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Rosh Hashanah First Day - 5759
"Random Acts of Kindness"
by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
I'm going to begin this sermon by saying one word: Monica. There, now I've said it. Now we can go on. Seriously, I know that many people are expecting their rabbis to spend at least some time during the High Holidays sermonizing about what has become the greatest crisis to the presidency since Watergate. And there are any number of themes that we could examine: Certainly the President has given us all a good lesson in teshuvah this month, literally following the formula by the book, quoting from Gates of Repentance in his prayer breakfast speech. And then there is the underlying theme of trust in leadership. As America hurls itself toward the millennium, there is a sense that a basic innocence has been lost, to the point where we really don't care if a leader is lying to us because we assume he or she is. And now, as Senator Lieberman so boldly stated, our children have no reason to believe in the virtue of honesty anymore. So much has broken down in our society. Conspiracy theories are a dime a dozen, whether they are about the government hiding information on extra terrestrials or entire wars being invented to distract us from scandal -- there is a cynicism that is pervasive, that hits us everywhere we live and has all but destroyed a faith that is pure and innocent in working for the greater good.
I won't blame Monica for all this. But neither will I dwell on her. She and what she now stands for, is the problem. I won't waste your time dissecting the problem. I wish she had had a more sound Hebrew School experience, but it’s more important for us to focus on the moral foundation we’re giving the kids coming out of our Religious School. You can get all the Monica commentary you want in papers, news magazines and on all-Monica TV, where the names of networks have taken on new meaning, MSNBC now standing for "Monica - Starr No Better Combo," and CNN becoming last month the "Clothing News Network."
The problem of cynicism is not all that we must overcome. This year our society has seen an outburst of random acts of violence in places that were once thought to be safe zones, protected from all that. Just look what has happened in Moses Lake, Washington, Padukah, Kentucky, Springfield, Oregon, Edinboro, PA, Pearl Mississippi, and Jonesboro, Arkensas. Something has gone fundamentally wrong. Funny how this year people became worried about the marked increase of deformed frogs or El Nino as indications of an impending environmental disaster; yet all the while we have little children blowing away their teachers and classmates and no one trusting their leaders anymore.
We all are responsible to some degree for Paducah, Moses Lake and Jonesboro. We are also responsible for what is happening in Washington D.C. too, because this moral meltdown didn't happen in a vacuum. We are the ones who give Geraldo the big ratings. We are the ones who let things get this far, no matter what our political perspective.
Violence, cynicism and unethical behavior cannot be wiped away overnight, but they can and must be overcome. The battle is not lost. Louis Brandeis said that most of the things worth doing in this world were declared impossible before they were done.
Our society appears so spiritually and morally vacuous -- but we can revive it. That is our purpose; that is why this whole Jewish enterprise, this grand experiment got started in the first place. Abraham didn't become the founder of our faith by accident. No, it says in Genesis 18:19: "Ki Yedativ l'ma'an asher yitzaveh et banav… v'shamru derech adonai laasot tzedakah u'mishpat." "For I have selected Abraham, I have singled him out, so that he may instruct his children and his posterity after him to keep God's ways, to do what is just and right." Abraham, one who already had demonstrated a talent for goodness, was just the one God needed to teach it to the rest of the world, through his seed, through us. We often talk about a Jewish talent for this and that, for humor, for science, for law. But that's not what we are about. If there is a Jewish talent, it is one that dates back to Abraham, one that comes not from our genetic makeup but our spiritual foundation, and it is our talent to do what is just and right. But just in case Abraham didn't quite understand that yet, God pulls off a personal demonstration a couple of chapters later, in the section we read today, by providing water for Hagar and Ishmael. It is a simple act of kindness. So simple. God brings the boy a glass of water. And that is our answer. That's what it will take to restore goodness and innocence to our world. Simple acts. We can't get rid of our problems with a V-chip or denial. The only way to fight fire, is with this glass of water, one glass of water at a time. The only way to fight despair is with hope. We must fight violence with kindness.
There is a Jewish term for what I am talking about and it is a prime Jewish value, but one we hear so little about. It's called "K'vod Hab'riot," literally, "the honor of the creations." Loosely translated, it means sensitivity to others, no matter who they are, for all are God's creations. This value is based on the biblical verse "V'ahavta l'reyecha Kamocha," "Love your neighbor as yourself," and it was codified by Maimonides. Sensitivity isn't merely a nice thing to do: it is an obligation; and K'vod ha-briot is owed to all people; all Jews, even if you disagree with them, and Gentiles too.
I knew that I was going to give this sermon about two months ago, while I was on Cape Cod. I was driving on Route 6, on the way to Provincetown for a Whale Watch, when a run down station wagon passed me, somewhere around Fleming's Donut Shack in Eastham. The car had a bumper sticker, saying, "Perform random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty." The phrase rang a bell immediately, since I had recently screened a video on goodness done by the radio talkmaster and author Dennis Prager, and that bumper sticker had appeared in it.
It's a natural progression. Two years ago on Rosh Hashanah I stood up here and asked all of us to purify our speech for ten days, to avoid nasty language and gossip. Last year the focus was not on what comes out of our mouths but what goes in, as I asked that we moderate our consuming habits. And so now, our ten days project centers this year around not our words but our deeds. For there are many ways to try to cure cynicism and eliminate random acts of violence, but the most effective way might be simply to counter it all with random acts of goodness and senseless act of beauty. And that's exactly what I'd like us to do, beginning right now.
We can begin by dispelling an old myth. It really doesn’t have to be painful or difficult to do good. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins has said that the difference between a mitzvah and a sin is the difference between "aah" and "oy." With a mitzvah, while you're doing it you say "Oy." Later on reflection, you say "Aah." With a sin, while you're doing it, you say "Aah." Later on reflection, you say, "Oy." That's a nice sound bite, but it's not really true. When I’m doing a random act of kindness I usually feel darn good while I’m doing it.
Funny thing: When the Mitzvah Central buttons were sent out to thank many of you who have volunteered on our behalf this year, each of my kids got one. For the life of me I couldn't recall what my kids had done in the past year to warrant the button. So I asked Roz Feinstein; I said "It's so nice to be thanked, but we were wondering what for." And she reminded me that I had brought the family to Pacific House last Christmas Eve, for the annual party provided by our congregants for the homeless of Stamford. Now my kids knew that it was a good deed they were doing; but for them it was also a party. With Kereoke yet. And for me it was a party too. We had helped to some way to repair the world simply by going to a party. We had fun, and for that we are thanked. As we read Proverbs 12:20: "U'l'yoatzey shalom simha." "For those who plan to do good, there is joy." Not oy, joy!
Doing good feels good--at that moment. And it brings happiness later on. Random acts of kindness are a way of seizing the day and seizing tomorrow as well. I often tell couples at weddings that their simple, seemingly selfish act is really a profound act of tikkun, of world repair, and an act of faith and sacrifice. But how could something that feels so good be so good. In Judaism that which feels good isn't by nature sinful. The "Ah" doesn’t have to lead to an "Oy."
Often the greatest mitzvah heroes are the ones who perform the most self-serving and self fulfilling. Remember, we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves. That means we have to love ourselves. And to keep the equation going, the more we love ourselves, the more capacity we have to love others, and vise versa. Like a rising tide, one good deed lifts all ships.
In Helsinki in 1952, 31 years old Lis (Liss) Hartel, riding her beloved white horse, Jubilee, won the silver medal at the Olympics in the dressage competition. And when the reporters saw that Ms. Hartel could not climb the award stand unassisted to receive her medal and that indeed she could not mount or dismount her horse by herself, she informed them that she had contracted polio at age 23. As result of what for her was primarily personal triumph, therapeutic horseback riding has enriched the lives of thousands upon thousands of disabled people.
