Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Iyunnim & Benedictions Yom Kippur Day 5780 - Temple Bat Yam

Yom Kippur Day - Iyunnim - 5780

Kavannah on Torah Study

Think for a moment about our Jewish story.  The one that unfolds form our sacred Torah and continues through Jewish memory.  It is one that illustrates for us the first layers of our collective tale - the narrative of the Jewish people.  This begins with our father Abraham, who contends with his own world view from Ur, a land of idolatry and paganism.  The son of an idol merchant, our sages tell us, Abraham breaks through the story that has been his whole world view to see the world differently.  He, together with his partner Sarah, set out to alter the way others around them see the world, to change their own narratives.  It is through this story, and the countless ways it unfolds over millennia, that we have been molded as a people, by a narrative, by our tale.  And the power of this seed of our existence as a people, the redemption found in our collective narrative is that of change.  It teaches that we can find the right path forward, as Abraham and Sarah did, through not only our intuitive and snap judgement and decision making based only in our narratives, but being able to truly reason and lead us where we ought to be…  This story of Lech Lecha - going forth is about separating from a singular way of seeing the world and forward to what will be shown to us.  As we embrace this b’racha - blessing - for the study of Torah, let us know our own stories and identity well and know that we can be the authors of our own path, our own lives….

Benediction - YK Morning

In the days leading to this season, the High Holy Days, the Hebrew month of Elul engages us in spiritual preparation.  Among the practices, we are inspired to recite twice daily the words of Psalm 27.  Embedded in this poem, we sing out:  Achat Sha’alti - One thing I ask of Adonai, and the one that I seek is to dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life and to gaze upon the sweetness of Adonai and frequent God’s Temple.

May each of us, on this Yom Kippur, and all days of this New Year, merit to dwell in the house of Adonai and to gaze upon God’s sweetness.  May we see the spark of the Divine in every other being so that we see their sweetness, and dwell together in blessing, joy, harmony and Shalom and Shleimut - Peace and Wholeness - Amen. 

Introduction to Jonah

Written By Michael Frank - Board Member at NTHC:

Like the speaking she-ass who sees the avenging angel of God when the great pagan prophet called Balaam does not, the story of Jonah uses fantasy-like incidents and metaphors; this time with a reluctant Jewish prophet. We have a prophet, Jonah, who is told to go to Nineveh and prophecy against it but instead gets on a boat headed in the opposite direction across the Mediterranean.  Nineveh was the largest city of the Assyrian Empire back in 760 BCE and the worst enemy of the two kingdoms of Israel. So, a Jewish prophet going to Nineveh is rather like a Jewish prophet preaching in Spain in 1492. The ship encounters a storm that only affects that ship. We have polytheistic pagan sailors who believe that Jonah’s God, the LORD God of the heavens… who made the sea and the dry land, is all powerful. We have lots cast that always point to Jonah as the cause of the storm which subsides as soon as Jonah is tossed overboard. Jonah is swallowed by an enormous fish and is sustained for three days in its belly before the fish vomits him up onto dry land. We then have the weakest prophecy ever recorded. As  Jonah walks through Nineveh, he says only: “Forty days more, and Nineveh is overthrown.” He does not explain why or how. He does not attribute this to God’s displeasure and power. Nonetheless, Nineveh gets the message. The people miraculously and immediately don sackcloth and sit in ashes in repentance. Then the king tells all people and beasts to repent by wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes in the hope that the decree will be changed. Beasts repenting? As you will see, that’s what the story says.

The time setting of this story is revealing. Jonah is said to have ended his career as a prophet about 750 BCE which precedes the destruction of the Northern Kingdom with its 10 tribes at the hands of the Assyrians by only 28 or 29 years.

