Archive for the ‘Jewish’ category

Silver Linings and Rays of Hope: A COVID Reflection of Hope

May 23, 2020

This Shabbat, when we read Torah, we began our journey through its fourth book; the Book of NUMBERS.  As you may or may not know, the meaning of the Hebrew names of the books of the Torah do not necessarily match their English names.  The Book of NUMBERS is a perfect example.  In English, it is called “NUMBERS” because in its beginning, it does a deep dive into the taking of a census of the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land.  Its Hebrew name – BEMIDBAR – delivers quite a different message.  BEMIDBAR means “In the Wilderness.”

As I contemplated our entering the text of BEMIDBAR, I could not help but grasp the parallel with our own lives at this juncture of history.  For, like the newly liberated Israelites, we find ourselves wandering in a wilderness.  Just like our ancestors who were faced with the challenges of needing to traverse their wilderness, with all its difficulties and dangers, we, too, find ourselves faced with the challenges of needing to traverse a wilderness all our own.

Our wilderness is not like theirs.  It is not a wilderness which stretches across miles.  Its difficulties are not the burning desert sun, rough roads to travel, thirst and hunger.  Its dangers are not the fear of attacks from wild beasts, snakes, scorpions, and marauding tribes.  The difficulties and dangers of our wilderness come from this highly contagious and lethal disease which afflicts us today.  They are the difficulties embedded in our need to change our lives so dramatically in order to protect our lives; masks, physical distancing, sheltering at home, shortages at the grocery store, massive unemployment and the poverty and deprivations it entails, the upending of our world economy, the severely diminished education of our children, our inability to be in the physical presence of loved ones and friends, and, of course, the uncertainty of what the future holds for us – the new normal – and when that future will arrive.  As for the dangers, they are self-explanatory, or at least they should be, but for some inexplicable reason there are too many in our society who refuse to acknowledge them.  They are the dangers of our enormous vulnerability to a horrible disease which has the power to inflict unbelievable and prolonged suffering, and possible death, not to mention that unless we behave carefully and responsibly, we could bear the guilt of inflicting all of this upon others, including the people we love.  This is our wilderness.

Yes, the wilderness can be dark and dangerous, whether it be the wilderness of our ancestors or our own.  But even in its midst, there are silver linings and rays of hope which can be found.  Next Thursday evening, we as Jews will commence the celebration of one major silver lining, one major ray of hope, which our ancestors encountered in their wilderness. That silver lining, that ray of hope, changed the world and the history of humanity for all time, and changed it for the better.  The celebration I speak of, of course, is Shavuot, the festival of our receiving the Ten Commandments.  It was in the wilderness, with all its hardships, pain, and suffering, that our ancestors found themselves standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, and there, receiving directly from God, the ten most important rules which would, from that time forth, serve as the guiding principles for the advancement of humanity.

Like our ancestors, as we traverse our wilderness of COVID, there are silver linings and rays of hope to be found.  They do not diminish the hardships we must endure, just as the Ten Commandments did not diminish the hardships endured by our ancestors, but they can redeem our wilderness sojourn from being bereft of any meaning whatsoever, just as, in the same way, God’s gift of the Ten Commandments redeemed the wilderness sojourn of our ancestors.

Some may wonder:  What are these silver linings and these rays of hope which manifest themselves now, in our darkest hours?  They are rays of hope which have the potential to light the path to a better future in what eventually will be a post-COVID world.  But what are they?

One of them is that it has been determined that as a result of the pandemic and the restrictive changes in behavior that it has required of us, the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has been reduced by 17%, dropping to the levels of 2006.  This is but one of several positive impacts our lockdown has had on the environment, as we have been allowing nature to heal itself.  It shows us that if we can choose to change our behaviors, we can begin to ecologically repair our planet.  While it should go without saying that we cannot maintain lockdown protocols forever in order to save our planet, still we can change our attitude of “business as usual” and seriously engage in environmentally responsible behaviors, such as truly committing to the pursuit of alternative clean energy sources.  We have it within our ability to turn back the doomsday clock.

Another ray of hope found in our wilderness is that after 72-years of an ongoing Middle East conflict, it has taken this pandemic, with all its pain and suffering, to start to open a door for, at least a new beginning of Arab-Israeli cooperation.  Three Arab states – states that for all these years have been sworn enemies of Israel – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait – have turned to Israel for assistance in their struggles against the COVID-19 virus.  This is in no way a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it is a glimmer of a recognition of how the countries of the Middle East need each other in order to survive and prosper.  It is but one step toward a resolution of this tragic conflict.  As we march into the future, this moment should not be lost or forgotten by its players, Hopefully it will serve as a building block toward a kinder, gentler Middle East.

