The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Monday, October 13, 2014

Deconstructing Adam (Bereishit)

Biblical literalism is on the rise. You can see it in the growth of Bible-based mega-churches where the "word of God" is preached as inerrant truth. But any serious reader of the Bible knows it contains contradictions, ellipses, and vague commands that require interpretation to be understood, let alone followed.
The most apparent challenge to biblical literalism occurs at the beginning of the Bible. The first two chapters of Genesis tell two starkly different stories of the Creation of the world and of humanity.
In the first story, humanity is created "in the image of God" (Genesis 1:27), with no mention of the physical body's creation. In the second story, man is created from dust, and God breathes life into his nostrils (Genesis 2:7). Similarly, the first Creation story culminates with humans created together, "male and female" (Genesis 1:27). In the second, Adam is created first, followed by the fish, birds, and beasts; only then does God derive the woman from Adam's rib. While the first account mentions only the word Elohim to refer to God, the second uses the Tetragrammaton (the Hebrew letters, yud-hei-vav-hei) as well as Elohim.
Most dramatically, God commands the humans in the first story to "fill the earth and tame it" (Genesis 1:28). In contrast, in the second story God places the humans in the Garden of Eden and commands them to "work it and keep it" or, more poetically, "to till and tend it" (Genesis 2:15).
If you take a documentary approach to the Torah, these discrepancies are easy to explain away: different authors wrote these two stories at different times, and a later redactor preserved them both. Case closed. Such a reading, though historically competent, does a disservice to the reader by failing to reach for a deeper meaning within the contradictions.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the giant of Modern Orthodoxy, addressed this interpretive problem inThe Lonely Man of Faith. He argued:
It is, of course, true that the two accounts of the creation of man differ considerably. This incongruity was not discovered by the Bible critics. Our sages of old were aware of it. However, the answer lies not in an alleged dual tradition but in dual man, not in an imaginary contradiction between two versions but in a real contradiction in the nature of man. (Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997], p. 10)
Rather than writing off the contradiction as the by-product of an editorial process, Soloveitchik digs deeper. The contradiction itself is the truth, built into our psyche.
"Adam the First," as Soloveitchik names this archetype, responds to the mystery of existence like a scientist, engineer, or businessman. "He is not fascinated by the question, 'Why does the cosmos function at all?' nor is he interested in the question, 'What is its essence?' He is only curious to know how it works . . ." (Soloveitchik, p. 13). In his quest to master the earth, he seeks to understand its materials and processes so that he can control and replicate them himself. In this way, he proves himself to be created "in the image" of his Creator God.
"Adam the Second" thinks like a philosopher or artist. He ignores the functional question of Adam the First in favor of a metaphysical one: "Why did the world . . . come into existence?. . . . What is the purpose of all this? What is the message that is embedded in organic and inorganic matter?. . . . " (Soloveitchik, pp. 21–22). This Adam seeks not to imitate God like Adam the First, but rather to know his Creator, to relate to God.
What if Soloveitchik's idea of dual Adam also offers a window into how we read the Bible? What if the two Creation stories act as a sort of "author's note" to indicate to the reader of Scripture how to interpret the text? What might that look like?
Adam the First reads Torah to master the text. He seeks to know the intricacies of ancient Hebrew grammar and penetrate the original meaning of the text. The words are a code to be unlocked, revealing their singular meaning. He wants to convert the Torah into halachah, a precise system of circumscribed behavior that applies the Torah to everyday life. Thus he exerts his power over the text and imitates the God in whose image he is created by himself creating a system of ordered existence through law.