Except for Jonah, the prophets of Israel all worked in context limited by concerns of the nations of Israel. Their messages were addressed to the people of Israel, often with explicitly political concerns, and the messages were focused on the fate of the nations—such as its destruction by foreign powers if it does not repent its sinful ways, and also the hope of national restoration after the disaster has occurred.  The perspective of Jonah is, by contrast, decidedly universal. The prophesy is to take place in the Assyrian Empire, the very foreign power that destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and scattered the ten tribes. It addresses the sins of those people rather than sins of the tribes in Israel. It takes place at the time of extraordinary expansion of that empire. It is almost as if God is helping the Assyrians prepare for their role as God’s avenger against Israel by having them repent. It is ironic that the Ninevites exhibit exactly the behavior that God wants Israel to do.

For the first time in Tanach, God is portrayed as having influence over, if not dominion over, humans of all nations, livestock and beasts, fish, oceans, plants, and wind, none of which are in the land of Israel. Indeed, God seems to have less control over his Jewish prophet than over the rest of the world.

So, the story of Jonah represents a major expansion of the notion of God, from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the God of the nations of Israel to the God of the world and all its inhabitants. It reinforces the hope expressed in the prophesies of the second Isaiah that some day all nations will recognize the God of Israel as the one God.

 At the end, the story uses a metaphor of a plant that gives shade to Jonah and then disappears. Jonah complains of the loss of the plant and tells God that he did not want to go to Nineveh because Jonah was afraid that God would be merciful thus contradicting Jonah’s words. Jonah says of  God, “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in kindness”, which are words directly from Genesis 34:6, and one of the themes of Yom Kippur. God admonishes Jonah for his complaint because it is so selfish. Jonah is angry over the plant and his failed prophecy while God is concerned about her citizens in a great city and its beasts. Taken in all its odd twists and turns,  the book of Jonah is a fitting story for Yom Kippur because of its overarching theme of repentance to a universal, powerful but compassionate God.

Introduction to Avinu Malkeinu

In a moment, we will engage with the sacred words of Avinu Malkeinu - Our Father our King.  These words always leads my mind to a tension.  There are very different roles for a parent and for a sovereign.  The notion that God as parent provides a sense of mercy pervades my hopes as this time of year; yet the reality that God is sovereign, decreeing justice, is the reality check.  And yet, thinking about those earliest moments in our lives when parents, for most of us, were viewed through a lens lending them a sense of sovereignty – they know everything…they knew everything.  That is the blending of the Avinu and the Malkeinu.  The two come together when we recognize with awe the power that God is in our lives, our world.  The two come together when we see in God the loving mercy that is Avinu.

The lines of this prayer build up.  We petition God for one thing after another.  We beseech God for blessing, for health, for a good life, for sustenance.  Yet, at the end, the build up is our humility.  We are humbled before both Avinu and Malkeinu.  We are humbled before God and community.  We want to ask all of those things of Avinu – our father…our parent.  Yet, in the conclusion, the line we often sing together brings us to a sense of humility before Malkeinu – our Sovereign. 

O God, may we with honest and pure intention recite the petitions, prayers and sacred words of these holy days.  And, may we also bring ourselves, through humility, to recognize both our smallness and our greatness in God’s world and know how to say: 

Our Father, Our King, be gracious with us and answer us, we may be of little merit, act with us in righteousness and goodness and save us.

Introduction to Yizkor

As we embrace the memories that inspire us, as we wrestle with our own mortality and as we engage in this mitzvah of Yizkor - of memory, we will continually hear the melody of the well known piece Eli Eli, penned by the heroine Hannah Senesh, may her memory be for a blessing.  Her story is one that symbolizes the best and the most tragic of our collective Jewish memory.  IN 2012, a previously unknown poem, written in Hebrew, was discovered by Hannah Yasur, the daughter of the woman to whom it was sent.  The poem, written form he perspective of an exile like Senesh, evokes the feelings of solitude and the moment of almost grasping something, but having it evade your reach.  As we memorialize our loved ones, may we never forget the inheritance they have bequeathed to us, and may we always live with the zeal for life with which Hannah Senesh is said to have carried to her last moments:

Hora to an Exiled Girl

A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me
With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging,
It tugs at my body and heart
The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus
Dance and song, a wordless prayer,
Hail to the future, hail to creation

