Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2011 High Holiday Sermons

1ST DAY ROSH HASHANA 2011 – 5772
A little girl is busily drawing a picture in her Sunday School class. Her teacher comes up to her and looks over her shoulder. “What are you drawing?” “I am drawing a picture of God.” The teacher tells the girl, “But God has no body. No one has ever seen God. We do not know what God looks like.” The girl proudly stands up and holds up the picture. “They will now.”
To see is so central to our view of the world. Our eyes make a difference. How sad it is to be blind, unable to see. There is another story, more inspirational than funny. A blind man is sitting out on a busy street, his hat in front of him with a sign. “I am blind. Please help me.” Everybody is passing by and ignoring him. Finally a woman comes out, nicely dressed, and says to the blind man, “You need a marketing expert. Let me help you.” She takes the sign and changes the wording. Suddenly the blind man notices that a lot of people are putting money in the cap. What does the new sign say. “What a beautiful day. You can see it and I cannot.”
God gave us the gift of sight. Every morning when traditional Jews wake up, they say a prayer Baruch Ata Adonai Elohenu Melech HaOlam Pokeach Ivrim. “Praised are You Lord our God King of the Universe Who Opens the Eyes of the Blind.” To see is so central. And yet so often we do not see. The book of Psalms says Einyim Lehem v’lo Yeru. “Eyes they have and cannot see.” (Psalms 115:5) Of course the Psalm is talking about idols. But it could be talking about you and me; eyes we have and cannot see.
Let me begin with an insight from Jewish law. Do you know why a tallit is blue and white? There is a whole debate in the Talmud, how early can we say the shma in the morning? This was in a world where people woke very early; only a king would sleep past sunrise. One opinion is that you can only say the shma when it is light enough to tell the difference between white and blue. The tallit helps us tell the difference. A second, stricter opinion says we say the shma when we can tell the difference between blue and turquoise. Finally the Talmud gives a third opinion, my favorite. When can we say the shma in the morning? Only if it light enough that we can recognize the face of our neighbor. In other words, we cannot speak to God until we can see human beings. Do you want to see God? Look at your neighbor.
Another question. The ninth plague that hit Egypt was choshech – darkness. Why was darkness the second from the last, second only to the killing of the first born? What is the big deal? If it is so dark, light a lamp. The Rabbis made the comment that for three days the plague was not simply that it was dark. The plague was that no person could see any other person. Everybody was disconnected from everybody else. It is a plague to live in a world where we cannot see any other person. Imagine the loneliness. Rabbi Harold Kushner has written, “…the darkness of the ninth plague is a foretaste of Gihinom (the Jewish word for hell), the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors.”
God gave us eyes to see. And the most important objects we need to see are our fellow human beings. And yet so often we are blind to our fellow. Eyes we have and cannot see. This morning I want to explore a central idea in our tradition – how to see our fellow. Why don’t we see? What blinds our eyes to our fellow human beings? Let us explore three answers.
Why don’t we see? Call the first answer stereotyping. Call it prejudice, by the actual meaning of the term – pre-judgment. We see people not how they really are, but according to categories our mind creates. We put people in boxes. We look at people and before we really see them, we judge who they are.
We see a person and what do we see? He is old – probably hoards the Sweet-and-Low at the bagel place. She is young – probably has no respect for elders. He has tattoos and piercings – no one would hire him. She is Moslem – probably a terrorist. He is a religious Christian – probably out to convert me. She is black. He is Hispanic. She is Asian – must be brilliant. He is gay. She is blond and beautiful – not real smart. He is a Hasidic Jew – why can’t they live in the modern world. She is in a wheel chair. He looks so gentile. On and on. We put people in boxes. I remember speaking many years ago about walking my dog, when I heard opera music coming from the next home. I walked up and saw a man covered with tattoos, fixing a motorcycle, listening to Puccini. I was confused; my mind did not know how to process this. People with tattoos who ride motorcycles do not listen to opera; people who listen to opera don’t ride motorcycles or have tattoos. Stereotypes keep us from seeing real people.
Often we look at the surface and do not see the real person. The Talmud (Taanit 20b) tells the story Rabbi Elezar ben Shimon who was riding his donkey feeling very good about himself, when he saw an extremely ugly man. He said, “Empty one. How ugly are you. Are all the people of your city like you?” The man answered back, “I don’t know. Ask the craftsman who made me, how ugly is the vessel he made.” Only then did R. Elezar realize what he had done. He begged for forgiveness. But the man said, “I will not forgive until you go to the craftsman who made me.” Rabbi Elezar goes to the town and asks for forgiveness, and because he was a great scholar, eventually the man does forgive him. We are so quick to see the surface. We see it in people who are ugly. But we also see it in people who are beautiful.
There is the story of a man in a dark bar who goes up to a woman and says, “Let me tell you the story about this blond.” The woman answers, “Before you begin I better warn you. I am blond and a professional body builder. My girlfriend here is blond and All State wresting champ. My other girlfriend here is blond and six foot two. The man looks at the women, “Never mind. I don’t want to tell the same story three times.”
When we put people in boxes, when we classify them, when we are prejudiced, we do not see the real human being. Every human being is unique, with a destiny on the earth unlike anybody else. One of the most beautiful passages in the Talmud says that when human beings make coins, every one is like every other one. But when God makes coins, although He uses the same stamp (call it the human genome), no one is like any other. Each human is unique. Even identical twins, although they share the same genes, have unique roles to play and unique destinies.
My first word to you this Rosh Hashana is when you meet a human, look past race. Look past age. Look past ethnicity and sexuality and religion and disabilities. Look past ugliness and look past beauty. Try to see the unique human being who is there.
Let us turn to a second reason why we do not see each other. We are distracted. Have you ever sat in a restaurant and looked at the next table to see two people sitting, each texting other people with their cell phones. So many people no longer talk, they text. We have been overwhelmed by the electronic revolution. Do not get me wrong – I love my blackberry. But we live in a world of i-phones and androids and i-pads and kindles, enough electronic gear to connect us to anybody in the world – except the person who is in front of us.
