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From Human Doing to Human Being: A Yom Kippur Sermon About Mindfulness

October 1, 2017 1 comment

I’d like to introduce you to the philosophical treatise that has most influenced my life: Calvin & Hobbes. You may laugh, but anyone who’s ever read Calvin & Hobbes knows that it addresses serious questions about existence and values and meaning…all through the eyes of the world’s most precocious 6-year-old and his imaginary tiger friend.

In one of my very favourite strips, the two of them are sitting under a tree and Calvin asks out of the blue, “Why do you suppose we’re here?”
Hobbes answers, “Because we walked here.”
“No, no…” Calvin insists, “I mean here on earth.”
The tiger responds, a little nonplussed, “Because earth can support life.”
“No,” Calvin is frustrated now, “I mean why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?”
Hobbes, looking perplexed at the question, replies, “Because we were born.”
To which Calvin sulks, “Forget it.” And Hobbes snipes back, “I will, thank you.”

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Yom Kippur is kind of like the Jewish version of sitting under a tree and asking, “Why are we here?” It’s a time when we are supposed to do Cheshbon HaNefesh – to take an accounting of our soul. Dr. Richard Sarason writes that “We are challenged to reevaluate our lives in the light of what really matters: our ultimate values, our relationships, and our limitations.”[1]

It is a peculiar choice to start each year this way. In our secular lives, New Year’s Eve is a time for parties, New Years Day is a time of hangovers, and January 2 we are back to work. But on the Jewish calendar, the year begins with a 10-day period of contemplation and preparation. With asking ourselves hard questions and making plans for what we want to be in the coming year. It you think about it, that’s pretty smart. Before you start anything new, it’s worthwhile to take time out and prepare for it. Alexander Graham Bell once said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

Yom Kippur is our day to do the work of preparing for the coming year. But it’s not easy work at all. In fact, it goes against some of our most basic habits. Again, Dr. Sarason writes, “The pace of our lives today is very fast and only getting faster. We are often so preoccupied with the business of daily living that we don’t pause to consider the bigger picture.”

In another Calvin and Hobbes strip, the two of them are sledding downhill at breakneck pace, dodging obstacles and holding on for dear life. Calvin is once again asking philosophical questions: “Do you think people are basically good with a few bad tendencies or basically bad with a few good tendencies?” But Hobbes keeps interrupting him:
“Watch out for those trees.”
“There’s a rock up ahead! Look out!”
“Not so close to the ledge!”
“Aughhhh. I can’t look.”
Finally they crash into a tree and go flying. And then Calvin, buried in snow up to his eyeballs, grumbles, “It’s very rude of you to keep changing the subject after every sentence.”

That’s what life does to us – it keeps changing the subject after every sentence. We spend our lives busy, running around from one obligation to the next, from one achievement to the next. So much so that we begin to define ourselves by our obligations and our achievements.

The old joke goes that on Kol Nidrei night, the rabbi walked onto the bima, prostrated himself, and cried out, “Oh, God. Before You, I am nothing!” Then the Cantor was so moved by this demonstration of piety that he threw himself to the floor beside the rabbi and cried, “Oh, God!  Before you, I am nothing!” Then Chaim Pitkin, a tailor in the 17th row, prostrated himself in the aisle and cried, “Oh God! Before You, I am nothing!” At which point the cantor nudged the rabbi and whispered, “Hey, look who thinks he’s nothing.”

We’re always trying to prove ourselves. And unlike the people in the joke, who are trying to prove that they are “nothing,” most of us are busy trying to prove that we are something – that our lives are worthwhile, that we have something to contribute to the world around us.

Dr. Lissa Rankin writes that we ”wear busyness as a badge of honor. I’m busy, therefore I’m important and valuable.”[2]

I don’t know about you, but I have not one, not two, but six to-do lists! Aided by my iPhone’s handy-dandy list app, I keep lists for work, for home, for the grocery store, for personal things, clothes I need to buy, and house repairs. And while that may be my own special brand of neurosis, I don’t think most of us are so different. We evaluate ourselves based on how much we have to do and how much we have done.

But it’s not making us happier.

Dr. Brene Brown, the bestselling author and public speaker, says that busyness is a numbing technique that we use to ignore our own unhappiness, that maybe “if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.” All I know is that all of those lists and tasks don’t bring meaning to our lives. We may be busier, but we are also emptier. We may get more done more, but we feel less accomplished.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who is considered the giant of Orthodox Jewish thought, sees this conundrum between seeking achievement and seeking meaning as being built into the human condition. In his classic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” he points out that the Torah has two Creation stories, and thus two different descriptions of the Creation of human beings. In the first account, the story of the 7 days, Adam is created as a striver and a doer, the pinnacle of all Creation. This is the version of the story that says we were created in God’s image – we are also creators and achievers, like God.

