Praying for Rain

Rain is a blessing.  Our tradition suggests that when we give thanks for rain, we appreciate each and every drop as a blessing.  What a beautiful reminder of the importance of appreciating even the littlest things- every blessing, large and small.  What is an underappreciated blessing in your life right now?  Our ancestors lived in the desert, as do we. We deeply understand rejoicing over the rain.  I don’t know about your house, but in my house rain is an event.  If at all possible, everything else comes to a halt so that we can enjoy the rare spectacle of rainfall.  Rain in Arizona is so rare, that my granddaughter Helena was around 2 years old when she became conscious of rain for the first time.  She had no idea what was happening.  I remember her pointing to the sky, inquisitively, “Sprinklers?”

The Talmud teaches us that (Taanit 8b), “The day when rain falls is as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created.” Today is the day when we began to add prayers for rain to our Amidah.  Rain is welcome in Phoenix any time, yet, it also makes sense to not actively pray for it until after Sukkot, thereby enhancing the potential enjoyment of our Sukkah.  But now, the holidays are ending and we invite the rain- mashiv ha-ruach- God makes the wind blow, u’moreed ha-gashem, and brings down the rain.  May it be so.

Sarah Chandler, who is the Director of Earth Based Spiritual Practice at Hazon’s Adamah Farm, finds it curious that we have prayers for rain and not for sunshine. And, that there are no prayers for NO rain.  In fact, she notes, that, “our tradition has a prayer that pre-emptively annuls any prayers against rain. In the Yom Kippur Avodah service, (which most communities no longer include), the following prayer of the high priest is recited: ‘When the world is in need of rain, do not permit the prayers of the travelers with regard to rain to gain entrance before You’.”[1]  My mom is coming to visit tomorrow.  You know that SHE is certainly praying for no rain in Phoenix.

Chandler suggest that, knowing in advance that our prayers for no rain will be ignored, we can let go and find ways to enjoy the rain as a blessing and not a curse. And, of course, the rain is a metaphor for our own lives.  Rabbi Steven Leder puts it this way, “Serving God and humanity guarantees meaning and purpose, not the lack of sorrow.  No matter how good we are, sooner or later rain comes to our sukkah.”[2]

As we join in prayers for rain at this holy season, we pray that the rain that comes to us both physically and spiritually will be, “For blessing and not for curse. Let’s read together Alden Solovy’s beautiful prayer “For Rain.”

 

 

For Rain by Alden Solovy

Source of life and blessings,

The rains come in their season

To feed the land, the crops, the gardens.

The earth abundant, food plentiful, gardens lush.

Sweet, clean water, feeding rivers, filling the sea.

Sometimes too much,

Sometimes too little,

Sometimes not at all.

Fountain of blessing,

Remember us with life,

With beauty,

With prosperity and bounty.

Remember us with the gift of rain,

The gifts of earth and sky,

Blessings upon the land,

Each in its time,

Each in its season,

Each in its proper measure.

[1] Chandler, Sarah, “Shemini Atzeret: Geshem Be’ito,” Good Noticing, Zena Schulman, editor, Institute for Jewish Spirituality, 2014, p. 141

[2] Leder, Rabbi Steven, The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, NY:  Behrman House, 1999, p. 52

Ten Things I Love About Being Jewish

10 Things I Love About Being Jewish

I decided that I wanted to be a rabbi at the age of 11. How do I know such a specific detail?  Because my dad, alav ha-shalom, thought to himself at that moment- “This is going to be important to remember,” so he made a mental note of the date.  What inspires an 11 year old to think about the rabbinate?  Well, I loved Hebrew School and Jewish study. Camp Ramah was a big influence. I led Junior Congregation and designed creative High Holiday services.  I admired my rabbi’s engagement in social justice issues.  What could be better than a vocation where I could spend my days learning and teaching something about which  I was so passionate.  I charted a course toward rabbinical school and never looked back.

My parents, initially, were not so supportive. With their more adult perspective, they understood the long hours and the synagogue politics that might make the rabbinate a challenging career.  They suggested that perhaps I would make a great librarian or gym teacher? Yet, I persisted, and, they were- and are- ultimately very proud of my career.

As we enter into this High Holiday season, I wanted to share with you the top ten things that I love most about being Jewish. If you look around this room, you’ll see #1- the sense of community.  I have a close friend who has served on many Boards of Directors, of various non-Jewish organizations as well as synagogues.  She marveled at the reserve, the politeness, the professionalism of the non-Jewish boards, compared with the raucous nature of what she experienced in synagogue board rooms.  Her observation was that, when you only see each other once a month, and for a limited term, you treat each other with kid gloves.  When you are as enmeshed as we are, seeing your board colleagues not only at monthly meetings, but at religious school drop off and Shabbat services, at Bnai Mitzvah and shiva minyanim, year after year, you treat each other like family, not like professional colleagues.

The Jewish community is a family- for better or worse.  We may make each other crazy, as family members often do, yet, we are inextricably bound together.  This is not something to take for granted, especially not in the modern world of disconnection.  Jane Howard wrote, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family.  Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”

I’ll let you in on a secret. When I stand at the ark with our Bnai Mitzvah students and have the opportunity to share just a few moments of private time with our impressionable young people, one of the things that I try to impress on them is this- wherever your journey in life takes you, you will always be able to find a Jewish community with whom you will have things in common and on whom you can rely if you need help.  What an incredible blessing we are to each other.

Secondly, I love the wisdom of our tradition and the values that we emphasize. We really do want to be better people and to make our world a better place, and Judaism offers us practical guidance in how to achieve these goals.  There are volumes of teaching on how to develop our character, how to be kinder and more humble, how to care for the stranger and how to listen more and gossip less.  We remember that every single human being is made in the image of God and must be honored.  Compassion is so fundamental to the Jewish way of life that we are taught to suspect that if someone is not compassionate they are not really Jewish.[1]  I am in awe at the dedication of our Mussar students, who devote themselves to developing their own character, their soul traits.  What an amazing tradition that inspires devotion to critical self-reflection.

Tzedakah, righteous giving, is a mitzvah, an obligation, not something we do if and when it makes us feel good. And, before everything else, Judaism understands the profound importance of justice- THE foundation on which society rises or falls.  I admire, I love, Jewish wisdom and values.

And then there’s number 3, Shabbat, of which Ahad HaAm observed, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” I adore being a rabbi, yet, I don’t think I could sustain my work without a weekly opportunity to step out of the everyday busi-ness and cultivate a sense of holiness.

My personal Shabbat practice has evolved as I have embraced Reform Judaism. There was a time when I only drove to and from shul, yet now I am okay with driving to go biking or visit with friends and family.  I still avoid commercial situations- you’ll never see me at the supermarket or the mall on Shabbat, though I might occasionally be at the airport, if necessary.  I have been to the mall on Shabbat twice in the past two decades, and the frenzied environment was antithetical to my understanding of Shabbat Shalom.

My favorite thing is to have nothing on the calendar, to pray together with all of you at Temple Chai and to share Shabbat dinner with loved ones.   Shabbat is a reminder of creation- God worked 6 days a week and rested on the 7th.  If even God needed to rest, then how much more so do we!  Creation itself was not complete until not creating was also created.  Take a breath.  Disconnect.  Find a way to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy- it will change your life.

