Getting Organized for the Holidays

First Day Rosh Hashanah 2022/5783

On the night of Monday April 11 I got one of those phone calls we all dread. And in that uncanny way we somehow know that it’s bad news before we even say hello, I knew that call was to tell me that my friend Rachel Brodie was dead. 

Rachel’ s fingerprints are all over my work as a rabbi and teacher. For over 30 years I haven’t given a HHDAY sermon she didn’t critique; publish an article she didn’t edit; take a job she didn’t help vet; or make an halakhic decision she didn’t vigorously debate to ensure its integrity. Her feedback was without pretense. She was unvarnished; said it to you straight. If I shared something that didn’t exude excellence, she didn’t hesitate to throw it back at me. But when Rachel Brodie told you that what you just offered was brilliant, which I’m proud to say I heard at least a few times, you knew that you nailed it.

Rachel’s fingerprints are also all over my inner work as a human being. I, like all of you, am on a lifelong search for authenticity and wholeness. Rachel was one of my most trusted guides. For over 3 decades she lovingly and devotedly held a mirror up to me, helping me to see my strengths which I would often doubt, and my weaknesses which I would often deny. Rachel always pushed me to show up in life as my best self.

Rachel was a singular and revered Jewish educator, a teacher’s teacher, and a creative Jewish entrepreneur. She had a fierce, original intellect and a wicked sense of humor. She was sharp-tongued and loving. Prickly and compassionate. She was a devoted Jew and an iconoclast. A traditionalist and an innovator. She modeled how to think and how to act. And she broke every mold in putting it all together. 

I’ll never forget the day over 30 years ago when we were both students at JTS, me in Rabbinical School and she in a Masters program in Midrash, sitting on a bench together in Riverside Park not far from our apartment on the Upper West Side. In that conversation Rachel articulated most clearly the essence of who we were both yearning to become as Jewish educators. We knew we weren’t going to be academics teaching in dispassionate classrooms. We were not going to be scholars living in libraries pouring over historical archives. We were going to be, as she put it, modern translators and transmitters of our 4000 yr-old tradition; meaning-makers and connectors for people we were excited to encounter in all kinds of settings ripe for deep learning and growth: in synagogues and JCCs, art studios and coffee shops, on mountaintops and in the fields. We were going to help people build bonds with the Jewish past, with their own Jewish present, and with our collective Jewish future. Translators and transmitters. Her words have kept me directed and motivated for over 30 years.

While not an ordained rabbi, Rachel was my rebbe. And I will always be her hasid; her student. Her life was suddenly, tragically, cut short before she could share the fullness of her spectacular Torah. It’s up to me and the many others she touched to now teach it in her name.

What many people do not know about Rachel was how she spent her time when she wasn’t designing a new Jewish series, consulting for non-profits or teaching midrash through art. Rachel had a side passion, which she even turned into a side business, of personal organizing. Whether with your stuff, your time or even your ideas if you were a writer, Rachel was a genius at decluttering the mess and arranging it into a neat, sensible, functional package. Her personal assembly of files, binders, documents and presentations would make any educator, and any interior designer, drool.

As I continued to mourn my friend and my teacher, especially at this time of year when we’d go back and forth over sermon ideas and drafts, I found myself wondering about the connection between Rachel’s passion for Torah and her passion for order. And I think I might have found it.

Many of you know of my family’s long history in the Laurentians where we’ve had a home in Ivry Sur Le Lac since 1965. My connection to that place is deep and intense. 

In every season of my life and in every season of my soul, the house, the lake, the mountains and the trees have held me through my changes, given me air to breathe and memories to savor, and have been an anchor of unspeakable beauty and strength keeping me grounded throughout the more unsteady moments of my journey. 

It is to the country’s sounds and smells and physical wonder that I journey over and over to retreat and to renew myself; to continue writing my story, to continue telling my tale. In fact, thanks to all of you who invited us here for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this year we were able to go to the mikvah in preparation for these High Holy Days by immersing into the living and loving waters of Lac Manitou this past weekend.

After 57 beautiful, precious years in a house designed by my mother on a piece of graph paper, a house whose cedar walls held us as she raised my three siblings and me and has been welcoming various combinations of 14 grandchildren for winter and summer vacations, we’ve made the heartfelt decision to relieve it of its well-worn and tired bones and to rebuild it for the next generation. 

Over the last two months, Andi and I together with my mother and her wife have sifted and sorted through nearly six decades worth of beach toys and ski gear, linen and dishes, books and photographs, board-games and art. We donated, recycled, and packed up the old in order to make way for the new. It’s been physically and emotionally draining. But having completed the task on the eve of the High Holy Days, something about it also feels spiritually auspicious, and it’s Rachel’s unique coupling of organization with deep learning that has helped me understand why. 