But then a figure flutters before my eyes
My arm has escaped my friends’ embrace
My heart spurns the tempestuous singing,
Far and near it consumes me whole

Blue eyes
Such a bewildered glance
A sad silence and a stubborn mouth
The stillness grows in me
I remain standing
Alone, in a crowd of a hundred, her and I

(Translation by Elie Leshem)

Introduction to Neilah

As we stand now at this moment of Neilah, as the gates of teshuvah begin to close, may we re-center ourselves to our personal missions.  May we find the spiritual guidance we yearn for to lay out before us our path, our charge.  May we always own our narratives, our personal story and always, always, make room for to embrace those of others.  May we strike this balance between what it is we need and search for and be part of the sojourn of our fellow human beings.  Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Judaism is spiritual effrontery... [we must] insist that life involves not only the satisfaction of selfish needs, but also the satisfaction of a divine need for human justice and nobility…Who is a Jew? A person whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.”  May we not allow our integrity to decay, may we therefore be moved to continue writing our stories, stories that a part of bringing goodness, light, mercy and justice into the world, for us and for all.

Psalm 118 Introduction

Let us consider verse 18 of Psalm 118:

פִּתְחוּ־לִ֥י שַׁעֲרֵי־צֶ֑דֶק אָֽבֹא־בָ֝ם אוֹדֶ֥ה יָֽהּ׃

Open the gates of victory for me that I may enter them and praise the LORD.

We often consider this as a petition to the Divine, to God, to the Mystery of Creation to open those gates for us.  Yet, when we explore the Hebrew of this verb, to “open”, it is a request to a plural, and our commentators teach us that at its origin this was a request to the gatekeepers of the ancient Temple.  Having transcended the ancient reality that atonement was found only in the ancient Temple, to the realization that atonement is found in our own acts, behaviors and choices as well as those of community surrounding us, here and wider, we see this verse having a deeper meaning.  It is our request to all of those around us for a shared journey of seeking the righteous path.  May we all find ways in this season to discover, working hand in hand, the Gates of Righteousness, and know we can travel that path together.  Shanah Tovah!

Bear...Narratives....& Reason - Yom Kippur 5780

The Other Day I saw a Bear…  Our Narratives and our Reason
Yom Kippur 5780

Join me if you know this one….The other day, I met a bear, a great big bear, oh way out there….  He looked at me, I looked at him, He sized up me, I sized up him….

Sure, many, if not all of us, could continue this fun and whimsical camp song to one of the various endings.  But, what does happen when you see a bear? 

I would imagine, trying not to assume of course, but I would imagine that to most of us who are residents in the area, seeing a bear is exciting, sure, but a regular enough occurrence that we may snap a photo or two, share the story over the coming days..maybe, but then file the experience away until the next time.  It may not illicit the famed and very real response we call:  Fight, Flight or Freeze. 

And for some of us, those less seasoned to living in the mountains, and perhaps those visiting, we may in fact certainly feel that Fight, Flight or Freeze response.  I distinctly remember a moment during my first year or so in Tahoe.  Enjoying a summer meal in my backyard with three teachers from Temple and our older son, Caleb, who was about a year old at the time.  When a bear came to enjoy lunch too!  While my guests, my friends, our religious school teachers, with no less than 40 years of living in Tahoe among them, turned their gaze to appreciate the bear and I don’t believe they ever even got up from their chairs.  I, on the other hand, made sure Caleb was safe, then grabbed our dog Sasha by the collar to attempt to scare the bear!  Riling Sasha up to bark and growl, I did my best!  I chose to Fight! 

My guests, these seasoned Tahoe residents, barely batted an eye, while I, on the other hand, experienced this moment quite differently.  I had to protect something, I riled Sasha up, and tried to scare the bear off…  My collection of experiences led me to quite a different response than others.  I did not pause, or stop to discuss the situation.  I did not use my reason to discern the best response, I jumped to action, I made a decision, a flash judgment, and using my intuition alone, made that snap judgement, at least in the psychological description, to Fight! 

