Tag Archives: Rabbi Sharon Brous

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There! (And other ways to confront mortality)

9 Oct

Political activist Ady Barkan is fighting for social justice even as he fights ALS.

I will never forget those eyebrows. “Larry” (a pseudonym) had a piercing gaze and communicated by moving his eyebrows. Larry was a patient in the hospice program in which I serve as a chaplain. Larry was an advertising executive and a writer. He was a loving husband, father, son, and brother. And Larry had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a terminal neurological illness. By the time I met Larry for the first time in his home in 2017 he already could not speak with with his natural voice. He used the Tobii Dyanvox device that allowed him to type words or select phrases by looking at a computer screen. A synthesized voice would then “say” the words from a speaker. He sat in a special wheelchair and required 24-hour care. Over the next two years I visited Larry many times and found we had much in common. He was a Jewish man about my age. Like me, he grew up in the Chicago area. We discovered we had several mutual friends. His arms and legs were emaciated and paralyzed, but those eyes and eyebrows! They were full of life. 

Larry fought to engage in this world and experience life to the fullest extent that he could. Over the next two years he published a children’s book as well as several articles in Jewish newspapers chronicling his experience with ALS. When I visited him, we talked about his recent works. He told me he had once played guitar in a rock band, something he missed terribly, and we listened to his favorite classic hard rock hits. We listened to Jewish songs. We prayed. We sat together in silence. Larry died in May, 2019. I felt the loss personally and was very sad. I lost not only a patient but a friend. 

Around the same time that I got to know Larry I became aware of another young Jewish man with ALS. His name is Ady Barkan, a 35-year-old lawyer and political activist. Ady graduated from Columbia University and Yale Law School. He clerked for a Federal Judge. His wife Rachael is a professor of English and they have a three-year-old son Carl and a baby on the way. Ady, who holds dual American and Israeli citizenship, was on last year’s Forward 50 list of the fifty most important Jews in America. He is a galvanizing political organizer. 

Ady was diagnosed with ALS in 2016. He has since lost use of his legs, arms and back muscles. Recordings of his public speaking over the last few years document the decline of his voice until he had to start using the computerized synthetic voice that he, like Larry, operates by typing words with his eyes. Last month he had a tracheostomy so that he could breathe with a ventilator. He now requires 24-hour care.  Comparing photos and video of Ady now with those at the start of his illness reveal substantial weight loss and physical decline. 

And yet, Ady still channels his razor-sharp mind, keen media savvy and iron-clad will to call for justice, particularly for universal health-care. Ady recently published a memoir, Eyes to the Wind: A Memoir of Love and Death, Hope and Resistance. He articulates his vision for many political issues; however, at the heart of his book is his confrontation with his mortality. 

While much of Ady’s progressive advocacy work resonates for me personally, my interest on Yom Kippur is to reflect on Ady’s courage in confronting his illness. He makes poignant expression of his existential crisis as his illness progressed and he developed one symptom, then another, then another. Ady describes the emotional trauma of the illness and the psychological and spiritual guidance that he sought. He started going to therapy and received guidance in meditation from different spiritual traditions. He writes that the wisdom he received for dealing with pain and tragedy is not to escape or ignore these difficulties. Rather, the goal is to become comfortable and accepting of them. Citing another author, Ady writes, “When the ground is pulled out from under your feet—when you find yourself in free fall—it is a mistake to flail wildly in search of a handhold; instead, you can find peace by accepting your velocity and the fundamental instability, unpredictability, and impermanence of our world. Everything falls apart. That is the nature of things. Enlightenment requires us to accept impermanence rather than rage against it.” Ady reflects further: “The key to enjoying the time that I had left would be to accept life’s impermanence, accept the tragedy, and find comfort even when there was no ground under my feet.”

