What are we all so afraid of?
About 40 years ago, in the mid 1970s, a psychologist named Roger Hart did a study on the playing behaviours of children in a small town in Vermont. He documented their activities; he interviewed all 86 children in the town about the places where they played. And he discovered that those children had an incredible amount of freedom. They essentially played wherever they wanted; they traveled together through neighbourhoods and even to the edges of the city. In his words, “they had the run of the town.”
That was then. Thirty-something years later, in the mid 2000s, the same psychologist went back to the same town, to learn about the next generation – the children of the children he had originally studied. He asked similar questions and looked for similar behaviours. And he documented a completely different picture. A generation ago, kids had roamed all over creation, but now they had almost no radius of freedom. Their parents knew where they were at all times. And far from traveling to the edges of town, many of them hardly even left their own property by themselves. They just weren’t allowed to.
Something has shifted in our society over the last 40 years, and this story is a part of a larger picture. People are more afraid, more worried, more anxious. When the residents of that town were interviewed about what had changed, they cited the increased threat of violent crime toward their children. But statistically, there is no increased threat of violent crime – not in that town and not in Canada and not in North America as a whole. There is only the fear of increased threat.
What are we all so afraid of?
Most of us don’t live our lives in constant fear of violent crime. Most of us aren’t afraid to leave our own property. But we do live with fear – maybe now more than ever before.
Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, writes about the scary world that we live in:
This world can appear so unpredictable sometimes. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires….. Your life can suddenly be overturned by illness or accident or financial setback.
And whether we know it or not, all of that fear is affecting us. Diagnoses of anxiety are on the rise. Hospitalizations for eating disorders in Canada increased by a third in the last 25 years. Some 43% of North Americans take a mood-altering medication on a regular basis. We are living with stress in a way that our grandparents never did and in a way that their grandparents never even imagined.
What if I get sick?
What if the stock market takes a dive?
What if my grandchildren aren’t raised Jewish?
What if my failings at work are discovered?
The funny thing is, we seem to be reasonably good at dealing with the threat of terrorism and nuclear annihilation. But when you live a life of anxiety, it’s the little fears that get in the way.
The fear of failure that keeps us from taking risks.
The fear of rejection that stops us from reaching out to form community.
The fear of uselessness that keeps us running, working, filling our lives with things we need to get done.
Like those children who never venture beyond the safety of their own yards, our fears – large or small – have the ability to overwhelm our thinking. As we make our way through life, they separate us from our best selves.
On Yom Kippur, we work to become our best selves. And Jewish tradition has long been aware that our fears are a barrier. That’s part of why we’re here. During these ten days, we come together to pray, to repent, to confront the pieces of ourselves that we are most afraid of. And to find the strength we need to live in a scary world.
The prayers for this season address that challenge. It’s traditional during the month of Elul to read Psalm 27 twice every day. It says:
יְהֹוָה אוֹרִי וְיִשְׁעִי מִמִּי אִירָא – When God is my light and my help; whom should I fear?
יְהֹוָה מָעוֹז חַיַּי מִמִּי אֶפְחָֽד: – When God is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?
It is a central theme of the High Holy Days that when we are in a supportive religious community, we have less to be afraid of. When we are surrounded by others and surrounded by God, we can find the strength to confront what may come our way.
Part of confronting our fears is separating between what we can and cannot control.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the true story of a man and woman he met in the back row of an airplane. They were a wealthy and influential couple, on their way to New York for a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria. The King and Queen of Thailand, they said, would also be at the event. Rabbi Kushner wanted to know why a couple like that would travel in the back row of the plane! Why not first class? The husband replied, “My wife is more comfortable in the last row. She’s read about planes that have crashed, but she’s never heard about a plane being rear-ended.”
There’s only so much that we can be in control of.
Many of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer that’s often used in 12-step programs:
God, grant me the courage to change what can be changed
The serenity to accept what cannot be changed.
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Those words are not Jewish in origin, but they do find expression in the origin of the Jewish story. Early on in the book of Genesis, Avram – who is not yet called Avraham – fights a brutal war against 5 kings in Canaan. This was before Avram had entered into covenant with God, before he had fathered any sons, before he had really secured his place as ancestor of a great nation. It was a moment of great uncertainty in Avram’s life.
And just then, God comes to him and says:
אַל־תִּירָא אַבְרָם אָֽנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ – “Do not be afraid, Avram, I am a shield to you.(Genesis 15:1)
It was an invitation by God to enter into covenant. An invitation for Avram to put aside his fears and be in relationship with the Divine.
It doesn’t seem like a very reasonable request: In the scariest moment of your life….Al tira – just don’t be afraid. The Rabbis want to understand how God can ask this. So they analyze Avram’s fears. Nachmanides, the mystical Spanish commentator, says that there are two things Avram was afraid of in that moment:
- He was afraid that the kings might rise back up against him, and drag him back into war.