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/NeULhhnui1Y/maxresdefault.jpgBut the Adam of the second Creation account, the story of Garden of Eden, is very different. He is a gardener and a caretaker. The focus of this “Adam the Second,” as Soloveitchik calls him, is on “understand[ing] the living world into which he has been cast…. encounter[ing] the universe in all its colorfulness, splendor, and grandeur.”[3]

These are the two sides of our nature, the two pieces to what it is to be human: the achiever and the contemplator; the master of the world and the appreciator of the world; the human doing and the human being.

We need both of these sides of us. Without Adam the First, we wouldn’t build society or create technology. We wouldn’t have the drive to envision a better future and work toward it. But Adam the Second is the one who puts it into perspective, who searches for meaning, who strives just to “be” – and to appreciate the here and now. We are not always very good at cultivating that piece of ourselves. And the result is the busy, stressed-out lives that we are living.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the renowned creator of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, writes that we spend much of our lives only “partially conscious.”

He writes: Because of [our] inner busyness, we are liable either to miss a lot of the texture of our life experience or to discount its value and meaning.[4]

Not long ago, I had a personal experience that taught me this lesson. On a visit to my parents’ house in New Orleans, I encountered a lizard sitting on a fence post. It was such an iconic scene that I wanted to take the perfect picture of it, so I took out my phone and started snapping pictures, looking for the right angle and trying to frame the shot perfectly. And then I was dreaming about all the comments I might get when I posted the picture on social media. And that was when it hit me, I wasn’t looking at or thinking about the lizard at all. I was looking at a screen while thinking about my Facebook account.

How much of the time are we really present? Try this experiment for one day: try to notice how you often your mind is focused on what is right in front of you, and how often it’s planning something, or worrying about something, or stressing about something that has already happened. We spend more of lives in the past and future than we do in the here and now.

https://i0.wp.com/lainiefefferman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/shofarblowing1.jpgMaimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and physician, agrees that we spend much of our lives not fully conscious. And he believes that the High Holy Days are the antidote. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes sound of the shofar is intended to call to us “Uru yesheinim misheinatchem – Awaken from your sleep, you slumberers! Awaken and ponder your deeds!”

Have you ever done this? One day about a year ago, after having recently moved into a new house, I was driving home after Friday night services. I must have been lost in thought about something, because when I looked up I had driven – completely unconsciously – to my old house, almost 15 minutes away from where I was now living. I was so disoriented and confused that it actually took me a few seconds to figure out where I was. It was as if I had woken up from being asleep.

One of the tasks of Yom Kippur is to help us wake up, to help us cultivate mindful awareness and be present in the here and now. The idea is that for one day, the world stops – there are no obligations to attend to; the are no achievements to be made. There are only ourselves and the work we have to do.

Those of us who have spent Yom Kippur in Israel have witnessed the national manifestation of this. Almost the entire country shuts down – no one drives; no one goes to work; things are quiet. There simply is nowhere to be except here and now. Living in the diaspora we have to work a little harder to make this happen, by spending the day in thoughtful prayer and study. But the idea is the same.

And beyond this one day, this can be a larger model for our lives – a practice of taking time out to be in the here and now. Practitioners of mindfulness are familiar with what’s called the body scan – the practice where you lie still for a period of time (often 20 to 30 minutes), and attentively shift your focus from one part of your body to another. How do my toes feel today? What are my shins experiencing right now? When you do this, what’s amazing is that you often become aware of sensations or feelings that you hadn’t noticed before – things that you were actually experiencing, but that you were just too busy to take note of.

When we cultivate that kind of mindful awareness – on Yom Kippur or any day of the year – we become more attuned to our own experiences. And we become more grateful for them as well.

The Dalai Lama was once asked what a person should do in order to develop their own happiness. He answered, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive. I have a precious human life and I am not going to waste it.”

In fact, this is not so far from Jewish practice. Traditionally, we are supposed to start each day by saying “Modeh ani l’fanecha” – God, I am grateful that you have returned my soul to me this morning.” And then we continue with a series of blessings for seemingly mundane acts – opening our eyes, sitting up in bed, putting on clothing, taking steps. When we sanctify those little acts with a blessing, they aren’t little acts anymore. They are miracles.

