Two Inspiring Stories

SAM AND DEDE/LAURAL AND ARNIE This is the story of Laural and Arnie Sigal and Dede and Sam Harris- how they became friends, how that friendship grew, and how we can all be inspired by their story. Making guests feel welcome is a fundamental Jewish value. In Hebrew we call it, “hachnassat orchim.” We see this value evidenced in the earliest chapters of the Torah, when Abraham runs to greet his visitors. Various midrashic sources suggest that Abraham and Sarah specifically designed their tent to be open in all 4 directions so that they would never miss an opportunity to welcome guests. The Talmud (Brachot 17a) praises Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai for the fact that he was always the first one to offer a greeting to anyone he encountered, and Pirke Avot (1:15) reminds us that we should always receive people with a pleasant expression. “Hachnassat orchim, welcoming guests, takes precedence over welcoming the Shekhinah, God’s Holy Presence.” (BT Shabbat 127a)

         Making people feel welcome is a foundation of community life. Rabbi Dan Alexander writes of his challenge to greet as many folks as possible at Shabbat services, recognizing “the potential power of a mere greeting.” “A greeting,” he writes, “underscores the essential worthiness of that person.” Wow- that IS powerful. Laural and Arnie exemplify this principle of hachnassat orchim. They are always among the first to reach out to visitors, ask their names, and learn their stories. I personally lean on them when I see someone I don’t know, and ask them to help me welcome our guests. Thank you, Laural and Arnie! So, once upon a time, Arnie was attending a Shabbat morning service when Dede and Sam Harris walked into Temple Chai. As is his way, Arnie introduced himself and engaged them in conversation. When he asked if they had plans for Thanksgiving, the couple was surprised. “Don’t you need to check with your wife?,” they inquired. Arnie replied, “No, I don’t- I know my wife and I know that she would love to have you join us.” Now, how many of us, honestly, would invite people that we had just met to join us for Thanksgiving? I’m guessing not too many. Yet, from that seed of an open heart and a deeply generous welcome, grew a profound friendship.

         Laural and Arnie learned Sam’s story, as a child survivor of the Holocaust and now the driving force behind Chicago’s Holocaust Museum, where Sam is featured in a hologram answering questions about his experience, a hologram that will ensure his enduring legacy for many generations. Laural and Arnie’s hospitality, Sam and Dede’s generosity, these inspire us with a vision of the best of humanity. But it doesn’t end there. Among the many things I have learned from these two couples is the value of caring concern among friends, as well as the value of lifelong open-ness to learning from every situation. Last year, the two couples honored us with their presence at a Kabbalat Shabbat service, with plans to continue their time together over dinner. When Laural and Arnie did not arrive at dinner, Sam and Dede were, naturally, quite concerned. Dede reached out to me and I was able to let her know that, in fact, Laural had not felt well and the couple had gone to the emergency room. Thank God Laural was okay, and the next morning I called to share the good news with Dede. Here is where it gets profound for me. With the greatest of humility, Dede shared that, actually, she already had heard the happy news. She was chagrined that SHE had not called ME to let me know that our beloved mutual friend was well.

         Here is what she said, that touched my heart and I hope touches yours. Dede is not a young woman. She is a mature woman of age, experience, and wisdom. And yet, her immediate response was, “I guess I am still learning.” What a remarkable example to still be growing spiritually, to still be learning at every possible moment. I was overwhelmed by her example and wanted to share this story today. Welcoming guests, Caring hearts, Generosity, Life-long learning- what an inspiration as we enter this new year.

YONA WEITZNER Yona Weitzner was my children’s Hebrew teacher when they were growing up. I hadn’t seen her for many years until she recently moved back to Phoenix and began putting her talent on the accordion to use playing music with my husband Ron and his friends. We were all guests for Shabbat dinner at the home of Dr. Michael and Livia Steingart, and, following the meal, was spontaneous music and singing. Yona shared a song that reminded her of her family lore, and told us this remarkable story of courage and survival. We can only pray to have the strength to make impossibly challenging decisions as was demonstrated by Yona’s mother, even as we pray that, God forbid, we should never find ourselves in such extreme circumstances.

         The story takes place in a small town in Poland, some time in the 1940’s, where Yona’s parents, Adella and Avram lived with her grandparents, Ora and Chayim, and her siblings, Miryam, who was then 2 years old, and Tzvi, who was one. Every Monday and Thursday, her father, Avram, would take the 3-hour carriage ride to Krakow to sell eggs in order to support the family, while Adella and her mother ran a fabric store from their home. It happened while Avram was away. Adella dressed in Polish attire and spoke Polish well enough to pass as Polish. She engaged some local German soldiers, who informed her that, as of tomorrow, the town would be Judenrein, that is, free of Jews, as the entire Jewish population of 150 souls was to be rounded up and transported to a concentration camp. They would “go away and never come back,” he said with satisfaction.    

          There was no time to think. Adella packed a few valuables and gathered the family to hide in the cellar, covering the opening with a carpet. They huddled together at the sound of heavy boots and the menacing words, “Juden raus- Jews, get out.” In the dead of winter, with snow up to their waists, they fled to the woods. Ora and Chayim died of exposure within a few days, while Adella struggled to reach the Russian border with her two young children. When Yona’s father Avram returned from the market, the house was empty and a neighbor warned him to flee immediately. He miraculously survived as a partisan, fighting in those same woods for 4 long years, alongside two Russian comrades. His friends said, “You are our brother,” and the 3 partisans found their way to a work camp in Siberia.

