Thursday, October 17, 2019

Day 2 at the Border: Seeking Sources of Hope

Day 2 at the Border: Seeking Sources of Hope

After an emotional first day at the border, our group found strength to face another day of heartache, holding the stories of the people we would encounter, seeking a shred of hope we could to hold onto and share.

After some breakfast tacos - a must when in Texas - we came back to Matamoros.
Clergy and leaders + breakfast tacos = future regret ... but delicious in the moment!

We found some of the people we had come across in the previous day to deliver some supplies that were requested and generously provided by members of our delegation and those who generously supported us back home (more on this later).

Among those was N, whose story touched many on our first day, who was robbed her first night having to live out on the streets of Matamoros, not knowing where would be safe for her to go. Rep Mayfield sought her out to give her a tent and a backpack full of clothing.

We found a families in need of diapers, and we met a new family from Nicaragua, a father and daughter, who were fleeing because the child was nearly abducted to be trafficked - we were told that there was already a buyer for the daughter. They didn't have a tent to sleep in, and so we figured out a way to get one to them, thanks to some amazing on-the-ground volunteers.

Now, before I share stories of hope and inspiration, I feel the need to share a caveat: it is human nature to want to find the good and make any intolerable situation better in our minds and hearts. The risk in doing so is that we can allow ourselves to become complacent in paying attention to the cries of those around us and taking the action that we might otherwise be compelled to take. So, let me say this: these amazing, heroic stories are not solving the humanitarian crisis we witnessed here - but they are keeping people alive. Please, do not let these stories pacify your hearts, let them restore some faith in humanity and what is possible to change ONLY if we keep caring with all our hearts.

1) So, we were able to help the family from Nicaragua because we ran into Brendon and Gabby, two warriors of action in a place that nobody knows what actions to take.

1a) Gabby, who had a baby three weeks ago, but felt she couldn't abandon the people she is helping, came across to update the center she is opening in a few weeks to provide all sorts of assistance to the people living at the border. She is rehabbing an abandoned orthodontics shop to open a center for supply distribution, medical attention, legal aid and job training. Gabby is a person who sees a need and doesn't wait for others to figure it out, she gets it done.
Three days before her baby was born, she created a shower area with platforms and pop-up tents, ways of getting clean water in buckets so people don't have to bathe in the river anymore. She said the urgency to create the shower area came from 2 stories: when a decapitated body floated by people bathing in the river and when a child got swept up in the river and survived, but scared everyone who heard about it.

Gabby showed us showers that had been put up that some people were using, but because it was in a low area, the water would pool up in the area and it smelled terrible and went back to bathing in the river. Instead, she found pop-up shower tents, got some funding for them and an ongoing supply of water, and she trained a young man from Honduras, M, living in the asylum camp to run the showers. He hired three others, and she pays them to put the showers up and down three days a week. As they are working towards installing a water filtration system so they can use water from the river, they are training M to use the system, and wherever he ends up, M will leave this liminal place with new skills that might help him wherever he ends up.  Knowing someone like Gabby is here gives me hope that conditions will improve ever-so-slightly. She said, as someone who was once homeless, she could understand what people really needed, and she seems to be a whiz at getting grants to support her work. We need more Gabbys in this world!

2) Tucker, Sergio and Team Brownsville -

Brendon Tucker is an incredible young man who would be totally embarrassed to see any of this (if you're reading it, Brendon, I apologize if this is how you feel, but please read on, and you'll know why I needed to share your story, too). He has jumped in whole-heartedly to dedicate his life for the time being to keeping people alive down here. Constantly quoting Dr. King, Rev William Barber III, and other leaders who have fought or are fighting for the civil and human rights of those who are most vulnerable. He left his work with the poor people's campaign to be present here. He believes in being in the background and doing grunt work, but it was awe-inspiring, watching him run around interacting with people, seeking people put with his list of items, medicines, etc that individuals needed. But without phones, it can be hard to track people down. Yet, he managed to find all but one person today. He shared with us the fact that many people send supplies, but if they have to transport a truckload of goods over the border, they have to pay hundreds of dollars in tarifs/taxes that is not in the budget.... instead, he told me he'd put together a list of items that we could order to the Walmart in Matamoros,  and he'd pick them up to distribute.
He wants to change this so desperately, systematically. But he knows that if people like him are not on the ground, every day, people will not survive. And he stopped his searching to help us procure the tent from his supply stash. We promised to send him another tent to replace that one (and probably a few more, as well). Knowing Tucker is there, leading with his heart, gives me hope that there is someone watching out for people over here. As he said, if more 20-somethings want to come out here and live out of their cars while helping people, it would be good for them.

