All posts by Stephan
How To Be Grateful, Even When Successful
Yiskor Sermon 2010
September 30th, 2010
How To Be Grateful, Even When Successful
(sermon influenced by Rabbi Hayyim Kieval)
One of the most famous preachers in Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century was Rabbi
Jacob Krantz, the Dubner Maggid, who was renowned for his parables or meshalim. A fine example is this mashal, explaining the purpose of Sukkot.
Once there was a country ruled by a good-hearted king, who ordered that, at his expense,
the kingdom‟s slums and shacks were to be replaced by pleasant, bright houses. The citizens immediately carried out this generous law, and the land became prosperous as never before.
The good king went on a tour of inspection. Everywhere he was greeted with expressions of gratitude. But in his capital city, the king found in a forgotten corner, one old broken-down shack housing a poor family. The king was shocked.
“How is it that you also have not been given a new house to live in?” asked the monarch.
The old man who lived in the shack answered,
“The townspeople have forgotten us!”
The king said to himself,
“If my people can forget this poor man, whom they see all the time, then surely they can
forget me, whom they never see! I must, therefore, give them a reminder, as that they shall
never forget what I have done for them.”
So, after providing the forgotten family with a new dwelling, the king had the shack moved to
the center of the capital city. Above it hung this sign:
“This Is the Kind of Shack We All Used To Live In”Said the Dubner Maggid: When the Hebrew nation became prosperous in Eretz Yisrael, God commanded them to build Sukkot each year, lest they forget what He did for them after forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
Maimonides gave a similar explanation for the Sukkah: “To teach man to remember his evil
days in his days of prosperity”.
Just a few days ago, we went through the difficult fast of Yom Kippur. A very curious law in
the Mishnah (R.H. 9:1) states,
“Whoever eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishri is considered . . . to have fasted both the ninth
and tenth days of Tishri!”
In other words, we get just as much credit for feasting on Erev Yom Kippur, as we do for fasting
on Yom Kippur! How is that possible?
A brilliant explanation was given during the past century by the Rabbi of Bucharest, the
“Malbim”. He said that the sages realized that it is just as hard to feast for the sake of God as
it is to fast for the sake of God…..
The “Malbim” put his finger on a well-known truth of human nature that prosperity and religion
do not often go well together. It is an axiom that the yearning for God and the passion for
righteousness is to be found more among the troubled and the oppressed, than among the
comfortable and secure.
Prosperity often makes people self-satisfied and arrogant. Successful people are often
tempted to think of themselves as “self-made”. They begrudge any share of the credit to
anyone else – not even God.
This pattern was already well-known in the days of the Bible. Moses predicts the growth of this
attitude among the former Hebrew slaves, once they become rich and successful. He warns,
“Take care lest you forget the Lord, your God . . when you have eaten your fill, and have built
fine houses . . . and when your silver and gold have increased. Beware lest your heart grow
haughty, and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage . . .and you say to yourselves: „My own power and the might of my own have
won for me this wealth.‟ But you shall remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you
the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant which He swore with your fathers . . .”
We usually think of misfortune and crisis as the true test of character. But it may be an even
greater test to pass through good fortune and success. Perhaps wealth is a stronger
temptation, morally and spiritually, than poverty. Perhaps the “Malbim” was right when he
said, “It is harder to FEAST for God than to FAST for God”.
Suppose we neglect to thank God for our prosperity. As long as it does not hurt anyone else,
what difference does it make?
The answer is that it makes a great deal of difference to others how we feel about our good
fortune. When we feel that our success is self-made, we forget that life‟s gifts have spiritual
meaning only if they are shared with others!
We forget that life itself is a gift; that health, beauty, cleverness, strength, talent, are blessings
which may be taken away from us without notice. We are not the “manufacturers” of most of
life‟s blessings. Nor should we satisfy ourselves with being the “consumers” only.
The spiritual attitude is to consider ourselves “distributors”. When we come to understand that
we are merely the instruments of a power greater than ourselves, when we realize that our
prosperity or success is given to us not merely to consume but to distribute and share, then we
are truly grateful and truly human. But, as long as we are insensitive to these spiritual truths, we
lose some of our humanity.
The Yiddish play “The Dybbuk” contains a memorable scene. A wealthy man was afflicted
with a miserable illness. No doctor could diagnose him so he went to a renowned Hassidic
Rebbe for help. The Rebbe led him to a window and said,
“Tell me what you see”.“I see people in the streets.”
Then the Rebbe took him to a mirror and said,
“Look into this glass and tell me what you see.”
“I see myself, of course.”
“See”, remarked the wise Rabbi, “what a difference a little silver makes. Through a plain glass
you see other people, but when you put silver on the back of the glass, you have a mirror in
which you can see only yourself! This is your trouble. Ever since prosperity has come upon
you, you have forgotten your humanity. Use your blessing for the benefit of others and you will
be well again!”
The Rabbi was telling the unhappy rich man of the basic meanings of Sukkot: Be thankful even
in the time of prosperity!
I began this Sukkot message with a mashal of the Maggid of Dubno. Let me conclude it with
a modern parable, which I thing the Maggid would have liked.
The playwright Moss Hart, brought up in the poverty of the lower East Side, finally made his
fortune on Broadway and in Hollywood. He purchased a huge estate and proceeded to
renovate it from end to end. No expense was spared. Lakes and ponds were created. Trees
were uprooted and replaced. Every visitor was given the grand tour, and would lavish praise
on Hart‟s handiwork.
All except one guest, the playwright‟s friend and professional partner, George S. Kaufman.
After his tour of the grounds, Kaufman remarked,
“My friend, all I can say is, What God could do if only He had your money!”
Even in their tough times, American Jews have more money than Jews have ever had before.
The challenge before us now is this: What could we do with our money, if only we had God!
Exceptionalism: The Mantra Of Generation F
Friday, October 7, 2011 Kol Nidre 5772
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, PhD
In James A. Mitchener’s The Source (1965), fictional archaeologist, Dr. John Cullinane, worked with Israeli Ilan Eliav, modeled after famed Masada excavation archaeologist Yigael Yadin. Trying to better understand the nature of the people whose artifacts he uncovered, Cullinane asked Eliav for reading material about the Jews, the only ancient people to have maintained continuity to the present day.
Eliav replied, “Read Deuteronomy five times . . . It’s the great central book of the Jews, and if you master it, you’ll understand us.”
Eliav attributed this success to words found in the Torah: “: ki am kadosh ata ladonai elochecha ouvcha bachar Adonai leheeyot am segulah—“For you are a consecrated and treasured people who God chose from among all others on earth to be His people“ (Deuteronomy 14:2, also see: Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19; 28:1; 28:9-10; Exodus 19:5).
“Consecrated” and “treasured” are titles Jews ought to be proud of, but instead they promote anxiety. William Norman Ewer’s pithy verse, “How odd/ Of God/ To choose/ The Jews!” illustrates the ambivalence the concept of chosenness evokes, often because it is interpreted as conceit and superiority, forming the basis for racist ideologies. An ambivalent twentieth century philosopher Mordecai Kaplan removed all references to chosenness, including the words, asher bachar banu mi kol haamim—“who has chosen us from among all peoples,” from the blessing recited before the reading of the Torah in the (1945) Reconstructionist Movement Prayer Book.
In a riposte that shifts responsibility to us, Jews counter the aforementioned rhyme, “How odd/ Of God/ To choose/ The Jews!” with “It’s not so odd./ The Jews/ Chose God,” thereby providing a better understanding the concept of chosenness.
Tradition holds that the Jews were the last group to accept the offer to take on the responsibility of the Covenant. After all, the author of Deuteronomy (7:7) portrayed Israelites as insignificant: “It is not because you are the most exceptional of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you—in fact, you are the smallest of people.” Rather than an act of hubris, the Covenant is understood as a special assignment, a burden, that my teacher, Henry Slonimsky (1967) describes it these words:
The chosenness, the special love God bears for Israel, seems beyond reason. For are the Jews better than the others? Surely, both are sinners . . . God, so far from playing favorites, imposes special burdens and special responsibilities on Israel. The prophet’s stern reminder that special rights bring special duties (“You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth, therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2) holds with equal force . . . that the protagonist must bear burdens commensurate with a protagonist’s role.
Jews live a paradox. We wish to be seen as equal to all other human beings and therefore eschew the concept of being God’s chosen people, but on a personal level, we devote endless energy to teaching our children that they are chosen and special, fueled in part by living in the United States that has long framed its place on the world stage as being more powerful and better than any other nation, even though we face a new reality today.
Nevertheless, at a time of waning national exceptionalism, individual exceptionalism is on the rise, fueled by the belief that everyone is extraordinary and entitled to the same opportunities, whether gifted or lacking in skill or intellectual and physical endowment. No matter how untrained or ignorant they might be, they believe that they have the knowledge, wisdom and the right to tell doctors how to treat illness, clergy how to minister, elected officials how to govern, educators and coaches how to instruct. They feel entitled to speak about everything. Even though sometimes they are wrong, they are never uncertain!
Legendary helicopter or velcro parents who swoop in to save their children from poor results or defeat are emblematic of our age in which every child is a winner, gets inflated grades, shiny “good try” trophies and is protected from any anxiety, disappointment or unhappiness. In the extreme, the mother in John O’Farrell’s novel May Contain Nuts (2005), poses as her daughter in order to take her upper school entrance exams because she doesn’t trust her to do well enough on the examinations herself—the paradox of a parent wishing to help her child to achieve success while simultaneously undermining the child’s self-esteem by preventing the child from either achieving independence or experiencing personal consequences.
