L’El Orech Din

L’El Orech Din- To the One Who Arranges Judgment

“Hinei Yom haDin”- Judgment Day has arrived. This is the powerful message of the Untaneh Tokef prayer, with its depiction of the heavenly court and even the angels trembling before God’s throne. The theme is expanded in the beautiful piyyut on p. 401 (in the Gates of Repentance)- “L’el Orech Din”- an A-Z of judgment.
On Yom Kippur we stand in judgment before God. On the other 364 days of the year, all too often we stand in judgment before others. For some people, every day is judgment day, and they are only too delighted to be judge and jury. I’d like to share with you an email I received from a member of my previous congregation: “I owe you an apology, although quite late I still would like to make it. Many years ago when we were members, you had called me right after Rosh Hashana to ask if there was something that you had done to me and I didn’t address the issue. I was wrong because I didn’t want to hurt your feelings or discuss it. My father-in-law had just passed away and we never heard from you or from the congregation. This was after calling the synagogue and even contacting (she names another member and the state they called from) to relay to you regarding his father’s death. It was a difficult time and your presence would have helped. Consequently we quit the synagogue.”
It was both powerful and healing to me to read this message. Certainly, as a rabbi, I am not in the habit of ignoring members whose parents die- certainly not intentionally. If such a thing happened, and it might, it would be the result of a horrible oversight, and I would hope that my all too human imperfection would be forgiveable. At the point of her writing, many years later, there was no reason to try to defend myself and suggest that, perhaps, just maybe, I hadn’t received the message and that’s why I hadn’t called? I simply replied- “Thank you so much for letting me know. It is my goal to be responsive and supportive to members of the congregation in times of need, and I am sorry I was not the presence that you needed at a difficult time. I appreciate your letting me know and hope that you can forgive me. “
I think about this now, today, on Judgment Day. How quick we are to judge others, to impute the worst possible motives to each other Pirke Avot 1:16 tells us that we must “דן לכף זכות,” that is, judge in the scale of merit, that is, give each other the benefit of the doubt. Today, we all feel the pain of the intense sense of judgment we experience when we examine our own failings.
Let us resolve, in the year ahead, to be kinder and gentler with each other, not rushing to judgment, seeking to understand and impute the highest possible motives to our friends and loved ones, mindful of the wisdom of our tradition, that as we forgive others, so will we be forgiven.

In the Scale of Merit

I was sitting in my car, minding my own business, chatting on the phone, waiting for the light to change, when, all of a sudden, from behind the car- boom! The car behind me failed to stop and my rear bumper went crunch. The other driver and I dutifully pulled off into a parking lot and waited for the police. They took the report, we called our insurance companies, and life went on.
A minor inconvenience, a bang on the head, nothing to be upset over. What WAS upsetting, however, was hearing from the insurance agent several weeks later that the driver of the other car was denying that she hit me and, in fact, suggested that I had backed up into her vehicle! Fortunately, I was exonerated by the police report and the matter was quickly resolved, but her unwillingness to take responsibility made me angry!
There is nothing quite so disarming as a heartfelt apology. Hearing the words, “I’m so sorry, I was wrong, I should have done better and WILL do better next time, please forgive me”- these words take the wind right out of our sails when we feel righteously indignant.
During these final weeks of the year, our spiritual task is to do an honest accounting of our actions, take responsibility, and seek reconciliation in our relationships. Our hope is that if we acknowledge what we’ve done wrong, if we admit our flaws, if we take responsibility and apologize and ask God- “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement,” that we can move God from the throne of justice to the throne of mercy, that we can take the metaphoric wind out of God’s metaphoric sails through our process of teshuva, repentance and return.
A Yiddish proverb suggests that it is harder to stay on people’s good side than God’s. Yom Kippur is Yom ha-Din, the day of judgment. For too many of us, every day is judgment day. We are all too ready to believe the worst about each other.. On Yom Kippur we stand in judgment before God. On the other 364 days of the year, all too often we stand in judgment of others.
I received an email recently from a member of my congregation whose feelings I had inadvertently hurt many years ago. In her note, she acknowledged that, when I called to ask if I had offended her in some way, she said no. Now, years later, she was writing to apologize to me for not having answered me honestly at that time.
It was both powerful and healing to me to read her message. I simply replied- “Thank you so much for letting me know. It is my goal to be responsive and supportive to members of the congregation in times of need, and I am sorry I was not the presence that you needed at a difficult time. I appreciate your letting me know now and hope that you can forgive me. “
As the High Holidays approach, we reflect on how quick we are to judge others, to impute the worst possible motives to each other Pirke Avot 1:16 tells us that we must “Judge in the scale of merit,” that is, give each other the benefit of the doubt. We feel the pain of the intense sense of self-judgment when we examine our own failings. Let us resolve, in the year ahead, to be kinder and gentler with each other, not rushing to judgment, seeking to understand and impute the highest possible motives to our friends and loved ones, mindful of the wisdom of our tradition, that as we forgive others, so will we be forgiven.