He's helping Gabby with her work and he also has helped Sergio coordinate Team Brownsville, a group that started over a year ago and has fed the migrant camp twice a day each and every day. What started as a few pots of food on Brendan's stove each day has ballooned into cooking for 1000. They have coordinated volunteers coming from all over the country, days at a time, to come and help cook and feed all of the people in need. for more info about the AMAZING work they are doing.

A train of cars led by volunteers from Team Brownsville leaving the bus station to cross the border and feed 1000+ people.

3) Generosity from back home:
I learned that in the two day period from when we sent a congregational email about this trip to the time I arrived at Brownsville to pick up some supplies before crossing the border, over 50 families/individuals mostly from Or Shalom contributed to raising over $3,000 towards aid for human beings at the border. Thank you,  thank you for caring, for doing something, and for bolstering me in knowing I have not been alone in witnessing all that I've seen here.

4) These incredible leaders I traveled with... the other faith leaders, the folks from PASO, Mano-a-Mano - it had been amazing to see people putting faith into action, walking with empathy and pathos. It seems like we are all in shock, if I had to name the group dynamic. We have been broken, but not in a defeated kind of a way, broken from what we had been, so that there is room in each of us to care more and strive more and differently than we may have in the past.

We ended our time in Matamoros with a small interfaith prayer.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Day 1 at the Border - To Be Heard and Seen

Day 1 at the Border - To Be Heard and Seen:

After arriving in Brownsville and getting oriented to what has been going on over the last few weeks down here and the growing size of the camp of people seeking asylum in the US, we crossed the Rio Grande (which was a lot less grande than I was expecting) via a bridge.

As soon as you get through the checkpoint, you can see the tents lined up all over.
(None of these tents were here weeks ago ... this whole section popped up since.)

Our delegation split up into 8 groups of 3, each with at least one Spanish speaker, to be able to interact with some of the people living at the border. I was grouped with two Illinois state representatives who also joined our trip to see with their own eyes what is happening at the border, state reps Lisa Hernandez and Rita Mayfield.
#selfiewiththerabbi #selfiewiththerepresentatives

As we entered, I was struck by how many children were around. So many children! More on this below...

We first met A, a former businessman who fled Guatamala after being beaten by police for being gay.
When he attempted to report those police, he was then nearly abducted and instead fled. He has come to the border, where he first was kept in a very crowded facility in the US for almost 2 months. He said they went 6 days at one point without being able to shower or even brush their teeth. Then, 5 weeks ago, they brought him back to Mexico to await his asylum hearing, which still won't be until the end of this month. We learned that they were all given temporary work permits to work in Mexico - he is working most days in Matamoros, but it can be hard to find work for many, and as migrants, they are being underpaid, since most employers know how vulnerable they are. On top of it all, he is paying $75 a week for protection until his asylum date, living in one of the tents ... he appreciated my attempted prayer in Spanish with him and especially the card from our Or Shalom families. He cried with us, especially when Lisa Hernandez told him that she would share his story with congresspeople in Illinois.

As we listened to others, A stayed with us throughout the afternoon, mainly because he doesn't have anyone in the camp. At one point, a young man came up to me and asked me what we were doing. I tried to tell him, and bumbled a Spanish answer, and he started telling me his story - that his wife is in the US legally, but he can't get in, and he doesn't know how to make that happen. They are scared for her to leave for fear she won't be let back in....At least I think that's what he was telling me, my Spanish is rusty but has been coming back l'at l'at ... d'oh that was Hebrew for slowly, not Spanish - now you know what has been going on in my cabeza, uh, my rosh, I mean my head.