Still another ray of hope is born out of the very anguish of our wilderness.  This public health crisis has only accentuated some of the social problems that long existed before the world ever heard of the Coronavirus.  Specifically, the fundamental injustices inherent in the vast socio-economic divide which exists in our nation and the dire consequences of our failure to humanely address that divide.  As we watch how this virus has devasted members of our economically disadvantaged community, way out of proportion to their numbers in our society, we can no longer ignore or turn a blind eye to the evils of runaway, abusive capitalism, the maintenance by way of neglect of a permanent underclass, and the innate evil of systemic racism.  These are intolerable conditions in a society which claims to be great, enlightened, and just. – “With Liberty and Justice for ALL.  If, after the nightmare of witnessing what this pandemic has done to the disadvantaged of our society, we do not commit ourselves to closing the socio-economic divide, then the guilt rests on our shoulders.  If nothing else, this crisis has shown us the necessity of our building a more just society, but we need to choose to act on it.

Still another ray of hope coming out of our current dilemma is that we can no longer afford to think in nationalistic terms.  Yes, we can be patriotically proud of our nation, but we cannot continue to view our nation as being superior or separate from the community of nations.  Last week, I watched Rachel Maddow interview Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.  She asked an interesting and insightful question – “If you could turn back the clock to a time when you could have done something different in your response to the virus, when would that be and what would you have done differently?” His response was even more insightful. He said that while he was tempted to say March or February, actually he would have turned that clock back even earlier, to when we first were hearing about the outbreak in China.  With the wisdom of hindsight, he continued, saying that as soon as he heard of the Corona Virus outbreak in China, he would have started to prepare for its coming to New York. For, as he pointed out, in today’s world, when a virus strikes anywhere in the world, it can strike here tomorrow. All that is necessary is for one infected person to board a plane.  This pandemic should have taught us that we can no longer afford the foolishness of naively ignoring that we live in a global society.  Like it or not, we are intimately and inextricably bound to each other. Indeed, this is not new wisdom. As far back as 1624, the poet John Donne spoke of this reality when he penned his famous poem, “No Man Is an Island.” If, as a result of this pandemic, we can embrace this sense of international interdependence – that as a human race, we are at our best when our nations work together to build a better world – then the future we will build will be brighter and better than we ever dreamt.

Even in these dark hours, let us come to recognize and work to realize the lessons to be found in the silver linings and the rays of hope that, too, are products of this tragedy.  They cannot compensate for the suffering and the loss of life we have and we will endure, but they can show us the way to build a better world for tomorrow.  They redeem these days from the cruel fate of being totally meaningless blips of horror on the timeline of history.

Your Identity is Showing!

February 13, 2020

I was raised as a Reform Jew, or more precisely, as a classical Reform Jew. My mother was also raised as a Reform Jew, but I never knew that until I started doing some genealogical research and found an announcement of her Confirmation service at one of the major Reform synagogues New York City. I knew that she felt it was important for our family to connect to our Judaism but she never really spoke about it. I do know that my sister, who was 6-years older than me, went to religious school at a nearby synagogue, but we never went to services, and my father, to my knowledge, never entered that synagogue until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. It was an Orthodox synagogue, and her Bat Mitzvah service was a class presentation on a Sunday morning, without the Torah ever being taken from the ark. After the Bat Mitzvah, my family resigned from the synagogue.

About 2 years later, my parents were approached by neighbors who were recruiting for a newly formed Reform congregation. I was in first grade and my mother must have been feeling angst over providing me with a Jewish education. So, I imagine she pressured my father into checking it out. I say, “imagine” because none of this religious tension was ever really manifested to my young self.

The congregation was renting a loft on a Bronx business street, over a stationary store and a Chinese restaurant. One winter’s day, my father took me there. As we entered the building, facing a long set of stairs going up to the loft, I took off my hat, for that was the polite thing to do when they enter a building. My father turned to me and said, “No, Henry. In a synagogue you are supposed to wear your hat.” So began my introduction to Judaism. Actually, as time would tell, in that congregation, being a classical Reform congregation, it turned out that no one wore a hat – except the ladies, for it was the 1950’s!

