Rosh Hashanah Day One
"Time to Act"
It’s been a rough summer, rough all over the world. So rough in fact, that one night when Mara and I wanted some escapist pleasure for a few hours we decided to see the Al Gore documentary on global warming. Even before the missiles started falling all over northern Israel, this was one depressing summer.
Even Stephen Hawking has become despondent; the physicist who has himself overcome enormous physical disability now has doubts as to whether the human race can survive. In early July, he posted a question on Yahoo’s Q and A website, “In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how will the human race sustain another 100 years?”
Within a few days, this question had generated about 25,000 responses. I looked at some of them. And while the general pattern was surprisingly optimistic, that optimism was often based on the idea that over the next century we’ll figure out how to populate Mars. Life might survive, but the earth is doomed. And this was in July, before our interplanetary options were reduced dramatically with the demotion of Pluto.
What does it mean for a Jew to have faith in a world as seemingly hopeless as ours? And how will the human race sustain another hundred years? How can we personally keep on going? What can we grab hold of? What can we believe in? I would like to present four Jewish responses to Stephen Hawking’s question over these next ten days. By the end of Yom Kippur, I hope that the question of waiting for the next bus to Mars will become moot; because we’ll already have decided not to give up on this grand, beautiful, blue oasis of an experiment that we call Earth.
And so, today, the first response to Hawking is in two parts: Live deliberately and act decisively. Our first mission, should we choose to accept it, is to slow down the torrid pace of life.
How do we do that?
First, we must recognize our problem: Our lives are spinning out of control.
Sorry (answer cell phone) What? I can’t talk now, I’m giving a sermon… Rosh Hashanah. The holiday with the horn…Except not today. Long story. Bye”
The pressures of multi-tasking particularly impact the kids. In her Bat Mitzvah speech in 1999, Cortney Rosenberg spoke of trying to juggle all of her activities, which included “Bat Mitzvah lessons, 3 or 4 skating practices per week and three competitions in a row, a band and chorus concert in which I was in the band and in the chorus, junior choir, Hebrew School, and, oh yes, homework and just having time to myself.” Her recommendation? A step by step approach to getting things done. “With skating,” she said, “you set small goals, reach them and then move on. My first goal was to be able to stand up on skates; then I moved forward, and then crossovers and three turns and my current goal is to do an axle.”
This past June, at his Bar Mitzvah, Alex Cooperstone took pride in his ability to multi-task, noting how Moses is a real role model for him. Within a few chapters, we see Moses playing several very different roles: parent figure and therapist for the children of Israel, prophet, and even a doctor, healing his sister Miriam.
(answer cell again) Sorry…Listen there are over 1,500 people here. .. No, I don’t own my home. Yes, I am a likely voter. Yes, I know I gave last year. I really don’t do this over the phone. Send me the information. OK Thanks. Mom, I’ll call you later. What?.... Yes, yes…”
(She was reminding me to eat my spinach).
Did you know that there’s actually an international competition for tossing these things?
"Multitasking hurts your performance," said James Johnston, a psychologist at the NASA Ames Research Center. It really took a rocket scientist to tell us that one! The problem is twofold: we compress time by multi-tasking, squeezing all we can out of each minute – then we stretch time by working longer hours. A recent report on “60 Minutes” spoke of how the 40 hour work week is now history and has been replaced, for so many, with the 60-80 hour work week. Recently Metro North announced that, by popular demand, the beginning of rush hour now officially has been moved back to an ungodly 4:45 AM. People are connected to work 24/7, wherever they are, even on vacation. The Blackberry now has the nickname “Crackberry” because it is so addictive. We could all relate to the scenes in this summer’s film, “The Devil Wears Prada,” where the boss calls at all hours and the job never ends. I looked around this summer at the beach with a sly smile. Rabbis have always had to be on call, wherever and whenever. Now everyone is. Everyone has become a rabbi! Lying on the beach has become just another ball to juggle in our faced paced lives. But it’s getting out of control. When family members now routinely e-mail and instant message each other from different rooms of the same house, we know it is getting out of control. Even as one who has long appreciated the more sublime effects of technology, there has got to be a time to turn it off.
When work becomes 24/7 we lose something precious. It’s like having a musical score with no rests. Everything is about speed and efficiency. It’s all about fast and faster. In the 60 Minutes piece, workers spoke about being praised by their bosses for responding to e-mail at 2 in the morning. I must admit it’s something I’ve done. But please don’t praise me for it! We all want to see people going above and beyond in their work. And as a rabbi, I’ve always enjoyed the flexibility of being able to work at home and at all hours. But we need to listen to the message of the shofar – which today is the silent shofar.
There needs to be a time to turn it off.
Imagine - not blowing the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It’s like having a wedding but leaving out the bride. It’s the Seder without Matzah, Hanukkah without the menorah, the playoffs without the Red Sox (OK I said it). It just doesn’t seem right.
We aren’t blowing the shofar today, because it is Shabbat. This happens often, about 28% of the time, though in no particular pattern. Technically, one could make a good argument for sounding it anyway – it used to be done in ancient Jerusalem. Two Psalms hint to us why the shofar is silent today: Psalm 81 states: “Tiku ba'chodesh shofar, ba'keseh l'yom chagainu,” “Blow the shofar on the day of the new moon” - literally, “on the day when the moon is covered.” When you rearrange the first Hebrew letters of those words, something Kabbalists love to do, it spells “B’Shabbat,” “on Shabbat.” So on Shabbat, the blowing is done in a covered, hidden way. And Psalm 89 states, “Ashrei ha’am yodei teruah,” “Happy is the nation that knows the shofar’s sound, they walk in the light of Your joyous presence.”
The happiness doesn’t come from hearing it or blowing it, but from knowing it. And knowing often is best achieved in silence. For Shabbat gives us something even more important than the shofar. More important than the strenuous multi-tasking work of Teshuvah, there is the need to step back and rest. Consider today as the pause between the notes. We heard the shofar all month, and we’ll hear it again tomorrow. But today is Yom Zichron Teruah. Today is the time to reflect. The time to inhale. The time to wait. To live life in the slow lane.
I did something very exciting with my sons a few weeks ago. We boiled water. I figured this to be a survival skill needed for adulthood. And it got me to thinking, how many of us have taken the time to watch water to come to a boil? I usually make my hot cereal in the microwave, and we have a coffee maker. When we do boil water, we typically turn it on and multi-task our way to somewhere else. This was a big pot of water, for pasta – and it took a solid seven minutes. In other words… forever. And while we were doing that, I pulled another zinger: we waited for the oven to warm to 450. My God, I was thinking, did my grandmother do that? What did people do all day before there were microwaves? They boiled water and heated ovens.
You can tell I don’t live in the kitchen. So I read our marvelous new sisterhood cookbook from cover to cover, looking for the section on how to boil water, and then I boiled some and began to discover the hidden beauty behind it.
First, some ripples appear on the surface, with some puffs of steam hovering above. This is what the first instant of Creation must have looked like, I thought. And with those ripples the water glows with the reflection of all different colors, possibly caused by the residue of oil in the pot. And then the first tiny bubbles begin to meander up from the bottom, self consciously, like someone sheepishly moving down to the front row of the sanctuary during shacharit. Then bigger bubbles begin to appear, and more of them, many more, until suddenly the pot has become the Grand Central Station of bubbles on a hot summer Friday at 5, all racing mindlessly toward the surface to make their steamy departure, consummating their miraculous transformation from commuter to human being, from entrapped liquid to gas. It took my breath away. It takes a special effort to be able to watch water coming to a boil, the same kind of patience and imagination that enabled Moses to see the miracle that was in the burning bush. As Lawrence Kushner has pointed out, in order to see that it was not really burning up, he needed to stare right at it for a good, say, 5-7 minutes, as long as it took the water to boil.
I’m going to let you in on a little known secret of Hammerman history. On my wedding night, time stopped. That’s right, my watch battery stopped at some point and then restarted when I picked up the watch the next morning. So we went through our entire first day of marriage in a different time zone from everyone around us – we had brunch, spent the day at the beach - and didn’t notice it until we were eating dinner. We thought it was 8:00 PM but it was really only 4:30. We looked around in the restaurant and everyone seemed strangely old. The meal was very reasonably priced. Finally I asked the waiter what time it was.
We learned from the first moment of marriage how important it is to be liberated from the shackles of the clock.
In 2000, David Rich said in his Bar Mitzvah speech that when he was little, at an age when most kids dream of becoming firemen or police officers, he had a different wish. He wanted to be the guy who painted the white lines on the street. It always amazed him to see the guys on the truck slapping down the white paint, and how the white lines on the road never seemed to end. These guys were his role models.
“We need to discover all that we can about everything we can,” he added. “We can not allow even the smallest details to pass us by.”
We can do that only by slowing down. And we can do that only by, from time to time, reducing the multi-tasks to one simple one and, just occasionally, seeking out the road less traveled, the path of least efficiency. And once on that road, we need to notice the white lines.
