Oct 08 2017

Sukkot and Hurricanes

Sukkot and Hurricanes

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

 

The year my friend Toby was dying of lung cancer, she told me that she did not want to say the Unetaneh Tokef prayer.  She said that she was living every day that message of Who shall live and who shall die?  Who in their time and who before their time? She just didn’t think she needed to pray those words. I totally understood where she was coming from and gave her my rabbinic authorization, for whatever that was worth, to be excused from Unetaneh Tokef.  Toby did not make it to the next high holidays.

I kind of feel that way this year about Sukkot in certain parts of the world.  For most of us, Sukkot is a fun time to be outdoors, to huddle in our very fragile, transient, temporary shelters and experience, for just a moment, what it might be like to simplify our lives and live in the most basic of shelters.  After Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria, homelessness is all too real for all too many.  For too many people, their home has become their sukkah.  It feels ridiculous, almost sacrilegious, to imagine a sukkah sitting outside a home that has been devastated by hurricane storms.  Not that they’ve asked me, but I’m giving a pass on Sukkot to the Jewish communities in Houston, Miami, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Cuba, and everywhere else that has been impacted.  Who by water, indeed. . . Unetaneh tokef is always powerful; this year it is entirely too real.

We read in Leviticus 23:42-43, “You shall dwell in booths seven days; all members of Israel shall dwell in booths; So that you may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt:  I am Adonai your God.”

The Menorat HaMaor teaches us that,  “The Sukkah is designed to warn us that we ought not to put our trust in the size or strength or beauty of our homes, though they be filled with all precious things. . . but, rather, we should put our trust in God who called the universe into being.”  Through our observance of Sukkot we get a taste of what it would be like not to have a home. Whether we are hot or cold in the sukkah is not the issue.  The point is that we are not in a climate controlled physical setting where we are disconnected from the weather outside.

Just as our Sukkot are open to the world, so must we not return to our homes, closed off from the needs of others.  We must continue to be open to others.  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

May we be inspired through our symbolic homelessness to renew our commitment to work for a time when no one will be compelled to live outdoors for lack of a home. We at Temple Chai have the opportunity to participate in supporting Family Promise as we open the doors of our synagogue to homeless families.  And we are especially proud of those who will journey to Houston with Cantor Wolman to be our hands and our hearts, voices of love and caring to those who are rebuilding after the devastation.

Sukkot is a holiday of universalism- in ancient ritual we offered prayers for each of the 70 nations of the world.   It is not enough to pray for peace for ourselves alone. Our celebration is incomplete if we do not include prayers for peace for our troubled world.  Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote of,  “The sukkah as the symbol of protest against the injustices and inequities of current civilization, and the need for upholding standards of righteousness which our civilization should seek to achieve.”

As the holiday of Sukkot draws to a close, we will offer public prayers for rain. We implore God- Hoshanna- Save us!  Don’t hold back the life-giving waters.  This year, these prayers take on new meaning.  “For blessing and not for curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for scarcity.”

I’ll conclude with the beautiful prayer “For Rain” written by Alden Solovy- you can find it in your Shabbat bulletin.

For Rain- Alden Solovy

Source of life and blessings,

The rains come in their season

To feed the land, the crops, the gardens.

The earth abundant, food plentiful, gardens lush.

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

Sometimes too much,

Sometimes too little,

Sometimes not at all.

 

Fountain of blessing,

Remember us with life,

With beauty,

With prosperity and bounty.

Remember us with the gift of rain,

The gifts of earth and sky,

Blessings upon the land,

Each in its time,

Each in its season,

Each in its proper measure.

 

 

Sep 24 2017

On Humility

On Humility

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Erev Rosh HaShanah 2017

 

My husband Ron has introduced me to the joy of mountain biking.  We have a beautiful, regular route at Brown’s Ranch, just challenging enough and still fun.  Except, that is, for the first 90 seconds.  You’ve barely had time to process the fact that you’re off road, on a bike, adjusting to pedaling and shifting, and suddenly there’s a turn.  A narrow turn.  Between two rocks.  Going uphill.

I’ve probably attempted this climb 50 times.  I have successfully transited this spot and remained on the bike about 5 times.  Let me tell you, mountain biking is a humbling experience.

As we enter into this High Holiday season, humility is at the forefront of our spiritual agenda.  Our culture is plagued with examples of extreme arrogance.  Our own spiritual accounting and humble consideration of our own shortcomings is the antidote to the pervasive temptation of arrogance.  Jewish teaching emphasizes humility as the foundation of character.  As we assess the ways in which we would hope to grow, humility is really the only appropriate response.

One of the great things about this particular mountain bike trail is that it is less rocky than others.  But that doesn’t mean that there are no rocks.  There is no such thing as a path through the mountains, or through life, for that matter, that does not contain rocks.  The only question each of us faces is how we will traverse the rocks we encounter.  If we’re lucky, we can glide over them, experience a little bumpiness, and keep going.  As we look within and set goals for our own character development, it is inevitable that the path will not be completely smooth.  And that’s okay.

Sometimes there are so many rocks that you just can’t get over them.  If you’re an experienced rider like Ron, you might be comfortable continuing to ride.  If you’re a novice as I am, it is a sign of both wisdom and humility to dismount and walk until I reach smoother ground.  Knowing what you CAN do and what you CAN’T do, knowing what you know and admitting what you don’t know, this is what it means to be humble.

It has been humbling for me to be in the role of a rank beginner.  Most of my life is spent in an arena where I am the teacher and others are the students, where I am the subject matter expert.  Humility requires taking a step back so that I can listen and learn.  And, it requires Ron to step forward and be in that leadership role- which he does, by the way, with kindness and expertise.  It is not arrogance for a leader to lead.

Listening to others is a vital part of humility.  The sages say that Hillel’s opinions prevailed over those of his rival, Shammai, because Hillel and his students were willing to humbly study points of view with which they disagreed.  “Who is wise?,” ask the sages.  “The person who learns from everyone.”  Perhaps as an exercise during these Aseret Y’May Teshuvah, these 10 Days of Repentance, you can make it a practice to identify one positive trait you see in each person that you encounter, one area in which their level exceeds yours.  This will not only inculcate humility, it will inspire you to grow spiritually.

Mountain biking has brought new meaning to the expression- don’t get in a rut.  I always thought that a rut meant the boredom of a tedious routine. After some serious rain, I encountered serious ruts on the trail.   I discovered that trying to ride in a rut is frightening.  The narrow confines of that rut are a harrowing place.  The High Holidays are a good time to reflect on our lives and where we may find ourselves in a rut.  Getting out of a rut may not be easy, yet, surprisingly, it may also lead us to a smoother ride.

We are blessed to live among glorious mountains.  When we reach the summit, the views uplift our souls.  However, there is only one way to reach those heights, and that is to climb.  Ascending from the base of a steep incline requires fortitude, perseverance, strength, and, the right gear.  When we reflect on the year that is drawing to a close and contemplate the inevitable challenges of the year ahead, we want to engage all the support we can, from family, from community, from our own innate gifts, so that we can make it up the hill and revel in the view.

The mountain biker who is traveling up the hill has the unspoken right of way.   We recognize that going uphill is not easy, so we yield to support them in their climb.  We humbly recognize that we can’t do it alone- we need each other.  I am so grateful when another rider sees me struggling up a hill, and they politely and patiently wait at the top for me to pass, sometimes even adding a word of encouragement.