Forty days and forty nights of rain. Forty years of wandering. Forty is a meaningful number in our tradition. This Shabbas is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the final month of the year, marking forty days until Yom Kippur. If we have not yet begun the process of teshuvah, repentance and return; if we have not yet begun to our cheshbon hanefesh, our spiritual accounting; if we have not yet reached out to others to repair and renew our relationships- now is the time! Our parsha- re’eh- reinforces this message. “Look here!”- the Torah calls out to us- life is full of choices, and those choices are in your hands- blessing or curse, which will it be? Seeing is believing, or so it has been said. Beginning with the month of Elul, we add Psalm 27 to our daily practice- “lulei heemanti lirot b’tuv Adonai”- if ONLY I believed! In the words of Reb Nachman, “If you believe that you can damage, believe that you can repair.” This Shabbas is our reminder that we have forty days to see and decide.

The Higgs Boson and Kabbalah

The High School that I went to in Brooklyn, New York, was named for John Dewey, and it was founded on his educational philosophy of allowing for independent study and non-competitiveness. So, we didn’t get traditional grades in our classes- we received an “M” for Mastery, or and “R” for Retained for Reinforcement. There was an intermediate grade of MC- Mastery with Condition- which meant that you had to make something up before the grade went onto that dreaded permanent record as an “M.” The last science class that I completed in my academic career was HS Chemistry, and I received an “M” in that course after the following conversation with Mr. Winters- “I will pass you in this class if you promise me that you will NEVER take Chemistry again!” I am here to tell you that I have honored that commitment to this day!

So, I am here to admit that, while it was a good week for God’s PR, as the discovery of the Higgs boson particle dominated the news, I can’t pretend to understand the profundity of its implications. I gather that it is a very big deal. I read, or tried to read, the article about it on Wikipedia, and what I learned is that Higgs himself is an atheist and not at all pleased that his discovery is popularly referred to as the “God particle.”

What I DO understand is this: centuries ago, Kabbalists spoke of the shattering of the vessels at the time of creation, whereby sparks of Divine energy were scattered throughout the universe. They postulated that these Divine sparks could be found within each human being and redeemed through a process of tikkun olam, repair of the world. These sparks of God within each of us represent our potential for holiness. It is our task to fan the sparks within ourselves and within our world into flames. The Higgs boson may explain some deep secrets of matter to particle physicists, but it doesn’t explain our purpose in the world, nor does it inspire us to act on behalf of redemption. For that we need the real God particle, the spark of God within each of our souls.

