Archive for the ‘God’ category

The Middah of Anavah

October 20, 2016

As I stated on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I have dedicated this year’s High Holy Day sermons to an exploration of the teachings of the Mussar Movement.  For the sake of those who have not had the opportunity to hear or read my earlier sermons, I will offer you a very brief introduction to Mussar and why the lessons of Mussar have so much to offer us, especially during the High Holy Days.

The Mussar Movement was started in the latter part of the 19th century, in Lithuania, and primarily is an ethics based approach to Judaism.  While Halachah – Jewish Law – focuses on the behaviors which can draw us closer to God and make us better people, Mussar focuses on the attitudes which, if we incorporate them into our life perspective, will automatically, if not instinctually, drive us in the direction of performing proper, God-desired behaviors.  While Halachah presents us with a discipline of Mitzvot – sacred behaviors which result in sacred living, Mussar presents us with a collection of Middot – sacred character traits which lead us to sacred living.  If we can incorporate the Middot – these sacred attitudes – into the way we approach how we interact with the world, then we can grow as more decent human beings and the performance of the Mitzvot will become all the more natural to us.

As I explained in an earlier sermon, Mussar views our attitudes as existing along a continuum where both extreme ends are equally destructive to our character.  The example I gave then was of a continuum extending from extreme greed to extreme generosity.  In that case, one extreme would cut us off from any sort of healthy relationship with our fellow human beings while the other would make it impossible for us to physically survive.  The Middot guide us to finding a spiritual “sweet spot”, so to speak, somewhere along such a continuum; a place where both extremes meet in a very healthy and positive manner.  In the case of the continuum between greed and generosity, the Middah takes us to that place where we are greedy enough to retain sufficient means to support ourselves and our families, yet generous enough to make a real difference in the lives of those less fortunate than us.

This morning I wish to focus our attention on a very important Middah.  It is the Middah of Anavah; the Middah of Humility.  For Anavah – Humility is a foundational Middah for both Mussar and the High Holy Days.  Without a true sense of Anavah, all that we do here today is absolutely meaningless.  Without a true sense of Anavah, we can have no spiritual life.

It has been said that the two most difficult words for a human being to utter is “I’m sorry.”  We are so ready and willing to accuse others of having wronged us, yet we are so resistant to apologizing for our actions, accepting the possibility and the responsibility for having wronged others.  Why is that so?  Because we lack a sense of Anavah; we refuse to believe that there are times when we just might be less than we think we are.  So often, we can be like the man who is about to receive a high honor and is dressing for the presentation banquet.  Gazing into the mirror as he ties his tie, he says to his wife, “Honey, how many great men do you think there really are in the world?”  To which she immediately responds, “One less than you do, my dear.”  There is just something about us which, while all too ready to raise up our strengths, is all too eager to cover up our shortcomings, as if, if we were to admit to them, we would somehow shatter completely and be no more.

In an earlier sermon, I quoted the Hasidic saying, “There is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  But our tradition recognized that basic human flaw long before the Hasidim came on the scene.  The Torah itself warns us about it, for as it says in the book of DEUTERONOMY. “Take care lest you forget the Eternal your God…  When you have eaten your fill and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied and your silver and your gold have increased… then your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the Eternal your God…  And you will say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have won this wealth for me.’  Then you should remember the Eternal your God, for it is God who gives you the strength to amass wealth…”[2]

One of the basic principles of Mussar is Halachta BiDrachav – Walking in God’s Way.  In other words, living a life in imitation of God.  Trying to be more like God in our behaviors.  The mystics tell us that if it were not for God’s own sense of Anavah – God’s own humility – the universe itself would never have come into existence.  How so?  Because some of the basic, classical beliefs concerning God would have made it impossible.  First among them is the belief that God is Omnipresent; that God exists everywhere.  If God fills all existence, then there is no room left for us.  So, according to the mystics, what did God do?  They call it Tzimtzum.  God contracted God’s self in order to make room for Creation.

