Archive for the ‘Family’ category

The Middah of Shalom Bayit

October 14, 2016

Without question or doubt, the most famous figure in the Mussar Movement was the Chofetz Chaim.  Indeed he is considered by many to be the most famous rabbi of the latter half of the 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries.  To this day, no rabbi of the modern era is held in as high an esteem as is he.

Actually, Chofetz Chaim, which means “Desirer of Life”, was not his name but rather it was Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan.  Chofetz Chaim happens to be the title of his first book on living an ethical life.  However, the impact of this book was so great that he and the book became synonymous, not unlike Kleenex and facial tissues, to make a rather poor analogy.  He established a yeshiva in Radin, Poland to which students from around the world flocked.  His was the greatest spiritual and ethical voice of his time and his legacy remains vital today.  In fact, in his day, there were many who believed that he was one of the 36 righteous people of his generation, for whose sake, as our tradition teaches, God preserved the world from destruction.  It is a sad irony of history that he, who lived such a sacred life, to the ripe old age of 95, shedding so much spiritual light on the world, died in September of 1933, just as the shadow of Nazism was beginning to darken the future of Europe.

There is a story about the Chofetz Chaim which I would like to share.  At one time, he was asked how he was able to have such a great impact on the Jewish world.  This is how he answered:  “I set out to change the world, but I failed.  So I decided to scale back my efforts and only influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too.  So I targeted the community of my hometown of Radin, but I achieved no greater success.  Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family and I failed at that as well.  Finally, I decided to change myself and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”[1]

This story cuts straight to the heart and beauty of Mussar and is an essential message as to what Yom Kippur is all about.  For Mussar and Yom Kippur both teach us that if we wish to make the world a better place, we have to start with ourselves.  For the first step to making the world better is to be found in making ourselves better.

While it true that we certainly are able to impact the world and the people around us, we cannot control them.  But what we can control is ourselves.  We choose our behaviors and the attitudes which drive them.  As Mussar tries to teach us, if we can adjust our attitudes for the better, then we can change our behaviors for the better, and that will bring us closer to God and our fellow human beings.  Not only that, but those changes can be contagious.  When we think about the people in our lives who have truly inspired us, more often than not, we think about the people who have been of exceptional character.  They have been loving and sensitive, generous of their time and attention, always helpful, caring for the wellbeing of others, and rarely, if ever, appearing selfish or self-involved.  These are the people, more often than not, we identify as the ones we wish to emulate.  By being the type of people who they are, they have, by example, helped us to make of ourselves better people.  The more we become like them, the more we can inspire others as well.  That is one of the most important ways that we can help to change the world, by starting with changing ourselves.

The Middot of Mussar guide us in the various ways that we can affect those changes if we but choose to take on the values and perspectives they offer.  One such Middah is that of Shalom Bayit.

Shalom Bayit literally means, “Peace in the Home,” and very often the phrase is used to refer to its basic meaning, that of promoting “domestic tranquility”; principles like “don’t go to bed angry”.  But it also possesses a far more complex meaning.  In order to attain a fuller understanding of this Middah, we need to explore in greater depth what is meant by both “Shalom” and “Bayit”.

When most people think of the word “Shalom”, for it is a word that is not only familiar to Jews but to non-Jews as well, we tend to simply think of the word “Peace” but its inner meaning is far more than “peace” as “peace” is all too often understood; as being the opposite of war, a cessation of hostilities.  “Shalom” is far more than that.

To better understand how this is so, a little Hebrew grammar lesson is in order.  Unlike English, all the letters in the Hebrew alphabet are consonants.  Originally, in Hebrew, vowel sounds were understood but not written.  Only later, in the 6th century c.e., when Jews were less familiar with the Hebrew language, were the vowel symbols we have today introduced by a group of scholars called Masoretes.  Most Hebrew verbs have 3-letter roots which capture the essence of the meaning of the verb.  However, by changing the interplay between the root letters and the vowel, you can adjust the nuance of the meaning of the word to the point where it can actually become a noun or an adjective.

Now we can return to the word “Shalom”.  The root of “Shalom” is the verb “Shalem” which means “to complete” or “to make whole”.  “Shalom” means more than just a cessation of hostilities.  It requires a sense of “completeness” and “wholeness.”  Therefore, for true “Shalom” to exist, there needs to be a healing of whatever was broken in the relationship so that the relationship returns to wholeness; to a sense of harmony and a state of unity.  So, for example, it is not “Shalom” if the Israelis and the Palestinians just agree to stop shooting at each other, even if they agree upon mutually acceptable borders between them.  It only can become “Shalom” if they find a way to live cooperatively with one another, as neighbors and friends as well as simply neighboring nations.

Another important aspect of “Shalom” is that it is not a passive principle.  It just doesn’t happen in and of itself.  We must actively create it.  We must pursue it.  We cannot merely sit by idly and wait for others to come and make peace with us.  No matter how hurt or offended we are, we must take the peacemaking initiative.  That rule not only applies when we are among those engaged in the conflict but also when we are witnesses to conflicts between others.  Hillel said:  “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.”[2]  There is a Midrash which tells of how whenever Aaron learned of a conflict between two people, he would go to one of them and tell that person that he had just met with the other person who deeply regretted their falling out and was eager to heal the relationship.  Then Aaron would go to the other person and tell that person the same thing.  When next the two adversaries met, they would forgive each other and embrace.[3]   In so doing, Aaron was following the example of no one less than God, for as we say about God at the end of the Mourner’s Kaddish, “Oseh Shalom bimromav, hu ya’a’seh shalom aleinu v’al kawl Yisraeil.  Veimru:  Amen” – “May the One who makes peace in the High Places, make peace among us and among all Israel.  And let us say:  Amen.”  As Aaron was a peacemaker, and God is a peacemaker, so must we become peacemakers as well.

Now, what about the meaning of “Bayit”?  Literally, it means “house”.  So, on its most literal level, seeking “Shalom Bayit” means establishing an environment of “Shalom” in our homes – under our roofs – with whoever lives in our houses, whether they be family or roommates.  It is not enough to merely share living space with these people.  We need to share our lives with them.  We need to have a real sense of connection to them.  We need to respect each other.   We need to care about each other.  We need to support each other.  In the Talmud it says, “If your wife is short, bend over to hear her whisper.”[4]  When it comes to the members of our household, we should be willing to bend over backwards, so to speak, for them, so great should be our desire to feel the harmony of our relationship.  So great should be our desire that, for the sake of that harmony we can find the strength to exercise restraint.  In any close family situation, there can be found many sources of potential disagreement.  But part of the art of Shalom Bayit is knowing how to pick our battles; which issues are worth fighting over and which ones we just need to let them pass.  As a friend once put it, asking ourselves, “Is this the ditch I wish to die in?”  Sometimes Shalom Bayit calls upon us to just hold back and swallow our emotions, for the sake of the harmony.  Still, if there are those issues that need to be grappled with, we need to do so with moderation and sanity.  As my blessed mother used to say, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Yet “Bayit” can carry with it a broader meaning as well.

Just as we can consider “Bayit” to mean our family who lives under the same roof as do we, it also can be expanded, and should be expanded, to our extended family, no matter how great the physical distance is between us.  Our lives today can become so busy that we find ourselves giving little thought, nevertheless attention, to our family members who live far away.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Maybe we get together with them once or twice a year; more often when there is a simcha like a wedding or a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or, God forbid, some tzures, such as a funeral or a life threatening hospitalization.  But other than that, we may allow the physical distance between us to create an emotional distance as well.  It may not be because of some actual conflict, but still we may have allowed the “Shalom” between us to erode merely out of benign neglect.  When it comes to family, it is so important for us to break down the geographic walls that can so narrowly define our sense of “Bayit.”  We cannot let go of the fact that when it comes to family, the boundaries of our “Bayit” extend far beyond those of state or even national borders.  It is up to us to actively pursue the “Shalom” of this “Bayit” as well, and we do so by making the efforts to remain personally connected; making the efforts to reach out in such ways so that we can continue to share in their lives and they in ours.

In Hebrew the plural of “Bayit” is “Beitim”.  Aside from our “Bayit” of family, wherever they may reside, in our hectic world, we find ourselves living in many different “Beitim”, and it each of them, our lives should likewise be governed by the Middah of Shalom Bayit.  The workplace is such a “Bayit”.  So is the school.  So are our neighborhoods and the sports teams to which our children belong.  Indeed in our ever shrinking world, our cities, our states, our country, the world itself are all our “Beitim” and if we want life to be good or better in any of them, then we have to do our part to create a sense of Shalom Bayit within them.  We have to be their Aarons; their lovers and pursuers of peace.