Ms. Hartel spoke little in public about her triumph, but in one speech delivered in 1979, she put it all into perspective for us, and truly became not just a mitzvah doer but a mitzvah hero:
"There is a lot in our lives that we do not control ourselves," she said, "but we must do what we can to ensure that our lives are full of meaning...we must separate the small and unimportant from the significant, and concentrate on uncovering the real values in life.
Life is not holding a good hand," she concludes;
"Life is playing a poor hand well."
And from that we get true happiness, triumph and joy.
Over the course of the next ten days, I would like to see us perform a little exercise. We can't become an Abraham or a Liss Hartel, or, to give a contemporary and local parallel, a Christopher Reeve, overnight. But we need to start small if we are to get into the goodness habit, and even the smallest deed and most anonymous mitzvah can have a profound impact. When it comes to random acts of kindness, no act is too small or unimportant: each is a building block to a better world. So I'm going to suggest ten easy ways that we can make doing good a habit. And if we can do just a few this week, our lives -- and the world -- will never be the same.
1) Bring the kid a glass of water. It’s such a small thing, but how small can it be? God did it to Ishmael in the wilderness! One of my most vivid memories of childhood is asking my father or mother for a glass of water after they tucked me in. Now, if they read all the books they would have said, "Get it yourself!" After all, they needed to teach me self-sufficiency, advance planning and not to expect the world to come to me. But they always brought me that glass of water. The impact of that simplest gesture was incredibly profound. I never felt as secure or as loved as during those simple moments.
2) Be a dog. Think of how a dog greets his master at the door. That's how we have to greet everyone. OK, forget about the panting and jumping but at least a smile! It's so easy, but so hard, to smile. Scores of miniscule muscles must be moved into proper positions for it to happen. Let's think about what makes us smile. I doubt for many of us that list would include, "Passing a stranger on the street." This past summer, someone I know very well who used to live in Stamford returned to New York to live there. I asked him why. The reason he gave didn't surprise me but still made my mouth drop: because people are friendlier there. Now I told him that I happen to know friendly people here. Some of my best friends are friendly. But then I realized that that wasn't what he meant. It's not the people you know. It's easy to be friendly to the people we know, even the people we dislike. It's the people we don't know. In New York, where everyone walks, some people actually smile. In Stamford, we everyone drives, and is therefore even more frustrated and hassled when we get out of our cars to do our assorted tasks, fewer smiles are there to be noticed. Maybe we need to smile more at those we don't know. It isn’t easy. I’ve tried it. Most people gives you strange looks – sort of a half smile in return, thinking either that they must know you from some place but can’t recall where or that you’re a moonie.
In the Talmud, the sage Abaye teaches, "A person should always try to be on the best terms with all people, so that he may be beloved in heaven and well-liked below, and accepted by his fellow creatures. It has been said of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai that no one ever greeted him first, before he greeted them."
Maybe one smile, or a handshake, could make all the difference. I know it's hard. For me personally it is hard. Believe it or not, I'm a fairly shy person. Boy am I in the wrong line of work. In fact, one of my colleagues has written extensively on the distinction between what he calls "cat rabbis" and "dog rabbis." The differences are distinct. The cat rabbi tends to be reticent, reflective, bookish, inquisitive, appearing aloof at times, but, once the initial walls are broken down, a friend for life. Dogs, well you know dogs. They slobber all over you; drool first, think later. Dog rabbis do too. Dogs may appear friendly at first, and they certainly are loyal. But do dogs purr? Well, I won't get into the cat-dog thing, because I've owned and loved both; but I did take the cat-rabbi/dog-rabbi self-examination to see where I am on the scale. Let's just say that I came out neither as "That Dav'nen Cat" nor as "Air Rab, Golden Believer," but as an interesting hybrid of the two, a tad closer to the feline side. Now I suspect that people might wish to classify me as other types of animals tool, but we're stuck with the cat-dog paradigm for now. According to the originator of this idea, some congregations are better off with a cat rabbi, others with a dog. I suspect that we need a little more dog than cat here right now. People in this community here are a little bit too catlike. We need to build a Jewish Kennel.
We love this town, but we know that ours is a culture of tall fences and keeping up with the Goldbergs on the other side of those fences. We've got to overcome that, and that's got to begin here. That's why we're here. And that's got to begin with a smile, a handshake, a hug, and maybe a little drool to go with it. So the second random act of kindness: be a dog. (Educational tool – bark on three)
3) Go last. Have you ever let someone go ahead of you in line? Translation for you New Yorkers: have you ever let someone go ahead of you on line? At the supermarket, when you have a basketful of groceries and the person behind you has a single tomato and half gallon of milk, do you wait to be asked before permitting that person to go ahead? What a difference such a gesture can make. Try it some time. You'll feel great and contribute to the repair of the world. The Talmud tell us, "We feel great happiness when we do the right thing."
4) Feed the camels. Next time you go to a tollbooth, pay for the three cars behind you. Then imagine the impact that senseless act of beauty will have on those drivers. If one of them is in the midst of a road rage fit, your gesture could save lives. There is actually a precedent for this in the Bible. When Eliezer, Abraham's servant, is looking for a wife for Isaac, he is looking for a woman who will not only offer him water at the well, but offer it to his camels too. Amazingly he finds such a woman in Rebecca. And the Torah repeats three times in remarkable detail that all ten camels drank until they were full. According to the great modern midrashist Nechama Liebowitz, this detailed description teaches us how she ran back and forth, down to the well and up again, repeatedly, with great effort and hard work, on behalf of those strangers and their camels, without even questioning why Eliezer and his men did nothing to help her. If camels were the cars of those days, paying toll for the guy behind you is much like watering his camel. Probably not a good idea to check under to hood, however.
And talk about going above and beyond the call, Rebecca even topped God. When God gave Ishmael water, God did not offer any to Ishmael’s camels.
5) Make a bed. Tomorrow morning, make one bed you don't normally make. If that bed you don't normally make is your own, shame on you. Are there any teens in the room? Take my advice: clean your room and they'll be eating out of your hands. There is nothing that disturbs we adults more than chaos, and to the degree that we can create order in our homes, the world just seems so much more manageable.
6) There are some police and fire officers and bus drivers helping us out on these holidays, as every year. Bring them some of your home baked rugelach tomorrow morning.
7) Send flowers to your mother. She told me to say this. And how about a random and senseless phone call to an old friend, just to say hello.
8) Close your eyes, place your finger on a calendar, open your eyes, and come to services. You will never know how much your presence will help another person in need on that randomly selected day.
9) Next time Powerball's jackpot gets big, buy ten tickets in Stamford, drive to Greenwich and give them away to New Yorkers standing on line and say, "Welcome to Connecticut. We love you. Please come back soon."
and 10) Be patient. That's what distinguished the sage Hillel from his nemesis Shammai. Hillel never got angry. Once two men bet 400 zuz to see who could get a rise out of Hillel. It was Friday afternoon and Hillel was washing his hair, when one called him out of his house. Hillel dressed went outside and said, "Son what do you want?" The man asked, "Why are the heads of Babylonians round?" Hillel pondered this inane question and answered, "you have asked a great question: it is because they have no skillful midwives." Each man returned twice, each time interrupting his bathing, each time Hillel got dressed and each time he answered the inane question. Finally it was one of the questioners who snapped, screaming at Hillel, "I'm losing 400 zuz because of you." To which Hillel responded calmly, "It would be worth twice as much to you to learn patience, because I will not become angry with you."
We all could stand to learn from Hillel's example. Random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty. If you can think of any, let me know and we'll collect them and build a list for the congregation. If only we could have gotten this list to the cast of Seinfeld in time, they never would have been arrested in the final episode. That was their whole problem, they had never done any thing nice for people, and that very Jewish show about nothing in the end provided a keen insight as to how we can solve everything: through K’vod Ha'briot. Rachmanis. Sensitivity. And I suppose it could be considered a random act of kindness to end this sermon now. Not a bad idea. One more paragraph -
Consider this the glass of water for your camels.
