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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

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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.

Three Striving to be One

November 3, 2014

The liturgy of the Yom Kippur service continually calls upon us to take stock of our lives. It implores us to look into our souls and measure our deeds, to consider our lives in the year that has passed, cutting through our self delusions, and honestly confronting our weaknesses, our fault, and our misdeeds. It demands of us that we take a hard look at ourselves and, having done so, make the commitment to strive to be better in the year to come, starting right here and now as we sincerely seek to heal whatever wounds we might have inflicted, either intentionally or unintentionally, on others.
When you strip away all the florid language of the High Holy Day prayer book, what are our prayers really asking of us – aside from vowing to become better people – what do they want from us? They want us to ask ourselves what might appear to be a simple question, “Who am I?” While that might appear to be a simple question, in truth, it isn’t.
When confronted with such a question, it is easy for us to rattle off a list of adjectives and proclaim “This is who I am!” Man. Woman. Parent. Child. Sibling. Young. Old. Tall. Short. Thin. Fat. Married. Single. Heterosexual. Homosexual. Transsexual. Jew. Christian. Muslim. Hindu. Buddhist. Atheist. Agnostic. Merchant. Professional. Employer. Employee. Unemployed. Student. Housewife. House husband. Retired. Social. Reserved. Kind. Generous. Loving. Loyal. Liberal. Conservative. The list goes on. “This is who I am” we readily proclaim.
But perhaps the answer is not so simple. Perhaps it is more complex than we are willing to imagine. Perhaps finding the answer to that question “Who am I?” does demand that we take a harder look – a more intense self-examination – than most, if any, of us are comfortable taking.
Many years ago I came across an article that said that while people tend to think of themselves as one person, in actuality each and every one of us is made up of three distinct individuals – the person we think we are, the person other people perceive us to be, and the person we aspire to be. That definitely should supply us with food for thought, especially on Yom Kippur.
There is so much truth to that analysis. We tend to see ourselves in certain ways and the ways in which we see ourselves are definitely colored by our own egos. While we may be too humble to inflate our perceptions of our strengths and our finer qualities, most of us are prone to playing down our weaknesses and our shortcomings. We can be very forgiving of ourselves. After all, as we so readily profess, “I’m only human!” How peculiar it is that we are so far more forgiving of our own weaknesses and shortcoming than we are of the weaknesses and shortcomings of others, even when those weaknesses and shortcomings may be some of the very same as our own. We are always ready to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and truly believe that we deserve the benefit of the doubt, but when it comes to others, granting them the benefit of the doubt we find to be far more difficult. So often, while we think the best of ourselves, and expect others to think of us in that way as well, we tend to be all too ready to attribute to others the worst of intentions. So chances are, the way that we see ourselves may not be how others see us.
If we are to grow as people, as Yom Kippur calls upon us to grow as people, one of the challenging tasks which lies before us is to try to discover how others see us as compared to how we see ourselves. Of course we could go around and ask everyone, “What is your opinion of me? How would you describe me as a person?” but to say the least, that would be a bit awkward. I suspect that if we were to ask people such questions, whatever their opinion was of us before, it will have gone down afterwards, as they add to their list of descriptive adjectives of us such terms as “egotistical” and “self-centered.” So the direct approach probably won’t work.
If we are going to be able to make any self-assessment like this, we are going to have to do it the hard way. We are going to have to start paying closer attention to the way that other people relate to us, for the way they relate to us will definitely be influenced by what they think of us. When they encounter us, are they happy to see us? Is there a smile on their face? Is there energy in their greeting? Is there enthusiasm in their voice? Or is it more or less a dull “Hello. How are you?” Do they want to spend time with us? Go to a restaurant. Go to a movie. Come over to the house for an evening. Take a trip together. What do they talk about with us? Do they restrict the conversations to small talk? Do they ask about our family? Do they share what is happening in their lives? Do they confide in us or are they guarded when talking with us? Do they converse with us comfortably or are they hesitant and uneasy? Do we sense that they consider us or they want us to be their friend, an acquaintance, or someone they just know in passing? It is not just what they say. It is also what they do. Their body language. For example, do they look us in the eye or stare away? There are multiple, subtle tell tale signs that people exhibit which communicate both on a conscious and an subconscious level how they feel about others.
We need to attune ourselves to become more aware of those signs. Now understand that once we start with this, we may find ourselves facing some unpleasant surprises. We may discover that some people don’t think as highly of us as we think of ourselves. But as painful as that might be, that is a good thing. It is a good thing because it helps us to focus on the tasks that lie before us. It helps us to begin to understand what we are going to need to do in order to close that gap; to present ourselves to others in a manner which helps them to think of us more in the way that we tend to think of ourselves. For when people think of us in much the same way that we think of ourselves, that is when we begin to truly understand the people that we actually are.
Yet the gap between the way in which we think of ourselves and the way in which others think of us is not the only gap we need to close. There is another gap as well. A very important gap. That gap is the one that exists between the that person we are today and the person we aspire to be.
Who among us has little or no desire to be a better person? Who does not wish to be kinder, gentler, wiser, more sensitive, more caring of others, more attentive to their loved ones, more dependable, more trusted, more respected, more admired, more loved? If there is such a person in this room today then I have to be frank and say to them, “You are wasting your time sitting in the synagogue and observing Yom Kippur, for Yom Kippur, and Judaism in general – indeed, religion in general – is all about helping us to become better people than we are today. It is all about guiding us to become richer people, not in material possessions but in spiritual possessions. If you think that you have gone as far as you can go – that you have reached perfection as a human being – then I am sorry for you, for you are deluded, since no person is perfect. Every single one of us has the potential to become better. The uncomfortable question before us is whether or not we have the desire to become better.
If we possess that desire then the goal before us is deciding upon what it will take to move us closer from the person we are today to that person we aspire to be. It is not something that is going to happen as a matter of fact but it is going to take a concerted effort on our parts. We have to want it and we have to be willing to work for it. For only then can we draw near to achieving it.
As that article so wisely stated, every person is in fact three distinct individuals – the person we think we are, the person others perceive us to be, and the person we aspire to become. On Yom Kippur, we need to dedicate our lives to the task of reuniting those three into one, so that the person we think we are is not only the same as the person others perceive us to be, but that person is also the person who draws ever closer to the person we aspire to be.

