Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2016 High Holiday Sermons

A man went to his doctor for a check-up and told him, “Doctor, I am in my early sixties. I want to live well into my eighties. What should I do?” The doctor replied, “Let me ask you some questions. Do you ever smoke, even a good cigar?” “No.” “Do you ever drink, even a glass of white wine?” “No.” “Do you ever eat red meat, a good steak?” “Never, only an occasional piece of chicken.” “Do you ever travel to exotic places?” “I went once to Orlando.” “Do you ever drive a sports car?” “No, just an old Toyota.” Finally the doctor replied, “So you never enjoy a good cigar, a glass of wine, a fine steak, an exotic trip, or even a good sports car. Why would you even want to live into your eighties?”
I think about that story when I consider what most people think of as a good life. It is a life of fun, of enjoyment, “whoever dies with the most toys win.” You all know that at some point in my High Holiday messages I am going to quote a Broadway show. How about an old standard, Bye Bye Birdie. Birdie is an Elvis-style Rock and Roll star about to be drafted into the army. He sings a song, “There are chicks just right for some kissing. And I mean to kiss me a few. Man those chicks don’t know what they’re missing. I got a lot of living to do. Sizzling steaks all ready for tasting. And there’s Cadillacs all shiny and new. Got to move cause time is a wasting. I got a lot of living to do.” It is a vision of life many of us share. Life is about fun. Life is about celebration. If one day in an amusement park is fun, a lifetime pursuing amusement parks is a worthy life. But can good steaks and good cigars, amusement parks and cruises to exotic places really provide happiness. That is one of the issues I want to share today.
This year I want to deal with one theme throughout my four High Holiday sermons. I want to deal with emotions and Judaism. In my adult education class, we asked the question, if I built a robot that could think and was aware, would that robot be a human being? Could I count that robot in a minyan? Some of my students said we could never build such a robot. Others said even if you could, without emotions it would not really be human. And if it is not human, we cannot count it in a minyan. What makes us human is not simply that we can think – a computer can think. What makes us human is that we can feel happiness, sadness, anger, guilt, love, and hope. Emotions make us the persons we are.
But how does Judaism view human emotions? This past year a wonderful movie came out from Disney-Pixar entitled Inside Out. It is rare that I watch an animated movie even once; this one I saw twice. It told the story of the emotions of a little girl named Riley, fighting within her head. The main character in the movie, the main character in Riley’s head, was the emotion joy, voiced by Amy Poehler. We will look at the emotions portrayed in the movie, and more, over the course of these holidays. Today I want to begin with joy and happiness. What does Judaism say about happiness?
Lecturer and California radio personality Dennis Prager wrote a book a number of years ago. He called the book Happiness is a Serious Problem. He was reacting to the words often heard by parents, “I don’t care what my children do as long as they are happy.” He asks parents, would you rather your children be successful, be good, or be happy. Jewish tradition would say that it is better that children be good. Most parents say that it is better their children be happy. And according to Prager, most children believe their parents simply want them to be happy. For Prager, that is the big problem.
Prager’s main point is to differentiate between happiness and fun. Fun is temporary. It is soon over. Fun is going to an amusement park. Four days of Disney are a lot of fun, but they are over and we go home. The joy of the amusement park ends. Lots of things can give us temporary joy. New toys – an I-Phone 7 (even without a headphone jack), a new computer, a new car, can give us temporary joy. Remember the words “she had fun, fun, fun till her daddy took the t-bird away.” We seek fun, but it does not last. An ice cream sundae, a good cigar, a one-night sexual stand, are fun while they last. But they are quickly over. They do not lead to permanent happiness. Drug addicts will tell you that they get their fix and it feels great, for a brief while, and then they must search for another fix. Fun can be a quick fix. But does fun does lead to happiness? The answer is no.
So what does lead to happiness, true long term happiness? Last year, 5776 was a wonderful year for me. Two things happened that truly brought me happiness. The first is that my wife and I became grandparents for the first time. I want to thank my daughter Aliza and her husband Darren for making us zayde and bubbe, making my sons uncles, and giving us baby Judah. My son-in-law printed up t-shirts for my wife and me that said, “The best gift a daughter can give her parents is to make them grandparents.” I watch my daughter and I must say, where does she get the energy? It has been years since my three children were babies. I forgot how much work it is to raise a child. It is a bit easier being a grandparent, we can always hand him back to mom and dad. And I think of another wise teaching from Dennis Prager, “There is a special bond between grandparents and grandchildren – a common enemy.” There is a lesson in that wonderful moment when we have children. The very thing that brings us the most happiness is a huge amount of work.
The second wonderful thing that happened to me last year was I finally received my PhD. I was never one of those rabbis who felt it was more important to be a doctor than a rabbi. I keep thinking of the old story of the woman who goes to the rabbi’s house to see if the chicken she bought at the butcher is kosher. She rings the doorbell and a servant answers the door. “Is the rabbi in?” The servant replies in a stern voice, “The doctor is not in.” The woman says, “For this chicken it is too late for a doctor. I need a rabbi.” I have learned that when you have rabbinic ordination and a doctorate, the title “rabbi” takes priority. But having said that, walking on the stage at Florida Atlantic University and being hooded by my professor gave me great happiness. I think if I had known that it would take 6 years of classes and 5 years researching and writing a dissertation, I might have thought twice. The amount of work was huge. But the happiness it brought was also huge.
But both my examples bring me to the point Dennis Prager was making, the point Jewish tradition teaches. True Jewish happiness is not about having fun. True Jewish happiness comes only with hard work. Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, teaches: lepum tzara agra “According to the effort is the reward.” (Avot 5:21). Or perhaps it is better translated, “no pain, no gain.” The Jewish teaching is that everything in life that can give us true happiness comes only through a huge effort.
