Shabbat Shalom! I begin with deep gratitude to you all for the invitation to share this Shabbat with you; to Geoff Greenlee and Eric Orlin, whom I’m delighted to daven with, presidents of Kol HaNeshamah I served with many years ago; to Connie Burk, your outstanding Executive Director, to Jennifer, your terrific president, and so many old friends and congregants from many years gone by. Mah norah haMakom Hazeh, our ancestor Jacob proclaimed; How Awesome is this place.
Kol HaNeshamah is one the cusp of turning 18 this coming June. I know because my daughter Noa was born during the congregation’s first year… and later this month, Noa turns 17. It is a joy and privilege to be with all of you and maintain this beautiful connection with so many. I watch you from afar and am always inspired by the holy work you do in this community.
While it might be fun to reminisce about the past 18 years, tonight I want to focus on this moment where we are now. To do that, let’s look at our Torah portion for this Shabbes, Vayishlach. We read of the reunion of estranged brothers, Jacob and Esau. 20 years after their fateful parting, the brothers are set to meet. Jacob is fearful, anxious, and breathless: He strategizes how to keep his family safe from what he believes will be Esau’s violent retribution, spends a long night wrestling with angels and demons, and finally reunites with his brother—one last gasp of air before Esau rushes to him, embraces him, and they collapse on the earth, weeping, breathless.
Every year as we read these verses, we hold our breath. Which is ironic, of course—it’s like the movie Titanic—we know the ending… but still, the drama is intense. The story could have easily turned out differently; Esau could have sought revenge for his twin brother stealing his birth right; Jacob could have chosen not to be gracious to his twin brother; this could have been a bloodbath.
We cannot help but read this story against the backdrop of the last four years. For every decent person of conscience, these past four years have left us breathless. Breathless from the relentless assault on human dignity from a white house that seems to have neither. Breathless from a president cozying up to white nationalists and calling Nazis very fine people. Breathless from separating migrant babies from their parents at our border. Breathless from desecrating our earth. Breathless—literally—from a president and administration who abandoned all leadership of our nation during this COVID pandemic as more than 275,000 of our neighbors have been literally choked to death by this wretched virus.
Michael, Noa, Liat and I live a mile from where George Floyd (z”l) was murdered, the police literally choking the life out of him. Breathless indeed.
These four years have left us metaphorically, spiritually, and literally breathless.
It could be easy to surrender, to permit ourselves to become complacent, stuck, immobilized. But we cannot. Despair is the elixir of tyrants. They want us immobilized, afraid, stuck, breathless. When we don’t see our collective power, when we believe our voice and our vote do not matter, they win. As Bryan Stevenson teaches, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”
Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.
Which means hope is our superpower.
And that leads me to wonder about our breathlessness: What if our breathlessness is a teacher?
Valarie Kaur, a prominent leader of the Sikh community and civil rights leader offers, “Your breathlessness is a sign of your bravery. It means you are awake to what’s happening right now: The world is in transition.”
The world is most certainly in transition. From one president to the next. From a place of sickness and pandemic, we pray, to a place of healing. From economic collapse to one of recovery. From the failure to address the rise of white nationalism and state violence to one in which we have the moral courage to address systemic racism, poverty, and state violence.
Kol HaNeshamah is in a transition as well, moving from one rabbi to the next. It is a new season for the congregation. A time to recognize that in these moments of transition, the challenge is to open our hearts to embrace the future, pause to catch our breath, and then move forward as a community.
In this moment of breathless, in this season of tumult and change, I offer you this blessing by Mickey ScottBey Jones. It’s called, “An Invitation to Brave Space.” It is my blessing for you tonight and in the days ahead.
An Invitation to Brave Space, by Mickey ScottBey Jones:
Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side.
In 5781, we need brave congregations, we need brave congregants, we need brave citizens. In our breathlessness, may we find the strength to be brave, together.