High Holidays 5783/2022: D’var Torahs and Personal Prayers


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D’var Torah – Rosh Hashanah First Day

By Larry Haydu

Good morning! Welcome to a new year. We’re together again, returned from being scattered by summer travels and over two years of pandemic, back to celebrate 5783 together as a community. It’s wonderful.

Two days ago we got some pre-holiday prep from Moshe when he spoke to us from Parasha Nitzavim. Very succinctly, he put before us a choice: between Life and Death, Blessings and Curses. And he issued a ringing call to choose Life, with all of its blessings.

The Unataneh tokef prayer that we say today makes it clear that we do not choose the time, place, or manner of our death. So what actually is the choice before us? I think it’s the choice to engage Life as if it really matters, or as if it doesn’t. Moshe’s call to choose Life is to choose to live as if our World depends on it, to treat ourselves, others, and our planet with justice and compassion, to be ever mindful of the Source of Life, as Torah teaches us.

Making this choice is the setting for the High Holidays.

Today’s Torah reading gives us three stories that depict variations in the experiences we encounter in life:

  1. In the first, there’s joy and laughter at the improbable blessing of Isaac’s birth, at the arrival of a longed-for new generation.
  2. In the second story, there’s the anguish of Hagar
  3. In the third, it’s the making of a pact between Avimelech and Avraham, conducted with honesty and respect and for mutual benefit.

How does the reading help guide our purpose today? More on this shortly.

I think what we’re aiming to do here is to tune in to the giver and sustainer of Life. At least that’s one way to put it. And the most physically recognizable expression of the source of Life is our breath. It is so consistently reliable, though, that it’s easy to take it for granted, to overlook what a profound gift it is. We may notice it only when, for reasons of exertion or illness, we have trouble finding it. But it is our most accessible portal to the Source of Life.

When we pause to focus attention on the breath, there may be a physical awareness of aliveness or energy, of a take-and-give with the In-breath and Out-breath, of a reciprocal exchange, a partnering with our World, our surrounding environment.

In addition to giving life, breath is essential for laughter, song, and sobs, all ways of opening heart connections with others.

The breath is an important partner in the process we undertake during the holidays, the process of Cheshbon haNefesh, the accounting of our choices in the past year, of our relationship with the Source of Life. When I pay attention to my breath and listen, I begin to learn more about who I actually am in that moment, and what’s the state of my connection with God.

When I attend to my breath, I will sometimes notice gratitude that it has sustained me to that moment. More recently these days when I listen further, I also discover resistance to listening still more closely. There’s a pushing back, a tightening with impatience to “move away from here, now,” or a tightening in pulling back. This tightening alerts me to a protected vulnerable place. A place my heart needs to open.

Given this, it may not be so surprising that the most powerful part of today’s reading, for me, is the middle story of Hagar and Ishmael. The emotional intensity of it is especially compelling, partly because it is unusual for the Torah, but mainly because it is so relatable. The text plainly evokes empathy for Hagar in her vulnerability. In this short section on her expulsion from Abraham’s House, with Ishmael, we see that Life, in addition to joy and celebration, also includes jealousy, cruelty, confusion, despair and grief. The passage reaches a climax at this point:

“She left the child under a sheltering bush, and went and sat down at a distance, thinking ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’ And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.”

Regardless of our age, we all know somewhere inside what that kind of vulnerability feels like, that sense of being lost and alone, without direction or resources.

When the angel appears, reassuring and encouraging Hagar (precisely at the center of the day’s reading), the text itself offers reassurance that in sharing an open and vulnerable heart there will be an answer in time, and some guidance. I’m encouraged to hear this, as it bolsters a heart that wants to open more, but at times feels faint.

It also helps, at times like this, that you are all here. Because you are striving in some similar way for healing connection- with self, with others, with the Holy One – there’s a web of shared intention that supports me.

I hope you may experience support here on your own journeys as well, and that your steps of return will bring you a sweet and more open-hearted New Year in 5783.

L’shanah tovah!

Personal Prayer – Rosh Hashanah First Day (morning)

By Fern Chertok

About a year ago, I painted our dining room “golden vista,” a color somewhere between ripe apricots and Velveeta cheese. I needed to create a space that had the warmth and even the majesty of a biblical tent.

