Yom Kippur 5777
Kol Nidre – The Girl with the Hebrew Tattoo
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Kol Nidre – The Girl with the Hebrew Tattoo
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
One of my greatest pleasures as a rabbi is when I am contacted by one of our young adults – college students or recent grads – with real-world questions they are facing. So not long ago, I got a call that really challenged me.
“Rabbi, I’m going to get a tattoo. Can you translate these words into Hebrew for me?” She then proceeded to tell me the phrase, which was perfectly inspirational. “Be happy! Be radiant! Be yourself.”
Now, you are probably aware that Jewish law frowns on tattoos. The idea is that the human body is considered sacred, and a priceless gift from God, one that it is not ours to abuse. Unlike Christianity, Judaism feels the body is every bit as sacred as the soul. So physical pleasures are not sinful – they are in fact vehicles to holiness, when done in moderation. The fact that we abstain from these pleasures on Yom Kippur doesn’t mean these they are evil; just that physical urges need to be controlled; and that there is a time and place for everything.
But tattoos are considered an abuse of that gift of the body – a form of mutilation that in ancient times was done for cultic purposes. And for Jews today, just a generation after the Nazis forcibly tattooed numbers on our arms, branding us like cattle for the slaughter, there’s yet another reason to avoid tattoos.
All that is well and good, but the young adult did not call me looking for a lecture about tattoos. She was looking to connect to her Jewish heritage, to express pride in it in her own way. Nothing I could say would change the fact that she was going to get this tattoo – she already has a few – so I could either help her, or douse her enthusiasm for being Jewish and turn her away, which could have more dire consequences down the road, when she might arrive at more significant life decisions or more painful life crises and have nowhere to turn.
What’s a rabbi to do?
This week I’ve been looking at what it means to live an authentic Jewish life – what authenticity really means in these confusing times. In Hebrew, there is no direct translation for authentic - the word most commonly used is autenti – but several synonyms are found in the dictionary. Last week I looked at several of them, including– “baduk,” which connotes looking beneath the surface “mekori,” which calls on us to go back to our roots, and “nachon,” which means correct. This evening, I’d like to elaborate on another synonym that I briefly introduced on Rosh Hashanah: “samooch.” Samooch means to connect. In script form, the Hebrew letter samech is a perfect circle, with no beginning and no end. In Jewish mysticism this letter has great significance as an agent of support and healing. Circles are magical. When we are part of a circle, a family circle, a community circle, the circle of life, we are never alone. We are always connected.
An authentic Jewish life requires such connection – and that connection must be to other human beings.
And, we might add, to God.
We might add that – but with one caveat – only if that connection to God reinforces our connection to other human beings.
That caveat is the essence of what has become the world’s greatest misunderstanding about religion – and unless we do something about it, that misunderstanding will become religion’s downfall.
A new book by Donniel Hartman has been receiving a lot of attention in the Jewish world this year. Its provocative title is “Putting God Second.” Hartman claims, as he puts it, that “faith in God is not meant merely to inspire one to worship but to change those who worship, and to be a force for generating care and concern for all of God’s creatures, in particular for those over whom one holds power.”
Hartman’s main point is that most people of faith – not just Jews – tend to focus so much on following what they perceive to be God’s will that they forget what the primary purpose of religion is – and what one can plausibly argue that God wants the most - and that is to put people first – to connect to human beings.
THAT is the authentic Jewish way.
He illustrates this through some biblical quotes and rabbinic anecdotes. For instance, in the book of Jeremiah, God is quoted as saying, “Torati lo shamaru, v’Oti Azvu.” “They deserted me and did not keep my instructions,” which, in the Midrash, Rav Huna interprets in an unusual way – that God is really saying, “IF ONLY they had deserted me but nonetheless kept the mitzvot!”
In the rabbinic view, even GOD would prefer that we focus less on God and more on living a good, moral life among other people.
Similar ideas can be found in Amos, as well as the New Testament and Quran.
And of course in Isaiah – in tomorrow’s haftarah, where God states that all our fasting, our temple worship and our atoning – all of that means absolutely nothing if we don’t feed the hungry. Ironically, this prophetic plea to get beyond ritual has itself become a part of our Yom Kippur ritual, which has drained it of some of its spontaneity and overwhelming moral power.
