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Sep 28 2014

Love Is All You Need

 

 

The Beatles famously sang, “All you need is love.” A pretty naïve statement, spoken by people with no concern about access to such basic necessities as water, food, shelter, healthcare. And yet- the older I get the more I recognize the fundamental wisdom that while love may not be ALL that we need it goes a long way towards enabling us to survive the challenges of life on this earth. Life is so hard, and it is much, much harder when we feel that we have to face it alone. Our tradition calls on us to treat each other with chesed, with loving acts of kindness, or, as Alan Morinis translates it, “generous sustaining benevolence.”[1]

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel shared this life lesson- “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” As we enter into this holiest of seasons, we reflect on the value of simple acts of kindness and compassion to bring a sense of God’s presence, a sense of holiness, into our troubled world. We cannot claim to be religious people and show contempt for others, who, after all, are each expressions of God’s image. Plato taught, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” “To know a person,” Bertrand Russell said, “is to know their tragedy.” We can never know, just by looking at a person, the enormity of the burdens they may be carrying. To love them means to reflect on and enter into their needs to the greatest extent possible

Take a moment and look around this sanctuary. It has been a year since our community was together as a body of the whole. Imagine the heartaches that have filled this year that is drawing to a close. Frightening medical diagnoses, deaths of young people, threats to livelihood. It is amazing that any of us finds the strength and resilience to soldier on, and some do not. There is a traditional prayer we say upon seeing 600,000 Jews gathered together, in which we address the Holy One as “chacham ha-razim,” the wise one of secrets. This prayer is a recognition that each of us has our own secret burden and that we rely on the kindness of loved ones and strangers to ease that burden. A Facebook meme put it this way, “A physician once said, the best medicine for humans is love. Someone asked, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ He smiled and said, ‘Increase the dose’.”

In her article, “The One You’re With,” Angela Winter writes of the transformative impact in her life of a lovingkindness meditation, as follows- you can find it in your handout:

May this person be safe.

May this person be happy.

May this person be healthy.

May this person live with ease.

Through this meditation, she has come to understand whatever she is doing as it connects with others. As an example she notes that when she is driving to work and sees a runner on the side of the road, she stops to reflect, “Have a great run,” and, in so doing, is able to share a little of that person’s joy even while she is stuck in the car. The lovingkindness meditation, in her experience, increases the likelihood of positive connections.

Small acts of kindness and compassion ease our pain and touch our hearts. Think about someone you know who is suffering right now, and send a blessing their way. Resolve during these Aseret Y’may Teshuvah to reach out with comfort and support. Soren Kierkegaard reminds us that, “The most trivial expression or the slightest action builds up if said or done with love or in love.” The most trivial expression- a member of Temple Chai mentioned to me that she is always willing to change seats on an airplane so that families can sit together. What a simple act of human kindness that costs us so little and means so much. David and I were on the receiving end of this level of caring- we bought some patio furniture at Fry’s and were struggling, unsuccessfully, to load it into our car. Not one but two people with pickup trucks stopped and offered to help. The person who drove it to our home refused our offer of a small amount of money as a token of our appreciation. Amazing how such a small gesture can renew our faith in humanity.

Here’s an example from the Torah- we cannot constrain the right of laborers to eat the produce of the field in which they are working. This benefit, being able to graze, is not to be considered as additional wages, but, rather, as a gesture designed to reinforce the principle of kindness in our relationships with others. It is just mean to hire workers to be in proximity to food all day long and deny them the right to eat!

Kindness and compassion move us from the all too comfortable place of judgment. At the High Holidays, we beg God to shift from judgment to lovingkindness. It behooves us to move ourselves as well! When we stop for a moment to see things from the perspective of the other, our hearts are open to empathy and caring. Pirke Avot reminds us that our challenge is always to judge in the scale of merit, to bend over backwards to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Laura Huxley tells this story- Imagine that you are in a canoe enjoying the beautiful day. Suddenly you see another canoe heading directly towards you. You cry out, you try to evade it, to no avail- and your anger mounts at the thoughtless person ruining your peace. How might your attitude change, she asks, were you to observe that the canoe was simply drifting, with no person rudely aiming right towards you? Your anger would dissipate in a moment.[2],[3] So much of our response to events is based on the story we tell ourselves and our personalizing that which could be understood according to a myriad of interpretations. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow expressed it thus, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”

There is no way that we can ever appreciate 100% what motivates people to act the way they do. In contemporary culture, it seems that the airport brings out the best and the worst in people. A number of months ago, I was traveling home from a conference, and very engaged in conversation with a colleague as we made our way through the TSA security line. Another line opened up, and people began to stream ahead of us, and I turned, not kindly, to the person who was “cutting” in front of me and said, rather snippily, “Obviously you are in a bigger hurry than I am.” She apologized and explained, wearily, that she was traveling from Heidelberg to Ramstein AFB to Baltimore on a Red Cross message, and now rushing to make her connection. Everything shifted in that moment. My Army chaplain antennae went up when I heard Red Cross message, which is code for the fact that someone in her immediate family was dying or had passed away. In one second my heart shifted from anger to compassion. We never know the secret burdens others are carrying at every moment.