Adam the Second reads not to be commanded, but to be inspired. For him, the letter of the law matters less than its spirit. He seeks not to pin the text down to a single interpretation, but rather to breathe life into the inanimate letters. He wants the words to find new life in him, to jump off the page and into his soul, to give his life meaning and purpose. He, too, wants to know the author's intent—not as a source of legislative authority, but as a basis for understanding the profound mystery of his existence.
Let's be clear: one Adam is not better than the other, nor more real. Both exist within us, and both offer unique and essential insights into the fullness of our humanity. Indeed, each Adam is incomplete without the other, in life as in the act of interpretation. Adam the First, left unchecked, tends toward arrogance and rigidity. The second Adam, without the grounding influence of the first, will find himself lost with his head in the clouds of lofty ideas.
For a serious Jew, studying Torah is more than an intellectual act. Since its wisdom is meant to pervade our spiritual and ethical lives, how we read it matters. The two Creation stories act as a guide for integrated study, reaching toward integrated living. Not being content with either literalism or biblical criticism alone, we are to forge a middle path. Not only will this make us better readers of Torah, but it also holds the key to the text's redemptive power to make us better human beings.
Rabbi David Segal is the spiritual leader of the Aspen Jewish Congregation in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. He was ordained at the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.
Our Moral Memory
Rabbi David Segal calls our attention to two ideas: (1) there are two quite divergent Creation narratives within the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis and (2) a deeper understanding of these stories may be found by having them speak to one another.
I'd like to suggest still another way of reading these two understandings of Creation.
Under the banner of a pseudoscience called "intelligent design," the first chapter of the Book of Genesis is proffered by some as a legitimate scientific alternative to the theory of evolution, which most Reform Jews appreciate, is the basis of all biological science.1
This explanation for life's origins employs an insidious logic that pits our propensity for "fair play" against the incontrovertible fact that religion and science address completely different realities. Indeed, proponents of "intelligent design" insist that intellectual honesty requires us to teach that the stories in Genesis are legitimate historical theories.
Nothing could be further from scientific or historical truth; the truths these biblical tales bespeak are of a mythic sort. This is not to suggest the Torah is less than meaningful. In fact, the accounts of the world's Creation, as recorded in Genesis's two tales, are among the most meaningful stories ever written!
However, the stories of a God who fashioned humanity in the divine image and according to a master plan are neither reliable nor plausible explanations of the world's origins. There is no way, given what we know of the scientific laws of the universe, that the world was created 5,775 years ago, nor for the world to have been created in six days, nor for all seven billion-plus people in the world to have descended from a single pair of parents.
Now, I am mindful that it is a comforting thought to believe there is a God who created the world for a purpose and I appreciate that the loving of a God who created the world for a purpose is a comforting belief.
In fact, I want so much for this to be true, that I deliberately choose to behave as if it is true. Yet, insofar as such a belief speaks to the spiritual and moral dimensions of our lives, the Torah's verses fall into the realm of religion and not into that of science.
Thus, when we study the origins of the universe, we turn to biology, chemistry, and the like. And when we ask the questions that speak to our sense of self, we return to our sacred Torah, which has guided, nourished, and sustained our people's spirit, lo, all these generations.
1. See "Science in Genesis," W. Gunther Plaut, gen. ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed.(New York: URJ Press, 2005), p. 6
Rabbi Aaron B. Bisno holds the Frances F and David R Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
B’reishit, Genesis 1:1-6:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 18-55; Revised Edition, pp. 17-50;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 3-34

