Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
High Holiday Sermons 5770
Rosh Hashanah Sermons by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5770
“A Signature Mitzvah”
OK – set your watches. I’ve got a tough job – I’ve got four sermons over the next ten days – a couple of hours to recharge your Jewish batteries for another year, to convince you that it matters to be a Jew, to live by Jewish values and to raise Jewish families; to believe that Judaism gives us something that can touch us profoundly, that speaks to that which is most human about each of us and to help us believe that change is possible.
All of that. Four sermons.
Without boring you, even for a minute.
Without your taking out your cell phones and texting and Twittering. Without a single yawn. And today, without benefit of a single shofar blast. You in the 17th row! I saw that yawn!
All of that – and this year, I’m ratcheting up this challenge even more: I’m going to try to get you to see the Jewish path in a new way.
I want to bring mitzvah back! - I want to be the Justin Timberlake of rabbis.
I want to make mitzvah sexy.
It won’t be easy. For one thing, as we’ve been told over and over again, this is not a good year for bold initiatives. People are not feeling very hopeful. Hope was last year’s poster. Right now we are in a state ofcrisis.
The economy fell off a cliff right around last Rosh Hashanah, and only now are there some glimmering signs of an eventual recovery, though it would be hard to convince those who have lost jobs of that, or people who face foreclosure, or those who can’t afford school or can’t get loans for a small business.
As if that weren’t bad enough, our faith has been shattered by scandals involving lots of money. Politicians? Just about every major politician in Israel is under suspicion of something, and meanwhile back here we’ve have rabbis arrested for selling kidneys and handbags on the black market. Most sickening of course was the Madoff affair, which caused tremendous suffering for people of all backgrounds, but had a particularly devastating impact on Jews and philanthropy. I’ll have more to say about that on Yom Kippur.
Let’s see…what else. Speaking of sickening, how about a pandemic? An unkosher one at that? How about Iran getting perilously close to the bomb and imploding internally. And how about a war in Gaza that made it a little safer to go outside in Sderot but brought Israel no closer to peace and security.
Everything is a crisis: the economy, health care, the climate; and for Jews, we’re in the midst of an identity crisis. We’ve got parenting crises. We’ve got midlife crises, which has led perfectly normal governors to do crazy things like run off to Argentina. Tell me about midlife crisis! I just sent my first kid off to college two weeks ago. Ethan’s reading Torah there today.
It just occurred to me.
He’s not here!What do I do now?
Everything is in crisis: And to top it all, Paula Abdul is leaving “American Idol.”
So as I dive into these sermons, the degree of difficulty is very high.
Pray for me.
So every ten years the monks in this monastery are allowed to break their silence to speak two words. Ten years go by and it’s one monk’s first chance. He thinks for several seconds before saying, “Food bad.”
Ten years later, he says “Bed hard.”
It’s the big day, a decade later. He gives the head monk a long stare and says, “I quit.”
“I’m not surprised,” the head monk says, “You’ve been complaining ever since you got here.”
Why this was voted the best joke in America by Reader’s Digest I’ll never know – but if it had to win, this was the year for it to win. For if ever there was a time to complain, this year is it!
I recently read that the Chinese character for Crisis does not mean opportunity (as has been claimed by every motivational speaker this side of Confucius). However, if you rearrange the letters of the Hebrew root word for crisis, tzara: tzadi – resh – hey, the plural of which is tzarot, or the more familiar Yiddish tzuris, you get the word tzohar, which means threshold or radiance. And the word “tzarei,” which means balm. B-A-L-M. So from tzuris, we Jews get healing, we get radiance, we get to cross the threshold of new possibility.
And we get this without the help of the Chinese.
And how do we get to that state of radiance and Confucian calm? A little minor surgery to the word Tzarawill do the trick. The middle letter, a resh, is all hunched over, like a guy whose just been punched in the gut, who can’t bear to see what’s up ahead, bearing the burden of life’s hard knocks.
Well it’s time to straighten up, to hold your head up high, to spit in the face of despair, to look at crisis right in the eye and to overcome it.
And if you straighten out that resh, what you are left with is the straightest of all Hebrew letters, the vav, stretching to the sky.
And that leaves us with the root word Tziva – from which we get… MITZVAH.
So our task today? Let’s move beyond the mentality of crisis. Tzara, to a mentality of Mitzvah.
Do I believe that that could save the world?
Well, at the very least, it can set us out in the right direction.
Kurt Andersen, bestselling author and radio host, suggested that the international nature of our current economic meltdown has its upside – and presents us with a chance for us to, as he put it, “reset.” He calls this “A spectacular moment of global consciousness, this generation’s version of the Apollo astronauts’ 1968 photograph of the earth from the moon, an unforgettable reminder that all 6.7 billion of us, from Reykjavik to Sacramento, Vladivostok to Athens, Wall Street to Tiananmen, are together, deeply and inextricably interdependent.”
And perhaps that is true. We’re all united because we’re all broke!
Maybe out of the cauldron of the current crises we will emerge a kinder, more helpful society, one more aware of our interdependence.
The jury is still out on that one – as people in extremis can go either way. Some will choose to withdraw and close themselves off. No doubt that the combination of a tough economy and Swine Flu scare kept some people at home today. But you are all here. And we are all more aware than ever of that which binds all God’s creatures together.
By the way, did you know that Swine Flu is mentioned in the Talmud? I kid you not.
The Talmud tells us that when Rav Yehudah was informed of a deadly plague affecting the pigs, he decreed a fast. Now Yehudah didn’t think that the disease would harm kosher farm animals. Pigs are different from cows and other kosher animals, he said, because their digestive tracts are similar to those of humans (Ta’anit 21b).
He didn’t know what he was talking about but… Think about it. At that point, there was no sure sign that the disease would impact the human population. He was fasting for the pigs!
He also saw their connection to people. He understood that, in the end, we are all one. Even with pigs!
And that’s what we celebrate today. A unity that transcends all crises. We’ve even put the shofars away today to lay bare those things peculiar to Shabbat – a day where all of us come together. People, all people – even servants are included in the 4th commandment – and animals too. Even pigs. The Shabbat is for everyone.
Kurt Andersen feels we are entering a new cycle of community mindedness, aided by the rapid pace of globalization, the technological revolution and the worldwide concern for climate change. In his book “Reset,” he traces 15 such cycles in US history, as the pendulum continually swings from “an unfettered zeal for the individual to a rediscovery of the common good.”
And indeed, we have seen a swing back in the direction of altruism. “Teach for America,” a program that sends college grads into America’s poorest school districts for two years, received 35,000 applications this year, up 42% from 2008, including one out every nine Ivy League seniors! True, it’s a reflection of the lack of jobs, but these kids are looking to give back. We haven’t seen anything like this since the early days of the Peace Corps.
“History doesn’t repeat itself,” Mark Twain said, “But it rhymes.” And it is rhyming now. But not back to the ‘60s as Andersen claims. For today, on this Rosh Hashanah, we have just entered – the ‘70s. The 5770s. For as we now reset social priorities, we have a wonderful chance as well, to reset our clocks – to Jewish time and Jewish values (without, God willing, bringing back disco).
If ever there was a chance for us to look again at our lives and where all things Jewish might fit in, this is it. If there were ever a chance to re-explore the meaning of mitzvah, this is it.
If ever there was a chance to take Torah out of that closet where we have been storing it, and open it up to speak to our lives and the life of our community, THIS IS IT.
So what’s a mitzvah? A good deed? A commandment?
Yes and yes, but it’s more. Much more.
If we are going to push the reset button and reboot our Jewish souls, we need to rediscover this primal Jewish concept as if for the first time. And for many of us, it will be the first time.
To be a Jew is to reside in the world of mitzvah. That’s what bar mitzvah means. A Jew at age 13 is to be called one who has mastered the art of world repair – that’s why our 13 year olds are always out there doing so many incredible things to change the world.
A mitzvah is a very human act, but with a cosmic result, one that reverberates throughout the entire universe. But while mitzvot are ordained from on high, many perform them for reasons that are most mundane.
Some light candles because their parents did.
Some go to services because they get to schmooze with their best friends.
Some send clothes to Goodwill because their closet is so stuffed that the door won’t close.
There are many shadings to mitzvah, and we’ll be covering a few of them on these high holidays. And then, as part of JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen’s mitzvah initiative, we, along with several dozen other Conservative congregations, will be conducting a 14-session seminar that will bring us together to learn and discuss, in a non judgmental atmosphere, with openness and honesty. This seminar is a very exciting venture. It will help us to redefine what it means to be a Jew in this age. And it will help us to reset and redefine the concept of mitzvah for ourselves, our congregation, our movement and the world.
Mitzvot are, above all, opportunities to open ourselves up to a life of greater meaning and purpose. To make the most of our God given talents. But not in isolation. For the path of mitzvah is the path of bonding.
Some derive the word mitzvah from the Hebrew expression “tzavta,” which means connection. Through simple acts, we bond together what is divine with what is so utterly human and we connect to people everywhere.
Mitzvot are the mountain peaks where heaven and earth meet, where the mundane becomes sacred, where the religiously blind become spiritually aware.
In this green era, the mitzvah is a cheap source of renewable Jewish energy. And how do we energize? By taking on more. By stockpiling our mitzvot. But each of us must also specialize.
