Kol Nidrei Sermon: Riding the Waves on Planks

Yom Kippur is the right time to consider all of this. It’s a day for contemplating death, and in so doing, trying to connect with the meaning of life! It is a somber day… but somehow by tomorrow night, 24 hours from now, we are supposed to resolve the somber mood into one of relief, appreciation, and joy. How do we get from here to there? Tonight, I want to suggest that our tradition is filled with tools for resilience… specific elements that can help us weather this storm of anti-semitism and hatred, and uncertainty.

Riding the Waves on Planks: Epigenetics, Pin-Pricks, and Tools for Resilience

Perhaps some of you have watched the show Transparent, which premiered its first season three years ago? The story revolves around a Los Angeles family and their lives, following the discovery that the person they knew as their father Mort, is transgender.  As Mort transitions to Maura, we get to know each of the three Pfefferman children, in all of their idiosyncrasies and unlikeability.  

Ali, the youngest, is unemployed, immature, and in and out of inappropriate relationships.  But, she also seems to care most deeply about the family’s history and about her grandmother Rose.  (This connection is driven home by the fact that the same actress plays Ali and the young Rose during a series of flashbacks.)  The flashbacks of season two are disorienting at first… it takes the viewer a while to figure out that we are in Weimar Germany in the 20’s and 30’s, where gay culture flourished in many forms.  We meet the grandmother Rose as a young girl and her brother Gershom who likes cross-dressing from a young age.  By young adulthood, Gershom has come to identify as Gittel, a woman.  And then, we watch as the Nazis ransack the Sex Institute where Gittel has found community and begin beating, torturing and killing the people they have rounded up.  Gittel never makes it out of Berlin, and the fact of his or her existence is kept secret by grandma Rose when she emigrates and starts a new life in America.

Meanwhile, Ali, in her graduate school studies, comes upon the concept of “Epigenetics.”

Discover Magazine explains: “According to the new insights of behavioral epigenetics, traumatic experiences in our past, or in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular scars adhering to our DNA. Jews whose great-grandparents were chased from their Russian shtetls; Chinese whose grandparents lived through the ravages of the Cultural Revolution; young immigrants from Africa whose parents survived massacres; adults of every ethnicity who grew up with alcoholic or abusive parents — all carry with them more than just memories.”

In other words, experiences and environmental factors can switch genes on and off and affect how cells read genes, not only in the person who has the experience, but in subsequent generations too, as these subtle genetic modifications are then passed down through DNA.  In Transparent, the viewer is left to wonder whether Maura’s trans identity is somehow connected to Gittel’s experience, even though Maura doesn’t consciously know of Gittel’s existence.  And, frankly, it raises the question of whether the whole family’s dysfunction can somehow be traced back to the traumas of the past, even if the stories haven’t been consciously passed down.

All of these ideas – about epigenetics and the many ways that we are all products of our pasts, both knowingly and unknowingly – swirled around in my head an awful lot this year.  Remember the bomb scare at the JCC?  The swastika in the stairwell of Rabbi Sydney’s building in Ballard?  The Jewish cemetery that was defaced in St. Louis, the graffiti at Temple De Hirsch and SAAS, playground insults and teachers who were ill-equipped to really hear and address our students’ concerns… unfortunately the list is a long one this year.  And then, finally, the terrible images from Charlottesville, of white nationalists – some Nazis – marching through the streets of an American city with torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

For me – and I know for many of us – these events were triggering.  Criticism of the free press… let’s make sure that the kids’ passports have all been renewed recently.  Laws passed by presidential decree, without political debate or public approval… I actually started reading up on how Hitler came to power.  Dehumanization and mocking of muslim-Americans, of immigrants, of black athletes who take a knee to protest racism… I’m experiencing some kind of body shock! We who have experienced historical trauma know what it feels like.  We know the warning signs, and we’re conditioned to be hyper sensitive to them.

I don’t think I could state this more clearly and poetically than Jonathan Safran Foer does in the book Everything is Illuminated.  He writes:  

“JEWS HAVE SIX SENSES - Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks – when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain – that the Jew is able to know why it hurts. When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?”

