Sunday, September 19, 2010

Does an Apology Mean We're Sorry?

How’s this for an apology?

Dear ___,
Since I offend just about everyone with whom I come into contact, in advance of Yom Kippur I am requesting forgiveness from every minor acquaintance including you. Thank you and have a good fast.

That’s sincere … right?

Maybe not.

Let’s try this: I’m sorry if I have hurt any of you in the last year.
… How sincere did that sound? …

Again - Not very? …

Did you spot the key word in that sentence that turned an apology into a pseudo – fake – apology? …

IF … IF I hurt you…

Now, if you think I’m trashing the tradition formula of the Days of Awe … I’m not.
The rest of the sentence has to include – at the very least: if I hurt you and didn’t realize it. It’s still more meaningful if you can acknowledge the ways in which you might have hurt them.

Unfortunately, we do hurt people, often without realizing it.
A careless word here, a thoughtless action there – can easily damage others – and we often have no idea that we did anything. It doesn’t matter whether we intended of not we intended to hurt anyone.

Whether or not we’re aware of the pain we inflicted, walls spring up between people … and we have relationships in need of healing.

Think about the confessional prayers. In al cheit and ashamnu – we see a laundry list of things we didn’t do. Okay, we’re praying on behalf of the community, for the things THEY did as well.

We don’t do those things.

We don’t gossip. We don’t repeat things that hurt others. We’re kind to people. Right?
In the ashamnu, among other sins, we confess to xenophobia. Don’t run to a dictionary. Xenophobia is fear of foreigners.

WE don’t do that, WE’RE not xenophobic.

Of course, it does bug us when Hispanic immigrants come to the States and don’t speak English – even though some of our own ancestors came here and spoke only Yiddish. Was that different?.

Maybe we are a bit xenophobic?

Can this xenophobia is justified?

It all depends on what you mean. Maybe our fears of another group really are justified – especially when it comes to protecting the vulnerable among us from those who would seduce them away from the covenant.

On the other hand, do our attitudes come from false assumptions, a general attitude of thinking we’re better than everyone else – from plain and simple bigotry?
Owning up to our faults is important. Not so we can beat ourselves up and feel guilty. We need to unload our burdens and move past them.

When we realize that yes, we did hurt someone, we then have a God-sent opportunity to apologize.

To really apologize.

When we look into the mirror I described at Rosh Hashanah – REALLY look……………..and we see the faults in ourselves that we REALLY thought were just the faults in others……….
We have to REALLY apologize.

Let’s take a look at the ingredients of a real apology – first as individuals, then as a community.

The nature of apology is a paradox: we have a humiliating experience that actually helps our self-esteem.

Dr. Aaron Lazare – a psychiatrist and former Chancellor and Dean of University of Massachusetts Medical School, has written extensively on the subject of apologies.
Dr. Lazare says that we must first recognize, that yes, we did violate a moral norm – or that in some fashion, we negatively impacted – harmed – a relationship.
Then, we have to say it.

“Honey, I’m sorry I hurt you,” isn’t enough.

Wouldn’t our first reaction be – nice apology, do you have any idea what you did, what you said?...

We have to recognize – and admit – HOW we hurt that person. Or how we realize we MIGHT have hurt that person.

This really does make us feel vulnerable and weak.

A John Wayne movie line sums up a typical view we have these days: “Don’t apologize—it’s a sign of weakness.”

I beg to differ! It’s a sign of strength!

When we can say to ourselves – let alone to others – I did this wrong – and further acknowledge the negative impact of our actions, we begin healing relationships and enriching our own souls.

We might have to make reparations – we should offer to fix what we can. And above all, resolve to try our hardest so the same thing doesn’t happen again.
Apologizing IS taking a chance.

On Rosh Hashanah, I told you about a person who apologized to me about things she said over forty years ago! She didn’t know how I’d react.

It was such a liberating – and powerful bonding experience -- for both of us. We’re now in frequent contact and having a great time.

But it IS POSSIBLE that the other person might not be ready to accept your apology. Did you make yourself vulnerable for no good reason?

Maimonides points out that such a refusal can be cruel. Assuming the apology is sincere, that the person will not repeat the offense – we’re supposed to forgive.
Sometimes, that doesn’t happen. Reasons vary. The wound could be too fresh … or the action too cruel ... it might be impossible to offer forgiveness at that point.
… And sometimes, people really WANT to hang on to grudges and bitterness.

When my friend wrote and asked for forgiveness, even if I had been angry … I could not imagine hanging on to a grudge for FORTY YEARS.

Some people do! They hold on to grudges for longer.

No matter if the parties involved are no longer part of their lives. No matter if the other parties died! A lot of people hang onto grudges that should have faded years before.

According to Maimonides, even if our apologies are rebuffed, we should try two more times. If we’re still rebuffed, we know that you have done everything within our power to make things right.

We can let that burden drift away.

We felt remorse. Now we can let it go.

It’s so liberating to remove walls that stand between us and others!

When we do this, we don’t weaken our self-esteem. We do the opposite; we strengthen ourselves and our self-concepts. The light of our souls shines even brighter.
Doing the right thing, setting things right, can’t help but make us stronger and better.