The Ishbitzer Rebbe looked at the Sh’ma and asked what does it mean to “love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your soul and with all your might?” Everyone has a particular mitzvah, he proclaimed. By fulfilling it, that person achieves the world to come – this mitzvah and its fulfillment become the essence of that person’s whole existence.
So what’s your mitzvah? Everyone has a signature mitzvah, a mitzvah that defines us.
I teach children – therefore I am.
I feed the hungry, therefore I am.
I take people to Israel, therefore I am.
That mitzvah becomes our immortality. Our legacy. Our footprint in the sand. It is, to quote one of this summer’s celebrated heroes, Julia Child, when talking about cooking, “what I dooo.”
There is a midrash that when a person is asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and they answer, “I fed the hungry,” that person will be told, “This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry…. The same goes for those who reply that they raised orphans, performed acts of tzedakkah, clothed the naked and embraced acts of lovingkindness (Midrash Psalms 118:17).”
So what will you say when you reach paradise? What will your descendants be saying about you? What do you dooo?”
Once you discover your signature mitzvah, the key is to take that mitzvah, to live it with all your soul and all your might – and to share it.
Think about it: There are, according to Maimonides’ count, 613 mitzvot in the Torah and we have nearly three times that many people here today. By my calculations, then, if each of us were to take on one mitzvah on behalf of the community, then all together, we would make up three complete Jews!
Well, in fact some of the 613 mitzvot are no longer in play and others are only meant to be observed in Israel – but the main thing is that most of us actually might want to do MORE than one. We do many mitzvot, after all, and often without knowing it.
But let’s each of us begin with one. Everyone start with one.
And if we bring that one to this community it will bind us as one.
And if we project our mitzvah out from this sanctuary out into the world, its positive impact will have all of us behind it. They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… but what happens here impacts the world.
So what will your mitzvah be?
To attend morning minyan? To make Beth El greener? To read Torah or to tutor? Or maybe to coordinate letter writing for Israel or to help with our Sukkah or Purim carnival. Maybe it’s to run a support group for those who struggle with addiction.
This year, Beth El has responded so supportively to the needs of those out of work that job networking has become our collective signature mitzvah. Michael Arons has been moving mountains to make this happen, but our neighbors have been thanking us simply because we belong to Beth El.
Call it Mitzvah by association.
There are a number of mitzvah heroes here. This one is helping with job networking, and that one is helping with the food drive. This one is paying anonymously for a famous scholar to teach a series on prayer, and that one visits people in the hospital. We’ve got Beth El mitzvah-makers all over the world. This one is teaching Adon Olam to a bunch of schoolchildren in India that one is serving up vitamins to Ethiopian kids in Netanya. And we’ve had congregants volunteer countless hours to realize the dream of the renewed social hall and lobby we are enjoying today.
The UJC has created a Mitzvah Heroes website and has been asking people to vote among a number of nominees, for people like Anne Heyman who is responsible for a youth village in Rwanda that cares for orphans. And Sadie Mintz, a Hollywood resident since 1929, who has risen at 4 AM once a week to prepare for her early-morning volunteer shift in at the cancer ward of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Think about it – if every person here took upon him or herself one mitzvah – one way to bring a little more love and holiness to our community and to the world and just did that, imagine what an impact that would make.
So what is your signature mitzvah? What others can you bring into your life? I asked board members that question and their responses are on our website.
As a rabbi, I consider myself somewhat of a general practitioner, but I’ve also got more than a few signature mitzvot.
One that I embrace is the one listed as #16 on Maimonides’ list of 613; it is a mitzvah for everyone to write a Torah for himself. I see my own writing in that light, as an attempt to bring the Torah to life through the prism of my own experiences. I also like #28, not to harm anyone in speech, though it’s hard and I often fall short. And there’s #39, to care for animals, and the 150’s, which all deal with aspects of Kashrut. And then there’s the 170’s, which all deal in business ethics. I care about those.
And I can’t forget #114, the mitzvah of making pilgrimage on festivals to the sacred soil of Israel. I’ve come to see that as truly my signature mitzvah. As you know, we are planning our next TBE trip, and we decided to postpone it from this December to next July in order to give more people this chance to go to Israel with our congregation family. We’ve cut costs to the bone while still providing a five-star trip. I implore you to talk about this over lunch today and consider this amazing opportunity.
And one more signature mitzvah: #53. Love the stranger. The Torah repeatedly commands us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt. Often, this refers to the Ger Tzedek – the convert. And indeed, we make it our business here to welcome converts and to make the process of becoming a Jew by Choice one of tremendous spiritual growth. But there is another type of stranger found in our sources – theGer Toshav – the person who, while not taking on Judaism as a faith, has elected for whatever reason to reside in our midst, and who, often with a Jewish spouse, has chosen to participate in this grand experiment called Jewish destiny. Maimonides could not imagine a world like ours, but the sentiment expressed in that mitzvah – to love the stranger – has made # 53 it one of Beth El’s signature mitzvot.
For those who are here today who are not Jewish, I embrace you warmly and unconditionally and invite you to share in this crucial work of world repair. No strings attached. We need all the help we can get!
So this is going to be our year of the mitzvah.
And to start it off, I’d like to ask everyone here to do a mitzvah this week, between now and Yom Kippur, one that you have never done before. And make it a challenging one. No cupcakes! Anyone can put a few coins in a tzedakkah box. How about lighting candles this Friday night? If you do that already, how about separating milk and meat – for a day? For a meal? For a course? I’d be happy to help explain it to you.
OK, and if you can’t do that because you are blogging your way through Julia Child’s cookbook, how about taking an hour away from all that butter to study the Torah portion? Or maybe visit a local hospital or nursing home and see people you don’t know. Or, hey, I don’t know, if you’ve never come to shul on the second day of Rosh Hashanah – come here tomorrow to participate in the mitzvah of hearing the shofar – that’s number 132!
Come to minyan and maybe try on tefillin – that’s #20. If you’ve never built a sukkah, it’s not too late. We’ll help! Or simply have a meal in our temple Sukkah; that’s mitzvah # 142. And even easier, buy a lulav set – # 141. We’re really pushing this one this year, because it’s so much fun and we’ll have a huge lulav parade here on the second day of Sukkot, which falls on a Sunday.
If you return a lost item, you’re doing a mitzvah – # 276. So if someone lent you something years ago and you just came across it, but you weren’t really sure what to do – return it! If you have one of my books, for instance, I’m declaring an amnesty period until Yom Kippur. No questions asked.
If you care for an animal, you’re doing a mitzvah. So adopt a dog and name it mitzvah. Throw a yarmulke on it and have a bark mitzvah…. If you’ve been carrying a grudge, end it. #32. If you’ve been gossiping, stop it (28); if you are known for angry outbursts (and who isn’t these days!), cool it – #30. If you’ve given tzedakkah, give more – #52. If you’ve never performed a bris… …maybe hold off on that one… but it’s #17.
Find a mitzvah, do it and do it on behalf of all of us.
Many of the 613 mitzvot are obscure, some have become obsolete, and others are downright objectionable. But the act of struggling with mitzvah in itself connects us to our roots and to one another. Maimonides wasn’t the last word on Torah, which is fortunately a living document. The mitzvah map is changing all the time. There are plenty to choose from, though. So find one that means something to you.
Then just do it. This week.
I know of one rabbi who asked his entire adult ed class to go home and light candles that Friday night. The response was amazing. – sort of like the response we had last year when several congregants hosted others for Shabbat @ Home, something we’re planning to do again in a few months.
One student came back and said “My family laughed at me.”
Another said he went upstairs and lit them in the closet. (I don’t recommend that).
And a third told the teacher, “I went home and lit candles last Friday night – and my husband cried.”
You know, it’s interesting that we always use the expression that we practice mitzvot. We’re alwayspracticing. We never get it right!
In Judaism, Practice never makes perfect. But practice makes something much more important.
Practice makes affect. Practice makes purpose. Practice makes holiness. Practice brings hope. Practice brings bonding. Practice brings people together. Practice brings communities together.
Practice brings heaven and earth together. So just do it!
But don’t do it for any reward, or mitzvah points, as we used to call them. Think of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, who said, “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge at you because you are a vegetarian.” Kaplan had a decidedly secular term for mitzvot. He called them folkways, but they were no less important to him, even without the notion of a personal God. Whatever your beliefs about God, Kaplan understood that without ritual, there is no Jewish civilization.
Do it out of love, love for a parent or grandparent, love for our children, love for the Jewish people, love for a Torah that has filled the world with holiness; to bring the world from tzarot to mitzvot, from pain to perfection; do it out of the conviction that there is something bigger than us, a power of love in the universe that we can tap into – and a Jewish message that is timeless and wonderful.
Do it to atone. We now know from his just published memoirs that Senator Ted Kennedy was haunted by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne to his dying days. He spent the last half of his life atoning for the first half of his life. 40 years of wandering in that personal wilderness. But he spent those last 40 years making the world better for all of us, and especially for the poor, the homeless and the sick. “Our sins don’t define the whole picture of who we are,” Kennedy said. And that is true.
But our mitzvot do.
Kennedy’s father said it to him early on. “You can have a serious life or a non-serious life, Teddy. I’ll still love you whichever choice you make. But if you decide to have a non-serious life, I won’t have much time for you.”
