From Rabbi Tom
The Gift of Shiva
A little story about being fully present:
A young man left his younger brother’s room in the hospital and headed home for some desperately needed rest. He had been at his brother’s bedside for 48 hours straight. The worst was hopefully over. His brother’s condition had been critical but was now, thank God, stable. Time for some rest.
He had felt helpless and frustrated the whole time he was in the hospital because there was nothing he could do to help. All he did was sit there. He couldn’t even think of anything useful to say. He just sat in the chair next to the bed, held his brother’s hand and murmured, “I’m here, I’m here . . .”
Early the next morning he returned to the hospital and found his brother smiling, sitting up, with good color in his cheeks. The worst truly was over. The younger brother looked up at him and said, “Thank you, thank you so much!”
“What’d I do?” he asked his brother. “I didn’t do anything.”
The younger brother answered, “You were here. You were here with me. I knew that. And that made all the difference.”
An ancient story of being fully present: The Binding of Isaac. When God calls out to Abraham at the beginning of the saga, before even knowing what it is that God wants, the old patriarch replies, “Hineini.” “Here I am.”
Hineini – a contraction of the words, “I” and “here”. It’s a challenge to translate because it means much more than the simple statement of the fact, “I am physically here.” Because it is never used casually. If the teacher is taking attendance and calls your name, “Hineini” would be a bit over the top.
It’s a word used only 12 times in the entire Tanakh, throughout the entire Hebrew Bible. Half of the time it is used by God, and half of the time by human beings.
When God says, “Hineini”, it is never casual. God uses the term only at the most important moments. In the story of Noah, just before the great flood begins, God declares, “Hineini, behold, here I am, I am about to bring the flood upon the whole earth.”
When the word is used by human beings, it is likewise never casual. When God called upon Abraham, and Abraham answered “Hineini”, he was saying, “All of my being, my love and my faith, and my full attention are here for you now.” And when, later in the story, the boy Isaac – obediently following his father up the mountain, curious about the true intent of their journey, he asks, “Father?” Abraham replies, “Hineini b’ni”, “here I am my son.” That is, “I am here for you with all of my heart and all of my being.”
In the hospital, when, for all of those hours, the older brother was fully there for the younger brother. That was a time of profound Hineini.
One of the most beautiful ways that we as human beings and as Jews can embody the essence of Hineini with the simplest of actions: making a shiva call.
As rabbis and cantors one of the unique circumstances we encounter is that to and from funerals we are often sitting quietly in front seat of the limousine. And that means we hear some very sweet and moving conversations from the seats behind us.
The subject of the conversation in the back seat is almost always the same: Who came, who was there, who took the time to show up for the funeral or the shiva.
They don’t talk about what people said to them, or what people brought or what they wore. They are deeply moved by those who took the time to be present. And that brings much comfort.
This is what you hear in the shiva home when everyone leaves:
- Did you see Cousin Fred drove overnight from South Carolina? That’s so special.
- How sweet that Jordan’s college friends drove from school upstate to be at his grandpa’s funeral.
- Uncle Dan was there, even though his sciatica is really bad these days. He didn’t have to do that.
- Look at all the people who came from work?
We are simply so moved by the people who show up.
There’s wonderful wisdom in our traditions of mourning. During the few days following a funeral it’s so important to have these guidelines and this structure to provide the many ways for people to be there for us; and to keep us busy and occupied.
To just come home after a funeral alone; or to just go right back to work or school the next day, gives us no time to mourn. And people have to mourn.
Those first few days are so critical; we’re often so vulnerable, emotional, confused, overwhelmed, in denial, angry, numb . . . or most likely some combination of all of the above.
Joseph Telushkin, in his book on Jewish Ethics gives us a straight forward definition: “According to Jewish law, seven days of intense morning, Shiva – from the number 7 – is observed by the deceased’s seven closest relatives: mother and father, sister and brother, son and daughter, or spouse.” (Pg. 116-7)
The guideline is 7 days; but for some one day is sufficient, and for others 3, and for some, the entire 7 days.
And for some of our families, 7 will make perfect sense. People coming from faraway places; family tradition; having different nights in different family member’s homes who may not live close to one another. The 7 of Shiva can make sense.
For some of us, based on the make up of our families and where we all live, 3 days may be perfect.
And in other circumstances, 1 may be just what we need. (Shira, David and I are more than happy to help you navigate that question if the time comes.)
Whatever its length, gathering for shiva brilliantly provides a loving embrace by our friends, family and community, so that we might manage those first few days; those first few tentative steps forward into our new reality.
Shiva is so important; Shiva is so healthy; and it’s so wise.
Sometimes though we get in our own way and prevent ourselves from either helping others in their mourning; or from letting others help us in our mourning.
The reasons are understandable. There are some very real concerns that can get in the way of making that important visit.
These are some of the reasons we may hear:
- Things about death make me nervous.
- I don’t know what to say.
- What if I say the wrong thing?
- I’ve never been to one before and I’m not sure what to do.
- I’m not Jewish, should I go?
- Do I need to know Hebrew to make a shiva call?
- I’m not sure I know the family well enough to even go?
Maybe tonight can help us overcome some of those concerns.
Do you have to be Jewish to make a shiva call? Of course not. The power of your presence knows no specific language or religion. You don’t have to know Hebrew or any Jewish prayers. During the short service that takes place, you are participating in the most beautiful way possible, just by being there.
The biggest worry is usually “What am I supposed to say?” “It’s so awkward!” “What’s the right thing to say?” “What’s the wrong thing to say?”
Don’t be so hard on yourselves. There are no right words. Somebody just had a death in their family. They are going to be sad for a while. There’s nothing you can say that will make go away. You are greeting them in their sadness. No magic words exist. And the mourners aren’t expecting any.
As a matter of fact, having nothing to say is often the best move. Silence. Just a hug or a nod.
Joseph Telushkin explains (Pg. 119-20) “The tradition of not having to speak at a shiva call comes from the Bible in the story of Job’s three friends who come to comfort him after the death of his children. The Book of Job says, “Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar ‘met together to go and console and comfort Job. When they saw him from a distance . . . they broke into loud weeping; each one tore his clothes and threw dust onto his head. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him, for they saw how very great his suffering was” (Job 2:11–13)
What mattered was that Job’s friends were fully with hm, not that they tried to comfort him with words at the time he felt anguish beyond words. Their Hineini was silent.
Telushkin shares another more recent story of silence at a time of shiva: “Rabbi Jack Reimer was with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when they heard of the death of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman’s sister. Rabbi Heschel insisted that they go to visit Rabbi Kelman and his family immediately: “We went to the airport, we flew to Boston, got into a cab, and went to the house. Heschel walked in, he hugged the mourners, he sat silently for an hour. He didn’t mumble a single cliché. He just sat there for an hour. And then he got up, hugged them, and we left.” (pg. 120)
So, if there are no words, what can we do? During that period of time, the friends and community and co-workers of the mourner can do so much to relieve the mourner of everyday tasks and worries.
- We can make sure meals are taken care of,
- When we pick up a relative or one of their kids from the train station.
- When we clean up after a meal.
- If we are a coworker and we make sure the office won’t bother you for those few days.
- If we are a neighbor and we put their trash cans on the curb for pick up.
- We can offer to print up copies of the directions to the cemetery to hand out at the funeral service.
- When we help take care of your little ones.
You don’t need Judaic scholarship or any expertise to help.
Lisa Borowitz heads our wonderful – but I must say small – team of people who do an amazing job of leading shiva services in people’s homes when we rabbis and cantor are spread too thin. Lisa recently shared with me and Shira and David, that fewer people than in the past are observing shiva services in their homes following funerals.
That’s such a shame because shiva services are so helpful.
We can get a little confused about the mood of this Shiva thing. Sometimes you hear a lot of laughter and food is being served and sometimes there’s liquor. People often ask themselves, is this supposed to be a party?
But when you gather for Shiva, some laughter can be quite lovely and even helpful. Certainly, if the laughter comes from a wonderful story about the deceased, or you’re remembering what used to make them laugh.
So, if it’s feeling a little party-like, a beautiful balance occurs when we pause for the 10 or 20 minutes for the service. Because then there is a clear focus as to why we’re all here, why we’re all gathered in that living room, in that home. The service embraces everyone into the same emotional locale. And it is indeed comforting for the family.
I know hundreds of you have had this experience.
Let me end with a story from a shiva that took place in our Kol Ami community in early August. Our congregant Stephen Weisglass had lost his mother. He gave me permission to share this.
I was invited to the home to lead a Shiva service.
If I or any one of the many friends who gathered at his home were not exactly sure what Shiva is all about, Stephen helped us to see its essence that evening.
When Stephen greeted me at the door, with perfect honesty he said, “You know I don’t really think we need to do a Shiva service tonight. Besides,” he continued, “you know I don’t really consider myself a religious person. But tell me what you have in mind.”
That was up to him. I told him that I could drone on for a couple of hours, if he wanted. I did go to rabbinical school, after all. I’m a professional. (That didn’t seem to be what he had in mind.)
I told him a shiva service is usually very brief.
And that if he wanted, we could pause in the middle of the service for anyone in the family to share a story about his mother.
Though he didn’t necessarily feel connected to the worship part of the experience, he said he’d give it a shot. And he added that he probably would not be sharing any comments.
When everyone was gathered in the living room, we had begun our Shiva minyan. After a few minutes there came the time for anyone from the family who wanted to share.
There was a moment or two of quiet, with Stephen sitting on the couch looking around the room filled with friends who really care for him and were there for him at that important moment in life.
And in that silence, you could hear this big beautiful “Hineini” emanating everyone there.
Then, Stephen stood up to speak.
“All of you know that I’m not exactly a religious person. You know I didn’t have great experiences as a child in Hebrew school. Pretty much the opposite. They didn’t seem to want me there and I didn’t want to be there either.
Everyone in the room smiled and understood.
Then he choked up a bit, and his eyes filled as he looked around at his many friends and his precious family.
He continued: “Now you know that it doesn’t have anything to do with Judaism or religion, but I can’t tell you how moved I am, and how much it means to me that all of you have come to be here with me at this difficult moment, with the passing of my mother. Having you as friends and having you here means the world to me. I can’t thank you enough.”
Everyone in the room was silent. Everyone in the room was powerfully present and listening and hearing. And Stephen clearly felt the warmth and embrace of that loving circle of family and friends.
