Archive for the ‘Values’ category

When Purim Invades the Headlines

February 23, 2017

The Jewish world will soon be observing the holiday of Purim.  I said “observing” when truth be known, we Jews don’t just “observe” Purim; we CELEBRATE it!  We dress in costume.  We hold the most raucous, noisiest worship service of the year.  We sing and we shout and we stomp our feet.  We eat and we drink (and I am not just talking about iced tea or punch but the hard stuff, for on Purim the Talmud commands us to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.”[1]).  And then, of course there is the Purim Seudah (feast – in our case, a pizza dinner) and the ever popular Carnival.  We eat hamantaschen, send shlach manot (food gifts to our loved ones) and matanot le’evyonim (gifts to the poor).  It is Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve, that December season of giving whose name we never mention, all rolled up into one.  It is one heck of a party and we fondly carry our childhood memories of it with us throughout our lives.

Yet somehow or other, in the midst of all our partying, we can often forget why we party so; what is the cause of the celebration?

The answer is wrapped in a sinister cloud.  It is dark and it is painful.  For Purim commemorates our victory over antisemitism.  It celebrates the defeat of Haman – the Hitler of his day – whose goal it was to accomplish nothing short of a genocide of the Jewish people.  So we party hardy as an affirmation of life in what was supposed to be the face of a certain and horrible death.  Purim is the personification of the old saying, “The definition of every Jewish holiday is:  They tried to kill us.  We won.  Let’s eat!”

Today, most of us intentionally avoid these more somber thoughts when it comes to Purim.  We choose to focus on the joy rather than on the fear.

Unfortunately, this year, at least some of that fear seems to be unavoidable for we have been forced to confront the fact that antisemitism is real and alive in our nation as well as in the rest of the world.  Over the last 72 hours the news media has “discovered” that antisemitism really exists in the United States. The dramatic vandalism of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, with the desecration of over 100 gravestones, along with the addition of 11 more bomb threats to Jewish community centers (bringing the number up to 59 if my math and facts are correct), coupled with the President’s bizarre reticence to address the very issue of antisemitism or to even mention Jews in his statement about Holocaust memorial, and his finally condemning (though weakly) the acts of antisemitism, have forced not only the President but the mainstream media to acknowledge this elephant in the room, if only for the moment. But as we all should know, this issue is an even greater one that many are willing to admit.  And these are only the stories that the mainstream media has picked up on.  For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you know that since 2014 I have been reporting, almost on an daily basis, various acts of antisemitism that have taken place in our country and around the world.  I know that there are those that have found my “Antisemitism in Action” reports to be somewhat irritating and alarmist for our lives have been good lives and we generally don’t live in fear.  But still, these attacks upon our people are real and they have been real for some time now.  Unfortunately, they will continue to be real after this current news cycle ends and the stories of antisemitism once again fade from the headlines.

Obviously, there is nothing new about antisemitism. It has been with us for at least 2,000 years. Over that time it has taken on nuanced changes but at its core, it has essentially remained the same and, of course, its impact upon the Jewish people has most certainly remained the same. It matters but little what excuse the antisemites give for despising us, for degrading us, and for persecuting us, in the end it all results in the same suffering, ranging from humiliation to extermination.

That being said, today what we are experiencing in America is not the same singular hatred that has marked most of the history of antisemitism. Rather, today’s American antisemitism is but one component of a complex dynamic of American hatred that has found its voice and has felt profoundly empowered over the past year, especially in the wake of the recent presidential campaign. For today’s American antisemitism is intimately and inextricably connected to a web of hatred which includes racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism (and probably a few other bigotries I forgot to mention). For quite some time now I have been fond of saying, “Those who hate tend to be equal opportunity haters.” Today in America those “equal opportunity haters” are sensing a new liberation as they are stepping out of the shadows and coming out from under their rocks to assert their prejudices upon our society, and Jew hatred is but one of those prejudices.

But all this should not get us down.  After all, soon it will be Purim and we will be celebrating; celebrating vigorously.  Why will we be celebrating while bomb threats may be continuing to roll in and perhaps other Jewish cemeteries will be desecrated?  We will be celebrating because, just as our history has shown us, no matter what they try to do to us, in the end we will win.  We will win because it is our right to win.  We will win because there are too many good people in this world to allow evil to prosper.