         Adella survived her camp by claiming to be a cook, smuggling food to sustain her starving co-workers. One day, Adella’s friend was allowed to visit the work camp down the road to see her own husband. She spotted Avram, who said, “I thought you were dead.” No, the friend replied, not only am I alive, but your wife and children are with me only a few miles down the road. The couple were reunited and Yona was born in a refugee camp in Austria sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee. The family settled in Israel, where, as Yona put it, her dad went, “From the boat to the battlefield.” The family survived and triumphed- what incredible role models! Think about it. A young wife and mother, her husband away, having to make the heart- breaking decision to run for her life.

         I am reminded of the midrash of the Israelite slaves, poised on the edge of the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit. The rabbis teach that the waters of the sea did not part until one courageous individual, Nachshon ben Aminadav, strode into the waters. When the waters reached his nostrils, it was only then that the miracle occurred. When Alex Borstein was awarded an Emmy several weeks ago, many of us were touched by her words, “My grandmother turned toward a guard — she was in line to be shot into a pit — and said, ‘What happens if I step out of line?’ and he said, ‘I don’t have the heart to shoot you, but somebody will.’ And she stepped out of line,” Borstein explained. “And for that, I am here. And for that, my children are here. So step out of line, ladies. Step out of line.” We live our lives from day to day, oblivious to the great challenges we may face. Tests of courage come in many forms- a frightening diagnosis, the loss of meaningful work, the tragic death of a loved one. The heart knows its own pain; each of us has our own struggles and our own journey. We never know what tomorrow may bring We pray that the challenges be few and far between, even as we pray that when we need strength and courage, when we need faith and perseverance, when we need to step out of line, that we may plunge forward into the waters like Nachshon ben Aminadav, and cling to the inspiring vison of young Adella’s amazing legacy.

Mussar and Mindfulness

           Rosh HaShanah- what a gift! What a luxury! What a joy! Looking around this room, we are each so grateful for the blessing of our physical well-being that enables us to be here, and for the blessing of community- sharing the start of this holy season with friends and loved ones. Tonight we begin a 10-day journey exploring the state of our souls and our relationships. Throughout the year, we are overwhelmed by the busy-ness of our lives and our many commitments, made exponentially greater by the miraculous technology that eases our lives as it simultaneously consumes them. During these Yamim Noraim, these awesome Days of Awe, our focus turns inward. We remind ourselves of the spark of the divine, our holy essence, the soul which gives ultimate meaning to our days. We remove the dust that has accumulated during the year and polish our soul so that it radiates light once again. Jewish tradition teaches that we each have a yetzer ha-tov, a good inclination, and a yetzer ha-ra, an evil inclination. We need to be vigilant each and every day in reinforcing our yetzer ha-tov and resisting the yetzer ha-ra. Our souls are kind of like a garden- if we are not watering them and removing the weeds, the garden will not flourish.

         There is a story of a deeply pious individual who, upon awakening in the morning, heard an inner voice- his yetzer ha-ra, tempting him, “You are such a tsaddik, isn’t it okay if you just rest in bed- it’s so early.” Responding to his evil inclination, he said, “Well, it can’t be that early if you’re already up!” Tonight we remind ourselves that the choice between sin and holiness is in our hands. We take stock of who we are and renew our commitment to who we want to be. We truly have amazing power to grow spiritually and thereby bring blessing to the world. Rabbi Israel Salanter taught that another person’s material needs are our spiritual needs. Learning to focus on the needs of others is fundamental to our own spiritual growth.

         Oren Jay Sofer, in his book Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication offers 3 basic steps to effectively communicating with and truly hearing the needs of others. They are: 1. Lead with presence. 2. Come from curiosity and care. 3. Focus on what matters. Let’s explore what he means and how we can use this wisdom to deepen our connections with each other in the year that is just beginning. I mentioned the many distractions of contemporary life. It is not so easy to focus on just one thing. I, for one, would never consider JUST eating without reading or looking at my computer or the phone.

         The idea of “leading with presence” is not so easy as it sounds. What does it mean to be fully present to another? What does good conversation look and feel like? We intuitively know- there is eye contact and head nodding, deep breathing and moments to pause before responding. Wouldn’t you just love to be heard and understood by someone who was fully present in the interaction? Wouldn’t the gift of being fully present be an amazing gift to give to others? Noticing our breath, slowing down, exploring nature together- all of these are ways to become more aware and be more in the moment. It may be helpful to remind yourself of this acronym for the word WAIT- “Why Am I Talking?” Listening to others is a balm to their soul and can actually alleviate pain and suffering. Remind yourself- it’s okay to pause, take a breath, and formulate your thoughts before responding, especially in difficult conversations.

