Category Archives: Sermons

The Nature of Dignity or What it means to become an Adult

Rabbi Mordecai Miller


Congregation Beth Ami

January, 2014

 The Nature of Dignity  or  What it means to become an Adult

On the surface, we know that they still have many years to go before they can really speak about being an adult, but how many of us pause to consider what it really means to “become an adult”?  How does that relate to the ceremony of Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and beyond the opportunity it offers for celebration – (not to be sneezed at by any means!) – of what profound significance does it really have?For those of us well past the age of thirteen; we can appreciate the irony when the Bar or Bat Mitzvah says, “Today I am a man,” or “Today I’m a woman.”

What does it mean to become a “Bar” or “Bat Mitzvah” ?

In Hebrew the term is an idiom which denotes that such an individual has reached a point in their development where they understand the consequences of their behavior in society.  Traditionally, there is a b’rachah to be recited by the parents of a child who reaches this stage.  “Baruch … she’patrani me’onsho shel zeh.” “Blessed art You … Who has absolved me of the consequences due to this person.”

In other words; up to this point in the child’s development, the parent is held responsible for their child’s actions (read “misbehavior”); from this point on, the child is now held accountable.  To put this in “Jewish” terms: since Mitz’vot (i.e. “Divine Commandments”) define the responsibilities of the individual – what  their Creator obligates them to do and what their Creator forbids them to do; becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah means that person has reached the stage in their life where they are capable of understanding and complying with these obligations.

Speaking this kind of language puts in perspective the significance of each individual’s role in society.  This comes to the original title of this article: “The Nature of Dignity”.  I would like to suggest that every human being has an innate yearning to be significant: a raison d’être. There are very few – if any – who are satisfied being mere “cogs in a wheel”.  The truth, however, is that very few of us will ever achieve the immortality of a Shakespeare or a Beethoven or a Moses, and even those individuals haven’t achieved universal significance.  What chance, then, do we have?

A profound discovery occurs in the life of an individual when they realize that the nature of dignity – of self-worth – lies in being of service to others.  This fundamental truth, which flies in the face of natural human impulse, is suggested by the English word “knight”, which comes with the title “Sir…”  The word is directly related to the German “Knecht” (Yes, “gh”was once pronounced “ch” as in the Scottish word “loch”!) which means “Servant”!  In fact one of the mottos of England is “Ich Dien” which translates to “I serve”.

So the question shifts to “Who or what do you serve?”  To who or what do you devote your life?”  The more encompassing the answer, the higher the level of self-worth or human dignity.

Putting this together: becoming an adult essentially means taking on the responsibility to serve others; ones family and society. “Giving back!”  Again, from the Jewish perspective, there can be no greater service that represents such “giving back” than serving the Creator of the Universe – by performing God’s commandments: mitzvot.  In the process of discovering those commandments and in serving God by ones devotion to family and society, a “mere mortal” achieves universal significance!


Mordecai Miller

Lack of Ethics

Lack of Ethics

a sermon by Rabbi Marx

I have a confession to make.  I read the newspaper Jewish-style.  I look for those articles that are about Jews and things that affect Jews.  All events can be interpreted by the question, “Is it good for the Jews?”  “Economy falters.”  Is it good for the Jews?  Middle East flare up…Is it good for the Jews?  All heroes and criminals are subject to that probing question: are they Jewish and will their behavior influence public opinion about the Jews?

For years, I never knew whether the public figure, Benjamin Jacob Grimm was Jewish.  He had a Jewish sounding name, but he never identified himself as a Jew.  True, he came from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to which so many Jewish immigrants came fresh from Elllis Island, but I wasn’t sure.  Ben Grimm was not a real person.  Two Jewish men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced him in 1961in a comic book.  They, as we might remember, created the Fantastic Four.  One man had limbs that could stretch to preposterous lengths.  One could light himself on fire; a woman could become invisible.  And then there was Ben, “The Thing,” who was a superhero with rocky orange skin.  Over the summer, it was revealed to comic book fans, that Ben came out of the closet to reveal his Jewish roots.  Standing in the lower parts of Manhattan, a villain asks, “You’re really Jewish?”  “There a problem with that?” replies the Thing.  “No,” says the bad guy looking into Ben’s craggy, orange facade.  “It’s just… don’t look Jewish.”

Readership has been overwhelmingly positive.  We take pride in our Jewish heroes.  Don’t we?  Tonight, I want to talk about other types of Jews who are in the news.  And it doesn’t make me proud.

I read recently that Jews from Israel are the leading importers of Ecstasy into this country.  That’s right, the drug lords of New York speak Hebrew.  Last summer, New York police seized over one million Ecstasy pills from Israelis David Roash and Israel Ahkenzi.  They had a street value of forty million dollars.  Those of us who travel on El Al, are not only with Yeshiva students and Zionists, we are traveling with drug dealers as well.  And who are the carriers?  According to the Jerusalem Report, Bobover Chassidim are paid $1500 and a free trip to Europe for carrying up to $500,000 in cash to Amsterdam and returning with a load of Ecstasy.  They travel back to Israel with 30,000 to 40,000 aspirin-sized pills, which are then sent to America, Australia and New Zealand for sale.

Colleagues that I work with have deeply disappointed me.  In Florida, a colleague of mine is currently in prison, serving a multi-year term for soliciting minors on the Internet.  He solicited a 14-year-old boy and was caught establishing a liaison with the youth.  In his depravity he decided not to prey on his Bar/Bat Mitzvah students, but went instead to outside youths that he met in Internet chat rooms and subsequently dark parking lots.  We still await the beginning of the retrial for a south Jersey rabbi who is accused of hiring a troubled man in his congregation to bludgeon his wife to death.  Then there are the cantors from New York and Harrisburg who are accused of molesting young boys in their own family and beyond.  And of course, a neighboring synagogue suffered for the past year, having discovered that its trusted employee allegedly embezzled over $1.2 million.  While the staff was taking pay cuts in order to stem the financial hemorrhage, two employees were allegedly cutting checks to themselves for thousands of dollars a week.  [i]

More often than I care to admit, Jews in the news are not making us proud.  There was a time when Jews sought pardons in synagogues.  They prayed before an open ark, to right their wrongs, before the most important Judge of all.  Now, that’s passé.  Jews from Brooklyn and beyond sought pardons another way: they bought them last year from the President of the United States just before he left office.  They were seeking to buy their forgiveness.  Aren’t we supposed to earn it?  Aren’t we encouraged to take restitution seriously?

Four Chassidim ripped off the government to the tune of millions and millions of dollars by getting federal grants for schools that didn’t even exist! And that didn’t stop their fellow Chassidim from coming to the defense of their cohorts by claiming they didn’t keep any of the money for themselves.  The chief rabbis of the community defended their actions, because it was strengthening the religious efforts of the community against the evils of secularization.

What is happening to our community?  Rabbi Elimelech Naiman was given a prison sentence for mail fraud and misappropriation of government funds.  He was the deputy director of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Borough Park.  Rabbi Jacob Lustig got 3 years’ probation and a million-dollar fine for skimming more than 2 million dollars from his synagogue’s bingo proceeds.  Rabbi Hertz Frankel got nabbed for cheating the government out of six million dollars. Recently, Rabbi Yizchok Fried was arrested for dealing in drugs.  Two Chassidim were jailed for rigging an election in England! And headlines in the New York Post and Daily News told the world of the arrest of 14 Satmar Chassidim of running a multi-million dollars “full service fraud factory,” which bilked banks, credit card companies, individuals and the IRS of millions of dollars. These are just a few from within the Orthodox community!