In the Talmud there is a story about Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who were forced to hide in a cave for 12 years in order to escape the fury of Roman rule. They were sheltered there and miraculously, a carob tree grew inside the cave, and all their needs were provided. They had it all – it was the first man cave, complete with snacks, and it became almost like a mini Garden of Eden for them. They could sit around all day and study Torah on the flatscreen to their heart’s content.
Eventually the prophet Elijah appeared to them and told them that the emperor had died and they could leave the cave safely. They went outside and peered around. Immediately they were disillusioned by what they saw – they saw a guy plowing and kvetched to God, saying, “They forsake life eternal for the drudgeries of everyday life.” The two rabbis could only see shame in the toil of those whose every waking moment is not consumed with contemplation about God.
But in the story, God doesn’t validate those feelings and instead rages against them, saying, “Have you emerged to destroy my world? Go back to your cave.”
The message is clear: there is no escaping this world. Unlike those two rabbis, we are compelled to repair it, not to ignore it. We are compelled to work tirelessly, to speak out, to engage passionately with this world.
That is what God wants. You can’t escape. You can’t throw up your hands and leave a troubled world to fend for itself.
Incidentally, we have a version of this cave in current conversation. We call it Canada. I love Canada dearly, but Canada is a copout. I promise you that no matter what happens next month, I will not be moving to Canada. You gotta grapple with life’s messes – not run away from them.
There’s a Hasidic story about a man praying so intently that he doesn’t hear the cry of a child right next to him. Another person sees this and remarks that if a prayer makes one deaf to the cry of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer.
Not just in that man, but in the prayer itself.
We become so intoxicated to God that we forget what religion is about. It’s about connecting with our neighbor.
If our prayer does not lead us to a heightened conscience and moral action, there is no point to the prayer. You might as well put down your machzors take the shuttle back to down Roxbury Rd. and go out for Chinese food. (Sorry)
That’s basically what Isaiah would be saying if he were here today.
Hartman states, “The more we walk with God, the less room we have to be aware of the human condition – our moral sensitivities become attenuated.” He notes that, in the Bible, as Abraham hears the word of God, his capacity for critical thought breaks down, leading to his near murder of his son Isaac. When we are blinded by God, we cease to see the other human being.
Hartman calls this God intoxication “religion’s autoimmune disease,” a disease “in which the body’s immune system, which is designed to fight off external threats, instead attacks and destroys the body’s own healthy cells and tissues.”
I experienced that God intoxication myself, at a young and impressionable age.
I took my first pilgrimage to Israel when I was a teenager. It was the summer of ’73, just before the Yom Kippur War, and Israel’s self image was at an all time high. The same was true for American Jews too. We were unbeatable! The Jews, this little, weak nation that had nearly been destroyed a generation before, suddenly we had an empire. Our pride was unbounded.
On my teen tour, we climbed Mount Sinai and snorkeled among the world’s most beautiful coral reefs of Sharem El Sheikh. We walked the streets of Hebron, Jericho and Nablus without a care in the world. If the Arabs didn’t want peace with us, no matter. We were the conquerors. We were God’s chosen.
On one occasion, I was walking through the Arab shuk in Jerusalem’s Old City on my way to the Kotel, and I got into a conversation with one of the shop owners while haggling over an olive wood camel or something. The man noticed which direction I was going and said, “Are you going to have a chat with Adonai?”
I was jarred by the way he said that. It was as if our particular gods were our bowling buddies, our BFFs. He borrowed a cup of sugar from Allah, and I go to the Kotel to schmooze with Adonai. I kind of liked that. I liked it because I knew at that moment that Adonai had just beaten up Allah in a steel-cage match in 1967. Adonai was the big brother I never had, who in the end would wipe the floor with Arafat and the Soviets the way he had pummeled Nasser when he took our lunch money in ‘67.
I was intoxicated with Adonai. So was 80 percent of the state of Israel. And only a few months later on Yom Kippur, they paid for their arrogance in blood. To this day, God intoxication still is toxic for too many Jews who believe that God loves us best.
God intoxication leads to what Hartman calls “God manipulation.” Those who think they own God, who think God has chosen them, believe they have the right to determine whom else God loves. “When chosenness permits the co-opting of God into the service of the interests of the chosen, the immoral becomes mysteriously moral, the profane miraculously holy. The infidel becomes not merely the subject of God’s judgment but fair game for the believer…. The outsiders have no rights. They are not seen. Most significant, the descent into craven self interest becomes clothed in piety, as our manipulation of God makes us blind to our own moral corruption.”