We live in a world of instant gratification. We want everything without work or effort. I call it the “microwave world.” We want our food without taking the time to cook it. Toss it in microwave, or better still, go to a fast food restaurant. So it is with meals, so it is with jobs, so it is with relationships. The idea of going to work for a company and moving up the ladder through hard work has been lost. We want to be hired into upper management. We want an instant pill for fitness. When I see the advertisement that says, “Lose thirty pounds in thirty days without diet and exercise,” something does not add up. There is no such thing as instant health. So it is with everything.
Any accomplishment worth doing takes hard work. I am not simply talking about earning a PhD. If you want to become truly synagogue literate, able to understand the Hebrew and follow synagogue services, it takes effort. One must take the time to learn to read the letters, learn the most important vocabulary, learn the structure of the prayers, learn the different melodies for the different services. It is hard, but the reward is worthwhile. There are few things that make me prouder as a rabbi than to see a woman or a man who could not read Hebrew, and within a year or two begins reading Torah. That is happiness.
The same can be said for other commitments in life. To go back to school and get a degree is a huge amount of work. To learn a foreign language is very difficult. I told myself after my last trip to Colombia that I was going to learn Spanish. I put a little effort in, but not enough. Working on my doctorate distracted me. But perhaps now, I can start again to learn a foreign language. It is the same for learning anything – how to play bridge, how to fly a plane, how to bake a cake, how to fix a computer, or how to read Torah. Happiness comes from hard work. According to the effort is the reward.
Let me speak about another area where according to the effort is the reward. You have heard me say that our job as Jews and as human beings is to perfect this world as a kingdom of God. Pick some tiny part of the world we want to see changed, and become that change. Perhaps it is visiting a nursing home or elderly shut-ins, helping at a food kitchen, cleaning the environment, or being a peace maker. Success comes slowly and with great effort. I was always moved by a powerful quote from the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. “I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I awoke and saw that life was service, I acted, and behold, service was joy.” This says it all. There is joy in life. But the joy comes through service. Service of others may be difficult and painful. But the happiness is far greater than scores of roller coaster rides.
Let me speak of one other area of life where happiness comes, but only after hard work. I am talking about family. A little girl was sitting on his grandfather’s lap. She touched his cheek, feeling all the wrinkles. “Grandpa, who made you?” The grandfather answered, “God did.” The little girl then touched her own smooth cheek. “Grandpa, who made me.” Again the grandfather answered, “God did.” The little girl thought about her grandfather’s cheek and her own cheek, and said, “God is getting better at it, isn’t He?”
What a joyous family moment! There is nothing in life that has the potential to create greater happiness than being part of a family. There is also nothing in life that has the potential to cause pain, that is filled with hard work, that causes stress and worry, than being part of a family. There is joy in family. One of the happiest moments in recent years for me was last summer when my entire family, all three of my children – my daughter very pregnant, my son-in-law, my brother and his family, and all my cousins, gathered in Lake Arrowhead, CA to celebrate my 65th birthday. But family is also demanding, filled with stress and hard work. Whether it is honoring our parents, being our brother or our sister’s keeper, creating a loving and successful marriage, or raising children, family is painful.
Yet according to the effort is the reward. No pain, no gain. I hear of people who want relationships with their families with no commitment, parents who rarely see their children and then cannot understand why their children do not care about them. I have received a difficult phone call from someone in New York, “Rabbi, my mother lives in Kings Point. Would you look in on her on a regular basis? I am too busy to come to Florida.” I am saddened by such calls. Family takes effort. But it is a great source of happiness.
So what does Judaism say about happiness? Many people see Judaism as something sad and heavy. We are Jews because we suffer. We speak about the Holocaust and antisemitism. I hear too often that Judaism is about sadness. Perhaps the most extreme example was a famous short story written by the Israeli writer Hayim Hazaz called HaDrasha “The Sermon”. Written in 1943, it became a classic of Hebrew literature. Hazaz puts words in the mouth of Yudka, speaking at a council meeting on a kibbutz. He says we should stop teaching history to Jewish children. There is no history, just suffering. Finally he says, “I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors’ shame? I would just say to them: ‘Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play soccer.’”
This is not the Judaism I want to teach in this synagogue. The Rabbis of the Talmud speak about simcha shel mitzvoth – the joy of the mitzvoth of Judaism. To live as a Jew is to live a life filled with happiness. I have a message for our young families here, the families with young children. I want your children to know the joy of being Jewish. I want our children to know the happiness of doing Havdalah out under the stars. I want our children to know the happiness of decorating the sukkah. I want our children to know the happiness of dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah. I want our children to know the happiness of lighting Hanukkah candles and eating latkes. Perhaps latkes are not healthy, but they are happy. I want our children to know the happiness of drowning out Haman’s name with groggers on Purim. I want our children to know the happiness of searching for the afikomen and singing had gadya on Passover. I want out children to know the happiness of eating cheese blintzes on Shavuot. Again the food, but that seems to make us Jews happy. I want our children to know the joy of being Jewish.
In two weeks Sukkot begins, the festival where the Torah says vesamachta behagecha – “be joyous on your festival.” We are literally commanded to be happy. How can the Torah command an emotion? The answer is, act as if you are happy. The action itself will lead to the emotion. I want people to know that Judaism is not something heavy and sad, but something extremely happy.
This past summer my wife and I visited friends in Denver, CO. They are fairly traditional and active in not just one but two Conservative synagogues. One is where most their friends belong. But they like going to the other one on Shabbat. This synagogue offers two separate minyans every Shabbat morning. One is a traditional Conservative minyan. But they brought me to the other minyan, what they called Shir Hadash – “A New Song,” and I called the Happy Clappy Minyan. It was a more abbreviated service than I am used to. But it was led by a song leader, and a group sitting in the front, many of them drumming. My friend had an interesting theory. Without drums congregational singing slows down to the slowest heart beat in the congregation. It becomes sad and boring. With drums the rhythm of the service picks up. The congregation sang through the whole service. All ages sang along. The drumming and harmonies and mix of voices created a joyous feeling. I walked out of that service feeling happy, that Jewish worship can make us happy.