Why, you might ask? In the space of one year of the pandemic, my family and I had sold, cleaned out and moved from the house we lived in for 30 years, bought a Vermont farm and planted a vineyard, and hosted our daughter’s wedding, on said farm. I also started a new position at work. But rather than feeling the joys and pains of these events, I just felt distanced – as if my life was happening to someone else.

We know that Covid can lead to the loss of the sense of smell. For me, living in the time of Covid depleted all my senses and emotions. I was feeling very little.

Looking for a way to reconnect, I recalled my son’s bar mitzvah dvar. Max’s portion was Acharei Mot, after the death of Aaron’s sons and he taught that we are always in that moment after and before loss. To combat the existential paralysis of that moment we need to choose and hold tight to the parts of our tradition that allow us to find meaning and joy, color, and taste.

So, I painted the dining room and reclaimed Shabbat dinner as a space in time where my family could find, not just refuge but also laughter and vigorous discussion, tasty food and wine, and the gift of being present. Covid was still there before and after Shabbat, but we had reimagined a weekly, shared cocoon in which to be alive in all our senses.

My prayer is that in this coming year, we continue to claim and reclaim the parts of our Jewish tradition that give us each comfort and strength and when needed, paint the room orange to do it.

Personal Prayer – Rosh Hashanah First Day (afternoon)

By Linda Klein

T0 put this prayer in context: a week ago I fell flat on my face and broke my nose.

What to remember every minute of my waking life: 

  • You, God, gave me my life – it is a gift
  • You gave me the freedom to choose how to live
  • You gave me tshuvah to come back to you
  • You have made the world full of beings who are compassionate, caring, and non-judgmental
  • You have helped me in my times of personal crisis, helping me see beyond my tunnel vision to other choices
  • You have sent reminders to help me know your presence—to wake me up

Thank you for all of this, for my family, my beloved partner Bernie, my children, Gabi and Dani, Hedya and Heimo, and Rebecca and Matvei, and my grandchildren, Lyla, Louis, and Roni. Thank you for keeping me alive, for making me a Jew, and for my years in Israel, for making me an artist, and…

  • for the privilege of education, of plenty
  • for living in a country that gives me choice
  • for my loving and forgiving community of seekers who struggle with Torah in order to be better human beings
  • for the strangers who come through
  • for my friends
  • for my teachers and for making me see all the places where learning can happen, from my rabbi, from my children, and from my grandchildren.

May my community be blessed and protected from harm and have a sweet new year. Amen.

D’var Torah – Rosh Hashanah Second Day

By Ashira Stevens

Although Rosh HaShanah is called “the birthday of the world,” Jewish tradition teaches that in fact Rosh HaShanah marks the sixth day of creation when humans were made. In the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah and through Yom Kippur, we engage in spiritual and emotional introspection to take stock of what went well and where we need to make amends. For all that we spend time looking back over the past year, Rosh HaShanah actually looks to the future. We look back so that we can decide what we want to bring forward into the new year. At Rosh HaShanah, we have the opportunity to start over.

I often have struggled with the idea of starting over. How many times have I heard “it’s too late to change now?” However, this summer, I gained a new perspective on starting over.

I spent this summer as a student chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In this role, I tried to offer spiritual care to patients and their families. In one of my first weeks at the hospital, I met Lori, a Jewish cancer patient. Lori liked to walk a little each day to pass the time. In our first meeting, she and I walked together on the floor for a long time, and she told me about her cancer journey.

During that first walk, she shared that she was scheduled to have a stem cell transplant during her stay. I did not know much about stem cell transplants, so I asked some of the staff chaplains to tell me more about the experience of this procedure. They told me that patients received an infusion of stem cells through an IV. They described how some nurses called the day of the transplant a “birthday” and would write “Happy Birthday” on the whiteboard in patients’ rooms on the day of the transplant. Some would even sing “Happy Birthday” during or after the infusion.