Children who never have had to deal with defeat because parents ensure success are deprived of coping skills. They cannot assess their own abilities and as a result, fall victim to egocentrism, omnipotence, and invincibility as they exaggerate their self worth. In adulthood, they are often delivered a harsh reality check dispensed by demanding professors, bosses, colleagues, spouses, and there is no parent about to make it all all right.
Child psychologist Dan Kindlon (2003), author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, warns that our “discomfort with discomfort” will not inoculate children with “psychological immunity.” In this comparison, he avows:
You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is “I can fix this.”
The role of parents is not always to make things right by preventing personal hardship but rather teaching children how to deal with failure and its attendant disquiet, and still land on their feet.
College deans call delicate in-coming freshman with undeveloped coping skills “teacups” because they are fragile and breakdown whenever things do not go their way. Some schools appoint unofficial “deans of parents” to deal with parents who hover over their children. So chronic is this problem that the University of Vermont hired “parent bouncers” to keep meddling parents at bay. Parents so stuck to their children thwart their efforts at individuation, giving a different meaning to the Latin term in loco parentis, not the literal translation “in place of parents,” but rather a more apt translation, “crazy like parents.” No wonder the products of such intense parental overinvestment have difficulty navigating the shoals of adult life.
David Elkind’s The Hurried Child: Growing up Too Fast and Too Soon (1981) and his companion volume, Ties That Stress (1994) were harbingers of increasing overindulgence and over scheduling, along with itinerant symptoms—physical and emotional issues, eating disorders, irritability, sleep problems, somatic illnesses, drug problems and worse. In 1981, he cautioned:
Today’s child has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress—the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations.
The change in the programs of summer camps reflects the new attitude that the years of childhood are not to be frittered away by engaging in activities merely for fun. Rather, the years are to be used to perfect skills and abilities that are the same as those of adults. . . We expect them to adapt more adult life programs than we adapt to their child life programs.
No wonder hurried children enter the adult world believing that they are better than anyone else. When they emerge from the cauldron of an overindulged and protected childhood, they often are entitled, self-absorbed, neurotically aggressive, narcissistic adults who believe that they can accomplish anything they set out to do— an attitude embedded in the popular lyrics of “It’s All About Me” by the Braytz:
Who will walk the red carpet? Who will be the star with her name in lights? . . . Who will be the runway queen?
I’m heading for the big time, yeaah (sic), I’ve got just what it takes, I’m the star who’s gonna shine so bright, Everyone in the world will know my naame (sic). It’s all about me and what I can do,
… I’m gonna win cause I can’tlose… It’s all about me!!!
Rabbi Harold Kushner (1996) in How Good Do We Have To Be emphasizes that when we try to be perfect, we pressure our children to be perfect. Kushner uses the example of the National Spelling Bee to make his point:
Every year at (spelling bee) finals, the organizers have to provide a “comfort room” where children who have spelled hundreds of words perfectly can go to cry, throw things, and be comforted by their parents when they finally make one mistake. The hundreds of correct words are forgotten as they feel like failures for having gotten one word wrong. . . Life is not a spelling bee where one mistake wipes out all the things we have done right. . . Life is like the baseball season, where even the best team loses at least a third of its games and even the worst team has its days of brilliance. . .
I believe in a God who knows how complicated human life is, how difficult it is to be a good person at all times, and who expects not a perfect life but an honest effort at a good one.
We search for perfection in ourselves and in our children and when they are anything less, we register our disappointment because the best grades propel children into the most prestigious schools, significant careers and security and status. “You are special” haunts many who wind up on the psychoanalytic couch where they complain that they cannot find joy or happiness because they are unable to deal with failure, although constantly reaching for the prize that they cannot enjoy, even if they attain it.
The irony is that children with happy childhoods, who feel that they are the center of the universe, can wind up as dissatisfied and lost adults. Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (2009), authors of The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement point out that narcissistic traits are on the rise. From 2002 to 2007, college students’ scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) rose twice as fast as in the previous two decades. Parents who regularly tell kids “You are special,” in an attempt to boost self-esteem, might be interested to know that a positive response to, “I think I am a special person,” on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory is an indicator of narcissism. Furthermore, in 1950, the Gallup organization asked high school students: “Are you a very important person?” and 12 percent said “yes.” In 2006, the proportion was 80 percent!
In his forthcoming book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (2011) calls the inability to objectively evaluate our own talents and abilities a “planning fallacy,” characteristic of this generation dubbed “Generation F”, the “fluid generation”, the “facebook generation” and even indelicately called the “f-ed up generation” because its constituents always feel special and operate by a new set of rules: “I desire it, deserve it, buy it, flaunt it, toss it, all because I am worth it.” Unfortunately, we are now all feeling the economic impact a generation without the ability to defer gratification that spent with abandon, incurred unprecedented debts without a notion of how it would be repaid, consumed resources without a hint of what happens when they are exhausted. Entitled individuals hooked on high self-esteem took greater risks and considered fewer consequences of their behavior as demonstrated in the financial world.
Given that most of us do not subscribe to the Jewish notion of chosenness but rather to individual chosenness, what can Judaism teach us to help our children avoid that path that can lead to a lifetime of personal unhappiness? How will today’s kids deal with defeat or hardship if they grow up in the equivalent of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon where “all the children are above average”?
Psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of the Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (2008) suggests that overindulgent parents who give their children perfect lives are creating a “handicapped royalty.” Mogel notes in her most recent book, The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Tradition to Raise Resilient Teenagers (2010) that not offering children every possible opportunity “feels like bad parenting,” even though it is really a gift! Mogel’s Jewish approach includes: accepting that children are both unique and ordinary and teaching them the value of work, resiliency, self-reliance and courage, and to be grateful for blessings.
Jewish life has always been related, not to success, but to a super-ordinate moral standard. A Jewish child is born with a purpose—on the eighth day, a child takes on the responsibility of the Covenant, a partnership with God to repair the broken world—the true meaning of chosenness; anything else is ancillary to that primary task. Children should not be worshipped because they are the reflection of our parenting and success, but revered because they are created b’tzelem Elohim—“in God’s image,” and know that even if they fail at a task, they are not failures.
Driving home on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, psychologist Daniel Gottlieb’s car was struck by a loosened tractor-trailer wheel moving at sixty-five miles an hour in the opposite direction. Careening across the highway, the wheel crushed the roof of his car, breaking his neck. Rendered a quadriplegic at the age of thirty-three, it was the beginning of additional disasters: the end of his marriage and subsequent death of his ex-wife, raising his children alone as a profoundly disabled parent, and the birth of his grandchild diagnosed with autism. Dr. Gottlieb rebuilt his shattered life and then published Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and the Gifts of Life (2008). Gottlieb recounts advice to a man who did good work in his field but considered himself a failure by not achieving anything important and rising to the top of his profession:
You’re right—you’re not important. In the larger scheme of things, none of us is important. But that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. You’re not a failure—you’ve done a faithful job at what was yours to do.
Quoting Ben Zoma’s rabbinic dictum, Ayzehho ashir? Hasamech bechelko—“Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot in life” (Avot 4:1) is one thing, but living it is quite another. Judaism provides rich examples of those who lived this as well as other examples of those who could not come to terms with not reaching their goals. In spite of years of struggle and yearning, Moses, for example, did not achieve his objective of entering the Promised Land and felt like a failure, but that did not negate his life-time of accomplishment.
Toward the end of his life, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi, was questioned why he trembled with fear:
When I am called to give a final account of my life before the heavenly throne, I am not afraid of being asked; “Why were you not like Abraham?” “Because I can answer that “I am not Abraham”. And if I am asked, “Why were you not like Moses?” I can answer “because I am not Moses.” But if I am asked, “Why were you not like Zusya?” What will I say then?
The goal of Jewish parenting should not be pressing our children to seek perfection, but rather to utilize their God-given gifts to maximize their abilities and to lead satisfying and upstanding ethical lives so that they can honestly say why they were themselves and not someone else! Good yontif!
Braytz “It’s All About Me”: http://www.elyrics.net/read/b/bratz-lyrics/it_s-all- about-me-lyrics.html
Elkind, David, (1981). The Hurried Child: Growing up Too Fast and Too Soon. Reading, MA : Addison-Wesley.
Elkind, David (1994). Ties That Stress. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Gottleib, Daniel, (2008). Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and
the Gifts of Life. New York: Sterling Publishing.
Gottleib, Lori (2011). “How The Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids (How to Land Your Kid in Therapy): Why The Obsession With Our Kids’ Happiness May be Dooming Them to Unhappy Adulthoods.” In The Atlantic, vol. 308, no. 1, July/August 2011.
Kahneman, Daniel, (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Kindlon, Dan, (2003). Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. New York: Miramax.
Mitchener, James A., (1965). The Source. New York: Random House. Mogel, Wendy, (2008). The Blessing of the Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to
Raise Self-Reliant Children. New York: Simon & Schuster. Mogel, Wendy, (2010). The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Tradition to Raise
Resilient Teenagers. New York: Scribners. O’Farrell, John (2005). May Contain Nuts. London: Doubleday.
Slonimsky, H. (1967). “The Philosophy Implicit in the Midrash” in Essays. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press.
Twenge, Jean and Campbell, W. Keith (2009), The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement. New York: Crown.
This is My Very Last Sermon
Mintz Yom Kippur 5772
This is my very last sermon. It could be. I don’t know. This is your last Yom Kippur. It might be. You don’t know. It is possible that we will not be here next year. Are you ready? Is your house in order?
Yom Kippur is the most awesome day of the entire year because it is the dress rehearsal for your own death. Yom Kippur is Yom Ha-mitah-the day of death. We are emptied, without our creature comforts to remind us of life: no food, no drink, no sex, no perfume, no comfortable leather shoes. We even wear white, a kittel, a shroud, which says: This is what I will wear when I die.