And so it turns out there is one constructive message that we can take out of the current conflagration in Washington: every act counts. Even the most seemingly insignificant deed can have a ripple effect years later that could save or destroy everything. For the President, November 15, 1995 was just an ordinary day. And a chance meeting that day with an intern was likely very insignificant to him in comparison to his more stately encounters. How wrong that assessment was. How wrong he was. For the rest of us, we know that we too will lapse on occasion, that no one is perfect. But let us resolve with every single act, to reach as high as Liss Hartel, run as far as Rebecca, and respond with the patience of Hillel. To make every act an act of kindness; to live our lives as instruments of God's boundless love. That is our purpose. That is our salvation. That is our only hope.
Rosh Hashanah Second Day - 5759
Here's a story that has been making the rounds. I heard it second hand but understand it is from the book "First Things First" by Steven Covey:
There was an expert on time management who was speaking to a group of busy executives at a seminar. To make his point he used this illustration:
He took out a one-gallon, wide mouthed jar and put it in the table in front of him. Then he produced about a dozen fist-sized rocks and placed them carefully, one at a time, into a jar. When the jar was full to the top and no more rocks could fit inside he asked, "Is this jar full?"
Everyone in the class said, "Yes."
He said, "Really?" Then he reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. He dumped some gravel in and shook the jar, so that the pieces of gravel worked themselves down into the crevices between the rocks. Then he asked the group again, "Is this jar full?" By this time the class was on to him, so they said, "Probably not."
"Good," he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started putting the sand in and it quickly went into all the spaces that were left between the rocks. Then once more he asked the question, "Is this jar full?"
"No!" the students said. Again he said, "Good!" This time he took a pitcher of water and began to pour it into the jar until the jar was full to the brim. The he looked at the class and asked, "What do you think is the point of all this?"
One raised his hand and said eagerly, "The point is to teach us that no matter how full your schedule is, you can always fit something more into it if you want to."
The speaker said, "No, that's not the point. The truth is that this illustration is meant to teach us that if you don't put the big rocks in first, you'll never get them in at all."
This is a story that is perfect for the High Holidays. This is, after all, the time of year when we decide what are our big rocks, what do we really want to accomplish. Is it raising our children well? Is it education and personal growth? Is it a certain service project? The time is short, the work is great, and the jar is small.
But if we put the big rocks in first, so much more can fit. If we get our priorities straight, there is almost no limit to what we can accomplish.
For me this year, the biggest rock is "K'vod Hab’riyot." To repeat for the benefit of those who were not here yesterday, this is a prime Jewish value that means "The dignity of all God's creations." It is the principle of compassion, sensitivity, of kindness to all, and it is our main theme for this Rosh Hashanah. Today I'd like to discuss a sub category of "K'vod Hab’riyot," g'milut hasadim. As we assess our communal and individual priorities for the coming year, I'd like us to consider where this particular rock fits into our own personal jars.
Gemilut hasadim means "Acts of Kindness," and although the category is broad, it most often is employed referring to six specific acts mentioned in our sacred texts: Malbish Arumim, providing clothes for those who need them; Bikur Holim, visiting the sick; Nichum Avelim. comforting mourners; Levayat Ha-met, accompanying the dead to their final resting place; Hachnasat Kallah,providing for brides; and Hachnasat Orchim, hospitality.
The Torah shows us that God clothed Adam and Eve, visited Abraham when he was sick, comforted Isaac when he mourned and buried Moses. So when we do these acts of kindness, we are in essence imitating God. The funny thing is that these acts, like those random acts discussed yesterday, are all pretty easy to do. You don't have to be God to visit a sick person. You don't have to prepare much or spend anything. You simply have to be there.
G'milut Hasadim is all about being there. It has been said that 90 percent of life is just showing up. In that case, so is 90 percent of being Godlike simple a matter of being there.
Being there: so simple, yet so important. How often do we say of a friend or relative: "He was really there for me." How often are we brought to tears by the thought of that person who traveled that far to visit while we were sitting shiva; how often do we gain strength from the phone call or visit received from that person when we've been hospitalized.
Most of us know how good it feels to be there; but sometimes it's hard for us to get there: We’re all busy. We all have numerous burdens, numerous people who count on us. We often have baggage in dealing with the person in need. At times we've not been on speaking terms with that person. Often there is an air of alienation or guilt to overcome. We all know how that feels. We all want to have done more. We all fear the lashing out, the anger that often accompanies grief. But once we get there, we are almost always glad we came. The rewards are intrinsic, mostly, a sense of warmth and connectedness, to the person we've helped, to the web of relationships that connect us to not only that person, but that family, that group of co-workers, that congregation. And that connectedness, also helps us feel closer to God. One could easily envision God as, in some manner, that glue, or that thread, that holds us together, that brings us together, that helps us to be there for others and others to be there for us.
One woman, who had just moved into the community, lost her father to cancer this summer. She knew no one, and in fact belongs to another synagogue elsewhere in the New York area; but she began to come to our minyan in the morning to say kaddish. A few weeks later she sent me a note.
"Dear Rabbi Hammerman,
It is thirty days since the death of my beloved father. I want to express my profound gratitude to you, Frank, and the members of the daily minyan. From the very first day of my joining the minyan, I was welcomed and included with warmth, friendliness and sensitivity. I have truly felt healing and comfort during this period and want you to know how much I have appreciated the community in the small chapel."
The fact that those who attended our minyan during those weeks could make such a profound difference in the life of a person none of us knew, simply by showing up and an occasional kind word, is simply astonishing. It is also terrifying. Because each of us, myself included, held the power of life and death over that person. Mi yichyeh U'mi yamut. ("Who shall live and who shall die?") Not just spiritual death; not just hope and despair. Yes, we held the key to helping her go from despair to hope -- but even more than that. We can never know when a person comes through this door, whether this is that person's first stop, or the last stop. I shudder when I think of this.
Being there can work wonders. That's why Judaism can't exist in isolation. We shun asceticism and encourage even the simplest prayer service to include at least ten adults. We study best in groups, not alone. And we bring about healing not by prayer to God so much as our own human presence at bedside. Being there might not cure a sick person but it almost always engenders healing. When Rabbi Akiba went to visit a sick student, people cleaned and swept the house in his honor, and because the student was able to take his mind off his own tzuris, he recovered more quickly. And Rabbi Yochanan, a 3rd century leader, did wonders for his sick student and friend, Rabbi Eliezer. The Talmud tells us that the recovery was brought about as much by his affection and friendship for the sick man as by any medicines he might have carried with him.
As a rabbi, I understand that the pastor's role is special. At any given time, there might be hundreds of people who could be helped immensely by a simple call or visit, a kind word, or even a knowing glance. I also understand that of those hundreds, I might be aware of only a fraction who really need me. I also understand that when the rabbi is not there at that one time when needed the most, it is almost as if God has forgotten us. There is no lonelier feeling. Any clergy person with a conscience goes to sleep every night knowing that, without knowing who, he or she has let someone down that day; knowing that there is someone out there screaming for help at that moment; knowing that, no matter how much he has done, there is always more that must be done. It is at times an unbearable burden.
But for Jews, it is a burden we all share. For rabbis are not supposed to be surrogates for the rest of us. We are no closer to God, no holier, no greater healers, no more human or compassionate -- and the mitzvah of being there is incumbent on all of us. Anyone with a conscience should be feeling the same burdens every night. What more could I have done for my child? What more could I have done for my friend? What more could I have done for that stranger? Who needs me now that I cannot possibly know?
I'm not asking you to share my burden; I can handle it. For in fact, it is a privilege to be entrusted with that responsibility. While time is limited and I might sometimes collapse with exhaustion, our human capacity to love is infinite. My work has helped me to understand that it is possible to love one's family with all one's heart and yet still have enough love left for everyone else. As the demands on one's care grow, one's capacity to care also grows. The heart is, after all, a muscle. It gains strength when we exercise it. We can keep pouring our love into that rock filled jar, and it will never overflow. I feel extremely lucky to be doing this sacred work.
