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September 19, 2018 1 comment

(A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5779/2018)

Once, a young disciple went off to seek a great teacher. The old master had been hiding in exile for many years. Very few people even knew where he was. But the disciple was persistent. And when he did finally find the sage, the old man gave him a task to perform. One that seemed impossible. The task of lifting a heavy object using only his mind.

The disciple was sure that it couldn’t be done, but not wanting to disappoint the old teacher he skeptically held out his hand and tried to concentrate hard on moving the object. Of course, he failed. He turned to his master and declared, apologetically, “I can’t.” At which point the master reached out his hand in the same manner, and the disciple watched in awe as the object majestically rose out of the swamp and landed gently on the shore.

The young man peered down at his wizened old master and said, “I don’t believe it.”

To which Master Yoda replied, “That is why you fail.”

(You were expecting maybe the Baal Shem Tov?)

270.jpgWhat better way to start Yom Kippur than with one of the world’s great stories of spiritual growth. We all know that Luke Skywalker will go on to become the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy, fighting against the Dark Side and ultimately defeating the Emperor. But at this point in the story, he is so full of self-doubt that he seems destined to fail.

So how does Luke go from “I can’t do it” to guardian of peace and justice in the Republic? Well, as Yoda tells him, he needs to “unlearn what he has learned.” He needs to shift his mindset to believe in his own capability.

Luke believes he can’t do it. But Yoda knows that he just can’t do it yet.

We can all relate to Luke in this story. That sense that there is a task in front of you and you just can’t do it. And maybe this time of year most of all. Yom Kippur is a day of Cheshbon Nefesh, of honest self-accounting, where we look back over the goals we had set for ourselves, and assess how we’ve been doing. Where we judge ourselves for our capabilities and our accomplishments and our failures,

We’re often quite hard on ourselves at this time of year. We have high standards, and frankly we don’t always meet them. We spend these ten days focused on the ways that we’ve fallen short – in our work, in our relationships, in our personal lives.

But the truth is, we don’t need Yom Kippur to be hard on ourselves. The psychotherapist Roni Susan Blau writes,

“Since when does anyone need an excuse to beat up on oneself? We are all too familiar with our critical voice — the inner critic who is always willing to offer negative comparisons. Regrets. Should haves and not good enough.”[1]

We are all our own worst critic. And It’s hard to enter into the new year feeling like a failure. It’s hard to feel like you didn’t live up to your own standards and plans. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we could take a page our of MasterYoda’s playbook and adopt a different kind of mindset. What if we could know that it’s not that we can’t do it; we just haven’t done it yet?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the giant of Orthodox Jewish thought, believed that this was possible. He wrote that our faults, and our failures, and our “sin[s are] not eradicated… but [rather] awaken a creative force that shapes a new and loftier personality.”[2]

Our past failures can be the driving force in our future success.

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, having a growth mindset can change everything. Growth mindset is “the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through efforts, strategies, and help from others.“

How-to-develop-a-growth-mindset-A lot of us tend to believe that our basic qualities are fixed. Some people are really smart; others, less smart. Some people have musical talent, or artistic ability, or are good at sports. And other people…not so much. How often do you find yourself saying things like “I’m just not good at financial stuff.” Or “I’m not really a math person.” Or “I can’t spell to save my life.“ We say these things all the time, usually without really even thinking about it. But it turns out that believing them actually makes them true. If you think you can’t do something, that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say I decide to take up basketball. I get out on the court, and I’m dribbling around. I shoot a three pointer… and I miss – wide by several meters. A terrible shot.  (Those of you who’ve seen me play basketball know that this is not an unrealistic scenario.) What do I do? Well, if I have a fixed mindset, I’m likely to tell myself that I’m just bad at basketball. I’m too short, and I’m not in great shape, and anyway I’m Jewish – Jews don’t play basketball. And with all those thoughts in mind, I’ll abandon my efforts and move on to something more appropriate – like handball, or bridge.

But there is another possibility. What if, instead of the deciding that I’m simply not cut out for basketball, I decide that the problem is that I have a lot more to learn about it. Then what will I do? I’ll ask myself what I need to learn in order make that shot. Then maybe I’ll ask a friend for help. Maybe I’ll read up on technique. And maybe, most importantly, I’ll spend lots of time out on the court practicing. With all that, I’d say I have a decent chance of getting better at basketball. I may not ever become Michael Jordan, but maybe I’ll make that three pointer.

Our mindset influences our actions, and our actions affect our outcomes.