And there’s no comfort in knowing that it’s found amongst non-Orthodox Jews as well – like financier Martin Frankel, who was accused of stealing more than $200 million from insurance companies.  And a Chicago area Conservative cantor and his wife who recently pleaded guilty to charges of involvement in a prostitution ring.  Let’s not forget Ira Einhorn, who promises to embarrass our community for years to come.  Do you remember this annoying little man’s hunger strike at Graterford prison?  He was protesting his high carbohydrate diet.  What did he want salad nicoise?  And look at Ed Mezvinsky, who took refusal to accept blame to extreme lengths. This first generation American Jew rose to prominence as a congressman and chairman of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee, only to go down in disgrace.  When faced with a federal indictment for defrauding friends and family out of more than $10 million, he frivolously blamed his behavior on mental illness and an anti-malarial drug.  Not only have Jews in the news sunk to moral lows, but worse still, they have failed to accept responsibility for their moral wrongdoings.  I will never forget officiating at the funeral of a mother of two infants who was allegedly stabbed to death by her husband.  Her two children are too young to remember the events that changed their lives, but when they mature, they will sadly come to understand their loss of innocence, the intrusion of violence and the betrayal of trust that turned their lives upside down.  One parent gone, another in jail for the murder.  I know that it goes on all around us.  It’s part of the daily news that makes up Philadelphia and the larger world.  But I’m not talking to the larger world.  I’m talking to our community.  You’re the only ones who will listen.

We Jews are supposed to be a light unto the nations.  We are supposed to define our characters by our behavior.  And judging from the past years, we are in terrible shape.  We are not here to carry on our traditions at all costs, to get the best of the situation no matter what.  We are here to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.   That’s why God brought us out of Egypt.  Indeed, according to our sages, that’s why God had us go through the whole Egyptian experience.  In the words of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “Our bondage in Egypt – the Galut experience – was meant to sharpen and refine the Jews ethical sensitivity and moral awareness.”   Thirty-six times in the Torah we are told to be just and fair and moral and sensitive, “ki gerim heyitim b’eretz mitzrayim – because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We, who experienced oppression and discrimination and injustice and being taken advantage of, are expected to know how it feels, and are expected to make sure that we don’t act in that very same way.  God took us out of Egypt because more was expected of us.  Our conduct was supposed to be sacred and holy, as an example for others.  We were taken out of Egypt not simply to no longer be slaves and act as we want, but in the words that God spoke to Isaiah, “Avdi attah Yisroel asher b’cha espaar – you are my servants Israel, in whom I take pride.”  Is the behavior of Jews these days something that God can take pride in?

When I speak with families at Beth Or and beyond, and I ask them about the purpose of Judaism, most will tell me that our purpose is to survive as Jews.  Survival is essential, especially as our numbers decline, but I don’t for a moment worry that Jews will cease to be.  When we finally colonize Mars, there will be some Lubavitch Jew greeting us at the rocket port, asking whether or not we put on tefillin this morning.  Instead, I worry that our survival might become irrelevant.  We are here to improve the world, to share our prophetic message of goodness, righteousness and morality.  We are here to remind the world, that deeds not faith redeem the world.  If we lose sight of this teaching, if we forget to live like decent people, then we loose the essence of our faith.  We become irrelevant.  The world won’t need Jews anymore.

With all these recent revelations and scandals, it’s not so much my concern what God thinks about it, and it is not even my concern what non-Jews think and say about it.  My deepest concern is how our own Jewish children feel about it!  A congregant told me that she swelled with pride when she discovered her elementary school-aged children avidly reading a front-page story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  But then she was horrified to learn what article they were reading.  It was the headline about jury selection for a rabbi accused of murdering his wife.  Who would have dreamed that a Jewish standard bearer would gain national prominence before children’s eyes in this way?[ii]

Over the summer, I met with one of your children, who asked me why he should remain a Jew.  It’s a legitimate question in this age of choice.  After all, today non-Jews eat bagels and Jews eat sushi.  More and more Christian churches sponsor Pesach Seders and more and more Jewish homes have Christmas trees.  So yes, “Why be Jewish?” is being asked by many.  And “Why marry Jewish?” is being asked by many more.  Can I still say because of our moral passion?  Can I still say, that it’s because we Jews have historically taken the ethical high road?  What do I say when our children are bombarded every day with stories of Jews who are corrupt and murderous.

The fact of the matter is, sad to say but it must be said, our people are no longer known chiefly for our goodness.  We ain’t what we used to be!  We Jews used to produce idealists by the bushels.  Our kids marched for social justice.  Our lawyers were fighters; our doctors were there to help those who couldn’t pay.  Our artists inspired us to repair the world, and our social workers actually did.  We used to feel good about the ethical underpinnings that commanded us to help those less fortunately endowed than ourselves.

Hillel, one of our greatest teachers wrote, “In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human.”  Even if we are surrounded by immorality, even if everyone else is failing to live up to even the lowest ethical standards, even if we honesty is scarce in the corporate board rooms of America, that is no excuse to lower our standards.  The Jewish people have a calling to do the right thing.  The essence of Torah is to behave like a mench.  You don’t have to be perfect.  But you do have to hold your head up high and do the right thing.

When we fail, and we will fail, we can and must repent.  That is the very purpose of these High Holidays.  We recite a long list of our failings, Al cheit……For the sin we have committed against You by fraud and falsehood, and by exploiting the weak and by giving and taking bribes, and by giving way to our hostile impulses and by running to do evil.  But then we read, “It is not the destruction of the sinner that God seeks,” but that we look at the paths we have chosen, and when we can, come clean.  We come for serious introspection, prayer, reflection and repentance.  I am proud to know many in this shul who have done just that.  We must and should judge ourselves for our sincere desire to make amends.  All of us have sinned.  Maybe that’s why there are so many of us here today.  It’s not just to see our friends, as good as that is.  In truth we’re here, because we know in our hearts, that we have sinned.  No one is immune.  While our sins may not make the evening news, neither is any of us above reproach.  We don’t need the evening news to take notice, before we acknowledge our own personal need to atone.  This sacred day comes, so we can think about our sins and the sins of our people and do teshuvah.  I believe in the power of atonement to transform lives.  Now is our sacred time to search our souls and atone, seeking to be better in the coming year.  Only then, once we have owned up, before our community and our God, for our breaches, can we hope for the forgiveness that these Days of Awe offer.

If we want our children to know that Jews are covenanted to maintain a high moral and ethical standard, it does not depend upon the behavior of others in this world.  It depends upon the behavior of each and every one of us in our own homes.   We are not here to condemn the sins of others, but to censure them in ourselves.  We must set personal examples of upright character, and we must take responsibility for our acts.

We Jews are the possessors of a beautiful heritage, a moral heritage grounded in the principled teachings of Sinai.  It is that heritage that made us an ohr lagoyim – a light unto the nations.  It is that heritage that provided us with the mandate: l’takein olam b’malchut Shadai – to make this world perfect under the kingdom of God, for Jew and Gentile, white and black, Israeli and Arab. God willing, we will teach our children, by shining example, to remember who we are and what our tradition and God demand.   It is our sacred trust to infuse our children with this rich and ancient heritage, for us in this Beit Or, this House of Light, Beth Or.