When I was first  learning the art of mountain biking, I crossed paths with a woman on the trail who said, “We all start somewhere.”  Humbling and touching and a beautiful reminder of the tremendous impact we can have just by reaching out to each other with a kind word.

Passing other riders on the trail is a unique challenge.  Mussar, the study of Jewish ethics of character development defines humility as occupying, “No more than my place, no less than my space.”  Mussar is a centuries’ old practice of introspection that focuses on the individual soul curriculum as it relates to various traits such as gratitude, patience, equanimity, generosity, trust, and others.  If you are intrigued by Mussar, by the way, consider registering for our fall class, “Seeking Everyday Holiness.”

As I understand humility from a Mussar perspective, humility means that we should be sensitive to those around us and make sure that each person receives the appropriate measure of attention and focus in a group situation.   Do you know someone who seems to take over a room when they enter? Who dominates the conversation?  Who can’t seem to listen to others and who always has a personal anecdote in every situation?   That is not the way of humility, of anavah.  When a mountain biker passes me at breakneck speed, in my mind they are taking up more than their place.  Arrogance, not humility.

No less than my space.  Humility does not equal low self-esteem.  It is important to be conscious of our own strengths.  We will need them in order to overcome our weaknesses!  Lack of awareness of our capabilities leads to inaction and missed opportunities.  We each have something to contribute to the common good, we each have the capability of growing. That’s what these High Holy Days are all about.

Humility DOES mean recognizing that our talents are gifts from God.  As Alan Morinis,founding director of the Mussar Institute, expresses it, “. . .being humble doesn’t mean being a nobody, it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.”

Humility means seeing our gifts as blessings and using them in service to others.  Moses was known as the most humble man who ever lived.  How can that be?  The man we know as the greatest leader and prophet of all time?  Moses closeness to God ensured that he was constantly aware of his own limitations, as we should be, especially at this High Holiday season.  We read in the Orchot Tzaddikim, The Ways of the Righteous, that “All of the good things I do are but a drop in the ocean in comparison to what I ought to do.”

Humility means recognizing others for their strengths and talents.  Bachya ibn Pakuda famously taught that he never met a person in whom he didn’t find at least one quality in which that person was superior. “If he was wiser that I was, I would say, ‘Because of his superior wisdom, he must revere God more than I do.’ And if he was inferior to me in wisdom, I would say, ‘On the Day of Judgment, he will be held less accountable than I will, because my transgressions were committed with knowledge and intent, while his were committed unwittingly.’ If he was older than I was, I would say, ‘His merits must exceed mine, since he came into the world before me.’ If he was younger, I would say, ‘His demerits are fewer than mine.’”

Take a moment now to think about any negative feelings about others that you might be about to carry into the new year.  Imagine that individual standing in front of you?  Pirke Avot teaches us that the wise person is the one who learns from everyone.  What can you learn from this person, as challenging as they may be?

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes the question of an 18th century rabbi, who wonders—if humility is so important, why isn’t it one of the 613 commandments?  Good question, right?  Well- try to imagine someone saying a blessing along the lines of, “Behold, I am about to fulfill the mitzvah of being humble.”  It’s like a catch 22.  Rabbi Telushkin’s grandfather was a rabbi who observed a prominent person in the congregation who would intentionally take a humble seat in the rear of the synagogue and then furtively look around to see if others noticed his humility.  Rabbi Telushkin the grandfather approached this prominent person as follows, “It would be better for you to sit in the front of the synagogue and think you should be sitting in the back, than to sit in the back of the synagogue and think you should be sitting in the front.”

Humility is especially important for those in leadership roles.  Thus, the cantor entered this evening’s service with the Hineni prayer, confessing his unworthiness and asking God’s help as he prepares to lead the congregation. “Here I am. So poor in deeds I tremble in fear, overwhelmed and apprehensive. . . Although unworthy, I rise to pray and seek Your favor for Your people Israel.”[1]

So many obstacles on the mountain biking trail- deep sand that causes our wheels to sink in place, impeding any forward movement.  Precarious turns where we think we are moving in one direction and suddenly have to shift.  Will I have enough water and what if there is a mechanical problem?  Can I let go and trust the equipment to carry me safely home?  Sometimes the only thing to do is come to a complete halt- like when there is a rattlesnake lounging across the path in front of you.  Perhaps the High Holidays are the time when we come to a complete halt and give ourselves the luxury of a period of time to contemplate where we are and where we are going.

And then, there are the glorious moments!  The weather is perfect, the trail is smooth and glides over rolling hills, the views are spectacular and the desert is alive in all its glory.  As we enter the  year 5778, I wish you all of these blessings, and the humility to keep pedaling even when life is less than perfect.  May those times be few and far between.

 

[1] Mishkan Hanefesh, NY:  CCAR Press, 2015, p. 17

Sep 03 2017

Justice For All

Liberty and Justice For All- Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

It’s okay, in the eyes of Jewish tradition, to tell a lie. A little white lie for the sake of shalom- to maintain harmony in our relationships. “Look what I bought today- I got such a great price!” So what if you don’t love it- say something nice. “It’s lovely!” How do I know when it’s okay to say less than the truth? Dr. David Nyberg offers the perfect guidance- “Be untruthful to others as you would have others be untruthful to you.”

When is it NEVER okay to lie? In court. “Do not bear false witness” made it into the 10 commandments- it’s number 9. Why might that be? Because the administration of justice is a fundamental aspect of a functioning society. Being part of a community requires sacrifice on the part of the individual. Each of us gives up a little bit of our own autonomy to support the greater good. People who do not feel that their community operates on standards of justice and fairness become unwilling to sacrifice as the price of citizenship. Corruption in government is one of the first signs of a failing state. If there is not confidence that the law will be enforced in a just and equitable manner, people rapidly lose confidence and chaos can ensue.

Last week’s Torah portion began with the commandment, “Shoftim v’shotrim titen l’cha b’chol sh’a’recha- you must have judges and law enforcement everywhere that you dwell. . . and they must judge the people according to mishpat tzedek- the standard of righteousness, by a just law.” The text continues with the admonition not to judge unfairly and to be completely impartial, and concludes with the ringing cry, “Justice, justice shall you pursue- tzedek, tzedek tirdof.” (Deuteronomy 16:18- 20) Why is the word tzedek- justice- repeated? Some suggest- justice in the means, justice in the ends.

Or, it could refer to the fundamental importance of liberty and justice for all. The one mitzvah repeated more than any other in the Torah is the mandate for one law for the native and the stranger. Thirty-six times the Torah demands that equal justice for every member of society is non-negotiable. There can be no discrimination in how the law is applied. Every single person is formed in the image of God and Perhaps the word justice is repeated to emphasize its importance? Perhaps it is simply to encourage us to know that it is possible and a worthy goal?

Judaism is founded and sustained on a passion for justice. In the book of Genesis, chapter 12, God reaches out to appoint Avram, calling on him to be a blessing in the world. Six chapters later, Avram demonstrates how to be a blessing, crying out to God, “Shall not the judge of all the world deal justly?” Because of our history, we as Jews are especially sensitive to what it means to be the outsider and the vital call to be the voice of the disenfranchised. Shimon Peres famously suggested that the greatest gift of the Jewish people to the world was “dissatisfaction.” Our tradition demands that we recognize injustice, that we name it, that we work to bring about solutions when we become aware of injustice.