The psycho-spiritual guidance that Ady received—to be in the present—posed for him a great dilemma. After all, he is a political activist. Everything he does is about not accepting the status quo and demanding change. Ady writes: “Activism and politics were precisely about not accepting the tragedies of the world, about insisting that we could reduce pain and prolong life. Social justice meant creating a stable floor beneath our feet and then putting a safety net under that, to catch us if it suddenly vanished: universal health insurance, affordable housing, unemployment benefits (or, even better, a guaranteed good job) . . . Being part of a progressive political movement was precisely about fighting back and building toward a better future. Accepting was not part of our vocabulary.” Ady’s memoir grows out of this basic tension between accepting the present and fighting for a better future. 

Sylvia Boorstein pithily encapsulates Ady’s tension in the title of her book, Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. Boorstein is a Brooklyn-born Jewish writer and speaker who is credited with popularizing Buddhist wisdom in the West. In a light-hearted way, a cartoon expresses the existential tension of Ady Barkan through Boorstein’s clever turn of phrase. 

Boorstein comments: “What makes the cartoon funny is that that old guy IS doing something. He is fuming! He is mad! He is just holding it in rather than shouting it out, and clearly, it cannot be good for him. I think the phrase needs notation, like music, to let the reader know where the accent goes: Don’t JUST do something (i.e. impulsively respond) — Think It Over!…[I]t is valuable to be still for long enough to figure out what would be the most helpful thing to do.”

The wisdom expressed by Sylvia Boorstein and discovered by Ady Barkan has deep roots in Jewish tradition. In particular, Un’tane Tokef, a central prayer of the High Holidays, forces us to confront the tension between “sitting there” and acknowledging our mortality, on the one hand, and “doing something” to ease suffering of the other. 

Un’tane Tokef  lays bare our fragility and mortality. The poet writes: 

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן. כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת, מִי בְקִצּוֹ, וּמִי לֹא בְּקִצּוֹ, מִי בָאֵשׁ וּמִי בַמַּיִם,

On Rosh Hashanah the judgments will be written down And on Yom Kippur they will be sealed: How many will pass on and how many will be created, Who will live and who will die, Who at their end and who not at their end, Who by fire and who by water…

And on it goes through multiple scenarios of how we might meet our demise. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous  (Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef (Prayers of Awe)). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.) comments on the harrowing starkness of this poem. She writes: “Many of us struggle to overcome the terror of death through avoidance and repression…But our tradition compels us to recognize that afar anachnu, “All we are is dust” (Psalm 103:14)—the end is inescapable.”  Rabbi Brous reflects further: “The centrality of Un’taneh Tokef in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur reflects the Rabbis’ understanding that an awareness of our deep vulnerability is the very essence of the religious and spiritual life. ‘Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant.’ There’s simply no time for denial or escapism.”

In other words, we’re called to “sit there” and reflect on our limitations as humans. 

However, once we accept our mortality, we are then able to look forward. As the prayer reaches its climax, it calls on us to recommit ourselves to living a certain kind of life, or to “just do something”:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree.

Rabbi Brous teaches:  “Our tradition, in all its wisdom, demands that we obliterate the false protective shelter and, knowing that each moment might be our last, fight for a life of meaning today. The High Holy Days force us to shift from denial of death to purposeful engagement with life.” Rabbi Brous notes, “We can’t dictate our fate. We can’t hide from death. But there are three things that we can do to bring meaning into the radical uncertainty of our lives” (Brous, p. 143)

First is T’shuvah (repentance): Rabbi Brous writes: “You don’t have to be a static, stagnant being, dwelling perpetually in the mistakes of years past. You can choose to make t’shuvah, affirming that life is dynamic and people change. Find the courage to ask for forgiveness from the people you have hurt. Find the strength to forgive those who have hurt you and the audacity to forgive yourself. Open your heart and embrace the people around you—most importantly those you most often take for granted. Hug your kids (and others dear to you).”

Second is T’fillah (prayer): Rabbi Brous teaches, “You don’t have to be alone. You are part of a story that is bigger than you, where the critical currency is God and the soul, not money, power, or celebrity. Let the majesty of nature distract you. Open your heart to pain. Let the world take your breath away. Connect to something beyond the physical, the tangible, the utterly graspable. Allow yourself not to understand and yet to appreciate anyway. Live in mystery.” 

