Monday, September 28, 2009

Feeling Like Jonah

Feeling Like Jonah
Yom Kippur 5770-2009

President Lincoln is said to have regularly told this story:

A frontiersman lost his way in an uninhabited region on a dark and tempestuous night. The rain fell in torrents, accompanied by terrible thunder and more terrific lightning. To increase his trouble his horse halted, being exhausted with fatigue and fright. Presently a bolt of lightning struck a neighboring tree, and the crash brought the man to his knees. He was not an expert in prayer, but his appeal was short and to the point: ‘Oh, good Lord, if it is all the same to you, give us a little more light—and a little less noise.’

The story relates in a humorous way the feelings that all of us have when we are lost and afraid. All we need is a little hope, to see the rays of sun peeking through the clouds: a bit more light to reassure us and a bit less of those things that scare us.

Most of us feel that we are not “expert in prayer.” At times even the most “expert at prayer” could not do better than to repeat the words of Lincoln’s frontiersman. The best prayers are not necessarily grandiloquent, or perhaps, to use a more appropriate term, highfalutin. The best prayers are poignant, relevant, and meaningful.

The sailors on the ship with Jonah could easily have uttered the same words as those uttered by Lincoln’s frontiersman amid the storm that tossed their ship. Overwhelmed with fear, they sought help from the divine as well, asking of the cause of their plight and eventually coming to the conclusion that Jonah was to blame. They sought forgiveness from the divine hoping that the storm would relent. It finally did, when Jonah was tossed overboard.

Just as an aside, please do not assume that sending people around you into the depths of the sea will alleviate the things that trouble you. That ONLY worked in the story of Jonah, though it has been tried again and again throughout history to too many scapegoats, people wrongly blamed. As members of the Jewish community, we know that accusations can be totally without merit. As individuals, we often forget that fact in our lives and may take on blame that is undeserved.

Please do not assume that just because bad things happen to you or to those around you that YOU have something for which to ask forgiveness, blame to accept. Bad things happen in our world. There are bad people in our world. Natural disasters occur. Accidents happen. Illness strikes. People make mistakes. There is irrational hatred.

Though in the story of Jonah, God brings the tempest to toss the sea, in the Reform Jewish tradition, we do not believe that God does such things. God is our support through times of distress, not their cause and not having “allowed” them to happen. This is one place where Reform Judaism is dramatically different than any fundamentalist religious tradition.

In the story of Jonah, Jonah was not at all happy to have to do this work for God. He did not want this “noise” in his life and fled from it. But, he could not escape from it. That part of the story is very much in line with many of the challenges we face in our lives.

During the High Holidays, we work toward returning ourselves to the right path. We perform teshuvah, turning, repentance... All of us have strayed at times from the path of righteousness and may, like Jonah, have found ourselves trying to escape from the challenges that face us.

For many of us, this past year has found us wandering on unknown paths. Darkness has set upon us. Storms have shaken us to the core. Some of us have experienced the loss of employment, the end of relationships, the onset of illness and the death of loved ones. We have been left bereft on a lonely way. Others of us have taken on daunting tasks and encountered challenging circumstances. We all stand arrayed today before God and we feel…we may feel hurt, sad, pained, alone, afraid, guilty—just like Jonah.

If only we could flee. If only we just go away, our problems would…but they won’t just go away. We are like Jonah trying to flee from that from which we cannot flee. The task must be done: the mourning for lost loves, the healing from pain or illness, the continuation or completion of the daunting task, the dark tunnel or deep valley that must be traversed before we come into the light.

It is not without reason that this morning it is customary to read the words, “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, nor too remote” while this afternoon it is customary to read the story of Jonah, who believed that it was is exactly that. These stories come to teach us that when we are faced with a challenge, we must try to overcome it, to succeed at it, even though it may scare us so much that we wish to hide from it.

And our tradition teaches that God is with us as we face these challenges:

Yea, though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for You (God) are with me.

And when we find ourselves with mountains to climb:

I lift my eyes to the mountains: what is the source of my help? My help comes from Adonai, maker of heaven and earth. God will not let your foot give way.

God is with us when we face darkness and fear and when we have mountainous tasks to overcome. God is within us, urging us on, giving us the strength, if we but only listen.

Jonah needed a bit more encouragement than most. God doesn’t usually provide a large fish shaped limousine to deliver us to the door! Long distances take time to cross and often, no little amount of work.