This idea of a “birthday” based on a medical procedure surprised me. I wondered whether Lori perceived the transplant as a “birthday.” The next time I met with her, I asked Lori to tell me more about her upcoming transplant and how
Ashira Stevens 2

she felt about it. She explained that the procedure itself seemed pretty simple and that the harder part came after. She described how her husband needed to deep clean and prepare their house according to the hospital’s very detailed instructions to prevent infections upon her return home. Then she told me she would have to get all her childhood vaccines again, that she would be like a newborn baby.

Although Lori did not describe the experience as a “birthday,” she did say the transplant would be starting over. This experience made me reconsider when and how we might be able to start over. Maybe it really is possible to start over in some aspects of our lives, just like Lori’s immune system was starting over. Her past experiences, including her experience of living with cancer, would not go away, but she was getting a chance at a new life. Lori understood her stem cell transplant as more than just a physical medical procedure. She saw it as an opportunity for a spiritual and emotional reset.

Just as Lori embraced her stem cell transplant as offering her new life, so too can we treat Rosh HaShanah, the “birthday of the world,” as an opportunity for a new spiritual and emotional life, a “birthday of the soul.”

Today’s Torah portion, the Akeidah – the binding of Isaac – connects with this idea of renewal by showing us relationships that are redefined. Most painfully, the relationship between Abraham and Isaac is forever changed. We see Abraham descend from Mount Moriah alone, and Abraham and Isaac do not have another conversation together recorded in Torah. This is not the only relationship which changes. Although the text does not state anything explicit about Abraham and Sarah’s marriage after the traumatic incident, I feel confident in suggesting that their relationship likely became something different. Finally, the relationship between God and Abraham also changes. God acknowledges that Abraham reveres God, deepening their covenantal relationship.

As we listen to this difficult story today, let us reflect on how our relationships with others, especially those closest and dearest to us, have changed and how we might renew and strengthen them in this new year.

Personal Prayer – Rosh Hashanah Second Day

By Neil Frieband

At the first Board of Directors meeting with our new president, Michelle, she asked us to make a list. The list should answer the question “What fond memories do you have of Beth El?”

My response:

  • Joined in 1971
  • Was a regular at Friday night services and because I don’t live in Sudbury, those attending became my close “Friday Night Friends.”
  • Attended all of Rabbi Kushner’s classes
  • Was on or headed every committee but the school committee
  • Instrumental in making us what we are today

She then asked us to pass our lists to and from a partner for review. My partner’s list included many life-cycle events that never dawned on me to include – for example, siyyums, bar mitzvahs, weddings, etc. Why aren’t they on my list?

The Rabbi asked me to give a personal prayer. I initially refused, saying that was not my thing. I used my response to Michelle’s request to prove that I really don’t think in those terms. He, in classic Talmudic argument, pushed me on it saying, “No, no, no, look what you weren’t thinking about was what was important to you about Judaism.” He was right. I made it much more specific about my activities at Beth El. I didn’t relate my Beth El memories to what was so important to me about Judaism and my connection to Beth El.

Judaism and my Jewish identity have always been important to me. I have lived in many parts of this country and always made contact with and participated in the local Jewish community. But my connection at Beth El brought me to a much higher level of spiritual participation and inspired me to learn much more about Judaism. I began to realize again, after many years, that there really is something that is profoundly important to me about this place.

I am entering this New Year with a sense of gratitude for Beth El that I wasn’t aware of until I reflected on it here. I offer this to our community. I feel that we all can be aware of the blessings we have as being part of this congregation. There are many ways of connecting. I hope that is something that will be true for everyone. It’s going to be true for me and I hope it’s true for you and your loved ones.

Shana tovah u’metukah – a sweet New Year to you and your loved ones.

Personal Prayer – Kol Nidre

By Sandeep Vaswani

Some of us live in the past, others in the future, a lucky few in the present. I am someone who dwells solidly in the future. I am a planner, have always been. Putting all of one’s energy in the future assumes being able to influence, even control events that sometimes have minds of their own. This past year I was faced with many challenges at work, one of them being supply-chain problems that you have no doubt heard about. Unless you were successful at blocking out bad news, which was not slowed down by supply chain problems.