"The more zigzag the way, the deeper the scenery" wrote the Chinese painter Huang Binhong. “The winding path approaches the secluded and peaceful place.” The human race will survive into the next century if we can all learn to begin living the Zigzag Life.
When the former refusenik Natan Sharnasky finally won his freedom in 1986 after spending years in prison camps and a lifetime in Soviet captivity, his first supreme gesture as a free man was to walk in a zigzag across the bridge, to the other side where his liberators awaited. One would think that he would have run across, given his intense thirst for freedom and desire for reunification with his wife Avital. Yet when a Soviet officer ordered him to go straight over the bridge and make no turns, Sharansky said, “Since when have I started making agreements with the KGB? If you tell me to go straight, I’ll go crooked!”
Sharansky knew that life is lived in zigzag. History moves relentlessly forward, but to be fully human and fully free means to have the cherished ability to transcend time’s arrow and decelerate its monotonous, torrid pace. It took the Israelites a long time to get to the Promised Land, in part because they took the least direct route, to avoid the Philistines in Gaza. Smart move. I wish the Israelis had taken it again in 1967. Freedom is about the choices we make, and the choice to take the circuitous path is a true declaration of independence from the rat race. It is about seeing every moment in life as the gateway to infinite possibilities. According to the 10th century Jewish leader Saadia Gaon, the Shofar’s sound is a proclamation of our freedom. Today’s silent sounding, then, is a proclamation of our freedom from proclamations!
So slow down. Have dinner with your family. In a June cover story, Time magazine cited studies showing that the more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to smoke, drink, do drugs, get depressed, develop eating disorders and consider suicide, and the more likely they are to do well in school, delay having sex, eat their vegetables, learn big words and know which fork to use.
Judaism disdains fast food. Hey, even the most noteworthy fast food in our tradition, Matzah, baked in such haste, is eaten at the slowest meal of the year. This year I participated in a colloquium on Jewish eating, paid for, ironically, by McDonalds - as part of the multi million dollar response to a class action suit over misleading labeling and the furor caused by the film “Supersize Me.” What does it mean to eat Jewishly? It means to eat mindfully. It means to be conscious that what’s on your plate was once alive. It means to eat ethically. And it means to eat slowly.
Did you know that some sages of the Talmud felt that one who eats in a public marketplace, meaning one who eats on the run, cannot be a valid witness? They compared it to eating like a dog. The Talmud also states that one who eats slowly lives longer. How many of us make a special point of eating at least one meal a day with our families and having at least one of those meals each week be a slow meal, one that cannot be interrupted by the phone or the perils of the workplace?
Make it a slow meal – at least once a week. Hey, how about Friday night?
When I lift a wine cup on Friday night at 6:01 and finish the prayer sanctifying the Sabbath at 6:03, I’ve moved forward two minutes in linear time. But simultaneously I’ve tapped into distant memories of other Sabbaths: I see my late father’s smile as I chime in with the final verse, I see my great grandparents, whom I never met, singing the prayer with their grandson, my father, at their side; I see Moses at Sinai reading off the fourth commandment, and I see God at Creation’s twilight, replenishing the Soul of the Universe. While I’ve undoubtedly moved forward by those two minutes, I’ve also tapped into a timeless cycle of an ever-present Sabbath. Those two minutes have lasted an eternity.
So part one of my first response to the Stephen Hawking challenge is that we need to slow down and take control of our inner clock. Because only once we have slowed down the process of living, can we speed up the process of doing. And that is part two. We need to carve out more time to act - because it is time to act.
Great athletes often speak of being “in the zone.” When he scored 81 points in a game last year, basketball star Kobe Bryant said, “Everything was happening in slow motion for me, and you just really want to stay in that moment.” (If only he could have lived in the Zone off the court, it could have saved him lots of tzuris.) When we live slowly, we can act decisively. The torrid pace of life has paralyzed us at just the time when paralysis has become more dangerous than ever.
In his Bar Mitzvah speech two years ago, my son Ethan drew attention to the verse in Exodus where the Israelites pledge total, 24/7 commitment to the commandments just given to them at Sinai. They say to Moses, “Na’aseh v’nishma,” “We will act, and then we will understand.” The commitment is above all to action. Being Jewish has little to do with what we believe and everything to do with how we behave. And this verse is found, fittingly, in Exodus chapter 24 verse 7. 24/7. Serving God is our real full time job.
In her Bat Mitzvah speech back in 1997, Alex Stein creatively translated God’s first instruction to human beings as “be fruit-like and multiply.” She interpreted that as being a command to protect the world so that the world can continue to bear fruit. This afternoon when we dip our apples into honey, let’s go around the table and ask each person how our actions are going to bear fruit for the world this coming year.
We must act, and we must act fast: There is no margin for error. Each waking moment we all feel like we are behind a NASCAR wheel, continuously straddling the precipice separating life from death, constantly forced to make instant choices between too-hasty action and fatal inaction. Al Gore tells us that Greenland is melting and Roxbury Road will soon be waterfront property. Iranian calling cards are smashing into Nahariya, Safed, Haifa and Tiberias and soon they could have nuclear tips. Zero hour is fast approaching.
We are all that 37 year old Israeli in Nahariya rushing to get his family into the shelter door as the air raid siren sounded, only to be killed by a missile as he stood just feet from safety. And we are all that Israeli officer, seeing rockets being launched from a populated area of Cana, having to decide, in an instant, whether to respond, risking civilian casualties, or not, risking losing Israel’s precious power of deterrence against that despicable, inhuman practice of the terrorists, who cowardly hide behind human shields. Sometimes the decisions are wrong - but in these dangerous times the worst thing is not to decide. To stand still is to die. But that is precisely what the world is doing - again. An Iranian president who openly calls for Israel to be wiped off the map was courteously greeted this week by the Council on Foreign Relations. David Brooks wrote this week in the Times: “With America exhausted by Iraq, with the threat of Iranian sanctions dissolving before our eyes, Western policy is drifting toward the option that most resembles passivity. That is, containment - accepting Iranian nukes and trying to deter their use with our arsenal.”
I’ve developed a bi-partisan bias toward preventive and pre-emptive action, whether the enemy is Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Gore’s greenhouse gasses. In this age where a single person can cause instant, unfathomable destruction, the greatest plague is passivity.
Michael Levin, a rambunctious kid growing up in suburban Philadelphia, decided to put off college and opted for Israeli paratrooper wings instead. It was his lifelong dream. Levin settled in Israel, struggled to learn Hebrew and set about winning a coveted assignment in the Israel Defense Forces. His commanders told him he was too thin to make it as a paratrooper. But the young man everyone called "Mikey" would not be deterred. He bulked up, became a crack sharpshooter and made the cut. When the war in Lebanon began, Michael, now 22, knew where he should be - and without hesitation, he flew back to Israel. He was mortally wounded during a firefight with Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon.
His devastated parents granted him his final wish: he was buried on Mount Herzl on Tisha B’Av.
"Michael did what we all wish we could do," said Ari Goldner, 23, a friend from New York. "He died a hero fighting for the land he loved."
Was Michael Levin right to act as he did? That is not ours to answer. What we can say for sure, is he heard the call of the silent shofar - he heard that call, and he responded out of deep connection and purpose; he lived life deliberately and responded instinctively, “Na’aseh V’nishma.”
I close with a poem written by a Catholic priest named Michael Quoist. It’s entitled, God, I Have Time.
I went out, God
People were coming and going,
Walking and running,
Everything was rushing: cars, trucks, the street, the whole town.
People were rushing not to waste time,
They were rushing after time,
To catch up with time,
To gain time
Good-bye, excuse me, I haven’t time.
I’ll come back, I can’t wait, I haven’t time.
I must end this letter, I haven’t time.
I’d love to help you, but I haven’t time.
I can’t accept having no time.
I can’t think, I can’t read, I’m swamped, I haven’t time.
I’d like to pray, but I haven’t time.
You understand God, they simply haven’t the time.
The child is playing…she hasn’t the time…maybe later
The student has schoolwork…he hasn’t time…maybe later
The athlete has her sports…..she hasn’t time…maybe later
The young couple has a new house…now a baby…they haven’t time…maybe later
The grandparents have their travels…their grandchildren…they haven’t time…maybe later
They are ill…they have their treatments…they haven’t time….maybe later
Too late! None of them have any more time.
And so all of us run after time, Eternal God.
We pass through life running—hurried, jostled, overburdened, frantic, and we never get there. We haven’t the time.
In spite of all our efforts, we’re still short of time,
Of a great deal of time.
God, you must have made a mistake in your calculations
There is a big mistake somewhere.
The hours are too short,
The days are too short,
Our lives are too short.
You who are beyond time, Creator of All, you smile to see us fighting time.
You know what we are doing.
You make no mistakes in Your distribution of time to humankind
You give each of us the time to serve you according to Your needs.