In our story, once Jonah was delivered to dry land, God reiterated the task before him—and Jonah, this time, faced it. “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be overthrown!” He believed that his task was an easy one. Deliver the message and wait.

Jonah did not understand repentance. He had only just come to understand acceptance. The people of Nineveh were ready. They changed their ways and God changed in response to that action. We have to accept the challenges, to face the tasks, to be willing to deal with the work, first. Then, and only then, can we begin to do the work necessary to achieve teshuvah, turning ourselves, turning our lives, in a new and more positive direction.

Jonah became angry because he didn’t understand why he had to be put through what he himself went through. How could it be that the result of his going to Nineveh, of his taking on the work of the daunting task, enduring the darkness and fear, was that God so easily forgave the people of Nineveh? Why didn’t God forgive Jonah’s fear? Why force him to face it? Jonah felt unappreciated. He had difficulty accepting the task and even more difficulty changing direction: acceptance and teshuvah.

Jonah did not realize that by changing his actions, even reluctantly, he brought great change to his world. In the story, Jonah saved the people of Nineveh by performing the task that made him grievously afraid. We may ask what had scared him so.

Perhaps, it was hearing God’s voice in his head. That might have frightened him a bit. It would certainly frighten most of us here if it happened to us. But perhaps, Jonah was not frightened of God at all, but of the people of Nineveh and how they would react to him. Prophets, even in ancient times, were often not well received, prophets of doom even less so. Jonah may indeed have been scared of the task that he was being asked to perform. We may have tasks that scare us as well.

While the obvious lesson of the story of Jonah is the connection between the teshuvah of Nineveh and God’s willingness to forgive us today. Another lesson is that great change can be brought by the positive actions of individuals even if they find difficulty taking them on, as Jonah did. Individual actions may harm a great many, but they can also benefit a great many.

As I said earlier, as Reform Jews, we do not believe that God challenges us in this way. Yet the outcome of dealing with difficulties in our lives is similar. Facing challenges changes our perspective. I spoke about that a bit on Rosh Hashanah morning, when I talked about standing up for ourselves and accepting responsibility for our actions. The same is true with taking on challenges.

The view at the top of the mountain is very different than that from the deeply shadowed valley below. In the midst of our troubles, we often cannot see out of the darkness into the light. In the light, we gain perspective: often gaining pride and courage.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great Orthodox rabbi, once said:

When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. Then I tried to change my town, but my town did not change. Then I tried to change my family, but my family did not change. Then, I knew: first, I must change myself.

Sometimes that change comes when we engage our own weaknesses, our own problems. It is much like when a parent flies on an airplane with a child and is given the simple advice, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” You need to be at your best in order to do your best to help others. God judges us by our best.

That task, to be the best we can be is not necessarily easy. It may even be downright difficult. The cards may be stacked against us. We may well feel like Jonah and want to flee. Or perhaps, pain, loss, and difficult challenges have been put into our path. We may even be angry at God or feel that God is angry with us.

In that vein, Rabbi Marc Gellman writes:

It’s okay to be angry with God, because your anger is just a sign that you care… God would rather have you be angry at God than not to speak to God at all. And you’ll see, chances are that speaking to God will help you lose the anger and keep the love.

Anger and hatred can eat us up. We can make ourselves sick or we can spread our anger and hatred around, sharing it with others and make their lives miserable. Those who try to maintain tight control and harbor anger and hatred as well can easily become abusive of others. They can wreck havoc in their homes, in their workplaces, and among their friends, often losing friends because of outbursts of anger, making working relationships uncomfortable or impossible, and causing emotional harm at home.

God is not an abusive parent. Avinu Malkeinu is “rachum v’chanun,” “merciful and gracious.” God is “patient, loving, and true, showing mercy to multitudes, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.” We should try our best to be as well: of ourselves and of others who have offended against us.

We should try to be like God in our mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. But we are not God. We are faulty, emotional, irrational at times, ignorant, swift to anger and a whole host of other traits that are not ideals. We are not perfect. We all err. We all sin. Our best is never perfect. Perfection is impossible, though we try to attain it nonetheless.

On this Day of Judgment, there is never a more appropriate quote from the Jewish Tradition than the following story of the Chasidic sage Zusya:

While on his deathbed, a student asked "Rabbi, what worries you about your death? Surely you will be welcomed into the gates of heaven."

Zusya sighed. "My son, I am not worried that God will ask me, ‘Zusya, why weren't you more like Moses?' Because I am not Moses. I am worried that God will ask, ‘Zusya, why weren't you more like Zusya?'"