Jokes aside, I looked up from that conversation, a young man who was all too ready to just share his story and be heard; the others who were talking deeply and intensely with members of our delegation; it hit me that every single person here had a big, deep, intense story. Every tent was filled with stories of people who were afraid for their lives, so much so that they uprooted from everything they knew with the hope of finding protection, somewhere!
Which led to one of the most poignant moments for me - after all this time sharing stories, hearing of the months of journeying to get to the border only to now be waiting for their court dates, we saw a line of people coming from the border, carrying packets in blue folders. We were told that those were the asylum seekers of the day who were all freshly processed and returned to the port from which they came (Matamoros). I saw their faces, in addition to being cleaner than most of the faces around the camp, they had this excitement and hopefulness. Their swagger in their strides shouted to me, "Yeah, we made it, we're almost there!!" And my heart sunk, because I know the reality of the months of living in tents, sleeping on the ground in increasingly dirty conditions, bathing and washing those fresh clothes in the Rio Grande. I could see the temporary court tents that will house the asylum hearings, as we've been told by lawyers on the ground here, mostly via tele-conference with a judge. Very, very few will be granted the protection they seek. Instead, most will leave that courtroom being placed on a plane that will send them to the very country they were afraid to live in. (Sorry, no pictures of this, just the mental shot of a young man, 19-or-so, with sunglasses and a blue hat with a brightly striped shirt, holding up his papers in his hand up high, almost dancing to some triumphant music playing in his head to declare the largesse of this moment for him).

The other poignancy came from watching the kids. On one hand, it reminded me of volunteer work I did in El Salvador, where we saw so many kids who were living in what we might consider squalor, but they were happy. That's the job of a kid, to use imagination and play, no matter what is going on around you. 
I saw an adorable little girl hugging what seemed like a brand new cow doll, just the way my nearly four year old does when she gets a new stuffed animal.

We learned that when people are given their court dates and then sent back to Mexico, they are given work permits to work in Mexico, and there are many who are doing so, but how can a person go to work and leave kids behind in the streets in a camp of tents where you don't know the people around you, new people every day?!  Yet, what choice do they have?

Which drew my attention to another two kids. I watched a young child taking care of his even younger brother - really looking
after him and paying attention to him as a parent would with tenderness and patience, even pausing in the shade for his brother's comfort and to give him water and play with him a bit before continuing their walk. Every little but, he'd stop to pick the little toy his brother was holding, each time bringing a huge smile to the little child's face. This kid had more patience for his little brother than I have had for my own children at times of stress and anxiety and difficulty. Later on, I saw what I'm pretty sure was that toy, left behind along the trail of tents, but I couldn't find any sign of the two kids ...

Heading to the Border

Heading to the Border:

The team of clergy are starting to gather at the airport to head down to Texas this morning.

Thank you to all the generous people who donated money, prayers and even helped make cards during the Sukkot event at Or Shalom!

PS: I learned that 2:45AM is definitely the time to drive to the city to avoid traffic

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Being Human, Seeing Humans, Helping Others Feel Human

During Yom Kippur, I offered a sermon about being human this year, challenging us to:

1) See others as human at all times
2) Be human at all times
3) Inspire others to see themselves and those around as human

As I mentioned in the sermon, next week, I've been given an opportunity to attempt part 3 of this challenge by accepting an invitation to go to the border with an interfaith group of clergy from the Chicagoland area to help provide spiritual aid and physical supplies for the human beings stuck in limbo as they seek protection from whence they fled. We will be meeting with individuals and families and we will also be purchasing tents and other supplies for those living on the streets next to the border in vulnerable conditions. Our upcoming holiday of sukkot emphasizes welcoming others and providing for their needs.

Details: We'll be going to the border crossing in Brownsville, TX and the town on the other side of the Rio Grande, Matamoros, where many of the individuals awaiting their trials for entry to the US are living. Our clergy group is traveling with the group PASO - the West-Suburban Action Project - who has developed relationships with local charities in Brownsville who are attempting to address the needs of the hundreds of people living in the streets along the border in Mexico. We will be purchasing tents, sleeping bags and other living supplies to distribute to the people in need.