If we are going to live our lives in imitation of God, then we, too, have to be willing to contract ourselves.  We have to suck it in and draw ourselves back from thinking that we are everything and that the universe centers around us.  We have to make room in our lives for God and room in our lives to realize that we still have space to grow; that we are not all that we can be.  That is Anavah – humility.  As Susan Freeman puts it in her book, TEACHING JEWISH VALUES, “Being clear about what we are not is the first step in moving toward what we want to become.”[3]

When it come to the Middah of Anavah, humility, like the other Middot, it, too, seeks to find a spiritual “sweet spot” along a continuum; the continuum spanning from absolute arrogance to total self-denigration.  Somewhere between the two is true Anavah.  Unfortunately, all too often we resist seeking that sweet spot because we mistakenly confuse humility with humiliation, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Part of our resistance is a product of our modern culture.  We are constantly being told that we need the newest, the best, the biggest things if our lives are to be fulfilling.  People literally line up and wait for hours before the store opens in order to purchase the newest IPhone.  Go into a store like Best Buy and you will see bigger and bigger and bigger big screen TVs.  Somewhere along the line, we find ourselves identifying with all of that, and toxically so.  If we do not possess the newest, the biggest, the best, then we come to believe that we ourselves are not “the best.”  Enough never seems to be enough, as we find ourselves measuring ourselves by what items we own rather than by what type of people we are.  And when it comes to those possessions, the answer is always to be found on the extreme of the newest, the latest models.  To have less than that becomes humiliating.

Ironically, to attain a true sense of Anavah, is to realize that the answer is not to be found on the extreme, but rather somewhere toward the middle, and more importantly, it has absolutely nothing to do with what we own or where we live, but with who we are.  And if we can attain the Middah of Anavah, issues like what we own, where we live, what kind of car we drive, will neither humiliate us nor exalt us.  For they are no measure of the type of people we are, but only of what we have.

So when it comes to Anavah, we need to keep our eye on the ball.  Our embracing of humility should in no way disable our sense of self-esteem, bringing us to some lowly state of self-deprecation, but rather it should empower us to recognize that while we have much to be proud us, still we are not all that we could be.  There is yet some distance along the road of self-improvement which we have yet to travel.    That there is more that we can do.  More than we can be.  And we can make it, just as long as we keep trying.

Where is the Middah of Anavah to be found?  Perhaps the Hasidic Rabbi, Simcha Bunam, described it best.  He said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending upon the need.  When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words:  ‘For my sake was the world created.’  But when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words:  ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”[4]

Far from humiliating us, Anavah can heal us.  It can empower us to shed the façade we present to the world of always being right, of always being perfect, of always being more than we actually are.  There is something truly uplifting in being able to admit to our shortcomings, as well as reveling in our strengths.  “I’m sorry” may be two of the most difficult words to say, but they can also be two of the most liberating words to say; two of the most healing words to say.  It can be wondrous to behold how the walls of anger and resentment can crumble before words of true repentance and an act of true atonement.  Weights can be lifted from the soul and the heart can be given wings when our Anavah leads us to resolving conflicts and rekindling love.

As embracing Anavah can clear the path to renewing and strengthening our relationship with others, it can also open the gates to Heaven.  For it is only through Anavah that we can make room for God in our lives.  It takes an attitude of Anavah to bring us to the point that we recognize that God is truly a part of our lives; that God is there for us, that God has always been there for us, but we, somewhere along the line, knowingly or unknowingly, have built a wall to keep God out, just like those people the Torah was talking about in that text from DUETERONOMY.  Yet, with Anavah, that wall, too can come down.  We can open ourselves up to the possibility of God being real, of God being present, and of God seeking us if we but seek God.  It is that spirit of Anavah which will bring life to our prayers.  It can transform them into more than meaningless utterances that may cross our lips as we wait for the clock to signal the end of this day.

There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who one day, with his disciples, entered a town and went to the synagogue to pray.  As he got to the door, he suddenly stopped, refusing to enter.  He disciples were incredulous, and they asked him to explain to them what was the problem.  He said:  “The room is full and there is no room for me.”  Looking through the door of the synagogue, of course they saw plenty of empty seats, and they told him so.  He responded:  “You don’t understand.  The room is full of empty words, for the words of the prayers that are offered here have been given no wings with which to rise to Heaven.  Therefore they fall out of the mouths of the worshippers; dropping to the floor.  And there they have remained, filling this room from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling, leaving no room for me.”[5]

If we can embrace the Middah of Anavah, and in true humility, open ourselves up to the possibility of our prayers this day reaching out to God, and God reaching in to us, then the words of our prayers can fly heavenward, and God’s loving presence can be brought into this sanctuary and into our hearts and souls.  If only we can shrink our sense of self and make room for God, then God will rush to be with us.