My father fell in love with that congregation and its approach to Judaism. When it came to my Bar Mitzvah, and my mother took me to the Judaica store – yes, in the Bronx there were independent stores that actually sold only Jewish religious articles – I was immediately attracted to the Bar Mitzvah boy mannequin decked out in a talit and a kippah. I must admit that the attraction was not born of any religious fervor but rather because I always loved costumes, and it just made sense that for my Bar Mitzvah, I should wear a “Jewish” costume. Little did I expect the repercussions of that choice. For reasons I did not understand, my father was livid! He would have none of it! My mother finally got him to agree to a compromise. I could either wear the talit or the kippah for my Bar Mitzvah service, but not both. I chose the talit, because, of course, it was a more obvious costume than that little hat.

Only later in life would I come to understand my father’s actions and attitudes. He was born in 1903, one year after his family immigrated to America from Austria. He, his parents, and his siblings lived with his mother’s brother and her father. Her father, my great grandfather, had been a noted Jewish educator in Austria, and so the whole family lived by the letter of Jewish law as followed by the Orthodox. My father’s Bar Mitzvah was not the major event that Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are today. He went with his father to the synagogue on either a Monday or a Thursday morning – when the Torah is read – was called up to bless the Torah, then after the service, they served honey cake and schnapps, and off he went to school. He was one of those young Jews, raised Orthodox, who despised the restrictions of that form of our faith. While never considering converting, still he fled from it. It was not until he was introduced to classical Reform Judaism that he found a comfortable home in Judaism, and he dived into it with both feet. My mother was thrilled, and I was raised to love the life of a Reform Jew.

With the passage of time, and my continued study of our faith, its teachings and practices, my attachment to and appreciation of many of our traditions and symbols have grown deeper and more profound than merely a desire for Jewish costuming, and they have done so within the framework of Reform Jewish ideology. Of course, the experiences of my first year of rabbinic studies, in Jerusalem back in 1970-71, had a significant impact on my approach to all things Jewish. Mine was the first class that the Hebrew Union College sent as an entire body to study in Israel. The talit I am wearing tonight, and whenever I conduct worship, was purchased then and there.

It was as early as in my second year of rabbinic studies that I was introduced to the teachings of many of the great Reform Jewish theologians of the early 20th century. Several of those teachings have done much to provide me with an all important framework to my approach to Judaism, linking my emotional attachments to an intellectual appreciation of why those attachments move me so.

As a Reform Jew, I was especially taken by the ideas concerning mitzvot formulated by the theologian Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig’s approach to mitzvot was fluid and filled with personal power. He walked a middle line between classical Reform’s near total rejection of ritual mitzvot and Orthodoxy’s adoration of them. Rebuking his fellow Reform Jews for their setting them aside out of hand, he encouraged them to study the mitzvot seriously; not just the mechanics of how to observe them but even more importantly, why to observe them; what is their underlying meaning. Doing that, he called upon Reform Jews to take on an attitude toward the ritual mitzvot of assuming that while there are those that I do not observe today, I may, in the future, discover meaning within them and choose to start to observe them. And as for those I do observe today, there may come a time in the future when I, no longer finding them meaningful, may choose to set them aside. This approach became one of the hallmarks of Reform Jewish thinking; the autonomy of each individual Reform Jew to choose what aspects of the tradition speak to them and enrich their lives as Jews. For the blind, rote observance of rituals does little, if anything at all, to lend power and meaning to our Jewish lives. It is in embracing the meanings behind those rituals that grant them their power. My father, as he grew in his own sense of Reform Judaism, embraced that idea, though I doubt that he ever heard of Franz Rosenzweig.

Remember that kippah that I did not get to wear at my Bar Mitzvah? Well, my relationship to that kippah was a testimony to Franz Rosenzweig’s approach to mitzvot. It was during my year in Israel that I, and many of my formerly classically Reform classmates, came to a point in our lives when we found that the wearing of a kippah during worship did enhance our worship experience. It somehow brought us closer to God in our prayers. The next Fall, when we arrived on the various U.S. campuses of the Hebrew Union College, the faculty did not quite know what to do with us. They sent us to Israel to learn Hebrew and to grow our attachment to the State, but this traditional ritualistic behavior, they were not counting on. In the end, they could not avoid the fact that basic to Reform Judaism was its commitment to change. Though they had envisioned that change to be forward moving, moving backward was just as legitimate. Thank you, Franz Rosenzweig!

By the time I arrived in Davenport, in 1985, there were very few congregants who questioned my wearing of the kippah on the bimah, though when my predecessor, a few years earlier, had announced his intention to do so, in a High Holy Day sermon he entitled, “The Rabbi Wears a Hat,” he was roasted on an open spit.