         The second critical element is- coming from curiosity and care- Blame, shame, and judgment are natural, visceral responses. It has wisely been said that no one cares what you know until they know that you care. No wonder the rabbis teach us to give others the benefit of the doubt, to judge favorably. If we truly take the time to understand the perspective of others, it will go a long way towards alleviating conflict and misunderstanding. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Our tendency is to avoid challenging conversations because we want to avoid conflict. We fear that we will alienate others and cause more harm than good. Yet, the message of these High Holy Days is that we need to find gentle ways of renewing our connections with each other, even if that means addressing difficulties or challenges. If we can’t find a way to be honest with each other, we must reconcile ourselves to only the most superficial relationships. It is an act of love and trust to navigate relationship challenges. Resentment will leak out one way or another, and poison our connections. “Intimacy,” writes Sofer, “is born in conflict. Difference can bring us together and help us to know one another.” Bringing with us the intention to understand is a huge part of conflict resolution. He reminds us that, “Curiosity means that we are interested in learning. Learning requires humility; we must be willing to not know. To understand means “to stand beneath.” To comprehend. . . we need to be open to new ways of seeing.” Coming from curiosity and care means letting go of our own needs and understanding the needs of others, it means to “stand under,” to truly listen with open-ness and humility.

         In his book, Sofer tells the story of a former Marine who was studying Aikido. Despite the fact that Aikido is supposed to be peaceful, this individual was most anxious to test his skills in a combative environment. He thought he had an opportunity on a Tokyo subway, when a drunk day laborer entered a subway car, hurling insults and curses. The Marine was about to leap into action, when a little old man called to the laborer from the other side of the car. “Hey! Come here and talk to me.” “Why should I talk to you?” the man replied? “What have you been drinking?” the elderly man persisted. “Sake, and it’s none of your goddamn business.” The wise elder persisted, engaging the laborer in conversation. He shared how much he and his wife loved sitting in their garden at sunset and sharing a little bottle of sake. “I’m sure you have a lovely wife too,” he said. The laborer’s eyes teared up- “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, no job, no money, nowhere to go. I’m so ashamed.” The story ends with the laborer’s head in the old man’s lap, allowing his matted hair to be stroked and his soul to be comforted. Such is the transformative power of coming from caring and curiosity. Lead with presence. Come from curiosity and care.

         The third step is focusing on what matters. Focusing on what matters is the primary task of the High Holidays. Our needs, the needs of others, everything we say and do is an attempt to meet needs. Focusing on needs is focusing on what matters. When we see others as, just like us, images of the Holy One struggling to survive and to meet their own needs, we nurture empathy and build bridges. Sometimes it’s not easy to articulate our own needs, nor is it obvious what needs are motivating others. It’s good to practice seeing the world through the lens of needs. Asking ourselves the question – what matters most to me? What matters most to someone else?- will help us connect to fundamental values. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying that, “When you count others’ happiness as your own, your chances of being happy increase six billion to one.” Recognizing the universality of needs and coming to peace with unmet needs is vital to our spiritual growth. We have a much better chance of getting our needs met when we are clear about what they are and when we can ask in ways that are non-threatening and demonstrate that we understand and have empathy for the needs of others.

         Sofer quotes Marshall Rosenberg’s advice, “Ask others to meet your needs like flowers for your table, not air for your lungs.” One of my teachers, Nancy Weiss, uses the expression to “pet your heart.” I love that image of comforting ourselves and feeling empathy for our own needs and feelings. So, the lesson is that we can actually becoming better people- kinder, more patient and caring, generous and compassionate, just by working on it. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s why we have these Aseret Y’may Teshuvah, these 10 Awesome Days. Just by opening our hearts, by being fully present, coming from a place of care, and focusing on what truly matters. The High Holidays are a blessing, a gift, a luxury- let’s use this time wisely to dust off our souls and renew our commitment to our highest and holiest selves.

Remember Me Like This

            We could all die tomorrow, or, in fact tonight. The reality is that we don’t know and so it is easy to avoid thinking about. On this holiest of nights, we peel back the façade and take a peek at our lives as they will appear in the rear-view mirror. What is it we see? What is it that we HOPE we will see? And what are we doing about it?

         Lives end suddenly, as with the person who turned onto Marilyn Rd. to attend this very service a few years ago and was killed in a car accident. Lives can be extended beyond meaning, robbing us of the core of our being, our memories and connections with loved ones. And sometimes there’s a life-limiting medical diagnosis. No, you are not going to die right now, maybe not in the next 6 months, but you are ill, there is no cure, and your end is in sight.

         I was speaking a few months ago with a beloved friend who is facing his own mortality in this very real way. Not as a theoretical possibility in the distant future, but as a diminution of well-ness that is with him daily. Since he is a passionate Type A person, I asked him the question that I ask myself routinely- “Have you written your own eulogy?” I was kind of shocked that he said no, that this person, who has always lived large and in charge, was ready to let go and let others discern his legacy and how best to honor it, once he is gone from this earth.

         Not me. My beloved grandfather and I, Papa Hymie, alav hashalom, collaborated on his eulogy for a decade or more. He had a huge binder of cards that he had received, poems he had written and those written for him, articles of interest, and he used to routinely pull out that binder and review with me precisely what he wanted me to include when the time came. Naturally, I honored his request, though I’m not sure he requested the opening line, “Only the good die young!” He was 93 and a notorious character. Papa Hymie and I are not the only ones. Mickey Greenberg, Aunt Mick in honor of her niece who was my very close friend, penned a letter that she wanted read at her own funeral. A writer by trade, she began as follows:

          Wow! If you are reading this I must be dead! Dead – that’s a powerful word. It means that my life is finished and I never finish anything (except butterscotch sundaes). There are so many things I meant to finish – cleaning closets – straightening drawers – putting pictures in albums. I always meant to do these things “tomorrow” and now there will be no more tomorrows. That’s what happens when you are a procrastinator. I am sorry my loved ones will have to figure out all the things I didn’t finish. The 12 files folders marked “misc.” contains papers I meant to define. It probably doesn’t make any difference now. I’m sorry about all the other things that remain undone. The books I didn’t read: the letters I didn’t write; the stories I didn’t commit to paper. But most of all I regret the words which were never spoken. Words to express my love for my family and friends; words to ask forgiveness for hurt I may have caused others; words to extend forgiveness to those who have hurt me. Aunt Mick goes on from there.

