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Don’t wait for God’s permission to repair the world

11 Sep

(Delivered at Congregation Gan Eden, 9/10/18)

On a Friday evening in February, my family sat down for our weekly Shabbat dinner. This is an important time for us to decompress from the hustle and bustle of the week and to reconnect to one another. On this Friday night, our teenage sons had an urgent matter to discuss. They asked if they could go to the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC, the following month. They knew they had a busy schedule with a lot of school commitments. They knew that we don’t have an unlimited travel budget. They were expecting us to say no. How surprised they were when we not only said ‘yes,’ but that we would go with them. 

We all shared a sense of urgency to go to Washington. We were outraged by the latest senseless school shooting on February 14 at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which a former student shot and killed 17 innocent people, 14 of them students, 3 staff members. We were pained by the bloodshed that took place virtually in our backyard. We were horrified when our boys heard personal accounts from camp and youth group friends who attend Stoneman Douglas. All of these factors contributed to our decision to travel as a family to Washington for the March for Our Lives, but these were not the decisive reasons. What clinched it for us was the passion, poise and persistence of the Stoneman Douglas students who would not let this story fade from the news cycle. Our sons saw in them peers who cared about changing the status quo and stood up to take action themselves. 

Our family drove to Washington. We joined up with United Synagogue Youth, which fused participation in the Saturday march with traditional Shabbat observance.  The feeling of being part of nearly one million people singing together, shouting together, demanding change together was overwhelmingly powerful. My children were transformed by the experience, and it’s because their peers from Stoneman Douglas did not sit and wait to be told to take action. They did not listen to cynics who said nothing can be done. They grabbed the mantle of leadership, and inspired millions across the country. 

Our Torah presents different models of leadership. For one, there’s Noah. He seems to be a nice guy, unlike his violent neighbors. When God commands Noah to build an Ark, Noah silently obeys. When God tells Noah about the flood to destroy all life on earth except those allowed onto the Ark, Noah does not protest. He just saves himself and his family. To his credit, Noah did not commit the crimes of his neighbors. But neither did he step up to bear witness to their crimes and to improve society. 

The rabbis of our tradition criticize Noah for his apathy. Consider this statement in the Midrash about the end of the flood when it was time to leave the Ark: 

The Midrash says: “Noah said to himself, Since I only entered the ark with permission (from God), shall I leave without permission? The Holy One said to him: Are you looking for permission? In that case, I give you permission, as it says, ‘Then God said to Noah, Come out of the ark.’”

The Midrash then adds: “Said Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, If I had been there I would have smashed down [the doors of] the ark and taken myself out of it.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks  sums up this midrash as saying: when it comes to repair of the world, don’t wait for God’s permission. Just get to work. 

The Torah presents leaders such as Abraham and Moses as contrasts to Noah. While Noah waited passively for God’s instructions, Abraham cried out to God to do justice and spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the innocent. Moses protected the Israelites when God threatened to destroy them over the Golden Calf incident. The Parkland students resemble Abraham and Moses much more than Noah. They are not waiting for God’s permission to repair the world, and neither should we. 

The students have courageously called out the complacency of lawmakers. They endure constant harassment from gun lobby sympathizers and continue to make their case in public. When told that nothing could be done about the scourge of guns in our society, they got modest legislation passed in the Florida legislature and Congress. And when elected officials would not do more, they pressured corporations to sever ties with the NRA. Over the summer they went on a nation-wide bus tour that included visits to gun ravaged cities like Chicago where they joined forces with their peers to protest gun violence. And they are just getting started. The Parkland students are continuing to build their movement to reduce gun violence through sensible laws such as universal background checks, closing gun show loopholes and banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons.  

The Parkland kids are the same age as my children, and yet they are my heroes. One of the most prominent Parkland students, Matt Deitsch, happens to be Jewish. He graduated from Stoneman Douglas in the spring and is the Chief Strategist for the March for Our Lives organization. In preparation for these High Holidays he contributed this short piece, titled “What If?” to the Jewels of Elul blog. He writes:

What if you grew up in the small suburb of Parkland, Florida, as a normal kid, Hebrew teacher, lifeguard and youth group president with aspirations of being a filmmaker?

What if one-day, loss and risk turned your life upside down? Mine did.

What if we did not have to bury our heroes? …What if we came together to confront the problems of today? What if our elected officials stood up for the most vulnerable people?

… What if we did not just ask these questions, but also found answers? …

What if we could all have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of zip code, religion, color or status?

Matt Deitsch and his friends are not waiting for God or anyone else to give them permission to repair the world. Like Abraham, they jumped in and took charge. As we enter the new year of 5779, I pray that we will be inspired by the Parkland students. Let us not wait for God’s permission to bring more hesed, loving kindness, into our world. May we create a world without bloodshed and violence. May we break down the doors of our Arks to stamp out injustice. May we build a world of love. Amen

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Love Is a Verb

2 Oct
The Torah's three commandments of love

The Torah’s three commandments of love

“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.

Fears, Goals and Trade-offs: The Makings of a Meaningful Conversation

22 Sep

 

Author and surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande's prescription for a meaningful conversation with loved ones consists of three questions: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make?

Best-selling author and surgeon Dr. Atul Gawande’s prescription for a meaningful conversation with loved ones consists of three questions: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make?

There’s a story about a man who hoped for his whole life to be in the movies. Years went by, but he never had his chance. Finally, a film crew came to town, and they were looking for extras to appear in a Civil War picture. The director gave him one line: “Hearken unto the cannons!” The man was so excited to land a speaking part, and for days he would practice his line: “Hearken unto the cannons!” The big day came for the shoot. On his way to the set, the man says to himself over and over, “Hearken unto the cannons! Hearken unto the cannons!” He puts on a Union Army costume practicing his line, “Hearken unto the cannons!” Then, they finally start shooting the scene, and there’s a gigantic blast of a cannon, and the man shouts, “What the hell was that!”

As we go through life, we are not always prepared for the roars of the cannon, momentous changes that alter the course of our lives.  For example, any one of us or our loved ones may seem perfectly healthy one day, then receive a serious diagnosis of illness the next.

During this season, we create a communal cannon blast, as it were. It’s sort of a fire drill to prepare us for the real cannon blasts that shake up our lives. We gather in large numbers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and put on a display of pageantry through our services to remind us of God’s grandeur. This pageantry is designed to create a framework in which we can do the real work to bring God’s presence into our lives by bringing healing to our relationships and our world. That work is called Teshuvah (return). If we do this work well, we will be better equipped to deal with the unexpected cannon blasts that shake up our lives.

Teshuvah is not easy. Teshuvah  requires thought. Teshuvah requires intentionality. Teshuvah requires action.