But my kippah journey was far from over. In 1999, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued its “Statement of the Principles of Reform Judaism.” Among other matters, this statement addressed the ongoing sticky issue of the observance of the mitzvot within our movement. It emphasize that each Reform Jew must decide for him or her self which mitzvot carry meaning for them and therefore they choose to embrace, while at the same time it affirmed that those who choose to adopt mitzvot that Reform Judaism previously rejected are well within the spirit of Reform Judaism in doing so. That Statement of Principles might very well be considered the official birthplace of what we today call Reform Judaism’s “Big Tent.”

The rabbinic discussions which were a part of the framing of that document inspired me to act upon something I had been giving thought to for maybe a year; expanding my wearing of the kippah beyond worship and into daily living. I announced that decision to my congregation in a High Holy Day sermon and received very little pushback. So that became my new practice. However, the sea of life was soon to turn turbulent. When the Statement of Principles was approved, I was interviewed by the local newspaper. In that interview, I explained that according to the statement, and Reform Jewish ideology, we are instructed to evaluate each individual mitzvah on its own merits. Therefore, within that system, we are free to adopt any particular mitzvah without accepting other of the mitzvot. The example I gave was one I gave in my earlier sermon. I had chosen to wear the kippah daily, but I had not chosen to maintain the dietary laws of kashrut outside of my home.

As a matter of full disclosure, I did say that I was perfectly comfortable about wearing my kippah and dining at Jim’s Rib Haven. Well, that did not sit well with the members of the Tri City Jewish Center, a more traditional synagogue on the other side of the Mississippi, in Rock Island. They rained their fury down upon me and the members of my congregation. So much so that, for the sake of community unity, my congregants placed enormous pressures upon me to recant the statement. The experience was so painful that rather than recant, I withdrew from my daily wearing of the kippah. The power of the way that daily wearing kept my consciousness closer to God was drowned out by the anguish that controversy brought me.

So, it was until recently. For many years now, I have been deeply concerned about the growing level of antisemitism around the world, and eventually here in our own country. I have been posting about it regularly on Facebook in a series I call “Antisemitism in Action.” The horrible attacks on Jews which took place in December just brought it to a head for me. More and more, I would be hearing of Jews who are now afraid to wear their kippot in public. What kind of world are we living in where people should fear displaying the symbols of their faith lest they suffer injury? As some of you may know, I am deeply involved in an anti-hate group in the Quad Cities called One Human Family QCA. I am one of its founders. A day or so after that brutal attack on the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York, during a Hanukkah party, I received a call from Rev. Richard Hendricks, my co-founder of One Human Family. Rev. Richard Hendricks is the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly gay congregation, and is himself gay. Rev. Hendricks proposed a program which would involve a community response to the epidemic of antisemitism. He called it Kippah Day. His plan was to hold a community event in which kippot were distributed to people of all faiths, who would be encouraged to wear their kippot on the next day – all day – to show their solidarity with their Jewish neighbors and their opposition to antisemitism, and hate in all its manifestations.

His proposal was very much in the spirit of One Human Family QCA, in that we believe that it is not enough for each identity group to stand up against the hate directed at their own group, but rather we must stand up for each other as well, regardless of which group is the target of the moment. For the disease that plagues us is hate itself. The various manifestations of hate – racism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, Hispanophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. – are but symptoms of the disease and not the total disease in and of themselves. The harsh truth is that those who hate are what we call “equal opportunity haters.” They have more that enough hate in their hearts to spread it around to many targeted groups at the same time. With that in mind, we need to act in the tradition of Hillel the Elder, the founder of modern Judaism, who said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am ONLY for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

I have to admit, when Rev. Hendricks first proposed the Kippah Day idea, I was hesitant, and I told him, only if he can obtain buy-in from my successor, Rabbi Linda Bertenthal. She, who does wear a kippah on a daily basis, quickly agreed. The event was held. About 500 kippot were distributed on a Thursday night. They were worn by the participants all the next day. The Kippah Day culminated with the participants being invited to Temple Emanuel, for a Shabbat evening service. The sanctuary that night was filled; a sea of kippot worn by both Jews and friends of the Jewish Community.

It was during the planning of this event that I realized that the time had come. It was time for me to return to that earlier intention of wearing my kippah day in and day out instead of just when I worship. My wife soon was joking about how I was presenting the world with a kippah fashion show, as I started wearing kippot that matched to color scheme of my daily attire. In making this choice I was choosing to wear the kippah for all the spiritual reasons that led me to my earlier decision – helping to heighten my awareness on a daily basis, moment to moment, that I live my entire life in the presence of God – but I also for yet another reason; to demonstrate to the world that I am proud to be a Jew and that no thug is going to intimidate me into hiding from the public who I am and for what I stand.