The impediment all along was the hurt or bitterness – or attitudes that led us to hurt someone else. Those are the things that hurt our self-esteem. But fixing it … liberating!

I mentioned the communal aspect of apology – our prayers that acknowledge our sins – when we beat our chests and beg God to forgive the community.
It can be a very empty ritual.

Doesn’t God forgive us anyway on Yom Kippur?

… Not if we don’t ask. Divine forgiveness – and closeness to Hashem – is not automatic just because it is Yom haKippurim.

We have to ask.

Further, we must ask on behalf of our people. We are one people – a tapestry of past, future … and today. As a synagogue – as Jews anywhere in the world – we form a living, breathing organism.

We must ask God to forgive us all – for HIM to turn toward us, in love and compassion.

A Jew cannot simply ask atonement for himself. Doing so, puts him outside the community.

Yom Kippur has never been intended as atonement just for individuals.

Yom Kippur is for our community – a time that we must recognize our dependence on each other as well as on God.

A midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6) illustrates our mutual inter-dependence:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai talked about men on a ship. One of them took a tool and started boring a hole under his own place. His fellow travelers exclaimed in alarm: What are you doing?

The man calm replied: what does it matter to you, I’m only boring a hole at my own place.

His companions shouted back: It doesn’t matter, don’t you see, the water will come in and flood us all!

Every single person is an integral part of our larger community.

The communal aspect of Yom Kippur also demands introspection. Are their things that our community could do better? Are we following God? Could we do a better?
As a community, we acknowledge our failings. Because we are sorry – and resolve to do better – God will forgive us – His light will enrich and brighten our souls, both as individuals and as a community.

Again, if we do not seek forgiveness as a community, we are in effect putting ourselves outside that community.

It’s important to note, there’s another aspect to introspection. It’s every bit as important as recognizing what we did wrong …

We have to see our good points as well!

Rav Nachman, a great Hasidic rebbe, warned against too much introspection. Continually finding fault with ourselves leads to anxiety or depression and serves to distance us from the Kadosh Baruch Hu.

He said that we must consciously strive to find our good points. Sometimes when we’re down, that can be pretty tough.

But Rav Nachman said we must look for our good points … and when we find one, look for another … and another…

We build on our strengths – we can’t do that if we don’t know what they are.
And we also repair our weaknesses …. The key is repair, not dwelling on them, not ruminating on them to the point of depression … but repair – moving on.
When we remove the walls between ourselves and others – we give another opening to the light of our souls.

We grow in our love of God and of His Creation –

We repair ourselves and our relationships, focus on our strengths, and are better equipped to grow in love of God and people.

Then, we can serve God with joy and gladness … and love.

But first, we must tear down the walls that stand between ourselves and others.
I opened today with a fill-in-the-blank non-apology.

There’s a beautiful paragraph in the new machzor put out by the Rabbinical Assembly:
“I hear-by forgive all who have hurt me, whether deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account.

As I forgive and pardon fully those who have done me wrong, may those whom I have harmed by word or by deed forgive and pardon me, whether I acted deliberately or by accident. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you my rock and my redeemer.”

On a personal note, I must acknowledge before you – and before the Kadosh Baruch Hu – that I have sometimes hurt people’s feelings. I never mean to do that. I have tried to be there for all of you. For the times I have not been there … for the times that I have unintentionally caused pain -- please forgive me.

May we all enter 5771 with renewed hearts and souls, confident that God eagerly awaits our please for forgiveness and for His presence in His lives.

May it be His will that we seek – and treasure … the closeness to God that this day has the power to bring.

Rambam and What He Still Teaches

I’m a Jewish mother, so I can freely tell Jewish mother jokes:

An Jewish man was elected to be President of the United States. He called his mother and invited her to come to DC for the Days of Awe.

“Oy, I’d like to, but it’s so much trouble. I have to get a cab to the airport, and …”

“Mom, I’m the President. You don’t need to wait for a cab, I’m sending a limo.”

“Oy,” she said, “but it’s still a lot of trouble. I’ll have to get wait in line for a ticket, and maybe get stuck with the middle seat… “

“Mom, I’m President of the United States! I’ll send a private jet. I can send Air Force One!”

“Oy,” replied his mother. “And when we land, I’ll have to get my luggage and carry it through the airport and get a cab…”

“Mom, I’ll send a helicopter. You won’t have to go to any trouble. None.

“Oy, son, that’s nice, but what about a room? The hotels in Washington are expensive…”

“Mom, you’ll stay with us at the White House!”

“All right,” she finally said, “I guess I’ll come.”

The next day she called her friend.

Friend: “What’s new?”

The mom: “I’m visiting my son for the holidays.”

Friend: “The doctor?”

The mother paused before answering: “No, the other one…”

Beyond the traditional Jewish mother jokes about “our sons, the doctors,” physicians really have played a key role in our history. Looking at the medieval Islamic world, it’s astounding to note the role doctors played.

Physicians were expected to be knowledgeable about fields of philosophy, science, and mathematics. They might be poets, government leaders, even warriors.

