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

 

Terumah- Where Does God Dwell?

 

 

Have you ever built or remodeled your home? It is rarely a fun or pleasant experience and there are SO many details to keep track of, and, SO many decisions to be made. Well, God takes care of that for us in this week’s Torah portion, where we read of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. Verse after verse, page after page, chapter after chapter- detail after detail of EXACTLY how God wants the Mishkan to be built. Precise instructions for every aspect of the project- the materials, the size, the design. Absolutely no room is allowed for creativity or vision; everything is spelled out.

Parshat Terumah describes the first Jewish gathering place ever built. Every person is invited to participate, but only as their heart moves them. A holy place for a holy people can only be built by volunteers. The Torah is not averse to taxes, but the word terumah itself means a gift, something we give because we feel moved to give.

In chapter 25, verse 8, we read God’s words, “Let them build Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” This is surprising. We would expect the Torah to say, “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell IN IT?”  All of this time and effort and expense to build God a home, and God is not even going to live there? What’s the point of that? Not even as a winter visitor?

The point, I believe, is that the spirit of God, the spirit of holiness, cannot and should not be contained in a particular place. The spirit of God resides in the very act of giving itself, in our desire to create a place for community. What God wants is for us to be moved to give. Despite the tremendous emphasis on the details of the construction, it is the gift of our participation that is ultimately the most meaningful. Your presence here tonight is so meaningful- without you we could have the most beautiful sanctuary in the world and it would be an empty shell.

The verse says, “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham,” “Let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” How fascinating that the word “to dwell”- “v’Shachanti”- is the same as the root of the word “shachen,” meaning “neighbor.” One more hint at the connection of the Divine spirit dwelling in our relationships and in how we give to each other! The way that we connect with God is to connect with each other- we are God’s hands and God’s heart, we fulfill our Divine destiny by giving of ourselves to build relationships and community.

The ark was to be adorned with the figures of cherubs, and they were to be constructed in such a way that they faced each other. Our place of worship is not a place where we withdraw from the world. It is a place where we are reminded of our responsibility to the world. That is why halacha, Jewish law, requires that a synagogue be built with windows, so that we never forget that what goes on in here must resonate in the world out there.

“Where does God dwell?”, asked Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. “God dwells,” he answered, “wherever we let God in.” You’ll notice on the front cover of your Shabbat bulletin the Hebrew word, “v’natnu,” “and they shall give.” You will notice that it is a palindrome, that is, it appears the same whether you read it from left to right, or, from right to left.

Thus, we learn, that when we give, we receive back, and as we receive, so we are moved to give. When we give to others, we come to appreciate our own blessings. As we give, we appreciate that life itself is a gift. Thank you for the gift of your most precious selves as part of our congregation, for your presence and your voices, for your love and caring in our community and in the world.

As we build a sanctuary, we are reminded to bring our best possible selves as our gift to the community, and that, as we do so, the spirit of God will, indeed, dwell in our midst.

Shabbat Shekalim and Giving

 

 

Since Ron proposed to me on May 8, 2016, Shabbat Shekalim will never be the same to me again. Tonight we usher in a special Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim, as we read in the book of Exodus that every adult (male in the Torah) was to give a half shekel to sustain the religious life of the community. The Torah specifies that “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less” (Exodus 30:15)- each person was to give the same half shekel. This portion is read every year on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar, the month of Purim. Adar begins next Thursday night and Friday, and the rabbis say that when Adar enters, happiness increases- may it be so in each of our lives.

In essence, Shabbat Shekalim serves as a reminder that taxes will be due soon, yet its meaning is so much deeper. Here is a half shekel. (show coin)   Ron and I had hiked to the top of a hill in the mountain preserve, and we sat for a while enjoying the view. Out of nowhere and totally by surprise, he slid down onto one knee, pulled this coin out of his pocket, and began talking about how he had brought the half shekel home from a trip to Israel, in hopes of finding his other half. I was so shocked that I didn’t grasp what he was saying, but eventually it became clear that he was asking for my hand in marriage. I said yes, of course, and here we are.

The half shekel is a reminder of how much we all need each other, how much we need to be in community, and how each of us has something to offer, whoever we are, rich or poor. None of us is complete on our own, we are all imperfect, yet, with each of our contributions, the community is complete. We are all on the receiving end and the giving end at different times in our lives, we are each half a shekel and together we become whole.

Recognizing our interconnection, we understand the need to give. The half shekel represents sharing our physical resources. Generosity is a fundamental middah, a soul-trait, and it is one that we cultivate through our generous giving. Personally, I can have a tendency to be less than generous, and I know that I struggle with fear of scarcity, concern that if I give to individuals or to organizations that I support, that I will not have enough for my own needs. Our tradition assures us that no one will go broke from giving tzedakah. Maimonides encourages us that we acquire the quality of being generous through repeated acts of giving, that the person who gives 100 coins to 100 people will become more generous than the person who gives 100 coins all at once. We need to constantly reinforce the quality of generosity. So, when we were coming home from NY on Wednesday, I held my tongue when Ron gave the driver $50. for a $38. drive to the airport. I know I need to practice generosity at every opportunity! As Jews, I think we need to be especially sensitive to stereotypes that portray Jewish people as less than generous. We can counter these stereotypes by our gracious giving.