But we must not lose time, waste time, kill time,
For time is a gift that You give us,
A perishable gift,
A gift that does not keep.
God, help me to acknowledge that I have time.
I have plenty of time,
All the time that You give me,
The years of my life,
The days of my years,
The hours of my days,
They are all mine.
Mine to fill, quietly, calmly,
But to fill completely, up to the brim.
Here’s my first response to Professor Hawking. We are all put on this earth for a tiny speck of a speck of an instant. We need to recognize how agonizingly brief is our allotment of years. But the recognition that our time is short is also our greatest gift - because it forces us to squeeze every ounce that we can from each moment and to gain from each instant a taste of eternity. We must live deliberately and act decisively.
"Power to the Person"
I am not alone. For the past two and half millennia, this episode has inspired volumes of commentary. Some claim that God never really meant it and that Abraham knew that. Others chastise Abraham for actually failing God’s test – that God really wanted Abraham to cry out in protest. And others take the heat off of Abraham and point the accusatory finger at a Higher Authority. One popular kabbalistic view is that the story is meant not be read as history, but as metaphor. Abraham is the symbol of the divine attribute of mercy and Isaac represents stern justice. So when Abraham binds Isaac, the lesson is that mercy trumps harshness - it’s like a kabbalistic version of rock-paper-scissors.
There is another possibility here, one hinted at in Rashi’s commentary on the opening verse of this non-dialogue. God tells Abraham, “Kach na et bincha et yechidcha asher ahavta et Yitzchak.” 'Please take your son, the only one, the one you love - Isaac - and go away to Moriah, where you will bring him as a burnt offering.” Why doesn’t God just say, “Take Isaac.” Some might say God was displaying sensitivity - trying to break it to him slowly. That’s a bit of a stretch, given what is being asked. There is no way to break that gently. Rashi posits that Abraham actually did respond to God here, that there was a dialogue, but that Abraham’s part was removed. God says, (foreshadowing a Henny Yongman joke), “Take your son, please” and Abraham responds, “Which one, I have two.” God says, “The only one,” and Abraham replies, “Each is the only one to his mother.” God retorts, “The one you love,” Abraham replies, “I love them both.” Finally, God says, “Isaac.”
For centuries, traditional Jews have always relied on Rashi’s commentary to understand the text. Kierkegaard came at it from a very different perspective. It is instructive to know that the normative Jewish way to read this story is to see Abraham as someone who doesn’t take this sitting down. In fact, the very next word, of the next verse is “Vayakam Avraham,” “Abraham stood up.” For Jews, Abraham could remain a hero, a viable patriarch only by standing up for his moral principles even if it meant grappling with God.
I’m sure that comes as news to no one. To be a Jew is to wrestle with God. I have often pointed out that the very meaning of the term Israel is “God wrestler” and indeed that is what Jacob did to prompt his receiving that name. We are all God wrestlers. For many of us, the first Jewish sentence we utter is a question – four of them, in fact, on Pesach. When a baby looks at his mother and says “mama,” he’s actually asking a Hebrew question! “What? How?” Before a Jew even learns to walk she’s already internalizing our inherent cultural need to challenge all convention – to question all assumptions – to scrutinize all orders – even if they come from God.
Stephen Hawking would appreciate that questioning approach. But how can simple skepticism help the world survive another century? Here’s the answer – my second response to Hawking: The ability to question brings out that which is most Godlike in each of us. And it is the empowerment of the individual conscience that will save humankind.
In Genesis 1 the Torah tells us that man and women were created in God’s image, in Hebrew, “tzelem elohim.” But what is it about us that is Godlike? The Mishna amplifies, that “tzelem elohim” comes down to our recognizing three qualities that make us different from all other creatures. 1) Each human life is of infinite value. 2) All human beings are equal and 3) each individual is utterly unique. No two human beings are exactly alike. When we assert our uniqueness, which happens when we probe the conscience and challenge convention, we are asserting our tzelem elohim. “Tzelem elohim” is all about the power of the individual. So by challenging God we are actually bringing Godliness into the world. The more we do that, the better chance for long term survival.
If yesterday’s message was that it is “time to act,” today’s is that it is “time to ask.”
We do that a lot of that here in Beth El. So many of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah speeches over the past two decades have spoken of the need to question things. Some in fact have challenged Abraham himself for not doing so. In 1994, Bobby Silberman cited Maimonides on how it is permissible to disagree with those in authority and to express your disagreement, as long as you don’t carry it too far once a decision has been made. Bobby continues the story:
“Two months ago, I was in social studies and my teacher and my teacher told us that the largest desert in the world is the Sahara. One of my classmates pointed out to my teacher that Antarctica is the largest desert. My teacher disagreed. Then I raised my hand and said that my classmate was right. He said that he would check up on it. The next day, we came into class and he told us that we were right.
The moral of this story is: Don't hold back on correcting someone in higher authority, as long as you do it respectfully. After the incident, the matter was dropped. I didn't rub it in, because I wasn't trying to show him up. I'm glad I followed Maimonides' advice in the way I handled the matter.”
It reminds me of a joke, based on a real Talmudic story: Four rabbis have spent years engaged in theological arguments, with three always disagreeing with the fourth.
One day, Herschel Lipschitz, the odd rabbi out, decides after a lengthy debate to appeal to a higher authority. "Oh, God!" he cries, "I know in my heart that I am right and they are wrong! Please show me a sign, so they too will know that I understand Your laws."
It's a beautiful, sunny day, but the instant Rabbi Lipschitz finishes his plea, a storm cloud moves across the sky above the four, rumbles, then dissolves. “A sign from God! See, I'm right! I knew it!” Rabbi Lipschitz says - but the other three disagree, pointing out that storm clouds often form on hot days. So he asks again: "Oh, God, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. So please, God, a bigger sign." This time four storm clouds appear, rush toward each other to form one big cloud, and a bolt of lightning knocks down a tree ten feet away from the rabbis, then the cloud disappears. "I told you I was right!" Rabbi Lipschitz says - but the others insist that nothing has happened that can't be explained by natural causes.
A third time Rabbi Lipschitz begins to appeal to God when he is interrupted. The sky turns pitch black, the earth shakes, and a deep, booming voice intones, "HERSCHEL LIPSCHITZ IS RIIIIIIGHT!"
The sky returns to normal. Rabbi Lipschitz puts his hands on his hips and says, "Well?" "So?" another rabbi says, "Now it's three-to-two."
And at the end of the Talmudic version of this remarkable midrash, God is heard proclaiming, with pride, “My children have defeated me! My children have defeated me!”
Jews may not have invented Chutzpah, but we have perfected it. In her bat mitzvah speech in 1994, Alyssa Rogol spoke of her experience of confronting her Orthodox day school teachers with questions about egalitarianism for girls. Just this week, one of our 6th grade girls asked me why only boys get to wear yarmulkes. I responded that we encourage girls to wear them too, and she did. And in 2002, Amanda Jablon said at her Bat Mitzvah:
“If you know me well, you know that I like to ask questions. Not just ordinary questions, but hard-to-answer questions. Just the other day I was asking the rabbi why we eat apples on Rosh Hashanah? Why not oranges? They’re both sweet. And why do we dip in honey? What about Chocolate sauce, or sugar, or maybe even whipped cream? Then I asked, “How do we know that we aren’t little puppets being controlled by a much bigger life form? How do we know that the Exodus really happened? How did we get last names?” Amanda had lots of questions.
In 1997, Amy Cohen asked about what God looks like, and decided that she sees God in the face of her dog, because she is so old. “A few weeks ago,” she wrote, “I was tucking her in one night and she just looked at me in a sad but loving way, and I saw God in that look.” John Grogan, writing at the end of the current best seller “Marley and Me,” says sort of the same thing: “A dog judges others not by their color or creed but by who they are inside. Give him your heart and he will give you his.” A dog points us to the things that really matter in life. Loyalty. Courage. Devotion. Simplicity. Joy. Maybe the image of God can be reflected even in the eyes of a dog.
Sarah Warren in 1993 had the portion where the ten spies came back with the negative report. She commented that according to the rabbis, even those who disagreed with the ten spies were condemned to die in the wilderness. “Why?” She wrote. “Because of their silence. Not having the courage to speak up is just as bad as not having the courage of your beliefs.”
We need that courage. What is the alternative? A world of conformity. When you trade in individuality for conformity, you risk becoming the Abraham of our worst nightmare: the Abraham who refuses to think for himself.
We know all too well that the 20th century was a disaster for the individual conscience. Far too many were silent. Mass culture produced all too many examples of that – and I’m not just talking about the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. I’m talking about America. Jonathan Alter’s new book on FDR, “The Defining Moment” makes the claim that in the throes of the depression, there was a strong push for the newly elected FDR to declare his government a dictatorship. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, says Alter, "privately suggested that a 'benevolent dictator' might be what the country needed." Newspapers all over the country openly discussed the d-word. But Roosevelt, thank God, opted to place his trust in the American people and in Congress.