Forgetfulness and the Failure to Forgive

November 1, 2014

I suspect that we all are familiar with the saying, “forgive and forget.” At this time of year, on Yom Kippur, it seems especially appropriate. After all, Yom Kippur is all about seeking forgiveness and granting forgiveness. As we confront our shortcomings and our misdeeds, and we resolve to repair the damage we have wrought, we pray that those we have injured will find it in their hearts to put their pain aside, accept our attempts at reconciliation, and forgive us. Even while we are seeking forgiveness from other, we also are expected to recognize that there are still others who, in turn, seek our forgiveness, and we, in turn, are called upon to accept their efforts at reconciliation and grant them forgiveness. So forgive and forget would seem to be the order of the day.
There is only one problem with that, and the problem is simple and painfully obvious. Can we truly, honestly forgive and forget. While it is possible for us to forgive, is it really possible for us to forget? After all, we have been hurt and the memory of that hurt stings and in some cases more than stings. Let us be honest about it. Can we really forget that pain and the actions which caused it? We can choose to set it aside or overlook it, but can we actually forget it? Perhaps there are some exceptional human beings among us who can actually forget it, but for most of us, we don’t actually forget it. We may be able to move beyond it, but we don’t forget it. And many of us can’t even find it in our hearts to do that. We refuse to forget it. We refuse to let it go. We insist upon carrying it around within us, like a fire burning at our insides, searing us with pain at the very thought of the offending parties. Far from forgetting, we cling to it as it continually feeds our anger and keeps far from our thoughts even the possibility of granting forgiveness.
There is a certain irony to be found in all this business of forgiving and forgetting. While it seems that we may be incapable of forgetting the injuries that others have inflicted upon us, it does not appear that we are incapable of forgetting, for there is much that we do forget when it comes to these damaged relationships. The irony is to be found in what it is we are quick to forget as opposed to what it seems we are incapable of forgetting.
Who are the people who wind up hurting us? Who are the people who are in need of our forgiveness? In the overwhelming majority of cases, these are the people who, at one time or another, were close to us. Generally speaking, strangers are incapable of doing us great harm. The person who cuts in front of us in line at the grocery store or at a restaurant or at a ticket counter can upset us and anger us for the moment, but they really don’t hurt us, not in the long term in any event. Of course there are exceptions, such as the stranger who performs a horrible act of violence against us or against someone we love. But thank God, most of us have not been subjected to such injuries. Yet it is with the people who are close to us with whom we are most vulnerable. The closer they are, the more we have chosen to share our lives with them, the more vulnerable we become. With them, we open our hearts and drop our defenses. We invest them with a special trust, assuming that they will be there for us, helping us and not hurting us, just as we expect to be there for them, helping and not hurting.
But sometimes things go awry. Mistakes are made, harsh words are said, hurtful actions are taken, whether or not by intention, and pain comes to overshadow love, anger comes to overshadow friendship. In the process, those we once loved become those we feel we cannot forgive.
Is it not odd that while we cannot forget the hurt inflicted upon us, we can so quickly forget all that was good and wonderful about these relationship during all that time prior to their break up?
A couple fall in love. They have an ecstatic courtship. They marry, struggle together, build a home, raise a family, something goes sour, one thing leads to another, and they wind up divorced. More often than not, it is not an amicable divorce but rather a contentious one, filled with anger and hateful recriminations. Children can be caught in the crossfire, and somehow or other, all the love upon which their original relationship was founded seems totally forgotten and only the bitterness remains.
