Posted tagged ‘Connecting with others’

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.

Love: Jewish Style

February 15, 2014

“How lovely are your feet in sandals,

O daughter of nobles!

Your rounded thighs are like jewels,

The work of a master’s hand.

Your navel is like a round goblet –

Let mixed wine not be lacking! –

Your belly like a heap of wheat

Hedged about with lilies.

Your breasts are like two fawns,

Twins of a gazelle.

Your neck is like a tower of ivory,

Your eyes like pools in Heshbon

By the gate of Bath-rabbim,

Your nose like the Lebanon tower

That faces toward Damascus.

The head upon you is like crimson wool,

The locks of your head are like purple –

A king is held captive in the tresses.

How fair you are, how beautiful!

O Love, with all its rapture!

Your stately form is like the palm,

Your breasts are like clusters.

I say: Let me climb the palm,

Let me take hold of its branches;

Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,

Your breath like the fragrance of apples,

And your mouth like choicest wine.

‘Let it flow to my beloved as new wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] MISHNAH YADAIM 3.5.

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.

The Undiscovered Country

September 18, 2012

My memories from high school are scattered and few.  In fact I am sure that if my daughtes, Shira and Helene, were here, they would be quick to say, “Well, Dad, that explains why you tell us the same stories over and over again!”  Anyway, my high school memories are scattered and few, yet come to think of it, so are my college memories, but I suspect that there is a reason for that.  Nonetheless as scattered and few as my high school memories are, some do stand out.  One centers around when I was studying Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

For some odd, and perhaps even mystical, reason, “Hamlet” touched me in ways far more profound than any of my other studies.  Indeed, I literally absorbed the play.  As I read it, I instantly memorized it.  If someone recited to me just three words from its text, I could not only complete the quote but also identify the act and the scene in which it appeared.  Trust me, I could not do that with any of my other studies but I could do it with “Hamlet.”  I can not do that now with “Hamlet” but in those days, I could.  There was just something about that play that seemed to resonate with my youthful imagination.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the play was the famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy.  That being said, the part of that soliloquy that grabbed my imagination the most was not the opening “To be or not to be” lines but rather the following text: “The Undiscovered Country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.”[1]

“The Undiscovered Country.”  What was the undiscovered country Shakespeare was talking about?  I wondered about that then and I still puzzle over it now.  When we discussed the question in class, all those years ago, my English teacher was quick to share the standard interpretation that the “Undiscovered Country” was death.  After all, death is main focus of the soliloquy – “To be or not to be” – to live or to die.  But even then, I was not satisfied with that answer, for there was a certain inconsistency in the text.  For if death indeed was the “Undiscovered Country from whose bourn (whose boundary) no traveler returns,” then how do you explain the fact that earlier in play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father does in fact return and speaks with him?

Nor was that inconsistency the only aspect of the quote which troubled me.  For if the “Undiscovered Country” was death, then why would the knowledge of our own inescapable death “make us rather  bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of”?  One would think that if we know we are going to die no matter what, then that knowledge would liberate us to break with our everyday trials and tribulations – “those ills we have” –  and experiment with the unknown; indeed to “fly to the others that we know not of.”

Pondering this text, eventually, I came to the conclusion that perhaps the “Undiscovered Country” was not death, but rather the future.  For unlike Hamlet’s father, who returned from death, no one returns from the future – except of course Michael J. Fox and and Christopher Lloyd.  Our lives are lived linearly and mono-directionally; past, present, future.  Nor is it fear of death that drives us to “bear those ills we have” – to lock ourselves into the established patterns of our lives; to live our lives unchanged and un­changing.  Rather it is our fear of the future which leads us to fear to “fly to others that we know not of” – to fear change; more precisely to fear how change may alter our future, perhaps for the better but maybe also for the worse.

So why do I speak to you of Shakespeare on Rosh Hashanah, rather than of Torah or Talmud or Midrash or the teachings of our great theologians?  Because Rosh Hashanah is all about the Undiscovered Country and how we will face it.  It’s all about the future; our future, both as individuals and as we live our lives in the company of others.