Community, Jewish values and wisdom, Shabbat, and, fourth, our many beautiful traditions. To quote Tevye the Milkman, “A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in a word – tradition!”

Tevye was an Orthodox Jew, so the tradition told him how to live at every moment. As Reform Jews, we may feel closer to the words of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who taught that, “The tradition has a vote, but not a veto.”  We take Jewish tradition seriously, and, we adapt it so that it continues to be meaningful to us in 2018.  In many ways, this is more challenging than accepting every tradition as sacrosanct.

One tradition that we especially honor at Temple Chai is lashon ha-kodesh, the holiness of the Hebrew language. Through our emphasis on the holy tongue, we stay connected with Jews past and present.  Even if you don’t know what the words mean, we hope that the letters and words bring comfort and joy.  Somehow just looking at Hebrew moves me in a way that English just does not.

Number 5- Jewish lifecycle observances. Brises and baby namings, Bnai Mitzvah, weddings and, yes, even divorces, and the myriad of practices surrounding death and mourning- we Jews are experts at honoring milestones in our lives.  When a child is born, we welcome them into the community and celebrate their Hebrew name.  As that child grows and approaches adolescence, we help both the student and the family to understand that this person is becoming more independent and needs both to take on more responsibilities and enjoy more privileges.

Is there anything more joyous than a Jewish wedding? I can’t tell you how many times the event planner approaches me after a wedding to confess that, even though they may not be Jewish, they wish they could have a Jewish wedding.  From the chuppah, symbolizing the open-ness of the new home, to the 7 blessings, praying for blessing each and every day for the couple, to the breaking of the glass, recognizing that love and harmony are fragile, not to mention the ketubah, expressing the commitment that the couple makes and the yichud, an opportunity for the couple to celebrate their first few moments of marriage alone with each other, the Jewish wedding is brilliant!

And when there is a loss. . . . We strive for burial as soon as possible, to help family and loved ones accept the sad reality. Then, the mourners are not left alone to fend for themselves.  They are embraced by the community through the days of shiva, supported by love and prayer and food.  Through the first thirty days of sheloshim and following the year of mourning, we are encouraged to gently let go and move forward,  to choose life, secure in the knowledge that yizkor and yahrtzeits will provide the structure to always remember those who are gone.  Jewish life cycle observances are the 5th thing that I love about being Jewish.

Sixth- Jewish spirituality and our connection to God through the path of blessings. Jewish life is grounded in a sense of gratitude and appreciation.  We are so blessed, and yet our tendency is to focus on what we don’t have and forget to appreciate all the good.  Judaism encourages us to say 100 blessings a day.  Through the spiritual technology of the brachah, we articulate our thanks for waking up in the morning, for the ability to walk, such as we have, for the food we eat, for the clothing we wear, for the beautiful world in which we live, and even for the healthy functioning of our bodies when we go to the bathroom.

The word “Yehudi”, “Jew,” comes from the Hebrew root meaning- thankful. To be a Jew is to be thankful.  Gratitude is the foundation of happiness and our tradition guides us always in the direction of gratitude.

Number 7- endless opportunities for study and a culture of learning. A friend recently told me of a person who completed a PhD in Jewish studies and reported that they now know everything.  I was dumbstruck!  How could any person who knows anything about Judaism claim that their learning was complete?  “Until when,” asks Maimonides,  “is a person obligated to study Torah?”  “Until the day he dies.”[2]  I love that lifelong learning is a priority Jewish value, and I love that, whatever your area of interest- philosophy or poetry, history or Torah, ethics or architecture, there is enough richness and depth in Jewish learning to occupy a lifetime and then some.

Teaching is one of my favorite parts of being at Temple Chai- Adult Bnai Mitzvah, Torah Study, Mussar, Wise Aging. I once brought a visitor to Temple Chai and upon exiting services her immediate comment to me was, “These people LOVE to learn.”  It’s a Jewish cultural value and a foundation of our Temple Chai community.

Number 7- Ritual. Judaism recognizes that we need ritual in our lives.  We don’t just read, “Write them on the doorposts of your house,” and understand that as a metaphor, we literally write words of Torah on parchment paper and put a mezuzah on the doors of our homes, where they stand as a constant reminder of Jewish values and traditions.  We light Shabbat candles, we shake the lulav and etrog, we taste the matzah and the bitter herbs.  Yes, learning is a vital part of Judaism.  And, through taste and smell, sight and touch and taste, we renew our commitment to the values that are essential to our Jewish lives.  We are not only human beings, we are human doings.  The eighth thing that I love-  Judaism’s recognition that we need concrete reminders of the holy.

Number 9- A tradition of asking questions. The Jewish story begins with Abraham questioning God.  Jacob’s name is changed from Yaakov to Yisrael, one who wrestles with God.  I don’t think that I could be Jewish if I didn’t feel that I had permission, maybe even encouragement, to continually question God’s ways.  The Jewish way is not, (FOLD HANDS IN PRAYER POSITION)- “Thy will be done.”  The Jewish way is (RAISE FIST TOWARDS HEAVEN) to challenge God’s justice and love.  Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?  Why not?  It is always a joy when you approach me with, “Rabbi, I have a question.”  It’s one of my favorite things about being a rabbi.  Asking questions is the quintessential Jewish way, and the 9th thing I love about being Jewish.

Finally- I love that Judaism is a way of life, encompassing not only what happens in this sanctuary, not only what happens in our classrooms, but how we behave in the world. The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) imagines 4 questions that God will ask us when we are called upon to give an accounting of what we did with our precious lives.  All 4 questions have one thing in common:  they relate to our behavior in the world- were we honest in our business?  Did we support the needs of children in our community?  Did we make time for learning and did we work towards tikkun olam, towards leaving the world a better place than we found it.  That is what God is depicted as caring about most, not whether or not we were Jewish scholars or spent our day in prayer.  Judaism is first and foremost about how we live our lives.

To review and in conclusion, the things that I love about being Jewish are:

  1. Sense of Community
  2. Wisdom and Values
  3. Shabbat
  4. Connection to Tradition/Hebrew
  5. Brilliant Life-Cycle Practices
  6. Closeness to God through Gratitude and Prayer
  7. Life Long Learning
  8. Appreciation of Ritual
  9. Questioning as a Cultural Value
  10. Judaism as a Way of Life
  11. What’s on your list? Shanah Tovah!

 

[1]  “Jews are compassionate, the children of the compassionate.  If a person is not compassionate, they are not of the descendants of our father Abraham.”- Beitzah 32b

[2] Moses Maimonides, Hilchot Talmud Torah, 1:10

Three Little Words- Kol Nidre 5779

 

Those 3 little words might be “I love you.”  That’s what I always thought of when I heard the phrase, 3 little words.  Three little words that are magic, that make our hearts sing.  And then,  Sue Coore gave me an article by Chris Brogan, “My 3 Words for 2016,” and my head began to spin.  Brogan’s thesis, which works for Rosh HaShanah as much as it does for New Year’s Eve, is that challenging ourselves with just 3 words to guide us in the coming year, is more powerful and effective than making resolutions.  He describes his own process as follows, “Make the words such that they influence your choice of actions, encourage you to decide in favor of your goals, and guide you towards lasting results that you want to experience throughout the year.”  He suggests that we, “Write these words down. Post them everywhere. Schedule them to pop up in your calendar. And use these words as part of your decision-making process every day.”[1]  Three little words to frame our new year.