The prophet Micah asks, “What is it that God desires from us? To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”- (Micah 6:8) To do justice is God’s very first requirement.

The Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, are upon us. The holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur, also known as Yom ha-Din, the Day of Judgment, of accountability. As we imagine ourselves standing before the heavenly court, we are reminded of the fundamental importance of courts of law and standards of justice that are applied equally and impartially to every single member of our community. At this holy season and on this Yom ha-Din especially, we pray, in the words of the prophet Amos, that “Justice roll on like an ever flowing river, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Aug 18 2017

On the Reality and Power of Evil

On the Reality and Power of Evil- Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

In her novel The Wonder Worker, Susan Howatch warns us of a fact of life which we would all much rather ignore, as she writes, “Evil exists. Those who forget that fact or ignore it or reject it are at best taking a big risk and at worst conniving at their own destruction.” We as a society are collectively taking this risk and consequently experiencing the breakdown of our standards and norms. The High Holidays are the antidote for this denial of the reality of evil. Once a year, we set aside a time on which we not only acknowledge but dwell with our own yetzer ha-ra, our inclination towards evil. This period culminates with Yom Kippur. On 364 days of the year we may pretend that we’re basically good people and that that’s all that matters. On this one day we admit the enormity of the temptation to do wrong in our lives and our weakness to resist. The tendency of the human heart, we read in Genesis, is towards evil from our youth. While we do not believe in original sin, we also do not believe in original goodness.   Speaking of the yetzer ha-ra, the inclination towards evil, the Hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzkhak of Berditschev taught, “Make peace with your yetzer ha-ra and put it to use for the good of the world.”

Not only is the self-flagellation of Yom Kippur not an unhealthy thing, it is precisely the prescription we need to raise ourselves up to live lives of holiness and humility in the year ahead. The first step in the process of teshuva is acknowledging that we have done wrong.

The Prophet Isaiah once made this dramatic statement (45:7): ‘Thus said Adonai. . .I am the shaper of light and the creator of darkness; the maker of peace and the creator of evil.’ God as the author of evil? That last clause disturbed the Rabbis as much as it disturbs us. So much so that the Sages changed it when they quoted it in the morning blessing: ‘Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the universe, shaper of light and creator of darkness; maker of peace and creator of all.’ “Evil” in the original text becomes “all” in the rabbinic version.

The Zoroastrians of old conceived a dualistic world in which there were two separate powers which co-existed- a God of light and a God of darkness. They had no problem explaining the existence of evil in the universe- it is simply the result of the struggle between these two forces. Our monotheistic tradition resolved the conflict in a way we moderns find terribly difficult to comprehend- God is, indeed, the source of both light and darkness. It is for this reason that the rabbis wisely created a blessing for hearing bad news, acknowledging the reality that suffering, too, has its source in God’s design- it is built into the universe as a result of our physical being and our freedom of choice.

We speak of God as Elohim- the God of nature, and as Adonai- the source of morality. And we acknowledge that God is One, that the Holy One combines these two aspects of being. We who are formed in the image of God must also wrestle with these two tendencies within our own souls.

Acknowledging the force of the yetzer ha-ra, the rabbis understand it as a potentially useful phenomenon. This is also difficult to understand. Wouldn’t we be better off if we were programmed to do only good? If there were no possibility of evil and no suffering due to the choices people make? No, they claim, for, were it not for the yetzer ha-ra, people would not build homes, marry, bear children or engage in business. Pure and beautiful things, we learn, can be created even from motives which are less than honorable, and so we are urged to worship God with our yetzer ha-ra, our evil inclination, as much as with our yetzer ha-tov, our good inclination. . “If everything comes from God”, taught Rabbi Yehuda, “then everything contains a spark of goodness- even the yetzer ha-ra.”[1]

So, in its wisdom, the tradition does not pray for the extinction of the yetzer ha-ra, but for its sublimation in the service of the holy. The Talmud depicts the evil inclination as a young, fiery lion emerging from the Holy of Holies. It is seized and imprisoned by the sages for three days. But, during this time, they looked unsuccessfully throughout the country for one fresh egg, and couldn’t find it.[2] They reluctantly acknowledged that the libido, the life force, was necessary for civilization. They prayed, then, for “half mercy”. “Let the libido of the evil temptation be preserved, but let it be limited to lawful acts. Let lust exist, but let it be limited to one’s spouse. Let competition prevail, but let it be limited to legitimate businesses.”[3] This prayer, too, went unanswered- we must take responsibility for our own choices in this world, applauding noble and worthy actions and descrying wrong and evil decisions. Would it be better if humanity were programmed to only do good? If the consequences of our material nature were only positive? Perhaps. But that’s not the way it is, and some have even suggested that God ought to have a Divine Day of Atonement to ask us for our forgiveness for setting the world up in this way.

In his article on “Contemplating the Reality of Evil”, William Strongin suggests that evil does not stem merely from ignorance or want, that it is a vital power within every human, without which we could not exist. Yes, it is a violent force that seeks to destroy yes, yet it is simultaneously the power that causes us to grow and change and evolve.[4]

In other words, it is out there, it is real, and it is, increasingly, coming to a neighborhood near you! While the power of the yetzer ha-ra can be harnessed for good, without a sense of discipline and values, it can and does cause phenomenal destruction and pain. One need only turn on the news or pick up a newspaper to see tragic examples of the yetzer ha-ra untamed.

We need to confront this terrible truth without flinching.   The place to begin is within our own hearts and the time is now. As we chant the Viddui and the Al Kheyt in the coming days, we must recognize on the deepest level the wrongs of which we are all too capable. It’s not about ignorance out there. It’s not about social forces, economic circumstances, parents, schools, the media, violence, racism. It’s about the potential within each of us for which we must take responsibility.

Leonard Cohen wrote a powerful poem, “All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann” in which he graphically portrays what Hannah Arendt dubbed, “the banality of evil”.

All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann

EYES:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Medium

HAIR:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Medium

WEIGHT:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Medium

HEIGHT:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Medium

DISTINGUISHING FEATURES:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . None
NUMBER OF FINGERS:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Ten

NUMBER OF TOES:. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . Ten

INTELLIGENCE. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Medium

 

What did you expect?

Talons?

Oversize incisors?

Green saliva?

 

Madness?

We would like the Adolph Eichmanns of the world to have talons, oversize incisors, green saliva. How comforting it would be to be able to recognize evil clearly and definitively, and to see it as something different and apart from our own lives. The fact that evil doers are indistinguishable is infinitely more threatening.

The story of civilization consists of our strategies for subduing the expression of evil. The way of Torah and mitzvot is our Jewish way to tame the beast within. From a Jewish perspective, writes Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, “the struggle for virtue is itself a virtue.”[5] “Proper upbringing causes us to internalize these strategies, making them nearly instantaneous and automatic. We thus have so many ongoing successes in this redemption of natural Evil that we are prone to forget that every moment we are fighting the good fight. To forget is dangerous. Evil is relentless. It is of primary importance that we remember that every act of virtue is a triumph over Evil, and that Evil seeks to find the one act we cannot redeem. Being wary at least prevents the attack from being an ambush.”[6] “Those who flee temptation”, it has wryly been noted, “generally leave a forwarding address.”[7]

And how long must we struggle with our own yetzer ha-ra. Forever. The good news is that the more we choose to do good, the more it becomes part of our fundamental character. As we build our physical muscles through exercise, so we can build our yetzer ha-tov, our inclination towards good, our moral nature, through our acts of righteousness.

