September 11, 2020

September 11, 2020

         It’s Sept. 11th.  You just can’t ignore that date.  Or maybe you can?  It’s hard to believe it was 19 years ago, so there is a whole generation for whom Sept. 11th is the day after Sept. 10th and the day before Sept. 12th.  But not for me.  As with so many profound moments in our lives, I know exactly where I was when I heard the news.  I felt like the fourth child at the seder, the one who doesn’t even know how to ask the question.  Unlike that fortunate child, my ignorance stemmed not from innocence but from shock. 

         This week we read a double Torah portion- Nitzavim and Vayelech.  In parshat Nitzavim, the entire community comes together, and the Torah makes it clear that this means everyone- men, women, and children, from the mightiest to the most humble.  The word Nitzavim means, “standing.”  You are all standing here together.

         Vayelech means, “And he went forth.”  What a funny juxtaposition.  Are we standing still or are we moving forward?  When those airplanes hit the World Trade Center, when United Flight #93 went down, we were stuck in that moment.  We couldn’t move.  It was incomprehensible.

         Yet, time moves relentlessly forward, so, as individuals, as a community, as a country, we went forth.  We went forth, reminded of, armed with, the terrible knowledge, as Franz Kafka put is to hauntingly, that “the meaning of life is that it ends.”  So many lives were cut short on that terrible day.  We, who are blessed with the gift of life, what are we doing with that blessing?

         “In his book Lessons for Living, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg cites a study by psychologist William Marston who asked three hundred people this brief question: “What do you have to live for?”  He found that ninety-four percent of his respondents were simply enduring the present while they waited for the future.  They were waiting for:  “something to happen- waiting for the right man or the right woman; waiting for children to grow up; waiting to pay off the mortgage; waiting for a vacation; waiting for retirement; waiting to get involved in the community; waiting to learn some new skill or hobby.”  Ninety-four percent of us are waiting while each new day passes us by; one-hundred percent of us are running out of time.”[1]

         Rosh HaShanah is one week away.  What are we waiting for?  The High Holidays are finally and ultimately about our confrontation with our own mortality.  The words of the Makhzor, “Who shall live and who shall die?  Who in the fullness of years and who before?  Who by fire and who by wild beast?”, have never been more meaningful.  Our days are, indeed, like a “passing shadow”. 

         The story is told of a Talmud professor who asked the student hurrying by, “Where are you running to?”  “I’m rushing home to look over the High Holy Day prayerbook, the machzor, before I have to lead services in my congregations,” replied the student, catching his breath.  “The prayer book hasn’t changed since last year,” said the professor.  “But perhaps you have?  Go home and look yourself over.”[2]

         This is our task.  The meaning of life is that it ends.  We have one more week to consider- what is the meaning of our lives?  If our lives ended tomorrow, what would we regret most?  What changes would we wish we had made?  What are we waiting for?  Even within the confines of the pandemic, there are many opportunities to earn that greatest honorific in our tradition, “She was a mensch.”  Shanah Tovah- may you be blessed with a good year.  May you be blessed with the strength, wisdom, and courage to MAKE it a good year.

[1] Quoted in Leder, Steven, The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, NY:  Behrman House, 1999, pp. 94-95

[2] Ibid., p. 3

A Time For Introspection

         I want to invite you to take a breath.  A deep breath.  Let it out slowly and luxuriously.  Pause now, and, at your leisure, inhale once again.  The average person takes 23,000 breaths a day, virtually all of them completely unconscious.

         What is it like when we hold our breath?  It becomes very uncomfortable very quickly.  What would it be like to hold our breath involuntarily?  What would it be like to not be able to breath for 8 minutes and 46 seconds?  Imagination fails us; we cannot imagine the unimaginable. 

         And yet, that was the unimaginable horror that George Floyd experienced in his final moments of life.  Our instinct is to look away.  It’s too awful.  The sadness, the anger- overwhelming.  The urge is to wring our hands, to put our heads down, and weep. 

         That’s what we, as a society, have done again, and again, and again, with every death of an unarmed person of color.  This week, the tide shifted.  Violence is not, cannot, should not be the answer.  We would all prefer the path of non-violent protest.  Moral authority is lost when we cede the high ground and yield to a mob mentality.  We echo the words of Sheriff Paul Penzone, quoted by Rabbi Chernow in her mailing earlier in the week – “As the public demonstrations continue throughout Our Valley and the nation, it is imperative that we separate lawful thoughtful exhibitions of peaceful protest from the egregious acts of criminal behavior and violence. The event leading to the death of Mr. George Floyd was a criminal example of police abuse. It was not policing.” 

         Despite our vision of the United States of America as a place of refuge for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”  as a place of “freedom and justice for all,” we have not, yet, lived up to this highest vision of ourselves.  Racism endures within our culture.  If we are honest with ourselves, and we must be honest with ourselves, it endures in our Jewish community, this despite the fact that 1 in 7 Jews in contemporary America is a person of color.  And yet, Jews of color are all too often viewed as outsiders.  How many times have people assumed that YOU converted to Judaism?  Likely this is not your routine experience.  For Jews of color, it is the opposite experience.  Funny, you don’t look Jewish. 

         Not funny.  A black rabbinical student reports being asked, “Don’t you have to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school?”  Rabbi Marra Gad, author of The Color of Love:  A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl, writes as follows[1], “ I am black…white…and Jewish. That is my wholeness. I am here to be seen for all that I am…and I will not allow anyone to deny any part of me.

Look at me. See my color. How beautiful and powerful I am. See that my strength and lifeforce comes from being black. Just as it comes from being Jewish.

The world has tried for far too long to keep black and brown people invisible. And a part of what is happening right now in the streets of America is the voice of the people demanding to be heard saying NO MORE. It is a demand to be seen. And my voice is with them.

If you cannot or will not see and honor me for all that I am, you do not see me at all. And if you do not choose to see all of me, you are not being my ally or my supporter.”

It might surprise you to know that racism in Jewish culture is not a new phenomenon.  In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotcha, even our esteemed leaders, Aaron and Miriam, cannot resist calling attention to Moses’ wife’s skin color.  Twice they speak out against his Cushite, that is, Ethiopian wife. 

