Rabbi Noa Kushner // Rosh Hashanah 5778
1. The Dove
There is a dove and she hides in the cleft of the rock where no one can see or hear her
A hidden dove, in a dark place and her beloved calls for her in shir ha shirim / song of songs, pleading for her to show her face
To sound her voice
But Rabbi Eleazar teaches that in this piece of Torah,
The dove refers to us -- all the riffraff who tried to leave Egypt together to get into the promised land
(even though we didn’t know where it was nor did we really have any idea what we were getting into) 
And the cleft of the rock refers to a cave, a shelter that was in the middle of the ocean
So that when we were crossing the sea from slavery to the promised land there was a place we could hide until the miracle began
And so he teaches that the dove is not hiding, rather,
from the darkness of the cave
we are witnessing the earliest beginning of one of the most profound moments of hope
The splitting of the sea and our crossing
from a certain slavery to something altogether unknown.
2. I’m tired.
This year has made me tired.
Like probably everyone here I am worn to the bone from this year
And like everyone here I am not sure I have the strength to fight this one out
It sure feels dark, doesn’t it
We are not sure we can do this, this year, we feel we don’t even have the words
But I don’t think we have a choice.
We are either in the cleft of the rock, invisible, our song inaudible -- even to those who need to hear from us --
Or we understand we are in a cave that is indeed dark but gives us a vantage point to see a great miracle.
Some say a great miracle that we will, once again, instigate with our very voices, our singing, our crossing.
So I don’t think we have a choice.
We can be overwhelmed, burdened, hidden
or part of a turning, the turning of one of the (yes) greatest countries in the modern world, one of the greatest experiments in democracy, our America as it rises up, to greet a new era.
We can be hidden or raise our voices as we ascend
from the madreigah / level we outgrew so long ago.
Yonati b’chagvai haselah / My dove in the cleft of the rock
b’seter hamadreigah / Hidden by the cliff / the level
Hirini et maraich / Show me your face
Hashmi’ini et koleich / Let me hear your voice 
“Let me hear your voice.”
No, we can’t rest now
We are just starting to wake up
The sea is about to split and we have to be there
When all the dreamers start crossing.
3. 10 tests
In the old days, in Torah, God used to administer the trials and tests.
(We also tested God many times, and I think we should get back in that habit, but that is another teaching for another time.)
God tested Abraham at the akedah / the binding of Isaac, a difficult and unsettling story. Abraham believes that God asks him to sacrifice his son and almost, almost goes through with it, some of the saddest verses in all of Torah, until the last minute when God tells him to stop.
There is no easy interpretation of this story, no way to explain it, believe me, I have tried. But what I want for us to focus on today is that the akedah / the binding was considered a test of Abraham, a difficult test, both in the words of Torah itself, and by the rabbis who came after.
Not only that, but the rabbis add that actually there were 10 tests and the akedah / the binding of Isaac was the last, ultimate test. Which sounds very official until you read the sources and realize that the rabbis can’t agree on what the other tests were. 
One rabbi is sure that Abraham had to live for three years underground not seeing day or night before he emerged with a full faith in God and this was a test. 
Many rabbis are sure that banishing Hagar must be one of the tests.
But the Rambam thinks banishing Hagar was one of the tests and banishing Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar was a whole other test ,
You get the idea
So while there is no agreement on what all the tests were, it did make me think
Maybe, if we accept the design constraint of ten trials, it then seems that the trials, by necessity, should be under constant review and each one must earn its place. Because the ten also work as a narrative arc of a life and one trial can change the whole list, right?
So for example, in one of my favorite lists, Rabbeinu Yonah says the last test for Abraham was NOT the akedah / binding of Isaac but rather, finding a burial plot for his wife, Sarah 
Changes things, right?
Remember, God promised Abraham,
“I will give you all the land, walk it, it is yours” but still, when Abraham’s wife died he had no land to call his own, no place to bury her and in grief still had to negotiate so he could buy it.
This says Rabbeinu Yonah was Abraham’s last trial. Just quietly doing what was required.
As if to say, the pyrotechnics on the mountain top still count, but the last trial is not what happens if you flirt with violence and extremes -- but rather what happens when someone you love dies and you still need to take care of their memory, you still need to see the mitzvot through,
even in your grief,
even if you are the founder of all Judaism and that same cave was promised to you by God.
And now we understand how a trial may not look like much to those of us on the outside,
The test just needs to be at the right level, it just needs to be something worthy of the one going through it.
Maybe we have tests too.
And maybe if the rabbis were able to disagree and change their minds about Abraham’s top ten, maybe as we live our lives, we are also permitted to change our minds about which ten are in our lists.
Maybe the job of Rosh Hashanah is to make sure we know that each test on our list is there for a reason, that each test is earning its place.
There’s a Chasidic story: Joseph Landau, the rabbi of Jassy in Rumania, rejected a bribe offered him by a prominent member of his congregation. With a self-satisfied air
Landau told his rebbe how he had resisted the temptation and passed the test.
