Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold

2017 High Holiday Sermons

1st Day Rosh Hashana – 5778 – 2017
Harvey and Irma – Part 1
A husband and wife were on the golf course finishing the ninth hole when suddenly the wife felt sick. She sat down in the golf cart and told her husband, call a doctor. The husband made a call on his phone, and then started to line up his putt. “What are you doing?” cried the wife. “I am sick and you are lining up to putt. Is the doctor coming?” “Don’t worry” said the husband. “The doctor is coming. He is on the second hole but they are letting him play through.”
Sometimes in life you have to change your plans. You cannot simply play through. Twice in my career I had beautiful Rosh Hashana sermons written, and I had to scrap them and write something new a week before the holiday. The first time was sixteen years ago, in 2001. I had written my sermons while living in Israel, sermons that became my book The Kabbalah of Love. Then the horrors of 9/11 happened. In the days before Rosh Hashana I wrote totally new sermons. The second time was this year. I was really organized this summer and had Rosh Hashana sermons written in July. Then Hurricane Irma hit us, just weeks after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. We had two category 4 hurricanes hit the mainland of the United States within weeks of each other. Here in south Florida of our lives were disrupted by Irma. And hurricane season is not over; Maria is out there. I knew that I had to talk about hurricanes this year. I decided to call this talk Harvey and Irma, no relation to the old Allen Sherman song Harvey and Sheila.
As I put up my shutters and prepared for Irma, I had a crazy memory. As a child I went to a summer camp way up in the mountains of Northern California. It was not a Jewish camp, although many Jews went there. The camp taught us to love nature, with hiking and fishing, swimming in a very cold river, and multiple outdoor activities. Among the things I did in camp for the only time in my life were picking my own apples and baking an apple pie from scratch, killing and cooking my own chicken (admittedly it wasn’t kosher), and learning to shoot a gun (more than fifty years ago). The camp was run by a rustic elderly couple who bought it as a mountain ranch in the 1930’s; it is still run by their family. The owner of the camp was named Grover. If you did something wrong, beware of Grover. But his wife was named Irma. If you really did something wrong, beware of Irma. I remember campers saying, “Be careful, Irma is coming.” These memories kept returning last week.
Grover and Irma, the camp owners, were not necessarily religious Christians, but they felt that the weekly schedule ought to include a spiritual experience for campers and staff. Each Sunday night after dinner, we went out on the grass in the meadow and had Sunday night vespers. I will admit that I had no idea what the word “vespers” meant. But that Sunday night spiritual moment is one of my favorite memories of the camp. We were out in nature, in sight of the forests and mountains as the sun was setting. The weather was often cool. Deer would sometimes graze at the very edge of the meadow. We would sing songs, recite poems, and reflect on the spiritual meaning of life, as best children can. There was a sense that all around us, nature was alive with spirit.
And yet, if nature is alive with spirit, sometimes that spirit can be malevolent. Nature can be out to destroy. In ancient times people believed in animism, that everything from the sun to the moon, from the mountains to the trees, contained spirit. That belief disappeared a long time ago, although these beliefs are returning with the growth of new age paganism. And yet, somehow many of us still believe that hurricanes have spirit, have a will. When Hurricane Andrew was bearing down on Miami Beach, a group of Chabad rabbis prayed that it turn south and spare the heavily populated, Jewish area on the Beach. They believe their prayers convinced the hurricane to turn south – I do not know how the Chabad of Cutler Ridge felt about this.
More recently, when Hurricane Wilma, the most destructive in our immediate area, destroyed the second story of our synagogue building, I remember the words someone shared with me. I should not have to worry where I live in Coral Springs, FL. After all, Coral Springs has no strip clubs, porn shops, or gambling casinos. God will send His fury on other cities with more vices. (I think he was referring to New Orleans.) Two months earlier Katrina had destroyed New Orleans.
Maybe because we give hurricanes names, we see them as infused with spirit. Jennifer Lawrence is one of my favorite actresses. She is also very young. So I am willing to forgive her for her words after the horrible flooding in Texas following Hurricane Harvey. In an interview for the British Press regarding her newest movie, she mentioned climate change and the presidential election, and she said, “We are watching these hurricanes now and it is hard … not to feel mother nature’s rage and wrath.” Lawrence seemed to be saying that the hurricanes came as a punishment for how we voted in the last election? Were Hurricanes Andrew, Wilma, Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma punishments for our misbehavior?
I want to expand on some thoughts I shared with our congregation in 2005 after Hurricane Wilma. Whenever disaster strikes, the question arises – why? Why did God choose to strike us? Why did the hurricane choose to wipe out the island of Barbuda, but spare the island of Barbados where I have done several conversions? Was Barbuda more sinful than Barbados? If only theology were so simple – if God zaps the bad places and saves the good places. Since the book of Job, we humans have realized that God does not work that way. Good people and bad people, and most of us somewhere-in-the-middle people, feel the wrath of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and the more personal tragedies such as cancer cells and birth defects. A hurricane is not making moral decisions when it chooses where to land. A hurricane does not have a will. And I do not believe God uses hurricanes to enact judgment.
So I go back to the question – where was God during these natural disasters? Actually, the Bible already provides an answer. (see 1 Kings, chapter 19) The prophet Elijah, fleeing for his life from the king Ahab and his wife Jezebel, ran to the mountain of the Lord. Most commentators believe he went to Mt. Sinai. He opened his heart to God and asked why he should live. There the Lord appeared to him. There was a great and mighty wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. Finally there was a kol d’mama daka , “a still small voice.” And the Lord was in the still small voice.
God created nature. But God is not within nature. Nature works according to its own laws. Long ago a wise rabbi asked the question, if a farmer steals wheat from another farmer and plants it, should the wheat not grow? Shouldn’t the farmer be punished for stealing the wheat? The rabbi answered, olam keminhago nahag, “the world behaves according to its nature.” The laws of nature happen, irrespective of our moral qualms.
So the world acts according to its own laws. Nature takes its course. Earthquakes and tornadoes, genetic mutations and cancer cells, tsunamis and of course, hurricanes do not make moral judgments about their victims. These events happen, because we live in a world of natural laws. That is the way of the world of matter and energy, space and time, it is a world of natural laws.
But why these particular laws? Why did God not make different laws, better laws, laws that would be more fair? When God began to create the world, God fine-tuned the laws so that human beings would emerge. If God had made the laws a little bit different, there would be no life. If gravity was a little weaker, matter would have diffused through the universe and there would be nothing except random hydrogen molecules. If gravity were a little stronger the sun would have burnt itself out long before life could evolve. In this world of matter, everything is made just right so that humans would emerge.