For ten days we have sung in synagogue the plaintive melody of Avinu Malkeinu. We cry out to God as a parent, Abba, someone who is close to us; we also call to God the Melekh,the distant ruler of the universe.   At the end of that prayer we say aseh imanu tzedakah vacheseddo with us acts of tzedakah—righteousness— and loving kindness. We say to God: “this is what we are doing. We are inviting you—even imploring you—to join us on the way. If you join us, then You, God, will have no choice but lhoshiainu, to redeem us.

We all have times when our faith is challenged. We see loved ones suffer from illness. We see people around the world suffering from natural disasters and man-made disasters, such as war and terror. We ourselves suffer from illness and hardship.

The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), taught that there will come a time in everyone’s life when we lose faith in God. Too many things may have happened to us. We have too much knowledge of bad things that happen to good people. “At that moment,” the Rebbe says, “go take care of someone who is sick. Go visit someone who is lonely. Go do an act of tzedakah, of hesed. You will feel God in your hands and your faith will be restored.”

As we prepare to say the Yizkor service, I’d like to suggest specific actions we can do and words to say to a dear one with serious, perhaps life-threatening, illness. My hope is that when we take such action those who are suffering in some way, particularly those near and dear to us, feel cared for and valued as human beings.  Through simple action and words, we have the potential to strengthen the relationships that matter to us most. Through the bonds of those relationships, we will feel God’s presence.

The action that I propose is derived from Dr. Atul Gawande  and his remarkable book Being Mortal. Dr. Gawande is an accomplished surgeon at Women’s and Brigham Hospital in Boston, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a columnist for the New Yorker. In his book, he notes that the medical profession has developed great technology for treating disease and keeping people alive. At the same time, he writes, “Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer.”

Gawande notes that for much of the last century there have been two kinds of doctors. One could be described as “paternalistic,” an all-knowing priest-like figure whose advice a patient does not question. Another form of doctor is “informative.” This doctor will give you the facts of your disease and then offer different choices of treatment. The course of treatment is up to the patient, the doctor is just providing information. Gawande, however, advocates for a different model: the “interpretive” doctor-patient relationship.  Here the doctor’s role is to help patients determine what they want in the big picture. Interpretive doctors ask, “What is most important to you? What are your worries?” Then, in response to the patient, they provide appropriate guidance for treatment based on the patient’s priorities.

Gawande shares lessons not only from his own career and how he has grown in his practice of interpretive medicine but also from his personal experience of the medical system. He describes his father’s battle with a rare form of tumor in his spinal column that threatened to make him quadriplegic and kill him. Gawande’s father and mother are both doctors who immigrated from India.  Their entire family speaks the language of science and modern medicine. The father, therefore, was able to ask very sophisticated questions about his own condition and potential treatments. Gawande contrasts two neurosurgeons whom his father visited for consultations. Both agreed that the tumor could not be removed; it could only be decompressed. In both cases, the neurosurgeons described the benefits and risks of surgery. Their styles, though, differed greatly when it came to answering the father’s questions.

Gawande writes that one neurosurgeon wanted to operate immediately and was annoyed by his father’s many questions. “He was fine answering the first couple,” he writes. “But after that he grew exasperated. He had the air of the renowned professor he was—authoritative, self-certain, and busy with things to do.”

Gawande continues: “Look, he said to my father, the tumor was dangerous. He, the neurosurgeon, had a lot of experience treating such tumors. Indeed, no one had more. The decision for my father was whether he wanted to do something about his tumor. If he did, the neurosurgeon was willing to help. If he didn’t, that was his choice.” The elder Dr. Gawande made a choice—not to use this surgeon.

Gawande reports that the next surgeon also exuded confidence. “But he recognized,” Gawande writes, “that my father’s questions came from fear. So he took the time to answer them, even the annoying ones. Along the way, he probed my father, too.” This surgeon reflected that the father was more worried about the harm the operation might cause than the tumor itself.

Gawande continues, “My father said he was right. My father didn’t want to risk losing his ability to practice surgery for the sake of treatment of uncertain benefit. The surgeon said that he might feel the same way himself in my father’s shoes.” The neurosurgeon spoke to his patient as a fellow human being rather than a diseased specimen to be treated, and he won the trust of the author’s father.

As Gawande tells the story of his father along with the maturation process of his own surgical practice, he highlights three questions that doctors should ask patients, particularly when confronting terminal illness. He calls this a “hard conversation” and that doctors need to muster the compassion, courage and skill to engage in these conversations. The questions are:

  1. What are your biggest fears and concerns?
  2. What are your most important goals?
  3. What trade-offs are you willing to make or not? For example, Gawande describes one patient before agreeing to a risky operation who asked if after the surgery he would still be able to watch football and eat ice cream.

Of course, for any of us who are caring for loved ones with serious illness, this is a template for the hard conversations we all should have. In times of illness, each of us should sit with our loved ones, hold their hand and be fully present. We then should ask: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make in the face of this battle? When we have such a conversation, we reaffirm the humanity of our dear ones. We fulfill the words of Avinu Malkeinu and literally bring God in our midst to be with us as we perform an act of hesed, loving kindness.

Returning to Gawande’s story, these three questions played a significant role in his father’s treatment and final years of life.  The senior Dr. Gawande was an accomplished and respected surgeon in his own right who enjoyed his practice. His greatest fear, it turns out, was not death but quadriplegia. His goals were to practice medicine as long as he could and continue other community activities that he enjoyed. In terms of trade-offs, if surgery were to save his life but leave him paralyzed, he would forego surgery.

The father delayed surgery and continued in his medical practice for a time and in a respected community leadership position. He monitored his symptoms, such as tingling in his hands. He established a red line with the neurosurgeon as to when he would have to have surgery. Some two-and-a-half years passed with the father living a fairly normal life until pain and numbness had advanced. He retired from medicine and eventually opted for surgery. The tumor was decompressed and he was able to maintain mobility, at least for a while.

Some time after his father’s surgery, Gawande was invited to give the commencement address at a university near his parents’ home. His father’s health had declined, and he was confined to a wheelchair. The tumor had indeed taken its toll. For a while, Gawande feared his father might not survive long enough to hear his speech. When it became apparent he would, the planning turned to logistics. Originally, his father would sit in a wheel chair on the floor of the basketball arena housing the ceremony. But when the day came, the father was adamant that he would walk and not sit in a wheelchair on the floor.

“I helped him to stand,” Gawande writes. “He took my arm. And he began walking. I’d not seen him make it farther than across a living room in half a year. But walking slowly, his feet shuffling, he went the length of a basketball floor and then up a flight of twenty concrete steps to join the families in the stands. I was almost overcome just witnessing it. Here is what a different kind of care—a different kind of medicine—makes possible, I thought to myself. Here is what having a hard conversation can do.”