Charlotte Bronte’s powerful depiction of this struggle bears repeating, as she writes in Jane Eyre, “Laws and principles are not for times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual conscience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth- so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane- quite insane, with my veins running fire and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by; there I plant my foot.”[8]

What she refers to as preconceived opinions and foregone determinations, we understand as the path of mitzvot and the moral legacy of our tradition. We must learn and embrace and reinforce these teachings on a daily basis, if we are to have the fortitude to withstand the temptation of evil. When the moment comes to make the most difficult decision, we may not have time to debate the options. We will need to rely on the strong virtuous instinct we have worked to develop.

“We are commanded not merely to refrain from evil acts, but to hate Evil. To hate it. Many would like to flinch, to obscure the meaning of this commandment and whitewash the term ‘hate.’ But it is our destiny to be empowered by Evil, which we must hate. Does this mean we must hate our innermost selves? Of course not. It means that we must violently grab our own life-force and twist it into a godly direction.”[9]

“Ohavei Adonai sinu ra”- what does it mean to love God, the Psalmist asks? It means to hate evil. In the final parshiot of Deuteronomy, we see many times repeated the phrase, “u-viarta ha-ra- mi-kirbekha- you should remove, you should burn out the evil from within your midst.” Evil must become intolerable to each of us as individuals and to all of us as a community.

When we say that we are created in the image of God, it does not mean that we are innately good; it means that the essence of what it is to be human is to understand the distinction between good and evil. It means that we are blessed and cursed with the ability to know right from wrong, and ennobled by the challenge to choose the right. The most important battle we must each fight is the battle with our own nature. The Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, are the time we are held accountable for how well we are doing.

Our biggest problem in life is overcoming our natural tendency toward evil. It is not a new problem. “Surely, if you do right,” God tells Cain in the Garden of Eden, “There is uplift. But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.” (Genesis 4:7)

Let us use these Aseret Y’may Teshuva, these Ten Days of Repentance, to confront our own evil and acknowledge the wrong we’ve done. George Eliot wrote that “we prepare ourselves for sudden deeds by the reiterated choice of good or evil that gradually determines character.”[10] We must examine the choices we are making, and humbly atone for the wrong that we have done. We commit ourselves to the notion that there are eternal values, there is good and there is evil and we are called upon to embrace the highest moral standards. No, it is not easy. It is an immense challenge, and it is a challenge to us every single day throughout our lives. May the time we spend in the synagogue at this holiest season of the year, and the strength and support of our congregation, inspire us and give us courage to choose the right as individuals and as a community in the year ahead.

 

 

 

 

[1] Quoted in Salkin, Jeffrey, “How Can We Take the Evil Within and Make of It a Ladder That Can Uplift Us?”, Reform Judaism, Summer 1999, p. 22

[2] BT Yoma 69b

[3] Schulweis, Harold, For Those Who Can’t Believe, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994, p. 122

[4] Strongin, William, “Contemplating the Nature of Evil”, Reconstructionism Today, Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 9

[5] Salkin, op. cit., p. 21

  1. Strongin, op. cit.., p. 10

[7] Lane Olinghouse

[8] Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre

[9] ibid.

[10] Eliot, George, Romola, p. 231

Apr 05 2017

My Grandson, The Angel

Every grandparent thinks that their grandchild is an angel. My new grandson, Michael David, who is 10 days and 30 minutes old, actually IS an angel.  Or, at least, he is named for one!  People are sometimes surprised to learn that there ARE angels in Jewish tradition.  The Torah speaks of “malachim”- messengers- and you can probably think of a number of stories where they appear.  Michael is named for Tim’s beloved father who died when Tim was only 21- may his memory be for blessing.

Tradition tells us that it was the angel Michael, who informed Abraham that his nephew Lot has been taken captive.  It was the angel Michael who protected Sarah when she was taken into the harem of Avimelech.  It was the angel Michael who stayed Abraham’s hand when he was about to sacrifice Isaac, who prevented Lavan from harming Jacob, who wrestled with the patriarch[1], and it was Michael who told Abraham of the impending birth of his longed for son, Isaac.  What an angel!

In Jewish literature, Michael is actually the commander-in-chief of the entire angelic host.  He is one of the archangels! A leader!  Michael is one of only two messengers named in the Tanach, in the Hebrew Bible.  The other is the angel Gabriel.  Both are mentioned in the Book of Daniel.  Gabriel, as his name implies, gibbor- strong- is associated with the sense of justice, and is often tasked with administering punishment on God’s behalf.  Michael translates at “Me-cha-el,”- who is like God, or, God-like.  Okay, I’ll say that my grandson is an angel, I won’t go so far as to say that he is a demi-god himself!  The angel Michael plays the role as an emissary of God’s kindness and compassion.

Michael is depicted as standing to the right of God’s holy throne.  Note that the mezuzah is placed on the right side of the doorpost, and there is a custom to hold the Kiddush cup in our right hands.  Various rituals in the Torah call for anointing the right earlobe, thumb, and toe.  Eliezer places his hand on Abraham’s right thigh when he swears and oath, and traditional Jews will put on their right shoe before their left, and light a candle on the right side prior to the left.  Standing at the right hand of God is a key position.

Rabbi David Cooper suggests that when we think about Michael, we might reflect on times when we felt unusually open-hearted, on moments of exceptional generosity, sharing, caring, and being available to others.[2] Me-cha-el- who is like God?  One who expresses these God-like qualities.

Michael is the one who collects our prayers and brings them to God.  We, as Jews, don’t believe in intermediaries in our relationship with the Holy One; Michael is simply the Divine postman!  Michael can be tough when he needs to be.  The Book of Enoch, a pseudepigraphal- that is extra-Biblical text- describes Michael as one of those who will participate in bringing punishment to the angels of corruption and destruction.[3]

Writing in the definitive work, A Gathering of Angels, Rabbi Morris Margolies teaches that rebellious angels leave God’s Presence and descend to earth to tempt us to do evil.  We can counter these negative forces by “harnessing the angelic forces for good that are always there for those who choose them.”[4]  In other words, we are surrounded by angels and opportunities for good, opportunities to engage those qualities of kindness and compassion which Michael represents.

Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, goes further, suggesting that with every good that we perform, we populate the universe with good angels- a powerful motivation and beautiful image of the potential impact of our every action.

May Michael be blessed with all of these qualities of his angelic namesake-  first of all, may he emulate all of the Godly qualities of caring, kindness, and compassion, may he grow to be a leader in our community and may he muster the strength to stand for justice when necessary.

Michael’s middle name, David, honors the memory of Sarah’s father and my beloved husband, zecher tzaddik livracha.  I know that the angel David is watching over his beautiful grandson with love and pride.

May we all be reminded of the angels we create every moment. May we be blessed with awareness of the angels who surround us on all sides. May God bless every one of us with the strength and wisdom to choose the good, and, indeed, the holy path.