Rabbi Seymour Rossel tells the story of a boy who ate a delicious sandwich and thanked his mother for it. But she replied, “Don’t just thank me. I only prepared the food.” So the boy went and thanked the baker who had made his bread. But the baker said “I only bake the bread; I don’t make the flour.” So next the boy when to the miller and thanked him, but the miller sent him to thank the farmer who had grown the wheat. And when arrived to thank the farmer, he was told “I only plant the seed and harvest the grain. It is the sunshine, and rain, and the rich earth from God that make it grow.”[5]

The Chassidic masters were particularly adept at cultivating that sense of radical amazement – the sense that everything in the world is a miracle. They believed it brought us closer to God.

I think it might also bring us closer to ourselves. All of the evidence shows that people who cultivate gratitude on a daily basis feel healthier and happier, and better equipped to weather life’s difficult moments.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains why:
Consider the mindset of a grateful person: ‘Look what [this person] did for me; he really likes me. Look how [such and such] helped me; she really cares about me.’ As we cultivate the feeling of gratitude, we also cultivate a feeling of being loved.[6]

When we feel loved, we can love others. When we feel cared for, we are more capable of reaching out to care for others. When we feel secure, we can live by our own values.

Return with me for a moment to Maimonides. In the Mishneh Torah he says that the Shofar calls to us:

עוּרוּ יְשֵנִים מִשְנַתְכֶם – Awaken from your slumber!
וְחַפְשׂוּ בְמַעֲשֵיכֶם וְחִזְרוּ בִתְשׁוּבָ – Examine your deeds and return in repentance.[7]

It is a not only a call to awaken – not only a call to awareness. But also a call to examine our deeds and consider our best selves. The shofar is an invitation to self-awareness.

Ultimately, the goal of this day – and really the goal of every day – is to live a life driven by our own values, a life that we are proud of and that reflects our deepest sense of self. This is something that you can start to plan for on Yom Kippur, but it has to be cultivated on a daily basis.

In mindfulness there is another practice called STOP. It is a short practice – about a minute or less – that involves taking stock at any given moment of the day. The word STOP is an acronym that stands for:

Stop
Take a Breath
Observe
Proceed

The idea behind this practice is to bring mindful awareness to what we’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing in a given moment. What is motivating our actions? What is causing us to behave in a certain way? When we are aware of our motivations, we have a greater amount of agency over what we do.

That’s exactly the work of Yom Kippur, the work of teshuvah – exploring your own motivations and actions so that you can shift them in ways that are in accordance with your values.

When we are just rushing around getting things done, likely to be reacting to whatever’s going on around us. But when we stop and consider, then we control your own destiny. As Stephen Covey writes:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Yom Kippur is that pause in the rushing river of life. It is the moment in which we stop to consider our actions and our choices, and whether they are in line with our own values. And it can be a model for the way we live our lives each and every day.

By slowing down, by cultivating a sense of gratitude and awareness, we open up that space to live our own lives, to focus on what matters rather than on what presents itself, to shift ourselves from frenzy toward meaning, from busyness toward happiness.

In the final comic strip of the Calvin and Hobbes series, the boy and his tiger step out the door to find a world blanketed in snow.

“Wow,” they say, “It really snowed last night! The world looks brand new! A new year… A fresh, clean start!” Then they sit down on their sled and prepare to shove off, and just before they do, Calvin looks at his friend and says, “It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy. Let’s go exploring.”

May we, too, spend the New Year exploring – exploring this extraordinary gift of a life we’ve been given; exploring our true selves and the selves we would like to become. And may this Day of Atonement – this day of awe and dread and aching and opportunity – be the catalyst that spurs us toward greater awareness, toward greater thankfulness, toward a greater commitment to serve others. Toward the happiness that we are capable of achieving.

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NOTES:

[1] Sarason, Richard. “Why Do We Need This Day of Atonement?” Mishkan HaNefesh, p. xx.

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/owning-pink/201404/are-you-addicted-being-busy

[3] Ibid 17.

[4] Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living. Page 10.

[5] Rossel, Seymour. When a Jew Prays. Page 48.

[6] Telushkin, Joseph. A Code of Jewish Ethics. Page 96.

[7] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4.

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“Think For Yourself” – A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

October 5, 2016 Leave a comment

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what every teacher and every professor ever said to us.

“Think for yourself.”

It’s what we hope for our children as they go out into the world.

“Think for yourself.”

Socrates said that, “to find yourself, you must think for yourself” And, Christopher Hitchens wrote that, “[If you} take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you…”

There may be no greater virtue in our individualist, post-enlightenment world, than the ability to think for yourself.

