Tag Archives: High Holidays

Drawing hope from the depths of despair: Rosh HaShanah Message, September 25, 2014

28 Sep

There’s an old story about the political science professor who was asked to sum up the situation in Israel in one word. He thought about it for a while, and finally said, “Good.”

Then he was asked, “All right, if you had one more word, if you were asked to sum up the situation in two words, what would you say?

So he thought about it for a while, and then he said, “Not good.”

I believe it’s safe to say that if any of us were asked to summarize this past summer for Israel and the Jewish people, most of us would say “not good.” The truth is, we all know it has been a very difficult summer. Even with the benefit of the Iron Dome, Israel was forced to carry out a difficult operation in Gaza to protect its citizens from rocket fire from above and terror tunnels from below. The Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired their rockets against Israeli civilians while hiding their rocket launchers and weapons amidst their own civilians. Imagine what could have been had Hamas spent years investing in science and technology, hospitals, schools and playgrounds. Instead they spent billions of dollars on rockets and terror tunnels and used schools and hospitals they did have as launch sites for the rockets. The moral clarity is crystal clear. Israel uses rockets to protect its children. Hamas uses children to protect their rockets.

As we take a broader view of the world, the scourge of fundamentalist Islam is spreading like a cancer throughout the Middle East. The brutal terror of Hamas was exported to ISIS and honed into barbarism the likes of which we’ve not seen in modern times. The beheadings of American journalists and a British aide worker have sickened us and galvanized our nation to respond militarily.

So how was this summer? It was not good.

Nevertheless, if we dig beneath the surface, we will find reason not to despair. After Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during July and August, the month of June seems like ancient history. Let’s take a look back at June, though, and recall the prelude to Gaza. Three Israeli teenage boys Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrah and Gilead Shaar, were hitchhiking their way home from yeshiva when they were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists. Their whereabouts were not known for weeks until their mutilated bodies were found near Hebron. We all felt pain and outrage over this crime. The only thing that could make it worse would be Jews sinking to that level and perpetrating revenge terror attacks against Palestinians. Indeed, such a horror occurred when Jewish terrorists abducted and burned to death a teenager named Muhammed Abu Khdeir, just one day after the three Israeli teenagers were laid to rest. Amidst this charged atmosphere, Hamas ramped up its rocket attacks from Gaza, and Israel launched the operation to protect its citizens.

With our attention on Gaza and the threat to Israeli citizens that Hamas posed, the murders of the four teenagers faded into the background. With the perspective now of a few months, let’s look back to the aftermath of those murders. While the Israeli families were sitting shiva, the Abu Khdeir family was also mourning their son in their tent of mourning. In the midst of observing shiva, Rachel Frankel, the mother of slain Israeli teenager Naftali Frankel, made a courageous emotional statement condemning Abu Khdeir’s murder. “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification and no atonement for murder,” she said. Her family went a step further and called the Abu Khdeir family to express condolences from one house of mourning to another. Amidst the most wretched violence humans could afflict upon one another, we must take inspiration from this spark of humanity, decency and courage. The Frankel family reminded us who we are as a people and what Israel is all about. Out of the depths of despair, a bold Israeli family in the depths of mourning dared to be decent. Rachel Frankel’s courage and compassion provided a glimmer of hope that Israel will be ok.

Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist, wrote a moving piece this month on how Israelis are able to cope in the midst of anxiety and despair. He writes:
“We cope because we have no choice. This is the only corner of the planet where Jews are sovereign. Many of us continue to struggle to preserve a decent Israel. Despite growing mutual suspicion, coexistence efforts between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews persist. The Israeli Supreme Court and Israeli media are among the most vigorous anywhere. In a seemingly endless conflict, we can’t take those achievements for granted. Other democracies have broken under far less pressure.”

Klein-Halevi continues: “And through it all Jews keep coming home. This year, 1% of France’s 600,000 Jews are moving to Israel. Even as the missiles fell on Israeli cities, planeloads of French immigrants continued to land. They are fleeing growing anti-Jewish violence. But these well-educated immigrants aren’t going to Canada, they’re coming to the Jewish state. The final shore.”