Sunday, October 5, 2014

High Holiday Sermons & Rabbi's "office hours"

High Holiday Sermons & Rabbi's "Office Hours"

Erev Rosh Hashanah, September 24
"Getting in Touch with Your Inner Hypocrite"

Rosh Hashanah morning, September 25
"The Closing of the American Jewish Mind?"

Kol Nidrei, October 3
On Suicide and Mental Illness

Yom Kippur Morning, October 4
"Aliens and Islands"

Sermons are meant to be the beginning of a conversation, not the last word. They should be suggestive, not exhaustive (and certainly not exhausting!).

In that spirit, please join me at one of my Rabbi's Sermon "Office Hours" coming up in mid-October. Check the congregation calendar to confirm times and locations. Or, as always, contact me to set up another time to meet.

  • Tuesday, October 14, 12:30-3:00 pm
    Victoria's Cafe, Aspen (Durant & Galena)
  • Thursday, October 16, 12:30-3:00 pm
    Saxy's Cafe, Basalt (Midland Spur)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Aliens and Islands (Yom Kippur Morning 5775/2014)

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning 5775 • 04 October 2014

Aliens and Islands
The year is 2050, and an unidentified vessel lands in Washington, D.C. A humanoid figure emerges, who can only be described as what you’d expect an alien to look like. He’s taken to a secret bunker under the White House where they question him.
“What are you?” they say.
“A Martian, of course.”
“Do all Martians look like you?” they say.
“Of course.”
“Are you all green?”
“Yes we are.”
“Do you all have those antennae coming out of your heads? 
“And do you all have those little round hats?”
“Well, no, not the goyim.”
Like an onion, this joke has layers. On one level, there’s Jewish anxiety about fitting in: Jewish Martians are just like other Martians…almost. 

On another level, this joke also speaks to Jewish pluralism. It pokes fun at the idea that “wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish” (Rabbi Larry Milder). In reality, we know how few Jews there are and that there aren’t any on Mars. Unlike a missionizing faith that seeks to convert others, Jewish theology makes room for other faiths, other paths to God. We don’t believe that salvation awaits only the Jews, nor do we expect everyone to be Jewish. The practice of other religions is not an insult to ours. So if we discovered aliens, we wouldn’t need to throw out our tradition. We would likely be compelled to learn about their culture, and maybe ask if you can get a good bagel on Mars.

It’s ironic that we might be less threatened by aliens than we are sometimes by our fellow Jews who look, worship, or believe differently than we do. But we Jews have a history of getting in our own way. The rabbis explained the destruction of the Second Temple by way of a story involving two Jews who snub each other while the sages stand idly by (Talmud Gittin 55b-56a). The insulted Jew goes to the Roman authorities to rat out the offending Jew, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to Rome’s siege of Jerusalem. For the rabbis, this is a cautionary tale against the danger of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, among Jews.

On the lighter side, there’s the old joke about the Jew stranded on a desert island. When rescuers arrive, they find he’s built two synagogues, and they ask him why. “Well, this is the one where I daven,” he says, “and that’s the one I’d never set foot in.” ‘The synagogue I’d never set foot in’ has become a trope, a lens through which we process Jewish communal dysfunction. (As I said at our Three Rabbis Walk into a Bar event last February: In Aspen, the Jews have not one, but two synagogues we’d never set foot in — that’s how Jewish it is here!)

Joking aside, this morning I’d like to address some of the dynamics in the Jewish community of Aspen and the valley. 

I think it will help to begin with the past. Historically, the Aspen Jewish Congregation (or Aspen Jewish Center, as it was known) was the only Jewish game in town, so to speak. Since the mid-1970s, it was the destination for Jewish gathering here in the valley. A Hebrew School of more than 120 students at its peak offered a fun and engaging Jewish education. I myself remember attending Shabbat evening services led by Gideon Kaufman during the summers my family spent in Aspen in my childhood. It was and is a special community, and I never imagined I’d be blessed with the privilege of leading it and living here.

As the population of Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley grew and demographics shifted, the demands changed. As in every Jewish community, the congregation didn’t please everyone — an impossible task, in any case. For the last decade and a half, Chabad and later Neshamah have offered other Jewish options. In most communities, that’s normal, even healthy. 

But the response of some, a minority, to be sure — and I confess that I include myself here — has been competitive and territorial. This way of thinking leads to anxiety about market share, “losing” kids to other Hebrew Schools, and big givers and big buildings that aren’t “ours.”

I think I get it. It’s hard to go from being the unified gathering place of the Jewish community to being one of three options. It is a loss, and it deserves to be mourned. If people in this community are still hurting from the fragmentation, let’s address it directly so there can be healing. 

I think I also get how I, a young rabbi right out of school, felt like I had to prove myself, stake my ground, assert authority and credibility and individuality within this community. It’s harder to cooperate and share when you’re insecure about who you are. I know that now, from experience. I regret any role I played in driving our communities apart, or not doing enough to bring us together.

The rabbis have warned us about the dangers of competition, especially among those with a spiritual calling. In the Talmud (Yoma 22a-23a), they tell the story of what happened when the priests on duty in the Temple vied for the privilege of removing the ashes from the altar. They would race up the ramp to the altar, and the first one there got to do the job. One time, two priests were running neck-and-neck up the ramp. One of them pushed the other, who fell and broke his leg. The High Court saw that rivalry between priests resulted in bodily harm, so they instituted a lottery system for the removal of ashes from the altar.