We can give of ourselves beyond tzedakah. When we rejoice at a wedding or sit with the bereaved, we are giving generously of our time. When we share our wisdom and experience we are giving generously to support the growth of others. All of these are acts of generosity.

The story is told of[Rabbi Elijah (Elya) Chaim Meisel of Lodz, who, during an exceptionally cold winter, went to a rich citizen to ask for funds for firewood to heat the homes of the poor. The rabbi knocked, and the wealthy man came to the door in his evening jacket. Honored by the appearance of the distinguished rabbi, he invited him into the house. Rabbi Elya Chaim responded that since he would be staying just a minute there was no need to go inside. He then engaged the man in conversation, asking in great detail about each family member. Out of respect for the rabbi, the man answered all his questions, but by now his teeth were chattering. Still the rabbi refused to enter. Finally, the man said, “Rabbi, why did you come here? What is it that you want?”

“I need money to buy wood for the poor. They are suffering greatly from the cold.” The shivering man promised to give a hundred rubles, a huge sum, whereupon the rabbi entered his house and sat down in the living room in front of a warm fireplace. The man brought the rabbi a glass of tea and they sat and spoke. Finally, unable to restrain himself, the man said to Rabbi Elya Chaim: “Why didn’t you just come in right away, and ask for the donation? You know I wouldn’t refuse you.”

The rabbi answered: “Standing outside in the cold, you started to shiver, and when I told you how cold the poor were, you felt in your own bones the truth of my words. That’s why you gave a hundred rubles. But had you and I sat together in comfortable chairs in front of a warm fireplace, drinking hot tea, and I had spoken to you of the sufferings of the poor, you wouldn’t have felt it in the same way, and would have contented yourself with a ten-ruble contribution.

Generosity begins when we recognize that we are all connected; it begins with the half-shekel.

 

Flip Phones and Parshat Bo

Were you as shocked as I was to read that flip phones, aka dumb phones, are making a comeback? Social commentators suggest that it’s about a retro cool factor, or, driven by the increasing cost of smart phones, or, perhaps, concerns for greater security. But I wonder if it may be something subtler and deeper? I wonder if there is an emerging rebellion against our technology dependent, technology addicted, lifestyle? Look around any restaurant, anywhere where people gather. Everyone is looking down at their phones. If they are interacting with each other at all, it is to show each other texts and images on those phones. Incredibly and counter-intuitively, smart phone sales are stalling while flip phone sales are gaining, yet on some level comprehensible.

“. . . a flip phone may be a new sign of cool. James Gardner, with digital experience agency Connective DX in Boston, said there’s a phenomenon he called “reverse status signaling.” In conventional status signaling we flaunt our wealth via brands like Louis Vuitton and BMW. But in reverse status signaling we “turn this on its ear. It typically but not always happens in once-prestigious categories that have lost their exclusivity and gone mainstream,” (says) Gardner.

“Smartphones were once scarce and accessible only to the elite,” Gardner notes. “Now, they’re mainstream and have become, not a signal of power, but instead a sign that you’re a corporate drone who’s tethered to their job and email 24×7. Reverting to a flip phone—or NO phone at all—subtly tells the world that you report to nobody. You are the boss.”[1]

You are the boss. In this week’s parsha, the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt after 430 years. The essence of slavery is that someone else controls our time. The essence of freedom is that we get to decide how we choose to spend our time. The first thing the Israelites do in Exodus 13 is to establish the holiday of Passover, a reminder of what it means to be a slave, what it means to be free, and a reminder that we are in control of our own calendar. For many of us, we are voluntarily accepting a new kind of servitude, servitude to the pinging sound of another email, another text message, another Instagram or Facebook notification. Ping! Ping! Ping!

When even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledges the dark side of social media, when he is quoted as saying that his personal challenge for 2018 is to fix Facebook, “. . .protecting our community from abuse and hate. . . making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent,”[2] we know that we can hope that we are on the cutting edge of a renewed sense of reflection on how we spend the precious time with which we are blessed. Will we be subservient to the incessant and insistent demand of our phones, or will we take control of when and how we engage with social media?

Last week Ron was driving and looking at his phone. Doing a mitzvah- studying his GPS to find directions to a shivah minyan. A noble cause. Ron acknowledges that he was distracted and swerving a bit. At the next light, a car pulled up to him and the driver, firmly but without hostility, asked him to please put the phone away. He proceeded to explain that he had lost his beloved wife in a car accident caused by a driver who was driving and texting. Now, the other driver has made it his mission in life to discourage this dangerous practice at every opportunity. Ron really took it to heart and felt that this man saved his life. Ron has now adopted as his cause to share this story in hopes that others will embrace this radical notion that it can wait; it can all wait.

We all spend too much time tethered to our phones. As we read this week of the Exodus from slavery to freedom, perhaps we can look within and reflect on how enslaved we are to social media and technology. Do you think you can get through the rest of this service without looking at your phone? What about the rest of this evening? What about the rest of Shabbat? Or, perhaps, maybe what you really need is just a good, old-fashioned flip phone?????

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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