Parents raise a child. They love the child and the child loves them. They provide for all the child’s needs – food, shelter, clothing, emotional support, material possessions, an education – and proudly watch as their child grows into an adult. Somewhere along the way an issue arises about which they dramatically disagree. Perhaps a parent is angered by a life style choice made by the child – a selection of spouse, a change of religion, a choosing of a certain career path, whatever. Perhaps the child is angered because at one point or another certain parental supports were expected but were not offered or delivered. Whatever the issue, a lifetime of love and devotion is forgotten and transformed into an insurmountable barrier of resentment.
Two individuals or two couples find that they resonate with each other and establish a friendship. With the passage of time the friendship grows and grows as they spend more and more time together, share more and more experiences, and come to depend upon each other for more than just companionship. They become like family, maybe even closer than family. Then some contentious issue arises and they find themselves in opposite camps. Each party is deeply devoted to their stand and cannot believe how wrong minded the other party could be on this issue. They feel betrayed. How can they ever have been friends with people who think that way? Perhaps it is not a contentious issue but a personal disappointment. One party calls upon the other for help or support in a particular situation and the other party, for whatever reasons, turns them down. They may even have been legitimate reasons but what sticks in the craw is that when they were needed, their friends were not there for them. A profound friendship – the type of friendship that we rarely encounter in our lives – has been quickly forgotten as it has morphed into animosity and resentment.
If there are aspects of our relationships which we seem incapable of forgetting while there are other aspects of our relationships which we seem all too ready to forget, then perhaps it is not a question of the ability or inability to forget but rather a question of what we choose to forget and what is it that we choose not to forget? Perhaps the harsh reality is that when it comes to our relationships, there are some important elements that we choose to forget while there are other elements that we refuse to forget. Facing up to those choices and honestly, with an open heart, examining those choices is what becomes the challenge of Yom Kippur.
When we choose to refuse to forget the pain inflicted upon us by others, yet, inspired by that pain, we quickly choose to forget all the good times – all the blessings – which we previously enjoyed as we shared our lives with those people, then it is time for us to reconsider how we make such choices. There is no perhaps about it. When we elect to choose pain over pleasure, then we are making bad choices. When we decide whether or not to grant forgiveness to those who have somehow hurt us, and all we can think of is the injury which we received at their hands, and fail to take into consideration all the joy we also received at their hands, then we are making bad choices. When we choose to hold close to our hearts, refusing to forget, all that went bad in our relationships, and let slip away from our consciousness all the was wonderful in our relationships, then we are making bad choice.
When I was a first year rabbinic student, studying for a year in Israel, one of the books that was making the rounds of my classmates was Erich Segal’s, A LOVE STORY. Granted, it is not great literature, but it was extremely popular at the time, and it had a certain appeal for graduate students who found themselves separated by half a world from their girlfriends. If you are not familiar with the book, you probably are familiar with its most famous line, that being, “Love is never having to say you are sorry.” I disagree with that. On the contrary, I believe that the willingness to say we are sorry is an important part of our love. I also believe that when someone we love is willing to come to us, saying that they are sorry, we should be all the more ready and willing to forgive them.
That does not mean that we can forget the injury they inflicted upon us. Such things are hard to forget. But it does mean that we should not forget all the joys we shared with them. It does mean that we should not forget how, in the past, we cared so deeply for them and they cared so deeply for us. Can such feelings disappear like a puff of smoke in a moment of anger or pain? Whether or not they can, they shouldn’t, and we shouldn’t let them. In the end, if we cannot forgive and forget because we cannot forget, we need to choose for ourselves, between that which was good and that which was bad, which is more important for us to remember. Hopefully, we can find it within ourselves to place the memories of the good above the memories of the bad, for when we place the memories of the good above the memories of the bad, we clear the path to healing and forgiveness. And that is what Yom Kippur is all about.

