High Holy Days
In 1935, Solomon Perel was a 14 year-old Jewish teen, living with his parents and older brother in Germany. As Nazism swept across the country, the Perel family went east, seeking refuge in Poland. Solomon and his brother ended up separated from their parents, and in the ravages of war, the two brothers became separated from each other. Solomon found shelter in a Soviet communist orphanage, until the Germans moved into Soviet-controlled Poland. “When the Germans came,” Solomon said, “they forced us to stand in line. I heard talk that they would not take Jews alive. I buried my papers and Communist youth card in a hole in the ground I dug with my foot. When my turn came, I said I am Volksdeutsche– a German.” He was, of course, a native German speaker. He assumed a new identity as Joseph (Jupp for short). He became an interpreter in the Wehrmacht unit that adopted him, and soon after was sent to an elite Hitler youth training school back in Germany. “I believed I was Joseph–a German,” Solomon said, reflecting on his complicated life. “The Jew began to disappear…Solomon, the Jew, was almost forgotten. He became just a little part hidden away in me. I never hated Jews. But I, Jupp, accepted Nazi ideology. The Germans were superior and the Jews subhuman.”
Solomon’s story was made famous in the film, Europa Europa. You may recall the central panic of Solomon’s disguise as a non-Jewish German, the fear that he would be caught naked, circumcised. In an interview from his Givatayim apartment in Israel, as a 65-year old, following the release of the movie, Perel acknowledged that his circumcision almost cost him his life, but, he added, reflecting on the powerful and seductive pull of Nazism, “but it saved my soul.” For had he been able to become fully Nazi, he would have.
In 1990, David and I and our children traveled with 35 other Kol Ami members to Prague, Budapest and Israel. We went with prayer books and Torah commentaries to help fortify a fledgling Reform congregation in Budapest. Two young men met us to receive the books. “Tell us about yourselves,” we asked – and how is it that you are leaders of this small community?” As it turned out, both young men were raised as Communists; neither knew that he was Jewish. “So what happened?” we wanted to know. They each had a story, of course, but one in particular has stayed with me. “I came home from school one day,” he said, “I was a teenager. And I boasted to my parents that I had helped beat up a Jewish child.”
What do parents do in a moment like that? The mother and father had each lost their entire families to the Holocaust. They were the sole survivors. And they had made a pact that the suffering they had experienced would end; that they would not pass on their Jewishness. And so they had protected their boy from knowing that they – or he – was Jewish. Now what do they do? As the young man spoke, I imagined to myself in a flash of pain that the parents felt they had a stark choice to make: they would have to choose: either their son would be a victim, or an oppressor. And they chose: he will not become an oppressor.
We will be reading today from the Torah one of the most troubling stories in our sacred canon. “Take your son, your only one, the one whom you love, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.” The Torah is unrelenting in its drumbeat: “Abraham built the altar – arranged the wood – bound Isaac his son – laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham reached out and took the knife to slay his son.”
What a terrible story. And of all the stories in the Torah, why choose this one for Rosh Hashanah, for the beginning of the year? Why this one? “I hate this story,” I said to David years ago. And David said, “What Abraham didn’t have to follow through with, (an angel stayed his hand), countless other Jewish parents did.” David reminded me that during the years of the Shoah, the overwhelming number of Jewish parents continued to circumcise their boys – for sure, a mark of vulnerability, putting them in the path of danger.
We do everything to protect our children – like that mother and father in Budapest. Why bring them up as Jews?
In preparing sermons for the High Holidays, I give a lot of thought to the music that becomes part of the sermon, or that concludes the sermon. What am I going to do for a sermon that features circumcision. Maybe this one. [Beatles – It won’t be long now.] I know it’s irreverent, but good religion needs to be a little irreverent – and these are dark times, and we need to laugh, and we need to laugh at ourselves.
We don’t have to go as far back as the Shoah – or as far away as Budapest – to remind ourselves of the risks we take marking ourselves as Jews. Some of us are non-Jewish members of Jewish families; some of us have chosen Judaism along the path of your life. And so this exercise may mean different things to different people. Please imagine for yourself a time that you were part of a conversation, part of a group of people, in which no one knew that you were Jewish or married to a Jew. And you decided that that was fine – that you would pass. And then someone says something that’s not okay – and you decide to come forward with your Jewishness. Can you remember a moment like that? What does it feel like? Does it feel that you, even for a moment, let in an edge of vulnerability, or risk? This is part of being Jewish. It’s not only what we believe, it’s not only what we stand for, it is who we are; being Jewish and part of a Jewish family is in our being. In its most perverse form, Hitler understood that it would not be enough to get rid of Jewish books or Jewish ideas. For him to accomplish the evil he intended for the world, he needed to get rid of Jews. We stand in the face of evil. We stand against bullies, against racism, against oppression and bigotry. In our very being.
The story is told about a Jewish merchant in America in the early 1800’s, peddling his wares in the South. “Triebwasser, a twine merchant from New York, was trying desperately to sell some of his goods in Louisiana. But wherever he went, he kept encountering anti-Semitism. In one particular department store, the buyer taunted him: ‘All right, Jake, I’ll buy some of your twine. As much as reaches from the top of your Jewish nose to the tip of your Jewish prick.’
“Two weeks later, the buyer was startled to receive a shipment containing eight hundred cartons of Grade A twine. Attached was a note: ‘Many thanks for your generous offer. Invoice to follow. [signed] Jacob Triebwasser – residing in New York, circumcised in Kiev.’” [Novak and Waldoks, The Big Book of Jewish Humor, p.83]
God to Abraham about Isaac: Take this child, whom you love, and bring him up to make a difference. Tell him that the world is filled with injustice. Tell him that it’s hard to be a human being, and that it will be hard for him as well. That he will fail in his work, and stumble as a human being, and disappoint in his relationships. That growing up takes courage and fighting for a better world will mean taking risks.
Parents invoke this covenantal moment between God, Abraham and Isaac at each birth ceremony – each brit. Brit – or bris – is the Hebrew word for ‘covenant.’ It does not mean ‘circumcision.’ We bring our children into the covenant when they are born and named – boys and girls alike. So many parents, in speaking to their little one, have expressed the hope that “more than anything, we hope for you that you will be happy.” We imagine that we will create a world in which we can shelter our children from pain, or suffering, or illness, or death, or disappointment. Not only is this unrealistic, but it also renders our children helpless and powerless in the face of life’s challenges. Keeping them away from sorrow and pain will rob them of their humanity and of their power to comfort and to heal.