A “hard conversation” is actually quite simple when we break it down to its component parts. We ask three questions: What are your fears? What are your goals? What trade-offs are you willing to make, or not? Our challenge is to  discover within ourselves the courage, compassion and love to make these conversations possible. And then we must listen. Asei imanu tzedakah vahesed. According to our prayer when we perform loving kindness God will be imanu, with us, right by our side.

As we prepare to remember departed loved ones in Yizkor, my hope is that we will tap into the best of their values for which we remember them. As they were there for us, let us be present for our dear ones who need us today. We may not know when cannons will fire that will shock us into our mortality. We can at least be better prepared for when they do. Let us have the courage to have hard conversations with our loved ones about our fears, our goals and the aspects of life we most cherish.

Avinu Malkeinu, give us the strength to be fully present for our dear ones who turn to us for purpose and hope. Asei imanu tzedakah vahesed—we’re not going to sit by silently. We’re going to take action and have conversations of lasting importance. We invite You, God, to be with us when we perform this act of hesed. In our work together with You, God, we pray vhoshieinu, that you will save us through the power of Your presence in our sacred relationships.

Amen.

Remembering one hurricane while preparing for another

28 Aug

 

Elie Wiesel tells a story that takes place in the small town where he grew up in the Carpathian Mountains. A father used to tell his son that he must get up early every day. The son, however, was lazy, and he couldn’t get up. One winter day though, the son couldn’t resist his father’s urging, and he joined his father to go to the Bet Midrash for early morning services and study. It’s early in the morning with snow everywhere. As they were walking, the father noticed a silver coin in the snow. The son picked it up. The father said, you see, my son, if you go to the Bet Midrash early enough then God rewards you.  But the son said, the man who lost it got up even earlier.

One lesson of this story is that we never know when we are going to find a treasure, and we never know when we are going to lose it. One moment we may have what we need, the next moment we may lose it.

Today’s Torah portion, so rich in laws that help create a civil society, contains a law pertaining to lost objects. If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; but hashev t’shivem, you must surely return it to your fellow (Deut. 22:1). The double emphasis of the verb “to return” in the Torah verse teaches us the obligation to repeatedly and diligently return lost property. The Talmud elaborates upon the laws of returning lost property, hashavat aveidah, in the second chapter of tractate Baba Metzia. It is interesting to note that for generations, this chapter has often served as a young student’s introduction to Talmud study, including in many yeshivot and day schools today. Children, after all, are constantly losing things and finding things, and it makes sense that their teachers would want them to inculcate Jewish values in respecting the property of others.

The Talmud teaches us that we are only responsible for returning a lost article which has some form of identifying mark. Therefore, the rabbis taught: One who finds coins…in any place in which large numbers of people are commonly found, these belong to the finder, because the owner despairs of recovering them (Baba Metzia 21b). In other words, if one finds a dollar bill on a busy street, it is not necessary to search for the original owner. The owner has no hope of finding the dollar.

However, the Talmud also explains that if one finds something that has a siman, a “sign” which demonstrates the owner’s identity, then the finder is obligated to return it. Since the object has an identification mark, the original owner has not despaired of ever finding it again. We must, therefore, do everything in our power to return the object to its hopeful owner. Sometimes these signs are easily apparent – a person’s name engraved on the watch you find – and sometimes the signs are more subtle, such as the location where the object was found or the manner in which the object was placed down.

The Mishnah further underscores the value of restoration: If one returned [an animal] and it ran away, and he returned it again and it ran away, even [if this happens] four or five times, he is still obligated to return it [yet again], for it is stated [in the Torah]: hashev t’shiveim, “return, you shall return them…”

The rabbis, whose own experience was not always so different from ours, compared their experience to what to them was the idealized time of the Holy Temple. The Talmud teaches that during the Temple Period, the Temple served as a national lost and found. All outstanding lost property was returned in Jerusalem during the Festival seasons, when the entire community of Israel gathered to celebrate at the Temple. The rabbis taught: There was an אבן טוען, a “stone of claims” in Jerusalem. Anyone who lost something would turn there, and anyone who found a lost object would turn there. The finder would stand [by the stone] and announce [his find] and the owner would stand [by the stone] and give the [evidence of] identifying marks and take the object (Baba Metzia 28b). Thus, according to the rabbis, in an ideal and just society, people would return lost objects to their rightful owner.

The rabbis did not live in an ideal world, and neither do we. Some of the difficult aspects of our existence are beyond our control, while others are more in our control. This weekend our community is bracing for a strong tropical storm, perhaps a hurricane. This is the season of this natural wonder. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is a glaring example of the fragility of life–how overnight one may suffer the loss of their home and the entire world that they know. As a result of the Hurricane, millions of people lost their homes and businesses. The hurricane was beyond anyone’s control. However, with the lack of a speedy, coordinated government response at the federal, state and local levels, New Orleans degenerated into anarchy with rampant looting and lawlessness. People were walking into abandoned stores, loading up shopping carts and walking out in full view of police who were powerless to stop them. Clearly, this breakdown of society is precisely what Deuteronomy sought to prevent through laws protecting people’s personal property.

In contrast to the lawlessness of New Orleans during the Katrina disaster, it is of some consolation that the aftermath of the hurricane  also brought out the best in people. Millions of people across our country mobilized to fulfill the mitzvah, as it were, of hashavat aveidah, returning a lost object. Americans opened up their hearts, their wallets and their homes to give people shelter, food and hope for rebuilding their future.

The city of Houston hosted thousands of New Orleans residents who fled there for refuge while their homes were underwater. In a disaster, we might not be able to restore lost homes, at least not instantly, but we can help restore lost hope. I would like to conclude by noting that we are now in the month of Elul and have begun the spiritual preparations for the High Holidays. In this light, there is a clear connection between the laws of lost property and teshuvah, the process of repentance that defines this season. Our Torah portion teaches, hashev t’shiveim, “you shall surely return [lost property].” This month we focus on another word with the same Hebrew root, teshuvah, meaning “turning back” or “returning” to God. The awe of the hurricane as a wonder of nature also bids us to reflect on both senses of return. This season is an opportunity for our country to do genuine teshuvah and examine how we can do better to care for the most vulnerable people in our society who do not have adequate shelter or the means to care for themselves. The memory of Katrina serves as an opportunity to heal racial and class divisions in our society. It is an opportunity to remind all branches of government to coordinate with one another to protect the citizens they serve. Ten years ago hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stood at the even toen, the claimant’s stone, and America responded. God forbid there should ever be another disaster like Katrina. In coming days I pray for the safety of our community, and I pray that God will grant us the strength to tap into our better angels of courage, generosity, patience, compassion and kindness.

Remembering Matt and Sara on Tisha B’Av

24 Jul
Campers at Ramah Darom examine the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, June, 2015.

Campers at Ramah Darom examine the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, June, 2015.