Tonight we are gathered in this synagogue.  This, too, is one of our “Beitim”.  We even call it a “House of Prayer”.  And like the “Bayit” in which we reside, we, too, are a family; a Temple family.  As important as the pursuit of the Middah of Shalom Bayit is to each of our households, it is just as important for us here in this “Bayit”.  We are many people, which of course means that we are going to have many different opinions.  You know what they say about us Jews – where you find 2 Jews you will find 3 opinions, at least 3.  Of course there are many things about which we are going to disagree.  That is only natural.  We’ll disagree about politics.  We’ll disagree about current events.  And when it comes to the Temple, there will be even more about which we will disagree, from the cost of dues, to the amount of Hebrew in the service, to the topics of the rabbi’s sermons, to the way the budget is structured, to the nature of the religious school, even to the menu for the onegs.  Yet there are some things we should agree upon, such as this is our “Bayit” and we are a family.  Even with all the things over which we disagree, we still not only value, and not only hunger for, but are also willing to work for an ever growing sense of Shalom Bayit, in this, our house.  We must never forget that we need each other; that there is still far, far more which binds us together than drives us apart; that we are better together than we are apart.  For in the end, we are a family and as such, our primary mission should be to care for and support each other; to be there for each other in times of joy and in times of sorrow; to work hand-in-hand with each other in the building of a true and wholesome Jewish community – a better Jewish community.  Disagreements can be resolved and differences can be overcome, as long as we hold before our eyes the vision of a congregation governed by the Middah of Shalom Bayit; a place where we can value each other, respect each other, support each other, and nourish each other as we join together to strive for the achievable ideals that God and our Judaism have placed before us.

AMEN

[1]  This story is found in EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis.

[2] PIRKE AVOT 1:12.

[3] From MIDDOT:  A STAIRWAY OF VIRTUES by Ron Isaacs, p. 59.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59a.

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The Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut: A Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

October 5, 2016

Last night I announced that I planned to dedicate the remainder of this year’s High Holy Day sermons to a sharing of some of the potentially life altering lessons of Mussar.  And so I shall.  But before I can do that, an introduction to Mussar itself is in order so as to put these lessons into an understandable context.  If you wish to enter into a deeper exploration of Mussar – and I hope you will – then I cannot recommend highly enough the book EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis.  It has inspired me and I know it will inspire you.[1]

The word Mussar literally means “correction” or “instruction” and also has become one of the more popular words that is used today for “ethics.”  Back in the second half of the 19th century, in Lithuania, Rabbi Israel Salanter started a movement of Jewish study which centered upon examining our ethical values and how they can influence our behaviors and therefore our lives, especially our spiritual lives.  That movement came to be called the Mussar Movement, and it remains alive and well today.

Rabbi Salanter came to understand that Halachah – Jewish law – could only take us so far in our quest to develop healthy spiritual lives.  For Halachah addresses our behaviors; our actions and our restraint from actions.  It calls upon us to adopt a system of Mitzvot – a discipline of sacred behaviors – which can have the effect  of raising us up to a higher spiritual plain.  But the performance of Mitzvot, as he and all of us have observed, can easily devolve into become a mechanical and meaningless routine.  Therefore there needs to be something deeper within us, which drives the Mitzvot and keeps them alive, fresh, and meaningful.  And this is precisely where Mussar comes in, for while Halachah addresses our behaviors, Mussar addresses the underlying attitudes which inform our behaviors.  And for Mussar, our attitudes are fundamentally a function of our souls.

In order to better appreciate Mussar you need to understand Mussar’s approach to the soul.  First of all, in Mussar we do not possess a soul, as if it were something apart from us that could be surgically removed like a kidney, but rather we ARE a soul.  It is our soul which makes us into distinct individuals.  All our physical attributes can change, and many do.  My hair is growing gray.  I used to have a 28” waistline.  Yet we remain the same people.  Even identical twins possess their own individuality.  It is the soul and not the body that is the seat of our individuality.

While the soul is one, it does have three aspects to it.  That is just like us.  Each of us is one individual but still, there are many different aspects to who we are. For example, I am a rabbi, a man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a teacher, a community volunteer, an American, a Jew, etc.  So it is with the soul.  The three aspects of the soul, as identified by our tradition, are the Neshamah, the Ruach, and the Nefesh.  The Neshamah is the inner core of the soul.  It is the very essence of the divinity within us.  Therefore it is inalterably holy and pure, and that can never change.  The Ruach is, for lack of a better term, the life force within us.  It is the Ruach that animates our body and impacts, and is impacted by, our physical condition.  Then there is the Nefesh.  The Nefesh is the center for our personality traits and our attitudes.  The nature and condition of our Nefesh can be altered by the choices we make and the actions we take.  It can be stained and it can be cleansed.  You could compare the relationship between the Neshamah and the Nefesh to that of the sun and the weather.  The Neshamah is like the sun, always radiating light and heat, and the Nefesh is like the weather, sometimes letting the holy light and heat of the Neshamah into our lives and sometimes blocking it out.

It is with the nature of the Nefesh that Mussar is most concerned, the goal of Mussar being to help us develop a healthy Nefesh, so that each of us can reside, so to speak, in the spiritual Sunbelt.

Mussar calls the character traits of the Nefesh, MiddotMiddah in the singular.  Middah literally means a “measure” and in this context, it is the measure of our attitudes.  It is our attitudes which inform our actions.  If we embrace one attitude we will act in one way but it we embrace another attitude, we will act in quite a different way.

Mussar envisions our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to another, such as from greed to generosity.  Both ends of such continuums can be equally destructive.  So, for example, excessive greed can cut us off from all human relationships while excessive generosity can lead us to giving everything away to the point that we can no longer survive.  What we need is to find some sort of combination of both extremes, where they each moderate the other in such a way as to establish the ideal mix.  So, for example, that we become generous enough to make a real difference in the lives of the less fortunate yet remain greedy enough to restrain our altruism in such a way that we keep sufficient means to sustain and maintain ourselves and our families.  Achieving such ideal mixtures is the function of the Middot.

The principle which governs how we determine where along the continuum the Middah should reside is to be found in the Torah portion we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon.  It comes from LEVITICUS, chapter 9, verse 2, in which God states, “You shall be holy for I Adonai your God am holy.”  The proper mix – the Middah – is the one that leads us best to a high state of holiness; to spiritual self-improvement; to a cleansing of our Nefesh and a release of more sacred light into our lives from our Neshamah.

Now we are ready to examine our first Middah; the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  This Middah seeks to help us grapple with the issue of trust in our lives.  Trust, like all the other attitudes as viewed by Mussar, exists along a continuum.  On one end of that continuum is a trust which is so absolute that how can we consider it anything other than gullibility?  Those individuals who live on that end of the continuum believe everyone they meet and everything they hear.  As such, they are forever ripe targets for those who seek to take advantage of them.  On the other end of the continuum is such an absence of trust that it is nothing less than paranoia.  Those people believe no one they meet and nothing that they hear.  So Mussar, tells us that somewhere in between those two extreme is the ideal balance of absolute trust and absolute distrust.  That meeting place is the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.

The Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut deals particularly with the level of trust we invest in our fellow human beings.  This is not just a challenge for the gullible and the paranoid among us.  This is a problem each and every one of us faces.  I suspect that for most of us, hardly a day passes when we do not find ourselves in situations which call upon us to make judgements about other people.   And if we were to be honest with ourselves, how often it is that we find ourselves all too ready to jump to our own conclusions, most of the time thinking the worst of others; we are so ready to embrace the negative.  We are so ready to ascribe an evil or selfish intent upon the actions of others.  “They wanted to hurt me!”  How we can savor a juicy piece of gossip!  The darker the rumor, the more ready we are to believe it and how ready we are to pass it on to others.  Our tradition even has a name for this.  We call it Lashon HaRa – “the Evil Tongue”, and of it the rabbis said that it is a sin worse than murder, for the murderer only destroys one soul but the purveyor of Lashon HaRa destroys three – his or her soul, the soul of the subject of the tale, and the soul of the one who listens to it.

But don’t feel too bad, don’t beat yourself up about it, for just this summer I found out that it’s not all our fault.  It turns out that there is a whole branch of psychology called Evolutionary Psychology.  Science Daily describes Evolutionary Psychology in this way:  “Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, i.e., as the functional products of natural selection.”  In other words, there are certain aspects of the human psychological makeup which have become almost instinctual within us as a product of the process of evolution.  Our readiness to think the worst about people is part of that phenomenon.  Our brains are hotwired to expect the negative and that tendency can be traced back to the earliest days of human history when the world was a very hostile place and we always needed to be on our guard if we were ever to survive.  That is why, still today, it is part of our makeup that our anger tends to linger while our gratitude quickly fades.  We tend to cling to the memories of how others have hurt us and suppress those memories of how they blessed us.  We are so ready to forget and throw away all the good times because of one bad time.

