I’m pleased to share that the book I edited Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker has been honored as a 2016 National Jewish Book Award Finalist in the category of Anthologies and Collections.
I’m pleased to share that the book I edited Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker has been honored as a 2016 National Jewish Book Award Finalist in the category of Anthologies and Collections.
Most of us recognize Yom Kippur as a solemn day. But is it? It is true that the season confronts us with life’s fragility. In fact, three experiences recently have reminded me how fragile life is.
The first was Hurricane Matthew. Fortunately, for us, there was no significant damage in our area. However, north of us and south of us, especially Haiti, communities suffered significant damage, humbling reminders of the randomness of nature and our fragility. Waiting out the hurricane was like living in a state of limbo. The TV stations had 24/7 coverage of the pending storm and doomsday warnings about the worst possible effects. For two days, I was tuning in for constant updates. Is the storm staying out to sea or is it turning west towards land? I couldn’t do a thing about it except get my house ready and pray. The lack of control caused me great anxiety.
Second, on the heals of the hurricane coverage, our nation’s political climate reminded me of life’s fragility. I’m not discussing politics or the Presidential race itself. I must express how sad I was Sunday evening leading up to the debate. Many parents wrote on Facebook that they could not allow their children to watch the debate because of concern there would be inappropriate material for children, given the video controversy that erupted over the weekend. At least one middle school in our community sent out an email on Sunday advising parents that the social studies faculty no longer recommended students watch the debate when they had previously been assigned to watch it for school. During a presidential campaign the debates should be the ultimate civics lesson for our children to see democracy in action. Where have we gone wrong as a society if we must shield our children from the most important civics lesson in the free world? Given all of the negative influences in society, the responsibility that parents have to teach important values to our children is sometimes daunting and another reminder of life’s fragility.
The third reason that I’m reminded of fragility is a New York Times article published last Sunday in which I had the honor to be quoted. Sam Freedman in his column “On Religion” commemorated a sermon by the late Rabbi Kenneth Berger at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Tampa on Yom Kippur, 1986, 30 years ago today. I have cited this sermon in the past, and in his reporting Freedman was inquiring what drew me and other rabbis over the years to Rabbi Berger’s message. Rabbi Berger asked his congregation, “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?”
The premise of Rabbi Berger’s question was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that occurred earlier that year. Evidence was found that the astronauts did not die in the explosion but when the capsule impacted the ocean waters. Rabbi Berger said, “For perhaps as much as five minutes, the astronauts were alive and conscious and yet knew that death was certain.”
Rabbi Berger then asked his congregation to consider the question: “What would you do if you had five minutes to live?” He challenged his congregation to live their lives as though they had five minutes left. Not in a cynical way by saying, “What’s the point?” But in a spiritual way; a way that will help us channel our direction. He spoke about serving God in those five minutes and expressing our love for our loved ones.
Less than three years later, in July 1989, Rabbi Berger was with his wife and two of his children on United Airlines flight 232 from Denver to Philadelphia. After the engines failed, the flight made a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa. Out of 296 passengers, 111 were killed, including Rabbi Berger and his wife, Aviva, while their children survived. During those final moments as the plane was descending rapidly to an uncertain fate, I imagine that Rabbi Berger thought about his own sermon.
My interview with Sam Freedman returned me to Rabbi Berger’s powerful message. It has withstood the test of time for three reasons: Rabbi Berger used a vivd story that everyone could relate to, the Challenger disaster; he drew from that a compelling message of living a life that matters; and, finally, Rabbi Berger’s own tragic death turned his sermon into a prophecy and gave his words added kedushah, holiness. For these reasons, “Five Minutes to Live” is a classic, and its message has a poignant urgency for me this year. The Rabbi Berger story on one level is a tragic story of life’s fragility. However, Rabbi Berger’s message is also one of hope and renewal that relates to the deeper meaning of Yom Kippur.
In fact, while many of the symbols and rituals of Yom Kippur remind us of our fragility and mortality, Yom Kippur is really in its essence a joyous day. Yes, we gather for Yizkor to remember our departed loved ones. However, as we remember our departed we affirm life. Yom Kippur as a whole is a day that affirms and celebrates life.