We fear being held to unfair standards, yet we too often hold others to unfair standards. We, knowing that we are imperfect, demand it of others.

We are like Jonah, cowering before daunting tasks, acting childishly at times. We need to remind ourselves of the words of Zusya. We need to remember that though we may feel like Jonah at times and believe that we should be like Moses or some other great figure whom we hold as an exemplar of perfection, we are instead the people who we are. Our task is not to be perfect, for that is not possible, but for us to be the best that we can be.

We are like the frontiersman when confronted with darkness and noise on our way through difficult places in our lives. We too simply wish for “a little more light” and “a little less noise.” We are fallible and imperfect beings.

“Atem nitzavim kolchem hayom lifnei Adonai.”
“We all stand this day arrayed before Adonai.”

Unable to hide ourselves behind another. Like Jonah, it matters not where we go because God, within us, always follows us. And we each matter. We each count.

May we be judged fairly by ourselves and others.

May we strive to be the best people that we can be, though we will never be perfect.

May we not turn others into scapegoats but instead claim our responsibilities.

May we, feeling like Jonah tossed at sea or like the frontiersman lost amid the storms of life; find solace and hope, compassion and mercy.

As we travel through darkened paths in our lives, O God, give us a little more light and a little less noise so that we may proceed in our tasks unafraid.

Gamar Hatimah Tovah, may you be inscribed in the Book of life for a good, happy, and healthy new year.

Kein yehi ratzon.

It is Not in Heaven: Handling Problems Where You Are

It is Not in Heaven: Handling Problems Where You Are
Kol Nidrei 5770-2009

Today, virtually everyone has a cell phone. Teens seem to be on their phones almost all the time, often when they should not be. In the old days, cell phones were few and far between among teenagers. Now, they are practically part of their hands. They take their phones everywhere, talking and texting almost constantly.

Parents who would hover over them if they were in the room, now continue to hover when they leave their presence through regular and sometimes frequent cell phone contact. Some of these parents expect to be able to continue this relationship even when their children leave town and even when they are away at camp for a month or two.

In the past couple of years, I have heard numerous stories from colleagues about students who smuggled cell phones into programs where they were banned. Certainly no few of these students do so to keep in contact with a boyfriend or girlfriend, some just because they are teens who are rebelling against authority, but more than a few do it because their parents ASK them to do it.

I know of several instances of the behavior that I am about to describe to you. It is not a description of any one in particular.

A fifteen year old goes away to a program where he or she is told that cell phones are not permitted to students at all, under any circumstances. His or her parents do not understand this restriction, feeling like it must only apply to people who would abuse the use of the cell phones, and therefore tell their child or even ask their child to bring the phone to the program where they hope to communicate regularly with their child.
The child, now maintaining a deception for his or her parents, in turn sneaks off to use the phone where and when staff members cannot see the violation of policy and where no one could overhear the content of the conversation.

Then, the child exhibits difficulty handling problems during the program. His or her counselors or supervisors do not know what is troubling the student, because problems have not been shared with them. They only know that the child is troubled.

Finally the cell phone is discovered. The parents are called.

Often the parents are angry at the staff, despite the fact that the staff made clear that this was a violation of policy from the start and have every right to be angry themselves that rules were wantonly violated and even more so when the parents defend the violation. “I gave him or her permission to bring the cell phone. My child needs to talk with me. He or she has been having problems, like we knew he or she would, and I’ve been trying to help her or him out. My child needs the phone to contact me.”

The parents think that by maintaining the connection at long distance, they can help to solve problems that might arise and, in several cases of which I know personally from my Summers at Goldman Union Camp Institute, at NFTY Institute, and at other youth group programs, were actively trying to do so.

One program director had a rather profound conversation with a parent of which I will attempt to do justice. We’ll call her Mrs. Berg and for simplicity’s sake, we’ll make the child a girl.

“Mrs. Berg, I’m calling you because we found your daughter in possession of a cell phone. She tells us that she brought it with your permission and that she has been in contact with you on it during her time here.”

“Yes, my husband and I told her to bring it. We were all afraid that she would have trouble there, being away from us. And we were right, she’s had trouble. She’s told us all about it and we’ve been trying to help. You aren't helping her.”

“I understand. And have you been able to help her solve her problems?”

“No. We’re not there. It’s not possible over the phone.”

“That is one of the major reasons why we do not allow kids to bring cell phones with them. They need to share their problems with us and we, who are here with them, can help them to solve their problems as long as we know what they are.”