We are talking about Judaism and the emotions. Happiness is a wonderful emotion. But true happiness comes not from a life of fun. True happiness comes from pursuing activities that often are hard work. True happiness comes from learning, from perfecting the world, from commitment to family. True happiness also comes from a commitment to Jewish living. But according to the pain is the reward. In 1988 Bobby McFerrin released a hit song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Would that it were that simple. From a Jewish point of view, happiness is hard work. But the work is worthwhile.
I wish that each of us would live a life knowing only happiness. But for most of us, that is not our fate. Let us return to the movie Inside Out. Much of the movie was joy trying to suppress sadness voiced by Phyllis Smith. But in the end, sadness had to express itself. Life is not only about happiness, but often, sometimes too often, also filled with sadness and sometimes despair. Sadness is a human emotion. What does Judaism say about sadness? For the answer, you need to come back tomorrow.
Meanwhile, on this start of 5777, may God bless each of us with a year of simcha, of joy and happiness, and let us say

2nd DAY OF ROSH HASHANAH 5777 – 2016
A lady gets on a bus carrying a number of shopping bags. She does not have enough money for the bus, so she tells the bus driver, “If you knew what I have, you would be nice to me.” The bus driver says, “Go on in lady.” She stands towards the back of the bus and turns to a young man, “If you knew what I have, you would be nice to me.” The young man offers to hold her shopping bags. She then turns to someone sitting down and says, “If you knew what I have, you would be nice to me.” The person offers her a seat. The lady next to her asks, “I saw what happened. Tell me what you have.” The lady answers, “Chutzpah!”
Chutzpah is one of those great Jewish words. What is chutzpah? I heard a good definition. A poor woman stands on the corner selling pretzels for a dollar. Every day a businessman walks by, gives her a dollar, but does not take a pretzel. This goes on for years. Finally one day the man gives her the dollar and starts to walk away without the pretzel. The lady calls him back, “Sir, the price went up to a dollar and a half.” That is chutzpah. Chutzpah is brazenness, the willingness to not accept the world as it is but to change it. Perhaps that is why chutzpah is such a Jewish trait. We Jews are never quite satisfied with the world as it is. I will have more to say about that momentarily.
Today I want to talk continue my talk about emotions. Yesterday we spoke about joy and gladness. I mentioned the wonderful animated movie Inside Out, which told the story of the emotions in a little girl named Riley. Through much of the movie joy voiced by Amy Poehler tried to suppress sadness voiced by Phyllis Smith. In the end joy realized that sadness had a role to play in making Riley kind of girl she was. Sadness is part of life. There is an old story I sometimes tell that has both Jewish and Buddhist versions. A woman who goes to the rabbi and tells him the sadness and burdens in her life. What should I do? The rabbis tells the woman to go bake a cake. But borrow flour for the cake from each one of your neighbors. However, you can only borrow from neighbors who have never known sadness. The woman goes from home to home trying to get flour, but every neighbor has known sadness. She understands the rabbi’s message. This is the Hasidic version but the original source is Theravada Buddhism where she goes house to house to borrow a mustard seed. Sadness and despair are part of every life. To quote the Torah, “There was no home without a death.” Or as Carl Sandburg wrote, “Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” The question is how to deal with that sadness.
All human beings know sadness. But other religious traditions see the world very differently, and that affects how they deal with sadness. Today there is a great interest in Buddhism, a beautiful religious traditions. Many Jews have become Buddhists, often known as Jew-Buddhs. But Buddhism has a very different view towards suffering, or what it calls Dukha. Buddhism says that life is suffering. It is caused by desire, by clinging to the things of this world. Part of the Buddhist path is letting go of desire, of not clinging nor trying to hold on to the things of this world. The more we can let go, the more we can avoid suffering.
Eastern religions teach letting go, not letting this world give us too much joy nor too much suffering. There is a well-known Taoist story of a farmer who owned a horse. One day the horse ran away. His neighbors came to comfort the farmer but he just answered “maybe.” Then the horse returned bringing a number of wild horses along. His neighbors came to wish him well on his good fortune, and he answered “maybe.” His son tried to ride one of the wild horses, fell off and broke his leg. His neighbors came to comfort him, but he just said “maybe.” Then a government official came by to recruit young men for the military, but when they saw the young man with the broken leg, they passed him by. The neighbors came by to wish him well, but he just said “maybe.” In the Eastern tradition one does not embrace either joy or sadness. Not so Judaism, which teaches us to embrace life.
What about Western religions – Christianity, Islam, and some voices within Judaism? They emphasize the world-to-come. As difficult as suffering is in this world, there will be a reward in the world-to-come. In fact, some voices say that the greater the suffering in this world, the greater the reward in the next. I have even heard rabbis say that when there a great deal of punishment in this world, this clears the way for a total reward in the next. As comforting as these ideas are, the Jewish emphasis is on this world. Embrace this world, transform this world, be chutzpadik in this world. This world is where the action is. And therefore when suffering strikes in this world, it becomes a bit more difficult to bear. How do we deal with suffering and sadness in this world?
When I say sadness, I do not mean clinical depression, I do not mean a chemical imbalance. This sad condition strikes too many of us. Human ingenuity has given us pharmaceuticals that can truly help many people with this condition, although I am well aware that psychiatry is a very inexact science. There is a sign on the side of a building in New York City, “Depression is a flaw in chemistry, not character.” Below the sign is a help line phone number. But I am not talking about a chemical imbalance. I am talking about the sadness that life too often sends our way. The sadness of loss – loss of a loved one, loss of health, loss of a job, loss of a marriage or a relationship, loss of a dream. What does Judaism say about coping with the sadness of life? Allow me to share three great lessons from Jewish tradition.
The first lesson – the twenty third Psalm, the most popular in the entire Biblical book, says “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Notice it says “though I walk through.” We are never stuck forever in the shadow of the valley of death. We will get through it. In time we will begin to move past the sadness. The first lesson about the Jewish view of sadness is that time is a healer. The Bible says in the book of Ecclesiastes, “There is a time to mourn and a time to dance.” I tell families that there is time to be sadness and a time to move beyond sadness.