That is the difference between having a fixed mindset, and having a growth mindset. And research shows that it doesn’t only apply to our performance in sports. It applies to everything we do.

What do the voices in your head say?

“I’m not smart enough to take my career to the next level.“
“I don’t have the talent to learn to play piano.“
“I’m a disaster at relationships.”
“I just don’t know how to connect with my daughter / son / parent / sibling.”

Can you imagine a world where, instead of beating ourselves up for our insufficiencies, we saw them as opportunities to grow? Where instead of feeling ashamed of the mistakes we’ve made, we took a step back and asked, “What do I need to learn in order to do this better next time? Can you imagine that world?

Well, it turns out the Torah already did.

In the Torah portion we read tomorrow morning, the people of Israel are just about to cross over into the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering. But did you know that this is actually already their second attempt?

In the middle of the book of Numbers, we read a parashah called Sh’lach Lecha, which says that the Israelites reached the Promised Land the first time very quickly after the Exodus – a journey of only months from Egypt. There – and many of you know the story – Moses sends a group of spies to scout out the land. The spies enter the land of Israel, tour the whole place, and come back to the rest of the Israelites with a mixed report. They say that on the one hand it is indeed a beautiful land, but that on the other hand the people in it are big and strong and scary. The Israelites rebel out of fear, begging Moses to take them back to Egypt and back to slavery. And God punishes them for it, condemning them to wander in the desert for 40 years before they can finally enter the Promised Land.

We usually understand this as a punishment. The commentators say that the people were faithless and stubborn, that they deserved to die in the desert for rebelling against God. But there is another compelling view that says that it wasn’t a punishment at all. That the Israelites just weren’t ready to enter into the Promised Land yet. We were slaves, and we were still thinking like slaves. We still had a lot to learn. In that view, the wandering in the wilderness for 40 years wasn’t a punishment at all. It was the work we needed to do in order to grow into the task.

We all have a lot to learn. Think back over the goals you set for yourself last year. Maybe it was fixing a relationship, or advancing a project, or learning a new skill. Certainly some of our goals we have met, but we haven’t accomplished everything we set out to do. We haven’t yet reached all of our Promised Lands. If we look upon our failed attempts not with condemnation but with curiosity, then they become opportunities to discover what we still need to learn in order to be successful.

That’s not easy to do. It means shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Shifting from “I can’t get it right” to “I haven’t gotten it right yet.” And we do that by shifting from judgments to questions.

Rather than a judgment: “I’m lousy at finances,” we might ask ourselves “What is it about finances that is holding me back? What skills do I bring to it, and what support do I need to get better at it?”

Rather than a condemnation, “I always screw up my relationships,” we might wonder, “What role do I play in creating relationship challenges? Why do I act the way I do? And what types of relationships do I find satisfying?”

Rather than despair, “I’ve gotten myself stuck in a job I hate,” we might ponder: “What skills am I gaining? How will my current job prepare me to get where I’d eventually like to be?”

A Chinese proverb says that “learning is a treasure that follows your forever.”

This is a deeply held Jewish value as well. As you know, Judaism prizes lifelong learning above almost everything else. We are told in the Talmud that when we learn, God’s presence descends onto us. We are also taught “Talmud Torah k’negged kulam” – that a life of learning is equal to all of the mitzvot, because it leads us to be able to fulfill them better.

In fact, the midrash even portrays God as learning – and as learning from mistakes. In Bamidbar Rabbah (19:33), the midrash on the book of numbers, it points out that there are three times in the Torah when God learns something from Moses, and God changes behaviour accordingly. One of them is the episode of the Golden Calf. Early on after their escape from slavery, the people – scared and unsure at the foot of Mt. Sinai – build and worship an idol. God is incensed and threatens to destroy them. But, according to the Midrash, Moses talks God down, “Whoa, God,” he says, “How can you expect anything different from them? They were idol worshippers in the land of Egypt. Why would they do anything differently here.”

And God essentially says, “You know, you’re right, Moe. Limad’tani – you have taught Me something. And I will change my actions accordingly. I will not destroy the people.”

This passage is doubly interesting for our purposes. Because not only does it portray God as learning and growing. But what God learns in this episode is that the people also need a chance to learn. How could they possibly be expected to be good monotheists when they’ve never been monotheists before? How can they be expected to worship God in this new way when they’ve never practiced it? How can we possibly expect ourselves to overcome our flaws and our faults and our failings on the first try – or the tenth try or even the fiftieth try? It takes a lifetime of learning and a lifetime of practice to reach the Promised Land.