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.

Elusive Happiness

September 18, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Life Is Too Short…

September 27, 2012

My wife and I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in the Summer of 1977 where I assumed my first solo pulpit and my wife began serving the Reform congregation in Omaha as its cantor.  We were extremely fortunate in that in both congregations we quickly made many close friends.  In fact, today we still keep in regular contact with several of them.

One set of friends that we made in Lincoln were two wonderful people who, for the sake of this article, I will call Ann & Mark.  They were older than us, but then again in those days, who in the congregation wasn’t, other than the students in the religious school?  Ann always seemed to know the right thing to do.  She was always there for the temple, and there for us.  Mark was a successful professional who loved to read and who loved to engage in some of the most profound conversations.  During our 5 years in Lincoln we spent a lot of time with Ann & Mark talking, laughing, dreaming.  Each of us valued our friendship dearly.

Then it happened.  It was in November of our last year in Nebraska.  I was training their youngest daughter for her Bat Mitzvah.  One evening the four of us were out for dinner, and of course one of the main topics of our conversation was the family’s plans for the big event.  It was in the midst of that conversation that Ann asked my wife if during the cocktail hour, she would sit on a stool and perform folk music for the guests, coffee house style.  She told us how much she loved listening to my wife sing and that it would mean so much to them if she would sing during their party.

The request caught us flatfooted.  My wife has never been that type of entertainer.  While in high school and in camp she performed in some musicals and some operas, she never got involved in anything like cabaret singing.  And when it came to folk music, she has never been a big fan.  In fact, the only thing like a folk song that she knew how to play on the guitar was “Charlie on the MTA.”  And now, over 30 years later, I can tell you from recent experience that is still the case, for while we were in Anchorage this Summer, there was a folk singer performing at the bar in our hotel.  Somehow or other he got my wife to pick up his guitar and sing for the crowd.  After she played “Charlie on the MTA” she went straight into Debbie Friedman music.  The room which, as you can imagine, was full of non-Jews did not know what to make of it while the folk singer thought it was great.  In any event, with Ann & Mark’s request before her, feeling like a fish out of water, my wife told our friends that she wasn’t comfortable doing that, her repertoire of music being primarily Jewish liturgical music and not folk songs.

