On Kol Nidre, we say a prayer that affirms that we stand together as transgressors and the righteous, sinners and saints. We pray as one on this night of repentance, and the distinction between the righteous and sinners dissolves. It takes all of us together with common intention to seek pardon and walk in the path of justice and right.
On Yom Kippur we see that we are all transgressors, and we all wish to be righteous; and so we meditate and we fast to focus on our souls, and atonement.
The process of taking inventory of where we have missed the mark, transgressed, been less than what we can be, have turned away from our sacred selves is one that requires deep humility, both individually and collectively, and deep commitment to change and action, both individually and collectively. Judaism gives us a framework for moving from transgression to righteousness: Teshuva. Teshuva encompasses all the dimensions of regaining balance, making repair, of returning to or discovering our best selves. It involves recognizing the wrong we have done, understanding the impact of that transgression, feeling remorse, and determining to change. We have to confess: to be public about what went wrong, and our intention for change. Then we have to make it right with words, deeds, and material resources. Finally, we must refrain from transgressing in the future.
Man, It sounds like work
But today I want to talk about the collective and joyful nature of Teshuva.
But first I want to talk a little bit about me.
In the last two years, both my parents died; my mom first, after a struggle with Alzheimer’s and my dad just this June, succumbing to age and, i think, a broken heart over losing his beloved. The process of grieving this summer has been intense for me, and parts of it were really surprising. I didn’t expect the grief that came up about the losses I experienced because of my parents’ discomfort with my being a lesbian, and their disapproval of many of my choices. I thought I was over that a long time ago. I was surprised to find myself sad that neither of my parents were ever able to acknowledge how their homophobia impacted me, Linda or Ella.
Let me be clear. My parents were lovely people and great parents in so many ways, and I loved them. But the truth is they were never fully comfortable with my being queer. However, they decided early on that they were not willing to lose me as a daughter, and I decided early on that I was not willing to lose them as my parents. We all wanted the good parts of our relationship(s) and to stay connected.
My parents accommodated their discomfort with my identity and my life choices by keeping me and my life hidden from their friends and family as much as they could manage. So when Linda and I visited, we were not included if my parents were going to a social gathering. My parents did not ask friends over to meet us. Linda’s photo never appeared on the refrigerator at my parent’s house, and they did not display the family photos we sent them in the main living areas. It was never confrontational; they never took a stand and announced any sort of rejection (– we’re Scandinavian). But for their friends, they constructed an alternate reality that suited them: Margaret is some kind of spinster scholar, Margaret is super busy with work, Margaret has no interest in intimate relationships.
I accommodated their discomfort in a variety of ways. Confrontation and direct communication were counterproductive. Instead I focused on trying to figure out just how far they could be pushed. I ignored their discomfort and acted like everything was okay when I was with them. And a lot of stuff was okay.
Outside my relationship with my parents, I created a chosen family and found friends and colleagues who would could recognize all of me, celebrate my relationship, my work, my child, and my values, and that made life good.
So what does this have to do with you, Yom Kippur, teshuva?
My parents could not make teshuva with me for the harm and pain their homophobia caused me. They just couldn’t. They were raised in a particular place and time that pretty much guaranteed they would be uncomfortable with gay and lesbian people. When the wrongdoer cannot or will not do these things, it becomes incumbent upon the community to make teshuva, to right the wrong, but what does that look like? It would not have helped for someone else to barge into my relationship with my family and tell my parents to act differently, or that they were doing something wrong; that might have upset the delicate balance we had constructed that allowed us to stay in relationship, which was something we all wanted, even though it was flawed.
And even if my parents had made personal teshuva with me, it would not have changed the fact that the difficulty we were having had its origins in our culture, and our shared institutions. And changing that that takes collective action, collective teshuva. Because as our Kol Nidre prayer acknowledges, we have choices together we do not have alone.
Our Haftarah today, in Isaiah 58, talks about fasting and reflection, saying:
Is this the fast I want?
A day for people to starve their bodies?
Do I want you to bow your heads like the reeds,
to mortify your bodies
with coarse cloth and ashes?
You call that a fast, a day
when Adonai will look upon you with favor?
This is the fast I want:
unlock the chains of wickedness,
untie the knots of servitude.
Let the oppressed go free,
their bonds broken.
Share your bread with the hungry,
and welcome the homeless into your home.
When you see the naked, clothe them.
All people are your kin:
do not ignore them.
Then you will shine like the dawn,
and healing will rise up within you.
Your righteousness will vindicate you;
Our obligation is to remember all people are our kin, and to think how to untie the knots of oppression — not necessarily to punish those who tied the knots. Our task is to figure out how to help the oppressed go free, not necessarily to punish individual oppressors.