The innate desire to relinquish personal choice is a dark part of human nature, a side that we need to recognize. A landmark Yale experiment in 1961 by professor Stanley Milgrom showed that most people will willingly pull an Abraham and freeze up when an authority figure asks them to. Volunteers were told they were observing a study on “the effects of punishment on learning.” They would watch as subjects were subjected to electric shock when incorrectly responding to questions. Those subjects were really actors, but the volunteers didn’t know that, and as the shocks and screams increased in intensity, most of the onlooking volunteers did not protest. In all, 62.5 percent of the group allowed the experiment to continue, even when the charge reached 450 volts. They were all too willing to believe the experts in the white coats, even as they saw human beings writhing in pain before them.
In Woody Allen’s spoof of the Akeda, Abraham believes that this outlandish order is coming from God because “it was a deep, resonant voice, well-modulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that.” Later, when God tells Abraham it was only a joke, God adds, “It proves that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”
It’s a scary world when nearly two thirds of us will willingly suspend our own judgment if a guy in a lab coat tells us to, but that’s what Milgrom’s landmark study showed. Nearly two thirds of us will believe authority more or less without question. Think about it, a group of a hundred; all good, moral people except for one dictator, a Hitler or Ahmadinejad, Pol Pot or Jim Jones. And 63 of them won’t raise a finger. That leaves the other 36 of us to be the skeptics, to answer the questions, to challenge what we are told and to stand up for what is right.
Thirty six is an important number in Jewish tradition, by the way. Double chai – and there is a legend that in each generation there are 36 righteous people, the lamed vav (for the Hebrew letters for 30 and 6), who will save the world. In the Talmud, the sage Abaye says that there need to be a minimum of 36 tzaddikim in each generation, but later folklore had it that there are only 36 and that they don’t realize that they are the ones who are saving the world. The person sitting next to you could be a Lamed Vavnik. Or maybe it’s you. Stephen Hawking needs a really strong class of Lamed Vav right now. If we all have done our jobs right, not a single Jew will fall into the category of the 63 – and all will be among the holy 36. At the very least, the bar mitzvah speeches give me reason to believe that our TBE students will be among those unafraid to stand up and stand out.
David Aronica asserted the courage of his convictions in 2004, by explaining at his bar mitzvah why he was wearing a pink shirt, with palm trees on his tie and a tallis with purple stripes. In 1998, Becky Tomsky talked about fashion statements too. “Like Abraham,” she wrote, “I believe that sometimes the best fashion is the simplest one. He believed that one God was better than hundreds of gods, while I believe that one or two colors is better than the whole rainbow.” Alex Swidler, in a 1999 discourse on Cain and Abel, spoke of the difficulties of asserting one’s individuality as a middle child.
No shortage of Godliness being expressed at TBE. Individual expression reigns supreme. And that’s a good thing. Because we have entered the era of the individual. Groupthink is yesterday’s news. Mass culture is over. Thomas Friedman proclaimed it in his recent book, “The World is Flat.” “It just happened – right around the year 2000. …people all over the world started waking up and realizing that they had more power than ever to go global as individuals.”
In the trend-setting new book, “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson writes of the marketplace, “The era of one size fits all is ending, and in its place is something new, a market of multitudes.” “The mainstream has been shattered into a zillion different cultural shards,” he adds. “This is something that upsets traditional media and entertainment no end…. (their) hits are suddenly not enough. The audience is shifting to something else…Increasingly the mass market is turning into a mass of niches.”
When I was growing up, there were basically three TV stations. We worked our schedule to be in front of the TV for “All in the Family” and “Laugh In.” Now there are hundreds of TV channels and the programs can be time-shifted for viewing at any time. But that’s just the beginning of it, because our children or grandchildren are more likely to be watching programs from millions of websites, including Youtube, which itself contains millions of homemade videos, some of which are quite good. Many of which are quite bad. But it doesn’t matter, because when there are millions of them, people will find the good ones. That’s the “long tail,” the unlimited number of choices, and the infinite opportunity each of us has to be heard, read and seen. At last month’s Emmy’s, Conan O’Brien quipped, that “at this very moment your kids are on YouTube watching a cat on the toilet instead of watching that footage where it belongs: on the Fox network.”
During the recent war, one image that circulated on Youtube was a home video of Israeli soldiers praying before their tanks crossed the border into Lebanon. It was one of the most moving scenes we saw – and it could not have been staged for Anderson Cooper on CNN. It was home grown and it was real. People are choosing to run from the corporate behemoths and are watching instead the handiwork of individuals. Newscasts from all over the world are now played alongside mom and pop videos. Famous journalists are quoting average Joes from the Blogosphere or podcasts. It is the mark of individual expression, infinite opportunity and of utter equality. These, you’ll recall, are the hallmarks of “tzelem elohim,” living in God’s image.
Choice can be a scary thing. The average Wal-Mart contains about 4,500 CD titles. That’s about as many as any store can hold. But go online and Amazon lists 800,000. With iTunes, you can download millions of songs. But rather than being intimidated by this avalanche of options, people are reveling in the many choices offered them. What we seek now is not to be told what to do, but to be given guidance in selecting from the myriad of possibilities. Hence the rise in professions like wedding planners. In 1981, the Association of Bridal Consultants had 27 members. In 2004, that number had grown to 4,000. As the choices proliferate, I’ve come to see the role of rabbi as sort of a “religion planner.” My job is to give people the spiritual tools to negotiate the multitude of life choices they now have – so many more than in the past. My aim is not to tell you what to think. My aim is to encourage you to think, to nurture your own power of conscience.
The disintegration of mass culture has brought us closer to a world imbued with Godliness. The “zillion cultural shards” mentioned by Chris Anderson brings to mind images made popular in the thinking of the great Kabbalist philosopher Isaac Luria, the Ari, who spoke of a sort of divine big bang resulting in shards of holiness to be found everywhere on earth – pieces of godliness, as it were. Each shard of divinity is itself a precious jewel – each expression of individuality – and each person is as well. We live in a dizzying world, a “flat world,” empowering the individual as never before in history. But each of us has a piece of God in us – each of us can now bring our godliness directly into contact with millions of people. Each of us MATTERS.
In an era of individuality, where one size no longer fits all, the religious community that embraces the power of choice and captures this new creative energy is the one that will rise above the rest in meeting the needs of its members, and attracting new ones. That is why, one month from this coming week, we’ll become the first synagogue in Lower Fairfield to introduce what is already becoming the next big thing in synagogue life: Synaplex.
Simply put, Synaplex is a way to celebrate simultaneously the many authentic expressions of Judaism - learning, culture and gathering as well as prayer. Jews have a multitude of ways to participate in Judaism and Jewish life; Synaplex brings them together in Jewish "prime time," that is, in the synagogue on Shabbat.
So there will be a Kabbalistic Yoga session here at Beth El, on a Shabbat. And there will be a meditative Shabbat service, and a learner’s service, and a discussion of Abraham Joshua Heschel over there, and a lecture on how to deal with aging parents over there, and a discussion on communicating with kids over there, and with your pet over there, all as a midrash on the Tower of Babel story will be acted out by Storahtelling in this room, and of course we’ll also have a traditional style service, and a bike ride – a Jewish bike ride, where the riders will say blessings over the wonders of nature, and the tots will have a scavenger hunt and sing with Nurit, and there will be dancing with Shmulik and of course the cantor’s fabulous Shabbat Unplugged. Something for everyone – including your pets, who have been cordially invited to my front lawn by my standard poodles, Crosby and Chloe. What we are bringing to Stamford next month is nothing less than the long tail of Jewish possibility. It’s the future of synagogues and we are bringing it here, right now. I hope you will volunteer, tell your friends about it, and COME.
When we were accepted into the Synaplex program, we were among about 50 pilot synagogues. Since then about 50 more have followed us through the pipeline and the program is now being rolled out everywhere. Someday very soon we will be extremely proud to have been the first to bring it to this area, because, mark my words, soon everybody will be doing it.
TBE will be issuing free tickets of admission - "VIP Passes" - for a multiplicity of gateways, many portals into the Shabbat rhythm. Our TBE Synaplex will blend our diverse paths, our many doors of entry - into a unified community. Synaplex is especially for our congregants, but there are also so many unaffiliated Jews out there who feel no connection to the typical suburban synagogue. Reb Shlomo Carlebach called them “the holy schleppers,” perennial outsiders. We need to embrace them all. To be Jewish is to BE a perennial outsider – that’s what keeps us asking the questions – that’s what keeps us challenging authority, that’s what keeps us expressing our uniqueness, our equality and our infinite value – that’s what keeps us Godlike! That’s what keeps us Jews. And THAT’S what will help us to keep the world spinning another century from now:
What’s the alternative? White bread June Cleaver Judaism. That is the 63. WE are the 36. We are the Lamed Vav. There are no more huddled masses, because each of us now breathes free. And each of us, no matter how big or small, can make all the difference. In what we do, in who and how we challenge, and how we reach out to help others and repair the world. For the world to survive, each of us must look deep inside and see, paraphrasing the words of writer Anne Lamott: that “You are not your bank account or your ambition.” You are not the car you drive or the clothes you wear. “You are not the cold, clay lump you leave behind when you die….You are Spirit.” You are the image of God, the divine footprint on earth. “You are love, and even though it is hard to believe sometimes, you are free.”