I have been privileged to stand with so many of you – parents, grandparents and great grandparents – as you welcome children into the world. And I have learned from you. Zachary Mazin, a young Kol Ami father, knew that in speaking to his children, he would not be able to wish them a life of uninterrupted happiness and success. He said to them:
“I hope you never have to experience heartache. But when you do, I hope you have dear friends to comfort you.
“I hope you’re never mean or vindictive. But when you are, I hope you have the capacity for remorse.
“I hope you never fail to accomplish something you set your mind to. But when you do, I hope you have the persistence to try again.
“I hope you never betray someone’s trust. But when you do, I hope you have the integrity to admit it and make it right.
“I hope you never shirk responsibility. But when you do, I hope you work extra hard to become someone who can be relied upon.
“I hope you never fail to consider the effects of your actions on others. But when you do, I hope you find the capacity for empathy and humility.
“I hope you never forget to engage in the work of repairing the world. But when you do, I hope your relationship with God steers you back toward helping to improve the lives of those around you.
“I hope you never have to go through loss, or behave poorly or finish second in a race or are unhappy for any reason whatsoever. But when all these things happen, and they inevitably will, I hope you find strength from within and solace from without.”
Beyond being happy, there is something else we need. We need to know that we matter. We need to know that we are alive for a reason. Now, more than in a long time, our lives as Jews and as members of a Jewish community matter.
God to Abraham about Isaac: Put down the knife. Do not lay a hand upon the boy. Life is way too precious. And there will be never be another child like this one. Each one is unique. But do not leave this place relieved. Whew! We escaped danger. It is not enough just to be alive. You must be alive for a reason. Do not squander the gift.
We have been given the gift of life. We have been bequeathed a covenant as Jews and as members of this Jewish community. It is a covenant of vulnerability and courage. We will stand up wherever there is hate – and we now know that there is more hatred in our country than we ever imagined.
From the moment our people was called into being, we have been asked to stand in the face of injustice, by virtue of our differentness to witness to the deepest religious truth that each of us, in our very difference and diversity, is created in the image of God. During World War II, in ways both told and forgotten, Jews resisted the hatreds of Nazism. Among the ways not well-known is the physical resistance against the Nazis. You will find an exhibit in the Petschek Gallery of 60 photographs from World War II, documenting Jewish resistance against the Nazis. The exhibit is called: “Resistance is the Lesson.”
“Amos Oz” – Israeli author – “said that there are a number of ways to respond to calamity. Take the example of a fire. What can you do? You can run away. You can write an angry letter. Or you can bring a bucket of water to throw on the fire. ‘If you don’t have a bucket,’ he adds, ‘bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, bring a teaspoon. Everyone has a teaspoon. I know a teaspoon is little, and the fire is huge, but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon.’
“Bring your teaspoon and pour water on hate and fanaticism.”
[Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, January 21, 2017]
On your way out of the sanctuary today, as we begin a new year, you will find boxes of beautiful signs you can post on your lawn. What makes them beautiful is what’s written on them: “Hate has no home here.” The signs are not in democrat or republican. The signs are in English, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. We have 200 of them. If we run out today, we will buy more for Yom Kippur. You are invited to leave a contribution to help defray the costs of these yard signs. You are one person, or one family, one home. We are one congregation. But each of us matters. And it will take each of us – and a sea of signs on the streets of Westchester – and Putnam and Dutchess counties and across our country – to turn the tide of hatred.
We are Jews. We know about hatred and bigotry – and we cannot let it happen to anyone. We have been given the gifts of vulnerability and of courage. “Listen to Me,” God said to Isaiah, “you who pursue justice. You who seek the
Lord. Look to the rock you were hewn from. To the quarry you were dug from. Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him. But I blessed him and made him many.” [Isaiah 51:1-2]
I made him many – I made him you. We stand together for Avinu Malkeinu.
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.
Some things in life get more and more complicated. Some
things actually get simpler. Over time, the sounds of a language merge together, moving toward simplicity and economy. For example, in America’s South, a short ‘i’ and a short ‘e’ have merged, becoming the same sound. A ‘p-e-n’ and a p-i-n are both a [peyn]. It’s fine to move toward simplicity, but when things become too much the same, the language has to move to disambiguate – to make things distinctive and clear again. So, if I want something to write with, I would ask for a ‘writing pen’ [rahtn’ peyn]. I know this not just because I love the study of linguistics; I know this because I grew up in the South.
[sing] I [ah] wish I was in Dixie Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand To live and die in Dixie
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
Every morning of my elementary school years, from Kindergarten through the sixth grade, we sang Dixie. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, then the still proud capital of the Confederacy. (No, not in the 1860’s.) The Civil War, or The War Between the States, as I was taught it, had ended almost a century before, but the pride persisted.
So did the efforts to keep black people down, poor and out of sight. One wouldn’t know that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unanimously, 9-0, that separate education was inherently unequal in its landmark Brown v the Board of Education decision. I never saw a black child in my schools. Not elementary school; not junior high school. But most important, I didn’t realize that I didn’t see a black child. I didn’t see.
Was I a racist? Was I pro-segregation? Hardly. My father, a congregational rabbi, also taught Bible at Virginia Union Theological Seminary, and members of its African-American faculty regularly joined us for Shabbat and at our Seder table. My parents actively worked with white and black couples to desegregate restaurants, asking to be seating together, efforts that were often not successful. We were Northern Jews, transplanted into a Southern culture, and I was quite sure that we were not racist.
My awakening came in Israel. My family spent a sabbatical year in Jerusalem; I was in the fifth grade. We had rented an apartment on Balfour Street, an area of Jerusalem still dotted with consulates and government offices. Walking home from school one day, I saw a black man walking from the other side, across the street. Something caught me off guard. He was tall and regal, wearing a turban and flowing robes. And he walked like a prince (which of course, he was – a prince from Africa.) But what caught me off guard was the sudden realization that I had never seen a black man walk that way – so tall and so proud. And then I understood that I carried racism within me.
We have all been affected by racism – whatever our color. Racism – North and South – has woven itself into the fabric of American consciousness.