My thoughts quickly returned to a day in 1993. The Quad Cities interfaith Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – Committee had arranged to host a premiere showing of the film “Schindler’s List” as a fundraiser for local Holocaust education. Then one Friday afternoon, as the mail was delivered to the Temple, a deep, dark cloud suddenly hung over this enterprise. As I was going through the mail, I came across a postcard which read: “A Neo-Nazi group is planning to set off bombs in the theater during the Holocaust movie. Attacks are also planned for the home of Rabbi Karp and the offices of the Jewish Federation.” I immediately picked up the phone and called my friend, the Chief of Police, Steve Lynn. At first, the operator at the police station said that he was in a meeting and could not be disturbed. So I started to leave a message. The minute I gave my name, I was told to hold. The next voice I heard was that of Chief Lynn. It turned out that the meeting he was in was with agents of the F.B.I., and the topic of discussion was this very same threat. I appeared that a copy of the postcard was sent to the police. So I jumped in my car and joined them. During that meeting, I asked Chief Lynn whether we should consider canceling the showing of the film. What he said to me that day has been emblazoned in my mind. He said: “Rabbi, you are going to have to make that choice for yourself. However, if I were you, I would never cancel that movie, for if you do, then they win!” The movie was not canceled. The police and the F.B.I. did everything possible to protect against the threat; bomb sniffing dogs inspecting the theater daily, heavy police patrols around my home and the offices of the Jewish Federation, a small army of officers present at the showing of the film, both uniformed and undercover, in and out of the theater. The showing went off without incident and neither my home nor the Jewish Federation offices were ever attacked. But from that day to this, Chief Lynn’s words still ring in my ears, “If you do, they win!” We can never let them – the purveyors of hate – win! Not then. Not now.

There is an old Yiddish expression: “Schwer zu zein ein Yid und Schoen zu zein ein Yid – It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.” We live in a time when it can be difficult to be a Jew. Still, we must never forget or neglect, or avoid, just how beautiful it is to be a Jew. Now, more than ever, with antisemitism on the rise, especially over the last 6 years, every Jew needs to find the courage to show the world just who we are, and that who we are – JEWS – is something for which we can be justifiably proud and unashamed. The haters should never be allowed to win! Judaism is to beautiful a gift to our lives and to the world to allow it to be squashed out by the agents of evil. If my wearing of my kippah can serve to both remind me of how I live my life, day after day, in the presence of God, and at the same time, inform those who hate me for being a Jew that they will never win, then I will wear my kippah in prayerful subservience to God, in my pride of my Jewish identity, and in resistance to all who choose hate over love.