If the battle cry of the 20th century was “Power to the People,” the battle cry of the 21st is “Power to the Person.” But that has been Judaism’s battle cry all along.
We are each supremely empowered individuals, each of us imbued with a godlike understanding of what is right and what wrong. That is the ultimate lesson of the Akeda, for Abraham and for us. Yes, we have entered the era of the supremely empowered individual. But that can save the world only inasmuch as we use that power to connect with others and to protect the rights of every human being. Which is where we will continue our journey on Yom Kippur.
"The Compassionate Life"
Tonight, our third Jewish response to the challenge put forth by Stephen Hawking – how life on earth can be sustainable for another century. Last week’s responses called upon us to slow down life’s torrid pace, to act instinctively and assert our godlike gift of individuality. Tonight: compassion. We’ll explore the steps we can take to better love our neighbor as ourselves.
Compassion begins with connection. Last week I mentioned that I would be quoting from Bar and Bat mitzvah speeches given from this pulpit, as my way of expressing appreciation for all that our children have taught me over the years, as I now begin my 20th year here. They’ve all been so special. But there are some that stand apart in that they convey a message so filled with love, revealing a connection that goes beyond the grave, giving us a glimpse into the soul of a child who is not really a child at all.
Allison Gulotta is one who stands out. Her time in this community was very brief, and in fact she returned here for her Bat Mitzvah after having moved to Prince Edward Island with her father and step mother, who are not Jewish. But she returned here in the fall of 1998 to complete a circle started by her mother, Jill.
Jill Gulotta had nearly died from a stroke back when Allison was born, and had lived the remainder of her life confined to a wheel chair, unable to communicate easily. Allison never knew her mother as the vibrant woman that she had once been, but her illness only brought out her inner beauty all the more. Jill had come to my attention when I received a call from her nursing home saying that they had a resident who wanted to become Bat Mitzvah. And so Jill was introduced to the team of Temple Beth El. With the patient tutoring of Rosalea Fisher and the help of Hazzan Rabinowitz, Jill realized her dream, right here on this pulpit, in one of the most inspiring services I’ve ever witnessed. Jill died a few years after that. Then, several years later, Allison followed in her mother’s footsteps onto this bima with these inspiring words:
“There is one person who is here today in spirit, who has influenced me more than even I know,” she said. That’s my Mom. I know… that I wouldn’t be up here today if it weren’t for her. I can remember holding the Torah at her Bat Mitzvah and when I was watching her I was kind of thinking, “That could be me.” I know that she wanted more than anything to set an example for me – and here I am.”
“As I’ve grown older,” Allison continued, “I’ve begun to find out more about my Mom, since I didn’t have the chance to know what she was like when she was younger. I’ve discovered that she used to love to take pictures and do graphic arts, swim and run, make clothes and go to the beach. At times people might have thought she was weak because she had physical problems, but she loved to prove them wrong. She was the strongest person I’ve ever known. She also loved to say what was on her mind. She also loved to laugh. I certainly can relate to those last two characteristics.
“She also loved being a Jew. She loved all Jewish holidays but Passover was her favorite. She also wanted to go to Israel. So do I. And when I go, I will put a little note in the Western Wall for her. … I think of all the things that she did to make me what I am today, and the person who she was, who will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.”
It’s been years since I last saw Allison Gullotta, but her words have become part of the tapestry of kindness and connection that, like the patchwork tallit you see in front of me, is emblematic of the spirit of our congregation.
All our kids are extraordinary, but some of our kids have demonstrated an ability to empathize that is astounding for people of any age: like Jeffrey Rich, who, this past spring, spoke of his extraordinary mitzvah project at the Rosenthal Hospice. His portion described the breastplate worn by the Kohen, which had twelve precious stones on it, with each stone representing one of the twelve tribes. “This teaches us that each tribe was unique and had something special to offer,” he said. In that way, every person is precious jewel, unique and special.” He then went on to describe his growing friendship with patients at the hospice – and he continued to visit, time after time, knowing that invariably the time would come when his new friends would no longer be there.
In a similar vein, in 2002 Erica Eber decided to reach out to a girl named Nina Kardashova from the Israeli city of Hadera, whose own Bat Mitzvah celebration had been attacked by a terrorist six weeks before. Six people were killed, including the girl's step grandfather and uncle, and many were injured. Erica and Nina exchanged several very moving letters, just as Michelle Greenman did this past year in sending holiday packages to Jewish soldiers in Iraq – something Aliya Boyer is also doing right now.
Compassion takes courage - the courage to care: It takes courage to take on a mitzvah project like these – or the several students who donated several inches of their hair to make wigs for cancer patients, “Locks of Love,” or the mitzvah project we heard about just a few weeks ago, from Rebecca Savransky, who played her violin so beautifully just a few moments ago. For her project, Becca is training a seeing eye-dog named Viva. All the while that she is doing this extraordinarily difficult work, she knows that success will mean losing a pet she has grown to love. But she is willing to make that extraordinary sacrifice to give someone else the gift of sight. Becca had us all close our eyes that morning, just to feel for ten seconds what it is like to be missing the gift of sight. Animals have a way of teaching us how to care, and dozens of our B’nai Mitzvah have spoken lovingly of their pets, like Heather Donner who, in 1995, shared with us how her hamster Seymour taught her about responsibility and Travis Kahn a couple of years ago, who volunteered in a wolf preserve, and several who have cared for horses.
In 2004, another great mitzvah-doer, Allison Greenwald, quoting the Torah scholar Yishayahu Liebowitz, told us, “There are two kinds of holiness: the holiness that we are born with – in other words, what we ARE; and then there is the other kind – the holiness that we strive to BE. That holiness comes through caring and connection.”
Long ago, across the world there was a moment in time when not only Judaism, but all major religions, had a recognition that the only way one could encounter God was to live a compassionate life. This period, roughly 25 centuries ago, has been called the Axial age by scholars, and it is the subject of a new book by bestselling religion author Karen Armstrong. This was the age of the Upanishads and Buddha in India, Confucius in China, Aristotle and Socrates in Greece and for the Jews, great prophets like Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. During this period, each of these cultures independently fostered almost identical versions of the Golden Rule, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Empathy was the watchword of the era.
When one looks at the Jewish sources from the period, a time that included the destruction of the first temple and exile to Babylon, it is simply amazing how a people so battered could turn out literature so compassionate. Out of that period came what was later called the P source, that strand of the Torah narrative that contains some of the Torah’s most universal and visionary material, including the Creation story. We’ve gotten so hung up on Darwin and dinosaurs that we fail to recognize just how revolutionary and amazingly beautiful the biblical Creation story is. On the last day of that creation, God looks around, sees everything that had been made – everything – “and behold, it was exceedingly good.” Then, God blesses all that was made – not just one people or one land – but everything – even, presumably, the Babylonians, the Jews’ arch enemies; and then God rested calmly on the Sabbath. The Torah’s P source focuses on the priesthood, hence the letter “P,” but not in an elitist way – for it calls Israel a nation of priests. The Jewish people, whose temple had been destroyed, could live on – through exile – in a state of holiness. This response to brutal exile was the affirmation of life – and the key to it all was compassion for the Other.
And so, if the key to changing the world for the better is empathy and compassion, how else can we become more caring?
Joseph Telushkin, our scholar in residence last March, published a landmark book on the very weekend he was here. It is volume one of his magnum opus, “A Code of Jewish Ethics.” This magnificent and very readable volume focuses on the small ways we can become more compassionate, one step at a time, covering everything from the obligation to be cheerful to the ways to criticize ethically. Of course it includes the laws of gossip – even telling us when lying is permissible. We are given clues as to how to reduce anger and envy, how to be more humble and thankful and forgiving and how to squelch that most destructive emotion of all, the desire for revenge.
This month I’ve been using this book extensively, at meetings, in classes and at services. I would like to make it a congregation-wide project to read it this year. I think it sets the tone we need to set – all year, every year, a tone of humility and spiritual growth, a tone of caring. I am willing to go just about anywhere to work with groups of congregants wishing to study this book together, at lunch and learns or desserts, morning, noon and night, in offices, homes, a park bench at the Cove, Stamford, New Canaan, Manhattan - St Croix - anywhere. This book is that good and that important.