That being said, our Judaism has always taught us that we are much more than our instincts.  There are times when we need to transcend our instincts – rise above them – in order to make of ourselves better people.  And this issue of trust is one of those times.  And that brings us right back to the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for that is precisely what this Middah calls upon us to do; to rise above our instinctual urges to assume negative intent in the actions and the words of our fellow human beings.  For Dan L’Chaf Zechut literally means “Judge others according to a scale of merit,” or in more colloquial terms, “Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt.”  In spite of our psychology, and maybe even our biology, we have to get over our instinct to rush to judgement and assume the worst of others.

We have to stop ourselves from automatically thinking negatively and say, at least to ourselves, and even better to others as well, “Wait a minute!  I know this person.  And knowing what I do know about this person, do I really believe that this person was capable of doing that or saying that?  Do I really believe that this person intentionally wanted to hurt others?  Could it be that this report is faulty or exaggerated, or some of the facts are missing?  You know, generally speaking there are two sides to every story.  I sure would like to hear the other side before I am ready to jump on the condemnation bandwagon.”

Overcoming this instinct of ours to generally think the worst is a real challenge.  In fact, there are very few people I have known who have ever become masters of it; who somehow inoculated themselves from such massive negativity.  One of them was my mother, and another was a person who lived in this community and has since passed away.  Many of you knew her.  Martha Stone.

For many years, our adult education program included a Wednesday morning book study group.  We called it “Sefarim” which is Hebrew for “Books.”  Among its members were Martha and Alex Stone.  From 10:00 to 11:30 every Wednesday morning we gathered in the Temple Library and seriously studied books of our choosing.  Of course, as is common in study groups that have met over time, and in which the participants get to really know each other more than just in passing, there were mornings when book talk was sidetracked by community talk, particularly about this or that hot button topic.  Invariably, when one person or another, in a fit of aggravation, complained, “Did you hear what so-&-so did or said?” and then went on to recount the offensive remarks or actions, Martha was always quick to jump in and say “Wait a minute.  Maybe that person was trying to say X instead of Y.  Maybe that person was trying to do A instead of B.”  She always gave people the benefit of the doubt.  She always assumed that their intentions were good, and not evil, and she always tried to make others see that as well.  She always chose to see the good in people rather than the bad.  She was the personification of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  And how I admired her for it.  How I always wished that I could be more like her.

Martha clearly understood what we all need to understand.  People aren’t throwaways.  Every human being is both precious and fragile.  Except for the relatively few truly evil people in the world, the vast majority of us are spending our lives, trying to do the right thing, or at least the right thing as we see it.  Granted that sometimes we get so lost in our pursuit of our version of the right, that we wind up doing the wrong thing; the wrong thing for what we believe to be the right reasons.  We all, every once and a while wander off the path.  We all can miss the mark.  That is why our tradition uses the word Chet as one of the words for “sin” for “Chet” literally means “missing the mark.”  But at the end of the day, right or wrong, we are trying to do the best we can.  This is why the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut is so important.  For in this imperfect world populated by imperfect people, if we are going to measure each other, we need to measure each other on the scale of merit rather than on the scale of demerit.  We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt or we will wind up tearing each other apart.  Only then can we raise ourselves up to a higher spiritual plain as we begin to heal the world rather than destroy it.

One last thought.  For those of you who have accompanied me for all or a good part of my 32 year Quad Cities journey through the High Holy Days, you know that it has been my tradition to focus my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon on some lesson we can draw from the Torah portion – the Akedah – the attempted sacrifice of Isaac.  I would be remiss if I were to abandon that tradition this year, of all years, for my last Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon before you.  So consider this.

Today’s Torah portion presents us with an Abraham who also could embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for even though he had to check and double check God’s instructions about offering Isaac up for a sacrifice, in the end he did not resist it nor did he turn his back on God and walk away.  He planned to go through with it.  Why?  Not because he was an unfeeling father and not because he did not love Isaac dearly.  But rather because, based upon his knowledge and experience of God, he trusted God implicitly.  Knowing the type of god God is – living in a world that was filled with those who believed in many harsh and brutal gods – when it came to his God, Abraham was trusting and faithful enough to embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  Knowing that his God is a God of justice and compassion, he gave God the benefit of the doubt, truly believing that everything would work out for the best.  And it did.  Maybe one of the reasons that we read this story as we begin the new year is because, perhaps in this coming year, we will learn to become more like Abraham, trusting in the good of others and every ready to offer them the benefit of the doubt.  Dan L’Chaf Zechut.

AMEN

 

[1]  So much of my knowledge of Mussar is drawn from my studies of Alan Morninis’ book, EVERYDAY HOLINESS, and the book TEACHING JEWISH VIRTUES:  SACRED SOURCES AND ARTS ACTIVITIES, by Susan Freeman, that I am no longer certain where their teachings take off and my “original” thought begins.  I share this with you in the spirit of the Middah, B’Shem Omro, “Giving Proper Acknowledgement of Sources of the Knowledge We Share With Others”.

It All Begins With God: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

October 4, 2016

Every year we join our fellow Jews around the world in making our annual pilgrimage to the synagogue in observance of the High Holy Days.  But what is it that draws us to this place on this night?  On any given Shabbat, with the exception of special events, there are far, far more empty seats in this sanctuary than there are those that are occupied.  But tonight, the seats that are filled clearly outnumber the seats that are empty.  It is not that we are alone in this experience.  The same could be said of most houses of worship – Jewish and otherwise – across our land.  The non-Jews too have their special days on which their people flock to their sanctuaries in numbers far exceeding their Sabbath worship attendance.

But why is that?  I know that if I were to go around this sanctuary right now and ask each and every one of you individually, “Why did you come here tonight?  What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue” that I would receive an extensive and varied collection of responses.  While as diverse as those responses would be, I suspect that the majority of them would have something to do with connecting with one’s fellow Jews or somehow affirming one’s personal Jewish identity.  “I do it because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.  They go to services on the High Holy Days.”

Now I am sure that there are those of you who feel that way; that there are those of you who feel truly, in your heart of hearts, that “I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do on the High Holy Days” is reason enough to be here tonight.  But is it really?  At one time, maybe it was, but is it now?

I can tell you, not only as a rabbi whose rabbinic career is drawing to a close, but more importantly, as a Jew who has spent his life in the synagogue – and not just any synagogue, but in the Reform synagogue – no longer is that answer enough.  At one time, observing the High Holy Days if, for no other reason than “I am a Jew and this is what Jews do,” meant truly observing them.  It meant, not just going to a service here or a service there and feeling satisfied that we have done our duty to our Jewish identity, but it meant truly setting aside these days for us and our families as Jewish days; as days on which we withdraw from our engagement with the rest of the world and maintain our focus on who we are as Jews.

As a child growing up in New York City in the ‘50‘s and the ‘60’s, it was utterly unthinkable for my Classical Reform Jewish father to attend the Rosh Hashanah Evening service and then go to work on Rosh Hashanah Day, or to go to work after the Rosh Hashanah Morning service, and you could count on the fact that on Yom Kippur my parents spent the entire day in our synagogue, and they were far from alone in that.  And so it was with us children as well.  There was no question in my house as to whether or not I was going to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even for part of the day, for I was not.  If I had even broached the question with my parents – a highly unlikely scenario – they would have had none of it.  Like my parents, I was not alone in this.  For all of my religious school friends, it was the same.  We were in the synagogue for all of the services, sitting beside our parents.

Yet if my parents and most of their contemporaries were asked back then the question I asked you this evening – “What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue?” – many of them, including my parents – or at least my father – would have given the same answer “Because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.”  But that was then and this is now.  For many of my parents’ generation grew up as Orthodox Jews who later discovered Reform Judaism.  My father’s grandfather had been a noted Orthodox educator back in Europe.  Theirs was the generation that experienced both the agony of the Holocaust and the ecstasy of the birth of Israel.  Their Jewish identity was indelibly impressed upon them by the forces of history and family tradition.  Therefore a more active observance of the High Holy Days was a natural expression of their Jewish identity and a product of their experiences and upbringing.

But we are not them, for our experiences and our upbringing are not theirs.  Today, the number of Jews who set these days aside and make it clear to the rest of the world that “You are just going to have to do without me on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” is dwindling.  And it will continue to dwindle, especially as so many of our children are raised in households which choose to send then to school rather than to services on the High Holy Days.

It is not that we are bad people, or even bad Jews.  It is just that with the passage of time, the world has changed and for many Jews, being Jewish and going to the synagogue on the High Holy Days simply because that is what Jews do, is no longer enough of a reason to seriously dedicate more than perhaps a portion of these days to that part of us which is Jewish.