Teddy made the right choice. And he wasn’t afraid to declare it to the world. JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen says that the question of mitzvah here is not about theology, it is about our desire to be different, to stand out, to make the case that change is possible and to declare it to the world.
Don’t be afraid to declare it to the world! Kennedy was an unabashed liberal. We should be unabashed Jews.
Because what we do matters.
Think of Robert Lappin. This is the guy from Boston whose foundation funded a number of educational ventures, including the trips to Israel taken by our teens a few years ago. His fund was totally wiped out by Madoff. Completely. It ceased to exist.
So what did Robert Lappin do? He reopened his foundation, and is using his own money to restore the retirement savings that his employees lost in the fraud. Lappin is the anti-Madoff, the antidote to a civilization-gone-mad, the one who turned crisis into opportunity, into a threshold of radiance and balm.
Whenever we hear the world saying that Jews are crooks, think of Lappin, and think of all the mitzvah heroes you know. Look around you. In fact, all you’ll have to do is look in the mirror. Think of a tradition that is our precious legacy, and a heritage of goodness that can take your breath away. Think of mitzvot. The ties that bond.
And think of how it’s possible to awaken to the rhythms of life and love, on this first day of the new decade, the 5770s, without benefit of a single shofar blast. We have done it, and we can do it.
The recovery begins today, as we embark on this path of connection, the path of bonding. The path oftikkun olam.
The Mitzvot are our stimulus package for the world.
Together, let us bring Mitzvah back.
And together, we’ll continue this journey tomorrow.
In the fall of 1943, after being captured by the Nazis in the Ukraine, my grandfather was sent to Auschwitz. At first, he was just one of many Soviet POWs held at the camp, but it was later discovered that he was Jewish, so he was removed from the Soviet soldiers and placed with the other European Jews. My grandfather never knew why he survived while others perished, but there was never a day that passed after liberation in 1945 that he thanked God for that gift of life.
My grandfather was able to get to England and then on to America to restart his life. He raised 5 children and later cherished his 22 grandchildren. He loved to work in his garden, even on the hottest of days. As a child, I always wondered why he wore long shirts even on those August days when it would easily be 100 degrees (even in the shade). When I was 9, I caught my grandfather shaving in the bathroom and that is when I saw it: His Camp Number – 58877241.
Not knowing any better, I asked him why he got such a “stupid tattoo”. He told me that he really didn’t want to get it and quickly tried to cover it with a towel. I followed him asking him, “Why don’t you get it removed then?” He stopped dead in the hallway and without turning around said “So I don’t forget.” We never discussed it again.
When he died last summer, I told myself that he was finally at peace. As I stood over his coffin with my wife, I reached down and took his arm in mine. I unbuttoned his sleeve and rolled it up. I looked at the number again – 58877241. My wife looked at me and asked “Why are you doing that?” All I could say was “So I don’t forget.” Right then I made my promise to him – Never again.
Now when I see the hate and bigotry, I know that this is how it began seven decades ago in Europe. It was too late, when people finally woke up, millions had been carted away in cattle cars to their deaths.
I don’t want to see that here or anywhere else. I do not want there to be cattle cars filled with people that these hate mongers scream out against. This summer, my family and I will be traveling to Auschwitz, so my children understand what their grandfather went through. I want my daughter to know why I see him in her eyes. And then every time I look in her eyes I will see hope and love and not 58877241.
This coming April I’ll be making that same trip for the first time, visiting Auschwitz on the March of the Living, traveling with scores of teens and adults from our region and thousands from around the world. It’s hard to call it a pilgrimage to a place of such darkness, but that’s exactly what it will be. For while the commanding voice from Sinai binds us in love, it is the commanding voice of Auschwitz that compels us to remember, that compels the world to remember, in the face Ahmadinejad and his ilk.
Yesterday I noted how one way to define the term mitzvah is as “connection.” Mitzvot help to create the ties that bond. Today we need to go one step further. Today we explore the very difficult topic of obligation.
A mitzvah is a commandment, after all, although we joke these days that what Moses brought down from Sinai were the “Ten Suggestions.”
But we aren’t really doing justice to the concept of mitzvah unless we at least struggle with the notion of obligation. And that’s pretty hard to do these days, when many of our public figures have made a spectacle of shirking their obligations to the ones they love the most. They’ve been caught up in so many sordid scandals that it makes us long for the simpler days of Watergate. In the wake of the affairs involving Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, John Ensign, Larry Craig, Mark Foley, Jim McGreevey and others, we can speculate that a reason we can’t put the Ten Commandments in political office buildings is that the posting of “Thou shalt not commit adultery” would constitute for politicians a hostile working environment. It should be noted that I’m not in favor of placing the Ten Commandments in any public building, but I wouldn’t mind if people exercised a little more self control.
And then there is this summer’s #1 story this side of Michael Jackson, the saga of Jon and Kate. Now I must confess that when I first heard about the show “Jon and Kate Plus 8” I thought it was about two Jewish kids celebrating the last night of Hanukkah. But alas, Jon and Kate have gone their separate ways and their very public breakup has been a ratings bonanza for their show. And who wouldn’t want to watch this train wreck where a bunch of five year old sextuplets and their sibling twins act with greater maturity than their parents. When the show marked its 100th episode last June, Kate was in awe of the accomplishment of holding the show together for so many years. Holding a marriage together did not seem to matter nearly as much.
Yes, infidelity seems to have become this year’s most fashionable pandemic. One might say it’s just another strain of swine flu. But it’s gotten bad enough that this past July, Time Magazine ran a cover story entitled, “Is There Hope for the American Marriage?”
In that article, sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin claims that the face of the American family has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, with an dramatic increase in the pace of coupling and uncoupling, of marriage and divorce, creating “a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else.”
The essay states that this increasingly fragile construct depends less and less on notions of sacrifice andobligation than on the ephemera of romance and happiness… “The intact, two-parent family remains our cultural ideal, but it exists under constant assault. It is buffeted by affairs and ennui, subject to the eternal American hope for greater happiness, for changing the hand you dealt yourself.”
And the essay concludes, “There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers’ financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass.”
I want to make it clear that Judaism does not object to divorce. In some cases it is absolutely necessary. What I’m speaking about here is not about specific cases, but general trends. And the trend is away fromcommitment in relationships and toward what the kids call “hooking up.” The kids may call it that, but they aren’t the only ones doing it.
Commitment has become a dirty word.
Whatever happened to obligation?
The culture of hooking up has become so prevalent today, all the way down to middle schools, that even the kids are beginning to say, “enough.” A backlash is developing. Recently at Duke, a group of 250 students, mostly women, were asked whether they would like to bring back good old fashioned dating. Four out of five raised their hands. It seems that people are beginning to yearn for intimacy again, to be seen by the other not as an object but as a human being in the image of God.
And we need to begin to discuss this plainly with our kids. Yes, we all got so worked up last spring about the placement of that scandalous Advocate front page article about the Bat Mitzvah party gone wild in Norwalk. And we had a right to. It should not have been front page news. But that’s precisely the problem. It’s not news. Everything described in that article is happening around us all the time, including the vandalism, and the hooking up in the bathroom.
I said then and I repeat now that we happen to have some amazing kids and teens here. It’s not about that. We have some amazing adults too. But there is something corrosive and rotten about our culture that we need to help change, and that something rotten is the abandonment of obligation.
Caitlin Flanigan, who wrote the Time essay, told of her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, when she turned to her father at the dinner table and said, “It’s amazing, Dad — 50 years, and you never once had an affair. How do you account for that?”
He replied simply, “I can’t drive.”
Does it really come down to that? The only thing that keeps people from betraying the ones they love is a lack of opportunity? The only thing that comes between a person’s deepest commitments and falling off the cliff is simply not having the means to do it?
If that’s the case, I recommend that everyone here become a rabbi.
No, seriously. Yes I know, there is plenty of opportunity for clergy to abuse power in their relationships with parishioners, and God knows many have. Or, I should say, some have.
But I would venture to say that most have not. Part of the reason for that is that most people of the cloth are good, moral folk. But another part of the reason is the cloth itself, whether it is worn on the collar or on top of one’s head. I know that I am far from perfect, but as soon as I put on the yarmulke in the morning, I am reminded of my obligation to set an example, not of perfection, but of integrity. And that means striving to be worthy of my title, my Torah, my God, and your trust – to be a living embodiment of menschlichlite. Again, I fall way short of my own expectations; but my expectations are pretty high, and being a rabbi is part of the reason why.
So yes, unlike the writer’s father, I do drive, but my sense of responsibility keeps me from driving myself and my family off a cliff. God willing it will continue to. I also happen to love my family. But I suspect many philanderers do too. They just have the opportunity – things happen, they lose control, they forget a commandment or two, they take a business trip to Argentina and they blow it.
So being a rabbi has no doubt helped make me a better person. I often ask myself, would I be as ethical if I didn’t know that the eyes of the entire community are on me? Would I even come to shul every week? Would I pray at our minyan nearly every morning? Would I keep kosher? Would I give as much to tzedakkah if it were not my job to set that example? Would I study as much Torah?
And the answer? To quote Tevya, “I’ll tell you. I don’t know.”