So, what about death? Most of us deal with death through either denial or fear! Even when Rav Nahman was dying, the Talmud teaches that he begged Rava to implore the angel of death not to torment him. Rava replied, “But, Master, are you not esteemed enough to ask him yourself?” Rav Nahman considered this for a moment, and then pondered aloud, “Who is esteemed, who is regarded, who is distinguished in the face of Death Himself?” Then, after he died, Rav Nahman appeared to Rava in a dream. “Master, did you suffer any pain?” Rava asked. Rav Nahman replied, “Almost none. Still, if the Holy One were to say to me, ‘Go back to that world,’ I would not consent, the fear of death being so great.”
The fear of death.
In 2005, Steve Jobs spoke to the graduating class at Stanford University. He said: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in Life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.”
Steve Jobs was right. No one wants to die and in reality no one wants to talk about his or her own death. Yet, we think about death all of the time. Both life and death are a part of our daily lives. So, how can Yom Kippur help us to prepare for death? Just think about the wisdom in taking a day every year to confront death, to contemplate it, to face it, so that when we arrive there it is not as scary, unfamiliar or shocking.
The central prayer of these Awesome days, the U’Netaneh Tokef is blatant in its theology. The great shofar is sounded and whether it is in a blast or a still small voice, we all hear the same thing-we are here to reckon with the end. Whether it is in our face as we read through the obituaries-Who in old age? Or, when we see an ambulance at the scene of a car crash-who by accident? Or, watching a documentary about the drought in the horn of Africa-who by thirst? Or, waiting for the results of a blood test or a biopsy-who by sickness?
The U’Netaneh Tokef teaches us that God writes us in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. But, three things can temper, mitigate or even change this severe decree. They are Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah. Teshuvah-the act of reflection and repentance, Tefillah-the prayers of your heart and Tzedakah-the act of creating justice in our world. Doing these three things can transform your death into life everlasting for those who come after you.
The U’Netaneh Tokef makes it clear that we have no control over when or why or how we will die. That is truly only in God’s hands. But, doing these things doesn’t change death. The severe decree is not death, but what of you lives on after you are gone. You have the choice: your death can be a blessing or it can be a curse. In the Yom Kippur Torah portion, God says: “I set before you life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants.” Choosing how we live now will affect how we will live on after we die.
Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last words should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace and gratitude. We have been given so much. Whatever we give away is so much less than what we receive. Perhaps this is the meaning of dying: to give one’s whole self away. For the pious person, it is a privilege to die.”
Jewish traditions around death and burial and mourning are so wise. If you have the opportunity to partake in them, to engage in them, to let them be your guide, going through the inevitability of loss is a much different experience. As your Rabbi, I have buried many, many people. I have stood with you to bury your parents, your spouses, your siblings and even your children. I am there in the hospital room when death arrives, I am there at the cemetery as you say goodbye and shovel earth onto the casket or scatter ashes in the wind. And I am there with you at home for shiva. This year I buried three children under two years old. I have lived in your grief. I have passed through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with you. I have learned a great deal about death from you and I have something to tell you. Death is as natural as birth. If we can understand death not as a terrible negating disappearance or abandonment, but as a homecoming, we can pass ourselves and our legacies on in a healthy and righteous way. I have seen the profound difference it makes in the grieving process when someone dies and their house is in order and when someone dies and their house is a mess. I have the profound blessing to witness the fabric of your lives and I am there when families are strengthened by our tradition or their life unravels without it.
Consider these two experiences:
Judy was 81 when she died. She was still living in the four-bedroom home on the Peninsula, where she and her husband Paul had raised their children. In the 20 years since Paul had died, she had not revisited their will, nor had she discussed her end of life plans with anyone. Her children assumed she wanted to be buried next to their Dad, but her daughter was insisting on cremation. Her children had turned the house upside down looking for her documents, bank statements and bills. Anger seeped out of wounds from the past. Her daughter could only talk of the number of boxes it would take to pack everything and where they would donate it before they sold the house. Her grandson Jake took me aside and cried because he felt that no one was honoring her memory-they could only fight because no one knew what else to do. Judy’s shiva was cold, short and lifeless. People stayed for only a brief amount of time. I asked her son why he had never talked to his mom about what she wanted. He told me that she never brought it up and that he never had the time.
Jeremy had been diagnosed with Lymphoma when he was 68 years old. After his diagnosis, he and his wife Susan sold their home, donating most of their belongings to Jewish Family and Children’s Services. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment very close to their son Sam. In the year after his diagnosis, Jeremy walked Sam and his sister Rachel through all of his files. He had a living will, an advanced care directive, and had taken care of all of his arrangements before he began to
deteriorate. He spoke honestly and openly with his family, even through his tears. Sam told me that one of the best and worst days was when he and his mother went to the Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma to pick out graves for them. When I asked why it was a best moment, Sam told me because he was so relieved that he had the time to have the hard conversations with his parents, while they were still alive. He really said goodbye to his Dad, heard his stories, laughed and cried together. Those conversations were the key to his own ability to truly mourn and to engage in the tradition of shiva.
Jeremy told Sam to serve his mother’s chopped liver at the shiva and Sam showed me the recipe in his grandmother’s handwriting. At Jeremy and Susan’s apartment, people shared stories and laughed and remembered Jeremy with love. The members of the synagogue, who had served Susan and Jeremy meals during the months leading up to his death, arrived with copious amounts of food. We listened to his favorite music, his granddaughter played his piano and we all ate chopped liver.
What is the difference between these two families? One had been given the gift of a peaceful ending. This is the gift of Judaism’s wisdom, to comfort, carry and bring them from death back to life. One had stories and joyful memories and a house in order. One had pain and anguish and no real way to come to any kind of closure in the end. Shiva works. Stop shaving, wear a black ribbon over your heart, show everyone your pictures, share your memories, take a break from life and live in death for seven days and then, slowly make your way back to life. Don’t deny your experience of grief, of loss. Shiva can bring you back to life. It can bring you closer to home and closer to your Judaism.
Just as you are courageous and show up here each year to confront the most awesome and, in many ways, most terrifying day of the Jewish year, be audacious in what you say, what you ask, and how you prepare yourself and others for your own death. The mitzvot that temper the severe decree take courage. Yom Kippur is ultimately telling us that the way we live, is the way we will die. The way that we do our Teshuvah and Tefillah and Tzedakah is the way that we will live on in the hearts and minds and lives of those whom we love. They really do take us with them. On this Yom Kippur I am asking you to do something:
Start the conversation with your parents or your children. Make time to talk face to face about one of the most difficult subjects about life. I have found that many parents don’t talk to their children about their own death, not because they don’t want to, but because they think that their children don’t want to have that conversation. Your parents will thank you, and your children will, too. No one wants to say goodbye to their parents and no one wants to leave this earth, but, just the same, we all do. It’s better to have your conversations while you and they are still here. Don’t let anything go unsaid. There is someone in your life today with whom you need to talk, but you haven’t initiated or finished the conversation. If this is your last Yom Kippur, imagine what you need to say to that person that you won’t be able to say after you are gone. Say it this year. Say it today. Call them, visit them, talk to them. Do your Teshuvah, as Rabbi Eliezar taught, the day before you die.
Let go and get rid of your stuff. I mean it. Go through your clothes, your jewelry, your attic, your boxes and your garage. Your children and our environment will thank you later.
Write a Living Will, an Advanced Care Directive, Power of Attorney. Write an Ethical Will and choose to become an Organ Donor.
Be clear with what you want to have happen to you. Most people I know that are under 50 and that have all of this in order have gone through some sort of health crisis, a heart attack, a cancer diagnosis or have suffered a loss earlier in life that made these decisions seem much more imminent.
Finally, think about where you are sitting right now. Look at this magnificent sanctuary, look down, at your seats. Think about the Jews who created this community 161 years ago. Think about those who labored to build this synagogue. I know they were thinking of you. It is their legacy to us. Now, remember who was here last year and is no longer with you. And think about who will be sitting in these seats when you are no longer here. Think about your spouse, siblings, children and grandchildren. Who will get them through shiva and back to life. Look around you. Really, take a look. The people here will help carry your legacy, too.
I know that this is a lot to ask, but it is Yom Kippur. I have posted resources on the Emanu-El Website including Living and Ethical wills, Power of Attorney and Advanced Care Directives that will help you begin the conversation and help to get your house in order. They are in the Sermons section of the site.
Some people write their own obituaries. I know a few who have written theirs several times. Think about it. Wouldn’t you want the way that you perceive your life to be the way that those around you perceived you and then your legacy? Now, some people do take this idea of being in control over their shiva or their obituary a little too seriously. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the story of the man on his death bed who is roused from his slumber by the wonderful aroma of his most favorite food in the world-his wife’s chocolate chip cookies. He pulls himself out of bed and very slowly makes his way down the hallway to the kitchen. There, he sees his wife and trays and trays of warm, delicious chocolate chip cookies. He reaches behind her to pick up a cookie and she turns around. She smacks him on the back of the hand with a spatula and says: “Don’t you dare, those are for the shiva.”
The author, Mitch Albom, writes in his book Have a Little Faith: “A man seeks employment on a farm. He hands his letter of recommendation to his new employer. It reads simply, `He sleeps in a storm.’ The owner is desperate for help, so he hires the man. Several week pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips through the valley. Awakened by the swirling rain and howling wind, the owner leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly. So he dashes off to the barn. He sees, to his amazement, that the animals are secure with plenty of feed. He runs out to the field. He sees the bales of wheat have been bound and are wrapped in tarpaulins. He races to the silo. The doors are latched, and the grain is dry. And then he understands. `He sleeps in a storm.’ My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our beliefs, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of `I could have, I should have.’ We can sleep in a storm. And when it’s time, our good-byes will be complete.”