This specific response reminded me of the story of the Oven of Akhni in the Talmud. The Talmud mentions the case of some particular type of oven and describes the events that occurred during a debate among the Rabbis over its ritual status. The majority of the sages held the oven was not kosher, while Rabbi Eliezer maintained that it was acceptable. The Talmud tells us that:

Rabbi Eliezer brought all the proofs in the world to try to prove his point, but they were not accepted. Finally, he said,

"If the law should follow me, let this carob tree prove it!" And the tree was uprooted from where it was and thrown 100 cubits away (some people say 400 cubits). They answered, "We don't bring proofs from carob trees."

"OK, then if the law is according to me, let the aqueduct prove it!" And the water in the aqueduct started flowing uphill. "We don't bring proofs from aqueducts."

"If I'm right, let the walls of this house of study prove it!" And the walls started shaking, as if to fall down.

Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked the walls: "You keep out of this! This is a debate among scholars, and no concern of yours!" So the walls didn't fall, out of respect to him, but they didn't stand up straight either, out of respect to Rabbi Eliezer, so they remained sort of leaning.

"If I'm right, let it be proven from Heaven!" And at that, a Bat Kol, a Heavenly Voice, responded, "Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is correct! He's right in everything he says! The law should follow him!"

Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and replied, "It is not in heaven!"

It is said that Rabbi Natan visited with Elijah the prophet, in Heaven, and asked him what God did when all this was going on. Elijah answered that God smiled and said "My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.”

One could imagine someone saying to the rabbis, "but what if God were to tell you that you are wrong in your interpretation of the law?" With the response, "God gave us the law to interpret." The Talmudic story teaches us that we are now in possession of the Torah and more specifically, that the rabbis make decisions based upon majority rule. That is the essence of the story.

In the broader sense, however, the story is also a paradigm for parenting—with God as parent and the Torah as the child sent out into the world after being raised.
Now, I will not, for a moment, tell you that sending a child to camp or to a youth retreat is the same as sending your child into the world after college, but it is similar.

I could delve further into the comparison and talk about the fact that many parents feel that they should be able to continue to control the lives of their children long after they have left college.

Then again, no few of you have children who left home and returned. That situation is certainly not a parallel to the story from the Talmud. The Torah did not go back home to stay with God while figuring out what path to choose in life, and making sure that God did their laundry… But the story does give us advice on how problems should be resolved.

Here is the moral of this story:

You need to deal with real people—who are there where you are, where the problem is, and not to rely on disembodied voices. A phone call or a Bat Kol can't solve life's problems. Solutions are made where you are.

Yes, a bit of advice, a bit of sage wisdom from a distance may help, but often not. Yes, doctors may be able to guess what ails you over phone based upon your answers, but you may not be telling them the information vital for the doctor to make the right decision. You may not know the right answers. Your perception may be off. This is why actually going to the doctor’s office is invaluable.

We have abandoned far too much to the idea that technology makes distance irrelevant. When you decide that a phone call from a loved one is as good as a hug, tell me that I am wrong.

"It is not in heaven," but instead here with us. This is a theme of Yom Kippur as well. These words are in fact contained in tomorrow's Torah portion.

We will read the passage from Deuteronomy (30:11-14):

11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, "Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, "Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.

The task of teshuvah, changing our direction and returning to the proper path, may not be easy for us, but it is within our grasp. The work of repentance, and it is work, may not be as easy as saying "I'm sorry," but neither is it impossible. We know our faults and can recall times that we have hurt or offended. We know how to make amends and to do better the next time. We also know that isolating ourselves in order to avoid emotions does not lead to resolution and healing.

There is a growing tendency in our society to share joys and pains with unknowns or distant friends in cyberspace, on the internet, rather than sharing them with those around us. It is not infrequent that I will learn of simchas or tsuris, happy events or troubles, by email or even through a simple status posting on Facebook.

"Just had baby."
"Jane Doe is now in a relationship."
"John Smith (who you know to be married) changed his status to single."
“Jim is having surgery on Monday.”
“Grandmother died last night.”
Needless to say, these statements hardly relay the emotional content of the authors.

One cannot make atonement this way, though we may try. We may try to come before God and say in the style of Facebook:

"Decided I was wrong."
"Jane Doe is now in a relationship with God."
"Jane Doe changed her status to ‘free of sin."