Moses As Strategic Leader

Friends- Welcome and thank you so much for being here. I especially want to thank my fellow chaplains for allowing me the privilege of addressing you this morning. When the email went out to the chaplains in our class, I jumped at the opportunity to be the speaker for this event. Now, given the quantity of verbiage we have each produced this year, you might wonder why someone would volunteer to write what amounts to yet another paper?
The answer is that I anticipate this will be my one and only opportunity in my Army War College experience to use the word “I” in a paper, with impunity, and with no hint of repercussions. I intend to use the passive voice, to go off on tangents and, potentially, never come back. I may or may not have a thesis, and I may or may not tell you what it is! My thoughts may be unanalyzed and unsupported, I am not counting the words, and I hope to end at least one paragraph with a quotation.
We have spent this year immersed in a study of strategic leadership, and I invite you to consider six lessons learned from the Biblical example of Moses. There he was, living an idyllic life in Midian with his wife and children, minding his own business, working in his father-in-law’s shepherding conglomerate, when Moses answered the call to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom. Good thing he hadn’t read that quote from George Copley in DDE 2301, Foundations of Strategic Leadership, or he might have been discouraged?- “Great strategic leadership involves more than the innate talent and vision of the individual who is offered up to shepherd a society to safety or Victory.” Shepherd a society to safety? Moses was all over it!
Moses encountered a burning bush in the wilderness, got the Commander’s guidance, and developed his op-plan. Jewish commentators suggest that that bush had been on fire without being consumed for quite some time. Moses’ unique leadership capability lay in the fact that he was the first one to notice this phenomenon. Leadership lesson number one is- pay attention!
With support from his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, he endured the ire of the Israelite community and risked his life to plead before the Pharaoh. Lesson number two- our leadership may not always be received with enthusiastic appreciation.
Back to Egypt and talk about your VUCA environment- blood and frogs, lice and hail! Following the 10 plagues, the Israelites escaped into the wilderness, where they continued to try Moses’ patience for the next 40 years.
Moses successfully completed the mission. However, he was an imperfect leader- just like the rest of us. As the community settles into their journey, Moses’ father-in-law appears on the scene. Chapter 18 of the Book of Exodus describes the warm embrace as the two men reunite. Jethro has with him Moses’ wife and two children. Oops! Guess Moses was leaving town without his family. Too often our families DO get left behind. They are the ones who pay the price for our service. As we read this story, let us take note of leadership lesson number three- if we are blessed to have families who support us, we owe them a huge debt of gratitude . We give lip service to their priority in our lives; let’s remember to demonstrate that commitment by our behavior.
Jethro sticks around long enough to observe Moses wearing himself out with the demands of his role, sitting to judge the people from morning until evening. It is Jethro who suggests to Moses that he cannot function as “an army of one,” that not even the greatest leader can do it all. And neither can we.
Jethro tells Moses to look for leaders who have specific strategic leader competencies- who have natural ability, who are in awe of the Divine, people of truth who are impervious to bribery and influence. Learning to delegate is the fourth important take-away from this story. And, leaders must express a commitment to values in word and in deed.
Fifth lesson- leadership requires much patience, and here, again, we can learn from Moses what NOT to do. Like Soldiers too long in the field, the Israelites have ongoing complaints about the chow. When they press him for water, Moses turns in anger to his people and denounces them as “rebels.” “Leadership,” we read, in DDE 2301, “is a relationship, a unique and special trust between the leader and followers.” Once that trust is broken, it becomes impossible to lead.
In that moment of anger, leadership shifts to Joshua. We cannot lead without a sense of caring for those in our charge. If we lose that, it is time to step aside. Guess our man Moses needed to spend a little more time with that Strategic Leadership Primer!
Despite these few flaws, however, Moses has one overriding quality that we intensely need to emulate- one final lesson for us. The book of Numbers, 12:3, describes Moses as incredibly humble. Now this is counter-intuitive. One might think that he would be justifiably proud of his accomplishment in leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom, shepherding them for 40 years in the wilderness, and bringing them to the Promised Land. Arrogance is so tempting, especially for successful leaders, yet Moses is “the most humble man who ever lived.”
Humility requires the capability of admitting our mistakes and acknowledging when we are wrong or when we simply don’t know. In Jewish tradition, acknowledging our sins is built into the calendar onthe Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. We all need to be aware of our human imperfection.
The Talmud notes that if one person calls you an ass, you may ignore them. If two people call you an ass, you ought to seriously ponder the possibility. If you hear it from a third source, buy a saddle! Rabbi Harold Kushner expresses it thus- the four holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong,” and it behooves us to practice saying them.
The story is told of a Rabbi who stood before the congregation, beating his chest as he recited the confessional prayer, “I am so humble before you, Holy God.” The Cantor chimed in, “I, too, confess my unworthiness.” From the rear of the sanctuary comes the voice of the shammes, the guy who hands out the books and picks up the bulletins, “I, too, am nothing in Your presence.” The Rabbi turns to the Cantor and says, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
Each of us here in this First Year Residence Course can be justifiably proud of our accomplishment. This is an elite group, and there is a great temptation to be arrogant about our selection for the honor of being students in this great institution. The lesson of Moses reminds us of the need for humility.
A rabbinic sage once suggested that we should each have in our pockets two slips of paper. On one should be written, “The world was created for my sake.” On the other- “I am but dust and ashes.” The secret to wisdom, then, is knowing when we need to read each message. Sometimes we need to have utmost confidence in our own abilities. Sometimes we need to consider that we don’t have all the answers.
As we meditate on the leadership example of Moses, we appreciate the support of our families, we remember the need to develop leadership in others, a leadership that is founded on a deep commitment to values and caring, and we reflect on the need to maintain perspective on our own strengths and weaknesses.
What a gift to study with this amazing group of students and teachers. May we all be blessed in the year ahead with health, with strength, with wisdom and gratitude. Thank you so much for the humbling privilege of speaking to you this morning.