When Joseph was getting ready to leave, the rebbe blessed him with the hope that he would become an honest and god-fearing man.
Joseph trembled. “Why do you bless me with honesty and a fear of heaven now?” he asked.
His rebbe answered, “The fact that you were exposed to so slight a temptation is a sign that you have not yet reached one of the upper rungs. That is why I blessed you, asking God to let you ascend and be worthy of a greater test." 
In the old days God used to administer the tests but increasingly, it seems that the job is at least partly ours. We test ourselves.
And if we believe with the Netivot Shalom that, “…[e]very person is called to some shlihut elyona – every person is sent into this world for a higher purpose, then we understand that through these trials we are actually achieving what we were put into this world to do.”
If that is so then the stakes for choosing the right trials are quite high. 
The Netivot Shalom even suggests that it is our mission to go through the trials in order to correct a specific wrong that is within us,
that our souls were sent to each of us so that we might correct precisely the area that causes us the greatest difficulties,
and have the opportunity to redeem just that area. 
Choosing the wrong tests then, would mean we would never be able to make such a correction and could never fulfill our spiritual mission in the world.
So, if our personal tests start feeling remarkably similar to one another,
Kind of: the same play over and over maybe with different scenery
If we know how things will end before they really start,
Or even if our tests are too tidy, like Joseph and his rejected bribe,
If we are not left wondering even a little bit if what we did was right
Maybe we have outgrown our tests,
Which means we are missing an opportunity, literally of our lifetime
And we must work to find some better tests, greater tests.
5. American Shlihut
And now I am left wondering if we Americans also collectively get ten tests.
I’m wondering: maybe if there is something in society that causes us the greatest difficulties
That maybe we are sent here collectively in this time to help to rectify it
The Chasidim believed we each have different tests in each generation.
And I believe it is true.
And similarly, if the tests we’re focused on as a society are trivial, repetitive
The same basic arguments with different fonts
Things like who tweeted what
Who used what image out of context
Who gets called what name,
We must remember,
just as we have grave responsibility in choosing our personal tests,
we also have been given the agency and ability to look honestly at what is going on in our country
We have the responsibility to consciously decide where to expend our collective spiritual, material resources.
And this is a big decision,
where to put our energies,
It is a big decision, what our tests will be.
Because these are serious times.
And we can’t afford to hide inaudibly in the rock or soothe ourselves with superficial smack downs when so much is falling apart around us.
Even though we are being assaulted on a variety of fronts
and on a variety of levels simultaneously
and even though it is understandable that in this time we would be exhausted and distracted, still we must choose our tests will be with great care.
Because the tests create the narrative arc of our country.
6. Stuck on level 5
I read that Bryan Stevenson of The Equal Justice Initiative was creating a museum to memorialize the thousands of lynchings that took place in this country. He sent out a different person to each of the specific places where these brutal acts took place, each with a clear glass bottle. Each one collected some dirt from that place, from the place where a black person was lynched. 
And when I read about the project, I could only think, how is it 2017 and we don’t yet have a memorial commemorating the lives of these innocent people, victims to some of the most heinous public crimes in our country’s history?
I suggest that our most acute pain comes from our understanding that, while we might just be waking up, many of our country’s problems are not new. Racism, and its generations long legacy of cycles of poverty, violence and mass incarceration have more than been around. They are systemically embedded in the laws and culture of our country for hundreds of years.
We realize with no small amount of shame that our America has been on the same rung for a very long time, we’ve been facing the same test without ascending, without even knowing it was a test we were failing and as a result, we’ve fallen.
I’ve learned from the center for social justice at Glide how some of the intertwined problems of race, poverty and mass incarceration exhibit themselves in the black population right here in San Francisco:
So, for example, due to urban renewal projects that uprooted black populations, because of redlining by banks and a criminal justice system that permanently penalizes even minor offenders, the black population here has been decimated. Maybe you didn’t know:
The percentage of African Americans in San Francisco in the 1970’s was 13.4%.
In 2000 it was 8%
And in 2010, our last record, it was at 6%.
The African American middle class has all but disappeared. What’s left is a slim population of professionals and a sizeable population of people who rely on Glide and other social services for food, housing, violence prevention and recovery . This slow decline in San Francisco is not new, if you in Gen X or a millennial, it has been going on for your entire life.
7. Honesty and Accountability
After Charlottesville a few weeks ago, Michael and I heard from Danielle Sered who runs Common Justice. She’s the real deal and with her team, she is working on an alternative track to the justice system that focuses on rehabilitation and transformation of the lives of those harmed -- without incarceration, even for people guilty of violence.