As Tisha B’Av approaches, my late friends, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, of blessed memory, will be very much on my minds. Twenty years ago this fall, Matt and I began our second year of JTS Rabbinical School at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem. Sara came to Israel for the year to work in a biology lab at Hebrew University and to be near Matt as their loving courtship was continuing to blossom. They died on February 25, 1996, in a brutal suicide bomb attack in Jerusalem. Matt and Sara’s lives, their tragic death and their family’s quest for justice are profiled with great care in Mike Kelly’s acclaimed book, The Bus on Jaffa Road. In 1997, one year after their death, the Jewish Theological Seminary dedicated a Beit Midrash in Matt and Sara’s memory. In conjunction with that ceremony, I compiled a scrapbook of many of Matt and Sara’s writings that their parents shared with me. The selections include handwritten journal entries, essays, sermons and scholarly papers, in which they each express passion for Jewish life and Israel. Since 1997, the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash Memorial Volume has been on display and available for perusal at the JTS Beit Midrash.

The Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, a collection of their writings, on display in the JTS Beit Midrash.

The Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Memorial Volume, a collection of their writings, on display in the JTS Beit Midrash.

As the twentieth anniversary of Matt and Sara’s death approaches, I’ve undertaken to transcribe, edit and publish the Memorial Volume so that the general public may read Matt and Sara’s writings and experience the depth of their souls. They might not be with us physically, but their spirit lives on. This collection is scheduled to be published in early 2016 under the title: Love Finer Than Wine: The Writings of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker.

Rabbi Ed Bernstein transcribing handwritten sections of Memorial Volume (Photo by Rabbi Hillel Norry at Ramah Darom, June, 2015).

Rabbi Ed Bernstein transcribing handwritten sections of Memorial Volume (Photo by Rabbi Hillel Norry at Ramah Darom, June, 2015).

 

Tisha B’Av is a time when the Jewish community reflects on Israel’s physical and spiritual security. Like so many times previously, both seem precarious now. And yet, we continue to persevere with great hope that the future will be better. Matt and Sara each recognized the challenges faced by Israel and the Jewish people, both external threats and threats from within resulting from Jewish infighting. From their collected writings, here are two selections that seem appropriate for this season of reflection on the state of our people. May Matt and Sara’s memories be for a blessing, and may their enduring spirit inspire us all to create the better, more peaceful world that they sought.

 

Israel and Our Ongoing Spiritual Revolution, by Sara Duker
Winner, Israel Aliyah Center Essay Contest, 1995

“Israel put the kippah back on our heads,” declared our Ramah director during the summer of 1991, in an effort to demonstrate the impact the founding of the Jewish State had upon young American Jews of his generation. Jews, once reluctant to acknowledge their Jewish identity began to come out of the woodwork in response to astonishing underdog military victories, pressing national needs and the realization of two-thousand-year-old hopes. Today, on Jewishly active college campuses, similar ideals are invoked in order to bolster Zionist pride and activism. Zionism is considered one among many outlets for Jewish expression, a source of national and cultural heritage, including among those who do not consider themselves ritually religious. However, changes in the State–both the development expected of a modern country and problems unique to Israel and its society–have uncovered an erosion of Jews’ automatic support for Israel and our ability to use Zionism as a quick ticket to Jewish pride. Thirty years ago, [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel foresaw the potential crisis in Jewish national building and personal identity in his book, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, in which he emphasizes the need for continued Jewish vision, “realizing that,” even in 1995, with advanced technology, a booming economy and prospects for peace, “the economic, political, and spiritual development is still in a stage of beginning.”

Is Israel unique? Does it set an international standard of care for its citizens and hold a moral banner even higher than most democracies? Are those Jews who founded and live in the State stronger and more Jewish? The answers seem easy to a Jewishly active college student, until she is confronted with “ISRAEL: THE HIJACK STATE” emblazoned on a pamphlet being distributed in the student center by a socialist group. A young man with great visions of social justice claims that Israel is nothing more than a capitalist, imperialist arm of the most corrupt elements of the western world. It has greedily expropriated the land of the natives, and continues to exploit the laboring class, he says. Other students find their assumptions about the sacredness of their nation challenged by mainstream political correctness–the best liberals have taken up the cause of Palestinian rights, and Zionism is dismissed as a glorified racism. Even students who tend to be removed from the campus political arena (with the hyperbole it often engenders), can’t help but be aware of the newspapers, which tell us that Israel is far from perfect. Political parties experience corruption there, too. Extremism characterizes political debate, with deep [divisions] between the religious and secular Jews. And, no matter what our national and religious beliefs are regarding the West Bank and Gaza, there are few Jews who do not experience at least some discomfort with Israeli politics toward the Palestinian Arabs. The temptation arises to distance oneself from such a contentious state–to deny one’s Jewish connections (or apologize for them), or to claim an American Jewish ideology separate from Israeli dilemmas. It often seems tempting for us Americans to pursue Judaism as we think best, and to leave difficult ideological decisions of defending the Jewish State to Israelis.

How are our Israeli peers faring? A young Israeli man in New York, recently released from his three-year tour of duty in the [Israeli] army, used to tell anyone who asked him that he did not believe in God. He believed in his people and the horrors that have happened to them. He went to the army, he said, so that a Holocaust, which decimated his parents’ generation, would not do the same to his.  An American olah [immigrant to Israel], a tour guide in Yad Vashem, related incidents during her presentation of the required tour to Israeli soldiers being inducted to the army. She says that she hears frequent grumbles from her mostly secular groups when they are addressed with the Holocaust. “This doesn’t affect us,” they say. “When are we going to get over it and move on?” If this group–at the forefront of Israel’s material progress and  already uninterested in the religious nature of its country–finds that even national tragedies are losing their power to motivate and unify, what then will inspire the next generation of Israeli Jews to continue to fulfill the heavy demands of their people?

Until now, we have taken for granted that Israel would “put the kippah on our heads,” that Israel would do much of the work of shaping Jewish identity. As Israel continually struggles with its own identity, it is important to be reminded of the essence of Heschel’s statement: “The State of Israel is a spiritual revolution, not a one-time event, but an ongoing revolution.” The key ideas are “spiritual” and “ongoing.” A spiritual revolution goes beyond the national security and material support Israel was built to provide to Jews, to look at a larger raison d’être. We pour forth catch phrases about history, martyrdom, God’s land and community, but how often do we think carefully about what each of these really means? Why is Jewish community so important in our time? Is our history unique? Do we believe that we are God’s chosen people and Israel is a chosen land? What implications does this have for our behavior–not just on a large political scale, but for the everyday life of a Jew? How does this inform our treatment of one another? If we do not believe in God as a presence in Jewish history, then what other ideologies do we have to guide us? What is the role of Diaspora Jewry? What can we contribute beyond our yearly checks to UJA? This is not to suggest that we can automatically provide deep and meaningful answers. Each reconsideration of old questions constitutes a revolution, by recreating and renewing our visions of Israel.

