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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”: http://www.elyrics.net/read/b/bratz-lyrics/it_s-all- about-me-lyrics.html
Elkind, David, (1981). The Hurried Child: Growing up Too Fast and Too Soon. Reading, MA : Addison-Wesley.
Elkind, David (1994). Ties That Stress. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Gottleib, Daniel, (2008).    Letters to Sam: A Grandfather’s Lessons on Love, Loss, and
the Gifts of Life. New York: Sterling Publishing.
Gottleib, Lori (2011). “How The Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids (How to Land Your Kid in Therapy): Why The Obsession With Our Kids’ Happiness May be Dooming Them to Unhappy Adulthoods.” In The Atlantic, vol. 308, no. 1, July/August 2011.
Kahneman, Daniel, (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Kindlon, Dan, (2003). Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. New York: Miramax.
Mitchener, James A., (1965). The Source. New York: Random House. Mogel, Wendy, (2008). The Blessing of the Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to
Raise Self-Reliant Children. New York: Simon & Schuster. Mogel, Wendy, (2010). The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Tradition to Raise
Resilient Teenagers. New York: Scribners. O’Farrell, John (2005). May Contain Nuts. London: Doubleday.
Slonimsky, H. (1967). “The Philosophy Implicit in the Midrash” in Essays. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press.
Twenge, Jean and Campbell, W. Keith (2009), The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement. New York: Crown.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771

In a fascinating book entitled How God Changes Your Brain, Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg tells us that if we add spiritual practices to the daily activities of our lives, we will enhance the neural functioning of the brain AND “improve our physical, emotional, and cognitive health, adding years of greater happiness to our lives.”

At the University of Penn’s Center for Spirituality and the Mind, Newberg teaches that setting our intentions, getting clear about our goals, being able to clearly articulate for ourselves what we want as our outcome – is the first step which enables our frontal lobes to more efficiently direct our motor cortex to carry out our desire.
That’s so cool that they know that!

Setting Intention, having Kavanah, is one element required to make the most of our special time, here, now.
So, What do you want from this Day of Remembrance? Yom Hazikaron. Hayom Harat Olam. … The Day the World was Conceived… what is waiting inside of you to be born?   What brings you back to a sense of the sacred, where new beginnings are possible? Where the once-unimagined is now manifest?
For some it’s a week in NY City, a Broadway play, a museum, listening to jazz, the lights of Las Vegas, a Jewish queer San Francisco.

What helps me to reconnect my heart and soul with the Divine is to place myself in nature.

Recently, I was fortunate to be able to travel with the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, to the Inside Passage in South East Alaska, and there for seven quiet days sea kayak and meditate, daven and pray, celebrate Shabbat, and practice paying attention – to EVERYTHING.

With wonderful teachers and a minyan of other seekers…. I was challenged to re-discover a Jewish spiritual life separate from my role as rabbi.

Instead of focusing on how to lead prayer for other people, I was asked to pay attention to my own personal prayer. Each morning awakening to a bell at 6am; Qi Gong exercises on the deck in silence; silent sitting practice 30 minutes, tefillah/davenning/blessing/, silent breakfast, silent time to walk, write, sit, clean. 10 am spiritual practice check-in and conversation; kayaking 11 to 4; mostly in silence. Paddling 30 minutes; and then taking long, silent, delicious drifts.  Lunch stop on an island to explore, learn about the habitat and head back to the water for more awesome, stunning encounters with the GREATNESS of CREATION.

Here, I remember that I am small. Very, very small. Brief and transitory, like a ripple in a vast ocean, like a bald eagle en route. Here, I am relieved of my own self-importance; the persistent allusion that I am at the center of the universe.  Here, I assume my proper proportion in the Cosmos. I remember: I am small in the face of God’s power, God’s eternity. I am comforted, relieved, panicked, terrified…really ALIVE!

Being half-immersed in the surface of the bay; gliding along, in silence, and then easing up from our paddling practice to enjoy some long, quiet drifts…  amidst the wildness, the grandeur, the refuge —   I remember the feeling of the oar in my hands and all of the questions in my heart agreeing to retreat as I concentrate on the subtleties of my stroke, my technique, my stamina, my joy.

Every now and then I start to worry…. What if my hands become blistered? What if my hunger doesn’t subside? What if it starts to pour and I can’t reach my raincoat? What if that helicopter is coming to find me because of a catastrophe back home?