The Jewish laws of mourning have a brilliant lesson. We need to sit shiva, but after seven days the shiva is over. Mourners stand up from the low benches and take a symbolic walk outside. It is time to move on. If someone says I want to sit shiva longer, I am still in mourning, Jewish tradition says no. And if a Jewish festival comes up, a joyous occasion, shiva is cut off even earlier. The Talmud teaches that if a funeral procession and a wedding procession comes to a crossroad and only one can pass at a time, the wedding always comes first. Joy pushes aside sorrow.
Not only is shiva only seven days, sheloshim is only thirty days and then it is over. Kaddish ends after eleven months. It is not proper to keep saying kaddish. There is a limit to mourning. People sometimes ask me when they are hurting, will I ever get past this. I tell them time is a healer. The pain will always be there. But with time the pain is diminished, becomes more bearable.
As the Psalmist says, we must walk through that valley of death. We must keep moving forward. I came across a poem this year that touched me, quoted by Clarence Darrow in his famous defense of Leopold and Loeb. Two young men in Chicago were on trial for murdering a teenage boy for the thrill of it. All were Jewish. And in his long legal defense of the boys, Darrow quoted the 19th century British poet A.E. Housman. I am not usually a lover of poetry, but this one touched me.
NOW hollow fires burn out to black,
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go.

Oh never fear, man, nought’s to dread, 5
Look not left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
There’s nothing but the night.

Housman is saying that when things look black, we pick up our pack and keep moving forward. Moving forward will be a source of healing. Time will be a source of healing.
The second lesson is that other people are healers. There is a reason why, in the book of Job, when Job was afflicted with suffering, his three friends came and simply sat with him. They did not speak. Their presence said it all. From this comes the tradition that in a shiva home we always let the mourners speak first. In suffering we never allow people to be alone. I am a believer in support groups for all kinds of sadness. There are support groups for every kind of loss from infertility to divorce to business loss, and to the loss of a loved one. Let me share an experience that I believe every rabbi has felt. Someone sets up an appointment to talk to me about a loss. They come into my office and begin to talk. For forty-five minutes I say little, mostly listen and nod my head. After forty-five minutes they tell me, “Thank you rabbi, you helped me so much.” Just talking to another person can be healing.
Let me share a true story I heard on National Public Radio, on a story telling show called The Moth. It was told by the story teller Auburn Sandstrom. Auburn told of reaching rock bottom. She was in an abusive marriage, addicted to drugs, unable to care for her son, and estranged from her parents. She was lying on the floor of her Ann Arbor apartment, curled in a fetal position. Her husband was out searching for drugs, her baby was covered with filth. Her parents had sent her the phone number of a Christian drug counselor, but she had put it away in her purse. Now she was desperate. Sitting on the floor crying, she took out the piece of paper and called in the middle of the night. A man sounding rather sleepy answered. For several hours she shared her problems. He listened, non-judgmental, and gave her some advice. The woman admitted that this conversation was the beginning of healing. After several hours, she finally asked the man how he had become a Christian counselor. The man answered, “I am no Christian counselor. You called the wrong number.” True story. Even talking to a total stranger, a wrong number, helped this woman. People can help us heal.
The third lesson and perhaps the most important. Turning sadness into opportunities to make the world better is a major way of helping. I already mentioned that Judaism is not about letting go of this world as Buddhists would say. Judaism is not about getting to heaven as Christians would say. Judaism is about transforming this world. Whenever someone sets up a fund, takes on a project, becomes involved in a cause after a sad event, it makes the world a slightly better place. It is a step on the difficult road of perfecting this world as a kingdom of God.
I remember many years ago, I was going through a difficult time. I was driving around flipping through radio stations, trying to find something that would cheer me up. Then I turned to a country station, not something I am prone to listen to. They were playing Kenny Rogers’s song “The Gambler.” You know the lyrics, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away, know when to run.” For the first time I really listened to the lyrics. And one phrase jumped out at me. “Cause every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser.” What a thought – every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser. Our goal is to play the hand we are dealt, however unlucky, as if it is a winner.
How do go about making every hand, the terrible losing hand, a winner. This year the Jewish community, and the whole world, lost a beautiful voice – the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. Somewhere in my personal effects I have a picture of me shaking hands with Wiesel, before he delivered a speech. He asked me about my seminary studies, and whether I had studied with the brilliant David Weiss HaLivni, from the same town as Wiesel. I had. He wanted to make sure that Jewish learning, the kind he had as a boy in Sighet Romania, continued.
Wiesel went through the worst suffering a human being could go through, the Holocaust. You can read his story in his memoir Night. After surviving Auschwitz, Wiesel might have chosen a life of sadness and despair. Many Holocaust survivors do. He might have chosen a life of never talking about what happened. Many Holocaust survivors do. But instead he chose to be a witness to the world. He wrote books, gave lectures, and interacted with world leaders and presidents. Who can forget that day in 1985 when Wiesel challenged President Ronald Reagan before his trip to Bitburg cemetery where Nazi SS officers lay buried. Wiesel told the president, “That place Mr. President is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” Reagan did not cancel his visit to Bitburg, but he added a visit to Bergen Belsen. Wiesel used the sadness of his Holocaust experience to become the voice of goodness in the world. He will be sorely missed.
So we have three great insights from Jewish tradition. The first insight is that time is a healer. The second insight is that other people are a healer. The third insight is that action to make this a better world is a healer. Each of these can mitigate the sadness, move us if not to happiness, at least into making peace with our sadness.
Sadness like happiness is part of life. In fact, just as we are commanded to be joyous at certain times in Judaism, so there are times that we are commanded to be sad. Tisha B’Av – the ninth day of the month of Av, is the day we remember the tragedies of our people. We fast, sit on the floor, read the book of Lamentations, and remember the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem. It says in the Talmud, mishenichnas av maamitime b’simcha – “When Av begins we must lower our joy.” But here is the brilliant insight of Judaism. Our tradition says that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av. The saddest day of the year contains the roots of our future redemption.