[1] other sources suggest that that was Gabriel

[2] Cooper, Rabbi David, “The Archangel Michael,” https://www.rabbidavidcooper.com/cooper-print-index/2010/11/8/2193-the-archangel-michael.html

 

[3] Margolies, Morris B., A Gathering of Angels, NY:  Ballantine Books, 1994, p. 84

[4] ibid., p. 85

Feb 24 2017

Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos and Rabbah bar Chana

By now we are all familiar with the story of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, the Mesa mom who came to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 14, and who was recently deported in an initiative to enforce the strictest standard of law. In 2008 she was convicted for using a false social security number to gain employment.  Our tradition has the deepest respect for the law, as we read in Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.”  There is no doubt that she did something illegal.  Yet, as we shall see, our tradition also suggests that sometimes the path of justice must detour around the law in the direction of kindness. Sadly, she had no legal path to citizenship and no way to earn a livelihood in order to support her family.

The Talmud relates the story of Rabbah bar Chana, who hired porters to move a barrel of wine. In the process, the porters broke the barrel, and Rabbah bar Chana seized their cloaks as compensation for his loss.  The porters complained to Rav, who ruled that Rabbah bar Chana had to return the cloaks.  He asked, “Is that the law?” Clearly, Rabbah was within his legal rights to NOT pay the workers and to keep their garments in order to cover the cost of the wine. Rav responded that it was the law that he return the cloaks, based on the text in Proverbs (2:20), “Walk on the path of the good.”  After their garments were returned, the porters complained that, as poor men, they were hungry and needed their wages for the day in order to buy food.  Rav ordered Rabbah to pay them.  Again, Rabbah questioned, “Is that the law?”  Yes- as the verse concludes, “Keep to the paths of the just.”[1]

This ruling is based on a principle known as, “lifnim m’shurat ha-din,” beyond the letter of the law. Paradoxically, the tradition suggests that the requirement of the law is sometimes to ignore the law and err on the side of kindness.  My heart aches for Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos and I can’t help but wonder how Rav would have ruled in her case?

Nachmanides comments on Deuteronomy 6:18, where we read, “Do the right and good thing in the eyes of God.” The rabbis cannot adjudicate every possible situation in which we find ourselves.  So they direct us to a guiding principles.   “God,” writes Ramban, “desires that which is good and right.  This refers to compromise, finding more leniently than the strict letter of the law.”[2]  It is tempting to rationalize our behavior and to assess our own standards and our own desires as the good and the right.  Finding the balance between justice and kindness is a challenging paradox.  While respecting the law, we honor the principle of compassion.

The law, for example, requires that mamzerim, children born of forbidden relationships, should never be allowed to marry into the community.  The midrash boldly counters that anyone who would enforce such a law is oppressive.[3]  Aren’t we a society of laws?  Won’t there be chaos if laws are not respected and enforced?  Yes.  And no.  The Talmud teaches that Jews are, “Compassionate ones, the children of the compassionate,” going so far as to suggest that if we see a Jew who does not act with rachamim, with mercy, that we should suspect that person’s lineage![4]  This is a dramatic statement and a dramatic argument for compassion lifnim m’shurat ha-din, above and beyond the letter of the law.  I am haunted by Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos.  Would that our judicial system had been informed by the Jewish value of erring on the side of mercy.

We need both justice and mercy. The midrash suggests that God contemplated the role of each quality in creating the world, and compares this to pouring water into clay vessels.  If we pour either hot or cold water exclusively, the vessels will shatter.  With a mixture of the two, the vessel will survive.  Thus, God is depicted as saying, “If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be oppressive; on the basis of judgment alone, how would the world be able to exist?. I will create it with justice and mercy together and then, maybe, it will be able to stand!”[5]  May we be blessed with deeply felt connections to both justice and kindness, and the wisdom to know when to apply each one.

 

[1] BT Baba Metzia 83a

[2] Ramban on Deuteronomy 6:18

[3] Leviticus Rabbah 32:8

[4] BT Beitzah 32b

2 Genesis Rabbah – 12:15

 

Nov 22 2016

Conversation Project Shabbat

On July 14, 2014, my husband David and I sat down with our children to disseminate and discuss our healthcare advanced directives as a family. It was David’s 69th birthday; he died about 2 months before his 70th. David had endured several years of ill health, culminating in the removal of a kidney. In June, the month prior, we received the news that the cancer had metastasized to his bones. As a couple, we wanted to make sure that all of the children understood our desires for end of life care. We were incredibly grateful that we had had the foresight to discuss a broad variety of medical treatment options dispassionately, years before there was any urgent medical necessity. Suddenly those decisions became radically more real.

 
During the next 10 months, David endured 2 different rounds of chemotherapy, neither of which had the desired effect of stopping the cancer which was destroying his bones and causing pain that would be unbearable to most normal human beings. I recall more than once remarking that I didn’t know how he could bear the agony of trying to move while his bones were crumbling. Radiation impacted his ability to swallow and to enjoy food, which became a non-option anyway once he had a feeding tube inserted at the end of the summer. We watched him fight and waste away, fight and waste away, yet always with the hope that one more treatment would be successful where others had failed.

 
We had talked about nutrition and hydration at the end of life, about ventilators and surgical intervention in the face of terminal illness, but we had not addressed the fundamental question that The Conversation Project urges us to consider- “What matters to you most at the end of life?” Dr. Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal and a leading thinker about the role of the medical profession in caring for patients whose time is limited, reminds us that people have a broad variety of concerns besides prolonging their lives.

 
Doctors are trained to view death as the enemy and to battle on until the end. Yet, at some point, the battle was lost. Much as we respected David’s oncologist, among David’s final words were, “Why didn’t he tell me it was so bad?” Why indeed. David died on Tuesday May 19th; on Monday, just the day before his death, he had been scheduled for an appointment to talk about an experimental treatment. He never made it to that appointment. Instead, we called hospice, we called the family, and he died, per his request, at home, in his own bed.

 
Gawande quotes an essay by Stephen Jay Gould who expresses reservations regarding the “trendiness” of accepting death. Gould contends, in the face of his own terminal illness, that there is nothing wrong with “raging against the dying of the light.” Gawande counters that, while there is nothing wrong with sustaining hope, it is problematic if it prevents us from preparing for the more likely outcome. He writes, “We’ve created a multimillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets- and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near-certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.”

 
The Conversation Project is an important first step in considering what we each might value most if we have the luxury of knowing that our time is limited. What would be a good enough day to want to go on, and what is the tipping point where we would be ready to let go? The answer will be different for each of us, and we must have the conversation now. Pam Ruzi, a pediatric social worker with Hospice of the Valley, and a member of Temple Chai and our think-tank for tonight’s event, put it starkly- “Everybody is afraid. The doctor and the patient.”

 
I think about what might have been different in David’s life and the life of our family had we understood how close his end was. I regret that we didn’t have the opportunity to talk about that, to look each other in the eye and open our hearts and just consider- what will make today the best day possible? I believe we might have made different decisions and not chased cures that were the medical equivalent of that winning lottery ticket.

 
I know that David felt loved until the very end, that he enjoyed the best possible support from friends, family, and community. And, I wish that we had had more time to lay down our swords, to cease the raging battle, and to have quietly enjoyed more the time with which we were blessed.

 
I am thankful that our culture is changing and growing and learning. I am thankful for the incredible think tank here at Temple Chai that, under the leadership of Dr. Ron Fischler, has brought this conversation to our community. And I am thankful to each of you who will join us following the service tonight to hold each other’s hands as we begin The Conversation.