It doesn't work like that. We have to invest our emotions and share our thoughts... Even to convince ourselves that we are sincere, we have to put forth an effort, perhaps even to shed a tear or two or a few.

And Tradition tells us that we do not need to press send for our message to reach God, to reach into the heavens. Today, God descends unto us, to make it easier for us. Atonement is within reach if we wish it and if we try to achieve it.

I didn't say it would be easy. I say only that it is possible. It is within reach. To quote the Torah, "It is in your mouth and in your heart."

"It is not in heaven."

Neither is the ability to make our community better, to strengthen our relationships with one another, and to build our spiritual lives. These tasks are up to us and they require that we physically take part in the life of the community. We have to be there for each other. We have to be here for each other.

When someone suffering illness or feeling the pain of the loss of a loved one enters these doors, they do not want to hear a Bat Kol. They want to see your face, feel your embrace of love and caring, and to hear your words of consolation and hope face to face.

You cannot do the job through email or over the phone. And if you are not here, even if they should hear a Bat Kol, the very voice of God speaking to them through prayer and song, it will not be as powerful, as spiritually and emotionally uplifting, as it would be if you were at their side.

"It is not in heaven."

It is up to you—your congregation, your community, your circle of friends. Your relationship with God and Jewish tradition depend upon your investment, your commitment of your time and your energy. In the long run, it really does not matter what follows the words, "I could not be there for you because..."

And you never know just when that might be, which Friday night, which Shabbat morning, your friend in need will enter those doors and hope to see you. That is what a congregation is all about, being there for one another.

"It is not in heaven."

Take the opportunity that the High Holidays bring to repair wrongs, to bring resolution and healing where there is pain, to begin anew. It is up to you.

May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good and happy year.

Shanah tovah u’metukah!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

If I am not for Myself
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5770-2009
Rabbi David Kaufman

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain tells the following story:

One Friday afternoon, a friend of his was driving along the highway to join his family for Sabbath—the Catskills were where many New York Jews had holiday homes. He saw a motorist stranded by the roadside, his car immobilized by a flat tire. He was wearing a yarmulke.

Naturally the driver assumed that he too was heading for the Catskills and was concerned that he might not be able to change the wheel in time to reach his destination before the Sabbath began.

He stopped, and helped the man change the tire.

As he was parting, the owner of the other car removed his yarmulke and put it in his pocket.

“Why are you doing that?” said the first. “Don’t you wear it all the time?”

“Oh no,” said the other. “You see, I’m not Jewish.”

“Then why were you wearing a yarmulke?”

“Simple,” he replied. ‘I know that if someone is in trouble and is wearing a yarmulke, a Jew will stop to help him.”

Jews have a long history of helping other Jews in times of need. Just as one example, the rabbinic literature makes it very clear that the responsibility of redeeming Jews held captive rests not only on the family of the captives, but on all Jews, regardless of whether or not they have any connection to the captives.
Jews have created organizations to settle immigrants, feed the hungry, provide free loans and rescue persecuted Jews from around the world, from the Soviet Union to Ethiopia. Let us not forget the support offered by Jews in the diaspora, financial and otherwise, for the state of Israel. Jews have a history of supporting fellow Jews.

As we find it in the Talmud's discussion of Shavuot, "Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh vZeh," "All of Israel is responsible for one another."

Hillel, the great sage, put it another way, using three questions:

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" and, as commonly translated, "If I am only for myself, what am I?" Finally, "If not now, when?"
Hillel seems to guide us to the following answers:

Better stand up for yourself,
But not only for yourself.
And you better act before it is too late.

We are given the directive to stand up to face our challenges and to help others face their own.

At Goldman Union Camp this summer, we discussed this quote from Hillel.

At the time, I thought about how these statements applied to the troubling story of Abraham and Isaac as they walked up the mountain together, today's Torah portion. I imagined these thoughts going through their heads.

Abraham thinking that he needed to do what he needed to do, even if it would be to his detriment, the loss of a beloved son. Isaac, in conflict, wondering if he should stand up for himself against his father or allow his father to act on behalf of his family and future generations. Both knowing that time was growing short.

I struggled to make Hillel's statements fit into the story, but did not find an answer then. At camp, I didn't need the answer. We didn't discuss Hillel's quote in relation to the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Instead we talked about real life situations. Let me present one of them to you.

You are one of few Jews in your school or in your workplace. Your schoolmates, or co-workers, perhaps including people whom you like and with whom you wish to be friends, begin ridiculing a fellow student or co-worker because they are Jewish. What would you do and why?