One of the most memorable workshops I went to occurred at one of the Rabbinical Assembly conventions. We rabbis were paired off. One person would talk and the other would listen for two minutes. Then one person would talk and the other would do everything but listen – play with the cell phone, write things down, adjust our tie. When it was over we were asked what we felt. I knew it was only a game. But I felt real anger at my colleague. “Look at me. Listen to me.” We need to remove the distractions.
I am not an Orthodox Jew. But I can learn from Orthodox Judaism. Observant Jews put away the cellphones and ipods and blackberries throughout Shabbat. They turn off the television and the radio. When they sit down to eat a Shabbat dinner, they look at each other. And they listen to each other. What a radical idea! Once a week on Friday night, have an electronics free dinner. Put away the gadgets. And be face to face in the presence of a real human being. I think this Rosh Hashana is the perfect time to make a commitment and give it a try. And yes, even my kids must admit, it is possible to sit through an hour meal without texting. Difficult, but possible.
Finally, let me turn to a third reason why we do not see each other. In my mind this is the most important reason. We do not see each other because we are too busy looking at ourselves. We cannot meet the other’s needs because we are focused on our own needs. There is a Hasidic tale I often tell to illustrate this idea. In a town with a lot of poor people, there was a wealthy man. This wealthy man never gave to the community fund to help the poor. One day the rabbi came to see him. He told the wealthy man to stand by the window and look out. “What do you see?” “I see a lot of people walking by.” Then the rabbi took the man to the mirror. “What do you see?” “I see myself.”
The rabbi then said, “What is the difference between a window and a mirror? They are both made of glass. But look through a window and you can see other people. A mirror has a thin layer of silver under the glass. Put a little silver under the glass and all you can see is yourself.” It is true, silver often makes us see only ourselves. But it is not just money. How often do we meet someone and we immediately think of our own needs. Is this someone I can make money off of? Is this a potential sexual partner? Can this person get me good seats to the NBA playoffs? What is in it for me?
There is a time when it is particularly important to truly see the other. I am thinking about when we pick a spouse or life partner. Rather than see the person we are considering spending our lives with, we see ourselves and our needs. I remember counseling a young woman who was going through a messy and sad divorce. She and her ex-husband had a whirlwind romance, a quick marriage, a child, and then a divorce. I asked her what went wrong. She was brutally honest. “He lived out of town. He came in to wine and dine me, to make love to me, I felt so good about myself with him. After a few visits I knew I had to marry him. Only after we were married and I was pregnant did I realize who he really was.”
Real love is not about seeing ourselves but about seeing the other. But it is so difficult to keep seeing the other, particularly in a long term marriage. We get distracted. We get selfish. Let me quote from a movie that was up for an Oscar for Best Picture last year. The movie is called The Kids are Alright starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening. It is about two women in a long term lesbian marriage, and their two teen age children. There are marital problems. And Jules, the woman played by Julianne Moore, says (leaving out the R-rated words), “Look, it’s no big secret your mom and I are in hell right now. Marriage is hard. Just two people slogging through, year after year, getting older, changing. It’s a marathon. So sometimes you are together so long, you just stop seeing this other person. You just see weird projections of your own junk.” There you have it. Whether it is a gay marriage or a straight marriage, or just a long term relationship, after a while a couple stops seeing each other. They see themselves, their own junk.
I tell every bride and groom in every wedding I do, “look at each other. See each other. Love is not about looking at yourselves, your own needs. Love is about looking at another person, truly seeing them, and saying, I was put in this world to meet their needs.” On this Rosh Hashana, it is the perfect time to tell each of us in a long term relationship to look at our life partner. See them for who they really are. What do they need from us? We need to truly see the other. But we can only do it if we stop looking at ourselves, if we remove the silver from behind the glass.
What is true for our spouse or life partner is even more true for our children. The Torah teaches that we should “be fruitful and multiply.” Most of want to have children and leave someone in this world who will continue after us. But many of us have children while looking at ourselves and our needs. This summer I flew down from Boston on JetBlue, a wonderful airline; they distract us from the uncomfortable seats and lack of food by a huge selection of television channels. I flipped through the choices and finally settled on a show I would not usually watch, MTV’s Sixteen and Pregnant. Here are girls who are children themselves, preparing to have children. They will not have abortions, they will not even consider adoption. Ask them why, and you get the same sad answer. “I want to bring someone in the world to love me.” These young pregnant girls are thinking only about themselves.
Having children is not about having someone who will love you. I hate to say this, Jewish parents. Children are not naches makers. Having children is about meeting the needs of those children. And you cannot possibly meet the needs of your children until you see your children. I tell parents, look at your children and try to truly see them. What makes them unique? Why are they on this earth? Get to know them. The Passover haggada teaches, lefi dato aviv melamdo – “according to a child’s way his father teaches him.” We cannot teach a child until we know a child. And we cannot know that child until we see that child. We need to see our own children.
The Psalmist taught us, “Eyes they have and cannot see.” Why can’t we see? First we can’t see because we place people in boxes, we stereotype them. We don’t see past the surface. Second, we don’t see because we are distracted. We would rather look at the screen of our i-phones than into the eyes of a real human being. Third, we do not see because we are too busy looking at ourselves to see other people. Our own needs distract us from seeing the needs of the other.
Why bother? Why do I need to see others? I return to the story I began this talk – about the little girl who drew a picture of God. She wanted people to see God. George Harrison wrote a song that the Beatles sang called My Sweet Lord. Through the song he cried out, “I really want to see you, Lord.” He was interviewed on why he wrote the song. Harrison answered that he did not want to see any holy roller. He did not even want to see the Pope. He wanted to see God.