Of course I am certainly prejudiced on this matter, but I believe that the High Holy Days, and indeed Judaism and Jewish life itself, are too important, too precious, not only to us as Jews but to the world, to be allowed to dwindle away into nothingness.  There is a good reason why we have survived for 4,000 years in spite of the efforts of all those who have tried to destroy us.  There is a good reason why we – who have always been so few in numbers – have made such a significant impact upon not only the history of humanity but upon the culture of humanity.  And that reason is to be found enfolded into the very fabric of the Judaism we have come to this synagogue tonight to observe.  It is inherent in Judaism itself and it is both expressed and promoted in our observances and our values.  It is the Jewish perspective on what it means to be a part of humanity.  It is the Jewish call for building a better world on the foundations of compassion and right behavior.  It is the Jewish expectation that we constantly strive to make of ourselves better people.

It is vital for Jewish survival that we come to acknowledge that in the 21st century, doing Jewish things because this is what Jews do is no longer a compelling argument for us to continue to pursue a Jewish life.  There are just too many distractions and to be quite frank, many of them are simply more appealing.  They touch us in ways that are deeper than blindly following some traditions because our parents and grandparents did so.  So if we are to keep our Judaism alive, we need to seek out a deeper meaning in doing so.  Something that moves us.  Something that inspires us.  Something that touches our hearts and our souls, and fills us with a higher sense of purpose.

But where can that be found?  Where should our search begin?  Perhaps we need to go back in time, to a time before the reason Jews did Jewish things like observing the High Holy Days was just “because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do?”  When the reason Jews lived a Jewish life was more substantive than just keeping certain traditions alive for the sake of tradition; when Jews were bound to their Jewish identity by more than just a thin thread stretching back into their past but rather they were bound by golden cords that not only stretched back into their past but also wove intimately through their present and then travelled forward into their future.

So maybe we need to go back in time and ask those Jews “What is it, not just about the High Holy Days, but about Judaism itself that drew them to the synagogue and inspired them to live Jewish lives?”  While some of them still might say, “Because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do”, most of them would say something different. Most of them would talk about something that we today don’t spend enough time talking about, or even thinking about, for that matter.  They would talk about God and their relationship with God.  For them, God was a real player in their lives.  They felt connected to God in ways that we have somehow lost.

Of course one of the reasons that they felt more connected to God was because they felt more dependent on God.  There was so much in their world that they did not understand.  Why some people were struck down by dread diseases.  Why, at a moment’s notice, a storm could utterly destroy the livelihood and even the life of a family or an entire village.  So much seemed out of their control and therefore must be in the control of another, and that other was, in their minds, God.  So they feared God, or more precisely, they feared offending God.  They even called these High Holy Days the Yamim HaNora’im – the “Days of Awe” with the Hebrew word for “Awe” being the very same word as the Hebrew for “Fear.”  So prayer was very real to them.  It was a desperate attempt to communicate with a Divinity that was present in their daily lives, and by so doing hopefully change their future for the better.

We are most certainly not that people and the God whom they feared has little if any place in our lives.  Yet we would be sorely mistaken if we were to convince ourselves that the only God they believed in was the God to be feared. Quite the contrary, for their God was anything but one dimensional.  From the very beginning of Judaism, God was, and remains, a colorful and complex character.  As the High Holy Day prayer describes God, Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Parent, Our Sovereign.”  Powerful enough to be feared, like a king or a queen, but also loving and compassionate, like a caring mother or father.  Yes, these Jews feared God but they also loved God.  For God was not just the deliverer of punishments but also the giver of gifts. The gifts of life, of health, of food, of love, of beauty, of wisdom, of truth, of understanding, of knowledge, and of the abilities to learn and to create.  Indeed, they clearly understood that when it came to Judaism, it all begins with God.  From the moment of our people’s birth, when God first called to Abraham, Judaism was primarily about establishing a positive, healthy, and mutual relationship with God.  Without God, Judaism must fade away, for God is the foundation stone of everything that Judaism stands for.  Without God, Judaism becomes a meaningless and empty exercise, as empty and meaningless as the words in the prayer book when read by someone who chooses to watch the clock rather than search for a personal connection to God in the prayers.  For our Judaism – and for these High Holy Days – to have real meaning, we have to accept that it all begins with God.

Most Jews would agree that there is no more important a text in the Torah than the Ten Commandments.  The power of the Ten Commandments has not only touched the soul of the Jewish world but of the Christian world as well.  Our two faiths share the Ten Commandments, or so we think.  But believe it or not there are differences between the way the Christians read them and the way we Jews read them.  For the Christians, the first commandment states “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me,” while for us Jews, the first commandment is “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God”, period.  For us, it is the second commandment that reads “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  The Christian version is obviously a commandment.  It instructs to action – “Have no other gods before Me.”  But what about the Jewish version?  It appears to be a declarative statement – “I am the Eternal your God…” rather than a commandment.  Where is its call to action?  Well its call to action is implied and it is essential for everything else which follows; for all the other commandments to have any meaning.  The implied commandment is simply this:  Take this statement to heart and accept it as the foundation for all that follows.  Accept that God exists and that we as Jews live in a sacred relationship with God, and that all the other commandments, all the other expectations of actions and values that are found in the Torah and grow out of it across the ages, are but functions of that relationship between us and God.  They are there to define our role in that relationship.  They feed that relationship and in so doing draw us personally closer to God.

Over the past several years, I have found it odd indeed that people are interested in talking about and seeking spirituality but not so interested in talking about and seeking God, as if the two were completely separate experiences.  But they are not.  Spirituality is far more than just a good feeling about ourselves.  It is about our reaching out for God and God touching our lives.  How so?  Our tradition teaches us that we human beings are not like any other creature living on the earth for we possess something very special; a soul.  The soul was implanted within us by God in order to enable us to connect with God.  It is our divine umbilical cord, if you will, for it enables spiritual energy to flow between us and God.  But that spiritual energy does not flow freely.  It flows at our choosing.  We control how much or how little we receive; how wide or how narrow that umbilical cord is.  If it were solely up to God, the flow would be constant and vast, but God gave us the gift of free will so that we could choose how much or how little we would let God into our lives.  There is a Hasidic saying that “there is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  Sadly, for too many, that is exactly what has happened.  They have turned their control valve and limited the spiritual flow to a trickle, if not closed it off completely, and in so doing, abandoned themselves to being guided primarily or solely by their base animal instincts.  They have starved their souls from the spiritual nutrients they need.

But this need not remain the case.  We can open that value, reach out to God, and feel God’s presence in our lives.  We can feed our souls and in so doing grow as more spiritual and better human beings.  How do we accomplish such a feat?  That is what a better part of our Judaism is about.  It is about how we can connect with God and let God into our lives in beautiful and meaningful ways.  Through the Torah and our sacred teachings, we have been given the owner’s manual to the soul.  We have been instructed on how to awaken and strengthen our souls so that we can come to live our lives in an ongoing relationship with God.  Not just on the High Holy Days and not even just on Shabbat, but rather on a day-to-day basis.  For whether we realize it or not, our day-to-day lives are lived in a relationship with God.  However it is up to us what the nature of that relationship will be.  We can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which strengthen the bonds between us and God or we can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which weaken those bonds.  It is up to us.

This past year, here at Temple Emanuel, I taught a series of mini-courses on what our tradition calls MussarMussar is the companion to Halachah.  As Halachah constitutes a body of Jewish laws which lead us to right actions, Mussar constitutes a body of Jewish virtues or ethical perspectives which liberate our souls and enable us to adopt sacred and healthy life attitudes.  While Halachah instructs us about what we should do while living in a sacred relationship with God, Mussar instructs us about how we can better mold our attitudes so that they ultimately instinctually guide us into right behaviors and therefore transform our lives into an active partnership with God.

While the building blocks of Halachah are mitzvot – sacred actions – the building blocks of Mussar are middot – sacred values, sacred attitudes.  I am dedicating the remainder of my High Holy Day sermons to exploring various middot in the hopes that we will begin to understand that if we choose to strengthen our souls by taking on sacred attitudes, then that can lead us to living lives filled with sacred actions, which in turn will connect us more strongly to God and help us to grow into the type of people we aspire to become.

Once we perceive of our lives as being lived in a sacred partnership with God, then we will find that there are far more inspiring reasons to come to the synagogue on the High Holy Days than merely because we are Jews and this is what Jews do.

[1] Buber, Martin, TEN RUNGS:  HASIDIC SAYINGS, p. 102.