Our lives are full of moments just like this one.  The collection of experiences that make up our identities shape the human being that each of us is….  We draw on them constantly to make decisions, to make judgements and to continue charting our human path through this life on a daily and moment to moment basis.  These experiences collectively make up the stories of our lives, they are the narratives we carry that help us define our identity.

Sure, in the moment of seeing a live, large and sometimes aggressive animal in the wild may indeed require us to forego the process of reasoned decision making and force us to act and act quickly.  But, what about the millions of decisions our complex minds make on a daily basis?  Are they always the best?  Most reasoned?  What about when we discover that a decision, a value position that we have held, or that we just argued for, may in fact not be in line with our best self? 

What about this example, a story we surely know well:  I am Sam, Sam I am….Do you like green eggs and ham?  Would you like them here or there?  Would you like them in a house?  Would you like them with a mouse?  I do not like green eggs and ham, I could not would not in a house or with a mouse…I do not like green eggs and ham.  I do not like them Sam I am.  Try them, try them and you may, try them and you may I say.  Sam, if you let me be, I will try them and you will see….  Say, I like green eggs and ham!  And I will eat them with a mouse and in a house….I will eat them anywhere…. Thank you, thank you Sam I am!

Certainly another whimsical example of our quick responses, and one used by Dr. Suess to help young people learn to read.  And, of course, it is kind of fun to mention “HAM” in the Temple!  But, perhaps, just maybe there is more to this story, and more that reveals just how brilliant it is.  The unnamed protagonist, whom we will call Knox, who eventually tries the Green Eggs and Ham is first annoyed by Sam, then disgusted by the thought of green eggs and ham.  This is probably because eggs and ham are not supposed to be green, and in fact when food becomes green it usually tells of spoilage…  Yet, as the fun story concludes, this unnamed protagonist - Knox - teaches us more than how to read.  Knox helps us identify a natural phenomenon of being human - that we often fail to try something new, yet we just may like it even if it does not seem appealing at first.  Knox, at first, is unwilling to even try the dish, and then reasons that he therefore would not like the entree no matter the setting, the company and the conditions.  His reasoning is not based on reason, but rather justifying the decision he’s already made!   Yet, in the end, showing a true openness to the newfound experience, Knox is willing to enjoy the green eggs and ham here and there, in a house with a mouse….anywhere!

We are all Knox!  It is simply part of being human.  We make decisions, we make judgments that are steeped in our own life experience…our narratives.  In this room, we share, at some level, the Jewish story as the first chapter of our personal identity.  And, we layer upon that our own stories.  (NTHC:  Because John is from rural Minnesota and Bob from Philadelphia, they hold, however slight, different ways to engage with Judaism.  Because Asher embraced Religious School so strongly and Hannah is choosing to engage in Bat Mitzvah by her own volition, this paints a new version of an old picture for their parents.) (TBY:  Because Jane lived in Israel and Karen has yet to visit, they hold, however slight, different ways to engage with Judaism.  Because Layla was raised in Tahoe and Ezekiel joined us at age thirteen, their visions of B’nai Mitzvah are certainly different pictures.)  It is through the lens of these experiences that each and every decision we make, our value judgements and our behaviors become yet more layers, more chapters in our lives.  Just like Knox, though, often times, we see only green eggs and ham, and using our intuition, we make a decision.  From there, our confirmation bias, which is our tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs and theories, begins to work and we reason NOT what is necessarily the best decision, rather the ways we can support our earlier choice, our claim.