When considering the Undiscovered Country, Shakespeare cannot help but wonder – it “puzzles the will,” to use his own words – what it is about the Undiscovered Country that leads us to resolutely cling to the established patterns of our lives, even if they do us harm, rather than open ourselves up to the possibility of making changes in our lives.  Granted that with change comes the risk that new ways merely may be a matter of exchanging one set of ills for another, still, on the other hand, they may also lead us to living better, happier lives and becoming better, happier people.

These are the exact same challenges that Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days present before us as Jews.  This day calls upon us not to cower in fear of the future; not to permit our fear of the future to paralyze us so that we run to the comfort of the familiar patterns of our lives but rather to march bravely into the future, insightfully understanding that in the Undiscovered Country of the future, there is the prom­ise and potential of a better life and a better self if we are but willing to overcome our fears and risk changing our ways; if we are but willing to grasp that promise and potential and work at making our lives better and transforming ourselves into better people.  Let not our fears of the unknown keep us as prisoners of the past but let our dreams of a better tomorrow, of becoming better people, of living in a better world, liberate us so that we can build that better tomorrow, that better person, that better world.

All this is not to say that the Undiscovered Country does not contain reasons for fear.  Of course it does.  There will always be lurking in the unknown valid causes for our fears.  As we welcome the year 5773, none of us can know of a certainty what that year will hold.  Some may think they do, but they really don’t.  None of our expectations for the year to come are etched in stone, and they most certainly are not yet sealed in the Book of Life.  They are nothing more that hopes, plans, and expectations.  They not givens.  For some of us, this may prove to be a wonderful year, filled with love and laughter and joyous surprises, health, happiness, and perhaps even material success.  For others of us, this may prove to be a disastrous year, filled with pain and failure and tragic loss, personal suffering, the suffering of loved ones, and perhaps even death.  Which will it be for us?  We gather here this evening, and none of us can truly know the answer to that question.  It may be one.  In may be the other.  And it can be anything in between.

And the truly frightening part is that so much of it – for good or for ill – probably will be beyond our control.  There is so much of our lives which simply is out of our hands.  Just ask anyone who has been the victim of a natural disaster.  We can no more stop or change the course of a tornado or a hurricane than we can alter the phases of the moon.  I suspect that there are many among us who have known people who have seriously striven to live physically healthy life styles, being meticulous about their diets and disciplined in their exercise regimens, yet in spite of it all, one day they collapsed of a fatal heart attack or were diagnosed with terminal cancer.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Man plans and God laughs.”  There can be no denying that the Undiscovered Country is just that – undiscovered, uncertain, and therefore filled with uncertainty.  Out of uncertainty can easily be born fear.

Yet with all that being said, our fear is no excuse for our stubborn refusal to consider change in our lives.  Yes, there is so much that is beyond our control, but yes, there is still so much that is within it.  At the end of the day, we have to accept the fact that we cannot control what we cannot control.  But what we can control is how we choose to live in the face of that frightening reality.  Perhaps one day we will be planting in our garden and strike gold.  That would be wonderful, but it is out of our hands.  Perhaps one day we will be driving along, obeying all the rules, and some moron will run a stop sign or a traffic light and demolish our car and perhaps its passengers as well.  That would be horrible, but it also is out of our hands.  Those types of things we cannot change, so there is no point in worrying about them.  Knowing that such things can happen at any time, still we must live our lives, acting as though we possessed no such knowledge.  We must live our lives focusing our attention on those things that we can control and not wasting a moment’s thought or an ounce of our energy on those things we can’t.

When it comes down to it, where do we possess the most control?  We possess it over ourselves.  We choose what we will do, what we will say, where our values lie, how we will interact with others; we choose the type of people we are and the type of people we will become.  That is our power.  We cannot control other people but we can control ourselves.  We are the people we are today in great part – maybe not in all but in great part – because of the choices we have made.  We will become the people we will be in the future – as we journey forward into the Undiscovered Country – because of the choices we make today and tomorrow, and everyday afterwards.  If we think that we can be better, and we want to be better, then we must choose to be better.  We must choose to change; taking chances by following paths until now untrod by us and therefore unknown to us, hoping and praying that they will lead us to rewards that outweigh their risks.