[i]  Rabbi Jack Reimer

[ii]  Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg


Gregory S. Marx Rabbi, Yom Kippur Sep ‘02

How To Be Grateful, Even When Successful

Yiskor Sermon 2010
Shemini Atzeret
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 . . .”
(Deuteronomy 8:11-18)

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    

Congregation Emanu-El

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”: 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.

Lessons on Leadership and Responsibility

Parashat Ki Tavo

September 24, 2005

Rabbi Francine Roston


Recently I sat on an interfaith panel and noticed once again the differences between Judaism and Christianity. In particular I am thinking about the role of religious leaders in their communities. I also reflect on this frequently as I start this new position and make decisions about next steps. What is the role of clergy in the Jewish community? Are we intermediaries between God and the Jewish people? Or are we facilitators and guides? Do we say prayers and study on behalf of our congregation or alongside our congregation?

At the beginning of our Parasha this morning, the answer is clear. Each Jew is responsible for his or her relationship with God. The religious leader is there to assist, facilitate and guide but not to DO in place of the individual Jew.

Two sections of Ki Tavo teach us this lesson.

The parasha begins with a description of the Bringing of the First Fruits ceremony. This ceremony was done by the individual after the harvest had yielded its first fruits. In the Torah this ceremony is not connected with a specific holiday. The timing is dependent on the individual harvest which comes at different times of the year depending on the fruit of the land. Later this ceremony has been associated with Pesah because the pronouncement of the first fruits presenter became integrated into the body of the Passover haggadah…

Important to our question is the teaching that each individual must bring and present his first fruits. Although the priest is present and assisting, the individual must present his gifts and he can not use a substitute. Even a king must present himself, according to the Mishnah, and not put someone in his place.

From the descriptio n in Mishnah Bikkurim: A group from an area of the country would go up to Jerusalem with all of the first fruits of the village. They would be met outside Jerusalem by a delegation which would accompany them to the Temple, where each person would go up to the Temple himself, carrying his basket and make the proper declaration before the Priest. [I did not adjust this to say his or her because only the man was allowed to enter this far into the Temple precincts…but I’m sure his wife helped with the harvest!] Even the king would carry his own basket—not using an intermediary or agent.
The task and the declaration were made by each individual not by the priest as an intermediary. There did come a time during which the question arose regarding how the priest should behave. There came a point where not everyone knew the proper declaration nor knew how to recite it and it was asked whether the priest should say it for the presenter.

The teaching in Mishnah Bikkurim 3:7 is: At first all those who knew how to recite would recite and all those who didn’t know how to recite would be helped to recite. [The priest would say part and the presenter would repeat and they would continue in this way.] After people help back from coming [out of embarrassment because it would be clear that they didn’t know how to recite in contrast to others that did], the rabbis instituted the rule that all would be prompted whether they knew the declaration or not.

It would have been much easier and quicker if the priest just recited the declaration for the presented who didn’t know how. But, no, the rabbis said. It was important for each individual not only to bring his gifts but also to state the meaning behind them and make his personal connection with God. And, when it was clear tha t people might be embarrassed or made to feel uncomfortable because of their varying levels of traditional knowledge, the rabbis leveled the playing field. Everyone would be prompted. No one would be shamed.

The second section that speaks to our question comes in chapter twenty-seven, verses one through eight. When the children of Israel enter the promised land they are to set up large stones and engrave upon them et kol divrei ha-Torah ha-zoht—every word of this Teaching ba’er heteiv most distinctly. My friend Len Wanetik suggests that the meaning of ba’er heteiv is “in a way that is easy to understand.” Every Jews must be able to read and understand the laws of the Torah so that every Jew can fulfill his or her obligations. Why does God command this Mitzvah to Moses and the elders, to the leadership of the community? They are being reminded that they are not to be the experts and so the intermediaries for the people. They are to be the teachers and the guides. They are to help facilitate each Jew’s journey through Jewish life.

At the time of Elul, as we reflect on this past year and for what we need to atone, I invite you to focus on the positive as well. What have you done over the past year that has moved your Jewish life forward? What has helped you to learn more and do more? And what are you going to do next year so that you can continue to learn and grow Jewishly.

It is up to each one of us to continue our Jewish learning and it is my privilege to serve as your rabbi and your guide on your Jewish journey.
Shabbat Shalom.

King, Heschel, Obama & You!

Rabbi Francine Roston,

Congregation Beth El, South Orange, NJ

Delivered on Shabbat Shemot in honor of the Inauguration of our 44th President

January 17, 2009 / 21 Tevet 5769

On this Shabbat, we begin a new book of the Torah, a new story of the Jewish people, and in our nation a new story is unfolding as well. While it’s a story that repeats itself cyclically, there is always something new to see and learn. This year, the remarkable confluence of history in our parasha and in America is overwhelming.

This past week we observed the yahrzeit of our great teacher and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Monday we celebrate the birth of the great teacher and activist Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. And the very next day we will witness the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama. The son of a Kenyan man and a woman from Texas is moving into the White House with his wife and two daughters. The future First lady’s great-great-grandfather Jim Robinson was a slave on South Carolina plantation. The Obama family is moving into a White House that was built by slaves of West African descent. America is starting a new book.

As I have been reflecting upon this mystical confluence of events these past weeks, I can’t help but conclude that: Dr. King took us to a certain point; Rabbi Heschel took us to a certain point; and President Obama can only take us so far. It’s up to each and every one of us to tell the story, to ask the questions and to turn our dreams into reality.

The story of the Exodus, the movement from slavery to freedom, is told again and again, year after year. We act it out at the seder, we study it in depth as we read the Torah…every year we revisit the story and we ask ourselves have we left Egypt, have we left behind the crippling chains that bind us to oppression, injustice and suffering.

Every year we read the story and descend with Jacob into Egypt. We suffer the oppression of Pharaoh. We groan with Israel and struggle with Moses. As we read and experience the pain of slavery, we know that Israel will reach the Promised Land. We watch Moses and Israel stumble but we have the certainty of faith that the dreams of our people will be fulfilled. And, as we live the story, over and over again, we are reminded that the journey is not without its struggles, it is not without its losses, it is not without suffering. It is filled with ups and downs.

In our parasha, when Moses arrives in Egypt and shows the Israelites signs of God’s power behind him, the Israelites are happy and receive Moses with reverence. As it says in Chapter 4: Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. Aaron repeated all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, and the people were convinced. When they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites and that God had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.”(4:29-31)

And, then, all too quickly, they suffer disappointments, Moses suffers setbacks and the people’s suffering fuels their anger. In the very next chapter, just a few verses later, we learn that Moses’ and Aaron’s first meeting with Pharaoh did not go well. Pharaoh orders harder labor for the Israelite slaves. The Israelites turn to Moses and Aaron with curses: “May the Lord look upon
you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.”(Ex 5:21)
Every year we read the story and watch Moses struggle as a leader. In our parasha, he goes from a man who is not sure who he is and who God is, to the mouthpiece of God speaking to Pharaoh, breaking down the barriers of oppression. Moses becomes with voice of liberation calling out—Shalach et Ami! Let my people go!