Oct 14 2016

Death and Letting Go

Death and Letting Go

On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is determined, “Who shall live and who shall die.”

In America we associate dying with sickness and disease, something which takes place in hospitals, out of sight. In ancient culture, and, in fact, up until the modern era, death was much more integrated into daily life. The Hebrew Bible is very straightforward about death. Joseph says, “Behold, I am now about to die.” When King David is on his deathbed he says, “Behold, I am now about to go in the way of all the earth.” Simple, painful, undeniable. Dr. Paul Kalanithi, a 36 year old neurosurgeon who died in March, 2015, wrote a powerful journal of his final months which was a bestseller this year- When Breath Becomes Air. “Death,” he writes simply, “always wins.”[1]

We need to look back only a generation or two in our own society, to a time when people were more connected to the land, where the birth and death of animals introduced children to the reality of the cycle of life, and where most people died in their own homes, surrounded by loved ones. Speaking of generations, there may be those listening to these words who are young and wonder why they should care about issues of death and dying. To you I say- perhaps you have parents or grandparents who are grappling with precisely these issues? How can you support them as they confront challenging choices in their lives? And, more starkly, today is the day when we come face to face with our own mortality. None of us know when our thinking about our own lives and deaths will move from the realm of intellectual consideration to the realm of gut wrenching reality.

We cling to life; we are hard-wired to live. Maurice Lamm tells the story of Yosef, desperately poor and trapped in a body that brought tremendous pain each time he bent down to pick up a twig or scrap of wood. Daily he cried out to God that he was ready to die, that the pain was unendurable. One day, as he placed a larger than usual piece of wood into his sack, the sack ripped and all that he had gathered was scattered on the ground. “I told you I’ve had enough of this wretched life. Take me away from this pointless life. Let me die!” The Angel of Death appeared to him- “You called for me?” “Yes,” Yosef replied, “I was wondering whether you could help me pick up all of these sticks?”[2]

The psalms speak of “three score years and ten, or, if by reason of strength, four score.”   Seventy or eighty years, to our ancestors, was a long life. Today when we wish each other, “Ad meah v’esrim, you should live to 120”, it has become a realistic expectation. Now that we are living longer, we question how are we living, how can we live better, and what happens at the end of days when our suffering outweighs our joy in life? As human beings, we crave meaning in our lives. How do we discern when there is enough meaning to go on, and when we are ready to surrender?

It is a terrible and heroic thing to “preside over the disintegration of one’s own body,” as Mary Chase Morrison wrote in her late eighties. “. . . looking on as sight and hearing, strength, speed and short-term memory deteriorate.” [3] Then there’s the loss of status as we give up the satisfaction of work that has defined us for a lifetime, the disruption of moving from our own home, the terrible diminishment of our mental capacities. And the agonizing loss as we watch our generation die away. An aging elder described it thus, “It is as if we are soldiers running across a battlefield- people are falling on either side of us. When will it be our turn? That’s our life from now on. How do we get used to it?”[4] More states are enacting legislation to allow aid in dying.

There are great spiritual opportunities as we age, time to gather in the harvest of patience and wisdom, gratitude and equanimity, forgiveness and joy. Israeli feminist Alice Shalvi wrote that, “What I have lost in longevity, I have redeemed by profundity. Compelled by failing physical strength, I sit more, recline more, rest more frequently. But in those moments of physical nonaction and bodily passivity, the spirit can soar if I unleash it from everyday concerns.”[5]

Contemplating our own death is fraught with fear. Dr. Kalanithi describes his terminal diagnosis as not “life-altering” but “life shattering.”[6] He says that before his diagnosis, he knew that he would someday die. After the diagnosis, “I knew that someday I would die. . . but now I knew it acutely.”[7]

The precious, precious value of each human life, a deeply held Jewish belief, is weighed against the quality of that life. The time has come to embrace maximal treatment for pain, even at the expense of minimally decreasing life span. There is a fine line between medicating to control pain and hastening death. Some choose to forego further nutrition and hydration, with or without sedation, as a means of letting go. There is no magic formula which will tell us the right thing to do in any given situation.

We fear suffering and we fear causing our loved ones to suffer. We fear loneliness and loss of independence; we fear a lack of meaning. It is vital that we initiate serious, open conversation with our loved ones about our own vision for the end of life while we are still healthy and dispassionate enough to do so. By a show of hands, how many of you think that it is important to talk about what we do and do not want at the end of our life’s journey? Okay, now, how many of you have had that conversation? We at Temple Chai invite you to join us for our Conversation Project Shabbat on Nov. 18th, and continuing with next year’s discussion of the book Wise Aging. You can find information about these programs in your Yom Kippur bulletin.

Our tradition allows us to refuse further treatment and place ourselves in God’s hands. God’s hands in our community are thankfully represented by hospice, an organization which has devoted itself to expertly caring for the dying and their loved ones, at home or in hospice facilities. Hospice dedicates itself to the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects of dying with great gentleness, allowing the dying to focus on the spiritual work which many of us would hope for as part of our vision of “a good death.”

Sometimes death comes in an instant-there is no time to prepare and no time to say goodbye. Some of us might pray for just such a death, that we might be spared the pain of letting go. Do you remember the Kenny Roger’s song, The Gambler– “the best you can hope for is to die in your sleep?”

Yet the end of life is a time when we can achieve a sense of resolution and peace through many holy actions- asking for and receiving forgiveness, letting go of negative patterns, making charitable bequests, and even donating organs. All of these are ways that we may redeem ourselves at the end of our days. The example of how we die is as much a part of our legacy as how we live. Rabbi Cowan and Linda Thal define dignity in death as “. . . more than avoiding being hooked up to tubes and machinery. It is taking responsibility for setting our affairs in order, preparing the next generation, saying good-bye, receiving farewells, offering forgiveness, bestowing blessing, and modeling how to die without fear.”[8]

The soul at the end of life is compared to a flickering flame. Traditional Jewish practice did not allow intervention to hasten the end. The rabbis did permit removing any impediments to dying. We are under no obligation to prolong life, and must respect the wishes of our loved ones who choose not to seek further treatment when their time is at hand.

A good death is one where the dying person is not isolated, where there is a hand to hold through the darkest times. A good death is one in which the needs of the individual are paramount. Rabbi Dayle Friedman suggests the following questions, “Will a proposed treatment advance the person’s comfort or well-being? How well are we really caring for her? Does he have a pillow with a soft cover? Does she have her perfume? Is there music he likes? Is whatever food she can eat really delicious?”[9] Jewish tradition teaches us that it is a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, to stand by a person at the moment of death. In fact, if a person is near death, it is forbidden to leave them alone. We are so grateful to the members of our Temple Chai community who have trained to be part of the Chevrah Kaddishah, the holy society lovingly preparing our bodies for burial.

We are all of us dying even in the midst of life. Almost two thousand years ago Seneca taught that, “Throughout the whole of life one must continue to learn how to live and, what will amaze you even more, dear friends, throughout life one must continue to learn how to die.” Acknowledging this reality need not be depressing, it can lead us to the deepest appreciation of each moment with which we are blessed. It can lead us to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done, now- with no expectation of an unlimited future which may never come. The consciousness of our own death distinguishes us from all other creatures, but it is also what empowers us to live lives whose meaning will endure beyond the cessation of our physical being. When we remember that we are dying, we achieve a clear sense of purpose, we no longer waste time, we exert ourselves to extract the maximum potential available in each moment. Suddenly priorities become clear and flexibility seems possible.

