Sunday, September 20, 2015

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon - Allowing Ourselves to Turn "Inside Out"

Shanah Tovah, dear friends.

Imagine the moment of the glass breaking at a wedding.
Now see yourself removing ten drops of sweet wine during a Passover Seder.
Next, hear the sound of the community reciting the Mourner's Kaddish at every single worship service. What do these three rituals have in common? Each brings a moment of sadness into an otherwise joyful event.

In Judaism, joy and sadness go hand in hand. We rarely experience one without the other. 
And, yet, so many of us seem to be wired to focus on the positive, to keep our sorrow at bay, and to just be happy.

Last year, I spoke during the High Holy Days about the importance of happiness, and the ways in which happiness permeates the Jewish experience. This year, I hope you will indulge me as I flip that coin over. This year, I want to talk about sadness, and the degree to which we give it a place in our lives.

I started pondering this when I saw an incredible movie: Inside Out. Inside Out is Disney-Pixar's most recent film, released just this year. I'm sure that many, if not most, of you saw this movie this year. It was lauded by critics, kids, and adults, alike. The film follows the story of a little girl named Riley, yet the main characters are the emotions in her head. We first meet Riley at her birth, and we soon learn that we will be viewing her life from somewhere inside her mind. We meet the various emotions which steer her, guide her, and determine many of her responses and reactions to life around her. When she's born, JOY is the only emotion present in Riley's "headquarters." The baby is filled with pure joy at being alive and being loved by her parents.

Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, is depicted as bright yellow. But, before you know it, the next emotion, SADNESS, pops up. Baby Riley cries when Sadness is at the controls. Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith, is blue, and shaped a bit like a teardrop. Then we meet the other three primary emotions: FEAR, voiced by Bill Hader, who is purple, long and lanky; ANGER, voiced brilliantly by Lewis Black, and bright red and prone to light on fire; and DISGUST, voiced by Mindy Kaling, who is, as you'd guess, bright green.[1]

Riley's most formative memories are stored in headquarters with the emotions. There are five memories - shown as colorful marbles - called "Core Memories," which shaped a significant part of Riley's personality, and each leads to a "personality island." Presumably, every person has different personality islands. Riley's islands happen to be Honesty, Family, Hockey, Goofball (because she loves being silly), and Friendship.

Joy is Riley's dominant emotion. Joy calls the shots and decides which other emotion will function at which time. When Riley is 11 years old, we watch as Riley's parents move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco, and Joy tries to help Riley focus on the positives of the move. However, when they arrive, the house is empty, and their moving truck is delayed. This major life change is the catalyst for many other changes in Riley's life. Up in headquarters, Sadness begins to touch memories, and when she does, the happy memories turn sad. Thus, Joy tries to isolate Sadness, even going so far as drawing a circle on the ground and telling Sadness not to leave its confines.

On the first night in their new house, Riley has only a sleeping bag in her room, and she's unable to sleep. Riley's emotions realize that the move was a lot worse than Joy had said it would be. Mom comes into the room and thanks Riley for keeping a happy face through the stressful situation. When Riley finally falls asleep, Joy puts on a happy dream of Riley ice skating with her parents.[2]

The next day, Riley has her first day at her new school, and Joy gives assignments to the team, telling Sadness that she should just stand still, and not take the controls at all. When Riley arrives in class, the teacher asks her to introduce herself, and tell everyone about her life in Minnesota. Riley talks about playing on a hockey team, but once again the memory turns blue after Sadness touches it. Joy tries to take the memory out, and sees Sadness taking control of the console. Joy finally succeeds in removing the memory and pulls Sadness away from the console, but not before a new sad core memory is created. Joy tries to activate the memory dump, but Sadness stops her from erasing the memory. In the struggle, all of the core memories fall out, and a happy core memory starts to get sucked into the dump tube, and Joy grabs it and finds herself, Sadness and the core memories getting sucked away.