But I wonder if we really do.

 

I want to show you a cartoon that I’ve always loved. It’s from Gary Larson’s “The Far Side.” And it’s about what you might call an “individualist penguin”:

 

penguin

If you’ll notice, all of these penguins look just alike, but the one in the middle – who looks like all the others – is singing out: “I gotta be me. Oh, I just gotta be me.”

 

I think in some way, we are all that penguin. We strive to be ourselves – to live authentic lives based on our own choices and our own values. But at the same time, we are social creatures. The ways that we think and the ways behave are influenced by the thinking and the behaviour of those around us.

 

It turns out thinking for yourself isn’t so simple after all.

 

Maybe the starkest example of this comes from the darkest period of our history.

 

In his book, Hitler’s Willing Executionists¸ the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes about the cultural influences in early 20th century Germany that led to the Holocaust.

 

He writes that for a whole variety of social, historical, economic, and other reasons “the German people [of that period] were more dangerously oriented toward Jews than they had been during any other time ….”[1]

 

In other words, even the Holocaust was, in some sense, a cultural phenomenon. People’s thinking, people’s willingness to act, was influenced by social and cultural factors around them. And to drive home the point, we need only look across Germany’s northern border to Denmark, a country which – wholesale – refused to deport its Jews. In fact, on Erev Rosh Hashanah of 1943 – exactly 73 years ago yesterday – the Danish people smuggled nearly the entire Jewish population of their country across the sea to safety in Sweden.

 

Two countries, two sides of a border, and their collective responses were like night and day. Of course, there were exceptions. There were Danes who turned in Jews. And there were Germans – many thousands of them – who risked their own lives to save Jews. But on the whole, the social and cultural climates of the two countries moved their citizens to think and behave in wildly different ways

 

SO what happened? Was one country made of good people and one made of bad people? Or was this an example of how our collective values and circumstances work together to construct a culture, and how that culture in turn shapes each of us.

 

In 2016, we are fortunate not to be living through such terrible times. But our world is also not simple. And many of the issues that we deal with also relate to group identity and affiliation: On a personal level, how do we build community? How do we establish a safe and supportive environment for ourselves and our families? And on a much larger level, how do we welcome refugees from other countries? How do we build bridges of understanding between communities that look and talk and pray differently?

 

Do our own religious and national and cultural affiliations impact on the assumptions we make about other people?

 

Of course they do. That’s part of being human.

 

Aristotle already said 23 centuries ago that “Man is by nature a social animal.” And much more recently, Atul Gawande, a physician and writer, added more recently that “simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

 

We are wired to seek out being part of a group. And we are wired to take on certain assumptions and tendencies of the group. That’s what Hillel means in Pirke Avot when he says “Al tifrosh min hatzibbur – You can’t separate yourself from the community.” Our sense of self is, in some way, tied up with the communities and groups that we are part of. And that means that when we think we are thinking for ourselves, what we’re often actually doing is applying the norms and assumptions taught to us by those groups.

 

By the way, that’s not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing – it is a feature of the human experience. And this shaping of our psyche starts very, very early.

 

Research out of Stanford University[2] has shown that a person’s native language – the language we start learning at birth – can be a powerful shaper of worldview. For example, speakers of Russian are often better able to differentiate different shades of blue, because their language has more words for different shades of blue. And speakers of Japanese and Spanish are less likely on the whole to be concerned with fault or blame, because their languages describe things reflexively: “The vase broke itself/was broken” rather than “Such and such broke the vase.”

 

And interestingly enough, people who are bilingual have been found to think or feel or react differently depending on which language they are speaking at the time. (So the next time my kids ask me why I’m driving so aggressively in Israel, I’ll just blame the Hebrew language.)

 

Our cultural influences are constantly shaping our thinking and our worldview. As much as we are individuals with free will, we are also products of the societies we grow up in, the families we come from, and the groups we choose to affiliate with.

 

It has to be that way. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as what we call “Jewish values” or what we call “Canadian values.”

These things are real, even if we can’t always agree on what they are. Because we are Jewish, we tend value education, and community, and social action. Because we are Canadian we tend to value diversity, and consensus, and winter sports. It’s not that 100% of us share these things. And it’s not that they necessarily make us different from anybody else – non-Jews also like books; non-Canadians also like hockey. But our values are formed in part because of the groups we are part of.

 

And when we look at the world around us right now – the weary, fearful world around us – we see a great deal of concern about what happens when our values come into contact or come into conflict with someone else’s. Whether we’re talking about exiting the European Union, or working to curb interfaith marriage, or screening immigrants, or building a great wall, these things are born out of a fear – a very real and palpable fear – that someone else’s values might be dangerous to ours.