Background: As part of the Migrant Protection Protocols, the United States policy has shifted in dealing with individuals and families who come to our country seeking asylum. Whereas in the past, people were taken in and allowed to be signed-into someone's custody or in a facility in the US while awaiting their hearings, the current protocols push those people back across their port of entry to await the day of their hearings for asylum. This means people who have fled violence and persecution are expected to wait in Mexico, where there have been little-t0-no resources to provide for their needs. We have been informed that the area we are going, there are about 600 people living in a swath of concrete the size of two basketball courts with no bathrooms, running water, etc. 

To Follow This Trip: I'll likely be posting updates about the trip on my social media - as possible during the days of my travel. Each evening, I hope to post a reflection on the day on this blog. Feel free to friend me to keep up with the trip.  

If You Wish To Help: If you want to help me support the human beings at the border, you can make a donation to Rabbi's Discretionary Fund at Or Shalom - please put in the note "Aid for Human Beings at the Border" and we'll make sure that your donation goes to getting supplies during my trip or supplies for the local charities who are supporting the ongoing efforts to sustain the individuals temporarily living along the border. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Yom Kippur - the Lucky Day

Here is my 5778 Yom Kippur morning sermon given at Congregation Or Shalom. I hope you enjoy it, and that it brings you mazal tov!

A Lucky Day
My younger brother, Brian, is a lucky guy. Seriously, growing up, whenever we played a game that involved pure luck, he would win. When he was in 5th grade, he got chosen to fly to Seattle to meet with Bill Gates.
Now that he’s an adult, it seemed as though his luck had caught up with him. A few years ago, he started a new advertising business. Not too long after opening, his computer was hacked, and all of his data was held ransom by an anonymous malicious source. They extorted him for $750, making him pay in bitcoins. Not knowing how he would be able to keep his clients as he was just starting, Brian chose to give in to the demands, and paid the $750 in bitcoin. Now, I don’t know if any of you know much about bitcoins and how they work, I do not. But apparently, when you purchase them from currency, you can only buy them in whole amounts. At the time, one bitcoin cost about $500. So, my brother had to buy two bitcoins, and then he paid spent 1 ½ bitcoins, and was back up and running. My brother learned from this moment that seemed for once not to be filled with luck. He invested in stronger security for his computer and eventually his server, and, mentally, he chose to just wash the feelings of being taken advantage from his memory, focusing on building and growing his company, which he has done nicely.
A few months ago, Brian came across an article about bitcoins, and he remembered that he still had the ½ bitcoin from the time of his incident with hackers. Anyone know how much a half a bitcoin is now worth?  Over $2,000. My brother is the only person I know who can get hacked and extorted for $750 and still turn a profit of over 200%!
I asked my brother for permission to share his incredulous story with you today, because I wanted to talk about luck. In many ways, this day of Yom Kippur involves luck. In Hebrew, one of the words for luck is mazal.  We use the expression Mazal Tov, which literally means, “good luck” or “good fate.”  And this is a part of what we are asking for on this day – we want more Mazal Tov in our lives, rather than Mazal Ra (Bad luck).
Our Hebrew expression for “good luck” actually stems from the ancient arts of astrology, as mazal most literally means, “star or planet,”[1] In Judaism, we see many differing accounts as to whether or not to put our trust in mazal. You may be surprised to learn that many of our Jewish sages believed in the power of the stars to influence individual lives. Yet, as Francine Klagsbrun points out, “they managed to incorporate popular beliefs about astrology into an overall Jewish view of the world, maintaining that the stars and constellations, like everything else in the universe, are subject to the will of God.”[2] As such, we can play a role in shaping our fate, if we can find a way to influence God.
Well, in our U’netanetokef prayer, we declare that it is on this day that much of our fate will be determined – who will live and die, who will gain and who will lose, who will succeed and who will resemble the Bears.  But we also see that in the end, we can lessen the harshness of today’s decree through tefillah, teshuvah, and tzedakah.  Through our prayers, our serious reflection, our return to our true selves, and our commitment to helping others, we can play a role in determining our own luck, our fate.
     There is a Talmudic expression that broadens this perspective on our ability to change our luck – m’shaneh makom, m’shaneh mazal. If we change our place, we change our luck.[3]  We can take this maxim literally, if we want – after all, changing one’s physical location will certainly bring about a different fate.  However, many rabbis interpret this phrase metaphorically – we have to make our places, our routines, our normal actions different if our luck is going to change.
     So, if changing our routines can grant us better luck, what else can help? Well, there are a number of researchers who have spent time actually analyzing people who consider themselves lucky, trying to figure out what makes a person able to change one’s mazal.     
Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, is one of these luck-theorists. In his book, The Luck Factor, he formulates a few main conclusions on what it takes to be lucky.  He says that lucky people tend to build a “network of luck.” By this, he means that those who are best at creating mazal tov tend to talk with a lot of people and hold extensive, diverse social networks.