Don’t worry. This is only a dress rehearsal for death. Or, this may really be your last Yom Kippur. Get your house in order. You aren’t taking anything with you.
But, they are taking you with them. Ken Yehi Ratzon-May this be G-d’s will.
Rabbi Sydney Mintz’e Resources and Suggestions for planning for End of Life Issues:
1. The Union of Reform Judaism’s resources on aging and end of life: http://urj.org//life/family/aging/
2. The Five Wishes is a resource for those who are planning ahead and includes books and guides to planning for illness and end of life issues: http://www.agingwithdignity.org/five-wishes.php
3. Home of Peace in Colma is Congregation Emanu-El’s own historic cemetery: www.jewishcemeteries-sf.org
4. This site gives resources to Interfaith Families who are in need of support around death and mourning: http://www.interfaithfamily.com/life_cycle/death_and_mourning/Guide_to_Death_and_Mourning_for_I nterfaith_Families.shtml
5. Rabbi Jack Reimer gives the History and Practice of Writing Ethical Wills: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Life_Events/Death_and_Mourning/Dying/Ethical_Wills.shtml
Happy Is The One…
ROSH HASHANAH EVENING 5768
This evening I wish you “L’Shanah Tovah”, while in English we say Happy New Year.” These are not exactly the same. “L’Shanah tovah” implies all will be well, but also that you will live a good life to be worthy of blessing and inscription in the book of life. I want that for you, but this evening I wish you a Happy New Year as well.
It is my sincere hope that you can find happiness in the year and years to come. Times have been challenging the past two years. All of our lives have been turned upside down. Uncertainty is an ongoing theme in our community. Recognizing and accepting that reality, we seek to live meaningful, fulfilling lives. As your rabbi, someone who has known many of you for decades, I want you to be happy, but first we have to determine what happiness is, how to attain it and avoid impediments to maintaining it.
This past summer, while working with some of our children at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, I was asked to describe one of my happiest moments. This was an easy recollection. Eight years ago we were celebrating Karen, my oldest daughter’s, wedding. During the reception, I was dancing the hora in the center circle with Lynn, and all of our children. Twirling around, I recall the thrill of celebrating this life cycle event, being immersed in the moment. We were surrounded by family and friends. I clearly remember saying, “it doesn’t get any better.”
There is a verse from the Talmud, that the world is like a wedding hall, which Rabbi Hanoch of Aleksandrov explains with a story:
A man came to an inn in Warsaw. In the evening he heard sounds of music and dancing coming from the next house.
“They must be celebrating a wedding,” he thought to himself.
But the next evening he heard the same sounds, and again the evening after that.
“How can there be so many weddings in one family?” the man asked the innkeeper.
“That house is a wedding hall,” he answered. “Today one family holds a wedding there, tomorrow another.”
“It’s the same in the world,” said the rabbi. “People are always enjoying themselves. But some days it’s one person and other days it’s another. No single person is happy all the time.”
I have been blessed to share simchas with many of you: weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, births and birthdays and anniversaries. It never becomes old or boring or repetitive to see the glow in a father’s face, to hear the joy in a mother’s voice, to feel the love and excitement of a young couple. The high simcha moments are few and far between. I urge you, when it is your time, embrace the experience as much as you can.
When you are invited to be with others for their milestones, by all means attend. You add to their happiness and can access your own at the same time. It’s a mitzvah.
The study of achieving happiness is now its own field of legitimate psychological study. Who knew? “Positive Psychology” focuses on mental wellness, as opposed to mental illness. You can see how this might become quite popular, studying what is good in life, not just our psychoses and neuroses. The Intro class in Positive Psychology at Harvard had 855 students, the most attended class in the university.
Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the trailblazers in the field, has determined that each of us has a set range of happiness, some are more open to being happy than others. Our common experience tells us that there are some people who feel life and react to it more deeply than others. The goal is to learn how to live at the top of our set range.
Based upon extensive testing in Happiness Research, Professor Ed Diener of the University of Illinois focused on three ingredients that are vital to happiness:
1. Family and Friends- the wider the grouping and the deeper the relationships, the higher will be the level of happiness. Those who are or have been parents of teenagers know how significant friends are in their lives. We may think that this changes as we age, but it does not. According to the studies, friendship, correlated with happiness, even seems to protect us from disease. Specifically, marriage, potentially the ultimate close friendship, adds 7 years to the lifespan of men and 4 years to the life span of women. (With the difference between men and women, I’m sure there is a joke in there, but I’m not about to touch it, at least not if I want to go home tonight.)
2. Meaning in life- This is when you embrace a belief in something bigger than yourself. Formal Religion, disciplined spirituality or holding steadfastly to a particular philosophy of life provides the structure for happiness. You’d have been disappointed had I not re-discovered that religion can make a qualitative difference in your happiness quotient.
3. Happiness comes when you have clear goals and values towards which you dedicate your life. This includes jobs, projects, hobbies that are both interesting and enjoyable, which call upon you to use your strengths and abilities. Albert Schweitzer once said: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” And when you are successful, you will be happy.
Judaism has understood these ideas for quite some time. In particular the Psalmist provides a variety of prescriptions for finding happiness. In the very first Psalm and the very first verse we read: “Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked and does not stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scornful.” In other words, if you want to be happy, first choose your company wisely. You obviously don’t want to be with people who will lead you astray down the wrong paths of life. Every parent regularly monitors those with whom their children associate. But we also need to be aware that there are those who drag us down either by their values or with their pessimism and negativity. These too are people to avoid.
The Psalmist continues: “rather the teaching of the Lord is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night. He is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose foliage never fades, and whatever it produces thrives.” (Psalm 1:1-2) What a surprise, the Psalmist calls upon us to study Torah, the teachings of what it means to be a good Jew, how to lead a meaningful life. Then, when we are well grounded, and live according to the values we know to be right and just, we are able to face each day with a sense of equanimity and happiness.
We often equate happiness with wealth and pleasure. There is a Talmudic teaching, which many of you have appreciated over the years. We learn: “Enjoy life while you can. When you face your Maker, God will ask why you did not partake of the pleasures of life which were available… and you’d better have a good explanation.” (Yerushalmi) Judaism does not call upon us to withdraw from the world’s pleasure, but neither should we overindulge.
However, pleasure seeking does not necessarily result in real happiness.
Positive Psychologist Todd Kashdan helps his college students discover that feeling good , whether through sex, drugs, drinking or most other forms of pleasure seeking actually only creates a hunger for more pleasure. After exploring the limits of pleasure seeking, they learn that doing good for others leads to a more lasting form of happiness and they back this up with research.
During our trip to Israel this past summer, we visited a 3rd century synagogue and homes in the village of Tsippori, where part of the Talmud was written. I came across a lesser known bit of Talmudic wisdom. There was a bedroom and not far from it, what we would refer to as an outhouse for which the rabbis wrote: “Happy is the man who has a privy near his bed.” As some of us get older, we appreciate that saying even more. Clearly having some of the basic creature comforts of life engenders a feeling of happiness. As many of us were forced to renovate our homes, we added those little touches that were not there before, but which provide us with pleasure: the flat screen television, nicer kitchen appliances and countertops, perhaps in keeping with the teachings of the Talmud, we even upgraded our bathrooms.
However, the Positive Psychologists teach that being richer does not make us happier, once you have the basics of life- home, food and clothes. Why is it that money and material things do not ultimately make us happier? Scientists say it is first because we adapt to pleasure. We enjoy short bursts, whether chocolate or a new car, but then the joy wears off. We also tend to compare ourselves; while richer people feel happier compared to poor, the poorer do not feel happier as they look up and there is always someone richer than we are.
Real wealth according to our tradition comes to those who are happy with their portion in life. It is a matter of attitude. One man who brought laughter and happiness to millions had this philosophy: “Each morning when I open my eyes, I say to myself: ‘I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy. I can choose which it will be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it’.” Along with the wit, we now have the wisdom of Groucho Marx and you can bet your life on it.
The problem is that we tend to put up barriers to our own happiness. Some of us are worriers. “Yes, I’m healthy now, but you can never tell about tomorrow.” “Yes, there are more restaurants and life is pretty much normal, but all it takes is one more storm.” “Yes, the kids are doing well right now, but will it last?”
To all of the worriers among us, the Talmud teaches: “Do not worry about tomorrow’s trouble, for you do not know what the day may bring. Tomorrow may come and you will be no more, and so you will have worried about a world that is not yours.” (Yevamot 63b) In other words, deal with life’s challenges when they come. Don’t allow them to diminish the happiness and contentment of the moment.
Of course greed and envy are twin traits, which easily tear away at our happiness. We see what we have, but all too often try to compare to others, diminishing our own lot in life by doing so. “Yes, I like my Camry, but it’s not a Lexus.” “Yes, I have a good job that I enjoy, but I could be earning more if I were promoted.” “Yes, I made the team, but I should have been chosen Captain.”
Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. There is nothing wrong with having high goals and aspirations, but when they cloud your appreciation of the moment then you are diminishing your potential for happiness. A Chasidic saying puts it well: “while we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment.”
Another barrier is a guilty conscience. We cannot be happy when our sins weigh upon us. Once again the Psalmist hits the nail on the head: “Happy the one whom the Lord does not hold guilty, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” (Psalm 32:1-2) This is one of the basic themes of our High Holy Days- teshuvah, repentance.
We are called upon to use this season to come to terms with misdeeds, confess to God and those whom we may have wronged by word and deed, action and inaction. Let us make amends where possible. The reference to the spirit where there is no deceit, suggests that we must mean what we say and do. A clear conscience opens the path to happiness and contentment with who you are.