Moses himself begged God to let him see God’s face. As the little girl learned, nobody can see God. But everybody, if they take the time, can see another human being. Each of us can see our spouse, partner, or significant other. Each of us can see our children. And when we truly see the other, we are seeing the face of God. As the Jewish thinker Martin Buber taught, “Every thou, (every true encounter with another human being, every act of being in the presence of another) is a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou”, to God.
After everything I just said, you might think that nothing is more important than seeing. In the Christian world that is true. That is why our Christian neighbors taught that God became flesh – you could see him. But Jews have a different idea.. To Jews, there is something even more important than seeing. But if you want to know what it is, you have to come back tomorrow.
Each morning a Jew says Baruch Ata Adonai Elohenu Melech HaOlam, Pokeach Ivrim. Praised are You Lord our God King of the Universe, Who Opens the Eyes of the Blind. May God open our eyes to see our fellow human beings,
And let us say, AMEN.
2nd DAY ROSH HASHANA 2011 – 5772
There is the story of a woman who gets a new hearing aid. For the first time in years she can hear everything clear as a bell. She comes back a few weeks later to the audiologist for a check up. “Tell me, is your family excited?” She replies, “My family does not know. I sit there like I did before. But since getting the hearing aid, I have changed my will three times.”
Yesterday I spoke about sight. Einyim Lehem v’Lo Yeru. “Eyes they have and cannot see.” The Psalm continues, Oznaim Lehem v’Lo Yeeshmau. “Ears they have and cannot hear.” (Psalms 115:6) Seeing is important. But in the Jewish world, the ability to hear is even more important. The Talmud tells the story of the Roman emperor who went to one of the great rabbis and asked to see God. “If your God is so great, let me see him.” The rabbi took the emperor outside and told him to look at the sun. “That’s impossible. I will go blind.” The rabbi responded, “If you cannot look at the sun which is merely a creation of God, how much more so can you not actually see God.”
In Judaism we cannot see God. But we can hear God. We Jews say Sh’ma Yisrael – “Hear O Israel.” In fact, Western culture is a mixture of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Hebrews – Hellenistic and Hebraic. To the Hellenistic culture sight was most important. Beauty was the ultimate value. To the Christians under the influence of this Greek culture, the word became flesh – Christians believe God literally became someone you can see. Much of the world wanted to see God in the flesh.
Not so the Jewish culture. For Israel, the word stayed a word. We hear the Torah read. We interpret it. Hearing becomes the most important of our senses. We have introduced a song that we often sing Friday night before the Sh’ma called Listen by Doug Cotler and Jeff Marx. “If you’re lost, you feel afraid and you don’t know what to say, then listen, listen to our God. Is there a question on your mind? Is the answer hard to find? Then listen, listen to our God.” As I have said many times, you can’t say the Sh’ma until you first listen. Judaism is about hearing.
So often we are hard of hearing. I am reminded of another story. A man brings his dog to the veterinarian. He tells the vet, “This is a talking dog.” The vet is skeptical, but says, “What’s the problem.” The man tells the dog, “Fetch.” The dog opens his mouth. “It’s much too hot in here. I have fur, not skin like you people. And while I am at it, why do I have to eat that lousy dog food? Look at the wonderful food you eat. And how about walking me more often? I am bored staying home” The vet is amazed. “I have never seen a dog do that before. So what is the problem?” The man answers, “I think my dog is hard of hearing. I said fetch, not kvetch.”
Why is hearing so important? The ability to speak and to hear is what makes us human. Hearing is the basis of human culture. Hearing allows us to pass on our culture, our ethics, our religion to our children. I have often attacked the biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins in my sermons. Let me point out something where I think Dawkins is absolutely right. Dawkins invented a new term – meme. What is a meme? What a gene is to biology, a meme is to culture. A gene allows us to pass on our biological structure to a new generation. A meme allows us to pass on our culture to a new generation. Animals have genes, but only humans have memes.
Let me give examples. We have very important memes that should be passed on from generation to generation – for example, Hamlet or Beethoven. We have less important memes that are still important for the next generation to hear – for example, Star Trek or Harry Potter. And then we have totally unimportant memes that still become part of our cultural heritage – for example, the Kardashians. Memes are what make us human. And Jewish memes such as Sh’ma Yisrael make sure that Judaism continues ledor vador – from generation to generation.
In order to pass on our memes, our cultural heritage, we need to hear. So why do we have such trouble hearing? Like yesterday, I want to explore three answers. For the first answer, blame the Tower of Babel. You all know the story from the Bible. All humanity spoke one language. They decided to build a tower in order to challenge God. God was disappointed in humanity’s behavior, destroyed the tower, and scattered them across the world. God then mixed up their languages so no one could understand anyone else. God created a babel of languages. If people cannot understand one another, they cannot commit a conspiracy to challenge God. But without understanding one another, it is also hard to work for a better world.
Americans have always had trouble with foreign languages. It puts us at a disadvantage in the world economy. It reminds me of the bigot who rants and raves about immigration. “If all those people want to come to America, let them learn to speak English like Jesus did.” I will admit that foreign languages are one of my weaknesses.
This year was a challenging year for me when it comes to language. I worked with a large group of people for conversion who spoke only Spanish. I developed a wonderful relationship with them, with the help of a translator. But even after buying some CD’s to listen in the car, speaking Spanish eluded me. I took French in High School, German in college. I never became proficient in either. But I do have one memory. When I was nineteen I travelled through Europe with a pack on my back. I was in the former Yugoslavia, in a city I do not remember – possibly Zagreb. I was hungry, so I walked into what I thought was a restaurant. This was before I kept kosher. I did not speak the language, so I said in French Je Voudrais Manger “I would like to eat.” They brought me a meal. Afterwards when I tried to pay, I found out that I had walked into a private home.