The Jerusalem Talmud puts it this way:
Said Rabbi Abahu: The way of the word is that when one comes to be judged, one wears black clothes. This is not the case concerning the People of Israel. The Book of Life and Death are before us, who will live and who will die. And yet, we wear white, we wrap ourselves in white garments, and we believe that the Holy One will act kindly towards us. (Rosh Hashanah 1:3)
Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook adds another element regarding the act of confession:
A person should also be joyous concerning the good he or she has done. It follows that just as there is a great benefit to self-improvement through confessing one’s sins, so is there great benefit to confessing one’s good deeds. (Rabbi Kook’s Commentary to Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni 5:10)
For Rav Kook, reminding ourselves of what we’ve done well builds self-confidence, which is critical to our belief in our ability to do and accomplish for ourselves for the Jewish people and for the world.
Inspired by this approach, I’d like to introduce a prayer composed by Rabbi Avi Weiss that affirms life through noting our positive actions. It supplements the Ashamnu confessional that we say throughout the day to confess the things that we have done wrong. This new vidui confessional highlights the things we have done right.
אָהַבְנוּ, בֵּרַכְנוּ, גָּדַלְנוּ, דִִִּבַּרְנוּ יֹפִי
We have loved, we have blessed, we have grown, we have spoken positively.
הֶעֱלִינוּ, וְחַסְנוּ, זֵרַזְנוּ
We have raised up, we have shown compassion, we have acted enthusiastically,
חָמַלְנוּ, טִפַּחְנוּ אֱמֶת
We have been empathetic, we have cultivated truth,
יָעַצְנוּ טוֹב, כִּבַּדְנוּ, לָמַדְנוּ, מָחַלְנוּ
We have given good advice, we have respected, we have learned, we have forgiven,
נִחַמְנוּ, סָלַלְנוּ, עוֹרַרְנוּ
We have comforted, we have been creative, we have stirred,
פָּעַלְנוּ, צָדַקְנוּ, קִוִּינוּ לָאָרֶץ
We have been spiritual activists, we have been just, we have longed for Israel,
We have been merciful, we have given full effort,
תָּמַכְנוּ, תָּרַמְנוּ, תִּקַּנּוּ we have supported, we have contributed, we have repaired.
I am not discounting the traditional Ashamnu. We will continue to say it today. At the same time, Ahavnu is a welcome supplement that is true to the spirit of today. When we feel good about our accomplishments both as individuals and within our community, we may feel extra motivation to do more good. We will be inspired to make the next five minutes of our lives count.
Perhaps everyone should consider reflecting upon his or her good attributes by writing out a personal Ahavnu in English or Hebrew alphabetical order. It would also be good to do the same relative to the Jewish community, our country and the State of Israel. With all of our challenges, there is so much to be proud of.
Last week, when a hurricane approached we got our homes ready, we stayed home with our families and ahavnu, we loved one another just by being there together. I pray that our affirmation of our love inspire us to bring more love into the new year.
When recent news reports revealed the dishonorable speech of public figures, many of us instinctively thought how best we could teach our children honor and respect of others. Kibadnu—we honored and respected. I pray that our sense of kavod inspire us to infuse our lives this year with intense kavod habriyot, honor of all human beings.
When we are confronted with life’s mortality and the figurative sense that we may just have five minutes to live, we instinctively bless those close to us. Beirachnu—we have blessed. I pray that our instinct to bless those dear to us in times of turmoil, inspire us to bless our dear ones frequently and to bring greater berachah, blessing, into our world.
As we remember the lives of our departed loved ones and the lessons that they taught us, let us honor their memory by taking note of our goodness that we strive to increase. With all of our faults, let us recognize our inner decency. Through our combined efforts, may God grant us the strength to bring love, honor and blessing into our world. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
It was June 30, 1976. An Air France Jet that took off from Ben Gurion Airport was hijacked in Athens and taken to Entebbe in Uganda. The hijackers separated the Jews from other passengers. The hijackers were demanding that Israel free terrorists by 2:00 pm the next day. Tension filled the Israeli cabinet meeting. IDF Chief of Staff Motta Gur examined options, but none looked good. Many in the cabinet, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, were ready to consider giving in to the demands. Rabin said: “I feel it might end up being a lot like the ‘Bay of Pigs.’
But Shimon Peres, the Defense Minister, raised the concern that a surrender would set a precedent that would endanger lives in the future. Recognizing the risks involved, he insisted: “If there is a military operation, it’s preferable. Until now, I admit that there’s no concrete proposal, only ideas and imagination.”