US Army War College
Fellowship Breakfast
20 June 2012
CH (COL) Bonnie Koppell

Passover, Plagues, and the Contemporary Water Crisis

Drought leads to famine, which leads to migration, which leads to civil unrest and political upheaval, which leads to violence, water pollution, disease and death. As I was studying these issues in my M.A. program at the Army War College, focusing on regional issues with global impact, a light bulb went off – all of these issues that plague us in the contemporary strategic environment sound an awful lot like the plagues of the Exodus.

The strategic importance of water cannot be underestimated. “Water has meant the difference between life and death, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty, environmental sustainability and degradation, progress and decay, stability and insecurity,” write Erik Peterson and Rachel Posner in “The World’s Water Challenge,” an article published in Current History (February 2010).

All of these themes are evidenced in the Exodus story, where water plays a prominent role and undergirds the narrative. The story begins with drought that leads to famine, motivating the Israelites to migrate to Egypt in search of food. We see the same pattern repeated in the contemporary world. A 2009 Global Strategic Assessment reports, for example: “Water shortages are causing rising food prices and forcing migration in some areas of China.” The Israelites, displaced by the famine, are new immigrants to Egypt, where their explosive growth in population is threatening to the native Egyptians.

As an adult, Moses is forced to flee Egypt, and at the well of Midian, he meets his future wife, Tzipporah. Even today, the well is the central gathering place for many communities, and finding and providing drinking water absorbs many hours of many people’s lives. “An obscenely large portion of the world’s population,” report Peterson and Posner, “lacks regular access to fresh drinking water or adequate sanitation. Water-related diseases are a major burden in countries across the world. Water consumption patterns in many regions are no longer sustainable.”

When Moses returns to Egypt seeking freedom for his people, Pharaoh is unmoved by the signs and wonders he performs. God instructs Moses and Aaron to meet him at the edge of the water, and it is there that Aaron brings the first plague – turning the water into blood. This initial plague leads to a series of natural disasters, culminating in the death of the firstborn.

The relationship between war and water continues to this day: “Drought, desertification and food shortage are among the factors that foment conflict within states by tipping some areas, at least, into social collapse,” as noted in “Streams of Blood or Streams of Peace: Rivers and Conflict” (Economist, May 3, 2008).