I mentioned the Disney Pixar movie Inside Out where Riley’s emotions played themselves out on the screen. The main characters in Riley’s head were joy and sadness. But there were other emotions within her – fear, disgust, and anger. Anger played by Lewis Black was easily set off. We all feel anger directed at other people. And we all feel anger directed at ourselves, which can become guilt or shame. We will turn to anger and guilt in our third talk in this series on Kol Nidre evening. I invite you back then.
May God help each of us move beyond sadness and use it to make this a better world, and let us say
KOL NIDRE – 2016 – 5777
The jury had been deliberating for twelve hours, but they finally came to a verdict. The defendant was on trial for multiple bank robberies. The defendant stood next to his attorney as the jury foreperson read the verdict. “We the jury find the defendant – not guilty.” The defense attorney started to hug his client. But the defendant said to his attorney, “I don’t understand. Does this mean I have to give back the money?”
I imagine how we would feel if we heard that story in real life. Another crook gets away. There is anger in the air about crime. On the right I hear that not enough people are in jail. On the left I hear that too many people are in jail. On the right I hear that blue lives matter. On the left I hear that black lives matter. There is anger about crime, but there is also anger about ISIS, about immigration, about income inequality, about taxes and regulations. From the right I hear anger about the attempt to take away gun rights. From the left I hear anger about the attempt to take away abortion rights.
I do not want speak about the presidential race. It is a huge mistake, and probably against the law, for the rabbi of a tax exempt organization to endorse a political candidate. But the one thing I hear in this presidential race is an unusually high degree of anger. It drove the Sanders campaign and those who walked out on Hillary at the convention. It certainly drives the Trump campaign. It drives many of the people who send me emails and messages on Facetime, vote for this candidate, vote for that candidate. Anger is an emotion that will not go away.
On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the wonderful Pixar, Disney movie Inside Out, which showed the emotions in the head of a little girl named Riley. On Rosh Hashana I described the two main emotions who fought for control in her brain – joy voiced by Amy Poehler and sadness voiced by Phyllis Smith. Tonight I want to look at another of the emotions portrayed in the movie – anger voiced by Lewis Black. Since it is Yom Kippur, I also want to look at the other two related emotions, guilt and shame. What can I say about these emotions, beginning with anger?
There is a story in the Buddhist tradition that I believe says a lot. In a village there lived a Buddhist monk, known for his humility and his piety. And in the same visit lived a warrior known for his vicious temper, who often scared the villagers. One day the monk and the warrior met on a narrow bridge, each trying to pass the other. The warrior said, “Move aside monk, before I throw you off the bridge.” The monk strolled right up face-to-face with the warrior. “Within one minute I can show you both hell and heaven.” “Why you!” screamed the warrior and started to lift his weapon. The monk replied, “That is hell.” Suddenly the warrior felt bad. “I am sorry for my anger, please forgive me.” The monk replied, “That is heaven.” Buddhism is built on the idea of letting go, including letting go of anger. It teaches a calm compassion. Anger is hell, forgiveness is heaven. To quote the Buddha, “ You will not be punished for your anger. You will be punished by your anger.”
We see how Buddhism looks at anger. What about Judaism? I think the ideal candidate to teach us about anger is Moses. For Moses, anger was part of his greatness. And for Moses, anger was part of his downfall. How was anger part of his greatness? Moses was raised in the home of Pharaoh, although a Hebrew he was a child of privilege. One day he was walking out among his people, slaves to Pharaoh, and he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite. The Torah says that Moses looked this way and that way, but saw that there was no man. Pirkei Avot teaches, bemakom sh’ein anashim, eshtadel lehiyot eish “in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” (Avot 2:5) Moses had to be the man at that moment, to stand up for what is right. Moses rose up, killed the cruel Egyptian, and saved the life of the Israelite. He could have walked on, ignored the beating, but he did not. He saw injustice, grew angry, and took action. Without anger, injustice would increase in the world. These events set the scene that would lead to the exodus from Egypt.
How was anger part of Moses’s downfall? Many years later, after his sister Miriam died, the people cried out for water. Tradition teaches that Miriam had a magical well that gave the people water through their wanderings. Now they were dying of thirst. And so the people cried out to Moses. God said to Moses, speak to the rock and I will bring them water. But Moses’ anger spilled over. Instead of talking to the rock, he struck the rock with his staff, not once but twice. He told the people, “Listen you rebels, shall I bring forth water from this rock!” The water flowed. But God realized that Moses could not control his temper. Moses lost his chance to enter the Holy Land. Anger out of control can be extremely destructive.
Moses teaches that anger can be used for good and anger can be used for bad. Anger can motivate us to stand up against injustice. The Torah teaches, “Do not stand idly by your brother’s blood.” When we witness evil, we need anger. The Buddhist way of passive acceptance is not the Jewish way. But anger out of control, anger that causes us to hit a rock and insult a people, anger that causes us to become violent or abusive, is a great evil. We need anger. But anger must be controlled. Anger must be channeled. Or to use the ideas of the great Psychiatrist and atheist Jew Sigmund Freud, the aggressive drive must be sublimated, channeled into something useful. Anger must be channeled into goodness.
What about people who have wronged us? Should we be angry at them? Should we forgive them? Forgiveness is a central theological concept in Christianity. Robert Muller wrote that “to forgive is highest, most beautiful form of love.” I have heard people say, “Why can’t Israelis and Palestinians forgive each other like good Christians?” In August 1997, President Bill Clinton took a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. There he attended a church where John Miller was the preacher. Miller decided to speak about forgiveness. He held up a picture of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who had killed 168 people by bombing the federal building. He told his congregation in front of the president of the United States, “I forgive Timothy. Do you?” I do not know how President Clinton reacted. But Dennis Prager, the prominent Jewish author and radio personality wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal about this. “Despite our theological differences, Christianity and Judaism have served as the bedrock of American civilization. And I am appalled and frightened by this doctrine of automatic forgiveness.” Prager called his article “The Sin of Forgiveness.” Prager likes to be provocative.