Eventually I realized my brain has enough room for one foreign language. I had to learn Hebrew. And I did learn enough to speak and read, when I spend time in Israel my Hebrew vastly improves. But Spanish – I do live in Florida – maybe I should try again. If language is such an issue, why do I insist that we conduct services in a foreign language, in Hebrew? Because Hebrew is the Jewish language. It is the key to our faith and culture. Let me tell a true story. When I was in Rabbinical School, a Jewish family from Russia moved in next door. We could not speak, but I knew they were Jewish, so I invited them for Shabbat dinner. We communicated with hand gestures. The family walked into my apartment, the man looked at a Hanukkah Menorah on the shelf, pointed to it all excited, and said, Baruch Ata Adonai Elohenu Melech HaOlam Hamotzi Lechem Min HaAretz. Wrong blessing, but it did not matter. He was communicating to me that he was a Jew. And Hebrew was the language.
Sometimes even when we speak the same language, we do not understand each other. The older generation does not understand the younger generation. Grandparents, ask your grandchildren what a bff is. (It means “best friend forever.”) Grandchildren, ask your grandparents what it means to dial a phone. If you are the age of my children, you probably never saw a dial phone in your life. Sometimes even if you are the same age, you do not understand each other. I was in London, England when a man my age ran into the hotel, “My car broke down; I need a torch.” My first thought was the Olympic flame. Of course, a torch is a flashlight in English, or perhaps I should say, a flashlight is a torch in American. How often do we speak past each other?
Two people who speak the same language cannot understand each other. But my experience with converts taught me that people who speak a different language can understand each other. All we need to do is listen. But too often ears we have and cannot hear.
There is a second reason we cannot hear. We are distracted. We are not really listening. Did anybody see the whole series of commercials on television for a new cell phone. This one allows you to talk on the phone and surf the web at the same time. The commercial I remember is the man playing with his phone, when his wife calls “Do you remember that it is our anniversary?” “Of course I remember”, he lies. And while he is talking to his wife, he scrambles to make a restaurant reservation on his phone. Maybe if he had spent less time on his phone to begin with, he would have remembered his anniversary. Imagine: you can talk on the phone while you are checking your bank account, buying a plane ticket, even watching entertainment on youtube. You can do anything except focus on what the person speaking is saying to you. Again we are distracted.
Sherry Turkle, a professor of sociology who has studied the effects of technology in our lives, has written a book entitled Alone Together; Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. The title says it all; our technology allows us to be alone together. She tells a story in her book about a very high powered, Wall Street man, married to a woman who was a wonderful cook. The woman showed her love for her family by preparing long, fancy, multicourse meals. Meanwhile, the husband spent much of the meal with his blackberry. One day their teenage son left a message for his mom. “Mom, please make shorter less elaborate meals. Then maybe daddy will put the blackberry away and pay attention to us.” Our technology connects us, but it also separates us.
This brings me to a third reason we do not listen. We do not listen because we are too busy speaking. It was an ancient Greek thinker who taught, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we speak.” A rabbi could have easily said that. Stephen Covey said, “Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.” Wise people from the ancient Greeks, the medieval rabbis, and modern speakers have all agreed, it is more important to listen than to speak.
This is not easy. I am rabbi and rabbis love to speak. In fact, when I go to a rabbinical assembly convention, the speeches all seem to run over time. Yet classical Judaism teaches that it is particularly important for rabbis to listen. A rabbi was not permitted to speak in front of his teacher; his job was to drink in the wisdom of his teacher. But rabbis also listened to their students. Rabbi Hanina said in the Talmud, “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students” (Ta’anit 7a). We cannot learn from anybody until we learn to listen. And we cannot learn to listen until we learn to stop talking. Wisdom means knowing when to talk and when to be silent.
There is a time to speak. The Psalm we have been reading teaches, pe lehem v’lo yidaberu – “Mouths they have and do not speak.” But speech is not always appropriate. Let me teach a little bit of Jewish law. The Torah teaches in Leviticus, “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor but do not sin on his account.” What does it mean to rebuke someone without sinning? If you see someone doing something wrong, you should in a kind way try to correct them. So what is the sin? The sin is if you rebuke someone who is not prepared to listen to you. In other words, it is all right to talk. But first you must know that people are ready to listen. And you can only know if they are prepared to listen to you if you first listen to them. Use your ears before using your mouth.
So often we have ears but do not hear. We do not hear because we do not speak the language of the person who is talking. We do not hear because we are distracted. We do not hear because we would rather talk than listen. To be a human being is to listen to other human beings. And to be a human being is to listen to God.
How can we listen to God? When the Israelites were gathered at Mt. Sinai and God spoke to them out of the mountain, the people became scared. They did not want to hear. They told Moses, you listen and you speak instead. Many say that when we read the Torah we are not hearing the voice of God; we are hearing the voice of Moses. How can we hear God?
My favorite example is in a haftarah we chant occasionally for parshat Pinchas. Most years we read an alternative haftarah. But this year we happened to read the Pinchas haftarah of the story of Elijah. According to the story, Elijah fled from the wicked Ahab who had tried to kill him. He returned to Mt. Sinai, the place of the giving of the Torah. And he was overwhelmed by a display of nature’s fury. (1 Kings 19:11 – 12) “A great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”
So how can we hear God? God is in the still small voice that resonates within our soul. If we are perfectly still, we can hear the voice of God. Sometimes we hear God as our conscience, that voice that tells us what is right and what is wrong. When we are tempted to go down the wrong path, a voice deep in our soul tells us to change our ways.
Sometimes we hear God in the voice of encouragement giving us hope during difficult times. . It is God saying, “though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am with you your staff and your comforter.” God says, do not worry, for I am with you.
Sometimes we hear God when we face a difficult decision in life, laying out the choices we face. Sometimes it is the voice of insight, of wisdom, the voice that guides us when we are confused.
And sometimes we hear God in moments of great beauty, whether by the ocean or in the mountains, watching a sunset or walking through the woods, listening to a beautiful piece of music or a work of art. God is always speaking to us, if only we would listen.