Many of the Jewish physicians of that era were also rabbis.

While the rabbinic role was important within the Jewish world, the most erudite physicians often found their way to royal courts.

The most notable of them – great Rabbi Moses ben Maimon -- aks Moses Maimonides – aka Rambam – came from their ranks.

My own fascination with Rambam has been lifelong. I still remember being in Sunday school when our teacher told us about Maimonides – a great rabbi and a physician! It was such a revelation!

It was hard to picture. I mean, rabbis were, you know, rabbis. Physicians were different, they were part of the world…

A rabbi and a doctor. Mindboggling.

I’ve dreamed about Rambam. Once, during a restless, thirsty night after Kol Nidre, in my dream he simply said: This is ben Maimon. You’re not listening to me.
Honestly, I didn’t know enough about him then to know what I was supposed to be hearing…

I’m NOT an expert on Rambam; his works are too numerous and deep for me to come close to studying them all.

However, every now and then, when I’m studying writings, I remember the dream and tell myself: okay, I get it.

Until the next time I study him… and the next…

It’s not just when I study. Sometimes when I am helping someone in need … I wonder if this is what the dream meant…

Rambam has a deserved reputation as an intellectual snob – the Guide to the Perplexed begins with a warning that the book is not for the stupid. What can you say, the man was brilliant.

When you study him, you cannot ignore Rambam the rabbi OR Rambam the physician. And it’s hard to know, which of these crowns – rabbi or doctor – motivated him the most.
In both roles, it is very VERY clear that he cared deeply about people. His writings on tzedakah – helping other people – are still unmatched.

I can picture his reaction to yesterday’s breaking news, that the poverty rate in the United States has climbed to 43.6 million people – one in seven.
Would Rambam tell us not to worry, that others would take care of the poor, we had to focus on fellow Jews … because no one else would?


Rambam was clear.

We first take care of the people in our family and then in our town. Not the Jews in our town. The people in our town.

Then we turn outward, toward the nation and toward Israel.

Rambam, the rabbi-physician most emphatic teachings are to remind us of our responsibility to the needy.

As we talk more about Rambam, and his passionate love of God – we cannot forget that love of God always equals loving and helping others, especially the ones who cannot help themselves
Rambam was way ahead of his time in his understanding of mental illness. While the Europeans were exorcising demons and locking up the mentally ill, Rambam found numerous ways to treat them.

Rabbi Moses’ Jewish writings, are brilliant and profound. In my own mind, he was – deservedly --THE RABBI.

Unlike many of our faith, who eschew all study except the study of Torah, Moses Maimonides advocated study of secular subjects, especially science. A radical concept at the time – and in some circles a heretical concept today.

In the bulk of the yeshiva world of both yesterday and today, secular studies weren’t and aren’t considered important. Torah, Talmud, halachah – those are the only subjects that really count.

Science? Feh! Stick to Torah. History as an academic subject? Only as it pertains to Judaism and tradition and even then only in limited uses, and only in the context of “the rabbis”.

This attitude still holds sway in many Jewish quarters. This very issue is probably the biggest difference between Conservative Judaism and much of the Orthodox world today. The more I learn about this great scholar, the more I think of him as a forerunner of today’s Conservative movement!

For Rambam, science – our minds in general – was a God-given tool … one that was necessary to understand God’s universe. How could we know God if we didn’t do our best to know about His Creation?

Further, according to Rambam, such knowledge would inevitably lead to love of God – and love of His creation.

Rambam’s attitude: Science is true, and Scripture is true.

Suppose science conflicts with Scripture?

Rambam was clear: if it appears there is a conflict, we do not understand Torah. And we must study harder. Scripture is true, science is true, conflict is impossible.

Today, we know through science that earth came into existence billions and billions of years ago. Yet, tradition says that the world is now 5,711 years old.
How would we expect the great Rabbi to answer?

He taught that much of Torah is metaphor. It is impossible to describe God, for He is infinite and eternal. Rambam, true to form, would say that the number 5711 is symbolic and imparts great truths from Torah. He would also say that it is not literal, that we also have to understand Creation through the eyes of science.

For a long time, I held the traditional assumption Rambam’s greatest religious writings were to make study easier for Jews who aren’t very learned.
That’s only part of the story. He wanted to free his own students from the demands of traditional Talmud study. If they – ie WE are to succeed in the world around us, they did and we do need to devote significant time and energy for science, mathematics, and philosophy – whatever our passion is – whatever path we choose.
Torah is important… certainly. But Rambam saw – and I see saw ALL learning as a path to knowing God… and most importantly, to loving God.

ALL learning.

Rambam was clear: “Knowing the nature of the universe will lead us to attain love of God.” That was the most important goal he could imagine.
In his own life, he illustrated this by devoting his life to healing others and to guiding people to God. He wrote a letter describing his day, the demands on his time. It’s an awesome letter. He was tired, so very tired, but that didn’t stop him.

He worked tirelessly on behalf of others … Rambam demonstrated his love of God by helping others – through Torah, through healing as a physician. He was a doctor of the soul as well as a doctor of the body.