We gave the students the following options:

1. Let everyone know that you are Jewish and that what they are saying is wrong.

2. Say nothing, because it likely won't stop them from being mean to the other student and will only result in them being mean to you as well.

3. Let them know that you disagree with their ridiculing Jews, but do NOT tell them that you are a Jew.

4. Join in ridiculing the other Jew so that they will not suspect you of being Jewish.

5. Try to change the subject.

The staff stressed to the students that the question is not what SHOULD you do, but what WOULD you do. Which option would you likely choose in that situation if it actually happened to you?

Almost all of the students said that they would not seek friendships with the people involved once they knew how they felt about Jews, so the issue is primarily one of what would they do in the specific situation and why?

Of note, no small percentage of the Middle School students had experiences similar to this scenario and therefore many were reacting based upon what they actually did or would do should the situation arise again.

Most of the students when placed in that situation would try to change the subject as their first option. Their second option would be to let the others know that they disagreed, but not to identify themselves as a Jew. Very few would join in, though one said that he DID when confronted with that situation, but no longer hangs out with those kids and won't do it again the next time. About equal numbers would remain silent or declare themselves to be a Jew.

In schools with fewer Jews, silence or avoidance tended to be the option of choice. Many of the students in schools with larger Jewish populations simply stated that the situation could never occur for them, because everyone they are around knows they are Jewish to begin with.

Almost all of the students agreed that telling everyone they were Jewish and defending their fellow Jews was what SHOULD be done, but many said that they would feel uncomfortable doing that. Letting everyone know that they were Jewish was the option that required the most courage, the hardest to actually do.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"
"If I am only for myself, what am I?"
"If not now, when?"

Those students who would not identify themselves as a Jew or stand up for Jews would be failing to meet Hillel's standard. Those who only would decry the criticism of Jews without identifying themselves as a Jew, certainly prioritize self, but do so in a manner in which they are not standing up for themselves as a Jew.

Hillel's statement seems to imply that not only do we have to stand up for ourselves, but for others, and to do so at the time, not later on.

Interestingly, the common translation of Hillel's statement loses some of the nuance of the Hebrew. In essence, to translate the second question as "If I am ONLY for myself" is a Midrash. It is an interpretation of Hillel's intent. The question is more literally translated, "But at times when I am for myself, what am I?"

Hillel's intent may well have been to imply that we should not ONLY act on our own behalf. However, the Hebrew lends itself to broader interpretation.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
At times when I am for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

We assume that the thrust of the statement is to urge us to be more conscious of the needs of others. In fact, the statement may well imply something else. Let's look at the three again for a moment.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

This suggests that there are times, when we must stand up for ourselves because no one else will.

At times when I am for myself, what am I?

This suggests, that when we act on our behalf, our status changes. We can certainly, overdo it if we only act on our own behalf. But our status changes even if we act on our behalf AND that of others.

The question may be "Do we like what we become when we stand up for ourselves and for others?" Clearly, there is a sense of duty and pride when we stand up for who we are and for those like us. The students all said they would feel better about themselves if they chose the option of declaring their Jewish identity and standing up for Jews. But most wouldn't take that option.

The conflict then is one in which the option that makes us feel good about who we are, may cause other problems for us. In other words, the students were telling us that they would rather avoid the problems that come with confrontation, even in defense of themselves and their friends, than to choose an option that makes them feel good about who they are and might make a difference in altering the behavior that they do not like.

I could not help but think of Martin Niemöller's words:

First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.

"At times when I am for myself, what am I?" I ask again.

The answer could be, "empowered."

The answer could be, "proud of who I am."

The answer could be, "the one who will bring positive change."

The answer could be, "the one who repairs the world."

And so, looking at Hillel's last question, "If not now, when?"

Our answer is simple, "Now."

Our job is simple, "Act."

Over the next few days, we will be considering our lives in detail. We will see good things and bad. We will weigh the consequences of action and inaction. Some memories will make us ashamed. Some memories will make us proud. There are people we should approach to apologize and seek forgiveness. We might be afraid, though we know we should act. We know that we should admit fault and seek to right wrongs we have done, pain that we have caused.

It takes courage, friends. It is easier to pretend it never happened. It is easier to act as if there is no pain. It is easier to remain silent and hope that it is never brought to light.

But who will atone for our failings if we do not? Who will right the wrong?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

How can we be the best people that we can become, the best Jews, the most righteous, if we are not willing to act?

At times when I am for myself, what am I?