You probably know the joke: A tourist gets out of a cab at Times Square and walks over to a musician who’s playing violin on the street. He asks the musician, “Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
The musician looks up at him and says, “Practice.”

In the end, becoming the selves that we would like to be is a matter of practicing being those selves. A matter of trying, and learning, and trying again. Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, teaches us that this requires making a plan and walking it out. In the Mishneh Torah, he writes:

יהא אדם שם דעותיו תמיד ומשער אותם ומכון אותם – A person should examine their traits, calculate them, and direct them [in the desired direction].[3]

In other words, know yourself, know how you’d like to be, and make a plan for getting there. And then, he goes on:

יעשה וישנה וישלש במעשים – Perform these desired acts once, and a second time, and a third time, and do this constantly until they become easy.[4]

The more we practice something, the more it becomes second nature. Maimonides makes it sound simple, right? Just envision yourself differently, and act that way. But what he’s really saying is that it takes many, many attempts to make a change.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle would have agreed. He said that “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit. “ And Albert Einstein, for his part, said, “It’s not that I’m smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.”

I’m pretty sure Master Yoda would have agreed.

The most successful, influential people in history have all had one thing in common: they failed a lot. In that sense, we have something in common with Aristotle, Maimonides, Einstein, Babe Ruth, Steve Jobs. We also fail a lot. But that doesn’t make us failures. It means that we are learning and practicing. It means that we are on a journey – step by faltering step – toward the Promised Land.

The German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was once asked whether he was in the practice of putting on t’fillin during morning prayers. Rosenzweig was a liberal and a skeptic, and at the time of asking he did not wear t’fillin. So he thought about the question, and he answered: “Not yet.”

“Not yet” is an affirmation that there might still be meaning for us to make, things for us to learn, growth for us to achieve. It is a recognition that we human beings are always works in progress.

Kol Nidrei v’esarei. All our vows and promises – tonight they pass before our eyes and God’s.

May we enter into the new year with compassion for ourselves. May we strive to look upon our stumbles not as failures but as opportunities to grow. May we replace our judgments with questions, our condemnations with curiosity. And may we hold in our hearts the knowledge that we are not standing still. That we are marching forward, learning as we go, keeping our eyes out for a glimpse of the Promised Land. Even if we don’t know how to get there….yet.

 


[1] Blau, Roni Susan. “Remember to Forgive Yourself.” Jewish Journal. September 11, 2013.

[2] Qtd in The Yom Kippur Anthology, p. ??

[3] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 1:4.

[4] Ibid 1:7.

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Sharing Our Home: Lessons from a Spider

September 19, 2018 Leave a comment

(Following is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur morning 5779/2018.)

 

I had some help writing this sermon…from a spider. I’ll tell you about that in a few minutes, but first, a story.

The midrash tells of a group of people traveling together over the water. They were traveling in a boat large enough that each person had his or her own room, but sometimes resources were scarce. And so it was that one individual, deciding he needed more food, began to cut a hole in the bottom of the boat in order to catch fish from the water below.

His fellow passengers were horrified, “What are you doing?” they cried out.

And he replied, “This is my space, and I am allowed to do as I please here. I am not cutting a hole in your parts of the boat, only in mine.”

The other passengers knew, of course, that it doesn’t work that way. A hole anywhere in the hull would let water into the entire boat. So they reasoned with the man, all promising to share resources with each other, and thankfully they were able to stop him from cutting the hole that would have sunk them all.[1]

This midrash may well be the origin of the saying “We’re all in the same boat.”

 

Judaism does teach this idea that we are all in the same boat – that we need each other and that we are better off them we share and support each other. In fact, that is one of the central ideas of Jewish thought. Literally.

This afternoon we will read it from the centre of the Torah  – the central section of the central book of our holiest scroll. (It also happens to be my bar mitzvah portion, but that’s not really the point.) The middle of Leviticus is a section called the Holiness Code – because it tells the laws of living a holy life. Laws about worship; laws about giving tzedakah and caring for the poor. Ritual laws, ethical laws. Everything that goes into creating a fair and equitable and holy society. That’s what’s at the centre of the Torah. And that the centre of the centre is Leviticus 19:18:

וְאָֽהַבְתָ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָמ֑וֹךָ     – You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

There aren’t many things that all Jews agree on. (You’ve all heard the saying that when if have two Jews, you have three opinions.) But we pretty much all agree on this – it’s nice to love your neighbour as yourself.