 

Judaism places values at the centre of our lives. And it places community affiliation at the centre of our lives as well. And it teaches us that we don’t need to live in fear, because we have the ability – we have the power – to be carriers of values. We get to build culture. We get to lead those around us.

 

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet speaks to the Jewish people about our mission on earth. He says:

 

נָקֵל מִֽהְיֽוֹתְךָ לִי עֶבֶד…. וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם

 

“It is not enough that you should serve Me (says God). I will also make you Or Lagoyim – a light to the nations.”[3]

 

In other words, God gives us a mission to transmit certain values and ideas beyond ourselves to the world around us.

 

This has sometimes been interpreted as being about proselytization– that we should actively work to teach our values and our religion to the rest of the world. I don’t think that’s what the prophet is saying at all. I believe that this passage represents a call to each of us to share our values with those around us by living them authentically.

 

“Think for yourself,” says the prophet. It’s true that you are part of a group. And it’s true that you are the product of a culture. But you also get to create culture through the way you live your life.

 

The Bible tells that the in ancient times, there was one leader who truly captured the hearts and allegiance of the Jewish people: and that’s King David. David wasn’t the first King of Israel, and he wasn’t the most powerful. He wasn’t the founder of Judaism or the father of the Jewish people. And yet, he was beloved perhaps more than any other leader in Israelite history.

 

What was it about David? He marched at the vanguard of the troops. He danced with incredible public joy in front of God’s ark. He worshipped with sincerity, and he owned up to his failings. David publicly embodied the values he wished to convey. And he was beloved for it, and he was emulated for it.

 

Anyone who has ever been a parent or a boss or really a person knows that modeling is the most powerful way to convey values. We see this in our own lives all the time, both in little ways and in very big ways.

 

For example…

 

  • If I, as a parent, model for my kids (the little cellphone addicts) what it looks like to put down the device during meals, then we get to open a conversation about the values inherent in that action.
  • If we, as a congregation, model what it looks like to truly welcome the stranger and build a culture of warmth and openness, then we get to participate in a conversation about why that matters.
  • And if we as a nation model what it is to be a society built on tolerance and diversity, then we get to lead that conversation amongst the nations of the world.

 

To be a carrier of values means most of all to live authentically. It means to focus not on what frightens us about others or the world around us, but rather to focus on what we want to be in the world.

 

And that’s why we’re here on the High Holy Days. This is the time of year when we think about what we want to be in the world. We do so as a group, and we do so most of all as individuals.

 

Interestingly, the High Holy Day prayerbook actually acknowledges just how central our group affiliations are – how our communities help shape our selves. It does so by making teshuvah – repentance – in part a communal activity. When we say “Ashamnu bagadnu gazalnu – WE are guilty, We have sinned, We have done wrong,” we confess each other’s sins. Because in some sense, the collective “we,” the culture we build, the assumptions we promulgate, contribute to the actions we perform.

 

But Judaism doesn’t let us off the hook. On these Days of Awe, each of us stands alone before God. Each of us stands alone in judgment before ourselves.

 

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?'”

 

The project of the Days of Awe – the task that is before us during these next 10 days – is to ask ourselves what we we wish to be, and to challenge ourselves to live it even more authentically than we did last year.

 

And our tradition believes that when we do so, we have the power to to reshape worlds, to shift cultures, to start the right conversations, to be Or Lagoyim – to be a source of light to those around us.

 

Mahatma Ghandi is said to have once said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Actually, he never said that. It’s just a bumper sticker. But what Ghandi really said is far more powerful:

 

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change… We need not wait to see what others do.”

 

This is the power we have – no less than the power to change the entire world by beginning with ourselves.

 

If we want to be part of families who prioritize and make time for each other, then we can start by making the time ourselves.

 

If we want to live in neighourhoods where people smile at each other and know one another, then we can start by learning the names of the people who live on either side of us.

 

If we want to be part of a congregation that truly takes care of one another and truly makes everyone feel welcome, then we can start by greeting the next unfamiliar face who walks through the door, or by attending the shiva service of someone we didn’t know, just to support their family.

 

If we want to live in a country that feeds the hungry and cares for the poor, then we can start by making sure that we are really giving what we can afford to give.

 

And if we want to live in a world that treats everyone with respect and dignity, where people no longer fear each other based on race or religion or accent, then we have to start by examining our own preconceptions, our own biases, our own prejudice.

