Tag Archives: religion

#TieBlog #Behaalotekha

6 Jun
Parashat Behaalotekha begins with instructions to Aaron to light the Menorah.

Parashat Behaalotekha begins with instructions to Aaron to light the Menorah.

Parashat Behaalotekha begins with instructions to Aaron to light the lights of the Menorah in the Tabernacle. In addition, the haftarah (prophetic reading) is taken from Zechariah and contains the prophet’s vision of the Menorah. This same selection is repeated on Shabbat-Hanukkah. The text of the haftarah inspired the lyrics of Debbie Friedman’s classic song: “Not by might, and not by power. But by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.” May the light of the Menorah inspire all of us to such a vision.

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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.

Shelah-Lekha: “Being Honest to Oneself and Others”

31 May

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(Derived from sermon by same title by Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Encountering Torah: Reflections on the Weekly Portion, North Suburban Synagogue Beth El: Highland Park, IL, 2013, pp. 205-207

Last week, during the long weekend, I was a good dad, and I took my boys to see the new Star Trek movie: “Into Darkness.” For me, there was definitely an element of nostalgia I grew up watching the reruns of the original series with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Now a new cast was playing the same characters, and I could share this piece of Americana with my children. For both boys, it was their first exposure to Star Trek, so I was interested in seeing how they would react. One son loved it, as did I. He loved the action and the complex plot. He’s practically on his way to becoming a full-fledged Trekkie, and next Passover, when we fulfill a family tradition of reciting the four questions in multiple languages, he will probably be the one to recite them in Klingon. The other son had a very different response. He hated it. He said there was too much action and that he didn’t understand the story. At the end of the film as Captain Kirk was reciting “Space, the final frontier…” I was reciting the captain’s oath along with him. The son who didn’t like the film shushed me.

Whose perspective was correct–the one who liked the movie or the one who didn’t? Well, part of me certainly says of course I was correct—it was a great movie! In a larger sense, though, it’s an amazing feature of the human condition that two people can sit in the same dark movie theater at the same time, hear the same sounds and watch the same images, and interpret the movie completely differently.

Parashat Shelah-Lekha teaches us that truth can easily be found in the eye of the beholder. The parashah describes how Moses dispatched twelve scouts to survey the land of Canaan. They return with identical reports concerning the beauty of the land: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27). All the scouts agree on the objective data. But the interpretation of the data brings about disagreement. The majority, ten of the scouts, report that they would not be successful in their attempt to conquer the inhabitants. But Caleb and Joshua disagree: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Numbers 13:30). All see the same facts and, yet, come to different conclusions. If the majority report is correct, then Caleb and Joshua are mistaken; if the latter are right, then the former are wrong.

So often, the truth is hard to find, difficult to discover, and almost impossible to evaluate. A mentor of mine, Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, in a recently published collection of sermons, notes that when we find praises of truth in the Bible, they often refer to three kinds of truthfulness: truthfulness to God, to one’s fellow and to oneself.

How can we be truthful to God? After all, can we hide anything from God even if we wanted to? Rambam offers an interpretation on Leviticus that sheds light on the relationship between religion and inner truth. The Torah states that a good animal set aside for a sacrifice must not be exchanged for an animal of inferior quality. Similarly, an inferior animal may not be exchanged for one of superior quality. Rambam suggests that being truthful to God means that we must give the best we can.

A story illustrates the Rambam’s point. A wealthy man was sailing a ship that was besieged by a violent storm. The man began to pray to God: “Dear God, if I survive this voyage, then I shall give all my wealth to charity.” The storm soon abated. The man then had second thoughts. “Perhaps,” he said to himself, “I shall only give away one-half of what I own.” Immediately the storm began anew. He looked up to the heavens and declared, “Dear God, can’t you tell I was only fooling?” Being truthful to God means establishing high ideals and living by them.

The second aspect of truthfulness is integrity in one’s dealings with others. The Torah emphasizes the need to be truthful and just in all our relationships and business dealings: “You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures” (Deuteronomy 25:15). Ethical behavior is the rule in all our business and commercial endeavors as well as in our relationships with others.

The words we utter must be truthful, and we should be loyal to our word. A story is told about a man who married a woman because he was promised a dowry of $25,000 by her father. After the wedding, the father-in-law took his new son-in-law aside and gave him the check. “Son, now that you are part of the family, I want you to know that we keep no secrets from one another. We always tell the truth. The check I just gave you, it’s no good. It isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Being truthful to one’s fellow dictates honesty and absolute integrity in all matters: in words, in thoughts, and in actions.

The third aspect of truthfulness is being true to oneself. Too often, we are prone to rationalize our failings and find excuses for not being able to achieve personal goals of success.

A Peanuts cartoon strip shows Peppermint Patty calling Charlie Brown on the telephone. “Guess what, Chuck,” she said. “Today was the first day of school, and I got sent to the principal’s office. It was your fault, Chuck.” “My fault?” he responded. “How could it be my fault? Why do you always say everything is my fault?” “You’re my friend, aren’t you, Chuck? You should have been a better influence on me.”

Being truthful to oneself suggests the need to admit personal failures and mistakes. Scapegoating may bring a temporary sense of relief, but it won’t do anything for ultimate success. The Kotzker Rebbe believed that the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” should be interpreted as “Thou shalt not steal from thyself.” This wisdom has echoes in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in the line “To thine own self be true.”

The Talmud in Shabbat 55a states: “The seal of the Holy One, blessed by He is truth.” In all that matters, we must be truthful: to God, to our fellow human beings, and to ourselves.

Perhaps this was the grave sin of the spies in today’s parashah. Their data were correct, but they colored the truth in such a way that it was impossible for them to be objective. They were not truthful to God. They didn’t give God the best they had, and they were prepared to settle for much less. They were not truthful to their fellow Israelites. And they were not truthful to themselves. They convinced themselves that they were bound to fail and were unable to assume personal responsibility for their actions.

So, you and I might watch a “Star Trek” movie together, and one might like it and the other not. We’ll have an honest discussion about it. But as we have our open dialogue and listen to each other, we need to be truthful to God, to one another and to ourselves. When we are truthful in these ways, we are much more likely to “live long and prosper.” Ken Yehi Ratzon.

#TieBlog #Behaalotekha

22 May

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Parashat Behaalotekha begins with instructions to Aaron to light the lights of the Menorah in the Tabernacle. In addition, the haftarah (prophetic reading) is taken from Zechariah and contains the prophet’s vision of the Menorah. This same selection is repeated on Shabbat-Hanukkah. The text of the haftarah inspired the lyrics of Debbie Friedman’s classic song: “Not by might, and not by power. But by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.” May the light of the Menorah inspire all of us to such a vision.

#TieBlog Behar-Behukotai-Proclaim Liberty

1 May

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“Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land, unto all its inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). This verse, immortalized on the Liberty Bell, comes from Parashat Behar and is the theme of this week’s Parashah Tie. The Torah text is describing the Jubilee year in which all slaves are to be freed and all land to return to its original owner. The Torah’s central message in this chapter is that the land ultimately belongs to God, and humans are but strangers and sojourners before God. The founders of the US had this idea in mind in creating a country of universal liberty, though their vision took many years and a bloody Civil War to be fully realized.