         This is the first we hear of Moses’ wife being black.  It is unclear whether the reference is to Tzipporah, who is initially described as Midianite, or if Moses has taken a second wife.  We don’t know what their issue is with her.  Here’s the text as it appears in Numbers 12:1- “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had taken as a wife; a Cushite!”  The term is repeated for emphasis.  Cushi is still used in modern Hebrew to describe a person of color.  

         God intercedes immediately to remind us that Judaism is not and never has been about ethnicity.  Miriam is punished immediately; no explanation is offered as to why her brother Aaron is not rebuked.  And Moses, demonstrating why he is still considered our greatest prophet, responds with kindness, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness, calling out to God- “El na r’fah na la- God, please heal her.”

         God, please heal all of us  The midrash asks why does God initially create only one human being?   The answer- so that no one can say that their ancestors are greater.  We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  One God, one humanity. 

         So what are we to do?  You don’t need me to tell you to be open to hearing the experiences of our Black friends and neighbors, to recognize racial inequity, to write to our legislators, to take part in justice efforts.  We can be proud of our legacy as a Jewish community as leaders in the civil rights movement.  Throughout this week, every Jewish organization has issued statements condemning the death of George Floyd, expressing outrage,  and calling for justice.  You can easily find these calls to action and I hope that you will.  The Union for Reform Judaism Religious Action Center is a good place to start.

         Last week our Torah study group was reviewing the curses in Leviticus 26.  One of these leapt off the page at us, “You will quake with fear though none pursue.”  To which one of the students commented- that is the experience of our Black neighbors in contemporary America.  Living in a constant state of fear.  Even when there is no immediate threat, that haunting and overriding fear of what may happen next.  It has to end.  We have to be part of the solution.

         And yet, this is not a call to action in the world.  This is a call to cheshbon ha-nefesh, to spiritual accounting, to introspection.   On this Shabbat, let’s remove our metaphoric masks and, with brutal honesty, reflect on our own internalized racism.  Only from that foundation of truth can we begin to work for justice.

         At its founding, the motto of the United States was, “E pluribus unum- out of the many, one.”  On this Shabbat, our national motto is my personal prayer.  May God help us to fulfill that vision of “ONE nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

[1] Facebook posting

BaMidbar and COVID-19: Forty Days? Forty Months? Forty Years?

         According to the Torah, we are just now, with this week’s parsha, entering Bamidbar/the wilderness.  According to us, it feels like 40 years of wandering aimlessly, hoping to reach the promised land with no idea how to get there, when we will arrive, and how we will survive along the way.  It’s one thing to experience a sense of transition.  It’s quite another, we are discovering, to live in a state of transition with no end in sight.  It has been an unnerving experience and if you are feeling overwhelmed and unsettled, depressed and tired of the whole thing- know that you are not alone.

         When you’re embarking on a long journey, by foot, you have to really think about what you are going to carry with you.  There is so much that we imagine we need, that we can’t live without.  And then, when it comes down to it, we discover that, actually, we need very little.  I think that is one of the takeaways of the last two months- we have learned that, much as we may be missing and yearning for our lives as we knew them, we have also come to understand that we actually can live much more simply than we might have thought before our world collapsed and we were confined within the small space of our own homes.

         One of the things we desperately need is the company of other people, knowing who is with us on our journey.  Thus, the parsha begins with a census.  When times are tough, we want to know who is with us, who can we count on?  Do we have friends we can count on, people who call just to ask how we are doing?  Who might share a roll of toilet paper?  Who will tell us that we are the best and also when we can do better?

Do we have family members who love us unconditionally with all our imperfections?  We have learned that we can count on medical professionals and teachers, who continue to do the heavy lifting under the most extreme circumstances.  We can count on supermarket staff and delivery drivers.   So many heretofore unrecognized heroes have emerged to the fore.  COVID-19 reinforces the lesson of BaMidbar- everyone is counted and everyone counts.  We have learned how much we rely on each other and how much trust we need to have if our community is to stay safe for all of us. 

Larry Hoffman notes that when King David took a census of the community, the text depicts it in a negative light, while here it is presented from a more neutral perspective.  Hoffman writes- “It must be tied up with the uniqueness of the midbar, the peculiarity of the desert.  David takes a count while preparing to do battle defending Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. . . In David’s case, then, counting the troops before battle reveals a failure of faith.  But battles are not the norm.  They are intrusions on the everyday, when you steel yourself for extraordinary efforts of courage and conviction.  The midbar, however, is different.  In the midbar, every day is potentially your last.  The battles of the midbar are day-by-day affairs.  They never end.  Every morning the sun comes up with brilliance enough to kill; every night, the sun goes down leaving you utterly exposed to wind and cold.  One minute the trenches.. . . that carry water are arid wastes, and the next minute . . . floods surge through with enough force to kill anyone in the way.  The midbar thus calls not so much for strength as for stamina, the stamina we need day by day, our troubles never go away.  The miracles of the midbar are the miracles of every day:  just getting up, getting through the day, going back to sleep, getting up again.  To survive the midbar, we are allowed to count, to “number” our assets, to know in advance where our inner strength lies and what within us is on the verge of shutting down, and, finally, to be reassured that we will make it, even if our personal midbar lasts the proverbial forty years.”

Larry Hoffman wrote these words well before any of us had heard of the coronavirus, yet his comments about the need for stamina resonate with us in this moment.  It won’t be 40 years.  Maybe not even 40 months or 40 weeks.  But, however long we need to remain quarantined, we know that every one of you counts, and you can count on us to remind you that each and every person is a vital part of our community, and how blessed we are to have each other.

Tazria, Metzora, and Social Distancing 2020

Tazria, Metzora, and Social Distancing- 2020

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

         An unknown illness erupts.  Waiting for a diagnosis, and then, quarantine.  Have the symptoms dissipated?  Keep checking and continue to stay isolated from the community.  Examination by a healthcare professional to determine if it’s safe to be with people.  If so, purification rituals and cleansing before reuniting with friends and family.  COVID- 19?  No, this week’s Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora.

         This week’s parsha describes what is often translated as leprosy- tzaraat, yet, technically is some other kind of skin affliction.  It is the priest, in his role of medicine man, who is called in to examine the person who is ill and suspected to have tzaraat.  If the priest determines that it is, indeed, tzaraat, there are 7-days of social distancing, then another examination.  This cycle repeats until the priest determines that it is safe for the individual to reconnect with the community.