The more people we know, and especially the more diverse our group of friends may be, the more opportunities we find are brought our way.  For example, if you have 30 friends who all know one another, and you are looking for a job, you’re going to hear about the same job from 30 different people.  If instead, you have 20 good friends, but each one runs in very different crowds, you’re more likely to hear of 20 different opportunities.  This is one of the advantages of being in a community like ours - we have people here at Or Shalom from all over the northwest suburbs. I’ve seen people here changing one anothers’ luck by bringing opportunities to one another.
Another luck researcher, Max Gunther, points out that we don’t even need to make friends to strengthen our network of luck – even just starting conversations with people around us, at the check-out line, in the airport, at the gym or at an oneg . . . all create more exposure to opportunities.
The people in our lives bring us possibilities to change our makom – probably more often than we notice.  But noticing and running with opportunity is just as critical as having a great chance brought to us in the first place.   Why can I say this? Because Professor Wiseman measured it. He conducted an experiment to test out just how much of one’s luckiness has to do with personality. He “gave people who describe themselves as lucky and those who describe themselves as unlucky, a newspaper,” and asked them to count how many pictures were inside. The results: On average, unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs whereas the lucky people took just a few seconds.
Why? Because on the second page of the newspaper, in large print that took up half the page, it was written: “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” Weisman’s data showed that the unlucky people tended to miss this message while the lucky people tended to spot it.[4]  To change our luck for the better, we have to be clear-headed enough to be on the lookout for opportunities.  We cannot allow ourselves to get so caught up in what we are doing that we block out lucky, fateful moments that are staring us in the face.  Yet another great reason that Shabbat can be important, so that I can not only work in a shameless plug for joining us on our Friday night gatherings throughout the year, but it also to offers us that clear-headed space, that openness, we need in order to notice the world around us differently.
We have seen that lucky people tend to work hard to build a network of luck based on diverse relationships and pay attention to one’s surroundings.  But just as importantly, Professor Wiseman’s research has shown that lucky people tend to be optimistic about their world – they are Monty Python fans, they Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. He asked a number of individuals, “Imagine yourself at a bank when robbers come in, firing a shot, and it hits you in the arm.  Is this lucky or unlucky?”  <Pause – let people think> Overwhelmingly, what do you think happened? Lucky people said it was lucky – I could have been killed, but the arm isn’t so bad. Wiseman to concluded that “Lucky people tend to imagine spontaneously how the bad luck they encounter could have been worse and, in doing so, they feel much better about themselves and their lives. This, in turn, helps keep their expectations about the future high, and, increases the likelihood of them continuing to live a lucky life.”[5]  Similar to the story of my brother, Brian, who learned from his early exposure and was grateful that his lack of cyber security only cost him $750 and no clients. Rather than allow life to define a moment as unlucky, perhaps what keeps lucky people lucky is their ability to re-define what good luck really is!
Many of us do this all the time – Have you ever played the “it could be worse” game?  “Well, I broke my foot, but it could be worse – I could have broken both feet!” Believe it or not, this is a central attribute of Jewish thought. We are the people who have for centuries striven to make blessings out of curses.  That is the story of earlier, of our Mah Tovu prayer. ohalecha ya’akov, mishkenotecha, Yisrael.  How good are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel? We could have thrown this beautiful prayer away because of its source and original intent, but instead of choosing to respond to a curse with destruction, we made it into a lucky moment – A moment where not only weren’t we cursed, but we found a beautiful prayer and have created stirring melodies to go with it. We are a people who search for opportunity and truth wherever it is available, creating our own narrative of luck.
On this day of Yom Kippur, we recognize that there is only so much that we can do to influence luck.  Remember what our rabbinic sages have taught, mazal is subject to the will of God, but the will of God is not the same as the will of humans.  There are issues we cannot control, much bigger than ourselves.   
Right now, in our world, we know that it can seem as though we are living in unlucky times – the terrible condition of what is happening in Puerto Rico, the terrible earthquake in Mexico, the ethnic cleansing that is happening in Myanmar.  But then, you hear stories of people who are helping one another, and we find hope . . . and luck.
If we want this to be a lucky year, we can do our part by connecting with one another, remaining open to opportunities around us, and creating chances for luckier days.  We can take Shabbat into our hearts, clearing our minds so we can notice our surroundings better.  We can stand up for what we believe and work to change our makomot – our homes, our communities, our city, so that our luck can change. And while we may not be able to influence all that fate throws our way this year, we can control how we respond and how we interpret.  The mazal happens . . . We add the tov.
Will this sermon help you to win the lottery?  Hopefully – and if it does, please remember to support Or Shalom, the place where your luck turned around!  But if you don’t, may you do the hard work that helps you to find Mazal Tov in all aspects of your life, so that you feel as though you’ve won the lottery every day.