Miracles: A Reflection

November 9, 2019

Lately, I have been giving a lot more thought to the subject of miracles. Considering what I so recently went through, I don’t think many of you will find that surprising. Having a stroke, and surviving it, and having all my faculties returned to me in a matter of hours rather than months or years, can certainly focus one’s thoughts toward the miraculous.
How much the more so with my being a rabbi – a member of the clergy who has spent many years serving congregations – and as such, has accompanied many a congregant along the long and arduous road of return that typically follows falling victim to a stroke. Indeed, providing comfort and solace to stroke victims has been one of the more difficult tasks in my rabbinate, and I expect that is just as true for other clergy, regardless of their faith identities. After all, when people have lost in an instant so many physical abilities that we tend to take for granted, and then are faced with the grueling task of recapturing those abilities, in the smallest of incremental achievements over the longest periods of time, it doesn’t take long for them to view a faith leader’s words of encouragement, and hope as sounding shallow as their own efforts to recover seem increasingly futile. And who can blame them? As clergy, we not only observe the growing frustration and the spiritual and emotional agony of congregants who have fallen victim to strokes, but we, in our own sense of powerlessness – in our inability to do much more than offer words of encouragement which seem empty in the face of their painfully slow and miniscule progress – feel their pain and frustration as well.
Having accompanied so many others along that excruciating journey, how could I not but recognize the miraculous when I found myself one morning in the grips of a stroke, yet a day and a half later I was able to leave the hospital with all, or most, of my abilities restored? I tell you, that morning, when the stroke hit, and I was holding myself up over the bathroom sink by my arms, for my legs had failed me, and I was waiting for my wife to come home and the ambulance to arrive, I truly felt that this was the end; that I would not see the light at the end of that tunnel. At that moment, I was the embodiment of the prayer from the morning service which states: “Praise to You, Adonai our God, who formed the human body with skill, creating the bodies many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before you.” Yet here, this Shabbat, I stand before you. I have not the slightest doubt but that it was a miracle.
Now one can easily argue that it wasn’t a miracle. That it was science; medical science. The drug that was responsible for my recovery – the tPA Drip – was first introduced in 1996. If it is administered within 3 hours after the onset of a stroke, it can quickly work to dissolve the blood clot which caused the stroke, eliminating it before there is permanent damage to the brain. But when you think about, if you are not already a patient in a hospital, 3 hours is not a lot of time to work with. A lot has to happen before the drug is administered. In my own case, the diagnosis was that the stroke hit the back of my brain. But if they were to administer the drug in time, they did not have the time to do the testing necessary to determine whether or not there was any bleeding in my brain. For if there was bleeding, the drug would only make the situation worse, perhaps kill me. My wife and I decided that in spite of the risks, they should administer the drug and leave the rest to God. Considering how dire the result could have been, that I not only survived but recovered was but another miracle. Going in, no doctor could guarantee that outcome. It wasn’t just science. It was a miracle.
But if any doubt of the miraculous still lingered. That doubt was about to be washed away. After my release from the hospital, though most of my faculties had been restored, there were some lingering effects. The top of my head always felt numb. I continually had 3 separate headaches, simultaneously; one in the back of my head, around where the clot had been, another along the carotid artery in my neck, where an ultrasound had been conducted to determine any blockage, and one in the front of head, in the area of my forehead. All hurting at the same time and never going away. It was strange, since from childhood I used to have headaches regularly, but sometime in the late 80’s they just stopped and never returned. Now I had 3 of them all at one time. It was Yom Kippur afternoon – 19 days since the onset of the stroke. I was worshipping at the synagogue in Davenport. It was time for silent prayer, and I silently prayed in earnest, thanking God for my salvation, and asking God for strength. For if the way I had been feeling, with the numbness and the headaches, was to be my new normal, considering what the outcome could have been, I was more than ready to accept it. I only wanted God to give me the strength to live with it. It was while I was deep into that prayer that my prayer was suddenly interrupted by what I can only describe as a strong pop that I felt in my head. It was as if I could actually hear it as well as feel it. No sooner did it occur than the numbness and the headaches started to quickly fade. By the end of the service, they were completely gone. Now there could be other explanations for what I experienced. In fact, I shared the experience with my doctor, who had nothing to say in explanation of it. Still there could be other explanations, but I am convinced that the pop I experienced, and the relief I felt, were in answer to my prayer. Miracle number 3.
One can ask: Were any of these experiences really miracles or are there rational explanations for each and every one of them? It’s a fair question. But there is a fundamental problem with the question itself. It operates under the premise that reason and miracles must exist on two separate plains. That they cannot exist side-by-side. And that is not necessarily true. Something can be both miraculous and rational at the very same time. Being able to explain how a miracle occurred does not make it any less of a miracle. For what makes a miracle a miracle is not that it defies explanation but rather that how it occurs, when it occurs, and the circumstances in which it occurs produces a sense of awe and wonder. For this one moment, the forces of the universe came together in such a way as to produce a result which was unexpected, surprising, and in its own way, a very special gift. The fact that we can parse it and explain how it happened is besides the point. The fact that it did happen, in the way that it happened is the essence of the miracle itself.
When I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska, there was this elderly couple who belonged to my congregation – Paula & George. One day George collapsed and was taken to the intensive care unit of the hospital. He lay there in a coma, with the monitors showing very little brain function. He lay in that bed in the fetal position. I sat with Paula as she met with the team of doctors who explained to her that he lay there in the fetal position because his brain was not getting enough oxygen to function, and that the monitor was showing that he was basically brain dead. Therefore they counseled her to allow him to pass away naturally by giving the order not to resuscitate him should he go into cardiac arrest. To my surprised, she refused. All of us in the room, with the exception of Paula, were convinced that he would linger until he died. We were wrong. Several days later, he awoke, eventually left the hospital, and lived for another two years. While his recovery can be explained medically, it was against all the odds. It was a miracle.
It was but a month or two after I arrived in Iowa that on one Summer Sunday afternoon, I received a call from one of the local hospitals, telling me that a congregant was very close to death and they thought I should come as soon as possible. So I did. I had been doing yard work but I didn’t take the time to change my clothes, lest she pass before I arrived. I walked into her room and there she was, laying still on the bed. Suddenly, to my surprise and the surprise of the nurse, she sat up, looked at me and said, “Hello Rabbi. I am so glad to see you.” She, too, recovered and left the hospital. A miracle.
In 1948, the United Nations passed its Partition Plan, dividing Palestine into 2 states; one Jewish and the other Arab. The entire Arab world rejected the plan and mustered its forces to invade the fledgling State of Israel, promising to drive all its Jews into the sea. The army of the newborn Jewish State was greatly outnumbered and outgunned by the combined armies of the Arab world. The rest of the world sat back, expecting to swoop up whatever Jews survived the Arab onslaught. But when the smoke cleared, the State of Israel not only survived but was victorious. A miracle. As did the Maccabees 2100 years earlier, they, too, evoked of us the proclamation, “Nes Gadol Haya Sham – A great miracle happened there!”
Miracles occur all the time, and they don’t need to be on as grand a scale as any of these. But we miss them. We miss them because our eyes and our ears and our minds are closed to them. There is a story about two old friends meeting on 5th Avenue in New York City, just as all the business offices were letting out. The sidewalks were filled with people and street was fill with cars, and the racket they produce was intense. Now these two friends hadn’t seen each other in many years. So they fought the crowd in order to embrace each other in the moment. Just as they were embracing, one friend said to the other, “Don’t you hear it?” “Hear what?” the other replied. “Don’t you hear that little bird caught in that bush in that window box over there?” Well, the other friend looked and that window box was a good 15 to 20 yards away. “How can you hear a little bird that far away in all this noise?” he asked. “I’ll show you,” his friend replied. They walked to the window box and the one friend pushed aside the branches and low and behold, a little bird flew out. In astonishment, the other friend exclaimed, “I can’t believe you heard that bird! You must have Superman hearing.” “Not really,” the first friend replied. “Let me show you.” With that, he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a quarter. He then dropped it on the sidewalk and no sooner did it hit the ground then a whole group of people just stopped in their tracks, turned around and looked. “You see,” said the friend, “it all depends upon what you are listening for.”
It all depends upon what we are listening for and what we are looking for. As long as we close our minds to the possibility of the miraculous, we will never witness it. But once we open our minds to that possibility, our world will abound with miracles. And we will be the better for it. Our lives will be so enriched by the miracles we encounter, for with them comes hope rather than despair. For in them we will experience a God who cares and is actively involved in our lives. It is Jewish tradition, that immediately upon waking up in the morning, we say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for granting us the miracle of another day of life. We begin each day by acknowledging the many miracles that surround us. In so doing God becomes all the more real to us, and not just some three-letter theoretical word we invoke in ritual moments but ignore in the course of daily living.
We should not require a moment of dire crisis to encounter the miraculous in our lives, but rather we can actively seek it out.