Holding On and Letting Go: Yizkor Sermon

November 6, 2014

When I was in seminary, rabbinic students were required to take only one course in what was then called “Human Relations.” Its purpose was to teach us that being a rabbi was not just about scholarly matters such as acquiring a command of Hebrew and becoming knowledgeable in Jewish laws and customs but it also was about developing our human interaction skills so that we could be better serve our congregants in both their times of need and also in the daily round of manifold synagogue activities; serve them with sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. Of course, folding all of that into only one course is a tall order, impossible to fill. Thankfully, today the rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College receive far more training in this important field.
As I recall that course, it seemed that our professor invested a majority of our time discussing issues surrounding death and funerals such as the mechanics of writing a eulogy and the dynamics of the conversations that take place in the limousine during the ride from the funeral to the cemetery, which may not make much sense to us here in the Quad Cities but does have some relevance in a community like New York City, where such a drive can take a considerable amount of time.
After ordination, it did not take my classmates or me long to discover that there was very little relationship between the content of that course and the reality of the interpersonal dynamics – the Human Relations – which are to be found in synagogue life. Indeed, considering how much time we spent exploring the role of the rabbi within the grief and mourning process, it was remarkable how out of touch with reality our curriculum had been.
So I, like most of of my contemporaries, found that whatever skills in matters of grief and mourning I would require, I would have to acquire on the job, so to speak. Over the years, I would learn from a growing body of experiences attained by standing beside so many grieving families as I attempted to offer whatever comfort and consolation I could. Yet still it require my own personal experiences of loss to take me to the next level; to understand, not just with my mind and my heart, but with every essence of my being, what it truly meant to lose someone you love.
Having assisted and supported so many mourners as they have accompanied their loved ones to the grave, I have had the opportunity to make many observations about how people deal with their grief. Of course, no two people are exactly alike in anything, and that includes how we deal with grief. Still patterns emerge, some of them good and what I consider to be healthy, and some not so much so.
One of the most difficult challenges I have seen mourners struggling with – and by mourners here, I do not just mean those who have suffered a recent loss but also those of us who have suffered loss whether it be recently or in the distant past – is the challenge of finding a healthy balance between holding on and letting go; holding on to our love and attachment to the one who is now gone and letting go of that person, not entirely but yet enough to enable ourselves to move on with our lives.
In my experiences, I have encountered those who cling so dearly to their loss that years go by and their grief is as fresh and as painful for them as it was on the day of their loved one’s passing. As strong as is their love, the memory of the one they love remains mostly a source of tears and pain for them. Often they bemoan, “How can I go on? Life will just never be the same!” Such people never allow the memory of their loved one to evolve into the warming presence that can bring them smiles and maybe even some laughter as well as tears. It remains more like a knife cutting into them rather than a loving companion, invisibly accompanying them with wisdom and insight as they continue their life journey.
How could we not admire such a profound love? What a testament it is to the person now gone. How could anyone in good conscience counsel, “You need to love that person less”? Yet these people hold on so tightly to their beloved dead; so tightly that their grief winds up strangling them. Somewhere along the line, they seem to have forgotten that this is probably the last thing the departed ever would have wished upon them; that they live the remainder of their life enveloped in grief and misery because of their loss.
Such people are so determined to hold on to what they can of their loved ones that they cannot begin to conceive that it is also perfectly permissible to let go of them as well. Not to forget them – God forbid, not to forget them – but to let go of the intensity of their grief and to permit those feelings to evolve into something more livable.
There is a story about a man so stricken with grief at the passing of his wife that on her headstone he has inscribed the message, “The light has gone out of my life!” Time passes and as fate would have it, he meets another woman and they fall in love. He wants to remarry but is wracked with guilt over the thought of betraying his first wife, especially considering the inscription on her headstone. So he goes to his rabbi for counsel. He tells the rabbi of his feelings and of the inscription. The rabbi thinks for a moment and then suggests, “Why don’t you have an additional inscription added to the stone right below the first?” Puzzled, the man inquires, “An additional inscription? What should it say?” The rabbi responded, “It should say, ‘But I struck another match.’”
So it should be with those among us who hold on so tightly to the pain of our loss and struggle with the very thought of letting go, even if just a little. We, too, need to “strike another match.” We need to discover ways of letting go – not forgetting – but letting go enough so that we can bring some semblance of joy back into our lives. For this is not just what we need but it is what our loved ones would wholeheartedly want for us.
Just as there are those among us to who hold on too tightly to their loss and have trouble letting go, there also are those who are too quick to let go – too eager to let go – as if they are afraid to hold on to anything, perhaps because they fear that holding on will prove to be just too painful for them. I know that type of fear. Up until the day my mother died, there was nothing I feared more on this earth than the passing of my parents. There was a time when I and two friends were caught in a crossfire between the Israeli army and Hezbollah terrorists, and that did not frighten me nearly as much as the thought of losing my parents. I could not begin to imagine what the world would be like without those special people who had always been there for me throughout my life. Having felt the fear, I can understand how for some that fear becomes so overwhelming that the only way they feel they can deal with it is by refusing to confront their loss, making every effort to put it behind them as quickly as possible and get on with their life.
As a rabbi, too many have been the times when I have witnessed this type of reaction on the part of mourners. I cannot tell you how deeply saddened I am when someone from the congregation passes away and their children, living out of town, come to me with a request like, “Rabbi, our flight lands at 9:00 in the morning. Would it be possible for us to hold the service at 10:00 so that we can catch a 1:30 flight back home? I can’t afford the time away from the office and the children need to get back to school.” While there is a part of me which wants to scream at them, “Isn’t the memory of your mother / your father worth your spending at least one night in the Quad Cities? Can’t you leave a little time in your life for mourning?” still I want to believe that they truly are not so heartless, so uncaring as people that they view their parent’s passing as nothing more as a gross inconvenience in their lives. I want to believe that they love their parents and that their parent’s passing hurts them deeply; so deeply that they convince themselves that the only way they can deal with it is by not dealing with it; by getting the funeral over and done with as quickly as possible and returning to their normal routines, making believe nothing has changed. All they want to do is let go and move on, or so they think.
But in reality, when we lose a loved one, much has changed in our lives, whether or not we wish to admit it. Because of it, we cannot just let go and move on. We cannot attempt to bury our pain, along with our loved one, for our pain will not go away. We can strive to jam it into the background, but it will keep popping out – painfully popping out – whether we like it or not.
When our body is injured, we understand the need to create space in our lives for physical recovery. The same is true for our souls. The loss of a loved one is an injury – a deep wound – to our souls and our souls need time to recover. They need time to adjust to their changed condition, especially when you consider that the injury to soul inflicted by the death of one so dear will never completely heal. We will carry a part of it with us for the rest of our lives. Making believe that no wound exists is foolishness, for it does exist and we cannot simply wish it away. We must learn how to live with it. We must learn how to transform it from intense pain to a duller pain that carries with it its own gifts; the gifts of warm memories of all that was good and loving in the relationship we once shared. There is much we need to hold on to, for holding on in such a way can enhance our lives rather than detract from them. Such holding on keeps the deceased alive on this earth, through our memories and our sharing of those memories.
So it is the balance of holding on and letting go which we should be seeking in our lives. For if such a balance we can discover, we can both render proper and fitting honor to the memories of those we loved, and we can live our lives more fully and meaningfully, as those memories help to guide us as we seek to make the most of our lives. It is to the task of finding that balance that this service of Yizkor is dedicated, for it calls upon us to both remember – for the word “Yizkor” means “Remember” – and to move forward with our lives, carrying those memories with us in positive and constructive ways.

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

Well, we made it through another one!  Christmas has come and gone – except for the post-Christmas sales – and Jews can breathe a sigh of relief as once again we can consider ourselves part of the mainstream of American life.

For quite some time I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  Believe it or not, there is so much that I, as a Jew and as a rabbi do love about the holiday.

My earliest recollections of Christmas prominently include my father taking my sister and me for a Christmas eve drive around our neighborhood so as to enjoy the beauty of the lights decorating the homes of our Christian neighbors.  I still enjoy going on those light tours, which of course today include visiting some of those over the top houses with their complex musical light shows.  I have to admit that as garish and as energy extravagant as those light shows are, they are fun to watch; that is as long as such houses are not on my street, tying up traffic, and especially not across the street from me, flashing its performances into my windows every half hour on the half hour.  But even as I revel in the beauty of the lights – and they are so beautiful – I cannot help but ponder that it is near unto impossible for me to conceive of any Jew who would actually choose to get out their ladder in the late November or early December cold in order to climb up on their roof to string lights, only to climb up there again on a frigid January day in order to take them down.  Most Jews would label that meshugah!  We call that cultural diversity.  Perhaps that is why when you come upon the occasional Jewish home whose residents have felt a need to decorate their house with blue and white lights for Hanukkah, those  displays are always pretty lame.  Yet when all is said and done, I am profoundly grateful to my Christian neighbors for bringing such beauty and light to the dark and gloomy nights of early winter!