His patients ranged from members of the royal court to the great unwashed poor. He treated them all with the same care and respect.

Because this is Yom Kippur and a day for atoning for sin, it’s important to note that among Maimonides’ great legacies, we have an incredible treatise on teshuvah, returning to God. By the same token, he considered sin was caused by a diseased soul.

Rambam would be the first to declare that today …Yom HaKippurim -- we must see to the healing of our souls … for that will bring us closer to love of God.
He encouraged us to keep before us the knowledge that should stand, always, before the Divine Presence.

Great Chasidic rabbis taught that we should seek God in nature – contemplate the Holy One and the wonders and miracles of creation.

Centuries earlier, Rambam advised doing the same. Contemplating the beauty and harmony of the universe would lead to love of God.

I won’t pretend that I have come to FULLY understand Rambam. I feel quite sure that if I were to dream about him again, he’d tell me AGAIN that I still don’t get it.
However, now I do understand that he had deep mystical beliefs. He expressed them through philosophy -- that was the language of scholars of his day.

Because I have known Rambam -- Rabbi Moses ben Maimon -- as a Jewish scholar, I assumed that was the most important part of his life. I failed to consider that he was among the most multi-faceted of men who ever lived.

Because I always located Rambam in a Jewish culture, I failed to recognize how the Islamic world impacted his thinking. Rabbi Moses lived in a time of great intellectual ferment. While Europe suffered through the Dark Ages, Islamic culture glittered with academic achievement: philosophy, science, mathematics to name a few.
Like all of us, Rambam was a product of his culture. Had he lived Europe – uncivilized in the twelfth century -- he would never have been exposed to the world of scholarship that nurtured his mind.

The question remaining: what does this great man teach us today?
1. We must never stop learning and growing. Among his first works, he wrote a Commentary on the Mishnah. He completed it, then went back to work on it. Throughout his entire life he mulled it over and revised it. The insights of the young Rabbi Moses changed throughout his life.
Therefore, if we examine someone’s thoughts at 20, we should not expect them to think the same way at 30, or at 40, and all the way down the road.
In politics, they call this flip-flopping. In the real world, it means a person is growing and thinking.
2. Rambam encouraged having a well-rounded education. For Jews, it meant Torah study – of course – but it also meant science and mathematics and a host of other subjects needed to understand the world.
Therefore, it is our duty to learn what we can. We cannot lose sight of Rabbi Moses’ goal of all learning – if we understand the world, we cannot help but love God – and ultimately feel passion for the Holy One.
3. Love of God can and must be nurtured. As I mentioned, we never stop growing. If Rambam never ever reached a point where he thought he knew enough, neither should we!

4. We shouldn’t be afraid that history or science will shake the foundations of religion! We should embrace knowledge and seek a deeper understanding of Torah.
Rambam devoted his life to the message that science and Torah are enmeshed as one. Science – the intellect in general – is a wonderful tool to deepen our religious lives.

But that leaves us with a great responsibility. We must not lose sight of the fact that the goal of knowledge is the loving the Almighty.

5. Finally, we have his life’s example of service to others, the side of Rambam that transcends his studies and writings. We have the man himself.
Beyond science, beyond philosophy – he advocated that contemplation of nature – of the beauties and wonders of nature. As the Chasidic rabbis would proclaim centuries later, this contemplation would bring us to love and awe of the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed is He.

Love of God, of course, leads to love of humanity – to knowing that God implanted his essence in all people. In addition to his duties as a religious leader, Rabbi Moses “rolled up his sleeves” and worked tirelessly on behalf of the powerful and the lowly, the ill, the depressed, the poor. We too must roll up our sleeves work tirelessly on behalf of the powerful and the lowly, the ill, the depressed, the poor.

In the end, it all comes down to love of God and reliance on Him. Notably, RamBam closed his ongoing work, the Commentary on the Mishnah, with a quote from Isaiah (40:29-31):
“God gives power to the faint; and to those who have no might he increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall fall; But those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Think about this verse. Hashem will renew our strength. This is our spiritual strength, our resolve to do the right thing.

Not only does God renew our strength, he helps us to soar with the eagles!
That’s today – the spiritual peak of Yom Kippur.

But after we soar, we eventually have to walk.

Life returns to normal – but after Yom Kippur, we should have a NEW normal. The point of the holiday is transformation and closeness to God.

EVEN AFTER YOM KIPPUR -- we must persist in following a path of goodness and righteousness and service to others.

Therefore, we heed both Rambam and Isaiah.

When we grow in love of God, we grow in our passion and our ability to bring goodness into the world.

May God see our merit and seal us for a year of blessing.

A Pregnant World

True or false: after each round of shofar blasts in musaf, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy declares that “today is the birthday of the world” …

The answer may surprise you – but the answer is much deeper – deeper even than the world’s creation.

The musaf liturgy has a phrase: Hayom Harat Olam

We usually translate it as: this is the day the world was born.

That’s not really what it says.

The phrase should be translated as: this is the day the world was conceived.

The word here that is often mistranslated as giving birth is harat – which means conceived. The word for giving birth, being born? It isn’t there!