As Jews, I want so much to believe we are different. Jews who came to this country, whether from Sephardic Jewish cultures in Spain and Portugal in the 15-and 1600’s, or the Ashkenazi cultures of Eastern and Western Europe in the 20th century, wherever we came from, we fled persecution – whether it was the Inquisition, pogroms, ghettoes or gas chambers. We fled from worlds largely divided by religion. Christianity was dominant, and for the greater part of two thousand years, Jews were on the wrong side of that religious divide. We came to these shores, and though there were challenges to religious freedom, the divide in America was not primarily religious; it was a divide of color. Would we maintain the outsider status we brought with us, or would we try to blend? For Jews who were white, they, we, largely chose to identify with white society and its values.
Jews of the South participated in all aspects of the slave trade, in proportion to our numbers in the general population. Only one American rabbi (North or South) spoke out against slavery. Rabbi David Einhorn, a Reform rabbi in Baltimore, delivered a sermon in 1861 in which he stated that the institution of slavery in the South was incompatible with Jewish values. A riot broke out after the sermon, in which a mob chased after the rabbi to tar and feather him (an all-time low in rabbi-congregant relations.) For Einhorn’s congregants, and for the overwhelming number of American Jews, they were finally on the “right side” of the divide and they were going to stay safely there.
There was so much I didn’t see growing up in Virginia; there is so much that we don’t see, even though it is right in front of us. The scars of a brutal exploitation of human beings are all around us. Half of all slaves were separated from their spouses and parents as a result of the domestic slave trade. Rape and sexual violence were commonplace. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and ratified as the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishing slavery) in 1865.
But resistance to slavery has persisted for the last 150 years. The Thirteenth Amendment was finally ratified by the state of Mississippi in 1995. Since Emancipation, fear, intimidation, violence and incarceration have been used to seize and maintain political control and reassert social dominance. Seventeen years ago, I bought a book called Without Sanctuary – Lynching Photography in America. Since 1877, a decade after the end of the Civil War, more than 4,000 black men, women and children have met the end of their lives at the end of a rope. Most recently as 1950. As if this were not horrible enough, these lynching were a source of public gatherings and entertainment. Spectators took photographs of these lynchings, and made them into postcards that they mailed to friends. The book I bought is a photographic record of hundreds of postcards. The book is still wrapped in its original cellophane cover. I can’t bear to take it off.
In my reticence to open the cover, I do not feel very brave. My mother-in-law would have been braver. Our children grew up with her stories of resistance against the tightening grip of anti-Jewish discrimination and terror in Germany of the 1930’s. Like this one: Riding home on her bicycle one afternoon, she spotted a line of young men, all dressed in brown uniforms, making a chain across the street to block her passage. They were a block and a half ahead of her, anticipating her approach. She could have turned at the corner and avoided them (a tactic I probably would have chosen.) But not
Ruth. She reasoned to herself, “If I avoid them now, they will continue to harass me.” And so she closed her eyes, pedaled as hard as she could, and smashed right through the line of boys – who did not bother her again.
Ruth saved her family from their home’s destruction on Kristallnacht, fled from Germany on forged work papers, worked as a scullery maid in England, took a trip to London and laid down on the floor of the Jewish Agency office and refused to move until they issued exit visas for her mother, her father and her sister – which they got in August of 1939, days before the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began.
This is our first Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without Ruth. She loved being here, with family, with you. This summer, David and I were invited to participate in an interfaith conference held in Germany, not far from Ruth’s hometown. We had traveled in that area 44 years ago, when we were first married, an important opportunity for me to connect with the family stories that were so important to David. But some of the stories remained still undiscovered. One branch of his family had lived for a thousand years in the town of Windesheim, in the Rhine Valley. So this summer we decided to find the town and search out its Jewish cemetery. Certainly there would be some remnant, some reminder that they had been there. The town is nestled among hills and vineyards (the Rhine Valley is famous for its white wines.) We turned into its narrow and winding lanes in the late afternoon of a hot summer day. So hot that that all the stores and cafes were shuttered; there was not a soul out. We found one older man watering his plants, dressed in nothing but a pair of boxers. David asked him in German where the Judenfriedhof, the Jewish cemetery was. He answered that there wasn’t one in that town. We drove around ourselves, like looking for a needle in a haystack, haplessly up and down random streets, hoping for a clue. But it was getting late, and our rental car was low on gas, and we did see an open gas station. So we pulled in and filled up the car. David walked into the station to pay. “What brings you to our town?” the woman behind the counter asked.
“My family lived here for generations,” David said. “I’m looking for the Jewish cemetery. Is there one?”
“Yes,” she said. “My husband knows where it is.”
“I know better than where it is,” her husband said walking out of the office. “I know the man who has the key to the cemetery.”
He hopped into our car, we drove to the home of the self-appointed town historian and caretaker of the Jewish cemetery, who
also hopped into the car, and the four of us drove up into the hills, through vineyards and corn and potato fields, to the edge of the forest, where we parked the car. And walked along a path to a clearing, a fence and locked gate, to a simple and beautifully maintained cemetery. Over the centuries, stones have been taken or destroyed or have weathered and faded. Maybe 20-30 tombstones remain But there, among them – Jakob Wolf, David’s great great great grandfather.
Jakob’s grandson married and moved to Krefeld, where his descendants married into the Solomon and Servos families. One August afternoon, in 1902, Theresa Solomon Servos’s neighbor brought her a ripe peace. But it was Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, the Jewish fast day that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and Theresa was fasting – notwithstanding that she was 87 years old. She put the peach by her bedside, to save for the end of the fast, and took a nap in the late afternoon. From which she never awoke.
Nearly a century later, our son, Noam, was in Germany for the summer, in an intensive language course. He sent an email on Tisha B’Av, saying only, “I broke my fast with a peach.”
We found Theresa’s tombstone, too – the ninth of Av.
We would have loved to tell Ruth that we found Jakob Wolf’s tombstone in Windesheim – and Theresa’s tombstone in the cemetery near Krefeld. But she is not here for us to tell her.