Imagination. Sitting in that cabinet meeting, that was all they had. For Shimon Peres, that was enough. The Defense Minister prevailed in that debate and helped to orchestrate the historic raid on Entebbe on July 4 that saved the hostages. The action sent a clarion call to the world that Israel would not negotiate with terrorists nor sit idly by when Israelis or Jews were in harm’s way.
Shimon Peres had the gift of imagination. He employed it in war, and he also employed it in peace. Saeb Erakat, one of the chief negotiators for the Palestinian Authority, once recalled meeting Peres for the first time many years ago. “When I met him…, I was a young professor. I was angry about something, and he looked at me and he said, ‘Saeb, negotiation in pain and frustration for five years is cheaper than exchanging bullets for five minutes.’”
These two stories combine to share an important aspect of Shimon Peres’s legacy. He was a dreamer who dared to challenge conventional wisdom. When it came to saving the lives of Jews at Entebbe, conventional wisdom said, “impossible.” Peres dared to dream that it was possible. When it came to achieving a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians, he dared to challenge both Israeli and Palestinian naysayers there too. The Oslo peace process, his vision, offered a glimmer of hope that peace was possible.
Alas, despite his tireless efforts, a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not yet come to fruition. Just this week, we mourn the murders of two Israelis on at a Jerusalem light rail stop, a stark reminder that there would be no peace without security. Peres believed this. He also believed there would be no security without peace. This was his dream. In 2012, Peres was interviewed by Charlie Rose who asked him, “What do you want your legacy to be?”
Peres, who was then ONLY 89, quipped, “It’s too early for me to think about it.” Then, he said, “I’m more concerned about tomorrow than I am about yesterday.”
Shimon Peres was not satisfied with the status quo. He made mistakes along the way, and he lost his share of political battles. Through all the hardships, he never lost integrity. He continued to challenge. He continued to question. To his dying day he continued to dream.
To dream is at the heart of the Zionist ethos.
Psalm 126 recalls the first great return to Zion after the destruction of the first Temple.
שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּֽ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב ה’ אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים
A song of ascents. When the LORD restored Zion —we were like dreamers.
The Psalmist then describes the great joy of the people in returning to Jerusalem:
אָ֤ז יִמָּלֵ֢א שְׂח֡וֹק פִּינוּ֘ וּלְשׁוֹנֵ֢נוּ רִ֫נָּ֥ה אָ֭ז יֹאמְר֣וּ בַגּוֹיִ֑ם הִגְדִּ֥יל ה’ לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִם־אֵֽלֶּה
Our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy. Then shall they say among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them!”
הִגְדִּ֣יל ה’ לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִמָּ֗נוּ הָ֘יִ֥ינוּ שְׂמֵחִֽים
The LORD will do great things for us and we shall rejoice.
After waking up from the dream and the experience of unbridled joy, a dose of reality sets in:
הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ
They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.
Yes, there will be joy at the end of the road, but great challenges must be overcome.
הָ֘ל֤וֹךְ יֵלֵ֨ךְ ׀ וּבָכֹה֘ נֹשֵׂ֢א מֶֽשֶׁךְ־הַ֫זָּ֥רַע בֹּֽ֬א־יָב֥וֹא בְרִנָּ֑ה נֹ֝שֵׂ֗א אֲלֻמֹּתָֽיו
One who goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.
This psalm was once considered the Zionist anthem before Hatikvah won out. The return to Zion in modern times is a joyous event for the Jewish people, but one that has required more than its fair share of tears, sweat, and, far too often, blood.
Nearly seven decades after Israel’s founding, we have much reason to rejoice. Israel is a strong nation that boasts a thriving economy and strong democratic institutions. Israel is a fountain of Jewish religious and cultural inspiration. Hebrew, the language of the Bible, is the language of the people. At the same time, Israel continues to face great challenges. Shimon Peres championed the dream of a Jewish democratic state with secure and recognized borders. This dream has not yet been fully realized. For 2000 years the Jewish diaspora prevented our people from controlling our destiny; but it also freed us of the responsibility of governance. In 1948, that radically changed.
The late religious philosopher Rabbi David Hartman grappled with the religious and moral implications of Jewish power.
He writes (A Living Covenant):
“I live with the guarded hope that out of this complex and vibrant new Jewish reality [the State of Israel] will emerge new spiritual directions for the way Judaism will be lived in the modern world.”