Judaism is all about compassion; we literally worship compassion – one of our names for God is harachaman – the Compassionate One. Think about it: the great ages of compassion for the Jewish people have always followed national traumas. It’s counterintuitive. The magnificent Creation story was likely written during the Babylonian exile. When Hillel uttered his version of the golden rule, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others,” the Romans were as oppressive to the Jews as any nation ever was before the Nazis. When Rabbi Akiva repeated it, the temple was still smoldering in ruins. But still they loved. But still, they embraced their neighbor. And now, in the midst of all Israel’s struggles – they are the first to offer help to any nation after a terror strike or national disaster and to give shelter to their own people driven from their homes in the north.
The compassionate life starts with the little things. Like something Becky Rosenberg taught us at her Bat Mitzvah in 1997: something as simple as a Lost and Found bin.
“One day this past summer at camp somebody was putting a lost watch into that bin when I I took a close look at it and recognized a little dinosaur on its face. The watch belonged to a friend of mine. I returned it to my friend and thought nothing of it. That same day, only two hours later, I came to the Temple to discuss my portion and guess what we began to talk about: the laws of lost and found. It turns out that I did a mitzvah and didn’t even know it. Then I began to think: Someone wants me to write about this.
“The Torah teaches us how important it is to return any lost article,” Becky continued, “no matter how insignificant. This law is so important that we’re not even allowed to pass by a lost article if we know it is lost. Why does the Torah make such a big deal over what seems like such a little thing?” The answer, for Becky and for us all, was because it is all those little things that add up to a life of holiness.
One little known commandment comes from the heart of the Torah’s P source, the “Holiness Code” in Leviticus 19: it says, “In justice you shall judge your fellow.” This verse is understood in Jewish law as applying to everyone, not merely judges - because we’re all so quick to pass judgment on people, all the time. We are all so quick to pass judgment, and that stance is not compatible with a life of compassion. In his book, Telushkin shares this moving prayer sent to him anonymously:
Help us remember that the “jerk” who cut us off from traffic last night might be a single mother who worked nine hours that day and who is now rushing home to cook dinner, help with homework, do the laundry and spend a few precious minutes with her children.
Help us remember that the pierced, tattooed, disinterested young man who couldn’t make change correctly at the register today is a worried nineteen year-old student who is preoccupied with whether he passed his final exams and with his fear of not getting a student loan next semester.
Remind us, Lord, that the scary looking “bum” begging for money in the same spot every day is a slave to addictions that we can only imagine in our worst nightmares.
Help us to realize that the old couple walking so slowly through the store aisles, blocking our shopping cart, are savoring this moment, because they know that, based on the biopsy report she got back yesterday, this may be the last year they will go shopping together.”
Here’s another little tidbit of holiness. The 13th century book on Jewish ethics, Sefer Hasidim suggested, “When you hear a friend saying something you already know, don’t jump in and interrupt; rather, remain quiet.” Don’t you just hate when that happens? Especially when they completely misunderstand your intent. Jewish sources also speak of how it’s rude to enter someone’s home unannounced, to always greet people with a smile, and always complement another person’s new garment or hairstyle, even if you don’t like it.
It’s the little things that make for a life of holiness, all the little things - and one big thing. To be truly loving, the compassion can’t merely be directed at others. The commandment, after all, is to love our neighbor AS ourselves. So if we hate ourselves, then we can’t possibly love our neighbor. Compassion implies forgiving our neighbor her imperfections – but just as much, it means accepting imperfection in ourselves. Last week, when I was describing all the terrific things coming up in Synaplex, I inadvertently left out the teen service, and one of our teen reps to the Synaplex committee was not happy about that. Of course I apologized and assured him that it was not intentional. These things happen. I think he realizes that the apology was genuine, and thank God Ethan has forgiven me.
We live in an imperfect world. In 2003, David Rome drew a contrast between the real world we live in and the perfect world of his elaborate train set, where he could play God, by orchestrating every detail, right down to the peeing Dalmatian.
“In the world of holiness,” he said, “people don’t bear grudges, they don’t gossip, they don’t hate each other and they love their neighbor as themselves…. The difference between God’s world and my train world is that God can’t force us to be perfect. If we followed the Torah’s laws, then the world would be as perfect as my trains. But God set it up so that we would have free choice and we very often make the wrong choices. I can only imagine how painful it is to be God sometimes, when we make the wrong choice. I don’t know what I would do if the car refused to go through the car wash or the Dalmatian refused to pee.”
We don’t live in David’s perfect train world. But we do have something that they don’t have in perfect train worlds. It’s called teshuvah. And teshuvah, the ability to forgive and be forgiven, to set matters straight and move on, is the ultimate Jewish prerequisite for a compassionate life.
Jill Rothkopf delivered her Bat Mitzvah speech on the Shabbat of my installation, in 1992. She’ll find her way to the huppah this coming March, but back then she already knew the secret to a successful marriage - and a meaningful life: “I learned from my portion that no one is perfect,” she said, “even Moses, and sometimes it is better to make mistakes, but only if something is learned from them. As the High Holidays approach and I become a Bat Mitzvah, I look back at the things I’ve done and know that I am not perfect either. And now I know that being hurt from mistakes is not a punishment; it is a lesson.”
In 2000, human frailty was the hidden meaning that Alex Paul saw in, of all things, the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign. Alex, who had collected nearly 60 of the ads with the milk mustaches, concluded that people like to see celebrities in embarrassing poses. “It makes them more human, more like us,” he said. “Seeing the beautiful people in these funny poses tells us that even they aren't perfect. In that respect, all people are equal.”
“But our flaws, like our milk mustaches, can be wiped away,” he added, comparing it to the original celebration of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when a goat was sent into the wilderness, symbolically carrying away the sins of the people. Kippur means, "to wipe away." The priest would then go into the Holy of Holies and pray that their sins be wiped away. Afterwards, everyone would feel refreshed and renewed.
Alex continued: “Yom Kippur reminds us that no one is perfect. We all have our flaws. But like the mustaches, these flaws can be wiped away, and once they are, we can get a fresh start, either by going into the new year as we do after Yom Kippur,” he concluded, “ or by drinking another cold glass of milk.”
Not all deeds can be wiped away as easily as a milk mustache. Last November, the day before Thanksgiving, I was visiting Stamford hospital and had seen a couple of congregants there but was in a hurry. I knew that another person was there, but I was in multi-tasking mode and had just seen her a few days before and she had seemed to be improving, so I decided not to put off seeing her at that moment – I’d catch her after the holiday. The following Monday, I got a call telling me that this woman was in failing health; by the time I got there, she was no longer responsive. The call had come from a lawyer who had been assigned her case – she had no family to speak of, had lived at the Y on her retirement and had been sick for some time with no one to care for her. Her only family, in reality, was Temple Beth El. She had no living will. As her rabbi, I was the one who knew her best and the doctors and lawyers were looking to me for any hint expressed on her part as to how to handle a situation like this. I could not recall any such instruction from her, but knew that she had always had a strong will to live. Had I seen her on that Wednesday before Thanksgiving, maybe it would have come up. After several excruciating days of deliberating, the machines were removed and she was allowed to die.
Her name was Gloria. She used to come to services often and was known for having the heart of a lion in a diminutive body.
Her funeral was very small, at our cemetery. A few of her old temple acquaintances came by as we laid her to rest. I later found out that in her will she left a good percentage of all she had left, several thousand dollars, to Beth El. I’ve been saying Kaddish for Gloria at minyan all year, because there is no one else. The temple family was her only family. But even saying the Kaddish all year can’t make up for the one visit that I missed, the one that could have made all the difference.
No, this isn’t David’s perfect train world and yes, Gloria was one of Jeff’s precious jewels and yes, at the time it seemed like one of Becky’s little unnoticed deeds that add up to a life of holiness, and yes, like Becca I could have closed my eyes and experienced her world and yes…and yes… when Allison’s mom Jill Gulotta wanted to see a rabbi I DID visit her, and look where that ended up; and yes, Jill Rothkopf reminded me to accept my own imperfections; And yes, as Allison Greenwald reminded us, “There are two kinds of holiness: the holiness that we are born with and the holiness that we strive to BE. That holiness comes through caring and connection.” And yes, this is the day when the milk mustache gets wiped away and the face is clean.
It’s been said that all we really need to know was learned in Kindergarten. Well, when it comes to living a life of holiness, all I need to know I’ve learned from our 7th graders.
We must never stop striving to be more compassionate!
We must never stop striving to be more holy!
And when the High Priest performed the Yom Kippur ritual, he proclaimed to the people, “Ki ba'Yom ha'Zeh Yechaper Aleichem... Lifnai Adonai Titharu!” “For on this day your sins have been wiped away, and before the Lord you are pure.”
Here’s the text of a greeting card I saw one day a few months ago:
“So far today, God, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper haven’t been greedy or grumpy, nasty or self centered. I’m really glad about it.
But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed and then I’m going to need a lot of help. Thank you.”
It is not easy to live a compassionate life. But let us resolve to do that, step by step, one small deed at a time. So that, at the end of this day, we will all be able to look around and proclaim, as did the high priest of old, “Titharu.” “Titharu.”