Meaning derives from appreciating every day, every moment, with which we are blessed, as expressed so simply and beautifully in this poem by Jane Kenyon- Otherwise.

I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise.

I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach.

It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

 

Let’s not shed tears over our inevitable demise. Yesterday is history and tomorrow is only a promise. All we really have is the present moment and what we bring to it. Our love and our memories endure beyond the grave, it is to these that we must renew our devotion if we would give our lives meaning and purpose beyond our limited days.

“To live in this world,” wrote Mary Oliver, “you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and when the time comes, to let it go, to let it go.”

There is, as we read in Ecclesiastes (3:2), “A time to be born and a time to die.” May we all be blessed in our lives with the ability to love and to the ability, when the time comes, to let go.

 

[1] Kalanithi, Paul, When Breath Becomes Air, NY: Random House, 2016, p. 114

[2] Cowan, Rabbi Rachel and Thal, Linda, Wise Aging, NJ: Behrman House, 2015, p. 252

[3] quoted in ibid., p. 65

[4] ibid., p. 220

[5] quoted in Berrin, Susan, A Heart of Wisdom, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997, p. 181

[6] Kalanithi, op. cit., p. 120

[7] ibid., p. 132

[8] Cowan and Thal, op. cit., p. 262

[9] Friedman, Rabbi Dayle A., Jewish Wisdom for Growing Older, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015, p. 88

Oct 05 2016

Happiness = Goodness/How to Be Happy

HOW TO BE HAPPY

  1. Make the decision to be happy
  2. Make the best of whatever comes your way
  3. Understand that everything has a price
  4. Speak in positive ways
  5. Expect less and appreciate more
  6. Find ways to give back to the community
  7. Care for your body through food and exercise
  8. Make time to be with the people you love
  9. Pursue intellectual and spiritual growth

10.Spend time at Temple Chai with others who share your values

 

Shanah tovah- or- should I say- happy new year? What’s the difference anyway?  When we say “happy new year”, we evoke images of revelers drinking champagne, laughing and dancing- a party atmosphere.  What comes to mind when we wish them a “shanah tovah”, a good year?  Certainly, a more sober image. An image of those things that might make this a good year.  We think more deeply- health, family life, friends, community.  It turns out that a happy life is a good life, a life filled with meaning and purpose.  What can we do to be happy?  What can we do to be good?

Do you remember the Peanuts cartoon strip, the one where Charlie Brown woefully says, “Sometimes I wonder if I even know what it would take to make me happy.”  Snoopy responds by throwing a ball- “Here, get the ball.”  He seems mystified when Charlie Brown is still despondent in the final frame- “That usually works with dogs.”  That usually works with dogs.  What about us?  What does it take to make US happy?

Is happiness an end unto itself, or a by-product of a life well-lived? Do we wait for something that will make us happy, or can we cultivate a positive and happy outlook almost regardless of what is happening around us?  Eric Weiner wrote a fascinating book on happiness in various countries around the globe- The Geography of Bliss.  His conclusion is precisely that “happiness is a choice.  Not an easy choice, not always a desirable one, but a choice nonetheless.[1]”  The first, important way to be happy is to decide to be happy, to be happy unless there is some very dramatic reason not to be.

Making the best of what comes our way is a foundation of happiness.  Pirke Avot offers profound guidance, “Ayzehu asheer- sameakh b’khelko”- “Who is rich?  The person who is happy with their portion.”  There are many circumstances which are out of our control.  Many of us are unhappy because of things that are out of our control.  Our response to circumstances is the one thing that IS under our control.  Making the best of what comes our way is the second key to happiness.

It is human nature to be dissatisfied and to strive for more and better, and in many areas of our lives this serves us well.  If we are dissatisfied with our work, perhaps we can think about it differently.  If we are dissatisfied with disease, we will search for cures.  It is critical, however, that we learn to distinguish between what can and what cannot be changed.  We only create misery for ourselves when we allow dissatisfaction over what cannot be changed to become an obstacle to our happiness.

Thirdly, we recognize that everything has a price- even happiness! “The Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman was once asked if he could summarize the essence of economics in a sentence.  ‘There are no free lunches,’ he responded.  This is as good an understanding of life as it is of economics. Everything has a price.  With regard to happiness, there are three rules related to this law of life:

Make peace with the fact that everything in life has a price.

Determine what the price is for anything you desire.

Choose whether to pay that price or to forgo what you desire.”

There are obstacles on the road to happiness. The 10th commandment prohibits coveting that which belongs to our neighbor. Feeling dissatisfied with what we have and envying that which others enjoy is a sure path to unhappiness. In his study, Weiner concludes that, “. . . money does buy happiness. Up to a point.” In the country of Bhutan, which pioneered the idea of a Gross National Happiness index, one businessman defined happiness as, “knowing your limitations; knowing how much is enough.”[3] Consider that you may already have everything that you need?

The desire for financial success can impede our happiness. Here is Mouse addressing Goat in the Pearls Before Swine cartoon strip- “I don’t get it. I keep buying things to try to make myself happy.  But none of it makes me happy.”  Goat asks, “What does that tell you?” Mouse suggests, “I’m buying the wrong things.”  Goat says, “No.”  Mouse shouts, “I need better more expensive things!!”  Better, more expensive things, is not the key to happiness.

We need an expanded definition of happiness, one which embraces raising well-adjusted children, forming lasting friendships, establishing a harmonious household, being tolerant of others, lifelong learning, volunteering for the community- finding ways to bring blessing to others and to our community. Meaningful lives are happy lives.

Studies have also shown that what we talk about impacts our happiness. The 4th way to increase our happiness is to use positive language.  Studies show that “The happiest people had twice as many substantive conversations or discussions about meaningful information (such as philosophy and current affairs) and one-third as much small talk (discussions about trivial information, such as the weather) as the unhappiest people.”[1]  Deep listening and opening our hearts to others will certainly make them happy, and meaningful social connection is a critical aspect of happiness.

The most important key to happiness lies in transforming our expectations. If we can learn to be modest in our expectations, we will find many opportunities to rejoice.  As Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes in his landmark study, Gateway to Happiness, “Your expectations, though they are not explicitly formulated, are the root cause of much suffering. The more you expect, the greater chance you have of feeling upset and frustrated.  The person able to overcome expecting anything beyond his reach will live a calm and serene life.[1]”  We need to find that balance between wanting more and more and appreciating that our lives may be pretty great just as they are.

Expectations undermine our sense of gratitude, and gratitude is a fundamental aspect of happiness.  As we enter this new year, let’s take a moment to focus on all the blessings in our lives and resolve to complain less and give thanks more.  Rabbi Harold Kushner offers this perspective on the 23d Psalm- The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. One way to think of this is to be content with what you have.  Yet, in contemplating that verse, Rabbi Kushner suggests that, “My version of the psalm’s second line would read, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall often want.”  I shall yearn, I shall long, I shall aspire, I shall continue to miss the people and the abilities that are taken from my life as loved ones die and skills diminish.  I shall probe the empty spaces in my life like a tongue probing a missing tooth.  But I will never feel deprived or diminished if I don’t get what I yearn for, because I know how blessed I am by what I have.”[2]

Our tradition teaches us to say 100 brachot, 100 blessings, per day. Let’s appreciate every blessing. When we wake up in the morning we thank God that our souls have been restored to our bodies. When our bodies work sufficiently for us to eliminate our waste- another occasion for rejoicing! Aren’t you happy that you are here today? There are people who would love to be sitting together with the community tonight who, for a variety of reasons, are not able to join us. With each bracha we take a moment to focus on the blessings in our lives, thereby enhancing our happiness, reinforcing our sense of appreciation, and giving voice to our understanding that we can’t expect every aspect of our daily lives to go well.