The world goes according to nature’s laws. Human beings are made of carbon because that is the best chemical to build life. However, the same forces that released carbon from rocks in the earth’s crust cause hurricanes and earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. The same forces that allow genetic mutations so that life could evolve also cause birth defects and cancer cells. The same gravitational force that allowed the stars to be formed causes disaster when an airplane falls from the sky.
One rabbi who said it best was the first chief rabbi of Palestine, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. He served before the founding of the state of Israel. If only Israel had chief rabbis like him today. He was a mystic and an inspiration to all Jews including the most secular. He believed in evolution, and taught that natural selection was a tool used by God. Let me quote Rabbi Kook. “The world appears most advanced and perfected when seen in its developed, built-up state. But upon deeper reflection, it is possible to recognize that there is also a need for destructive forces in the world. If we can perceive the benefits of destructive phenomena – like the positive role played by forest fires in the growth and regeneration of a forest – then we may grasp how of these forces indicate the underlying purpose and Divine wisdom governing the universe.” Let me repeat one of his phrases. “There is a need for destructive forces in the world.”
So. God is not in the hurricane, God is in the still small voice within each of us. What are we, as human beings, supposed to do in the face of these destructive forces. When God made the world, God looked at it and saw that it was tov meod, “very good.” It was very good, but not perfect. God created us humans to perfect God’s world. We call it tikkun olam, the perfection of the world. Jewish tradition tells the story of a king with two sons. He could not decide which son was worthy to inherit his kingdom. So he gave both sons wheat, and told them to take care of it properly and come back in thirty days to show what they had done. The first son came and handed back the wheat, “I guarded your precious wheat carefully, no water touched it, no one stole it. Here it is just as you handed it to me.” The second son came and handed his dad a loaf of bread. “I have perfected your wheat.” Guess which one inherited the kingdom.
So here we have the beginning of an answer to the question, where was God? According to kabbala, God contracted Him/Herself so that a world could emerge. God fine-tuned the laws of nature to allow human beings to emerge. God has a role, a mission for us human beings. We are to be God’s partners in creation. We are to join God in perfecting this world.
I learned a real insight before the hurricane hit. I worked hard to put up all the shutters in my home. My brother-in-law, my two sons, and a neighbor helped me. But some of the windows are too high. I would need to find someone with a tall ladder. And even if I found such a ladder, I was not ready to climb high up. The memories of a broken hip were too recent. Then I saw a neighbor who I really did not know. All I knew of this neighbor was that sometimes there would be cars up and down the street so that I could not find a place to park, I found out that he was conducting Christian religious meetings at his home. I asked my neighbor for help. He immediately came over, climbed the ladder himself, and put up all my high shutters. It took a hurricane to get to know a neighbor I should have met far earlier.
After Hurricane Wilma, when I lost electricity for three days, I spent time talking to neighbors whom I barely knew before the hurricane hit. We helped each other, with everything from hurricane shutters to food, from letting people use the few working cell phones to giving each other moral support. When the Torah taught long ago, “it is not good for man to be alone,” it was speaking of far more than marriage. It was speaking of the most important religious truth – human beings need human beings to help them through difficult times. Or as Barbra Streisand once sang, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”
We are a country deeply divided. We are divided on racial, religious, national, and political lines. But when I saw people out on my street helping one another, no one asked who was a Democrat and who was a Republican. No one noticed who was an immigrant and who was born here. In fact, my Christian neighbor who climbed the high ladder was born in India. Part of the greatness of the state of Israel is, when the horrible earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, it was Israel who set up the first portable field hospital. Israel flew in the equipment and sent the doctors and nurses. Jews helped Haitians without thinking about race. Sad to say, sometimes it takes a tragedy to get people to see the humanity of one another.
So where was God in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma? God is the still, small voice in countless people who helped others. God was in the thousands of people with boats who travelled up and down the streets of Houston to find and rescue people trapped in their homes. God was in the emergency workers who choose to enter the most devastated neighborhoods to help those in need. God was in the doctors, nurses, and others who rode out the hurricane in the hospital to meet the health needs of patients. God was in all those motivated to donate money to help those desperately in need. And God was in all the neighbors and friends who helped people with shutters, brought people into their homes, and in thousands of ways loved their neighbors.
Jewish tradition says that when you survive a dangerous situation, you say a special prayer called gomel. We all survived Irma. Perhaps together we can bench gomel. The prayer goes like this: Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolom,HaGomel LeHayavim Tovot Sh’Gemalani Kol Tov. “Praised are You Lord our God King of the Universe, Who bestows favor even on the undeserving, and Who has bestowed favor unto me.” Then we answer each other, Mee Sh’galmacha Kol Tov Hu Yigmalcha Kol Tov, Selah. “May He Who bestowed favor upon you continue to bestow favor upon you, Selah.” May God continue to bestow favor on us.
Today is Rosh Hashana, according to Jewish tradition, the day God created the world. Hayom Harat Olam. Today is the birthday of the world. God made a world where humans could evolve. But for that to happen, God made a world sometimes battered by destructive forces. When these forces hit, our job as human beings is to help each other.
There is more to say on this topic. Was there a touch of truth in what Jennifer Lawrence said? Is nature, which sent two category four storms within weeks of each other, sending us a message? If human activity can improve nature, does human activity also sometimes destroy nature? How should humans relate to nature? It is an essential question. But to hear an answer, you need to come back tomorrow.
May we all learn the lessons of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and let us say

2nd Day Rosh Hashana – 5778 – 2017
Harvey and Irma – Part 2
I started yesterday with a story about golf. Let me share another one today. There ia a golf game between Moses and Joshua. Moses asks for the number seven club, and Joshua says, “You will not hit it far enough with that.” “Watch me” says Moses. He hits the ball straight into the water. Moses walks up to the water, holds his club out, parts the water, and chips the ball onto the green. Two angels are watching. The first one says, “Who does he think he is, Moses?” The second one answers, “He is Moses. The trouble is he thinks he is Tiger Woods.”
Names are important. We need to know who we are. But yesterday I said that, because we name hurricanes, we often see them as alive. We speak as if Hurricane Harvey decided to turn from Corpus Christi and flood Houston, Texas. Maybe Houston was undeserving. We speak as if Hurricane Irma decided to attack the west coast of Florida rather than us. Maybe we are more worthy. Maybe the Keys deserved it. Hurricanes are God’s way of punishing some of us. Believe it or not, I hear this point of view on a regular basis.