I’d like to think I’d do all those things, but that’s partly because I’ve been doing all these things for so many years and have come to appreciate how they have enriched my life. Morning minyan gives me a chance to collect myself before I start my day, to reorient myself to the task at hand, to separate the essential from the tangential. Kashrut sensitizes me to what goes into my body and how I care for all of God’s creatures, great and small. Tzedakkah and study help me to connect to the world around me and the wisdom of the generations.
Had I never become a rabbi, it’s likely that I would sleep-in more on Saturdays, and maybe I would even have discovered what a weekend is. I’d probably take the opportunity to check out Shabbat services in different places. But I think I would crave the kind of friendship and warmth that exists here every Shabbat.
I know for sure that I would not be as loving, not as giving – and in the end not as happy.
Of course, rabbis are no better than anyone else, in theory. All of us are equally bound to the mitzvot. And we all need a little external push sometimes to be better people. For some it’s their title that motivates them, for others it might be the donor lists that appear in newsletters. Sure it’s better to give anonymously, but the mitzvah is to give tzedakkah, in any form, and if public recognition motivates us to follow through on that commitment, well, I can think of far worse forms of peer pressure.
Let’s take a closer look at obligation. When we think about it, it’s not really such a dirty word to us – wewelcome obligation in much of our lives. Our days are filled with commandments that we willingly embrace:
- Thou shalt put the cap back on the toothpaste tube.
- Thou shalt put the seat down.
- Thou shalt not accept a dinner invitation without checking with your spouse.
- Thou shalt let in the dog and take out the trash.
I bet you can think of dozens of these. It would be a good exercise over lunch today.
In addition, we all have our rituals that we stick to, for lack of a better term, religiously. These rituals guide the way we dress, the way we set the table and eat our food, the way we play or watch sports. Did you know that when I turn down the sound on the TV, the Patriots almost always recover a fumble on the kickoff? It’s a proven fact!
And we are always answering to the commands of others. Maybe we light candles because our mothers told us too. Maybe it was a father’s dying wish that we give to a certain charity. When a baby cries in the middle of the night, that’s thunder from Sinai. CARE FOR ME! And we hop-to. So obligation should not seen as such a dirty word.
But if I were to stand up here and say, “Every member of Beth El is henceforth obligated to come to morning minyan once this month,” I suspect I’d have a few messages in my inbox tomorrow.
As we explore the concept of mitzvah this year, we are obligated to ask ourselves what obligates us. Ultimately, God may be part of the answer – certainly that is what tradition tells us – blessings include the phrase “Asher Kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu” “who has made us holy through the commandments and has commanded us,” but “God” is the answer that is both easiest to give and most difficult to grasp.
We are in fact commanded by a lot of things, including our own sense of right and wrong, including the roaring thunder from Sinai and the muffled cries from Auschwitz.
Some feel obligated by the number 613 – and others by 58877241.
To be obligated is to be needed. In a very profound sense, it is to be loved.
Just as the Holocaust survivor reached out to his grandchild. God reaches out to us, imploring us, “Love me.”“V’ahavta.”
Kol Nidre 5770
Mitzvah, Money and Madoff
By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Mitch Albom, author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” has a new book that is being published in a few weeks, in which he talks about his childhood rabbi and mentor, Albert Lewis of blessed memory. In it, Lewis talks of a Yom Kippur sermon where the subject is death, and he informs the congregation that everyone is going to die. After the service, a man comes up to him all excited. The rabbi asks, “Why are you so excited? I just told the entire congregation that they are going to die.” “Yes,” said the man, “and THAT’S why I’m so excited. I belong to another congregation! I’m just visiting!”
On the day of Ted Kennedy’s death, I was speaking to one of the kids here after services and she said something very wise. “He was very lucky to have lived until he died.” She meant, of course, that he was fortunate to not have had his life cut short unnaturally, like his brothers. He made it all the way to 77. But in a real way he also lived until he died by making the most of each day, knowing, more than most of us, that every day actually could be his last.
Most of us don’t have a bullet proof vest hanging in the closet, as he did. Most of us choose not to live with such intensity. We shove death to the farthest reaches of our closets and our minds.
True, a preoccupation with death and suffering can paralyze us, rendering us cynical and hopeless. But most often it is denial that is the enemy. And denial feeds on itself – we build a huge scaffolding of lies and masks and excuses until it ultimately collapses all around us. Inertia develops its own strange momentum. It’s a momentum that won’t let us move. It’s a refusal to believe in the urgency of the moment, that change is possible and that our lives can have an impact. To confront an ultimate reality, death, we need to cultivate the ultimate degree of honesty.
But Yom Kippur clears away the scaffolding and the masks. Yom Kippur provides us with the glimpse of mortality – we stare death in the eye by fasting and the denial of all bodily pleasures, and then, at the end of the 25 hour day, it shepherds us gently back into the realm of the living.
So let’s not fear looking closely at ourselves. Yom Kippur is a time for hard truths. And folks, we’ve been needing to do this for quite some time. We’ve been talking about mitzvot this week. On Rosh Hashanah I focused on how they are instruments of connection and obligation. Tonight we look at the mitzvot of Yom Kippur as agents of change in the public sphere.
In 1937 in Crakow, the Yiddish songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig composed what was to become his most well-known song: Es Brent, “It Burns.” It spoke about the looming dangers of the Nazis, just across the border. But it really was a call to his fellow Jews to rise up and respond to the growing threat:
It is burning, brothers, it is burning. Our poor little town, a pity, burns! Furious winds blow, Breaking, burning and scattering, And you stand around With folded arms. O, you stand and look While our town burns.
And today, we are doing the same. There are dangers abounding and we are stuck in a state of paralysis.
There are external threats to be sure, as there were in Crakow in 1937. As Professor Ruth Wisse said at a Hillel conference last year, speaking of the many existential threats Israel now faces, “Ultimately, history is going to ask us only one question, ‘Did you or did you not secure the Jewish homeland.’”
And indeed, we all must search our souls and ask what we are doing to make sure that a precious gift of a Jewish state, 2,000 years in the making, will be with us for generations to come.
But ES BRENT, it burns, not because of the Iranian nuclear program or Islamic extremism. We burn because when we take a moral inventory, we come up lacking. The list of al chets we’ve just begun reciting – it is only the beginning. We’ve got to take a hard look at ourselves.
As one congregant, writing to me recently about the Madoff affair, the Syrian rabbis of Brooklyn and Deal and the indictment of Ehud Olmert, said: “I guess the “game is on” about Jewish business ethics throughout the world…now, don’t get me wrong, we still probably represent a small percentage, though, the impact of the Madoff affair will be felt for generations, I truly believe we should start to reevaluating our beliefs and who / what we think we are… I think we might be a bit misguided in our personal evaluation of the Jewish people.”
These revelations have been humiliating to all of us. You can throw in any number of other recent scandals that have Jewish connections, including the Agriprocessors fiasco in Postville Iowa. Earlier this month, on the very day that school began both in Israeli and Stamford, which children attend to learn right from wrong, here’s what happened in Israel: Shas Knesset member Shlomo Ben Ezri began a four year prison term for corruption charges, former Finance Minister Hirschson arrived at the Hermon prison to begin serving a five year sentence for embezzlement, and the trial of former President Moshe Katzav began, on charges of sexual harassment. And former Prime Minister Olmert was indicted. Four corruption cases, four major public figures, all in one day. Who knew that the expression “Chosen People,” would be meant in terms of a police lineup?
Something is wrong with this picture. If you Google “Jewish” plus “Scandal” you’ll come up with 2,980,000 hits. Even assuming some of them come from anti-Semitic sites, that’s a lot of hits. Yes, there may be a lot of anti-Semites too, but that’s a lot of hits! Narrow it a little, by adding the term “Madoff” and the number is 868,000. In other words, almost one third of the Jewish scandal hits have to do with Madoff. It’s humiliating.
But I really don’t care what anti-Semites think about us. I care what we think about us. And I can only imagine what Jews in their 20s and 30s are thinking right now. They are the ones who need to choose to embrace a Jewish vision for themselves and their families if there is to be any Jewish destiny at all. If they don’t then I will have failed and all my sermons will be like that proverbial tree falling in the forest. No one will hear it. It won’t matter.
But how in the world can I expect people to embark on a Jewish journey when our most venerated institutions have been devastated by greed and corruption and denial, and all the little people have suffered, and even some big people, but no one seems to care! And it just gets worse and worse and worse and no one cares!
The margin for error is so small. One moral slip up in Gaza, or not even, and the world comes crashing down on Israel with accusations of crimes against humanity. And again, I don’t really care what the world thinks. But what the world thinks has a lasting impression on what Jews think, until Jews don’t know what to believe. And then they’ll do what is most logical in a free society. They’ll opt out.
While accusations against Israel are damaging for the Jewish self image, the accusations involving Jews and the Wall Street scandals are simply devastating, feeding into every anti-Semitic stereotype that has haunted Jews since the middle ages, when transient and landless, Jews took up the only field open to them, finance. And now we have scandal after scandal, from Bear Sterns to Bank of America, and everyone is obsessed with looking for Jewish names. And there are plenty to be found.
When American Jewish Committee director David Harris wrote in the New York Times that the media should not focus so much Barnard Madoff’s Jewishness, he was reacting in panic and anger, but his anger was misdirected. He claimed correctly that no one was speaking of Rod Blagojevich’s religion, or Kenneth Lay’s. But that begged the point. It’s not that the New York Times and others in the media were preoccupied with Madoff’s Jewishness. It’s that we were.
