Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On Being a Mensch Seventeen years ago, my father said to his closest friend: “Shaina is serious about a man from the synagogue, Bob Dick. Do you know him?” His friend, Marvin, answered immediately: “Bob’s a mensch.” When Dad shared the story, he added: “Marvin is such a mensch. If he said that about Bob, that’s enough for me.” I don’t share this story only to tell you what you know … (pause) – but to share the importance and meaning of this concept… These three words –Bob’s a mensch – made all the difference to my father – and set the stage for family relations for years to come… because there was no higher praise than saying: He’s a mensch. A mensch is a Yiddish term for literally being a real person. But … you surely ask … aren’t we all real people? Yes, of course… but … do we live up to the qualities that make us fully human? Our culture holds mistaken ideas about what it means to be human. When we make mistakes – do stupid – even criminal things – we fall back on: “We’re only human.” Being human does not give us license to live down to our baser instincts. It’s so much the opposite. The qualities of being human … these are the Divine sparks God implanted in us. Our divinely given souls are what make us human. Yes, humans make mistakes. Yes, humans are imperfect. But this is never an excuse for bad behavior. Being a human … this is something to live up to. Leo Rosten, the Yiddish maven, described the mensch as an upright person; someone we admire; a person of high moral standards and integrity. Rosten said, a mensch is the person we want to emulate. At recent leadership meetings, as a synagogue, we developed worthy and uplifting goals for the coming year. We want to be more menschlike. Is this an easy goal? No. It’s a tall order. First of all, we must understand: no one is a complete mensch. Ever. This is always a growth process. We spend our lives trying to grow into the word: mensch. We don’t have a concrete formula – at least, not outside of Torah. We take many paths. We each have different routes. However, we all have an important first step. We must recognize that we want to be menschen, we want to be good. And we recognize that we all fall short of our goal. On this day … can any of us tell our Creator that yes, we are mencshes; (softly) Can we tell our Creator that we are fully good? Humility does not mean we think of ourselves as bad! It does mean acknowledging our imperfections. Yes, that’s hard. But we must do that. Some questions to ask ourselves • Can we think of a time that we – intentionally or not – hurt someone’s feelings? • Did we acknowledge someone’s hard work by … thanking them … or criticizing? • Do our friends know that we value them? Please understand, I am asking myself these questions and feeling a bit shame-faced. Yes, most of us rebel at owning up to faults and any kind of hurtful behavior. I am no exception. But we must start there. We must acknowledge that none of us are as good we want to be. When we empty ourselves of our overly grand self-concepts, we can then make room for others. The mensch-like soul must be open to others – and not filled with self. Along these lines, I’d like to return to the concept of a mensch as someone we want to emulate. Think about the questions I just asked. Do we want to emulate the person who: • Criticizes needlessly? • Leaves us with hurt feelings? • Or who just plain makes us feel unimportant? We do not want to copy that behavior. We don’t want to even be with that person. But that person could easily be … us. It’s just easier to recognize it in others. If we look honestly at ourselves and see our flaws, we will probably realize we have work to do if we’re going to reach the awesome goal of mensch-hood. While mensch is a Yiddish word, Rabbi Abraham Twerski describes these concepts as spirituality. In this sense, spirituality is not a concept that’s “out there” or even means feeling good. The concepts come down to behavior. The term isn’t important; the concept – and the behavior -- means everything. We may all have different descriptions of a mensch. To some, it would imply piety, to could mean keeping kosher kosher – but to all … it means integrity, ethics, and kindness. This part may be a surprise. Mentschlikeit does include halachah, Jewish law. But, we often look at Jewish law through the lens of ritual. That’s so wrong. Halachah dictates that we treat each other with kindness and justice. Torah itself commands us: “You shall love you neighbor as yourself.” Rabbi Akiva called this the greatest principle of the Torah.” But another rabbi said there is an even greater principle: Torah refers to the human, whom God made in God’s likeness. This is an even greater principle! (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4, 41c) I have to side with this rabbi. Of course, Rabbi Akiva is right to say that loving your neighbor is an important principle of Torah. But even God cannot command a feeling. However, the Kadosh Baruch Hu did create us in His image. He gave us souls. He implanted sparks of the Divine in us. He can certainly insist that we treat other people according to that great principle. We may find it hard to love everybody. It’s also hard to treat everybody as if they’re created in the Divine image. But that IS a realistic goal. No, it isn’t easy. It means resisting impulses to: • Think the worst of people • Or resisting the impulse to talk to people in a way that devalues them… • And we must resist the impulse to lie… These impulses do arise. But we want to be mensches … we want to resist our worse nature. We won’t always succeed. But we try. The more we try, the more this becomes second nature. My charge to all of us: • Strive to become menschlike • Think about our words. Did we say things that hurt? • Work at kindness. We CAN treat each other with respect and compassion. We can improve our own souls and by extension, help each other. We can be a synagogue that more than ever, embodies the principles of menshlikeit and mutual respect. May we go together from strength to strength and be written for blessing in the book of life, may the Holy One judge us favorably, ` ---and let us say, amen.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