AMEN

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

[2] DEUTERONOMY 8:11-18.

[3] Freeman, Susan, TEACHING JEWISH VALUES:  SACRES SOURCES AND ARTS ACTIVITIES, p. 8.

[4] Buber, Martin, TALES OF THE HASIDIM:  LATER MASTERS, PP. 249-250.

[5] Buber, Martin, TALES OF THE HASIDIM:  EARLY MASTERS, P. 73

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.

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.

Putting the New in the New Year

October 30, 2014

There is a Hasidic story about how a student of Rabbi Mordecai of Nadvorna approached his teacher prior to Rosh Hashanah in order ask permission to be dismissed. Rabbi Mordecai asked him, “What’s your hurry?” to which he responded: “I am leading the services back in my home village and I need time to study the prayer book and put my services in order.” Rabbi Mordecai then said to him: “The prayer book is the same as it was last year. It would be better for you to study your deeds and put yourself in order.”
Well, if Rabbi Mordecai said that to me this year, I would say to him: “That’s what you think, Rabbi Mordecai! Obviously you have not had a chance to look at any of the pilot services from the soon to be published new Reform High Holy Day prayer book, MISHKAN HANEFESH!”
Whether or not Rabbi Mordecai has had a chance to take a look at MISHKAN HANEFESH, and I doubt that he did, considering the fact that he lived in the 19th century, you – the members of our congregation – will get a chance to look at it, and pray from it, tomorrow morning. I suspect that some of you may love it and some of you may loathe it and the feelings of many of you probably will fall somewhere in between. But this I can promise you: It will offer us a High Holy Day worship experience which will be dramatically different from what we are used to after years of praying out of GATES OF REPENTANCE.
What can I tell you about the book? Will the service be longer? I know that is a question on many people’s minds. To be quite honest, I just don’t know. The fact that this particular service booklet has over 190 pages is not encouraging. However, the format of this book is so different – in some ways, but not in every way, similar to our Shabbat prayer book, MISHKAN T’FILAH – that many pages does not necessarily mean a long service. What about music? This service definitely has more music than the Rosh Hashanah morning service in our current prayer book. Of course music is a matter of taste but personally I like the music that has been added. I also can tell you that there are some English alternatives offered to traditional prayers that are unlike any text you probably would expect to encounter on the High Holy Days. The book also offers some surprises like various opportunities for study sessions in the midst of the service and wait until you see what they have done to the Shofar service. Love it or loathe it, one thing is definitely certain. This book will provide us with a new High Holy Day worship experience.
Now I know that when we encounter something new, often it takes a lot of getting used to. There is some¬thing about human nature – not for all of us but for most of us – which instinctively resists the new. So many of us far prefer to wrap ourselves up in the warm, cuddly, familiar blanket of the old ways.
Many of you might remember, back in 1996, when Bob Dole was the Republican candidate for President. In his nomination acceptance speech, he framed his campaign around the concept of building a bridge to the past; to an era more familiar and, at least in memory, more pleasant. Many found that approach very appealing. However, his opponent, Bill Clinton, was soon to counter that ideology by stating that it was not his intention to build a bridge to the past but rather to build a bridge to the future. And we know who won that contest. The book from which we have prayed this evening is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the past. The book from which we will pray tomorrow morning is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the future.
When you think about it, as new and as different as tomorrow morning’s service may be, it is all very much in keeping with the essential spirit of this holy day. For Rosh Hashanah is all about that which is new and our committing ourselves to a process of personal and communal renewal. Indeed, one of the significant traditional greetings for Rosh Hashanah is the greeting of “Titkadeish! – May You Be Renewed!”
For our tradition looks at the New Year as just that – a new year. It is a time to start our lives anew; to embrace new experiences; to make of ourselves new and better people. It is a time for renewal. To renew old dreams which somewhere along the way may have been laid aside. To renew old relationships which, for one reason or another, we may have left dormant. To renew our energy, our lust for life, our joy in living. To renew our commitment to our positive values – justice, right over wrong, caring, love, responsibility. To renew our connections to our Jewish identity, the Jewish people, and most importantly to God. It is a time for us to say, “Today need not be a carbon copy of yesterday, and tomorrow need not be a carbon copy of today.” To say it and to mean it. What better gift can we give to ourselves on the New Year than to start to make of ourselves a New Me?
