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 13, 2016
Yom Kippur Sermons, 5777
Yom Kippur 5777 Kol Nidre –
The Girl with the Hebrew Tattoo Rabbi Joshua Hammerman Audio:
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.
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
What’s a rabbi
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.
Jewish life requires such connection – and that connection must be to other
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
what Isaiah would be saying if he were here today.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
God is drafted into the service of a particular worldview,” Hartman states,
“leaving all others devoid of access to God’s grace.”
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.”
blinds us to our moral responsibilities to others. Ultimately it blinds us also
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.
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
“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.
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.
Moses put people first and refused to remain indifferent. Moses and Abraham put people first – and God
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.
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.”
is the key to Donniel Hartman’s view of God and Judaism.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
with God is what distracts us from focusing on the needs of other human
beings. THAT is what puts blinders over
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
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
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
never gave up on Judaism, even as he habitually questioned God. He had every reason to give up.
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
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!”
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.
Yom Kippur Day: The Lobster, the Carrot
and the Tree
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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
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,
How art the
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
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.
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.
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
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.
“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
To live authentically, as writer Shelly
Turkel puts it, “we need to build our answers up from our very human
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
Our lives are the sum of our most
challenging moments - AND HOW WE RESPOND TO THEM.
That is the art
of authentic Jewish Living.
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)
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.
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!”
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.
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
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?
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 PrinceHans
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,
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
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
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.
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.
mentioned earlier that when my father was my age he had only about a year to
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.