“The universal God is drafted into the service of a particular worldview,” Hartman states, “leaving all others devoid of access to God’s grace.”
“Ultimately,” Hartman concludes, “I believe that religion’s record of moral mediocrity will persist as long as communities of faith fail to recognize the ways in which our faith itself is working against us.”
God Manipulation blinds us to our moral responsibilities to others. Ultimately it blinds us also to ourselves.
We cloak ourselves in the grace of God, whom we define as being with us regardless of what we do or deserve, attributing pious motivation and religious value to all of our behavior. Once we can no longer see what we have become, we have lost the ability to self-correct, to say we have sinned, and to repent.
Al chait shechatanu lefanecha – for the sin that we have committed before you by assuming that we and God are best buds – which has caused us to lose our moral compass completely.
But if religion has become so dangerous, we can’t blame God or Judaism for it. There are ample clues in our texts that tell us what Judaism was meant to be before we so distorted it.
Take another look at Abraham, before he lost his moral compass with Isaac. He actually argues with God to save the people of the city of Sodom by saying “Shall the Judge of the universe not do justice?” But isn’t “justice” simply what God decides at that moment is justice? No. The Torah seems to be recognizing a level of justice that is independent of the Judge, which has been part of the moral order from the start. The Torah seems to be saying that, just like Hebrew National, even God must answer to a higher authority.
“To combat God manipulation,” Hartman states, “moral good must be seen no only as primary to religious truth but also autonomous from it.”
Is it good because God says so - or does God say so because it’s good? This verse about Abraham seems to be implying that “Good” is somehow independent of God – or at least independent of how God is portrayed in religious stories.
When Moses smashes the tablets after the incident of the Golden Calf, according to a Midrash, it’s not to express anger at the people, but in order to PROTECT Israel from God’s wrath (Avot d’Rabi Natan chapter 2). Moses asks, “How can I give them these tablets? I’ll be obligating them to the commandments, which will make them liable to the penalty of death! Rather, I’ll take hold of them and break them!”
In other words, MOSES PUTS HIS LOVE FOR THE PEOPLE BEFORE OBEDIENCE TO GOD – AND EVEN THE SIN OF IDOLTRY. Better to destroy the Ten Commandments, he reasons, and give them time to prepare themselves to receive it again, then to give it when they are already committing idolatry, breaking the law, liable to the death penalty.
Like Abraham, Moses put people first and refused to remain indifferent. Moses and Abraham put people first – and God second.
And as I said, God seems to be supporting this conclusion. How do I know? First of all, because the Abraham story about Sodom is IN the Torah. And look at tomorrow afternoon’s haftarah, the story of Jonah.
God instructs Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh to change their ways or face destruction. Jonah is afraid to do that, because, before him, prophecy was always been about prediction rather than moral correction. That was the only model he knew. So if he was to warn them that they would be destroyed, and they were to actually repent and not be destroyed, Jonah’s reputation as a prophet would be shattered, and to a degree, God’s reputation as well. So Jonah runs away.
The rest of the book demonstrates Jonah’s education to the ways of authentic Judaism – putting people first. God teaches him that lesson very specifically at the end of the story. The biblical God begins to model non-indifference to the plight of others – even others who come from a city with no Jews.
Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, will be known forever as our generation’s great prophet of non-indifference. “The opposite of love,” he said, “is not hate; it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death; it's indifference.”
Non-indifference is the key to Donniel Hartman’s view of God and Judaism.
Here’s a question that comes from the Talmud.
It’s a Friday in early winter, Shabbat Hanukkah is approaching, and you have just enough money to buy either Shabbat candles or Hanukkah candles. Which is more important? It’s an interesting dilemma. So you might guess that Shabbat takes precedence – and that is correct. But probably not for the reason you are thinking - and not because it’s a more important holiday. As Rava explains, the Hanukkah candles are intended to promote God’s miracle, while the Shabbat candles are intended to bring joy and light to the family - shalom bayit. Judaism prioritizes human needs over the need to publicize God’s presence – and that, Rava might have added, is how God wants it.
It is the primacy of the ethical that matters. Maimonides speaks about the halachic principle known as “Lifnay Meshurat Hadin,” which means going above and beyond the letter of the law, particularly when it comes to extending kindness. He writes, “Going beyond the law IS the law.”