A last stop – a small museum in Krefeld, in the mansion of a prominent Krefeld citizen – Jewish and gay – who had been deported and killed. The museum is devoted to the stories of the Jews who once lived in Krefeld. In one room, an exhibit is displayed on a white door. Life-size figures, like holograms, step into the light momentarily, look around – and seeing that no one is paying attention, they turn away and disappear. If you press a button, they will stay. They are all young actors – and they are each holding a book. A young woman stepped into the light. We pressed the button. “Mutti, Vati,” the voice of the young actress calls out. It is a voice describing the horror of the night of broken glass, of Kristalnacht, November 9th, 1938. The diary she is reading from is the young Ruth Meyer, David’s mother.
And Ruth is not here for us to tell her.
On August 113h, Friday night, I said to David, “I am so glad Ima Ruth is not here.” What would she have done, if she had seen the coverage of hundreds of people marching with torches in the night, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and Nazi slogans? What would
she have done? And listened as our president refused to take a clear stand against them? Originating as a protest against the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee (a Virginia boy), white supremacists gathered from all over the country to openly display their hatred. Confederate and Nazi flags side by side. We might have thought that here in America, at least those of us Jews who are white were finally on the right side of a divide that was primarily one of color. But now we see it clearly. We are on the side of any group that is targeted for bigotry and hatred.
The images of Charlottesville were terrifying. If you were afraid, know that you are not alone. You are surrounded here by a strong, loving and courageous community. Now is the time to strengthen these connections – for you, for your children and grandchildren. And, as Rabbi Rachel Timoner writes, “We are in good company. We are strong as a Jewish community; we are stronger still when we join company with all those who are targeted by neo-Nazis and white supremacists – people of color, immigrants, Muslims, [gays], disabled people, and all decent people who stand with us…We are part of a beautiful majority.” [letter to CBE, August 18, 2017]
Another rabbi, Milton Grafman, spoke to his congregation: [excepted] “Friends, it’s with a great deal of fear and trepidation that I stand before you at this moment and begin to speak to you, when the
Rabbi is supposed to bring some message of hope and inspiration, or help carry you not really through the day but through the year to come. Very frankly, this has been a horrible summer! These are troublesome times. Anybody with a shred of humanity in him could not have been but horrified by what happened [this weekend] . And I’m sick at heart for a lot of reasons. I’m here to say if you want to change this, you are going to have to start standing up and being counted. And let me tell you, these people are primarily anti-Semitic and this is where you have got a stake. Because let me tell you, if they get away with this, nobody’s going to be safe including us, members of the Jewish community.”
This was not 2017. Rabbi Milton Grafman delivered this Rosh Hashanah sermon in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 19th, 1963, four days after the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed and four young black girls were killed, a turning point in the struggle for Civil Rights in America.
A lot of us didn’t see it then. We still thought we could pass, and were even relieved that the hatred and the violence were not directed against us. But now we see clearly. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We may have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
As a Jewish community, we need to profoundly reconnect with the legacy of slavery and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. We’re going to hear stories this year, of white Americans of both the North and the South, who began to untangle their families’ complicated relationship with slavery. A Synaplex speaker, Karen Brannan, researches her family tree, only to learn that the tree on her family’s plantation was one from which people were lynched. Kol Ami is traveling on an intergenerational Civil Rights journey in November – four days to Atlanta, Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. Kabbalat Shabbat with Jews of Birmingham, Havdalah on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Sunday in Church in Montgomery. Confronting a complicated legacy, but also listening to first-hand accounts of both African Americans and Jews who were and who are standing up to be counted.
Noam our son was back in Germany this summer, this time for contemporary art research. He sent a different note to us and to his siblings:
“A long and somber note. I’m a fellow at a research institute in Weimar Germany at the moment and was asked last minute to accompany and lead a discussion for a group of graduate students on their visit to Buchenwald, a concentration camp that lies horrifyingly close to the city. Mostly as a favor to a colleague, I immediately agreed. But I soon realized that my whole relationship to the past, to our past, had undergone a seismic shift this year, of which I somehow remained unaware. For the whole of my adult life (and before), Ima Ruth was the guardian of the story of the Holocaust and I was the grandchild who returned to Germany to honor that story but also complicate it. Praise the Germans for their willingness to memorialize the horrors they themselves committed. Criticize Americans for our failure to own up to American slavery. And so forth. I still believe in the difficult work of honoring and complicating the legacy of the Holocaust. But for the first time I recognized an obligation to guard that legacy, a role I had always entrusted to Ima Ruth. I don’t know what to do with this knowledge, other than bearing witness at Buchenwald. But I do know that I miss Ima Ruth dearly, and less existentially, you as well. I hope you can feel my embrace from across the Atlantic. I most certainly feel yours. And Ima Ruth’s.”
I am grateful that Ima Ruth didn’t live to see these days.
We, you and I, have been bequeathed a covenant of vulnerability and of courage. Not just my family. All of us.
I, for one, would not have believed that anti-Semitism is alive and well in America. And not only in the South – right here in Westchester neighborhoods.
I would not have believed that our government would continue to seek ways to limit voter access for poor communities of color.
That the same country to which Ruth could flee as a refugee is closing its doors to others.
I would not have believed that an Orthodox Jewish woman and her daughter were attacked on a Queens subway, mistaken for being Muslim.
I did not know how much systemic discrimination and bigotry continue to destroy the fabric of life in communities of color.
But I do know now how closely we are connected. This I know for sure: When one group is targeted with hatred, we are all at risk.
And I do believe that we will stand up and be counted, and that we will overcome. Deep in my heart, as a Jew, I do believe. We shall overcome.
For deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome one day.
Bayom ha-hu, bayom ha-hu, yihiyeh adonai echad, u’shmo u’shmo u’shmo echad.
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:
When I was in the fifth grade, my family went to Israel for a year. My father was on sabbatical, and he and my mother decided it would be an important and precious opportunity for all of us to live in Jerusalem for a year. It was. And I have stories to tell. Like glass doors in our apartment and fights with my younger brothers and crashing into one of those glass doors and the scar on my face.
Other stories too. For Hanukkah vacation, we went on our first road trip out of Jerusalem. We headed south for Eilat in our little Peugot 404. It was long before seat belts. My parents sat in the front and the four us crowded on the bench seat in the back. There was a regular highway from Jerusalem south to Beersheva. Beersheva was, and is, the northern tip of Israel’s long southern desert – and as we headed out into the Negev, the road became only one lane of asphalt rolled out onto the desert floor. One lane for both directions of traffic. That meant if two cars, or a car and truck, came from opposite directions, one had to move out onto the sand and let the other pass. It was going to be a long way to Eilat.