The Middah of Zechirah: A Yizkor Sermon

November 3, 2016

Throughout these High Holy Days, we have been exploring the spiritually powerful world of Mussar as we have examined just a few of the Middot – the God desired attitudes or character traits – which have the ability to heal our souls and permit more divine light to shine into our lives, and through us, into the lives of others.

During these brief moments of Yizkor – memorial – when our thoughts and hearts turn to the loved ones we have lost over the years, I would like to introduce yet one last Middah, the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance.  For after all, that is what this particular service is all about.

As I stated in earlier sermons, and just this morning, Mussar views our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to the other, with the Middot seeking to help us find the ideal spot along that continuum at which we can establish for ourselves the most effective and uplifting set point for our personal attitudes.  When it comes to the Middah of Zechirah – Remembrance – that set point is to be found somewhere between the extreme of a purging from our memory of any thoughts of those who are no longer with us, and the extreme of a total and debilitating obsession with our memories of those who have departed this life; between the extreme of moving on with our lives as if those people never existed and the extreme of being so lost in our sense of loss that we find ourselves incapable of moving forward in our lives.  As is the case with all such continuums, as explained by Mussar, both extremes are destructive to our character, yet elements of both extremes are necessary for our spiritual survival.  The Middah of Zechirah seeks to help us discover the sweet spot along that continuum which combines that best of both perspectives in such a way that our memories of loved ones are neither lost to us nor seeking to drown us in an oceans of sorrow; in such a way that we can hold the memories of those we loved, and continue to love, near and dear to our hearts as they come to serve to brighten our lives rather than darken our days.