Finally, there’s Tz’dakah (charity):  Rabbi Brous says, “Stop digging yourself further and further into your own dramas, as if the privileges of freedom and prosperity come with no responsibility to others. Open your eyes and give a damn! Let your heart break over illness, poverty, loss, and violence. Affirm the power of love! Bring healing and comfort! Stake your claim in the world!”

Rabbi Brous concludes: ”The challenge of the High Holy Days is to confront the radically unpredictable trajectory of our lives and live as if every single day truly might be our last.”

During the High Holidays we not only confront our mortality during the Un’tane Tokef prayer, but also during Yizkor, the memorial prayers we say for our departed loved ones. Yizkor is a profound experience of “Don’t JUST do something, sit there!”  Technically, we stand during the prayer, but we are called upon to remember our departed. Through deep reflection, we take time out to engage with and validate the pain of their absence. We draw inspiration from the positive influence they had on us and pledge to ourselves to do our best to carry on their legacy. For some of us, we might also engage in the pain of broken relationships we had with our departed while they were alive and forgive ourselves for any repair that did not come about. 

Ady Barkan, in a recently released series of online video interviews with several leading presidential candidates, describes to each of the candidates his own reflections on his legacy in making a difference in our world. He asks each candidate to reflect on the legacy he or she hopes to leave by the time they exit  public life. In these tear-jerker conversations, Ady draws the candidates off of their talking points to reflect deeply on the meaning of life. He has them literally “sit there” in meaningful contemplation.  This series of public reflections on mortality and legacy is by itself a tremendous gift that Ady has given us all.  

Ady refers in his book to the “Serenity Prayer” by the great theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr, a friend and teacher of both Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Serenity Prayer reflects Un’tane Tokef and asks for the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be, and the wisdom to know the difference. Ady embodies the spirit of those words, as did my late friend Larry. 

During Yizkor, I plan to think about Larry and how in the grips of a devastating disease, he left behind a legacy of loving life. He stubbornly affirmed life to his last day through his books, his articles, his smiles and his eyebrow gestures. I will also reflect on how Ady Barkan, suffering from the same disease, is modeling a legacy that when we confront and accept our limited number of days, we increase our efforts to improve the world. 

As we enter Yizkor, don’t JUST do something, sit there. Let us reflect on the legacy of our loved ones. Let us reflect on the legacy we seek to leave for ourselves, and let us return to purposeful action. 

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Israel: The People Who Struggle with God and One Another

15 Sep

Israel: The People Who Struggle With God and One Another
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
Kol Nidre, September 13, 2013

There’s an old story about a rabbi who auditions to be the rabbi of a new synagogue. The interview goes well, but at the end, the president of the congregation says, “Rabbi, there are just three things you’re not allowed to speak about from the pulpit: Don’t speak to us about ritual observance; don’t speak to us about social action; and don’t speak to us about Israel.” The rabbi asks: “Well then, what am I supposed to speak about?” The president says: “Jewish stuff.”

Tonight, I’d like to speak about one of those topics: Israel. We note with appropriate solemnity that this is the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. It’s tempting for me to recount Israeli history and rally us to support Israel’s continued security as our one and only Jewish state.

Tonight, however, I am moved to do something different. I wish to speak not about Israel per se but about how we talk to one another about Israel. It’s all about relationships and, as Rabbi Harold Kushner says, “living a life that matters.” We have a great tension in Jewish tradition between the need to take care of ourselves, the Jewish people and the need to be concerned about the world as a whole. Hillel expressed this tension in his famous statement, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” There is a natural tension between the first two parts of this statement. They are of equal importance–particularism, concern for ourselves, and universalism, concern for others. For the most part, the tension in our tradition between these two forces is healthy. When it comes to the State of Israel, though, conversations among contemporary Jews can sometimes get ugly.