The imagery of the Exodus infused the speeches of Dr. King, and the God of the Exodus inspired a friendship between King and Heschel. When Heschel first met King in 1963 at the Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago, Heschel opened his speech by saying, “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses … The outcome of that summit meeting has not yet come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed.”

As every child asks at some point on the journey…are we there yet? Where are we going? When are we going to get there? We can’t help but ask it ourselves. Is this the Promised Land? Are we living in the America of our dreams? As Barack Obama stands at the podium Tuesday and takes his place as the 44th President of the United States of America, we can be pretty certain that we have not reached the Promised Land. We are standing in a new place, but we have great work to do.

Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us the importance of the journey. In his identification with Moses and is intuitive sense of destiny, he taught us also the relative importance of the leader.

In his last speech, the night before he was assassinated, King prophetically invoked the imagery of the Torah: “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

As we watch the character of Moses develop in the Torah, as we read the commentaries and see the elevation of Moses in our tradition, we can not forget what King reminds us. Not even Moses, the greatest of all prophets reached the Promised Land. What does this teach us? Does it teach us that every leader, even the greatest are destined to fall and fail? Yes and No. Every leader will someday fall. Every term eventually expires, our time our earth is limited, the time in office as well…but, the greater lesson is that our story, the story of the Jewish people and the story of humanity played out in this great land, is not about the great leader; it is about the great people, the great values that drive them on and inspire them, the great power that is found when no man or woman stands alone but is joined by her neighbors in the march toward freedom.

This week we celebrate the great leaders of our nation—Dr King, Rabbi Heschel and the newest leader President-Elect Obama. Each one stands in the place of Moses and calls us all to task.

I want to conclude with a segment of the Nominee Obama’s words as he invoked Dr. King and the march toward the Promised Land.
“This country of ours has more wealth than any nation, but that’s not what makes us rich. We have the most powerful military on Earth, but that’s not what makes us strong. Our universities and dour culture are the envy of the world, but that’s not what keeps the world coming to our shores.

Instead it is that American spirit—that American promise—that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen; that better place around the bend.

That promise is our greatest inheritance. It’s a promise I make to my daughters when I tuck them in at night, and a promise that you make to yours—a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west; a promise that led workers to picket lines and women to reach for the ballot.
And it is that promise that 45 years ago today, brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington before Lincoln’s Memorial and hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream… [and] what the people heard …people of every creed and color, from every walk of life—is that America, our destiny is inextricably linked. That together, our dreams can be one.

‘We can not walk alone,’ the preacher cried. ‘And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.’”
We couldn’t turn back at the edge of the Sea of Reeds. We couldn’t turn back at Sinai. We couldn’t turn away from the dream of the Promised Land and we can not today, either. For many of us America is the land that guarantees us the ideals that we hold dear and our people has always held dear—freedom, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.

As we watch President Obama walk to the podium Tuesday morning, we can not forget where we have come as a nation. We can not forget the dreams and visions of past leaders. And, as we listen to President Obama and hear his charge to our country, we can not just sit back and wait for him to take us to the Promised Land. It is up to each and every one of us to ask ourselves the questions that Moses asked of himself: who am I, what am I put on this earth to accomplish and what great Power or ideals call me to do good work.

When Rabbi Heschel was invited by Dr. King to March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he took up the charge. He said of that experience: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

May the prayers we utter in this Beit El, this House of God, never stop inspiring our limbs to action. May we each remember this morning the power of great leaders, the promise of great visions and the potential of a nation united in its ideals. Every year, we experience suffering, every year we march toward freedom, every year we enter the Promised Land. May we be inspired by the stories of our tradition, the dreams of our preachers and the vision of our President to move this country and the World to a greater version of itself. As Barack Obama reminded us: that is the true genius of America—that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.”(acceptance speech, Nov 4, 2008 in Chicago) May we each be inspired to do our part to bring about a better tomorrow.

As Psalm 27 concludes: Lulei he’emanti lir’ot b’tuv Adonai b’eretz chayim. Kavei el Adonai Hazak v’ya’ametz libekha, v’kavei el Adonai. Yet I have faith that I shall surely see Adonai’s goodness in the land of the living. Hope in Adonai. Be strong, take courage and hope in Adonai.

The Last Lecture

Yom Kippur Morning
Rabbi Stephen Wise
October 9, 2008    Tishrei 10, 5769

Unetneh tokef, kedushat hayom – let us proclaim the sacred power of this day.  Yom Kippur, it is awesome and full of dread.  On Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  Who shall live and who shall died, who shall see ripe age, and who shall not.  [Page 613 in The New Mahzor/Mahzor Hadash.]

This humbling powerful prayer we read this morning reminds us of our own vulnerability to life.  It was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the Middle Ages who was tortured for refusing to convert to Christianity and in his pain and suffering, composed these words.  In it we hear his cry for justice in an unjust world.  We are reminded that throughout time, our fate is determined.  We do not choose what will happen to us.  We cannot control death, sickness, nor pain.  It’s not fair.  Life isn’t fair.  Some things are beyond our control and we are forced to look into ourselves, at our own mortality.  Its not something we want to think about. This prayer reminds us that we are but flesh and blood, created by God, and so it is God who determines our fate.
Many believe we control our own destiny, because we make decisions on a day to day basis, what we are going to do, where we are going to go.   But deep down we know, and its sometimes frustrating, that we do not have power over everything.  When you lose your job even though you were proficient and valued.  When you don’t get an A on a paper you worked diligently on.  When someone very close to you falls terminally ill.

In those moments, we often turn to despair and bemoan our lack of control and throw ourselves to the wind.  But we have another choice, to face it head on and ask: “What is within my grasp that I do have control over?”.  What can I teach others?  How can my life be an example?  How can I inspire?

This year, one of North America’s bestselling novels is called “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch.   At Carnegie Mellon, each year faculty members are asked to consider their demise, and ruminate on what matters most to them.   To give a “last lecture”.  What wisdom would they impart to the world if they knew it was their last chance?  What would they say to an audience of students?  How would they sum up the lessons of life in one hour?

For Randy, the last lecture became very real when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  A young man in his 40’s, married with three small children, a scientist and Virtual Reality originator, Randy had to examine his own life for real.  At first he didn’t want to do the lecture.  Preparing for it would take valuable time away from his wife and kids in the last days of his life. But Randy realized putting the work into the lecture would help him actualize what was important to him.  He wanted something to pass on to his family, and to all the students he ever taught.  He was quite open with everyone.  When he went to Pittsburgh to deliver his “last lecture” in September 2007, the hall was overflowing.

He delivered one of the most heartfeld and inspring lecturs I’ve ever heard.  He titled it, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”.  Randy proceeded to talk about the dreams he had as a child and all he had accomplished.  His last lecture wasn’t about dying, it was about overcoming obstacles, enabling the dreams of others, and seizing every moment.

Randy always wanted to win one of those huge lifesize stuffed animals at a fair.  We’ve all seen them.  They’re huge and whenever someone wins, they walk around the whole park with it on their back and everyone stares.  For Randy, it wasn’t about showing off, its just that he wanted to win it.  His advice, do it alone, away from your critical family.  Over a life time he had won almost 10 of those huge dolls, never paid for one.  He actually won them in games at the fair.  At the Last Lecture, he brought them all on stage and invited participants to take them  home as examples of achieving dreams.

