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Yom Kippur Morning D'var Torah 2017

12/06/2017 11:14:41 AM


Hannah Podhorzer

Given by Hannah Podhorzer

My junior year of high school, I was assigned a book that ended up defining my life for that year. “President Nixon: Alone in the White House” became what my friends and I called, the Bible. Let me be clear, I did *not* want to read this book. It was long and heavy and filled with vocabulary I had never seen before. But read it, I did. I learned about Vietnam, China, and economics. The book covered Nixon’s mundane rigidity like a daily lunch of cottage cheese and his rampant paranoia that would ultimately contribute to his downfall. While thumbing through this dense, 600-page book, I was often bored, confused between Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and very impatient for that “Watergate” part to come. Yet, every week before a test, I would sit with my dad in our living room and review my notes, and hear his experiences of growing up in this time, participating in The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, bringing to life the history I was reading.

As I finished the book, watched the CNN Sixties Documentary program, and continued those conversations with my dad, I began to wonder what it would have been like to grow up in the sixties, experiencing the political, (and if you know my dad!) musical experiences of the time. Finally, I might understand even on Yom Kippur, the Holiest Day of the Year, when the Chorus is about to sing, my dad still screams “Free Bird!” I would’ve seen how coming of age in this decade had shaped him. I longed for a political cause or defining moment that I could point to and say that shaped me—that shaped my generation.

Four years later, I realize that it is 2017, but I too am growing up in the sixties. My Nixon book has not finished. In fact, it has only just begun. This “book” of my time feels bigger than Watergate and throwing up peace signs at resignation. There is this heaviness, this sense that we are traversing out of orbit, and at the heart of that trajectory is fear. But, I have decided, if we constantly live in fear of the story, we never get to write it.

The day after the election, I saw a Facebook post from an older woman I knew, who wrote, “I’m glad I’m old, because I’ll be dead before everything falls apart.” Now, as someone who was 19, it amplified my fears. On one hand, I had my parents on numerous phone calls that day saying they’d made it through Nixon and this period and this war. But then I saw that post. And I wondered if their messages of resiliency and faith were strained. That post was neither constructive nor hopeful; it was my future she was speaking of. While I support expressing our aching hearts and apprehension fully, I was in search of a seed of hope to plant into the ground, budding with promise even though the road had always been and would continue to be extensive and uphill. I had just voted in my first election.

If we always live in fear of the story, we never get to write it. I want to be an author of my generation’s story.

In today’s Haftarah Portion, we have Isaiah, who is writing his generation’s story. He presents lessons for the Jewish people that feel profoundly timely for both a New Year and Our America. He commands the Jewish people, “Let the oppressed go free; share your bread with the hungry. Bring the poor to your home; they are your flesh and blood; don’t hide yourself from them! Then your light will burst through like the dawn.” Isaiah, who grew up amongst great privilege, is signaling that justice is not a luxury, but a right. I feel passionate about those rights: the right to education, the right to healthcare, the right to a nationality, all rights that have been and continue to be contested in this time. When I hear his voice, I feel unity. Isaiah is motioning for a movement from idleness to tangible actions of love, kindness, and Tikkun Olam, founded in our interconnectedness. I love this message. Though for me, it opens up questions about who the “others” are. Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian, believes that we encounter godliness when we recognize the totality of humanity within each other. Growing up, I often didn’t imagine God as some man floating in the sky, but rather a presence in every person, every interaction. God wasn’t so much a being, but a presence of Love. Emmanuel Levinas, another theologian, feels that we find God in the “Other” but it is in the capital “Other.” That is the oppressed, the hungry, the poor, the stranger, the disenfranchised, that Isaiah speaks directly of. I believe love is what leads us to respond to the needs of humanity and march alongside the capital “Other.”

Isaiah continues, commanding, “If you soothe the life that has been trampled underfoot, then even in darkness, your light will shine out.” I believe that we as humans are like lampposts, guiding each other’s light through everyday exchanges of kindness. And that is where my hope begins.

I don’t believe hope is the same as blind optimism or ignorance; it is a choice. A few weeks ago, I listened to On Being. Host Krista Tippet explains, “Hope, like every virtue, is a choice that becomes a habit that becomes spiritual muscle memory.” I think about my community, about those who came before me, and the possibilities of who will come after me. When I include my great grandparents who migrated due to Jewish persecution, when I think of countless marginalized communities who have taught this planet about justice and compassion even amidst their own dehumanization, when I include them in my community too, it expands my compass of believing, and it plants the seeds for my gardens of hope. That’s when it feels like a choice, when I start thinking about generations. In Tippet’s interview with Junot Diaz, a Dominican American journalist, he calls this “radical hope.”

I am young and there is so much I do not know. But there is one thing I do know. I know that I stand on the foundation of others. The Friday after September 11, 2001 was the first time my parents ever attended a service at CBH, looking for a way to grieve and heal. We have been here ever since. And from an early age, CBH paved the ways I would come to think about what is possible in this world.

I have hope because I grew up with people like you all, who in their everyday exchanges treat others with sincere compassion. Every time there is this interaction born out of love, I see that exchange as part of a chain of kindness, simply one glistening ray of a dazzling constellation to light up the Earth’s remaining darkness. Just like Isaiah said, you are the shining rays that burst into the dawn, that even in darkness, gleam on. You are my lampposts. That light is brave, stronger than any hate that it undercuts. I have hope because I have older mentors who started these chains. I have hope because I was raised in this community. I have hope because I look out into this crowd, and I think, I am me, because of you. I have hope because of incredible young people I know. I have hope because I believe in the immeasurable resiliency of the human spirit. I have hope, because it is the most universal of human possessions. I have hope because if I don’t, what am I even fighting for?