Today I want to build on my words from yesterday. I want to look at nature, both nature at its most beautiful – the Grand Canyon, and nature at its most destructive – Hurricane Irma. And I want to look in greater depth at how Judaism views nature. Perhaps a better title for my talk today is Three Views: Worshipping Nature, Utilizing Nature, Transforming Nature. Worshipping Nature, Utilizing Nature, Transforming Nature. Which is the Jewish view?
When my daughter gave birth to my grandson, a lactation nurse met with her in the hospital. This woman was passionate about the centrality of breast feeding as the most natural and therefore healthiest way to nourish a baby. I enjoyed talking with this young nurse, and I appreciated her passion. In fact, I shared with this non-Jewish lactation nurse a Talmudic passage I thought she would like. A man with an infant lost his wife and could not afford a wet nurse. He prayed to God and God caused a miracle. His breasts opened up and he nursed his infant. Two rabbis argued about this miraculous event. Rabbi Joseph said he must be a great man that God would change the course of nature for him. But the greater rabbi Abaye said, no, how unworthy is this man that God would have to change nature. To Abaye, the laws of nature are the most important. And to the lactation nurse, the natural way was the only way. Nature trumped everything else.
I will admit that if I had known how expensive baby formula is, I would push every woman to nurse. But many babies do just fine on artificial formula rather than mother’s milk. Some women have difficulty nursing. Sometimes the natural way is not the best way; sometimes we need to move beyond nature.
There is a huge back to nature movement today. For example, there is a movement to prevent vaccinations. Many of the people involved with that movement are the same people who are pushing nursing as the only natural way. Vaccinations are not natural, and at least from the point of view of this group, dangerous. The issue has come up whether we allow unvaccinated children in our early childhood program. Some claim that vaccinations cause autism, something that has never been scientifically proven. But there is a philosophy behind this movement, one that teaches that what is natural is what is important, and we ought not to play with natural. I call this approach worshipping nature.
The same issue comes up in the debate whether cochlear implants are proper. Many see them as medical miracles allowing people to regain their hearing. But many in the deaf community see these as a threat to their culture, and again something unnatural. Again we see the worship of nature.
I can certainly understand the desire to eat natural foods, or to eat meat that has been raised in a more natural setting, free range rather than locked in a stockade. Avoiding cruelty to animals is a fundamental ethical value. Having said that, natural foods are often much more subject to natural diseases that occur, and pesticides can make our food disease free. Obviously, the pesticides must be used wisely. But this points to an important issue. Natural is not necessarily better. Nature is not good, in fact nature can be quite maleficent. After all diseases are natural, curing disease is the most unnatural thing in the world.
Eight days after my grandson was born, we had a bris up in Maryland. I have officiated at hundreds of brises, but for the first time in my life I got to be the sandek, the one who holds the baby. Nonetheless, the question of brit milah raises some of the same issues. Many people in the back to nature movement, the ones who oppose bottle feeding and vaccinations, also oppose circumcision. There is a big anti-circ movement in the United States, and even more so in Europe. Some countries, particularly in Scandinavia, are trying to outlaw circumcision. More about circumcision later.
The first view is based on worshipping nature. The worship of nature is very ancient. As I mentioned yesterday, at the dawn of civilization almost all humans practiced animism, seeing spirit in everything – the sun, the moon, mountains, rivers, and certainly storms. All was infused with consciousness. Sacrifices were given to these various spirits for good crops, healing, or protection of the community. These ancient pagans also had a cyclical view of religion. They worshipped the cycles of the seasons, of the moon, of the years. Modern scholars have seen this religious view as the eternal return. Everything that was would be again. Or to quote the beginning of Ecclesiastes which is a reflection of this pagan view, Ein Hadash Tachat HaShamesh. “There is nothing new under the sun.”
The Torah stood like a beacon of light against this pagan view of nature. The Torah does not worship nature. On the contrary, HaShamayim Misaprim K’vod El – “the heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalms 19:2). Nature is God’s creation, nature is not God. We Jews worship God, we do not worship nature. The pagan idea that life is a cycle was rejected. Life is linear, going in a direction rather than in circles.
But that does create a problem. Many would say that if nature is simply God’s creation, then perhaps nature was given to us for our use. The second view is utilizing nature. The approach of the Bible seems to indicate that we as humans, rather than worshipping nature, can utilize nature. God said to humanity, “Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon this earth.” (Genesis 1:28) This is the view of utilizing, some would say exploiting nature.
And so began one of the great intellectual debates of human history. Is nature to be worshipped as something filled with spirit? Or is nature to be utilized as something created for human benefit? Francis Bacon, one of the intellectual founders of the scientific revolution, famously said in his Novum Organon, “Let the human race recover the right over nature which belonged to it by divine bequest.” The purpose of science is to use the human intellect to understand nature and control it for human purposes. This idea was a basic part of the Enlightenment, a movement built on science and progress.
But there was a reaction to this idea. Romanticism taught that we should return to nature, live within nature, worship nature. Emotions became more important than reason. In America, the Romantic, back to nature movement was best symbolized by thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, who left civilization to live in Walden Pond. In Europe ,the philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche rejected all European cultural values in favor of a return to ancient paganism. He taught that the Apollonian god of reason should be replaced by the Dionysian god of wine, passion, and pleasure. If the Enlightenment said, follow your reason, Nietzsche said follow your passions. It was a return to nature.
Nonetheless, with the industrial revolution, the idea that nature should be utilized for human needs was at the forefront. Many see this revolution as the beginning of our environmental problems. The Medieval historian Lynn White wrote a seminal essay called “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.” In the essay, he blamed the Bible for creating all our environmental problems. To quote him, “Christianity … not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” The modern environment movement grew in response to these ideas.
Many in the modern environmental movement take a rather extreme view of nature. The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess formulated a philosophy called deep ecology. This sees nature as an organism deserving rights. Just as we speak about human rights, so we speak about the rights of nature. Animals have rights, trees have rights, mountains have rights, even the earth itself has rights. We are back to the ancient pagan way of viewing nature as something worth worshipping. Some extremists have even dared suggest that humanity is a kind of cancer upon nature. One writer David Graber wrote, “We have become a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth. … Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.”