This process, of course, must be ongoing. We face a startling sense of inadequacy when our notions, unchallenged, become irrelevant in the face of new situations. The effort of building a physical home and the cooperation it required was a communal, spiritual process for the pioneers, but we lacking that same urgent sense of need, soon find that the tangible construction is not enough to answer the spiritual questions of this generation. We have not come into full national self-awareness. And, as with any other process of development, disuse of spiritual sense causes it to erode. In the end, Israel will not guarantee our Judaism until we give the labor of our hands as well as our hearts and minds to guaranteeing Israel’s Judaism.

 

Reflections on the Assassination of Yitzchak Rabin by Matthew Eisenfeld in His Journal.
[Monday, November 6, 1995]

The night before last, יצחק רבין [Yithak Rabin] was killed by a Jewish assassin who believed himself to be serving the Jewish people. Rabin had been a general who had fought in Israel’s wars and died as a man who worked tirelessly for peace. His accomplishments among others are a peace treaty with Jordan and a formation of an autonomous Palestinian state in which Yasser Arafat, a former enemy, became an ally. I admired Yitzhak Rabin and had confidence in the Israeli government because of him. I feel like the country is in disarray at this point because nobody can really fill his shoes.
What sickens me even more is that a lot of Israelis don’t seem to understand the significance of what has happened. People say things like, “another victim in the peace process. It hurts that we’ve lost a Jew to a Jew, but really is he any more significant than any other terror victim? One shouldn’t mourn too much.”
Or worse: “Rabin should not be allowed burial in a Jewish cemetery because he was a traitor.” They just don’t understand–the Prime Minister has been killed. Will this country ever be the same again?
In the בית מדרש [Beit Midrash] yesterday, the school tried to conduct classes as usual, but we students voted otherwise with our feet. We said תהילים [Tehillim/Psalms], sang dirges, cried and listened to a הספד [Hesped, eulogy]. I am subdued, sleepy and feel lousy. My nose keeps running and I’ve got a canker sore at the place where my tongue connects to the bottom of my mouth. I’m bothered by cigarette smoke and the fumes from the candles which are lit in the crowds that gather to walk quietly and cry. Today I will try to walk in the לוויה [levayah/funeral procession] and watch the funeral speakers on TV. I want to hear the nations of the world speak and pay tribute to יצחק רבין [Yithak Rabin]. I want Israelis to understand whom they’ve lost.

יצחק רבין יהי זכרו ברוך
[Yitzhak Rabin, yehi zikhro varukh, may his memory be for a blessing.]

Look for the helpers

15 May
Amtrak derailment, 5/12/15 (Photo from NY Daily News).

Amtrak derailment, 5/12/15 (Photo from NY Daily News).

The Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia was a terrible shock. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of all the victims, including at least eight victims confirmed dead and dozens more who were injured. Among the dead, at least two were Jewish. Rachel Jacobs, a 39-year-old wife and mother was CEO of an education startup organization and an active member of the Jewish community. Justin Zemser was a 20-year-old midshipman at the US Naval Academy. I grieve their loss and that of the six other victims. I’m sure many in my circle are within two to three degrees of separation of passengers on that train. Two former USY counselors of mine reported on Facebook that their son was on the train and was bruised, but not seriously hurt.

The derailment and the destruction it caused underscore the randomness of life events. We go about the routines of our daily lives doing things that we often don’t think twice about, and yet we are vulnerable at any time. The tragedy also underscores the human capacity for error and the dire consequences that can result. Hopefully, the investigation will reveal why the train was speeding at over 100 miles per hour in a 50-mph zone.

As authorities conduct their investigation, I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom from Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “When I was a boy,” he said, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”

As we observe the unfolding of this senseless tragedy, it’s important that we focus not only on the loss and destruction, but also those who burst into action to help those in danger. This sensibility is rooted in this week’s Torah reading as we close out the book of Leviticus in Behar-Behukotai.

At the heart of Parashat Behar is the notion that everything in the world belongs to God—ki li haaretz, ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi—for the Land in Mine, for you are but strangers and sojourners with me. The upshot of this is that all of God’s creation, all matter living and not living, belongs to God not us. We therefore must in the words of the prophet Micah, walk humbly before God.

The second half of today’s reading, Behukotai, closes the book of Vayikra with a series of blessings and curses; blessings for being true to God’s laws, and curses for straying from them. I’m not going to address the challenge of reward and punishment theology that this parasha raises. Taking a bird’s eye view of this parasha, it’s not about the particulars of our lives—it’s about life in general. It’s about the good things in life- the joy, the pleasures, the blessings—such as the joy when we celebrate a wedding or the birth of a child. But the parasha also describes the hardship, the suffering and the pain. The Torah is saying welcome to the real world. Life is often good. Yet, life is often filled with great difficulty. The Torah’s mission is to teach us that we are tenants of God’s world and at the same time, we are very much of the world. We are stakeholders in the world, and it’s in our own self-interest to live a just and righteous life.

In the blessings portion, we read: vishavtem lavetach b’artz’chem…v’natati shalom baAretz—You will dwell in your Land safely, and I will give peace in the Land. According to Hasidic teachings, a question is asked: after the Torah has stipulated that “you will dwell in your land safely,” why does it have to state, “I will give peace in the land”? The reference here, then, is to internal peace, within yourselves, between one another, between one party and another, between one faction and another. I don’t interpret this teaching that bad stuff in the world will never happen. I read it to say that human beings will help one another achieve inner peace amidst great challenges.

As the world’s attention is focused on the Philadelphia train derailment, I believe this Hasidic teaching and the wisdom of Fred Rogers call on us to remember the helpers. The Philadelphia Inquirer and other news outlets reported numerous examples of heroism by first responders, passengers and bystanders.

There were the firefighters who arrived on the scene to pull trapped passengers from mangled cars; police officers who rushed into the train or drove patients to hospitals by the dozens in wagons; passengers who, as their rescuers broke into the cars, asked them to first help the more injured around them. Imagine the presence of mind of these passengers. They’re banged up, they’re bloodied, they may have broken bones. On top of all that, they’re sitting in a train car turned upside down. They are probably frightened beyond belief and want nothing more than to get out. Rescue workers arrive on the scene and, in the midst of this chaos, they directed the first responders towards passengers who needed even more help.

In the midst of human tragedy, it is awe-inspiring the extent to which people can open their hearts to help others in need, even in the midst of one’s own suffering. If human beings have the capacity for such compassion when under such pressure, then all the more so in our day-to-day lives—when we don’t feel immediate danger–we have the capacity for compassion and loving kindness. Today, as we close the Book of Leviticus, let us take to heart its great wisdom for life. As we see today, two of the messages with which the book closes are that we must be humble before God and that we must pursue peace. May God grant us the strength to continue this noble mission.