Thus, Joy and Sadness are paired together on an adventure as they try to find their way back to Headquarters. Without them, Fear, Disgust, and Anger are in charge at the controls. Riley starts snapping at her parents when they try to talk with her, she decides she hates hockey, and soon wants to run away. Her personality islands start to turn dark, and then begin to crumble.

As they look for a way home, Joy and Sadness find Bing Bong, Riley's childhood imaginary friend, who is desperate to reconnect with her. He tells them they can get to Headquarters by riding the "Train of Thought." After exploring different areas of Riley's mind, the three eventually catch the train, but it derails when another personality island falls.

As Riley prepares to board a bus bound for Minnesota, Joy attempts to use a "recall tube" to return to Headquarters, but the last personality island falls and breaks the tube, sending Joy into the Memory Dump along with Bing Bong. While despairingly looking through old memories, Joy discovers a sad memory in Riley's life that becomes happy when her parents and friends come to comfort her over losing a hockey game, causing Joy to realize Sadness's true importance: alerting others when Riley needs help.

As we watch the movie, we viewers also realize Sadness’s importance. We might sense the way that we fight against sadness, or how we put on a brave face, but the movie reminds us of the importance of a good cry. Through the eyes and mind of an eleven-year-old girl, we learn something about ourselves, no matter our age.

My colleague, Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, noticed something interesting about how each emotion is depicted. He writes:

            Fear is tall, thin, looks like a frayed nerve and is purple. Not only that, his eyes are purple, too. Anger, which looks like a brick and is red (and sometimes flaming), has red eyes. Disgust, who is green, has green eyes. Sadness, not surprisingly, is completely blue, and even looks like a teardrop.            But Joy, who is mainly yellow, has more than one color in her. She has blue eyes and blue hair. Why?            Well, if blue represents sadness, then the message is clear: there is no such thing as “pure joy.” Instead, even in our most joyous times, there is often sadness mixed in.[3]

Pete Docter, the film’s director and co-writer, explains that he always felt awkwardness and shyness during his childhood. He says that this led to his gravitation toward animation, as it allowed him to draw something that expressed how he felt, rather than having to say it out loud. A New York Times profile of Docter explains,
            “That was the most difficult time of my life,” he said. “Suddenly, bam, your idyllic boyhood bubble is popped, and you’re aware that everything you do and everything you wear and everything you say is being judged by everyone else.”

            Flash forward to late 2009, when Mr. Docter noticed his pre-teenage daughter, Elie, experiencing a similar transition. “She started getting more quiet and reserved, and that, frankly, triggered a lot of my own insecurities and fears,” he said. “And it also made me wonder what was going on. What happens in our heads during these moments?”

            Mr. Docter and his “Inside Out” team started to research how the mind operates.They spent time with the psychologist Paul Ekman, who is renowned for his research on emotions, and Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.[4]

Dr. Ekman, in his work, identified six distinct emotions. Pete Docter felt that sounded like a nice, manageable number of characters to design and write for. Dr. Ekman identified anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy and surprise. Docter decided that Surprise and fear were fairly similar, so he cut it down to the movie’s five. [5]

            Initial drafts of the movie had Joy and Fear getting lost together. “It seemed like the funniest choice,” Docter said.

            But as work progressed, the pairing felt wrong. Mr. Docter said he went for a walk one Sunday and began catastrophizing: His firing was imminent. He knew it. While on his stroll, Mr. Docter started to think about his friends at Pixar and what he would miss about them. “I love them,” he said. “They make me happy. But these are people I have also been angry at. I’ve gone through sadness with these people, especially when we lost Steve [Jobs (who had been a founding supporter of Pixar)].”