My teacher invites me to notice when I’m in “Planning Mind,” thinking about the future. “Let go.”  “Be Here Now and trust in the Unfolding Mystery.”

It took two days for me to quiet down the conversations in my head, but when I did, I discovered an ability to pay attention that I had lost.  Eating in silence helped me to notice the way foods look on a plate, the distinct smell of a particular fruit, the mixtures of tastes that come in a meal, and most important, the incredible blessing of abundance in my life.  In the quiet of the silence, as I listened to the still, small voice, I could feel the divinity that flows through me and connects me to other beings.

I could hear angels calling.  (What? My last name is Angel! My parents Rabbi and Mrs. Camillus Angel. My sister, Naomi Angel…]  my ancestors, and those who one day will consider us theirs.
And I began to respond, “Hineini.”
“Hineini”  –
I am here. I am here now.
I am awake, fully awake – and this is awesome.
Yesh Nora HaMakom Ha Zeh!

A poem that I discovered on the trip and which expresses much of what I discovered in that time, entitled Lost by the North West poet, David Wagoner.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

I realize now that the trip for me was kind of like the journey we are all on, now; these ten days, when our tradition asks us to go to a deeper connection within ourselves; to deepen our connection to the universe, freshen our perspective and recalibrate our Kavanah.

IN that sacred place, B’MAKOM, in that sacred time, I came to a kind of stillness, in which I could begin to hear the still small voice and I awakened to what is important to me in a different way.

How can we, who are here now, get in touch with more of our senses?  Our sense of acceptance for all that is REAL? Our sense of Compassion for our human limitations; our sense of size and proportion in relationship to creation and Creator; our sense of hope for realizing that which is not yet actual but is becoming!
We are called to exert our selves, to stretch and expand. We are challenged to reach out with hands and hearts to do good. And to accept that not everything is in our HANDS to control.  We live in the WILD.

Being in my kayak, sometimes on my own, sometimes with a twin, half immersed in water, surrounded by evidence of a Force greater than me, allowed me to see things differently.
In the next ten days WE are going to be half immersed in prayer, in silence, in teshuvah work; sometimes alone, sometimes with others…. searching our hearts, looking for clues so that we might emerge with clear and renewed intention, kavanah.

As we paddle thoughtfully into the new year, what can we do to help ourselves get still; get quiet; and check in with the climate of our heart?

At times, our lives, our responsibilities, our sense of priorities –  Overwhelm us.
It’s the human condition.
Raise your hand if you’re not living with challenges?

That’s part of life.
We will always have times that challenge us.

If our desire is to live with balance,  silence is a structure that helps us cultivate awareness of what is happening in the moment. Shabbat is a practice that can help us create an oasis in the midst of the constant barrage of input in our lives.

I have found that Torah and mitzvoth, prayer and embodied meditation help me live with a Being-Here-Now quality of attention. Spiritual practices give me “eyes to see and ears to hear.” They hone my sensitivity to the potential of a miracle arising out of any ordinary day.
Often, we are just too caught up in the demands of the hour to perceive the miracle of which we are a part. Only later does understanding dawn and we realize that, in the words of our ancestor Jacob, “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).
There are myriad ways to experience this sense of wholeness.
If you’re looking for ways to develop balance within yourself  … we’ll be offering several opportunities to practice in the coming year, including:  a daytime class in Embodied Judaism led by the adorable Zvi Bellin; a monthly, Spiritual Practices check-in group, that I’ll be hosting;  We have scheduled sitting meditation, chanting and learning with our beautiful cantor and other gifted spiritual friends and teachers.
We’ve got plans Shabbat morning hikes with Torah on the Trails, outdoor immersions in nature… and I’ve even reserved 10 kayaks for a Sha’ar Zahav Alaska Expedition, 2012.
Because I want company on the journey.

Out there on my kayak, I remember how good it feels to be guided, spiritually led through new terrain, new landscape and new ways of seeing.  I remember how lucky I am that I am part of a community striving together towards a shared vision, helping each other when we feel lost. And what’s more, I have this once-in-a lifetime opportunity to be your spiritual leader.  How cool is that!

As a way for us to pay deeper attention, now
To the sensations in our body, I’d like to lead you in a Guided Meditation.   (And for those of you ready to leap from your seats…. Take an extra deep breath and remind yourself…this too shall pass.)