         The priest needs to check personally.  No diagnosis is made on the basis of rumor or suspicion.  In fact, the phrase “v’ra-ah ha-kohen,” “the priest shall look,” appears no less than 30x in the text.  The priest provides a very personal level of care.  He is there, in person, with the afflicted individual.  If there’s one thing Jewish tradition understands, it is how hard it is to be separated from the community.  It is not something to be undertaken lightly, and the individual who must be separated for medical reasons is still afforded a great deal of support.

         It has been so touching to me how our Temple Chai community has come together to provide support as we are all in isolation.  We feel the pain of the person who is quarantined uniquely as we read Tazria and Metzora in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  Our caring community has undertaken the task of calling every single member of the congregation to assess how they are doing and what needs they may have, from having a package picked up to be mailed, to help with livestreaming services, to a kind word and a listening ear.

         In Chapter 13, verse 3, we read that, as the priest examines the person who is ill, he is specifically directed to look at him..  This may not seem noteworthy, and yet, when someone is sick they are all too often reduced to “a case of x,” and not seen as a whole person.  “See him,” the priest is told, not, “see IT.”  Commentators emphasize the compassion called for in addressing someone who is suffering.  Make sure you are seeing them in their totality, they remind us, see him or her, not just the illness, not just “it.” 

         The metzora, the person who is suffering, is required to announce their impurity if they are out among the community, so that people know to give them space, to socially distance themselves, as it were.  While this might seem terribly embarrassing, again, the rabbis say, no, this is so that the community will be alerted of the need to pray for the individual’s strength and healing.  We pray for healing for all those who suffer from COVID-19, and, in fact, for all of us who are separated from our beloved community.

         The Sefat Emet focuses on the opening verse, “This is the teaching about the afflicted person.”  The Chassidic commentator connects this with a verse in Isaiah (57:19)- “Peace, peace to the far and to the near.”  The far person, says the Sefat Emet, is the afflicted person who is separated from the community. 

         The Torah recognizes how hard it is to be apart from others, and delegates the priest to work tirelessly to reunite the person who is in pain with loved ones as quickly as possible.  Yet, the Torah also makes provisions to ensure public health and safety, setting in place structured movements towards reunion to protect everyone’s well-being.

         It’s hard for all of us to be separated right now.  We struggle with ways to stay connected and are so grateful for our caring volunteers and for the blessed technology that brings us Zoom learning and livestreamed services.  We are steeped in compassion for those who are afflicted and pray for their health and recovery.  And we pray for ourselves, as well, that, when that time comes that we can be together once again, we never, ever take for granted the profound blessing of being together in community.

Nadav, Avihu, and COVID-19

Nadav, Avihu, and COVID-19

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

         I trust everyone had a good Pesach and our Torah reading this week, Shemini, finds us exactly half-way through the Torah.  It is AMAZING that the rabbis so loved the text that they counted every letter, determining that the letter vav in the word “gachon,” appearing this week, is the middle letter of the entire text.  The Torah has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  We find ourselves now in a moment of the unknown.  It is so comforting to be able to place ourselves in time?  Are we just in the beginning?  In the middle?  Approaching the end?  It’s so disorienting not to know.  If only we knew if we were halfway there, or a third of the way there, or where we are, it would be so comforting.  The only thing we do know is that it WILL end at some point and we WILL return to a sense of normalcy, hopefully with a much deeper appreciation of the blessing of the normal.

         Our parsha echoes the sadness and incredulity that we all feel.  We share Aaron’s pain at the mystery of God’s ways and the loss of young lives.  We feel it profoundly. 

         It should have been a moment of the greatest joy and celebration.  After months of effort and the community working together, the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, was finally completed and ready to be dedicated.  In what the rabbis describe as a miracle in and of itself, the entire people of Israel gathers to rejoice in the fruits of their collective labors.  Somehow, miraculously, there is space for everyone, everyone is included- no need for social distancing.

         Moses’ brother Aaron, and Aaron’s wife Elisheva, are the parents of 4 sons- Nadav and Avihu, Eliezer and Itamar; they are all destined for the priesthood.  As the parsha begins,  Aaron offers a sin offering on behalf of himself and his family.  We learn an important lesson here- before we concern ourselves with the wrongdoing of others, let’s first look within.  Likely there are opportunities for teshuvah in our own lives before we judge the actions of others.  It is so easy to point a finger at others.  Aaron’s example reminds us to be humble about our own imperfections. 

         Aaron then blessed the people, God’s glory was revealed, and the people’s offering was consumed.

         And then- the unthinkable happens.  Nadav and Avihu, clearly moved by the day’s ceremony, bring an offering of incense and lay it in a firepan.  Their incense sacrifice was not commanded, not authorized, yet, they experience spontaneous joy and gratitude in that moment of profound holiness.    In one of the most troubling incidents in the entire Torah, a fire descends from heaven.  Instead of consuming the offering, it consumes the two young men, who are immediately killed. 

         The tradition offers many explanations, many excuses, as to why this is okay.  So many, in fact, that it belies the fact that the rabbis are very NOT okay with what occurs.  Well maybe it was for this reason?  Well maybe it was because of something else?  The harsh reality is that terrible things can happen, and there is no good reason at all.

Aaron has no response- he is silent.  What can he say?  In that single moment, his hopes and dreams for his family working together to create holiness, his hopes and dreams are destroyed.  The intensity of his joy is undone in a crashing moment of sorrow and despair.

         And in an act that only feels cruel, Moses tells the family that they are not to observe the traditional forms of mourning.  And THEN, Moses further berates them for not having completed the day’s ritual observances.

         Aaron finally speaks up and basically says, “Are you nuts?  I am in no mood and how can I pretend that everything is normal on such a day as this?”  And to his credit, Moses backs off and more or less responds, “You’re right.” 

         It may be that we all have a little Aaron inside us right now.  We look around and see pain and suffering, the inexplicable death of young people whom we cannot even mourn according to custom, and we don’t know what to say or what to think.  Good people struck down in the prime of life, and how can we go on as if everything is okay?  The answer is we can’t.  We don’t know what to say or what to think or how to move on, and that’s okay.