[1] Francine Klagsbrun. Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. Jonathan David: Middle Village, NY, 1980. p. 284
[2] Francine Klagsbrun. Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living. Jonathan David: Middle Village, NY, 1980. p. 284
[3] Teaching based on BT Rosh Hashanah 16B, found in R. Alcalay. Words of the Wise. Massada: Israel, 1970. p. 299
[4] Richard Wiseman. “The Luck Factor.” In SKEPTICAL INQUIRER: The Magazine For Science And Reason, Volume 27, No.3 ~ May/June 2003

[5] Richard Wiseman. “The Luck Factor.” In SKEPTICAL INQUIRER:The Magazine For Science And Reason, Volume 27, No.3 ~ May/June 2003

Eating Breakfast and Creating Legacy

Below is my Kol Nidre sermon from 5778. I hope you find it moving and relevant.

Eating Breakfast and Creating Legacy

I recently came across a charming new documentary narrated by and starring 95 year old comedian, Carl Reiner. It’s an uplifting film focusing on life beyond 90 years old with a wonderful array of senior comedians and artists, many of whom are Jewish, reflecting on the sources of their vitality, and revealing how they are still creating and adding to the world.
In the opening scene, Carl Reiner describes his daily routine. We see Mr. Reiner pick up the newspaper and bring it inside. As he opens the paper at the breakfast table, you hear him say, “Every morning, I pick up my newspaper, get the obituaries section, and see if I’m listed. If I’m not, I have my breakfast.”1 … a very Carl Reiner thing to say, in fact, it serves as the title of the film: “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.”  
As we learn this intimate detail of his life, though, the film then shows him shaking the newspaper, in shock. the camera pans to show us what he is seeing …and there in the paper is his face. He puts his hands up to his head in horror, before giving a little chuckle as he says, “There was a picture of me . . . alongside Polly Bergen who had passed away … I had not … I don’t think.”  He then calmly assesses the scene by mentioning, “they obviously didn’t have a good picture of her alone. But I wish they had not picked a picture that scared the <expletive removed> out of me.”2  
It’s a funny opening, the kind of absurdity that we might expect from the comedic genius who once interviewed the 2000 year old man, played by his comedy partner, Mel Brooks (who also appears in the documentary). The two have created a legacy of bringing laughter to us, even while portraying situations that involve difficult social commentary. And here they are at 90+, still making us laugh and think at the same time. Let’s examine this gag for a second, in earnest, though: Can you imagine? Opening the obit section and seeing a picture of yourself? The shock and the existential crisis of being confronted so directly with your end... What kind of questions come to mind? ... What would we see if we read on? How would it feel, imagining yourself as being here no more?
Well, this is a part of what we do today, on Yom Kippur - we are supposed to be shocked into looking at the end. Part of our process of purification and preparation for this new year involves measuring our days, and seeing if they measure up.
Our liturgy attempts to create such confrontation - “Who shall live and who shall die.” I mean, this is bold language! And whether or not we believe in the mystical significance of this day to determine our fates for the year, if we are going to say these words with intention, they must raise the question in our hearts, what if this is my year? My only year? … What do I want to make of it? What will I be leaving to the world? What is my legacy?
I know, I know, it’s a morbid and uncomfortable topic. But remember, we’re not fasting for comfort, either. Yom Kippur is not intended to be a comfortable day. For some of us, we have barely spent a moment allowing ourselves to consider such an idea, while some of us have experienced moments that have forced us to face such thoughts, recently. Either way, this day is supposed to be a confrontation. Just pay attention to our Haftarah tomorrow, as the words of Isaiah lash out at us with challenge. Today is our last chance before jumping head-first into this New Year to think about interrupting the patterns that have held us, especially those that have held us back.