- He was afraid that he might someday die childless, since that he had no sons.
Those were very real fears. Either of those things really could have happened, and Avraham had no way of knowing that they wouldn’t. But – and this, I believe is Nachmanides’ point – he also had no way of knowing that they would.
What is Avraham afraid of? One thing from the past, and one from the future. A war that he’s already survived, and a childless death that may or may not come someday. But what’s in front of him is an eternal covenant with God.
When we live our lives paralyzed by fear of the past and the future, we miss the blessings of the present. If the patriarch had remained focused on what he was afraid of, he would have missed the opportunity to enter into covenant.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive; our eyes can still see the beautiful sky; our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.
When the Torah says “Al tira – Do not be afraid,” it doesn’t mean that the things we’re afraid of aren’t real. But it does mean that we can strive to see the blessings of the present amidst the anxieties of the future. And it means that we can have faith in ourselves that when challenges do come our way, we will have the strength to weather them.
Earlier this month, we marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Much has been made over the years of the special courage and strength of the “Greatest Generation,” of their ability to weather fear and terror, and to come out stronger on the other side.
One famous example is found in the residents of wartime London, England, who lived through the German Blitz. Between September 1940 and May 1941, London was bombed 71 times. It was a campaign that should have paralyzed the city and its residents with fear. But it didn’t. The more London was bombed, the more its residents were emboldened. They spent time outdoors. They drank in pubs and attended cricket matches. An entire network of wartime psychiatric clinics had to close down because their they weren’t being used! (NEED REF)
The Canadian psychiatrist J. T. MacCurdy has explained this by saying that Londoners were learning, one bombing at a time, that they could survive and thrive in those frightening circumstances. In fact, he writes that after a while, it gave them a “feeling of excitement with the flavour of invulnerability.” The more they lived with danger, the less fear they had. Because they knew from experience that they as a people were capable of making it through.
Most of us don’t live our lives under attack, but there is something to the idea that experiencing what we’re afraid of actually makes us stronger, more confident, maybe even more capable.
Losing a job is an awful experience, but it can also be a learning opportunity and a chance to reinvent yourself.
When a loved one passes away, our world is shattered. But life does go on, and in fact, our work on earth becomes even more important.
When our worst fears become reality, we often discover strength we didn’t know we had.
Judaism embraces the idea that our fears can motivate us rather than paralyzing us. The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig writes that “All knowledge of the universe begins in the fear of death.”
All knowledge. All learning. All accomplishing exists because we know that we will die someday.
If we weren’t afraid, says Rosenzweig, then we would have no reason to get anything done. No reason to learn anything or to teach anything or to pass anything on. Our own mortality – and our profound awareness of it – is what makes us most creative and most human.
In that sense, we are at our most human on the High Holy Days. During these Yamim Nora’im – these Days of Awe and Fear and Dread, we are most aware of just how big the universe is and how small we are within it.
Our prayerbook reminds us of this when it says: Untaneh Tokeif k’dushat hayom, ki hu nora v’ayom – Let us declare the holiness of this day, which is frightfully awesome and full of dread.
In Hebrew there are two words for “fear.” One is pachad, which means mortal fear. The other is yirah. That’s the root of nora, of Yamim Nora’im. It means reverence or awe. It means the inspired awareness that there is something larger than me.
This summer, I spent a week as faculty at Camp George, our regional Reform Jewish camp. I got to watch Jewish kids enjoying the great outdoors. They hike, they sail, they watch sunsets and count stars. At one program, we asked the youngest campers – 7 to 9 year olds –to describe their “Yirah Moments” – the moments when they felt a sense of awe or amazement at the world. One camper described looking up at the stars at night. Another talked about looking out over the lake during Shabbat services.
Many of us have had similar experiences – looking at a starry sky or witnessing the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. There is a certain fear that comes along with the knowledge that we are so unbelievably small. But the Yom Kippur prayerbook reminds us that small doesn’t mean insignificant, and it doesn’t mean powerless.
In fact, the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which begins with fear and dread, ends by empowering us with responsibility: Teshuvah, tefilah, tzedakah – Repentence, prayer and charity. These are the ways that we effect change in the world. These are the ways that we respond as Jews to what frightens and overwhelms us.
Repentance, prayer and charity make a difference because they stem from humility. Because they are born in the notion that the only constructive human response to a frightening world is to try to repair it.