Stephen, I disagree with you on one point; that it all had nothing to do with being Jewish.
I think that’s exactly what Shiva. Over many centuries the Jewish people have wisely and lovingly molded that moment to be exactly what it was for you.
And I thank you so much for so beautifully articulating the essence of Shiva at that evening in your home.
“The brother had felt helpless and frustrated the whole time he was in the hospital because there was nothing he could do to help. All he did was sit there. He couldn’t even think of anything useful to say. He just sat in the chair next to the bed, held his brother’s hand and murmured, “I’m here, I’m here . . .”
The younger brother answered, “You were here! You were here with me. I knew that. And that made all the difference.”
A long, long time ago, when I was a newly minted rabbi, the way we prayed in a Reform service was really different from what we’re doing here. The guiding principle of Reform Jewish Worship of the day was “decorum.” “Behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety.” Being decorous was expressed with our clothing (formal); our language (almost entirely in English and very little Hebrew); musical instruments (only the organ and the human voice); our expressions of emotion should be kept to a minimum, except of course for some occasional righteous indignation!
“Spirituality” believe it or not, was not thought to be very decorous. Spirituality could be messy, emotional, uncomfortable and unpredictable. (When I went to the Hebrew Union College for my interview for rabbinical school in 1978, I was strongly advised NOT to use the word “spiritual”. It could make the committee uncomfortable. They might think you’re some kind of meditating, spacey, hippie or something.
I was once chastised for wearing brown shoes at services. We were warned against “osculation” on the bema. (Kissing someone “Shabbat shalom”). Not tolerated were the sounds of young children; the sight of an open collar with no tie; guitar playing; facial hair, etc. It was a different world.
We’ve come a long way. (Last Friday night at services I happened to have on a suit and tie. More than one person came up and asked, “Why are you so dressed up? What’s the occasion?”)
We also didn’t talk about God all that much. Even on the bema. Especially from the bema.
Now take this as a compliment, because it’s meant as one: you Jews today are much harder to please with prayer and worship than the Jews generations past. And that’s a really good thing. Truly a complement. Much was left unquestioned in the decades of the past. People excepted the music they’d always heard, people recited the prayers more out of habit, without great concern for their meaning.
But today, so many of our people, of all ages, want to understand what we’re saying. We want to ponder who that God is that’s being addressed on these pages. We want the words we say to be authentic and ring true.
These changes are wonderful! And they go way beyond the sanctuary.
Weddings are really different: What people look for in a ceremony has changed dramatically over the years. Most of the couples who came into my office in the 80s or 90s all said the same thing to me: “Rabbi, if you could not use too much Hebrew, and please don’t make it too Jewish; and if you could keep it really short.”
It’s so different today! Couples now come in with incredible curiosity about each little part of the ceremony, sometimes wanting to revive old traditions, sometimes wanting to create new ones.
And these same conversations are equally interesting whether it’s two Jews, or with an interfaith couple, or with LGBTQ couples, or folks who converted. We all want to understand what we are saying and to Whom? People want to be very careful with the God language in their weddings; they put a lot of thought using only words they actually believe.
(BTW: One thing hasn’t changed. Everyone still wants it short. No one has ever, ever come up to me and asked, “Rabbi, could you please make our wedding ceremony really long!”)
Folks as young as our 12 and 13 year-olds can be wonderfully demanding too in wanting to understand this “praying stuff” and “this God stuff”. It used to be rare for a bat or bar mitzvah kid to think so deeply about God. Now a good number of these young kids have serious and brilliant God questions.
More than a few times a year David, Shira or I will get a call from a parent who’s a little embarrassed to tell us that their daughter or son isn’t sure they want to have a bar mitzvah because they don’t believe in God.
But please don’t be embarrassed or feel awkward to tell the rabbi or cantor that your kid is not sure he or she believes in God. Cause that’s a really cool kid! Our response to you is “Good for you, good for your kid!” Most of us don’t think much about prayer and God issues until we’re well into adulthood!
So if you’re lucky enough to have one of those kids who is curious, and asking hard questions, and is even a bit strident in their thoughts, then Mazal Tov! You have a thinking caring soul on your hands. And we all look forward to engaging in good discussion with them.
Many of our 15 year-olds have deep and serious questions. Every year when we prepare for Confirmation our 10th graders have a sheet of sentence completions that they fill out.
The place I feel most comfortable is . . . ?
When I grow up I would like to . . . ?
If I could change one thing in the world it would be . ?
My favorite Kol Ami memory is . . . ?
I’ve used the same sheet for many, many years.
Then all of a sudden a few years ago one sentence completion became very contentious.
“A time I felt close to God was . . .” Complete the sentence. That one used to seem kind of innocuous; pretty straight forward. Bur recently they began to find that sentence very presumptuous; a question that a) presumes you believe in God, and b) presumes that there was a time when you felt close to God. That’s a lot to presume.
And the kids are asking, “Hey, what if I’ve never had a time where I felt close to God. What if I don’t believe in God? Am I still a part of this?”
We’re not in the business of telling young people what to believe; rather our job is to give them the tools and the spiritual vocabulary to engage in their own life long journey; wherever it takes them. And most often it takes them to good places.
So what’s the modern Jew supposed to do?
There’s this great little morsel of wisdom that may help: May have been written a few centuries ago, but it certainly helpful for us here today with our really hard God questions.
“Pray as if everything depends on God;
and act as if everything depends on you.”
[St. Augustine or from Reform Prayerbook, Mishkan Tephillah.]
In this teaching you have the praying and the doing.
What do we pray for almost every time we gather?
We have that prayer for healing,
the prayers for peace,
the prayer to bring comfort to someone who recently had a death in the family,
the prayer about feeding the homeless or clothing the naked,
the Amida in which we have now fully embraced the mothers of our tradition equally with the fathers of our tradition.
“Pray as if everything depends on God; and act as if everything depends on you.”
It doesn’t say “or”. It doesn’t say “act OR pray”! How brilliant that it says both:
Pray AND act!
It’s like a redundant back up system. Think of yourself sky diving; you’re never going to jump out of that plane unless you have both your parachute AND your emergency chute. Pray and act.
How do we Jews pray AND act?
The Prayer is the Mi Sheberach: we sing the prayer for healing. The Action? When we visit people who are ill, when we call them, when we check in on them or make a bowl of soup.
The Prayer Oseh Shalom: Maker of Peace: The Action? Any time you have eveworkedin your life to prevent war, or protest, or write a letter, or supported a war you thought might bring peace; or when you have meeting with elected officials?
The Prayer to console the bereaved. The Action: when you show up for shiva, and give that hug.
The Prayers about feeding the homeless and clothing the naked. The Action: When we create and sustain a Food Pantry on our own property; when we have bags in the Atrium filled for us to take to someone who could use it; When we create a magnificent Thanksgiving dinner for the people from the Coachman.
(Do you know what our kids will be doing across the way tomorrow morning?: They’ll be praying and acting. After a Yom Kippur service they will be packing up donated food for the homeless, as we do every year with Feeding Westchester. Kol Ami is one of their largest donors, giving each year literally thousands of pounds of food for hungry people. Our kids . . . praying AND acting.
The Prayer, the Avot and Imahot, in which we now fully embrace the mothers of our tradition equally with the fathers of our tradition. The Actions?; when we fill up busses to go to DC, or NY or White Plains to act for Women’s equality.
Singer Sam Smith recently wrote a beautiful song that captures our dilemma: Smith is a British fellow who’s about 26 years old. His first songs were mostly love songs. But a couple of years ago he travelled to Iraq with a charity called War Child, an organization that works to provide assistance to children living in war zones.
Smith says that he “…spent five days in Mosul and came back embarrassed that [he] had known so little about the world and other people’s lives.” He was deeply conflicted about what to do? And with this song he captures the essence of these hard questions: When should I pray? Do I believe? Are You there? Where do I start? I’m confused!
Sam Smith’s song, Pray:
I lift up my head and the world is on fire
There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones
And I just don’t know what to say
Maybe I’ll pray
I have never believed in you, no
But I’m gonna pray
You won’t find me in church reading the Bible
But I’m still here and I’m still your disciple
I’m down on my knees, I’m beggin’ you, please
When I try to explain, the words run away
That’s why I stood here today
And I’m gonna pray (Lord), maybe I’ll pray
Pray for a glimmer of hope
Won’t you call me?
Can we have a one-to-one, please?
Let’s talk about freedom
Oh, and I’m gonna pray,
Pray for a glimmer of hope
Maybe I’ll pray,
I’ve never believed in you, no, but I’m gonna pray
(Pray by Sam Smith. Sung by Melanie Barest)
Whether you count with 5,779 years of Jewish mythical reckoning; or the 4 ½ billion years of scientific reckoning . . . today we Jews celebrate the birthday of the World.
The Mystics teach us that God’s act of Creation was never fully completed. Something was left a bit broken, unfinished. They explain that to repair and complete Creation, we human beings would have a role to play: that through our best moral actions, we can help complete God’s work.
In 1964 Martin Luther King Jr. commented on the unfolding of this Creation’s history: He famously said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Today I want to share with you three broken places in this creation that need our help; our acts of Tikkun Olam; places we can help to bend that arc of the moral universe towards justice.
The first broken place:
In February of 1972 I was one of 150 enthralled teenagers, sitting on the floor of the rec room at a camp in Connecticut. Speaking to us was Deborah Lipstadt, our regional Youth Director, who had just returned from a harrowing, secret mission to the Soviet Union.
She was not yet Professor Deborah Lipstadt, renowned Holocaust scholar. She was grad student Debby, youth group advisor Debby. And we 16 year-olds were spellbound with the idea that our Debby had just come back from a truly frightening “clandestine” mission on behalf of the Jewish people.
She had travelled to the USSR to visit Refuseniks, Jews who were denied permission to emigrate by the authorities. The term refusenik comes from the “refusal” to let them go, handed down by the Soviets.
(The following based on her telling of the story in her book, History on Trial.)
Before she and a fellow grad student departed on their mission to the USSR, Deborah was quietly given special instructions on what to bring, who to visit, what to say and not say . . . all this, to keep herself and the refuseniks she encountered safe.
She writes, “We were to bring one family medication for their child. And for others, books to distribute on the Jewish holidays, tradition, and history, and souvenirs from Israel, including a number of small Jewish stars on a chain.