Hands – Guided Meditation, adapted

Sit erect, feet flat on the floor, eyes closed, hands resting comfortably in your lap, palms up; take a moment to get in touch with your own breath.

I invite you now to become aware of the air at your fingertips, between your fingertips, on the palm of your hands.  Experience the fullness, strength and maturity of your hands.  Think of your hands, think of the most unforgettable hands you have known – the hands of people who have loved you well.  Remember the oldest hands that have rested in your hands.  Think of the hands of a newborn child – perhaps your nephew or niece or your own child or grandchild. Once upon a time, your hands were the same size.

Think of all that your hands have done since then.  Think of all the learning your hands have done and how many activities they have mastered, the things they have made.

There is a mystery in the hands of a person we love.  Through touch we say things we cannot say in any other way.  Our hands are sacred. They write love letters and Torah. We use a tiny silver hand to read Torah.

Now rub your hands together and feel all of this sacredness/energy. Slowly raise your left hand and place it softly on your forehead, where the tefillin are meant to rest.  Feel beneath your warm hand the electricity of your many thoughts, memories, dreams, the capacity of your amazing brain to think and feel and move your body through the world.

Now raise your right hand and gently place it over your heart.  Press more firmly until your hand picks up  the beat of your heart, that most mysterious of all human sounds, the rhythm of life itself. Now feel the aliveness of who you are in the space between your hands, shining, beating, alive. Now lower them to your lap very carefully, still feeling all of your aliveness.

Now, without opening your eyes, extend your hands on either side and find another hand. Do not simply hold it, but let your hand speak to it and let it listen to the other. Express your gratitude for this hand stretched out to you, and for the way that all of us are now linked together, hand to hand to hand.

Now bring your hands back again to your lap, continuing to feel the many ways in which we are connected.

Whose hand was that?  It could be any hand; it could be the hand of love, of the Creator.  Indeed, it was, for the Creator has no other hands than ours with which to do the work of creation.

May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the wisdom of our hands, be what makes a difference in the world as we enter together this new year.


The Bridge To Forgiveness

Yom Kippur Eve- 5768

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy


My dear friends, the plaintive call of Kol Nidre reaches out to us, as we entreat God to forgive us for all that we have done wrong in the year gone by. At the same time we are called to be forgiving of others. Forgiveness is the basic theme of the day.

The author, Naomi Remen, describes how one year she attended Kol Nidre worship and the Rabbi was giving his traditional forgiveness sermon, when he paused to pick up his squirming one year old from his wife’s arms, then continued his message. She was adorable, making faces as he spoke, at one point grabbing his tie, sucking upon it. Then she grabbed his nose. At that point, he departed from his printed text and asked, “Think about it. Is there anything this beautiful baby can do that you could not forgive her for?” Then she grabbed his glasses and burped. “And when does it stop? When does it become hard to forgive another? At 3? At 7? At 14? At 35? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?”

This evening, let us once again explore this topic of forgiveness. Rabbi Karyn Kedar has written an entire book on the subject, which I will draw upon, beginning with her opening poem entitled “The Bridge:”


Forgiveness is a path to be walked.

There are steps along the way:

loss, anger, acceptance, learning,

forgiveness, restoration.

And along the way, you will come upon a bridge.

When you step upon it, it will carry you,

support you, connect you to another side of life,

a side waiting to be discovered.

Forgiveness is a perpetual journey.

There are many bridge crossings.

Each restores a bit more of what you have lost.


This whole process begins with a sense of loss. When we are wronged, someone offends us, hurts us, is cruel or uncaring, and we feel loss. How could she do that, taking away my position, undercutting me in such a way, messing up everything? How could he say that, when it’s not true and is so insensitive? How could he act in that fashion? We lose trust in those, who we felt would not behave in such a manner. Our security is shattered, since we felt comfortable and safe. And the loss is more poignant since it is often inflicted upon us by those who are dear to us, friends and family, trusted associates and co-workers, professionals upon whom we relied. At times we even lose faith, questioning how God can allow this injustice to occur, whether the sudden illness that invaded our body or the storm that blew through our lives, changing us and our community forever. Something good is taken from our lives and we are diminished.

And then we become angry. Of anger Rabbi Kedar writes:

There is good reason to be angry.

There is good reason not to be angry.

Anger can be like a river

that swells beyond its banks,

flooding and destroying everything in its path.

Or it can be like a river

that flows through your soul,

washing away all that needs to be gone.

Discernment is

knowing when to be angry and when to let it go.