Once, a little girl was walking along the beach after a storm, and she noticed a starfish that had been washed up on shore, So she picked it up and threw it back into the ocean, saving its life. A few steps later, she came upon another starfish, and she did the same. She made her way down the beach, picking up starfish and throwing them into the ocean. A man came up to her, and said, “Little girl, do you realize how long this beach is? Do you realize that there are thousands of starfish stranded on the shore. You’ll never get to all of them. How can this possibly make a difference? The little girl looked at him. Then she picked up a starfish and threw it into the ocean. She answered, “It made a difference to that one.”
It is perhaps the most deeply held Jewish belief that every one of us has the power to make a difference. No matter who we are, or how small we feel, or what we are afraid of.
Untaneh Tokeif k’dushat hayom– Let us declare the holiness of this day.
This day of fear and dread.
This day or awe and inspiration.
This day that reminds us that we are so small and yet so powerful, so fearful and yet so capable.
And when we rise from our seats at the end of Yom Kippur, may it be with the motivation to go out into the world. To confront our fears; to challenge ourselves; to do the hard work of Tikkun Hanefesh – repairing our souls and Tikkun Olam – repairing our world.
 Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis, p. 209.
 Conquering Fear, Harold Kushner, pp. 12-13.
 David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell, p. 129.
The Talmud tells about a great sage named Honi who once saw a young man planting a sapling. He sat in the heat of the sun and watched the man digging in the ground, placing the tiny tree into the hole, and surrounding it with earth. And then, Honi sat down in the shade and fell into a deep sleep.
When he woke up, 70 years had passed. And instead of a sapling, there was a tall fruit tree before him. And another young man – the grandson of the original planter – was reaping fruit from its branches.
This story, I believe, is the Rabbis’ way of teaching us about how things change and how things stay the same. In the space of 70 years, an entire tree can grow. Ideas can evolve, people can grow up and build lives and pass on their legacies.
And yet, the tall fruit tree in front of Honi’s eyes is the very same sapling he saw planted earlier. The fruits we reap are the ones that were planted in past generations. Whether we are aware of it or not, the lives we live are a product of the experiences and actions of those who came before us.
If Honi were to wake up today from a 70 year sleep, he would be deeply aware of just how much we are influenced by the past. This year, we have marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau. If Honi were to awaken today, he would have closed his eyes in the world of the concentration camps, and he would open them to see a world still struggling with the consequences and the meaning of those events.
70 years ago, the Jewish world was altered irrevocably. And we are still – in many ways – living in the shadow of Auschwitz. Whether we are aware of it or not, the Holocaust affects the ways that we think and the ways that we behave and the ways that we practice Judaism on a daily basis. We continue to struggle to make sense of the senseless.
Here’s what Rabbi Harold Kushner has to say about that:
Let me suggest that the bad things that happen to us in our lives do not have a meaning when they happen to us. They do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. But …. we can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing a meaning on them. The question we should be asking is not, “Why did this happen to me?” A better question would be “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
Rabbi Kushner’s words suggest that while there is no sense in the senseless, there may be still meaning to be made from the unthinkable acts of 70 years ago. And that is precisely what many of the survivors have told us as well – that out of their horrifying experiences they found new lessons, and new responsibilities, and even new commandments that have guided them for the rest of their lives, and that they wish to pass on to us as well.
As we mark this tragic anniversary, I wish to share with you the thinking of three different survivors – names that you may know, people whose books you may have read. So that we might glean together the meanings and lessons that they have found in their experiences. Lessons that might guide us as individuals, as Jews, and as citizens of the world. Lessons of Auschwitz.
Everyone handles adversity differently. Viktor Frankl handled it by turning inward. He was an Austrian Jewish psychiatrist – a late contemporary of Sigmund Freud. During the war, Frankl was imprisoned in four separate concentration camps. He lost his wife and nearly his entire family.
In his powerful book Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes the experience of concentration camp life from a psychological perspective. He writes about the transition that each prisoner went through – from the shock of first arriving at the camp, to the apathy that developed as they became used to its conditions. He writes about the blunting of emotions, about the ways in which camp prisoners would set up a protective shell around themselves.
But Frankl also writes about the places where humanity was still to be found. He describes his fellow prisoners’ use of humour to weather the difficulties of daily life. He writes about their growing awareness that all suffering is relative, and that one can choose to find goodness even in the worst of surroundings.
He gives a particularly moving account of a cold nighttime march in which he managed to cope by picturing the presence of his wife:
“I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look…. Then I grasped the greatest secret that human thought and belief have to impart:… I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss.”
In that pivotal moment, Frankl first began to grasp what he would later come to call the “last of the human freedoms.” He writes:
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
For Viktor Frankl, the lesson of Auschwitz is one of personal empowerment. No matter where we are, and no matter what others are doing to us, we still get to choose our actions and our beliefs. He teaches us that out of the horrors of the Holocaust, comes forth a command to each of us – to choose to live with gratitude. To strive to see the good in the world around us, no matter the circumstances of our lives.