In other words, no longer is Judaism confined to the home and synagogue. In a Jewish state, Jewish values are engrained in the national ethos.
Rabbi Hartman writes further: “Jews in Israel are given the opportunity to bring economic, social, and political issues into the center of their religious consciousness. …[T]he fact that Israel enables us to make the whole of life the carrier of the covenant is in itself sufficient to ascribe profound religious significance to the secular revolt that led to Israel’s rebirth. I celebrate Israel’s Independence Day with the recitation of the Hallel psalms, thus expressing gratitude to God for having been given the opportunity to renew the full scope of the covenantal spirit of Judaism.”
For Rabbi Hartman, the dream of shivat tzion, return to Zion, has not yet been fully realized, but he rejoices that the Jewish people are in a position to shape the dream. Israelis, joined by Jews around the world, have the responsibility to grapple with the meaning of Jewish power and to wrestle with the moral implications of power in ways we had not been able to do prior to 1948. Rabbi Hartman created the Shalom Hartman Institute, an important center of learning in Jerusalem that engages Jews in Israel and around the world across the religious and ideological spectrum in thoughtful study of Zionism and its future.
Therefore, I am pleased to introduce to Temple Torat Emet the Shalom Hartman Institute’s program iEngage: Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The goal of iEngage is to provide tools to engage with and discuss the wide spectrum of views on this complex topic. Through video presentations by Hartman scholars and my facilitation of interactive discussions of Jewish texts selected by Hartman, we will deepen our understanding of the present conflict and figure out how better to grapple with it in our community. The course does not aim to shape or change politics on Israel. It does aim to change and shape the way we think about politics and the way you and I talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We will learn together nuances of the conflict and become more engaged in the issues for the sake of strengthening our own community, strengthening love for Israel and creating an atmosphere in which an eventual peace can succeed.
The iEngage series will meet for nine sessions on Sundays, 9:30-11:30 AM starting November 20. The course is open to all. I particularly encourage parents of Religious School students to join me for these vital discussions that affect the future of our children and the world they will face.
Shimon Peres was the last great leader from Israel’s founding generation. Our community joins Israelis and Jews around the world in mourning his loss. At the same time, we must honor his memory by ensuring that his dreams do not die with him. Peres’s legacy is that he was more concerned about tomorrow than yesterday. He dared to dream. We cannot solve Israel’s problems, but we can honor Shimon Peres’s legacy. We can dream. We can challenge others to dream. We can challenge ourselves to listen to others with care and respect. My prayer is that the memory of Shimon Peres will inspire us to dream, to learn and to grow and thus help us bring peace and healing to us, the Jewish people and the world.
Dr. Erica Brown, a Jewish scholar and author, wrote a book called Happier Endings. Similar to a story I shared yesterday, she writes that a rabbi she knows shared with her the story of a dying man who was losing capacity to speak. He had an estranged son who hadn’t finished college. The father had disapproved of his son’s professional ambitions and lack of them. In his criticism of his son, the son pulled away. Now the father was dying and his wife went to the rabbi to express her pain over the estrangement between her husband and son.
What do you think the rabbi should do?
Today we reread Binding of Issac. It’s a story we think we know so well. Yet, by looking for some tiny clues, particularly from the aftermath of the story —we’re going to come up with what rabbi should do and then learn what he actually did do.
In our culture, we are used to Hollywood endings. The heroes overcome their challenge and ride off into the sunset. We know know that in the end Abraham does not kill Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The story, though, does not have a Hollywood ending. Have you ever noticed that Abraham and Isaac do not walk off together? Have you ever noticed that they never speak to each other again? After this episode, the very next piece of information we learn about the house of Abraham is that Sarah dies, presumably from shock over the news from Mt. Moriah.
There are tragic consequences to the Akeidah. More than a paradigm of faith, the Akeidah is the ultimate recipe for how to screw up a family. Within this complex story, though, or at least in its aftermath, we find a layer of hope and redemption. Who is the hero of the redemption of this family? Without a doubt, it is Isaac. This may come as a surprise. Because of his submission in the binding episode, we tend to regard Isaac as passive. A fresh reading of the text yields a new perspective of Isaac. The secret to understanding Isaac’s greatness lies in a map.