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement that brought ethics to the forefront, was once asked what special instructions he had for the women who were baking matzahs for the community before Pesach. “Make sure,” he replied, “that they get paid on time.”
Putting people first.
So a natural question that might arise from this notion of putting God second would be, do I have to believe in God to be a good Jew?
For the answer to that, you’ll have to read the book.
Or take our course this year, “The Ethical Life: Jewish Values in an Age of Choice,” a groundbreaking collaboration with JTS.
Moral excellence is sufficient to qualify one as a good Jew. But the real question is: how does one go from “Good to God to great?” There are many reasons to build God back into the equation. Faith and ritual can be very helpful - and in my mind are essential – as long as we keep reminding ourselves that authentic Judaism is all about putting people first.
Which brings me back to our young adult, the girl with the Hebrew tattoo.
In Deuteronomy we are commanded to return a lost item of our neighbor’s. This seemingly trivial mitzvah is given astounding importance – it is one of the rare mitzvot in the Torah where long life is promised as the reward. And twice in the verse we are reminded not to be blind to the need of our neighbor – and not to be indifferent. The word for indifference and the word blindness are actually the same word.
You see a lost item…. It is so easy to just keep on walking, to hide our eyes. But what if that lost item is actually another person’s dignity or another person’s ability to feel joy, or love, or pride?
What if the thing that you have lost is your self-esteem? Your self-confidence. It’s up to me to help restore it.
Or if someone has lost her smile. Or his faith. Or her sense of humor – we can’t stand idly by. We’ve got to bring it back.
Our intoxication with God is what distracts us from focusing on the needs of other human beings. THAT is what puts blinders over our eyes.
In the context of our young adult, it means this – the God blinders would have forced me to say to her, “Tattooing is against Jewish law, so beat it! I’m not helping you.”
What I would have been blinded to is that this young adult was reaching out to HER RABBI wanting to connect to her Jewish self in her own way – by putting life-affirming Hebrew words affirming life on her body. (By the way, I do that all the time – it’s called tefillin.)
What I would have been blinded to is that those Hebrew words on her arm may inspire her at a moment of great vulnerability. She may be lost or distraught, and she will look at those words and recall that there was a place where once upon a time she was loved unconditionally, for who she is, and that might save her, or make her more likely to return.
For the sake of my distorted understanding of God, I would have lost the person. And is that what God really wants?
“I’m going to tell you what my religion is,” Gene Wilder, of blessed memory, said in an interview. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Period. Terminato. Finito. I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.”
It’s too bad Wilder never understood that his religion was a pretty authentic vision of what Judaism really is. If he had understood that, he would have been a member here and my sermons would have had to be a lot funnier.
And he would have been much more connected to an amazing heritage that goes far beyond lox and bagels. He would have been tied into Judaism’s most cherished values; he would have been connected – samooch – to a community of like minded human beings, all passionately espousing an ethic of non-indifference.
Elie Wiesel never gave up on Judaism, even as he habitually questioned God. He had every reason to give up.
Unlike Wiesel, who lived through hell, there are many living Jews who whose lives have been pretty darn easy, but who have given up on affiliation with synagogues and connection with the Jewish community, because they have issues with the toxicity of God centric religion or simply because they feel they will be judged for as not being, in their minds, “good Jews.”
It’s not true. I’m here to tell that to you, and to them. And to the girl with the Hebrew tattoo.
But she already knows that. I gave her the translated words.
So here are some takeaways for you to chew over on this fast day:
1) All of religion can be distilled down to the question of how to be a good person. Only kindness matters. To be religious is to be good – to be good is to be religious.
2) Ritual is just intended to teach us how to be kinder people.
3) Messianism is simply the way of aiming high. In working toward a messianic age, we aim transform the Golden Rule into universal practice. We set the bar high for society.
4) And in our own lives, we aim equally high. Our authentic selves are our aspirational selves. When we say, “To thine own self be true,” we’re not saying, “Accept me as I am; I’m not gonna change,” we are saying, “Accept me as I am striving to become. Yes I DO want to change!”
Ultimately this journey does lead to God – but not necessarily to the God you were expecting to find. But the search for God is secondary to the search for our authentic selves, our authentically JEWISH selves.