He talked about how being a younger brother, he watched his sister get married and have kids.  He got to be the crazy single uncle helping to raise his neice and nephew.  His favorite thing was to take them out.  There was only one rule, don’t tell mom what we do.  One time after buying a brand new car, he wanted to take the kids for a spin.  His sister didn’t want to but he insisted, even if they got it dirty he didn’t care.  After all it was just a car.  He had scratches and dents on his old car, and it didn’t matter to him.  To prove the point he purposely spilled coke all over the back seat before the kids got in.  They were in shock, but they loved him for it.  Randy built great memories and life lessons for his niece and nephew, and his last words to them were, “Now my kids are growing up and I wont’ be alive to see it.  I want you to take them out, just like I took you out”.  You’ll pass on my lessons, on to my children, and I’ll remain alive through you.

Randy passed away this summer on July 25th, 2008.  His story stays with me, and probably with the millions of others who either read the book or watched the lecture online.  He didn’t have these wise sayings, or quotable one liners.  I can’t recite them for you.  But I was moved and inspired by his words, because he reminds us that yes we are mortal, but we have gifts to offer to others.  He couldn’t control his life, the disease took over, he had no say in that.  He did have a say in how he was going to go.  In the lessons he could pass on to others.  Randy led his death as in life, teaching right to the very end.

[See the lecture including introductions, but lower quality than link at the top.  [A slide show was used during the presentation.] “Thank you Randy Pausch, Your work is in our hearts”.]

This summer Cheryl and I were dealt two blows close together, the passing of our grandmothers.  For each of us, they were our last surviving grandparents, and last great-grandparents for our children.  When we were thinking about moving home from Florida, one consideration was that we wanted to spend some time with our bubbie’s.  We knew they were sick and elderly.  We wanted our kids to be around them on Shabbat or holidays, or visit their apartments and just sit and talk.  And we did that.  Over the course of the year, we made sure we visited, even it it was just for half an hour.  They loved it so much and we are grateful for the time we spent together.   When they both passed away we were terribly upset, but we knew that at least we had had those moments with them.  They both died peacefully, without suffering, in their own homes, with their families gathered around them.

For my bubbie, one of my best memories is how she answered my phone calls.  “Oh Stephen, thank you for calling.”  She gushed over me,  and was so happy I called, it was like it made her entire week.  She made me feel extraordinary, just for picking up the phone.  I remember thinking to myself, clearly, I am the favorite grandson.  Obviously she loves everyone, but she has a special spot for me.  When I gathered with my cousins at the shiva, we were sharing memories.

Michael, my oldest cousin, said he was the first grandson. He reminded everyone that he was the favorite, because bubbie used to show him off on the way to their store.

Shari, my cousin added she was the favorite.  Whenever she went to bubbie’s house, bubbie cooked the most amazing meals.

My sister chimed in that Bubbie made her favorite meals, and even sent her home with cookies.  By the way, that’s a life lesson for sure, always have cookies available.

Anyways, we all suddenly realized that we were all her favorite grandchild.  How?  Because she had that ability to make everyone she talked to feel like they were the most important person in the world.

My uncle told me this story of how bubbie used to run the fish and chips restaurant.  Picture this.  It’s Friday night, in the summer.  It must be over 90 outside, which means that inside the kitchen where she’s frying fish, its probably over 100 degrees.  My bubie, sweat pouring down her face, notices a break in the line and rushes to the back of the store, where they lived.  She opens the oven to put in the chicken for shabbos dinner for the family.  She comes back to the restaurant, shoos the family back to the kitchen to begin dinner and says she’ll finish up with the last customers.  That was my Bubie.  Ran the restaurant, made the chicken soup, loved her family and made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the whole world.  That is the legacy she left behind, that was her last lecture.  She didn’t even have to deliver it, she said it through her actions.
Cheryl’s bubbie’s life could be summed up in three sentences – Zaieh mensch, zahey yid, zahey Shtark.  Be a mensch, be a Jew and be strong.  Bubbie S. came from the same fabric as my bubbie.   Both came to Canada after the war, losing most of their family, restarting a new life here.  During the Holocaust, she had so many near misses.  She even got shot once in the barracks, but, zahey shtark.  She was strong.  And her Jewish faith never wavered in the face of atrocity.  She raised her kids and especially her grandkids, to be proud of who they were, to love Judaism, to live Judaism.  Zahey yid, be a Jew.  At her shul, right until she was 93 years old, she organized the Kiddush, she signed the check book as treasurer.  (Right Mark [our treasurer].  93 years old. )

And menschlikeit, that defined her.  The summer I met Cheryl, we were staff at camp.  Her parents came up for visitors day, bringing both her zaide and bubbie.  It was a summer romance.  We had just started dating, but bubbie S. looked at me and said, “Welcome to the family”.  I don’t know if she meant this in a Godfather sense, like it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  But at that point, I had fallen head over heals for Cheryl anyway.  But a nice jewish boy for her granddaughter, a counselor at a Jewish camp, a bubbie’s dream.  So she came right out and said it, welcome.  That was her last lecture, zahey yid, zahey mensch, zayeh shtark, be a jew, be a mensch, and be strong.

This summer I suggested reading Michael J. Fox’s book called “Lucky Man”.  What a title. I thought I knew him, but I clearly didn’t know his story.  I knew of him, he’s one of the biggest Hollywood stars on the planet.  At one point, in 1985, he had the top two grossing movies of the year, Back to the Future, and Teen Wolf, as well as the number one rated TV show, Family Ties.  This little shrimp from BC had made it from a high school play to stardom, making millions.  But in the process he was drinking himself into oblivion, had no concept of money or how to treat people.  He was never able to sustain a loving relationship and spoke sporadically to his family back home.  In some ways it was the typical Hollywood story, “boy makes millions, ego inflates, turns to vices and addictions and burns out.”

But he had two strokes of luck.  First was meeting his wife Tracy, who put his life on track.  And the other stroke of luck.  Parkinson’s disease.  You might say, that’s not quite so lucky, a terminal debilitating disease of the body in your late 30’s, for an actor no less.  And yet in his book he says, it changed his life, for the better.  He had to stop, assess what was important.  His wife, his kids.  Even religion.  He is not Jewish, but his wife is and they wanted to raise the kids Jewish.

He belongs to Central Synagogue in NYC.  One of my classmates was a youth group advisor there.  She was given a list of families to call about an upcoming event for 5-6th graders.  One kid was named Fox.  So she calls, and Michael J. Fox answers the phone.  He said, “yep, I’ll bring her, what time?”  Amazing guy.  He cut back on his work to accommodate the disease that was dominating his body.  He began donating his money and time to work for stem cell research and finding a cure for Parkinson’s.  It was in this capacity that last year he addressed the Union for Reform Judaism delegates on our biennial convention in San Diego last year.  How humbling it must have been to stand in front of 5,000 people, shaking uncontrollably because of his disease, yet speaking clearly and concisely about his passion and poise in fighting for a cure.  This might have been his last lecture and he left us all with an inspiration message.  He is a lucky man.  It’s all in how you look at your life.    (Both these books are available to borrow in the lobby today.)   [Michael J. Fox From San Diego,  BROWSE VIDEOS,  Michael J. Fox  Michael J. Fox Bring the Light – Blog.]