View from the Bimah: Weather! Most of you know that I lived in the Oklahoma City area for decades. Therefore, the recent E5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, was of more than passing interest. The Oklahoma City metro area holds the dubious record of having more tornadoes than any other city in the country. How do people adjust? Peculiarities of Life in Tornado Alley The national weather service is located in Norman, Oklahoma, about 10 miles south of Moore. If you’re wondering why the government located the weather service in that spot, it’s simple: tornadoes . Added to that, Oklahoma meteorologists deserve lots of kudos. Under “normal” tornadic conditions, they predict the path with nearly pinpoint accuracy. With severe storms, like E5’S – with paths over a mile wide – the weathermen give general areas. Normally, Oklahoma Cityans learn which streets and even blocks are in the path. That gives rise to what might seem like an unusual custom. Oklahomans not in the storm’s path often sit on their roofs and watch. I’m not kidding. My husband used to do that. My son-in-law still does. (My daughter Jenny drew the line at sending my grandson to the roof: he could watch from the yard). More on this shortly. Casualties and surprises Granted, one death is too many. But Oklahoma has a surprisingly low casualty rate for even the most vicious storms. True, in the May 20 storm, there were 24 dead and many more hurt. Anywhere else, the number of deaths would have been much higher. How does this happen? Safety Oklahomans do not have basements. In the Oklahoma City area, the soil is thick red clay. Water would seep into the basements rendering them worthless as refuges. What do they do? Today, people are trending to building safe rooms. They’re not cheap. Not everyone can afford them. There are still other problems with this. Suppose you’re out and about when the tornado comes? I can tell you from personal experience what happens in a mall. They do have designated shelter areas. Every store quietly closes down and people walk en masse to the designated area. Everyone stands jammed shoulder to shoulder until the all clear sounds. Then mall life returns to normal as if nothing happened. In this particular case, the tornado actually passed over the mall. Most Oklahomans know at each moment what to do if they find themselves in a tornado’s path. We know to try to avoid underpasses if we’re in a car. In a house, we look for the innermost room, get away from windows – move into a closet or a bathtub. Oklahomans live with this in the same way Wisconsinites live with snow. Yes, tornadoes are more dangerous. But this brings us to the next point. It’s the landscape Snow creates a beautiful Wisconsin winter landscape. Spring in Oklahoma is different. Thunderstorms and tornadoes form a very different – very powerful – landscape. People live with and adapt to the conditions at hand. After all, what choice do they have? Move? Move where? What do they do about family, friends, livelihood? We must adjust to our landscape – wherever we live. Not adjusting is a surefire way to stay miserable and afraid. Personally, I can’t imagine living that way – anywhere. Can there possibly be an upside? Judaism has a blessing to recite in the throes of a thunderstorm:” Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, whose power and might fill the world.” Storms can wreak horrific damage. They maim, kill, and steal memories. Tornadoes, hailstorms, floods all teach: much in life is beyond our control. Life is transient. We come across powerful events we cannot control. We try. We build stronger buildings. We improve our warning systems. But nothing is fool-proof. We ultimately have to come to this recognition as best we can. Let’s return to the concept of Oklahomans sitting on their roofs to watch tornadoes. It’s one of the many ways that help Oklahomans adapt to nature’s commanding power. And it’s a powerful way to experience the awe. Awe Tornadoes bring fear; they cut wide swaths of destruction; they constitute awe. Where is God in such a storm? I don’t believe He caused the storm; I do believe He created the laws of nature. Along with the ancient rabbis, I believe that God considers us His partners in creation. We are supposed to take care of His world. Better care of the world might ease the severity of storms, but severe weather events have always been with us and probably always will be. These storms remind us that humans are not, will never be, the supreme power in the world. We can only stand back in awe: of the storm’s power; at the goodness of human beings in pulling together to help. For those following the May 20 storm, you’ll see a community like few others. It’s typical Oklahoma – people are rushing to help in every way possible. This is hardly a characteristic limited to Oklahoma City! But at least, in Oklahoma, this is a learned response to dealing with nature’s wrath. These storms generate so many feelings. Yes, fear is one of them. But ultimately, we can only stand back and recognize our own limitations. And when the storm is over, we rush in as a community in the fellowship God wants of us. And we recite the blessing: ” Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, whose power and might fill the world.” L’shalom u’brachah, toward peace and blessing, Rabbi Shaina