The authorities had to step in because the priests lost sight of their mission. They were supposed to devote themselves to the holy work of the Temple, where the Israelites met the presence of God. Instead, they sought their own personal victories, at the expense of their fellow priests and their holy purpose. As a result, people got hurt.

A common pitfall, for individuals and organizations, is to focus too much on whether we’re doing better than the next guy. We start to see our neighbors as rivals, a standard against which to measure ourselves. Synagogues are not immune. We ask: Are we raising as much money, getting as good attendance, feeling as much momentum? Is our marketing as sharp, our Hebrew School as much fun, our b’nei mitzvah program as engaging, our community as welcoming?

It is human nature to compare ourselves to our fellow Jews; to take a zero-sum approach to our Jewish community; to view one group’s success as necessarily tied to another’s failure; to fight over slices of a shrinking pie, rather than to try to grow the pie together. 

Of course, we want to be a thriving, successful congregation. Of course, we should hold ourselves to high standards, evaluate ourselves critically, and continue improving. Of course, we should continue to deepen relationships, reach out to the less connected, bring more meaning to more people’s lives. 

But the success of our neighbor congregations does not mean we’re failing at these goals. If a family chooses to send their kids to a different Hebrew School, or choose a different option for bar mitzvah or High Holidays or Shabbat, what if our first response were, “Thank God they’re choosing a Jewish life!”? Let’s not forget, the real challenge we face is not “losing” people to Chabad or Neshamah, but rather a shared reality confronting all of us: waning interest in living a Jewish life at all, and indifference to there being a Jewish community. In the service of addressing that challenge, we are allies, and never rivals.

In the final reckoning, we don’t win by elbowing others out of the way. A midrash (Talmud Sota 36b-37a) recounts a tale of Jewish rivalry that took place at the Red Sea. The tribes vied with one another saying, “I will be first to go down into the sea!” — “No, I will be first!” As they stood there wrangling, the Benjamin tribe jumped ahead of the others and raced down to the sea. Out of jealousy and anger, the tribe of Judah started throwing stones at them.

Needless to say, that’s not the kind of Jewish community we want. In their threshold moment of redemption, on the verge of the miraculous parting of the sea, the Israelites were consumed by competition. Rivalry blinded them to their miraculous role in history. So they sought to tear each other down.

We, too, stand at a threshold of redemption, every day. We have much work still to do in this community: simchas to celebrate, losses to mourn, care to provide, learning to do, justice to achieve. We stand today in a position of strength, ready to undertake this holy work. Craig Navias spoke so beautifully, so perfectly, already this morning about what the Aspen Jewish Congregation is, and what we strive to be. We don’t have the time or the need to keep looking over our shoulder. We “win” by being good at what we do. We “win” by staying true to our mission: building relationships and enriching lives, bringing Jewish tradition and learning to life. And the community wins when Chabad and Neshamah are good at what they do. We win when we all win.

Consider the Hasidic tale of the rabbi named Zusya who died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous, thinking that his life didn’t measure up. He worried that God would ask him, “Why weren't you Moses?” or “Why weren’t you Solomon?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren't you Zusya?”

Even as we shift our posture from rivals to neighbors, we needn’t shy away from discussing the beliefs and practices that delineate us. Pluralism means that our differences can enrich the greater whole, not that we pretend we’re all the same. We hold different views on theology, liturgy, halachah, egalitarianism — these are all real pillars of belief and worthy of mature engagement and study. But the lines that separate us needn’t be the whole substance of our interactions. With trust and respect, we can learn from our differences and be enriched together. We can, God willing, start seeing allies where we might have seen rivals. We can reframe how we think about our community, from fragmented to vibrant and thriving with choices. Pope Francis gave an interview this summer in which he offered 10 rules for finding happiness. He included the Roman saying, “Campa e lascia campĂ .” It means something like “live and let live,” or maybe better yet, “Move forward and let others move forward.” It’s good advice.