“Our primary goal was to let these Jews know that Israel and world Jewry had not forgotten them and were partners in their struggle.”
She spent Yom Kippur at the synagogue in Moscow. She wrote, “Later that afternoon I returned. I saw the old woman from the morning standing at the back of the sanctuary. I handed her my small leather-bound prayer book. Unable to read it, she seemed proud just to hold it. When people walked by, she showed it to them.
Suddenly, the relative calm of the moment was broken. The synagogue sexton, [a Jew,] who, it was commonly assumed, reported all unusual activities to the KGB; he burst in and accused me of being a provocateur, a serious charge by Soviet standards. When he saw that the old woman had my prayer book, his face grew bright red. Sputtering in a mix of Russian and Yiddish, he grabbed it and accused me of distributing religious items. He then disappeared down the street with my book in his hands.
The next day we were waiting in our hotel lobby to depart for Kishinev. Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by men in trench coats who identified themselves as KGB. Had I not been so frightened, I would have laughed aloud at the predictability of their dress. I lost any inclination to laugh when I saw that they had my prayer book as well as a list of every home we had visited.
“When they questioned us, they used traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, describing the Jews who wished to leave the Soviet Union as part of an international cabal. . . They kept asking who sent us. We kept insisting we were just tourists. I suspected that the exercise was designed to frighten us. The Soviets knew precisely who had sent us.
“After a long day of strip searches and interrogation, my traveling companion and I-who were kept apart the entire time-, were accused of spreading lies about the Soviet regime. We were “invited” to leave the country and, in the dark of the night, placed in an empty train car with an armed guard. [They didn’t tell us where we were going.] Many hours later, after a long and circuitous route, we were let off the train. We found ourselves in Romania.”
That was a visit to a broken place. But that was 46 years ago That’s a long time! Moscow is far away! And the perpetrators were part of an evil Empire that no longer exists.
The KGB, indiscriminate interrogations, going through your bags to find propaganda materials; questioning you on your motives and your politics and your affiliations. That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore. Our world is a more benign and friendly one.
One would hope.
Yet, here’s another story about interrogation, intimidation, and the questioning of politics and beliefs and intentions. But this one was not long ago, and for us, the Jewish people, it was not far away.
It was July 16th, a few weeks ago, at 1AM. Sam Sussman, a writer and activist, posted the following:
“I just spent a deeply disturbing hour being questioned about the books in my suitcase by security officers at Ben Gurion airport. “Why are you reading this?” the officers asked again and again. I had Amos Oz’s memoir, Saed Kashua’s last novel, a religious tract on Hasidism and Kierkegaard, Bernard Henry-Levi’s ‘The Genius of Judaism,’ a history of the Communist Party in Mandate Palestine, two novels about the Iraq War by writers with distinctly Arabic names, a novel by a left-wing Israeli writer, a collection of short stories about the occupation edited by Michael Chabon, and four short collections of testimonies from Breaking the Silence.
For a full hour the security guards held up one book after another. “Why are you reading this?” “Where did you get this?” “What is this about?” “Tell me again: why do you want to read this?” “You know Breaking the Silence is against Israel? You know Breaking the Silence opposes the Army?” “Who told you to read this?” After a full search of my suitcase, the security officers found the business card of the director of B’Tselem בצלם. “Why do you have this? You know B’Tselem? You know they are against the Army?”
Sam continued, “I cannot explain or justify this as a security practice. My luggage had already been cleared when the first “non-kosher” book was discovered. This was a political exercise. It’s deeply disturbing to me that airport security officers are using their position to defame Israeli human rights organizations and question readers of Palestinian authors. Imagine if you landed at JFK and for an hour security officials insisted that Iraq Veterans Against the War is against America, questioned why you were reading books written by minorities, and asked why you had a business card from the ACLU.”
(From the JTA) Meyer Koplow – the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Brandeis University – and a longtime donor to pro-Israel causes, Koplow was delayed by a security agent at Ben Gurion International Airport a few weeks ago before being allowed to board his flight. He believes he was called for questioning after security personnel found a brochure in his luggage titled “This Week in Palestine,” which he had picked up in a Bethlehem hotel lobby.
The JTA reported that Koplow said, “The best way I can describe it is a badgering form of questioning where before you finish giving one answer, you’re being asked the same question again as if what you said is not credible. She asked what purpose could possibly be served by people visiting the territories. She asked that several times.”
Koplow said he appreciates Israeli personnel checking luggage for the purposes of security, but he feels that the questioning he experienced “goes a level beyond that. . . Why would you do that other than to send a message that the government doesn’t welcome your engaging in any kind of inquiry.”
Koplow was disturbed as well by “the manner of the continued implication that I wasn’t telling the truth or all of the truth,” he said. He added that describing his past involvement with Jewish and Israeli causes did not change the tenor of the interrogation, which was conducted in public view.
In addition to his position at Brandeis, Koplow is a board member of the UJA-Federation in New York and has served as the president of his synagogue, Young Israel of New Rochelle. He told the reporter that he has given millions of dollars to Israeli causes.
Koplow said “The most disturbing question she asked me, and she asked me more than once, was what was I going to do with the information I learned in the territories.”
“What business is it of security at departure as to what I’m thinking or what I might say?”
Something is broken in the universe when a long ago interrogation by the KGB in Moscow has even the slightest resemblance to the questioning of passengers at Ben Gurion Airport.
A second broken place: Destroying Families
A broken place in the history of Australia is a government program in which Children were stolen from their parents; they were taught to reject their Indigenous heritage, and forced to adopt white culture. Their names were often changed, and they were forbidden to speak their traditional languages
Official government estimates are that in certain regions between one in ten and one in three indigenous Australian children were forcibly taken from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970.
In our own country’s past “the U.S. government forcibly removed tens of thousands of Native American children from their homes and families to attend “assimilation” boarding schools in the late 19th century.
U.S. cavalry captain Richard Henry Pratt, who opened the first such school in Pennsylvania infamously said, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
(From The Washington Post, Haley Sweetland Edwards. June 14, 2018) Earlier this year, a young Honduran woman named Mirian gathered her 18-month-old son into her arms and walked across the bridge between Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, where she presented herself to U.S. border agents to ask for asylum. Mirian and her son spent the night in a detention facility. The next day, officials told her to put her son into a car seat in the back of a government vehicle. Her hands shook as she buckled him in. The officials wouldn’t tell her where they were taking him, only that she would not be allowed to go with him.
As the car pulled away, she could see her baby looking back at her through the window, screaming.
Immigrants’ advocates offer wrenching accounts of how, exactly, federal authorities remove children from their moms and dads. On some occasions . . . kids are pulled, sobbing, from their parents’ arms. On other occasions, agents have allegedly lied. “They say, ‘We’re just going to take your kids to have a bath,’” “But then they don’t bring them back.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a letter noting that taking a child from a parent can do “irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health.” (The above appears in the June 25, 2018 issue of TIME.)
And then there are the hundreds who, due to a fundamentally evil policy, bad planning, lost records and ineptitude, will never be reunited with their families.
Someone commented on the radio the other day: “When we go to the dry cleaners with a shirt, they make sure that we get a receipt, that little claim ticket that guarantees that of the thousands and thousands of shirts they process each week, that my shirt will get back to me.
Hundreds of children were taken from their parents at our border without even a claim ticket!
How broken that is. (Journalist: Annie Correal)
The third and final broken place: For most of our lives, at dark moments in our nation we have been able to turn to our country’s president, of either party, in the hope of hearing comforting and inspiring words that speak to our higher selves.
55 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson, addressed the nation on the occasion of the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was in the midst of a very difficult time in our modern history.
He said, “Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders. We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment. We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights. We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
With those words and those laws, LBJ did indeed place the not-insignificant weight of the American Presidency firmly against that long arc of the moral universe.
Following the racial violence and death in Charlottesville last August, two more US Presidents weighed in: (Maya Rhodan, August 16, 2017)
Both presidents Bush released a joint-statement saying: “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms. As we pray for Charlottesville, we are all reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city’s most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country.”
Voices of moral clarity.
Alas, here is the third broken place; the response of our current president to the anti-Semites, the racists, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who gathered in Charlottesville.
He said that counter-protesters deserve an equal amount of blame for the violence. “What about the alt-left that came charging at, as you say, at the alt-right?” “Do they have any semblance of guilt?” “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” he said. “You had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” Trump said. “The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
“You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said.
As former President Obama commented on that infamous moment on Friday when he asked: “How hard can that be?! Saying, “Nazis are bad!”?
What are we to do during these dark times? What role can we play in this Tikkun Olam, in the fixing of these broken places?
Presidential historian Jon Meacham reminds us that we’ve been here before. And for similar reason: Fear. Economic fear and fear of the other.
He reminds us that the irrational fear of the emancipation of blacks and of immigration in the 1920’s created a KKK that was so much more dominant than we now remember.
Like today, he continues, it was all about economic transition, uncertainty, a fear of the other, that somehow or another people who didn’t sound like us or look like us – then meaning white Anglo Saxon Protestants – were going to take those jobs, were going to take over the country.
That was the 1920s. And here we are again. The same fears. And same ugliness arises. We become ugly at our borders, ugly with our nationalism, ugly with our racism.
The question Meacham asks is the question we need to ask right now:
Since we have been here before, how did we get through it? What did people do that turned things around?
There was one essential element , one common denominator, was that the people themselves were relentless in saying that, “This is not who we want to be. This may be who we are sometimes, but we don’t want to be that. And if we can get to 51% of our better angels, that’s a pretty good day.’
The Mystics taught us: Tikkun Olam is not something we observe passively from the sidelines as we watch others do the work.
Martin Luther King reminds us: Our task is not to sit by with folded arms, and admire others, as they work to bend Martin Luther King’s moral arc.
May we be relentless in letting the world know that “this is not who we want to be!”
With our votes
With our voices
With our presence
Today with our prayers
In the days to come with our actions!
One of my favorite podcasts is The Moth. It’s a very simple format, people come up to the microphone and tell a story. The only ground rules are that the story tellers have nothing written down, and most important, their stories have to be true.
We know that some of the most beautiful and memorable moments on this bema are when people have shared their own stories, their own true stories.
One of those times was a few months ago when a young man named Max came and spoke to us on Pride Shabbat. He told us his own true story. He spoke with intelligence, honesty, passion and heart.
