Tag Archives: Forgiveness

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.

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Writing the Next Act on Yom Kippur

15 Sep
Sam Lesner, my grandfather, had a storied career as the film and entertainment critic for the Chicago Daily News. Here he is (seated on right in checkered blazer) with  other reporters interviewing Julie Andrews in Austria on the set of "The Sound of Music." Sam began his career by reviewing the Yiddish Theater.

Sam Lesner, my grandfather, had a storied career as the film and entertainment critic for the Chicago Daily News. Here he is (seated on right in checkered blazer) with other reporters interviewing Julie Andrews in Austria on the set of “The Sound of Music.” Sam began his career by reviewing the Yiddish Theater.

This sermon was published in the Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-edward-bernstein/yom-kippur_b_3916468.html

A slightly updated and corrected version appears below.

Writing the Next Act on Yom Kippur
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 15, 2013

I recently discovered some lost treasures. My late grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory, came back to life after 23 years when I heard his voice once again after finding and digitizing some old cassette tapes. My Grandpa Sam was the film and entertainment critic of the former Chicago Daily News. In the early 1930’s, while working in an entry-level job filing clippings in the newspaper’s library, it became known to the editors that he was a trained musician and that he was fluent in Yiddish. As a result, his first “beat” was covering Chicago’s Yiddish theater and reviewing these productions. Nearly fifty years later, he recalled the golden years of Chicago’s Yiddish theater in a lecture to the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. A cassette tape of that lecture in November, 1978, is among the old tapes that I rediscovered this summer. He opened this lecture as follows:

“It has been written that ‘[a]ll the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely the players’ (Shakespeare). For Jews everywhere, that is more than a literary catch phrase. It’s a philosophy for living, for surviving. For, do we not daily reenact our traditions? Do we not daily reenact our faith? And do we not daily rededicate ourselves to continuity of a vast, varied and colorful heritage, the Jewish heritage?

Grandpa Sam continues, “It has also been written that ‘[t]here is that smaller world which is the stage, and that larger stage which is the world.'” (Isaac Goldberg, early 20th century journalist)

“And yet another sage has written the theater is not a game. It is a spiritual compulsion. Once it celebrated the gods. Now it broods over the fate of man. Mensch trocht, Gott lacht (Man plans, God laughs).”

My Grandpa Sam’s voice emerged from the past to discuss the vital role of theater in capturing the human condition and the remarkable interplay between the theater and Jewish values. In reflecting on this lecture, I’m reminded that Yom Kippur is a play of sorts. Each one of us is a player, and we are acting out our own deaths. We wear white costume, just like we dress a loved one to be buried. We have a script, the mahzor (High Holiday prayer book), that guides us with language to confess our sins, just as one does before dying. We fast and deprive ourselves of bodily pleasures that the dead don’t enjoy. We can call these rituals method acting. If ever there was a day to act out as if it’s our last, it’s today, Yom Kippur. Everything up until now has been Act I, maybe also Act II. We can shape the next act and how we interact with the characters in our lives.

Over the High Holy Days, we prepare to raise the curtain on the next act. We reflect on how we can live a life that matters in which we enrich our lives through our relationships with others. In that context, if today were our last day, what would we do to ensure such a legacy? Would we seek to settle old scores and exact revenge for past wrongs done to us? Would we do nothing because a day is too short for anything meaningful? Chances are, we’ve tried those scripts already, and they’re getting stale.

On Yom Kippur, our day of renewal, our tradition provides us with stage directions and a powerful script. The day is further enriched by the improvisational theater that we provide ourselves.

Our stage directions that we’ve inherited call on us to emulate the Master Player on our world’s stage, God. The Torah instructs us lalechet bidrachav, to walk in the ways of God. In the 13 divine attributes, God tells us in the Torah that He is El rachum v’chanun, merciful and gracious God, erekh apayim v’rav hesed v’emet, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness and truth. The Midrash says, mah Hashem rachum v’chanun, af ata tehiye rahum v’chanun. Just as God is merciful and compassionate, so too you should be merciful and compassionate (Sifre Devarim, Ekev).

Next, we turn to the script of our tradition. The mahzor attempts to capture the complexity of God that we strive to emulate. As I wrote for Rosh HaShanah, in the Un’tane Tokef prayer, we declare that God is zokher kol ha nishkachot, God remembers everything that has been forgotten. In other words, God is the ultimate data bank of everything in human history. Or is He?

God is a versatile cast member who plays many parts. Our rich liturgy offers another metaphor: not God the data bank, but God the parent who uses selective memory. Avinu Malkeinu, zochreinu b’zikkaron tov lefanecha—Our Father Our King, remember us before You with a good memory. Use Your selective memory, God, for good. God knows how to let go, but do we?