Nothing But the Truth

24 Oct
Ben Bradlee (right) with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

Ben Bradlee (right) with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This was a busy news week with many reports of tragedies, including horrific terror attacks both in Jerusalem and the Canadian capital of Ottawa. I’ll come back to these incidents shortly. A news story that gave me pause, though, was the report I heard on the car radio Wednesday morning that Ben Bradlee died at the age of 93. The former Executive Editor of the Washington Post was an American hero who championed the First Amendment’s call for freedom of the press. He spoke truth to power when he made his historic decision to publish the Pentagon papers that exposed the abuses of the Johnson Administration’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. He then entrusted two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, to pursue the report of a suspicious burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. Their reporting exposed the corruption of the Nixon White House and contributed to Nixon’s ultimate resignation.

In reading various obituaries of Bradlee this week, I was struck by a tribute to him by Bob Woodward who remembered the words that as a young reporter he most hated to hear from Mr. Bradlee: “You don’t have it yet, kid.”

As important as freedom of the press and accountability of leaders were to Ben Bradlee, of utmost importance to Bradlee was the truth. The story had to be right before it could go to press.

At this point, I could pivot to the Torah reading and draw a nice analogy between our Torah portion, Parashat Noach, and the legacy of Ben Bradlee. The Torah reading notes Va-tishahet haaretz lifnei Ha-Elohim, va-timale haaretz hamas. “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness” (Gen. 6:11; Hamas here is not related etymologically to the terrorist organization by the same name).  Through a close reading, the Sages wonder why the verse must add the phrase “before God.” Isn’t that obvious? Rather, the Jerusalem Talmud understands the word translated as “lawlessness” (hamas) to mean that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not prosecute them (JT BM 4:2). This caused people to lose faith in the power of government to provide them with a fair and livable world, and society began to slip into anarchy (from Etz Hayim, p. 41). When the truth was ignored, society crumbled. Noah, though he had his faults, was uncorrupted by the pervasive lies around him, and God saved him. In modern times, Ben Bradlee stood for the truth and reminded our nation that our government’s credibility must rest on the foundation of truth.

That could be a decent enough D’var Torah, and we could call it a day and wish each other Shabbat Shalom. However, that same Wednesday, we learned of a terrible terrorist attack in Jerusalem in which a Palestinian terrorist rammed his car into a crowded train stop killing a precious three-month-old baby girl, Chasya Zissel Braun, z”l . Her parents had struggled for years to conceive, and they had just returned from taking their daughter to the Kotel for the first time. In addition to the death of this baby, several others were injured, and police on the scene quickly shot and killed the driver.

The Associated Press reported this crime with the following headline: Israeli police shoot man in east Jerusalem. They added the following summary: “Israeli police say they shot a man whose car slammed into a crowded train stop in east Jerusalem, in what they suspect was an intentional attack.”

The Internet soon lit up with criticism of the Associated Press biased, out-of-context headline. The AP responded by “correcting” the headline, which they changed to “Car slams into east Jerusalem train station.” That darn automobile just had anti-Semitism flowing through its engine, spark plugs and wiper fluid! Finally, after even more widespread outrage on social media, they changed the headline to “Palestinian kills baby at Jerusalem station.” Benji Lovitt, a blogger on the Times of Israel, lampooned the AP with a number of hypothetical headlines such as: “Noah Abducts Entire Animal Kingdom” or “John Lennon Drives Fan to Crime” or “Abraham Lincoln Interrupts Play.” This is dark humor at its best.

The good news is that the AP responded to criticism and wrote a more accurate headline that reflected the actual tragedy that occurred. Nevertheless, the original headline highlighted an inherent bias in the press that tends to view Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians as victims.

Unfortunately, the same day this attack occurred in Jerusalem, there was also a terrorist attack at the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, Ontario, reminding us that the cancerous scourge of terror can and does reach our shores. The press had no problems reporting this story. The New York Times headline read: “Gunman Panics Ottawa, Killing Soldier in Spree at Capital.” There was no hiding behind passive language or the government’s just actions in defending its citizens and government leaders.

In response to the murder of the baby girl in Israel and the Associated Press’s initial coverage, another blogger on The Times of Israel, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, wrote a chilling but poetic reflection. She asks us to imagine the joy of the Braun family over their newborn daughter and her first trip to the Kotel. Then she is killed before their eyes.
“Can you imagine their horror? The screams and then the silence…
“A baby girl is dead.
“Her family is shattered.
“Meanwhile, international media reports that “Israeli police shot an E. Jerusalem man.” (AP may have changed the headline, but the url exists forever and ever.)
“I kind of hate the world right now.
“Let’s all light a candle. It’s really dark here.”

In Parashat Noach, pervasive lying and lawlessness brought darkness to the universe. Only Noah and his family lit a candle of truth, and God saved them. Similarly, in our own time, the darkness of falsehood is spreading. When the world tolerates terror against the Jews and ignores the truth that militant Islam stands for death and destruction of Western civilization, it will continue to metastasize around the world. We’ve seen terror in America on 9/11, and now, unfortunately it has come to Canada as well. The Western free press is the first line of defense against anti-democratic trends around the world, and the credibility of journalism rests on getting it right.

Maybe the Associated Press’s response to criticism is a sign of hope. A large number of critics mustered a bit of Ben Bradlee and said to the AP: “You don’t have it yet, kid.” When we hold a mirror to the press and remind it what it stands for, we’ll not only help them get it right, we may even save lives. May God grant us the strength to bring truth and light into the world.

Just One More Song

4 Oct
Robin Williams (1951-2014) as "Mork" (circa 1980) and Rabbi Joel Wasser (1963-2014)  on steps of Philadelphia Museum of Art (1987).

Robin Williams (1951-2014) as “Mork” (circa 1980) and Rabbi Joel Wasser (1963-2014) on steps of Philadelphia Museum of Art (1987).

One evening a Cherokee Indian told his grandson about a battle going on inside him: “My son, it is between two wolves. One is evil: Anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good: Joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it and asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee replied, “The one that I feed.”

We all have similar battles that take place in our minds. Our actions, positive or negative, often result from the wolves we feed–the impulses that come out of these struggles. Sometimes we do great things. Other times we make mistakes but are able to repair them. Once in a while, the human impulse brings about great tragedy.

Several weeks ago, the world was shocked by the untimely passing of actor Robin Williams. Many of us asked how it was possible that a man who brought so much joy and laughter to so many millions of people over many decades would feel so tortured by demons on the inside? When news broke that this comic genius had taken his own life at the age of 63, the world was shocked. Print and electronic media were filled with outpourings of love for Robin Williams as both a performer and a person. His untimely death awakened society to the inner sufferings of people afflicted with the diseases of depression and substance addiction.

