kippur and what a difference five days makes.
As Rabbi Michael Cohen writes: “Yom Kippur takes place inside; Sukkot takes place outside. On Yom Kippur we fast; while on Sukkot we feast. On Yom Kippur we pray and study with our minds; for Sukkot we build with our might. On Yom Kippur we hold a book in our hands; on Sukkot with the lulav and etrog we hold nature. On Yom Kippur we are serious and introspective; on Sukkot we are told to be joyful.”
It’s true that this year COVID-19 has intervened to make the contrast between Yom Kippur and Sukkot somewhat less stark. After all, nature has taken on a larger role for many of us since the beginning of the quarantine. Nature has become more often a place to find serenity and peacefulness amidst the Coronavirus storm. At the RJC we even spent part of our High Holy Day services praying outdoors.
Even so, as we enter the sukkah the contrast could hit us like a ton of bricks. For the most part, we spent this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in our homes rather than in our synagogue and now on Sukkot we leave those homes which offer permanence, and enter a temporary structure, a sukkah where we will eat, talk, read, pray, and sometimes sleep.
Nature has become a more active part of many of our lives these past seven months. While those encounters have in part been a function of being quarantined, Sukkot brings Jewish law into play as we are commanded to dwell in the sukkah for seven days. So, no matter what the world dishes out – and it has been dishing out quite a bit lately —just know that the sukkah can help us find serenity – a serenity that does not so much bring freedom from the storm but rather peace amid the storm.
The RJC sukkah and the sukkah in my backyard (247 Lincoln Ave.) will be open for meals during the Sukkot holiday. A lulav and etrog will also be available at both locations. Contact the office or me (firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-246-5752) to let us know when you want to come.