Rosh Hashanah does not just call upon us to do this.  It begs us to do this.  It weeps, pleading “Please!  Don’t come to this holy day, read the words of the prayer book, listen to the sounds of the shofar, and then leave this sanctuary the very same person you were when you entered.  Please don’t come and sit and close yourself off to the possibility that there can be a better you, and with a better you, a better life.  For there can!  It’s in your hands!  No one else’s.”

Rosh Hashanah is all about change.  The year is changing.  The seasons are changing.  And it calls upon us to change as well.  It is so easy for us to enfold ourselves in the warm and comfortable blanket of “I am who I am.  This is who I have always been.  This is who I will always be.”  But Rosh Hashanah knows, as we truly know in our heart of hearts, that we can be so much more; that it can be within our power to make of ourselves better people – kinder people, gentler people, friendlier people, fairer people, more caring, more giving, healers of body and soul, and not just our own bodies and souls but the bodies and souls of others, both near and far, friend, stranger, and even foe.  And Rosh Hashanah challenges us to make the change.  Yes, it is frightening to leave behind familiar ways and strive to do things differently, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.  For as we change, we become bearers of light; light into our own lives and light into the lives of others.  We can make our own lives better, and believe or not, in our own small, and not so small, ways, we can make the life of the world better as well.

So let us this day choose to leap into the Undiscovered Country, with a resolve in our hearts to transform that Undiscovered Country into a Paradise – a Gan Eden – filled with love, caring, justice, and grace.  And let us all say:

AMEN


[1] Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet,” Act III, Scene 1.

Stages

June 10, 2012

We live our lives in stages.  I have found myself having to confront and make peace with this reality as of late, as my wife and I have started the long and arduous process of dismantling our home of 27 years, as we prepare to sell our house and downsize to a 2 bedroom rented condominium.  Considering where we are in our lives – with all our children now living away from home, and indeed my wife living primarily in Detroit – this dramatic shift makes sense.  Why maintain a 4 bedroom house, when most of the time only one person is living there, with that number only growing to 3 every other weekend.  So ends the home ownership stage of our lives and so will begin the stage of returning to smaller dwellings.  Yes, returning.  For when we first were married, 37 years ago, for three years we lived in rented apartments – in the newlywed stage of our lives – as we eagerly looked forward to, and saved for, that time when we would enter our home ownership stage, and the raising of a family.

Yes, we live our lives in stages.  If we are blessed, then most of our journeys from stage to stage are joyous adventures; starting school, no longer needing a babysitter, getting a driver’s license, going off to college, getting married, buying a home, giving birth to children, watching our own children travel through their own set of stages.  Even the stages in the later periods of our lives can be wondrous adventures, such as grandparenthood and retirement.  Yet, when all is considered, the various stages of our lives have more to do with what we make of them than what they make of us.

Still, even as we live so much of our lives in stages, there are – or should be – certain constants present as well.  Love should be one such constant.  It can grow, as we enfold more people into our circle of love, but we should work very hard never to let it diminish or disappear.  Our love for our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, their spouses, their children, our relatives and friends, should never be treated as stages in our lives.  We should never grow out of love with these people who have found a place in our hearts and in whose hearts we have found a place.  Yes, there will be days when we find that our feelings for these people will either rise or wane, but they should never disappear.