These days, we commonly assume that Rosh Hashanah is the first day of creation, even though the Talmud itself doesn’t reach that conclusion!

In the Talmud, we have an intriguing conversation about the date of creation. Rabbi Eliezer holds out for Creation at the beginning of Tishri – Rosh Hashanah. However, Rabbi Joshua’s arguments for Creation in Nissan – in the spring – are equally formidable.

At some point, our tradition decided to associate Creation with the month of Tishri in the fall and not with Nissan in the spring.

But this tradition is ambiguous at best.

Tishri is the seventh month of the year, not the first! And yet, our calendars will reflect that the year begins on Rosh Hashanah.

Confusing? Yes, it is confusing. The logic isn’t apparent. At least, the logic isn’t apparent until we look at today in terms of conception.

We unlock the meaning – not regarding the calendar or the specifics of Creation – but we unlock the potential of Rosh Hashanah.

A word about the Creation story: that, too, cannot be taken literally. The rabbis of the Talmud held the secrets of Creation to be a deep mystery, one that is not allowed to even be taught in its entirety! The Talmud allows teaching Creation via hints – period.

Note that in the discussion of the date of Creation, the Talmudic rabbis did not reach a conclusion.

For the rabbis, the concept of Creation was so vast, so mysterious, that how could anyone put a date on it? Who knew if it was Nissan or Tishri? Torah certainly gives no hints.

So, without any real basis in text, why does our tradition link Rosh Hashanah to Creation?

The concept of pregnancy implies potential. The potential for this day extends into eternity.

Let’s look again at the phrase, only this time we’ll break it down word by word. As we do so, keep in mind that each time we chant it during services, it immediately follows the shofar – which surely gets our attention and jars our souls!

היום הרת עולם
Hayom Harat olam

היום Hayom. Today,

הרת Harat. Is conceived, is pregant

עולם Olam, the world, or eternity

Today and forever the world is pregnant with potential.

On this holy day, we can unlock that potential.

On this holy day, we look at world as vast, eternal, our own lives laden with possibilities of creativity and goodness.

The shofar calls us – the prayer calls us – to recognize our own potential!
A major part of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, is doing teshuvah, reflecting on what we’ve done wrong.

We talked about that last night. We can’t fix ourselves if we don’t know what parts are broken!

First, we have to face the darkness in ourselves and overcome our fear of change.
How do we know this from a simple phrase in the liturgy?

Think about pregnancy. It’s a time of blessing and a time of fear. We’re excited but worried all at the same time.

For the fetus, the world is nurturing but dark.

All we know about this fetus is that it’s full of potential. Maybe we know the gender. Beyond that, we’re facing the unknown. A glorious unknown – but still, we don’t know what our lives, the child’s life, will become.

The odd thing about our phrase -- hayhom harat olam -- is that it does not appear in the Bible, Talmud, or midrash. It was written just for the liturgy.
But it wasn’t invented out of whole cloth. It’s an adaptation of a statement by the prophet Jeremiah. It’s a very odd statement. Jeremiah is full of despair because he sees the impending doom of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Temple, and cannot prevent it. Worse, he has been oppressed by the people he is trying to save.

“Because he did not kill me in the womb, so that my mother would have been my grave, and her womb eternal.”

Yet, when we sing it, we do so with gusto and joy!

As my colleague, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, pointed out, Jeremiah was afraid, the challenge before him was so immense. However, he overcame his fear and continued to serve God as a prophet.

The key Hebrew words are related to the last three, that her womb would be eternal.
This day is pregnant with potential! Now the hard work – labor – is up to us.
This is our time to go through a spiritual rebirth. These days are meant to transform us as a fetus is transformed into a person.

But now, the looming question is: where do we start? How do we start?
If we understand that today – and every day – is pregnant with unseen potential -- we gain deeper understanding of time, how precious every moment is.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talked about Shabbat as our cathedral in time. We don’t have holy places. We have holy time.

Heschel insisted that the topography of time – it’s mountains, it’s valleys, every single moment – come together to form the most precious thing we could have: moments that are alive with memory, with looking ahead, of joy and sorrow – a collection of moments.

Heschel felt strongly about the primacy of time over space – literally. In the sixties, when the space race was a symbol of national pride, he pointed out that it was even easier to conquer space than time. Holiness is found in moments. Finding those moments, making them special, is the great task that lies before us.
Heschel wanted us to look at the world with “radical amazement,” with eyes of wonder.

Most of us don’t do this. We look just look at things and see things just like we always do: normal and routine.

Centuries before Heschel, Rambam – Maimonides – said that we should contemplate nature. If we ponder God’s works in nature, we come to greater awe of Him, and that brings us to love of God.

… by pondering nature … and by knowing that ultimately, all is created by the Almighty.

Rambam could have also used the term “radical amazement.”

We have the ability – the obligation – to frame the way we look at the world.
This isn’t just a way of thinking. The important part is doing.
Rabbi Heschel said that to encounter God, we had to push beyond filling our own needs, we had to push beyond selfish desires. This would lead to a change of orientation – to the re-framing we have to do.