He continued: “At that moment, I realized that Sadness was the key. We were trying to push her to the side. But she needed to be the one going on the journey. Joy needed to understand that it’s O.K. for Sadness to be included at the controls once in a while. It’s only the interaction and complexity of all of these emotions that brings a real  connection between people.” [6]

In an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross, Pete Docter discussed what he learned from Dacher Keltner. Keltner wrote about sadness as a form of community bonding. If you're sad, it's a way of connecting with other people and a lot of times, we sort of feel embarrassed about being sad and we go off by ourselves to hide and cry by ourselves, but really it's a way of re-establishing relationship.”[7]

Keltner is emphatic that emotions serve a key evolutionary function; having them tussling inside our heads might not be reassuring, but they are nonetheless there to protect us. “In our culture, we’re tough on sadness,” he says, “but it’s a powerful trigger for seeking comfort and bonding,” while “anger is often about the sense of being treated unfairly, and can be a motivator for social change.”[8]

Keltner explains that we know scientifically that a girl Riley's age is going to lose a lot of joy. They're going to feel sad, and they're going to really lose a sense of self confidence; they have this drop in self-esteem. Parents, when they see it, are absolutely shell shocked. And then sometimes people are saying, "Maybe you should put her on medication." But  what the film says is this is just part of growing and it's OK. I feel that is the most important message in the movie.

"One of the things I really resonated with is that we have a naive view in the West that happiness is all about the positive stuff. But happiness in a meaningful life is really about    the full array of emotions, and finding them in the right place. I think that is a subtext of  the movie: The parents want Riley to just be their happy little girl. And she can't. She has to have this full complement of emotions to develop. I think we all need to remember that."[9]

Even our most joyous events have sadness mixed in. Think back now to the moment of breaking a glass at a Jewish wedding. Why do we do that? What does it represent? There are a number of interpretations, and each carries with it an aspect of sadness.
The most common explanation for why we break the glass commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Two Temples stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The first was destroyed in 586 BCE, and the second was destroyed in 70 CE. With this second destruction, Judaism was thrown into chaos. Our entire religious practice was centered around sacrifices offered at this one location. We’d bring grain, fruits, oils, and animals, and this was the way in which we communicated with God. What would we do without the Temple? Judaism survived in a few ways – we created synagogues, which allowed us to worship in other locations outside of Jerusalem, we invented rabbis as the new leaders to replace the priests who ran the sacrificial rituals, and we formalized prayer as the new method of communication with God.

Jews, now in exile from Jerusalem, adapted and coped with these changes. As a Reform Jew, I take comfort in the fact that Judaism is thriving in the Diaspora, and that the past two thousand years have enabled incredible creativity and growth within Judaism. Yet Orthodox and other traditional forms of Judaism still mourn the destruction of the Temple, and they feel an innate brokenness in their daily lives due to its loss.

A moving description of this grief is found on the Chabad website:

The Temple was not merely a building; it was the meeting place of heaven and earth, the ideal and the real, G‑d and creation. When the Temple was lost, so was the open   relationship between G‑d and the world. Our souls were ripped away from our Soulmate. One day soon, when the Temple is rebuilt, our souls will reunite with G‑d, our Soulmate, in a true relationship that we built together. We will no longer mourn the destruction, but looking back we will finally understand its purpose, and we will  celebrate.[10]

Even in our greatest moments of joys – celebrating a wedding – we remember brokenness in our lives, in our past, and in our world. Our tradition groups these two feelings together rather than running away from sadness or sorrow.

Likewise, we also include moments of happiness in our saddest times. As Rabbi Mitelman points out:

Think about how you feel after a good cry. When you cry, your body is releasing endorphins, chemicals that often make you feel good. And that’s why a funeral and a shiva minyan — some of the saddest moments we can experience — are often filled laughter and love. Friends and family members are sharing stories of their loved one, and so are bringing a little bit of joy into these moments that seem so low.

            In other words, Inside Out shows us that the goal of life isn’t “to be happy.” We will feel sad, angry or frightened. But we need our whole range of emotions for developing our sense of self and our relationship with others.