It’s important to acknowledge that the pin-pricks we’re feeling in this moment aren’t only happening to us.  In a pre-High Holiday call with a group of rabbis, Ruth Messinger explained that the body shock that Jews experienced with Charlottesville is the same body shock that Muslim-Americans experienced with the refugee ban, that transgender-Americans experienced with the military ban, that Mexican-Americans experience every time Trump talks about the wall or when ICE agents show up at a home or even now a school or a hospital.  She said: “as Jews, our vulnerability has to open us.”

Yom Kippur is the right time to consider all of this.  It’s a day for contemplating death, and in so doing, trying to connect with the meaning of life!  It is a somber day… but somehow by tomorrow night, 24 hours from now, we are supposed to resolve the somber mood into one of relief, appreciation, and joy.  How do we get from here to there?  Tonight, I want to suggest that our tradition is filled with tools for resilience… specific elements that can help us weather this storm of anti-semitism and hatred, and uncertainty.

I’d like to start with a story from the Talmud, Yevamot 121a to be exact:

"I was once traveling on a ship," recounted Rabban Gamliel, "when I saw another ship that had been wrecked. My heart grieved especially for one of its passengers, the Torah Sage Rabbi Akiva.

But when I disembarked on dry land, he came and sat before me and deliberated before me about halakhah.

I said to him: who brought you up from the water (in other words, who rescued you from the sea)?  Rabbi Akiva replied: "A daf (plank) from the ship came my way and I clung to it. When each wave came surging towards me I bowed my head and let it pass over me."

The story asks us to consider how exactly we can survive stormy times.  What do we do when waves of hatred appear in our society, or when we personally are overcome by waves of grief, anxiety, or fear? What do we hold onto in this incredibly tumultuous time?  R. Akiva possesses the quality of sea-savvy resilience.  He has learned to cope with the waves by understanding that he can’t control them but can learn to ride them.  He is model for us of just the right blend of surrender and tenacity.

So, we need to ride the waves, clinging to planks for support.  What, I want to consider with you now, are the planks that we might hold onto in this moment?  

1. First, Judaism’s planks are largely ritual planks.  It’s what we do day-in and day-out, how we create rhythms in our lives, how we establish spiritual practices that allow us the opportunity to recharge our spiritual batteries, to find sparks of holiness,  to create sanctuaries in time and space.  This Yom Kippur, I’d like to ask each and every one of you to find some spiritual practice or some mitzvah that you will make your own this coming year.  I don’t mind if it’s a secular spiritual practice (if that doesn’t sound like an oxymoron) – maybe this will be the year that you use swimming or distance running as a spiritual practice, or commit to writing in a journal on a regular basis.  Personally, I’m drawn to the mitzvot of our tradition – for example, putting a mezuzah on the doorpost of your house or – if you already have one – making a commitment to try to notice it more often as you come and go so that your house feels like a holy place.  Or lighting Shabbat candles, or saying Shema as you close your eyes at bedtime or together as you tuck in a child, or taking on a new kashrut practice and having to think about Jewish identity every time you make a choice off a menu.  Chabad, by the way, will encourage you to do many of the same things, but for them the reason is to bring moshiach.  Perhaps this is what God wants of us, but I’m honestly not sure.  What I can tell you with certainty is that the spiritual practices of doing mitzvot are helpful on a sociological and psychological level.  Mitzvot are fundamentally about connectedness -- to our texts, to our tradition, maybe to grandparents who did some of the same acts, or to Jews around the world who engage in the same behaviors.  In the same way that young children need routines like bathtime and bedtime to feel secure, we adults do too… but we’re less good at implementing them for ourselves.  For this year, if we are to be like Rabbi Akiva and weather the stormy sea, let’s figure out what planks of ritual, spiritual practices, and mitzvot we can each hold fast to.