Anger is natural and necessary as a response to loss leading to forgiveness. It is the first reaction. When we are angry, it is difficult to think or speak rationally. Our spirit burns from what we see as an assault, whether it be the unkind word, an undermining act, unfair criticism or simply unacceptable behavior. When we are undone, anger often is our first line of defense. It tells us that this is wrong and forms a shield around us, protecting us momentarily.

The problem with anger is that it can be destructive, not constructive when it permeates our response to a situation. A midrash teaches, “when the kettle boils, it spills hot water down its side.” So it is when we boil over with anger. We merely scald ourselves. We feel so hurt and disgusted that we cannot move on with our lives.

For some, being the victim is a comfortable role. It allows you to feel as though you deserve goodness, wholeness and love. However, remaining in that role denies you the possibility of growth. Anger is healthy, but only as a first step to healing and forgiveness.

Sometimes we will have to realize that we are angry with a spouse, a parent, a brother or sister, a friend, co-worker, angry at ourselves, even God, before we can move on to forgiveness. Forgiveness will mean letting go of our anger, leaving the darkness that is our reality in order to gain control of our spirit.

Then comes acceptance as part of the forgiveness process. “Acceptance is the compassionate embrace of yourself and your place in the world: without judgment, without fear, without regret.” (p. 5) We suffer loss and initially respond with anger, but ultimately if we are to heal, we accept our reality. There is frequently no choice. The illness strikes; the storm arrives; the mistake has been made; the job is lost; the marriage is no more; the death is real, whether we like it or not. Life does not always turn out the way we desire. Sometimes it is our own fault, sometimes due to others and sometimes by forces beyond our control.

Acceptance does not mean that the pain, the hurt goes away completely. To some extent it is like the athlete, who during the week is sidelined by an injury, but when game day comes will play through the pain. As some of you know, I often am subject to headaches. However, I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon, that being, when I am on the pulpit or busy with some activity, the headache seems to abate. Later when life calms down I might feel the pain afresh. So it is with our emotional pains; when we accept them we can lead our lives more fully, though on occasion they will give us a jab.

One of the challenges of acceptance is how to deal with the question of “why” something has happened, but as most of us are aware there is no answer. Sure we know the meteorology of storm tracks, but not why it came our way; we understand that cancer attacks cells in the body, but not why those cells belong to me or my loved one. In trying to deal with this question Rabbi Kedar writes: “I do not know why some die too soon, or others never find love, or how others are able to forgive. This, I do know: that it is only in this state of not knowing that I am humble enough to approach the mystery. To forgive you must embrace the mystery.” (p. 81)

For some the “mystery” is that part of reality, which is chaotic, that part of the world we simply cannot comprehend. It is randomness. For others it is God. We can blame God, be angry with God, but then turn to God as well for the strength to accept that which is our lot in life.

Coming out of acceptance is the opportunity to learn and grow. Forgiveness can be an evolving understanding. We learn from loss, from anger, from survival and perseverance. When we release the pain of the past we can then learn to be open to what the future can bring.

Literally, while sitting at my desk preparing this sermon I heard the ring, telling me an e-mail had arrived. It was from a woman I have not seen or to be honest even thought of in over 30 years. She saw my name on a list of former staff members of the URJ Eisner Camp and wanted to make contact. Janice wrote: “I remember you helping me through a rough time at camp in 1975. Do you remember Allan Z?  Well, he DUMPED me that summer, and I fell apart!!!  I have a memory of you letting me hang out in your room and looking after me.  I’m happy to say as soon as camp was over, I met a new boyfriend, and we just celebrated our 26th anniversary. I’ll never forget your kindness….” We never know when we make a difference in someone’s life.

I do recall how torn, angry and inconsolable she was at the time. I was her camp supervisor, but she just could not function as a counselor for a while. She needed time to recover, but ultimately was able to pull herself together, accept where she was, forgive Allan for the hurt and move on effectively. Clearly she learned and prospered from what was a calamity at the time.

When we are in the midst of a painful moment, it is difficult to find that silver lining, to glean understanding or wisdom, to grasp a greater lesson. Forgiveness involves learning. In some cases it will be intellectual growth, prompting us to better evaluate and analyze future situations. Emotionally we will grow, counterbalancing devastation with hope. Even spiritually we can come to realize that making the Divine connection is possible and does not have to only be a refuge of last resort. That connection is open any time you want it to be. Pain can be a powerful teacher.