This is a worthy lesson for those of us living a privileged life in the 21st century. And it is a lesson that has been present in Judaism for a long time. The Hasidim tell the story of a poor man living in a small, loud, cramped house with his large family who goes to complain to the rabbi about his lot in life. The rabbi solemnly counsels the man, “Go home, and take your goat into the house to live with you.” So the man does, but of course the house only becomes smaller, and louder, and more cramped. So he goes back to the rabbi, who tells him to bring his chickens into the house as well. Only after the man has brought his chickens, cow, goat, and horse to live into his house does the rabbi finally counsel him to put all of the animals outside and enjoy the relative peace and quiet of having only his family in the little house.
We cannot choose our circumstances; we can only choose our attitude toward them
This is all over Judaism. The tradition of Mussar – the Jewish mindfulness ethic – encourages daily study and patiently choosing attitudes and behaviours. The practice of saying blessings is meant to foster a sense of gratitude for everything that we have. The Talmud commands us to say 100 blessings every day – giving constant thanks to God for what we eat, what we drink, seeing a rainbow or sunset, even the fact that our bodies are working.
This is such an important message for Yom Kippur, because today is the one day of the year that we dedicate entirely to trying to see the goodness in ourselves and in the world around us. The rest of the year, so much of our time is spent putting out fires and dealing with circumstances, that we rarely take the time to say any blessings at all, let alone 100 a day.
Imagine how our lives would change if once an hour we took time to notice the goodness of something. Imagine if once a day, we took time to recognize and act of our own capacity for bringing goodness to others. Then we would understand in a whole different way what Viktor Frankl learned in the camps – that our circumstances do not get to dictate how we will feel or where we will focus or what we will be. Only we get to decide that.
In the worst of circumstances, human beings are capable of their best. Capable of seeing goodness in the midst of evil; capable of devoting themselves to their families and to their people.
For Emil Fackenhim, another survivor and another teacher, this is precisely the lesson of the Shoah.
Fackenheim was a German Reform Rabbi. He was arrested on Kristallnacht and sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. But he escaped to England and made his way ultimately to Canada. Dr. Fackenheim served as rabbi of Temple Anshei Shalom in Hamilton. and for 35 years he served as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of the people in this room may have studied with him.
His experiences and his conclusions are different from those of Viktor Frankl. Where Frankl the psychiatrist saw a lesson about attitude and choice, Fackenheim the Rabbi saw a commandment for Jewish survival. He is best known for his belief that after the Holocaust there is a new 614th commandment – “Not to hand Hitler posthumous victories.” In other words, he teaches that is the responsibility of the Jew to ensure the continuance of the Jewish people.
He writes: “We are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish.”
This is a notion that we may have internalized more deeply than we realize. We live our responsibility for Jewish continuance every time we read from our Czech Torah scroll; every time we “twin” one of our children with a Shoah victim when they become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. But we also live that responsibility when we build Jewish communities and engage in Jewish learning. We are often aware that there are simply not that many of us, and that if Judaism is to thrive, it will be because we made it so.
On the one hand, ensuring the Jewish future means responding swiftly and decisively to anti-Semitism. It means remembering that even though we live comfortable lives in a diverse and free country, we are only 7 decades removed from oblivion.
But in the 21st century, ensuring the Jewish future is not only about combating outside threat. It means, as well, building a Judaism that is vibrant and relevant from within.
The Torah portion for Yom Kippur morning tells us that we have connections that transcend denomination and generation. It says:
אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם
“Today you stand – ALL of you – to enter into covenant with your God.” From chiefs to labourers. Wood choppers to water drawers.
אֶת־אֲשֶׁר יֶשְׁנוֹ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ עֹמֵד הַיּוֹם וְאֵת אֲשֶׁר אֵינֶנּוּ פֹּה עִמָּנוּ הַיּֽוֹם:
Both those are standing here with us today, and those who are not standing here.
Fulfilling that responsibility to past generations means continuing to build Jewish lives around a deep love of learning and tradition. It means building Jewish communities that are inclusive and welcoming. It means building a Jewish state that is a place of pluralism and diversity, that consistently upholds the rights and freedoms of all.
Ironically, the lesson of Auschwitz is that we must transcend Auschwitz as the reason for our continued existence. It is not enough to remain Jewish simply because others tried to destroy us. Rather, our task is to continue to build the best Judaism for our time – one that speaks to the needs of the 21st century but remains rooted in the wisdom of past generations.