We don’t agree, however, on what constitutes a neighbour. Many of the traditional commentators understand this passage to refer only to fellow Jews. Rabbi Gunther Plaut explains that “strictly speaking, rei-a refers to [a] fellow Israelite, rather than to a[ny] neighbour.”[2]

But in our modern world, we are much more inclined to see this passage as referring to all human beings. After all, we live in an incredibly diverse and multicultural society, and it seems to us to be an important Jewish value to treat all our human neighbours with respect, regardless of their religion or background.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if it might even apply a little further than that. Which brings me back to my spider friend.

What you need to know as background is that I have been deathly afraid of spiders ever since I saw the movie Arachnophobia at age 11. I don’t actually remember the plot of that movie very well – all I remember is that a big, scary spider stowed away on a flight to North America, where it and its evil spawn terrorized people for the next hour and a half while I held tight to the armrest and brushed phantom creepy crawlies off of my body. I was definitely too young to see that movie. And I’ve been afraid of spiders for almost 30 years because of it.

So you can imagine my reaction when, about two weeks ago, I opened my back sliding door to find a web, and a big brown spider right in my face. I must have jumped 2 feet off the ground. I slammed the door shut, and went to find a bottle of anything – some kind of chemical to spray on it and kill it. But by the time I got back with the Windex in my hand, the spider was gone.

IMG_2657So what could I do? I double locked the back door (you know, in case the spider could open the first lock). I turned on the TV, and proceeded to spend the rest of the evening once again brushing creepy crawlies off of my body and glancing over at the back door again and again.

Next morning, I broke the web down with a toy light-sabre, and went off to work, where there are no spiders to terrorize me. And that night, I noticed that the spider was back, and that it had rebuilt the web. I started to reach for the Windex again, but for some reason this time my curiosity beat out my fear. I started googling, trying to figure out what kind of spider it was, and I discovered that what I had here was a cross orb weaver. They are often brown; they live in Ontario. They are not poisonous to people. (That made me feel better.) And as I kept reading I discovered that this type of spider tends to pick a single location and build a web there. Then it hides all day long, before coming back out night after night to fix its web and to feed. In other words, this spider had chosen my sliding door frame as its new home. I had a new neighbour.

Over the last couple of weeks, that spider has become something of a fixture at our house. The kids have named it, not surprisingly, Charlotte. And I actually look forward to its appearance in the doorframe every night.

So when I say that the spider helped me write this sermon, what I mean is that this new – uh… – living situation has gotten me thinking about what it is to share a home with a neighbour. And in a larger sense, what it is to share our planet home with many neighbours – with the teeming multitudes of living things around us.

Now the fact is, we human beings aren’t very accustomed to thinking of ourselves sharing our home. At least, not sharing as equals. We tend to think of ourselves as the owners of this planet, probably in part because that’s what the Biblical tradition has taught us for thousands of years.

The Torah teaches that when God created the world, humanity was created last – on the sixth day of creation. We were created after light and dark, after water and land, after plants, birds, insects, and other animals. We were created as the culmination of everything, and we were given dominion over the planet.

וַיִבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְצַלְמ֔וֹ – God created human beings in the Divine Image. And God said to us:

פְר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – Be fruitful, and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it. You shall rule over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth.[3]

That’s serious power put into the hands of human beings. Nachmanides, the medieval Spanish commentator, explains that: “God gave us the strength and the power on earth to do as we wish with animals and insects and other things that creep in the dust. To build, and to uproot what has been planted.“

And so we have. Armed with that knowledge, we have indeed וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – we have “subdued the earth.“ We have remade this planet in our own image. Think about how we live today. We spend most of our time inside temperature controlled buildings. We drive fuel burning cars from place to place, hardly ever stepping outside except to walk across a parking lot. Our food comes from factory farms in other countries, grown in quantities we can’t even fathom for the billions of people on earth. We rarely see the stars – there’s too much artificial light in the city anyway. We spend far more time looking at screens than we do looking at trees. We have created an artificial world instead of living in the natural world.

We have become, you might say, devastatingly disconnected from the planet that we are living on. And the result for our planet has been devastating as well.

Even as we sit here today, people in the Carolinas, and people in the Philippines and Hong Kong, are beginning to try to rebuild their lives after being battered this weekend by the latest of what we used to call “once in a century storms.” These days, century storms come every year. Things on our planet are changing for the worse.