Anybody remember the 2014 movie Noah starring Russell Crowe. I went to see it hoping to see a nice depiction of the Biblical story. It was a terrible movie that had little to do with the Bible. According to the movie, Noah’s mission was to save the animals so that they could flourish after the flood. Then he was to allow humanity to die off. No new children. The goal was a natural world without any humans to destroy or corrupt it. Fortunately, at least according to the movie, Noah changed his mind before the end.
So we have had this back-and-forth movement in human intellectual history – worship nature or utilize nature. Where does Judaism stand in all of this? Part of the power of Jewish tradition is it disagrees with both points of view. Judaism gives a third view. It says we should transform nature. Let me return once again to the brit milah, a central mitzvah in Judaism. We circumcise our boys on the eighth day. Why eight days? I have heard scientific reasons about healing. I want to give a spiritual reason.
Seven days symbolizes the completion of nature. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Seven has always been a sign of completeness in Judaism. We wait until seven days have passed, but on the eighth day we make a mark in the flesh. The message is that the world of nature is incomplete. Our job is to complete God’s work. Throughout this book we have shown how nature is in process, nature is somehow incomplete. Our job is to be God’s partners to complete nature.
The Jewish view is that we need to transform nature. As I said yesterday, the natural world is tov meod – “very good.” Very good, but not perfect. Our job is to perfect the world as a kingdom of God. We call it tikkun olam – literally “repairing the world.” Judaism gives a third path. The Jewish way is not to worship nature. Nor is the Jewish way to utilize and exploit nature. No, the Jewish way is to transform nature.
What does all this have to do with hurricanes? There are a number of answers. Sometimes I hope that one day we will find a way to get a hurricane to dissipate, or at least get it to turn out to sea. That certainly is not going to happen in my lifetime, or that of my children and grandchildren. But we can find ways to better predict hurricanes, to know where they are going. We can find ways to build better structures that can withstand hurricane force winds. We can find ways to prevent electricity and water and phone service and internet from going down. We can find ways to better evacuate people or to care for them and feed them when a disaster strikes. We can find ways to make ourselves more sensitive to the needs of others.
But if human activity can do more to protect us from hurricanes, then does human activity add to the intensity of hurricanes? Is there global warming? Does global warming make hurricanes more intense? Are we humans the cause of more severe hurricanes? If we are the cause, can we do more to prevent it? To quote Jennifer Lawrence once again, are these hurricanes part of nature’s rage and wrath at our behavior?
The trouble with the entire global warming question is that it has become a political rather than a scientific question. Democrats feel one way and Republicans feel another way. I believe that this is a question to be asked of scientists. I am well aware that scientists sometimes get it wrong. And I am well aware that scientific ideas change. But I do believe that we ought to turn to the best scientific knowledge available and act accordingly. For if human activity can improve nature, it can also destroy nature.
This point is made explicitly in a very famous midrash. At the time when the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the first man, he took him and led him around all the trees in the Garden of Eden. Look how beautiful and praiseworthy every one is. And everything I created, I created for you. Be careful not to corrupt or destroy my world. For if you destroy it, there is none to repair it after you. We are commanded to take care of the world God created.
Throughout human intellectual history there have been three different approaches to nature. The first approach is that of the ancient pagans, the romantics, and many in the modern environmental movement. That approach is to worship nature. The second approach is that of the enlightenment and many of the industrial revolution. That approach is to utilize nature, to exploit nature. The third approach is the one that Jewish tradition teaches. Our job is to transform nature, to perfect this world as a kingdom of God.
On this Rosh Hashana, as we celebrate the birthday of the world, that is the perfect message. May we learn from the terrible hurricanes that have afflicted our communities. May we learn not to worship nature nor to utilize nature, but to transform nature. And may God guide us to help perfect nature and make this a better world,
And let us say,

Kol Nidre – 5778 -2017
The Language God Speaks
A mother mouse was walking with her two baby mice. Suddenly a large cat threatened them. The baby mice clung to their mother scared to death. The mother let out a large bark like a dog, and the cat immediately fled. The mother then turned to her babies and said, “See, I told you it is important to learn a foreign language.”
Tonight, I want to speak about foreign languages, and in particular, the foreign language God speaks. But first I must admit that learning a foreign language is not one of my strengths. When I was in high school I took French, but I quit after two years. It was hard for me. My strongest memory of the class was when the teacher brought in escargot for us to taste. I think I missed that day. But my limited high school French once came in useful. I was nineteen years old, traveling through Europe, and was suddenly hungry somewhere in Croatia, then Yugoslavia. I sat down in what I thought was a restaurant and someone tried to ask me in Serbo-Croatian what I wanted. Struggling to communicate, I finally said, “Je voidrais manger.” “I want to eat” in French. They brought me food – this was in my pre-kosher days. When I tried to pay, I found out that I had walked into a private home.
My next attempt at a foreign language was studying German in college. Needless to say, my parents were upset, Jews don’t learn German. I came from the kind of home where you were not allowed to buy a Volkswagen. I spent my junior year in Israel and was required to pass a language competency exam before I left. I took the exam in German, left for Israel, and received a letter that I had failed. Since I had failed the language requirement, I really was not supposed to be on the junior year abroad program. In the end, I returned for my senior year, chatted with an Israeli professor in Hebrew, and at last passed the competency exam in Hebrew. My Hebrew was ok, it became better when I returned for a second year in Israel. But even today it is rusty when I do not practice. Most recently I have made some attempts to learn Spanish. But language is not one of my strengths.
Having said that, I decided long ago that if I were to learn one foreign language in my lifetime, it will be Hebrew. I am a strong believer in the centrality of Hebrew for Jewish identity. Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer and Jewish study. It is the language of the Torah. Perhaps most important, Jews consider it to be the language God speaks. We say in our prayers every morning, Baruch sheamar v’hiya haolam, “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being.” God said yehi or, “let there be light.” The words are in Hebrew. I am aware that several years ago the governor of Texas, arguing against bilingual schools, famously said, “If English was good enough for Jesus, it should be good enough for our children.” Sorry Madam Governor. Jesus did not speak English. He did not speak Hebrew either, he spoke Aramaic.
Still our tradition teaches that God used Hebrew in creating the world. According to Jewish tradition, all the world once spoke Hebrew. Then we built a Tower of Babel and God confused our languages so we could not communicate with one another. The world became multilingual. But at the core of Jewish identity is Hebrew. I know what you are thinking; doesn’t God speak every language? The answer is of course God speaks every language. In fact, Jewish law says you can say prayers in every language. What does it mean to speak every language? Let me turn to the movie that was the major blockbuster this summer, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman is raised on an island of all women, until an American pilot arrives on the island. She speaks to him in perfect English. How does she know English? The movie explains that the women of this island, like God Himself, speak every language. There is a scene in the movie where she speaks Russian and another where she speaks Arabic. Who was the actress who played this remarkable woman with all these amazing powers? It was the Israeli actress and former combat instructor in the Israeli army Gal Gadot. And her first language was Hebrew.