Sure, the most often benign black bear from around here, and Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham help us see this human challenge in this light hearted fashion.  How do we make decisions, respond to those of others and how do we reason, do we reason?  And, what about the big questions?  The issues?  The pressing issues of the day, in our democracy, in our world?  A friend of mine, Alissa Nourse, who is a local leadership coach and organizational consultant drawing on the work of Brene Brown, a PhD Social Worker and author of Daring Greatly, shares a powerful example of our flash judgments and intuition.  Perhaps we can recall a moment when someone shared a story to which someone responded, “Who does that?”  A seemingly benign response of disbelief, or even disgust of another’s choice.  But, what this does, Alissa teaches, is that it devalues, maybe even dehumanizes the other, the one WHO DID THAT.  Why?  Because someone did do that and it is someone who makes up more than seven billion others in the world; someone whose narrative, whose story is simply different than your own.

How do we respond to others, and based on what, do we make our decisions, our value judgements and take a stance on issues?  Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, a professor of ethical leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business and an author, presents important perspectives on the way we make moral decisions, the way we reason and the power of our intuition.  During numerous TED Talks and through his writing, he presents clear ideas about how we, as human beings, as social beings, are driven to hold our ideas and our ideals.  At one point in his book, The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, he presents a finding of his and numerous other psychologists that, “We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgement.”

Yet, we stand here on this day, this Day of Atonement, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, to explore the ways in which we have reasoned well and reasoned poorly over the previous months.  We engage with one another, with our collective voice in prayer and with a deep acknowledgement of our imperfections.  Could there ever be a better or more appropriate time to re-engage with the ways we have reasoned in the past?  Perhaps by re-reasoning, not based on the desire to confirm our own story, our singular perspective, but to engage with a broader and deeper view of the world around us, can we strengthen ourselves, each other and our world.

The Kol Nidre prayer is perhaps the best example of this notion.  The reality that we articulate, as we stand for all three recitations of this medieval prayer poem, is that we are imperfect in our judgement, our ideas and our ideals.  Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi of Temple Emmanuel in Dallas and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, writes, in the New Mishkan HaNefesh - the Reform Machzor: 

In its emphasis on humility, Kol Nidrei provides a corrective to the toxic certainties of polarized discourse.  What if we approached each other with the humility to recognize that our most confident conviction will always be qualified by the limits of our own knowledge and understanding?  In its haunting melody and strangely legalistic language, we begin to sense the twilight truth:  our high horses too often stumble, and our soapboxes stand on shaky ground.  Kol Nidrei grants us the gift of sacred uncertainty:  the chance to begin this new year with a sense of what we do not know, rather than a narrow certainty about what we do. It’s what Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.”  What if every time I were ready to proclaim some self evident truth, I allowed Kol Nidrei to whisper in my ear, “Says who?”
Last month, our nation witnessed what some consider the most significant political experiment in U.S. history.  526 voters from forty seven states joined in Texas for three days to engage with issues, but more so with each other.  One participant from Kennewick, Washington shared, "Life affects us all very differently. We all have a story to tell and all of our views are important. There's no right answer for everyone. But if people take the time to hear (and truly listen) to other people and their story, then just maybe you'll discover something that you never considered before."   

This powerful exercise in American Democracy was not designed to sway opinions, rather it sought to understand if democracy was still alive.  One thing is for certain from this experiment, in each piece sifting the results from this monumental gathering we notice to the power of story, the import of the narratives we hold and the way we understand our world through the lens of our own, singular, experience.  As Haidt also posits to help us understand this further, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”  He continues to point out that the stories we know best are the ones about ourselves and these are what Dan McAdams, a leader in the field of narrative psychology, refer to as life narratives. The challenge, they both contend, is that these narratives are not necessarily true stories, rather they are selectively recalled and often reconstructed versions of the past that help us connect to an idealized vision of the future. 

As recounted in a New York Times piece about the event, personal narratives may inform our own view, but they can help shape those of others too.  The article shared that, "In one room the debate among a dozen voters over what to do about the Affordable Care Act moved from one personal testimonial to another:  One man's deductible rose to $3000 from $500 after the law took effect.  Another man's family premium had gone up to $2600 a month.  Across the table, one woman said her father had been found to have colon cancer right after the law forced him to acquire insurance for the first time in his life.  “He would be homeless without it," she said.  "I don't really know how I feel about it either, but I can tell you from personal experience, it saved one life."  As the room grew more somber, a man across from her said, "But now I can’t argue because of what your dad dealt with.”  Everyone broke into laughter. 