I would like to look at the writing of another well-known public speaker and a close friend of Prager – Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Telushkin has always been on my good list, because he quoted me in one of his books. (In my talk tomorrow I will tell you where Telushkin quoted me.) I heard Telushkin give a lecture on forgiveness. He said there are three cases. Sometimes we are forbidden to forgive. Sometimes we are obligated to forgive. And sometimes we are neither forbidden nor obligated, but forgiveness may be a good idea.
When is it forbidden to forgive? We cannot forgive for a crime against someone else. Only the victims can forgive. By Jewish law I cannot forgive Timothy McVeigh. His 168 victims will have to forgive him. And they can only do it from the next world. I cannot forgive the Nazis for the Holocaust. His six million victims will have to do it. And they also can only do it from the next world.
When is it obligatory to forgive? When someone who wronged us truly feels regret and comes up to apologize. If he or she apologizes once, we are not yet obligated to forgive. If he or she comes back a second time, we are still not obligated to forgive. But if he or she comes back a third time, we are obligated to forgive. If not, the sin is on us.
When is it optional, but often wise, to forgive? If someone has wronged us and never apologized, we are not obligated to forgive. However, wisdom teaches that perhaps it is worthwhile. To remain angry at someone who has wronged us is like holding a hot stone ready to throw it at someone. Meanwhile, all we are doing is burning ourselves. Holding onto anger at another person does not hurt that person; it only hurts the person who is angry. To walk into Yom Kippur services, beat our chest, and ask God to forgive us, while we cannot forgive someone else, strikes me as a mistake. Yom Kippur begins with forgiveness.
Allow to share a very wise tradition I learned from Judaism. There is a long discussion in Jewish sources whether one has to honor an abusive parent. Some authorities say yes and some authorities say no. But there is one authority who asks a question, why was the parent abusive. Was the abuse because they were evil? Or was the abuse because they simply lost control of their appetite? Perhaps some people are truly evil. But some simply are weak, unable to control themselves. And in situations such as this, it might be worth letting go of the anger.
Dealing with the emotion of anger is not easy. Let me look at it from another side. What do we do if we are not angry, but rather we feel the wrath of another person? How do we deal with someone else’s anger? I want to share another memory. It happened many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student. I was working at Camp Ramah as a Rosh Eidah, a unit head, in charge of one particular age group. One day I was called into the camp office to take a phone call from a parent. The parent was angry beyond belief, ranting and raving, threatening to sue the camp. I was upset. “Let me get the camp director.” I ran to the camp director. “You need to call this parent right away.” And the director told me. “Don’t worry about it, I will call him later in the afternoon.” I said, “But he is really angry.” “That is why I will call him later in the afternoon.” I did not realize it at the time, but the director was teaching me an important lesson out of Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Father. Rabbi Shimon bat Elazar Omer, Al Tiratzeh Havercha B’Shaat Kaaso – “Rabbi Shimon bar Elazar said, Do not try to appease your fellow during the time of his anger. (Avot 4:18)
We need to give people a chance to cool down. And when we do finally approach them, we do it with understanding and kindness. As the book of Proverbs teaches, “A gentle answer deflects anger but harsh words make tempers flare.” (Proverbs 15:1) We respond to anger by listening and by kindness. I have found through over thirty five years of the Rabbinate, if people believe I am listening to them, the anger can be diffused. And if their anger is justified, the simple words “I am sorry” can make a world of difference.
One more thought. What about when anger turns inwards? What about anger directed towards ourselves? What about guilt and what about shame? We Jews are certainly experts at guilt. There is the story of the Jewish mother who receives a call from her son. “Mom, I hear you are not eating. How come?” The mother replies, “I come every day to the kitchen and sit by the phone. If you decide to call, I do not want to have food in my mouth.” Yes we can joke about Jewish guilt. “How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb? None, don’t worry, I’ll just sit in the dark.” We Jews are good at guilt.
Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing. We need guilt to try to turn our lives around. The whole idea behind Yom Kippur is that we humans are capable of change. We can become different people in the future than we were in the past. But change begins with recognizing where we went down the wrong path in life. And change begins when we feel regret about going down the wrong path. Only then can we try to change our lives. Guilt when it motivates change is a good thing.
But guilt can also be a bad thing. Guilt becomes unhealthy when it leads to shame. What is the difference between guilt and shame? Guilt is when we say, “What I did was wrong.” Shame is when we say, “What I am is wrong.” Guilt is when we say, “What I did was not good.” Shame is when we say, “What I am is not good.” Earlier in this sermon I spoke about where I disagree with my Christian friends. So let me share where I agree with them. Christianity more than any other religion seems to emphasize – God loves you. It does not matter what you did or who you are. You are valuable in the eyes of God. I once had a man come to me and share with me a long litany of sins. He then asked me if I believe God still loves him. I answered, “You have a son. Can you imagine anything your son would do that would make you stop loving him?” We are God’s children. K’rachim av al banim, richam Adonai al yeraav. “As a father has mercy on his children, so God has mercy on those who fear him.” We are not worthy of shame. For God has never stopped loving us.
Tonight we have looked at the emotion of anger. Anger can be hell. But anger channeled to fight injustice can be heaven. Anger can burn us. But anger can also lead us to reconciliation and forgiveness. Self-directed anger can lead to shame, feeling like we are not worthy in the eyes of God. But self-directed anger can also lead to guilt, and guilt can lead to change for the better. Anger is an emotion that God put in each of us for a purpose. Channeled the right way, anger can help us make this a better world.
And so we have continued our exploration of Judaism and human emotions. The first day of Rosh Hashanah we explored happiness. The second day of Rosh Hashanah we explored sadness. This evening, Kol Nidre night we explored anger. And tomorrow, before we recite yizkor, I want to explore the emotion I consider the most important of all. Tomorrow I want to explore love.