That same summer that I went to Yugoslavia was my first trip to Israel. I did not speak the language. But something about seeing all the signs, road signs, store signs, billboards, written in Hebrew letters touched my soul. The Hebrew letters worked their magic on me, and I knew I had to go back for my junior year. The letters themselves have a power. There is an old Hasidic story of a little boy whose parents never bothered to give him a Jewish education. On his own he found a teacher, who started to teach him the Hebrew alphabet. Then for the first time he went to synagogue on Yom Kippur. He listened to everyone praying and called out what he knew, aleph, beit, gimmel, daled, repeating the Hebrew alphabet. Suddenly the rabbi stopped the prayers. “There is a boy in the back calling out the alphabet, and his prayers are making it right to God’s Holy throne. God is putting the prayers together out of those letters.”
I heard a more recent true version of that story from Rabbi Michael Cain. He was in Israel for a big convention of the CAJE, the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education. The delegates from around the world were gathered near the kotel, the Wall, in Jerusalem. Someone announced that the famous singer, composer of Jewish music Debbie Friedman, may her memory be for a blessing, was going to sing. She was wheeled out in her wheelchair; her health was already failing. But when she brought out her guitar her face lit up. Then, there near the kotel, everyone started to sing one her most famous songs. “Aleph beit veit, gimmel daled hey.” The whole convention, gathered in Israel, sang her alphabet song. The moment was magic.
What is so magical about Hebrew? On my last trip to Israel I spent most my time in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a spiritual city, but Tel Aviv is just a big, busy metropolis. They say that people go to Jerusalem to pray and Tel Aviv to play. Would I have a spiritual experience? I walked up and down Dizengoff Street listening to people talk, trying to improve my Hebrew. Here were native born Israelis and people born in Russia, in Morocco, in Latin America, in Anglo countries, even in Vietnam, speaking this ancient language. And the thought dawned on me. One hundred fifty years ago no one spoke Hebrew. Jews used it for prayer and study, mostly with a different pronunciation. Thanks to the effort of Eliezer ben Yehudah, who refused to speak any other language, Hebrew was revived. Like a phoenix from ashes, Hebrew went from a dead to a living language. Now here was a city filled with people speaking this language. I walked the streets of Tel Aviv and I realized that this is a miracle. Nes Gadol Haya Po. A great miracles happened here. The language God speaks has been revised.
Here I am in a synagogue where we chant most of our prayers in Hebrew. I am well aware that many of you do not speak Hebrew, and some of you cannot even read the letters. Why pray in Hebrew? A woman once came to me and said, she no longer comes to synagogue because she does not understand the Hebrew. When she is looking for a spiritual experience, she tries Buddhist meditation. I asked her how she meditates. She told me that she went to an Indian guru who taught her a sentence in Sanskrit. She uses it as a mantra for her mediation. I asked her, do you understand Sanskrit. She said of course not. So, half tongue in cheek, I said, why don’t you meditate on this sentence Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Achad. Hebrew can be a mantra. Instead of chanting om, one can chant shalom. If people do not understand the Hebrew, come and use the words as a mantra.
But why not just pray in English? What would Judaism be like if Jews in Florida prayed in English, Jews in Buenos Aries prayed in Spanish, Jews in Moscow prayed in Russian, Jews in Paris prayed in French, and Jews in Tel Aviv prayed in Hebrew. Something valuable would be lost. By using Hebrew we are praying in the same language as Jews throughout the world, as Jews throughout history. We are part of something greater than ourselves. The Reform Movement tried prayer in the vernacular for decades, with only a few key prayers in Hebrew. Walk into a Reform Temple today and most of the prayers are in Hebrew. The Reform Movement learned that without Hebrew something valuable is lost. After all, this is the language God speaks.
I am a believer in Hebrew prayer. I am a believer because the Hebrew language links us to Jews all over the world. I am a believer because the Hebrew language links us to the Torah and the sacred books of our tradition. I am a believer because the Hebrew language links us to the state of Israel. And I am a believer because the Hebrew language links us to God, Who used Hebrew to create a world.
There is another reason I believe in Hebrew. Much of the power of Jewish tradition is tied up in the language. Meaning is lost in translation. Hebrew words translated into English take on different connotations. Translations are by necessity interpretations, and English translations from the King James Bible or the pages on the left in our Mahzor, reflect the traditions of English speakers. Remember that England was a Christian country. Yes, we can pray in English and study in English. But know that something valuable is lost when we no longer use the original language. Allow me to share three examples with you. I want to teach you three Hebrew words that lose much of their meaning when we say them in English.
The three words come from the same prayer, the untaneh tokef prayer we will recite tomorrow morning. We read that we pass before God like sheep, and on Rosh Hashana it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water. Teshuvah, u’Tefilah, u’Tzedakah ma’avirim et roa hagezerah. Three things – “repentance, prayer, and charity can reverse the severity of the decree,” three Hebrew words – teshuvah repentance, tefilah prayer, u’tzedakah charity. For all three, translating into English loses something vital.
The first word Teshuvah is usually translated as repentance. Repentance in English is a feeling of regret and remorse, with a determinism to change one’s ways. It is a change of heart. The word repentance is about feelings, about something your do with your heart. That makes sense in English, for English is based on Christian values. Christianity puts a great emphasis on what you do with your heart, with your feelings, with your inner spirit. This idea goes back to Martin Luther who said that man is justified not by his works but by his faith, by what goes on in his heart.
Perhaps the best example is the 1976 presidential election when Jimmy Carter won the presidency. Remember how Carter admitted in a magazine interview that he had committed adultery with his heart many times. There was a hue-and-cry. Christian America cares about what we do with our hearts. But most American Jews yawned. It did not matter. Judaism is not about feelings but about actions. It is about what we do with our bodies, not our thoughts. If he had actually committed adultery with his body, we would have cared. But not his heart.
The word teshuvah in Hebrew is not about a change of heart. It is about a change of action. It comes from the Hebrew root shuv which means return. Teshuvah is returning to the path we should be walking. We have strayed from the path and now we have come back to that path. Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, teaches that true teshuvah is when you have been walking the wrong path, and you have the same opportunity to walk that path again, but this time you change direction. It is a change in action.