Yet change is almost always a challenge. Habits are hard to break. Habits – that is what we allow our lives to become. We tend to live our lives habitually; doing the same things day in and day out; thinking the same thoughts, responding in the same ways. Throughout our lives we gather and acquire certain attitudes and perspectives and behaviors and we transform them into what become almost instinctual responses. How many parents have said to their children, “Go ask you father! Go ask your mother!” rather than grapple with the request their child has placed before them? In our household, that is still the Cantor’s and my instinctual go-to position – actually more mine than the Cantor’s – and our youngest child is 21 years old! It is as if we have our own personal catalogs of multipurpose answers and reactions, and we draw upon them as we seek to respond to whatever life hands us. And the content of those catalogs remain the same year in and year out.
In the end, it is all about growth, or lack thereof. It is a fundamental part of human nature to grow. Little children grow into full size adults, some fuller than others. With years of education and life experiences, most of us grow more knowledgeable and perhaps a bit wiser. Everyone of us, if we don’t fall victim to fatal accidents or terminal diseases, eventually grow old. When it comes to our bodies, growth is a lifelong process. So also should it be with our minds, our hearts, our attitudes and perspectives. But too often, for too many of us, somewhere along the line that growth is arrested, and what once was evolving within us somehow or other becomes carved in stone. We may even justify it by saying such things as “I am who I am.” But would it not be better for us to say “I am a work in progress and I look forward to what I will eventually become.”?
So Rosh Hashanah calls upon us to actively engage in seeking out change in our lives; to strive to become a new and better self. How do we begin to accomplish this? First off, I suggest that each and every one of us think back and remember last Rosh Hashanah and honestly ask ourselves, “Am I in any way, significant or otherwise, a different person today than I was then? If I am different, then how am I different and is that difference for the better or for the worse?” There will be those among us who will acknowledge that little if anything has changed from then until now. There also will be those among us who will be able to note definite changes. Yet as they consider the nature of those changes, they will come to recognize that those changes were not a matter of personal choice but rather as a matter of circumstance. God willing, there also will be those among us who will be able to say of themselves, “Yes. I am a different person today and I am different because I chose to be different, and hopefully the differences are for the better.”
If we are among those who have not changed, or who have experienced changes as a result of circumstances rather than of choice, then we need to challenge ourselves to make it possible that come next Rosh Hashanah we will be able to offer a different response; that we will be able to say, “Yes, I have changed because I chose to change, and I have changed for the better.” Even if we are among those who have experienced positive change over the past year, we still need to challenge ourselves to continue that process of positive change, for none of us is perfect. There always lies before us more of this road to travel.
Now at the same time, we need to be realistic. True change, lasting change does not happen all at once. Crash diets never sustain themselves. Durable change is an incremental and a gradual process. We need to start small and slowly, carefully, build one change upon another. There is a book on teenage suicide, entitled WHEN LIVING HURTS, which, at times, we have used with our Confirmands. Recognizing that adolescent – parent tensions can certainly contribute to teenage thoughts of suicide, one of the suggestions that the author offers is that the teenagers try a 1 week experiment in dealing with their parents. In this experiment, they should seek out ways to compliment their parents and also opportunities to volunteer to take on even small household tasks without being asked. As the experiment progresses, they should note whether or not the way their parents relate to them also changes for the better. I share this with you to illustrate that the type of change we seek can start with simple acts such as finding nice things to say to and about the people in our lives or by offering to do simple but nice deeds for them even before they ask us to do them. We can choose to make small changes which we can find will result in big differences; big differences in our lives; in our relationships; in the ways in which we interact with the world around us and in the ways in which the world around us interacts with us. As we do this and reap the benefits that these changes will bring, we will find that one small change will lead to another and another and another, as our pleasure in life continually grows. And it will grow because people who make themselves better also make themselves happier; happier with their life and with the person they are becoming – the new person they are becoming.
Just as tomorrow morning we will renew the way we worship on Rosh Hashanah, so should we, today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows before us, seek to renew the people we are and the lives that we lead. May we embrace the High Holy Day blessing of “Titkadeish!” May each and every one of us be renewed as we seek to renew ourselves.