May God help us channel our anger to make us better people, and to make this a better world, and let us say
YIZKOR 5777-2016
The old man lay dying as his family gathered around him. “Is my wife here?” His wife took his hand. “I am here.” “Are my children all here?” “All your children and their spouses are here.” “Are my grandchildren here?” “All your grandchildren are here.” The man started to raise his voice. “If all my family is here, who is taking care of the business?”
Family is not easy. Loving those closest to us is not easy. I think of the Sunday School teacher telling her class, “Does the Ten Commandments teach us about our parents?” One child raised his hand. “Honor your father and mother.” “Good. Does the Ten Commandments teach us about our brothers and sisters?” There was a pause, and then another child raised her hand. “Thou shall not kill.”
Throughout these High Holidays I have been talking about emotions, and in particular the emotions featured in the movie Inside Out. On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about happiness and I spoke about sadness. Last night I spoke about anger. Today I want to speak about an emotion not mentioned in the movie. And yet this emotion underlies everything that happens in the movie. I am speaking about love. What can Jewish tradition teach us about love?
Let me begin with the Olympics. I am a big fan, and I watched as much as I could. Let me share with you my favorite moment of the Rio Olympics. It was the women’s individual 400 meter swimming medley – 100 meters of butterfly, 100 meters of back stroke, 100 meters of breast stroke, and 100 meters of freestyle. I get exhausted thinking about it. I watched a Hungarian swimmer named Katinka Hosszu, who everyone calls the Iron Lady, pull away from the crowd and break the world record. She was an amazing swimmer. And I watched as her husband and coach Shane Tusup danced and celebrated on the sidelines. The television camera was focused on the dancing husband as well as the swimming wife. The news commentators told the story. Hosszu, expected to win four years ago in London, had not even medaled. She fell into a deep depression, decided to give up swimming, went off to college at the University of Southern California, and there she met Tusup. He agreed to coach her and eventually he married her. He was a demanding coach, some say he was too tough, but he helped her become the record breaking swimmer she was.
Many feminists were upset by how the television covered this story. The woman won and the focus was on the man. The wife was in the pool and the camera was on the dancing husband. But I truly believe the feminist critics got it wrong. The woman won because her husband believed in her and helped her win, pushed her to win. That is love. Love is when our significant other helps make us into a winner. It reminds me of the old story of the mayor of the town who pulls into a gas station with his wife. A gas station attendant comes out to wipe their windows, and the mayor recognizes him as someone his wife used to date. “Aren’t you glad you married me, the mayor, and not him, a gas station attendant?” The wife answered, “If I had married him, he would have been the mayor.” When we love someone, we make them successful.
What does Judaism say about love? I have heard people say, “Rabbi, Christianity is a religion of love. Judaism is a religion of law.” This is totally wrong. Yes Judaism is filled with laws. But Judaism is also filled with love. Judaism teaches us to love our neighbor and to love the stranger. Judaism teaches us to love God. Judaism teaches ahavat yisrael “the love of Israel.” This is vital, especially on college campuses, especially when there is such hatred of Israel. Judaism teaches love, but it also teaches laws. These laws grow out of relationships, laws grow out of love. If I love someone, I have certain obligations towards them. What are these obligations? This is what I want to explore this morning.
For the next few minutes, I would like to turn to kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, to explore this emotion called love. Kabbalah says that we live in four worlds, each on built on another, like nested Russian dolls. Kabbalah also says that we have four levels of our soul, one for each of those worlds. Based on that, I believe that there are four levels of love. In fact I wrote a book on this called The Kabbalah of Love. Love can grow from level to level, from world to world. Let us climb together through these four worlds as we talk about love.
The first world is Olam HaAsiya, the World of Action. The soul in this world is called the nefesh, from a root meaning “to rest.” Our soul comes to rest in a world of action. Love begins with actions. Action comes before feelings, actions come before emotions. On the most fundamental level, we show our love by what we do. A few weeks ago I wrote my weekly message about Erich Segal’s famous book of the 70’s, Love Story, and the Ryan O’Neal – Ali McGraw movie based on it. The trademark line of the movie was “love means never having to say you are sorry.” According to the book and movie, actions do not matter, you do not need to say you are sorry, it is only feelings that count. Wrong!
Actions matter. Love begins with action. When we act in an improper way towards anyone, but particularly towards someone we profess to love, we need to say “I am sorry.” The French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas built an entire philosophy on relationships. He taught that whenever I meet another human being, they become the “Other.” When the Other faces me, I have obligations towards them. According to the Torah, I am obligated to “love my neighbor as myself.” The Talmud tells the story which I am sure you have all heard of a convert who comes to the great sage Hillel. “I will convert to Judaism but only if you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai had already thrown this man out for his arrogance. But Hillel calmly stands on one foot. “What is hateful to you do not do onto others. The rest is commentary; go and learn.”
Love begins with what we do, and that begins with words that go back to Hippocrates. “First do no harm.” Avoid anything that will hurt another person. But love in the world of action also means searching for opportunities to enhance the dignity of others. We do for others. I think of the man who goes out on a cold, rainy night, running from store to store. He finally finds a store that is open and picks up two blueberry muffins. “Thank you for being open. Please wrap them up. She’ll love them.” The store clerk asks, “Who are they for, your mother?” The man responds, “Would a mother send a son out on a night like this?” Love begins with what we do.
The second world is Olam HaYitzira, The World of Formation. I like to call it the World of Passion. The word yetzer means “to form” but it also means our inner drives or passions. The soul in this world is called ruach or spirit. This is the spirited soul, the soul driven by passion and romance. This is what we think about when we speak about love in our secular world; our soul is passionately drawn to the soul of another human being. This is the image the Torah gives when it speaks about the elderly Jacob and his son young Benjamin, nafsho kesura b’nafsho – “his soul was connected to his soul.” We are passionately drawn to certain people in our lives, our souls are connected to their souls – perhaps members of our family, perhaps our spouse or lover or soulmate, perhaps our children, perhaps a dear friend. Jewish tradition speaks of students who love their teacher. The Hasidic world pictures the Rebbe at the head of the table with disciples fighting over scraps of food he has touched. This is love as an emotion.