 

A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears. He said, “Rabbi, I feel so paralyzed. I’ve tried so hard to repair the world and the world is still as broken as ever.” The rabbi embraced the man and told him to have hope. He said, “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And when you change yourself, you change your community. And when you change your community you change your nation. And that is how you begin the task of repairing the world.”

 

When we strive to live as our most authentic selves, our influence extends far beyond ourselves.

 

May these next ten days be for us a time of honest reflection, in which we work to accept our own faults, and challenge ourselves to be our best.

 

May we learn to view ourselves as carriers of values, as architects of culture.

 

And may we know that within us lies the power to bring healing and light and goodness not only to ourselves, but to others around us, to our communities, and to our world.

 

Amen.

 

——-

[1] Goldhagen, Daniel J. Hitler’s Willing Executionists. Knopf; New York: 1996. P. 79.

[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748703467304575383131592767868

[3] Isaiah 49:6.

An Egalitarian Kotel

February 8, 2016 Leave a comment

In the movie The Ten Commandments, Moses comes down the mountain with two tablets, containing the 10 laws that the Israelites are to follow.charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandments

I love that movie. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Jewish tradition tells says what happened at Sinai was far bigger than any 10 Commandments. It was even bigger then the entire Torah, with its 613 commandments. What was given to us at Sinai with the entirety of Judaism – the written and oral traditions, the ethics and morals and stories and laws.

This week’s Torah portion is part of that. It’s called Mishpatim, which means “laws.” And boy, does it have laws. This portion contains everything from the laws of slavery to the different kinds of sacrifice, from how to keep kosher to the prohibition against accepting bribes.

The point is that this is also Sinai. Last week, we received the 10 Commandments. This week, still standing at Sinai, we receive the laws of how to be a good society.

It says in the Mechilta of Bar Yochai, “Rules of the just society have the same divine origin as the Decalogue.”[1]

This is an important principle in Judaism. As a religious way of life, Torah doesn’t only govern how we pray and how we perform rituals. In Jewish space, how we relate to our fellow human beings is just as important as how we relate to God.

And this week, we have seen a watershed moment in terms of how we relate to our fellow human beings in Jewish space.

This week, we learned that for the first time, the Israeli government agreed to create a true egalitarian section at the Western Wall.

This announcement is the result of a long negotiation that involves the Jewish Agency, the Reform and Conservative movements, Women of the Wall, and the government of Israel.

It provides, essentially, that the two year old “mixed gender prayer space” that is to the south of the Western Wall will be refurbished, expanded, and made equal to the existing, gender segregated space. And after that’s done, Women of the Wall will move their prayer services to that space, and the liberal movements will essentially govern a Kotel, just like the Orthodox.

This is an extraordinary shift. Rabbi Denise Eger, president of the Central Conference of American rabbis, writes:

For the first time, the Israeli government recognized the authentic ritual and religious needs of those of us who believe in egalitarian prayer and women’s equality.[2]

Let’s not minimize that fact. The Israeli government has, begrudgingly, begun to recognize some liberal rabbis, pay a few salaries, and provide some prayer spaces. But this is the first time in history that space has been made for non-orthodox prayer at a communal Jewish holy site. That is a very big deal.

But the compromise is not perfect. Not by any stretch. There are three basic critiques of this deal I’ve seen tossed around the airwaves for the last few days. I’d like to address each one briefly, and think about what responsibilities they give us.

 

The first critique is the one that says “this isn’t really the Kotel.”

Kotel.jpgTake a look at the picture of the Kotel/Robinson’s Arch area. What we’re talking about here is the more “off the beaten track” area to the south of the current Kotel Plaza. The two are separated by the Mughrabi bridge that leads to the Dome of the Rock. This is actually part of an archaeological excavation, and it’s only been over the course of the last 30 to 40 years. Which means, that it’s correct to say that for the last 2000 years this wasn’t part of the Kotel. However, it IS part of the western retaining wall of the ancient temple. As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein has pointed out, it has the same holiness and the same historicity.

And as Yair Ettinger writes in Haaretz:

The Southern Wall is a site no less sacred than the northern plaza, and in many senses is a more dignified, quieter and more beautiful site, and Jewish history is strongly present due to important archaeological finds scattered there.[3]

In other words, this really IS the Kotel. It’s just the less famous part. It’s kind of like moving into a new house – it’s no less your house, it’s just not the one you’ve been living in.

Our challenge, then, is to make it our house. To build new memories and new associations with this extraordinarily holy spot. Think of the opportunity this presents – to create a holy space – a kotel – that reflects the kind of Judaism that we believe in. It’s exciting, and it’s challenging.