We put up so many obstacles to feeling happy and enjoying life. So stop waiting…
Until your car or home is paid off
Until you get a new car or home
Until your children leave the house
Until you go back to school
Until you finish school
Until you lose 10 pounds
Until you gain 10 pounds
Until you get married
Until you get a divorce
Until you have kids
Until you retire
Until you die
Now is a time to appreciate the happiness that is in your life and seek it with all you ability.
This evening we are here as a community and I truly wish you a New Year in which you find abiding happiness. As was indicated by the positive psychologists, just being here creates that possibility. A Psalm which is frequently utilized as a prayer begins: “Ashrai yoshvai vaitecha, od yehallelucha sela- Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they forever praise you.” (Psalm 84:5-6) By spending regular time in the synagogue, whether connecting with God and all that is eternal or socializing with the person sitting next to you, psychologists suggest and tradition teaches that you can increase your happiness. So may it be this holy day. So may it be throughout the year as you enjoy a Happy New Year.
The Bridge To Forgiveness
Yom Kippur Eve- 5768
My dear friends, the plaintive call of Kol Nidre reaches out to us, as we entreat God to forgive us for all that we have done wrong in the year gone by. At the same time we are called to be forgiving of others. Forgiveness is the basic theme of the day.
The author, Naomi Remen, describes how one year she attended Kol Nidre worship and the Rabbi was giving his traditional forgiveness sermon, when he paused to pick up his squirming one year old from his wife’s arms, then continued his message. She was adorable, making faces as he spoke, at one point grabbing his tie, sucking upon it. Then she grabbed his nose. At that point, he departed from his printed text and asked, “Think about it. Is there anything this beautiful baby can do that you could not forgive her for?” Then she grabbed his glasses and burped. “And when does it stop? When does it become hard to forgive another? At 3? At 7? At 14? At 35? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?”
This evening, let us once again explore this topic of forgiveness. Rabbi Karyn Kedar has written an entire book on the subject, which I will draw upon, beginning with her opening poem entitled “The Bridge:”
Forgiveness is a path to be walked.
There are steps along the way:
loss, anger, acceptance, learning,
And along the way, you will come upon a bridge.
When you step upon it, it will carry you,
support you, connect you to another side of life,
a side waiting to be discovered.
Forgiveness is a perpetual journey.
There are many bridge crossings.
Each restores a bit more of what you have lost.
This whole process begins with a sense of loss. When we are wronged, someone offends us, hurts us, is cruel or uncaring, and we feel loss. How could she do that, taking away my position, undercutting me in such a way, messing up everything? How could he say that, when it’s not true and is so insensitive? How could he act in that fashion? We lose trust in those, who we felt would not behave in such a manner. Our security is shattered, since we felt comfortable and safe. And the loss is more poignant since it is often inflicted upon us by those who are dear to us, friends and family, trusted associates and co-workers, professionals upon whom we relied. At times we even lose faith, questioning how God can allow this injustice to occur, whether the sudden illness that invaded our body or the storm that blew through our lives, changing us and our community forever. Something good is taken from our lives and we are diminished.
And then we become angry. Of anger Rabbi Kedar writes:
There is good reason to be angry.
There is good reason not to be angry.
Anger can be like a river
that swells beyond its banks,
flooding and destroying everything in its path.
Or it can be like a river
that flows through your soul,
washing away all that needs to be gone.
knowing when to be angry and when to let it go.
Anger is natural and necessary as a response to loss leading to forgiveness. It is the first reaction. When we are angry, it is difficult to think or speak rationally. Our spirit burns from what we see as an assault, whether it be the unkind word, an undermining act, unfair criticism or simply unacceptable behavior. When we are undone, anger often is our first line of defense. It tells us that this is wrong and forms a shield around us, protecting us momentarily.
The problem with anger is that it can be destructive, not constructive when it permeates our response to a situation. A midrash teaches, “when the kettle boils, it spills hot water down its side.” So it is when we boil over with anger. We merely scald ourselves. We feel so hurt and disgusted that we cannot move on with our lives.
For some, being the victim is a comfortable role. It allows you to feel as though you deserve goodness, wholeness and love. However, remaining in that role denies you the possibility of growth. Anger is healthy, but only as a first step to healing and forgiveness.
Sometimes we will have to realize that we are angry with a spouse, a parent, a brother or sister, a friend, co-worker, angry at ourselves, even God, before we can move on to forgiveness. Forgiveness will mean letting go of our anger, leaving the darkness that is our reality in order to gain control of our spirit.
Then comes acceptance as part of the forgiveness process. “Acceptance is the compassionate embrace of yourself and your place in the world: without judgment, without fear, without regret.” (p. 5) We suffer loss and initially respond with anger, but ultimately if we are to heal, we accept our reality. There is frequently no choice. The illness strikes; the storm arrives; the mistake has been made; the job is lost; the marriage is no more; the death is real, whether we like it or not. Life does not always turn out the way we desire. Sometimes it is our own fault, sometimes due to others and sometimes by forces beyond our control.
Acceptance does not mean that the pain, the hurt goes away completely. To some extent it is like the athlete, who during the week is sidelined by an injury, but when game day comes will play through the pain. As some of you know, I often am subject to headaches. However, I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon, that being, when I am on the pulpit or busy with some activity, the headache seems to abate. Later when life calms down I might feel the pain afresh. So it is with our emotional pains; when we accept them we can lead our lives more fully, though on occasion they will give us a jab.
One of the challenges of acceptance is how to deal with the question of “why” something has happened, but as most of us are aware there is no answer. Sure we know the meteorology of storm tracks, but not why it came our way; we understand that cancer attacks cells in the body, but not why those cells belong to me or my loved one. In trying to deal with this question Rabbi Kedar writes: “I do not know why some die too soon, or others never find love, or how others are able to forgive. This, I do know: that it is only in this state of not knowing that I am humble enough to approach the mystery. To forgive you must embrace the mystery.” (p. 81)
For some the “mystery” is that part of reality, which is chaotic, that part of the world we simply cannot comprehend. It is randomness. For others it is God. We can blame God, be angry with God, but then turn to God as well for the strength to accept that which is our lot in life.
Coming out of acceptance is the opportunity to learn and grow. Forgiveness can be an evolving understanding. We learn from loss, from anger, from survival and perseverance. When we release the pain of the past we can then learn to be open to what the future can bring.
Literally, while sitting at my desk preparing this sermon I heard the ring, telling me an e-mail had arrived. It was from a woman I have not seen or to be honest even thought of in over 30 years. She saw my name on a list of former staff members of the URJ Eisner Camp and wanted to make contact. Janice wrote: “I remember you helping me through a rough time at camp in 1975. Do you remember Allan Z? Well, he DUMPED me that summer, and I fell apart!!! I have a memory of you letting me hang out in your room and looking after me. I’m happy to say as soon as camp was over, I met a new boyfriend, and we just celebrated our 26th anniversary. I’ll never forget your kindness….” We never know when we make a difference in someone’s life.
I do recall how torn, angry and inconsolable she was at the time. I was her camp supervisor, but she just could not function as a counselor for a while. She needed time to recover, but ultimately was able to pull herself together, accept where she was, forgive Allan for the hurt and move on effectively. Clearly she learned and prospered from what was a calamity at the time.
When we are in the midst of a painful moment, it is difficult to find that silver lining, to glean understanding or wisdom, to grasp a greater lesson. Forgiveness involves learning. In some cases it will be intellectual growth, prompting us to better evaluate and analyze future situations. Emotionally we will grow, counterbalancing devastation with hope. Even spiritually we can come to realize that making the Divine connection is possible and does not have to only be a refuge of last resort. That connection is open any time you want it to be. Pain can be a powerful teacher.
Friends, forgiveness is not a matter of unconditional love: forgive and forget. “There should be no forgetting of evil acts, no condoning of offense, sin, hatred. To forget is to run the risk of allowing these evils to happen again. Yet at the same time, to hold within us the horror and pain of every offense diminishes our lives.” (p. 3) We recognize our loss, allow a period of anger, accept our reality and even learn from the experience. Forgiveness is not condoning the wrong in the world or the offense inflicted upon us. It is not forgetting. It is a state of being that allows us to move on and be restored.
Ultimately that is our goal. We want wholeness in our lives. We know we cannot go back to where we were before our equilibrium was disturbed. Our world is never the same after we have suffered a hurt, but it can be reconstructed, perhaps even better than before. Through full forgiveness we restore our faith and trust in others, in ourselves and God. For a while all seemed dark and ugly. With forgiveness we can once again find a sense of beauty. Where briefly all seemed lost, we can regain optimism and hope.
I invite you now for just a moment to close your eyes and envision those who have hurt or angered you the most this past year. You may need to address this to yourself. Try out these phrases:
Tonight I forgive you.
I am moving on with my life.
I will not let my resentments pull me down.
I give up my anger which has been holding me back.
Tonight I forgive you.”
May this Day of Atonement that we begin tonight provide us with the opportunity to make the spiritual journey across the bridge of forgiveness.
Much of this sermon was based upon the writing of Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar in her book The Bridge of Forgiveness.
From A Mother To Her Girls
Yom Kippur Yizkor 5768
This day of Yom Kippur is intended to help us grow as human beings, created in God’s image. We do this by introspection, evaluating how true we have been to the values instilled within us, and where we fall short, make amends. If we are honest, we will admit to those areas of our behavior that have been sinful, commit to remedy them and seek forgiveness. If we are observing this day with depth and integrity, we confront the quality of how we live our lives with the backdrop of our own mortality.