I want to close with the words of a local family, Lysa and Tim Reed, that appeared in the program for their daughter Taylor’s recent bat mitzvah. First, they thanked each of the three sets of Jewish leaders in the valley — Rabbi Mendel and Lieba Mintz, Cantor Rollin and me, and Rabbi Itzhak and Dalia Vardy — for being part of their family’s Jewish journey. Then they said, “We are so lucky to live in a Valley with so many fabulous Jewish organizations and feel so blessed to have been touched by all of them.”

What a beautiful vision for what our community can be, for what it already is in our best moments. This is not a naive call to ignore our differences; we should explore them and learn from each other. This is, rather, a reminder that no Jewish community is an island, and that our fellow Jews are not aliens. It’s an invitation to recognize what makes each of us unique as we all share in building a brighter Jewish future.

G’mar hatima tova, may our entire community be inscribed for a good year.

Special thanks to Rabbi Jennifer Gertman, whose senior sermon at HUC-JIR (NY) provided the inspiration and some of the source texts for this sermon.

Friday, October 3, 2014

On Suicide and Mental Illness (Kol Nidrei Sermon 5775/2014)

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Kol Nidrei 5775 • 03 October 2014
“To be read at the opening of DPS (Dead Poets Society) Meetings: I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life! To put to rout all that was not life… And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… H.D.T.” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden)
Robin Williams, in the role of English teacher John Keating in the (1989) film Dead Poets Society, weeps at his desk as he reads these words. They’ve been inscribed by hand in a copy of the poetry textbook for his English class. The book belongs to a star student, Neil, a theater and poetry enthusiast. Neil is also a member of the Dead Poets Society, a student group that meets secretly to discuss great poetry and the meaning of life. Neil struggles against an imperious father who wants him to attend Harvard and become a doctor, despite Neil’s love of literature and the arts. When this scene takes place, Neil has just taken his own life, and Mr. Keating mourns. 

Confronted with this tragic death, the private boys' school reacts defensively, almost cruelly. Spurred on by Neil’s angry, grieving father, they investigate the Dead Poets Society. They blame Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) for encouraging Neil’s impudence toward his father and even for causing Neil’s suicide. It is, of course, a profoundly misguided way to understand and respond to suicide. 

This is not an easy topic to discuss, but discuss it we must, with open eyes and an open heart. The fact is that suicide is very difficult to understand. It does not result from a neat, linear cause-and-effect chain. In more than 90 percent of cases, it is a result of a diagnosable (if not actually diagnosed) mental illness. One in four Americans — one out of every four of us in this room — will be affected by some form of mental illness during our lifetime. That can include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Substance abuse aggravates all of these conditions. Suicide is not a sign of weakness, a character flaw, or a cowardly act. It is the tragic result of a complicated mix of “factors such as hopelessness, impulsivity, and traumatic life circumstances” (Harpel).

Simplistic and reductive misunderstandings of suicide are all too common. When Robin Williams died by suicide this August, we heard some of the usual misconceptions:

“But he was so funny and full of life!”
“It’s such a selfish act.”
“How could anyone choose to do this?”
“How could he cause such pain to his family?”
“It was a coward’s way out.”

If we haven’t struggled with depression ourselves, it is hard to understand what it feels like. Martha Manning, in her book Undercurrentstries to describe her disease of the mind:
The emptiness of the depression turns to grief, then to numbness and back again. My world is filled with underwater voices, people, lists of things to do. They gurgle and dart in and out of my vision and reach. But they are so fast and slippery that I can never keep up. Every inch of me aches. I can’t believe that a person can hurt this bad and still breathe… It’s not that I want to die. It’s that I’m not sure I can live like this anymore. (Manning, 99)
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison is a world-renowned expert on bipolar disorder and the author of numerous books on mental illness and suicide. She has suffered from bipolar disorder most of her life, and here is how she described the mental state behind her own suicide attempt:
No amount of love from other people — and there was a lot — could help. No advantage of a caring family and fabulous job could be enough to overcome the pain and hopelessness I felt… I knew my life to be a shambles and I believed — incontestably — that my family, friends, and patients would be better off without me. (Solomon, 265)
The first thing I want to say, probably the most important thing of all, to anyone who has had these thoughts, is that your family and friends — and we, your community — are not better off without youIf you hear echoes of yourself or someone you know in these descriptions, help is available. 