We know from the end of the Binding of Isaac narrative that Abraham travels to Beersheva, a distance of more than forty miles. This is curious because we are told in the next chapter that Sarah dies and is buried in Hevron, only 20 miles from Jerusalem. This suggests that Abraham knowingly bypassed Hevron on his way to Beersheva. He knew Sarah was there and would probably kill him if she heard about the Akeidah. We suspect word does reach her soon enough, and indeed she dies from the shock. Abraham retraces his steps and walks 20 miles back to Hevron to bury Sarah.
Meanwhile, Isaac is missing in action. He does not accompany his father to Beersheva and is not present at his mother’s funeral in Hevron. This is odd because we’re told later how sad Isaac was over the death of his mother and that he does not overcome his grief until he marries Rebecca. So where is Isaac? In the lead-up to Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, we are finally told his location, Beer Lahai Ro’i (Gen 24: 62). This is an oasis deep in the Negev desert, perhaps another 40 miles from Beersheva. After the Akeidah, Isaac ran as far away as he could from his father and the life he knew. Except, there are two people in Beer Lahai Ro’i whom Isaac knows and knows well: Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, and Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother. We read about their banishment from the house of Abraham on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. When we learn from the Torah that Be’er Lahai Ro’i becomes Isaac’s home, bells should go off in our minds that he went to live near Hagar and Ishmael.
Isaac probably heard stories from his father over the dinner table about how evil Hagar and Ishmael were, but after the Akeidah, Isaac sees the world differently. Isaac now understands what it’s like to be abandoned. Hagar and Ishmael are the only two people on earth who would understand the trauma he experienced with his father. Moreover, he understands what they went through when they were banished into the desert.
We have no record of any conversations in Beer Lahai Ro’i. We only know that when Abraham dies, Isaac and Ishmael bury their father together at the Cave of Machpelah. This often overlooked scene is one of the most powerful in the Bible: Isaac and Ishmael, sons of Abraham and fathers of two separate nations, stand side by side in brotherhood at their father’s grave.
Think about all that transpired beforehand. The family of Abraham had collapsed. Hagar and Ishmael had been banished, and Isaac had nearly been killed on the altar. Abraham feels he will never be forgiven and cannot face Sarah ever again. Sarah, to the extent she was able to process the events before her death, probably felt betrayed and abandoned. Five people, five lives, five hearts wracked by pain.
I believe that Isaac earned his greatness as a patriarch by doing the quiet work behind the scenes to enable this reconciliation to occur. When Isaac emerges from the trauma on Mt. Moriah, he could have taken different routes. A more outward-driven personality might have seized the moment for PR. He could have broadcast his victimhood to the world. Had he been alive today he could have made millions off of a book deal or reality TV show. That is not Isaac’s approach. Rabbi Sharon Brous calls the aftermath of the Akeidah Isaac’s “birth moment of empathy.”
Isaac is not passive, but he’s also not a publicity hound. He actively works behind the scenes to change the picture. He broke with the script that we find in too many families. Instead of living with hurt and resentment, Isaac directs his pain towards a path of renewal. He taps into his pain to seek out an opportunity for reconciliation. Earlier, the pain was so raw he couldn’t even bear to meet his father at his own mother’s funeral. We might have forgiven Isaac if he had gone to live out his years as a hermit in a cave all by himself. Isaac understands, though, the need to connect. He may feel abandoned by his father, but he is not resigned to a life of abandonment.Through Isaac’s insight and courageous initiative, the sons of Abraham reconciled.
Isaac’s example provides an important guide for us today. We, like Isaac, feel a need to connect with others. Yet, like Isaac, we also feel the weight of baggage in our families. Many of us bear the weight of family narratives of the past. Some of us might broadcast how much we were slighted by someone else because we feel that victimhood brings us sympathy. In truth, we are only hurting ourselves by cultivating pain and resentment. There is a different path.
Healing takes place through quiet acts of kindness and decency. Our natural reflex from infancy is to think only of ourselves. However, when we learn how to turn towards others, we open ourselves to healing and wholeness that will enrich our lives.
Returning to the story of the rabbi and the estranged father and son, the mother desperately longed for her son and the father to reconcile before he died. She knew that the key would be for the father to apologize to the son so that he could go on with his life without such a heavy burden. She couldn’t bring herself to broach the topic with her husband, so she turned to the rabbi.