“Hayom Harat Olam '' we repeat over and over again on Rosh Hashanah. Today the world was created, and is recreated. There’s a profound connection between creation and configuration, between rebirth and rearrangement. We learn this from the very first words of the Torah. Many people can recite them: בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ, and most would translate them as “In the beginning God created heaven and the earth”, but that’s not the most accurate translation. Better would be, “When God began to create heaven and earth” as the Jewish Publication Society records in their Tanakh.

Our search to understand the origins of the universe has captivated mystics, scholars and scientists for millennia and driven so much progress in the field of cosmology. Just this summer NASA unveiled the James Webb Space Telescope which offers more detailed pictures than ever before of what the universe looked like when it came into being 13.8 billion years ago. But the reality is that our knowledge of what preceded or precipitated the big bang is less empirical and more contemplative, as are these opening words of the Torah. What our sacred origin story explains is not the inscrutable source of the material out of which the world was formed, but the process by which the Divine shaped it into a coherent whole. 

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ,When God began to create heaven and eart, וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ, the earth was unformed, was chaos…God separated the light from the darkness…God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water’. God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. God called the expanse Sky…God said, ‘Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear’…God called the dry land Earth and called the gathering of waters Seas. And God saw that this was good.

The Torah’s story of creation is a story about organizing the raw, jumbled material of the universe and making it orderly, functional and beautiful. What I realized these last weeks is that our own personal stories of renewal and re-creation, those we endeavor to write anew each year during this season of teshuvah by returning order and beauty to our relationships unfold in the very same way. But alas, I was not the first to discover this.

On Rosh Hashanah of 1941, Rabbi Kalonymous Kalmish Shapira, the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto taught: “The time for repentance is Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world.  This is because repentance…is also a kind of creativity.” How is doing teshuvah an act of creation?

Let me explain how it is not an act of creation. Teshuvah isn’t about wiping the slate clean and starting over. We can’t erase the past or pretend it didn’t happen. But teshuvah is an act of creation when we wrestle with the past, learn from it, repair it, and move forward with compassion and commitment to growth. Just as in the Torah creation was a process of separating and organizing the world’s primordial chaos, the “tohu vavohu”, when we contend with our inner turmoil caused by failure, pain, offense and regret, we separate out our negative behaviour and feelings from our capacity for healing and forgiveness. We unravel our complex and often conflicting feelings of anger and longing, resentment and loneliness until we can pull out and elevate the emotion that matters most of all: love. We reorganize our feelings and our values by taking responsibility for our actions, asking for - and granting - forgiveness. 

Whether as nations, communities, families or friends, when we take teshuvah seriously we confront and clean up the messes we inevitably create or experience and bring order to the chaos of our relationships caused by selfishness, jealousy, vulnerability and hostility. We don’t start from scratch. Instead, we rebuild a foundation for rekindled trust, renewed collaboration, replenished generosity and restored dignity.

Sadly, the world we live in would have us believe that when our bonds with one another fray - whether personal, professional or political bonds - the response is to cancel and abandon each other. That is not the Jewish way. While not every relationship is destined to last forever, there is much that can be salvaged and restored, or reimagined, by taking the time to do the painstaking work of decluttering: clearing out the obstacles and burdens weighing you down and putting them in their rightful place. We are way too quick to throw away friendships, to walk away from community, to shut out relatives, to refuse to associate with colleagues. Yes, we’ve been offended. Yes, we’ve made mistakes. Yes, we’re angry. Yes, we feel bad. And if you’re like me, yes, we were right. But walking away doesn’t make the jumble of feelings less cumbersome. It becomes one more bag we struggle to carry as we move through life.

Untangling our knotted feelings isn’t only for the purpose of reweaving them into something new. It’s also to be able to see each one in their own light; to hold and honor the pain we carry. That’s hard to do. It’s much easier to avoid that by focusing on our anger.  But when we’re able to isolate and look at our feelings, we can begin to see the spaces in between them that contain the potential for something different. That’s the Jewish way.

Anyone who can relate to not being able to get a stitch of work done if their office is in disarray can understand how clarity is often inspired by the process of creating order out of chaos, of cataloging and putting things away. But be careful: over-organization is just another form of chaos. Trying to exert so much control over our feelings by forcing them away is another way of not really dealing with them, in the same way that overscheduling our time helps us avoid confronting our loneliness, our struggle to be at peace within ourselves. Marie Kondo aside, there is value to the chaos itself. Dr. Miriam Faust, director of the Brain and Language Laboratory at Bar Ilan University, writes about how critical the experience of “tohu vavohu”, of the chaotic breakdown of norms and patterns, is to our ability to ever conceive of new ways of thinking or being. For our purposes, facing the breakdown of relationships or the fracturing of our own sense of self is what generates for us the more expansive view of what’s really possible, of what we’re truly capable of, and of how to put our pieces back together in a new, more hopeful configuration.