Harder still has been the brutal impact of mental illness on near and dear ones, both, those who suffer from it and those who love the afflicted. As I try to support one of my closest friends work through the unthinkable, the loss of a child, I find myself dwelling in the past with him. Could different actions have led to a better outcome? Who or what is to blame? Was her ending her life at all preventable? As a way to comprehend such things, my Indian background, and some others such as mystical Judaism as the Rabbi informed me, offer that some happenings are pre-ordained. That it is karma, this life’s and prior ones. Maybe so. But to my friend this has not been a helpful construct. He continues to struggle and so do I.

Through all of this what I have learned is that the future has no regard for the best laid plans. I am trying to live more in the present. It is hard. Very hard. The future may seem scarily uncertain, but there is so much to enjoy and be thankful for in the present. I want to be present for my wife, my parents, my kids, my friends, and my colleagues. I can’t assure a particular future. But I can put in the work to really listen, to do what is needed now, and to not worry about what is to come. I pray for whatever it takes to be in the here and now, and I hope the same for you.

D’var Torah – Yom Kippur Morning

By Pam McArthur

Ten days ago we gathered for Rosh Hashanah, and Rabbi Breindel stood here and said, “This is the happy day,” and I am sure I’m not the only one who thought, “If Rosh Hashanah is the happy day what does that make Yom Kippur?”

The unhappy day? The sad day? Certainly it is a solemn day as we reflect on the past year, our aspirations, and our shortcomings. But it is also Shabbat Shabbaton, the Shabbat of Shabbats – a great and glorious and surely a hopeful and joyful day as we seek forgiveness and affirm our intentions for the coming year.

Hope and joy are held in this morning’s Torah reading. An alternate to the traditional verses of Leviticus, we read from Deuteronomy chapters 29 and 30. Moses calls the people into covenant with God – all the people, regardless of age, gender, occupation, or position in society – whether present or not present at that moment – all are called into covenant. Including us. We are reassured that when we stray – which we surely will – if we turn back to God, God will turn back to us in love. We are also reassured that this teaching is not beyond us – not up in heaven, not over the sea, but in our own mouths and hearts.

And toward the end of today’s reading we come to the words, “Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. Choose life,” uvacharta bachayyim. Choose life.

It sounds like an imperative, but Rashi says it is not a commandment, not one of the 613 in the Torah. Rashi envisions God as saying, Ani moreh, I am teaching you this – in other words, I have laid everything before you, you have free will and the power of discernment, I am not commanding, I encourage you to choose life.

The Zohar, in contrast, affirms that “choose life” is a commandment and in fact is the only commandment of the entire Torah. The 613 are instructions in support of this one overarching commandment.

Not a commandment; the only commandment. Both Rashi and the Zohar, each in their own way, elevate these words as something unique and special, and the power of these words is alive still today. Choose life. Eat healthy, sleep well, exercise, breathe deeply. Choose life. Live with intention, with purpose, with awareness of the wonders all around us.

Choose life. And not just I for myself. For if God is, in the words of our High Holy Days, melech chafeitz bachayyim, the power that delights in life then surely I must support life for others. All life. Feed the hungry. Stand up for the rights of all people. Write letters, march in the streets, engage in conversation, change what needs to be changed. Choose life. Take care of the earth, renew energy, live sustainably so that all living things and our beautiful, one-of-a-kind planet itself can thrive. Choose life.

All of this is aspirational of course and I am only human. I fall short of this vision time and again. My core goodness, the spark of the divine, knows what it means to choose life – but I lose touch with it, become confused or tired or impulsive or lured away or just plain stubbornly insistent on doing the wrong thing. That’s why we need teshuvah, returning over and over again to our best selves – isn’t that why we are here today? And berating myself over misdeeds does not help – it only leaves me mired in depression, stuck in where I have gone wrong. And so compassion must also be a part of choosing life. Compassion opens the heart to hope, compassion believes that I can change and grow and ever more fully embrace the words “choose life.”

And so on this Yom Kippur – not a sad day but a day with deep deep hope that we can begin again and be always increasingly more alive.