Pirke Avot (1:2) says that the entire world stands on only 3 things- on Torah, or, we might say, lifelong learning; on worship, which we might understand as having a sense of awe or holiness; and gemilut chasadim, loving acts of kindness.  If we were to adopt the perspective of Pirke Avot, our 3 little words as we enter 5779 might be- learning, holiness, and kindness.  Three very worthy thoughts.  Continuing to learn is a fundamental Jewish value.  Developing and maintaining a sense of awe leads to gratitude and happiness.  And community is impossible without devotion to caring for each other.  If we could commit ourselves to learning, holiness, and kindness- dayenu!

When my daughter Sarah graduated from medical school, Dr. Mitchell Shub addressed the class.  He emphasized 3 things to the newly minted doctors- perseverance, kindness, and honesty.  Perseverance is necessary in life.  We get knocked down, we get sidetracked, and we need to find the resources within to keep going.  Kindness.  Henry James said it best, Three things are important in life:  the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.”  Honesty- aha!  What a beautiful world it would be if only people were honest.  Can you imagine throwing out all of your keys and deleting all of your passwords because you could rely on the honesty of others?  It would be paradise!  Perseverance, kindness, and honesty- three little words.

Throughout this past year Temple Chai hosted several discussion groups on the theme of “Wise Aging.”  We explored life review and the balance between the physical and the spiritual as we get older.  We talked about how relationships evolve and how we deal with loss.  In one conversation, Joel Sherman shared that his guiding principles are happiness, hope, and gratitude.  Happiness can be a conscious decision that we make each day, to embrace happiness as our baseline unless there is a very good reason to be UNhappy.  Too often we confuse happiness with fun, and we wait for fun activities to bring happiness to our lives, when we can just be happy to be alive.  Gratitude is the foundation of happiness.  When we truly appreciate all of the blessings in our lives, a deep and profound joy emerges.  And hope- the national anthem of the Jewish people, HaTikvah- the hope.  When times are tough, it is hope that sustains us both individually and as a community.  Happiness, gratitude, hope- 3 little words.

The Torah says, “V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha;” it’s 3 words in Hebrew, a bit more in English- love your neighbor as yourself. Rabbi Akiva identified this as the most important principle in the Torah.  Brogan advises against choosing a phrase, though.  He writes that (that) “kind of eats the power potential of what you can do with the words.  (For example), ‘Do the work’ pretty much eats up a lot of room compared to ‘work,’ which gets the same accomplished.”  If you were going to pick a phrase, though, to guide your year, you won’t go wrong with “V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha- love your neighbor as yourself.”  Three little words that could also change the world if we all took them on as our call to action.

Brogan began this process in 2006, with Ask, Do, Share. “In 2006, my three words were “Ask. Do. Share.” “Everything I did,” he writes,  “I tried to filter through the mindset of asking people for help, or asking if I could help them. Doing seems self-explanatory. Sharing was making sure that I shared opportunities with others, that I shared my learning with you, and that I kept myself open to sharing the possibilities.”  He reports that “They prompted me to:

  • Ask more questions where I didn’t know.
  • Ask if I could help.
  • Ask FOR help.
  • Do more instead of plan more.
  • Share what I learned.
  • Share great people’s work.”[2]

Brogan shared his partner, Rob Hatch’s, great work, Rob’s 3 words for 2013- Systems, Service, and Now. “Systems – If 2012 revealed anything to me, it was the power of building a System for even the most simple aspects of my life. Systems are simply habits that I have borrowed, hacked, or designed to enable me to accomplish a goal, complete a project, or simply structure my life or work. Systems give me time, free me from worry, allow me to focus and present. They also serve as platforms for risk taking. Service – Service is a reminder to both be of service to others and that my actions should serve my goals. Now – Whatever my hopes, dreams or goals may be, what matters is what I do now. Whether that is doing the work in front of me or being present for the people I’m with. Now matters.”[3]  Systems, Service, Now.  Brogan and his partner engage the three words strategy mostly in a business context.  I might translate that into more comfortable and familiar religious language.

What he calls systems I might call rituals. Rituals are, indeed, a way to provide structure and meaning to our lives, not to mention ways to keep our lives in order.  Service, tikkun olam, is clearly a fundamental Jewish value.  We have a mandate to perform loving acts of kindness and to leave the world a better place than we found it.  Combined with now, I think of Hillel’s 3-part teaching, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And, if not now, when?”[4]

Brogan picked up on the theme of ritual this year, 2018.  His 3 words- Ritual, Execute, Value.   “Ritual – I’ve fallen away from developing habits and operational tempo in my days. I need to build back rituals and make them the guts of how I structure my life and living. This also reminds me to place great strength and power into the simple matters of life, like choosing what I eat and drink, and ensuring that I treat my life as if I’m making moments instead of just clicking off hours.  Execute – Push the button. Make something happen. Take action. I’ve felt a bit sluggish in 2017. Time to power back up.  Execute is a reminder to move and take action and do something instead of just think about it. Have the difficult conversations.   Value – Create value. Make sure my time is dedicated to creating value. Build more and more value for myself and others. Help companies see the value in the projects I intend to help them execute in 2018. That’s the big plan. Be clear that I value myself more.”[5]  Ritual, execute, value- 3 pretty creative little words!

So, by now I hope that you’re thinking about your 3 words for 5779. What 3 words might you embrace to guide this new year of life?  Take a few minutes and brainstorm with the folks around you, and then I’ll share my 3 words.

Let me conclude with my 3 words for 5779- Flourish, Savor, Care. Flourish was inspired, of all things, by a sign in the British Airways jetway, a sign that read, “Flourish- whatever the conditions.”  There are certainly situations in life in which it is next to impossible to flourish, yet, they are, thankfully, few and far between.  I am hoping that “flourish” will inspire me to look at every single day as an opportunity to grow and to blossom, to avoid the sense of stagnation that can sometimes plague us.  Dictionary definitions of flourish include thriving in a healthy environment, to be vigorous and to grow luxuriantly.  In the year ahead, I aspire to flourish!

I see flourish as the broad stroke, and savor as one way to appreciate that flourishing. To savor means enjoying the big things in life, and the little things, with deep pleasure and gratitude.  I savor the moments at the end of the day, drinking a glass of wine and enjoying the companionship of my beloved as we watch the glorious Arizona sunset.  I savor the time with my children and grandchildren, in awe at every new word and every new skill.    “When you savor something,” according to Dictionary.com,  “you enjoy it so much that you want to make it last forever. With that in mind, savor carries a connotation of doing something slowly.”  Rabbi Chizkiah taught that, “A person will have to answer for everything that his eye beheld and he did not consume” [6]  I intend to consume and savor as much as possible in 5779.