While my love of the lights were born of childhood experiences and have remained with me ever since, they are not the only aspects of Christmas that I have come to appreciate.  Growing older and more thoughtful, my love of Christmas has extended to so many of its messages.  While “peace on earth, good will to men (all)” has become so much a cliche, I still find it to be a powerful expression of this holiday’s aspiration that the spirit of pure love and human unity take hold in the hearts of all God’s children.  To me, this is Christian teaching at its finest; in its most ideal state.  While, as a Jew, I do not personally believe that Jesus was anything other than an historical figure, I do believe, based upon my studies of the Gospels, that these are the values which he preached and by which he lived.  They are the aspect of Jesus that all people – Christian and non-Christian alike – can embrace and aspire to live up to.  From a Jewish perspective, it is precisely these types of teachings which confirm Christianity as a legitimate religious expression; as one of the truly valid spiritual paths to God.  As a Jew, my path to God is through Torah.  For Christians, their path is through Jesus.  Whichever path we choose, it is meant to lead us to the same God.  It is meant to lead us to a God who loves all humanity and who expects us, people of our respective faiths, to share that love.

In fact, that is why I love Christmas movies.  Not all Christmas movies, but several of them; the ones that I consider to be the really good ones because they embody such uplifting and hopeful messages.  As a rabbi, I freely admit that for me Christmas is not Christmas unless I watch at least one such movie.  Top on my list is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is the personification of the message of Christmas.  George Bailey is the personification of the message of all ethically based faiths.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, it matters not where we pray or in which language we pray.  In the end, our various faiths call upon us to live our lives as George Bailey lived his, caring for his neighbors, striving to do his part to help make their lives at least a little better.  The same can be said for the number two movie on my list – any version of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though from a purely entertainment perspective I do prefer both the Alistair Sims and the Bill Murray versions.  The question we all must confront is “How much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge from the beginning of tale and how much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge of its conclusion?  In this day of growing corporate greed, where the income gap between executives and employees grows exponentially greater, where for the sake of profit companies outsource their jobs to nations that fail to provide legal protections for the rights of their labor force, the evolving character of Ebenezer Scrooge has so much to teach us.  Recently, I encountered a quote from Walter Bruggerman, the imagery of which really touched me.  He spoke of “eating off our hungry brother’s and sister’s table.”  How guilty are we of such an act; of filling our stomachs at the expense of those in need; of taking from them in order to increase our own luxury?  These are the types of ethical challenges which Christmas places before us as it calls upon each and every one of us – Christian and non-Christian alike – to make of ourselves better human beings; to transform ourselves from being the Ebenezer Scrooge who appears at the beginning of the tale to the one who appears at its end.

While I am deeply moved by the universal nature of the ethics of Christmas, I am also moved by its spirituality.  Even though, as a Jew I do not accept in any way, manner, shape, or form a belief in the divinity of Jesus, still I can have a profound appreciation for the spiritual forces born of those beliefs which so inspire my Christian brothers and sisters and draw them closer to God.  True faith is a beautiful thing, even if it is not your own faith, as long as that faith carries one to acts of righteousness, justice, and love.  Perhaps being a person of faith myself helps to make me more attuned to and appreciative of the spiritual power of other faiths.  The function of a true faith is to help us actualize God’s caring presence in our lives.  For those of us who actively seek that presence through the practices and values of our own faith traditions, it may be easier for us to recognize and acknowledge when the practices and values of other faith traditions actualize the Divine presence on the lives of those who adhere to those traditions.  Such is the case when I witness those who truly observe Christmas; the real Christmas – the one observed in the church and the home more than in the shopping mall and the big box stores.

And how can I not help but love the great value Christmas places on family?  It is a time when the bonds of familial love are so strong that family members are magnetically drawn together, even across the miles, and sometimes across the planet, to share their Christmas experience; to reaffirm the power of family love in their lives.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” so says the song.  Homecoming is as much a part of Christmas as is the Christmas tree – even more so.

And yes, one of the things I love about Christmas is egg nog, and it matters not whether it be the alcoholic or non-alcoholic version.  It is the consummate seasonal drink, only to be surpassed, according to my taste buds, by that Arabic winter drink, sahleb.  Once again, cultural diversity!

These are just some of the aspects of Christmas which I as a Jew and a rabbi truly love and perhaps even envy, though each and every one of them are also to be found in my own faith, that is if you would accept the substitution of egg nog for matzah ball soup.

But as I stated earlier, my relationship with Christmas is one of both love and hate.  Sadly, there are other aspects of Christmas – particularly Christmas in America – which I freely admit evoke in me anger and bitterness.  For there are those who have chosen to set aside the universalistic Christmas message of love and respect for all of God’s children and have replaced it with a sort of perverse imperialistic parochialism.  For whatever reasons, these people have come to believe that Christmas will be somehow diminished unless all people, Christian or not, are required to engage in its observance.  When non-Christians like myself tell them, “Go, enjoy your beautiful holiday but leave me and my children out of it,” we become the enemy; we become the embodiment of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I for one don’t take kindly to that.

I have always tried to be a live and let live type of guy.  You lead your life and I will lead mine and we should respect each other for our uniqueness and individuality.  That is why it has so deeply offended me when others have tried to impose their observance of Christmas, especially the religious aspects of Christmas, upon everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As a Jew, I have always wanted my Christian neighbors to enjoy the fullness of their Christmas holiday, but what I have never wanted is for my neighbors to turn around and expect me, or my children, or any non-Christian adult or child, to join them in their Christmas observance.  I am quite happy witnessing Christmas from the outside, looking in, appreciating all that is beautiful and wonderful about it.  I don’t need to be on the inside, I don’t want to be on the inside, and I resent any attempt to force me or my kind to be on the inside.  I don’t mind listening to your Christmas songs as they are broadcasted wherever I go in the month of December, and often I enjoy their melodies even if I cannot accept the message of their lyrics.  But do not expect me to sing them.  Do not expect any non-Christian to sing them, especially non-Christian children.  These songs speak of a faith that we do not nor cannot accept.  When public school music teachers force such expressions from the lips of our children, what they are doing is nothing less than spiritual child abuse.  Ironically, it also diminishes the Christian beliefs which those songs are intended to lift up.  For what does it say of the purity of Christianity when the tenets of its beliefs are forcibly falsely uttered by those who reject those very beliefs?

A painful vignette:  When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, my wife and I, being loving and dutiful parents, attended her school’s winter music concert.  The first group to sing was the 6th grade chorus.  Standing among them was a little Muslim girl, dressed in traditional Muslim garb.  When the songs they sang were essentially Christian in nature, she stood there still and silent, standing out like a sore thumb.  It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to witness this child resist the enormous social pressure as she refused to publicly denounce her faith by proclaiming another.  The next year, when we attended the concert, I was particularly interested in hearing the 7th grade chorus sing, being curious to see whether or not that Muslim child would be among them, and if so, what she would do.  As that chorus took to the stage, it soon became clear that the Muslim girl was not not to be seen.  What a tragedy!  Why should a child who happens to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist in America – a nation which at least theoretically holds on to the principle of separation of church and state – be forced to choose between participating in a public school music program and remaining true to the tenets of his or her faith?

While this issue of celebrating Christmas, a religious holiday, in what are supposed to be religiously neutral public schools has been a source of contention for many years, going back to my own childhood, over the last few years this struggle has taken on a new and even more invasive and sinister dimension.  I speak of the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Those crusaders who claim themselves to be the defenders of the sanctity of Christmas, led by such zealots as Bill O’Reilly and so many of his colleagues at Fox News, have vigorously invested themselves in the cause of claiming black is white and fiction is fact.  In their own insidious way, they have attempted to turn the tables on us non-Christians who have worked so hard to convince our Christian neighbors that our participation is neither essential nor desirable for their own celebration of their sacred Christmas holiday.  All that we have asked is that our fellow Americans acknowledge and respect the wondrous religious diversity of our land.  Yet these Christmas crusaders have decided to redefine such respect as being an affront to Christianity and a direct assault on Christmas itself.  For them, there is no middle ground.  To say “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is an offense equal to spitting in the face of Jesus.  They have taken this struggle over Christmas beyond the public schools and out into the shopping malls and the grocery stores and onto the media – radio, TV, and print.  This year, they have even made it into a racial issue, claiming Christmas and Jesus to be the primary possession of the white Christian race.  Emphatically they have insisted that Santa is white (even though the original Santa Claus came from Turkey) and that Jesus was white (even though historically he was a Middle Eastern Jew) and that any other perspective is nothing short of a vicious lie.  Indeed, they have given a completely new meaning to the phrase “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a song which, by the way was written by the Jew, Irving Berlin.

In all of this, look at what obviously has been lost.  The true meaning of Christmas.  The essential teachings of Jesus, whose birth Christians are supposed to be celebrating.  They have become Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL in reverse.  Instead of the spirit of Christmas transforming a mean spirited, narrow minded bigoted Ebenezer Scrooge into a lover and care giver for all humanity, they have been working to transform the loving humanistic spirit of Christmas into a festival of partisanship and xenophobia.  What they claim to be our War on Christmas is in fact their War on Non-Christians; their war on those children of God who have chosen not to share their religious beliefs.  As one such non-Christian, I cannot help but be angry and resentful.