He began with a thoughtful assertion, based on an old nursery rhyme:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s a children’s rhyme, one that can be traced back to the 1860’s. When I was a kid, I remember hearing it all the time, from my parents, teachers, friends. It was used to teach confidence, implying that wicked comments are just that, comments, and that because they lack the ability to inflict physical damage on a person, that they are actually harmless.
“Words will NEVER hurt me”.
I think that statement is false, and actually acts as justification for people to mistreat one another. For if words cannot hurt us, then they also lack the ability to heal us, inform us, worry us, console us, intrigue us.”
Words have power.
Then Max told his own story. He told us about his family, and how wonderful they were. “When my brother and I were growing up, our parents never referred to our future spouses as our wives. They used phrases like, “when you meet someone special” and “your future partner” but they never said anything to imply that we would be spending our futures with women specifically. At the time, I wasn’t able to see how deliberate that was; it was just my parents being my parents.”
“I had out-gay and lesbian family members when I was growing up, and a transgender aunt who I saw quite frequently. I was never under the impression that homosexuality was a sin or that LGBTQ folks should not have rights; quite the opposite.”
As Max was telling his story one was left with the impression that he was a very lucky young man. Sounds like the perfect family and environment for young gay kid.
“But despite all of that, I was conditioned to believe that being gay was the worst thing I personally could be. I was called names, physically assaulted, socially excluded, and those experiences superseded that of my open and accepting community. I didn’t have a problem with other people being part of the LGBTQ community, I just hated that I was.”
Then he told us about his synagogue. “I grew up in a very progressive Reform Jewish community, one where conversations about diversity and inclusion were not only acceptable but also encouraged. My rabbi officiated same-sex weddings and was never shy about her unwavering support for the LGBTQ community.”
As I was listening to Max I thought – ‘Ahhh, that’s gonna be the source of his solace and self-confidence. An embracing and accepting synagogue community. That’s where his story is going to turn around and he’ll find happiness and love of his true self.’
But that’s not where Max went with his story. It was confusing and puzzling. He had this wonderful family, a great synagogue community. Sounds like the stuff of a happy outcome to me.
He continued, “I was in 6th grade the first time I was called a “fag”. I didn’t even really know what it meant, but I could feel what it implied. I was quite effeminate as a young kid. I sang in the choir, went to arts camp, most of my friends were girls. I never had a problem with that; no one ever made me feel like there was a problem with that. But when I heard that word for the first time, when I felt that word creep underneath my skin and make a home for itself inside my body, I understood that in fact there was a problem with that.
Words have power.
“Throughout middle school I became quite familiar with that cruel word, at certain points hearing it almost daily. “Hey faggot, what do you have for lunch today?” “That’s right, faggot, keep on walking.”
“Between the end of my eighth-grade year and the beginning of high school, I made calculated alterations to the way I acted, presented and socialized. I stopped spending time with the group of girls I felt most comfortable around and ventured into a big group of boys. I lowered my speaking voice, I walked with a slouch and I clenched my fists while running. I changed the names of people in my contact list to ensure more boys’ numbers than girls, and put music on my iPod that I didn’t like so that if someone snatched it out of my hand I would be listening to something acceptable. My freshman year I was on the soccer team, I was in Mock Trial. I was popular; I just wasn’t me.
“For years, I allowed the memories of every humiliating comment, every crude remark to dictate my actions. If I thought an activity would make me appear even the slightest bit gay, I wouldn’t do it. And if I thought something would make me seem straight or masculine, regardless of whether it was a good idea, I would usually participate in it. I spent every day focused on how best to present myself, and every night replaying the missteps of my façade.
Every year on my birthday, I would wish not to be gay, and every year I would wake up the day after, devastated by my continued reality.
This is the last image of his childhood that he shared with us:
“I remember being in gym class for a fitness assessment, and during the running portion having someone turn to me and say, in almost a joking manner, “dude you run like such a fag”.
We were standing within earshot of the gym teacher and as he turned in our direction, the two of us locked eyes. My expression was one of pleading, begging for the support and relief I knew this adult could give me, but it didn’t come. He saw my fear, my embarrassment, my need, and he did absolutely nothing.
Boys will be boys, right? I could see it on his face; he didn’t understand. That moment was one of a long string that reinforced my understanding of those cruel and demeaning comments: that being gay was not normal, that it was not desirable, and that if I happened to be gay, that I could never reveal that unfortunate character defect to anyone.”
Once out of high school, Max’s story took a positive turn. During his college years, he went through the very liberating but grueling process of coming out; first fully to himself, then one by one working his way down a long list of the people that mattered most to him in his life. This process took several years – person by person – and by the end, every single name on the list had lovingly accepted the fullness of Max’s truth.
That his story takes a most positive turn is beautifully clear in the fact that he is spending his developing professional life doing public, legal and political advocacy for the LGBTQ community. A strong young leader.
At the end of his talk I was both uplifted and confused. I was uplifted because he described wonderful, understanding and loving parents; he told us about his synagogue that seemed to teach and do all of the right things.
Yet, his middle school years and high school years were hell, despite that support.
After the Oneg that night, as I was driving Max to the train station, I asked him, “What am I missing? Who messed up? Who dripped the ball?”
He explained quite clearly what perhaps should’ve already been clear. ‘Of course, a loving and accepting family creates the core of young person’s soul. And it’s crucial and important when people work to make their synagogue a safe and welcoming place. To be a sanctuary. But growing up, kids don’t live in the Sanctuary or the synagogue. They just visit a few hours a week. So you have to work harder to change things outside of the synagogue. That’s where the work has to be done.
‘Who let me down? There were adults in my life who should’ve known better: some teachers at school. I was let down by that gym teacher. There were adults whose job it was to look out for us; and some of them didn’t.
‘The message for your congregants has to go way beyond the experience of listening to a sermon, or a lecture on being a caring and embracing community, within the walls of your synagogue.
What’s important is what we all do when we go out there outside of the Kol Ami.
If we are moved by our Jewish lives to speak out against injustice; it won’t mean anything unless we do it out there in all the other places we live and work and play.
When our children, or students, or friends use language we know to be unkind, and we are silent, then we are indeed complicit.
If we know that certain jokes or remarks are racist, but we let them slide – out there – to avoid awkwardness or embarrassment; then by our silence, we’re a big part of the problem.
Silence can be very loud.
If we know in our minds and our hearts that our mothers and wives and sisters and daughters are subject to sexism on a regular basis, yet we ignore it in our businesses, our gyms or our social circles, our schools, then we’re a big part of the problem.
That gym teacher who silently stared at Max and didn’t firmly reprimand the kid who called him “a fag”, by his very silence at that moment, he failed Max, and he failed as a role-model and as a teacher. He was a big part of the problem.
If we make excuses with idiotic phrases like “Locker room talk”, or “boys will be boys”, or “girls will be girls”, then we are part of the problem.
Yom Kippur asks us to find the broken places in ourselves and in our world and then to do the very best to fix them.
I’ll leave you with two images of finding and fixing; one involving a three-star general, and the other involving our 13 year olds at a bar mitzvah party.
The words of the general came to me by several of you this very morning from the New York Times:
“Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, superintendent of the Air Force Academy Preparatory School, addressed cadets on Thursday after racist slurs were written outside five black Air Force cadet candidates’ dorm rooms.
One message—which was posted on Facebook by a young cadet candidate’s mom—read, “go home” (followed by the N word.
The General told the assembled students: “There is absolutely no place in our Air Force for racism, I‘ve said it before: the area of dignity and respect is my red line. Let me be clear, it won’t be crossed without significant repercussions.”
“If you’re outraged by those words, then you’re in the right place,” Silveria said of the racist graffiti. ”That kind of behavior has no place at the prep school, it has no place in the United States Air Force.”
“We would be naive to think we shouldn’t discuss this topic,” he said. “We’d also be tone deaf not to think about the backdrop of what’s going on in our country. Things like Charlottesville and Ferguson, the protests in the NFL.”
“What we should have is a civil discourse, and talk about these issues. That’s a better idea.”
“I also have a better idea about our diversity,” he continued. “And it’s the power of the diversity … the power of us as a diverse group. The power that we come from all walks of life, that we come from all parts of this county, that we come from all races, all backgrounds, gender, all makeup, all upbringings. The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful.”
“So just in case you’re unclear on where I stand on this topic, I’m going to leave you with my most important thought today,” he said.
“If you can’t treat someone with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
If you can’t treat someone from another gender, whether that’s a man or a woman, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.
If you demean someone in any way, then you need to get out.
And if you can’t treat someone from another race, or a different color of skin, with dignity and respect, then you need to get out.”
The adult in charge found a broken place in his world, and acted immediately and unequivocally to fix it. He knew well that words can hurt. And he used his words to protect and to heal.
And you don’t have to be a three-star general to find a broken place, to act , to fix and to heal.
Some of our own kids did just that a few weeks ago. At a bar mitzvah party in one of our own local towns, a couple of the students attending took some of the plastic masks used as party favors and wrote on them, “KKK”, and “I love Hitler”.
Of course, that’s disturbing and 100 different ways. But we should take pride in what happens next. Immediately a bunch of the kids present spoke up then and there. They insisted that those masks come right off, that those words were hateful and horrible and absolutely unacceptable.
And the masks came right off. Their school taught them well. Their parents taught them well.
In subsequent days, the incident was dealt with in all other appropriate ways at the school and with families. But the moment to appreciate here and now is the kids’ reaction, their immediate denunciation of the hateful act.
Words are powerful.
May all of us here:
Find the broken places
Where we work and play And bring healing
With the firmness of a 3 star general,
And the pure resolve of brave 13 year olds.
I got a new car a couple of months ago. I really enjoy it. The technology throws me a bit. Someone said it’s like driving a computer. The best part of the tech stuff is the Blind Spot Detection System: that beeping alert that sounds when a car comes along in my blind spot and I can’t see it.
We should have a Blind Spot Detection System here at Kol Ami; a device that would sound an alert when there is something urgent we really should be seeing that we’re not seeing.
Kol Ami has had blind spots in the past. Some of them we have managed to identify and fix.
Years ago there were interfaith families that we knew were here, but really weren’t seeing you clearly enough to know how to fully welcome you and include you. We see you more clearly now.