And that’s the journey that we will continue over the coming 24 hours.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Today I’d like to share some ideas as to how we might live a more authentic, and authentically Jewish life – and to illustrate my points, the key ingredients will be: a lobster, a carrot and a tree. You might think that to be authentically Jewish the prime props should be a mezuzah, a tallis and a brisket. Those are all fine, but for today, a lobster – yes, a lobster, a carrot and a tree.
So let’s get started; we begin our journey with the tree.
It was the early part of the summer, one of those picture perfect Shabbat afternoons with clear skies, warm temperatures and almost no wind. I was lying out on my deck in the backyard at about 4-4:30, admiring the lovely, calm blue sky and listening to the birds chirping
I paid little heed to a rat-tat-tat sound coming from the woods.
Must be the woodpeckers, just adding a little percussion to this exquisite symphony.
And then, suddenly looking up, I saw one of the majestic trees lining the edge of the backyard begin to sway in my direction. Without warning, it began to fall – and not just fall, but fall toward me. Paralyzed and shocked, I let out an enormous scream, sort of like what you see in the movies where everything suddenly shifts into slow motion and the hero starts screaming in one of those distorted voices that sounds like a cross between the “Incredible Hulk” and a 60 Minutes interview with someone in a witness protection program.
The tree landed with an enormous thud - about 10-15 feet from me, and just inches from doing significant damage to the house. Had it angled only slightly to the left, I would be delivering this sermon right now to our fellow congregants next door at Beth El Cemetery.
To this day, I have no idea what caused the tree to fall. It was covered with foliage and was clearly not dead. There was no wind. It hadn’t rained for days so the ground wasn’t soft or muddy. It was a perfect day! It just fell. Some say it was overgrown and top heavy and failed to adapt.
What became clear to me, immediately, is that, if my backyard on a peaceful Shabbat afternoon in June is no longer a safe place, there is no safe place anywhere, anymore.
But we knew that already. No safe place. Not a school. Not a movie theater. Not a café in Tel Aviv. Not a nightclub in Orlando or a Chelsea curbside. Not a zoo in Cincinnati, for toddlers or gorillas. Not even the happiest place on earth, Disney World – where this year the Grand Floridian’s lagoon turned out to be a croc infested swamp. What a perfect metaphor for what has happened to our world. Even Disney has become deadly!
Krista Tippett, the host of the radio program “On Being,” writes, “Why we are so uneasy - it goes way beyond crime rates and shifting gender roles, economic gyrations and geo-political upheaval. It goes beyond even terrorism and even the festering plagues of racism and bigotry climate change. These are only the symptoms of the earthquake we are witnessing. … Our global crises, the magnitude of the stakes for which we are playing, could signal the end of civilization as we’ve known it.”
And we sense that this is a very perilous crossroads in history.
So I was sitting there on my porch, looking at this tree and wondering we can ever feel safe. There was something very unnatural and foreboding about what I had just witnessed. On a Supercalifragilistic Mary Poppins day, I had just been attacked – by the scenery.
I was also feeling very lucky.
We humans are meaning making machines. To be human is to strive to forge order out of chaos. That is what religion is supposed to help us do. So was this fallen tree a message for me? Was it a warning? Was God testing my reflexes? Was the tree enchanted by the Wicked Witch? Or was this a totally random event?
All I know is this: When a tree falls in a forest - and it lands ten feet from you – it shakes you… it shakes you to the core. The falling tree brought me face to face with my mortality.
But once it was over, it led me to reflect on the tree’s mortality. The century or more it had lived. The storms it had endured. Only to fall so meekly, so inexplicably, so randomly. Was it a victim, too, of the epic changes we’ve brought to our planet? I felt a rush of sympathy for the tree, like Jonah felt for the shady plant in his story, the plant that suddenly withers and dies. So strong and firm one second; and the next, gone.
How art the mighty fallen!
And then I realized. I am that tree. Grow-grow-grow, year after year, decade after decade, and then rat-tat-tat and the next second, it’s all over. When we confront our mortality every day, it heightens every moment of life. Now whenever I hear the squirrels in the trees, I take notice.
And I take cover.
And I hear echoes of Mary Oliver’s poem “A Summer Day,” where she writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
My days on this earth have now exceeded 21,000, almost exactly half of them spent here. At this age, my father had fewer than five hundred days left. I can look at things from that perspective, by counting down. Or I can count up from the 109 days since the tree fell – 109 days more than I could have been on this earth, had it hooked ten feet to the left. I prefer to count up.