So by calling on all of us to fulfill the mitzvah of being there, it is not to lessen my burden, but to help us all increase our capacity to love. If we think of this sanctuary as one large jar, and not for today a Jewish kennel, and we each pour into it our fullest offering of love, and then drink from it as we need it, imagine how it could energize us all, how it could fill our spirits to the brim. And all we have to do is show up.
We talk so much about Jewish literacy. You might recall the sessions I taught a few years ago called "Davening for Dummies." And many of us do feel Jewishly illiterate and uncomfortable. But that is almost irrelevant in the end, because to fulfill the basic values of our faith all you have to do is be human. Just smile and care and hug and empathize. To be a good Jew, all you have to do is be. And the more we do just that, the more everything else falls into place.
I admit, it's not always easy to be. Sometimes we have to let down our guard and be vulnerable; for if one is truly to give love, one must be open to receiving it in return. We have to relate to the other person with complete openness, with honesty and without the fear of embarrassment. We have to show our weakness, even to strangers. We have to let down our guard. We have to admit to being fallible. Sometimes that's hard, especially in a community where such an admission could have severe social consequences. It's hard to let down one's guard when we always have to keep up. But the rewards of such exposure are infinite. Because the love is there for each of us to share. We can each drink from that jar.
I admit it's sometimes hard for me to admit fallibility. But I long ago learned that that is the path to true growth - and many of you have helped teach me this. So, in the interest of setting an example for all, of acknowledging human weakness and mortality, I offer you this: (glasses)
I implore you to be there: at minyans, services, hospitals, nursing homes and shivas; at Bar Mitzvahs -- even of those we're not invited to, at homeless shelters and AIDS Walks; anywhere there is pain, anywhere there is need. But when you show up, all of you must be present, at that moment, open to loving and being loved.
Did you know that to assure a well-attended funeral, Japanese families frequently place orders for actors to show up at the home pretending to be mourners, for the neighbors to see? Afterwards, if the grave site is too far away, relatives can pay agency employees to visit it and keep it tidy, heading off gossip about an inattentive family. One bride paid $10,000 for 40 fake friends and family. To maintain their cover, all had been briefed on family history, hobbies and work. The better actors even managed tears. Some even delivered speeches at the wedding reception. In this world, nothing is real; no emotion is genuine.
That won't do in the Jewish world, the world of being there. Rabbi Avis Miller of Washington, who has created a strong committee of those who visit the sick in her congregation, writes of a famous psychiatrist who worked with severely psychotic patients, who visited the same patient every day. The patient lay there, staring at the ceiling, never speaking. After months of talking to the patient, holding his hand, giving him a taste of food, the doctor started to leave the room, thinking to herself, "I've failed. I'm no good." Suddenly she heard a weak voice say, "Please stay." She turned, and when their eyes met, each saw tears.
One elderly patient saved every card left by members of Rabbi Miller's Bikkur Holim (visitation) committee. When he died, the cards were found in an envelope labeled, "most treasured possessions." All that mattered was to show up.
Showing up is hard. How hard it is for those of us who fear illness to visit a hospital. How hard it is for those of us terrified of mortality to visit a shiva house. How hard it is for a childless couple to attend a friend's bris. It's hard. It's hard. But it is beautiful. It is the fulfillment of that word spoken by Abraham in today's portion. God calls to him to offer up Isaac atop Mount Moriah and Abraham answers, "Hineni." Here I am. That expression, heneni, echoes itself again and again in that epic story. Each time the person is fully there: Abraham for God, Abraham for Isaac, Abraham for the angel. That's all he had to say, and that's all we have to say: heneni. I am here. That expression has even found its way into the Musaf service on the High Holidays, as the cantor chants the Heneni, saying to God, on our behalf, I am here. When I went to Hebrew school, that's how we responded when the teacher took attendance. Heneni. I am here. Imagine the beauty of our sacred tongue: it teaches a prime Jewish value before the class has even begun!
A few weeks ago I was visiting an elderly woman at a local nursing home. Her family is far away and her loneliness was palpable. While it might be beyond anyone's capacity to resolve all of her inner turmoil, I could not get over the fact that a visiting companion from this temple would help her immensely. "Where are the women?" she kept asking, indicating that years ago, the sisterhood did lots of visitations. "Of course," she added, "I didn't do it at the time. If only I had known then what I know now. If only I could help others now, but I can't. If only I'd known how important it is to have people visit." A congregant is now visiting her regularly.
On the same day, I visited another congregant, who was about to undergo major surgery and needed help upon her return home. So many are evicted from their sick beds long before they are ready to go home. But this woman exposed her need, her vulnerability just enough to enable us to that fill that jar with our love; and thanks to another dedicated congregant and many kind volunteers, this woman had continuous support at home for well over a week following her return from the hospital.
That is what we are all about.
It is time for us to do what many other synagogues have done and create a Bikur Holim Committee. This committe will consist of a dedicated group of congregants who have agreed to open their hearts for a very limited investment of time -- an hour a week maybe, or even an hour a month -- to visit fellow creatures in pain in local hospitals, nursing homes, group homes and those who are shut in or sitting shiva in their own homes. The investment in time will be minimal, but the return will be immeasurable. This new committee will be called simply the "Being There" group, those who have elected to "pray with their legs" by going out to where the need is greatest. Through their efforts, hopefully no congregant will slip through the cracks, and our embrace will extend far beyond the reach of our own congregation. We'll have four training sessions, to take place on consecutive Wednesday evenings beginning in about a month. We'll learn how to approach a patient in a hospital or resident of a nursing home; what are the right things to do and say. What do we say to mourners in a shiva house and how can our actions comfort them? Even those who aren't sure about volunteering for our Being There Project, could all learn from these sessions, which will be open to everyone.
We will also have some special healing services here, inviting in those who are suffering from illness or depression, those who are lonely and in need, both from within and outside of our congregation. The first of these will be on Sunday, November 1, at 10 AM. I am looking for people to help me plan these services, and to ensure that any Jew who needs us can find us. We need to let everyone know that we care; be they in cancer units or suffering with AIDS, be they in deep mourning over the loss of a loved on, or pained over the loss of a job or breakup of a marriage. Those who are facing end of life issues and those facing midlife crisis; those facing life with his first set of reading glasses, and those no longer able to see their world through rose colored glasses. Anyone who is in pain will gain from these healing services and our visitations. No one would be embarrassed, because the list of those in pain includes all of us. All of us unfortunate, and so, so lucky, to have been condemned to be mortal.
Above all, this is our mission: those who walk through our doors must find only comfort and security here. And we must reach out beyond these walls to find them, and to find one another.
I close with a prayer penned during the Civil War by an anonymous Confederate soldier:
I asked God for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn to serve.
I asked for health, that I might do great things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for wealth, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might earn the praise of all men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but all I hoped for.
Despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
And I am, among men, most richly blessed.
Yesterday: Random Acts of Kindness; today, Premeditated Acts of Kindness; the more of each that we perform, the more we will realize how much we are truly blessed.
Kol Nidre – 5759
"The Millennium Bug"
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who's 25th yahrzeit we commemorated this year, spoke of the impact the few hours before Yom Kippur had on him. He wrote: "I can only say that they were moments in my life when I felt somehow more than human. These were very difficult hours. It was a great fear and trembling, a great "pachad," great awareness that you are now to be confronted." Pachad is the Hebrew word for fear, but it is a special type of fear. From biblical usage we can best describe it as a dread that makes our bones tremble. On Erev Yom Kippur, Heschel adds, "There was no fear of punishment, not even a fear of death, but the expectation of standing in the presence of God." This was the decisive moment. Get ready. Purify yourself.
