“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.