Nov. 13th has been designated as “World Kindness Day.” Building on the notion that “kindess is contagious,” the idea is to create an environment that encourages others to “pay it forward.” Letting people in line in front of us is only one of many suggestions as to how we can look beyond our own boundaries and attitudes and create a sense of meaning and purpose in our own lives by doing something kind and selfless for others. What if every day could be world kindness day? What if every day we might heed the words of the Psalmist to steer ourselves away from evil and do good? (Psalm 34:15)

Another beautiful example from our tradition- Where our natural instinct might be to avert our eyes when we see someone who looks very different, our Sages taught us, instead, to offer a blessing, thanking God who is “m’shaneh ha-briyot,” who varies the creatures— we thank God for the differences that make each of us unique. I reflected on this when I saw a woman in the grocery store who had no teeth. It took me a fleeting moment of attitude adjustment to remember this blessing, to not avert my eyes and, instead, to imagine how challenging her life must be.

If you always assume (writes the poet Danny Siegel)

the man sitting next to you

is the Messiah

waiting for some simple human kindness-

 

You will soon come to weigh your words

and watch your hands.

 

And if he so chooses

not to reveal himself

in your time-

 

It will not matter.[4]

 

The Torah tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This implies a profound sense of equality. We are not to love those for whom we have a passionate preference- that is all too easy. Our challenge is to love those who are the hardest to love- that is the true test of our religiosity.  The Talmud depicts God as saying of the people of Israel- would that they would forsake me and keep my Torah. That is, the most important thing is how we live in this world with others, not how many rituals we observe- though rituals clearly enhance our lives and reinforce our values. Praying for others, connecting with the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, loving the people of Israel, is a traditional way to enter the sanctuary. Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness. Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin said that “A day that a Jew does not do a kindness is not considered a day in his life.”[5]

And, by the way, our tradition also mandates kindness to animals. There is a whole category of halacha devoted to tzaar baalei chayim, concern for not causing unnecessary pain to animals. Moses, our greatest leader, was chosen to lead the people of Israel when God witnessed his compassion towards a sheep that had strayed from the flock. And he lost the ability to lead when he lost the sense of compassion, denouncing his thirsty flock of wandering Jews as “rebels” and striking the rock in anger.

A number of years ago, at a workshop here at Temple Chai, Kristi Dee Doden led us in this exercise. Think about someone that you struggle with in your life. At this High Holiday season, as we focus on reconciliation, think about a relationship in which you desire some healing. Imagine that individual in front of you as I share Kristi’s words-

  1. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for (his or her) life.”
  2. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in (his or her) life.”
  3. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness, and despair.”
  4. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill (his or her) needs.”
  5. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.

 

On these High Holy Days we come to the synagogue to be reminded of what is most important in life. I’ll conclude with this reminder, all you need to remember, not from a Jewish source, but words of wisdom to guide our days, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind..”[6]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A GLIMPSE INTO THE INFINITY OF THINGS. . .

 

“. . . through the awakening of love we get a glimpse into the infinity of things. . . “- D.T. Suzuki

 

 

Love your neighbor as yourself.- Leviticus 19:18

 

The world endures because of three things- Torah, worship and acts of lovingkindness.- Pirke Avot 1:2

 

Anyone who is not compassionate with people is certainly not a descendant of our ancestor Abraham.- BT Beytza 32b

 

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua were on their way out of Jerusalem. Seeing the destroyed Temple, Rabbi Yehoshua exclaimed, “How awful for us- the place where the sins of Israel could be forgiven lies in ruins.” Rabbi Yochanan replied, “My son, do not grieve. We have another, equally effective from of atonement.” “What is it?” “Acts of kindness, for it is written, ‘I desire kindness, not sacrifice’.”- Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 4:21

 

This is what the Holy One said to Israel: My children, what do I seek from you? I seek no more than that you love one another and honor one another.- Tanna b’Bai Eliyahu

 

Express compassion when you encounter: the impoverished, the poor, and the diseased; with people who are outside the mainstream of society, who do not know how to improve their lot, who do not know how to conduct themselves, who are imprisoned by enemies, who have lost great fortunes, who regret having transgressed, and who weep for the consequences of their sins.- Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda

 

One’s compassion should extend to all creatures, and one should neither despise nor destroy them, for the wisdom above extends to all of creation- inanimate objects, plants, animals, and humans.- Tomer Devorah

 

Just as we love ourselves despite the faults we know we have, so should we love our neighbors despite the faults we see in them.- Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov

 

You occasionally see Jews learning as much Torah as they can. . . But if they do not set aside part of the day to do acts of kindess- they are fools.- Chofetz Chayim

 

 

It is not true that love makes all things easy, it makes us choose what is difficult.- George Eliot

 

A religious man is a person who holds God and man as one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

 

The Kindness Meditation:

 

May this person be safe.

May this person be happy.

May this person be healthy.

May this person live with ease.

 

The Compassion Meditation:

 

  1. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for (his or her) life.”
  2. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in (his or her) life.”
  3. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness, and despair.”
  4. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill (his or her) needs.”
  5. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.

 

[1] Morinis, Alan, Everyday Holiness, MA: Shambhala Publications, 2007, p. 187

[2] Winter, Angela, “The One You’re With, The Sun, July 2014, p. 4

[3] quoted in Shapiro, Rabbi Rami, The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing , 2011, pp. 129-130

[4] Siegel, Danny, “A Rebbi’s Proverb,” Unlocked Doors, NY: The Town House Press, 1983, p. 2

[5] Netivot Shalom,vol. 1, p. 99

[6] Henry James

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