The Madoff scandal tapped into the deepest veins of anti-semitic mythology. Journalist JJ Goldberg commented, “His being Jewish is relevant in some way that I think most people can’t put their finger on. It’s exactly what everybody has in the back of their minds… Jews and polite gentiles don’t want to talk about it because it reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
It’s relevant because his story seems to be an anti-Semite’s fairy tale come true. It confirms all the horrible, hateful things we’ve been told since childhood. How do you get two Jews into a taxi? You know, throw a penny in. Remember hearing that for the first time and either running home crying or pretending to smile, or, if you were really brave, saying, “Uh, Joey? Guess what. I’m Jewish.”
“Well of course it’s not about YOU! Can’t you get a joke?”
Well now you don’t even have to throw in a penny! Just throw in 10% annual return – or even less, a letter promising that 10% signed by “Smilin’ Bernie!”
And these sentiments were suddenly released in a torrent of rumination. That’s what we do best. Ruminate. The YIVO institute sponsored a public bull session a few weeks after the story broke, and Pandora ’s Box was opened widely before hundreds of people.
Martin Peretz talked about the materialism in the American Jewish subculture, “with the million dollar Bar Mitzvahs and the lavish Viennese table,” he said, “there’s something built in-even the fact that lower middle class Jews feel compelled to bankrupt themselves on these elaborate Bar Mitzvahs.” He was booed lustily by the crowd, Just like Philip Roth was berated when he wrote “Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Such is the punishment of those who reveal uncomfortable truths.
Moses Pava, a Professor of Business Ethics, writing in an op-ed in the Forward, went even further in calling out the Jewish community.
“Perhaps the biggest enabler …is the prevailing ethos of the business world. We live in a world that has become increasingly oriented toward a bottom-line mentality. Ours is a culture of money first. In every business school I know of, we teach our students to maximize profits. Good enough is never enough.
Our Jewish communities, which once honored rabbis and scholars, now almost exclusively honor those with the biggest bank accounts. Our students and children surely take note of this.
Bernie Madoff should be punished for his wrong-doing, but we simply fool ourselves if we think that jailing Madoff will solve the deeper problem of which he is just the most recent symptom.”
The Madoff disease did not just infect one person. He was evil. No doubt a special circle of Hell – if only we Jews had hell – has been reserved for him. But he was not alone and he was part of a culture that is trying very hard not to go away. And what is the proof of that? The deafening silence that followed the Madoff revelations from those very organizations – from our institutions and leaders.
The paralysis stemmed from the fact that Madoff was not merely a thief who crashed the party. He was the party’s host. He was the toast of New York’s Jewish elite, especially among the modern Orthodox, although he was not Orthodox himself. As the Times’ Samuel Freedman wrote of that community, “Their leaders and members overlap like a sequence of Venn diagrams. They are bound by religious praxis, social connection, philanthropic causes. Yet what may be the community’s greatest virtue — its thick mesh of personal relations, its abundance of social capital — appears to have been the very trait that Mr. Madoff exploited.”
So when all these institutions were so shamelessly exploited by one of their own, someone so enmeshed in their social circles, what was lost was not merely trust. “The currency is not so much trust;” said Princeton professor Jenna Weissman-Joselit. “The currency is community.”
Communal ties were shaken to the core. But something else was lost as well. The moral voice. The sense of outrage.
Abraham Joshua Heschel said that “we are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.” And if that was not the case back in Heschel’s day, with Vietnam and racial injustice – and it has certainly become the case now.
Witness Hadassah. And I love Hadassah. My wife is a life member. I’ve often spoken about how moving it was to spend time in the new pediatric unit in Ein Karem and see how Hadassah is the place where Arabs and Jews not only coexist, but care for one another. From out of Zion will come forth the Torah, and from Ein Karem and Mt Scopus will come Middle East peace.
I really believe that!
But what do I say to those 20 and 30-somethings about an organization that not only betrayed its investors by figuratively cohabiting with the creep Madoff, it betrayed its investors by literally cohabiting with the creep Madoff. Go to Hadassah’s site and you won’t see anything about the current scandal involving their ex-CFO’s affair with Madoff. Their leadership has told the press they knew nothing about it. Fair enough. Except that while she was CFO and before she became a best selling tell-all author, Sheryl Weinstein WAS Haddasah.
“Hadassah was shocked to hear the news reports of Mrs. Weinstein’s personal admissions regarding this relationship,” Hadassah president Nancy Falchuk wrote in a memorandum to board members in mid August. “We knew nothing of her relationship with Mr. Madoff until today, and her departure was unrelated to Mr. Madoff.”
Not good enough. Yes, Sheryl was in some ways a victim too, and yes, Hadassah’s current leaders can’t be blamed for the sins of their predecessors. And yes, I still love Hadassah.
But we needed “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu” and instead we got a publicists’ idea of damage control.
What they needed to say was this:
This is horrible. We have betrayed your trust, our dear members and investors. We have betrayed the values of the Torah we hold so dear. We have betrayed the cause of holiness and the destiny of the Jewish people. We’ve betrayed the very people whose lives we are trying to save. We were taken in but we are not blameless. There are no excuses. Please forgive us.
There is redemption in such a statement. There is the beginning of a possibility – the possibility of change. Without it, there is nothing but blame and excuses and the scapegoating of Madoff. Excuses are what creates the momentum of inertia. And not since Flip Wilson has “The devil made me do it” worked as an excuse.
This is the perfect time to talk of scapegoats – we’ll read about it tomorrow. The scapegoat was invented for this holiday. But my advocacy of excommunication for Madoff was not so that he would be our sacrificial lamb to exonerate us from all sin. No, it was to do precisely the opposite. The goal was to isolate the evil and identify it clearly, to explain to ourselves and the world why his deeds were so alien to all the values we stand for and to proclaim with great clarity that for such a person there is no redemption.
I consider the title Jew to be something to be proud of, and I wanted to rob him of that honor. Like Haman, Madoff was completely absorbed in ego and honor, able to cultivate the trust of the powerful through the manipulation of truth and half truth until, ultimately, the end result was a lie. I wanted him to bear the full burden of the truth of what he had done. In the end, no mask was big enough to hide it.
Elie Wiesel suggested that the best punishment would be to sit him in front of a computer screen all day, with photos of his victims flashing before him. But I don’t think that suffices. He saw those victims every day for decades and it never moved him. No, for a person so corrupt and sociopathic, the only punishment that would suffice would not be a life sentence, but one taking him beyond this life: for him to know that no rabbi will eulogize him and no synagogue or Jewish cemetery will welcome his corpse and no minyan will say amen to his wife’s kaddish. For him to know that those circles of connection that fed his insatiable greed were now going to exclude him entirely.
Only then would he realize that there is no redemption in this case. Otherwise he might expect to get the treatment of other supposedly reformed crooks. Jailed terrorists the world over know that it’s only a matter of time before they are freed, either through the extortion of a prisoner exchange or, in the case of the Scottish leaders last month with the terrorist from Lockerbie, a lack of moral backbone.
It burns! Es brent!
But while the Jewish organizational elite fiddled, the Jew on the street burned with anger. And that’s the voice that helped me to see the danger of doing nothing. Thank God I have a congregation to keep me grounded, because I too would likely have fallen into the crusty doublespeak of equivocation that has infested our institutions, religious and secular. I wrote that we needed to take a strong stand to affirm the values of our Torah, but the organized Jewish world did very little, preferring to pass the buck while counting up their losses. There was no excommunication, no joint statement, little outrage, just a few choice press releases and a prayer that I would all soon blow over.
I heard from many, many non machers, from all over the world, some of them Madoff’s victims, people with heartbreaking stories to tell. The damage was Katrina-esque. Never minimize it. Our moral levees broke and thousands of lives were shattered. Many homes were lost. People lost their livelihoods, their scholarships, their life dreams, their retirement and in some cases their lives. When Katrina happened, President Bush paid a steep price for being asleep at the wheel. People lost faith in him and that faith was never regained. The Madoff affair has smashed the levees of American Jewish life and it has caused us to lose faith in the very principles of philanthropy that have been our lifeblood as Jews and as Americans. Whether we regain that trust remains to be seen.
People were waiting for action but the powers-that-be said, “Let the legal system do the work.” OK so now it has. He’s in jail, but still there has been no kapparah, no cleansing.
As novelist Thane Rosenbaum wrote, “Among the 11 counts of criminal activity, Madoff will not end up serving any jail time for reinforcing an ugly stereotype — the pernicious connection between Jews and money. He admitted his guilt for committing fraud, but not for defaming Jews, for resurrecting a blood libel with a grotesquely contemporary twist: the commingling of Christian and Jewish blood not for the making of matzo, but for the losing of money.”
As a result, the old canard that Jews are crooks has been allowed to stand. And grow. And Jews have come to believe it. It’s a little like that case that we heard about a few weeks ago, of Jaycee Dugard, the girl who was kidnapped and held hostage so long that she began to relate to her oppressors, the Stockholm Syndrome.
Well, have we heard these Big Lies so much that now we’ve come to believe them and relate to them, and because of it, have we begun to hate ourselves? Must we wake up each day staring into the mirror and repeating, Nixon-like, “I am not a crook?”