This kind of love makes as human. As Alfred Lord Tennyson famously wrote, “`Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Tennyson wrote those words in his poem Memoriam A.H.H. about his friend Arthur Henry Hallam who died young. Perhaps it is a reminder before our yizkor prayers that even as we mourn those we lost, we are fortunate to have loved them in life. I can think of few things sadder than going through life without the emotions of truly being drawn to another human being.
Still there is a danger with this kind of love. Perhaps it is best reflected in an old Yiddish saying: “They were both in love, he with himself, and she with herself.” We think we love the other but we are really in love with ourselves. It reminds of the story of the Hasid who brings a live carp to the nobleman. The carp is really worried until the Hasid says, I know this nobleman loves carp. The carp thinks, if he loves me he will treat me nicely. Then one day the carp is brought into the nobleman’s kitchen and the cook raises the knife. The carp screams out, “I thought you said the nobleman loves carp. He does not love me, he only loves himself.”
How often do we claim to love another human being when we really love ourselves? How often, motivated by what we consider love, do we act selfishly. How often do we think about what we want, what we need, what we desire out of the relationship? How often do we ignore what the person we claim to love wants or needs? Love is not about thinking of our needs. Love is about thinking of the other. The danger of love in the world of passion is we get too caught up in our own needs. We need to raise above this to a higher level. And that brings us to the third world.
The third world is Olam HaBeriya – The World of Creation. I often call this The World of Reflection. This is the world where we move beyond ourselves and see others. The soul in this world is known as neshama, literally the breath of God. Animals do not have a neshama. This is the unique human soul. This is the soul that allows us to know what others need. The story is told of one of the great Hasidic rebbes Moshe of Sasov. He told his students and disciples, I learned what love is in a tavern. What this rabbi was doing in a tavern in a small town in Russia, I do not know. The Rebbe said, “In the tavern I saw a Russian peasant put his arm around another Russian peasant and say, `Ivan do you love me?’ The peasant answered, ‘Of course I love you.’ Then the peasant said, `Ivan, do you know what gives me pain?’ The peasant answered, `how can I know what gives you pain?’ `If you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say you love me?’”
Love is seeing another and knowing what gives them pain. Love is seeing another and knowing what gives them joy. Love is seeing another and helping them become who God meant them to be. Love is making someone else successful. Love is coaching your wife so she can be the best swimmer she can be. Love is coaching your husband so he can become the mayor. I want to share something I say to every bride and groom under the huppah. I tell them to look at each other. What can you do to help your partner become the kind of person God wants them to be? Christians use the word “agape” which means love as service. Love means serving the needs of others.
But here is the Jewish insight. We cannot love others when we are focused on ourselves. We cannot simply worry about our own needs. Last night I mentioned being quoted by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. It happened in his book Jewish Values. Telushkin repeated the Biblical story of the two women who claimed the same baby. Each woman said the baby is mine. So King Solomon, considered the wisest man in the world, took his sword and said that he would split the baby in half and give half to each. The true mom was the one who said, “No. Give the baby to her.” I was honored that Rabbi Telushkin mentioned my interpretation of this story. Love, true love, is the willingness to give up something you really love because you are focused on the needs of the one you love. True love is the woman who so loves her baby that she is willing to hand him to another woman. Imagine how this rings true for me as an adoptive parent, and somebody who has counseled both adoptive parents and birthparents. Love means looking at someone else’s needs, not our own needs.
This brings me to the highest world, the one that is most spiritual. The fourth world is called Olam Haatzilut – the World of Emanation. It is a vision of a world that flows out of God’s very being. The word etzel in Hebrew means “next to.” Everything in this highest world is next to everything else. There are no separations. All things touch on a spiritual level. In this world the soul is called chaya – literally “life.” This world is based on the mystical ideas that one soul can actually touch another.
What does this mean, for souls to touch each other? Have you ever had a moment where you encountered another human being, where you were totally in each other’s presence? Everything else fell away. It was only two souls face to face, totally touching one another. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber had a name for these moments of total encounter. He called them “I-Thou.” In an “I-Thou” moment we are not using the other person or thinking of our own needs. We are simply there. It is a total encounter. Buber says that such moments of total encounter will never last forever. Eventually we have to reenter the real world of space and time, the world of separation. But to quote Buber, “Each Thou is a glimpse through to the Eternal Thou.” When we totally encounter another person in this intimate way, it is a glimpse of God. Or to quote the Broadway musical Les Miserables (you knew I would quote another Broadway musical), “to love another person is to touch the face of God.”
Let me prove it using gematria, the numerology of kabbalah. In Hebrew, every letter is also a number. So for example, the word for love ahava adds up to 13. If I love you, that equals 13. But if you love me, that also adds up to 13. Mutual love, 13 + 13, equals 26. And 26 is the number for yud, hey, vav, hey, the name of God. When two people love each other, God is present.
So what does Judaism say about love? It says that we love people on four levels. Love begins with action, what we don’t do and what we do. Love continues with feelings, our emotional attachment to others. Love continues with reflection, seeing the true needs of the other and setting aside our own needs. Finally, in rare moments, love continues with a true face to face encounter, where everything but that person falls away. What does all this have to do with yizkor?
At yizkor we remember those we loved and those who loved us. We remember the moments of action, of kindness, the comfort our parents gave us, the good deeds that helped us feel good about ourselves. We remember the passions, the emotions, the connection we felt and the pain that came with their loss. We remember the times when they sacrificed themselves because they understood our needs, when they learned to let go of us, even if it hurt, so we could prosper. And we remember those spiritual moments, when we were totally in their presence, when they met us and the rest of the world disappeared. We remember our love for them and their love for us, in each of the kabbalistic four worlds. And that love gives us joy.
Love is the most important emotion we have, so it is worthy of mention on this Yom Kippur day. May love bring us closer to one another, may love bring us closer to God, and let us say Amen.