There are our LGBTQ members, who, years ago, we sorta, kinda, quietly welcomed, with open arms – – – but we were way too quiet about it. Hopefully we’re doing better and better.
There was our blind spot to those who were not physically able to come up to the bema, but we kept building our bemas with steep stairs and no railings, and no ramps. Many of you have helped us to do a better job.
We’re far, far from perfect. But in some areas we are striving to always do better.
Recently Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, began to powerfully teach and urge us to open our eyes to the presence and needs and richness of our members who are Jews of Color.
Under his larger umbrella of Audacious Hospitality is this often unrecognized, often misunderstood and sometimes stigmatized part of the Jewish family; Jews who are Asian, part Asian, Latino, African American, North African, Indian and Arab Jews. To name a few.
And too often, you have been in our blind spot.
Please understand that I’m not here on this eve of Rosh Hashanah with answers. But I do want us to start asking questions.
I want us to begin some of the difficult conversations about color and race in our community. I want us to begin identifying and illuminating some of the blind spots.
I apologize in advance for those things I may not express as clearly or as properly as I should. In matters of race I’m sure I don’t fully possess all of the best terminology, or all of the sensitivities I should have. I’m very sorry if anything I say is experienced as hurtful. This is a beginning of conversations.
What we would welcome is your help. Please come after services, or drop by, or send us an email with any helpful thoughts. If you’d like to be involved in any future conversations make sure we know who you are so that you will be included.
There are some really smart people out in the Jewish world today who have started to explore ways for us to ask the tough questions and hopefully move toward some answers.
April Baskin, herself An African American Jewish woman, is one of the senior national leaders of our Reform Movement. Here she gives an example of a young biracial Jew who shared with her what it’s like to have people questioning your identity.
He said, “If there are five Jewish people in a room, all of them white except for one person who’s black, invariably, one of the white people will ask only the black person: ‘So, how are you Jewish?’”
Baskin continued, “Just imagine the damage done by years of so many Jews of color being treated this way. We often don’t feel welcome in the Jewish community.”
Baskin continues, “I am particularly reminded of this every time I hear that, once again, an African-American Jew has been treated like a suspected criminal in a Jewish institution.
Over time, “these experiences are deeply hurtful and push Jews and their loved ones away from our sacred community.
Baskin continues, “The Jewish community is remarkable in so many ways – ways that inspire millions of people to help bring more justice and compassion to our world. And yet, we are not immune to blind spots.
A story of a Kol Ami Blind spot: A good number of years ago we needed a new pamphlet to hand out to folks who were considering becoming part of our community. Some wonderfully talented people with the best of intentions worked very hard to create this beautiful brochure. We wanted to show how inclusive we are at Kol Ami.
The first draft of the brochure was filled with pictures of all types of families; grandparents with grandkids, single parent families, single individuals, same sex couples, a family with an individual in the wheelchair showing how they could get around our facility.
But, and this is embarrassing, weeks into the work it took one individual, with better cultural eyesight than the rest of us, to hold it up in front of the group and ask, “What’s missing?”
The unintended message of the brochure was ‘Kol Ami is so amazingly inclusive of all types of . . . white people’!
Every person in the brochure was white. Of course, that was no one’s conscious intention. Yet what a big blind spot! It shouldn’t have taken us that long to notice the omission. And fix it. And we did fix it. Another Kol Ami blind spot: A handful of years ago I was away on the annual confirmation weekend with our 10th graders. Late on Saturday night about 10 of the kids were sitting around the fire having a conversation.
I forget what she was responding to, but one of the girls said rather casually, “Hey, we’re just a bunch of white Jewish kids from Westchester.”
Two of the girls glanced at each other; one who is part African American and part Puerto Rican, and the other Asian. They gave each other a look that said, “Really? Is that who we all are?”
A blind spot. Some might say, “Isn’t that wonderful. They don’t even notice if someone is a person of color.” But is “not noticing” the ideal? Or ideally should one notice, recognize, but not care and just say, “We’re just a bunch of Jewish kids from Westchester?”
I don’t know.
In recent days and weeks, I reached out to some of you to help me understand. To help fill in some of the spaces in our blind spots.
I spoke with some of you who’ve grown up here from early childhood; and with others who joined the community as adults. You were kind enough to let me share some of my ignorance with you and ask questions. And more importantly you shared your personal stories of being a Jew of color here at Kol Ami. The first clear lesson I learned from talking to some of you about being Jews of Color? There are 1000 different permutations of what it can mean to be a Jew of Color. Just among the few of you with whom I spoke, you are Japanese, Chinese, African American, Indian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican. And each of those has it’s own rich and different, unique stories, and customs and foods and music and accents and histories.
The religion editor at The Atlantic, Sigal Samuel, gave a sense of the rich and countless possibilities that some of you shared with me when she recently wrote: “Am I a person of color? You’d think there would be a straightforward answer to a question like that. And for a while, I thought there was. I thought the answer was yes.
“When I look at my grandparents — four Mizrahim, or Jews from Arab lands — I see people who were born in India and Iraq and Morocco, my grandparents, who grew up speaking Hindi and Arabic. When I stand in Sephora buying makeup, the shade I choose is closer to “ebony” than to “petal.”
When I walk down the street, perfect strangers routinely stop me to ask: “Where are you from? Are you Persian? Indian? Arab? Latina?” When I go through airport security, I always — always — get “randomly selected” for additional screening.
“I was pretty sure all this made me a person of color.
And then an acquaintance, who is Jewish and African-American, told me in the course of a casual conversation that no, actually, I don’t count.
“This was news to me. At first, I admit, the statement got my hackles up. Who gave this person the right to police my identity?
“But then I started to wonder: Was I, a woman who sometimes gets read as white and therefore benefits from white privilege, wrongly co- opting the “of color” label in everything from internal monologues to health insurance forms?
“To find out, I spent weeks talking to people in the black, biracial and Mizrahi communities. What I learned surprised me. Turns out, nobody quite knows how to categorize Mizrahi Jews.
My family doesn’t know.
My HR department doesn’t know.
Even the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t know.”
It was good to hear from young adults who grew up at Kol Ami, that, for the most part, they felt quite comfortable in the synagogue. Many said that they felt “fully included”. A few said some version of, “My looks are kind of ambiguous since I am a Jewish person of mixed race. Therefore, people often wouldn’t notice.”
Others described experiences of being asked in religious school, or at social events, “Where are you from?”, or some version of, “How are you Jewish?” Depending on the situation, your experiences of those encounters ranged from a bit amusing, all the way to quite painful and rude.
It was very impressive to hear of our young people’s ability to differentiate between their Jewishness and their race. People seem to have a pretty clear understanding of that very important difference: knowing that being a Jew, being 100% Jewish is not in conflict with your being 50% Japanese, 25% Scandinavian, 100% Black, 25% Chinese or 75% Arab.
Ancestry.com may be able to tell you that you are 2% Native American,
9% Welsch; but what they’re measuring cannot tell you that you are anything but 100% Jewish.
One of our college grads said to me, “When I identify as a Japanese Jew, I identify not as the intersection of the two, but as the union. Like I have two full worlds of culture and lessons to learn from.”
Now, the hard part for many of us: How about the role played by those of us who are not Jews of Color? Or, as Singer put it, those of us who are “Ashke-normative” in our American setting?
We heard described the experience of the one black Jew sitting in the room with four white Jews.
We hear about the kids of color in our own Hebrew school who are inevitably asked,” How are you Jewish?”
We hear of the Asian Jewish mom standing in the Hebrew School Lobby, while other mothers make clear their assumption that this woman is “other”. Not one of them.
We hear of the experience of the Jewish man of color in a new synagogue being stared at suspiciously – if not menacingly – by other Jews.
Rosh Hashanah challenges us, demands of us: As part of our introspection during these holy days, those of us on the other side of these encounters have to ask ourselves some very hard questions:
Have I ever been one of the four white Jews wondering why the one black man was in the room was?
Have any of us ever looked at a child in our religious school and questioned whether or not that child was Jewish because of the color of their skin?
Have I ever been one of the parents in the Hebrew school lobby assuming that the mom or dad of color standing near us certainly wouldn’t understand our conversation about our recipes for Rosh Hashanah dinner?
Admitting these things inside our own heads can be awkward. Admitting them things out loud can be really uncomfortable.
Our hope is that in the months and years to come we can create good healthy opportunities to share the uncomfortable conversations, to more fully understand our own misconceptions and confusion about who we are.
So much exciting and hard work to be done!
Hard conversations; joyous ones; the sharing of stories; building familiarity with what was once unfamiliar. We will begin that work.
And one of the ways to build that familiarity is with visibility. Just getting to know the people in the seats right next to us, or up at the lectern leading and teaching you.
One of our 11th graders said that “learning about Black Jews from Ethiopia and now in Israel was a cool thing. It felt good to hear about them.” He was seeing something of himself in those other Jews.
When our Executive Director’s husband is a proud Catholic – active in our community; when the president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis is a lesbian; when the senior rabbi of one of the most prominent congregations in the country is an Asian woman . . . All of these people are filling in our blind spots, making what was once, for some, an uncomfortable difference – now a welcome and beautiful part of who we already are as a Jewish community.
May we have the strength to do the work.
And may we have the heart to take complete joy in each other’s presence.
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl is the Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. Besides being a very talented rabbi, Angela happens to be Korean. How cool is it that hundreds and hundreds of little children are growing up at central synagogue looking up at the bimah taking for granted and being absolutely nonplussed by the fact that their rabbi happens to be Korean. And how cool is it that for all of the little Asian Jewish children of central synagogue, they are seeing themselves on the bema.
How cool that a little kid from central synagogue might someday come to services here at Kol Ami, look up at Shira on the bema with puzzlement, thinking to themselves, “They say she’s the rabbi, but she’s not Korean.”
Here are four things you can do to alleviate “perpetual stranger status” in your community:
I have to admit to you, there’s a kind of editing we sometimes do with biblical stories when we read them to the kids.
For example if a bar/bat mitzvah child is assigned the Torah portion Vayishlach, of the many great stories and themes in that parasha, we usually won’t assign that child to chant and study the rape of Dinah. When we tell the story of Esther at the family service at Purim, we don’t usually tell the very end of the story. That’s the part where the Jews of King Ahasuerus’ kingdom are given permission to steal and pillage and do all of the bad things to the non-Jews that they were going to do to us.