The way in which American Jews talk to one another about Israel is one barometer of the health of our relationships, particularly between different generations. I’m concerned that Israel has become a sort of third rail in Jewish conversations that is best left untouched for the sake of shlom bayit, peace in our family. Many in our community feel that as Jews we have a duty to hold Israel to the highest standards, and it’s our duty to call Israel to account when there is injustice there. Many others say, “Shah, shtill. Be quiet. Don’t wave Israel’s dirty laundry in public. Diaspora Jews have to show a united front in support of Israel.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Los Angeles wrote recently about this tension. He says that for generations, Jews have adjusted as needed in finding the balance between concern for ourselves and concern for others. When we hold on to both, Jewish life thrives. He argues, though, that in recent years the balance is broken. “Perhaps this is the residual effect of living in the shadow of the Holocaust.” He writes that the Jewish people suffer from a collective post-traumatic stress disorder. Some Jews turn inward and think the world is out to get us and that another Shoah, God forbid, can happen any moment if we don’t take care of Israel and the Jewish people first. Other Jews feel that if we don’t aspire to the highest ethical standards and show concern for all people, we sink to the level of our oppressors over the centuries. Feinstein writes: “Instead of an active tension, we are left with severe polarization,” and says further “todays increased polarization will suffocate Judaism.” I appreciate Rabbi Feinstein’s wisdom from which I learn two things: a) there are multiple ways to approach and be supportive of Israel; and b) we need to find respectful ways for fellow Jews to speak and engage in relationship.

Rabbi Feinstein was writing in response to a particularly troubling exchange between two rabbinic colleagues last November that was a microcosm of the tension between the particularistic and universalistic camps. The two rabbis are Daniel Gordis and Sharon Brous. Both, like me, are graduates of JTS. They are both highly accomplished in their respective rabbinates, and I have been inspired to quote both of them on occasion in my sermons over the years. Rabbi Gordis, a renowned public intellectual, made aliyah to Israel in the late 1990s and has provided keen insight on the life of Israelis in a turbulent Middle East. Rabbi Brous is a contemporary of mine and founded the Ikar congregation, an innovative start-up shul in Los Angeles that has attracted hundreds of young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s. They have a long-standing personal and professional relationship with each other dating back to when both lived in LA. This relationship was severely tested in a public dispute that they had over Israel.

Last November, after hundreds of rocket attacks terrorized southern Israel, Israel launched an air-raid attack on the Gaza Strip to destroy munitions and launch sites. A ground invasion by the Israeli Army was averted at the last moment when the US and Egypt were able to broker a cease-fire. Anytime Israel faces a tense military situation such as this, emotions throughout the Jewish world run high. We anguish over loss of life on all sides, and we anguish over Israel being punished in the court of public opinion over the killing of civilians when terrorists deliberately embed themselves among their own people in order to draw Israel’s fire. In response to the last Gaza showdown, Rabbi Brous published a letter to her congregation reflecting on the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians. Rabbi Brous writes:

“I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives….”

Later, she writes, “However you feel about the wisdom and timing of Israel’s response to the Hamas threat, the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.”

Rabbi Gordis responded with an article in the Times of Israel a few days later in which he criticized Rabbi Brous for being too even-handed. “Yes, we are all deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil. But why does Rabbi Brous not feel that it’s her place as a rabbi to tell her community…which side is good and which side is evil?” The end of Rabbi Gordis’s article gets highly personal, and this generated the controversy:

“As I read Rabbi Brous’s missive, I couldn’t stop thinking about my two sons, both in the army, each doing his share to save the Jewish state from this latest onslaught. What I wanted to hear was that Rabbi Brous cares about my boys (for whom she actually babysat when we were all much younger) more than she cares about the children of terrorists. Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?”