Abraham and Isaac are Us – Moriah is Jerusalem

September 27, 2014

In the past, I have been asked, “Can’t we read some other section from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah? The story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Isaac is so difficult to listen to. Indeed it is frightening.” While I have always appreciated these concerns, I have never acceded to these requests.

Why? Perhaps partly because, having been raised as a Reform Jew, for all of my childhood and much of my life this was the only Torah text to be found in our High Holy Day prayer book for Rosh Hashanah. You must remember that in those days, Reform Jews never considered the possibility of observing a second day of Rosh Hashanah and therefore needing a second Torah portion. In fact, the rabbis who framed the old UNION PRAYER BOOK intentionally chose this text in spite of the fact that in traditional synagogues it is read on the second day and not the first. Why? Because they had ideological problems with the traditional text for the first day. While it does include the birth of Isaac, it also includes Abraham and Sarah driving Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, out of their camp to live or die in the wilderness. That, they found that to be morally questionable.

30 years ago, when GATES OF REPENTANCE was published, it did include a second Rosh Hashanah Morning service, for those who choose to observe a second day. However, for that service, they still did not include the other traditional Torah portion but rather they inserted the story of Creation. Still I stuck with Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, partly because of nostalgia and partly because this is a story about Jews while the Creation story is about a time before there were Jews. Now, in this new prayer book,     MISHKAN HANFESH, they have chosen to include, not only today’s Torah text and the story of Creation, but also the other traditional Torah reading and a fourth reading as well.

But still, I am deeply tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. That bond exists not just because of nostalgia, nor even just because it is a story of the early days of our people, but also because of the presence in it of Mt. Moriah. For Mt. Moriah would later be called Mt. Zion, and upon that mountain would be built the sacred city of Jerusalem. This story is so compelling because, from the earliest times of our people’s existence – 4,000 year ago – it binds the generations of Jews – Abraham and Isaac and all the generations to follow – to the land of Israel, and particularly to the city of Jerusalem.

Granted, it is not an easy story. It is one fraught with danger and heartache, sacrifice and tears. But that is part of the price that we Jews have had to pay throughout the ages for the privilege of having a land of our own. Jews for 4,000 years have tended to agree that it is a price well worth paying.

Throughout the ages, we have called it the Promised Land, but more accurately we should have called it the Land of the Covenant. For, from the very beginning of the Jewish people – when Abraham and God first struck a deal which would establish forever the unique relationship between our people and God, a central part of that deal, that covenant, that brit, was that there would be this land which God would give us as homeland for all time.

So today we read from the Torah some of our earliest history and what do we see? Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah; standing and praying on the site of the very heart of Jerusalem; the site where both Temples would eventually stand.

As Abraham and Isaac stood on Mt. Moriah, there were others who inhabited that land as well; people such as the Amorites, Hittites, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. But all those people are gone. They have disappeared from the face of history and not a trace of them remains, other than some sporadic archaeological finds. But we Jews, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, remain. We still exist and throughout the centuries, whether living on that land or in exile, the bonds between us and that land have remained unbroken.

2,700 years ago, when our people were dragged into exile in Babylonia, the Psalmist sang: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember you not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.” For 2,000 years, while in exile after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, in our worship we prayed daily for our return to Israel. 69 years ago, on April 20, 1945, on the first Shabbat after the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, a British radio reporter shared with the world his recording of the surviving Jews singing “Hatikvah” – “The Hope”; the song that would become the national anthem of the State of Israel. Throughout our history, whether we were living on the land or off of it, we never forgot Jerusalem; the cords that bound us to the land of Israel may have been stretched but never broken. In the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet and philosophy, Yehuda HaLevi, “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west.”