Which brings me to the second critique – the charge that this compromise divides the Jewish people.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein writes:

The resistance of the heterodox movements to the mechitzah in the Kotel plaza means that they have erected an even larger, more ominous one between millions of Jews.[4]

A Mechitzah is a dividing wall. And there’s no question that this creation of a parallel Kotel divides the Jews.

I’m of two minds about this one. On the one hand, I believe deeply in the value of K’lal Yisrael – Jewish unity. I think we have to choose carefully when it comes to pitting ourselves against fellow Jews. The Talmud teaches that it wasn’t actually the Romans, rather causeless hatred between Jews, that brought down the very second temple that we’re fighting about right now. That’s an important lesson for all of us.

But at the same time, my Jewish values teach me that I can’t let injustice stand. This isn’t simply a case of different ritual practices. This is about the basic moral issue of men’s and women’s equality. The basic question of whether Jewish sites should be available to all Jews. That’s why our movement made this decision.

And this isn’t the first time that we liberal movements have chosen to deprioritize Jewish unity because of some moral issue. We did the same thing when we were gained women rabbis, when we begin to perform same-sex marriages. And each time we’ve done so, we’ve seen that eventually, the Jewish world follows us. My hope and prayer is that this new liberal Kotel will be an opportunity for that to happen again.

It’s worth noting in all this that with the creation of a liberal Kotel to the parallel the Ultra Orthodox Kotel, there is one group being left behind. And that is the third critique of the compromise.

In the new setup, the Liberal section will be governed according to the laws of liberal Judaism – women and men may pray together, women’s prayer groups may read from the Torah and wear t’fillin. But that will still not be the case for the women’s section on the Orthodox side. And, as Yair Ettinger writes, that leaves “no room for Liberal orthodox.”

The big losers in this deal are the Orthodox women who wish to be able to sing, worship, and pray together as orthodox women. There will be space set aside for them in the mixed section to do so, but that’s not really what they’re looking for.

It’s a reminder to us that we still have much work to do. That this is a marathon and not a sprint. That we are still deeply engaged in fighting for the religious rights of all Jews – liberal AND Orthodox – in the Jewish state.

 

Eleh hamispatim asher tasim. These are the laws you shall establish.

Law is an expression of values. As we rejoice in this moment, may we recognize the ways that these new laws express an evolution in the values of the Jewish state.

At the same time, may we recognize our responsibility to continue that work.

And may Ahavat Yisrael – our love for the people and land of Israel – always be our guiding light.

 

——

[1] Etz Hayim 477, note 3.

[2] http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/the_kotel_compromise_a_time_for_rejoicing.

[3] http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.700538.

[4] http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/mixed_emotions_about_the_kotel_compromise

The Toolkit: A Reflection for Rosh Hashanah 5776

September 17, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

Amen.

Combating Extremism: A Sermon for Pinchas 5775

July 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Here is a video podcast of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat on religious extremism.

Opportunities and Challenges – A Sermon for Sh’lach Lecha 5775

June 18, 2015 Leave a comment

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.   

 – We also learn that the land is inhabited by other tribes.  

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.

Amen.

Books, Bullies, Beit Shemesh: A Sermon for Parashat Bo

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

My two older sons recently did something very strange and surprising: they started reading a lot! The reason is that they found a book – or actually a series of books – that they really like. It’s called Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s a fictional, first-person account of something most of us would rather forget: Middle School. And it comes complete with little gems like this one:

Let me just say … I think middle school is the dumbest idea ever invented. You got kids like me who haven’t hit their growth spurt yet mixed in with these gorillas who need to shave twice a day.

Just like being 12, this book is sometimes funny, and sometimes not so funny. And as I’ve been reading it with my kids, it’s become very clear that even at their young age, they and their classmates can relate to a lot of what’s described in the books, including things like peer pressure and bullying. Even at age 6 or 7, kids, know what it’s like to be picked on by someone who is stronger or bigger. It’s just a reality of life for them.

So much so that the Ontario provincial government recently introduced anti-bullying legislation which – among other things – allows schools to expel bullies, and which gives strong support for student anti-racism groups, gender equality groups, and Gay-Straight Alliances. All in an effort to build the support system for kids who may be perceived, or who may perceive themselves, as weak or vulnerable or different.