But we didn’t get too far. Within minutes of our heading out on this road, it began to rain. First, a few big fat raindrops on the windshield. But within minutes, we were in a flashflood. Heavy rains poured onto the desert dunes around us, and silt from the hills washed onto the narrow road. Our car skidded, rolled off the road, and we tumbled, the car somersaulting into a ditch below. The car landed on its wheels; the rains stopped as suddenly as they started. My parents spun around. The car was smashed like an accordion. We were all alright.
We climbed to the top of the hill. The desert was still. Other than a Bedouin shepherd, staff in hand, leading his sheep (we could have been back in the Bible), we were all alone. And then an army jeep whizzed by. Two soldiers jumped out and looked at this straggly group of six people. My parents explained what had happened. From relief or being scared or I don’t know what, I started to cry. One soldier said, “Lama at bocha? Why are you crying?” The other jumped to my defense: “Hi lo bocha. She’s not crying. She has a cold.”
We piled into the open jeep and rode back to Beersheva, where we got a taxi and drove back to Jerusalem. We got back to Jerusalem in time for the first night of Hanukkah. Every night of Hanukkah, we say two blessings as we light the Hanukkah candles. The second one – ”[sing] she- asa nisim l’avoteinu bayamim ha-heim baz’man hazeh.” – gives thanks to God “who made miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.” My parents changed the blessing by a single syllable: “[sing] bayamim ha-heim U-va’zman ha-zeh.” – “who made miracles for our ancestors in those days AND at this time.” This happened 55 years ago. There are two things I have always remembered. The changed Hanukkah blessing. We have sung it that way every year; our children and their children sing it that way. We give thanks for the miracles of those days and for the miracles of now. And I remember the kindness of the soldier who jumped to my defense – who saw that I was crying and wanted to spare me any embarrassment.
Of all the qualities I once wished for myself, kindness was not among them. Courage, joy, ambition – yes. Kindness? Kindness seemed for wusses.
So I was surprised to see how moved I was by a graduation speech forwarded to me by one of one of my sons-in-law. Three years ago, George Saunders delivered the convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013. “Here is something I regret,” he said. “In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class…She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
“So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased…I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear…At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: ‘How was your day, sweetie?’ and she’d say, ‘Oh, fine.’ And her mother would say, ‘Making any friends?’ and she’d go, ‘Sure, lots.’
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
“And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
“One day she was there, next day she wasn’t. End of story.
“Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
“But still. It bothers me.
“So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
“Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly. Reservedly, Mildly.
“Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kind to you, I bet.”
“Now,” he continues, “the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?
“Because kindness, as it turns out, is hard.”
We think that being kinder works against us. We live in a zero-sum world: the real world offers limited resources, limited jobs, limited places at the table, and someone else’s loss is my gain. We think it’s a given: if someone else get a piece of the pie it means one less piece for you. But is this true?
Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania set out to study successful people in a huge range of professions. He found the usual correlates to success: ambition, talent and opportunity. But he also found a fourth ingredient in successful people: reciprocity – the way we give and take. “Every time we interact with another person, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return? As an organizational psychologist and Wharton professor, “ he writes, “I’ve dedicated more than ten years of my professional life to studying these [reciprocity] choices at organizations ranging from Google to the U.S. Air Force, and it turns out that they have staggering consequences for success.
“Over the past three decades, in a series of groundbreaking studies, social scientists have discovered that people differ dramatically in their preferences for reciprocity – their desired mix of taking and giving.”
“Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor…Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts.
“These preferences aren’t about money: givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they donate to charity or the compensation that they command from their employers. Rather, givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions toward other people.
Givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need. “If you’re a giver at work, you might not think about the personal costs at all, helping others without expecting anything in return…you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas and connections with other people who can benefit from them. It’s tempting to reserve the giver label for larger-than-life heroes, but being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice. It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others – providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for other.”
“In the workplace, few of us act purely like givers or takers, adopting a third style instead. We become matchers, striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting…If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.” How many of us approach our personal relationships this way? It may even be unconscious, but we keep a running list in our minds, keeping score of who did what, how much effort it took, even who hurt the other more, who apologized last, who “owes” more. (Do I sound like I’m talking from experience?) When we give to another person in this way, expecting an even exchange of favors, it’s not the same as giving. It is a form of keeping score. Giving with strings attached is not received as an act of generosity – not in the workplace, and not with our spouses or partners or friends.
Adam Grant published his results in 2013, in a book called Give and Take. In a style that reads more like suspense and a detective story than business, he writes: “If I asked you to guess who’s the most likely to end up at the bottom of the success ladder, what would you say – takers, givers, or matchers? All three reciprocity styles have their own benefits and drawbacks. But there’s one style that proves more costly than the other two…[Y]ou might predict that givers achieve the worst results – and you’d be right. In the short range, across a wide range of important occupations, givers are at a disadvantage: they make others better off but sacrifice their own success in the process.
“So if givers are most likely to land at the bottom of the success ladder, who’s at the top – takers or matchers? Neither…”It’s the givers again.” It the short run, it looks like the giving strategy doesn’t pay off. But in the long run, it often does.
Adam Grant’s research covers occupations as diverse as entertainment, sports executives, financial advisors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, doctors, writers, politicians, engineers, entrepreneurs and sales people. “Let me be clear,” he writes, “givers, takers and matchers all can – and do – achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades. When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses. People tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. In contrast, when givers win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them. Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.”
One of the reasons we aren’t more kind is that we think being kind works against us. But being kind, giving without expectation of return, being genuinely concerned with the successes of those around us, (coupled with care and respect for ourselves) turns out to be a good strategy for the workplace, as well as for our homes and friendships. It’s also the most important strategy in building the world we want to part of it. Just think – whether you are a giver or a taker, you probably want the people who take care of you to be givers. You hope your doctor, lawyer, teacher and yes, financial advisor will focus on contributing value to you, not on claiming value from you.