Finally we must also pay tribute to one of the great last lectures, from the biggest bestseller of all time, the bible.  The book of Deuteronomy, which we will finish during this Shabbat reading of haa’zinu, is one long farewell speech by Moses, just before he dies.  God has already explained that Moses will not enter the promised land but die on Mount Nebo.  Thus Moses is provided with one opportunity to address the people he has led from slavery to freedom over the past 40 years.  Ironically, Moses is the same man who when first approached by God at the burning bush declared his inability to speak in front of people as a reason to find someone else to be the leader of the Jewish people.  Whether it was modesty or a true awareness of his own limitations, Moses was given Aaron as his companion to address Pharaoh.

Rabbi Gunther Plaut suggests that when Moses was younger, he thought of himself as a man of few words, but became more confident over time.  Moses teaches us many lessons in his last lecture.  His ability to overcome a speech impediment in order to address the entire Jewish nation.   His ability to overcome his own heartbreak and disappointment at being prevented from leading the Israelites into Israel.  Instead of complaining in anger, he chooses instead to reiterate complete faith in God, to choose life.  To remind the people if they follow God’s laws, the Torah, they will be blessed and successful in everything they do.  He inspires the people to trust in God and devote themselves to the mitzvot and gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness.  And in the end Moses dies in perhaps the most beautiful and poetic way possible.  God picks him up, and buries Moses, in a place that no one will ever know.  God did not want his tomb to be a shrine, rather his life should be a lesson of humility, perseverance and accomplishment.

Friends, on this day of atonement, Yom Kippur, we must ask ourselves, what is our legacy, what are we teaching those around us, and those who will follow us when we are gone.  Yom Kippur asks us to take a reckoning of our lives, as the book of life is opened, and we understand our own limitations, for it is God who decides, who shall live and who shall die.  In this great day of awe, take a moment to think about what life lessons you have learned from great mentors and teachers from your past.  If you were to give your last lecture to your spouse, your parent, your sibling, your child or your best friend, what would you say.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.  Treat everyone as if they are the most important person in the whole world.  See yourself as lucky, no matter what tragic or painful thing comes your way.  Give of yourself to others and lead the way.  Always have cookies available.  Zahey mensch, zayeh yid, zayeh shtark.


Excerpt: Health Care

Sermon by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie at the San Diego Biennial ,

December 15, 2007


In our Torah portion this morning, we read of the first known example of centralized economic planning. Joseph used the seven years of plenty to prepare for seven years of famine, and then with the famine as a pretext, seized the land of the peasants for his Egyptian master.

However, while the Torah describes this economic model, it does not endorse it. When the Children of Israel arrived in the Promised Land, the biblical text mandates that property rights and economic freedom were to be respected there, along with the rule of law. Still, this is not the end of the story; the Jewish view of economics is a nuanced one. The Torah also mandates that free markets were not to be given full sway—they were to be tempered by social welfare and practical compassion. No one—no one—was to be reduced to humiliating dependence or excluded from the support of the body politic.

These considerations come to mind as the debate continues in America over the economic arrangements appropriate for American society. When talking today of those denied the blessings of our political system, we think most frequently of the 47 million people without health insurance, and thus without assured access to decent medical care. We think of the pain, chaos and indignity imposed on these Americans, who know that a single profound illness or injury can devastate their lives.

Of course, this is hardly a new story. Because the fact is that we live in a country with a pitifully inadequate health insurance system that causes horrors every day so tragic that they could rip the heart out of a stone.

We know that the uninsured tend to let minor illnesses grow into major illnesses before seeking treatment. The press is filled with stories of a mother with a lump on her breast who worries about the cost of checking it out, and a father with chest pains who decides that seeing a cardiologist is too expensive. We are aware that lack of insurance sends thousands of people to an early grave every year and plunges millions of Americans into severe financial distress.
It is not my intention to discuss with you the mechanics of providing health insurance. Some, including our Movement, prefer a single-payer system in which the government provides health insurance, and some want insurance delivered by private entities under government regulation.

But what we do need to discuss is the fundamental question of values that is as yet unresolved by our society: What do we owe each other as Americans?
The Jewish answer is: Communities are obligated to provide healing to all of their citizens. The Shulchan Aruch makes the point very simply: “If the physician withholds his services, it is considered as shedding blood” (S.A., Yoreh Dei-ah 336:1).

The Jewish answer is: Something is profoundly wrong when somebody else’s medical crisis is no longer our problem, and when we are so unwilling to come to each other’s aid.

The Jewish answer is: Providing health insurance for all is about helping a family member, a neighbor, or a fellow citizen because, next time, any one of us could be facing catastrophe. It is not just about them, it is about us.

We all know the practical problems that have, thus far, prevented us from providing medical insurance to all Americans. What ever plan is adopted, drug and insurance companies may face reduced profits; health-care providers may have to accept reductions in income; and middle-class families may have to pay more for the coverage they receive.

In a country such as ours, it is natural that honest, well-intentioned people are going to differ about how to fix health care. But that is what we pay politicians for—to lead our country in finding some reasonable compromise.
And now is the time. Every uninsured family is a catastrophe waiting to happen. The time has long since passed when our leaders should have done what every other advanced country has somehow managed to do: provide all its citizens with essential health care.
No more excuses, please.

And no more claims that we have nothing to learn from other countries. Our Canadian members, as well as British and Israeli Reform Jews, will be happy to tell us about the health care problems in their countries. But how many of them would prefer the American system to their own?
And no more talk by congressional leaders and White House aides, all with superb health insurance provided by the taxpayers, about how we need to focus on “the long run.” What do we say to the uninsured divorced mother, valiantly raising three children, hounded by medical bills she cannot pay? She doesn’t need access to medical care in the long run; she needs access right now. And what do we say to the 9 million children in this country who do not have health insurance? We ask those children every day to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and the time has come for us to pledge them the unfettered access to decent health care that they deserve.

We don’t know if this country will elect a president committed to providing health insurance to all Americans. And if we do, we don’t know if he or she will follow through. We have watched many times before as our leaders, bullied by the drug and insurance industries, rationalize their surrender in clouds of earnest words and good intentions.

But we need not look only to Washington for answers. In light of federal failures to address this issue, most states are considering plans to cover uninsured residents. In California, Maryland and Vermont, the crucial debate is well underway. Our Massachusetts congregations have already demonstrated how effective we ourselves can be. Progress on the state level is important in and of itself; and if we succeed there, our next president will be far more likely to actively promote a national solution.

I propose, therefore, that this Movement begin immediately to support state initiatives to expand health insurance. In almost every state of the Union, we have identified one Reform synagogue that has agreed to coordinate these efforts. We will bring Reform Jews, and our allies, to state capitals and we will make our voice heard and our presence felt.

I also urge the major communal organizations of the American Jewish community to join with us. There was a time when the Jews of America would have spoken with a single voice on this issue. There was a time when to be a Jew in America meant not only to care for our own, to fight for Israel, to educate our children as Jews; it also meant that whenever we saw injustice afflicting our neighbors, our Jewish souls would rush in to bring balm to their wounds. But I fear that is far less true today than it once was.

In recent years, there has been a feverish conversation among communal leaders about how to connect young adults to Jewish life. We all agree that they need Torah study, Jewish ritual and connection to Israel. But all of this has not been enough.
Well, here is my suggestion to these leaders about what they need to do next: They need to speak up for justice. They need to speak up loud, proud and unafraid.