The primary other time when this kind of soul searching occurs is when we are facing our own deaths or that of loved ones. The following poem, written by Rabbi Karyn Kedar, whose thoughts informed my Yom Kippur evening sermon, entitled “From A Mother To Her Girls,” speaks to this moment. It is written from a daughter’s perspective and the connection between parent and child seems to have been strong and positive. I believe it addresses many of our losses. You will not relate to all of what she writes, but perhaps some of it. She begins:
“The morning you wake to bury me
you’ll wonder what to wear.
The sun may be shining, or maybe it will rain;
it may be winter. Or not.
You’ll say to yourself, “black, aren’t you supposed to
wear black?” Then you will remember all the times we went
together to buy clothes: the prom, homecoming,
just another pair of jeans,
another sweater, another pair of shoes. I called you my Barbie dolls.
You will remember how I loved to dress you.
How beautiful you were in my eyes.
When we lose loved ones, especially when we have experienced the gift of years with them, we immediately recall time shared. While often they will be major events- weddings, birthdays, B’nai Mitzvah, or anniversaries, but frequently they will be the more mundane moments- time spent shopping, enjoying a meal, holiday observance, a story that was repeated over and over, a childhood experience, a trip that was shared. Then after specific recollections will hopefully arrive a sense of calm: the knowledge that there was a special relationship, one that will be missed, but whose memory provides a warmth and glow. Rabbi Kedar continues:
The morning you wake to bury me
you will look in the mirror in disbelief.
You’ll reach for some makeup. Or not. And you won’t believe that
this is the morning you will bury your mother.
But it is. And as you gaze into that mirror, you will shed a tear. Or not. But look. Look carefully, for hiding in your expression, you will find mine.
You will see me in your eyes, in the way you laugh.
You will feel me when you think of God,
and of love and struggle.
Look into the mirror and you will see me in a look, or in
the way you hold your mouth or stand, a little bent, or maybe straight.
But you will see me.
When loved ones die, we are disoriented. The simplest task is difficult to accomplish. Tears flow one moment, while at other times we feel like we want to cry, but the tears do not come. They are gone and our world is just not the same.
At the same time our loved ones live on in us. When it comes to parents and siblings, there is often physical continuity. We look like them, walk and talk like them. If you want to see what I will look like when I am in my 90’s (I should be so fortunate to reach that age in health), just look on the pulpit. But beyond physical links, we all carry aspects of dear ones who are gone within us, whether we realize or not. It can be in an expression, facial or verbal. It can be in situations, where we have learned from the best how to respond. When relationships are solid and healthy, we can even grow from our losses. Rabbi Kedar teaches:
So let me tell you, one last time, before you dress,
what to wear. Put on any old thing. Black or red, skirt or pants.
Despite what I told you all these years, it doesn’t really matter.
Because as I told you all these years, you are beautiful the way you are.
Dress yourself in honor and dignity.
Dress yourself in confidence and self-love.
Wear a sense of obligation to do for this world,
for you are one of the lucky ones and there is so much to do, to fix.
Take care of each other,
Take care of your heart, of your soul.
Talk to God.
Wear humility and compassion.
We honor our loved ones most by leading our lives fully. There is a time to mourn and a time to rise up from mourning. Loss is something that each of us incorporates and even compartmentalizes in our lives. It has its place, but cannot dominate our being, for that would not be a way to honor loved ones.
Deeds of goodness are the more lasting tribute. They were not saints. They had strengths and weaknesses, moments when they were endearing and others that simply had to be endured. Still we take the positive lessons they taught by word and deed and incorporate them in our lives. The fact that we are here and they are not is a gift to be appreciated and out of tribute we can make a difference.
Lastly we honor them by preserving that which was most precious- families, friendships and your relationship with God. Then Rabbi Kedar concludes:
When you wake to bury me,
put on a strong sense of self, courage and understanding.
I am sorry. Forgive me. I am sorry.
Stand at my grave clothed in a gown of forgiveness,
dressed like an angel would be, showing compassion
and unconditional love.
For at that very moment, all that will be left of me to give is love.
The major theme of this day is forgiveness, always a challenge. When death comes, forgiveness is more possible than ever. Perhaps we were hurt by them. We need no longer carry that baggage. What would be the purpose other than to continue as victim? Put it down and grant forgiveness. Reciprocally, we can ask forgiveness for what we have done wrong with the knowledge that it can never happen again.
What does endure is love. Even when they are gone, the love we have and the love they gave continues to be a source of positive spiritual energy within us.
On this Yom Kippur afternoon, may the lessons of this day and those of memory, bring us comfort and strengthen us for our New Year.
In The Footsteps Of The Prophets
YOM KIPPUR MORNING 5768
This morning I want to tell you about some real people whom I have met in recent days. I think of them as “mitzvah heroes.” Some are even seated on our pulpit this morning. They have heard the message of the Prophet that we just read and internalized it. Fasting is good, but it’s not enough. Words and sentiment are good, but it is not enough. What God requires of us are deeds, actions that make a difference in this world.
From our tradition we have the story of the cartman’s horse, which suddenly stumbled and fell dead. This was a catastrophe for the cartman, as he sat in the street in tears, for this was his livelihood. A crowd gathered, observed the poor man’s predicament, shook their heads sympathetically, mumbling, “too bad, too bad.”
A rabbi amongst the observers took out a paper bag, placed ten dollars in it and said, “Friends, I’m sorry for this man too, ten dollars worth. How sorry are you?”
When the crowd followed suit, they moved from observers to doers, from people with feelings to givers of tsedakah. We all can be such people and when we use the term tsedakah, this is not just donating our dollars, but also includes the pursuit of justice in our world.
Our Haftarah began with God telling the prophet: “Cry aloud; do not hold back, let your voice resound as a shofar.” There are a variety of ways we can cry out against injustice. At Jacobs Camp this summer I became reacquainted with Jen Marlowe. She had been a counselor and Unit Head many years ago. Since then her path has taken her around the world, where she has been an activist involved in creating and implementing youth co-existence programs between Israelis and Palestinians, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Indians and Pakistanis among others. She was working with a theater group in Seattle, when she connected with an old friend in 2004, who was planning to make a film about Darfur.
This was early on in the fighting and Jen like the rest of the world was unaware of the genocide taking place. She collaborated with two others, helped raise funds and journeyed to Darfur and throughout Sudan to make the film, to let the world see and hear the reality. “Darfur Diaries” presents the personal narratives of the people who have been attacked, displaced and are fighting for basic dignity. The only words spoken are by the people of Darfur as they tell their story to the world. Jen and her two co-workers dialogued with dozens of Darfurians either in their villages or in refugee camps in Chad. We learn about their history, hopes and fears, the tragedy and resilience of their everyday lives. By meeting real people with full lives, a rich culture and heritage, their story becomes more than a 30 second sound bite on the nightly news.
Jen screened her film to the older campers and shared how she pursues tikun olam, the betterment of our world. She is continuing her mission and is back in the Sudan making a second film. In addition she is diligently striving to keep a number of individuals who are depicted in the first film from being killed by the Sudanese government. Her movie has been shown around the world, so that no one can say, we did not know. Individuals can make a difference. Walking in the footsteps of the Prophets, Jen is a mitzvah hero.
Then we read that part of our prophetic duty is “to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain.”
Let me tell you about Kristine Smith. Kristine initially came to see me to discuss issues of Jewish identity and her family history. Then she began to share one of her great passions. With her baby slung around her, she described how she is a one woman campaign to create a law that would ban the sale of products designed to inflict pain upon children.
I had no idea that there are companies around the country selling whips, rods and paddles, specifically designed to beat children. One in Oklahoma markets “The Rod,” buttressing their advertising with quotes from the Book of Proverbs:
22:15- “Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child; but the rod of correction shall drive it from him.”
23: You shall beat him with the rod and shall deliver his soul from hell.
Their ad goes on to promote their product with bullet points such as:
- Less likely to cause injury
- Less confusion to the child
- Belts are for holding up pants
- Spoons are for cooking and eating
- Paddle ball paddles are for games
- Hands are for loving
- Rods are for chastening
This last item is written in bold letters, with a little smiley face instead of bullets. It goes on to describe that this is a rod of love and how to effectively beat your child.
Another Arkansas Company sells the “Rod of Correction” a spanking stick with Biblical verses on it. Joey in Pennsylvania of “spare-a-rod.com” began his mission to sell spanking paddles, when he became filled with God’s spirit while praying in his shower.
I’m not going to tell you that this is one of the most pressing issues of our time.
What impressed me so was Kristine’s passion. She had stacks of cards ready to be sent to Rep. Jindal, which she personally stamped with her resources with a goal for him to be one of the supporters of legislation that would ban the sale of these products. Along with similarly minded people around the country, that legislation is now before congress. Individuals can make a difference. Walking in the footsteps of the Prophets, Kristine, who is not Jewish, is still a mitzvah hero.
Earlier we learned “If you remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word… then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your night become bright as noon.” Ben Kfir is a big strong Israeli, who has had to face great darkness.
His beautiful, bright and artistically talented daughter Yael was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber. By all rights he could be filled with anger and vengeance. Over dinner in Jerusalem he detailed how initially his reaction was withdrawal. He stayed in bed, rarely leaving his apartment in Ashkelon.
Then a friend told him about a group called the “Parents Circle,” now renamed “Family Forum.” The goal of the organization is to avoid further bereavement as a result of the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. A reconciliation process between the two communities based on the conviction that pain and suffering are common to both peoples is their goal. Using bereavement as a universal experience, they strive to alleviate the hatred between the two communities, while educating toward peace and tolerance.
Specifically they connect Israeli parents who have had children killed in the fighting with Palestinian parents whose children have also died. They commiserate with one another and build bridges to end the demonization of each by the other. In teams of bereaved parents from both sides of the conflict, they create dialogue encounters at colleges, high schools and community centers in Israel and Palestinian territories. In some cases it is the first time that a Palestinian speaks to an Israeli who is not in uniform with a gun or an Israeli meets a Palestinian, who is not seen as a possible terrorist. The hope is for tolerance and reconciliation instead of hatred and revenge.