And that requires work. It requires a commitment to learning. It requires being open to new ideas, striving to understand how our ancient values apply today. It requires thinking concertedly about being part of Jewish community – about how we can contribute to it. Our task is to keep learning, to keep struggling, to keep wrestling. To receive the tradition, and live it and mould it and shape it, and pass it on once again.
In 1947, when the Israeli cabinet voted on the Partition Plan that would create the Jewish state, one of the ministers, Yitzhak Tabenkin, requested a day to consult with some people before voting. When he returned, David Ben Gurion asked him, “From whom did you seek counsel?”
“From two people,” answered Tabenkin. “From my grandfather who died ten years ago, and from my grandson who is not yet born.”
If we can ensure that Judaism thrives as a beloved religious tradition and as a force for good in the world, then we will be doing all that we can to honour the memory of those who died. And to ensure that what happened to them never happens again.
“Never again” has been the refrain of the Jewish people for seven decades. Never again shall we see our children marched off. Never again shall we see our people pushed to the brink. And never again shall we allow the same to happen to others. Indeed, the lesson of Auschwtz is not only that we have a responsibility to our own people, but that we have a responsibility to all people.
This message is most evident in the writings of the author, activist, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
Elie Wiesel was born in Romania and was a child when he was deported to Aushwitz. He lost his parents and his sister in the camps. His autobiographical writings have touched millions of readers in 30 languages. But he is known equally for his advocacy – both for Jewish causes like Israel and Soviet Jewry, and for victims of oppression or genocide all over the world – South Africa, Argentina, Bosnia, Sudan, and other places as well.
Elie Wiesel has always said that out of his experience in the Holocaust, he hears a command, an imperative to ensure the dignity of all human beings.
In his 1986 Nobel Peach Prize acceptance speech, he said:
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented….. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.
This message is reflected in our most ancient of Jewish texts. In the haftarah that we chanted this morning, the prophet Isaiah speaks for God:
The fast I desire is to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain.
And the Torah as well commands us repeatedly to care for the poor and the oppressed, saying “Ki gerim hayitem b’eretz mitzrayim – Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
You have been oppressed, says the Torah, so you must not allow another to be oppressed.
You have been a slave, so you must not allow another to be enslaved.
In the past 100 years, Jews have been disproportionately involved in standing up for justice and the rights of the oppressed. Our rabbis marched alongside Martin Luther King at Selma. Our people spoke out for the oppressed minority in Darfour. Our own Reform movement has worked here in Canada to support the aboriginal community. And, like many others, our synagogues are beginning to act as the Syrian refugee crisis grows.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, among many others, has compared the situation of millions of Syrian refugees to the 1930s and 40s when it was the Jews of Europe who were seeking asylum. He writes that we Jews have a special responsibility to come to the aid of other oppressed people, and that “at such times, even small humanitarian gestures can light a flame of hope.”
Many of you have heard that some of our sister congregations – including Darchei Noam in Toronto and Emanu-El-Beth-Sholom in Montreal – have taken the step of sponsoring refugee families. We at Kol Ami want to do our part as well, and our President , Mark Wolpert will speak to you in a few minutes about how you can get involved.
As Jews, and as children of the Shoah, as human beings we are called upon to recognize the image of God in every person – whether the refugees of Syria or the homeless of Toronto or the battered women and children to whom our members bring food at Yellow Brick House. We are called upon to help when we can, to do our part in repairing the world.
In the city of Budapest, there is a tree. A bronze sculpture in the shape of a weeping willow, whose leaves bear the names of victims of the Shoah. It is known as Etz Hachayim – the Tree of Life – and it is a reminder of what has been lost, those branches that were cut off before their time. But it is also a reminder that all things grow and are renewed. That a tiny sapling can grow into a tall fruit tree. That a people can move forward – can survive and even thrive.
It is a reminder that we are the branches of the Tree of Life. When we live our lives with gratitude, when we contribute to a stronger and more vibrant Judaism, when we lend our strength to repair the world, not only do we honour the memories of those that were lost, but we also water the roots of an ancient and flourishing way of life, so that it may continue to grow and bloom for us and for those who will come after us.
Zecher Tzadik Livracha – The memory of the righteous is a blessing. May we, through our lives, strive to be a blessing – to their memory, to our own loved ones, to our people and our community and the world around us.
Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s will.
 When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner, p. 136.
 Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 39.
 Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, p. 57.
 Ibid 86.
 B. Menachot 43b.
 To Mend the World, Emil Fackenheim.
 Isaiah 58
 “Refugee Crisis: ‘Love the Stranger because you were once strangers’ calls to us now.” Jonathan Sacks. The Guardian, 6 September 2015.
Once, there were two builders – one wise and one foolish. They were on a journey to a jobsite in a faraway town, and each one carried his tool belt with him as they made their way. As night approached, the builders felt weary and stopped at an inn to sleep. Since they were afraid of thieves, they placed their tool belts under their beds for the night. In the morning, they woke up at daybreak and quickly made their way down the road toward the jobsite, forgetting to take the tools with them.