What I speak of is a sort of mystical magnetism, yet I know that there are those among us who do not sense it. When considering vacation destinations, Israel may not even make the list and that is a shame. It is a shame because for most Jews – indeed, for most Christians – but especially for most Jews, once they have spent any time in Israel, they understand from whence I speak. They feel the magnetism. They become connected – in spiritual ways connected – to the land and its people. They come to understand that the Jewish people and the land of Israel are inseparable no matter where we live.

I share all this with you because this past summer has been a very difficult and trying time for Israel and for all of us who love Israel. Indeed, it has been a trying time for all Jews, whether we love Israel or not. While Israelis has suffered under the constant barrage of Hamas missiles, needing to flee with very little advanced notice into their bomb shelters, we all have suffered as we have witnessed, and perhaps experienced, the dramatic rise in the levels of antisemitism throughout the world as a direct result of Israel’s war with Hamas. But even as I say that, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it truly as a result of the war, or is there something else at work here?”

For years there have been those who have claimed that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being antisemitic. Of course, that is, at the least, a horrible overstatement. That someone criticizes Israel in no way automatically means that they hate Jews. We Americans, of all people, should understand that, for we are constantly criticizing our own government but that does not mean that we do so out of hatred. But perhaps what those who equate being anti-Israel with being antisemitic are trying to say, though saying it poorly, is that while there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel, just as there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize any nation, there are still those individuals and groups who use their socially acceptable criticism of Israel in order to mask their socially unacceptable attitudes of antisemitism. The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, expressed this eloquently when he wrote: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is antisemitc, and not saying so is dishonest.”

What we have been witnessing is a dark combination of the Thomas Friedman ‘anti-Israel / antisemitism’ formula side-by-side with a toxic, blatant, endemic antisemitism which has taken advantage of the war to come out of the shadows and reveal itself in the light of day.

When respected bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a resolution to divest from Israel, even in a limited fashion, and didn’t even consider framing a resolution in which they would take a stand against Hamas firing thousands of rockets directed at civilian targets in Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When the Metropolitan Opera insists upon producing and performing a work which seeks to justify the actions of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise ship and murdered a wheel chair bound American Jew who simply was on vacation with his wife, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When during the war, the news media gave extensive coverage to the suffering of the citizens of Gaza but gave only meager coverage to the extent of Hamas’ attacks on Israel, or to the multiple efforts made by the Israelis to forewarn Gaza civilians of imminent attacks so that they could get out of harm’s way, or to the various ways in which Hamas used the citizens of Gaza as human shields so as to protect their own fighters while creating a humanitarian crisis which they would then use as propaganda against Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke.

Yet we have witnessed the other type of antisemitism as well, and in frightening ways. When those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war besieged a synagogue in Paris, filled with Jews who had gathered for no other reason but to observe Shabbat, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in Berlin those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war started chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs, come out and fight alone,” that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in New York those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war took their demonstration to the streets of the Diamond District, knowing that most of the jewelry exchanges located there are Jewishly owned and operated, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When someone in our own community plastered a gruesome anti-Israel poster on every utility pole surrounding our own synagogue, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly.

What can we learn from all of this? We learn that there is a certain irony in the fact that while some or many of us may have, for whatever reasons, lost our sense of intimate connection with the land and the State of Israel, it is our enemies who remember and continue to recognize it. Of course, they do not see its positive values but rather see it as fuel for their hatred of us. We, on the other hand need to embrace it and trust it. As throughout our history, our connection to Israel has been an integral component of Jewish identity and of our unique relationship with God, it remains so today. As we believe, and I hope we believe, that our relationship with God has produced for our people an elevated values system; one which lifts up justice and living the ethical life, then we have to trust that it is that very same value system that serves as the foundation of Israeli society – that Israel truly is a Jewish state and not just because it is populated by Jews.

We need to embrace that perspective, for once we do so, we can begin to prepare ourselves for how to respond to Israel’s detractors. We can begin to formulate our answer to the question of whether or not in the recent war, and in recent history, Israel has been placed in the role of the victim or the villain.

In our search for that answer let me leave you with some thought-starting questions:

Which party in the recent conflict has been deeply invested in peace and historically and consistently committed to finding a two-state solution, and which party has consistently and adamantly refused to sit at a negotiating table?