But this is an adult service. And we, on this very important day of the year, should look at the whole story of this day’s Torah portion. Even the most difficult of parts. We read the Akaida, the story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son with a knife on the mountain top; a concept already incredibly difficult. But there’s a profoundly sad and emotionally shattering end of the story that we almost never address. This year we will.
Let’s recall this amazingly rich and many layered story:
First, remember that it’s only one page long; only 19 sentences. But in spite of its brevity, there is something so very compelling in the Akaida, the Binding of Isaac.
Something that has given birth to thousands of pages of commentary by Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars;
Something in it that has inspired novelists to write novels,
It’s currently the subject of a very popular and rogue video game; The Akaida inspired at least one 20th century opera;
The music of Bob Dylan;
It’s found in the soundtrack of The Hunger Games;
It’s been lampooned by writers of South Park,
Analyzed by Sigmund Freud,
And many times it’s been depicted on the big screen by Hollywood.
Something powerful is going on in these 19 sentences: An aging mother and father, Sarah and Abraham, were long ago promised by their God that they would have a child. And that child would be the first of countless generations of a great people, with descendants as numerous as the sands of the seas and the stars of the heavens. That’s quite a promise.
Years and years passed. And no child. Feeling for her husband and his desire for that Divinely promised child, Sarah gave Abraham permission to sire a son with her servant Hagar. But that was not really fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham.
Finally, when they were both well on in years, at an age that not even our most advanced fertility experts could imagine, Sarah gave birth to the boy Isaac. Oh how they celebrated and cherished that child! So many years waiting and praying and hoping. Imagine the incredible love and joy that we feel when a child arrives, and add to that promises from God that this little boy represents an eternal future, the beginning of a great nation!
Now we arrive at today’s story; all of that promise devastatingly crumbling as God commands Abraham to take that very child and slaughter him on a mountain top to prove his loyalty. God said, “Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, go to the land of Moriah and offer him up as a burnt offering.”
One can only imagine the crushing collapse of Abraham’s emotional and spiritual world. One can only imagine the anger he must feel towards his God. We can only imagine his fury and confusion and indignation. One can only imagine. That’s the hard truth of this story; that “one can only imagine” these feelings, because Abraham says nothing. We only read of his acquiescence, his willingness, and maybe even eagerness, to do what God has asked of him. To prove his faithfulness. It’s so hard to understand. The Abraham in this story is simply a religious fanatic! He has totally given his soul and all he most cherishes over to this God of his. He apparently has sublimated normal human emotion; love of child, the willingness or even inclination to argue with God and ask Him, “Why? This makes no sense! Is there an alternative? How else can I show You and prove to You that I love You?!”
The fanatically myopic patriarch, ready to pay the most horrible price to please his God.
But still, even with the dearth of overt emotional information, there is a particularly beautiful and clearly conveyed loving relationship, loud and clear, throughout most of the story: The love of father and son, the closeness between the boy and his dad. In almost each and every one of the first 12 sentences, the relationship between Abraham and Isaac still manages to be tenderly and clearly conveyed.
Let me give you just a few of the phrases that keep eching bond between father and son:
“ take your son, your favorite one, Isaac, the one whom you love . . .”
“Early the next morning Abraham and his servants and his son Isaac went on their way”.
“On the third day Abraham said “stay here and the boy and I will go up the mountain; we will worship and we will return to you.”
“The two of them walked together”.
“Isaac said to his father Abraham, “’Father!’” and he answered, ‘Yes my son?’”
“And the two of them walked on together”
And then it ends. It stops. Everything changes. The blind zealotry of the believer seems to have sadly won out over the father’s love for his son. From that moment on the relationship forever changes. The angel of God cries out to stop Abraham at the moment he’s ready with a knife to slay the boy., “Abraham, Abraham!”
We sometimes present that as an almost happy ending. ‘Yay, Abraham doesn’t have to slay Isaac. He’s proved his faithfulness to God. Isaac must be giddy with joy. Maybe they hug and are closer than ever!’ Too late. That’s not how it ends.
In the concluding eight verses of the story, there is no more language about beloved father and beloved son; nothing about the two of them together. There is no more conversation between the two. Do you know how the story ends? It’s very sad. Very tragic.
This is the part we don’t often talk about. The relationship between the father and son has ended. It says that Abraham goes down the mountain, alone. He returns to his servants alone, and then goes home, alone.
Where is Isaac? It doesn’t say. We know he’s still alive because his story is yet to be told. He will die an old man. But from the moment that the father was clearly ready to take his son’s life for a cause apparently more important and more compelling than loving a child; from that moment on their relationship was over. They never see one another again.
Well, one small correction. There was one more time, years later, when they were in physical proximity to one another; at a burial cave in Hebron, when Isaac and his brother came there to bury their father Abraham, after he died.
So, that’s Abraham? The great patriarch? The hero we are to emulate. The founding father?
Well, then perhaps the Akaida is in reality a cautionary tale. Maybe that’s where its value lies. Cautioning us against extremism; of getting so caught up in a larger cause that we lose sight of the actual people in our lives. Faith more important than family? God more important than a child?
A cautionary tale for this highly charged election season. Are any of us endangering the most important relationships we have because of blind conviction, support of some greater and larger cause that we’re more passionate about than our families and more sacred than the relationships with our closest friends and the people we work with?
Abraham was so caught up in the moment he forgot to think about the future, he forgot to think about the next day! ‘Gee, if this morning I show my son I’m willing to sacrifice his life at God’s request, I wonder what we’ll talk about this tomorrow morning?’
We are at the apex of one of the most emotional and intense political elections of our lifetimes. Maybe we need to hear this cautionary tale about the aftermath of this election; about the possible personal collateral damage.
By the way, these words are truly non-partisan. Individually we could be an Abraham on either side of the aisle. Most of us are so angry and frightened; many are zealous, immovably convicted in our stances, that when all is said and done, might we destroyed relationships along the way?
We can only assume that for the rest of his life Abraham had to mourn the loss of the relationship with his most beloved child.
A moment of such regret: Let me share once again an episode recalled by Cantor Richard Botton from his early years of his career: “At the end of one of my very first funerals, I walked over to the brother of the deceased who was standing next to the open grave. He was clearly so upset and distraught, shaking as he stood there. I reached out to put a reassuring hand on his arm and told him, ‘Don’t worry, it will get easier with time.’ He furiously pulled his arm away from mine and said, ‘No it won’t! My brother and I haven’t spoken for 20 years . . . and I can’t remember why!’”
Is that the only Abraham for us to look at? Thankfully he has other hugely dramatic and important moments in Torah that can teach us. Fortunately for us Abraham responded differently to another challenge and a command from his God. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah: Once again Abraham is informed from above, asked to involve himself in the sacrifice of human life to fulfill God’s wishes. God tells him that because of the great sins of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, that God is going to destroy both cities, killing all of the people who live there.
Thankfully, here we find a different Abraham, a different side of Abraham. Perhaps the Abraham of the Akaida might well have acquiesced and said “Yes Lord, how can I help?”
But this Abraham was not a blind zealot. This Abraham seems to have a mind of his own. His own conscience, his own sense of justice. This Abraham was able to approach the God of the universe, with his own humanity and emotion and compassion intact.
This Abraham brings his own convictions along with a gutsy and amazing ability to question even God! To argue and bargain! How cool is that?!
This Abraham approaches God and says, ‘Woah, woah! Wait Lord. Let’s talk this over. I need to speak up here!’ And then he begins to challenge and negotiate! He famously says to God, “What if there exist, among this entire population, 50 righteous people? Would you kill the entire city knowing that there are 50 innocents among them? And then Abraham gets really chutzpahdic and says, ‘God, I know you. We have a history. This is not the type of God you want to be. Believe me. I know you are the Judge of everything and everyone; don’t you want to judge justly? And be forever remembered that way?’
And God listens! Abraham is being reasonable. He’s engaging in rational and thoughtful conversation. Abraham is standing up for himself and his fellow human beings! And God seems to like that. God says ‘I’ll spare them if they were just 45 righteous people. And as we know the bargaining continues until God agrees to spare the cities even if there are only 5 righteous people among them.’
Which Abraham does Jewish tradition ask us to emulate: I would suggest that Judaism at its highest and best does not want us to blindly follow. Understand that Judaism at its highest and best is not about the individual relinquishing ourselves and our souls and our intellect and gut-sense of right and wrong to some higher being, or highly placed human being, to command us how to act.
The Judaism that I know and aspire to is one that acts in partnership with each individual Jew, requiring that each of us always includes our own intellect, passion, and sense of justice in our decisions and actions.
That’s why I so love Rabbi Shira’s response to a colleague who once quoted that great 11th century thinker and said, “But Maimonides said it!” Shira’s reply?, “Maimonides said so? One man’s opinion!” She doesn’t have to blindly accept. None of us have to. We are always to bring our own mind and heart to our Jewish decisions.
When the Abraham of Sodom and Gomorrah responded to God’s command by bringing his own voice and conscience to the conversation, he made good and right decisions for himself and for the world. And maybe God learned a little something.
As we enter these sacred days, only to be followed by our return to a tense and angry world, may we conduct our lives, our conversations and our decisions with the knowledge
Thoughtfully speaking up like Abraham for what we think is right and good. 5
Which Abraham Do We Learn From?
Rabbi Tom Weiner October 3, 2016/5777 Rosh Hashanah Congregation Kol Ami
Yet with a civility and awareness that tomorrow we will want to still walk on together, side by side, down that mountain; and continue to live our lives together as family, as friends, as community, and as one people.
At the risk of sounding rude, why are you here? Why are any of us here? Why do we always come together on this eve of Yom Kippur?
A week ago I asked my 10th graders that same question: why do you come to services on the High Holidays. Of the 15 or so kids who happened to be sitting in the classroom, I got about 25 different answers. Some of them said they were here to be with family. Others said they’re here to see their friends. Some of them said they love to come because of the amazing music. A couple of them mentioned some ideas of introspection. And some of them said that they came to pray. (A couple even mentioned the sermons. But I was sitting right there. What were they gonna say?) Most of them expressed some combination of the above, family, music, praying, friends, thinking, meditating.