Teshuvah assumes there is a right path, a path we should be walking down in every area of our lives. I sometimes hear from new age thinkers that whatever you are doing with your life, that is what you should be doing. That is the right path for you. Judaism disagrees. It says that what we do matters, there is a proper path. To illustrate this idea, I often like to share one of my favorite passages from Alice in Wonderland. Alice meets the Cheshire Cat, the cat who disappears, everything but his smile. Alice asks, pussy what path should I go on? The cat answers, where are you trying to go? I don’t know where I am trying to go. Then it really does not matter what path you are going on.
Judaism believes there is a proper path. We have a way we should go as children, as siblings, as spouses, as parents, as citizens, as human beings, and as Jews. We all stray off the path. In fact, if you tell me you always stayed on the right path for the past year, never strayed, you have my permission not to fast on Yom Kippur. We stray off the path. Judaism is not about repentance, changing our hearts. Judaism is about teshuvah, changing our path. It is about returning to the proper path.
The second word Tefilah is usually translated as prayer. The English word prayer comes from the word to entreat God or to implore God. It is pouring your heart before God. Most people see prayer as a kind of cosmic vending machine. Put in the right coin and the right candy comes out. Put in the right prayer is and the right result from God will come out. That is why so many people ask me to pray to God for them. They believe I will know what to say; they do not know what to say. I always agree to pray for people. This year I have blessed teens about to get their driver’s license (more about that tomorrow), prayed for evil spirits to leave a home, and blessed someone’s wine cellar. I will say yes when people ask me to pray. But people are capable of saying their own prayers. More to the point, the English word prayer is not exactly the meaning of tefilah in Hebrew.
The Hebrew comes from the root lehitpalel, literally “to judge one’s self.” Tefilah is not something we do to change God. It is something we do to change ourselves. When we pray, we should walk away transformed, changed – more appreciative, more thankful, more aware, more joyous, and more spiritual. God does not need our prayers. We need our prayers. There is the story of the man who goes into a city filled with sinners, a kind of Sodom and Gemorrah, and constantly prays, “God, take away the sin; God, take away the sin.” Someone finally asks, “Why are you praying among these people? Can’t you see that it is not doing any good.” The man answers, “I am not praying to change them, they won’t change. I am praying to make sure I don’t change, I don’t become like them.” Prayer is something we do for ourselves.
The third word tzedakah is usually translated as charity. The English word charity is something we do out of the goodness or our hearts. Christians believe it is the highest form of love. Charity is a way to use our money and other personal belongings to help others. We feel good when we perform acts of charity. But that raises questions. If I give charity because it makes me feel good, am I doing an ethical act? The great philosopher Immanuel Kant would say no. An action which leads to certain feelings is not ethical. It is only ethical if we act clearly out of a sense of duty.
The philosopher Kant was actually quite close to Judaism. Tzedakah in Judaism is a duty. In fact, the word comes from the same root as justice. Charity is justice. We do it not to feel good, but because we are obligated. If God brings financial success into our lives, we have a duty to share some of that financial success with others. And Judaism teaches that giving tzedakah is not just for the rich. Even the poor person who lives off the largess of others must set aside something to give to those who are poorer. The beggar is obligated to give charity.
Allow me to share a thought problem I sometimes share with my teenage students to think about tzedakah. Imagine two partners in a business in equal financial positions. They earn the same and have the same expenses. A woman comes in to their business in difficult financial shape. She cannot afford to pay her bills. Maybe she is ill or unemployed. The first partner listens patiently to the woman’s story, nodding sympathetic. He or she then hands the woman a $20 bill. The second partner has no time to listen. He or she quickly writes the woman a check for $200 and goes back to business. Which was the higher act?
When I ask students this, they invariably say the first was the higher act. It was important to listen sympathetically. I reply, if you were the woman in that position, would you rather have a sympathetic ear and $20 or a non-listener and $200. As Americans we always look at feelings. As Jews, in the ultimate sense, it is action that is most important. I have tried to prove to you using the untenah tokef prayer that something precious is lost when Hebrew is translated to English. Words take on different meanings. If tesuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah can change the severe decree, they mean changing onto the correct path in life, praying to transform ourselves, and giving out of a sense of duty. These are the insights of the Hebrew language.
I hope I have demonstrated to you the power of the Hebrew language. It is the language that God speaks, that God used to create the world. I think it is a language with magical powers. In fact, the word abracadabra comes from the Hebrew language. Abra ke Dabra. It literally means, “I create as I speak.” So how can you open yourself up to the language that God speaks. The first step is to learn the letters. If enough people are interested I will put a class together. To learn some Hebrew, I am planning to add a Hebrew word and its meaning each week to my message. I also recommend a visit to Israel and drink in the signs and the sounds of Hebrew. I am putting a group together next summer; come with me to Israel on July 4. For those with the time, I invite you to sign up for an ulpan, and intense Hebrew learning experience in Israel. And there are Hebrew classes here, including such programs as Rosetta Stone. I invite everyone to try to learn more Hebrew. You will find that it will open up worlds of meaning for you.
May God help us learn the joy of the Hebrew language, and let us say

YIZKOR 2017 – 5778
The Evangelical preacher was speaking to the Sunday School class in his large mega-Church. “Tell me, if you come to church every week, will you get into heaven?” “No,” shouted the children. “If you work in the church’s soup kitchen, will you get into heaven?” “No,” shouted the children. “If you donate 10% of your earnings to the church, will you get into heaven?” “No,” said the children. The preacher paused. “So tell me children, how do you get into heaven?” The children were silent, until one little girl said, “You have to die first.”
I am one of the rabbis who teaches the community conversion class. My students, almost entirely from Christian backgrounds, invariably ask “what does Judaism say about getting into heaven.” I tell them that in Judaism you don’t need to die first, our goal is to create heaven here on earth. I always teach the same topic in this conversion class – the Jewish life cycle. I teach one week on birth and childhood, one week on marriage and divorce, and one week on growing old and death. Or to put it in simple terms, I teach my students how we Jews hatch, match, and dispatch. There is always controversy when I teach this class. When I teach about birth, I speak about abortion. When I teach about marriage, I speak about homosexuality. When I teach about death, I speak about euthanasia. All create arguments, particularly with students who came from a strong Catholic or evangelical background.