            So in many ways, the fact that Joy has some Sadness in her helps her character become more fully human. If even the representation of Joy can be sad at times, so can we. And if we strive to be “happy” all the time, then we aren’t truly living our lives.

            Ultimately, as psychologist Steven Hayes once said, we shouldn’t skirt over difficult emotions in order to “feel better.”

            Instead, we need to fully experience our lives, and learn how to “feel better.” [11]

I was incredibly moved by Mayim Bialik’s response to the movie. She writes frequent articles for, a Jewish parenting website. She, like many of us, wept when she saw the movie.
She points out:
            We can have more than one feeling at a time. As a child, I don’t know that that option was open to me. I didn’t understand conflicted feelings; it just felt wrong to have them. I thought I was bad if I felt jealousy or anxiety, and the solution was to try to not feel those things. When I could not achieve that, I felt like a failure. Conversely, I often felt melancholy at happy times and that made me feel like I was malcontent or didn’t “know how” to be happy. I’m not quite sure where those ideas came from, but they are hard to shake.She continues:          
            I took my almost 7 and almost 10-year-old sons to this movie because I don’t want them to feel that they have to feel only one thing. Their dad and I got divorced about three years ago. They had to move into a new house to live with their dad half the week and stay with me half the week. There were so many emotions for them then, and there are even more now. Our house is under construction, I work a lot…it’s always something.
            Even if you aren’t divorced, think about your life and your dreams and the life you try and build for your kids and take them to see this movie. “Inside Out” started so many conversations for our family. We talked about how each of the characters in her brain could run her life into the ground without all of the others—even Joy needs to be tempered with the other emotions. We talked about the kinds of memories we make, and how to hold onto them and understand them in their entirety. We talked about how looking at things only one way isn’t the whole story. But mostly we talked about how it’s OK to have all kinds of feelings.[12]

This Rosh Hashanah, as we enter a new year, I am here to remind you that it is OK to have all kinds of feelings. We can feel happy and sad at the same time, we can be nostalgic and proud, we can be angry and excited. We can feel broken yet grateful to be alive. I just wonder what we'd accomplish or experience if we took all that energy that we use to push away sadness, and instead used it elsewhere. If we just feel the sadness that life brings, would we return to joy faster? And doesn't the sadness or the bitterness just make the joy sweeter? Joy's eyes are blue because joy does not exist in a vacuum - we experience true happiness when we know sadness and we can appreciate the good things of life in a new way.

Note that we use the words, "Shanah Tovah," when we greet each other on the new year. We wish each other a Good Year, not a Shanah Smeichah - not a happy year. Though we might wish each other a Happy New Year on January 1, on the first of Tishrei, we wish each other goodness. I feel that this recognizes the complicated feelings that are part of the human experience, and that we hope that it all turns out okay in the new year.

May we embrace the complexities of life in a new way. May we allow ourselves to feel our feelings, to sit in the discomfort, to cry when we need to. And may we be blessed with a good, healthy, and sweet new year.
Shanah Tovah u'Metukah.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

On Leadership: Lessons from Charleston, SCOTUS, and Chukat

Friends, I wanted to share the words I delivered during Temple B'nai Torah's Erev Shabbat service last night. I spoke these words with regard to our annual installation of all new boards (Board of Trustees, Sisterhood, Brotherhood, Chai Club, Circle of Friends, PTA, and BNTY). Installation coincided, of course, with the tragedies of Charleston as well as the victories of the #SCOTUS ruling. Please enjoy.