They are all wonderful and good answers: to be with family and friends and community? To experience the music of the high holy days and find something transcendent there? Those are brilliant Jewish reasons: to be intellectually challenged and stimulated and emotionally moved. I was impressed. This is not a holiday constructed for kids. To be honest, when I was in HS and we used the old book, the maroon Gates of Repentance; I can’t say that as a teenager I really related to with the repenting part.
I remember looking at these pages in synagogue when I was a kid, and I didn’t really feel personally connected to all those Al Chet She’Chatanu sins that were listed there: For the sin that we have sinned against you
by malicious gossip, sexual immorality, gluttony,
fraud, arrogance, insolence, irreverence, hypocrisy
I don’t think most kids exactly see themselves anywhere in that list. It must look more like a list of SAT words then actual issues in their lives. Perhaps in my day if it had read, “for the sins we have send against you by wasting way too much time watching television, by annoying my little brother, by hardly cracking a book or and homework time, by occasionally doing some of the things that you know your parents really don’t want you to do behind their back’s that you’re really not going to tell them about until you are at least 35 . . .
I might have beat my chest with a bit more sincerity and enthusiasm.
But as we grow up, that strange, distant, incomprehensible list of words – year by year –becomes more and more accessible and relatable:
Gluttony? Arrogance? Gossip? Hypocrisy?
These have becomes a bit more real and relatable.
But, why were we invited here in the first place? Long ago? To get together like this on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? The answer to that question is pretty wonderful. We were invited first in Torah – and then centuries later by the rabbis – to get together on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because of a brilliant core belief of our people:
That belief?: We human beings can change ourselves, we can improve ourselves. How amazing is that: we are changeable, improvable, and fixable.
This whole season of High Holidays exist because of that fundamental idea: that with self-awareness, and a commitment to work at it, and with sincerity, we can actually become better versions of ourselves.
Now that might not seem all that amazing, except that a lot of today’s cultural noise tries to tell us otherwise; and other religions traditions teach us that we are who we are. ‘Learn to live with it.’ ‘You’re not going to change.’
I think it was Popeye who expressed that point of view so brilliantly when he said, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” This is it. Never gonna change.
And certainly there are some of us here that indeed feel that way, at least at different times in our lives, who just believe that we are who we are and can’t really change that?
Some may feel:
I’m impatient, there’s not much I can do about it. I’ve always been this way. Or, ‘I’ve tried to start eating healthier 100 times, I’m just not a healthy eater.’
Or, ‘Everyone says I’m just like my uncle Fred, he was a grouch. I’m a grouch. It’s in the genes.’
‘I have a temper. That’s who I am. You want to be my friend? Learn to live with my temper.’ I yam what I yam!
Many in the world of psychology think otherwise. Dr. Douglas LaBier writes, “Though many people believe that you – specifically, your personality – is fixed. In fact, much conventional thinking in psychology holds that our personalities remain constant.
“But that’s not accurate: We’re always changing and evolving, in some way – for better or for worse. Many of us mental health professionals witness that change occurring among our patients.
“Change occurs from awareness of what aspects of our personality we want to develop, and working hard to ‘practice’ them in daily life.
Doctor Jenev Caddell wrote about the physiology, the medical science of that kind of change: “As it turns out, your brain is likely more flexible than it was ever believed to be. Researchers once thought that after a certain age, your brain was set in its ways, never to change, other than to grow old and decay. Science is now demonstrating more and more how flexible and changeable our brains actually are. “The term ‘neuroplasticity’ is a combination of the words ‘neuron’ and ‘plastic,’ referring to the approximately hundred billion nerve cells in our brains and their changeable nature.
“As it turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks, as brains can, and do change in positive ways, even well past our childhood years.”
None of this is news to the Jewish people. We might not have known the terms “neuroplasticity” or had in hand the DSM5, to figure out a diagnosis.
Instead, we’ve long had in our possession the process of teshuvah, repentance. The difficult and challenging process of changing ourselves for the better.
That’s why we’re gathered here. Always has been. Repenting, changing, improving: it’s a slow and hard process.
That’s why we don’t have just one day for Teshuvah. We have a whole season, from this past month of Elul, through Yom Kippur.
That’s why the “January 1st” kind of New Year’s resolutions tend to not really take. The secular new year’s resolution, in a sense, the pop psychology version of teshuvah.
It happens on that one day a year, usually really late at night; on TV the ball is dropping in Time Square; Guy Lombardo plays somewhere; and people are often really drunk. Not the ideal circumstances for serious introspection and personal growth.
Changing ourselves can’t be done quickly:
There was a funny old movie called The End from 1978, starring Burt Reynolds:
There’s a great scene that shows just how ineffective flash-in-the-pan repentance can be.
Reynolds character is a self-centered but redeemable guy, who is mistakenly given a diagnosis of a terminal disease. Feeling despondent, he decides to take his own life by swimming straight out to sea until he drowns. Predictably, when he’s really far out in the ocean, and exhausted, he has a change of heart and starts to negotiate with God to save his life.
He starts towards shore and yells: “I want to live! I want to live! I’m never going to make it. Help me Lord! I promise I won’t sin anymore.
“Oh God, let me live and I promise I’ll follow every one of the 10 Commandments. I shalt not kill. I shalt not commit adultery. . . . I shall learn the rest of the 10 Commandments! And then obey every one of them! Just get me back to the beach!
“Help me make it. I’ll give you 50% of everything I make. 50% God. I want to point out that nobody gives 50%.
(The shore is now in sight. And reachable.)
“I think I’m gonna make it. You’re not going to regret this Lord. I’m going to follow every commandment. I’ll see my parents more often. No more cheating in business . . . (once I get rid of those 9 acres in the desert.)
“And I’m going to start donating that 10%. Right away. I know I said 50% Lord, but 10% is a start. And if you don’t want your 10%, don’t take it.
“I know that it was you that saved me. But come to think of it, it was you who got me here in the first place.”
He collapses safely on the beach. Not terribly repentant, not all that changed.
Real change can’t happen that fast.
900 years ago, Maimonides gave us the most brilliant and still applicable work on teshuvah in his Hilchot Teshuvah in his Mishnah Torah. on repenting and changing for the better.
He made it very clear that it is difficult and takes time.
He beautifully spells out the process. The sincerity needed; the probability that we might well slip up; the ways to test over time if the changes we’ve made are real and lasting; he writes about the ways that we, as family and friends of the person working on Tshuvah can be supportive and helpful; how community can be supportive; how different repentance can be in your youth and middle age and different again when we are older;
Maimonides words demonstrate a magnificent and deeply accurate understanding of human nature. His words provide core and essence of Teshuvah found in our Machzor.
More than 1500 years before Maimonides, the Torah gave us a great story of changing oneself, with a bit of a surprise to it. It’s the story of Noah: It’s another one of those biblical stories that where a key character learns a profound lesson at its end.
At the beginning of the story God is very angry at all of humanity, because God saw, “that all human beings were corrupt and acting violently all over the earth.”
So as we know God decided to destroy all of humanity and have a fresh start with Noah and his family.
When we come to the end of the story, there’s a great scene of Teshuvah, of repentance, of change.
God says, “Never again will I bring destruction to the world because of what human beings do.” God continues and says, in essence; Guys, I seem to have made a mistake. I didn’t fully get you human beings; and apparently the human mind tends to do evil things from youth onward. So I promise to act differently from now on: I swear that never again will I destroy all living beings as I have just done. As long as the world exists . . . life . . . will never end.”
In the story of Noah, God learned something. God changed. Human beings didn’t. They were corrupt before it was a flood and they were corrupt after.
As we are taught, we are created in God’s image. So, if the all-powerful Creator of the universe can come to a new realization and change, then we human beings created in God’s image must be able to change as well.
ֶא ְהי ֶה ֲא ֶשׁר“ ,When Moses asked for God’s true and full name, God responded .I shall be what I shall be”, forever becoming, forever changing“ ,” ֶא ְהי ֶה
So when we come here for myriad good reasons; to be with family, to see friends, to be transformed by music, to be stirred emotionally. May we not lose sight of the original and ever-present reason we gather on Yom Kippur:
Teshuvah; to repent, to change, to grow, to become more fully human and perhaps a bit closer to the Divine.
Before the Wright Brothers finally got their plane o the ground, they had an experience similar to that of many geniuses and visionaries. People laughed at them and told them it could not be done, family members, neighbors, the press . . . lots of people got a chuckle out of their first attempts.
Fortunately there have always been these exceptional few whose powerful self-confidence could overcome all of the negativity being tossed their way.
Did you know, for example, that:
Early in his career, Jimi Hendrix and his band opened for the Monkees and got booed o of stage. And then dropped from the tour.
Did you know that Jack Kerouac tried to find a publisher for On the Road for six years.
Did you know that Elvis was kicked out of the Grand Ole Opry in 1954, with the advice that he should stick to his day job as a truck driver.
Or that Winston Churchill failed the Royal Military entrance exams, twice.
Lucille Ball got sent home from acting school in New York because her teachers thought she was too shy, and would never make it as a performer.
Michael Jordan, a great name in basketball, was actually cut from his high school basketball team.
Beethoven’s music teacher once told him that he was a terrible composer.
(I apologize for the misogynist nature of this list of early failures, but all the “early failure lists” that I looked at are dominated by men!)
Admiring this type of person and their perseverance to succeed and overcome, Rabbi Sydney Greenberg observed that, “Great discoveries are usually made by people who are so passionately committed to their quest that they can withstand the discouragement of those who are convinced that the goals they seek are only illusions.”
And sometimes the voice is internal.
Vincent Van Gogh said, “If you hear a voice within you say „you cannot paint“, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
But, a little reality check here: most of us – 99% of us – are not Elvis, or a Winston, or a Vincent, or a Ludwig or a Lucy.
Rabbi Greenberg tells of a group of Portuguese sailors centuries ago who are more typical of folks like you and I. These Portuguese sailors ventured out to the Atlantic trying to prove that you could reach land crossing the ocean. Before they left the shore, they were already a little weak in the self confidence department.
Their families, friends and fellow sailors were no help, taunting them and saying they were crazy they wouldn’t find anything, except maybe sea monsters, and likely fall o the edge of the earth, which everyone knew was flat.
Well, the Portuguese sailors set sail. Legend has it that they headed westward for about 50 or maybe 100 miles, had a change of heart, came about, and raced back home, announcing to the world “There is nothing there!”
Now of course there was something there. We’re here.