A few months earlier, a rabbinic colleague and teacher of mine, Rabbi Joel Wasser, z”l, died. He was only 50, and he took his own life. Like Robin Williams, Rabbi Wasser was a comic genius. I laughed convulsively at his jokes and stories. Moreover, he used his amazing natural gifts and charisma to make Judaism fun and inspiring, particularly for younger Jews. In 1987, he was one of my advisors on USY on Wheels, a cross-country bus tour. I was a high school student, and he was a young rabbinical student. He sat next to me on long bus rides and taught me how to lead services. Beyond the technicalities of how to chant the prayers, he brought me into the liturgy so that it came alive for me. I owe my interest in Jewish text and tradition and my ultimate decision to enter the rabbinate in large measure to my bus rides with Joel. I had lost touch with Joel over the years. However, nearly four years ago, when I was facing a moment of transition in my life, he called me out of the blue to offer his support and encouragement. I will never forget that simple act of kindness.

Rabbi Wasser spent the bulk of his rabbinic career at Congregation Kol Ami in Tampa. I attended his funeral there in May. He had already been away from the community for several years, but the impact that he had on hundreds of people of all ages was palpable. Like Robin Williams, it is a mystery that Rabbi Wasser who brought joy, a sense of purpose and a love of Judaism to so many people could be haunted by inner demons that would lead him to such a tragic demise. Both of these extraordinary men fell victim to the diseases of depression and addiction that cut their lives short when they still had so much left to give.

Hayim Nachman Bialik, the Hebrew Poet Laureate of Israel of the early 20th century prior to Israeli statehood wrote a poem titled Acharei Moti/”After My Death,” that captures the essence of losing dear ones before their time.

AFTER MY DEATH
Say this when you mourn for me:

There was a man – and look, he is no more.
He died before his time.
The music of his life suddenly stopped.
A pity! There was another song in him.
Now it is lost
forever.

There’s hardly any tragedy as great as losing a loved one to suicide. It’s something that surviving loved ones often never get over. To make matters worse, few losses carry as much stigma and shame for the survivors. And yet, suicide has nothing to do with the moral character of the victims or survivors. According to estimates, some 8,000,000 Americans contemplate suicide each year, resulting in 1,000,000 suicide attempts and nearly 35,000 deaths. Suicides outnumber homicides 2:1. Suicide expert Joanne Harpel notes that suicide is not a sign of weakness, a character flaw, or an easy way out. It’s a fatal complication of an underlying illness, the same as dying of heart disease or cancer. Harpel adds that when we pray for healing in the Mi-Sheberach prayer, we ask for refuat hanefesh u’rfuat ha-guf, healing of spirit and body. Depression afflicts both, and suicide is the ultimate breakdown of these two systems.

According to Harpel, laypeople cannot diagnose, but with compassion we can encourage those we care about to get professional help. Harpel writes, “When we are worried about someone, we can say, ‘I’m concerned about you. Are you thinking of hurting yourself?’ If the answer is yes, we should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK.” She suggests that this is a number we should all have in our phone contacts for easy access and give it to loved ones who might be at risk.

Within the Jewish world, We should also know about Elijah’s Journey: A Jewish Response to the Issues of Suicide Awareness and Prevention. It is a non-profit founded in 2009 that has created a vital support network in the Jewish community to raise awareness of this crisis and provide comfort and support to people who are suffering.

When we reflect on beautiful souls like Robin Williams and Rabbi Joel Wasser, we are reminded of life’s mystery and fragility. They were both complex and ironic men who suffered greatly inside even as they brought great joy to others. When I think about them on Yom Kippur, I’m reminded of Yom Kippur’s great irony. Today is both solemn and joyous.

There is no doubt about the great solemnity to this day. We fast; we beat our chests in sorrow over past mis-deeds; we mourn the absence of loved ones during Yizkor. Some may have lived out the fullness of their years, while others may have passed before their time. No matter the circumstances, we are likely to yearn for one more song that they may have had left. We long for their closeness, the laughter they aroused in us, the tears they shed with us. At the same time, Yom Kippur is regarded by the Sages as the most joyful of days. It is the day in which we are cleansed of our sins. We are reminded that while so many tragedies happen that are beyond our control, our destiny is still in our hands. U’teshuvah u’tefillah utzedakah maavirin et roa hagezeira–Repentance, prayer and righteousness lessen the pain we suffer from life’s travails. We have the power to make a difference in the lives of others.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the power to bring departed loved ones back to life. The music of their lives has stopped. Here’s what we can do: we can deepen the relationships with those near to us now so that nobody feels alone. Use this relationship worksheet as a guide. It asks you to identify people who are close to you and complete the following sentences: Thank you for…; I’m sorry for…; I forgive you for…; and I love you for…. This worksheet may help trigger important conversations in your families and social networks. In turn, we may be able to heal untreated wounds. We may hear songs not yet sung. We may discover pain in others we were not aware of. We may even save lives.

First, say thank you. We can’t say thank you enough to people. When we are in the habit of saying thank you, we cultivate an ongoing feeling of gratitude, the foundation of a happy life. In the prayer book, the first thing we say is Modeh ani lefanecha, Melekh chai vekayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, rabbah emunatecha. “I am grateful before You, everlasting Sovereign, who has mercifully restored in me my soul; your faithfulness is great. When we begin our day with words of gratitude to God, we are more likely to feel gratitude and convey that sense to others. Expressing our gratitude towards other people benefits their self-esteem as well as our own.

“I’m sorry for….” I work under the assumption that we are all basically good people. None of us wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Gee, how much can I destroy today?” We go through our day to day lives trying to do the right thing, and we are not perfect. We all make mistakes both by things we do and say and by things we fail to do say. Because each of us is a decent person at heart, it’s hard for us to admit our mistakes. We justify our actions. Our relationships suffer as a result. It takes courage to humble ourselves before another person. One of life’s great ironies is that when we show vulnerability through a genuine apology, we actually gain strength in the eyes of the offended.

“I forgive you for….” A favorite teaching I’ve mine that I’ve quoted before is from the renowned Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, Abraham Twerski. He writes about patients who are paralyzed by resentment and the liberation that forgiveness brings about. He quotes one of his patients saying: “I came to realize that hanging on to anger was not affecting the people who hurt me. They don’t have headaches, indigestion, or insomnia. I do. Why should I suffer because of their wrong behavior? So I just stopped thinking about them and my anger evaporated. Hanging onto resentment is akin to letting people you don’t like live rent-free inside your head without paying rent. I’m not the kind of person to let people do that, so I evicted them from my head.” Forgiveness is as much for our own benefit as the person being forgiven, and it brings tremendous healing.