She wrote: “ …maybe [Charlottesville] is the beginning of our national reckoning with our history of racial violence. Maybe we got exactly as far as we could get without telling the truth about our past, maybe Barack Obama was the last drop of change we could squeeze out in the civil rights frame as we’ve know it, and that no further progress is possible until we …start telling the truth. I know enough about history to know that reckonings are hard, that they so often involve violence and pain and loss, and that there is no guarantee they are transformative, so I don’t say this in some rosy hopeful kind of way. But as someone who’s in the reckoning business …I also know that there is something on the other side — a dignity rooted in honesty, a kind of possibility rooted in accountability — that is better than anything this country has ever done or known. At my best moments this week, I’ve been feeling like maybe we stand a chance of getting there.”
Sered is right, if we want to ascend to a higher rung, then we must lead not with nostalgia but with honesty and accountability.
Because the problems that plague this moment, they belong to us,
and not only because are we have been pained and scandalized and victimized since the election,
But because racism is a problem we have helped to create.
And the problem belongs to us, dafka because as much as we say we want racism to go away
We secretly believe it is not really our problem to fix and so do nothing
So the problems cling to us,
because we don’t acknowledge that there are tangible ways in which we benefit by keeping things as they are.
So the problems cling to us
They say, “I know you, I remember you”
Like relatives at a party we want to leave, they cling to us
Because we are not-so-innocent bystanders,
Because racism has our number,
Because, whether we admit it or not, we’ve been involved in this for a long time.
Maybe this admission of our responsibility
is the ticket price,
maybe honesty is the entry stamp required
in order to engage with a national test this serious, a test with such profound implications for so many.
We remember now how the rebbe prayed for his chasid, that he would be blessed with honesty and a fear of heaven
Because when we seek out greater, more dangerous tests, the kind of tests that defy easy answers, tests where the outcome is uncertain -- we’ll need both.
And yet, in Judasim, honesty and a fear of heaven only gets us so far. In order for that honesty to count we have to show up.
I have long believed The Kitchen could be a force in the Social Justice work of San Francisco and now with our Justice League and the new Glide partnership I feel it is possible.
Glide feeds over 800,000 meals a year, they give out 1 million clean needles to those addicted to drugs, or those who have resorted to physical abuse, they help hundreds of people with housing, free legal services, free day care, and adult literacy tutoring, not to mention free Hepititis and HIV Testing, and a rehab program. That is only part of what they do in this holy place.
We are invited with other Kitchen-ites to feed people and tutor kids once a week. In fact, we are invited to help at Glide in any myriad of ways,
I hear there is even a wonderful rabbi there now,
and their entire social justice staff is coming to our Shabbat on October 20, so the conversation is beginning.
Glide is not the whole answer, and for those of you who already get this stuff, who are already out there, kol hakavod. But for the rest of us, while Glide is not the whole answer, it will allow us to put our blue bottle coffee down for a few hours,
it will allow us to make a fixed time to connect with what is happening a just a little bit away from where we live,
It will allow us to meet and get to know some of the people that work and receive services there, to build the kinds of relationships and communities that are foundational
And it will allow us to begin to engage with what I believe is one of the great tests of our time,
a test worthy of our strongest efforts
the test of whether or not we will confront our history with race in this country,
understand how it plays out at this very moment,
and take part in what might be.
One thing I can promise: the road will be long.
Even if we engage in earnest,
the right course of action will not always be marked,
our acts will not always be definitive, let alone productive,
some of what we do will take more courage than we thought we had,
and in the short term, we most likely won’t be rewarded but rather punished in ways large and small.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Not only that, some of it will just be hard as in humiliating,
like the indignity of old Abraham having to scrounge for Sarah’s burial plot
in the very land that was promised to him,
but I am here to tell you that this all comes with the territory of engaging a worthy test.
The difficulty is a sign of a worthy test.
In other words, it will be fraught but we have to try.
The Polish Nobel Prize winning poet Wislawa Szymbroska wrote during WW2: “We know ourselves, only insofar as we have been tested.”
Timothy Snyder of the NY Times adds: Until we have been tested, there is no sense in boasting of our goodness; afterward, there is no need." 
So we won’t hide, not now, not when there is a test like this, not when there is the beginning of a miracle this size that’s taking shape all around us.
No we can’t rest now
We are just starting to wake up
The sea is about to split
And we have to be there when all the dreamers start crossing.
[2} Song of Songs, 2:14
 See commentaries to Pirke Avot 5:3
 See Gra to Pirke Avot 5:3 with thanks to R. Scott Perlo.
 See Rambam to Pirke Avot 5:3
 Rabbeinu Yonah to Pirke Avot 5:3 (via sefaria)
 Buber, Martin. Tales of the Hasidim, Schocken Books, New York,1991. Volume 2, p. 110-111.
 Me’or Eynaim on Parashat Va-eira, with thanks to R. Sharon Brous.
 Netivot Shalom, Awareness, chapter 6.
 With thanks to James Lin, Director of the Glide Center of Social Justice.
 Timothy Snyder, “The Test of Nazism that Failed,” August 18, 2017.