They never really gave it a chance. Whether because they themselves never really believed it, or lacked courage, or had their ambitions thwarted by their doubting families and colleagues.
So they claimed, there’s nothing there!
So, for us regular folk who sometimes venture out and conclude that “there’s nothing there”; or “there’s not enough in here” . . . what’s getting in the way of our self-confidence to move forward?
And what does Rosh Hashanah have to say to us?
A great story from Torah is about such self confidence . . . what can enhance it, and what can devastate it.
It’s the story of the 12 Israelite scouts: The Jews are in the desert, getting ready to enter the Promised Land. And like any well-run military expedition, you can’t just blindly send your army into foreign territory without first getting familiar with the lay of the land and the enemy’s capabilities.
So Moses sends in 12 scouts to reconnoiter the Canaanite fortifications, their soldiers, the quality of the land for agriculture, and the nature of the terrain for military maneuvers.
Now comes the crisis in confidence: 10 of the 12 scouts come back with the most scary, negative and pessimistic report. And they freak out all of the other Israelites, convincing them it can’t be done. They say, “Their soldiers look like giants to us, and we must have looked like little insects to them; their fortifications are huge and impossible to penetrate. Sure, the land is flowing with milk and honey, but we’re never gonna get any of it. We’re just too small and weak!”
That’s what the majority of ten experienced. And the last two scouts? Joshua and Caleb? Well, they saw the very same places, the same fortifications, the same soldiers, and the same terrain.
But somehow they had enough confidence in themselves and in the Israelite people to come to an entirely di erent conclusion:
They said, “Yeah, they have a lot of soldiers; yes they have some fortified towns. But you know what? We can handle that. We’re strong enough. We’re prepared. We can beat them. And it doesn’t hurt the God’s on our side.”
10 scouts shaking in their boots – sandals -say, “No, we can’t do it.” And only 2 say, “Yes we can, it’s big and it’s scary. But we can do it.”
The rabbis look at this in a couple of interesting ways. And both are helpful to us here on Rosh Hashanah.
One interpretation is that the majority of 10 represent that large number of the naysayers we often encounter in life. It’s when most of your friends tell you, “No, that’s not a good idea.” And only a couple of intuitive, wise, and supportive friends who say, “Yeah, go for it.”
The ten scouts you know at work who say: “That idea of yours? That’s too expensive; it’s impractical; we’ve always done it the other way.”
And if you’re lucky, you’ll have those two scouts who support you and say, “There’s merit there. Good idea. Let’s go with it. You can do it!”
I think the Rabbis’ second interpretation – a more compelling one – is that the 12 scouts don’t really represent 12 other people; but rather they reflect the struggle of many voices and feelings inside of us. Our own internal dialogues and battles.
It’s a really brilliant recognition that it’s the majority of our internal voices that tell us “we cannot”. And it’s often the minority opinion that tells us, “yes we can”.
The Torah didn’t say that the 6 say yes, and 6 say no. The Torah recognizes that our self-doubt is often much more powerful than our confidence.
“Oh man, there are hundred reasons I shouldn’t be trying this. But there’s this one little voice, quieter than the rest, overwhelmed by the rest; but very persistent in my gut that’s saying, ‘I can accomplish this. I can manage this. I can overcome this. It’s the right thing to do.’”
To have the courage and confidence to:
Declare my love
Start my own business
The courage to end this bad relationship
The courage to work on this troubled relationship that’s redeemable.
The fortitude to recover from this illness
Pursue my dream
The confidence to seek the professional assistance I know I need
The courage to get in there and help my kid through this di cult time
Or the courage to back o , and give my child the room to figure this one out on his own
That lone little voice, that minority voice, won’t always be right. But there are times when listening to that little voice can make all the di erence.
Experts say that there are a lot of brilliant, famous and successful Broadway actors that are so nervous before each and every performance that– if you’ll pardon my saying so – they get so nauseous that they can’t help but throw up every night before going on stage.
Ten voices inside making them throw up. And then the two little voices that win the day, and get them to go on stage and give a brilliant performance.
What are the most powerful voices we carry inside throughout our lives? For better or for worse (hopefully more often for the better) our parents voices are loud and clear; and lifelong.
I was sitting in the activities room of a nursing home. A couple of ladies were helping each other put on some make up for a special occasion. One of them – 98 years old – looking a bit scared – said to her friend, “If my mother saw me doing this, she’d kill me!”
A voice from almost a century ago!
A parent’s voice. The voices that – perhaps more than any other – create and mold our sense of value, self worth, and our ability to navigate life.
I was at a training seminar this summer for rabbis and teachers who will be leading a monthly mentoring and discussion group for boys at our respective synagogues this year. I look forward to o ering a monthly group for our 9th and 10th graders.
At the closing evening session of this three day seminar, there were about 30 guys, sitting around the table in this conference room at the hotel.
We were asked – for those who wished-to share a time when we made our fathers proud, and a time when we felt we had disappointed our fathers. Powerful questions.
One of the older teachers, a guy about 60 years old, said, “My older brother was the golden child. It was always so obvious that my father had such high expectations for him. He was pushed, encouraged and expected to do important things in life.”
“I on the other hand, felt no sense of expectation from my father. I always felt that he thought very little of me because he never pushed me; he never got angry when I didn’t have excellent grades as he would my brother. He would just sort of verbally pat me on the head and smile.”
“And because he never seemed to have any expectations of me, I don’t think I ever really had them for myself.”
“Fifteen years ago, after my father died. For the first time, I shared my thoughts with my older brother. He looked absolutely floored and taken by surprise at my words.
“Did you really think that? That Dad thought very little of you? Let me tell you something. You know you were born prematurely. And back in those days, it was really touch and go. Dad was so scared. When you finally made it and it was clear you were going to be all right, Dad said that you were his miracle son. And he always felt that just the fact that you were alive was a beautiful and wonderful thing. And enough for him. He loved you so much, and was so scared of losing you, that he never wanted to push you or be angry. He was just so happy to have you in his life.”
“Finding that out has helped me change my life.”
That story is only marginally a thought for us as parents: The cautionary note that we be thoughtful, consistent and loving and clear in what we convey to our children.
But mostly, that man’s story is a lesson to us as children, whether we’re 18 or 99. One of the great tasks we all share is that we have to take responsibility for the voices and forces inside of us. Regardless of their origin. We need to take control and ownership for our internal voices.
It’s never too late.
These High Holidays, these Days of Awe, are rooted in a most magnificent and profound belief: That we human beings are capable of change.
That’s what these holidays are for.
Why go through this oft times painful introspection contrition unless we believe there is a chance to change ourselves, for the better?
If not, let’s skip these days and begin the year with the pure joy of Sukkot!
But Rosh Hashanah says; And the Torah declares; And the Rabbis teach; And we have learned;
-that we can change:
Whatever obstacle is in our way, whatever has been holding us back, can be over come.
So that we can find the courage to declare that new love
That we can find the confidence to create that new business That we can reach out and repair the seemingly irreparable relationship with our child
That we can find that illusive spiritual strength to physically heal That we can put on that make-up – even if it would have angered Mom in 1925.
That we can change our careers, even if it will anger our parents in 2013.
That we can have faith in ourselves, even if we believe that faith was damaged by our parents.
May these sacred days of 5774 be a season of giving heed to the healing, loving, bright and wise small still voice that – if we allow it –can guide us, from the center of our souls.
“You know what I am going to see in there?” Bernice asked me. “No, what are you going to see?” I asked. She looked out the window at the old building, smiled and said, “Ghosts. Good ghosts, but ghosts.” No, this isn’t a belated Halloween article, rather the sharing of a most beautiful visit connecting our old synagogue building on Sterling Avenue to our new sanctuary on Soundview Avenue.
Our past president and precious member Bernice Brussel (nee Kraus) joined the synagogue with her parents, Mortimer and Gertrude, in the early 1930’s. A few years later, at a Friday night service for young adults, she sat next to a charming young fellow, Harrison Brussel. In 1941 they were married, right there in the sanctuary on Sterling Avenue. That space, with its pews carved with the Star of David and its wrought iron chandeliers, looks very much the same today as it did when it was built. The Brussel’s relationship with the congregation was busy and full through all these decades and continues to be so till this very day.
If you didn’t already know it, that beautiful little stone building on 16 Sterling Avenue and Post Road, right across from the Post Road Elementary School, was our original synagogue building, built by our congregation in the early 1920’s. Today it is occupied by the Salvation Army’s Church.
As the dedication of our new sanctuary approaches, we very much want to connect our old synagogue with our newly imagined space. This has unfolded in two beautiful ways: a visit to our first building with Bernice, and a way for the old sanctuary to have some presence in the new.
The “ghosts” that Bernice were referring to on that day were all of her memories of family, friends, High Holidays celebrated, Torahs marched on Simchat Torah, projects, parties, and dances in the social hall and the hours she spent teaching and learning in the building’s classrooms.
As we walked through the building she showed us the pew she always sat in with Harrison at services; we saw the classroom in which she taught Sunday school; the stage upon which she, Harrison and others put on many shows in the social hall and the Rabbi’s Study. It really was a very cool visit.
One of the Salvation Army workers came up to us and reluctantly shared a story. “You know, we felt bad all these years. When we first took over the building from you, there were these beautiful stained glass windows on either side of the sanctuary. Some people back then thought that since they had specific Jewish images, we should remove them. So we did. And we have no idea what happened to them; they were probably thrown away. We have always felt badly about that.”
Bernice’s face lit up when she excitedly interjected, “I know where they are! We saved them! We took them with us and they have been in the basement on Soundview Avenue ever since.” Indeed, every few years someone would comment on those “old stained glass windows” taking up room in the basement. On more than one occasion it was suggested that they be finally thrown away. But we kept them.
When we told the woman on Sterling Avenue that we had them all this time and that they are now going to be placed in our sanctuary, she was thrilled and relieved.
So next time you are in the new sanctuary and you look above the doors on either side of the sanctuary, you will see these magnificent stained glass windows, created in a Tiffany style. Know that they are not imitations or recently acquired antiques. They have been with us since the early 1920’s. They simple moved down the street with us 60 years ago. And when you sit in the sanctuary and look out the brand new floor to ceiling windows, you will see echoes of reflections of the stained glass. Let’s always remember our gift to future generations will always echo with the beauty and love of our founding generations almost a century ago.