Care is my third watchword. Flourish and Savor are personal.  I don’t want this year to be a year of selfishness, so retaining and acting on a genuine sense of caring is vital.  As a rabbi, I am exposed to so much pain and hardship and suffering.  Part of honoring others is to help to carry their burdens, to be supportive and empathetic, to listen with an open heart and a caring presence.  I pray that I will never forget that the goal of caring for others is the essence of this holy work, and I might add, this holy life.  “To make a difference in someone’s life,” wrote Mandy Hale, “you don’t have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful or perfect. you just have to care.”  “People don’t care how much you know,” it has wisely been noted, “until they know how much you care.”

I put these words on my calendar so that they will pop up regularly throughout the year as reminders to help me re-center and re-focus.

Flourish, Savor, Care- my 3 little words for 5779. What will yours be?

 

 

 

[1] https://chrisbrogan.com/3words2018/

[2] https://chrisbrogan.com/3-words-2016/

[3] https://chrisbrogan.com/my-3-words-for-2013/

[4] Pirke Avot 1:14

[5] https://chrisbrogan.com/3words2018/

[6] Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12

John McCain: Exemplar of Jewish Values

 

Senator John McCain

 

“How mighty ones have fallen.”  (II Samuel 1:25)  John McCain served the people of Arizona as our elected representative in Washington, DC, for over 40 years.  The memory of the righteous is for blessing.  He will be remembered for his dedication to duty, continuing his family’s legacy of military service that dated to the Revolutionary War.  As a young officer, McCain demonstrated an inspiring sense of duty and courage.  The spirit that forged him in his early years, came to be his hallmark throughout his life.  His courage is a humbling example for every American citizen.

In Pirke Avot 5:22, the Sages describe the characteristic of each decade of life.  “Eighty – power, or strength (gevurah).”  John McCain died at the age of 81, truly a man for whom strength was a defining characteristic.  His strength of conviction, his perseverance in the face of adversity, his raw tenacity.  As a national leader, power is certainly a quality we associate with Senator McCain.   In his later years, John McCain found his prophetic voice, fiercely speaking truth to power.  As Jews, we can only admire this example of questioning authority and accepting any consequences.  We are a people for whom asking questions is a cultural phenomenon.  John McCain was never afraid to ask hard questions.

As a survivor of torture while imprisoned for 5 ½ years during the Vietnam War, McCain was a force to be reckoned with in prohibiting the use of torture by US government forces.  This highly decorated veteran leveraged his credentials and credibility to create more humane policies.  His moral voice will continue to resound for many, many generations.

In 2002, Senator McCain published a book entitled, Worth the Fighting For.  We toast “L’Chayim- to Life,” the ultimate value worth fighting for.  With his family steadfastly by his side, he has fought the battle of a lifetime against glioblastoma.  John McCain exemplified the principle of love of life.  He spent his final days in Sedona, where we can only imagine that the unique and breathtaking environment were a source of awe and comfort.  Much as he fought for life, he also leaves a role model for letting go and accepting when we have reached the end of our days.  “Americans,” he said, “never quit.”  John McCain did not quit.  He taught us one final lesson about appreciating life and yet achieving a dignified end on our own terms.

In his book, Character is Destiny, McCain wrote, “It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy.”  By his own standard, then, John McCain was blessed with a happy life.  May it be so for all of us and may he rest in peace- Amen.

 

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

 

Learning from Pinchas: What NOT to Do

This week’s parsha is named for Pinchas. Remember him? He’s the guy who was upset about the behavior of his fellow Israelites who were consorting with some of the local women. His solution? He stabbed one couple to death, and, was actually rewarded for his efforts. The inability to tolerate diverse points of view is as old as humanity itself. Resorting to violence as a way of expressing dissatisfaction is not a new phenomenon, though it feels to us like the problem has increased exponentially in our day.

The rabbis say, “kadma derech eretz l’Torah- good manners comes before Torah.” How quaint! According to Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, (Michtav M’Eliyahu Vol. 4), “One who does not appreciate the obligation to respect others lacks the attributes required for success in Torah [learning].” Respect for others is a fundamental principle of Jewish tradition. The Talmud records many controversies between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. In virtually all of them, the opinion of Hillel prevails. Why is this? Because they took seriously and were respectful of the opinions of their opponents.

We read in Eruvin 13b, “For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halacha (law) is according to our position,’ and the other said, ‘The halacha is according to our position.’ A heavenly voice spoke: “These and those are the words of the living God, and the halacha is according to the House of Hillel.” A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Furthermore, they even taught Shammai’s opinions first.” In other words, the house of Hillel was rewarded for the respect that they showed to alternate points of view, a rare trait in today’s contentious environment where there is no tolerance for perspectives that differ from our own.

When the Jewish people left Egypt and Moses needed to provide water for them in the wilderness, he was instructed to strike a rock and water spewed forth. After the people had experienced freedom and a new generation arose, God told Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water. Why the difference? In a free society, to function successfully, we must learn to speak to each other, to find gentle ways to live together and not resort immediately to violence, whether physical or verbal. What worked for Pinchas in the Torah is clearly not working for us in the United States in 2018.

George Will offered his own, “Theory of Vulgarity in Our Contemporary Life.” In his column he referred to “today’s casual coarseness” which he described as a “facet of a larger phenomenon of which incivility is a part.” “Incivility”, he suggests, “is becoming normal.”   He suggests that the pervasive use of technology has cut us off from social connection, leaving us dissociated from any social context and resulting in pervasive boorishness. Certainly we behave on Facebook and Twitter in ways that we would never behave in person. Derech eretz kadma l’Torah- good manners are more important than our observance of halacha. We can’t claim to be religious people if we are intolerant and unkind.

The Seder Eliyahu Rabba (26) depicts God as teaching us, “My beloved children, am I in want of anything that I should request of you? But what I ask of you is that you should love, honor and respect one another.” The way we treat each other is the one thing which is out of God’s control and the ultimate expression of our humanity.

As we read the story of Pinchas taking the law into his own hands, we’d like to think that we have evolved past violence as the solution to our disagreements. It is okay to disagree. As Jews, we sharpen our wit and argue for sport. Yet, our own humanity is threatened when we cannot find ways to express our perspective with respect, honoring the humanity of those with whom we may disagree. Derech eretz, good manners, remains a fundamental Jewish value, and one worthy of our serious consideration.

 

 

 

 

 

Balak, Bilaam, and the Israelite Refugees

Massive numbers of people amassed in a temporary encampment. The people of the land feel threatened. They are in dread of the children. The southern border of Arizona? No. This week’s Torah portion, Balak. Here’s how the parsha begins, in Numbers 22:3- “Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. . . and they dreaded the children.” Who is this people who is so numerous and so threatening? It’s us! As the Israelites journey from slavery to freedom, as we wandered in the wilderness seeking refuge, Balak, the king of Moab, became concerned and frightened.

Balak reaches out to Bilaam- the famous guy who rides a talking donkey- and asks Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites. “Come,” Balak says, “put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can defeat them and drive them out of the land.” (Nu. 22:6) Fear of people gathering on your border is nothing new. I don’t claim to know the solution to our current crisis. Clearly there are many opinions about how to fix our broken immigration system. I do know that the bond between parents and children is holy, and interfering with that bond is, in the words of Rabbi David Stern, president of the CCAR, “traumatic cruelty.”