That’s the story of the tree.
There is an art to authentic living that can best be understood when we look at a lobster. Yes, I said LOOK at a lobster. Rabbi Abraham Twersky explains that a lobster is a soft mushy animal that lives inside a rigid shell. As the lobster grows, that shell becomes very confining, and the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable.
So what’s a lobster to do?
It goes under a rock and casts off its shell. Eventually, when the new shell hardens and becomes confining, it casts that off too. The stimulus that enables the lobster to grow is that it feels uncomfortable – it needs to restore order to the chaos of its confinement.
Rabbi Twersky adds that if lobsters had doctors, they would never grow. They would feel some pain and go and get a prescription for Valium or Percocet and then feel fine. We need to realize that times of pain and stress are actually times of growth. Crises are, in truth, opportunities.
We can fall like the top-heavy tree – or we can shed, regroup and change, like the lobster.
Here’s a fun fact: Approximately 1600 people have jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Now according to writer Andrew Sullivan, of those 1600, only 36 have survived. And each of those 36 reports that at the moment they jumped, they felt instant regret.
Since those 36 constitute what the pollsters would call a random sample, we can assume that just about all of the others felt the same remorse.
Only 36 of the 1600 have had the chance to count up from that day. Only 36 have had the chance to shed that emotional shell and continue to grow, to have a life beyond their moment of crisis, to see the light of dawn after the darkness. Only 36 have been blessed with that greatest gift of all, a second chance.
Jewish folklore speaks of 36 people in each generation who, without knowing it, are solely responsible for the survival of that entire generation. The number probably stems from it being a multiple of chai, life. The Hebrew letters adding to 36 are Lamed and Vav, and so they are called Lamed Vavnicks.
These 36 are reminders to all of us of how we must cherish every moment of life, and to recall at times of extreme stress, that it always will get better.
In a beautiful memoir published posthumously, Paul Kahalanithi, a young doctor, traces his battle with cancer. The book, “When Breath Becomes Air,” has been a best seller and for good reason.
He writes: “I’ve seen those precious instants where, one moment, there is a breath, a slow, weakened exhaling and inhaling of life force – and the next, there is only air…. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can’t ever reach perfection,” he adds, “but you can believe in striving toward it. ”
He calls those moments when life is under threat as the most authentic moments for both doctor and patient. Ah, that word again. Authenticity. Those moments when you realize that the tree is taking aim at you. Those moments when your feet are just about to lose contact with the bridge. Those moments when the chemo is either going to work or it won’t. Those moments when you have to shed that shell or die.
And those moments when we are fasting all day, an act symbolic of death, and the book of life is about to be sealed.
Those authentic moments, when we experience life at the limits.
Rabbis often face these moments with people. One such moment arose in our community this year when a teenager from a neighboring congregation suddenly died, tragically. That night and again the next, at my house, I sat in a circle with some of that teen’s friends, and I was terrified at what I could possibly say to ease their pain. I knew that whatever I said, it had to be a completely authentic response from the depths of my soul and not just chapter and verse from a “How-to” book by Dr. Oz.
I sat with them, speechless, for what seemed like forever, and then simply said, “I’m here.”
Life is most authentic at those moments, but we can’t stay there forever. Two weeks after the horrible tragedy, I saw one of our teens and asked how he was holding up. He said “Great,” and looked at me as if he had no idea why I was asking – he was back in the world of pop quizzes and mock trials and all the normal things a teenager should be preoccupied with. But that authentic moment, that moment when we are most human, will forever remain with him.
And that indelible lesson will remain as well – that we were put on this earth to love one another, and in the end that’s all that matters.
To live authentically, as writer Shelly Turkel puts it, “we need to build our answers up from our very human ground.”
One of the biblical names used for the Jewish people is “Israel,” a word that in Hebrew means “one who struggles with God.” And we do struggle with God, and we struggle with life, and we struggle to survive and we would have it no other way. Just as the worst moments of our individual lives make us who we are, the most painful moments of our collective life as a people have made us what we are as Jews.
We are the sum of our most intense and challenging moments – but not just that.
Our lives are the sum of our most challenging moments - AND HOW WE RESPOND TO THEM.