I end with a three-fold question. I phrase it in the first person singular, asking myself, and I offer it to you to ask yourself if you so choose. A three-fold question to support choosing life in the year to come:

  1. How can I be more fully alive, aware, engaged, and open to wonder?
  2. How can I support others to live more fully?
  3. How can I hold my failings with compassion?

I’ll repeat in abbreviated form. In the coming year, how can I increase

  1. Life for myself?
  2. Life for others?
  3. Compassion?

That’s it… Shanah tovah.

Personal Prayer – Yom Kippur Morning

By Benjamin Silver

As I return to Beth El for the first time since Covid, I’m thinking a lot about how I grappled with my unique conceptualization of God three years ago at Siyyum. For me, God has always existed in infinite forms, where people interact with the versions most tangible to them. This perspective resulted directly from a religious school framework that encourages students to think critically about Judaism, juxtaposing religious practice with our own lived experiences. When I returned to Tufts that fall, I began to miss Beth El’s educational freedom. While many characterize college as a period of intellectual self-discovery, it seemed like all of my classmates decided to major in biology or economics before matriculating. More unsettling was that I also felt the pressure to box myself in early, declaring majors in political science and environmental studies without strong enthusiasm.

But when I took the following year off due to the pandemic, my life changed. I interned for an environmental nonprofit, and one of my projects involved analyzing toxic chemicals in the Missouri River watershed. The work required GIS, a mapping software used to analyze spatial patterns in data. I fell in love with the problem-solving necessary for determining suitable analytical techniques for given questions. After returning to Tufts, I designed my own major from this interest that bridged interests for both the environment and technology. The curriculum investigates how mapping, statistics, and computer science are tools for analyzing environmental challenges, like climate change and clean water accessibility. Immersing myself in real data offers me agency to fight for national environmental equity as a student. This is especially critical in a world where federal policy has repeatedly failed to meet sustainability goals and protect the most marginalized communities across the United States.

My religious school experience was instrumental in deciding to root career aspirations in social justice. Beth El teaches how religion is not simply about biblical comprehension or participating in tradition. Meaningful Jewish practice also involves routinely applying a shared ideology to a world desperate for healing. While my Hebrew school teachers clearly conveyed the importance of addressing human rights issues, they simultaneously celebrated the value in students taking different paths to achieve this objective. After all, fiddling with online maps until two in the morning isn’t how most people find meaning in the world. But Beth El’s emphasis on digesting principles offered in an educational context and adjusting them for personal relevance was integral in giving me confidence in pursuing a newfound passion at Tufts.

When developing the major, this confidence was not initially natural. Apprehension about embarking on an unfamiliar journey initially consumed me. While the biology and economics students have clear requirements and countless graduates to advise them, I constantly make arbitrary decisions in determining what to study. But my religious education helped foster within me the confidence to confront this fear. One Monday in Cantor Lorel’s tenth-grade class, she asked us to sketch a picture of what we believed happened after death. What I didn’t realize as a high school student was that the assignment was never about the drawing itself. It was a lesson in exploring how different perspectives inherently generate varying approaches to unanswerable questions. This exercise helped convey the value of embracing uncertainty in my curriculum because an uncharted discipline cannot have a single right answer by definition. The creative process I am engaging in is an equally important component of my educational development. Realizing this has empowered me to take risks when choosing classes and designing a senior thesis while confidently developing the major around my own identity.

I feel blessed to return to the community that celebrates the connection of passion and religious purpose when personalizing my academic experience. On this Yom Kippur, I’m reflecting on a quote from Rabbi Soloveitchik that has helped evolve my initial depiction of God from Siyyum. In “Halachic Man,” he writes that “God created the world to provide humans an opportunity to participate in the creation.” Beth El will always hold an important place in my heart because of how we approach religion as a partnership between God and everyday people. Both components are instrumental in creating a more equitable world. For me, Judaism is a moral compass because it outlines religion as a dynamic discipline whose teachings stem from where I practice. Back at Tufts, I’m excited to continue taking classes knowing that Judaism continuously plays a role in shaping my curriculum.