In our search for this Middah, we need to confront what might be for many a rather uncomfortable fact; that we fear extinction.  The nightmare we never speak about with others is the one in which we not only no longer exist in this world, but it is as if we never existed at all.  All the evidence of our having been here is erased.  If someone were to mention our names, the common response would be, “Who?  Never heard of him.  Never heard of her.”  That our life would have been the realization of Shakespeare’s words:  “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more:  it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[1]

If that is what awaits us at the end of our days, then what is the purpose of the struggle?  Why do we grasp so tightly onto life?  Why do we invest so much energy into it?  Physical energy.  Emotional energy.  Why do we care?  Care about ideals.  Care about others.  Care about ourselves.  If it all comes down to nothingness, non-existence, why not just give up the ghost and end it now?

We all want our lives to mean more than nothing.  We all want to leave our mark before we are gone.  We all want to make some sort of difference; leave some sort of legacy.  We all want to be remembered.  Zechirah.  And just as we want to be remembered, those who came before us wanted to be remembered as well.

But how can we expect to be remembered unless we remember?  Why should we, in good conscience, expect those who follow after us to do more for us then we, ourselves, did for those who came before us?  We can’t, and we shouldn’t.

There are those who claim, “Memory is a very personal thing.  I keep it in my head and in my heart and that is all I need to do.”  But remembrance is more than mere memories locked away in our brains, hidden from the world at large; hidden even from those closest to us.  Remembrance isn’t something that is exclusively passive.  It needs to be active as well.  We need to act upon our memories as well as harbor them.  We need to bring them into our lives and not just keep them locked away in our hearts.

One way that we can engage in such active remembrance is, of course, through ritual.  That is precisely what we are doing right now by attending this service.  But this is only one such ritual, and it is a once-a-year commitment, and we can do it for all our loved ones together at once – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and God forbid, children.  We all know that there are other rituals as well which we can be observing, such as lighting Yarhzeit candles and saying Kaddish on the Shabbat nearest the Yahrzeit, attending such services as festival Yizkor services and Kever Avot.  Visiting the graves of our loved ones and saying a prayer.  Giving tzedakah in their memory on their special days, such as birthdays.  Now there are those who believe that by our observing each of these rituals, we enable the souls of our loved ones who have returned to God to experience feelings of joy and love not unlike how they felt when physically alive, we celebrated with them their special times, such as birthdays and anniversaries.  It would be kind of like sending them a spiritual greeting card.  Maybe that is so.  We cannot know for sure.  However, what we can know, and what we can experience, is whether or not it impacts their heavenly existence, it can impact our earthly existence.  Taking the time and the energy to observe such rituals in their memory can touch our lives in much the same positive and loving way that we experienced in celebrating their days with them when they were with us.  There is a tangible spiritual uplift we can feel when we take the time to light a Yahrzeit candle for them, say Kaddish for them, go to visit their graves.  Such deeds bring out our memories and draw us closer to them.  They have the power to heighten the feeling of their continuing presence in our lives.

While those special days with their special observances are very important, when it comes to our actively engaging in Zechirah, there are other opportunities as well – daily opportunities.  At the hands of those who are gone, we received manifold gifts; gifts that far exceed any material inheritance they may have passed on to us.  These are the gifts of the spirit.  These are the gifts which may not have added to our estate but they have added greatly to our character.  The wonder of these gifts is that we can keep them the rest of our lives yet freely share them with others and they would not diminish one iota.  Indeed, with every act of sharing, they grow.  And they grow all the more wondrously if, when we share them with others, we also share something about the people who gave us those gifts in the first place; introducing to those whose lives we bless, to those who blessed our lives.  Introducing them as if they are standing right alongside of us; a chain of tradition, if you will, of blessings.  You may have heard of “paying it forward”.  Well, we can pay it forward and backward at the same time.  In so doing, we can keep both the legacy and the memory of our departed loved ones alive and vital in this world.

Not every one of us is destined to have our names inscribed in the history books and remembered for time immemorial but that does not mean that we are destined to fade into nothingness.  Each and every one of us leaves a legacy; a legacy of our choosing.  And each and every one of us carries upon our shoulders the responsibility to transmit to others the legacies that have been left to us by those we loved.  We are the keepers of each other’s legacies.  In so doing, we are the ones who determine whether or not the fate of others is destined for extinction in this world or for an unbroken chain of memory and gift giving stretching far into the unforeseeable future.  The power of Zechirah – Remembrance – is in our hands and may we always make the most of it.

[1] Shakespeare, William, “Macbeth”, act 5, scene 5.

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”.