You, too, might have thought as I did, that kindness is for wusses. It might be nice and sweet as a spiritual value – but in the real world, it isn’t practical. Not only is it practical, it turns out that we don’t do well when we divide ourselves into our practical and spiritual selves. We need to be whole. We are each one person. The values that make us better people will make us better partners, better parents, better friends, better leaders, better bosses and better colleagues. In research conducted world-wide, “giver values (working for the well-being of others, responsibility, social justice, and compassion) “are the number-one guiding principle in life to most people in most countries – in more than seventy different countries from around the world – from Argentina to Armenia, Belgium to Brazil, and Slovakia to Singapore. In the majority of the world’s cultures, including that of the United States, (values that are under assault in this election), the majority of people endorse giving [and kindness] as their single most important guidance principle.” In America, more people leave their jobs not over salary – but over the quality of the workplace. We seek places of empathy, of genuine caring, where our talents are acknowledged, our creativity and passions encouraged. [9 Things That Make Good Employees Quit Dr. Travis Bradberry]
When we don’t bring these values with us to our relationships and our friendships, when we don’t experience them in the workplace, we are working against ourselves – we compromise our own integrity. We anticipate the self-serving behavior of others, and ready ourselves with a competitive and adversarial stance. Expecting the worst in others ends up bringing out the worst in ourselves. [Robert Frank, Cornell economist]
During World War I, the story circulated about a small waif pestering an American GI for a chocolate bar. Frustrated and annoyed by her constant badgering, he finally took a newspaper with a map of the world printed on it, tore it into pieces and gave it to the girl. “When you put this together,” he said, “I’ll give you the chocolate bar.” To his shock, she returned a few minutes later with the whole thing taped together. “How did you do it?” he wanted to know. “It was easy,” she said. “On the other side of the paper was a picture of a person. When I put the person together, the world came out all right.”
Framing this in religious language, Judaism teaches us about tikkun – repair. Tikkun olam – repair of the world – is a mandate for each of us, a religious obligation to do our part in making this world a better place. We forget that repair of the world, tikkun olam, needs to be in balance with tikkun ha-lev, the repair of the heart. Our work on the inner world, in our hearts, needs to go side-by-side with our repair of the world around us. So here is the remarkable thing about kindness. We don’t have to prioritize tikkun olam, repair of the world, over tikkun ha-lev, the repair of our heart – or insist that we must first fix our inner life before we can be concerned with those around us. Working on being kinder to others makes us a kinder and more generous person. Thinking about others helps us already to become less selfish and less self-absorbed. Caring and doing for others will lift us from the entitlements and pre-occupations that have made us small. What will make us great? What will make America great again? Making a society where working for the well-being of others, social justice and kindness are at the top of our list.
2,800 years ago, one of the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible, our Bible, said, “What, o mortal, does God require of you? Only this: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” [Micha 6:8]
Being kind. It’s easier said than done. Sometimes in the short run, it’s a tough decision to make. We may sacrifice popularity, or status, or a business deal. The arc does indeed bend toward justice and goodness, but not always immediately. Sometimes the decision to be kind is really difficult. We need help. We need to marshal the forces of goodness in this world to help us. Thirty years ago, a member of Kol Ami, Peter Meyer, already then an old man, gave me this prayer:
So far I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped Haven’t lost my temper
Haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or over-indulgent. I’m really glad about that.
But in a few minutes, God
I’m going to get out of bed.
And from then on
I’m going to need a lot more help.
We do need help. And if you think it’s hard to be generous and kind in the workplace, it is much harder to be kind with people that we know and live with. Our own emotional needs, and past injuries, and expectations loom largest with our most intimate relationships. I share advice not because I’m a master; I‘m a master of none of this. I share because it’s what I need and hope to learn. Robert Covey, zichrono l’vracha – of blessed memory, taught, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” “Suppose you’ve been having trouble with your eyes,” Covey writes, “and you decide to go to an optometrist for help. After briefly listening to your complaint, he takes off his glasses and gives them to you. ‘Put these on,’ he says, ‘I’ve worn this pair of glasses for ten years now and they’ve really helped me. I have an extra pair at home; you can wear these.’” [Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, p.236] How long do we “listen” to someone before we jump in to fix the problem, or say, “I know exactly how you feel,” or, “Let me tell you what I did when this happened to me.” Deeply actively listening to someone, without an agenda, without a need, without thinking about what we would say, listening to understand someone, is a gift to give to another human being. It would be an act of great generosity, and kindness (not to mention wisdom), if I started intense conversations at home that way. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Humility before God reminds me that I will not live forever. That I am here to love and to serve and to give thanks.
The eve of Rosh Hashanah is also a reminder that we will not live forever. We are so conscious of those from whom we parted in this last year – and so acutely aware that for us, too, our days and years are numbered. This isn’t morbid. This is a good reminder: thinking about our mortality helps us consider what is most important. Who am I? Who do I want to be? What will matter most to those I love when I am gone?
In the words of another prayer:
“I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow-creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” [attributed to Stephen Grellet]
May this be our blessing Amen.
May we be blessed as we go on our way May we be guided in peace
May we be blessed with heath and joy May this be our blessing,
May we sheltered by the wings of peace
May we kept in safety and in love
May grace and compassion find their way to every soul May this be our blessing,
Amen. Debbie Friedman
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.
Jacob was on his deathbed. He called his son Joseph to his side. Holding Joseph and his sons close, Jacob lifted his hands and placed one on each of his two grandchildren and blessed them: Hamalach ha-goel oti mikol ra
Yivarech et ha-n’arim
Vikarei vahem sh’mi.
“The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day, the Angel who has saved me from harm, bless these two lads. And may my name be recalled in them. “[Genesis 48:15-16]
Then he instructed them saying, “I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers [and mothers] in the cave which is in the field of Ephron, in the land of Canaan…”
“When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into his bed, and breathing his last, he was gathered to his
people.” [Genesis 49:28-33]
And Joseph? He buried his father, as his father had wished, in the land of Canaan, Israel. He returned to Egypt, “where he lived to see children of the third generation…At length, Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land God promised to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob…and when God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” [Genesis 50:22-25]
The Torah records the stories of the lives of our founding families – the conflicts, the deceptions, the loves and anguish, the births and deaths. And in these stories that close the book of Genesis, the Torah tells us how the great patriarchs prepared for their dying. The Torah records the clear instructions they gave to their children. They each invoked the story of the generations that came before them, and each gave of their own blessings while entrusting to their children the unfolding of the future. Past – present – and future – all in a powerful, singular and explosive moment of life. All infused with God’s Presence, a sense of purpose and destiny.