So how do respond to all this, constructively? By writing letters and angry blogs? Nah. Been there. Excommunication was a nice trial balloon that became a water balloon. It helped me and others to express outrage, but that’s about it. So what else is there to do? Throw up our hands up walk away? So where will we go to? We are at the edge of a moral abyss. There aren’t too many directions we can walk.
Perhaps we can take some comfort in that Madoff went to jail utterly friendless. Not one letter was written in support of him. Not one of his circle of friends wrote in attesting to his good deeds and fine character. He also spared us a trial, probably knowing that no jury in the world would fail to convict him.
But we are still left feeling uneasy. On this Yom Kippur, we ask, how can we achieve kappara, a real cleansing?
No, the best thing we can do now… is to change the system one person at a time, one deed at a time. They used to say that Jews should have an extra child to replace the 6 million. I never bought into that. No one should be considered an “extra child.” But maybe we all need to be extra honest. Maybe our business practices should be extra fair? Extra transparent? As good as we try to be, maybe this year we need to try to be just a little bit better. If we have the means, maybe we give more tzedakkah to restore faith in our system of philanthropy. Maybe we give our normal amount for ourselves, and another 50% to counteract Madoff. If we have oversight over a nonprofit, maybe we are extra vigilant to restore that trust. When we are paying our taxes, maybe we go the extra mile to make sure we’re not cutting corners. If we know of someone who is doing something wrong, maybe we take responsibility to make sure it stops.
At Harvard Business School they’ve taken a first step. According to the New York Times, nearly 20 percent of the graduating class signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.
Will that really happen? There’s a Talmudic expression, “halavai,” “It should only happen.” It’s a nice idea and worthy goal. But the Daily Show gathered some of those students and they collectively stuck a fork in that idea. One Harvard MBA said: “It’s impossible to uphold the oath and still be responsible to your shareholders.” And another: “I feel that ethics is a really fuzzy subject.”
Maybe the best way to blot out the name of Madoff is to blot out his impact, by setting on the other side of the scale so many acts of goodness and kindness and justice and charity and honesty and transparency that it might outweigh even the massive damage he has caused. Maybe we force ourselves to believe again in the goodness of people and the promise and hope embedded in the Jewish message. Maybe that way – that is the ONLY way, to assure that my children and grandchildren – and yours – will choose to have a Jewish destiny and won’t hate themselves.
For our collective future rests on that choice. It is the choice of mitzvah. For the traditional approach of Judaism to money is about as far from Bernard Madoff as you can get. To leave a corner of your field for the poor, that’s mitzvah #44 on the Maimonides’ list of 613 that I linked to our website. Not to commit fraud – that’s #181. Not to cheat in weights and measures, that’s number 182. Not to collect excessive interest, that’s #173. Not to delay the payment of wages, # 184.
These are mitzvot of justice and conscience. These are what we need to put out the fires. Es Brent!
But that requires a restructuring of priorities in Jewish education. Brooklyn College professor of marketing and business Heshy Friedman told the Jewish Week:
I feel that the yeshiva system is partially to blame. There is an obsession in the yeshiva world with the legalistic aspects of the Talmud, without focusing on the practical law. More than 100 of the 613 precepts in the Torah deal with economics and business, yet so little time in yeshiva is spent on this area.
Elie Wiesel now suffers the irony of being once again a victim of a crime of unprecedented proportions, though the destruction of his foundation cannot compare to the crimes of 70 years ago. Still, he picked up on this theme of victimhood running through his life in an interview a few months back, telling the USA Today, “All my life has been about learning and teaching and building on ruins,” he says. “That will not change.”
He will rebuild – and already is doing that. And while his resolve won’t change, as we’ll see when we hear him at the 92nd St Y next month, his life is living proof that things can change. Society can change.
In the end, as I often say, American Jews are exactly the same as all Americans, only more so. The issues we face in self perception are the same issues confronted by all Americans following the Wall Street meltdown. If we Jews can find our way out of the morass, we can help lead the rest of America to a future that will truly be enriching, in ways that go far beyond money and material possessions.
So who will lead us from this dark place and toward an era of moral renewal in business ethics, who will restore our pride in who we are and help us dream again about what we can become?
Religious leaders need to play a role, for Jews and for Americans in general. But rabbis long since ceased being prime moral authorities for Jews. That stopped as soon as we stepped onto these shores. Did you know that at the time of the founding of the oldest synagogue in New York, Shearith Yisrael, they established a rule that if you violated the Sabbath, you got fined? It didn’t work, and rabbinic moral authority that had held sway in the shtetls was a thing of the past.
We need to create a new model now, a partnership between religious and business leaders and elected officials, one that can restore a sense of moral purpose. We’ve seen again and again that the business world cannot regulate itself, nor has Congress been very effective. Only the leaders of the business world themselves can get us out of this mess, but they need moral guidance and support. This rebirth can begin with anyone, so it might as well begin with the Jewish community.
It might as well start with us.
Google “Jewish business ethics” and 487,000 hits will appear. Not quite as many as “Jewish” and “scandal,” not by a long shot. But we can build from that. We can reaffirm a sense of Jewish Business Ethics in this age of scandal, and that can help lift us all out of the morass.
I’ve mentioned Ted Kennedy a couple of times in these sermons, but I want to close with a quote from his brother Bobby, whose words are as relevant today as they were in 1968 when he spoke them on the campaign trail in Lawrence, Kansas.
“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts …the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
The true source of our wealth as Jews comes from the priceless legacy that we’ve been schlepping across the face of the earth for 3500 years. We need to remind ourselves that we are the people of the Book, not the people that cooks the books. We are driven to make the world better for our stakeholders, not our stockholders. And our principle stakeholders are the next generation.
According to the Talmud, the first question a person is asked in the next world after death is: “Nasata v’Natata b’emunah?” (Shabbat 31a) “Were you honest in your business dealings?” The very first question!
Let each of us be supremely honest in answering that question. Let our signature mitzvah be that whenever we apply our signature to anything, we appoint God as our witness. Let us repent today as if it is our final day, for it may yet be. Let us rip aside the masks of denial and feel the wind whipping on our naked faces.
Furious winds blow, Breaking, burning and scattering, While our town burns.
It is time for us to put out the fire.
Yom Kippur Day 5770
Mitzvah and Mindfulness: God’s Tweets
By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
I don’t want to jump the gun, but I want to begin this sermon by talking about what’s going to happen a little after 7 tonight as we end Yom Kippur.
Oh, great! That’s all we need!
No really. I want you to imagine everything. We’ve just finished Ne’ilah. Wasn’t that fun! The smells of bagels and coffee are wafting through the air. OK, OK. Sorry. And we’re just about to hear all the shofars sounded for one final blast.
Now hold that thought. Freeze that moment. So tonight, I’m going to invite you to do something that you will think somewhat, well, counter-intuitive. At the moment when we sound that final shofar blast, I’m going to ask you to take out your cell phones.
Yes. I mean it. If you are going home and coming back, by all means, bring your cell phones. Please do not turn them on, of course, until that moment. But at that moment, I’m going to ask you to take them out… and call someone.
Someone you love. Someone who is not here; maybe he’s in the hospital or a nursing home. Maybe she has swine flu at home or maybe she is simply too young to bring. Maybe he’s depressed and stayed home or is too busy for these “meaningless rituals” and went away on a business trip. Maybe she’s taking a gap year in Africa or a junior year abroad in Italy. Maybe he decided not to come out of protest to God for not helping Uncle Joe in his battle with cancer last year, or for not providing a winning lottery ticket. Call them. Spontaneously. And then say, “Hi – I love you – now listen to this!”
That single moment will speak volumes about the power of mitzvah. Even given the fact that we don’t get very good reception in here. Maybe we’ll all crowd around the windows. But someone, somewhere out there, will hear the sound of a real shofar, our shofar… enhanced technologically, but still real, and still very much a sound that is coming from the deepest, most confounding, most mysterious place, from God, as it were, a natural sound, not artificial at all, a sound saying, “Hi. I love you. Now listen up!”
You can call it God’s Tweet.
Back on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I pledged that I was going to try to bring mitzvah back, by helping us to redefine it from a number of perspectives, in anticipation of this year’s “Mitzvah Initiative.” So on the first day, we looked at mitzvah as a path of connection. On the second day, we saw mitzvah as a path of obligation; last night, as a path of conscience and change, to counteract the momentum of inertia. Today, we’ll look at mitzvah in a different way, as a path to a life of mindfulness and a God of connectivity, as we discover God in the details, God in the moment. We’ll consider a life guided by mitzvot, and then we’ll take it to the streets.
And there is nothing that expresses mindfulness more spontaneously than that final shofar blast, a single moment that we remember all year long, one that transports us from past to future, that takes us from the intensity of Yom Kippur to a newly intensified and purposeful life. We feel really grungy but we all feel real good too. We feel embraced by the love of our sacred community – and that is divine love. We feel hopeful. We feel that change is possible. And we can share that with the world.
We can’t begin to imagine the way God was perceived even by our own grandparents, much less those who lived many centuries ago. Back then, God’s function was very different. God was supposed to explain science, hear prayers. We now have a great deal of difficulty perceiving God in such a literal manner, one that seems naïve to us.