You can call 800-273-TALK for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline wherever you are, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also contact the Aspen Hope Center’s 24-hour Hopeline at 970-925-5858. There are trained crisis counselors on call at all times. (The Hope Center has also provided some printed resources for our community, so please take some with you as you leave tonight.) You can ask a friend, teacher, colleague, relative, rabbi for help. We will do what we can and will do our best to refer you to the professional who has the skill to help you most. As one mental illness expert said, “Empathy is important, but competence is essential” (Jamison, “To Know Suicide”).

The vast majority of the time, mental illness does not lead to suicide. We can’t predict with certainty when it will, although we can try to look for warning signs and risk factors. Nationwide, someone dies by suicide every 13.3 minutes. The rate among men is four times that of women, and higher among Whites than any other ethnicity. Rural areas with above average substance abuse and gun ownership show increased suicide rates. The Western states, including Colorado, have the highest rates in the country. 

Pitkin County averages four suicides a year, and our Jewish community has been touched by this tragedy. How many more untold stories are there of people who struggle in the shadows, invisible to those whose help they need? Tonight is an invitation to you to stop suffering alone, in silence. Tonight we invite you to reach out for help, to know that it can get better, to have faith that it will get better. We, your community, might not always say the right thing, we might not fully understand how you feel, we might even seem uncomfortable talking about it — but we still care. We can still help you find the help you need.

Tonight is also an invitation to all of us, whether we’ve dealt with mental illness personally or not, to be that hand to reach out to, that shoulder to lean on in someone’s time of need. 

There are four mitzvot, four Jewish calls to action, that can help guide our understanding of and response to mental illness: Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick), Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life), Nichum Aveilim (comforting mourners), and Halvayat HaMet (accompanying the dead). The first two speak to the kind of community we should strive to create to make it easier for those struggling with mental illness to find relief and healing. The second pair speaks to the way we should respond as a community when the tragedy of suicide occurs.

The first two mitzvot, again, are Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) and Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life). Bikur Cholim encompasses visiting someone in the hospital, taking food to the homebound, offering help and presence when a crisis interrupts daily life. When it comes to illnesses of the body, we are pretty good at this. It’s easy to mobilize a Mealtrain schedule for someone undergoing chemotherapy or recovering from back surgery. Sadly, it’s not as natural when it comes to depression. We might whisper about it, but we rarely address it openly. We might express our disbelief that someone could be suffering so deeply when they seem so happy on the outside. At our worst, we suggest that someone with depression should just “perk up” or “snap out of it.” As a rabbi who struggled with depression wrote, “It is no more possible for the depressive to emerge from his depression than for the cancer patient to will away his tumor or the diabetic to magically lift his own insulin level by wishing it upwards” (Helfgot).

Pikuach Nefesh, the principle that saving a life trumps almost every Jewish law, demands that we cure our ignorance, break through our superficial understanding, so we can learn to be present for someone who is choleh — ill — with a disease of the mind or spirit. We should be proactive in creating a community where it is safe to ask for help. We should check our judgment at the door when we realize it could help save a life. 

Our culture values individualism, which is good up to a point. But too often we make a false idol out of the virtue of individualism. We act as if self-sufficiency is the goal in all things, as if reaching out for help is a sign of weakness and failure. I believe that the suicide rate is higher among men, in part, because our image of masculinity leaves little room for vulnerability. But regardless of gender, our culture tells us to look down our nose at people who need to lean on others rather than take care of themselves. 

If we take seriously the value of Bikur Cholim and Pikuach Nefesh, of being present for the ill and rescuing a soul, we can change the culture. We can create a community where we don’t avert our eyes or stare in judgment when someone suffers from mental illness. We can cultivate a thick network of real relationships, so that we notice when someone is withdrawn, struggling, lonely, lost. Signs to watch for include someone who talks of hurting himself, sleeps too much or too little, withdraws from activities, and other marked changes in behavior or mood. As the experts say, trust your gut. If you’re concerned, it’s always better to say something than to let it go. It is a myth that asking someone if they’re suicidal is dangerous; it’s not. It’s more dangerous to say nothing.