These last two days we have spoken about our senses. We have eyes and we have ears. We need to open our eyes and see our fellow human beings. Of course we cannot see God. But when we see our fellow, that becomes a glimpse through to God. We need to open our ears and hear our fellow. To the Greeks seeing was the most important sense; to the Hebrews hearing was the most important sense. And by learning to listen, we not only hear our fellow. We learn to hear God. For as Elijah learned on the slopes of Mt. Sinai, God speaks to each of us in a still, small voice.
May God teach us to open our ears, to listen, and truly hear. And through hearing, may we become closer to our fellow human beings, and closer to God
And let us say, AMEN.
KOL NIDRE 2011 – 5772
Hands They Have and Cannot Touch
A woman was busy preparing a dinner for the rabbi. Her young daughter interrupted her, “Mommy, I have a stomach ache.” The mom quickly answered, “Your stomach hurts because it is empty. You need to put something in it.” She gave her daughter a snack. And she continued her work. When the rabbi came over, he asked the woman for a couple of Tylenol. “Forgive me, I have a headache.” The little girl quickly spoke to the rabbi. “I know what the problem is. Your head hurts because it is empty. You need to put something in it.”
On Kol Nidre night I know that most of our stomachs are full right now. I don’t know about our heads. But I do know that by the end of Yom Kippur our stomachs will be empty. I hope to share insights that will fill our heads. Let me share an important one now, an insight that I believe is at the center of Judaism. My sermons this set of holidays are based on Psalm 115. The Psalm teaches, yedeihem v’lo yemeshun – “hands they have and cannot touch.” Of course the Psalm is speaking of idols. But it could be speaking about us – hands we have and do not touch.
When I was a child I remember my mother constantly saying, “Keep your hands to yourself.” I know my brothers and I liked to fight. But as adults, each of us needs to learn not to keep our hands to ourselves. To quote the famous telephone ad of years ago, “Reach out and touch someone.” There is a church on Royal Palm Blvd that I used to admire whenever I drove past. The sign in front of the Church said, “Come in if you need a hug.” What a wonderful message. I have never seen a synagogue with such a sign. But maybe we should. A synagogue ought to be a place where people come in for a helping hand.
There is a true story about the famous Alabama coach Bull Bryant. Everybody knows him. So Southern Bell hired the coach for a brief telephone ad. The idea was for the coach to bark, “Call your mom.” But when it came time to film the ad, Coach Bryant teared up. He said in a soft voice, “Call your mom. I wish I could.” They kept the four extra words. And it became one of the most successful ads in history. Reach out and touch someone, while we still can. Our hands symbolize doing something – taken action.
If there is one word that symbolizes Judaism, it is “action.” Scholars have often said that Christianity is a religion of faith; Judaism is a religious of action. Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, often said that we are judged by faith, not works. Judaism says that we are judged by our works, what we do, not what we believe. We are a religion of hands. In fact, I have heard it put very beautifully – we are God’s hands. We need our hands to do God’s work in this world. The Bible teaches that when God finished creating the world, He saw that it was tov meod – very good. Very good, but not perfect. God needs someone to perfect the world. That is our job. We are to be God’s hands.
This is powerfully symbolized by one of the fundamental mitzvoth of Judaism. When a baby boy is born, we leave him alone for the first seven days, symbolizing the first week of creation. But on the eighth day we are commanded to do something. We must bring the boy into the covenant. We must circumcise him. It is a way of saying that God makes everything, even our bodies, incomplete; we must complete the job. Technically, it is the father’s obligation. I always ask the father, “Do you want to circumcise your son, or do you authorize the mohel?” Most fathers pass it on to the mohel. But many fathers allow the mohel to guide their hand and do it themselves. Hopefully, as the baby grows up, he will learn that it is his job to use his hands to complete the world.
This year brit milah, this fundamental mitzvah of Judaism, came under attack. It did not happen in the former Soviet Union or in some Arab country. No. The attack on circumcision took place in one of the most open minded, tolerant cities in the world – San Francisco. Anti-circ activists were able to get enough signatures to put a bill on the ballot outlawing infant circumcision in the cities. Anybody who participates in the circumcision of an infant – doctors, parents, mohels, would be hit with a hefty fine. Those who generated this outrage put out a comic strip portraying Mohelman – with images that would have made Hitler proud.
Fortunately, the religious community was up in arms. They took action. Not simply Jews and Moslems, who circumcise their sons, but Christians including the Catholic Church, fought this law. Fortunately a judge saw the law for what it was – an anti-Semitic measure – and had it removed from the ballot. But supporters of the bill promise it will be back. The fight is not over.
Using our hands means defending Jews, and defending Israel, against those who would attack her. A good example was the great Scotch boycott this year. As part of a European anti-Israel campaign, the tiny town of West Dunbartonshire, Scotland proclaimed a boycott against Israel. No Israeli products could be sold in the town. And to drive the point home, no books published in Israel could be brought into the public library. This brought a reaction in the Jewish community. It was Rabbi Chuck Simon, the head of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, who first proposed a reaction. If they are going to try to hurt Israel, let us boycott them. Several Scotch distilleries are in this community. He proposed that Kiddush clubs throughout the Jewish world boycott Scotch. The Scotch boycott was picked up by bloggers on the internet, and soon the word got out that Jews should boycott Scotch.
The reaction of the Scotch companies was swift. They claimed that the action of a small municipality had nothing to do with them. They had acted in good faith. At least one of the companies was trying to bring in kosher supervision for its product. Eventually it came out that most of these Scotch companies were friends of Israel. The Scottish parliament questioned whether this little village even had the legal right to proclaim such a boycott. I spoke with Rabbi Simon. The point was made and the boycott was dropped. Hopefully the Jewish community learned that when someone raises its hand to destroy Israel, we Jews will raise our hands to fight back. We need our hands to fight those who would destroy us.
The entire event reminds me of the story of Amalek in the Bible. Amalek was the enemy of Israel. She attacked Israel from behind, killing the elderly, the infirm, the stragglers. Amalek came to symbolize evil in the world, an evil that never seems to go away from generation to generation. In the Bible Israel fought back against Amalek. When Moses held up his hand, Israel was victorious. But when Moses put his hands down, Amalek was victorious. Two of Moses assistants, Joshua and Hur, stood next to Moses and held his hands up. Israel overcame Amalek. What a powerful symbol, helping hold up someone’s hands to defeat those who would destroy us.