Gordis continues, “I knew, even before reading Rabbi Brous’s missive, that we Israelis are surrounded by enemies. When I finished reading her, though, I understood that matters are much worse than that. Yes, we’re surrounded, but increasingly, we are also truly alone, utterly abandoned by those who ought to be unabashedly at our side.”
It is clear at this point that two well respected and thoughtful rabbis have different perspectives on Israel. Yet, respect of the other is crucial even amidst disagreement. Living a life that matters requires civil discourse. The question is whether this discussion has gone beyond civil.

It wasn’t long before Rabbi Brous responded:

“Wielding the power of the pen, Gordis sets me up as a straw (wo)man, a representative voice of a naïve Jewish ideology, one that is willing to jettison allegiance to the Jewish people for the sake of some self-congratulatory humanism. Such Judaism, he claims, is ‘utterly universalized… almost entirely divorced from the richness of Jewish heritage and the worldview of our classic texts.’”

“What is shameful is that Gordis knows what many of his readers do not. For years my teacher and friend, he knows precisely what is the character of my Judaism, he knows just how deeply Jewish traditions and texts run in my blood. But it is far easier to cast aspersions on a straw man than engage in discourse with a real live colleague who shares his concern for Israel, the Jewish people and its future but nevertheless sees things differently than he does.”

Rabbi Gordis then wrote a rejoinder. He attempted to take back his more inflammatory personal statements while restating his strong commitment to Jewish particularism, the Jewish concern to take care of ourselves first and foremost.

He writes: “I believe that four thousand years of Jewish tradition are committed to the proposition that particularism is key to who we are, and that the inability to love our people before we love others cuts out the heart of one Judaism’s great sustaining characteristics.”

By this point, numerous other commentators were weighing in on the Gordis-Brous Internet spat. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, whom I quoted earlier, served as kind of an online referee. He writes that they are both Jewish intellectual heroes struggling to inspire contemporary Jews. “That is what makes their controversy so painful to witness.”

Rabbi Feinstein says: “So incendiary is Rabbi Gordis’s critique of Rabbi Brous, it obscures the simple fact: He needs her. First, he needs her Torah.” Rabbi Feinstein says that Rabbi Brous’s teaching of Torah has engaged younger Jews, teaching them to interpret their universalism and humanism through traditional Jewish lenses.

“Second,” Rabbi Feinstein continues, “he needs her conscience. The voice of Jewish particularism needs the balancing voice of Jewish universalism, else it turns chauvinistic, narrow, and cruel. Too easily do we fall into a narrative of victimhood and wallow in attitude that overlooks brutality and excuses all moral infractions.”

“Finally,” Rabbi Feinstein says, “he needs her moral vision. The primary task of Zionism, as Gordis so well understands, was to make a safe place for Jews and Jewish life. But that was never its sole purpose. Zionism was always an expression of Jewish moral aspiration.” For example Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren went on American TV during this conflict and explained in detail how Israel was taking steps to avoid civilian casualties. Because of its moral vision, Israel resisted a call by some to carpet bomb Gaza. Such moral vision is what makes Israel a Jewish state. Rabbi Feinstein clearly favors Rabbi Brous’s concern for more than just Jews in Israel but also the values for which Israel stands. In so doing, he reminds us that there are multiple ways in which we can express our support for Israel and that we can and must be respectful of one another in doing so.

As we think about issues of global Jewish importance, like Israel, we have to consider not only the issues at hand. We have to consider how community conversations about Israel serve as a litmus test for our relationships with one another. We can argue issues passionately, but we must remember that concern for both ourselves and the outside world are integral parts of our rich Jewish heritage. Yom Kippur is a time for us to reconnect with one another, with the synagogue and its traditions, with the Jewish people, with Israel and with God. In this new year, let us not shy away from discussing the vital issues of our day because we fear to offend. At the same time, let us always remember the human beings with whom we share dialogue so that we may listen and be strengthened by our differences. We are a richer, more vibrant tradition because we value both ourselves and others. Finding the balance between the two is sometimes challenging, but our effort to strike that balance is part of living a life that matters. May we all be so blessed.