Rabbi Stern writes in this week’s CCAR blog, “We have witnessed traumatic cruelty in our nation.” He reminds us that “If witnessing it has been traumatic, we can only imagine the pain of those who suffered it directly: the parents and children whose wails tear at our hearts. . . The practice of ripping children from their parents is not Zero Tolerance. It is Zero Compassion. It is Zero Wisdom. . . It has been a violation of core Jewish values.”

The Torah reminds us again and again and again of the foundational importance of sensitivity to strangers. It is the most frequently repeated mitzvah in the 5 books, with 36 references. Exodus 23:9 is just one example, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 24:22- “You shall have one law for the stranger and for the citizen.” Exodus 12:49- “One Torah, that is, one law, there shall be for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” Leviticus 19:33-34- “When a stranger dwells in your land, do not oppress him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be like one of your citizens, you should love them like yourself, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I won’t read you all 36 references, but you get the idea.

The Jewish community, not notoriously united, banded together, 27 separate organizations, to call on the administration to desist from separating families who are seeking asylum in the land of the free and the home of the brave, as every one of our ancestors did in generations past.

I may not be an expert on immigration policy, but, as a graduate of the US Army War College, I know something about the definition of a failed state. And there are clearly some failed states in Central America. When governments can no longer perform fundamental functions, most notably keeping its people safe, it has failed. Elvia Diaz, writing in the Arizona Republic this past Saturday (June 23, 2018, p. 15A) asks, “How can anyone possibly justify the halfhearted response of these countries, whose policies pushed the immigrants to risk their lives and end up in cages in a foreign land?” There has been a righteous outcry in our country over the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. Ms. Diaz’ words are a critical reminder that we have a responsibility to hold the governments of Central America and Mexico accountable for protecting their own populations, and perhaps supporting them in doing so.

So what can we do to support the refugees in our community? A few suggestions can be found in your Shabbat bulletin- donate gift cards and clothing, send words of encouragement, contribute to the cost of legal services, and, as always, share your thoughts with your elected representatives.

The parsha has a happy ending. Bilaam tries 3 times, from 3 different locations, to curse the Israelite refugees from Egypt. Three times, God intervenes to turn his curses into words of blessing. Balak is so frustrated, that he orders Bilaam to shut up- “Don’t curse them and don’t bless them.” (Numbers 23:25) It’s too late, Bilaam replies. I told you up front that, “I could not of my own accord do anything good or bad contrary to the Lord’s command.” It is a testimony to the powerful impact of Bilaam, that his words of blessing are incorporated into the siddur as the very first words with which we open our Shabbat morning service, “Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael- how good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.”

We renew our commitment to hope and pray and work towards the goal of turning the curses in our current national environment into words of blessing and healing.

JWB Jewish Chaplains Council- JCCA- “Jewish Military Professional Award”

In 1978 when I raised my hand and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States I had no idea what I was getting into.  I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, near what was then the US Army Chaplain School at Fort Hamilton, NY.  Knowing that I wanted to be a rabbi, I was always curious about what went on behind those walls.  So, when I learned of the chaplain candidate program, I applied and was accepted as the first female Jewish candidate in any branch of service.  No one in my family had ever served in the military and I reported to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course without a clue as to how to put on a uniform.  Never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined standing here now at the end of a long and rich career.

I graduated from rabbinical school in 1981, and began an amazing journey, from Korea to Germany, to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, and culminating in the most intense learning experience of my life as a student at the US Army War College.  The Army allocates significant resources towards training leaders.  Trust is a foundation of leadership.  One of the most important things I learned was that- “Trust is a risk game. The leader must ante up first.”

As chaplains we see each Soldier as an individual, made in the image of God, providing comfort and support, encouragement and a listening ear. When tragedy strikes, as it too often does, people feel helpless to respond.  No one knows what to say, what to do.  It is the military chaplain who has the holy privilege of being the person who represents the command as that first line of defense.  Successful leadership demands genuine caring.

There have been so many poignant opportunities to express that caring. Military service can be a lonely experience as a Jew, and it is our chaplains who foster a sense of community among Jewish servicemembers.  I recall one Chanukkah at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.  A SGT who participated in the Chanukkah program each night confided that, “I didn’t realize how much I was longing to connect with my people.”  Or the seder at FOB Taji where one young woman told me, “It almost feels like home.”

Leadership means setting priorities and following through with commitments. It sometimes means learning to say no, though one of my guiding principles has been, “Find 99 reasons to say yes rather than 1 reason to say no.”  It means leading by example.  As chaplains, we build relationships by being with others, putting up tents, eating in the DFAC, or serving on guard duty.  We earn respect which is fundamental to effective leadership by our willingness to engage with Soldiers wherever they are.

Leadership means recognizing that none of us can do it alone. The project is never complete until the thank you notes have been written.  I am so grateful for my physical and mental well-being, for the support of my family and friends, for the incredible and unique opportunities I have had to serve God and country as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve.  I pray God’s blessing on each of you, and God bless America.

 

 

Holiness and Goodness

What a joy to be together with this beautiful community to begin a day of sharing and learning devoted to the theme of “Wholiness.” I want to thank Nancy Weinberger, Gail Alcaly, Teri Cohen, Simone Schwartz, and Janet Yellish, along with their committee, for all of their hard work to make this event possible.  I know that when I come to these kind of events, all I really want to do is spend time with all of the amazing friends who are present- the speakers and the workshops are entirely secondary to the goal of being with so many people that I love.  Is it any wonder that the quintessential Jewish dance is the hora, a dance of community celebrating together.

Holiness, your theme for the day is the foundation of Jewish spirituality. Judaism does not teach that in order to have an experience of holiness we need to remove ourselves from society, climb a mountain, meditate and contemplate.  Rather, it challenges us to drive in traffic, get married, have a job and children, AND, to maintain a sense of holiness in our lives.  We do this through the path of blessing and the cultivation of gratitude, through a constant process of self-reflection focused on expanding our own character.  “You shall be holy,” we read in the Torah, “as I, God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)

Nick Hornby wrote a book called, “How To Be Good, “ an intriguing study of a young family man who becomes dissatisfied with what might be described as an “ordinary” level of goodness in his life, and his struggle to come to terms with what is an appropriate level of materialism and is there such a thing as “enough” when it comes to caring for the needs of others? He longs for a sense of meaning, a sense of holiness, in his life.

In the book, David and Katie live a comfortable, middle class existence.  David earns his living writing a column for the local newspaper based on his anger with all the trivial annoyances of life.  Even though he earns his livelihood through his anger, his anger is undermining their marriage.  Then David meets DJ GoodNews, a full-time social activist.  Overnight, the angry cynic acquires a deep sense of values.  He begins to re-shape his household in accordance with his newly discovered quest for goodness.  Among his first actions is donating one of the household computers to a domestic violence shelter.  His son is, naturally shocked.  When David challenges his son’s values, the child replies that, yes, he does want to help, “but not as much as a whole computer.”[1]  It occurs to me that we all feel this way- we all want to help, but not as much as- fill in the blank with whatever is your personal hesitation regarding giving.  Katie finds herself confused:  “I’m a good person.  I’m a doctor, and here I am championing greed over selflessness.”   How to be good and how good do we have to be turns out to be not such an easy question to answer, and one of the fundamental questions of the religious life.