Sure, some positions changed over the course of this experiment, but researchers found that the swings shed the extreme positions and that “Voters at the event on both the left and the right appeared to edge toward the center.”   Positions may not have changed, but reasoning was enhanced.  The power of this collection of individuals was held in their ability to empathize enough to reason through the narratives of their fellow human beings.  But this cannot be achieved when we do not share those stories.  It certainly will not be realized when we remain insulated from opening up to know the lives of others. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks chief rabbi of England until 2013 and an English Knight, elucidates for us a beautiful passage from Talmud Berakhot concerning the power of dialogue, of engaging in one another’s narratives.  He writes, “In the course of a discussion about the origin of the afternoon prayer, the Talmud refers to Isaac who “went out to meditate in the field toward evening” [an echo from the encounter between Isaac and Rebekah] and concludes that “meditate” must mean “to pray.”  However, the Talmudic statement, “ein sichah ela tefillah,” can also mean “conversation is a form of prayer.”  That is a startling and powerful idea.  A genuine encounter with a human other can be a prelude to an encounter with the Divine Other.  The disciplines required are the same:  to be open, to listen as well as speak, to be capable of empathy and humility, to honor the other by an act of focused attention.  Nor is this a minor matter.  The greatest command of all, Shema Yisrael, literally means “Listen, O Israel.”

“Conversation is a form of prayer.”  This conversation begins within ourselves.  We have our story, our narrative that is our identity and how we see the world.  “Taken together, psychologists' narrative research makes one resounding point:  We don't just tell stories, stories tell us.  They shape our thoughts and memories, and even change how we live our lives.”  Yet, we must take seriously the responsibility of being the authors of our lives.  This requires of us to engage in this kind of conversation and allow ourselves to peel back the layers of our own narrative to ensure we are not only reasoning to hold fast to our stumbling high horses and remain on our shaky soapboxes, but rather to embrace the ways we can enrich our world through the narratives our fellow human beings live as well.  As is sometimes attributed to the Talmud, "We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

In this season of Teshuvah, of turning to discover, perhaps to re-reason, our best selves, it is incumbent upon us to not only rely on our intuitively driven judgment and decisions, but also to take that next step to search deep and unpack all that we have become.  Rabbi David Hartman, an American-Israeli leader and philosopher of contemporary Judaism, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and an author, wrote:  The personal significance of Yom Kippur ultimately turns on the individual’s ability to believe that his or her life can be different.  The main obstacle to t’shuvah is not whether God will forgive us but whether we can forgive ourselves - whether we can believe in our own ability to change the direction of our lives, even minimally.  T’shuvah is grounded in the idea of an open future, in the belief that the possibilities for human change have not been exhausted, that the final chapters of our personal narratives have not been written.

And these personal narratives are, necessarily so, deeply intertwined with those of every other human being… “to be open, to listen as well as speak, to be capable of empathy and humility, to honor the other by an act of focused attention….to Shema Yisrael, to Listen O’ Israel.”

In peeling back the layers of our own stories, and embracing that our intuition often leads, not our reason, we honor others.  I don’t know how you, (NTHC:  Miles, or you Libby) (TBY:  Steve, or you Layla) respond when you see a bear because our stories are different.  We all have our own response to the bear, and maybe at first, we all should be disgusted by green eggs and ham….but it mustn’t stop there.  We MUST be better skilled, we must practice unpacking those intuitively guided decisions, those value judgements so that we may reason, or better re-reason, so that not only are we bettering our ability to be in life with others, but also owning our responsibility as authors of our narratives, the narratives we want to be our story…our life.  Maybe, just maybe this will lead to more honed intuition in the first place…..