Sadly, Israel has enemies. Those enemies tried to defeat Israel through war. Those enemies tried to defeat Israel through terrorism. The most dangerous enemy Iran is trying to defeat Israel with the bomb. Much of Europe is trying to defeat Israel with a boycott. And today the primary tactic to defeat Israel is through delegitimization. Only Israel in the world of nations must constantly argue that she has a right to exist. Meanwhile the United Nations is ready to unilaterally declare the existence of a state called Palestine. Never mind that the Palestinians could have had a state a generation ago if its leaders had been serious about peace talks. All of this proves that we need to give a hand, we need to fight for Jewish interests, whether in San Francisco, in New York, in Scotland, or in Tel Aviv. We must lift our hand to fight those who would destroy the Jewish people or destroy Israel.
We must use our hands for defense. But we must also use our hands for offence. We must take action to perfect the world. Tradition is filled with activities we do that, to quote our tradition, “Make a difference in this world while their reward comes in the next.” We can feed the hungry, cloth the naked, help the needy bride, visit the sick, bury the dead, comfort the mourners, help mourners say kaddish, and countless other mitzvot In Judaism we have a name for all such acts of loving kindness – gemilut hasidim, literally being the cause of righteousness. There are countless worthy projects from giving to the Wecare program to delivering food to shut-ins for the Jewish Family Service. One of our members recently began a new project – collecting and refurbishing old computers to send to Haiti, in order to help schoolchildren, often living in tent cities without schools, learn. It is a beautiful project.
We can each find our own way to make a difference. I am reminded of the story of the rabbi who worked as a chaplain at a number of hospitals. One day he ran out of gas a few hundred yards from a gas station. The rabbi walked over and asked for a gas canister to bring gasoline to his car. “Sorry, we loaned out our canister. You will have to find something else.” The rabbi walked back to the car to find something, but all he could find was a bedpan he sometimes used when he visited the sick. He filled it with gasoline and walked back to his car. Two men walked by as the rabbi was filling the gas tank from his bed pan. One turned to the other and said, “I don’t know about you, but if that car starts, I am becoming religious.”
In Judaism, religion is not just about helping others. We are a hands-on religion. We are a religion filled with action. We move our bodies when we pray, beat our chest on Yom Kippur, light candles, put on a tallit and tefillin, touch a mezuzah, and constantly move and do. We are a religion of action. At no time is that commitment to action more obvious than on Sukkot, the festival that comes up in just five days. We build a sukkah with branches on the roof and eat our meals in it. Some pious Jews even sleep in the sukkah. We take four species – the lulav and the etrog – and wave them in six directions. We hold them and march through the synagogue. On the closing day of the festival, Simchat Torah, we dance with the Torahs. One of my goals is for Jews to rediscover Sukkot, our most beautiful and most joyous festival.
It is a shame that more Jews in America put up Christmas trees than put up Sukkot. When I was a younger rabbi I used to say, half tongue in cheek, that I look forward to the day when Jewish families would build a Sukkah and Christian neighbor children would run home and say, “Mommy, daddy, can we have a Sukkah too?” I used to say that in a kidding way. Then it really happened. One year when my children were young, we were decorating our Sukkah. A neighbor child, not Jewish, was helping. She actually went home and asked her mom if they could build a sukkah.
Sukkot symbolizes the temporary huts the Israelites dwelt in as they wandered through the desert for forty years. It symbolizes that we live at the mercy of the elements, we are in God’s hands. But not only are we in God’s hands, in the world we are God’s hands. We live our lives with a deep awareness of God, and the ongoing expectation from God – “This is my world, go out there and fix it.”
That brings me to one last point. These High Holiday talks have all been based on Psalm 115. One line of that Psalm reads, af lehem v’lo yerechun “They have noses but do not smell.” Again the Psalm is speaking of idols. But it could be speaking about us. How many of our children have never known the smell of a traditional Jewish kitchen? How many of them know the smells of the inside of McDonalds or Taco Bell or the local Chinese restaurant, but not the traditional foods that made a home smell like a Jewish home.
When I do a funeral, particularly of a woman of the older generation who was homemaker, I always ask if she liked to cook. Sometimes I get a laugh. “The favorite thing our mother liked to make was reservations.” Sometimes I get a sad statement, “She tried, but when she tried to boil water, she would burn it.” Some people, particularly in the younger generation, would say, “Dad did the cooking.” But often I will get families to wax nostalgic about the food from mom’s kitchen – chicken soup with k’naidels, luction kugel, brisket, cholent, stuffed cabbage, and chopped liver. Of course we are talking about Ashkenazic Jews; if you are Sefardic you have different traditions.
In our own time we can Americanize those traditions. In our home we are more apt to make a Shabbat dinner of spaghetti with meat sauce than brisket or kishke. But the idea of the Jewish kitchen is fundamental to our identity. Traditionally that meant a kosher kitchen. If it is kosher, every Jew could eat your kitchen. But even if you are not ready to make the kitchen kosher, the idea of creating Jewish memories of food, of Shabbat and festival meals with family and friends, this is also something that Jews do. How can we create Jewish memories for our children? Perhaps it starts in our kitchen. We Jews worship God with our nose.
I began this talk speaking about a full stomach and an empty head. Some would say that Judaism is too obsessed with food. Perhaps we should not speak about food on Yom Kippur. Some have spoken in an almost derisive town about pots and pans Judaism. Jesus said, “God cares what comes out of your mouth, not what goes into it.” The truth is that Judaism is an embodied religion. We worship God with our body. We circumcise our sons. We move when we pray. We cook and eat certain foods. We wear certain clothes. We clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Judaism is a religion of action, of outreach with our hands, of doing. And in doing so, we become God’s hands in the world.