Today I want to talk about the life cycle, and about three life cycle events. But today I want to speak about new events, events in the modern world. All three events have to do with driving a car. To understand where I am coming from, please understand that I grew up in Los Angeles. In LA, unlike New York or Boston, driving is a sacred rite. I received my driver’s license at sixteen, and shortly afterwards my grandfather gave up driving and gave me his ’57 Chevy. Remember those. To understand Los Angeles, I want to remind you of a scene in the Steve Martin film LA Story. Martin gets into his car and drives fifty feet to the house next door. That’s what we do in Los Angeles.
When I moved to New York City to attend the seminary, I was told that I would not need a car. I lived without a car in Manhattan for about six months, and I could not stand it anymore. I bought a used car, even tolerating the alternate side of the street parking. To me driving a car was, and still is, a major part of my life. That is why I put more than 20,000 miles a year on my poor car. So let me share three life cycle events.
The first life cycle event is when we receive our driver’s license. Most get it at sixteen, some delay to seventeen or eighteen. My mother-in-law Dora never drove a car in her life. But her grandchildren all were driving by their seventeenth birthdays. This is the true rite of passage for young people. Yes, I know that becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is when we are considered a Jewish adult. But it is with driving that we truly have the power of life and death in our hands. I remember, shortly after receiving my driver’s license, taking out my parents’ Irving and Pearl’s rather expensive car. I tried to turn into an alley that was too narrow, and a telephone pole decided to badly dent the driver side door. It must have moved in my way. I stopped the car as a woman passing by walked over to me. She looked at me and she looked at the car door, and then she said, “Boy, are you in trouble.” Then she walked away. Thanks, lady. We were able to fix the door but my parents were not happy.
Numerous times over the years I have been called upon to bless teenagers as they receive their drivers’ licenses. Unfortunately, my Rabbi’s Manual which contains blessings for everything, has no such blessing. I make something up in Hebrew and English. And I give a mini-lecture to these young people. You now hold the power of life and death in your hands. Don’t drink and drive. Don’t text and drive. Don’t blare the radio and drive. Don’t fool around or speed. Do these young people listen to their rabbi? I sure hope so.
I have been giving a lot of thought to the difficulties of being a teenager today. There is a disturbing essay by Jean M. Twenge that appeared in The Atlantic Magazine, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation.” She says that as more and more young people have smart phones, they are staying home more and going out less. Young people are getting their driver’s licenses at a later age, as they spend time on social media rather than hanging out with their friends. You need a car to drive to the mall. You don’t need a car to sit in your bedroom texting friends. Unfortunately, with all the social media, teens are becoming lonelier and more depressed.
There is a challenge to being a teen today. This was driven home to me by three examples of popular entertainment – a television series on Netflix, a young adult novel on which that television series was based, and a hit Broadway Show. The television series was Thirteen Reasons Why. It was extremely disturbing and extremely addicting; I could not stop watching it. When I finished, I read the 2007 novel by Jay Asher on which it is based. I recommend parents watch the tv show or read the novel with their teens. The story sadly tells the story of a high school student who commits suicide. She leaves behind a series of recordings to her classmates telling why. The novel and the television series show high school life at its worse – sexual harassment and bullying, drinking and drugs, public humiliation and finally a horrifying rape scene. When I commented on the show on Facebook, one of our younger members answered that it was an exaggeration. Television series always are, but it shows what can happen to teens with low self-esteem.
On a similar theme, while in New York I saw the hit Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen. The show won the Tony for Best Musical and its star Ben Platt won for best actor in a musical. Of course, I felt a bit of pride, Ben Platt began his acting career doing Hebrew musicals at Camp Ramah in California. The theme was similar to the television show Thirteen Reasons Why. A lonely young man commits suicide. The main character Evan Hansen, lonely in a social media world, longing for a girl who will not notice him, says the words repeated through the play, “If you are falling in a forest and there’s nobody around, do you ever really crash or even make a sound.” Evan is caught up in a lie about his friendship with the boy who died. The lie explodes out of control, he wins the girl, and the first act ends with the powerful anthem “you will be found.” But will the lie blow up in his face? I will not give away the ending; see the show. It had wonderful music but was also extremely disturbing. But low self-esteem and loneliness are real. There are suicide hotlines, and I am always ready to meet with young people, or anyone else, who needs to talk, anytime.
These shows point to the loneliness and low self-esteem of so many young people. When people have low self-esteem, they often do things to make themselves more popular with their peers. They shoplift or drink or use drugs, they bully or sext on their phones or practice irresponsible sex. And often this irresponsible behavior appears behind the wheel of a car. That is why it is so vital that young people, before they get their driver’s license, not only have the skills to drive but a strong sense of self-worth. There is a Hassidic teaching from Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pershyscha that every Jew should carry two slips of paper in her pocket at all times. If she is becoming too cocky and arrogant, she should pull up the paper that says, “I am just dust and ashes.” And if she becomes too lowly and depressed, she should pull out the paper that says, “the world was created for me.” The first life cycle event is when young people receive their driver’s license. Hopefully they will realize that the world is created for them, they will have not only the skills but the self-worth to drive responsibly.
The second life cycle event may happen two or six or ten years later. For some it may never happen at all. It is that very proud moment when a young person finally buys a car, on their own, from money they have earned. My first car was the Chevy I received from my grandfather. My second car was a yellow Fiat my parents helped me buy. But that car I bought in New York City, that used Ford, was the first car I ever bought totally on my own. And a few years later, for the first time in my life, I bought a new car, another Chevy. Those were proud moments.
Buying a car is the symbol of financial independence. One of the toughest tasks each of us have in our lives is to provide for ourselves financially, and buying car is second only to buying a home in terms of expense. Back in an ancient mythical time, we humans lived in a Garden where all of our needs were met. Then we ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – please note it was not an apple – and we were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. In the Garden we were like animals, or children. Now we had to provide for ourselves. Or as God told the first man, “by the sweat of your brow will you bring forth bread.” There are few tasks harder in life than the ability to provide for one’s self.
Rabbi Cain shared a precious insight with me, which he claimed he read from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In the Bible the Israelites sent twelve spies into the land. Ten came home with an evil report. They could not conquer the land. They wanted to return to Egypt. Only two gave a positive report. What were these ten spies scared of? The traditional answer is that they were scared of the giants in the land, scared they would be defeated. According to the Rebbe, the fear was not that they would be defeated. The fear was that they would succeed. The people feared that they would conquer the land, and for the first time they would have to provide for themselves.