That is the art of authentic Jewish Living.
Two iconic figures died recently, both of whom embodied the spirit of Yisrael. Both emerged from the cauldron of 20th century European madness: Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres.
A few years ago, about 75 of us went to the 92nd St Y to hear Wiesel speak about the book of Job. In discussing the end of the book, Wiesel spoke of the fine line separating faith from insanity, suggesting that a little madness might be required in order to maintain a posture of faith in an unjust world. He postulated that Job did not fear an unjust God so much as an apathetic one. And Wiesel also feared apathetic human beings, even more than unjust ones
Wiesel also believed that when we hear the story of a witness, we too become witnesses, and through us the story lives on; a living scroll ever unfolding. “Because I remember, I despair,” Wiesel says, then adding, “Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.”
Wiesel was not the very last Holocaust survivor to die. But in fact, his death was the end of an era – he was our Survivor in Chief, representing all the witnesses. He was our prophet, and the prophet’s voice has now been silenced.
But he charged us with the responsibility of being witnesses in his stead. That is why our congregational trip next summer to Eastern Europe is so important. This is not merely a tour of places like Warsaw, Cracow, Budapest, Prague and Berlin – although we’ll have lots of opportunity to enjoy these glorious cities. But make no mistake, this is a pilgrimage, to places where Jewish civilization thrived for a thousand years, and a place called Auschwitz, where it nearly died in a thousand days. (See the trip’s itinerary here)
Auschwitz was the epicenter of it all. It is a place where all civilized human beings must go, to remember, and pray, and to take upon ourselves the mantle of witness, to pick up the gauntlet from Wiesel. It is not a burden, but an honor to respond to that sacred calling.
The Jew has an obligation to remember – but then, like the lobster, to shed the shell of victim, the confining shell of resentment and anger and despair, and to transform the disaster into an embrace of life and a relentless pursuit of justice and dignity for every human being.
If Wiesel’s passing represents the end of the era of the surviving witness, Shimon Peres’ death marks the end of the era of the founding dreamer. For a Jew is responsible not merely to be a witness, but to dream, to imagine a better future, despite the darkness that surrounds us. Peres said we should use our imagination more than our memory. “Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death,” he said, “but they live very different lives!”
Peres’ vision and Wiesel’s memory anchored us, moored us. And now they are gone and we are cast adrift, but still we inspired by their immortal message.
To be a Jew is to live acutely, relentlessly and compassionately, and to be moving forward while always glancing over our shoulder…to be a witness to the past and a beacon toward the future. To cling to life and purpose with all our might. To shed our shells and grow new ones. And all the while to be totally and unabashedly human.
That’s the lesson of the lobster.
Now, enter…the carrot.
Dan Barber, a chef and writer, speaks about an experiment he ran on a special kind of carrot, a Mokum carrot, which he was able to grow outdoors in the middle of cold, cold February. When it was ripe, he ran something called a Brix test, which measures the sugar content. It came to 13.8. He compared it to an organic carrot purchased from a Whole Foods, presumably grown in a much less hostile environment. That carrot measured 0.0. on the same scale.
No sugar detectable.
Why such a dramatic difference? He explains that the carrot is feverishly converting its starches to sugars because, in those hard freezes, it doesn’t want ice crystallization.
And why is that?
Because if it gets ice crystallization, it dies.
“What you’re tasting is sweetness,” he states. “But what the plant, the root vegetable is telling you, is that it doesn’t want to die.”
Talk about mindful eating. A carrot will never taste the same to me again. Maybe that’s why we make such a big tzimmis about tzimmis on the high holidays. The sweetness we’re tasting – is life itself.
Have you ever noticed how the sweetest things are produced under the greatest duress? The State of Israel has never known a single day of complete peace, not for 68 years. Yet this year it placed 11th of all the nations in the world in the happiness index, out of 156 countries. The US is 14th. Basically ahead of Israel you’ve got Australia - New Zealand, Canada (the man-cave of countries) and the nations of Scandinavia, where the closest they’ve come to war lately was when Prince Hans Westergaard tried to usurp the throne of Arendelle in “Frozen.”
And then you have Israel. Calamitous, terror-filled, polarized, with the meshuggenah bus drivers and rude bank clerks. THAT Israel. It’s 11th. It’s also the country where the tomatoes are more flavorful, the falafel crispier, the sunsets more spectacular, the people more welcoming, the children more playful – and life is, like that carrot’s, simply sweeter.