And when will we seek to address our failings, to do the right thing, if we are not willing to do so now?

If not now, when?

This is the time.

And so thinking this through, my thoughts returned to Abraham and Isaac. And I remembered my own theory about the Akeidah and its implications.

Indeed I thought, as Abraham and Isaac walked up the mountain, Abraham was thinking that he needed to do what he needed to do to please the divinities, the commonly worshipped gods, even if it would be to his detriment, the loss of a beloved son. Isaac, in conflict, was wondering if he should stand up for himself against his father and the wishes of the divinities or allow his father to act on behalf of his family and future generations. Both knew that time was growing short.

But I had left out an important character in the story—God. So, a bit of my own Midrash.

Perhaps, Adonai looked down upon Abraham and Isaac following the wrong path, about to do evil, and thought, "If I don't act now, Abraham will go through with it." And when Adonai acted, Adonai separated himself from the other divinities that people worshipped in the eyes of Abraham and Isaac and all of their descendents. Adonai became "OUR God" at that moment of decision. God chose "now."

In the year ahead:

May we be willing to do the right thing, though it may be difficult.

May we feel better about ourselves for having acted in the right way.

May we not delay our actions. Now is the time.

L'shanah Tovah!

Friday, September 18, 2009

May God Bless and Keep the Czar…Judaism and Government

May God Bless and Keep the Czar…Judaism and Government
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5770-2009
Rabbi David Jay Kaufman

A group of people were traveling in a boat.

One of them took a drill and
began to drill a hole beneath himself.

His companions said to him:
"Why are you doing this?"

Replied the man:
"What concern is it of yours?
Am I not drilling under my own place?"

Said they to him:
"But you will flood the boat for us all!"

(Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6)

Judaism teaches us that we are to be held accountable, not just for the way in which our actions affect us personally, but for how they affect the broader community. This is, to a certain extent, the basis for the Jewish understanding of government. Sure, there are commandments in the Torah such as "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and in the rabbinic literature such as Hillel's statement "Do not do unto others as you would have them not do unto you;" statements about how we as individuals should relate to others. This story from the Midrash tells us why we need government. The group works to counter the harmful actions of individuals.

Leviticus, chapter 4, for which the story about the boat is a commentary, discusses the way in which the High Priest should make atonement for the guilt of the whole people. The story is offered to help us understand how the sinful actions of one person can, well...sink the ship upon which we all travel. The Torah and Tanakh detail many occasions in which larger groups suffer because of the actions of an individual.

In the Book of Joshua, for example, we learn that the entirety of the Israelite people may be punished because of the sins of individuals. Achan, a single Israelite is said to have kept for himself items captured in battle that were to be sacrificed. As a result of his actions, the Israelites could not win in future battles. God had removed his blessing from them. I'll not go into all of the details now. I'll let you look up the story and its terrible consequences for Achan and his family on your own. It's in Joshua, chapter 7. Suffice it to say, it wasn't a slap on the wrist. The intention of that story is to tell us that we're all in the boat together. Even one person who decides to go their own way can bring down the group, can harm the community significantly. One person, Achan, acted wrongly. God's response to Joshua, the leader of the people, was "Israel has sinned."

Thus, in the distant past and still today in some Traditional circles, particularly among the Ultra-Orthodox, there is the concept that the sin of one Jew may lead to the punishment of all Jews. As liberal Jews, we do not believe in this type of God and certainly not in collective punishment. We do, however, understand that the actions of one person may have a much larger impact. They may even be widespread and have a long lasting impact, influencing the actions and well-being of many others.

We also understand that rules are there to help our society. Our tradition teaches us that government is important to enable us to interact with each other well. We find in the Sayings of the Fathers, Pirkei Avot (3:2) a statement by Rabbi Chanina, who is said to have been an assistant of the high priest. Chanina said simply, "Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive." Government was seen as essential for our well-being.

Yet overtime, our people became more and more afraid of the abuses of government. How could we not have? Only a few generations passed between each invasion, persecution, and exile, bringing dramatic changes with them. Even during the rule of the same dynasty, rulers arose who were more abusive than those who conquered the lands in which we lived or who had perhaps invited us to live in those lands.

We need not look to non-Jews as the sole source of problematic governments. We can begin with those rulers from among our own people. For example, the Hasmoneans, also known as the Maccabees, are said to have ruled with violence, killing their opponents. The Herodian dynasty, installed by the Romans, was equally bad. Then of course were the Romans themselves who made people dream lovingly of the days when the Hasmoneans and Herodians ruled. Subsequent governments of every ethnicity who persecuted our people were compared to the Romans. Until World War II, the Romans were always seen as the worst of evils.