There are many who, at the threshold of death, cannot bless those whom they leave behind. For some, death takes us suddenly; for others, the end of life robs us of our capacity to know, or to articulate, our hopes and our deepest feelings. And still for others, we are afraid to talk about our dying, and we miss the chance to say – to say our blessing – to bestow upon those who survive us our deepest blessing.
And so Yom Kippur invites and encourages us: don’t miss the chance. You will not live forever, and there are precious opportunities right now. I understand that it spooks us to talk about death. We fear that it might jinx us, or that it will compromise the quality and joy of our life right now. We don’t want to talk about saying good-bye.
But good-bye is built into the fabric of life. It doesn’t matter when it happens. Bringing our first, or last, child to nursery school. Taking leave of our parents – or an old friend, wondering if we’ll ever see them again. Grandparents and parents handing the Torah to their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Making the decision to move – closing the door on one part of our life and opening a door to the next. Walking a child down the aisle of a wedding. One more child off to college. We love with all our hearts, knowing all along we will have to say good-bye. And so in these joyous moments – our children spread their wings – a 50th anniversary – a new birth – when we are so happy, we are also crying.
In the years when my own children were already grown up but before they were married with children of their own, we found ways to be together as adults. With Noam it was a week in Berlin – during the year that he was living and studying there. We shared the space of his studio – an intense week of immersion into his life in that city. The last night, we were sitting on the floor of his apartment, playing cards, when Noam suddenly spread a bunch of cards in his palm and said, “I’ve chosen a card,” he said. “Now tell me what card it is.” I looked at him – like, are you kidding me? “Concentrate,” he said. “I’m focusing on it, so concentrate.” I did. I ventured, “The two of spades.” He turned the card around. The two of spades. “Now you do it,” he said. “Can’t we just quit while we’re ahead?” I said. “No, you do it.” So I spread out my hand and I chose the card – and focused on it. “Easy,” said Noam, “the queen of hearts.”
We were in perfect sync. Timeless. Without age or generation. A moment out of time. And then I remembered that I was going to say good-bye. And in an instant, I was again the mother. Saying good- bye is what we do. We love with all our hearts, knowing all along we will have to say good-bye.
My sister-in-law, Diane, tells the story that when she and her husband, Jeff, had brought their first child to college and were heading back home to Los Angeles, they were both crying so hard they had to pull off the highway. And four years later, when he moved back home, they cried even harder.
Why do we cry? Because we know it is so fragile – so fleeting – it is only a moment. Their life and ours. Here but for a moment. And we hold on. We hold on to the times they were young – or the times we were young. Or we are filled with fear of the future – what if…? What if he won’t always love me? What if she leaves me? What if something terrible…? We know the nightmares. We either wish for a past that is no more, or we are frozen in fear because of what might someday be. And we miss out on life.
So here’s the craziness. Let go of it – and you will have it. Like the kids’ song, hold on to love, and you won’t have any. Hold on to spiritual power – claim it for yourself – and you have none. Share it, give it away – it will be part of you.
It’s not only love we hold onto. We hold onto anger. We hold on inside to those who have hurt us, refusing to forgive them, thinking we have power over them as long as we refuse to grant them pardon. But we have no power until we let it go. Until we release them, and relinquish all control, we will not be free to live.
As long as we are afraid of losing, or of saying good-bye, of letting go of hurt or of anger, we will not be able to fully embrace now. As long as we expect to live forever, a long as we expect that we will not suffer, that people we love will not get sick or die, we will always be unhappy and disappointed. If we hold on to the hope that nothing bad or sad will ever happen to us, our lives will be without joy. As long as we live in fear of dying, we will not be able to live.
And we are going to die. “I’m not afraid of dying,” Woody Allen said. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
What would happen if we were there, really there, as much as we could? Jacob was on his deathbed. Holding Joseph and his sons close, he blessed them.
A few years ago, I received a call from someone outside the Kol Ami community, who wanted to know if I could help with the impending funeral of her friend. I didn’t feel at that time that I could. Would I be willing to talk with her? Yes, I said. The phone call came in; we were connected. I turned away from my computer screen, closed my eyes, and listened. It was easier for me to listen than usual. I had no preconceptions; no baggage. I didn’t know what she looked like; we had no history; I had no agenda. I just listened. She was expecting to die within days. Why the call? She was furious at her family – her family of origin. They had not spoken for decades. Should she speak to them before she died, she wanted to know. Should she take that risk?
There must had been some crime, some act of violence, some irreparable damage. I imagined terrible things. But then I really couldn’t imagine. I said to her, “I have no judgment about your anger. I do not know what your family did to you. I am sorry for the pain you bear. I have no judgment,” I repeated, “on whether you should or shouldn’t reach out. Only if you do, who knows what impact your reaching out might have long after you die.” There was only one question I knew in that moment to ask: “Do you want to die with this anger?” I asked her. She answered in a flash. “No,” she said.
After that, she needed no help, no advice.
I wouldn’t have known what happened next, but as the way the world turns, her funeral ended up at Kol Ami. I learned that she had been gay, and had loved and lived with a woman for decades. Her family had rejected her. (It’s hard to imagine how our hearts have changed and opened, for many of us only in the last few decades.) She grew older, never speaking with her brothers or parents, never meeting her nieces and nephews.
She chose to reach out to her family. I learned that she died with her nieces and nephews all around her in her bed – and her brothers vowed to carry on her legacy of openness and inclusion.
We think that the end of our lives represents only loss and diminishment. There is unbelievable power at the end of our life, concentrated power, that will last forever in the lives of those we leave behind. “I’ll miss you so much,” I said to Rosanne, what turned out to be the last night of her life. “You will find me in your heart,” she said to me. And because she said that to me, it is so much easier for me to find her in my heart. The blessings we give at the end of our lives last forever.
“When I was a second-year student at HUC-JIR,” writes Shira Stern, “I began volunteering at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, focusing on pediatrics, although I covered other floors when the need arose, especially when other chaplains were away. One particularly cold winter Friday, I was preparing to go home to make Shabbat, when I noticed a mislaid request for candles and wine to be delivered to a patient’s family. Coat on, sunset imminent, I wrestled with myself: ‘It’s late already; someone should have taken care of this; will they even still be there if they are Shabbat observant?’