Friends, forgiveness is not a matter of unconditional love: forgive and forget. “There should be no forgetting of evil acts, no condoning of offense, sin, hatred. To forget is to run the risk of allowing these evils to happen again. Yet at the same time, to hold within us the horror and pain of every offense diminishes our lives.” (p. 3) We recognize our loss, allow a period of anger, accept our reality and even learn from the experience. Forgiveness is not condoning the wrong in the world or the offense inflicted upon us. It is not forgetting. It is a state of being that allows us to move on and be restored.

Ultimately that is our goal. We want wholeness in our lives. We know we cannot go back to where we were before our equilibrium was disturbed. Our world is never the same after we have suffered a hurt, but it can be reconstructed, perhaps even better than before. Through full forgiveness we restore our faith and trust in others, in ourselves and God. For a while all seemed dark and ugly. With forgiveness we can once again find a sense of beauty. Where briefly all seemed lost, we can regain optimism and hope.

I invite you now for just a moment to close your eyes and envision those who have hurt or angered you the most this past year. You may need to address this to yourself. Try out these phrases:

Tonight I forgive you.

I am moving on with my life.

I will not let my resentments pull me down.

I give up my anger which has been holding me back.

Tonight I forgive you.”

May this Day of Atonement that we begin tonight provide us with the opportunity to make the spiritual journey across the bridge of forgiveness.



Much of this sermon was based upon the writing of Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar in her book The Bridge of Forgiveness.

The News From Israel

JULY 6, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, there is so much to tell you about Israel that it will take four weeks and more. I won’t force you to hear everything tonight. By touring the length and breadth of the land it is apparent to all that the economy is booming for many. That is not to say there is not a significant problem of poverty, there is. Still construction is constant in all the cities with cranes all over, and apartment buildings soaring into the sky. The tourists are back, not as many as before 2000, but they are back, especially busloads of Birthright young people.

Tonight, I will limit myself to a review of the major news stories, but from the Israeli perspective. Let me share what we heard from others and read in the daily papers. It makes a big difference in view when you are in the middle of the story, as we well know.

As we left the States, Civil War in Gaza was the major issue. Hamas and Fatah fighting for power is nothing new. The so called unity government between Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Haniyeh of Hammas was a sham. Each side was literally attempting  to kill the other. Fatah had a superior force militarily and with armaments, but when challenged by Hamas, Fatah officers fled and their soldiers followed. Massacres of Fatah soldiers ensued with disgusting barbarity. This was Palestinians killing Palestinians.

According to the Israeli newspapers, Hamas is as surprised as anyone to be in the position of power in Gaza. They never expected this result, but now have to deal with the responsibility. Essentially we have two Palestinian entities, one in Gaza and the other on the West Bank. Abbas claims both, but his words are empty.

Israeli policy continues to be a mess. The hope of the Gaza pull-out is now in shambles. The goal was that if they unilaterally withdrew, the Palestinians would leave Israel alone. It did not happen. Instead it emboldened Hamas and the foes of Israel.

The newspapers kept referring to the reality of Hamastan, a radical Islamic Taliban style religious government now on Israel’s border, a source of great fear and consternation. There is a recognition that the Palestinian have no unified leadership, not even in Hamas with a variety of factions and militias taking action. While in Israel, we daily read of the the British journalist, Alan Johnston of the BBC, being held captive by what was believed to be a group linked to Al Queda. He was released this week. There seems to be another group holding kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, whose story continues in Israel’s news daily along with those held in Lebanon. While in Israel Hamas leaders released a tape of Shalit asking to be free, claiming that he was not well. This was timed to take away the focus of Arab leaders meeting with Prime Minister Olmert in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. We know that Shalit is alive. There are serious doubts about those captured by Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, as a result of the civil war there are starving people in Gaza who need supplies that have to come from and through Israel. Here is the irony. Hamas wants the end of Israel, takes over Gaza, but Israel is criticized for not getting supplies to them fast enough. And still the Kassam rockets continue to fall on Sderot. Damage and death are light; terror and trauma are constant. The community is being strangled. Citizens never know when the next rocket will fall and if it will be deadly. You can imagine the stress.