Of course, being weak and vulnerable is nothing new to our people. It’s pretty much the story of Jewish history. And in this week’s Torah portion, we read about our escape from a bully of Biblical proportions. And that, of course, is Pharaoh. The Torah tells that after Ten plagues and 430 years of oppression, Pharaoh finally said:

“קומו צאו מתוך עמי – Get up and depart from among my people. Take your flocks and your herds, and begone!” (Ex 12:31-32)

And our people did as they were told: they beed gone.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Next week, we’ll read about Pharaoh’s change of heart and the parting of the sea. But the end is the same: our people are leaving Egypt and going out into the desert. And there, in the desert, something very important happens. A group of slaves will become a people. The mixed multitude of vulnerable groups will become Am Yisrael.

Our tradition teaches that there is safety in numbers. It teaches that we need each other, and that we build community based on the things that we have in common. Our vulnerability turns to strength when we find those types of supportive communities.

Some rabbis have objected to the current legislation because of the support for Gay-Straight Alliances. And while I wouldn’t take a position on the legislation from the bima, I do feel I have an obligation as a Rabbi to point out that there is another Jewish take on that issue. Yes, an Orthodox Jew may object to homosexuality on religious grounds. But you can’t use religious grounds to object to people forming a safe and supportive community with others who are like them. That’s exactly what our people did when we fled Egypt. And it’s something that we all need: whether it be a Gay-Straight Alliance, a single-parent support group, or a Temple Youth group, we need to be surrounded by people like us; people who share our beliefs and our struggles. That’s how the vulnerable become less vulnerable.

That’s what Judaism teaches: that all people are created in God’s image, that all people deserve to feel worthwhile and respected. That no person should harass or isolate or harm another because they are different.

And the sad irony of that statement is that, that’s exactly what’s going on right now within one segment of our own people.

Last week, a 27 year old woman in Beit Shemesh was attacked by several Ultra-Orthodox men. According to Haaretz, “They surrounded her car and pelted it with stones… and punctured her tires. One stone struck [her] on the head…”

And this is the latest in a long line of such attacks. All of these incidents lately have surrounded the issue of tzniyut – modesty. These women are being attacked because the men in that particular neighbourhood don’t feel that they are dressed modestly enough, or believe that they are behaving in ways that are at odds with their ultra-Conservative Jewish values. And none of this is new. For years, women riding through Haredi neighbourhoods have been forced to the back of buses. Ink has been thrown at women praying at the Kotel. 2 years ago a woman was assaulted at a bus stop because she has T’fillin marks on arms. And all of this has become more and more public, more and more audacious, as the ultra-Orthodox community grows larger and more radicalized.

And it all came to a head last month in Beit Shemesh when a little girl – a little 8-year-old Orthodox girl, dressed in a long skirt and long sleeves – was spat and called prostitute on by Ultra-Orthodox men – because her path to school happened to take her through their neighbourhood, and because – according to the New York Times, “her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their more rigorous dress code.”

It goes without saying that this is beyond wrong. I’m only preaching to the choir here, but it’s important that our voice be heard, that we stand up and say in no uncertain terms that our Jewish values and our way of life are being twisted into something ugly, hateful, and decidedly un-Jewish. Anyone who would choose to harass and bully women and girls, to attack weaker people, is not practicing Judaism. Those people are much closer to Pharaoh than they are to Moses.

Thankfully, Israeli society is beginning to speak up. In the last month, there have been rallies and protests in Beit Shemesh calling for an end to this madness. There was a women’s flash-mob – you can see it on You Tube – to send the message that women have the right to express themselves. Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke out, saying : “This is a phenomenon that contradicts Jewish tradition and the spirit of the Bible, with one of the most central [ideas] being: Love your neighbour as yourself.” Even an ultra Orthodox rabbi, Yitzchok Adlerstein, wrote that we must “condemn with passion, conviction and without qualification” these acts.

It is time for the Jewish world to speak up about the Pharaohs in our midst – the bullies who believe that it is their God-given right to oppress the weak and vulnerable who are different than they are. It is time for Israel to take a deep look at its political system which gives these people power and money. And it is time for us as Diaspora Jews to make clear that that is what we expect of the Jewish state at this moment in its history.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is right. At the center of the central chapter of the central book of the Torah stand the words “V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – Love your neighbour as yourself.” The Rabbis of the Mishnah debate whether loving God or loving your neighbour is the most important value in Judaism, and they determine that the two must flow from each other. We show our love for God by showing love for our fellow human beings. We show our love for God by standing up for the rights of the weak – in our neighbourhoods, in our kids’ schools, and across the world.

Because we Jewish people have been the “wimpy kid.” We’ve been the oppressed before. And that gives us a special obligation to do what’s right.

Shabbat  Shalom.

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