If we always live in fear of the story, we never get to write it.

One chapter of my story unfolded in June. I drove cross-country to The Grand Canyon with one of my dearest friends, Ana. It was a trip filled with delicious tacos, the greatest $12.00 shower experience of our lives at a truck stop, s’mores, and passing amazing sites like a motel offering, according to their sign, “Free Wi-Fi, Cable, HBO, God Bless.” Our first night at the Canyon, we saw the sunset. I gazed out into this immense hole in the Earth, a basin of water and erosion and weathering, deep thoughtful processes that had sculpted this splendor in front of me. As I watched the rocks’ colors change from red to violet, I was struck with the idea. Perhaps I am not so different than a canyon. I decided, that night, that we humans are canyons. Bold formations of rock, erosion, weathering, water, and time’s passage, all attentive progressions that occurred in such an exact manner to mold us. We are sometimes hardened by hurt and injustices, emboldened by joy, and exposed by others’ flames of light that in turn reflect our own. Lampposts. Isaiah’s light. Canyon sunsets. The light all comes from the same source.

I saw that light emerge again in August, when I attended the Interfaith Youth Core Conference in Chicago. I was surrounded by students of diverse backgrounds and stories, bringing their full, vulnerable selves to our conversations. Then, Saturday came. News of the Charlottesville rally, violence, and protests trickled its way into our conference bubble. It became a challenging weekend. But, when I looked into the faces of my fellow conference peers during our Sunday good-bye, a mighty flame of faith warmed my soul. I looked around at this boldness, this passion, this youth, and uttered aloud, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

So, what is it that we’re waiting for? I think we are waiting to manifest hope into action. I truly believe that hope isn’t what we possess, but rather what we do. It is something we can apply even when we feel hopeless. It is easier at times to feel pessimistic like the Facebook post. But that to me is not encouraging or life-sustaining, for it denies the pieces of ourselves that are hopeful. Active Hope, a poem Rabbi Josh shared with me, declares “Active Hope is a readiness to discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love, A readiness to discover the size and strength of our hearts.”

When I was ten or eleven, at dinner one night, I told my parents I wanted to change the world. As I swirled spaghetti around my fork, I envisioned Oprah and Anne Frank. But, I am no longer ten. I have had to adjust my definition of what it means to change the world. It means securing human rights for all, but it also means acting like Isaiah, activating our willingness to uncover the scope and power of our hearts to love people better. This year, I want to, as the poem states “discover the reasons for hope and the occasions for love.” There is always an occasion for love.

The day after Election Day for me was in complex ways, a day full of love. It was the anniversary of Kristallnacht. But it was also our campus's celebration of Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, even more movingly, the Celebration of Good over Evil. The room was the fullest it had ever been. I don’t know if I’ve every hugged so many people. Or cried with so many people. We ran out of every pan of paneer tikka masala, but we were full of human connection. Hindu students led us in prayers and poems. It was profoundly emotional, poignant in its sorrow and hope. But it revealed to me that there is always an occasion for love.

If we made that occasion of love then, we can make it again. I know because it has been made a million times before. Occasions of love are the ink that aids in the writing of every generation’s story; it is what provides me hope to help write mine. For me, an occasion for love was made the first time I listened to Will’s song, “Hold it High.” It was made when a hand-painted sign that read, “Diversity Makes Us Stronger” hung above Charlottesville, when even those spreading hate had to walk under this banner, through this threshold of love. It was made that first time my family came to CBH after 9/11. People come and gather; they cry, they laugh, they sing, they meditate, they dance, (and you know we like to dance here!) and in doing so, we return to a value so central to the human experience: love. We acknowledge our collective humanity, and in engaging in this simple act, we have manifested hope, and changed the world.

In experiencing this start of the New Year, I am centered to one reflection, one request, as inspired by Isaiah’s wide-ranging and relevant words. One that I aim to live my life by: What is it that you wish to walk through this world radiating?

I want to radiate hope, kindness, be a warrior for love.

There is a Jewish story, written by Rabbi Isaac Luria, a 16th Century Rabbi and refugee, that expressed that in beginning of the Creation, vessels were ruined, and the original light of the universe was shattered into a million pieces. The highest human calling was to look for that light, gather it, and repair the world. Yet, that light already resides inside all of us. It is the Canyon inside of us, the sacredness that threads our story. It is an inspiring tale for these times, for it summons each of us to realize that we all possess what’s needed within ourselves to repair the pieces of the world that we can see and touch. Our part of the constellation. Our corner of the country. Our loved ones. Ourselves. It is our opportunity to bring Isaiah’s transfers of justice into fruition. It is an empowering narrative for me, as a young person, because I stand on the foundations of those my age, and those generations above, who exhibit to me the human capacity to act out of light and in turn guide another’s. That light has the same source, and we are all the sparks to redeem it. This is why radiance is one of my favorite words, because it maneuvers both ways. We radiate light and it is radiated back, a connection of frequency, a linking of love. And in that simple act, we have changed the world.

G’mar Chatima Tovah! May you be inscribed for good in the Book of Life, and may you get to write it.

Thu, February 21 2019 16 Adar I 5779