May God help us use our hands to make this a better world. And let us say
YIZKOR 5772 – 2011
A teenage boy approached his dad. Can I borrow the car to go out with my friends every Saturday night? His dad answered, “You want the car. First there have to be some changes. I want your grades to improve, I want you to come with me to synagogue, and I want you to cut your hair.” A few months later the boy asked again, “Can I borrow the car?” His dad answered, “You grades seem to be getting better, you have been coming to synagogue. But you still have not gotten a haircut.” The boy protested, “Dad, I listen to the rabbi. All those people in the Bible – Moses, David, Samson – had long hair.” Dad answered, “You are right. But they walked everywhere.”
My sermons this set of High Holidays have all been based on Psalm 115. This includes the line raglehem v’lo yehalechu – “Feet they have and cannot walk.” For life is about walking. Life is a journey, some would say life is a holy pilgrimage. But to take the journey, you have to start walking. Our feet must get used to walking. I am reminded of the story of the centipede who was a wonderful dancer. Everybody would come out to watch how beautifully he moved his hundred feet. But the tortoise was jealous. He could never dance like that. He wanted to put a stop to the centipede’s dancing. The tortoise had an idea. He spoke to the centipede. “You dance beautifully. But tell me, what order do you do it. Do you move foot 63 or foot 64 first. Do you start with the feet on the right or left side? What about foot 99?” The centipede began to think about how he moved each foot. And the more he thought, the more he could no longer move. He became so flustered that he stopped dancing.
We cannot become flustered. We need to start moving our feet. On this Yom Kippur, as we prepare to begin our yizkor services, I want to speak about walking on the journey called life. Seven is a holy number in Judaism. So let me share seven insights about our journeys.
Insight #1 -To know where we are going, you have to know where we came from. Today many of us get directions on the internet, using mapquest or google maps. Before it can give directions, these websites ask where you are starting from. Many of us use a GPS – a truly great invention. But before the GPS can point you towards your destination, it first has to search for a satellite signal. It cannot tell you how to get where you are going until it knows where you are.
Before Selichot services we showed the movie The Jazz Singer – the Neil Diamond not the Al Jolson version. It is a wonderful movie about a young cantor, Jess Robin, part of five generations of cantors, who wants to break away from his family tradition and become a pop singer. His father Cantor Rabinovich, played by Laurence Olivier, keeps reminding his son not to forget where he came from. He says more than once in the movie, “to know where are you going, you have to know where you came from.” But the young cantor wants nothing of his past. I am not spoiling the movie too badly by saying that in the end, the young man comes back and sings Kol Nidre in synagogue Yom Kippur eve. Probably one of the most beautiful scenes is when his gentile girlfriend Molly played by Lucie Arnaz convinces him to go back to synagogue. “I may be a shiksa, but I know what Yom Kippur is. Yom Kippur is about forgiveness.”
As we begin our journey in life, we need to realize that we were not born into a vacuum. We were born of particular parents in a particular time and place. We descended from particular grandparents. Many of us are saying yizkor today to remember those parents and grandparents. For those of us who are not converts, we were born and raised as Jews. Its values, rituals, and memories give us our starting place. We may, like the cantor in the movie, set out in a different direction than our parents. But we can never wander too far. We are who we are. We cannot be successful on the journey unless we know where we came from.
Insight #2 – We each need to decide where we want to go. My journey will be different from yours, it will certainly be different from that of my parents. And my childrens’ journey will be different from mine. They cannot live my life any more than I can live my parents’ lives. We each have a unique journey. Each of us must think about where we want the journey to take us. What path should we go on? I have often shared a story from Alice in Wonderland, a story I also shared in my book The Ten Journeys of Life. Alice comes to the Chesire Cat, the disappearing cat with the big smile. Alice asks the cat, “I am totally lost. Which way should I go?” The cat replies, “Where are you trying to get to?” “I don’t know,” says Alice. “Well if you do not know where you are trying to get to, it does not matter which way you go.” In our journey, we must think about where we are trying to get to and which way we are going to go.
Each of us must think about where we want to go. My in-laws were wonderful people, but did not have a good sense of direction. They are gone now, but they probably would not mind if I told a true story. They were travelling from a visit to family in Boston back to their home in Brooklyn, NY. They got on the highway and started driving. They realized they might have made a mistake when they passed a sign – Welcome to Maine. Perhaps we all need a GPS of life, or at least a Cheshire Cat, to tell us where we going and how to get there.
What if we do not know where we want to go? I meet too many people who tell me, “Rabbi, I hate my life. All I do is get up, go to work which I hate, go home, watch tv, fall asleep, and start all over again. There is no purpose.” Or in Florida I am as likely to hear, “Rabbi, I hate my life. It was fine while I was working. But now that I am retired, I don’t play golf, I don’t play canasta, I have nothing to do.” The journey has to start somewhere. If we cannot find purpose for a big journey, try something smaller. Take a class. Learn a new skill – perhaps a musical instrument or a foreign language or a computer program. Start baking. Start journaling. Plant a garden. Travel somewhere you have never been. Read one of the great novels. Study Torah with me. I remember children who told me about their mother. “When our dad died, she lost all sense of purpose. She did not know what to do with herself. Then she discovered something new. The slot machines. And she won.” I am not sure that when we speak of the journeys of life, it includes slot machines. But who knows?
Insight # 3 – Every journey starts with a first step. It was a wise Chinese thinker who said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. We have to get started. If our journey involves going back to school, we have to sign up for the first class. If our journey involves learning a new skill, we need to start learning. If our journey means coming back to Judaism, we need to start coming, to try to learn the Hebrew and the rituals. If our journey is about finding love, we can’t just sit home feeling lonely. We have to take a step.
Most of you know that I am working on my PhD. I am at that point where many people hit the wall – EBD everything but dissertation. I had a wonderful talk with a member of our synagogue who had written his dissertation and received his PhD. His advisor had told him, “Do you know the difference between people who write their dissertation and people who talk about it but never write it. The people who write their dissertation – write.” The people who succeed on the journey get started and go on the journey.