Ten years ago, in only my second High Holy Days as a rabbi, I gave a Rosh Hashanah sermon about the Jewish connection to the environment. (It’s a topic that has always been important to me – I wrote my rabbinical thesis on it.) So it was interesting in writing this piece to look back at what I wrote then. And what I found is that even in the last ten years, the rhetoric has changed quite a bit. Because the ecological crisis has worsened quite a bit. A decade or two ago, we were talking about what the effects of Global Warming would be if we continued on our path. Today, we know that we are living with those effects on a daily basis.

Last month, Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic that we are living “in [a] new global reality, where each passing year is the hottest on record…” and where we are dealing regularly with “heat waves, droughts, storms, floods, and other extreme events.”[4]

This is our world. Every year, the hurricanes are getting bigger. Every year the summers are getting hotter. Every year’s wildfires seem to be the largest and most destructive on record. Food disparities are growing, especially in poor and vulnerable places. There is an island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean. And up to 150 species of plants and animals are going extinct every single day.[5]

In 2018, we are living on a planet that is changing on a daily basis, and not for the better. It is becoming less hospitable to human life. It is becoming less biologically diverse. We have taken the Torah’s idea of וְכִבְשֻ֑הָ – of subduing the earth – and we have turned it into our reality.

It is difficult to think that our Jewish tradition may be in some way responsible for shaping the attitudes that have led to this crisis. But that is the case. As Reform Jews, it is our responsibility to look back at our people’s texts and to understand what they meant and what they mean. In teaching us that we were the pinnacle of creation, our sacred texts gave us license to behave in ways that have devastated our world. I don’t believe that the writers of the Torah did this on purpose. But I do think that ancient people didn’t have a sense of the power that we humans would ultimately have to shape and reshape our environment.

But we modern people do understand that. And that makes it our responsibility to look back into the texts to find other ways to understand them. And specifically, to find a new way of framing our relationship to the earth and with other living things.

The good news is – if we look, it’s there to be found.

The midrash tells that when God created the first human being, God gave him the job of naming all the animals. One by one, God brought each animal forward and the man said, “This one is an ox (shor), and this one is a donkey (chamor), and this one is camel (gamal). And onward and onward until he had given a thoughtful name to every animal.

This midrash is part of a larger tradition in the second chapter of Genesis that says that other living things were created not as our subjects, but as our companions and partners.

The Torah says:

וַיֹ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְנֶגְדּֽוֹ – “God looked upon the human being and said “It is not good for him to be alone. I will make a companion for him.”

And so God made wild beasts, and birds of the sky, and things that creep on the earth – to live alongside us and to share our world with us.

And the Rabbis teach that each creature matters. This is from Exodus Rabbah (and it’s one of my very favourite Rabbinic texts). It says:

Even those creatures you think of as being unnecessary in the world, like flies, and fleas and gnats, nevertheless have their allotted task in the scheme of creation.[6]

(In another version, instead of flies and gnats it says snakes and scorpions. You can take your pick!)

Here are the framers of Jewish tradition looking around at the world and seeing it as a beautiful and finely balanced system. And they argue that every creature – every tree, every plant, every animal – even the ones that we think of as pests – are reflections of God‘s wisdom. As it says in the Torah,

וַיַ֤רְא אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָל־אֲשֶ֣ר עָשָ֔ה וְהִנֵה־ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד – God looked upon everything that had been made, and it was very good.

This is a wholly different view of the world than the one that says our job is to subdue and conquer it. And it teaches us something different about ourselves as well. For that, I need to go back and finish the story.

After the first man had finished naming all of those animals, God went to the man and asked him, “What about you? What is your name?”

He replied, “The name adam – human being – fits me?”

“And why is that?” asked God.”

To which the first man replied, “I shall be called adam, because I was fashioned out of adamah – out of the earth.” [7]

This is the other great lesson of the Torah. We’re not here to rule over and subdue the earth. We are here because we come from the earth. Far from being something separate and above creation, we are connected to all other living beings. They are our neighbours. They are our family.