D’var Torah – Yom Kippur Afternoon

By PJ Feynman

G’mar Tov! Our reading today comes from VaYikra, Parshat Kedoshim. It lists so many mitzvot! If you made a New Year’s resolution to keep all of the mitzvot mentioned in this parsha, you’d be doing really well. In fact, one of them: V’ahavta et reaicha camocha, translated most commonly as “love your neighbor as yourself,” was famously pointed out by Hillel to a person standing on one leg as containing the entire Torah within it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that one since I heard a Hidden Brain podcast called “Separating Yourself from the Pack” in which Mina Cikara, a professor at Harvard, describes what happens psychologically when we think of some people as part of our group, and other people as not a part of our group.

She described a time when she and a guy she had just started dating attended a Yankees vs. Red Sox game in New York. She didn’t particularly like baseball or any sport, but her date was decked out in Red Sox gear. At the beginning of the game, the Yankees fans surrounding them engaged in lighthearted banter, but it became more intense as the Red Sox pulled ahead in the tight game. Feeling that things were getting very stressful, she looked for a way to defuse the situation. Knowing that she wasn’t invested in the competition, she took his Red Sox hat and put it on her own head, thinking that if someone offended the Red Sox while she was wearing the hat, it wouldn’t bother her. It went OK for about 40 seconds until the Yankee fans insulted her mother. Suddenly she was up in the face of the man sitting behind them. She remembers wanting to shove him, until her date said: “I think it’s time for us to go.”

She reflected that she’d never felt that way – to the point of wanting to fight over the honor of Red Sox Nation, something she didn’t even care about within 10 minutes. It’s this same behavior that leads angry fans to brawl or turn cars over or worse when their team loses.

Cikara was surprised by her behavior: she was a nice person. She said: “If you ask when was the last time I punched someone,” or “When was the last time I saw someone else punch someone,” it’s probably never, but that all goes out the window when the “gravitational pull of groups exerts it’s force.”

Since then she has studied group dynamics, observed just how fast they shift, and concluded that the line between us and them is thinner than we might think. She describes it as an ”us-them” template in our minds that dictates how we behave toward others, whether it makes sense in context or not. I think Hillel knew this, too, and that’s why he chose “V’ahavta et reaicha camocha” as the teaching that contains the entire Torah. Let’s use some of the mitzvot in today’s reading as a proof text:

  • Honor your mother and father.
  • Leave the corners of your field for the poor and the stranger.
  • Don’t steal.
  • Don’t deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.
  • Don’t insult the deaf or place a stumbling block in front of the blind.
  • Judge fairly – don’t show favor to the poor or deference to the rich.
  • Don’t bear a grudge.
  • Rise before the aged – show deference to the old (verse 32).

In each of these, we see two groups who could easily be “us” and “them”: Children and parents, Have and have nots, able bodied and disabled, empowered, and disempowered. Realizing that humans have the tendency to divide into groups and compete, the Torah has to explicitly give us instructions about how to act toward each other, to prevent us devolving into selfishness and violence. Hillel realized that all of these commandments are specific examples of V’ahavta et reicha camocha, with different types of neighbors and different acts of love.

The context of Hillel’s story itself illustrates the point – the man standing on one leg was a Roman who first went to Shammai, Hillel’s study partner. The man told Shammai he would convert to Judaism if he could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Feeling the man was mocking him and the Torah, Shammai chased him from the room with a ruler. Hillel took a different route, quoting V’ahavta et reicha camocha and telling him the rest was commentary he should spend the rest of his life studying. Shammai saw a Roman, a man as “other” as could be at that time, his template was activated, and he responded reflexively with violence. Hillel, on the other hand, chose to see the man’s desire to learn Torah as authentic, thus putting both of them in the same group. Hillel thus embodied V’ahavta et reicha camocha – he loved the man as someone like himself, so he wanted to help him, not hurt him.

Mina Cikara describes this as group fluidity. We’re simultaneously individuals and part of a group – different situations activate different parts of our identity. It’s context dependent – moving from one situation to another changes the salient features of our identity. When you drop off your child at day care, you’re a parent, but once the car door closes you’re part of a company, or part of the group that you’re part of at work. When Hillel was out in the marketplace, the Romans were the enemy. But in the study hall, the more important characteristic of the individual Roman man was that he wanted to study Torah.