It was not long after that we learned that Ann & Mark were upset with us because my wife would not accede to their request and I did not prevail upon her to do so.  Her refusal hurt them.  We, in turn, became upset with them for placing an unrealistic expectation upon my wife and for allowing this matter to injure our relationship which had been such a strong and positive one.  Yet that was the way it was and sorry to say, we spent our last 6 months in Lincoln, Nebraska at a distance from these two people with whom we had shared such a lovely friendship.

But that was not the end of the story.  Both we and the Ann & Mark shared a very close relationship with another couple, who, for the sake of this article, I will call Joan & Ken.  Indeed, barely a weekend would pass when Joan & Ken and my wife & I wouldn’t be doing something together – usually eating, but sometimes going to a play or a concert.  Well, a little over a year after we left Lincoln, Ken was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 6 months later he died.  All of us in our group of friends were devastated by his passing.  For my wife and I, there was no question but that we were flying in from California for the funeral.  We arranged to stay at the home of another family with whom we were close.  As we discussed over the phone our plans with that family, they informed us that Ann & Mark were hosting a dinner for all of Ken’s friends.  We winced.  During our Lincoln-bound journey, my wife and I wondered what it would be like to walk into their home that evening.

So we found ourselves standing at their doorstep and we hesitantly rang the bell.  Ann answered it.  There were no words that were spoken.  There was only loving embraces.  I must tell you that even as I was entering these memories into my computer as I was composing this article, tears were welling up in my eyes and running down my cheeks.  Our dear mutual friend was dead and in the light of our shared loss how insignificant our former differences with Ann & Mark proved themselves to be for both couples.

It is Yom Kippur and I chose to share this story with you because I believe that it can speak to the meaning of this day.  For Yom Kippur is a day when we are supposed to confront ourselves with all of our flaws and shortcomings.  It is a day when we are supposed to take stock of our lives as we have lived them up until now and seriously ask ourselves, “Where did I go wrong and what could I have done better?”  And most important of all, “What am I going to do about it?”  For if we neglect to do these things, then Yom Kippur is really little more than one long, uncomfortable, perhaps even boring, day in a synagogue.  If we fail to confront our errors, both the small ones and the big ones; if we fail to admit to the pettiness which can so often drive our lives off course, then we will remain unchanged, and in this case unchanged means unhealed, while Yom Kippur is all about healing.

I chose to share this story with you because while this story is very personal to my wife and me, it also is all too universal.  There are so many other who have stories in their own lives that in their own way are quite similar to this one.  I suspect that there may be several reading this article who at one point or another had dear friends or family, with whom they suffered a falling out; a breach in the relationship which never healed.

I happen to be one of those people who loves movies.  Well, there is a movie which if you have never seen it, you should.  It is called “Avalon.”  It is about a Polish-Jewish family that comes to America in the early days of the twentieth century and strives to obtain the American dream.  In the beginning, the family was wonderfully extended with aunts and uncles and cousins, all caring for and taking care of each other.  Holidays were major family occasions.  But by the end of the film, we see one lone nuclear family on Thanksgiving, eating their Thanksgiving dinner on tray tables in front of the television.

Friends and family are so important in our lives, or they should be.  Yet somehow, all too often there are those of us who let them slip through our fingers for reasons not even worthy of recounting.  In the movie, the big family break occurred over a family Thanksgiving dinner.  Everyone was sitting around the table waiting for an uncle and aunt to arrive, but they were late; extremely late.  Finally the host said, “Listen the children have to eat.  We cannot wait any longer!” and he started to carve the turkey.  Of course it was then that the uncle and aunt arrived.  When the uncle saw that they were carving the turkey without him, he was furious and he stormed out.  Is the carving of a turkey worthy of the dissolution of a family?  I don’t think so.  Yet that scenario, with its own particular details and nuances is replayed time and again in the real world, with real people, family and friends.