“So what do I believe?,” Katie asks herself.  “Nothing much, apparently.  I believe that there shouldn’t be homelessness, and I’d definitely be prepared to argue with anyone who says otherwise.  Ditto battered women.  Ditto, I don’t know, racism, poverty and sexism”,[2] she answers her own question, rather glibly.   I’m sure we all agree with Katie’s sentiments, the question is, what are we doing about it and what should we be doing about it and can we ever be satisfied that we are doing enough?  How can we be forces for healing in our troubled world?

GoodNews’ radical answer is that until the last peasant in the rain forest has a dishwasher and a cappuccino maker, then he’s not joining in.  Where do the rest of us, who’d like to think of ourselves as good people, draw the line?  As the story progresses, they organize a neighborhood meeting and ask each family to consider having a homeless person move in with them.  “Do we have a moral right”, ask David and GoodNews, “to keep a spare bedroom as a junk room, or a music room, or for overnight guests who never come, when it is February and freezing and wet and there are people on the pavements?”[3]  Ultimately Katie comes to the perspective I think we all share; as she puts it, “We know what’s right, but we don’t do it because it’s too hard, it asks too much.”[4]  So, the question we come to wrestle with today is, what are we willing to do to be forces for holiness in our own lives and in the world?

“A recent New Yorker Magazine depicted a cartoon of a man kneeling in prayer at his bed before retiring for the night.  Looking heavenward, this fellow complains, ‘I asked You, in the nicest possible way, to make me a better person, but apparently You couldn’t be bothered’.”[5]  If only we could just turn the whole thing over to God and save ourselves the angst and hard work involved in being and becoming better people!

Okay, so we can’t save the world, but what can we do? What are we willing to do?  Here’s another story with a less radical and therefore more inspiring and realistic approach.  “A little boy about 10 years old was standing before a shoe store on a roadway, barefoot, peering through the window, and shivering with cold.  A lady approached the boy and said, ‘My little fellow, why are you looking so earnestly in that window?’  ‘I was asking God to give me a pair of shoes,’ was the boy’s reply.  The lady took him by the hand and went into the store and asked the clerk to get a half a dozen pairs of socks for the boy.  She then asked if he could give her a basin of water and a towel.  He quickly brought them to her.  She took the little fellow to the back part of the store, and removing her gloves, knelt down, washed his little feet, and dried them with a towel.  By this time the clerk had returned with the socks.  Placing a pair on the boy’s feet, she purchased him a pair of shoes.  She tied up the remaining pairs of socks and gave them to him.  She patted him on the head and said, ‘No doubt, my little fellow, you feel more comfortable now?’  As she turned to go, the astonished child caught her by the hand and looking up in her face, with tears in his eyes, answered the question with these words:  ‘Are you God’s wife?’”[6]  The reality is that we are all God’s hands and God’s hearts. Listen to these inspiring words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

Compassion is not just one attribute of God; it is the first one mentioned in the list of 13 attributes- “Adonai, Adonai, el rakhum v’khanun- God who is compassionate and gracious”.   We who are created in the Divine image, are challenged to bring holiness to our world through our compassion and caring.

I had the honor to serve in the US Army Reserve for 38 years.  In the Army, before they give you the APFT, the Army Physical Fitness Test, you get a little briefing on each event.  Before the sit-up, the person grading the test reminds you that as long as you are continuing to try to sit up, the event is not over.  So it is with our moral development.  As long as we are still making an attempt, we are still in the game!  And, since we never outgrow the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, it is a struggle that will be with us throughout our days.

Rabbi Harold Kushner sums it up well in his book How Good Do We Have to Be?”:   “If we are brave enough to love, if we are strong enough to forgive, if we are generous enough to rejoice in each other’s happiness, and if we are wise enough to know that there is enough love to go around for us all, then we can achieve a fulfillment that no other living creature will ever know.  We can reenter Paradise.”[7]  He leaves us with these words of encouragement, “How good can we expect a person to be?  As good as he or she is capable of being, and much of the time that turns out to be very good indeed.”[8]

It is so easy and all too tempting to be judgmental. As we gather here today to focus on our own inner development, let’s conclude by connecting with our sense of compassion and caring for each other.  I invite you to think of a person in this room from whom you perhaps feel estranged.  Maybe there were harsh words exchanged or some personal slight. It is inevitable in human relationships that tensions arise.  Yet, as we seek to create holiness in our lives, it is healing for us to let go of resentment and judgement.  Think about that person and hold their image in your mind as you close your eyes.

  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.

Open your eyes and let’s learn about life together here today.

 

[1] Hornby, Nicholas, How to Be Good, NY:  Riverhead Books, 2001, p. 92

[2] Hornby, op.cit., p. 94

[3] Hornby, op. cit., p. 142

[4] Hornby, op. cit., p. 156

[5] Cohn, Rabbi Edward Paul, “From Where I Stand”, quoted in The American Rabbi, High Holy Days 2002/5763, p. 194

[6] The American Rabbi, Fall 2000, p. 18

[7] Kushner, Harold S., How Good Do We Have to Be?,  NY:  Little Brown and Company, 1996, p. 181

[8] ibid., p. 177

Friendship and Holiness

Welcome back and I trust that you are enjoying a wonderful day of friendship and community. It’s great to see friends on Facebook, and even better to see our friends’ faces in person!  The Rabbis acknowledged our deep human need for companionship long ago when they taught, “O chevruta, o metuta”, which translates roughly as, “Give me friendship or give me death.” I was having dinner with a group of friends and one woman, who works at home, commented that when she wants some human contact, she takes a break and looks at Facebook.  “No!,” I objected!  “Facebook does NOT count as human contact!”

In our too busy and overprogrammed lives, it is vital to our spiritual well-being to make the time to be with those who care about us, who share our values, the friends who touch our hearts and our lives. I was truly moved in an Army briefing once when I saw that among the priority of supplies to troops who were serving in a combat zone, ahead of ammunition, ahead of even water, the number one priority was mail.  In establishing this priority, the military acknowledged the fundamental human need for a human connection.