Even when we do this well, even when we notice warning signs and minimize risk factors, sometimes it is not in our power to fix it, to prevent the unthinkable. As Martha Manning wrote, “I realize that if love were the cure, I would have been healed a long time ago.”

The second pair of mitzvot teaches us how to be present for the survivors of a loved one who dies by suicide. Nichum Aveilim (comforting mourners) and Halvayat Ha-Met (accompanying the dead) demand, like the first mitzvah pair, that we check our judgment at the door, and that we show up. We accomplish Nichum Aveilim by bringing food to a shiva home and participating in a minyan, by checking in with a mourner days, weeks, months later. We fulfill it when we give mourners the space to reminisce, question, struggle, and cry with us. We perform Halvayat Ha-Met, accompanying the dead, by attending a funeral, hearing a eulogy, saying the Kaddish, throwing a handful of dirt into a grave. In my experience of this community over the past four years, we are ready, willing, and able to show up for each other in times of mourning.

There are certain classical Jewish texts that ban funerary practices for suicides — no shiva and no burial in a Jewish cemetery. Imagine the pain, the shame, felt by families already struggling with grief and shock, as well as the anger and betrayal often associated with surviving a suicide loss. Mercifully, that ban was not mainstream and is rarely if ever practiced today. Let’s make sure we haven’t created an emotional or social banishment for survivors of suicide loss because of our misconceptions about it. Let us practice empathy rather than avoidance; let us bring blessing and not lay blame.

*    *    *

As the students in Dead Poets Society learned, words matter. How we talk about mental health, whether we talk about mental health, affects how we treat it. We must be willing to talk about it; it must not be taboo. What we say in someone’s time of need may be life-changing. Please, God, let us be present to others in need. Please let our words at moments of vulnerability be words of life, words of inclusion and restoration, and not judgment. Please let those who suffer with a disease of the mind trust us to be their lifeline. Let them find the strength to reach out from their darkness — and let us be there to bring light.

At the end of Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ character Mr. John Keating prepares to leave his classroom for the last time. The powers-that-be at the school blamed him for the tragic suicide of his student and fired him. As he makes his way to the door, one by one the boys in his English class stand on their desks and declare, “O Captain! My Captain!” in tribute to their teacher. They speak out of their pain and guilt over the death of their classmate; they speak out of love and respect for their beloved teacher, wrongfully blamed and banished. They speak out because they’ve learned that silence can lead to darkness. Their words and their actions affirm life; they aspire to a life of meaning and impact. 

I want to close with part of that poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” which Walt Whitman wrote in 1900 in memory of President Abraham Lincoln. In Whitman’s words we hear grief for the loss of a life mingled with gratitude for that life’s legacy.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;  
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;  
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;  
    Here Captain! dear father!  
      This arm beneath your head;  
        It is some dream that on the deck,
          You’ve fallen cold and dead.  

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;  
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;  
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;  
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
    Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!  
      But I, with mournful tread,  
        Walk the deck my Captain lies,  
          Fallen cold and dead.

These mournful words, like all eulogies, articulate the legacy of the deceased, the impact of his life, that he lived, that he was and remains loved. He is missed because he mattered. Those of us who struggle with depression, whose spirits suffer in darkness — and, in truth, all of us — need to hear words like these while we still breathe and walk the earth. Like Thoreau, we need to know that we have “lived deep” and “sucked out all the marrow of life.” We need to be reminded that we matter. 

We can’t do this alone. At the end of the day, the purpose of a sacred community is to create a space where it’s safe to be ourselves, and where we matter to each other and to the world. 

The rest is commentary. Let us go and live it, for however long we have left. 