         I think the message of Parshat Shemini is that, like Aaron, when we don’t know what to say, silence is an appropriate response to the inexplicable.  “Vayidom Aharon- and Aaron was silent.”  And so are we. . .

Shabbat Parah: Clean Hands and a Pure Heart

March 26th will be the first day of the month of Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs.  That means that next Shabbat, March 21, is Shabbat Mevarchim, the Shabbat on which we will officially announce and pray for the new month.  Reverse engineering, that makes this week Shabbat Parah- one of the most mysterious, least understood Shabbatot in the entire calendar!  Shabbat Parah is one of four special Shabbatot in the 6 weeks before Passover.

We know what Shabbat is; what is Parah?  Parah is a cow.  But not just any cow!  The special, extra, maftir, Torah reading for this morning is from the book of Numbers, chapter 19, verses 1-22.  You can find it on p. 1145 in your chummashim. 

With Passover looming on the horizon, the concern was to remind the people that only those who were ritually pure could enjoy the Passover offering.  And how does one become pure again after defilement?  By the ritual described in this chapter, the red heifer, whose ashes were combined with water to purify those who were defiled.  So Shabbat Parah is essentially a public service announcement- Pesach is coming and it’s time to get cleaned up and ready!  “Clean hands and a pure heart”- a verse from Psalms, and (Psalm 24:4), never more relevant than in this  moment!

The haftarah, Ezekiel 36:16-38, also deals with issues of being cleansed from contamination, but the impurity in this case symbolizes human sinfulness. Just like physical impurity, sins, spiritual impurity, according to the prophet,   CAN  be overcome. As God says in Ezekiel 36:25,26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes [idolatrous practices]. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you.”

Is this confusing?  Well, if so, you are in good company.  No less a brilliant mind than that of King Solomon was reputed to have said, “I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah but as soon as I reached this chapter about the red heifer I searched, probed and questioned, I said I will get wisdom, but it is far from me”.” (King Solomon, as quoted in Yalkut Shimoni 759)

The Sefer haChinnuch, an anonymous text from 13th century Spain, writes as follows-  “My hands grow feeble and I fear to open my mouth at all, even with the plain meaning.  For I saw that our Sages of blessed memory spoke at length of the profundity of its mystery and the greatness of its theme. . . “

The requirements for the red heifer are that it be completely of one color, (some say it is brown), and that it had never been yoked.  This symbolizes a sense of freedom.  The animal was sacrificed and its ashes dissolved with water and sprinkled on someone in need of purification. The priest who will deal with the ashes lived separately for 7 days, he was quarantined!, and was sprinkled daily with some of the previous ashes. This time of alone-ness for the priest to come into a sense of purity is a reminder to each of us that introspection and alone-ness may be an important part of our own spiritual development.

There is a middah of silence/hitbodedut.  Silence is necessary in order to hear and to learn; silence is necessary to cultivate our internal life and learn to shut out the distractions of the world.  It is for good reason that we include a period of silence in every service- the Amidah. A chassidic commentary, quoted in our chummashim, notes that,  “The red cow was to be without blemish and without having borne a yoke.  Similarly, if a man thinks he is without blemish we may be sure he has never accepted the yoke of Heaven.  For if he had he would know that he had many faults.”

Shabbat Parah reminds us that Passover is coming.  The holiday of Passover means that it has been 6 months since the High Holidays.  Perhaps, maybe likely?, we have gotten off track?  Whatever our resolutions were for 5780, perhaps we need a reminder?  Shabbat Parah offers us the opportunity to reflect on where we need to do teshuvah?  Where do we feel a need for purification in our own lives?

Shabbat Parah reminds us that however far we have strayed, we have the power through the choices that we make, to purify ourselves. 

We all make mistakes, we all do wrong, we all hurt each other and ourselves.  We pray, “V’taher libenu lavdecha b’emet- purify our hearts to serve You, God, in truth.”  As Reb Nachman of Bratslav put it, “If we are not better tomorrow than we are today, than what do we need tomorrow for?”

We can no longer rely on ritual sacrifices for our own purification- now- the choice is in our hands!

I Know That Valentine’s Day is NOT a Jewish Holiday. . . .

I remember a few years ago- I was standing in the lobby, having just returned from a period of military service. I think I might have even been in uniform. I was definitely still in Army/Colonel mode. I sort of barked at one of my colleagues in a way that surprised even me as I heard the tone of my voice and the words that came out of my mouth. I remember feeling taken aback at my own harshness and immediately requested the opportunity to retract my words and try again.

I recalled that moment last week when Ron called in the middle of the work day, something he does not often do. I felt my heart skip a beat at seeing his name on the caller ID, and had the opposite experience of that moment in the temple lobby. This time, I was taken aback at the softness in my voice, as I transitioned in a nanosecond from “being in the office” mode to “speaking to my beloved” mode. I wondered about that. I wondered what it would be like if I could be in touch with that gentleness and kindness, that love, all the time, or, at least, more often? What the world needs now is love, sweet love? What if we could ALL live more in a place of love and less in a place of harshness in more of our interactions with each other?

Jews don’t necessarily make a big deal out of Valentine’s Day, yet, today is certainly an appropriate day to reflect on how we might bring more love into all of our relationships, from the most casual to the most intimate. Love is kindness in action. It is being attuned to another person’s needs without their having to articulate them. It is being fully present. We have been reading in the Torah for the past few weeks about the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. Love is about opening, softening our hearts. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler teaches that, “If you make an effort to help everyone you meet, you will feel close to everyone. A stranger is someone you have not yet helped. Doing acts of kindness for everyone you can fills your world with friends and loved ones.” He reminds us that the personality infused with chesed is not concerned with what he or she can take from the world, but is, rather, focused exclusively on giving.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates the word chesed, lovingkindness, as, “love expressed as deed.” It is love beyond the level of feeling, it is love as doing. The word chesed appears 245 times in the Torah. The Midrash (Sotah 14a) suggests that the Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed, opening with God clothing Adam and Eve and concluding with God burying Moses. The Torah is filled with acts of chesed. On this day, especially, we remind ourselves to fill our days with acts of chesed.

The prophet Micah (6:8) suggests that there are really only 3 things that God wants from us- one is to do justly, one is to walk humbly, and the third is to love chesed, to love loving acts of kindness. 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.”