What can we learn from supremely happy people? Kate Bratskeir answers that question in her article on “The Habits of Supremely Happy People.”[7] Among the strategies she mentions are: spending time with others who reinforce a positive attitude, cultivating resilience, being appreciative and noticing even the small triumphs in life, volunteering and giving back to the community, pursuing depth in conversation and growth in wisdom, deep listening to others, making time for in-person interactions, enjoying music and exercise and occasionally unplugging, and, apropos our presence in this sanctuary, searching for transcendence and spiritual connection.

In The Geography of Bliss, Weiner adds that, “. . .people who attend religious services are happier than those who do not,” and, “. . . busy people are happier than those with too little to do.”  I realize that is shameless self-promotion but it is also a well-documented fact!

Tonight we pray for a shanah tovah- a good year. What choices will you make that will maximize the goodness, and, ideally, the happiness in YOUR life? May our lives be filled with meaningful work, dedication to tikkun olam, repair of the world, devotion to family and spiritual growth. Living a life that matters turns out to be the foundation of happiness, and we are so blessed to have the wisdom of our Jewish tradition as a guide to creating meaning and purpose in our lives. Etz chayyim he l’machazikim ba, v’tomcheha m’ushar- It is a tree of life and those who hold onto it are happy. A happy life is the result of a good life. On this Rosh HaShanah as we enter into the Days of Awe, we renew our devotion to the deliberate study and practice of those character traits and attitudes that will make this not only a happy year but a good year as well. Shanah Tovah.

 

 

 

[1] Weiner, Eric, The Geography of Bliss, NY:  Hachette Book Group, 2008, p. 184

[2] Prager, Dennis, Happiness is a Serious Problem, NY:  Regan Books, 1998,  p. 5

[3] Weiner, op. cit., pp. 76, 77

[4] Mehl, Matthias R. and Vazire, Simine,  Eavesdropping on Happiness: Well-being is Related to Having Less Small Talk and More Substantive Conversations, Psychological Science, Feb. 18, 2010

 

[5] Pliskin, Zelig, Gateway to Happiness, NY:  Aish HaTorah Publications, 1983, p. 238

[6] Kushner, Rabbi Harold, quoted in Mishkan Hanefesh, NY:  CCAR Press, 2015, p. 596

[7] The Huffington Post, Sept. 18, 2013

Oct 05 2016

Three Aspects of Forgiveness

WHY IS FORGIVENESS SO HARD?

In Sue Monk Kidd’s fabulous book, The Secret Life of Bees. The author writes that, “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.” We cling to our woundedness and declare our hurt. It is hard to forgive because we confuse forgiveness with:

  1. Forgetting- When we forgive, it does not mean that the wrong is erased, but that we are letting go of our right to seek revenge.
  2. That we no longer feel pain- We may forgive and still need time to heal.
  3. That there are no consequences- There may be things that we need from the person who hurt us in order for us to forgive.
  4. That trust has been restored- No, we may very well want to allow time before we reconnect on a deep level.

 

For many of us, forgiveness is the greatest spiritual challenge of our lives. It is part of the deep wisdom of our tradition to set aside these Yamim Noraim for us to examine not only our relationship with God and the ways in which we need to do better, but also our relationships with each other, to take responsibility for the pain we have caused and to seek and offer forgiveness.

 

 

 

HOW TO APOLOGIZE?

More than 800 years ago, Moses Maimonides wrote Hilchot Teshuva, The Laws of Repentance, in which he detailed the 5 major components of a successful apology. First is hakarat ha-khet- recognizing that we have done wrong. We cannot begin this process of return, to restoration of our relationship with others or with God, until we become aware of our errors. This is followed by a sense of regret. It is so easy and so tempting to rationalize our behavior. We excel at making up excuses. That still small voice of conscience within must be heeded, that nagging sense of guilt which is the moral equivalent of physical pain, alerts us to the fact that something is very wrong. If we are wise, we will treasure it as a divine gift.

The third step is viddui- a process which is an important part of our ritual for this holy season We acknowledge out loud the nature of our misdeeds and our regret at having performed them. This is followed by the resolve not to repeat our errors in the future. We know that our repentance is truly completed when we reach the final stage- when we have an opportunity to repeat the same action and we restrain ourselves from doing so.

Maimonides articulates 5 steps in the process of teshuvah, of repentance and return- recognition, regret, confession, acceptance of responsibility, which included resolve not to repeat the action, and, finally, actually following through when presented with another opportunity to commit the same wrong.

May we all be blessed today and every day, with the emotional maturity and strength to acknowledge and accept responsibility for our wrongdoing, to be willing to do what it takes to right that wrong, to resolve to do better in the future, and, in the end, to ask for forgiveness.

 

 

 WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FORGIVING AND LETING GO

Forgiveness is not the same as letting go. We may not be ready to forgive.  The person who hurt us may not be asking for forgiveness.  Yet, it may be healthier for us to let go of anger even without forgiveness and reconciliation.  Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that when we hold on to anger, we mobilize our own inner criminal justice system to punish the offender.  As judge and jury, we sentence the person to a long prison term without parole, and incarcerate them in a prison that we construct from the bricks and mortar of a hardened heart.  Now, as jailer and warden we must spend as much time in prison as the prisoner we are guarding.  All the energy that we put into maintaining this prison system comes out of our own “energy budget.”  From this point of view, bearing a grudge is very costly, because long-held feelings of anger and resentment drain our energy and imprison our vitality and creativity.

In most cases we don’t forgive because we feel that the offending party deserves to learn a lesson, and we arrogate unto ourselves the task of being the instrument of instruction.  In our innermost heart we say, “How can I forgive them when they haven’t shown regret, learned their lesson, and made restitution?”  But, as our experience demonstrates, the wronging party usually does not apologize.  As the anger etches its corrosive mark on our soul, we carry an emotional voucher wherever we go that reads, “Accounts receivable”.  With our vindictiveness anchored in the past, fixated on the slights, ouches, and resentments, we may wait fifty years to collect our due from ex-spouses, business partners and family members- often to no avail.  Imagine how many people and nations exist in this state, waiting to collect their unpaid bills.  That’s why the Bible proclaims that after seven years comes the Sabbatical year, in which there is a remission of debt- not just financial, but emotional as well.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to tell this story-   he came to the United States from Vienna as a teenager escaping the Holocaust.  As an adult performer, he went back to Vienna to give a series of concerts.  A lot of people wondered why.  “Don’t you hate them?”, they asked.  His answer was this, “If I had two souls, I would devote one to hating them.  But since I have only one, I don’t want to waste it hating.”

My friends, each of us is blessed with only one soul and only one short lifetime.  Do we really want to waste it harboring anger and hatred?  As we enter this new year, may we all find within ourselves the resources to forgive, to reach out, and to build a foundation of love and understanding.

 

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