Do we feel the power of this moment right now? Do we feel that, that pachad, that dread that shakes one to the bone? Heschel goes on to suggest that we have lost that sense of shared inadequacy, that need to be purified, that vulnerability, that bareness before God. We have no ultimate answers, in spite of our arrogance, in spite of our supposed progress. We really do not know. But we need to redevelop this "pachad," this humility, and feel the power of this day.
Technology and theology have joined forces in a strange way to help us begin to feel that pachad again. It is called the Millennium Bug, and we are scared to death of it. There are actually two Millennium Bugs. As we proceed into the year 1999 you'll be hearing lots about the technological Millennium Bug -- the idea is that at the stroke of midnight on New Years Day 2000, everything is going to go haywire. Many major companies and government agencies worldwide are spending millions to figure out how to keep that from happening, but some are better prepared than others. I hear the defense department is OK but air traffic control systems are far from ready for this, so I don't recommend being up in the friendly skies at midnight. There is real fear that the world as we know it will cease to exist when the clock strikes midnight, that we will in effect pay the piper for all the supposed technological progress of the past century.
The columnist Leonard Fein had a great idea in a column a few weeks ago. Maybe at that magic hour we should just turn all our clocks back 100 years to Jan. 1, 1900 and do the 20th century all over again. It would solve some of the problems and as an added benefit maybe we would get it right this time. For all our technological progress, this has been the most destructive, calamitous century in human history.
Unfortunately, going backwards is not an option. We've got to prepare ourselves for what is coming, and we do it with trembling lips, genuine "pachad." As Jews cross over into the new millennium we feel a different kind of pachad. Now it is true that in the Jewish calendar, next year will not be 2000 but rather 5760, so what's the big deal. It's not our millennium. But we don't really do well with millennia. Just ask those Jews who were butchered by Crusaders as the year 1000 approached. I do not expect pogroms this time, and we don't have too many precedents, but the ends of millennia are inherently uncertain, unstable times, and instability inevitably leads to two things, messianic expectation and chauvinistic certainty: high hopes and scapegoats. When the future is uncertain, as it is now, there tends to be a heightened expectation that God is up to something, and that that something is going to be good for our team. Messianism and chauvinism are a combustible combination that is not good for the Jews. Add to that a political situation that is unstable at best. The Oslo process will expire next May, and unless the diplomatic vacuum is filled with good will and compromise, radical groups on both sides will determine the future of Israel. And therein lies the crux of the second Millennium Bug that has infected our world. It is this belief that God is up to something big, and that with just a little help from us, redemption is at hand. God is not just gently nudging us toward the end of times, but playing an active role toward a redemption that will be preceded by an apocalyptic catastrophe. And everyone’s apocalyptic vision begins in Jerusalem.
I have a pachad over Israel right now, a dread that shakes me to my bones. It does no good to affix blame on who or what got us here, but the fuse is in place and right now anything can trigger it: a terror attack from Hamas, a declaration of Palestinian statehood, an attack from Iran, an incident on the Temple Mount. The confluence of Oslo’s expiration and the Millennium, combined by a preoccupied America and a weakened President, is not good news. That’s why I pray that our friends in Washington put a swift end to their current preoccupation and help redirect our crippled government toward world leadership once again. It is a dangerous world out there. Iranian troops are massed on the Afghan border because each country is run by radical Moslems who think the other is radically incorrect. The Christian religious right is counting the days until Jerusalem explodes so that Jesus can come back. And as for Jews, well, just two weeks ago, those fringe groups dedicated to building the Third Temple held their annual rally in Jerusalem’s Convention Center and, for the first time, they attracted more than 2,000 participants. They’ve got everything in place. The High Priest’s garments are prepared and ready for him; musical instruments and sacrificial implements are done. They’ve even found a rare red heifer to perform the ancient purification ritual. Most chilling of all is that these are not fringe loonies. The rally was attended by notables like Knesset Law Committee member Hanan Porat of the National Religious Party, and greetings were sent by the deputy minister of education, Tsomet’s Moshe Peled, who declared that "instilling the values of the Temple into the entire school system is one of the most important tasks today confronting the Jewish people." Feel the pachad, yet?
One would think that there is an easy cure for Millennium Bug #2: stay away from God. If you stay away from religion altogether, you are sure never to get caught up in the frenzy of expectation that is engulfing the world. In Israel, a generation of Jews has been lost to Jewish spirituality because of distrust of those who are sure God is on their team and that the redemption is at hand. Many Americans have the same fear, spurred by the Heaven's Gate calamity and the frenzied prophesying of the religious right. But the problem is that if we stay away from religion, that leaves us lost in the same Godless world that gave us, ta-da, the twentieth century, the supposed triumph of man which led to the near downfall of civilization, the tyranny of technology and, at centuries end, our pachad over Millennium Bug #1.
An American poet wrote a century ago: "We live in an age of half faith and half doubt, standing at the temple doors, head in and heart out."
And not only do we need religion, but the matter is more complicated, because we need the heart too, and that is messianism. The hunger for redemption is what feeds our souls, it gives us the passion to go forward, and the pachad step back. Without the hunger for redemption, without the feeling that God is right there, just beyond our grasp, while we are firmly within God's, without this, Judaism is emptied of its life, reduced to a bunch of customs and ceremonies.
But there is a middle path, one espoused by our tradition, one that leaves us well within God's orbit, yearning for closer contact, but immune from the excesses of Heaven's Gate. There is a path but it is not an easy one. It requires a circuitous route. I can best explain it by talking about another kind of path: a base path on a baseball diamond.
This summer I began collaborating on a project with a few others, including the noted educator and publisher Joel Grishaver, who was our scholar in residence last spring. The project is a textbook for children about God. Joel sent each of us a dozen questions about God and we had to give answers to each of them. The questions were mostly the typical ones people of all ages ask: How do we know there really is a God? Where does God come from? Can praying make someone well? Does God really make miracles? And where do people go when they die? But one question in particular caught my fancy: Does God care who wins the World Series? Wow. Good question. While my first inclination might be to say that God doesn't care, being a Red Sox fan means knowing full well that that God does get involved in sports. The Red Sox are a perfect metaphor for the Jewish people; eternally unredeemed despite their gallantry, yet never devoid of hope. How else can one explains losing when they had two outs in the tenth and two strikes on the batter with a two run lead in 1986? It was on Simhat Torah that my worstpachad was fulfilled. What a cruel joke God seemed to be playing on me, forcing me to walk around the with the Torah and rejoice, rejoice of all things, in New York, in New York of all places, on the morning after the worst defeat in my team's history. But that's nothing new. In 1978, Bucky Dent hit his home run on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It can't all be coincidence.
But as I was walking around with the Torah on that Simhat Torah, twelve years ago, I began to realize that I'd be a poorer human being if God had brought my team to redemption the night before. Two things hit me really. On one level, I was wondering why in the world I should be crying over a sports team when I should be celebrating the Torah. Which one do I truly care about more? I thought. Which one had people given their lives for over the centuries? Which one had people died for so that I might live? Which one had taught me how to live a good life? Which one had instilled in people hope in times much darker than these? It was time to put away the tears and begin the dance.
The other thing I realized was that God indeed does care who wins the Series. Not that God likes one team over another but that the act of caring in itself is a manifestation of divine love. Being a passionate supporter of a sports team, or of a given athlete or even of a movie star, being a fan -- short for fanatic -- is exactly what trains us be passionate in general. If I could channel all that desire, all the caring that is wrapped up in being a fan, if we could somehow bottle what teenage girls feel for Leo DiCaprio, if we could somehow bottle that and apply it to the rest of humankind, we would really be on to something. And if the Red Sox were ever to actually win it, all of that unrealized hope would become realized and the passion would fizzle away.