At Thanksgiving time, we often reflect that, really, EVERY day should be “Thanksgiving,” a day filled with gratitude and appreciation of our many blessings. What if every day was “Valentine’s Day,” filled with acts of love and kindness? “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’.” “The world,” writes the Psalmist, (89:3), “is built on kindness.” Olam chesed yibaneh. Feb. 14th seems to be a good day to renew our own commitment to build OUR world on chesed. Olam chesed yibaneh- I will build this world on love. .

Locusts, Trees, and Tu Bishvat

Did you know that the word Elohim, God, and the word ha-tevah, nature, have the same numerical value in Hebrew?  While Jews are not pantheistic, that is, we don’t believe that nature IS God, we certainly sense the deep and intimate connection between the Creator and the creation.  Rabbi Joseph Leib Bloch taught that, “(a good Jew) will be filled with wonder and excitement at the sight of the glories of nature. . . and will know how to use these feelings for the sublime purpose of recognizing the Creator.”  Nature may not BE God, yet, we experience God’s presence in nature, and, when we hurt the environment, we imagine that God feels that pain.

         This week’s Torah portion, Bo, describes the devastation of the land caused by the plague of locusts.  We read this warning to Pharaoh- (Exodus 10:4-5)- “If you refuse to humble yourself, every tree will be destroyed.”  The text continues, (10:15), “(the locusts) ate all the grass of the land and all the fruit of the trees left behind by the hail, and there did not remain any green of the tree and grass of the field in the whole land of Egypt.”  Yet Pharaoh hardened his heart.  It’s easy to judge Pharaoh for his hubris and his insensitivity to the environmental threat concerning which he had been duly warned. 

         And what about us?  What about our lack of humility, the hardness of our hearts, as we stand idly by the destruction of the environment that sustains us?  We have been warned of the threat to our environment- how are we responding? 

         The Midrash, written two thousand years ago, depicts God as warning Adam, Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7:13) – “When God created Adam, God led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God told him, ‘See how beautiful and praiseworthy are all of My works. . .  do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.'”

         The rabbis were ahead of their time; millennia ahead of their time.  They understood our responsibility to care for the earth, that we are but custodians of God’s gift to us.  They established the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, which we will celebrate later this month, the new  year of the trees, a time to reinforce our role as guardians of nature.

         Rabbi Rachel Barenblat reminds us that the word for human, Adam, is the same as the word for the earth.  She writes that, “The first human was called Adam: earthling. We can never leave that original name. All

that we are, all that we are made of, all that we live on, comes from the earth. We may try to separate ourselves from the rhythms of the earth. We may heat and air condition our houses and cars, but we cannot live outside the earth. We may shape the earth but we can never completely control it. We belong to the earth; the earth does not belong to us.”

         The second paragraph of the Shema contains yet another statement that, based on human choices, the earth can and will be destroyed with no opportunity to be restored to balance.  We have the power to create and we have the power to destroy.  The Medibozer Rebbe expressed it like this, “God placed sparks of holiness within everything in nature.”  Our task as humans is to sense and protect that spark.

         I’ll conclude with the beautiful story of Choni, as told in the Talmud, “The Rabbis tell the story of Choni, who one day saw a grandfather and his grandchild planting a carob tree. Choni laughed, “Foolish man, do you think you will live to eat the fruit of this tree?” The old man replied, “My grandparents planted for me, now I plant for my grandchildren.”

Weary from the heat of the day, Choni laid down for a nap. The nap became a sleep of many years, and when he awakened he did not know that his hair was white as snow.

Choni returned to the spot where the old man had planted the sapling. He was surprised to see a full grown carob tree, and an elderly woman giving its fruit to the great grandchild of the man who first planted the tree.

Choni then realized what had happened to him, and he told the woman and the little girl how God had taught him that one must plant not only for himself but for future generations as well.  (Taanit 23)  We are all Choni.  We must care for the earth, our gift to the generations to come.

         And a final word from John Wright, “Let the trees be consulted before you take any action.  Every time you breathe in, thank a tree.”   As we read about the plague of locusts, as we heed the warning that, in fact, the earth is a perishable commodity entrusted to our hands, as we prepare for Tu B’Shevat, let us humbly renew our commitment as Adam, as human beings to guard and protect ha-Adamah, the earth.

Judaism By The Numbers

Talk delivered at Community Church of the Verdes, 27 January, 2020, Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

         Well, it is a daunting task that you have set for me.  “Judaism.”  Not- Jewish Ethics, the Jewish Lifecycle, Jewish Holidays, Jewish Texts, Jewish History- all of it!  Five thousand years in 45 minutes.  The story is told that Rabbi Hillel was approached by a person who wanted to know everything there is to know about Judaism while he stood on one foot.  Anyone out there want to stand on one foot while I speak?  Anyway, Hillel’s classic response was, “That which is harmful to you, do not do to another.  The rest is commentary- now, go and study.”  (Shabbat 31b)

Thank you very much- are there any questions?

         Seriously, I was not sure how to approach such an overwhelming request, so I am framing my comments as, “Judaism By The Numbers.”  We’ll look at 10 basic concepts and then, of course, I would love to respond to any questions that you may have.  One of the important things to know about Judaism is the high value we place on asking questions.  The classic joke is, “Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?”  “Why not?” 

         When Isidor Rabi won the Nobel prize in Physics, he was asked,  “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”

         He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it.  Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school:  ‘Nu?  Did you learn anything today?”  But not my mother.  She always asked me a different question.  “Izzy,” she would say, “Did you ask a good question today?”  That difference- asking good questions- made me become a scientist.”  So please ask lots of questions!

  1.  GOD- Number One is for One God

          Judaism is founded on the principle of ethical monotheism, that is, the idea that there is one and only one God, and that that God demands ethical behavior from humanity.  We imagine God as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  That said, there is a saying in the Jewish world, “Two Jews, three opinions,” and nowhere is this more evident than in how we understand God.  In our prayers we say, “God of Abraham, God of Sarah, God of Isaac, God of Rebecca, God of Jacob, God of Leah, God of Rachel.”  Why the redundancy?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to just say, “God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, etc?” 

      The traditional response to this conundrum is a recognition

that each person has their own concept of God, and that, in fact, our concept of God can and will likely change throughout life’s journey.  Classically, we have 70 names of God, and we may connect with a different name, a different aspect or understanding of God, at different moments.