People tell me they are scared to get started with a project because they know it is not perfect. Did you know that perfection is the biggest enemy of good? If you wait for everything to be perfect, you will never be satisfied with the good. I am reminded of a speech I once heard from radio commentator and Jewish thinker Dennis Prager. He was speaking about someone he knew, an Orthodox Jewish man, who could not find a bride good enough. Prager said, “He is looking for a Playboy centerfold who studies Talmud. No wonder he has not succeeded.” If you want to accomplish something in your life, you cannot wait for the perfect moment. You have to start.
Insight #4 -We cannot take the journey alone. Most of us, if we are lucky, find significant people to help us with the journey. In an ideal world, we find a life partner – a wife or husband or spouse or significant other, to be with us, support us, help us on the way. For the Torah says, it is not good to be alone. Or as a colleague of mine so beautifully interpreted the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, “Adam had everything and nobody. To have everything and nobody is to have nothing.”
I am reminded of another book and movie – Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Based on a true story, the movie starred Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, a brilliant student who left his family behind, gave away his entire savings, changed his name, and took off hitchhiking across the country. He ended up in the woods of Alaska. Only when it was too late did he realize how important his family and his name were. It is a story about the sadness of trying to go through life totally alone. Christopher certainly met some influential characters on the way. But in the end he realized who he really missed.
I spoke the first day of Rosh Hashana about truly seeing the other, particularly seeing others to whom we make a life-long commitment. Part of seeing the other is seeing their journey. How can we help them become the person they have set out to become? Our journey needs people.
Insight #5 – There are distractions along the way. In fact life is filled with distractions, diversions, fun, things that keep us from staying on the path. There is a story told by Buddhists of two monks on a journey. On the way, they see a woman standing by a river. The woman tells them that she needs help crossing. One of the Buddhist monks picks up the woman and carries her across the river. The two monks continue on their way, but the one who carried the woman notices that his colleague is getting very angry. He finally asks, “Why are you angry? Did I do something wrong?” The other monk answers, “I can’t believe you picked up that woman and carried her across the river. What kind of action is that for a monk?” The other monk replied, “Yes, I carried her. But I put her down a half hour ago. You, my friend, are still carrying her.”
There are distractions along the way. Perhaps it does not mean carrying a woman across a river. But there is good food and drink and entertainment, there is sex and money and wonderful toys, there are new cars and trips. None of these things are bad in themselves. When I talk to the teens about this issue, I ask them, “Is there anything wrong with going to an amusement park?” Of course they answer no. Then I ask, “What if you went to an amusement park every day?” Unless someone was a professional amusement park critic, going every day would be a bit much. Diversions are wonderful, but a life of diversions is not a worthy life. We can stop along the way, but eventually we have to get back onto the path.
Insight #6 – There are also obstacles along the way. Sometimes things go very wrong. Sometimes we are going down a path and discover that the road is washed out, that a large boulder is blocking the way, that we have a physical ailment that keeps us from continuing. Sometimes we have to come up with an alternative route. And sometimes we need to switch destinations altogether.
Let me share another Buddhist monk story. Yes, the Buddhists were almost as good as the Hasidim at telling clever stories. There was a Buddhist monk who was considered the wisest man in the world. And there was warrior who was considered the strongest man in the world. One day the wise monk met the vicious warrior on a narrow bridge. The warrior saw him and became angry. “You think you are so wise. But I am far stronger than you. Tell me, what can you possibly teach me that I do not already know.” The monk answers, “I can show you the door to hell and the door to heaven.” The warrior is infuriated. He screams, “How dare you! Get out of my way before I kill you.” The monk answers, “That is the door to hell.” Suddenly the warrior felt bad, “I am so sorry. I guess I lost my temper.” The monk said, “And that is the door to heaven.”
How often do we travel on our journey and we see hell along the way. Something happens that stops us dead in our tracks. Someone gets sick. Someone we love dies. Someone loses a job. A marriage breaks up. Estrangement happens in a family. We wonder how we can ever keep going. And yet, somehow, we pick ourselves up and continue on our way. We may be delayed. We may even find ourselves staring in a new direction. How many people have found their life’s meaning after overcoming terrible obstacles. Perhaps these obstacles were actually part of the journey.
Insight #7 – Nobody will totally finish the journey. That is correct. Even if our journey is to climb a mountain, when we get to the top we see new mountains to climb. One of my favorite passages in all of Rabbinic literature comes from Pirkei Avot – Lo Aleica HaMelacha Ligmor v’lo Ata Ben Horin L’Hebatel Memena. “It is not your job to finish the task, but neither are you free to avoid it altogether.”
None of us will totally finish the journey. That is why it is so important to have others – children, students, disciples, people who will take over where we left off. We carry the baton only so far, then eventually we must hand it off to someone else. They continue the journey. And so it is, over the generations, bit by bit, each of us doing our part, the tasks of life are completed.
We have now come full circle. We started by looking at our past, our parents and grandparents, our teachers and mentors, those who set us on the past. We look now at our future, our children and grandchildren, our students and disciples, who will continue the journey when we are gone. And so we see that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Each of our individual journeys is part of the great journey humanity takes as it works its way towards perfecting this world as a kingdom of God.
The book of Psalms teaches “Feet they have and cannot walk.” We need to walk. We need to begin the journey. And as we do, let us remember the seven insights I shared. 1) To know where we are going, you have to know where we came from; 2) We each need to decide where we want to go ; 3) Every journey starts with a first step; 4) We cannot take the journey alone; 5) There are distractions along the way; 6) There are also obstacles along the way; and finally 7) Nobody will totally finish the journey.
On this High Holidays I have spoken about our body. God gave us eyes to see. God gave us ears to hear. God gave us hands to touch. And finally, God gave us feet to walk. As we go on our journey, may God accompany us along the way,
And let us say AMEN.