"The Pursuit of Happiness"
There is an ancient parable from India called “The Wise Woman’s Stone.” A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone in the wise woman’s bag, admired it, and asked the wise woman to give it to him. The wise woman did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the jewel was worth enough to give him security for the rest of his life. But a few days later he came back, searching for the wise woman. When he found her, he returned the stone and said, “I have been thinking. I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back to you in the hope that you can give me something much more precious. If you can, give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
We’ve all seen this wise woman or man somewhere in our lives. And she is so easy to pick out: the one whose face never seems creased or cross; the one who doesn’t need prozac, or alcohol or meaningless physical relationships; the one who seems so happy but, on the surface, the happiness has nothing to do with anything she has. It has to do with…we’re not really sure what it is. But whatever it is, we look over at her and want to say to the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Something tells us that if everyone in the world were to become as happy as that woman, the human race would have no problem making it for another century.
So today we’ll look for the sources of true happiness, finding it somewhere in the nexus between hope and acceptance, suffering and purpose, togetherness, idealism and a very thick skin, all of which are key components to happiness.
It always amazes people when they hear that originally, Yom Kippur was the Disney World of the Jewish calendar, and Jerusalem was the Happiest Place on Earth. At this point in the day, in ancient times, the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies and proclaim, “Titharu,” “You are cleansed.” And that would be it. What followed would be a celebration of rejuvenation and national renewal that would continue for many days, culminating in the weeklong pageant of wine and water, Sukkot.
Even later, in post temple times, when the rabbis took matters out of the hands of the priests and added the element of personal Teshuvah to the Yom Kippur mix, repentance was always rooted in optimism - the idea being that change IS possible. We can recognize sin, admit to it, change behavior patterns and root out evil from our lives, echoing God’s message to Cain in Genesis, “Sin crouches at the door...yet you can be its master.”
Judaism is a profoundly optimistic faith - once you get past all the kvetching. An informative and funny book about Yiddish language and culture, “Born to Kvetch,” discusses our proclivity to focus on the negative:
“A man boards a Chicago-bound train in Grand Central Station and sits down across from an old man reading a Yiddish newspaper. Half an hour after the train has left the station; the old man puts down his paper and starts to whine like a frightened child. "Oy, am I thirsty. . . . Oy, am I thirsty. . . . Oy, am I thirsty. . . ."
The other man is at the end of his rope inside of five minutes. He makes his way to the water cooler at the far end of the car, fills a cup with water, and starts walking back to his seat. He pauses after a few steps, goes back to the cooler, fills a second cup with water and walks gingerly down the aisle, trying to keep the cups from spilling. He stops in front the old man and clears his throat. The old man looks up in mid-oy, his eyes beam with gratitude as he drains the first cup in a single gulp. Before he can say or do anything else, the man hands him the second cup, then sits back down and closes his eyes, hoping to catch a bit of a nap. As he sits back, the old man allows himself a sigh of thanks. He leans into his own seat, tilts his forehead toward the ceiling, and says, just as loudly as before, "Oy, was I thirsty. . . .”
Author Michael Wex explains the culture of “oy” observing that kvetching is “a way of life that has nothing to do with the fulfillment or frustration of desire. Kvetching can be applied indifferently to hunger or satisfaction: it is a way of knowing, a means of apprehension that sees the world through cataract-colored glasses.”
Kvetching is nothing new. But despite the streak of negativism that has been a prevalent part of Judaism from the start, we could always fall back on the deep faith in the future that is at the Torah’s core. But now, kvetching has become the latest fad, as popular among non-Jews as Jews, following in the footsteps of Bar Mitzvahs and Kabbala. Pessimism is everywhere, personified in the Saturday Night Live character, “Debbie Downer,” played to pathetic perfection by a Jewish cast member, Rachel Dratch. Happiness and hope are nowhere to be found. In his newly released work, “Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit,” Joshua Foa Dienstag, a U.C.L.A. political theorist, makes the claim that pessimism is so seductive because, “the world keeps delivering bad news.”
In a New York Times commentary last month, Adam Cohen wrote, “Optimists see history as the story of civilization’s ascent. Pessimists believe in the idea that any apparent progress has hidden costs, so that even when the world seems to be improving, “in fact it is getting worse (or, on the whole, no better).” Polio is cured, but AIDS arrives. Airplanes make travel easy, but they can drop bombs or be crashed into office towers. There is no point in pursuing happiness. Cohen adds that pessimists make lousy politicians, because do not believe in undertaking great initiatives to ameliorate unhappiness, since they are skeptical they will work. They are inclined to accept the world’s evil and misery as inevitable.
We’ve got our work cut out for us. Because this is the view that is prevailing now, all across America and across the world as well. The great voices of hope of the previous generation, spanning the ideological spectrum from FDR to Ronald Reagan, all have been stilled. Bill Clinton was ridiculed for his hokey linkage to his hometown, “a place called Hope,” but he understood how, in Adam Cohen’s words, “instilling hope is such a crucial part of leadership.” And since he left office, hope has been all-but removed from the political lexicon.
And so, where can we look for inspiration to get us through troubled times? The Talmud states, “Much I have learned from my teachers; even more from my colleagues; but more than that from all of them did I learn from my students” (Taanit 7a). That’s why I’ve been quoting extensively from the hundreds of bar and bat mitzvah speeches given here over the past two decades. We have strayed far from the path of promise. Maybe our children can now show us the way back.
We’ve had a number of kids speak very movingly about how they had to overcome serious illness or disability to reach their big day. Although I am hesitant to quote from them here, some of their speeches were among the most moving ever.
In 1997 David Lane spoke of his love of chess as a means to restoring order in a chaotic world. “It is one of the few things in this world that is truly logical. Everything stays the same. Everything is black and white. Every piece knows its role. Every move is directed toward a single goal.” Two weeks ago Mitchell Berkoff talked about how he learned to lift his own spirits after 9/11- in the kitchen. He likes to cook and said, “I’ve learned how we shouldn’t cry over spilt milk, and when an egg breaks, you can make a great omelet.” For her Bat Mitzvah in 2000, Rebecca Fox wrote a letter to her children about the world she hoped they would someday grow up in. In 2003, Ryan Erskine wanted to be able to look at the Torah through fresh eyes, so one hour before our first session he went out and got contact lenses.
In recent years we have had some memorable examples up here of kids who “set the bar” in bar mitzvah very high, and they’ve inspired all of us. Dan Madwed spoke at his service in 2002 of how it is impossible for any Jew to fulfill all of the 613 mitzvot, but that it is good to keep the bar high because it is a goal that can drive us. He compared this to his passion for swimming and said “My goal is to go to the Olympics some day.” Talk about setting a high bar! And now that unreachable star is within his reach.
Believe it or not, some have set the bar even higher. At her bat mitzvah in 2003, Danielle Shapiro declared her candidacy for President of the United States, in 2028. “I think Americans are ready for a President who is... a woman, and a President who is a Jew!” she said. “ I’ve been president of my student council twice. I can multi task! I was just in the production of Grease all the while practicing for my Bat Mitzvah, dealing with schoolwork and going to dance three times a week. And at home, I make my bed every day, -- well, almost.” I am happy to report that Danielle’s political career continues to be on track and her youthful idealism remains unabated. She is currently a member of our USY board.
So, we can see how happiness begins with the purging the “oy” and replacing it with idealism and hope. But there’s more. The writer and pundit Dennis Prager lists 30 keys to happiness, here are some:
Don't aim for a happiness score of 10. Life is not a two-hour movie, rife with peak experiences. We have to make it last a long time, and so it has long stretches of blah. Aim for a solid 7.5 average, with a couple of nines and a lot of fives.
Comparisons. We destroy our own chances for happiness when we compare what we have with what other people have. The grass always seems to be happier on the other side.
"Missing tile" syndrome. You know how if you have a ceiling with one missing tile, your eye and mind tend to dwell on the one missing piece? Prager's advice: replace the tile or forget about it.
Equating happiness with fun. If you love having fun, forget about being happy, because fun is about what you are experiencing right now, whereas happiness is the longer-term outcome.
Practice self-control. You can't be happy if you can't control yourself. Our society is unwilling to come to grips with the fact that a lot of our bad stuff is inside us, not out there. Prager says that We should make a sign and hang it on our foreheads, facing toward us, and it should say: I AM MY BIGGEST PROBLEM.
Equating happiness with success: “If you equate happiness with success, you will never achieve the amount of success necessary to make you happy.” Prager adds, “People driven to succeed are never happy, by definition — it is not in their nature to ever be content. Jimmy Carter pined to be president, then found he hated the job.” I don’t completely agree with Prager on this, because a relentless drive to succeed can be fueled by a sheer passion for excellence, and even a humble quest to service God. The two athletes in the classic film “Chariots of Fire” both prove and disprove Prager’s point. Theorists also highlight feelings of competence as crucial for long term happiness, which is something we try to nurture during the bar mitzvah year. But I’m sure Dennis Prager would agree with me that this past week, when Cowboy receiver Terrell Owens denied reports of an attempted suicide, his publicist chimed in with one of the stupidest publicity statements of all time, “Terrell has 25 million reasons to be alive,” as if the degree of success implied by a 25 million dollar contract was a cure-all for suicidal depression.