Even after the Israelites escape, water is a prominent theme. Our ancestors are not safe until the waters of the sea part. Throughout the time of wandering in the desert, the search for water remains a priority. The Midrash suggests that as long as Miriam was alive, there was always a well available to the Israelites. Today, we commemorate Miriam’s well with a special blessing at our Passover seder.

Ismail Serageldin, a former vice president of the World Bank, offers this dire warning: “Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water.” The United States, in collaboration with the international community, must address the critical need for more effective management of this critical resource. At our present rate of consumption, over-pumping of the world’s aquifers inevitably will lead to food shortages, a phenomenon that will be frighteningly destabilizing and will negatively affect the potential for conflict.

In her book of the same name, journalist Cynthia Barnett calls for a “Blue Revolution,” focusing on a new “water ethic” that seeks to overcome what she describes as the “spectacular squander” of water use in America today: “We must change not only the wasteful ways we consume water in our homes, businesses, farms and energy plants, but also the inefficient ways we move water to and away from them.”

As we bless Miriam’s cup at the seder this year, let us take to heart this important lesson of the Exodus story: Water is our lifeblood, and as we as a culture focus on becoming more green, even more so do we need to focus on becoming blue.

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell is command chaplain of the 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) and a spiritual leader at Temple Chai.

Memorial Day: Freedom is Not a Gift From Heaven

The scene: Kandahar Airfield Chapel. The occasion, a memorial ceremony for Private Jason Hasenauer. The voice of the First Sergeant from the rear of the sanctuary- “Sergeant X”. The hearty reply- “Here, First Sergeant.” The First Sergeant calls out for “Captain X”. Again, a robust, “Here, First Sergeant.” “Private Hasanauer”… silence. A bit louder: “Private Jason Hasanauer.” Silence. A third time: “Private Jason Daniel Hasanauer.” A gut-wrenching echo.

They call it “The Last Roll Call,” and if you are not moved to tears, then you have lost your soul. The plaintive sound of Taps, and soldiers openly weep. The line moves slowly to render a final salute to the display which includes his boots, his helmet, his dog tags, and his weapon. The weapon stands up in the boots, the dog tags suspended from the rifle, and the helmet resting on the top. Another Soldier killed in service to our great nation. This is the price of freedom. This is the sacrifice we honor on Memorial Day.

I have had the incredible privilege to serve as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve for 34 years. The chaplain corps has three  fundamental roles – to nurture the living, to care for the wounded, and to honor the dead. I have stood at the grave of bereaved families more times than I can count, as the flag was folded and presented to the survivors, “with gratitude from a grateful nation.”

We who have been raised in freedom must never, ever take that freedom for granted. As American Jews, we owe a special debt of gratitude to the land of the free and the home of the brave, the place where, outside of our own homeland, we have enjoyed the greatest freedom of religious expression in Jewish history. We join with our fellow citizens on Memorial Day in paying tribute to those who have fallen in defense of these United States, mindful of the words of Simon Wiesenthal, who wrote that, “Freedom is not a gift from heaven, we must fight for it every day.”

Our democratic way of life carries with it an awesome sense of responsibility. On Memorial Day we pray that our country may continue to be a beacon around the world to all those who yearn for “freedom and justice for all.” We pray that the souls of those who made the ultimate sacrifice find rest and repose, that their loved ones take comfort in the good name they leave behind, and that our own readiness to defend never diminishes our commitment to the cause of peace. We pray that government of the people, by the people and for the people never cease from this earth.

Jewish tradition envisions a time when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Until that blessed time arrives, we pause on Memorial Day to give thanks for the devotion to duty, the loyalty, the courage, the sacrifice of those who have served. We do not mourn, we stand in awe of those who have given their lives for our great country.


Published at RJ.org on 24 May 2012.

Fervor of Maccabees Defeated Mighty Army

The holiday of Hanukkah invites reflection on themes of war and peace.

Changes in the nature of warfare can be quantitative and/or qualitative. There is no neat evolution from primitive hand-to-hand combat, culminating in star wars.

The wars of the Maccabees were fought against combatants on elephants – the tanks of their day. From elephants to tanks does not represent a new strategy, just an alternate means of accomplishing a similar end.