They only realized their mistake several hours later, when they were already close to their destination. What to do? Well, the foolish builder said, “Quickly! Let’s press on, for we have so much work to do today.” And he continued down the road toward the jobsite.
But the wiser of the two turned back. He said, “What good will it do us now to hurry, since we are empty handed? The more sensible thing is to find our tools, so that we may build successfully.”
We spend our lives building. Building families, building careers, building communities and relationships. Building ourselves. Each year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we come to the synagogue to gather the tools that we will need for that work. It’s a challenging and heavy season for us. But it’s also an exciting season filled with the possibilities of spiritual fulfillment and renewal.
The High Holy Day liturgy speaks the language of renewal. Over and over again throughout the holidays, we will sing the final line of the book of lamentations. It says:
Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuvah.
Return us to You, O God, and we shall return.
Chadeish yameinu k’kedem
Renew our days/Make our days new as they were in the past.
It’s a very strange phrasing – “Chadeish yameinu k’kedem.” Chadeish comes from the Hebrew word chadash, which means “new.” And kedem is the word for ancient or old. So the verse literally asks God to make our days, make our lives, make us into something new…. that we used to be. That doesn’t really make sense. If something is new, then it is not what it used to be. And if something is as it used to be, then by definition it has not been renewed.
And yet, we repeat those words throughout the holidays.
I think it’s intended to teach us something about teshuvah – about repentance. It teaches us that the process of teshuvah helps us to become both something new and something very, very old. Our task during these Days of Awe is not to envision ourselves as an entirely different person. It’s not to reinvent ourselves. Rather, it is to return to the self that has always been inside of us. To get in touch with our own essential nature.
The Hasidim tell that the great Rebbe Zusya once came before his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Rebbe, what’s the matter?
And he told them that he had had a vision. He said, “I have learned the question – the terrible question – that the angels will ask me when I enter Olam Haba – when I enter the next world.”
The Rabbi’s followers were puzzled. “But Rebbe Zusya, you are pious and wise and humble. What question about your life could possibly be so terrifying?”
Zusya sighed. He said, “When I enter the next world, the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ And they will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Joshua?’ They will not ask, ‘Why weren’t you Maimonides or Rashi or Rabbi Akiba. Rather, they will say to me: ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”
Are we living our lives according to our own values?
Are we choosing our actions based on what we really believe?
Are we taking responsibility for the choices we make?
These are the difficult questions of the Days of Awe.
Judaism teaches us to see our lives as a product of our own choices. Anyone who’s ever been hiking or climbing knows that moving forward is a function of the choices we make. Where will I place my foot? Which path is the right one for me? Which rock should I hold onto?
And everyday life is the same. We make a thousand choices a day: Eggs or shredded wheat? Shoes or sandals? Homework or coffee with a friend? Should I speed up or slow down at the yellow light. Should I finish up this paperwork at my desk, or make it home for dinner? There’s not always a right and wrong answer, but our choices reflect our priorities. And in the end, our lives reflect the choices we’ve made.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “One’s philosophy is …expressed in the choices one makes.”
That means that the task of teshuvah – the task of becoming our best selves – is actually a task of trying to make choices that are in line with our beliefs and values. One by one. A thousand times a day.
Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, writes that “Strengthening your ability to choose expands your capacity to exercise free will, which [is] a defining feature of being human.” (Everyday Holiness, p. 38)
To be human is to be created in God’s image. To be created in God’s image is to recognize that we are choosing beings. That no matter the circumstances, no matter the behaviour of others, there is always a choice.
On the High Holy Days, we are tasked with nurturing and developing our most human and most divine characteristic – our faculty of free will. We are tasked to consider our own values and ideals, to create a road map for living and choosing according to them, and to take that map out into the world with us.
So, it turns out that the tools we need for the coming year are inside of us. Unlike those builders from the story, we cannot leave our toolkits under our beds or by the side of the road. We carry them with us wherever we go – our values; our beliefs; our sense of self worth. Our capacity to connect with others, to do for others, to repair the world, to repair ourselves.
In the coming year, may we have the strength to do the hard work of teshuvah.
May we have the patience to allow ourselves to falter.
And may we recognize that everything we need to become our best selves is already inside of us.
On this night of forgiveness, we think about the wrongs that have been done. There are people we have wronged. There are people who have wronged us.
Our tradition teaches us to be like God, to be “rachum v’chanun erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet” – compassionate and gracious, forgiving and slow to anger and filled with loving kindness.
Sometimes it’s easy to forgive. Sometimes we can think about the things people have done, and understand their motivations, and find a place in our hearts to make it ok.