Questioning God, challenging God, these are hallmarks of the Jewish faith, going back to Abraham’s argument with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The first thing Abraham does after entering into a relationship with God is to challenge God with the words, “Should not the judge of all the earth do justly?”   We call ourselves “the people of Israel.”  The word “Israel” is translated as “one who wrestles with God,” based on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel when his name is changed to Yisrael/Israel.

“A Jew,” writes Elie Wiesel, “can love God, a Jew can fight God, but a Jew may not ignore God.”  Rabbi Aaron Zeitlin expresses this reality powerfully in his classic reflection:

Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love me.

Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love me.

Praise me or curse Me. And I will know that you love Me.

Sing out My graces, says God.

Raise your fist against Me and revile, says God,

Sing out graces or revile,

Revile is also a kind of praise, says God.

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God,

If you look at the stars and yawn,

If you see suffering and don’t cry out,

If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,

Then I created you in vain, says God.

  •  Jewish Values- Number Two is Dedicated to Jewish Values and the Balance Between Humility and Arrogance

There is a teaching variously attributed to at least two different rabbis that goes like this- Each of us should have in our pocket 2 slips of paper.  On one should be written, “The world was created for my sake.”  On the other, “I am but dust and ashes.”  The secret of wisdom is knowing when to read each message.

Humility is a priority Jewish value.  Humility is defined as occupying, “No more than my place, no less than my space.”  While it is important to understand our own worth, it is more important that we constantly remind ourselves that every human being is made in the image of God.  Thus, we are to honor every person and care for their needs.  In fact, Rabbi Israel Salanter suggested that, “Another person’s physical needs are our spiritual needs.”  Ritual observance is a foundation of Jewish life, yet it is meaningless unless it is accompanied by righteous behavior.  We read in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, as I, God, am holy.”  Holiness in action is the Jewish way.  When we do good in the world, we bring holiness to God’s name.  When we do wrong, we bring discredit not only on ourselves but on the Jewish people as an entity.

          Among many, many, other values we emphasize kindness, generosity, compassion,  responsibility, equanimity, faith, and, fundamentally, gratitude.  Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes that, “Living with gratitude elevates your entire life.  You become a more spiritual person.  You become a more joyful person.  You become a kinder and more compassionate person.  You become a calmer and more peaceful person.  You become a person who lives in greater harmony with others.”

The Hebrew word for a Jew is “Yehudi,” which comes from the same root as the word, “thank you.”  To be a Jew is to live your life focused on cultivating gratitude for all of our blessings and for the very gift of life itself.  Gratitude is the foundation of Jewish spirituality.

  •  The Three Festivals- Three is for the Three Festivals

          The Jewish year begins in the fall with the High Holidays, the Days of Awe- Rosh HaShanah, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Jewish people observe the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals- Passover, Sukkot/the Feast of Booths, and Shavuot/the Feast of Weeks.  Each of these three festivals has both an agricultural and a historical significance.  In between, there are Purim and Chanukkah and a whole host of other celebrations and fast days that you may not have even heard of.

         We have a full schedule of holidays.  It wasn’t until I was in an Army Reserve unit and found myself telling my Group Commander that I couldn’t make it to our weekend drill- yet again!- because it was yet another Jewish holiday, that I realized exactly how rich and full is our calendar.  The cycle of the holidays brings structure and meaning to our days, and as the year flows, we experience every human emotion and connection to our history and to the rhythm of nature.  The Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, with a correction added for the 11 day difference between the solar and the lunar years.  That is why Chanukkah might be around the same time as Thanksgiving one year, and it might be around the same time as Christmas the next year, but it will never be in August!

There are times of meditation and introspection and times of raucous celebration.  The Passover seder meal is one of the most widely observed of our festivals.  Families gather to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt through the use of ritual foods and a text called the Haggadah.  More than any other mitzvah, any other commandment, in the Torah, we read 36 times that we should have one law for the native and the stranger.  Passover is an annual reminder that we know what it is like to be the outsider, we were slaves and we must be sensitive to potential abuses of power.

Through the ritual of the Passover seder, we teach that value to the next generation, emphasizing our responsibility to care of the disenfranchised.  It is no wonder that Jews have always been disproportionately represented in movements for social justice.

  • Matriarchs- Four Represents the Four Matriarchs

The Jewish story is the story of a family, Avram and Sarai, who

come to believe in one God and become God’s emissaries to the world.  Number 4 is for the 4 matriarchs- Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel.  Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac marries Rebecca.  Their son Jacob marries Leah and Rachel.  Jewish women have played a vital role in the development of the Jewish tradition, often behind the scenes.  Four matriarchs- Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. 

 In the Biblical text, women often resort to subterfuge in order to accomplish their goals.  As Judaism evolves, women are placed on a pedestal, albeit in the context of defined social roles.  The rabbis of 2,000 years ago enacted protections for women in the case of divorce, and there are a small number of women quoted in the Talmud in their own names.

         Throughout the Middle Ages, it was often the women who knew the language of the land, and women who engaged in commerce to support their husbands, while the men were devoted to prayer and learning.  However, the synagogue was clearly the realm of men.  Women were permitted to participate in prayer, but were not required to do so.  Thus, women were excluded from leadership roles until the 20th century, when the first women were ordained as rabbis. 

         In 1972, Sally Preisand became the first female Reform rabbi.  Reform Judaism is the most liberal of what you might think of as Jewish “denominations.”  It is important to note the spectrum of observance among these various denominations within the Jewish community.  Within Conservative Judaism, which is more traditional, women did not graduate rabbinical school until 1985.  While women in Orthodox circles are emerging as community leaders, they have yet to achieve the same status and titles as men.  In 1981, I had the honor to become the first female rabbi to serve in the United States military. 

  • Torah- Five is the Five Books of the Torah

          The Hebrew Bible consists of 3 parts- The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.  The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is read and studied every year throughout the Jewish world.  We begin in the fall with these 5 books- the book of Genesis,  proceeding through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Jews are rightly known as “The People of the Book,” for our devotion to learning and the priority value placed on study.  It is considered to be a religious obligation to study on a daily basis.