Truly new technology radically affects the conduct of a military campaign. For example, the initial impact of a strategic air campaign was unimaginable in previous centuries. In the 21st century, we can expect new threats in space and cyberspace.

The chances of an old-fashioned, land-based, tank-and-infantry war are receding. We’ve gotten so good at conventional warfare as to render it virtually obsolete.

Some things don’t change, though. Contemporary strategic thinker Colin S. Gray notes, “Belligerents who find themselves materially challenged will seek strategic compensation primarily by means of adopting asymmetric … strategies that might offset their disadvantages.”

Thus, today’s opponents rely on insurgency and asymmetric threats, threats that the mighty U.S. military cannot seem to root out, even with the most advanced technology in the history of warfare.

Which brings us to the story of Hanukkah and the Maccabean warriors. Outnumbered and out-armed, our ancestors undertook a guerrilla campaign in their fight for freedom. The book of II Maccabees depicts the Maccabees “living like wild animals in the mountains and caves.” Ultimately, the forces of Antiochus learned the same lesson that we are relearning now: War is not an arithmetic equation in which the larger and better-equipped force always wins. Ultimately, the Maccabees and their followers prevailed.

Antiochus gave himself the name Epiphanes, meaning “God incarnate.” Beware the leader who thinks he is God. The unwillingness to question one’s own strategic thinking and adjust accordingly has been the downfall of military leaders throughout the centuries. “An army of one” is never a good plan.

Victories in small skirmishes led to the capture of weapons and an increased willingness of volunteers to support the Maccabean insurrection. It is important to note that the Maccabees did not target civilians: The distinction between combatants and noncombatants was an accepted standard “bayamim ha-hem/in those days.”

As the Jewish fighters gained confidence and skill, Antiochus realized that victory was not forthcoming, his treasury was being rapidly depleted, and a negotiated resolution was preferable to an endless and expensive campaign.

B.D. Liddell Hart, in his classic work on strategy, refers to this as self-exhaustion. Hart reminds us that “a good cause is a sword as well as armor.” The Maccabees were sustained by their devotion to a good cause: their right to freedom of religious expression. They were fighting for their own spiritual survival, and, were it not for their bravery, Judaism could easily have disappeared.

Not surprisingly, there was no unanimity regarding the Maccabean perspective among the Jews of their day. Not every Jew supported the resistance; there were those who were ready to assimilate to the Hellenistic way of life.

Sadly, the nature of power is corrosive, and corruption ultimately beset the Maccabean reign.

The rabbinic tradition, uncomfortable with the glorification of military prowess that is at the heart of our celebration of Hanukkah, shifted the emphasis to the miracle of the oil and the message of the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might and not by power but by my spirit, says God.” Or, as Hart puts it, “The perfection of strategy would be, therefore, to produce a decision without any serious fighting.”

“Swords into plowshares” – such is the vision of the messianic age of peace for which we hope and pray and work. Until that longed-for time arrives, we celebrate Hanukkah, honoring the bravery of those who risk and, indeed, too often, sacrifice their lives, in support of our freedom, then and now.

Avinu Malkenu / Chaplain (Colonel)

Avinu/Malkenu- Our Parent, Our Ruler- We approach God, first and foremost, as a loving parent, hoping for indulgence, mercy, forgiveness.  Parents offer us guidance, but the context of the relationship, ideally, is one of unconditional love.  No wonder we open our plea to God through the channel of “Avinu.”

However, the primary metaphor of the High Holiday season is “Malkenu,”, God in the aspect of power, of justice, of judgment.  I think that it is harder for us to appreciate the positive benefits of a powerful God.