I am writing my own eulogy in my head all the time, and it occurs to me that I really ought to write it down- get it out of my head and onto paper so that, perhaps, I can let it go and find some peace. Yom Kippur is the exact moment when we each should be thinking about our own eulogy and our own legacy.

         So here goes- Rabbi Bonnie Jane Koppell (Okay, that’s a true confession. Yes, Jane is my middle name- I never liked it and I don’t particularly care for Bonnie either. That’s part of the reason that I much prefer being called Rabbi Koppell rather than Rabbi Bonnie; but, I digress). Rabbi Bonnie Jane Koppell was born in Brooklyn, NY, the eldest of Sandy and Leo’s 3 children. She is survived by her 2 brothers, Michael and Philip. (Okay, obviously I’m projecting here but why not protect my younger brothers?) She described her childhood in Brooklyn as “idyllic,” a loving family, grandparents close by, a great Jewish community, lots of friends, safety and security to enjoy the culture that the city had to offer.

          What’s important in life? For me- family is number one. Sitting with bereaved families preparing for a funeral service, I often ask, “What were the values that animated this person? What were their top priorities?’ The answer is, almost always, “family, first and foremost.” Would you give the same answer? If so, how are you expressing this value while you still have the opportunity to do so? A couple of weeks ago I had to be in NYC for a meeting. As you can imagine, this is a fairly busy time of year for rabbis, and I was concerned about being away. My 85 year old mom lives in NY, and this was also a great opportunity to spend time with her. I thought hard about taking an earlier flight home, and decided that it was more important to spend the time with my mother; I don’t have plans to see her again until January. What a great decision! We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon together, a day that, one friend noted, I will remember 20 years from now. I was inspired by someone who shared how his mother used to almost beg him, “Why do you never visit? Don’t you have half an hour to stop by?” Now that he is older and she is gone, he understands the depth of her pain, longing for a connection to her only son. How he wishes he could travel back in time and prioritize spending time with her! We can’t travel back in time, we can only move forward. If we are fortunate enough to be blessed with a loving family, how can we prioritize time with them in the year ahead?

            My eulogy might continue like this- Bonnie was also blessed by many close friends. Many. It might seem impossible to have SO many genuinely good friends, but Bonnie really worked hard to maintain relationships. She was the catalyst who made sure that connections were strong, that the next date was scheduled. She was rewarded by a strong community. It’s true. I DO feel blessed to have so many people I enjoy being with and who love and support me. And it DOES take effort. If you want to have friends, you must be a friend. Close friendships have been shown to be an important factor in our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Is there someone you love, someone you keep meaning to reach out to but just haven’t made the time? You know those friends who, time passes and yet when you get together, you have an immediate connection? NOW is the time. Is there someone you’ve been thinking you’d like to get to know better? Make that phone call and reach out. You may be richly rewarded as I was. A number of years ago, Sharona Silverman convened a remarkable group which she called, “Women in Transition.” Women of a certain age, gathering to share life’s lessons and life’s journey. When the group ended, I called one of the participants and invited her to meet for coffee. We met, and at the end of the hour she asked, “Why did you want to get together?” I replied, because I didn’t get enough! I took a risk, and gained a best friend, along with evidence that it is never too late to make new relationships. Family, friends, work is the third component that adds meaning to my life. I was blessed to serve in the military for 38 years, and touch so many lives. As a rabbi, my days are filled with a sense of purpose, providing an abundance of opportunities for constant learning and my own spiritual growth. Viktor Frankl noted that one who has a why to live can bear with almost any how. Being a rabbi has certainly given me a why to live. A good eulogy is honest. It speaks to the essence of a person, not just the public persona they wished to convey. And so my eulogy includes these words- She was aware of her many flaws- her impatience primary among them. She struggled with how to honor every human being, and knew that sometimes she could be defensive. On this Yom haDin this Day of Judgment, yes- I judge myself. But that judgment is not only to induce a sense of shame. It is to prod me- and each of us- towards cheshbon ha-nefesh, spiritual accounting. We hold ourselves accountable, and we renew our commitment to our vision of our highest selves.

       Well- I’m not sure how this eulogy ends. I hope that it will end with a peaceful and painless death, at a ripe old age. I have made every provision to ensure that my end of life wishes are well-documented, and I will never cease encouraging you to do the same.

        So what will be your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? Save the date for our Feb. 23d workshop on the theme of “The Next Chapter,” where we will share resources for creating legacy videos, ethical wills, end of life planning, and generally holding each other’s hands as we confront the prospect of our own inevitable demise.