The saddest part of all is that there is a War on Christmas, but definitely not as the Bill O’Reillys of the world describe it.  The real War on Christmas is the war to secularize it; to diminish if not strip away entirely its fundamental religious nature.  It is a war which seeks to transform a sacred season into a shopping season and the worship of God into the worship of materialism.  Box stores instead of churches become the centers of holy gatherings.  Baby Jesus and the person he would grow to become is being supplanted by that heavy set man in the red suit who fills the houses with games and toys for children of all ages.  Peace on earth, good will to all is utterly forgotten in the crush of the early morning stampedes on Black Friday.  Christmas as a family day – not so much so any more.  It used to be that Christmas day for Jews meant Chinese food and a movie.  The Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open and the movie theaters were also open but relatively empty as our Christian neighbors gathered with their families around their trees and their festive dinner tables.  At a time of year when it is typical for Jews to feel left out, having the movie theaters mostly to ourselves did serve as somewhat of a healing balm.  In fact, when I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska – in the days before multiplexes – I had one congregant family who prided themselves on their ability to travel from theater to theater to theater, catching several films on any given Christmas day.  But over the past few years, the theaters have not been so empty.  This year, our local multiplex was literally packed.  It saddened me, not so much because we had to fight the crowd, but more so because of what it represented about the changing face of Christmas in America, as the movie theater replaced the home as the central gather place for Christians on Christmas day; as spending Christmas day with the latest Hollywood releases replaced spending it at home, around the tree, around the fire, around the dinner table, with family and friends.  This is the true War on Christmas and it has nothing whatsoever to do with saying “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Rather it has to do with materialism, commercialism, and secularization.  Sadder still that it is so obvious to a Jew like myself, someone on the outside looking in, while for so many others, for whom Christmas is their holiday, they don’t even see it.

I am a Jew and I love my faith and I love my people.  My religion has given me so much joy, pleasure, and inspiration. Its observances – daily, Shabbat, holidays – have so greatly enriched my life.  My gratitude knows no end.  I wish that all people could receive such gifts and that they should receive them from the values, teachings, and practices of the faith of their choosing, whatever that faith may be.  I know that all true faiths freely offer such gifts to their adherents.  For my Christian neighbors, Christmas is most certainly one such gift; true Christmas, Christmas as it was intended to be celebrated.  As a Jew, I marvel at its wonder and its beauty and all that is good about it.  I see it for all it is and all it can be yet I am puzzled why, for so many Christians, that does not seem to be enough.  Why is it not enough for them to bask in their gracious holiday celebration?  Why do they somehow feel incomplete as Christians if they fail to drag others who do not share their beliefs into their observances?

As the outsider looking in, I freely admit that I love Christmas for all it was intended to be yet hate the aggressive and mean spirited holiday into which some have re-framed it.

Cuba & Iran: The U.S. Then & Israel Now

November 18, 2013

Over the years, I have amassed quite a collection of DVDs, much to my wife’s chagrin and my daughters’ delight.  The other night, to fill the void of my loneliness, as my children have grown and moved away and my wife’s job has relocated her to Detroit, with only brief weekend visits every other week, I decided to pop in a movie and lose myself in the story on the screen in front of me.  Since we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I thought I would commemorate the event by watching one of my “Kennedy” films.  So I perused my shelves of DVDs and decided on the film “Thirteen Days,” starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood.  For those unfamiliar with the film, it is a powerful drama about the struggles within the Kennedy administration over how to address the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I imagine that those younger than me can watch this film and find it interesting but a little too talky.  But I have always found this film compelling.  Then again, I remember living through the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For me, the tension that this film seeks to recreate is not just history.  It is memory.  When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, I was one month short of my 13th birthday and one month passed my Bar Mitzvah (my parents wanted my Bar Mitzvah reception to be a garden party and a garden party is not a very good idea for November in New York).  I remember sitting in my living room, with my parents and sister, glued to the television as the President addressed the nation, informing us of this very real threat so close to our borders.  This was just the danger for which they had been preparing us in school with those duck-&-cover drills.  It was just the danger which had led so many people to build fallout shelters.  We, in our neighborhood in the Bronx, couldn’t build such shelters.  While we all lived in private homes and had back yards, beneath those back yards were our cesspools, for city sewage pipes had not yet reached our neighborhood.  Unlike so many of my classmates, who lived in apartment buildings with fall out shelters in their basements, in our neighborhood, we had no place to flee in the event of a nuclear attack.  I remember so clearly, the day after President Kennedy’s historic broadcast, standing outside my house with Neal DeLuca, my next door neighbor playmate, sharing our fears and discussing what it would be like to die in a nuclear holocaust.  Over the years, many were the times that he and I played at war, which was common for boys in those days, whether we were playing Cowboys-&-Indians, World War II, acorn fights or snowball fights.  But this was completely different.  This was not our pretend noble deaths of  brave soldiers in combat.  This was a death by fire, completely beyond our control and from which there was no escape and no possibility of being wounded instead of killed.  Nor was it make believe.  It was all too real and all too imminent.  But of course, as school children, we could not help but wonder whether or not school would be cancelled the next day in anticipation of the nuclear holocaust (it was not).  We truly felt that our lives were about to draw to a frightening close and, as you can imagine, especially as children, we had a great deal of difficulty processing this.

Watching that movie reawakened within me all those memories and feelings.  Yet as I reflected upon them, it struck me that what I – and the rest of America – experienced then was probably not that different than what the people, and especially the children, of Israel are experiencing now in regard to the Iranian nuclear threat.  Granted, the threat of nuclear extinction is not as immediate to them today as it was for us during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but still it is no less real.  In some ways perhaps more so because the Iranians have made their intentions abundantly and consistently clear.  They intend to wipe the State of Israel off the map.  Up until now, they have affirmed this intention not only through words but through deeds, such as their significant material support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in their terrorist war against Israel and the West.  They have done nothing whatsoever to lead us to any other conclusion but that if allowed to continue to develop their nuclear capabilities they would add their nuclear weaponry to their arsenal in their war against Israel and the West.  They would employ them against Tel Aviv & Jerusalem, Washington & New York, London & Paris.  In the movie “Thirteen Days,” upon first learning of the Russian missile sites in Cuba, Ken Costner’s character said, “I feel like we caught the Jap carriers steaming for Pearl Harbor.”  In terms of our situation today with Iran, it is as if we uncovered the Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor while their aircraft carriers were still under construction.

With the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was no acceptable middle ground.  Slowing down the installation of missiles in Cuba, with their ability to strike targets in the U.S., was never considered an option, not should it have been.  When it came to the safety and security of the American people, there was only one acceptable outcome; the complete elimination of those missile sites, either peacefully or militarily accomplished.  Anything less constituted just cause to go to war.  The same can, and should, be said about the Iranian nuclear program.  There can be no middle ground.  Their ability to develop nuclear weapons must be completely dismantled.  They must be left with no possibility of ever waging nuclear war against Israel or any of their enemies, which by the way includes the United States.  Anything less constitutes just cause for war, especially as Israel is concerned.

Concerning the current situation with Iran, it is easy for some Americans to fail to feel the imminent threat experienced by the Israelis, and therefore to assume that the Israelis, especially in the person of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are just being war mongers; that all they want to do is embroil our nation in another costly, drawn out, and inconclusive Middle East war, as we have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is easy for some journalists to speak about how a “war weary America” is simply not interested in another military venture.  It is becoming easier and easier for President Obama to compromise his assurances of American protection of Israel and our other Middle Eastern allies from an nuclear armed Iran as he futilely strives to salvage his presidential legacy by disengaging from his failed Middle East policy strategies, leaving a vacuum which Russia is all to happy to fill.  All this is so easy for us Americans because we do not feel the threat as Israel and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt and Turkey feel it.  Indeed, we have forgotten what that threat feels like as we have two generations of Americans who knew not the Cuban Missile Crisis, just as there “arose a pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  Yet the threat remains real.  Not only does it remain real for our allies in the Middle East, but it remains real for us as well.  As for those who never personally experienced the fears brought on by the Cuban Missile Crisis, somehow or other they need to be reminded of the fears they felt after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  For those September 11th attacks were conducted by terrorists, not unlike the terrorist today whose violence and bloodshed is primarily sponsored by the same nation of Iran which is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability; one which they will direct, not only against Israel and their other Middle East opponents, but against all who they perceive as the enemies of their way of life, and on their list of enemies, America ranks near the top.