But there is one person whom we often find most difficult to forgive: ourself.
The High Holy Days are a time to try to understand ourselves. To delve deeply into our own souls, to think deeply about why we are what we are and why we do what we do. To admit our own frailty. To admit our own humanity. To try to find a place in our hearts to forgive ourselves for being human.
We are imperfect beings. We have done wrong, and we will do wrong. Admitting this is not the same as excusing ourselves. Rather, in admitting our imperfections, we take upon ourselves the responsibility to try to do better in the coming year. It is the task of the High Holy Days. And it is a task that begins this very evening.
Rabbi Leo Baeck said: “To seek God is to strive for the good. To find God is to do good.”
On this night of forgiveness, during these days of awe, and all throughout the coming year, may we strive to do good, and may we strive to bring the holy and the Godly into the world.
Here’s a joke:
It was the middle of Shabbat morning services, and the rabbi noticed that old Irv Cohen was asleep in the third row. So he elbowed the Temple President and said, “Cohen is asleep again. Go wake him up!”
The President answered: “That’s not fair.”
So the rabbi replied, “What do you mean? Go wake him up!”
To which the president answered again, “That’s not fair.”
Now the rabbi was frustrated: “This is a synagogue, not a bedroom. Cohen can’t sleep through my sermon. Go wake him up!”
And the president answered simply: “That’s not fair. YOU put him to sleep. YOU wake him up.”
The joke about rabbis seems to be that they talk a little too much. This week’s Torah portion proves that Moses was truly the first rabbi, in that he was capable of talking for extended periods of time.
Here’s what I mean: After 40 years of wandering, our people are now standing, ready to cross over the Jordan river into the Promised Land. But Moses knows something very important. He knows that he is not going with them. As you may remember, Moses was punished by God that he cannot enter the Promised Land. He has the opportunity to stand up on a mountaintop and see the land. But he’s not going to accompany the people there, and he’s not going to be there to help them set up their new society.
So Moses takes it upon himself to give them some advice. Lots of advice. A whole book’s worth of advice, in fact, that we call the book of Deuteronomy. This last book of the Torah will consist of several speeches given by Moses – in which he’ll recount past events, go back over the places they’ve been, and give laws and advice for the people as they set up their new society in the land of Israel.
In Hebrew, we call this book D’varim, which means “Words.” Because it starts by saying, “Eleh had’varim – these are the words that Moses spoke.”
The irony of Moses giving 3 long speeches is that he is not really a public speaker. Back in Exodus, when God first came to Moses to lead the Jewish people, Moses said– Lo ish d’varim anochi – “I am not a man of words.”
But now, our man of few words has become a man of many words.
But there’s another layer here. And for that, we need to know that the word d’varim doesn’t only mean “words.” It also means “deeds” or “actions.”
And while Moses may not have been a man of words, he was most definitely a man of deeds. Here is a leader who devoted his entire life and every bit of his energy to his people. He went to Pharaoh. He parted the red sea. He climbed Sinai and brought back the Torah. He led the people through the Wilderness. And now they all lend him their ears because they know after 40 years that he is the real deal.
Moses is an example for us as Jews because he values D’varim – he values both words and deeds.
As Jews, we are people of words. The the name that was given to us in the medieval Islamic world was Am HaSefer – people of the book. We are people of the book because we find meaning by delving into ancient texts – by reading what our ancestors had to say hundreds and thousands of years ago, and challenging ourselves to find relevance in those texts for our own lives.
But we’re not only people of words. We are also people of actions. The basic unit of Jewish life is not words, and it’s not really beliefs either. It is mitzvot – commandments. The Jewish things that we do define the Jewish lives that we live.
There is a passage in the mishnah, that has made its way into the daily morning service, that begins:
Elu d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – These are the d’varim (the actions or deeds) whose worth cannot be measured. And it goes on to list them:
- Honouring your father and mother
- Engaging in acts of compassion
- Study Torah
- Welcoming the stranger
- Visiting the sick
- Celebrating with the wedding couple
- Burying the dead
- And making peace
These are, in many ways, the most basic acts of Jewish communal life – celebration, mourning, study and prayer, and building relationships. When we live our lives in these ways, then we are building strong community, we are there for each other, and we can work deepen our own sense of self worth, and our own connection with God. Those are tasks that never end, which is why the passage refers to them as d’varim she’ein lahem shiur – actions with unlimited worth.
So maybe that’s what Moses means to say to us as he stands on the shore of the Jordan river. That the words we speak, and the ways that we relate to one another and to God really matter. That we have the power to effect goodness in each other’s lives and in the world, by being concerted and thoughtful about how we live our lives.