I reflected on this distinction as it relates to my work in the Army.  Not to compare myself to God, l’havdil, but I carry two titles- Chaplain/Colonel, that each express some of these same qualities. Regardless of rank, Chaplains are always addressed as “Chaplain.” From Second Lieutenant to Major General, you are and remain “Chaplain.”  The idea is to remove any barriers to connection, to create an environment where it is safe to open our hearts and to know that we will be heard in our essential human-ness.  The title “Chaplain”, like that of Avinu, is meant to offer comfort.  As a chaplain, I strive to be understanding of the personal needs of my Soldiers and respond with kindness to their personal struggles.

I know that they appreciate that pastoral touch.  But that does not mean that there is no value to the aspect of being a Colonel! There are times when we need to fight for the resources we need or defend our position, and, at such times, my staff relies on the power that I wield as a Colonel to support their interests.  This is the energy we long to tap into when we address God as “Malkenu,”- the God who has the power to influence change.  A God who was all Avinu and no Malkenu, who operated only on the principle of mercy with no focus on justice, would be uninspiring.  We pray, “v’yakhed l’vavenu l’ahava u’l’yirah- unite our hearts to love and to be in awe.”  We need this sense of balance, we need the Avinu and we need the Malkenu,  in our relationship to God.

That said, we hope that our prayers on Yom Kippur will move the Holy One from the throne of judgment to the throne of compassion.  We need a God who is powerful; we long for a God whose love overcomes that sense of power.  The Rabbis depict God as praying, “May it be My will that My mercy will suppress My anger.”  On this day, we pray that God’s prayer will be answered! The ancient philosopher Thucydides wrote that,  “Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses. . .most.”

We pray for the ability to restrain ourselves from doing wrong, and we pray this day that God’s power will be exercised through restraint from punishment.

Listen Up!

What does a good conversation feel like? Your partner is looking right at you, giving you undivided attention. They paraphrase what you are saying so that you know you have been heard and understood. They listen without judgment and without rushing to solution. They evidence patience and compassion. Their cell phone is nowhere to be seen!

Sometimes, just being heard in this deep way is enough.  We don’t even need to solve problems or reach agreement.   We all long for this human connection and to know that someone cares about what is important to us.

I am privileged to teach techniques of communication to US Army Reserve couples, with my colleague Chaplain (LTC) Val Sutter.  The crescendo of our training is when he looks out over these beautiful faces and asks,

“Would you like to learn some magic?”

Of course, the participants are on the edge of their seats!  So, what are the magic words?“


“I hear you, and I understand.”

The desire to be heard and understood is so powerful.  When we achieve that goal, when we have someone’s full attention and we know that they are REALLY listening, we experience a visceral, physical relaxation response.  It feels SO good!  We know that we are not alone, that someone else cares and stands with us in our pain.  Just being heard diminishes our hurt.  We know that we are not alone.

As our year draws to our close, we read the parsha of “Haazinu”.  The word Haazinu comes from the root ozen, ear.  We might translate it as “listen up”, or, “give ear.”  Our tradition consistently reinforces the fundamental value of listening- from the classic words of the Shema– Hear O Israel, to the guidance of ibn Gabirol that in seeking wisdom there are 5 steps- the first is silence, the second is listening.

When we give others the gift of listening, we affirm the divine image within them and their ultimate worth as individuals.  Rabbi Elie Spitz quotes Martin Buber as recognizing that “we find the divine not in the moment of the ecstatic experience alone but in the simple, daily task of being fully present with others and thereby with God.”  In other words, listening to each other can be a religious experience!

What does poor listening look like?  In our PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) we focus on four communication danger signs- withdrawl, invalidation, negative interpretation, and escalation.  When we find ourselves moving in these directions, it is best to take a timeout and regroup before we say things that may cause irrevocable damage in our precious connections.

As we turn our attention to our hopes and dreams for 5772, as we seek to repair our damaged relationships and build foundations of kindness and love with our families, friends, and colleagues, there is nothing more vital than a renewed commitment to enhancing our communication skills.  So many of the sins we mention in the Al Cheyt prayer draw attention to the myriad of ways we hurt each other with words.  We have the power to bring healing through deep listening.

Here’s how Rabbi Spitz expresses it in his book Healing From Despair-

“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.”


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