Friendship and Holiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is so hard, and it is much, much harder when we feel that we have to face it alone. Our tradition calls on us to treat each other with chesed, with loving acts of kindness, or, as Alan Morinis translates it, “generous sustaining benevolence.”[11]  Other middot are listed on the bookmarks you each received and I encourage you to consider Mussar study as a way of expanding and reinforcing your search for holiness.

As we gather together today to consider how to bring holiness into our lives, we reflect on the value of simple acts of kindness and compassion to bring a sense of God’s presence into our troubled world. We cannot claim to be religious people and show contempt for others, who, after all, are each expressions of God’s image. Plato taught, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”  “To know a person,” Bertrand Russell said, “is to know their tragedy.”  We can never know, just by looking at a person, the enormity of the burdens they may be carrying.  To love them means to reflect on and enter into their needs to the greatest extent possible

Take a moment and look around this room.  Imagine the heartaches, the frightening medical diagnoses, deaths of young people, threats to livelihood.  It is amazing that any of us finds the strength and resilience to soldier on, and some do not.  There is a traditional prayer we say upon seeing 600,000 Jews gathered together, in which we address the Holy One as “chacham ha-razim,”  the wise one of secrets.  This prayer is a recognition that each of us has our own secret burden and that we rely on the kindness of loved ones and strangers to ease that burden.  A contemporary meme notes that “A physician once said, the best medicine for humans is love. Someone asked, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’  He smiled and said, ‘Increase the dose’.”

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

 

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

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

[3] Jewish Woman, op. cit.,  p. 24

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

 

[5] Pirke Avot 4:1

[6] source unknown

[7] Genesis Rabba 54:3

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

 

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

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

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

From Shushan Purim to Pesach: A Lesson in Empathy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Terumah- Where Does God Dwell?

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shekalim and Giving

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Flip Phones and Parshat Bo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Ways to Hack Your Jewish Life

 

 

Do you remember when a hack was the term for a taxi or other vehicle available for hire? Or when you could or couldn’t hack a challenging situation? Or when someone with no obvious talent who was somehow successful might be called a hack? Or when a cough might be described as hacking?

Then hack somehow morphed into a facility for breaking into computer systems. And now- hack-a noun- is used to describe a super-cool shortcut to achieve a desired end. As in- exercise hack: take the stairs, park further away in the parking lot. As in- love hacks: rejoice in your partner’s successes, touch them affectionately, a lot. Here’s a great life hack I picked up- Do you have a collection of plastic grocery bags? Is the collection out of control? Not sure where I picked up this hack, but how about using an empty tissue box as a dispenser for those bags? Pretty cool, eh?

So, as we enter 2018 and we are all super-busy, I thought I might modestly offer you some tips on 5 ways to hack your Jewish life. Here goes:

  1. Light Shabbat Candles– Your Jewish calendar tells you what time candle lighting SHOULD be each week. Forget it. Candle lighting should be whenever you get home on Friday night, even if it’s super late and you’re tired. There’s a reason that Shabbat is the only ritual in the 10 commandments and why Ahad Ha-Am said, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Take a moment to remind yourself that you are not just a human “doing,” you are a human “being.” Take a moment to connect with the holiness of Shabbat by lighting Shabbat candles.
  2. Resolve to read ONE Jewish book this year. Just one! Here are a few suggestions:

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl- you should read this book because every person on the planet should read his inspiring reflection on the triumph of the human spirit amidst the most harsh conditions of a concentration camp.

As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg- not just because it is written by a rabbi. It is a highly readable novel set in the time of the Talmud. When Cantor Wolman and I recently discussed important Jewish books, and, guess what- this was the first book that came to both of our minds! That should be an intriguing enough reason to pick it up.

Seven Prayers That Can Change Your Life by Leonard Felder- Perhaps you think the title is overselling? Wrong! Felder offers wildly creative translations of prayers that you already know and re-imagines them in ways that bring depth to our daily lives.

Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis- I gave this book to a friend recently and she reported that just thinking about the title was an elevating experience. Mussar study, learning about our own individual soul curricula, is increasingly popular, and Morinis’ book is the primary text for studying how we can become finer people by applying Jewish wisdom to the refinement of our own character traits.

  1. Learn about and observe a new holiday. Chanukkah is over and it’s a long time until Passover. Consider joining us for the Jewish Arbor day, Tu B’Shevat, on Feb. 3? You may be surprised and even proud to know that before there was an Earth Day or an ecological movement, YOUR Jewish tradition recognized and celebrated the holiness of the natural world. The Tu B’Shevat seder is an outrgrowth of the Jewish mystical tradition and involves eating lots of yummy fruits and nuts, while sharing texts on Judaism and nature, all in a fun seder format.
  2. Sign up for an online parshah column and/or A Taste of Mussar. One of the benefits of technology is that inspiration is no further away than your computer screen. There are so many online resources that you can subscribe to. The Union for Reform Judaism publishes “Ten Minutes of Torah” (http://pages.mail.rj.org/subscribe) and there is no cost for this service. A Taste of Mussar is a self-paced introduction to Jewish wisdom on humility, gratitude, patience, and the other middot, soul traits, which are fundamental to mussar study. (http://mussarinstitute.org/courses/taste-of-mussar/) You don’t even to need to leave home and you can enhance your Jewish consciousness.
  3. Finally, say a blessing. I timed myself saying HaMotzi and it can be done in less than 3 seconds. Perhaps not the deepest spiritual expression, yet, surely better than no blessing? Take two and a half seconds to appreciate the fact that you have food to eat, that nature and human effort combined to bring about the meal you are about to enjoy. Once you become accustomed to saying HaMotzi, there are lots of other blessings you can learn- for seeing a beautiful flower, the clothing on your back, for the healthy functioning of your body. But start with HaMotzi- you have to eat anyway, so why not make it a religious experience?

This is New Year’s weekend and many of you may be thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Forget it! Think, instead, about hacking your Jewish life with Shabbat candles, a good book, a new holiday, an online resource, or a blessing. And, as we say on Rosh HaShanah, I wish you a good year, a healthy year, a sweet year, and also a year filled with many meaningful Jewish moments!

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.

 

 

Mountain Biking and 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

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)

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

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