There is an old Midrash about two men on a lake in a rowboat. One of them takes out a drill and starts boring under his seat. The other, in distress, calls out to him: “What do you think you are doing?” The fellow replies: “What do you care? It’s none of your business. I’m drilling under my own seat!” The moral is that we are all in this boat together – sink or swim. We cannot afford to focus solely on the prejudices that attack us personally. We must ban together – all victims of prejudice, along with all people of good conscience – and confront the current hatred in all of its forms, standing up for each other and standing with each other in common purpose.

If we ban together with others of good conscience in opposition to ALL forms of bigotry, including antisemitism, then we will win because we will not let the purveyors of hatred win.  We will stand up to them and we will defeat them, in much the same manner that Mordecai & Esther defeated Haman.  Each of us will just have to choose to be the Mordecai and the Esther of today.  HAPPY PURIM!!!!!!!

 

[1]   Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 7b.

Quad Cities Equality Rally Remarks

January 23, 2017

On Saturday afternoon, January 21st, as 100’s of 1,000’s of men, women, & children were gathering in Washington DC and in communities throughout the nation to protest the objectification of women and the growing dangers of bigotry and hate that have infected our land, in the Quad Cities, a rally was held to show our solidarity with all those throughout the country who were marching.  The rally, which was called an Equality Rally, focused both on the recent challenges to women’s rights and on how that challenge is inextricably connected to a complex of challenges to the rights of many targeted minorities in our society.  The rally was held in the meeting hall of the United Steelworkers Union, in Bettendorf.  The hall was filled beyond overflowing, as a mass of supporters were forced to stand out in front of the hall, due to lack of space inside.  Several inspiring individuals spoke, expressing the pain of women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Hispanics, Indigenous Americans, and people with lifelong physical and mental disabilities.  I was among those honored with an invitation to speak from the perspective of our community’s newest human rights organization – One Human Family QCA (Quad Cities Area).  Below is a transcript of my remarks.

First off, thank you for the honor of allowing me to share these remarks with you today.

Before coming here today, my wife and I were attending a memorial service for Reverend Tom Kalshoven. Tom was the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area from 1973 to 1991. Those of you who knew Rev. Kalshoven know that he was a person profoundly committed to the causes of social justice. He marched with Dr. King. He served as the conscience of this community. I cannot help but think of how thrilled he would have been to see so many of you gathered here to affirm the cause of justice in our community.

We have come together because we are deeply concerned about what has been happening in our nation over the past year or so, and what might very well happen as we journey into the future. Let’s face it. Many of us are more than concerned. We are downright afraid, and with good cause.

This past Monday, I was similarly honored to offer a pastoral prayer at a local Martin Luther King Day celebration. There, too, those who were gathered shared our concerns and our fears. Being Martin Luther King Day, I built my prayer around one of the inspiring teachings of Dr. King. He said, “The arc of history is long, but bends towards justice.” Yet we seem to be living at a time when that arc has been diverted far off of its course, as it travels, not towards justice, but far away from it.

And that is what frightens us, for we have witnessed the forces of hate as they have freely crawled out from under the rocks which have hidden them for so long and have joyously reasserted their ideology of bigotry, and not without the encouragement of some of our nation’s most highly placed individuals. A dark and ominous cloud of prejudice is engulfing our nation. A virulent virus of discrimination is infecting it as the fever of intolerance burns hot in the minds and souls of far too many of our fellow Americans.

Part of what frightens us is that we see the profound dedication of people who hate to their hatred; people like Dylann Roof who is willingly ready to martyr himself in the cause of hate. Part of what frightens us that we have come to recognize that those who thrive on hate tend to be equal opportunity haters. They hate African Americans. They hate Muslims. They hate Jews. They hate Latinos. They hate those who do not share their sexual orientation. They hate those with lifelong mental and physical disabilities. They hate the defenders of the environment. They hate intellectuals. They may not hate women but they sure don’t look upon women as the equal of men. Rather, they prefer to look at women as mere objects placed on earth, primarily to fulfill the physical pleasure of men.

And now such people feel empowered. Now such people are empowered. And we are left with the question, “What are we going to do about that?” Of course, our natural instinct is to respond, “Protest!” but what does that really mean? We sign petitions. We post our feelings on Facebook. We gather for rallies, just like this one. But all these things; they are not really protest. They are but a prelude to protest. For true protest requires us to take action. Not for an hour. Not for a day. Not for a week. But ongoing action until we have achieved our goals. We need to work for change, with the emphasis on work; work until the job is done.