         Rabbi Daniel Cohen, in his book What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone? Creating a Life of Legacy, suggests the notion of “reverse engineering” your life, that is, starting with the end in mind and consciously living in such a way as to bring our vision to reality. He writes about the gift of choice and how we exercise that divine capacity each and every day. Do we choose the path of kindness? Of goodness? Of meaning? The path of lifelong learning and personal growth? Do we strive to see the holiness in each person we meet, and the potential for holiness in every moment, or are we too judgmental and just too distracted? “When we die,” he warns, “we won’t be judged against someone else’s life but against our own potential.” Rabbi Cohen says that, “When I wake up in the morning, I not only declare my belief in God but God’s belief in me.” Writing in “The Atlantic,” Arthur C. Brooks suggests a “reverse bucket list.” In an article ominously titled, “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” he writes, “What I need to do, in effect, is stop seeing my life as a canvas to fill, and start seeing it more as a block of marble to chip away and shape something out of. I need a reverse bucket list. My goal for each year of the rest of my life should be to throw out things, obligations, and relationships until I can clearly see my refined self in its best form.” He quotes E. M. Forester- “Death destroys a man,” but, “the idea of Death saves him.” Brooks recommends a number of strategies as we focus our perspective on living lives of meaning. Surprisingly, he begins by suggesting that we explore our spiritual selves. As a rabbi, I have to love that. He also notes that happiness throughout our lives is “tied directly to the health and plentifulness of one’s relationships.” It strikes me that he did NOT say “the plentifulness of our bank accounts.”

       If only we could believe in ourselves as much as God believes in us. If only we could live in awe of each day and its potential for goodness. If only we could reverse engineer our lives and live so that every decision we make move us towards that goal of how we want to be remembered.

        On Rosh HaShanah we read, (p. 290)- “Let us treasure the time we have, and resolve to use it well, counting each moment precious- a chance to apprehend some truth, to experience some beauty, to conquer some evil, to ease some suffering, to love and be loved, to achieve something of lasting worth. There is promise within each of us that only we can fulfill. Let us live our lives so that someday it will be true to say of us: the world is a little better, because, for just one moment, they lived in it.” What a legacy that would be! One of the things that touches me most in the Yom Kippur machzor are the words-“Yom Kippur is meant to be a near-death experience.” What does that mean? What does it mean to you? Are you read for a near-death experience in these next 24 hours? What will your eulogy say, what will your legacy be, and how do you want to be remembered?

Neuroscience and Happiness

Perhaps you have had an MRI to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of a serious medical issue? Through the miracle of this technology, neuroscientists have been able to analyze the patterns in our brain in order to understand what makes us happy.1 Looking to increase the happiness quotient in your life in 5780?

Here’s what neuroscience tells us: 1. The Most Important Question To Ask When You Feel Down – As Jews, there is no surprise here. “. . .guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.”2 Is that why participating in Yom Kippur services is so important to so many of us? Apparently, worrying about our problems feels like we are doing something about them, and it feels good! Yet, “guilt, shame and worry are horrible long-term solutions.”

Instead, we should be asking the fundamental Jewish question- “What am I grateful for?” I love that quote from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, “What could I be grateful for now if I was grateful for something?” What is really amazing, is that, scientifically, you don’t even have to come up with an answer. Apparently our brains respond positively to simply seeking an answer.

2. Label Negative Feelings – In the story of creation, Adam is tasked with the responsibility of naming every creature. Knowing, naming, what we are dealing with, is deeply empowering. I hope that you have never had to wait for a medical diagnosis, yet, if you have, you might have had that experience of a sense of relief in knowing what you are contending with. Knowledge is power. On Yom Kippur, we recite the Viddui, naming all of the ways we have gone astray, and we gather for Yizkor, acknowledging and sharing the pain of loss. Neuroscientific research validates that “consciously recognizing emotions reduced their impact.”

3. Make That Decision – When the Jewish people fled from Egypt, Moses stood at the Red Sea and pleaded with God for help. God’s response was that there is a time for prayer and a time for action, and this was the time to move forward. It was, famously, Nachshon ben Amminadav who courageously plunged into the water and led the people to safety. Turns out that a “good enough” decision can be more than enough! “Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb sums it up nicely: “We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.”

4. Touch People – We are all rightfully cautious of being respectful of people’s boundaries. We are sensitive about unwanted touch. It is a good practice to ask, “Can I give you a hug?”, rather than assuming that everyone is longing to be enveloped in our embrace. Yet, physical touch is so powerful that it can actually reduce pain. “Research shows getting five hugs a day for four weeks increases happiness big time.”

Join us at services for Yom Kippur. If you ask, I am confident that you will leave with enough oxytocin in your brain for a sustaining level of happiness. Ask – What Am I Grateful For? Label Negative Emotions Decide Hug, Hug, Hug You are on your way to a happier new year!

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

[1]Barker, Eric, “New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy,” https://www.theladders.com/careeradvice/neuroscience-4-rituals-happy, May 19, 2017

[2] You can read the article itself for all the scientific references to “the dosomedial prefrontal cortext, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens.”