One of the great joys gatherings such as this is the opportunity to re-connect with so many people we truly care about, with whom we have shared so many experiences, and whom we just don’t get to see enough of during the year.  I’d like you to take a moment right now and look around the room and appreciate all the people who care about you and bring blessing to your life.  (Pause)

We live in a transient society:  loneliness is a plague of modern life.  We are all so busy that we don’t take or make the time to schedule in time with friends in the same way that we schedule in every other commitment.  Consequently, we drift away from people we genuinely love, and find ourselves in despair when our undeniable human need for companionship is not met.  The Talmud tells us that if thirty days go by and we have not seen a beloved friend, we should say the she-he-cheyanu prayer when we are re-united, the prayer of celebration in which we thank God for giving us life, sustaining us, and allowing us to reach this moment of holiness

A study suggests that one fourth of all Americans have no one to talk to about important matters. Americans have one third fewer close friends and confidantes than they had two decades ago.  When Marla Paul, author of The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore wrote of her own frustration at the difficulty of finding friends, she was personally embarrassed to acknowledge her neediness, but overwhelmed by the response from those with whom her comments resonated. “I’d yanked the curtain off a shameful secret, “she writes, “only there is nothing shameful about it.  A lot of women are lonely.”[1]

We all have had parents, some of us have siblings, spouses, children, but, despite these filial connections- we still need friends. The need for friends transcends our status as single or partnered.  Even if we are partnered, no single individual can meet all of our needs, and our relationships with our nearest and dearest will be deeply damaged if we don’t recognize this fact, if we somehow expect that our significant others are or should be our whole universe.  A wounded wife confided in me that, “My husband can’t give me everything I need.”  I replied by gently suggesting that the expectation that any one person can give you “everything you need” is completely unrealistic.  Perhaps that’s why we all resonate with that wry observation that, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family!” We understand that there are wonderful aspects of family life, while simultaneously acknowledging that families can be quite demanding as well!

Choosing friends, therefore, is a decision that requires as much serious thought as any other important life decision. The type of friends we embrace will influence the type of people we become and those who will accompany us along life’s journey, providing companionship and perspective, humor and solace. Barbara Kingsolver writes that, “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.”[2]

“In Judaism, cleaving to friends . . . ranks as one of the 48. . . values needed to acquire Torah. At first it might seem strange that friendship is listed with awe, fear and humility. . . But the true test of an individual is (their) ability to be a friend, to be supportive, to take risks on behalf of a friend, to love a friend in spite of the choices the friend makes.”[3]  It has even been suggested that a close circle of friends is an important factor in maintaining good health.

If we hope to maintain our friendships, then we need to overcome one great obstacle- we have to be able to forgive our friends for their imperfections. Certainly there are issues that arise in relationships that can and should destroy friendships.  The Torah describes God as-  nosay avon, va’fesha, v’khata, v’nakay- forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon,” so we, who are created in the Divine image, should strive to emulate these characteristics in our relationships with others. We need forbearance from our friends, and we must demonstrate this quality as well.   If you are willing to be friends only with people who are perfect, you are guaranteed a life of loneliness.

For many people, forgiveness is the greatest spiritual challenge in their lives. In her wonderful book, The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd wrote that, “People in general would rather die than forgive.  It’s that hard. If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.”[4]  Yes, it’s that hard.

Too often we confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. It is true that sometimes we need to protect ourselves from future hurt by ending relationships.  Yet that is a rare circumstance and it is still healthier for us to let go of resentment and anger.  Shlomo Carlebach was forced to flee the Nazis as a young man.  As an adult, he returned to Vienna to give a concert. He was asked, “How can you go back there?  Don’t you hate them?”  His answer was that if he had two hearts, he would devote one to hating, but, since he only had one heart, he did not want to poison his own internal being with hate.

Winston Churchill listed the three hardest things he could imagine attempting to accomplish: to climb a high wall which is leaning towards you, to kiss a girl who is leaning away from you, to speak before a group on a subject which they know more about than you.  Newspaper columnist Sydney Harris wrote, on the other hand, that the three most difficult things to do are neither physical nor intellectual feats.  They are:  to return love for hate, to include the excluded, and to say, ‘I was wrong’.”

We have seen the disastrous social consequences that ensue when people feel friendless, unaccepted, and excluded. Including the excluded is a special mitzvah, an expression of the middah, the soul trait, of kavod, honor- cultivating the ability to see the divine image in each and every person.  It’s easy to love the loveable.  There’s a reason the Torah tells us 36 times to have one law for the native and the stranger.  You were outsiders.  You know what it’s like.  It is our responsibility as Jews to stand with the disenfranchised.

“Who is honored?”, we learn in Pirke Avot. “The person who honors everyone.”[5]  The way of holiness is to find the good in each person we meet on life’s way, to find the one thing that we can learn from them, the one area in which they are on a more elevated spiritual plane than we are.

Too often, it is only when we face a tragedy in our lives that we come to understand and appreciate the critical nature of friends in supporting and sustaining us. When I was widowed at the age of 58, I was overwhelmed at the thought of managing the logistics for shiva.  I had been in the community for 30 years and served a congregation of over 700 families.  Where was I going to put all that food?  My friends stepped in, corralled every refrigerator in every garage in a 3 block radius, lovingly handling everything so that I could focus on my grief and care for my 2 daughters. “A friend”, it has been said, “ is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.”[6]

In order to make and keep friends, we need to move beyond self-interest, and be willing to sacrifice our own desires on occasion. We need to know when to speak, and when to remain silent, offering the comfort of our presence without the need for words.  We need to cultivate sensitivity to our surroundings and learn to subjugate our own feelings where they are inappropriate to the environment.  This is an extremely difficult task in contemporary society that worships feelings and teaches us that expressing them is not only our right but also our responsibility.

Jewish tradition tells us that we should always greet others warmly, with a smile- not just when we “feel” like it. We should learn to see the good in others and give them the benefit of the doubt.  And, most importantly, we need friends who will not only tell us that we are the best, but who will tell us when we can be better. The cartoon strip Crabby Road depicted its main character as saying, “A friend will always tell you exactly what she thinks, so I guess that makes me friends with everybody.”  That’s not exactly accurate.  Yes, sometimes we need friends who feel secure enough in the relationship to point out when we’ve gone astray. The Midrash tells us that a love without reproof is no love.[7]  Gently suggesting an alternative way of thinking or behaving is an art unto itself- there is never an excuse for cruelty.  Listening with open-ness and humility is an expression of maturity and the greatest gift we can give to others.  What we all most long for is to be heard and understood.  Listen to these beautiful words of Rabbi Elie Spitz, ““To listen to another person is to bring comfort through connection. . . In listening to a soul in pain, sometimes all we can offer is mindful listening.  And in that act of listening, we validate that the soul is worthy of time and attention, that the burdens that cause pain are real and heavy, and that good continues to exist in a broken world.  Our very presence as caring listeners attests to the kindness that exists in an imperfect but beautiful world.”[8]

Humility is the fundamental middah with which we begin the study of mussar, Jewish teachings that guide us towards character development and our own spiritual curriculum. It is only when we have humility that our spiritual development unfolds.  Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests that the 4 holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong.”  We all need to cultivate the ability to say these words, to be open to acknowledging our failings in order to grow.

We need to have the confidence that when we share our innermost selves, that our friends will listen with open hearts and minds.  “A simple friend”, it has been said, “thinks the friendship is over when you have an argument; A real friend calls you after you had a fight.”[9]  I had to call a friend whose son’s Bar Mitzva I had very much hoped to attend back east and tell her that a work commitment precluded my participation.  Her immediate response was joy that I had so much meaningful work to do.  When I wrote to thank her for her understanding, I said, “A good friend would have wanted me to be there.  A great friend would understand why I can’t.  Thank you for being a great friend.”

We are often reluctant to make ourselves vulnerable by exposing our deepest hopes and dreams, the places which cause us pain and heartache. Certainly, to do so requires taking a risk.  We may be laughed at, we may be dismissed.  But our deepest hope is that if we can somehow summon the courage to overcome our fear of losing face, the result will be deeper and more meaningful friendships and a real sense of connection to others.  We may discover, along the way, that we are not alone in the challenges of life, and that if we haven’t learned from the wisdom and experience of others at least we can feel less alone.