“I love you for….” In Disney’s animated hit “Frozen,” the Trolls sing in their song “Fixer Upper” “People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed. But throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best.” Reminding our loved ones that we love them and why–and doing so repeatedly–reflects our ultimate commitment to the wellbeing of relationships. Love brings out our best.

With these four simple statements, imagine the healing we can generate. Imagine the renewed joy and laughter when there had once been tears and hurt. Imagine the self-esteem we build up in ourselves and others. Imagine the songs we will hear that we never knew existed. Imagine the lives we might save.

We cannot bring back to life loved ones who died whether by suicide or by other causes. But we can resolve–we must resolve–that they did not die in vain. Yom Kippur gives us space to mourn, but it also calls upon us to grow, change, and redefine ourselves. It is a day to cleanse ourselves of that which is broken and to create and reinforce everlasting bonds of trust, hope and love. Let us listen to and savor one another’s songs before the music stops. So may it be God’s will.

“You’re Not Special”

6 Jun
David McCullough, Jr.'s commencement address in 2012 in which he told high school seniors, "You Are Not Special."

David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement address in 2012 in which he told high school seniors, “You Are Not Special.”

“You’re not special.” That’s what high school teacher David McCullough, Jr. told students two years ago in a commencement speech at a Wellesley High School outside of Boston. He thought his audience was the graduating class, but the electronic world was eavesdropping. The 12-minute speech went viral. Suddenly he received emails from around the world, and networks wanted interviews. McCullough’s speech startled many because his message to the students was: “You’re not special.” He criticized well-meaning but micro-managing parents for the intense pressure they put on teenagers to excel. He argued that students are so afraid of failure that they miss the opportunity to make and learn from mistakes, and ultimately could miss out on having a fulfilling, happy life. McCullough recently developed his speech into a book titled, “You Are Not Special: …And other Encouragements.”

He says that if kids hear that they are more important than others and deserving of accolades, that puts a lot of pressure on them. Far too many kids are absorbing the message that the purpose of the endeavor is praise—pleasing Mommy or Daddy, for example. They learn that the purpose of activities is the accolades they will receive rather than the pleasure of doing something.

David McCullough, Jr.’s insight could have been inspired by an episode in this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotekha. We are introduced to two characters, Eldad and Medad, about whom, we are told, vayitnabu ba-mahane, they prophesied in the camp. What led to this, and what happened as a result? In chapter 11, Moses complains to God that he can’t bear the weight of the people by himself, so God commands him to appoint 70 elders to enter the Tent of Meeting to assist him in the official leadership of the people.

The Torah then reports the following: Moshe gathered 70 of the people’s elders and stationed them around the tent. Then God came in a cloud and spoke to Moses, drawing upon the spirit that was on him and putting it upon the 70 elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but did not continue. It turns out that these seventy elders were not so special, after all. Two men, Eldad and Medad had remained in the camp; yet the spirit rested upon them– they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the tent–and they prophesied in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses saying, ‘Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!’ And Joshua…spoke up and said, ‘My lord, Moses, restrain them!’ Joshua believes that prophecy is reserved for special people, and others dare not encroach on this endeavor. But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous on my account? If only all of the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!’
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) records two opinions interpreting what happened. The first says that essentially, Eldad and Medad missed the cut. God commanded Moses to choose 70 elders. Moses cannot figure out how to select the men in a fair and representative way. If he picks five from each of the twelve tribes, he will have only 60. If he picks 6 from each tribe, he will have 72–too many, for when God says 70, it means 70. If he picks five from some tribes and six from others, he will foment jealousy and rivalry among the tribes. So he picked six from each tribe and put 72 pieces of paper in a ballot box. On 70 of them he wrote Elder, and two he left blank. Eldad and Medad were the random two who picked the blank ballots and did not make the cut.

A second view in the Talmud is that all 72 were chosen, but that Eldad and Medad did not feel worthy of the task and stayed behind. God rewarded them for their humility by granting them permanent prophetic abilities, while the prophetic abilities of the 70 elders soon came to an end.

These two interpretations both reflect important statements of Rabbinic values about leadership. The first emphasizes the point that the people must feel invested in the system in order for it to work. They need to feel represented. They need to be engaged in the process of determining their destiny.

The second interpretation emphasizes the value of humility in leadership. Eldad and Medad, because of their modesty, are rewarded with increased spiritual access to the divine presence. In the midrash, they emulate the modesty that Moses displays in the Biblical text itself. Moses is not afraid of other Israelites engaging in prophecy, even if they are not official leaders. Rather, he embraces such an opportunity. Moses knows that despite his spiritual gifts, there are other Israelites with unique gifts who can help bring God’s presence into their midst. As far as our lives are concerned, every one of us has within us a spark of the divine, and it is up to each of us to harness it for the benefit of the community.
The message of the Torah portion is that bringing God’s presence into the community requires a team effort. No Jew in our history, not even Moshe Rabbeinu, could ever claim a monopoly on holiness and access to God’s presence. Eldad and Medad’s prophecy and Moses’s deference to them, show that all of us have the potential to be touched by God. In other words, the seventy elders were not special. Eldad and Medad were also capable of prophecy. If they can experience closeness to God so intensely, then the rest of us can as well.

The episode of Eldad and Medad is a paradigm that each one of us has the potential to carry within us God’s spirit. They call upon us to engage in meaningful Jewish experiences not to bring us accolades but because we will feel closer to the divine in our midst.

Let me close with a prayer that Parashat Behaalotekha will inspire each of us to search for that divine spark within ourselves and that we may have the strength and courage to share that spark with our friends, neighbors and loved ones that will in turn bring about tikkun olam, repair of our world.

#TieBlog #Shekalim

28 Feb
On Shabbat Shekalim, the half-shekels collected from each Israelite eventually add up to real money to support the Mishkan.

On Shabbat Shekalim, the half-shekels collected from each Israelite eventually add up to real money to support the Mishkan.

This week is Shabbat Shekalim. In addition to reading our weekly portion, we read a supplemental reading, Exodus 30: 11-21 from Parashat Ki-Tissa. A census was taken through the collection of half-shekels from adult males. Rich and poor alike gave the same amount, with the funds going towards the upkeep of the Tabernacle.

This portion is read on the Shabbat prior to the month of Adar (in this year’s case, Adar II). It is a harbinger of spring. It is a time when much of the world begins to thaw out from winter and spring cleaning on a small and large scale commences. The Mishnah in Tractate Shekalim describes this as a season of repairing roads and engaging in other major civic projects that require tax revenue. It’s interesting that this happens to be the busy season for American CPA’s, with the looming Apri 15 IRS tax deadline quickly approaching. Factoring inflation over the last 3,000 years, the half-shekel doesn’t go as far as it did in the time of the Torah. So, my tie represents the growth in value of the half-shekel since Biblical times.