           The Torah begins with the story of creation.  The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham and Sarah, and the Torah contains the story of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, the enslavement in Egypt and Moses as the vehicle for liberation, the wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, and the foundation of the Jewish way of life.

          The 5 scrolls- Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations are read on various holidays throughout the year.  Selections from the prophets are part of each week’s focus, and selections from the Psalms are included in the liturgy. 

          Study, in Jewish tradition, is a vehicle of spiritual expression.  It has been suggested that, “When I pray I talk to God, when I study, God talks to me.”  Reverence for learning and esteem for teachers is reflected in the fact that the word rabbi translates to “my teacher.”  It should be noted that Jews tend to avoid the term, “Old Testament,” in favor of The Hebrew Bible.

  •  Books of the Mishna- Six is the Six Books of the Mishna

          Besides, the Bible, the most significant source of Jewish wisdom is the Talmud.  After the completion of the Bible, rabbis continued to debate and discuss how to apply the Biblical text in our lives.  In the year 200 CE, these teachings were collected and published as the 6 books of the Mishna.  Another 400 years of conversation ensued, resulting in the Talmud.  The Jewish people read the text like it was a love letter- Why did he use this word not that word? What did he mean by that phrase?  No single word, no single letter, is insignificant; all is open to interpretation.  It would be rare for Jews to study Bible without including a broad variety of commentaries from every era- ancient to contemporary.

         It’s fascinating that the rabbis assume their right to interpret the text, even to override God’s specific intervention in the discussion, as evidenced by this classic Talmudic story.  (Baba Metzia 59a/b) There is an argument about a relatively obscure legal point, and there is unanimity on the correct response, with the exception of one person- Rabbi Eliezer.

On that day, we read, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they were rejected. He said: “If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it.” The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. Others say, 400 cubits. His colleagues said to him: “One cannot prove anything from a carob tree.”

Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “If the law is as I say, may the aqueduct prove it.” The water in the aqueduct began to flow backwards. The sages replied:  “One cannot prove anything from an aqueduct.”

Eliezer continued: “If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it.” The walls of the house of study began to cave in. Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls, “If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?” The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there at a slant.

Finally Eliezer said: “If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!” There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: “What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer — the law is as he says…”

Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: “‘The Torah is not in heaven!. We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, God, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to ‘follow the majority.'”

         Later on, a prophet was asked, “What was God’s response to all of this?”  The reply- God is depicted as laughing and saying, “My children have defeated me.”

  •  Shabbat- Seven is for Shabbat, The Sabbath Daay

       The Sabbath is the foundation of Jewish family and communal life.  “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” is the only ritual law in the 10 commandments.  The Sabbath is built right into the foundation of the creation story.  On the 7th day, the creation is not complete until NOT creating has been created.

         Ahad Ha-Am observed that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”  Beginning on Friday night and until 3 stars are visible in the sky on Saturday night, the Jewish focus is on family and community, on disconnecting from the commercial and renewing our commitment to the spiritual.  We light candles in our homes, enjoy a festive meal, come together for worship, and remind ourselves of the need to nurture our souls.

         In a traditional home, no electricity is used, no cars are driven, devices are turned off.  In the non-Orthodox world, the day is devoted to family and friends.  In my own practice, we don’t, for example, watch television of Shabbat, yet we might drive to the park to play with the grandkids.  In our incredibly overprogrammed lives, Shabbat has never been more important.  Listen to how the great 20th century philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel described it-“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

         We hold services in the synagogue on Friday night and Saturday, Shabbat morning, coming together as a community to provide support through all the vicissitudes of life, to study and to pray together.  Jewish services are always open to anyone who chooses to join us.

  •  Chanukkah- Eight is for Eight Days of Chanukkah

          The 8-day holiday of Chanukkah, while well known in contemporary America, is among the most minor of holidays  on the calendar.  Chanukkah commemorates the successful revolt of the Jewish people against the oppressive forces of the Syrian-Greeks in the year 165 BCE.  Legend has it that, following a 3 year battle, the temple was rededicated- the word “Chanukkah” means “dedication.”  There was only enough oil to light the menorah, the candelabrum which illuminated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, for 1 day, and yet, miraculously, the oil lasted for 8 days.  Thus, 8 days of Chanukkah.

         Chanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates a military victory.  As a retired US Army chaplain, following 38 years of service, the holiday is especially meaningful as a celebration of the right to freedom of religious expression.  Judaism is not a pacifist tradition; we DO recognize a right, and some would say, an obligation, to self-defense.  The Psalmist (34:18) tells us to, “Seek peace and pursue it.”  Prayers for peace are part of every worship service.  And yet, we acknowledge the reality of evil and our role in fighting it.

         Part of the genius of Jewish tradition is how it can be re-interpreted and renewed in every generation.  In the Middle Ages, during times of intense persecution, the stories of martyrdom associated with Chanukkah brought solace to an oppressed people.  In our own culture, Chanukkah is a necessary counterpoint to the overwhelm of Christmas, and a reminder to treasure our freedom of religion, a gift that Jews never take for granted.   In the State of Israel, the spirit of the Maccabees is a time to celebrate the strength and courage needed for the tiny Jewish state to survive in a sea of adversaries, to celebrate the victory of the few against the many.   Israel was born out of the devastation of the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews, including 1 ½ million children, were murdered by the Nazi machine.  The contemporary State of Israel provides refuge for Jews fleeing persecution around the world, and stands as a steadfast reminder that “never again” will the Jewish people be defenseless or homeless.  Chanukkah is a small holiday with a big message.

  •  Months of Childbirth- Nine is for Nine Months of Childbirth and the Jewish Life-Cycle

          From birth to death and everywhere in between, the Jewish people have rich and full opportunities to commemorate every aspect of our lifecycle experiences.  Following the 9 months of pregnancy, the birth of a boy is celebrated with a ritual circumcision on his 8th day of life, while a girl will be welcomed with a naming ceremony held either in the synagogue or at home.  The childrens’ Hebrew names are announced at this time- it is customary that Jewish children have both an English name and also a Hebrew name that will be used in synagogue ceremonies.  Eastern European Jews typically name their children after deceased loved ones, while those of Spanish origin honor the names of living relatives.