But we have a huge advantage over our ancestors. We don’t need to see God as father and king. We can experience God’s Tweets. Instant global communication has a power that can awe and amaze us and send empires to their knees. And it has done precisely that, from China to Iran. In 140 characters or less, or a single snap of a cell phone camera, or in the sound of a shofar heard round the world, everything can change in an instant.
Our little shofar call tonight will be the heard everywhere, that cosmic sound coming forth from this sanctuary. Some calls will be going a few blocks, others as far as California or Israel perhaps, and still others piercing the outer reaches of the Bronx. The cry tekiah will send seagulls fluttering on the Jersey shore, or across the ocean, becoming the cry of our community, our Shaliach Tzibur - this will indeed be theShatz heard round the world.
The key is not to let your loved ones know in advance. For one thing, I’m not sure your phones will work in here. For another, the surprise is part of the experience. If they‘re not home, leave it on the machine. They’ll get the message.
Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way: “Mitzvot aren’t acts of compliance so much as acts of inspiration. They are the songs that express our wonder.”
Mitzvot express that wonder. The joy, the meaning, the clinging to life. The reaching out to the person next to you and the person around the world. The words that we utter here that are heard THERE. Wherever THERE may be. We need to see mitzvot not so much as orders from on high so much as a musical score for universal connectivity.
You know, this old-man-in-the-sky God is soooo 20th century!
Tonight, we’ll show that. Tonight we’ll be sounding – and sending God’s Tweet.
The maximum number of characters you can Tweet is 140. Every word, every letter, must be meaningful. It brings us back to the old days of Western Union, where you paid by the letter. You know, like original Jewish telegram: “Start Worrying. Letter to follow.”
But long before Twitter, or even Western Union, God was already tweeting away. I found online a version of how God might have Tweeted the Ten Commandments: Number 3 is “No omg’s.” Number 9? “Dnt lie re:bf.”
The Sh’ma is a perfect Tweet. It’s one of those six word memoirs that’s popular out there now. One line that says it all.
Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Ehad
One could say that Hillel wrote the first Jewish Tweet. He’s the one who was asked by a non Jew to tell him the essence of the entire Torah while standing on one foot. And he replied, on one foot, “What is hateful to you do onto do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”
A church in Jackson, Michigan has really gotten into Twitter. While one pastor preaches, the other Tweets the congregation questions to guide their response to the sermon, and the tweets of congregants are in turn flashed on a video screen as a means of responding to the preacher – while he is still talking.
We’re not there yet. But this kind of interactivity has changed the way we do things. I’ve set up a Twitter account though haven’t started tweeting yet. But imagine what I could have been Tweeting from up here while the service has been going on. Every thought.
“Mrs. Schwartz sitting by window this year, just two rows from Mrs. Goldberg, with whom she hasn’t talked in five years, since that comment about 3rd hubby’s 1st wife.” That’s exactly 140 characters.
Whether or not we can fully grasp them yet, these new ways of communicating are enabling us to reach more people in less time. But that is not the ultimate goal here. The goal is to enhance the experience of being alive by living each moment to the fullest.
No one can deny the power of instant global reach. What we saw in Iran this summer was nothing short of miraculous. I just kept thinking, if only there had been Twitter and YouTube 70 years ago, there may never have been a Holocaust. When witnesses escaped to the West to tell what the Nazis were doing, no one believed that such atrocities were possible. But no one had pictures to prove it and they weren’t believed. Now such pictures are beamed around the world instantly.
A picture is worth a thousand LIVES.
Tweets increase mindfulness, even when they seem inane. Same thing with Facebook postings. Do I really want to know what my 8th grade classmate whom I haven’t seen in 30 years is eating for breakfast? No….but…
From the minutia of these details a web of connection is constructed. And every detail is holy. God is in those details.
These details are the songs that express our wonder.
Do you know that the system of mitzvot goes as far as to instruct us to put on our right shoe before our left shoe? Now that might seem a little inane – and certainly we may decide to struggle with that one, but the underlying message is an important one. Kabbalah teaches us that the universe exists in a precarious balance between divine qualities existing in relationship with one another – especially the quialities of strength and mercy. Well one would think that, if we were to map out this divine system, that strength,gevurah, would be on the right side, the strong side for most people. But in fact, it is mercy, hesed, that emanates from the right side. The hope is that, for God and for us, kindness and mercy will come first.
So, in putting your right shoe on first, you are reminding yourself that even this seemingly trivial activity can imbue our lives with meaning and restore balance to the universe. By putting on the right shoe first, we are reminding ourselves to let kindness overcome anger, that gentleness trumps power.
All from that simple act. And by the way, we all put our shoes on in ritualized fashion anyway, each morning. It is in that sense a religious activity, so let it become a mitzvah – a mindful activity. And if these simple acts can be lifted from the realm of the trivial, maybe evefry action of our lives can become imbued with meaning.
Putting on your shoes, then is a mindful act. A mitzvah. A song that expresses wonder!
So flood my Facebook wall with all the inane stuff you got! Lay it on me!
Waiting for the bus? We’ll I’m waiting for the messiah! We’re all waiting!
Packing the kids’ lunch? Well, that will help remind me of the millions of kids who have no idea where their lunch is coming from.
Arriving in Maui for a vacation? Well, great, by all means let me know that, so I can live my vacation vicariously through you!
These inane posts are the stuff of real life.
This summer, the word “Staycation” officially was added to the dictionary. Just in time for me to take one! We took some short trips here and there, but basically it was a stay-cation, and instead of making magical moments that I’ll remember the rest of my life, I spent several weeks remembering all those magical moments from years past. It was the perfect thing to do just as you’re about to send your first kid off to college.
So I scanned hundreds and hundreds of family photos, going back to my parents childhood photos and wedding slides, and uploaded them all into digital albums online. One of the gifts I gave Ethan on the day he left home was the link to the Picasa albums, so that he could see his entire childhood and his family whenever he wants to.
These photos are sacred. They preserve the precious moments of life, moments that are all too fleeting. How quickly childhood comes and goes! And now it’s gone. Many of you have been telling me for years, “Enjoy your kids now, because their childhood will be gone in the blink of an eye,” and I knew you were right and I cherished all those family dinners and we took lots of trips and I took lots of pictures, but it didn’t slow things down as I had hoped. It was still gone in an instant.
So I spent a few weeks scanning photos and sending them out into the cyber universe, one album at a time, like so many sacrificial thanksgiving offerings brought to the temple in Jerusalem, the memories sent heavenward in a burst of cybersmoke.
Posting photos online is not without its complications: A family in Kansas City posted their Christmas card photo in high resolution on Facebook last winter, and this spring a friend of theirs passed a grocery store in the Czech republic, looked up at a big billboard advertising the simple goodness of the store’s products and happy clientele, and there it was, the same photo, blown up to life size. Imagine their surprise that something so personal could become so public so far away. But there is a certain immortality that comes from that. Suddenly, that anonymous family photo resonated half way around the world; somewhere in Prague, this anonymous family, one among millions, became a poster child for Czech happiness.
Sometimes the desire to capture moments for immortality drives us to do strange things. A writer for the Catholic journal Commonweal recently commented derisively on something he saw in Rome: a man standing with his back to the Trevi fountain, arm outstretched with his cell-phone in his hand, taking a photo of himself in front of the fountain. The experience of taking a picture of yourself at the place takes precedence over the experience of the place itself. The same thoughts were echoed by a writer in the Times this summer, who stationed himself at the Louvre this summer and noticed that almost no one was stopping to look at the art, but everyone was clicking away and moving on.
Yes, we need to take the time to look straight at the Trevi fountain, but that photo of that man at the fountain has meaning too. It has, for him, immortalized that moment, that experience. And now, posted online, in some way that moment will never die.
And isn’t that why we are so in need of making every moment count to the point where we try to capture each one and freeze it? It is our way of trying, vainly, to defeat death. Those Tweets, those postings, those blogs, those e-mails, those book of remembrance listings, it all comes back to that one thing.
We want to preserve something, anything, about us and those we love.
We don’t want to die.
The poet Mary Oliver has written:
To live in this world
You must be able to
To do three things
To love what is mortal;
To hold it;
Against your bones knowing
Your own life depends on it;
And when the time comes to let it go,
To let it go.
So today on this Yom Kippur, we cling to life; we are holding it against our bones with all our might. But today, we do it without the Tweeting and the photography. We do it in a very different way. We make each minute count today not by freezing it, but by living it. Not by multitasking, but by going very slowly and focusing on one single task. No diversions, no editing; it’s just us and God – the raw footage of life. A single moment stretched to twenty five hours.
Today we embrace the boredom.
Erica Brown writes in her new book, “Spiritual Boredom,” “When we get bored and take responsibility for our boredom, we arrive at a new level of interest, introspection, or action that has been stirred by the very creativity used to keep boredom away. The relationship between boredom and creativity is far from accidental. Creative minds are often stimulated by boredom, regarding it as a brain rest until the next great idea looms on the horizon of the otherwise unoccupied mind.”
So today we stay off Facebook and slow down and avoid technological enhancement, but for the same reason we are so attracted to those Tweets – to find God in the details of life, the ones that we don’t otherwise notice.