I've often wondered what the world would be like if they ever won. You know Kafka wrote that the Messiah will come the day after he is no longer necessary. The actual presence of the Messiah would be anticlimactic, and for a Sox fan, the presence of a World Championship trophy would be too. It is the journey that matters, the hunger the craving for redemption that moves us to move mountains. I don't think I could handle it if they actually won. There would be no more "up" to climb.
So God teaches us to care; God implants in us passion for us to nurture and to focus. And God brings us quick, tempting glimpses of what Paradise might be like. One of those glimpses is called Shabbat, and we have it every week. And another is called winning the World Series.
Some people really get to taste that redemptive bliss: Yankees fans, for example, have been spiritually impoverished about two dozen times by their success. And Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who lived out a happily ever after story that made everyone in the country stand and cheer, although Sosa had to live out the Cubs’ nightmares while fulfilling his personal dreams.
The late Bart Giamatti, former baseball commissioner and President of Yale, called baseball "an epic of exile and return to home place, a vast communal poem about separation, loss and hope for re-union."
What is so perfect about the home run is that it gives you both the separation and the reunion in one majestic blow. You can leave home and return without the danger. It is perfection; it is bliss. That is why the home run record has drawn our attention like no other goal, even more than the World Series itself. It is the game's messianic moment.
Sport gives us that, a small glimpse of God's grace, and the rest of the world doesn't. The home run is safe, but real life is lived out on those dangerous base paths. That's where the search for God must take place. And the base paths are a place where not even God can ensure your safety.
When we were looking to name our new Beth El baseball team, my Ethan wanted to call them the "Hashems." We got a good laugh out of that – for a first grader it was cute, but for an adult, such a desire would be far more troubling. I have trouble with the oversue of the term "Hashem" for God because it conveys a familiarity that I find naïve – almost idolatrous. It’s ironic, because "Hashem" means
"the name," as if to convey distance, that we won’t even attempt to utter God’s real name. "Adonai" the term Hashem is meant to mask, isn’t God’s true name either. It simply means "Our Lord." No one knows how to pronounce God’s true name. Only the High Priest did, and he did it once a year, on Yom Kippur. By using Hashem, and with such familiarity, it is as if to say "We know God better than you know God; and we are so intimate that we even have a pet name." God is not a pet!
"the name," as if to convey distance, that we won’t even attempt to utter God’s real name. "Adonai" the term Hashem is meant to mask, isn’t God’s true name either. It simply means "Our Lord." No one knows how to pronounce God’s true name. Only the High Priest did, and he did it once a year, on Yom Kippur. By using Hashem, and with such familiarity, it is as if to say "We know God better than you know God; and we are so intimate that we even have a pet name." God is not a pet!
Now it’s one thing to say that God cares about sports because it teaches us to care passionately about things. It's another thing to slap God's name on a uniform proclaiming with no doubt in one's mind that God absolutely wants my team to win; that we can manipulate God, through the use of God's name, to bring about the desired result -- not merely a taste of future redemption, but actual, total, assured salvation, guaranteed or your money back. God does not do our bidding.
Now part of me is happy to see a religious revival in America. Even Norman Mailer told an interviewer this year, "Religion to me is now the last frontier." And with this bloodiest and most secular of centuries mercifully ending, its not surprising that people turn to religion and away from the ideologies that that so brutalized our world. But Heavens Gate was a wake up call. Our search for God is healthy and desirable, but in doing so we can never lose ourselves. Our desire for certainty and security is also desirable, but we can never allow ourselves to become too certain of what team God is on. The search for the Sacred should deepen us, broaden our horizons, not force us to abandon sophisticated reflection. It is a life journey, not a membership in some Mickey Mouse Club with secret password and decoder ring.
We all want to be touched by an angel and I long to feel connected to the source of life when I pray. But there is a tension there. I will never completely let go, I will never submit completely to belief at the expense of my own integrity and my own individuality. Joel Grishaver put it this way in an e-mail exchange about this summer's hit film "The Truman Show," "The more we are touched by a personal loving God, the less we want to be us."
That movie was all about that relationship. In it, the God figure literally pulls all the strings in Truman's life. Once Truman discovers the truth, the only question is whether he'll submit to his fate and to his God, or risk all to escape it. Like Jonah he tries to escape, and like Jonah his chosen route is the sea; like Jonah he is cast into the water, but unlike Jonah, he refuses to submit -- and he eventually confronts this God and does escape. The God figure in the movie is suffocating because ultimately he is not God. He is a person – actually a corporation. One could say that Truman’s escape was not from God but away from a man’s idolatrous attempt to replace divinity with himself.
We want God to be close, but not too close. We want God to be on our side but would not want to worship a God who would take sides for petty reasons. And the only thing that scares us more than the prospect of a spiritual climate so hot that we lose ourselves in it, is a world so cold that God can not be found there at all. The choice between one and the other is unacceptable.
So we need to be reminded that Judaism has devised ways to seek God while maintaining an even keel. We need balance, not craziness. We need to remind ourselves that God will not redeem the world if we blow up the Temple Mount. We need to find God in other ways, through more balanced means.
The Midrash puts it this way:
We find God by good deeds and the study of Torah....
through love, through brotherhood and respect
through companionship, through truth and through peace
through bending the knee, through humility...
through a good heart, through decency
through no that is really no
through yes that is really yes.
Does this sound familiar. It’s what I was talking about last week. It’s those big rocks again, goodness, sensitivity, random and premeditated acts of kindness. That’s how we come closest to God – that’s how we get that spiritual high: by loving one another. By being fully alive and fully present: through teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakkah.
So in the end, it is honesty, decency and goodness that avert the Millennium Bug.
And that is best how to seek God. Not by swinging for the fences but rather by bunting our way aboard, and then taking that perilous, circuitous path out to the beyond and back home, in the hopes that an answer might be somewhere waiting for us. It will take lunch-pail Judaism to defeat this Millennium Bug. Hard working, good-deed doing, one base at a time Judaism that won't give us quick results and will not satisfy the quixotic demands of this impatient era. It won't be easy, but it's the only way.
No, God is not on our team, but we understand that it is before God that we are playing, and it is with divine love that we overcome our fears and play on.
May we have the patience and the hunger, the wisdom and the passion, the head and the heart to pursue this slow serpentine path, wherever it may lead us. And may it lead us closer to our Source of Life and Wisdom, and may it lead us closer to the one another,
Yom Kippur Day - 5759
"The Dread of Isaac"
I began my talk last night by quoting from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose 25th Yahrzeit we commemorated this year. The term of his that I introduced was Pachad. I translated it literally as dread, a tangible, bone-shaking fear that our fate really hangs in the balance, a great awareness that doesn't paralyze us but rather leads to true contrition and truly changing one's ways and truly reaching out to God for answers. It is noteworthy that the term Pachad is not to be confused with the Hebrew termYir'ah, which also means fear. We often speak of Yir'at Adonai, the fear of God. But that refers to piety. One can be a true believer, a very pious, mitzvah-doing person, and never once know Pachad. Pachadis different. It is an existential moment of terror. It has more to do with us, in fact, than with God.Pachad is our primal scream for meaning in our lives.
The word might be more about us than God, but Pachad is part of God's name. In the book of Genesis, Jacob tells his father in law that his own success in life, in spite of great pain, sleepless nights, drought and cold winter frost, has been due to the help of "Elohei Avi, Elohei Avraham U’fachad Yitzchak," "the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Dread of Isaac." This divine name "Pachad Yitzchak" is seen nowhere else and probably refers to some lost traditions. What we can surmise is that somehow, in Jacob's mind, the way to experience or understand God was by trying to comprehend the fear that his father Isaac must have felt in his key encounters with God. And we all know of Isaac's two most intense human experiences, those moments when his life hung in the balance: 1) the Akedah, with his father's knife poised above him. and 2) the blessing, when he realized to his great chagrin that he had been duped into bestowing it on his younger son Jacob rather than the older one Esau. Two moments of supreme terror.