The same should hold true for our feelings toward God, faith, and the Jewish people.    Belief in God, our practice of religion, and our attachment to the Jewish people should never be considered as a stage or a phase in our lives.  We should never find ourselves saying, “Yes.  Jewish living used to be important to me.  I used to pray.  I used to study.  I used to be involved in the Jewish community, but since then I moved on.  I’ve grown out of that phase.”  God, faith, the Jewish people are not meant to be likened to the width of our ties, the length of our skirts, the style of our hair, or even the type of car we drive or the home we live in.  Connecting with God should be more of a continual desire than whether or not we feel that minivans are still functional in our lives.  Rather we should approach our relationship with God, faith, and the Jewish people more in the manner in which we approach our relationships with our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, our family, our friends.  Like with those relationships, our bonds to God, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish people, will over time change, evolve, and hopefully grow.  There will be good times.  There will be bad times.  There will be those times when these relationships raise us up to the heights, and there may be times as well when we find them bending almost to the breaking point.  Almost to the breaking point; but we should never let them break.  For when they break, whether or not we realize it, we break as well.

Just as with our loved ones, no matter how busy our lives may be, we need to carve out time to be with God and the Jewish people.  For if we do make time for them, we will find that just as with our loved ones, there is miraculous healing and strength to be found.

A Pebble in the Ocean

May 9, 2012

What do the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel, Australia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brazil, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Papua New Guinea, Chile, Kenya, & India have in common?  They are just some of the 31 nations in which my internet blog has been read.  No.  I am not bragging – well maybe just a little.  Indeed, I was as surprised as you are, and maybe more so, when I checked the statistics of my blog only to discover that at least some of what I have written here in Iowa has been read in as many as 31 nations; in many places that I never in my wildest dreams believed that my thoughts and words would ever reach.  But there it was, staring me in the face, with both a list of the various countries  and a color coded map of the world showing that far more of the surface of this planet have been touched by my writing than remains untouched.

Quite some time ago, New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman wrote a book about “globalization.”  He told the reader that we have to come to grips with the fact that our world is truly shrinking; that we on Planet Earth are far more interconnected then we choose to assume.  He was right on target!  The international coverage received by my blog is but one small testimony to that truth.  But you may be further surprised to learn that what Thomas Friedman was espousing in modern times was anticipated by a Hasidic rabbi in the 19th century.  In TALES OF THE HASIDIM, Martin Buber shares some of the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yaakov of Sadagora, who died in 1883.  Rabbi Avraham said:  “Everything can teach us something, and not only what God has created.  What man has made also has something to teach us… One Hasd asked dubiously, ‘What can we learn from a telephone?’  What we say here is heard there.”  From the statistics, it would seem that the readership of my blog testifies to the truth of Rabbi Avraham’s, and Thomas Friedman’s, teachings.  What is said here is heard there.

The point is that what each and every one of us say and do can, and indeed does, have an international impact.  We can, and do, make a difference in this world.  All too often we think of ourselves as small and insignificant when it comes to changing the world around us.  But in truth we are like the pebble that is dropped into the ocean.  Being so dropped, the pebble does create ripples which travel outward and ultimately  result in changing the very face of the entire ocean; whose impact is felt as far away as a foreign shore.  Like the pebble, our words and our deeds travel outward, and continue to travel, traversing great distances and touching countless people; people whose names and faces are completely unknown to us.  When we think we do not matter, we are merely selling ourselves short, for we do matter.  We matter greatly.

Recently, the students of my Jewish community’s joint religious school packaged meals for a program called Kids Against Hunger.  In the course of one Sunday morning, they packed the equivalent of 2,880 meals.  When you consider that the ideal goal is that every human being should consume 3 meals a day, every day, then doing the math, we discover that to feed one person adequately for one year, we need to provide 1,095 meals.  In the course of a morning, our small religious school provided almost enough food to feed one person for two years or two people for one year.  The representative of the Kids Against Hunger program informed our students that this program recently reached the 1 million meal mark.  In other words, they have created enough meals to feed over 913 people for a year.  This program has made a difference.  Our children, in the course of 90 minutes on one Sunday morning have made a difference.

Each and every one of us can make a real difference in this world.  Whether or not we do so is purely up to us.  Each and every one of us must come to recognize that it is within our power to change the world for the better, and then proceed to choose to work to bring such change into our world.