2. A second option: planks remind us of the construction of the mishkan, the portable dwelling place where the ancient Israelites encountered each other and the divine.  The mishkan imagery reminds us that the planks may well be other people – representing community, relationships and coalitions.  This is something we talk about a lot here at Kavana – that the platform of what we’re doing is building community, bringing people together around the idea of building meaningful Jewish life and positive Jewish identity… in a community context, because you can’t do it alone.  So over the next 24 hours, I’d like to ask you to reflect on who is your base or your core of support?  Who are the people that you know you can rely on?  This list changes and shifts over time, and it’s helpful to reconsider this question each year.  I do hope that your Jewish community, your Kavana community, will be part of that base of support as well. But community needs to look like concentric circles, and shouldn’t stay too insular.  Beyond our core community of people who tend to be most like us, we also need to link up with all of the many allies in our society – the people who themselves feel vulnerable in their Latino identity or their Muslim identity or their African-American identity or their LGBT or Q identity.  Some of us already belong to one or more of these intersecting groups, some of us do not.  My point, though, is that all of us need to find the allies from different backgrounds and groups beyond our own, who share our sense that what’s happening in our society is not okay and not normal.  People – both like us and unlike us – and community and coalitions will be our second plank.

3. When I first learned this story with a teacher of mine, Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld, she pointed out that the Hebrew word for plank is “daf” – also the word for “page,” like a page of the Talmud or a page of a story book.   During these stormy times, Rabbi Akiva clings to the “daf” and rides the waves; we too might be able to hold onto the stories we hold sacred.  Social science research tells us that resilience and knowledge of family stories go hand in hand.  Research begun in the 1990’s by psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush instruct that children who know their family stories actually fare better in the face of diversity.  They measured this by developing a 20-question scale – really mundane things like 

Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned…. And then 9-11 happened.  Researchers went back and interviewed the children again, as they had all experienced the same national trauma.  “Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”  

There’s a lot more to be said on this topic, but Yom Kippur is fundamentally a day of thinking about stories – the stories of our people asking for forgiveness in ancient times, the stories of martyrs from across Jewish history who died because of who they were, the stories of our loved ones whose memories flicker through our lives and bring us light as symbolized through these candles, and -- ultimately perhaps the most important – the stories of our lives that we’re writing now.  This is a day for recalling those stories, for committing ourselves to a year of asking our living relatives to help us learn our own stories better, of telling our stories to the next generation, and of writing our own stories as we want them to be.

Rabbi Akiva’s ship experienced a terrible storm and he managed to weather the shipwreck, bouncing up and down in the water and riding the waves, holding onto the plank of the ship that floated his way.  As we face the turbulence of life (because after all the waves are inevitable), and particularly of being a Jew in America at this moment, let’s use this day to find the planks of our own.  First, we will rely on the planks of mitzvot and spiritual practices to keep us grounded, whole, connected, and in touch with what matters. Second, we will hold onto the planks of people, community, relationships, and new coalitions.  These will provide us with the sense that we aren’t in it alone.  And third, we will hold onto the planks of our stories – the narratives both ancient and modern, personal and family, that make us who we are and help to make us resilient.

I need to read up a bit more on this concept of epigenetics to know more about how real it is and how it works.  But, if some piece of this is true, then we should be in pretty good shape.  After all, we Jews have faced traumas and turbulent times before, and we’re still here, thousands of years later.  We tell the story – not only about how bad we had it when we were slaves in the land of Egypt, but also ultimately we left from there.  The journey from slavery to freedom may not have been easy, but we emerged with a commitment to universal freedom and redemption that still guides us today, and when we tell the story, it’s the story of how we moved that we tell.  That we have always done this collectively, in community, shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Jews and others, and that the daily practices of our tradition give us the tools not only to survive but also to find beauty, meaning and joy in our lives.

May this be a meaningful and introspective Yom Kippur for each of you, as we identify our planks and consider how we will ride the waves of these story times together.  May this be a year of renewal for each of us, and someday soon, may we emerge together from the storm – as Rabbi Akiva did and as Ally Pfefferman may yet hope to do – standing firmly on dry land, ready to experience joy.

Gmar chatima tova.