May the year 5780 be one filled with becoming authors, authors of the narratives that become our lives.  And, may we be more discerning at how those stories lead our judgment, our decision making and our values, knowing that all persons have their own, and valuable, story too.  In this way, we have the potential to better our world.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - May We all Be Sealed for Good in the Coming Year

Shanah Tovah

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Erev Yom Kippur Iyun & Benediction

Erev Yom Kippur - Kol Nidre - Iyunnim - 5780

Welcome & Tone Setting:  Kindness and the Balance of our Deeds

A bookstore worker recently wrote this Facebook post describing an encounter with a “little old lady” who shocked everyone at the register. The post has since gone viral, and for good reason.  The subject posted:

    I work in a decent sized, local, indie bookstore. It’s a great job 99% of the time and a lot of our customers are pretty neat people. Anywho, middle of the day this little old lady comes up. She’s lovably kooky. She effuses how much she loves the store and how she wishes she could spend more time in it but her husband is waiting in the car ‘OH! I BETTER BUY HIM SOME CHOCOLATE!’ She piles a bunch of art supplies on the counter and then stops and tells me how my bangs are beautiful and remind her of the ocean (‘Wooooosh’ she says, making a wave gesture with her hand.
    Ok. I think to myself. Awesomely happy, weird little old ladies are my favorite kind of customer. They’re thrilled about everything and they’re comfortably bananas. I can have a good time with this one. So we chat and it’s nice.
    Then this kid, who’s been up my counter a few times to gather his school textbooks, comes up in line behind her (we’re connected to a major university in the city so we have a lot of harried students pass through). She turns around to him and, out of nowhere, demands that he put his textbooks on the counter. He’s confused but she explains that she’s going to buy his textbooks.
    He goes sheetrock white. He refuses and adamantly insists that she can’t do that. It’s like, $400 worth of textbooks. She, this tiny old woman, boldly takes them out of his hands, throws them on the counter and turns to me with an intense stare and tells me to put them on her bill. The kid at this point is practically in tears. He’s confused and shocked and grateful. Then she turns to him and says ‘you need chocolate.’ She starts grabbing handfuls of chocolates and putting them in her pile.
    He keeps asking her ‘why are you doing this?’ She responds ‘Do you like Harry Potter?’ and throws a copy of the new Cursed Child on the pile too.
    Finally she’s done and I ring her up for a crazy amount of money. She pays and asks me to please give the kid a few bags for his stuff. While I’m bagging up her merchandise the kid hugs her. We’re both telling her how amazing she is and what an awesome thing she’s done. She turns to both of us and says probably one of the most profound, unscripted things I’ve ever had someone say: ‘It’s important to be kind. You can’t know all the times that you’ve hurt people in tiny, significant ways. It’s easy to be cruel without meaning to be. There’s nothing you can do about that. But you can choose to be kind. Be kind.’
    The kid thanks her again and leaves. I tell her again how awesome she is. She’s staring out the door after him and says to me: ‘My son is a homeless meth addict. I don’t know what I did. I see that boy and I see the man my son could have been if someone had chosen to be kind to him at just the right time.’
    I’ve bagged up all her stuff and at this point am super awkward and feel like I should say something but I don’t know what. Then she turns to me and says: ‘I wish I could have bangs like that but my darn hair is just too curly.’ And leaves. And that is the story of the best customer I’ve ever had. Be kind to somebody today.  You never know how your actions may affect others around you, so you might as well be kind to all.

In the days leading to this season, the High Holy Days, the Hebrew month of Elul engages us in spiritual preparation.  Among the practices, we are inspired to recite twice daily the words of Psalm 27.  Embedded in this poem, we sing out:  Achat Sha’alti - One thing I ask of Adonai, and the one that I seek is to dwell in the house of Adonai all the days of my life and to gaze upon the sweetness of Adonai and frequent God’s Temple.

May each of us, on this Yom Kippur, and all days of this New Year, merit to dwell in the house of Adonai and to gaze upon God’s sweetness.  May we see the spark of the Divine in every other being so that we see their sweetness, and dwell together in blessing, joy, harmony and Shalom and Shleimut - Peace and Wholeness - Amen.