Prager also insists that we have an obligation to be happy, because our happiness has impact on everyone around us, providing them with a positive environment in which to thrive and be happy themselves. That great philosopher of the funny pages, Charlie Brown, would agree: “HAPPINESS IS ANYONE AND ANYTHING AT ALL THAT'S LOVED BY YOU.”
Among Prager’s keys to happiness is a foundation of rooted-ness in one’s religious and national identity, a sense of purpose and pride, as well as gratitude. Pirke Avot agrees, asking “Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with what he has.” (“Ayzehu Ashir? Ha-sameach b’chelko.”)
And here is another very important component that Prager mentions - we often achieve happiness through the back door, through challenge and sacrifice. There is a whole school of thought in “happiness theory” that suffering is a prerequisite for happiness. And indeed there is a complex and vibrant relationship between happiness and suffering. The very fact that crying occurs both out of sadness and joy is a hint that the two are physiologically linked, like the words “oy” and “joy.” And remember, “oy” spelled backwards is “YO!” Ancient cultures understood that linkage - as in the Greek theater masks. But it goes beyond that.
It gets to the heart of why it seems that people in a place as perpetually tragic as Israel are in truth much happier than we are. Polls have shown it. In 2003, an Israel Bureau of Statistics survey caused a stir with its findings that a staggering 83 per cent of adult Israelis are satisfied with their lives. That figure surged to a giddy 89 per cent among the young, aged 20 to 24, while the happy meter dipped slightly to 75 per cent among those aged 75 or older, the “oy” generation. This from the people who invented kvetching! Last November, a similar poll showed roughly the same numbers - 82% of Israelis said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. This after five years of brutal terrorism, international isolation and an excruciating departure from Gaza. This despite a government rife with corruption, economic and social instability and the complete lack of a partner for peace. Oslo failed miserably but Israelis refuse to be miserable. In this summer’s Lebanon war they buried 116 more soldiers and 43 civilians (including 19 Israeli Arabs) – and still they are happy. Through their tears.
I watch Israeli TV regularly on satellite, and as I watch the open air rock concerts, biting comedy and an endless series of vignettes showing how life goes on, all during a massive bombardment of the north and south, I constantly catch myself thinking, “Waiter, I’ll have what they’re having.”
There was the florist in Haifa, who kept his shop open even during the days of the most relentless attacks. With Hezbollah rockets falling everywhere, he did not leave the store. Asked by an Israeli TV reporter how many customers he had had the prior day – said “one.” Then why stay open? He replied “So that if anyone in Haifa wants to buy a flower, they will have a place to go.”
There was a man of 105 in Kiryat Shmonah who was seen on Israeli television walking the nearly empty streets without a care in the world, as the rockets were falling everywhere around him. There was the philanthropist Arkady Gaydamak who built a tent city for 5,000 refugees from the north, complete with an activity center, counselors, buses for outings, a free phone center and a synagogue, where brisses and a wedding was held.
The Talmud says that when a wedding procession and a funeral procession cross paths, the wedding procession must be allowed to pass first. That’s what happened this summer, time and time again.
There was Amit bar Tzion, a 33 year old wedding planner, who arranged for a the most unusual wedding in Tel Aviv on August 10th on Tu B’Av, the Jewish Valentines Day. He found sponsors to subsidize a wedding celebration for 15 couples from northern Israel who had been forced to cancel their weddings while being confined to shelters. The Tel Aviv University student union provided flowers, photographers, hair stylists, makeup artists, a steak and salmon dinner, even fireworks. “This is the Israeli personality – we do,” Mr. Bar-Tzion said. “And we try to be happy even when it is difficult. It’s in our DNA.”
The Israeli writer Naomi Ragen also wrote of a wedding she attended in Israel this summer:
loving despite all the hatred that comes our way. There is nothing - nothing!- that our enemies can do to stop real love in the world. Real joy. Real happiness. They simply don't have that power. As long as there is life in us, we will carry on, bringing up our children to be pure, and kind, and loving and warm. We will bring them to the wedding canopy and watch them bring children into the world who will in turn be strengthened and nurtured by these samebonds of love, for family, for country, for God, for all…”
“We're so lucky," she told her husband as she took his hand. “We are so very, very lucky. To live in such a place.”
I was not lucky enough to be in Israel this summer - which for me was very, very hard - but I got the impression from all the people I spoke to over there, that, while they were going through the hardest of times, we were the ones who were more depressed about it.
One of our most widely known prayers is the Ashrei: In English we could call it “The Happy Prayer.” Because that’s what the word Ashrei means. “Ashrei Yoshvey Veytecha, od yehallelucha selah.” Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they will forever praise You.” Those who are fortunate enough to dwell in the shadow of God’s house, in Israel, live lives of purpose, and have already given granted a special measure of divine favor. They are happy.
This is also God’s house - right here: synagogue, family and community. “Od yehalelucha selah,” they will forever praise you:” The Talmud. (Sanhedrin 91b), uses this phrase as a proof text that those who happily dwell in God’s house, who study and pray, and recite Ashrei three times a day, by the way, will merit eternal life - because they considered paradise to be a place where God’s name is eternally praised. I think that it is safe to say that people whose lives are immersed in the life of a religious institution are generally happier. Well, most of the time. At least they should be – and they will be. Someone just said to me this past week that she wants to start coming to morning minyan more because it makes her happy.
But finally, there is one more ingredient to happiness that might be the most significant of all. The most common Hebrew word for happiness is “simcha.” A while back there was an interesting archeological find in Elephantine, Egypt. A simple real estate contract from an ancient Jewish community, written in Hebrew. It read: "Upon prompt payment I deed you this land." And then a phrase that intrigued the scholars: "This simcha with joy, love, and happiness." They did a close comparative study of other such documents and concluded that the meaning of simcha here is not joy, per se, but acceptance. Sukkot, next week’s harvest festival, is called z’man zimchateynu, the time of our happiness; but coming as it does, during the fall, with leaves falling and nature dying around us, it seems oddly misplaced. Wouldn’t spring or summer be a better time for the happiest holiday of them all? We learn from this that the true Jewish path to happiness is simple acceptance, based in gratitude and faith.
So if happiness is our goal, we need to go step by step past idealism and optimism, self control and self esteem, with a firm sense of connection to our community, nation, family and faith - knowing who we are. And we need to be able to turn suffering into song, the oy into joy.
At the end of the Talmudic tractate of Middot, there is a story where Rabbi Akiba and some colleagues go up to Mount Scopus to gaze down upon the ruins of the Temple. Imagine staring at Ground Zero in Manhattan before it was cleaned up. For it was centuries before the Temple mount was cleaned and no Freedom Tower was on the drawing board. The rabbis all cried, except for Rabbi Akiba, who noticed a fox climbing on the ruins. Akiba laughed, recalling a complex series of interrelated verses from the prophets. He said that now that he had seen the fulfillment of a prophecy of destruction, he knew that Zechariah’s prophecy of restoration would also some day be fulfilled. The other rabbis were comforted by that statement. And Akiba was right. The temple has not been rebuilt, nor should it be, but the view today from Mount Scopus might just be the most beautiful vista in all the world. Akiba even died a happy man, although tortured by the Romans in a scene we will review in the Martyrology section today. As his skin was being flayed, he uttered the forbidden words of the Shma: “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad!” All his life, Akiba had known what it was like to love the Lord with all his heart and all his might – now he finally was experiencing what it was like to love God with all his being, with his very soul. And with his last breath, he uttered the the word “Echad,” “One.”
We are the descendants of Rabbi Akiba, inspired by his life and his death. But as we now give our final response to Stephen Hawking, let’s look at ourselves not as descendants but instead as ancestors. For we are the ancestors of the people who, living a century from now on this earth, will be so grateful to us for having done what was needed to ensure human survival. And the final response? To be perfectly Jewish about it, we’ll put our four answers into the form of four questions: 1) Do I act? 2) Do I question? 3) Do I care? And 4) Do I hope?
If we can say a resounding “yes” to all of those, if we can live deliberately and act decisively, if we can challenge convention and assert our individuality, God’s image within us; if we can reach out to our neighbor in love and compassion and if we can turn oy into joy in the pursuit of happiness, we are living a life steeped in Jewish values and human interconnection. And if enough of us do that, the world will do just fine.
All we need to do is cling to that tree of life, the Torah – “Etz hayim hee l’machazikim bo - v’tomcheha m’ooshar.” (Proverbs 3:18) “For it is a tree of life for all who grab hold of it – and all of its supporters are and - always will be - happy.”
A Happy Yom Kippur to all!