As we wrestle with such big questions on this day - what is my legacy? - It can be hard to know just where to begin. We find in the Talmud, Shabbat 31a, that one of the six questions to ponder when thinking about our mortality is to consider, above all else, whether or not we have lived with an awe of God.  The rabbinic commentary mentions that our experience of this relationship with God should help us to understand that there is much to appreciate about the world around us and its wonders. That, just as we do not control the number of days we have on this earth, we also were gifted the chance to be here, to be part of a world, a society, a community that is filled with wonders. Do we live with awe in our hearts? Such self-reflection is about the extent to which we take for granted the world in which we live. Do we see it as mundane and just there, filled with obstacles, injustices, hardships, coldness? Or do we actually appreciate in spite of life’s flaws, the amazing miracles that do surround us each moment of every day? How are we adding to this wonder? Do we not only see, but live with the potential of our world in our hearts, and do we strive to lift one another towards that vision?
Appreciation is a much stronger force than we sometimes give it credit. And in the context of this evening, if we were to truly imagine our end and see our time as limited, how much more likely would we be to appreciate the small details around us.
This perspective on yirat Shamayim - awe of God - It is very similar to what prolific American playwright Thornton Wilder mentions as the goal of his 1938 play, Our Town. In the preface to the 1957 edition, Mr. Wilder writes, “The play is an attempt to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.”3
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner echoes Wilder’s remarks, identifying the same searching as one of our goals on this day. In his book, I’m God, You’re Not, Rabbi Kushner mentions that “We come together as a community to be aware of the great mystery of life and to remind ourselves about what is truly important in our lives— before we die.”4  
He refers to the last act of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town to illustrate this. Spolier alert - if you have been dying to read the play that has only been out for just under 80 years, you may need to cover your ears for a bit <pause> Right before the play’s conclusion, a young woman, Emily Webb, dies from complications during childbirth. Upon joining the other souls in the cemetery, she feels as though it is still possible to go back to the world of the living. The others there affirm for her that it can happen, but they warn her not to go. The stage manager informs her that if she was to go back, “You not only live it, but you watch yourself living it. . . And as you watch it, you see the thing that they— down there— never know. You see the future. You know what’s going to happen afterwards.”5
Despite the warnings, Emily chooses to go back, and she picks the day of her 12th birthday to re-live. And boom, she is there on her twelfth birthday, February 11th 1899, surrounded by her family, seeing her mother for the first time in decades. As her family goes about its business, she only wants to experience them again, but she is let down by how much they are taking these moments for granted. With the awareness of the future in her heart, surrounded by so many who were no longer living, she tries to intervene and change what is happening around her. She tries to yell at her mother:
Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it— don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.6