The first one, the Akedah, was obviously a life and death moment -- but the second one was too, for even though Isaac's own physical life was not in immediate peril, his legacy was, and that, he instinctively knew, was at least as terrifying.
Pachad Yitzchak is the terror we all share, although most of us would prefer to bury it deep in our unconscious. Pachad Yizchak, the name of God selected by Jacob, the name we most need to invoke, the aspect of divinity that confronts us with the harshest truths.
"Saving Private Ryan" is a film of biblical dimensions. And in that film, Steven Spielberg succeeds in showing us both forms of Pachad Yitzchak, paralleling the experiences of Isaac himself. For the first stunning half hour and then again towards the end, the viewer finds him or herself on the altar, like Isaac, while the bullets seems to whiz by and the explosions are felt all around us. We can begin to imagine the sheer pachad felt by those who were really there, and the instinctive life and death clarity of every decision made amidst the confusion of the carnage, even when the decision proved fatal.
And then at the very end the movie we see the other kind of pachad, equally terrifying, equally sharp, no more bearable. Private Ryan, who has been saved and has grown old, reflects back on the final words spoke to him by his savior, who gave his life for him in that French village. "Earn it," he is told, be worthy of the future he has been given. Be deserving of the good fortune of having so many die just to send him home whole. And the elder Ryan stands there among the thousands of graves at Normandy, standing in a place he could well have been buried half a century before, and he asks his wife simply, "Did I live a good life?" Was I worthy of this gift? Did my life make a difference for the world? What will my legacy be?
It's the same question Isaac must have asked at the end of his life, after he had seen through the ruse of Jacob the deceiver, whose name literally means "heel," this young whippersnapper who had nothing positive to his credit but the fact that he could make good soup. And Isaac also knew that Esau would be boiling mad and could well kill Jacob or more likely drive him off to exile where God knows what would happen. And Isaac felt an existential fear that everything he had done, all he had lived for, would go up in smoke -- like that ram sacrificed in his place. Isaac, like Ryan had gotten a lease on life, a half-century reprieve, but to what end? Was this what it was all about? To send my son Jacob away, to break up the family, to go blind myself and never see the fruit of my labors?
And we, the surviving remnant of the Jewish people, we like Private Ryan got a lease on life fifty years ago, and we feel Pachad Yitzchak all the time. That is what the so-called Jewish continuity crisis is all about. We share Isaac's second terror; we already experienced the first. Our people were sacrificed in the European infernos that Private Ryan was sent to liberate. We are the survivors, but to what end? We, our people, stand above the graves of our dead and ask, "Have our lives been worthy of that gift of life?" And we see our children bickering over pottage and pettiness, and we see them fleeing to the hinterlands too. And we've seen our failures to keep them in the fold and we feel the terror of Isaac.
And I know that some years from now I'll look back and have only myself to blame if I didn't take this gift of life and make the most of it, that I will truly feel that terror. That is why I can not rest until I know that every one of our children is being given the best Jewish education, is being embraced by the warmest congregational hands and has the best possible chance of coming out of here indelibly in love with being Jewish.
Pachad Yitzchak explains why so many of us can't sleep at night, because we know that our children don't have the same feeling of attachment that we had or think we had. It is because we know that we have failed. All of us. And it doesn't pay to blame this demographic trend or that one. The problem is very simply that most Jews don't know Pachad Yitzchak right now, or prefer to suppress it, this life or death legacy - related terror, because if we did feel it, if we truly did, the problem of Jewish continuity would long ago have been solved. Every Jewish teen would have a paid trip to Israel by now, and dynamic youth groups to choose from when they get home. Day Schools would be plentiful, affordable and superb, and Hebrew Schools would all be beacons of excellence, and not seen as just another after-school activity. If we really felt like Private Ryan, we would never get caught up in petty issues -- they just wouldn't be important. We would have too much of ourselves at stake to allow our egos to get in the way.
Pachad Yizhak, the terror of Isaac, means that we don't care merely about the impact of our actions now, but their impact a generation from now.
A few years ago, someone did me the great favor of sending me a gift, anonymously. It was the classic Dale Carnagie book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Naturally, I felt the initial twinge of inadequacy. Clearly here was a person who thought I needed to read that book, and one who felt uncomfortable enough about it not to suggest it in person. But I took it for the constructive critique that it was, gladly accepted the free book and put in my reading pile. By the way, the book is an excellent guide to basic derech eretz. It could have easily been written by Hillel 2,000 years ago. Indeed, half of it was. Read Pirke Avot. Same thing.
But there is another book that we need to be reading, one inspired by Rabbi Heschel. It’s called, "How to Win Friends and Influence people, twenty five years after you are dead." The great secret about Heschel is that, in his time, he had virtually no influence at the Seminary. He was an outsider there, with many loyal students and a few disciples, with some popular books and a strong moral message. His greatest influence is being felt now, not then. Heschel's influence and his legend have grown by the year, and now finally, his message is being heard, twenty-five years after his death.
Four decades ago, Heschel wrote, "The fire has gone out of our worship. It is cold, stiff and dead. Yes, the edifices are growing; yet worship is decaying. Has the synagogue become the graveyard where prayer is buried? Are we, the spiritual leaders of American Jewry, members of a burial society? There are many that labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray? There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks, but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of the soul?"
The power of that statement clearly was not designed to win friends and influence people. Remember whom he was teaching: rabbis, who would go on to populate the top pulpits, all those magnificent edifices. And he was teaching in the place responsible for all that he saw was wrong -- the place that placed the moral stamp of acceptance on that grand experiment in sterility that Heschel saw as the American Jewish experience. Heschel looked at this and from the first moment he arrived in this country until the moment he died, he screamed a Pachad Yitzchak scream. And very few listened.
Until now. Now we don't just hear Heschel, we study him. A new biography was introduced this year. A day school based on his philosophies and bearing his name has become the top liberal Jewish Day School in Manhattan, and synagogues bearing the imprint of his passion aren't just growing, they are transforming American Jewish life. In some small way, I'd like to believe we are part of that renaissance.
Heschel's influence grows long after his death because he saw the second kind pachad that Isaac saw, but he saw it earlier, so he screamed longer and harder -- his entire life was a passionate exclamation from the depths of pachad.
Our lives might not reverberate as much as Heschel’s, but he is a shining model: Life is not about how well we can make friends and influence people now, it's about how we can do that twenty five years after we are no longer here.
And how do we do that? We must take another long hard look at those big rocks, the ones we put into the jar first. Last week I discussed some of them, in particular K'vod Hab’riyot, giving honor to all of God's creatures through random acts of kindness, and I spoke of G’milut Hasadim, specific premeditated acts of kindness like visiting the sick and feeding the hungry. There is one more, and it might be the most important rock of all: it is known as tzedakkah.
Tzedakkah is not charity, Charity is from the Latin caritas which means to care. It is important that we care, but that is the realm of G’milut hasadim, those acts discussed last week. The goal of tzedakkah istzedek, justice, to leave the world more perfect than we found it -- to make things right. Some call it Tikkun Olam, world repair, and that analogy aptly it turns us from benefactors to handymen and women. The proper mindset for tzedakkah begins with a little Pachad Yitzchak, knowledge that every act becomes our legacy. When we practice Tikkun Olam in this spirit, we no longer ask, "Why is there suffering?" but rather "What can I do to alleviate suffering?" We no longer ask, "Why did that SOB toss garbage on the sidewalk?" but rather, "Where is the nearest trash bin so I can properly dispose of the garbage that idiot tossed on the sidewalk?" The person imbued with this spirit doesn't deny him or herself basic financial needs and even some luxuries, but once those are taken care of, the focus is decidedly out there.