The High Holidays and Mayonnaise

I’ve been thinking about mayonnaise. We tried one of those meal in a box services that have become so popular, and the ingredients included a tiny little container with two tablespoons of mayonnaise. I guess it’s too much trouble to drive to the store and buy your own mayonnaise and measure out two tablespoons? It has to be mailed to our home in a disposable container, already prepared and measured. Now, perhaps you are a regular subscriber to a meal delivery service? This is not meant to make you feel guilty for a convenience that allows you to eat real food in your own home prepared by your own hands. What I’m thinking about is the blessed lives we live and how much we take for granted. Life is hard and it feels exponentially harder this year. It is easy to become depressed and discouraged when we look at all that is problematic in contemporary life. Yet, for all its challenges, we live in the best of times. Reflecting back on that mayonnaise. If our ancestors wanted mayonnaise, they had to procure eggs. They had to harvest and cure and press olives to extract a tiny bit of oil. Then add some source of acid. And, of course, there was no refrigerator to store it, so if they wanted more two days later, they had to repeat the process. Mayonnaise has become my new symbol for the life-enhancing, and, indeed, life-saving blessings that we take for granted. Last month I suffered a serious cat bite. My hand blew up to the size of a tennis ball. I shudder to think what would have happened without the blessing of antibiotics. On a more mundane level, I stand under the shower and have access to as much clean hot and cold water as I desire. In previous generations, kings and queens did not enjoy this luxury. We have legitimate concerns about science and technology and how it impacts our lives. During this holiest season, perhaps we might let go of the worries about contemporary life, and, instead, use this time to focus on the fact that we live lives of comfort and ease that would have been unimaginable in centuries past. The Jewish spiritual path is one of gratitude; it’s time to count our blessings. Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Jonah and the Cactus: Evanescence

The book of Jonah, which we read on Yom Kippur, ends on an absurd note. Jonah storms out of the city to sulk. He had been sent to call the people to repent, and they did. God had compassion on them and, seeing their will to do better, decided not to destroy them.

Jonah was exasperated. He just KNEW that God was gracious and compassionate and that the people of Nineveh would be forgiven. He probably felt embarrassed that the message of destruction he had proclaimed did not come to pass.

Thinking his efforts had been in vain, Jonah wishes that he was dead. God forms a castor oil plan to shade the sulking prophet, and Jonah is was very happy about the plant.

To add insult to injury, God then causes the plant to disappear overnight. The sun beats down on his head. God asks, “Are you really upset about the plant?” Jonah replies, “I’m so upset I wish I was dead.”

“You’re so upset about this plant,” God reminds Jonah, “that you neither created nor destroyed. Imagine how I feel,” God says, “about a whole city of people (not to mention their animals?”

The lesson is one of repentance and compassion- important values, especially at this High Holiday season.

Yet I always wondered about that plant? It just added to the whole absurdity of the story- a plant that comes and goes in one day.

And then- this flower appeared on a cactus outside my patio this morning. This beautiful flower lasts for only one day- just like Jonah’s plant.

Life is like that- full of moments of evanescent joy.

I thought of Jonah, I thought of the flower, and I reminded myself to appreciate every moment of beauty, large and small- they may be fleeting.

The Rabbi’s Struggle With Faith

           This is probably an odd confession for a rabbi- I struggle with a sense of faith. As someone who is too often in the human tragedy business, I just can’t reconcile so much suffering as “God’s will.” I am not comforted by a thought that “Everything happens for a reason,” and I cringe when I hear, “God doesn’t give you more to bear than you can handle.”

         The protagonists in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, similarly struggle with their sense of faith. You know the story: Balak, the King of Moab, hires a very reluctant non-Jewish prophet named Bilaam to curse the Israelite people. God tries to discourage Bilaam, but Balak is persistent and promises great financial compensation. In one of the great ironic moments of the Torah, a magical talking donkey even appears to block Bilaam’s path. Bilaam initially beats the poor animal, and then, according to the text, God opens his eyes and the donkey is revealed to be a divine messenger, an angel.

          Our own Debra Gettleman suggested that we too often react like Bilaam when we experience obstacles in our own lives- metaphorically beating them and cursing and not imagining that we might need to open our eyes and understand setbacks as, perhaps, divine messages. She writes, “The parsha is rife with characters that struggle against the will of G-d. Over and over we see the uselessness of such a struggle. So often in life we believe that we know the proper directions our life is to take. Yet time and again we are frustrated by unanticipated obstacles that block our way.” She suggests that “. . . we (can) trust that G-d is leading the way and the obstacles we encounter might be G-d’s angels sent down to continue to guide us on our paths.” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it like this, “Just as a small fire is extinguished by a storm whereas a large fire is enhanced by it- likewise a weak faith is weakened by a predicament and catastrophes, whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.”

         I guess I have a weak faith. I can only imagine the comfort of believing that everything that happens is God’s will. Actually, I can’t even imagine it. The freedom from worry and anxiety, the “tranquility of soul,” as Bachya ibn Pakuda puts it. Sometimes, in despair, I wonder if I should just resign from my position as a rabbi? A rabbi who struggles with faith? Who rebels against God’s will? According to the Chofetz Chayim, “For the believer, there are no questions. For the unbeliever, there are no answers.” That seems to me to be a pretty absolute, maybe harsh standard. Aren’t we, as a faith community, very much about asking questions? Wasn’t Abraham’s very first reaction after connecting with God to then question God’s justice and wisdom? Aren’t we the people of Israel, Yisrael, the one’s who struggle with God?