This past week has generated a roller coaster of emotions for so many of us. We wept with grief and horror following the murder of 9 Bible-studying members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. We condemned the act of terror and hatred that ended their lives too soon, while pondering issues of race, bigotry, violence, and guns. We wondered how a man like Dylan Roof comes to be - how is his hatred allowed to fester, grow, and evolve to such a place that he would walk into a church and callously take lives? His action was founded in fear, intolerance, and, frankly, pure evil.
Many of us wept again today - but these were tears of pride, relief, and happiness. We celebrate as our Supreme Court bravely allowed same-sex marriage to become the law of the entire nation. We can now breathe easier, knowing that our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends and family members are now one enormous step closer to equal rights. GLBT rights are one of the most pressing issues of our time, and, soon, we won't have to refer to same-sex marriage. Rather, it will just be marriage. We are alive at a time of change, where we can be witness to a decision founded in love, inclusion, and, frankly, pure goodness.
In Parashat Chukat, we witness the transition of power from one generation of leaders to the next. We are towards the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert. Miriam the prophetess dies, and, simultaneously, the Israelites find themselves without water. They are scared, they are thirsty, and many of them long to go back to Egypt, where, forgetting they were slaves, they only remember that they had plenty of water to drink and food to eat.
God tells Moses to lift up Aaron's rod in front of all of the people, and to speak to a large rock, commanding it to bring forth water. Simple - lift rod, command rock. Yet, in the moment of action, Moses instead hits the rock twice, demanding that it bring forth water. Water does indeed flow forth. But this action, founded in fear, greatly disappoints God. God tells Moses that his public act of disobedience and lack of faith will result in his death. He will not be allowed to enter Israel with the rest of the Israelites, and he will instead die in the wilderness.
Moses and Aaron's roles as our leaders are retired, and the new leaders are selected in this week's text. Joshua takes the mantel from Moses, and Eleazar from Aaron. These new leaders are the ones who will enable the Israelites to continue their development into the civilization, culture, and people that we will one day become. Moses and Aaron will never see their people truly live in freedom and security in the promised land.
Tonight, we mark the transition from one group of leaders to the next. Our tenures always end before we have a chance to complete all the work, or to see all our ideas through to fruition. Yet we carry on, we dream, we visualize a future that is fruitful, dynamic, and holy.
In light of this past week's roller coaster, I ask you an important question - what kind of leader will you be? Will you make decisions that are brave, that are forward-looking, that are based in righteousness, Jewish values, and goodness? Or will you default to ideas based in fear, assumptions, or the mistakes of the past? Will you have faith to get through the hard times? Or will you strike the rock publicly, and reveal a lack of groundedness or trust? Will you have the heart to be self-reflective and self-aware as a leader, or will you charge forth without thought for others and their feelings?
You all have the power to lead Temple B'nai Torah into the next chapter of our lives. We have been in existence, lest we forget, for only seven years. You will help us as we enter our eighth year of life. I encourage you to be courageous, to be a mensch, to be kind, to be strong. Don't be afraid to defend what you believe in, and to be confident in your choices to make this community the best that it can be. Your participation is a holy act, please don't ever forget it. It has an impact on all of the people around you: your partners and spouses, your families, your friends. They see that you have taken upon yourself a leadership role in a religious organization. This is a role to be taken seriously, with respect, and with honor.

After the events of the past days, I hope we will one day look back on your leadership with pride. Make us proud, do right by us, and help us on our journey toward the future of Temple B'nai Torah. 

Ken Y'hi Ratzon - May this be God's will. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What happens when a rabbi gets sick?

When a Rabbi Gets Sick

My latest from The Jewish Week. Battling illness as a full-time, solo rabbi.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Why I Officate at Interfaith Weddings

Why - and How - I Officiate

My latest from the Jewish Week. Why do I, as a Reform rabbi, officiate at certain interfaith wedding ceremonies? Read to find out!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

How does being a Trekkie inform my rabbinate?

Go (Boldly) to Shul, Urges a Trekkie!

My husband and I attend the Star Trek Convention, and I learn lessons about synagogue life that I didn't expect. Read on to learn more!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Taking an Accouting of the Soul, for the New Gregorian Year

A Reform Jew's Gregorian Cheshbon HaNefesh

What kinds of meaningful promises can we make as it becomes 2014? What would you like to change?