This is a positive, generative task. Teshuvah is about blowing gently on that sacred spark that lies in each of us to rekindle that truest part of our selves, the part of us that yearns for and burns for love, connection, justice, and peace. When we make teshuva, our “light can break forth, like the morning”. And when individuals cannot make teshuva, and wrongs are at the community level, our task is to do this collectively so that the sacred, true flames in each of us can come together to illuminate justice.
And I want to say that this looks like joy and love.
Kol HaNeshamah itself is an example of the joy of returning, the joy of collective teshuva, the joy of a community taking up responsibility for making it right. The people who started this congregation 10 years ago threw their intention and their will behind a very different version of community, enfranchisement and inclusion than most of us have known in the past. They were determined to, as Judith Plaskow says, listen for the silences in Jewish experience, and to bring those silences to voice. Queer and straight people, Jews by choice and born Jews, people in interfaith relationships; they were committed to co-creation of this community.
It wasn’t one group or another welcoming one group or another to “their space” or making “room” for one group or another. No. It was joint from the go. Together, jointly, the space was created, leadership shared, the liturgy evolved and this community built, an open tent on all four sides that lifted and celebrated the voices that had too frequently been marginalized, and in doing so expanded our notion of what authentic Judaism could be. Creating and supporting Kol HaNeshama is a form of collective teshuva for the years of exclusion and judgement in the Jewish community. And for me, that teshuva, that open tent and the wonderful people gathered under it, are a source of great joy.
One of the first things that happened for us at KHN was that my daughter Ella absolutely adored Esther Eidenberg Noppe; so we arranged a playdate. Phil, Esther’s dad, brought Esther to our house, and we talked while the girls played. Explaining his connection to KHN, Phil told me that he valued the opportunity for his kids to have role models who were gay and lesbian; to have a gay rabbi, and that he and his wife loved the diversity of the community… In that moment I saw a bit of internalized homophobia I didn’t even know I was carrying. I realized I had kind of expected that the straight were putting up with the queers, tolerating us, not actively wanting us present. And it was transformative, and it was healing to have that conversation with Phil.
So I know this about Teshuvah: You don’t have to be the person who caused the harm to be the person who creates the conditions for repairing the harm. The founders of this place and everyone who has made it happen since didn’t invent homophobia and the heterosexual people here didn’t ask for their straight privilege. But everyone involved with KHN thought about both and decided to put their energy in to creating a world in which these systems of oppression would not shape and limit lives. And because of that collective project, some of the pain in my life has been healed; I had what my parents could not give me, and that helped me honor my parents for what they could give me. That is teshuva. And it is joyful, and it is loving.
An example of teshuva out in the world is how this whole gay marriage thing has gone down. When the doors began to open for gay marriage, the unleashing of joy that it brought about was amazing — and I think it surprised a lot of people. Remember the news coverage of all those happy, fabulous, adorable, queer people, (including our very own Connie, Jake and Henson), standing in line in San Francisco to get marriage licenses? JOY.
When WA made gay marriage possible, in no small part thanks to our very own Josh Friedes, Linda and I got married, along with many others, at city hall. When we stood at the top of the steps with our beloved Rabbi Zari and saw all kinds of people lining the railings, cheering, throwing flowers, making music , I saw teshuva. And I saw the joyful, beloved community it makes possible. When I saw a man holding a sign that said “Congratulations: sorry it took so long”, I saw teshuva. When I saw that people had brought their kids because it was a historic day and they wanted them to see all the happy gay and lesbian people being married, so their kids would know that society promised them equality and dignity whoever they loved, I saw teshuva.
So I want us to consider teshuva not just about individual mistakes, but as a way of changing the social conditions that allow those mistakes to go unspoken, undoing the knots of oppression that silence the wronged from raising their voices like a shofar and reminding us that we have transgressed. And I want to remind us that can look like extending joy, not afflicting our souls.
I want us to turn our attention to the joyful parts of getting it right, getting in balance. How can we enfranchise more people to that joy? And this brings me to the humility… Because even as we should feel righteous for having created this beautiful community, we have to have the humility to understand we’ve sometimes missed the mark as well. What voices have we not heard here? Who else can we bring into this joyful party? What other silences can we listen to, knowing, as we know now, how much we have to learn when we can hear those voices, how many new friends we can make by opening the tent? What chains can we lift, knots can we undo? How can we bring light where there has been darkness?
I invite you today, during your fast, to join me in reflecting humbly on where we, as part of a collective, either here, or out in the world, have consciously or unconsciously cast out the stranger, or kept bread and other resources for ourselves that we could have shared, or left people naked and unsheltered in the face of systematic oppression. We can each individually be restorers of bridges; but the work is so much faster and so much more fun and so much more joyful when we do it together. And I wish for all of us a meaningful fast, and that that our individual and collective lights may break forth like the morning in the new year.
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