Sources and Recommended Reading

I’m thankful for sermons and advice from the following rabbinic colleagues: Elka Abrahamson, Ariana Silverman, Jen Gubitz, Ronne Friedman, Yaron Kapitulnik, and Jonathan Kligler. Thanks to Julie Wagner, Goldie & Werner Knurr, Or Mars, Jamie Bornstein, Rabbi Daniel Crane Kirzane, and Rabbi Anne Lewis for their helpful suggestions and recommended reading. And many thanks to Joanne Harpel for her wisdom, expertise, and editorial help.

Craig Navias' Yom Kippur remarks

Craig Navias
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning 5775 • 04 October 2014

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah

My name is Craig Navias, and I am here this morning to invite all of you to continue your Journey with me and all of those who care deeply about our Aspen Jewish Congregation once these High Holidays are over.

I have been a member of this wonderful congregation since 2010, when my family and I moved from Dallas to this place we are now fortunate enough to call home.  In Dallas, our Jewish lives consisted of enjoying weekly Shabbat dinners with our family, and attending our synagogue on high holidays.

When we moved to Aspen, my wife Esther suggested (very strongly I might add) that we go to Friday night services at the little Chapel which was not too far from our house.  I reluctantly agreed. We were fortunate enough to start attending services at the same time as Rabbi David and Cantor Rollin (who are both greatly admired by all for reasons you are discovering for yourselves during these high-holiday services), and Friday nights and the Aspen Jewish Congregation have now become a very valuable and very beautiful part of my family’s lives.

While I cannot tell you that I am a more Jewish or a more religious man as a result of my families very strong connection to the Aspen Jewish Congregation, I can tell you that my life has been enriched through the wisdom and teachings of our brilliant young Rabbi and through the inspirational and beautiful melodies of our wonderful Cantor, and, more importantly, I can tell you that I have discovered something that was unknown to me previously – the blessings of a very strong community.  Every Friday night, I look forward to seeing people who I have grown to care about deeply and who I know care deeply about me – I look forward to being with my community.  

Whether it is people I see every Friday or second homeowners who I may not see for several months at a time, the connection is equally strong.  For as many second homeowners who are such an integral part of our congregation will tell you, they are typically closer to this community than they are to their primary congregations.  Why they feel closer to this community is something I invite all of you to find out for yourselves, but I suggest that it has little to do with these high-holiday services we all attend a few time a year.  For while I am sure we all find meaning and fulfillment in these very beautiful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, the true essence of our Congregation  manifests itself every Friday night during our service and Oneg and through the many outdoor activities we enjoy as a community.   I hope you all got to enjoy the beautiful second day Rosh Hashanah outdoor service at the Meadows, or that you have enjoyed a Mountain Minyan during Ski Season, or one of the many hikes or bike rides we continue to do as a community.  If you have not, I urge you to find one of our outdoor events that appeals to you.

I was invited to speak here this morning simply to tell you my story and not to ask for money, but, fortunately for us, my story now includes ensuring the continued success of the Aspen Jewish Congregation, which requires your support.  So I am going to ask each of you for your participation and for your financial help.   Jewish enrichment, while a very necessary and I think very beautiful part of our lives, is unfortunately not free.  While I don’t pretend to understand our sustainable member ship model, I do understand that the Aspen Jewish Congregation cannot exist without your generous support.   Now if you are wondering whether I am speaking to the person in front of you, behind you, or to the person on either side of you – the answer is yes.  But more importantly, I am speaking to you.   We need the support of everyone.  

Please know that I am not simply asking you to blindly write a check, I am inviting you to come to a Friday night service, to meet our Rabbi and Cantor and our congregation in a more intimate setting, and to be open to the possibility that you can be part of the kind of community that I have described.  I invite you all to be there for and to support the Aspen Jewish Congregation, and, more importantly, to learn how the Aspen Jewish Congregation can support you.

I invite all of you to consider the possibility that the Aspen Jewish Congregation can be for you the great blessing that it continues to be for me.   I believe strongly in what we do, and I support what we do – I hope that you will support us too.

I hope also that you will all have an easy and a meaningful fast, and that the coming year will bring blessings and peace.  May it bring more of what each of us desires, and may it bring more of the Aspen Jewish Congregation into all of our lives.

Thank you.