Because our young people are very wise. They know that a Judaism that ghettoizes itself has no real mission and therefore no real purpose. They don’t understand how Jews can pray for the sick every day and then do nothing to get health care to those who need it. In the end, if the Judaism we offer our young does not speak to the great moral issues of the world and of their lives, it will fail to capture their imagination or their hearts.

And one more point: Our synagogues have a responsibility to promote good health that goes beyond public activism. Are we providing healthy food choices at our meetings, onegs and in our classrooms? Are we educating children and adults about Jewish teachings on health? Are we offering fitness programs to our members in all age categories? Our Department of Jewish Family Concerns has prepared a congregational audit that suggests how each of our synagogues can do more to keep its members healthy, and I urge you to review it with your leadership.

My friends, the health insurance situation in this country is a disaster. If we continue to tolerate it, we will lose our humanity, and no matter our other accomplishments, we will have failed as a people and a nation. So let us work to change it, piece by piece and child by child—until no cry for help goes unheard. Only in this way can we honor the image of God in every human being.

Repairing the World, Repairing Our Selves

Selichot – Dallas – September 2008

a talk by Alan Morinis


It is my pleasure to be able to thank Rabbi Stern, Rabbi Hayon and Nancy Rivin for having me here to share some holy time with you this Shabbat.
Friday evening is not the time for long talks. The week has been  tiring for all of us, as it seems every week is nowadays. For the same reason, I have also learned from experience not to teach meditation on Friday evening. In Hebrew, a woodpecker is a nakker and that well-known phenomenon of Friday evening, the bobbing head, is known as “wood-peckering.”

We will have several sessions to learn together this weekend, and I want to introduce this series by telling you that I am a student of Mussar. A few years back, if I had made that statement in a Reform temple, it would likely have meant nothing to everyone. Now it means nothing only to some of us here tonight, and that is progress.

Mussar is a spiritual tradition within the Jewish world that can be dated back at least 1100 years, though the word mussar itself shows up in the Book of Proverbs, so it has roots right in Torah. When I began my own journey into this ancient way of guiding life that has evolved within the Jewish world, I, too, had never heard of Mussar. In fact, when I first stumbled over this term around 1997, and I did a web-search to see what I could find on the internet, I discovered that the most common use of the term mussar was as the plural of “mouse” in Norwegian. Every Euro-Disney site that was promoting to Norwegians was making a big deal of all the Mickey Mussars that there were to see at the theme park.
Mussar as a Jewish practice was that unknown then. But today, in contrast, if you are a subscriber of “Reform Judaism” magazine, you may have seen that the current issue has a whole special section devoted to Mussar.

I want to give you a sense of what Mussar is and what it offers by reflecting on a strong principle that exists within the Reform community with which I am sure you are all familiar, which is the notion of fixing the world, tikkun olam.

I’m informed that my talk here this evening was preceded in previous weeks by a sermon by Rabbi Stern entitled “Restoring Holiness to Our World.” That was followed by a sermon by Rabbi Hayon called “Restoring Holiness to Our Communities.” I didn’t have the pleasure of attending either of those talks, since I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, but even from these titles we get a notion of the emphasis that is so well-established in the Reform community. What is new and exciting in these titles, from my perspective, is the focus on holiness (kedusha). I will have something to say on this topic myself a bit later. What I want to underscore here is that the focus on the world and on our communities that I hear in these titles reflects the long-standing emphasis in the Reform community on making a positive contribution to the world and the people around us.

Tikkun olam is an admirable and important principle to pursue in our lives. We have an obligation to try to make this world a better place. But if we simply swing into action based on that understanding of our responsibility to the world, we are very soon going to run into an obstacle. I can predict that, and I can even pinpoint for you what the obstacle will be: it will be yourself.

Everything we do in our lives involves our inner life. In Jewish terms, this means the “soul” but I don’t want you to think that the soul is some sort of shadowy or mystical entity that lives within you, like a second self. In Hebrew, the word for soul that concerns us here is nefesh, and the nefesh is made up of all the traits of the inner life with which we are very familiar, though we might not have thought of them in terms of soul.
To illustrate, let me read to you from the Table of Contents of the book called “Orchot Tzaddikim” that was written in the 1500s and is a classic of Mussar. The chapter titles read:
…and so on, to a total of 28 chapters.

All of the topics listed here, with which you are very familiar, are traits of the soul or, in Hebrew, middot ha-nefesh. You see, then, that you are actually very familiar with the soul already. In fact, you are an expert on the soul, because if this wasn’t Shabbat I’d make a very large bet that every one of us in this room has experienced every one of the qualities of the inner life that Orchot Tzaddikim explains, from a Jewish perspective.
Is there anyone here who has not experienced anger? How about regret? Anyone here completely unfamiliar with worry?

Going back at least 11 centuries, we find in the Jewish world a concern for what is going on within your inner life. And I assure you, that when you read the chapter on anger or the one on worry written in this 16th century text, you’ll recognize that it is addressing you and me. There is no such thing as 16th century worry. There is worry, and we all have it as have all our ancestors, since human nature has not changed in the few thousand years that our tradition has been developing.

I want to share one more nugget about Mussar and then we’ll circle back to see how this ties into tikkun olam.
The Mussar teachers through the centuries tell us that we are all endowed with the full range of the inner traits. All of us have all of them. I’m on safe ground when I say that I know that every single person in this room experiences envy from time to time. And I know you experience impatience. And I can equally say that there are times when you are generous. The conclusion that the Mussar masters have drawn after centuries of observation is that we all have the full range of inner traits.

But…and a very important “but” this is…we don’t all have these traits in the same measure. There people who are very impatient, and others who are seldom so. Generosity comes easily to some people and is difficult for others. And so it is with all the inner traits. We are all very good at some traits and there are some traits that we carry around with us as personal challenges. I call the inner traits that particularly challenge you “your personal spiritual curriculum.”
Take as an example impatience, about which I have a lot to say because if there is one thing I am an expert in, I am an expert in impatience.
Once, when driving with my daughter behind a slow driver, I got so frustrated and impatient that I passed on the shoulder on the right. My daughter looked at me and in reproof said only one word: “Mussarman,” she said.

That means that I know that impatience figures on my personal spiritual curriculum. One of the first steps on the way of Mussar is to identify those traits that sit on your personal spiritual curriculum. The personal traits that you know from your own experience keep throwing obstacles in your way are the ones I am talking about.

If you don’t find it easy to stick to the truth, and you tend to exaggerate, if not outright lie, then “truth” is a quality on your personal spiritual curriculum.
If you are impatient as me, and you can’t drive on the freeway without ending up fuming at the person in front of you who is driving so slowly  that—My God!—they are actually doing the limit, and who is delaying your arrival by 15 seconds, then “impatience” is a quality on your personal spiritual curriculum.
If you tend to worry as a general state of mind, and no sooner does one thing resolve than your mind has latched on to the next frightening possibility, then “worry” is a quality on your personal spiritual curriculum.

And so it goes through all the traits. Each of us is incomplete in some way, and it is in those very traits where we are challenged that we have the greatest potential to grow.