I asked Ben why he does this, literally risking his life on some occasions to speak in places such as Ramallah, a Fatah stronghold. For Ben it is not a matter of forgiveness, but rather to make his daughter’s death mean something.
Shutafim l’kaev-shutafim l’tikvah- Sharing Pain-Sharing Hope. There are now some 500 families involved in this human effort. Individuals can make a difference. Walking in the footsteps of the Prophets, Ben is a mitzvah hero.
There is little more compelling than the exhortation “to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house or when you see the naked, to clothe them.” We hear these words and cannot help but think of the enormous needs in our community, many related to Katrina, but others that pre-date that catastrophe.
In this regard we have many mitzvah heroes within the congregation already. Matt Tarr, who chanted the Torah blessings headed our Religious Action Committee last year. Working with Marc Beerman, who led our Katrina Response Committee, he went out into the community gutting homes. Carol Asher, who chanted the Haftarah blessings, labors tirelessly for the Tipitina’s Foundation to bring musical instruments and musicians back to New Orleans. She and her husband, Harold, are both active board members for two different Charter Schools, Carol with Lafayette Academy and Harold with Langston Hughes Middle School. Buddy Bart, who read the Haftarah translation, is busy promoting positive developments in our community through a television show on Cox cable. I also salute Mindy Caplan, whose Pajama Program literally puts clothes on the backs of children. Rick Streiffer took a leave from his medical practice in order to help lead the effort to restore primary health care for the State. Gary and Suzy Lazarus have led a number of clean-up and rebuild projects, including one recently on behalf of Federation. And I’m sure others of you are heroes in your own right and I may not be aware of what you are doing. As I learn of you and your activities I will be pleased to share that good news with the congregation through our newsletter.
However, Gates of Prayer became particularly linked to one project to make a difference through the efforts of the Silverman family. Shortly after Katrina, Jeffrey Silverman returned for a visit home for a year and volunteered for Common Ground and their Women’s Shelter; his mother, Jackie, then started helping out, Jackie who does not know how to say “no” when she sees people in need. Her years of experience at Jewish Family Service prepared her. She could see that the shelter was running poorly; the building was dilapidated and ill-equipped and there was little leadership. That’s where her husband Dan entered the scene, to apply his organizational skills honed by years in synagogue leadership, including renovating this building in 2000 and again in 2005.
They mobilized a variety of members of this congregation to provide beds and bedding, carpeting, proper electrical and plumbing, food, clothing, medical care and more for the women and children flowing through the facility. We can be proud how with their initiative, we have risen to meet a need.
That need continues. Recently, what was called the Upper 9th Women’s Shelter linked to Common Ground has been spun off by Jackie and Dan to become an independent operation and will be known as The New Orleans Women’s Shelter. A better and larger house, two doors down from the old, has been rented and will be able to serve more residents. Jackie and Dan, working with a number of people to ensure its quality, are committed to helping one group of underprivileged Katrina victims regain independent living.
The facility now operates as a family-style transitional women and children’s home with a focus on helping women stabilize, obtain proper medical treatment and other locally available social services, enroll children into school and day care, register for job training classes, secure employment, locate affordable permanent housing and move on to successful independent living. Since October of 2005, over 200 different women and children have been served.
This Shelter is a wonderful opportunity for our congregational community to make a difference. We are looking for major donors both here and outside our community, who can help underwrite the basic monthly operational costs for rent, utilities, food, transportation assistance, pharmacy and medical assistance, general housekeeping and facility maintenance. In addition we will be collecting food, cosmetics and toiletry items on a regularly announced basis; Brotherhood and Sisterhood have agreed to periodically cook for the shelter members in our kitchen and then bring the food to the Shelter. At holiday time we will engage in projects to make the season joyous. We can all make a difference. We can all be mitzvah heroes.
On Rosh Hashanah evening I wished you a “Happy New Year,” teaching that real happiness can come by being engaged in worthy projects, doing for others. This is one such opportunity. There are hundreds of other possibilities in our community as well where one person can make a difference.
We truly walk in the footsteps of the prophets. It was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote:
“Daily we should take account and ask:
What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation?
Let there be a grain of prophet in every human being!
Our concern must be expressed not symbolically, but literally;
not only publicly, but also privately;
not only occasionally, but regularly.
What we need is restlessness,
a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.”
May we be inspired to respond to the challenge on this Yom Kippur.
We Do Need To Be Perfected: A Response to Ann Coulter
October 19, 2007
My friends, God wants us to be perfect, so does Ann Coulter. However what God wants of us and what Ann seeks for us are two very different paths to perfection.
Let’s start with God in this week’s Torah portion. At the beginning of Genesis 17, the chapter that includes God’s call for circumcision as a sign of the covenant, we read the following: “Hithalech lifanai v’heyay tamim.” Translating this is a bit challenging. “Hithalech” means to walk, but it is a form of verb which implies that you are walking within yourself and with God at the same time. Following on earlier ideas, we might say that God calls upon us to walk within Divine footsteps, which will create a unique bond with the Eternal.
“V’heyay tamim” has been translated as be whole-hearted, pure hearted, reach for perfection, blameless, faultless. Noah is described as an “ish tam- a whole hearted or perfect individual.” Later on we read of sacrificial animals that are “tamim-without blemish.” These are the animals that are appropriate for sacrifice. Some scholars suggest that by performing circumcision, we remove a blemish from a ritual perspective, rendering us as more appropriate to serve God.
I liken this term “tam” to the Yiddish word “mensch.” Mensch is a term of high praise for men or women, who are whole-hearted, righteous people. They fulfill God’s teachings and the world is a better place because they have been in it. I don’t know that they are “perfect,” which implies without any flaws or blemishes on their record, but they come as close to it as we can imagine. We should all strive to walk with God and be menschen.
So, why do I say that Ann Coulter also wants us to be perfected, but in a very different fashion? Many of you are aware that Ann Coulter is a conservative political commentator, who has been known to make a variety of what most consider to be “outrageous statements,” sometimes about Gays and lesbians, other times about immigrants, forced conversion of Moslems to Christianity or even about the widows and widowers from 9/11.
On October 8 she was on CNBC’s television show, “The Big Idea,” hosted by Donnie Deutsch, a wealthy businessman, who happens to be Jewish. As part of the interview he asked her to describe her perfect America, to which she responded, it would be like New York during the Republican Convention. With further prodding, some might say baiting, by Donnie, she said it would be better if all were Christians. She goes on to say that she would like us all to be Christians and thereby we would be “perfected.” As far as she is concerned, we can still be Jews, but we have to accept Jesus and then we will be “perfected.” As I stated previously, this is a very different perspective from our understanding.
I must confess that I have only seen Ann Coulter on rare occasions and each time I have heard her, I find her babble to be obnoxious and often mean-spirited. While some may agree with her, she really does not speak for anyone beside herself. She is a beautiful blond with long legs, who captures your attention however she can. Controversy is the way she gains notoriety and while promoting a new book, making headlines never hurts.
In truth I do not believe that she deserves the attention that she is receiving from some quarters and the only reason I am bringing up the incident is because I think we can learn from it.
Some call for her to be banned from the airwaves. We don’t provide advocates of violence on mainstream media. Why should we provide someone who is often a hate mongerer with a forum? You would think that since Jews control the media, we could keep her off the air. So much for that stereotype! While I do not want to see her on television, I prefer that audiences be the ultimate censors. Besides with all the various paths for communication today, there will always be a vehicle for her to communicate. Smart people can simply turn her off.
As you might imagine, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement saying: “The Anti-Defamation League strongly condemns Ann Coulter for her anti-Semitic comment that Christians “want Jews to be perfected”… During her October 8 appearance, Coulter suggested that Jews should convert, adding that, “we just want Jews to be perfected, as they say. … That’s what Christianity is.”
I sometimes feel as though the ADL uses the term “anti-Semitism” too loosely. In this case, I don’t believe that Ann Coulter was making a statement about Jews as a people, which is usually the broad stroke of the term. Rather her comments are more about “anti-Judaism.” Correctly the ADL goes on to say:
“Ann Coulter may be a political pundit but she clearly knows very little about religious theology and interfaith issues. Coulter’s remarks are outrageous, offensive and a throwback to the centuries-old teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism. The notion that Jews are religiously inferior or imperfect because they do not accept Christian beliefs was the basis for 2,000 years of church-based anti-Semitism. While she is entitled to her beliefs, using mainstream media to espouse the idea that Judaism needs to be replaced with Christianity and that each individual Jew is somehow deficient and needs to be “perfected,” is rank Christian supersessionism and has been rejected by the Catholic Church and the vast majority of mainstream Christian denominations.”
Perhaps I am naïve, but in some ways I believe Coulter entered into an arena that she had no intention of going. However, she purports to be a fundamentalist Christian. Whether we as Jews like it or not, many Christian groups see it as their duty to bring Jews to Christ. It may not be PC, but it is a religious mission. Coulter claims to accept our Bible, which Christians refer to as the Old Testament or Old Covenant (an important term on this particular Shabbat.) as the old path to God. She sees the New Testament as what she called the fast track, Federal Express to salvation. For her perfection comes from faith.
This is what the ADL is referring to as “supersessionism,” the idea that one Testament has superseded the other. They are correct when they say that this concept has now been rejected by the Catholic Church and many other mainstream Protestant groups. However, we have to realize two things. The fact that our testament, our covenant with God as Jews is now respected by the ecclesiastic authorities of a variety of churches does not mean that this new teaching has trickled down to the masses. Many more years of teaching will be necessary to break the impression left by centuries. Second is that this concept has not been embraced by many other “good Christians.” I use that term because these are good people (not necessarily Ann Coulter), but many are good people who have a very different view. They want to love us to death.