The intensity of life at the limits.
Want to hear something funny? I think we are becoming carrots here too.
Have you noticed that, despite all the fear and insecurity, all the hate online and nastiness of our public debate, our world is actually becoming more oriented toward the dignity of the human being? I’m sure you’ve heard the stats, that violent crime is continuing its decades’ long downward trajectory. I spoke last week of how, regarding racism, we’ve seen love triumph in the strangest places…. With an intensity never before seen. We’re not just talking about love. We’re talking about love is love is love is love is love! You can’t sleepwalk through life anymore.
We’re appreciating life more because we’ve seen how fragile it is. We’ve experienced life at the limits, so many times. And when lived at the limits, life is simply sweeter. And we’re taking those lessons and photosynthesizing them into love.
Just recently, our community has been blessed with two magnificent new buildings, the new Jewish Home in Bridgeport and the new Stamford Hospital. In both cases, it is the human element that takes precedence, the dignity and comfort of the patient or resident. In both places, there are no more shared rooms. Everyone has the blessing of privacy. The rooms in Stamford Hospital even have blackout shades to enable patients and family members to experience that hospital rarity – a good night’s sleep. A CT-Scan machine has a skylight right above it with a colorful photo of flowers. Everything is elevated to the human level. At the new Jewish Home it’s the same.
A hospital and a nursing home: two destinations typically associated with pain, decay and death – these places have become downright Disney-like – minus the crocodiles!
We at Beth El are beginning an exciting process of setting long-term goals and refining our mission, and our focus too is on the dignity of the individual human being – and the art of authentic Jewish living.
We can be adaptable and resilient like the lobster; we can find sweetness in the most stressful circumstances like the carrot; we bear witness like Wiesel and dream dreams like Peres; and we cling to every precious moment of life as if a tree is about to fall ten feet away, all the while preserving the dignity of being human, until our last ounce of breath becomes air.
So now if we add it all together, all the shadings of what it means to live an authentic Jewish life, everything we’ve discussed over the past ten days can be summed up in one fundamental calling:
Be a mensch.
It’s not enough to live one day at a time. What matters is what you do with that day. And we need to live our lives not merely as if every moment matters, but every action. Every deed. Because it does.
Be a mensch.
That’s how we experience life’s sweetness – by sharing that sweetness with others. That’s how e reject despair - by easing the despair of others. That’s how we shed the shell of crisis – by helping our neighbors to shed theirs.
Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan points out that “biblical Hebrew is all made out of verbs…it all starts in the doing and goes back to the doing. Why isn’t there a blessing for giving tzedaka to the poor? By the time you say the blessing, the man will die of hunger…spirituality cannot just be in what you think and what you feel – it has to be invested in what you do.”
Over the past six weeks I’ve been sending out emails called “Mensch*Marks,” daily benchmarks describing various ways in which we can better lives.
These were values that my dad taught me. He was always telling me simply to be a mensch. These are values I’ve wanted to pass down to my children – and to you.
I mentioned earlier that when my father was my age he had only about a year to live.
I was just 21 when he died and I don’t recall nearly enough; but that message from him rings through to me every day: Be a mensch.
And that’s how I’ve tried to live my life.
Sometimes I’ve succeeded and at others, undoubtedly I’ve failed. But I’ve never stopped striving to remind us all, in word and deed, that we were put on this earth to love one another – and in the end, that’s all that matters.
The rabbis stated, “In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.”
In a world as dehumanizing as ours has become, simply being a mensch is a measure of heroism – and it may be the greatest measure of all.
Bahya Ibn Pakida, a 10th century Jewish philosopher, wrote, “Days are like scrolls…write on them only what you want remembered.”
That scroll we are writing on is our own Book of Life. And each entry is our own personal mensch*mark.
If we all do that, it won’t save the world overnight; but it will, over time.
John Paul Lederach wrote this Haiku:
Don’t ask the mountain to move
Just take a pebble
Each time you visit.
Inspired by the resourceful lobster.
Galvanized by the relentless carrot.
Chastened by the tragic tree.
And grateful to be alive, for as long as we are alive, we will move that mountain, one pebble at a time.
And we will change the world.
May the coming year be a year of authenticity and growth, for all of us and for the world.
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