The rabbi goes in to speak to the father. He said, “I know you can’t speak much, but I need to know if you can say two words, ‘I’m sorry.’” The father said yes. Then the rabbi said, “I need you to say three more words: ‘I love you.’ Can you do that? That’s the only thing you need to do before you leave this world.” The father agreed. The rabbi called the son. He said he couldn’t believe his father wanted to speak to him, but the rabbi insisted that he really did. The son went ahead but wanted his mother to come with him. The mother pushed him into the bedroom alone. Forty-five minutes later the son came out, his face awash in tears. He said, “Dad said sorry, and Dad loves me.” The rabbi facilitated that moment because this family was stuck and couldn’t get there on their own. The mother is also a hero for recognizing the importance of reconciliation and seeking help to realize it. This moment was transformational for every member of that family, allowing the father to go in peace, allowing the mother to live in peace and allowing the son to not live with the burden of his father’s judgement.
Both father and son in this story could have protected their pride and avoided each other. Had that continued, they would have carried their pain and estrangement into eternity. Instead, they found a way to open their hearts to bring about healing and closure. This is the type of work we all should do now. Let’s not wait for death bed reconciliations. Instead, let us follow a roadmap to healing. Let this be the year we open our hearts to heal ourselves, our families and our world.
“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” These words echo in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” the story of one of the least appreciated American founding fathers. The setting in which these words are sung is early in the Revolutionary War. The Americans are not faring well. Yet, the women who sing these words are brimming with optimism. War and bloodshed have engulfed the young nation, and still, there is a sense that better days are ahead.
Our Jewish tradition calls on us to cherish and affirm life, even when, or especially when, our world is rife with hatred, violence and fear. We gather on Rosh HaShanah for a communal wake up call to take careful note of the world around us and to commit ourselves to creating a better world. We take note of a sense of instability in our nation and around the world that has aroused fear, hatred, and even violence. The news is often overwhelming, and we may feel powerless in our ability to bring about change. Judaism demands otherwise.
Judaism demands that we not resign ourselves to fear, hatred and violence. Judaism demands love. The Jewish concept of love is not random; it’s intentional. It’s not passive; it’s active. In the Torah, to love is a mitzvah, a commandment. On the surface, it seems ludicrous to legislate an emotion. In the Torah, love is a verb, ve’ahavta, you shall love. Love is an action. Love requires intention.
To illustrate this vital mission, I’d like to share three stories. These stories are connected to commandments in the Torah on love, and, incredibly, each is connected to the climax of the High Holiday prayer Un’tane Tokef. The words u’teshuvah u’tefillah u’tzedakah maavirin et roa ha-gezeirah, “repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree” provide a blueprint for us to fulfill the Torah’s commandment to love.
Story #1. A rabbinic colleague tells of receiving an urgent request to visit a patient who was very ill. The patient asked the rabbi to arrange for his sister to visit him. They had argued years earlier and then went their separate ways. When the rabbi phoned the sister, she accepted the invitation to see her brother at his bedside. The patient later told the rabbi, “Thank God I had the time to see my sister. You know, when I looked at her, I didn’t see the same person I had been angry with for so many years. I saw the young girl who had walked with me to school. I saw the young girl who brought me treats whenever she went to the store. I feel better now, but I am left asking myself the same question over and over, ‘Why did it take so long?’”(Klein, How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget, 60-61).
Three times the Torah instructs us to love. In Leviticus (19:18), we learn the familiar verse וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ, love your neighbor as yourself. The Golden Rule! In the Hebrew, רֵֽע can mean more than just a neighbor, it is someone in your inner circle, someone close. We sometimes take these relationships for granted and allow anger, jealousy and spite to get in the way. However, like we saw with the sick man and his sister, there is path out of this place of “stuckness.” In Un’tane Tokef, teshuvah is one of the three pathways towards reconnection and renewal within our closest relationships.
In recent days, I’ve read many obituaries about President Shimon Peres z”l. On Yom Kippur I will reflect more on his legacy, but for today, one thing he said stands out for me. He once said, “[Reconciliation ] can’t be done if there is no forgiveness. Have you forgiven and can both [parties] move on? If you are focused on the past, you will not succeed. There will be no future.”
Teshuvah means return and reconnect, and that includes letting go the burdens of the past that hold us back so that we may move forward toward a renewed future. The High Holidays are our special time to reconnect. There are relationships in our lives that we need to renew. Someone needs to hear my apology, my gratitude, my appreciation. This is our time to make amends and rebuild love. Our future is at stake. The time for reconciliation is now.