Following the civil war, the United States has called for support of Abbas, the opening of funds and training his troops, now that his government is no longer linked to Hamas. Ehud Olmert is on board, though many question this policy. The fear is that the same inept, corrupt government that could not rule Gaza will not be any better in the West Bank. Hamas will wind up with the weaponry, just as it now has in Gaza. Newspapers reported that if a vote were taken today in the West Bank, Hamas would still win. Palestinians do not trust Fatah based on decades of arrogance and missed opportunities. They may not support Hamas in its violent positions, but they believe that Hamas can improve their lives more than Fatah.

Israel continues to be living in dangerous times in what seems like a no-win situation. If they retake Gaza, then what? Our guide suggested that for every Kassam rocket fired into Israel, shut off electricity, which Israel supplies for 3 hours…. Do something!!! All of a sudden Fatah is Israel’s friend? (in comparison to Hamas), but Fatah’s track record is not much better.

We know one thing- whatever Israel does to protect its citizens, it will be criticized by the world as wrong; it’s all Israel’s fault! The latest insult came while we were there. Britain’s University and College Union voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, in spite of attempts to thwart the move by ADL and others. Israel is depicted as the South Africa of the 21st century; of course it is hard for us to see it that way. David Forman, who spoke at Gates of Prayer two years ago and with our group, penned a column in the Jerusalem Post. He points to the hypocrisy of singling out Israel for being an oppressor, for having blood on its hands. As if the United States and the British are not occupying Iraq at this time; as if the division fence in Baghdad and along the Mexican border are somehow different from the defensive fence that Israel has been forced to build; as if the Palestinian Authority is a benevolent haven for academic freedom, while not considering suicide bombers, kidnappings and threats to destroy the country.

Forman is a realist, but also a liberal, part of Rabbis for Human Rights. The world is hypocritical, but he notes a grain of truth. Arabs in the West Bank do not have real democracy, though they are better off than many other Arabs, but we have higher expectations. In the name of security Arabs experience checkpoints, arrests and detention without trial, a security fence in some areas that makes no sense, but creates great hardship and numerous other injustices. Forman expects more of Israel, a society based on prophetic social justice. He does not believe Israel’s critics are justified, but concludes: “We have created a moral morass- and if it takes the hypocritical self-righteousness of some foreign pseudo-intellectuals and pig-headed unionists to open our eyes and alter this unacceptable reality, then something positive will ultimately be served.” We can agree or disagree with him. There is no doubt that similar words will not appear in the Palestinian newspapers or for that matter in most Arab countries.

Israel is a free and open democracy. The new/old leader of the Labor Party was elected- Ehud Barak, now Israel’s Minister of Defense. Ehud Olmert is in big political trouble with very low ratings in opinion polls. If elections were held today, Bibi Netanyahu would probably be the next Prime Minister. It was pointed out to us that a problem of Israel’s political system is that it recycles old leaders and limits upward mobility. We see the same people over and over again.

Shimon Peres finally wins a prestige position, but not Prime Minister, rather the Presidency of Israel- a role of honor, but not much power. He was elected to follow Moshe Katsav, drummed out of office for sexual harassment and charges of rape. Now the controversy is over the lightness of his sentence. Can you imagine a government leader receiving preferential treatment?

One last area arose in the news, which is dear to us as Reform Jews. The Jewish Agency for Israel was meeting in our hotel during our stay. They deal with many issues regarding programs and funding of cultural and humanitarian activities. Leaders from ARZA, including our own Bill Hess, were very much involved. A resolution calling for the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions, followed by an editorial in the Jerusalem Post calling for a severing of the link between the Orthodox political and religious parties from the State became a significant news story. It is one thing for this call to come from Reform and Conservative leaders, another from the Head of the Jewish Agency and others. There is a growing recognition in Israel by so-called secularists, even some religious, that there is a value for non-Orthodox Judaism in the land, that the restrictions upon recognition of our conversions in Israel, (particularly as concerns Russian and Ethiopian Jews) as well as other limitations is ultimately not in the best interest of Israel. We are few in number, but our influence is growing. We can see this by the popularity of the few Reform/Progressive synagogues that are operating in Israel. Parenthetically, one Reform rabbi shared that while we Reform Jews rightfully feel discrimination, there is a certain oppression of the observant by the secularists that is also felt.

Friends, I am glad to be home. I love New Orleans and this country, even with all the flaws of which we are aware. At the same time, as a Jew I have a special link to the land of Israel. We all do. As Yehuda Halevi, the Sephardic Jewish poet of the Golden Age of Spain, put it: “My heart is in the east, while I am in the west.”