We don’t re-frame the world through our thoughts but by our actions. Those actions lead us to find parts of ourselves that we didn’t even realize were embedded in our souls.

As my teacher Rabbi Ed Feinstein put it, Heschel’s key to finding God is living with knowledge that something asked demanded of us.

Today, we stand before the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One Blessed is He, and proclaim his kingship. In our proclamations, we acknowledge that he wants – and needs us to participate in the world He created.


The world is still being created. The potential is there anew at every moment for the creation of a better world. It’s a long-standing tenet of Judaism that we are God’s partners in the ongoing work of creation.

This is our obligation to Hashem. This is why He created us.

We cannot participate with Him until we understand the creation is continuous, happening every moment, and that He needs us.

The world IS pregnant with potential. The shofar blasts drive that knowledge home.
Heschel firmly believed, you do and then you learn. Keeping Shabbat is an example. We cannot possibly understand Shabbat until we do it. No amount of study can replace the sublime experience of Shabbat.

Rabbi Heschel said it was important to express gratitude and to say berachot, blessings. It gives us a moment to acknowledge that something special is before us – even if it’s a simple peanut butter sandwich.

We want to acknowledge every moment that we can.

We want to make every moment as special as we can.

In doing so, we can transform ordinary moments into sparks of holiness.

We do this one step at a time. A little here, a little there, pulls us into direction of wanting to more, of wanting to add more goodness to the world.

Our challenge right now: look at the rest of the service with radical amazement, as an opportunity to reach for holiness, to come closer to God.

Treat the entirety of these holy days as a drama – in which every scene leads to the next – and the next – and ultimately we can stand before God with a new heart and a freshly renewed soul.

Allow the words, the music, the ritual to touch you.

When you hear the shofar, and then sing hayom harat olam, know that we are acknowledging the potential for all of us, together, to enlarge our souls, to enrich the world.
Allow yourself to feel your own connections to everyone else in the community. Know that we are part of the mysterious, glorious tapestry of time.

Take this same consciousness into Yom Kippur, allow it to reach a crescendo with n’ilah.

Know that like the topography of our lives as a whole, this ten day journey through the days of awe, the services themselves, will have mountains and valleys, but God’s grandeur awaits.

A Forty Year Old "Ghost"

We hear a lot today about school “bullies.” Do you ever wonder if they feel bad about this when they grow up?

I haven’t, which is especially ironic right now. Recently my high school class from Mississippi has virtually all reconnected on Facebook. Some of these are the same folk who -- decades ago -- did pick my best friend and me.

As I reconnected with my old classmates, the old stuff didn’t matter. Who was nice to me, who wasn’t nice to me – hasn’t mattered for decades. We are all different people now – tied together by a common past.

I have good memories of Clarksdale; they’re related to my friends, my family, our Temple … and definitely include driving with friends to the Mississippi River to enjoy the peace and quiet, to read, to talk. Teasing? Those memories have long faded.

And so … imagine my surprise when I recently received a note of apology from a “girl” in my class! Okay, she’s not a girl anymore.

Here’s what “Becky” – not her real name, wrote: “I often think how mean some of us girls were to you and Nancy back in high school... it gives me great shame. I am glad to see you well and with such a nice family!”

She wrote this to me nearly 40 years after the teasing, and mere days before Rosh Hashanah. Becky is a Christian, she didn’t realize her incredible timing, that part of our holiday preparation is to make things right with people we have hurt.

… I was moved … incredibly moved … to hear from her.

While for me, her memory of cruelty was only small part of a chapter of a time that was mostly good. To Becky, it was a dark memory that brought with it a lot of regret and shame.

When I connected with the class, it never occurred to me that anyone in that group ever gave a second thought to those days and attitudes. After all, the Clarksdale High Facebook class of ’68 now consists of – well, you do the math, we’re not teenagers anymore! It was so long ago. Who cares at this point?

Becky cares. She did something she felt was wrong and has felt badly for years.
I wrote back: “Becky, that was so long ago, none of us are the same. We learn from all our experiences. But that was such a nice thing to say. Thank you so much. It's a wonderful thought to take into our holidays. May God bless us all.”
Then I dashed off a second note: “Life is all about change and returning, always, coming closer to God. Our beliefs are different, but our God is the same. Your timing was amazing.”

Becky graphically demonstrated that when we do wrong things, our choices are limited.

Among them:
1. deny or rationalize our actions. If we do that, correction is impossible.
2. admit our mistakes and try to make amends.

If we do the latter, we don’t have to carry around guilt and shame. We can wipe it away, cleanse our souls, and embrace the Holy One with joy.
Until death shuts the final door, it’s never too late to do this in any relationship.

For the well-being of our souls, it is vitally important to ‘fess up to things we did wrong. Sometimes it takes us a while to recognize these actions were wrong.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski discusses this in his latest book A Formula for Proper Living. He points out that we should never defend our mistakes. Doing so results in our lying – to others, to ourselves.

Rabbi Twerski cites the example of the great Hasidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, who taught: “The world is a mirror. Inasmuch as a person is blind to one’s own faults, God arranged it to see them in other people. The defects you see in others are your own.”