Story #2. Just a few weeks ago, a Jewish artist in suburban Philadelphia, Esther Cohen-Eskin, woke up to find a swastika spray-painted on the garbage bin outside her home. Naturally, she was horrified by this vicious act of hatred as any of us would be. If this had happened to me I know I would try to erase all remnants of the swastika by either scrubbing it off, painting over it or buying a new garbage pail. That’s not what Esther did. She kept the swastika but painted over each of its legs a flower petal so that the end result was a beautiful flower. The story only began there. Esther’s neighbors were horrified, and with her encouragement, they painted swastikas on their garbage bins and then painted the same flower symbol over it as well as other symbols of love and caring. Soon Esther was receiving emails from total strangers in Canada, Germany and Ireland where people shared pictures of their own newly similarly decorated garbage bins. What started as the ugliest hate-filled antisemitism was transformed to solidarity and love.
The Torah expresses this kind of love as: וַֽאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר (Deut. 10:19), you shall love the stranger. It’s not enough to love people close to you such as family and friends. We’re told to broaden the circle of love. Why? כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם, because YOU were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know what it’s like to be other. We know what it feels like to be hated. Therefore, it is our sacred duty to cultivate empathy and kindness, like that Esther received from total strangers.
The Un’tane Tokef prayer urges us to show love not only to those in our inner circle, but also to the broader world. Through tzedakah, we bring healing to those around us to alleviate their suffering. We must draw upon our experience to empathize with those less fortunate than ourselves. If others are in pain, we must do what we can to heal, because we know what it’s like. We’ve been there. Esther’s neighbors put themselves in Esther’s shoes, and whether or not they were Jewish they said we are with you.
When we deepen love in the world by repairing relationships with those closest to us and by expanding kindness and compassion to those outside of our immediate circle, we are then most likely to succeed at the third kind of love, love of God.
This takes me to Story #3. It’s a personal story about a time recently when I felt the presence of God. At the beginning of the summer, my brother Henry got married. His wife, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann has created an independent Jewish community called Mishkan Chicago that caters to a population of predominantly Jewish millennials—young adult Jews mainly in their 20s and 30s. On the Friday night before the wedding, Mishkan held a service with at least 500 people present. It was an overwhelming, inspiring outpouring of singing, dancing and love that is still reverberating in my heart. The enthusiastic and spontaneous joy in that extraordinary community embodied for me love of God.
We encounter the mitzvah to love God every day when we say the Shema: וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ, “and you shall love Adonai your God” בְּכָל־לְבָֽבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ, “with all your heart with all your soul with all your might” (Deut. 6:7). To love God correlates with the third pillar of Un’taneh Tokef: Tefillah, prayer. Teshuvah and Tzedakah open our pathways to authentic prayer. When we care about people near us and those further out, prayer affirms our relationship to God that we cultivate through love of humanity. Furthermore, authentic prayer is more than saying words. It reminds us that all other human beings are created in the divine image and inspires us to love our neighbors and strangers more. The service that I experienced at Mishkan did just that. Prayer is our invitation to affirm our relationship to God that we cultivate through love of humanity. Furthermore, authentic prayer is more than saying words. It reminds us that all other human beings are created in the divine image and inspires us to love our neighbors and strangers more. While our synagogues provide us refuge from the hatred and pain in the broader world, they also provide a structure within which we can model love. Love of humanity leads us to meaningful prayer. And meaningful, authentic prayer provides a structure within which to further cultivate love and take it back out to the world.
With unprecedented fear, hatred, bigotry and violence in our society, our task in this new year is to bring love into our community with intentionality and purpose. Love is a verb. Love is not random; it is an intentional action. This Rosh HaShanah, we reflect on a year in which fear and hate have caused so much pain to so many. I pray that next Rosh HaShanah will be different. I pray that we will reflect on 5777 and notice that we turned a corner. I pray that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words will come to fruition and we will say once again wholeheartedly “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
May God give us the strength to unlock love and bring healing to ourselves, our relationships and our world.
I’m honored to be quoted by Samuel G. Freedman in his “On Religion” column in the New York Times. The column commemorates the 30th anniversary of the legendary sermon “Five Minutes to Live” by the late Rabbi Kenneth Berger. I have cited this sermon on this blog in the aftermath of the loss of the Malaysian airliner and on the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. Early in my career when I served Beth El Synagogue Center as Associate Rabbi, I was introduced to this masterpiece by Sam Berger, brother of the late Rabbi Berger.