Tag Archives: Repentance

Love Is a Verb

2 Oct
The Torah's three commandments of love

The Torah’s three commandments of love

“Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” These words echo in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” the story of one of the least appreciated American founding fathers. The setting in which these words are sung is early in the Revolutionary War. The Americans are not faring well. Yet, the women who sing these words are brimming with optimism. War and bloodshed have engulfed the young nation, and still, there is a sense that better days are ahead.

Our Jewish tradition calls on us to cherish and affirm life, even when, or especially when, our world is rife with hatred, violence and fear. We gather on Rosh HaShanah for a communal wake up call to take careful note of the world around us and to commit ourselves to creating a better world. We take note of a sense of instability in our nation and around the world that has aroused fear, hatred, and even violence. The news is often overwhelming, and we may feel powerless in our ability to bring about change. Judaism demands otherwise.

Judaism demands that we not resign ourselves to fear, hatred and violence. Judaism demands love.  The Jewish concept of love is not random; it’s intentional. It’s not passive; it’s active. In the Torah, to love is a mitzvah, a commandment. On the surface, it seems ludicrous to legislate an emotion. In the Torah, love is a verb, ve’ahavta, you shall love. Love is an action. Love requires intention.

To illustrate this vital mission, I’d like to share three stories.  These stories are connected to commandments in the Torah on love, and, incredibly, each is connected to the climax of the High Holiday prayer Un’tane Tokef. The words u’teshuvah u’tefillah u’tzedakah maavirin et roa ha-gezeirah, “repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severity of the decree” provide a blueprint for us to fulfill the Torah’s commandment to love.

Story #1. A rabbinic colleague tells of receiving an urgent request to visit a patient who was very ill. The patient asked the rabbi to arrange for his sister to visit him. They had argued years earlier and then went their separate ways. When the rabbi phoned the sister, she accepted the invitation to see her brother at his bedside. The patient later told the rabbi, “Thank God I had the time to see my sister. You know, when I looked at her, I didn’t see the same person I had been angry with for so many years. I saw the young girl who had walked with me to school. I saw the young girl who brought me treats whenever she went to the store. I feel better now, but I am left asking myself the same question over and over, ‘Why did it take so long?’”(Klein, How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget, 60-61).

Three times the Torah instructs us to love. In Leviticus (19:18), we learn the familiar verse וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵֽעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ, love your neighbor as yourself. The Golden Rule! In the Hebrew, רֵֽע can mean more than just a neighbor, it is someone in your inner circle, someone close. We sometimes take these relationships for granted and allow anger, jealousy and spite to get in the way. However, like we saw with the sick man and his sister, there is path out of this place of “stuckness.” In Un’tane Tokef, teshuvah is one of the three pathways towards reconnection and renewal within our closest relationships.

In recent days, I’ve read many obituaries about President Shimon Peres z”l. On Yom Kippur I will reflect more on his legacy, but for today, one thing he said stands out for me. He once said, “[Reconciliation ] can’t be done if there is no forgiveness. Have you forgiven and can both [parties] move on? If you are focused on the past, you will not succeed. There will be no future.”

Teshuvah means return and reconnect, and that includes letting go the burdens of the past that hold us back so that we may move forward toward a renewed future. The High Holidays are our special time to reconnect. There are relationships in our lives that we need to renew. Someone needs to hear my apology, my gratitude, my appreciation. This is our time to make amends and rebuild love. Our future is at stake. The time for reconciliation is now.

Story #2. Just a few weeks ago, a Jewish artist in suburban Philadelphia, Esther Cohen-Eskin, woke up to find a swastika spray-painted on the garbage bin outside her home. Naturally, she was horrified by this vicious act of hatred as any of us would be. If this had happened to me I know I would try to erase all remnants of the swastika by either scrubbing it off, painting over it or buying a new garbage pail. That’s not what Esther did. She kept the swastika but painted over each of its legs a flower petal so that the end result was a beautiful flower. The story only began there. Esther’s neighbors were horrified, and with her encouragement, they painted swastikas on their garbage bins and then painted the same flower symbol over it as well as other symbols of love and caring. Soon Esther was receiving emails from total strangers in Canada, Germany and Ireland where people shared pictures of their own newly similarly decorated garbage bins. What started as the ugliest hate-filled antisemitism was transformed to solidarity and love.

The Torah expresses this kind of love as:  וַֽאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר (Deut. 10:19), you shall love the stranger. It’s not enough to love people close to you such as family and friends. We’re told to broaden the circle of love. Why? כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם, because YOU were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know what it’s like to be other. We know what it feels like to be hated. Therefore, it is our sacred duty to cultivate empathy and kindness, like that Esther received from total strangers.

The Un’tane Tokef prayer urges us to show love not only to those in our inner circle, but also to the broader world. Through tzedakah, we bring healing to those around us to alleviate their suffering. We must draw upon our experience to empathize with those less fortunate than ourselves. If others are in pain, we must do what we can to heal, because we know what it’s like. We’ve been there. Esther’s neighbors put themselves in Esther’s shoes, and whether or not they were Jewish they said we are with you.

When we deepen love in the world by repairing relationships with those closest to us and by expanding kindness and compassion to those outside of our immediate circle, we are then most likely to succeed at the third kind of love, love of God.

This takes me to Story #3. It’s a personal story about a time recently when I felt the presence of God. At the beginning of the summer, my brother Henry got married. His wife, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann has created an independent Jewish community called Mishkan Chicago that caters to a population of predominantly Jewish millennials—young adult Jews mainly in their 20s and 30s. On the Friday night before the wedding, Mishkan held a service with at least 500 people present. It was an overwhelming, inspiring outpouring of singing, dancing and love that is still reverberating in my heart. The enthusiastic and spontaneous joy in that extraordinary community embodied for me love of God.

We encounter the mitzvah to love God every day when we say the Shema:   וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ, and you shall love Adonai your God” בְּכָל־לְבָֽבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ, “with all your heart with all your soul with all your might” (Deut. 6:7). To love God correlates with the third pillar of Un’taneh Tokef: Tefillah, prayer. Teshuvah and Tzedakah open our pathways to authentic prayer. When we care about people near us and those further out, prayer affirms our relationship to God that we cultivate through love of humanity. Furthermore, authentic prayer is more than saying words. It reminds us that all other human beings are created in the divine image and inspires us to love our neighbors and strangers more. The service that I experienced at Mishkan did just that. Prayer is our invitation to affirm our relationship to God that we cultivate through love of humanity. Furthermore, authentic prayer is more than saying words. It reminds us that all other human beings are created in the divine image and inspires us to love our neighbors and strangers more. While our synagogues provide us refuge from the hatred and pain in the broader world, they also provide a structure within which we can model love. Love of humanity leads us to meaningful prayer. And meaningful, authentic prayer provides a structure within which to further cultivate love and take it back out to the world.

With unprecedented fear, hatred, bigotry and violence in our society, our task in this new year is to bring love into our community with intentionality and purpose. Love is a verb. Love is not random; it is an intentional action. This Rosh HaShanah, we reflect on a year in which fear and hate have caused so much pain to so many. I pray that next Rosh HaShanah will be different. I pray that we will reflect on 5777 and notice that we turned a corner. I pray that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words will come to fruition and we will say once again wholeheartedly “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.”

May God give us the strength to unlock love and bring healing to ourselves, our relationships and our world.

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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.