          The thing that saves me is the Mussar definition of faith. Mussar literature reminds us that faith is a process, a path, a journey. It is a goal, not a certainty. “The main feature of faith,” writes Alan Morinis, “is seeking it.” It is greatly comforting and encouraging to me to understand faith not as a “blind faith,” but as an ongoing discovery. Mussar suggests that the important thing is not what we believe about God, but where we look for God. If we can, indeed, like Bilaam- “open our eyes” to God’s presence, we can find strength and comfort in the myriad of blessings that surround us, and, perhaps, a faith that can sustain us in times of struggle and doubt, challenge and difficulty. I’ll conclude with this poem from Yehuda haLevi-

Where, Lord, will I find You: Your place is high and obscured. And where Won’t I find You: Your glory fills the world…. I sought Your nearness: with all my heart I called You. And in my going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me.

B’Har and Social Responsibility

         Parshat B’har speaks of fundamental issues of justice and equality.  “And you shall proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land, to all who dwell upon her,” the verse which adorns the Liberty Bell, has its source in this chapter.  The text is concerned with distribution of resources, stressing the fundamental equality of each individual. The Torah expresses this value through the institution of the sabbatical and jubilee years, as means to guard against the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and to protect the poor from lives of indentured servitude.   This text establishes a connection between the way we treat the land and the way we treat each other. 

On a physical level, we learn that the land ultimately belongs to no single individual, rather, the earth belongs to God.     We may use it for a time, but it is ours only temporarily.  The Torah teaches us this lesson through the establishment of a Shabbat, a year of rest for the land, paralleling the weekly Shabbat in our own lives.  This is known as the year of Shemitta.  During this year we are not to work in the fields or the vineyards, but are given as food only that which grows wild.   If the land truly belongs to no one person, then we are all its custodians.

From a spiritual perspective, Rabbi Elias Lieberman notes that, “In God’s scheme for this material universe we inhabit, amassing has its limitations.  We are not what we own, for, in fact, we do not “own” anything.  We better define ourselves by what we accomplish, with what we “own,” by how effectively we use the resources that we acquire and with which we are blessed to do God’s work in the world.” 

The fiftieth year is the Jubilee year- all land resorts to its original ownership. Provision is made for the redemption of land belonging to a person who does not have the purchase price. Every fifty years the land is re-distributed, ensuring that at least once per generation, each person has the opportunity to begin anew.

Arthur Waskow describes the Jubilee year as speaking “about a cycle of change.  It does not imagine that the land can be shared and justice achieved once and for all, and it does not imagine that a little change, year after year, can make for real justice.  The Jubilee says that in every year the poor must be allowed to glean in the corners of the field; that in every seventh year loans must be forgiven and the poor lifted from the desperation of debt, but that once every generation there must be a great transformation- and that each generation must know it will have to be done again, in the next generation.”

Today, the treatment of our fragile ecology as well continues to be of concern.  We learn from this parsha that we cannot separate our ethical responsibilities in any one sphere of life.  Men, women, and the earth herself are all part of one, fragile creation.  Each part of this creation must be treated with respect and caring, or the integrity of the whole is threatened.

Although there is no evidence that shemita was ever widely observed, the problem it addresses is a perennial one.  As we read this parsha, we must face the issues of poverty, injustice and disenfranchisement which continue to plague us in the contemporary world.  B’har offers us a vision of the world as it should be, and emphasizes our role in translating that vision into reality, by working towards a true equality between women and men, by alleviating poverty and caring for our fragile environment, and by consciously treating each other with dignity and respect.  The work of tikkun olam, repair of the world, is part of our covenant with God.  In parshat B’har we discover a vision of ultimate equality.  It is our task to translate that vision into action.

KonMari Your Passover

         Spring cleaning has always been a Jewish thing.  Except we call it Passover cleaning.  It’s a good thing, at least occasionally, to take the cushions off the couch and vacuum up the crumbs, wipe off the shelves in the pantry, and empty out our pockets.  As is the case with so much of Jewish observance, a good idea can become an obsession.  I will never forget one year when the mikveh lady told me in January that she was busy with her Passover cleaning!  I don’t care if the holidays are early or late, Passover is NEVER even close to January!

         With Passover just 3 weeks away, it is definitely NOT too soon to be thinking about how we want to think about the holiday.  As we plan seders and buy matzah, we might reflect on a deeper message of all of this shopping and cooking and cleaning.  Is all of this preparation really necessary, or could we do something much more radically simple?

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to tell this story of an encounter he had with Brother Rufus, a Native American medicine man.  Reb Zalman and Brother Rufus were attending a conference of psychologists and mystics; the psychologists were studying the mystics.  As Reb Zalman was explaining the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which occurs at the fall equinox, and the holiday of Passover, which comes at the spring equinox, Brother Rufus lit up!  “Oh,” he said, “in the fall you teach your children the shelter survival and in the spring you teach them the food survival.”

        What a fascinating perspective!  Passover as the time when we simplify our diets down to the most basic foods- unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  What is it that we need in order to survive?  So I ask myself- why kosher for Passover potato chips?  I think Brother Rufus was on to something- Passover essentially is supposed to teach us how to live with less, how to identify our most basic needs.  It’s not supposed to be about obsessing about food and dishes and how we can replicate our lifestyle of the other 51 weeks a year during the one week of the holiday.  We’ve made it SO much more complicated than it needs to be!  To quote Rabbi Mari Chernow- “We can all learn something from the simple child.”