That’s an extraordinary power and an extraordinary responsibility that Judaism places on us. But it’s also an extraordinary privilege – to be a source of goodness and blessing to those around us.
On this Shabbat, may we recognize that responsibility and may we embrace that privilege.
May we recognize that our d’varim – our words and our actions – really do matter in the world.
Here is a video podcast of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat on religious extremism.
This is the “messing up big-time” portion of the Torah. Over the next couple of weeks, we will read about two major incidents where the Israelites just simply screw up in God’s eyes. Next week, it will be the rebellion of Korach, who tries to usurp Moses and speak for God. And to whom bad things happen.But what we read about this week is maybe more fundamental, because it involves the entire Jewish people, and it involves the Promised Land. In parashat Sh’lach Lecha, we read that Moses sends a group of scouts – or meraglim – to bring back a report about the land of Israel.
Our people have been wandering for a short time – really only about a matter of months. They’ve already reached the border of the Land. And God says to Moses:
שלח לך אנשים – “Send men to scout the land of Canaan – one from each of their ancestral tribes.” (Numbers 13:2 )
So Moses sends a group of 12 scouts into the land of Israel to see what the land is all about out. Here’s what happens:
Numbers 13:21-24: They went up and scouted the land, from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, at Lebo-hamath. They went up into the Negeb and came to Hebron, where lived Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the Anakites. They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes — it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them — and some pomegranates and figs.
From this description we learn a couple of things:
– We learn that the land is exceedingly fertile. We know this from the beautiful fruit. In fact. If you’ve ever been to Israel, you might have seen the logo of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, which is based on this story.
But what this account does not give us is an assessment, a judgment of the land. For that, we need to listen to the scouts. When they return home, they give the following report:
Numbers 13:27-29 : “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.”
And the people, understandably, start to rebel when they hear this. This is a scary moment. We’ve been traveling across the wilderness in the hopes of resettling in a new place. And we arrive here only to learn that the land we’re hoping to settle is already taken by bigger, tougher tribes. How could we help but want to go back to Egypt.
But if we keep reading, we find that Caleb and Joshua – who are two of the scouts – have a very different assessment of our chances.
עָלֹה נַֽעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּֽי־יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָֽהּ
“Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30)
So here we have two contradictory versions of the same situation: One positive, one negative. One hopeful, one hopeless. How do you explain that?
And here’s the really interesting thing. If you look closely, Caleb and Joshua don’t actually contradict the words of the original report. They were there. They saw it too. They agree that the land of Israel is filled with big, scary tribes. They agree that “we looked like grasshoppers to them.” And yet they still say “Yachol nuchal lah – We can do it.”
Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
The Israelites are in a challenging situation here, and there’s not much they can do about it. They can’t change the fact that they’ve just come from slavery. They can’t change the fact that the Promised Land is inhabited by larger tribes. All they can change is what they choose to focus on.
Ten of the scouts come back from their tour dejected and pessimistic. They just can’t get past their fear of failure, and that paralyzes them. That’s why they needed to wander in the wilderness for the next 38 years – because if they had entered the Promised Land with that attitude, they would have failed.
Joshua and Caleb are the only ones who choose to focus on the opportunity rather than the barrier. They are the only ones who choose to see that although the situation is challenging and is scary, it’s also an chance to grow and accomplish. And that’s why, 40 years later, Joshua and Caleb are the only original Israelites to enter the Land.
Our lives are filled with challenging moments – at work, with our families, in our personal and spiritual lives. There are times when we feel overwhelmed with responsibility. There are times when we feel dejected and hopeless. There are times when it seems like we’ve been dealt us a raw hand. We’ve all been in all of those places. I think that in those moments, the lesson of the Torah is: Yachol Nuchal Lah – We can make it through.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy and it doesn’t mean it’s simple. We need a lot of resources to weather some of those challenges. We need loving family and friends; we need a supportive community; we need to find ways to believe in our own ability to overcome and to grow. If you think about it, there was nothing easy about 40 years in the Wilderness, but even that punishment had silver linings. It was our chance to grow into the people we needed to be; it was our chance to create the society that we wanted to have. That opportunity was on the other side of the coin from the challenge, if we could only find how to look for it.
It’s not always easy to be optimistic, but I suspect that our own challenges also have such flip sides. And I suspect that if we focus in a certain way, we can see how our difficulties and our pain help us to grow, to be better people, to come through the other side stronger and more capable and more compassionate. And I also suspect that, with practice, we can learn how to see those opportunities in the midst of our challenges.
On this Shabbat and every day:
May we surround ourselves with the support we need, and strive to be that for others.
May we seek out chances to become the best versions of ourselves.
And may we always know that Yachol Nuchal Lah – that we are capable of accomplishing great things.