         Bar or Bat Mitzvah takes place, traditionally, when a girl turns 12 or a boy turns 13, though it is the Reform custom to hold both ceremonies at age 13.  Bar/Bat Mitzvah means “son or daughter of the commandments,” and it symbolizes the child’s acceptance of responsibility for their own religious life.  By the age of 13, children are expected to know the difference between right and wrong and to have the self-discipline to choose to do what is right.

         We imagine that each individual has a good inclination and an evil inclination.  Our character is formed by the repeated choices we make of right or wrong.  Until the age of 13, it is the parents’ responsibility to guide their children.  Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the time when the child is considered to be an adult in the eyes of Jewish law, responsible for their own religious life and their own choices.

         You are probably familiar with much of the rich symbolism of the Jewish wedding from depictions in various media.  The wedding canopy, the exchange of rings, a written marriage contract expressing the commitment the couple are making to each other, and the breaking of a glass, all make Jewish weddings deeply meaningful celebrations.  And, sadly, when marriages end, there is a specific Jewish ceremony of divorce as well.

         Nowhere is the genius of Jewish tradition more evident than in matters surrounding death and dying.  Although it is not well-known, there IS a Jewish “death bed confession” which I have always found to be a profound opportunity to help both the person who is dying as well as the family, find peace at that difficult moment.  In ground burial is preferred, though more and more Jews ARE choosing to be cremated.

         In general, the burial takes place as soon as possible, followed by 7 intense days of mourning, during which friends are charged to visit with the family in their home and provide meals, prayer, and emotional support.  Graduated stages of 30 days, then 11 months, then an annual remembrance of the day of the death, help the mourner honor the memory of their loved one while re-integrating into the community.  Services are held in the synagogue 4 times a year during which we remember all who have passed away.

  1.  Community- Ten is for the Minyan and Jewish Community

Judaism is a faith tradition rooted in community.  The synagogue is known by 3 names- it is the house of prayer, it is the house of study, and it is the house of assembly.  It’s the place we get together to remind ourselves of our history and values, to educate ourselves and our children, to pray and to support each other in good times and bad, and to join together in our efforts to make the world a better place.   It is for this reason that our ancient teachers told us: Do not separate yourself from the community.  It is for this reason that our tradition establishes a minyan, a gathering of ten Jews, to symbolize communal support.  We need a minimum of 10 Jewish adults in order to hold a complete prayer service.  We may make each other crazy, yet, Jews understand the need to be responsible for each other wherever we may find ourselves.

The story is told of a young Hassid who complained to his rebbe that he was depressed. He feels alone, there is illness and a business setback in his family, and he is afraid that God doesn’t care about him. The man is sitting with the rebbe, his rabbi and teacher,  in front of the fireplace, and the fire is just about to go out. There are only scattered embers in the fireplace.  The rebbe takes the poker and stokes the embers into a heap. There is a burst of flame and new warmth emerges from the fire.  “You see?” the rebbe asks as he gently stokes the fire. “Do you see what happened when I gathered the embers closer together? The fire came back to life. But when the embers were scattered and separated from each other, they weakened  and  almost died out.  It’s the same with people, you know, the rebbe continued.  When we are alone and separated or disconnected from each other, our spirits are in danger of dying out. But when we huddle together, we receive warmth and comfort from one another, and our hope is renewed. ”  

I pray for all of you that you experience warmth and comfort from your beautiful community, and the restoration of hope in the year ahead.  Thank you so much for this blessed opportunity to be with you, and I am delighted to try to answer any questions that you may have.

Vayigash: “Being Right/Being Happy”

A couple of weeks ago, Ron and I were pondering a challenging situation, and he said something that I can’t stop thinking about.  His comment was-  “I don’t need to be right, I just want to be happy.”  Personally,  I so resist this wise perspective.  I DO need to be right- I want to stomp my feet and pound my fist and argue fiercely until you are CONVINCED that I am right, until you scream it from the rooftops.

         Okay, it’s hard for me to let things go.  And yet, I have to admit that, ironically, Ron IS right- in many cases, maybe even in most cases, the better part of valor is to just let it go.  When I counsel couples, I often advise them as follows:  When you have a disagreement, ask yourself, “How much does this matter to me?  How much does it matter to my partner?”  If your level of caring is a 3 and theirs is an 8, let it go.  Save your energy for engagement for those moments where you both care about something passionately, and even then, consider the question, “How much will this matter in 5 years?”  Perhaps you can, after all, let it go.

         I think about the story Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to tell about the poor peasant schlepping along the road with his heavy pack.  Along comes a nobleman who invites the peasant to ride in his carriage.  The poor man gratefully steps into the carriage, still holding his heavy bag on his shoulder. He can’t, or won’t, let it go. The nobleman suggests, “You’re riding in the carriage anyway, why don’t you put down your pack?”  “It’s enough,” the peasant replies, “that you’re carrying me.  Why should you carry my pack as well?”  The tale is a metaphor for our relationship with God.  If we’re already in the carriage, that is, the world, why do we carry our burdens with us?  Why not put them down and let God give us a ride? 

         It’s hard to let go.  It’s hard to let go of all of the cares and troubles and concerns and rationalizations that we carry with us.  Somehow we think that we are so important, that our cares and our perspectives are so vital, that we can’t possibly put them down.  As we enter a new year, it occurs to me that this is a good time to reflect on what we are carrying into the year ahead, and what, perhaps, we might be able to let go?  The year 2020 invites us to think about putting everything that we are carrying into sharper focus.  What is our vision for the year ahead and how can we lighten our load with an eye towards greater happiness?

         In this week’s parshah, Vayigash, Joseph is, finally, reunited with the brothers who wanted to kill him and who sold him into slavery.  Joseph, clearly, had a lot of anger he might have carried.  He easily could have stomped his feet and banged his fist and hit them over the head with his own righteousness and their grievous error.  Joseph does none of that.  Instead, as he reveals his true identity, he cries with relief and with joy, “I am Joseph; does my father yet live?”  (Genesis 45:2)  Joseph doesn’t need to be right, he just wants to be happy.  He puts down the heavy burden of his anger and resentment and righteous indignation  and embraces his brothers. 

         As we enter the year 2020, can we all shift our perspective on what is truly important and reflect deeply on what we actually need to carry with us and what we might be able to let go?  Do we need to be right in every instance?  Perhaps we just be happy?

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