Nor can we stand alone. No one group of us can stand alone in our efforts to drive back the darkness. We need to stand together – men, women, young, old, laborers, professionals, people of every color, every race, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of national origins, regardless of religious identity, regardless of political affiliations. We must cross lines and lock arms in common cause. On Monday, I shared with my fellow Martin Luther King Day celebrants, and I share with you now, the classic wisdom of Rev. Martin Niemoller, one of the founders of the Confessing Church in Germany, who bravely stood up against the Nazis. He said, “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the incurably ill and I did not speak out because I was not incurably ill. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.” We do not have the luxury to think of ourselves as separate from others; as our plight being separate from their plight. Once again, to quote Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we do not choose to stand together then we will not stand at all.

In our community, we have birthed a new organization. We call it One Human Family QCA. Some of you here today already have joined our ranks. Our stated mission is “to protect the life, dignity, and human rights of all people in all places in our community.” We are not looking to re-invent the wheel but to work cooperatively with many of the agencies and organizations that already exist to address issues of common concern. And when it comes to certain issues, for which no agencies or organizations exist, then we are ready to open new doors of dialogue and advocacy. Our organization provides but one opportunity to take your concerns and your values and put them into action in order to effect positive change and drive back the darkness that is engulfing us. There are many others dedicated to this cause; organizations like Quad Cities Interfaith and Progressive Action for the Common Good. The point is, when you leave here today, do not see this as an end to your protest but rather as a beginning of the very hard but important work of bringing the arc of history back on course toward justice. To quote a sage from my own Jewish tradition, Hillel the Elder, “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?” Our time is now and our cause is just. We only need to choose to act.

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 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”.

Standing On the Border of Tragedy and Hope

December 9, 2015

It was a remarkably beautiful day for December. The sun was shining and the temperatures were moderate. I arrived at the Waterfront Convention Center at just about 7:30 in the morning, looking ahead with both anticipation and anxiety about the day which was yet to unfold. Our own LINDA GOLDEN, LISA KILLINGER of the Islamic community, and I had been spearheading an effort to encourage Quad Citians to join in assembling meal packs to be sent to Jordan to feed the Syrian refugees in camps there. The actual assembling of these meal packs would be taking place for much of the day, with teams of 10 working in 1-hour shifts, from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. At any given time, we had set ups for up to 16 teams working at once. Going into the morning, we were thrilled by the numbers of Quad Citians who had already stepped forward to help in this humanitarian effort. We had slots for 1,600 people to assemble meal packs and we already had 1,550 people sign up to do so! As the day progressed many more volunteers walked through the door. We enlisted the organization, KIDS AGAINST HUNGER, to do their magic in setting up and administering the project. In the past, Linda, Lisa, and I had wonderful experiences working with them as they put on their program in our religious schools. We were fully confident that they would do a great job. However, they had never put together a program this large or complex. So, as confident as we were, we still prayed that it would all come together smoothly, and it did.

We publicized the event as an interfaith effort and it was shaping up to be true to that name. We had Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals and Unitarians, Jews and Muslim, Hindus and Buddhists, people of all sorts of religions and people of no religious affiliation, all having signed up to do their part to feed starving Syrian refugees. It was wondrous to see these various faith groups working side-by-side. At one point I had to chuckle for there was a group from the Jewish community that was awaiting the group ahead of them to finish working at their assigned table. The group that kept them waiting were the Buddhists. How often do you see something like that?

At the end of each hour, as the shift was ending, the energy level of the people finishing their shift was high for the very act of helping others increased their energy and lifted their souls. Sitting as I was at the donation table, each shift ended with people crowding the table, wanted to extend their good feelings by giving cash or writing checks to further help the cause. So many of them were so grateful for our having provided them with the opportunity to do this act if kindness. So many of them commented on how bereft they felt in the wake of the violence of the attacks in Paris and San Bernadino; how hopeless they felt coming into the Convention Center, but how filled with hope they felt as they left.

Paris, San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, ISIS, Syria, terrorist violence around the world, including the knife intifada in Israel, all have served to cast the dark shadows of tragedy and hopelessness over our little planet. Yet for that one Saturday, at the Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf, Iowa it seemed that a bright light had pierced through that darkness and filled our space and our lives with brilliant rays of hope. How could it be otherwise when people of such diverse backgrounds, theologies, and ideologies come together in order to serve a greater good; in order to further the wellbeing of total strangers, people they may even disagree with on political issues? In a world filled with hatred and violence, pettiness and strife, even if just for a moment, there were all these people who gathered to live up to the best of human potential and to create an oasis of caring, respect, and fundamental human decency. There is hope for our future!

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.