I am active as a rabbi in the interfaith community. A number of years ago we had a Continuing Education series to learn about other faiths. A Baptist Minister whom I had known for years came and taught. When asked about this issue of wanting to missionize to Jews, he responded respectfully: “I am here tonight because my friend Rabbi Loewy invited me to teach. I am here tonight because I want to share with you the perspectives of my faith and I am here tonight because in my heart of hearts I want you to find Jesus as your Savior.”
Rabbi Dr. David Sandmel, an expert on Christianity writes: “Christians who actively proselytize view the conversion of the Jews in entirely positive terms. Many of these Christians truly believe they love and respect the Jews — we are God’s chosen. From their perspective converting Jews hastens the second coming, and/or is the fulfillment of a commandment in the New Testament, and/or, on a spiritual level, is understood to be act of love (who wouldn’t want to be perfect?), and/or is a way of doing what Jesus would do. (Yes, there are baser motivations as well.) For many Jews, on the other hand, Christian mission to Jews is experienced as just a less violent form of genocide: its goal is to rid the world of Jews. This creates a major “disconnect” and is source of great friction.”
So how do we respond to such people? As Donny Deutsch did, we need to let them know that we find what they have said is offensive and insulting, but we can be more forceful. The God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses, the God of Jesus has taught us as a Jewish people to reach for perfection through our deeds. Faith alone does not make God’s world a better place.
My colleague Stuart Federow has devoted much of his rabbinate to this issue. He teaches that we can and should say, with all due respect, your text and testament and covenant is not a continuation of ours. “To the contrary, it goes in a very different path. It contradicts our text and our testament and our covenant. To say that our Judaism is not enough, that we still need perfecting, even if we follow our faith, THAT is what is insulting. Our faith is enough without Jesus.” These may be strong words, but sometimes people need to realize that we are serious about our faith, just as they are about theirs.
Yes Ann, we do need to seek perfection, but we will do so in consonance with the covenant of Abraham and Sarah, which we Jews reaffirm on this Shabbat.
Many Have Gone Forth
October 26, 2007
“I want to stay in your country and be a citizen,” said the older looking gentleman standing in front of the Immigration Officer.
Officer: “How did you get here?”
Applicant: “Easy, I crossed the border.”
Officer: “How old are you?”
Applicant: “I’m 75 years old.”
Officer: “Are you married?”
Officer: “Do you have any children?”
Applicant: “Not yet, but I’m planning to have many.”
Officer: “Do you have any family already here?”
Officer: “Do you have others with you?”
Applicant: “Yes, my nephew and a few slaves came with me as well.”
Officer: “Do you have a way to make a living should you be allowed to stay?”
Applicant: “A salesman can always make a living. I’ll get by. I hear there are lots of jobs if a man is willing to work hard. I can herd sheep. I’ll move around a lot.”
Officer: “I may have to take this application under advisement. Your name again sir is?”
Applicant: “Avram, but you can call me Abraham.”
Fortunately for us, Abraham, our patriarchal ancestor, did not have to be processed through immigration in order to enter the Land of Canaan many years ago. As we are currently reading in our weekly Torah portions he heard God’s call to go forth, brought his wife and family and settled in a new land. As an immigrant, he had his difficulties and conflicts with those who were already there. We will read next week how when trying to purchase a burial cave for his wife, he has to pay a steep price, explaining to the locals, “ger v’toshav anochi- I am a Resident Alien among you.” I doubt that this term had the same meaning then as it does now. Nonetheless, he was clearly the outsider needing to establish his status. Even when there is plenty of room for everyone, there is a natural tendency to feel threatened by newcomers, sometimes those feelings are justifiable, but often, they are not.
Our country is facing a similar problem today. There are approximately 11-12 million undocumented individuals currently residing in the United States. The vast majority are good, hard working people, who simply want to earn enough to care for their families. They dream the same dreams as those of the immigrants who preceded them. We all know who they are and many of us have had personal contact with them in recent days. Nationally they are the people who harvest the food we eat, provide labor on our construction sites, pave our roads and work in a variety of stores and factories. Locally, they are the people who clean our homes, installed our cabinets, put sheetrock on our walls, tile on our floors and roofs over our heads.
The issues relating to immigrants are multi-faceted. We need these people to perform important functions within our economic system. Unfortunately many have entered the country illegally and even after having lived here for years, contributing to the economy, including paying various taxes, they are still illegal. Ironically, some pay Social Security taxes, but they are ineligible to receive Social Security.
Governments and employers have winked an eye to their presence. As a sub-group in our society, many immigrants are caught in a cycle of poverty and violence, particularly in major cities. They place additional pressure upon community social services and educational resources.
Those seeking to come here legally face multiple barriers to their entry. The process of receiving a visa can literally take years, often resulting in the separation of family members. And the actual number of visas available is inadequate to meet the need for workers.
From a humanitarian perspective these people are often oppressed either by those who bring them into the country or those who employ them in sub-standard working conditions. Thousands have died simply trying to enter the country. Not being under the umbrella of federal or state protection laws, they suffer in the field and the factories. One news segment covering this week’s California fires showed illegal migrant workers staying in the fields, lest they lose their jobs and hiding from police, lest they be deported.
On the one hand, we cannot open our borders to just anyone who wishes to enter. Post 9-11 security has us appropriately concerned about the possibility of terrorists entering our country. And there are those who believe that the answer to immigration problems is to simply build higher-tech fences and walls. Alternatively immigration has been and continues to be the lifeblood of this country. Did we not just elect the son of immigrants as our Governor? We must find a fair and equitable balance between the need to protect our borders and at the same time integrate as citizens those immigrants who need to come here, along with those whom we need.
For us as Jews, immigration is both a spiritual and historic issue. It is not a coincidence that Jewish poet Emma Lazarus penned the poem that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” is a fundamental expression of the American spirit and reflects the American Jewish experience.
Yet long before Emma Lazarus, our Torah taught us that we should “not oppress the “ger- the stranger, i.e. the immigrant,” for we know what it was like to have been a ger- a stranger in Egypt.” That sentiment and reminder is repeated numerous times in one form or another in the Torah. One of my rules about Torah study is to recognize that when a prohibition or exhortation for certain conduct is found, that means it was deemed necessary to respond to the way people were behaving. (You don’t install a traffic light where there is no traffic.)
Just as our ancestors may have forgotten what it was like to have been enslaved in Egypt, all too many of us have forgotten that once we were an immigrant people. In the 1800’s and early 20th century when most of our families arrived in America, we ran into a variety of barriers. Those who were already here resented the newcomers. It was an “us” vs. “them” mentality and we were “them.” This was not only an issue of Christian America not being open to Jews, but the first wave of Sephardic Jews not being happy about the arrival of the German Jews, then the Germans being resistant to the Eastern European Jews. We all too easily fall into the sin of xenophobia, the fear of others and their differences, the fear that they will upset the order of life as we know it.
At the same time we do not wish for others to take advantage of us. This Shabbat we read of the origin of the mitzvah of being hospitable to newcomers. There is a wonderful midrash that teaches when visitors come you should feed them choice plump fowl on the first day, then meat on the second day, fish on day three, dairy on day four and veggies on day five. In other words there are limits as to how far hospitality is required and this recognizes that when newcomers arrive it can be a drain upon the support system.
In fact from the opposite perspective the Talmud provides guidelines for those who move into a new town as to their communal responsibilities: If a person resides in a town for 30 days, he must give to the soup kitchen; after three months to the tsedakah collective; by six months, additionally to the clothing fund; after nine months to the burial society and at the end of twelve months to the repair the town walls. (Talmud Baba Batra 8a) Many immigrants legal and illegal are already meeting their societal responsibilities.
As with so many issues, there needs to be a balance between compassion and justice, an appropriate understanding of the conditions and realities of people’s lives along with the need to comply and maintain the law. From the beginning our tradition recognized that tension. A midrash on creation itself compares it to a king who had some empty glasses: The King reasoned “If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if cold, they will contract and snap.” What did the King do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them and so they remained unbroken. Even so, said the Holy One, “if I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of judgment alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and mercy, and may it then stand!”
This principle of balancing judgment and mercy surely applies to the debate concerning immigration legislation. In the previous Congress attempts to amend the laws in a just way failed. Following national elections, there will be renewed activity to pass meaningful immigration law reform. Taking a cue from our national Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and a coming resolution that will be presented at our Biennial Convention in December, I believe that the following principles should be incorporated into whatever legislation is passed:
- Border protection policies that are consistent with American humanitarian values and effective against illegal migration, thereby allowing the authorities to carry out the critical task of identifying and preventing entry into the United States of terrorists and dangerous criminals;
- Opportunities for hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows, regularize their status upon satisfaction of reasonable criteria and, over time, pursue an option to become lawful permanent residents and eventually United States citizens;
- Reforms in our family-based immigration system to significantly reduce waiting times for separated families, who currently must wait many years, to be reunited with loved ones; and
- Legal avenues for workers and their families who wish to migrate to the U.S. to enter our country and work in a safe, legal, and orderly manner with their rights fully protected.
My friends let our voices be heard on this critical issue of our time. Shame on us, if we fall into the easy comfort of excluding those who rightfully have a place in our economy and society, failing to remember that once we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Long ago our ancestor Abraham went forth to a new land. We walk in his footsteps.
In preparing this sermon I benefited from the sermon “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” by Rabbi Norman Cohen of Bet Shalom Congregation , Minnetonka, MN, along with the URJ proposed resolution on Comprehensive Immigration Reform and a position paper from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.