Why grow? Why become more complete? The answer was already given to you by Rabbi Stern and Rabbi Hayon when they addressed the issue of holiness. In Jewish thought, there is no higher aspiration in life than to elevate ourselves spiritually, to become the embodiment of holiness that is our potential. As the Torah says in summing up our human job description: kedoshim tihiyu—you shall be holy.

So you have been given those aspects of yourself that are incomplete, and this is your curriculum. If you recognize it as a curriculum, and you learn the lessons, then you will grow in the direction of completeness and holiness. If you don’t recognize it as a curriculum, and you don’t learn the lessons, then you will keep facing the same tests in your life, over and over again. This perspective corresponds to our experience.

This is the nature of the human journey. We are souls on a journey of growth, and we were put her in life in order to have the perfect environment in which to be tested, to learn and to grow. That’s why this world is not perfect, so it will challenge us.

This imperfect world is its own challenge, and as we know, we all carry the responsibility to try to improve the world through tikkun olam. Now, I am hoping that what I have been saying about each of us having a personal curriculum of inner traits in which we need to grow has resonated with you, because where I want to go now is to point out the strong and necessary connection that exists between tikkun olam, which means improving the world, and tikkun ha’middot, which means improving the traits of your inner life.

I’ll make a bold statement: you can’t do tikkun olam without at the same time taking on the task of tikkun ha’middot. You can’t do the work of fixing the world without at the same time taking on the task of improving the traits of your inner life—mastering your personal spiritual curriculum.
Let me back up that statement with some illustrations.

Imagine a person who is very quick to anger. We all know people like that. You might be just that person. Now when a person who has an imbalance in the trait of anger goes out to fix the world, how is he or she going to behave? How quickly will he or she run into someone or something that triggers that anger? It’s assured because that’s who that person is. That’s a trait of their soul. So instead of fixing the world, they rage at it and are so much more likely to break the very thing they set out to fix.

Or to take another example, let’s consider a person whose desires have a very strong grip on them. So this lustful person sets out to improve the world, and what do you think happens? He or she has an affair with someone else on the committee and it is a scandal. There is even a name for such phenomenon, which is “in-the-sack-tivism.”

And so it goes for every single inner trait. We can’t escape the curriculum we have been handed. We take it everywhere with us, and we interact with our circumstances in ways that exactly express that inner curriculum. And so, to the extent that we are not yet whole internally, the work we do in the world will be incomplete and impeded. This is why the Talmud advises, “Polish yourself, and after that polish others” (Bava Metziah [quf]7a). We will not be able to succeed in our efforts at tikkun olam unless we recognize and take responsibility for tikkun ha’middot as well.

In fact, working on yourself can be seen to be an important form of  tikkun olam itself. If you are an impatient person and you work to become more patient, then you have made the world a more patient world. If you are stingy and you cultivate generosity in yourself, then you make the world a more generous place. If you manage to reduce your worry by learning to trust, this becomes a more trusting world. And so on. The practice does not end with yourself, but it does start there. If you are going to make demands that the world be a certain way, you have a moral obligation to hold yourself to the same standard.

I’d like to conclude this evening by pointing out an association that we find between two Hebrew words that sums up the point I have been making. The path of Mussar is one of tikkun ha’middot, improving the inner traits. The goal on this path is to become more holy (kadosh) and we do that by taking steps to become more whole within ourselves. The Hebrew word for wholeness is shlemut. When we become more whole, as Mussar guides, then we become shalem.
The goal of tikkun olam is also kedusha (holiness) as we make effort to make the world a holier place. Another way of stating the goal of tikkun olam is that we are working toward peace, which is shalom.

Shalem and shalom. Shalom and shalem. Tikkun olam and tikkun ha’middot. Improving the world and improving ourselves. Hand in hand. Because we live in an outer world and also an inner world. And because there is no reality in paying attention to one and not the other. From a Jewish perspective, both are our gifts, both are our challenges, and both are our obligations.

Shabbat Shalom.  I look forward to continuing to learn and grow together this weekend and beyond.

Sermon Shabbat Shuva

2011 1ST OCTOBER 2011


“Return O Israel unto the Lord thy God; for thou hast stumbled in thine iniquity.” The opening words in this week’s Haftarah spoken by the prophet Hosea commence with the word Shuva, meaning “return”. Hence the naming of this Shabbat as Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return or, as it is more often called, the Sabbath of Repentance.

We are in a sort of valley this week. Behind us stands the high peak of Rosh Hashanah, where we were made aware of our shortcomings, and we prayed to God for the power to repent for our sins. Before us stands the even higher peak of Yom Kippur, where we will seek forgiveness for our past, and promise to do better in the future. In this valley we are on the hardest ground of all. We are on our own for most of the time, trying to lead our normal lives while, at the same time, struggling to keep up the momentum gained from Rosh Hashanah in order to ascend the heights of Yom Kippur. Apart from this intervening Sabbath, we are like solitary grains of sand on a huge beach of shingles, a few isolated Jews among thousands of gentiles of various other faiths. This is the testing ground of our commitment to Judaism.

It is no coincidence that we are fast approaching the end of the Torah reading year, when we will experience once again the start of the creation, unspoiled and unblemished by man’s sins. In the same way we stand at the threshold of a New Year, hoping also to make a clean start. Unfortunately, we know in our heart of hearts that our good intentions will not hold out for long. God and Moses knew this too. They knew that almost as soon as the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, they would begin to forget God’s laws and become as the heathens they were displacing. In this week’s Sidrah, Hazinu, Moses sings a song dictated by God, warning of the events to come. The song is ordained to bear witness to the fact that God had issued due warning of His reproach if His laws went unheeded. With His usual foresight, however, God had previously ordained the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to give us the annual opportunity to make atonement for our inevitable sins.

It is hard at this solemn time of the year to be light-hearted about our faith. We are beset with the huge list of sins, enumerated in great detail on Yom Kippur, for which we have to seek forgiveness. The music in the Synagogue is almost invariably in the sad, minor key, and the forthcoming injunction to fast does not exactly enlighten the spirits. And yet, for the Rabbis, Yom Kippur was a day of joy, on which sin is pardoned and reconciliation achieved. In Temple times it was a day of gladness, when the daughters of Israel would go out in borrowed finery, and present themselves before the young men of their choice that they might propose marriage to them!  It was only after the destruction of the Temple and the persecutions of the Middle Ages that the note of tragedy entered into the Yom Kippur liturgy.

So that is where we are today. The accumulation of years of persecution and tragedy has left us with a legacy that could, if left unchecked, give rise to despair. And yet we have risen, and will continue to rise above these events, because there is something in Judaism that sustains our spirits in even the worst of times. The sadness associated with Shabbat Shuva and Yom Kippur will shortly give way to the joy of Sukkot and the rejoicing on Simchat Torah. We end the year with sadness and start the New Year with joy.

Our lives are like a diary that we reread every year, rubbing out the bad entries of the past twelve months, and starting again with a clean record. For the truly observant Jews, who maintain our faith to the letter of the law, the resultant joy of atonement is a true reward for their repentance. For the great majority of Jews, however, this joy is tempered by past regrets, the feeling that we could have done better should we have so wished. Well, here we are in this valley between the high peaks of repentance and atonement. The choice is ours to make. If we want to have joy at the end we will really have to work at it. As the prophet said, “Return O Israel unto the Lord thy God.”