“Gathering wine, challah rolls and electric lights, I made my way to the room, where a middle-aged woman was sitting just outside the door. In broken English, she thanked me for coming in, and when I responded in French, she began her story. They were recent immigrants from Syria and had traveled from the other side of the world to make a better life for their two teenage sons, buying in to a business with the husband’s brother. Two months later, her husband was diagnosed with stage-four liver cancer, and he was given little hope of recovery. She cried when she said this, cried harder when she wondered how to raise fatherless children, and wailed because she felt so alone. All the unsaid words a couple might share over a lifetime needed to be articulated now, but her husband had been semi-comatose for days; it was too late.
“Her two sons, sitting in chairs on either side of the bed, were studiously ignoring our conversation. I suggested we usher in Shabbat together, so I set up the lights on the bedside table, poured the wine, covered the rolls with a clean towel, and then drew the privacy curtain around us. Rivka asked that I lead, while she held on to her husband’s feet. I sang softly so as not to disturb the quiet in the room. As I lifted the Dixie cup to chant Kiddush, the patient lifted his hands and placed one on each boy’s head, reciting both the traditional blessing for sons, (the blessing of Jacob for his grandchildren), as well as [Yivarechicha – may God bless you and watch over you]. His wife stood stunned, unable to move. When I began to sing, the man sang with me, quickly, and without missing a beat.
“When it was over, every one of us was in tears, and I left them to savor the moment.
“By the time I had reached the lobby, the man had died.”
[CCAR Journal, Winter 2011]
Jacob was on his deathbed. He lifted his hands and placed one on each grandson’s head. Some day, he said, all of Israel will bless their children as I bless you now.
There is incredible power as we prepare to die. Undeniable, raw power at the end of life. And that power is here – right now – right here. Barely an hour ago, the machzor reminded us:
Who will live and who will die?
Who at their end and who not at their end?
“I sat in shul for years reading these words before I realized the answer. The answer to each of these questions is ‘me.’” [Rabbi Edward Feinstein, Mishkan Hanefesh, p. 206]
Some of us may be dealing with an imminent terminal diagnosis – but all of us are vulnerable. Life is precious for each one of us. Thinking about our dying could scare us to death, or it could free us up to live. And difficult conversations with those we love are sometimes the most liberating. I invite you to continue this conversation this afternoon at 3 (OR following services) in the Chapel in the Woods.
Palliative care professionals share this wisdom: there are five things we need to say to someone before they die: Thank you. I love you. I forgive you. Please forgive me. Good-bye.
Yom Kippur invites us to do the same:
I forgive you. Please forgive me. We find the people with whom we share our lives; we ask forgiveness, we forgive.
I love you. Find your power to bless. You have the power to bless others, to see the spark in them and to gently blow on the spark and give it life. You can bless your children, your friends, your partners. And the words of our tradition help. We have been blessing one another throughout these holy days – but the words belong to you every Shabbat. Please, put your arms around the people next to you and say after me,
Yivarechicha Adonai v’yishmirecha
May God bless you and watch over you
Ya’er Adonai panav eilecha viychuneka
May the light of God’s Grace shine on you
Yisa Adonai panav elilecha v’yasem l’cha shalom
May God be with you and bless you with peace
I forgive you.
Please forgive me.
I love you – the power you have to bless. Thank you.
“I don’t remember much about my Bar Mitzvah, “writes Rabbi Ed Feinstein. “I don’t remember more than a few words of my parsha, or what the rabbi said to me, or what I wrote in my Bar Mitzvah speech. But I do remember quite vividly the Bar Mitzvah that took place in our shul the week after mine. That boy, my classmate and friend, had lost his father to cancer just weeks before. His family decided to go ahead with his Bar Mitzvah. After reading his Torah portion, he stood before us and spoke about his gratitude. He shared gratitude for the time he spent with his dad between the bouts of chemotherapy, for the support and love of his mother and sister, for the kindness of the community. I remember that speech clearly, and I remember how he stood composed and resolute before the congregation as all of us wept. We wept for the sadness of his loss. And just as much, we wept out of wonder for the depth and wisdom he reflected.
“The human condition is terribly fragile. That’s the lesson of our holidays this time of year. And the only remedy for this fragility is our gratitude. Gratitude is the only thing stronger than our fear and our sadness.” Rabbi Ed Feinstein
We don’t have to wait for the last minute to say thank you. We can begin every day, every morning, with thank you. Modah ani. I thank You for reawakening my soul within me. We do not own our life; we don’t deserve it, we’re not entitled to it. It is all gift. All of it. Modah Ani. I thank you.
And good-bye? How do we say good-bye? Jewish tradition offers a prayer that we can say before we die, or that someone can say on our behalf. It’s on the card at your seats:
Elohai v’eilohei avotai v’imotai, My God and God of all who have gone before me, Author of life and death, I turn to You in trust. Although I pray for life and health, I know that I am mortal. If my life must soon come to an end, let me die, I pray, at peace.
If only my hands were clean and my heart pure. I confess that I have committed sins and left much undone, yet I know also the good that I did or tried to do. May my acts of goodness give meaning to my life, and may my errors be forgiven.
Protector of the bereaved and the helpless, watch over my loved ones. Into Your hand I commit my spirit; redeem it, O God of compassion and faithfulness.
Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One
Just as we have a way to say thank you every morning, we have a way to say good-bye every night. The nighttime shma.
B’yado afkid ruchu b’eit ishan v’a-ira
Into Your Hand I commit my spirit
When I sleep and when I awake In life and its passing
You are with me, I will not fear.
And why say good-bye at night? Yes, we don’t know if it will be our last. Yes, to come clean, to be at peace. But maybe most of all, to say, I will not fear. Life is too great, too incredible, too great a gift. And if we are consumed with fear of dying, we will miss it. I love you and bless you. I thank you. I forgive you. Please forgive me. Good-bye. We say good-bye so we can live.
It’s the heart afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking That never takes the chance It’s the one who won’t be taken Who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying That never learns to live.
B’yado afkid ruchi b’eit ishan v’a-ira
V’im ruchi g’viyati
Adonai li v’lo ira.
Shma yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad
May this Yom Kippur free you to live.