You have all heard the story of the young lady who brings her fiancée to meet her parents. They ask what he does for a living. The young man says, “I am a scholar, I study the Torah all day.” The father asks, “And how will you provide for my daughter.” “God will provide.” The father says, “Ok, you have my blessing.” His wife kicks him, “How can you give your blessing? He can’t earn a living.” The man answers, “He called me God.” The joke is old, but the idea is prevalent. People expect God to provide, their parents to provide, the community to provide, the government to provide. A young person growing up needs to ask that difficult question, “How will I provide for myself?” The world does not owe us a living. The ability to buy a car, whether new or used, whether leased or bought outright, and to pay for the insurance and maintenance on that car, is a sign of adulthood.
Of course, all of this is part of the greater task of becoming a responsible adult. For most of us, that includes finding a career, getting married, having and raising children, and becoming part of a community. I have never owned a Suburu, but I love their commercials showing the link between the family car and family relationships. One of my favorites is the father putting his very young daughter in the driver’s seat and lecturing her on being a responsible driver. Then the scene switches, the daughter is no longer so young but a teenager, but the father still sees her as a little girl. Another shows a little boy carrying boxes of stuff to the back of a car, until the scene switches and the boy becomes a young man going off to college. The parents still see him as a little boy. Both commercials end with the company motto, “Love – it’s what makes a Suburu a Suburu.” I am not trying to plug one company, but I believe owning a car is an essential part of becoming a responsible adult.
We have looked at two major life cycle events. The first is when, as teenagers, we learn to drive and receive our driver’s license. The second is when we succeed at achieving financial independence and buy our first car. Now I want to look at a third life cycle event. It is one that I have not reached, and I hope I never reach. But many of us have reached this third life cycle event. It is the day when we stop driving. It is the day when we realize we no longer have the skills to be a safe driver.
This is part of growing old. I used to believe that there were two signs that person is growing older. The first is that they need cataract surgery and the second is that they break their hip. This past year I changed my mind. Last February I had cataract surgery in both eyes. And one month later, last March I broke my hip, and had surgery to screw me back together. But I feel young. I now see better than ever (thank you Dr. Leonard.) I now walk better than ever (thank you Dr. Berkowitz and your partner Dr. Eierle). They were set backs, but I am feeling very healthy now.
On Yom Kippur we are well aware of the pain of growing older. Over and over in the Sh’ma Kolenu prayer we call out to God words that ring true. Al Tashlichenu L’et Zikna Kichlot Kochenu al Taazvenu. “Do not cast us aside when we grow older, as our strength declines do not cast us aside.” Many of us realize eventually that we no longer have the skills to drive safely. Sometimes it begins with not driving on the highway. It begins with not driving at night. There is the story of the woman in Kings Point who tells her children, “I met the most wonderful man.” “Fabulous mom, tell us about him. Is he nice? Does he treat you right?” The woman answers, “His best quality is he drives at night.”
The difficult day finally comes when someone decides that they can no longer drive safely. Sometimes there is a medical incident. Sometimes the government does not renew their license, although I am amazed when the government gives an automatic renewal for ten years to someone in their eighties. Sometimes concerned children finally take away the car keys. But a few truly courageous and sensible souls decide that they can no longer drive safely. They choose to give up their license. And like my grandfather who gave me his ’57 Chevy, they sometimes give their car to their grandchildren. A younger generation will now take over driving.
But what about their independence? It is difficult. They now must become dependent on others. Some learn to use Uber. Some move into communities that have transportation. Some hire drivers or depend on friends. And unfortunately, some become homebound and depressed. But there is a valuable lesson that people learn when they no longer drive. They learn the importance of other people in their lives. I learned this lesson myself in a way that has nothing to do with driving. When I was in Rabbinical School I was required to learn to blow the shofar. I bought a lovely shofar that still sits in my office, and I went for lessons. After two or three lessons, the teacher told me. “I hope wherever you get a pulpit, there will be someone else to blow the shofar.” I was very upset at the time. But I have since thought about it. There is a great gift in knowing that we need other people in our lives.
Anyone remember the old Anacin commercial from the sixties, “Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself!” The mother says the food needs a little salt, and the daughter lashes out at her. The daughter needs Anacin for her headache. The words “I’d rather do it myself” went through my head when I was healing from a broken hip, using a walker, and depending on other people for everything. When I was really frustrated by the things I could not do myself, I took comfort in Blanche DuBois’s closing line in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
If there is any lesson I have learned after I broke my hip, it is how much I needed other people. That included my wife who has been a saint. But it also included a skycap at Dulles Airport who broke all the rules to get my suitcases and check me in early, a total stranger who carried my computer from a restaurant to the car, and our Cantor Jenna Kramarow who made sure that I had everything to conduct services sitting in a chair. There is a religious value in being dependent on others.
Recently I was studying other religions and listening to a lecture on Buddhism. Part of the Buddhist monastic tradition, at least in parts of India, is that monks ought not to grow their own food or provide for themselves. They eat by begging others for food. Begging teaches them humility. And begging also gives those who contribute the food the positive karma they need. It is interesting that, when Buddhism moved to China, such begging for food was less acceptable. Self-sufficiency is a strong Chinese value. Here in America, whether one accepts the Eastern idea of karma or the Jewish idea of gemilut hasadim (“deeds of loving kindness”), there is a religious value in needing others.
I am not dismissing lightly the frustration of being unable to drive. I am a Californian after all. The only thing worse than not being able to drive in Florida is not being about to drive in California. Now my son Ben lives in California, learning to deal with the frustrations of LA traffic. But I think we ought to recognize the courage of those who say, “I no longer feel safe driving.” And for those who are looking for a mitzvah, taking someone who does not drive to the market, to the doctor, or to synagogue, is a wonderful thing to do.
I have mentioned three life cycle events – getting a driver’s license, paying for one’s own car, and many years later, giving up that driver’s license. They are tied to three of the most important issue we face as human beings. We must grow up and become responsible adults. We must learn to be self-sufficient and provide for ourselves. And we must deal with old age and the reality that our bodies do not work as well as they used to. This is what life is all about.
We are about to begin our yizkor prayers. We remember loved ones – parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, for some us a spouse, and sadly, for some of us, a child or grandchild. We must reflect on their lives, and ask what can we learn from the way they lived. Many of them faced growing up and taking responsibility, often under terms of much greater adversity than we face. Many of them faced trying to provide for themselves as they married and built families, particularly during a time of depression when earning a living was extremely difficult. Many of them faced their older years, watching their health decline and their bodies not working as they once did. Let us learn from those we love who are no longer with us.
As we think about what they learned, may we apply it to our lives. And may God help us with that effort, and let us say