1) The Shalom Center and I have joined with a group of San Francisco rabbis and other spiritual teachers to propose that on Yom Kippur congregations all across the country set aside 18 minutes to walk in vigil into their neighborhoods to renew and reawaken the American conscience of compassion, not cruelty; of justice, not subjugation.
Each congregation can further define this event as they wish.
One way of framing it would be to see it as a call for tshuvah -- “turning” in active repentance -- not only by individuals but also by our society as a whole.
2) In some Yom Kippur services I have led in the past, we have pursued a deeply moving practice for the Avodah that renews the ancient practice at the Temple . We have invited people outside. Then they were invited to lie face-down on the grass, so that they melted into the adamah (Earth) for 18 minutes, then to be reborn as adam (human earthlings).
Given the broadening areas of North Ameruca that now host ticks carrying dangerous viruses or sllergens, I can ony suggest carrying out this practice with extreme care -- or not at all.
It is sad and ironic for me to say that it may not any longer be possible to undertake this spiritual journey safely. For its purpose was to help us cnnect more fully with our Mother Earth, and the reason to demur is that we humans have already made the Earth more dangerous to us than it was, or than it needs to be.
The practice was rooted in the creation story of Genesis 2: 5-7. Those verses describe the birth of the human race in a way reminiscent of individual human birthings. In the Torah story, a clump of reddish earth loses the “— -ah” breathing sound of adamah from Mother Earth and then receives the Nishmat chayyim (“breath of life”) from the Holy One Who is YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life.
This tells the mythic story of the birth of the human race by modeling it on an individual human birth — the fetus breathing thru the placenta till birth, losing that breath in being birthed, then (with help from an “outside” act like a tap on the tush) beginning to breathe on her/his own.
This is a powerful reminder of the close relationship between Mother Earth & Human Earthling, and of the need to heal the Breath that sustains us both — to heal our CO2-saturated atmosphere that is scorching our planet, forcing upon us huge wildfires, unheard-of floods, torrents of constant rain, lethal droughts and famines, waves of desperate refugees, and the spread of what used to be tropical diseases. Can we learn the connecction without endangering our bodies?
Perhaps we can instead breathe quietly indoors while contemplating the Torah's teaching of what it means to be children of Mother Earth, and how important it is to turn ourselves to breathe again in communion with our Mother. Perhaps we make the Avodah a time to go outdoors to pray with a near-by tree. To stand beside the tree and listen to the tree's prayers and bring them back to the community.
3. On the two days of Rosh Hashanah, traditionally we read two painful stories: Abraham’s expelling his older son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother Hagar from his family, and Abraham’s endangering the life of his younger son, Isaac — and according to many commentaries, bringing about the death of Isaac’s mother Sarah, in sorrow that her son Isaac might have died.
These two stories cry out for turning and for healing.
There is in fact in Torah a tale of how the two brothers reconcile with each other. They join to bury their father; then Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home.
We read this story in the regular rhythm of Shabbat Torah readings. But at The Shalom Center we think that the story should also be read on Yom Kippur, instead of leaving us stuck in the pain of the Rosh Hashanah stories. (The passage is Genesis 25: 7-11.)
It can remind us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation. (Indeed, my brother Howard and I wrote a book, Becoming Brothers, about how we had turned from conflict to loving connection.)
And especially in our generation, it can remind us that the great-great- great-grandchildren of Isaac — the Jewish people — and the great-great-great-grandchildren of Ishmael — the Arab peoples and Islam, with special attention to the Palestinians — need to turn toward compassion for each other.
After reading this passage from the Torah Scroll on Yom Kippur, wherever we gather for this holy day we could pause to explore our own fears and angers.
One way we have drawn on this reading is to have members of the congregation pair off. One member of the pair becomes Isaac at the edge of Machpelah, having just buried Abraham. The other person becomes Ishmael. The two have a conversation. It might be about their descendants, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims. It might be personal, reflecting on the family dynamics of their dangerous father and caring mothers. They do not talk about Ishmael and Isaac; they become them.
All these pairs are doing this simultaneously for 18 minutes. Then the congregation reconvenes and some might share what happened in their couple.
We encourage you to raise in your own congregations the possibility of lifting up this Torah passage and a conversation on its meaning.
4) You can hear and see my slightly midrashic translation of the Isaiah Haftarah with music by Will Fudeman and Cantor Abbe Lyons, and with flashes of extraordinary graphics-in-motion by the renowned artist Michael Bogdanow that carry its message. See https://theshalomcenter.org/video/video-yom-kippur-beyond-prophet-isaiah-lives-today
You can also draw on the written text of the translation, which you can find at
5) Traditionally, we remember ten great rabbis murdered by the Roman Empire. For a new Martyrology/ Eleh Ezhereh/ These We Remember, in the video at
https://theshalomcenter.org/video/yom-kippur-new-meaning-new-martyrology, you can share some memories not in words alone but in the media of our generation — audio and video — of ten people who were killed during the last 50 years because they were affirming profound Jewish values. This powerful film was made by Larry Bush, editor of Jewish Currents.
As part of the film, Rabbi Liz Bolton chants some haunting melodies that evoke the ancient and the modern stories. And we see the faces and hear the words of these courageous men and women of our own epoch: Schwerner. Goodman. Krause. Moffitt. Milk. Linder. Krichevsky. Rabin. Chain. Pearl. A minyan of modern martyrs.
With blessings for a true tshuvah for us all, each and all of us, as we live through Elul and into the Ten Days that culminate with Yom Kippur.