Here’s a classic story about not using selective memory. A man complained to his friend that whenever his wife gets angry, she becomes historical. “You mean hysterical,” the friend corrected him. “No,” said the husband, “I mean historical. She starts listing everything I did wrong in the middle of an argument that begins with: “You always…” or “You never….”

Why do we opt for the blame game script? We do so because this satisfies our sense of outrage and indignation. Since we are the injured party, we feel righteous. Our victimhood makes us morally superior as we look down with scorn on the person who hurts us. It provides us with the weapon of guilt to use against the offender. Our mahzor script invites us through prayer to think differently.

Since we pray, and since the rabbis envision us imitating God’s best attributes, the rabbis reach the conclusion that God also prays. The question is what, and to whom, does God pray?

“The rabbis ask: What does God pray? May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a)

God understands the enormous negative power of anger and so He prays to be rid of it. God’s vulnerability is a mirror image of our own. God models for us openness to vulnerability and change. So, having engaged with stage directions and a rich script, we now have the task of turning to “improv.”

The renowned Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, Abraham Twerski, provides some guidance on how we can essentially write our own play, or at least the next act. He writes about some of his patients feeling 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.”

Rabbi Twerski’s anecdote resonated with me earlier this spring in a deeply personal way. I was forced to confront a demon from my life’s first act that was occupying space in my head without paying rent, and I suddenly had to do some “improv” to chart my path. A guy I went to school with from pre-school through high school sent me a friend request over Facebook. It gave me great pause. My recollection is that from preschool through fifth grade this fellow teased me relentlessly. In later grades, the memories of those early years haunted me. We then went our separate ways, and I haven’t seen him since high school. However, as I moved through adulthood and became an educator, any time I encountered the concept of bullying, the image that came to mind was being tormented by this fellow when we were young boys. In recent years, as I connected with more and more friends from childhood on Facebook, I noticed that several old friends from school were friends with my old nemesis. While I have many Facebook friends whom I barely know, I just couldn’t pull the trigger and send him a friend request. My image of this guy from 35 years ago was renting space in my mind. Then, out of the blue, he asked me to be his Facebook friend. Part of me wanted to accept it right away, but I also wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to ask him to bear witness to my pain. I felt it was the honest thing to do.

I wrote him an email. I hit the send button. Then I waited. The next day, I officiated at a funeral. At the cemetery, I finished the service and walked from the grave site to my car. I pulled out my phone to check my email. I saw there was a response to my Facebook message. Despite the long car ride back home ahead of me, I had to read it in full. It was a beautiful, contrite letter that was completely validating. The writer not only apologized for the way he made me feel, but out of his own initiative he went on to describe in vivid, accurate, detail a specific incident from childhood in which he teased me and his deep regret over it. He concluded his letter: “I do understand. I do acknowledge. I am sorry.” I accepted his friend request.

I couldn’t have staged the scene any better. I was sitting in a cemetery. It was the perfect setting to bury the fear, dislike and distrust I had of this person for most of my life. I felt the curtain rising on a new act. I was so moved by the risk this man took in “friending” me, for his courage in responding to me, and for his eloquent and humble note. I said the blessing of thanksgiving:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and allowed us to reach this moment. It was liberating writing back and officially forgiving him and signing off as “Your Friend.”
If life is a play that is carried out on the world’s stage, then sometimes we have to consider that our total life experiences up to the present moment are only the first or second act. We have the ability to shape the next act.

For those of us who have unresolved tensions with people who are living, the time is NOW to get to work towards healing. Our loved ones whom we lovingly recall in Yizkor would expect nothing less from us. We can write the next act of our lives.

Writing a successful next act requires teshuvah, a complete return to shleimut, wholeness or integrity. This process includes saying selichah, I’m sorry, to others for wrongs we’ve committed towards them, and it includes granting mechilah, forgiveness to others for their slights towards us. We say to God, “Selah lanu, mehal lanu, kaper lanu, forgive us, pardon us grant us atonement.” What we expect of God, we must also demand of ourselves.

So, those of us giving free rent in our minds to the anger and resentment that we hold towards someone, we give ourselves a gift to evict those thoughts. Let’s change the script from a tragedy to a story with a happier ending. If there are relatives or friends with whom there is unresolved tension, speak to them on Yom Kippur or immediately thereafter. Say that you’ve given thought to your relationship and want a fresh start. Each of us can raise the curtain on a new act.

We recall our departed loved ones on Yom Kippur because we acknowledge our own mortality. We are acting today as if it is our last day. Recognizing our mortality, as we do now, reminds us of the urgency to change our ways. It may be the last act.

Let us honor the memory of our loved ones with a Jewish Tony Award of zikkaron tov, remembering them for their goodness. Let us bring zikkaron tov, good memories, into our present relationships. Let us not live like we’re going through the motions on stage. Let us live a life that matters.