If Israel is not interested in making peace with its neighbors then how do you explain its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, its 2000 offer to the Palestinians of 97% of the disputed territories, and its 2005 total withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza?

Which party in the recent conflict used its rockets to protect its children and which party used its children to protect its rockets?

Which party in the recent conflict invested billions of dollars in constructing bomb shelters to protect its people and which party invested billions of dollars in constructing terror tunnels?

Which party in the recent conflict made extensive efforts to forewarn civilians on the other side of coming attacks?

Which nation in the Middle East does the most to protect religious freedom, the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, and the rights of all minority groups within its borders?

If you honestly seek the answers to these and similar questions you will have begun the search to determine who indeed is the victim and who the villain. Hopefully, you will come to the conclusion that Israel truly is a Jewish state, in values as well as in name; that it seeks peace, not war, with its neighbors and prays for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side as friends rather than as enemies.

Love: Jewish Style

February 15, 2014

“How lovely are your feet in sandals,

O daughter of nobles!

Your rounded thighs are like jewels,

The work of a master’s hand.

Your navel is like a round goblet –

Let mixed wine not be lacking! –

Your belly like a heap of wheat

Hedged about with lilies.

Your breasts are like two fawns,

Twins of a gazelle.

Your neck is like a tower of ivory,

Your eyes like pools in Heshbon

By the gate of Bath-rabbim,

Your nose like the Lebanon tower

That faces toward Damascus.

The head upon you is like crimson wool,

The locks of your head are like purple –

A king is held captive in the tresses.

How fair you are, how beautiful!

O Love, with all its rapture!

Your stately form is like the palm,

Your breasts are like clusters.

I say: Let me climb the palm,

Let me take hold of its branches;

Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,

Your breath like the fragrance of apples,

And your mouth like choicest wine.

‘Let it flow to my beloved as new wine

Gliding over the lips of sleepers.’”[1]

Now some of you may be wondering if just because it is Valentine’s Day, does that give the rabbi license to stand on the bimah on Shabbat and recite to the congregation erotic love poetry, with thighs and navels and breasts and lips and rapture?  A valid question, especially considering that not only is Valentine’s Day not a Jewish holiday but in its earlier incarnation it was St. Valentine’s Day; a Roman Catholic Saint’s Day.

Well, if you have not already figured it out, this is not just any erotic poetry.  This text is from SHIR HASHIRIM, the SONG OF SONGS, sometimes called the SONG OF SOLOMON.  This text comes from our own Hebrew Scriptures.  Not only that but SONG OF SONGS is one of the Five Megillot – the Five Scrolls – each of which is assigned by our tradition to be read on a particular holiday.  And not only that!  Of the Five Megillot, there is only one scroll which is assigned to read on two holidays, and guess which scroll it is.  SONG OF SONGS, the scroll which is read on Passover and also on Shabbat, by husbands to their wives.

Now some may ponder how strange it is to find erotica in our Scriptures.  What were the ancient rabbis thinking, back in the 2nd century before the common era, when they decided to include this book, with all its blatant sexual imagery, in the collection of our sacred writings?  Were they just a bunch of dirty old men and this was their version of pornography?

Actually, they weren’t a bunch of dirty old men.  Quite the contrary.  Rather they were profoundly pious, deeply spiritual, remarkably open minded, wonderfully realistic, positive, God loving men of faith.  They did not see this book as “dirty” but rather as inspiring.  That was because they did not look at human love, in any of its manifestations, as being something dirty.  Quite the contrary.  They looked at the pleasure we receive from love, in all of its aspects, including its physical aspect, as being a gift from God, and therefore sacred.  They asked themselves the simple and obvious question: Why would God create us with the capacity to derive so much pleasure if God did not intend for us to enjoy it?  The very fact that God made this so pleasurable clearly indicates that this is something God encourages us to do.