Rabbi Harold Kushner reports on a workshop he conducted for clergy and psychologists who were counseling individuals in Oklahoma City who had lost loved ones in the bombing of the Federal Building. “After the workshop,” he writes, “I met the bereaved families.  I said to them, ‘It’s been a month since that tragedy.  What one thing more than anything else has helped you deal with your loss?’  And remarkably, they all gave me the same answer, using the same word:  community.  (People)  coming up to them to hug them, to express sympathy, to bring them food to fill the emptiness inside them.  And I realized they were giving me a profoundly religious answer.

A 19th century Hassidic rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Rymanov, once said, ‘human beings are God’s language.’  That is, when you cry out to God, God responds to your cry by sending you people.  I would paraphrase”, Kushner concludes, “to say that human beings, reaching out to others, doing good things when they don’t have to do them, are as close as we will ever come to seeing the face of God.”[10]

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.”[11]  Other middot are listed on the bookmarks you each received and I encourage you to consider Mussar study as a way of expanding and reinforcing your search for holiness.

As we gather together today to consider how to bring holiness into our lives, we reflect on the value of simple acts of kindness and compassion to bring a sense of God’s presence 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 room.  Imagine the heartaches, the 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 contemporary meme notes that “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’.”

It is all too easy to judge. It is all too tempting to hold on to anger.  When we reflect on the theme of holiness, we reflect on kindness and compassion, on humility, on generosity of spirit and forgiveness; we reflect on honoring the image of God in every person we meet, and we reflect, with the most deep and profound gratitude, on the friends who hold our hands on this journey through life, who prod us and forgive us and support us and encourage us and continue to increase the dose of love.

 

[1] Jewish Woman Magazine, Summer 2006, “Lean on Me”,  p. 22

[2] quoted in Utne Reader, op. cit., p. 72

[3] Jewish Woman, op. cit.,  p. 24

[4] Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, p. 277

 

[5] Pirke Avot 4:1

[6] source unknown

[7] Genesis Rabba 54:3

[8] Spitz, Rabbi Elie, Healing From Despair, VT:  Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008, pp. 122-123

 

[9] internet, “Good Friend Test”, author unknown

[10] Kushner, Harold, “Yearning to See God”, The American Rabbi, High Holy Days 2002, p. 29

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

From Shushan Purim to Pesach: A Lesson in Empathy

 

What a wonderful, raucous Purim we enjoyed on Wednesday night and I trust that your celebration continued on Thursday. You might not be aware that in Jerusalem, and, in Shushan, for that matter, Purim was delayed until Thursday night and Friday. Today was “Shushan Purim,” and you might wonder- why, in these cities, is Purim celebrated on a different day than in the rest of the world?

We find that even in the times of Mordechai and Esther, Purim was celebrated on a different day in Shushan than in the other cities. In all other cities, the battle against the enemies of the Jews took place on the thirteenth of Adar, and the people rested and celebrated on the fourteenth of Adar. In Shushan, however, the battle took place on the thirteenth and fourteenth of Adar, and the people rested and celebrated only on the fifteenth. Thus, it is the custom in ancient, walled cities, to observe Purim one day later than everywhere else. We call it Shushan Purim, commemorating that original battle.

As we struggle to understand and respond to the violence which feels epidemic in our culture, those final chapters of Megillat Esther are particularly disturbing. We all know the basic outline of the story- Haman wants to destroy the Jews, Esther intercedes, Achashverosh backs off, and the Jews are saved. Let’s party. Except. . . For some reason that the Megillah does not identify, the decree that the Jews be destroyed cannot simply be rescinded. Oh, we wanted to kill you but never mind. The pogrom has been cancelled, let’s all be friends.

Instead, circumstances are much darker. In chapter 8 verse 13, we read the king’s amended edict- “The king has permitted the Jews of every city to assemble and fight for their lives; if any people or province attacks them, they may destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed forces, together with women and children, and plunder their possessions.” “Destroy, massacre, exterminate!” The decree is disseminated throughout the kingdom. We know that Haman’s 10 sons were executed. According to the Megillah, 500 people died in the city of Shushan on the first day and 300 on the second day. In total, per chapter 9 verse 16, 75,000 people were killed in the ensuing battles. There is no explanation for why the king’s decree was not simply rescinded, and no compassion expressed for the victims of this debacle. The only thing we read about is the feasting and merrymaking that followed immediately, and the fact that, since the Jews of Shushan battled for a second day, their celebration was postponed until the 15th of Adar- Shushan Purim. We tend to focus on the lighter side of the events of Purim, yet I think, especially at this time when there is so little compassion for those with different perspectives than our own, that we need to take to heart the lesson that violence is not the answer to hatred.

The Megillah began with Haman’s denunciation of the Jewish people in chapter 3 verse 8- “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws’ and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” Haman’s message is simple- we have zero tolerance for anyone who is not like us and our goal must be to destroy them. Sound familiar? In 2018, we still struggle with understanding and accepting those who are not like us.

If there is anything that we, as Jews, have stood for throughout the centuries, it is tolerance for those who are different. We know that the Torah tells us 36x that we must have one law for the native and the stranger, that we are mandated to stand with and be the voices for the disenfranchised. It is disheartening, to say the least, to read the Megillah’s simple description of violent slaughter, with no commentary, and, in fact coupled with joyous celebration.

By the time we get to Passover, a month from now, the message has changed. The midrash tells us that “At the crossing of the sea, the ministering angels wanted to sing praises to God. But God silenced them, saying, ‘My children are drowning in the sea and you want to sing before me?’”[1] As Jews, we are not a pacifist people and we recognize and support the right of self-defense. Yet, we should never rejoice over the loss of human life. The midrash provides a vital and inspiring counterpoint to Megillat Esther.

Don Isaac Abravanel, who fled Spain in 1492, commented that, “By spilling a drop of wine, from the Pesach cup for each plague, we acknowledge that our own joy is lessened and incomplete. For our redemption had to come by means of the punishment of other human beings. Even though these acts are just punishments for evil acts, it says, “Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy”. (Proverbs 24:17)”[2]

Pirke Avot suggests that the wise person is the one who learns from everyone. (Pirke Avot 5:1) In this case, I think we can learn from the Megillah what NOT to do. We can and should take to heart the words of Psalm 34 verse 14, “to turn from evil and do good, to seek peace and pursue it”, and to mourn the tragic loss of human life wherever it occurs. Please turn to p. 42 and let’s sing together, reminding ourselves, “Who is the person who desires life? Who loves filled with goodness? The one who guards their tongue from evil and their lips from speaking deceit.   The one who turns from evil and does good, who seeks peace and pursues it.”

 

[1] [1] Hoffman, Rabbi Lawrence A. and Arnow, David, My People’s Passover Haggadah, Volume One, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008, p. 105

 

[2] Zion, Noam and Dishon, David, The Family Participation Haggadah: A Different Night, Jerusalem: The Shalom Hartman Institute, 1997, p. 101

 

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