What have we done?! (Reflections on smoky air, news headlines, and the power of teshuvah)

Coming to terms with rot, corruption, sin and imperfection -- whether we're thinking about our sacred task as human beings to protect the planet that we've been bequeathed, about our core values as a society and who we elect to lead us, or about how we become numb in the face of hate-filled propaganda -- this is precisely our task in the month of Elul! This is the month for reflection and introspection, for scrutinizing our actions, and for spiritual preparation to "return" as we begin the next cycle.

I'm sure many of you would agree that it has been a strange, slightly claustrophobic, and disorienting week.  For me, these have been some of the contours:

Smoke has been hanging heavy across the Pacific Northwest, making it hard to breathe and almost impossible to be outside. We know that wildfires in British Columbia are the direct cause.  However, the smoky and ashy conditions for so many days on end have also had many of us speculating about what role we humans have played in damaging our environment and contributing to climate change.  What have we done to creating the conditions that are making this kind of oppressive smoke-storm a more regular feature of the Seattle summer, and what can we do to stop this?

Second, Manafort's conviction and Cohen's guilty pleas earlier this week are clearly big national news.  My first response is that neither feels the least bit surprising to me.  But, my second impulse is to reflect once again and ask: how is it possible that our American society elected a president who we have known all along to be a crook, a liar, and worse? What is wrong with us?!

And then, yesterday, I made the mistake of looking at Fox News headlines.  The lead story was all about a man who had immigrated illegally from Mexico and is now a suspect in a killing.  Trump and his supporters seem to be obsessed with this particular case.  One of the fascist aspects of this government is its scapegoating of minorities, which feels eerily reminiscent of the way the Nazi regime tracked and publicized Jewish crime as it consolidated power.  So again, I asked myself: how complicit are we in this stirring up of hatred and racism, every time we fail to speak out against it?  What more can and should we be doing to combat the targeting and scapegoating of immigrants, Mexicans and other minorities, knowing (from our own history and from our sense of decency) just how wrong and dangerous it is?

Coming to terms with rot, corruption, sin and imperfection -- whether we're thinking about our sacred task as human beings to protect the planet that we've been bequeathed, about our core values as a society and who we elect to lead us, or about how we become numb in the face of hate-filled propaganda -- this is precisely our task in the month of Elul!  This is the month for reflection and introspection, for scrutinizing our actions, and for spiritual preparation to "return" as we begin the next cycle.

And, if it's time to do this work collectively, it's also time to do this work individually.  As we prepare to begin our new Jewish year together in a few weeks, we should each be asking ourselves these sorts of big questions, of where we bear responsibility for having failed to live up to our highest aspirations for who we should be and how we should act.  It's heavy work, to be sure, but we can all take comfort in the fact that we're doing it together.  

This week's courtroom dramas have also given me a slight sense of relief -- a feeling that truth really is truth, morality is morality, and justice will ultimately be served.  And, over the coming days, I expect that the smoke and the feeling of heaviness in the air will begin to dissipate too, and our skies will return to a brilliant clear blue.  What a great metaphor for the hope that Rosh Hashanah brings!  Our annual cycle of teshuvah teaches that it's never too late to take responsibility for our mistakes and to make change.  And when we are granted another chance to begin again, with bluer skies and a cleaner slate, it will feel as sweet as apples and honey!