Science teaches us the same lesson. Most people who have taken high school biology know that human beings share a common ancestor with other apes that lived around 5 or 7 million years ago. If we go back further in time, we find that we also have such common ancestors with every other creature on earth. Our common ancestor with rodents lived 75 million years ago. We diverged from dogs, bears, hippos, and whales about 85 million years ago. From crocodiles and birds around 300 million years ago. It was maybe 590 million years ago that we split off from insects, and in the billions of years ago that we diverged from mushrooms and plants and bacteria. And about 4 billion years ago that the first living cell – the one that would give rise to all life on earth – came into being in the primordial soup of our young planet.[8]

All life on earth is descended from a single cell. I don’t mean a single celled organism (though it was that), I mean a single cell. One cell – that divided, and divided again, and diverged, and evolved until billions of years later it had yielded the incredible diversity we see around us, The diversity that we are a part of.

In the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), the Rabbis say that God created only one human being at the beginning of time so that no one could say to another person “My ancestors are better than yours.” Maybe that midrash ought to go back a few billion more years, to the single cell that gave rise to all of us.

Yom Kippur is a time of teshuvah – a time to consider our values, and to account honestly for our actions and their consequences. If we are honest, we will know that our sense of ourselves as rulers of this planet has had real consequences – for ourselves, and for every other form of life with whom we share it. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. We have not been good stewards of this planet. We have forgotten that we are all in the same boat.

In the Torah it teaches that God took Adam, the newly formed human being, and placed him in the garden ‏לשומרה ולעבודה – to work the land, and preserve it. Accordingly, what we are is not rulers, but gardeners – responsible for the upkeep of our world. In fact, we have a dual responsibility – both to do what we can to preserve the earth, and to live our lives with appreciation for what we have been given.

As you know, it is a common Jewish practice to say blessings. We say blessings over foods that we eat, and over things that we drink. But it is also traditional to say a blessing when we experience some beautiful or wondrous element of creation. There is a blessing for hearing thunder; and one for seeing the ocean. There is a blessing for seeing a rainbow, and one for smelling something sweet. And when we see an animal or plant or thing of natural beauty, it is traditional to say:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכָּֽכָה לּוֹ בְּעוֹלָמוֹ. – Blessed are you, Eternal God, whose world is like this!

Imagine if, just a few times a day, we were to look around and find something of beauty, something to appreciate, and say such a blessing. Imagine if we spent our days aware of our power and our responsibility to preserve what God has given us

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that by saying blessings we’re going to save the planet. We have very big problems and they will require global solutions. But I do believe that shifts in thinking lead to shifts in behavior. If we can begin see ourselves as part of the earth – if we think of ourselves as adam who is born from adamah, then it can shift the way we relate to the planet and to other creatures. Maybe I’ll think twice about throwing out that plastic that may end up in the ocean. Maybe I’ll put more consideration into the source of my food and whether some other creature’s habitat was destroyed to produce it. Maybe I’ll shop and eat and consume goods differently than I do now. Maybe I’ll even let that spider stay on my back porch.

638831main_globe_east_2048.jpgThe great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch once surprised his students by insisting that he needed to visit Switzerland. So he and his students together traveled take in the majesty of the Swiss mountains and valleys. And when their travels were over, the rabbi’s students asked him, “Why did you insist on traveling in Switzerland?” Rabbi Hirsch responded, “When I reach the gates of heaven, I will be asked many questions. And I will have good answers for most of them. But what am I going to say when God asks me, “Nu, Samson, did you see my Alps?” [9]

May we – creatures of the earth yet made in God’s image – be the ones to ensure that God’s Alps, and God’s oceans, and God’s rivers and valleys and plants and creatures will still be here for future generations to see.

May we remember that adam comes from adamah. That this is the only planet we have, and we have many neighbours to share it with.

And may we look around us and know that Hineh Tov M’od, that this world is good and beautiful and worth of preservation. And that it is our responsibility to do so. If not us, then who? If not now, when?

I think Charlotte would agree.

 


[1] Misod Chachamim.

[2] Plaut, W. G. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition). Union for Reform Judaism, New York: 2005. p. 799.

[3] Genesis 1:27-28.

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/08/climate-change-global-climate-action-summit/568069/

[5] https://www.cbd.int/doc/speech/2007/sp-2007-05-22-es-en.pdf.

[6] Exodus Rabbah 10:1.

[7] Genesis Rabbah 17:4.

[8] Dawkins, Richard. The Ancestor’s Tale. Phoenix, London: 2004.

[9] Adapted from Martin Gordon, Journal of Jewish Thought, 1985, page 123, as quoted in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, 1994, page 230.

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.”

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/46/dd/aa/46ddaa802056af2143de2d276e2cafd1.png

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.

https://i.pinimg.com/originals/3d/7e/15/3d7e157acdb594873738c8ac53729121.jpg

 


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.

“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.

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