But, her mama doesn’t look at her. She cannot change a thing. She can’t shake them into appreciating that moment, to fully taking note of one another and expressing the love that they feel for one another. Eventually, it becomes too much for her, and she begs to go back to the grave. Commenting on life, she says, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. . . I didn’t realize... all that was going on and we never noticed...Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”7
Emily Webb could not change those moments, because she was no more. But we can. We can still use the time we have this year to appreciate what we have. To show appreciation to those around us, to express our love and our gratitude, our hopes and our dreams, and not hold such important sentiment inside for some undetermined and unguaranteed moment in the future. And when we appreciate the world and the people around us, this is the starting point from which we can find the strength to bring healing and repair to our world.
In preparing for this sermon, when I came across this scene, I thought about my own children, my own family. Do I make them feel this way? I went home that day, and I sat there around bed time, just watching them, looking at them, noticing them. I think I over-noticed them, as one of them said to me, “what are you doing?” I didn’t care, I was determined I was not going to let them have an Emily Webb moment. In my own hubris, I thought to myself that my own legacy to them will be that of a father who cares, who notices, who makes sure they feel loved and special and important. . .  
Now, I recognize that we cannot live with eternity in our thoughts at all moments. It’s a fallacy to say that we should live every moment like it’s our last. We could not function this way. For one, no one would ever do dishes. . .
And sure enough just a couple days later, I found that I was already leaving this thought behind. I was at the dinner table, having come home for a few minutes between afternoon and evening meetings. And lo and behold, was I there with them? Noticing them? Appreciating them? No, I was staring at my phone, thinking about the various things I was about to encounter in my meeting. And as I looked up and saw Rachel looking at me looking at my phone, I could hear the Emily Webb narrative in my ear. Notice me. Pay attention to everything going on around you. Be a part of it while you’re here. Appreciate where you are. Be here.
Yom Kippur is here to remind us that it is never too late to change our script into stories of appreciation, of presence, of legacy - until it does become too late. This certainly is a part of what comes blazing forth in the movie about Carl Reiner and other nonagenarians. It is absolutely a part of our Yom Kippur liturgy, an essential piece of what the final shofar blast tomorrow evening represents.
As we ponder our legacy, our reflections should push us to consider others in our lives, and the impact that we have on their stories, their journeys, their spirals, as we talked about erev Rosh Hashanah.
Are we finding time TO live with appreciation and wonder? TO appreciate those around us? TO make sure they know how much we love them? TO notice the people we do not yet know, but who need us just as much? And that is why we say, “Al chet … for the times I have failed to notice and affirm life.” We awaken our hearts to the changes we can make in order to build the legacy we wish to create.
This is our time to find the resolve within ourselves to choose the legacy we want to leave on this earth. To allow the wonder of our core values, of our tradition, of God, to frame for us the ways we hope to leave this earth and those around us better for our being here. To contemplate our legacies - the legacy of morality, the legacy of hope, the legacy of justice, the legacy of equality, the legacy of truth, the legacy of community, the legacy of thinking of more than just the next five minutes, the legacy of conversation, the legacy of laughter, the legacy of curiosity, the legacy of respect, the legacy of caring, the legacy of wonder, the legacy of love, the legacy of appreciation, the legacy of peace.
Our fates are not yet written in stone. Rather, let us see that this is our year. This is our year to choose the legacy we create, whether or not we end up in an obit. I pray that each of us has many breakfasts before us well into the future. And I pray that we all channel the calories from those meals into creating meaningful acts that add to the chain of our tradition, bringing forward the blessings we ask for in our Amidah - l’dor vador nagid godlecha - from generation to generation, let us declare Your goodness. May we help those who know us to appreciate the wonder in life, and may we inspire them through our actions, through our love, through our appreciation, to see the world as a place worth building up together. Then, we need not worry about our legacy, but we can eat breakfast in peace, knowing in our heart of hearts that we have added to the awe of our universe, lifting those around us by giving them something to appreciate. Leaving something l’dor va-dor - from us to the next generation.

1 Gold, Danny. Mayhew, Michael. “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” HBO Documentary, 2017
2 ibid
3 Wilder, Thornton (2014-03-18). Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (Perennial Classics) (Kindle Location 3739). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
4 Kushner, Rabbi Lawrence (2010-09-15). I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego (Kindle Locations 3256-3260). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.
5 Wilder, Thornton (2014-03-18). Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (Perennial Classics) (Kindle Locations 2460-2461). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
6 Wilder, Thornton (2014-03-18). Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (Perennial Classics) (Kindle Locations 2652-2656). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
7 Wilder, Thornton (2014-03-18). Our Town: A Play in Three Acts (Perennial Classics) (Kindle Locations 2677-2678,2682, 2685). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.