         This year, especially, I’m thinking about the cultural phenomenon of Marie Kondo.  Marie Kondo’s writing, and now a tv show, on the theme of “Tidying Up,” has had a massive influence.  People are decluttering their homes to such an extent that Goodwill stores in many places have had to halt donations- they are overwhelmed!  The cult of Kondo has turned “kondo” into a verb, as in, “This weekend I am kondo-ing my sock drawer.”

         Obsession with simplifying is not healthy.  Yet, Kondo has clearly struck a nerve.  Too much of a good thing is too much, and we are so blessed with abundance that we no longer own our possessions, they own us.  We spend our early years accumulating stuff, and our later years trying to figure out how to foist that stuff on others.  For my generation, it has been a rude awakening that nobody wants our treasures.  There is a lot of wisdom among millennials who are choosing simpler lifestyles and spending their time and money on experiences, not things. 

         Passover comes with a message of “Dayenu”- what is enough?  How can we shift our focus from excessive consumption to greater simplicity?  In Everyday Holiness Alan Morinis quotes the Vilna Gaon, who identified 3 levels of simplicity.  The first is simply acquiring less.  Next is to be happy with what we have. The highest level is to truly feel that we have everything we need.[1] Perhaps not everything that we might want, but everything that we truly need.  Perhaps we can use this holiday of Passover as a time to consider how we might simplify our lives and prioritize what is most important to us, shifting our focus from the acquisition of more and more stuff.

John Lennon said, “All you need is love.”  I’m not sure that’s true, but, as we approach the holiday of Passover, I invite you to consider that perhaps, “All you need is less.”


[1] Morinis, Alan, Everyday Holiness, MA:  Trumpeter Books, 2007, pp. 119-122

Purim and Anti-Semitism

This year at Purim, one verse of the Megillah especially resonated with me. In Chapter Three, Verse 8, Haman seeks permission from Achashverosh to destroy the Jewish people, denouncing us with these words, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all of the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are different from those of all other peoples and they do not follow the king’s laws, and it is not in your interest to tolerate them.” Jewish difference, according to Haman, cannot be tolerated.

In the post-Holocaust era, it was all too easy to assume that antisemitism was a thing of the past. Jane Eisner, writing in The Forward (March 12, 2019), suggests that it is precisely because of our focus on the Holocaust that we have “overlooked centuries of anti-Semitism on our own shores.” It was easy to believe, she writes, that it “would only continue to diminish.” Sadly, as we now approach Pesach, the words of the Haggadah still ring true- “In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us.” Anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout the world, and the massacre at Tree of Life Or L’Simcha Congregation was a terrifying reminder that there is no place on earth that is 100% safe. We take some comfort in the outpouring of support which ensued. “But I am beginning to think,” Eisner concludes, “that my experiences and those of my children may have been an aberration, an unusually quiet moment in a thrumming history in which genuine hatred is concealed just beneath the surface. Maybe America isn’t all we thought it was. African-Americans surely know this. Maybe I am just coming late and reluctantly to that realization.” It scandalizes me to even read these words out loud.

Conversations about anti-Semitism dominate the news. Just last week, (March 13, 2019), Robert Robb wrote in the Arizona Republic, “Anti-Semitism is real. It has been, and remains, a powerfully malevolent force in the world. It should be called out.” So here I am, calling it out, though, frankly, a rabbi denouncing anti-Semitism is hardly news. So we ask ourselves the perennial question- why the Jews? In yet another article published on the same date in the Wall Street Journal, the author quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks- “Jew-hatred is usually justified by appeals to a culture’s highest authority. During the Middle Ages, that was religion- so the Jews were charged with killing Jesus. During the Enlightenment it was science, so Jews were deemed an inferior race. Today’s highest source of authority is human rights- so Israel is portrayed as the worst violator.”

It is important to note that it is entirely possible to disagree with policies of the government of Israel and NOT be anti-Semitic. Yet, way too often, anti-Semitism masquerades as anti-Zionism. I believe that this is the reason that the conversation about anti-Semitism has become so prevalent in recent weeks.

Why The Jews happens to also be the title of a recent film that Ron and I saw at the Jewish Film Festival. Filmmaker John Curtin sets out to answer a different question. Not, why have the Jews been so reviled throughout history, but, rather, why have Jews been so successful? At less than 0.2% of the population, Jews have, for example, been 22% of Nobel prizewinners, 33% of Oscar-winning directors and 40% of chess champions. He notes that Jews are over-represented in the upper echelons of virtually every profession. In the film, he proposes a number of reasons- a high value on learning and especially learning through questioning. Education and risk-taking are credited as factors in Jewish achievement, as is the influence of Jewish mothers. Psychologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer is quoted in the film, saying: “Out of necessity we have had to think differently to survive. My family died in the concentration camps and I grew up feeling I had an obligation to make something out of myself.”

Despite all of his research, Curtin concludes that Alan Dershowitz is correct- “Don’t expect to find the entire answer, it’s just elusive. Dershowitz helps us connect the dots- “Jewish accomplishment is the other side of the coin, of why so many people have historically hated the Jews”. The resurgence of anti-Semitism in our own day is incredibly disturbing. We can take some comfort in the many righteous and supportive individuals of all faiths who stand with us. And we can be proud of the way we have enriched every country that has given us opportunity. As we celebrate Purim and as we look forward to Passover, the best we can do is be the best we can be, and continue to work for the diminution of fear and hatred in our culture and in the world.

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