Yom Kippur is here to warn us that life is too short for us to allow ourselves to get caught up and trapped by minor squabbles and differences; to grant to so many little things the power to dismantle that which is truly positive, meaningful, and important in our lives.

There are a thousand cliches that tell us the very same thing.  Cliches like “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”  But because they are cliches, we tend not to give them much credence.  But when all is said and done, their message is a vital one for us, for they warn us over and over again, “Don’t lose sight of your priorities.”  Learn to recognize that which is major and that which is minor, and don’t let the minor destroy the major.

Many of you are probably familiar with the story of a professor who brought a pickle jar to class one day.  He set it on his desk, in front of his students, and then took large rocks and proceeded to place them into the jar.  When the jar could hold no more, he asked his students whether or not the jar was full.  They responded that it was.  Then the professor proceeded to take pebbles and pour them into the mouth of the jar.  Once again, when no more would fit, he asked his students whether or not the jar was full and once again they said that it was.  Then he proceeded to pour in sand.  When the sand reached the top of the jar, he asked his question yet again, and his students replied that indeed it was full.  At this point, he poured in water right up to the brim.  He then asked his students what the jar has to teach us about life.  Several responded that from the jar they have learned that there is always room for more.  “No,” he said sadly, “that is not the point.  What the jar has to teach us is that you have to put the rocks in first, for if you don’t there will be no room for them afterward.  And the rocks, they are the biggest, most important things in our lives.  They are our priorities.”

Every day of our lives we are confronted with multiple situations, and unfortunately, sometimes conflicts.  At these times, we need to focus on the rocks; the important things in our lives.  We must let them guide our choices, our actions, our words, our thoughts, and, of course, our emotions.  If we do so, then our chances are greater that we will not fall victim to the petty.

Our loving relationships are far more important than many of our opinions, yet why do we so often choose to sacrifice our friendships because of this issue or that issue over which we find ourselves in disagreement with the people we care about?  Yes there are some opinions that are not just opinions but in actuality true basic life principles – principles for which it is worthy to endure sacrifice.  But let us be honest about it.  The differences of opinion that more often than not result in driving wedges in our relationships are not of that caliber.  They are merely differences of opinion concerning opinions about which we have chosen, often for reasons unknown even to us, to dig in our heals and not let go until we have won.  It becomes for us about victory and defeat rather than right and wrong.  Years ago, Barb Arland Fye, the publisher of the “Catholic Messenger” taught me that when we find ourselves embroiled in a conflict, we need to ask ourselves, “Is this the ditch I wish to die in?”  If the answer is “yes” then we are contending over rocks.  If the answer is “no” then we are squabbling over sand and water.

One of the goals of Yom Kippur is to help us learn how to distinguish between the rocks and the sand and the water.  For when we elect to sacrifice wonderful relationships for sand and water, we are committing a sin against those we are cutting off and against ourselves as well.

One of the goals of Yom Kippur is to push us along the path of healing broken relationships.  We all know that two of the most difficult words to say in any language are “I’m sorry.”  But it is precisely those words, sincerely spoken, which contain the healing balm we all so desperately need.

Ann & Mark, my wife, and I were most fortunate for we were able to heal our relationship.  But to do so, we had to pay an excruciating price; the tragic loss of our dear friend.  I suspect that when we embraced, in Heaven Ken was smiling, for at least some good came out of his suffering and his passing.  But to this very day, my wife and I miss him terribly.  While we are grateful for the healing his passing brought to our relationship with Ann & Mark, we will regret for the rest of our days that the four of us could not have brought about that healing on our own.  Yom Kippur attempts to teach us that healing need not be born of tragedy.  It can be born of choice.