Heschel, who called mitzvot the “songs that express our wonder,” also called Shabbat “the pause between the notes.” And if Yom Kippur is the Sabbath of Sabbaths, this is the pause of pauses. There are no notes all day long, nothing at all from the Shofar. It’s as if we are holding our breath for 25 hours. But when we are holding our breath, life becomes all the more precious. There is nothing more boring than sitting there holding your breath. Nothing is happening, not even breathing. But there is also no act more dramatic. Life hangs in the balance. Will we exhale? Can we hold this pause for 25 hours? Will we make it through? Will we survive the ordeal?
Today we embrace the boredom – and we find that it is not so boring after all.
And we do it not with fear and trepidation, but with love and joy, with confidence that indeed the decree will be the right one – not in terms of the length of our days, but in terms of the quality of each minute – and the immortality of each act.
It comes back to that. The immortality won’t come from the photos that we post, but from the love that lies behind each of those precious smiles, and the acts of love that precipitated them.
Each mitzvah is an act of love that plants a seed of immortality.
If this were my last sermon, that’s the message I’d want to convey. Like Randy Pausch in his bestselling “Last Lecture.” He knew that, with only a matter of months to live, he would need to make the most of each moment. So all of life became like one long Yom Kippur to him. He became mindful of even the smallest, simplest act. What Pauch, a college professor, was doing in fact, is what we are all supposed to be doing today. Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death.” His students asked, “How do we know when that day will be?” to which he replied, “All the more reason to do teshuvah today – everyday.”
When he used the self-scan aisle at the supermarket one day and realized that he had accidentally swiped his credit card twice, he had a decision to make. He could have tracked down the manager, filled out some form, taken his credit card to the register and gotten them to remove one of the $16.55 charges. It would have taken 15 minutes and been zero fun. Instead he left the store, happier to have the 15 minutes than the 16 dollars.
How many of us waste so much time on so much nonsense.
Pausch learned to prioritize, that it was not necessary to polish the underside of the banister.
Don’t sweat the small stuff!
His mother called him Randolph. He HATED being called Randolph. But in light of his illness he gave up his lifelong struggle to stop his mother from calling him that. Life is too short, he realized, and surrendering became the right thing to do.
He learned not to waste time obsessing about what other people think of him.
He learned from Disney not to dwell on the negative, but to make every living moment count. At Disney, they never will tell you that the park closes at 9. They will say that the park remains open until 9.
He learned to let people finish their sentences and to seek common ground when working with them. He learned how important it is to praise and thank other people and to look for the best in others. He learned that a bad apology is worse than no apology. He learned that it is better to live like Tigger than like Eeyore, and he learned always to tell the truth.
Pausch stood before his students on that day as we all do today, standing before a vast celestial mirror, seeing ourselves as we really are, and knowing where we are inevitably headed. He delivered his last lecture on that day, as we do on this day, and the focus was on the little things, as it is for us in the machzor: not the wars and recessions, but the snippets of gossip and the courteous “thank yous,” the scoffing language and the idle thoughts; not the mountains scaled in Nepal but the simple act of lending money or making a promise.
In Mitch Albom’s new book, “Have a Little Faith,” which I mentioned last night, the author describes how his beloved life-long rabbi, Albert Lewis, knew that he was dying and prepared a tape that was played at his funeral. The sanctuary was filled, but the pulpit was left empty. The tape was brief. The rabbi answered the two questions he had been asked most in his life: “Do you believe in God?” He said that he did. The other: whether there is life after death. On this he said, “The answer here too is yes, there is something. But friends, I’m sorry. Now that I know, I can’t tell you.” And the place broke up laughing.
In his last lecture – his final High Holidays sermon, Rabbi Lewis did not offer a list of his accomplishments. Rather he asked forgiveness for not saving more marriages, not visiting more homebound, not easing the pain of parents who has just lost a child – for not having done more – with every breathing minute allotted to us.
A rabbi had three students,
And posed them a question:
“If you had one hour remaining in your lifetime,
What would you do in that one hour?”
The first one read and studied, then answered the question:
“I would spend that hour studying the Torah.”
The second one closed his eyes, then answered the question:
“I would spend that hour in the ecstasy of prayer.”
The third one looked at the rabbi, then answered the question:
“I would spend that hour loving my family.”
The rabbi looked at his students, stroked his beard, and smiled;
“Each of you has given a deep and holy answer.”
But the students turned to the rabbi and asked him the question:
“What would you do, in your last hour?”
“Me? I would spend that hour, doing what I’d been doing.
Doing what I’d been doing, for all of life is sacred.”
The rabbi looked at the students, stroked his beard and smiled:
“Doing what I had been doing, for all of life is sacred.”
Don’t sweat the small stuff – but LOVE the small stuff; for God is in the details.
Do you ever have those moments when, suddenly, you say to yourself, “God, I’m happy. I didn’t realize it, but I’m really happy right now.”
Usually happiness is a product of memory or anticipation. Rarely do we actually feel it in the moment. Our memories of happy events are typically distorted by what novelist Michael Chabon calls “the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past.” And often the anticipation of an upcoming event gets so blown out of proportion that the experience itself becomes anti-climactic.
But those moments when you catch yourself and say, “Gee, I’m happy right now. This is good.” Those are rare. And they rarely occur in front of the Trevi fountain or on top of Everest. They typically occur when least expected. For writer Tim Kreider, writing in a New York Times blog, he realized he was happy while driving on Maryland’s unsublime Route 40 with the window down, looking at a peeling Burger King billboard while Van Halen played on the radio. But try as he might, he could not recapture that feeling artificially. And so he made this observation.
“I suspect there is something inherently misguided and self-defeating and hopeless about any deliberate campaign to achieve happiness. Perhaps the reason we so often experience happiness only in hindsight, and that chasing it is such a fool’s errand, is that happiness isn’t a goal in itself but is only an aftereffect… In this respect it resembles averted vision, a phenomena familiar to backyard astronomers whereby, in order to pick out a very faint star, you have to let your gaze drift casually to the space just next to it; if you look directly at it, it vanishes. And it’s also true, come to think of it, that the only stars we ever see are not the “real” stars, those cataclysms taking place in the present, but always only the light of the untouchable past.”
So what is real happiness? Kreider replied:
“It’s the consequence of having lived in the way that we’re supposed to — by which I don’t mean ethically correctly so much as just consciously, fully engaged in the business of living.”
I like that notion. If a mitzvah is the song that expresses the wonder, we’re missing the point if we assume that the song is always about doing the right thing. Hearing the shofar isn’t inherently ethical – but it sure does wake us up! It’s simply singing the song of life, joyfully, consciously, fully engaged. The path of mitzvah is the path of being fully alive.
So I had one of those “wow” moments not long ago, one of those times when I looked around and said, “My God, I’m happy.” And it took place in one of those most dramatic of moments, one that the disengaged might consider completely mundane and boring. Dinner.
We were sitting around the table, a week after Dan got home from camp and a week before Ethan was to leave for college. This was one of those moments when we were all together, something that we took for granted for 18 years, but never again could we take it for granted. Now the planets would have to be aligned. But there we were. All together. And I looked around and said to myself, like God on the 6th day,“This is good. This is VERY good.”
And yes, there was a wisp of teariness for what was to come – any real happiness has that, but that was not a moment for grieving, but for celebration.
Yom Kippur is a day of joy. It is Rosh Hashanah that is called the Day of Judgment. Yom Kippur is the day of cleansing. In ancient times, on Yom Kippur afternoon, the women went dancing in the fields and the men would court them, seeking wives. Why such a celebration of life? Because they knew that at that moment they had shed the illusions of the past and could look forward. The temple ritual had already occurred. The high priest had gone into the holy of holies. The goat had been sent out into the wilderness. The word had been uttered – titharu – “forgiven.” And so it was time to celebrate. They had held their breath and now they could exhale. They had looked at mortality in the mirror – and it was good.
So last week, we tried something at home. Ethan Skyped us on the computer (for those uninitiated – think Jetsons on the phone) at about dinner time and we placed the laptop at his place at the table. So there were the four of us, having dinner together again. He could see us and we could see him. We could ask what happened in his classes today – and, for all you whose kids aren’t in college yet: a revelation – he didn’t say “nothing,” as kids usually do.
And I felt it again. That fleeting moment. Even “nothing” would have been music tomy ears. This was the music of normalcy. The music of life. The music of connection. The song that expresses wonder. It was a moment of Happiness, technologically assisted, to be sure. Another Tweet from On High.
Last night I started out with that wise comment from one of our kids, about Ted Kennedy: “He lived until he died.”
The power of mitzvah can help us to do exactly that. To live right up until the moment we die. Each and every moment of each and every day. That can happen for all of us – but only if we decide that this year, this year, we’re not gonna leave mitzvah at the door.
Look at the pamphlet we’ve distributed and sign up for one of our committees. Do something to keep the ball rolling.
The power of mitzvah goes far beyond a good deed. It’s about connection and coming together. It has something to do with obligation, a covenant sealed at Sinai and affirmed daily by Jews everywhere, even at Auschwitz. Mitzvah calls on us to bring justice to the public arena and to bring about greater pride and understanding about what is truly good about Judaism.
And a mitzvah is an act of life affirmation that plants a seed of immortality.
A mitzvah makes a single moment echo unto eternity.
A mitzvah is God’s Tweet and our song.
A song expressing wonder.
And so, as we prepare to move forward into the future and from this elongated moment, climaxed by tonight’’s shofar blast heard round-the-world, let us pledge, in 5770, to Bring Mitzvah Back.