Take a moment now to look around. … do you see people who annoy you? … When we go home, we should take another look in the mirror. There’s a really good chance that we do the same annoying ourselves…

No one likes to see character defects in himself. We find ways to rationalize or lay the blame elsewhere. Like small children, we say: it wasn’t my fault!

Or even worse – it was someone else’s fault.

Rabbi Twerski illustrates this with a Peanuts cartoon.

Peppermint Patty, a child infamous or not doing her homework, called Charlie Brown. She said: “I failed again, Chuck, and it’s all your fault.”

Charlie Brown is dumbfounded. “My fault?”

Patty’s answer: “I need someone to blame.”

Blaming others is irresistible. In the short run, it’s easier than saying: I did this.

In the long run, when we blame others – when we do not take personal responsibility – we lay extra burdens on our souls.

Blaming others is a way to avoid looking in the mirror.

This concept showed up two thousand years ago in the Talmud (Kiddushin 70a): “And Samuel said: With his own blemish he stigmatizes [others] as unfit.”
When we see faults in others, we must consider that we could have the very same faults!

Hasidic literature is replete with tales on this subject.

Here’s another one from the Baal Shem Tov. He once saw a person violate Shabbat. We don’t know how the person violated Shabbat. That isn’t important to our story. The important part? The Baal Shem Tov noticed. He was distressed. He felt sure that he, the Baal Shem must have done the same thing. If he hadn’t personally – unwittingly even -- violated Shabbat, it wouldn’t be on his radar screen. He was sure that otherwise, he wouldn’t have noticed. Even though he couldn’t remember what he did, he prayed and begged God’s forgiveness.

He took seriously the notion of our souls as mirrors.

So must we.

Rabbi Twerski explained that people can see the same objects but give different descriptions. They are drawn to see the object in a particular light. Why? Their psychological needs drive them.

However, this is not hopeless. This mirror is important!

Becky looked in a mirror and saw her actions as mean. She said that without qualification, without rationalizing, without blaming anyone.

Recognizing that what we did wrong – without qualification, without making excuses - is the only way we can correct our lives and turn them around. But please understand, while we must be honest – while we must admit error, we don’t have to feel shame! Why not? Because in most cases, we can correct – or mitigate – those mistakes.

Just as importantly, while we must see the bad, when we look at our soul in the mirror and we can and absolutely SHOULD see goodness as well. If we look closely, we will see things to fix. Just as if we look closely at others and find things to criticize, we must ask ourselves – are we guilty of the same thing?
The answer is: probably.

But if we do recognize a problem, we can – we must – take steps to fix it.
Whether or not we see flaws in ourselves … if we have wronged others … if we have wronged Hashem – these things will lay on our souls like heavy rocks.

Recognizing our own errors – our sins – is embarrassing to ourselves, even more so when we admit them to others. It makes us vulnerable. For all Becky knew, I could have responded by saying: that’s right, you were mean back then, you should be sorry.
That’s a chance we have to take if we are to keep our own souls on the right path.

Whether or not our confession leads to a positive response from others, the important issue is what it does for US – it cleanses us and allows us to stop carrying around the weight of our own wrongdoing.

This release allows us to take a better look at our strengths. Rabbi Twerski points out that it’s equally important for us to be aware of our own potential and to capitalize on it. These assets are divine gifts!
Even at that, our strengths must be actively used for goodness. Listen to this gem from the Talmud:

1. The world is judged according to the status of the majority of its population. If the majority is sinful, God judges us poorly. If the world is meritorious, God judges us well.
In today’s world, this is definitely scary! However, we cannot forget, it only takes one act of goodness to tip the world’s balance toward blessing.
The second part is equally important, to each one of us and to the world:
2. Each person is judged according to the majority of his or her good or bad acts. For our own souls, one act of goodness tips the scales in our favor.
Therefore, imagine the world as equally balanced between good and evil, and your soul the same way. One good deed can make a difference – not just for you, but for the whole world.

With this in mind, we return to my conversation with Becky.

Becky’s letter removed a weight from her soul that she has carried for years. More importantly, that one act increased the likelihood that she will treat people with greater kindness. Even better, her example will serve as a beacon to others to act and speak kindly. If they realize they are being unkind, they will learn from Becky how to make things right.

After all is said and done, Becky has to be an innately good person: an uncaring person in her fifties would hardly be troubled by actions from their teen years.
For me, it was an amazing spiritual boost and a revelation about people’s goodness.
My prayer for myself – for all of us – is that when we look at others, that we make an effort to seek out goodness. May the Almighty help us to know that the flaws we see in others are actually embedded in ourselves.

We call about His might and grace to help us seek the good in others – and in ourselves – that we might bring about a world rooted in His love.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Conversion Bill issues near Tisha B'Av

We observe Tisha B’Av because Israel and its capital Jerusalem is – has always been – the beating heart of Judaism.

Yes, we mourn the destruction of the first Temple in 586 bc – and the destruction of the second Temple in 70 ce. Both happened on the same day in the Jewish year, the ninth day of the month of Av.