They also recognized that even the best of things in our lives can become the worst of things.  It is all about use and abuse.  When given such gifts, how do we use them properly and employ them for the good, and how do we avoid misusing and abusing them, turning them into something bad?  Of course, when it came to the physical pleasures of love, for the Rabbis, the answer was simple.  Marriage.  Physical love and sexual pleasure was never intended to be an end in and of itself.  That is not the human way.  That is the way it is among the lower species.  For us humans, it was given as way to enhance and intensify the love relationship which exists between two people who are so attracted to each other that they yearn to share the totality of their lives together.

This is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Since God created us with the capacity to love another, it becomes our sacred responsibility to maximize that love in all of its manifestations.  Like any other gift we receive from any other source, one of the truest ways to demonstrate our gratitude for that gift is to make the most of that gift.  If someone were to give you a sweater, and you really liked that sweater, and therefore you wore it often, every time the person who gave you that sweater sees you wearing that sweater, they know how very much you have valued their gift.  It is the same here.  In fact, that is why our tradition teaches us that lovemaking between a husband and wife, on Shabbat, is counted as a double mitzvah.

Why was human love so important to the rabbis – silly question! – and more importantly, why did they feel that it was important to God?  Because the rabbis saw the love between human beings as not something separate from God but rather as the model of human love for God.  Do not get me wrong!  It is not that they ever considered the idea that humans could engage in physical love with God but rather that we should aspire, in our love of God, to reaching the intensity of connectedness between us and God that, in much the same manner, exists in a full and healthy love relationship between husband and wife; a relationship which has the power to take two separate individuals and transform them into one whole and completed being.  How often a husband will say to a wife, or a wife to a husband, “You fulfill me!” and mean it.  That was the rabbi’s ideal, and remains our Jewish ideal, for what should be our relationship with God.  God should fulfill us, and if God fulfills us, believe it or not, we fulfill God.

In a truly intimate human love relationship, each one can often anticipate the other.  We know what they are thinking.  We know what they are feeling without having to ask.  We know because it is important to us; they are important to us, and more often than not, more important to us than ourselves.  Our pleasure is to be found in giving them pleasure.  Their very presence in our lives is our primary source of joy.  This is the type of intimacy to which Judaism encourages us to aspire in our relationship with God.

The Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber understood this very well.  In his famous work, I & THOU, he tells us that in the realm of relationships, there are two major categories – I-It relationships and I-Thou or I-You relationships.

I-It relationships are one directional.  They are all about how the other party can meet our needs.  They have little if anything to do with how we can meet the needs of the other.  Of course we have I-It relationships with objects like chairs.  We are concerned with how the chair meets our needs but we never give a thought to whether or not the chair has needs which we can meet.  But we also can have I-It relationships with people.  Just think about how you often relate to servers in a restaurant or cashiers in a supermarket.

I-Thou relationships are, to one degree or another, two directional.  They are about mutually meeting each other’s needs.  Of course they vary in degree.  An I-Thou relationship with an acquaintance is not nearly as giving as an I-Thou relationship with a friend.  The more intense the relationship, the more connected we feel to the other and the more priority we give to the meeting of their needs.

For Buber, the most intense human experience of an I-Thou relationship is the relationship which exists between loving spouses.  It is this relationship which Buber points to as a model for his third category of relationships – I-Eternal Thou; the desired relationship between the individual and God.  What a statement that makes!  If we could only love God as much as we love each other!  If we could only love God as much as we love the person we love the most!

This all brings us back to SONG OF SONGS.  When the Rabbi’s hotly debated whether or not to include this book in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was no less a personage than Rabbi Akiva who absolutely insisted upon its inclusion.  He was reported as saying, “for all the ages are not worth the day that SONG OF SONGS was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim (all the Writings) are holy, but the SONG OF SONGS is the Holy of Holies.”[2]  Why did he claim this?  Because Akiva did not just see this book as the description of a deep love between a man and a woman, but more importantly, he saw it as a beautiful testimony to the love which should exist between God and Israel.  That is why we read it on Passover, when God showed us unbounded love through the act of our liberation from Egyptian slavery.  That is why we read it on Shabbat, when we show God our unending love by observing this day as God’s day, week after week after week.

It is Shabbat and it is Valentine’s Day.  As we celebrate the love that we share with each other, let us likewise celebrate the love that we share with God.


[1] SONG OF SONGS 7:2-10.

[2] MISHNAH YADAIM 3.5.