So finding aspects of the lives or personalities of the “other” that intersect with our own, is one way to make our neighbors like ourselves. Now that we’re in the same group, it’s clearer that we can choose to love them.

There are other ways.

One is to vividly imagine the suffering of the other. Cikara and her colleagues found that people who passed others in distress were much more likely to stop and help if they perceived the person in trouble as part of their own group. For example, I would be much more likely to pull over if I saw a woman stuck on the side of the road. However, if you tell people to vividly imagine a scenario like someone fell off their motorcycle on the side of the road – the difference between helping an in-group vs. an out-group member disappeared. Further, people who couldn’t picture it clearly had less empathy than those who said they could see it clearly in their heads. Maybe this is why we are told over and over again the words in chapter 19, verse 34: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Since we know what it’s like to be strangers, to be the ones who are “othered” – we remember the cruelty, the alienation, the exhaustion.Recalling it paints a vivid picture in our minds. Remembering all of that opens our hearts and extinguishes the differences we perceive in newcomers now that we are the ones in charge.

The third way to make our neighbors like ourselves is learning more about them. Cikara’s team found that if they told test subjects that a person’s computer crashed and they lost a week of work, that story induced low levels of empathy. But, if the subjects were told that a woman named Robin was working really hard to get a project done before going on maternity leave when her computer crashed and she lost a week’s worth of work, empathy for Robin went way up. When we leave the corners of the field for the poor and the stranger, instead of picking and donating the food, we come face to face with the hungry. When “they” actually come to our fields, we’re forced to see them. We interact with them and learn things about them. They become three dimensional. This too, erodes our “us” – “them” template.

In conclusion, I have a quiz on how to be like Hillel and break your “us” – “them” template so you can fulfill the commandment of V’ahavta et reaicha camocha, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

First, are you subject to making snap judgements about others and quickly becoming uncharacteristically annoyed? The correct answer to this question is “yes.” No one is above this. I caught myself in a surprisingly intense negative spiral just the other day when someone down the street put out a yard sign for the “other” gubernatorial candidate. I don’t even know that neighbor and within seconds I’d painted a whole picture in my mind. The line is thinner than you think.

Second, think about all the groups that you are a member of. Do you think more people than you might imagine are actually in your group? The correct answer to this is “yes” – intersectionality is everywhere.

Extension question: Can someone from your own group, who has been your neighbor and loved you for years, turn on you and suddenly define you as “other”? Yes, indeed. This is particularly painful – and perhaps the topic for another day.

Last question: Is looking for ways to include others in our group the way our brains are programmed According to Cikara’s work, and a growing body of psychological research, it is not. Hillel told the Roman convert, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” contains the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn.” The mitzvot in today’s parsha are part of that commentary – they tell us specifically how to help us see others as ourselves.

And they demand that we make the unnatural and often uncomfortable decision to love them.

Personal Prayer – Yom Kippur Afternoon

By Andy Nierenberg

I struggle with time. Like many of you, I suspect, I’m too rushed, too impatient, with too much to do with too little time. And that’s all we have – time. I want so much from time. I am time-greedy – so much to accomplish, so much to give, so much to read and learn, so much to write, so many conversations to have… How can I get through everything if I don’t do everything quickly? How can I possibly get through my endless emails? How will I have enough time to spend with my closest friends and Karen, my dear wife of 35 years…

Hey, wait a minute. Did I say 35 years? How did that happen? It’s so much time. It’s not enough time… And if it’s not enough time, then don’t I have to rush to get through everything else? But if I rush through everything else, what good is that?

Between Modeh ani and Hashkivenu – the morning prayer and the prayer before going to sleep – every day – is where we live. From one Shabbat to the next is where we live. Put enough days and Shabbats together, and we go from one Rosh Hashanah to the next, one Yom Kippur to the next.

It’s just so short.

Every year I make the same mistake. I agree to do too much. Then I take a vacation, and I turn to Karen and tell her that now I realize that I’m doing too much, and this year, this year, I’m going to cut back. Then Rabbi Josh asks me to give a personal prayer… how can I say no?

In the coming year, may we slow down and use our time wisely and be kind to ourselves and others.