The first Temple stood for nearly four centuries. The second Temple for nearly six… We are talking about a full thousand years of Jewish life. That’s a long time.
The loss of those holy sites, dayeinu, it would have been enough to cause widespread mourning.

But it was more than the destruction of the Temples – it was the destruction of a way of life – the land was pillaged, the people killed, exiled, or sold as slaves.
Tisha b’Av marks our first two holocausts.

The events of Tisha B’Av sent us into exiles that left us vulnerable to other holocausts. We were weak, had no government supporting us.

This is the main difference between Tisha B’Av and later tragedies: the Temples were destroyed because we – our people – brought it on ourselves.

We sinned. The prophets said that the First Temple was destroyed because we committed adultery and incest – prayed to idols – and were guilty of bloodshed. We polluted the land with our misdeeds.

The traditional reason for the second destruction is different: it is sinat hinam, baseless hatred.

We were not a united people, we were at each other’s throats, we spoke ill of each other. We were unkind.

The Talmud gives other reasons for the tragic events of 70 ce, the destruction of the second people and the terrible exile that followed:

1. Rabbi Hamnuna blamed the destruction on Jerusalem’s neglect of children’s education. That makes sense. Of course the effects would be far-reaching. If children don’t learn, how will future generations know about our covenant with God?

2. Rabba said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because people of integrity there ceased.

That also makes sense. How can any society survive when people lack integrity? … Scary, huh …

3. Now I have an explanation that you may find surprising, but I am quoting directly from the Talmud: Rabbi Yochanan said that Jerusalem was destroyed only because they gave judgments in accordance with the law of Torah.
Sound odd?

The problem was obviously not Torah, but it was a refusal to go beyond the strict letter of the law.

The Talmud is not saying that rabbis should disregard Torah. However, while we must respect the law, we cannot let it blind us to a greater good.

Torah should be a vehicle connecting Jews to each other in love and unity

On the other hand, rabbinic insistence on following every single letter – down to every dot – can lead to self-righteousness and divisiveness.

As we approach Tisha B’Av, our people-hood is being threatened … in and by Israel.

I love Israel dearly. Talking about these issues … is sad.

Judaism does not have a pope. We do not have a central religious authority. Religious authority is invested in the rabbis. It has never ever been invested in one rabbi. To allow the chief rabbi to assume the powers of a pope is Jewish heresy…
Two thousand years ago, we had a high priest and a Temple. Since then, we have had rabbis … plural … not one rabbi … interpreting Torah.

The chief rabbinate of Israel is trying to make itself THE central authority of Judaism.

Many of you know that a cornerstone of Israel has always been the Law of Return. Israel is the Jewish homeland. Any Jew immigrating there automatically becomes a citizen.

The reason is simple: Jews have always been bound to the land of Israel. When Jews move there, theoretically … they are going back home.

However, right now, there are members of the Israeli government seeking to change that with the “Rotem” bill.

This bill would give the chief rabbinate the power to decide who can move to Israel and be accepted as a Jewish citizen.

Here are some of the consequences of the Rotem Bill’s passage:
1. Any non-Jew who visits Israel, returns home, and converts to Judaism, would automatically be denied citizenship under the Law of Return.

2. It automatically follows that every conversion would have to be under the auspices of the chief rabbinate. Citizenship would be denied to anyone that did not meet their extremely rigid conditions.

It’s important to recognize that many of the great rabbis of the Talmud would disagree with those rigid standards!

3. The bill would affirm that there is only one legitimate stream of Judaism … ultra-Orthodox … not even modern Orthodox would count.

4. The bill includes many provisions that definitely send a strong message to the States that American Jews aren’t welcome in the Jewish homeland.

Reform, Conservative, and secular Jews constitute a whopping 85% of American Judaism. We’re the ones who encourage and lobby our representatives to support Israel. We’re the ones who support AIPAC!

God forbid, Israel would push American Jews away.

But that is at risk IF THIS BILL PASSES – and this is a very dangerous time for Israel – especially given the aggressive posture of Iran – and their threat of nuclear destruction. Many groups – including churches – are taking their investments away from Israel. That’s a serious problem I’ll address in the coming weeks.

There is never a good time for shenanigans like the Rotem Bill – but with all these dangers – and the approach of Tisha B’Av – this might be the worst.

We need unity! We don’t want to be driven away from Israel. We SHOULDN’T be unwelcome in Israel.

Natan Sharansky, the head of the Jewish Agency, firmly opposes the Rotem bill. He has been clear on that subject. Sharansky has publicly stated that the Israeli government should not do anything to divide the Jewish people.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, has been silent.

While many think he will oppose the bill, his silence … and the silence of his Likud party … tells us this is not a sure thing.

Earlier to today, I sent you all an informational email. If you haven’t looked at it, please do. There are links to email the Prime Minister, to let him know how seriously we take this.

Everything I have said tonight is born of a deep love of Israel. I know that you here share that love!

We can combat the sorrow of Tisha B’Av by working to make Israel a place that welcomes all Jews … that keeps the Zionist dream alive.

May the Kadosh Baruch Hu strengthen us all – may we work together to make us … and the land of Israel … worthy of redemption,

V’nomar, amein.