Even the word “holy”/kadosh literally means “separate”. And the word for the most intimate relationship, that of marriage, is kiddushin, reinforcing this teaching that the path to sacred living, to sustained and continually renewable loving energy, is to sift through the maze of complicated and difficult emotions that can often overwhelm, and even destroy, and to separate out and distinguish that which can heal, nourish and honor, in order to envision and fulfill our dreams for ourselves and for each other.

The ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which the mystics believed was a microcosm of the universe, was also built using this kind of spiritual feng shui. Anthropologist Mary Douglas explains how its interior design intentionally organized different sacred spaces into a progressive flow, providing different settings for the different emotional and spiritual sensations a pilgrim might experience, and allowing order and structure to help generate an encounter with the holy One. 

Judaism itself is continually renewed through this creative process of sorting and separating. Delving into a sacred text and the relevance of its message, we immerse ourselves into a cacophony of scholarly voices from around the world and across time offering myriad interpretations and analyses, and then we filter their voices so as to hear the ones who still speak to us today.  Wrestling with how the tradition should shape and be shaped by surrounding cultures and mores, every generation of rabbis and cantors, teachers and leaders, parents and kids – we all sort through the treasures of inherited practices and beliefs trying to reorder and reorganize them into a Jewish lifestyle that offers us meaning, connection and purpose, and to whose claims upon us we’re prepared to submit. Some Jewish values and rituals have lasting significance. Some are transformed to make room for more progressive or enlightened expressions of who we understand ourselves to be. Some are sent to the archives. It can be a painful process, but birth, and rebirth, of any kind usually is. These dynamics of continuous Jewish renewal, rooted in biblical and rabbinic precedent, are the key to why Judaism and the Jewish people continue to thrive after four millennia, and will for millennia yet to come. 

I think this is all what Rachel so wisely intuited, and what animated her life and work. As a wildly creative and profound thinker, she understood that the tohu vavohu, the chaos that we all inevitably encounter - in our closets, our relationships, our religious beliefs, or in the deepest recesses of our souls -  can be troubling and cumbersome, even paralyzing, but that the only pathway to gaining new perspective is to sort through that chaos, as God sorted through the clustered building blocks of life itself, to make room in our minds and room in our hearts for the new possibilities that exist and the potential that always percolates. 

Had Rachel been there this summer, I know she would have had choice words for some of the stuff we ended up keeping. But she would have encouraged us, reminding us that our sorting and packing was creating the space for the next generations of memories a new house will make possible, not by diminishing or erasing the past we enjoyed there, but by reconfiguring it to allow for the future. 

Had she been here these past weeks to talk through this teaching with me she would have helped me see the deeper lesson of the Torah’s creation story: that the rebirth of our hearts and souls is made possible only by our willingness to reorganize our relationships that may have fallen into disarray and to dust off the cobwebs of our commitments and values which have lain dormant.  

And then she would have rolled her eyes, annoyed at how long it took me to understand this powerful, sacred connection between teshuvah and creation. 

Hayom Harat Olam. Today the world is created and re-created. According to the rabbis, today marks not the first day of creation, but the 6th, the day on which humanity was created. But we repeat “hayom harat olam” recognizing that each life is a universe unto itself. And just as everything in the universe, from tiny subatomic particles to huge clusters of galaxies, is in a constant state of change, so are we - our bodies and our souls. Today is the day we take control of that inescapable change and imbue it with attention, intention, and love.

Take these words of author, artist and spiritual leader Jan Richardson with you as you consider the task of personal re-creation before each of you: 

To all that is chaotic

in you,

let there come silence.

Let there be

a calming

of the clamoring,

a stilling

of the voices that

have laid their claim

on you,

that have made their

home in you,

that go with you

even to the

holy places

but will not

let you rest,

will not let you

hear your life

with wholeness

or feel the grace

that fashioned you.

Let what distracts you


Let what divides you


Let there come an end

to what diminishes

and demeans,

and let depart

all that keeps you

in its cage.

Let there be

an opening

into the quiet

that lies beneath

the chaos,

where you find

the peace

you did not think


and see what shimmers

within the storm.

(“Blessing in the Chaos” from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief)

In this season of return, may Rachel’s neshamah find a clear and uncluttered path to keep making her way home to the Source of Life, to the holy One that renews and unites us all.