Klein-Halevi adds a personal note driving with his 16-year-old son and fighting traffic in Jerusalem. “Here we are, in a traffic jam in Jerusalem,” Klein-Halevi writes. “But sometimes I think about how the most ordinary details of my daily life were the greatest dream of my ancestors.”

His son replied, “I think about that a lot.”
Klein-Halevi concludes: “That was all he said. But that was enough. I knew he would be able to survive here.

Israel is a symbol to the Jewish people and to the world that from amidst despair we must draw hope. In a world of injustice, tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice you shall pursue. Bimkom she’ein ish, hishtadel l’hiyot ish, in a place in which there are no decent people, strive to be a decent person. Amidst all of its internal political strife and external threats, Israel inspires us to the ideal that we can dare to make the world a better place. Od lo avdah tikvateinu–our hope is not lost–we stubbornly declare when we sing Hatikvah. The ethos of Israel, drawing upon the well springs of Jewish tradition, is to look forward, to have hope.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, Rosh HaShanah as a holiday bids us to look forward. This is odd. We are starting the Ten Days of Penitence. It would seem that first we should reflect on the past, then resolve to do better in the future. Both steps are essential to teshuvah; however our calendar and our liturgy buck conventional wisdom and the order of actions towards attaining teshuvah. Rabbi Sacks notes that Rosh HaShanah contains no confessions, no penitential prayer. We don’t beat our chests today and say Ashamnu (We have sinned) or Al Het, (“For the sin that we have committed before you…”).We save these for Yom Kippur, ten days into the new year. Why? Teshuvah is driven by two different mindsets: Rosh HaShanah is about the future, Yom Kippur is about the past. Rosh means head, and the default position of the head is to look forward not back. The placement of Rosh HaShanah before Yom Kippur means that our determination to act better in the future takes priority to our feelings of remorse about the past. To which we might add that this is why we blow the shofar on RH. The shofar turns our attention to what lies ahead, not behind.

As Rabbi Sacks writes: “Rosh HaShanah reminds us that to mend the past, first we must secure the future.”  This idea is amplified in the three sections of the Musaf Amidah: Malkhiyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot.

Malkhiyot proclaims the majesty of God. We are reminded that no human ruler or government has absolute authority. As we know, among human beings absolute power corrupts absolutely. Our humility before God as a people and as a civilization will fortify us in the face of today’s current evil regimes such as Hamas and ISIS. As we look ahead to a new year with great anticipation, a sense of humility before God tempers us and leads us to act more wisely and with more compassion.
Zikhronot is about memory, but not about our memory. We call upon God to remember the merits of our ancestors and to credit us in turn. In the process we strive to be worthy of our ancestors’ rewards by refining our own actions. We appeal to the past, but for the sake of a better future.

Finally, Shofarot invokes the image of the shofar, the very symbol of a call to the future. The sounds of the shofar penetrate our hearts, evoking God’s cry to us. We know that we are mortal, and this season we reaffirm our mortality. When we hear the wailing sounds of the shofar, we know each one of us will not live forever. Yet, we defeat death by living by values that live forever. The shofar calls upon us to be compassionate, like Rachel Frankel, and create blessings in this world that will live on after us for generations to come.

There is no doubt that we live in challenging times. Yet, we gather today at the dawn of a new year not to cry about what was but to plant the seeds for a more hopeful future. For inspiration, we must turn to our brothers and sisters in Israel who do this day in and day out. Rachel Frankel sitting shiva for her murdered son refused to be consumed by hate. Israelis went about their business working, celebrating weddings, inventing, affirming life, even as rocket attacks disrupted their daily routine. Immigrants made Aliyah because the Jewish people have no other land to call our own. Jerusalem residents were snarled in traffic in their daily commutes. We have great reason for hope. In fact, we have no choice. Let us resolve in this new year to look forward. Let us be vigilant against those who seek us harm and at the same time stay true to our deepest principles and values that have sustained us throughout the generations. Adonai oz l’amo yitein, Adonai yevarech et amo ba-shalom; may God grant His people strength, may God bless His people with peace. Amen.

Advertisements

Take the #TTShofarChallenge

18 Sep

The Ice Bucket Challenge is so “last year!” Get into the 5775 groove and take the #TTShofar Challenge!

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.