Elusive Happiness

September 18, 2013

I wish to talk with you about happiness.  Now I know that happiness seems like a rather odd topic for such a solemn holy day as Yom Kippur.  It is not a subject that one would readily identify with the classical themes of Yom Kippur, they being sin, repentance, and atonement.  One would think that it is hard to talk about happiness in a room full of fasting people.  Yet, after giving it some thought I have come to the conclusion that at the end of the day – and by that I do not mean the Neilah service, the Concluding service, the end of this day – but at the end of the day, Yom Kippur is actually very much about happiness.

Several years ago, one of the members of our congregation, in the midst of a conversation we were having, remarked to me that whenever someone asks him, what was the best period in his life, when was he the happiest, he would respond that now is the best time of his life.  He has never been happier than he is now.  That was quite an amazing statement.  How many of us, in all honesty, could say the same thing about our lives?  That these days are the best days of our lives?  There may be some among us, but most people tend to wax nostalgic.  For some reason or other we find it comforting to think back to what we like to call “the good old days,” that time in our lives when we imagined ourselves to be at our happiest.

That is not to say that most of us are terribly unhappy.  Some are, but most are probably not.  Though we may not be terribly unhappy, we tend to capture our happiness in fits and spurts.  We take it when and where we can find it.  Much of the rest of the time, we seem to hover in a realm between happiness and unhappiness, feeling not much of one or the other.  Just existing.  Often are the times we ponder dreamily about finding happiness; ultimate happiness.  How great life would be if only this would happen or that would happen.  For happiness can be an elusive prey.  We spend so much of lives grasping at it, sometimes successfully and some­times not.

All people are in search of happiness.  No one really wants to be unhappy, no matter how grumpy they may appear on the outside.  Indeed the grumpiest and dourest of people are usually those who have met with the greatest frustrations in their search for happiness; so much so that they appear to have given up the quest.

Unless we are among that privileged minority that can proclaim, as did the congregant I mentioned earlier, that these days are the happiest days of our lives and that we could not be happier, then we need to seriously re-evaluate where it is that we have been seeking our happiness.  Perhaps we might be, just like in the words of country western song, “Lookin’ for love in all the wrong place”[1] but in our case it has been looking for happiness.

Happiness is not monolithic.  Not all happiness is equal.  There is that experience of happiness that lasts for the moment, however long that moment might be, and then there is that experience of happiness that resides with us perpetually.

As we take this Yom Kippur opportunity to seriously examine the conduct of our lives, we must include in our introspection the manner and the means through which we have sought out happiness.  For if we discover that our quest for happiness has in some ways been misdirected then we must consider the possibility that such a misdirected quest for happiness can also throw off our quest for personal self improvement; that perhaps some of the lack of lasting happiness that we find in our lives is directly or indirectly related to where we have fallen short so far in our Yom Kippur inspired attempts to lift ourselves up to a higher level of human existence; that in order to make of ourselves better people, we need to do a better job of sorting out in our search for happiness that which is momentary from that which is lasting.

In our search for true happiness it is all too easy to mistake the momentary for the lasting.  After all, momentary happiness can be far more readily available and its rewards can be more immediate.  It can offer us great pleasure and do so quickly.  The trap is that before we know it, the pleasure has faded.  It may not be gone, but it is greatly reduced often to the point where we take it for granted.

Consider vacation trips, for example.  I love to travel.  I know many of you do as well.  For weeks, if not months, I look forward to those trips.  Right now the Cantor and I are excited about the possibility of visiting the Garfields in their home in Ireland next summer.  When it comes to such vacations, the departure date cannot arrive soon enough.  Finally it does arrive, and I am off on my trip, a trip that seems to go by in a flash.  Next thing I know, I am packing to go home.  Then I am on the airplane.  Then I am walking in the door of my apartment, weary, with luggage in hand.  Next day, I am back at work; my long awaited vacation over too soon, as I re-enter the daily grind, almost as if I never left.  Of course I have the memories and the pictures – whether or not I will look at those pictures in a year is another story – but while they are nice, they are not the same.  The vacation was a pleasure of the moment.

I am not ashamed to admit it.  I love my toys, especially the electronic ones like my big screen TV and my laptop and my cell phone.  They give me a lot of pleasure.  But the strange thing about it is that as much as I love them, they never seem to be enough.  I love my big screen TV, but I wish I had a surround sound system and a blue ray player.  I love my laptop, but I wish I had one that was faster and could do more things, yet not be as heavy for when I travel.  I love my Samsung cell phone but I wish I had a phone with longer battery life and better voice recognition.  Whatever I have, it just never seems to be enough.  While they fill me with pleasure, in the end they still leave a void.  That is momentary rather than lasting happiness.

Who doesn’t like a new car?  There is something about that new car smell and the excitement of all that glitz and glitter and all those little extras.  I knew someone who never really cared for a new car.  It was my father.  He and my mother drove clunkers.  Growing up, all my friends’ parents periodically pur­chased shiny new cars, but not mine.  It used to drive me crazy.  “Why can’t we get a new car?” I would incessantly whine.  “Why?”  my father would retort.  “A car is just something that takes you from one place to another and ours get us there just fine.”  I think back on those conversations now and realize how true were the words attributed to Mark Twain who reportedly said “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”  My father, in his wisdom, was quick to recognize that our love of new cars is yet another of those examples of momentary happiness.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I am not against momentary happiness.  I enjoy it.  I wouldn’t give up my big screen TV for all the tea in china, even without the blue ray player and the surround sound.  And I still look forward to vacation trips whenever I can take them.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with momentary happiness.  It is just that we have to understand it for what it is  – a temporary high, if you will – and not confuse it or try to substitute it for true and lasting happiness.  We should not get so lost in our acquisition of these temporary pleasures that we sideline our search for the sources of happiness which will not fade with the passage of time but rather will stay with us and lift us up; lift up our spirits, lift up our sense of self esteem, and lift us up as decent human beings.  While the happiness of the moment can be fun – and that’s OK because everyone deserves some fun in their lives – still our search needs to focus on the happiness that stays with us.

Where can this lasting happiness be found?  The answer to this question is really where happiness and Yom Kippur substantially intersect.  For what is the ultimate purpose of Yom Kippur?  Not just to examine the dark side of our character and our actions, our sins and our failings, but rather to do so in order to help us in the task of re-inventing ourselves as better people, kinder people, more loving people, people who seek to make a positive difference in the lives of others; both those whom we personally know and with whom we share our lives as well as those whose faces and names are unknown to us but with whom we share this planet.

Where is lasting happiness to be found?  Well, it is not in objects and possessions.  It is not in nicer houses and newer cars, in fashionable clothing and the latest electronics.  In the final analysis, it is to be found in people and relationships, and within ourselves.  It is to be found in love, in its many manifestations.

My son Joshua was born 30 years ago in California, in Silicon Valley, birthplace of the computer revolution.  In those days it was a land of hopeful start-ups and massive material success.  Soon after his birth, I rushed out of the hospital to put the finishing touches on the invitations that the Cantor and I had de­signed for his brit milah ceremony and then I rushed the proof to the printer.  After all, having only an 8-day window, we needed to get them printed and mailed as soon as possible, so great was our desire to share our joy with others.

Upon my return to the Cantor’s hospital room, a nurse took me to the window in order to show me some­thing.  Just about the same time that Joshua was born another boy was born as well.  Like me, no sooner was that baby born than his father also rushed out of the hospital.  Upon his return, he took his wife to the window and proudly pointed to what the nurse was now showing me – a brand new Mercedes parked in front of the hospital, wrapped in an enormous ribbon and bow.  Pointing to it, he announced to his wife, “This is for you!  My way of saying thank you for giving me a son!”  That guy just did not get it.  He could not even tell his wife that he loved her and that he was full of joy at the prospect of them building a family together.  He could not do it without the aid of money and material possessions.

It not the things in our lives that make us the happiest, and keep us the happiest.  It is the people in our lives that do so.  It is our relationships – including our relationship with God – which grant us the gift of enduring joy.  That is, if those relationships are positive and healthy.  Yom Kippur calls upon us to strengthen our relationship; to build upon the relationships we currently share, to heal the relationships we once enjoyed but for whatever reasons now are broken, and to seek to create new relationships with people we barely know and even with people we have never met.  In order to do so, we need to make of ourselves people worthy of relationships; people with whom others wish to relate.  Decent people.  Honorable people.  Sensitive people.  Self-sacrificing people.  Virtuous people.  Loving people.  Such people also happen to be happy people, really happy people, not just happy for the moment but happy for the lifetime.  Happy because they are rightfully proud of the people they are and the life they have chosen to lead.  Happy because they have earned the respect and love of others.  Happy because they have come to share their lives in so many ways with so many people.

If we take the messages of Yom Kippur to heart and sincerely act upon them, we will discover that they carry us down the path to happiness, real happiness, lasting happiness.


[1]“Lookin’ for Love,” by Wanda Mallette, Bob Morrison, & Patti Ryan, performed by Johnny Lee.