Tzedakkah heroes are people with the tool belts on, who see a need and fix it. They can be wealthy, like the Bronfmans, Wexners, and Steinhardts, who have seen a crying need for bold initiatives in Jewish education in this country and are taking it on big-time. And then there’s Kimberly Cook, the inventor of the Braille beeper. Nine years old at the time, not blind, neither are her parents -- she just put 2 and 2 together: beepers and blind people, consulted other tinkerers and experts and came up with a beeper with braille numbers. She is a tzedakkah hero.
The educator Danny Siegel, who came here last fall, is a chronicler of such heroes. Here are some of his heroes: Dr. Will Rosenblatt, who collects unused medical equipment discarded by hospitals, breaks through the waste and bureaucracy and makes sure the equipment ends up in proper hands so that lives can be saved. Daniel Huffman, who donated a kidney to his grandmother, Shirlee Allison, saving her life and ending his promising high school football career. Naomi Berman - Potash, who by using her talents in the hotel industry, is creating an extensive network of hotels that will provide free rooms as temporary shelter for victims of domestic violence, in Houston, Tampa and South Florida. Syd Mandelbaum, who has organized legions of volunteers throughout the country who retrieve staggering quantities of unsold food from concession stands at rock concerts for local shelters and soup kitchens. The project is called Rock and Wrap it Up and there are now crews organized in 270 North American and British cities, involving more than 1,000 people. And Yehudit Harris: an amazing woman from Haifa who last year took in 160 ex Israel soldiers, people just out of the army and lost, with no family to turn to. She finds them homes and offers them educational opportunities that allow them to settle into Israeli society. The list goes on and on and on, including several innovative projects done right here, inspired by Danny Siegel. Our Mitzvah Moms and Dads and others working with Beth El Cares have done wondrous things in our community to repair the world. This year through their efforts our students will be sending Shalach Manot Purim gifts to senior citizens, toiletries to the homeless and books in English for the children of Netanya, Israel, including books on tape that our kids will be creating themselves. And lots more.\
The sage Hillel once said to a group of his students, "If a man has 1,000 dinars and gives 300 to the poor, how much then does he have?"
"Seven hundred," the students replied.
"Not so," declared Hillel. "He truly possesses only the 300 dinars he gave to tzedakah. He may lose the other 700 by accident, or in a business venture, or with luck, he may leave it to his children. Therefore, know that all a person truly possesses for eternity is the money that person gives away."
Somehow we’ve forgotten that, although it so obvious. Andrew Carnegie owned half the world, but what makes him immortal is not what he owned but what he gave away: enough for a classic concert hall and 2,600 libraries. "A man who dies rich," he said, "dies in shame."
It says in Psalm17, "I, with justice, b’tzedek, shall see Your face." In the Talmud (Bava batra) it is written that rabbi Eliezer would pray after giving money to poor people. Why? Because, he said, through charity, he said, one beholds the face of God.
Tzedakka is holy. When we make our pledge to the temple, federation, or other cause, this should be done in a ritualized manner; with the family present, perhaps sitting around the dinner table -- maybe reciting a blessing or singing songs. I say the shehechianu when I pay my income taxes. I know that at least some of that money will save lives, will feed the hungry, will help Israel. . When the state of Connecticut sent us a tax rebate, I did not say a blessing, but rather questioned the wisdom of the politicians who sent it my tzedakkah back to me when the need is so great.
Tzedakkah is holy. That's why our temple board meetings begin with moments of prayer and study. Those meetings, where your tzedakkah to the temple is allocated, they are holy moments, as holy as any taking place down here. The two activities go together: tefilla, and tzedakkah.
The fact that tzedakkah is a sacred act seems so obvious, yet for decades, the world of Jewish philanthropy was decidedly secular, at least on the surface. Every effort was made to separate it from the sacred world, which was confined to the synagogue. We now know how misguided that separation was. What we need to build is a community based on Torah and Tzedek. The two must be inextricably bound, with the outcome being, in the words of Barry Shrage of Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies, "a serious non-fundamentalist Judaism that engages both the heart and the mind, through which we can fashion a just and democratic community with God in its midst." He is doing that magnificently in Boston. We are beginning to do it here in Stamford. Boston's federation now works with synagogues in intensified adult education – and our federation is piloting one of their most successful programs, called Me’ah, beginning this month. We should be very proud of that. Shrage works with synagogues also in the areas of family education, youth programming and social action. He recognizes what others have been slow to discover, that for federation campaigns to succeed and for American Jewry to havea future, tzedakkah must be seen as a sacred act, and for that to happen, we must restore our sense of the sacred from the ground up -- and the best place, if not the only place to begin that effort, is right here, in the synagogue.
I have lived here long enough to know two things -- the resources of this community are astounding, and by this I mean both in terms of human and material potential. And I know one other thing -- we have barely tapped it. I speak both for and beyond the immediate needs of our congregation. I speak for our Temple because in my mind we are doing the most important work Jews can be doing right now: laying the groundwork for the spiritual renaissance of our people, both here and in Israel. But I look beyond us and see many worthy endeavors that are under-funded. There is only one full-time Jewish Youth director in this entire town and she is here. Informal and formal education for Jewish teens is woefully under-funded in our community. The cost of Jewish affiliation a middle income family is prohibitive; we should make it our business to make it affordable, and we can do that. If we really believed in Jewish continuity we would be offering free synagogue membership to young couples and singles, so that from the moment they leave college they would have a place from which to embark on their journeys of Jewish self-discovery. We can do that only if the philanthropic will is there. If tzedakkah were ingrained in our psyches, we would have a free-loan society here because there are Jews who are really struggling to stay afloat, and it is our obligation to help them. If tzedakkah were really sacred to us, we would have a job bank, because finding another means of self-support is the highest of Maimonides’ eight levels oftzedakkah. If tzedakkah were sacred to us, we would have congregants going every day to bagel shops and restaurants and making sure that homeless shelters and food banks receive all the leftovers. Iftzedakkah really meant justice to us we would all pool our Connecticut tax rebates and make a large donation to an agency that lost state funding, and then all ask our representatives why the number one state in per capita income ranks 46th in state and local per capita government spending.
And finally if tzedakkah were sacred we would never think of getting our money's worth out of synagogue affiliation or question the need for a High Holy Day appeal, because we would all understand just what a privilege it is to have the resources to build a better Jewish world for us and our children. These are resources our great grandparents couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams. We’ve got to fulfill their dreams. We’ve achieved so much, but we have so, so far to go.
Recall what I said on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God chose Abraham because he had a talent "Lasot tzedakah U’mishpat," a talent for tzedakkah and goodness. That is our innate talent as well. We must cultivate it, in the areas of "Kvod Habriyot, and "G’muilut hasadim," acts of kindness toward others, both random and premeditated, as described on Rosh Hashanah, and to these we now add the spirit of tzedakkah. In that great jar of life, these are the rocks that we must put in first.
It all starts with these questions: What needs fixing? How can I fix it? And how can I make friends and influence people a generation from now? And wisdom comes with the understanding that all that we can truly possess is that which we give away.
Isaac's Pachad was well founded; but there is one thing I left out. In the end Isaac had the last laugh, very apropos for one whose name was laughter. Somehow he didn't die. We would have expected him to leave the scene after blessing his sons, but he hung on, for decades, and lived to know of Jacob's return to the Land and his reconciliation with Esau. Isaac was buried by both his sons after dying at the ripe old age of 180, ten times chai. Ten times life. We should all have such legacies. With his legacy assured, that dread, that pachad, was transformed into laughter and his death carried with it the seed of immortal life. We still talk of Isaac today, 4,000 years after he walked this earth.
May we all live to see the fruits of our labor, as Isaac did, a Jewish people teeming with spiritual vitality, and a world of where justice and compassion reign triumphant. May our fear and trembling similarly be transformed into calm and confidence, and may the coming year, the coming century, and indeed the coming millennium, be a time of life and peace, for Israel, for the Jewish people and for the world – and may we help that to come to pass in our day.