The rabbis warned us to keep our distance. Rabban Gamliel, son of Judah HaNasi, a Third Century CE leader said (Avot 2:3):

Be careful in your relations with the government; for they draw no man close to themselves except for their own interests. They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his time of stress.
We, as a people, had not entered the days of religious persecution at that point in our history. Those who hated us in those days did so because we were connected to those problematic people who lived in Judea, not because of our religious views.
If this rings any bells for those who feel that Jews face persecution around the world because we are connected to the people who now live in Judea, it should. Jew Hatred comes in many varieties and some of those forms are based on political and cultural issues, not on religious ones. We have the privilege of being disliked by different people for things having nothing to do with who we as individuals are, what we as individuals believe, or what we as individuals have done.

In modern times, especially during the late 19th Century into the middle of the 20th Century, our relationships with governments ruling over us have been relatively poor. Hence, the all too appropriate joke from Fiddler on the Roof:

Leibesh: Is there a proper blessing for the Czar?

Rabbi: A blessing for the Czar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Czar... far away from us!

Our lot was not great. Our people came to see Ben Zoma's statement in ancient times of comfort to the poor, as a statement comforting our entire people in modern times. Ben Zoma said (Avot 4:1):

Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion, as it is written (Psalm 128:2) "You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you." "You shall be" refers to this world; and "it shall be well with you" refers to the world to come.

Ben Zoma intended that statement to be of comfort to those who were not rich, whose labors did not grant them luxuries in this world. It was a statement designed to assure the poor that indeed they would be rewarded in the world to come. Some might look at this statement as one defending an inherently flawed economic system; as a case of religion placating the masses. I look at it as a statement acknowledging the reality that life is not ideal or even fair.

We may have it bad in this life, but in the world to come, we will be rewarded for enduring. As this was true for the individual, how much more true for the Jewish people!

Yet, our people have never been content to "be content." We believe in Tikkun Olam and we believe that while we may indeed be happiest if we "rejoice in our portion" that does not mean that we cannot try to improve it along with that of others. And so, Jews, few in number, find their way into positions of political leadership, not trying to take over the world as conspiracy theorists would be led to believe, but to MAKE OVER the world, to fix what is wrong, to improve the human condition, to make life more bearable for more people.

We care about health care. We care about feeding the hungry. We care about housing the homeless. We care about ending conflicts and creating peace. We care about justice and righteousness. We care about freedom.

We do so, however, bearing generations of baggage. We work with, or in, the government knowing the power of the government to make positive change and at the same time fearing governmental ability to do harm. We seek to foster and protect civil rights, while decrying attempts to expand government into our lives. We fear being judged because we fear that those judging us will be unfair to us. For some of us, the government may have well been unfair in our past.

We have an aversion to judgment. We do not like being judged and avoid judging others. And here we are on Rosh Hashanah, preparing ourselves to be judged. Here we are entering the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, examining our lives, revisiting our sins, and seeking forgiveness. As we will hear on Yom Kippur, "Atem Nitzavim," "you (I, all of us, we) stand arrayed before God, the judge.”

Rationally, we question how. Psychologically, we cringe at the thought. Spiritually and emotionally, well, that is a different story.

Rabbi David Aaron (pp. 84-86 of Inviting God In) teaches:

For children, part of growing up and discovering themselves is discovering boundaries. They naturally want to know what they can and can’t do. They need to test their limits, learn the consequences, and discover the reward or punishment for their actions. When they err, when they are out of bounds, they are punished accordingly, so that they can get back in line… Parents need to relate to their children in a balanced way. Too little judgment or too much judgment will damage a child’s feeling of self worth and confidence. This is one of the great challenges of parenthood…

True judgment is actually an act of loving-kindness. When I judge my child, I am giving him a sense of self-worth; I am instilling within him the confidence that he is a powerful person, that his choices are significant and consequential. I am assuring him that his actions make a difference, that he matters, and that I love him…On Rosh Hashanah…my illusion of being self-contained, without any accountability to a Higher Power, is shattered…I realize that I cannot do whatever I want, whenever, or wherever I want…There is someone to whom I am accountable.

My self wants to feel accountable, because if I am not accountable then I don’t count.

Rabbi Aaron's words are profoundly meaningful. Tonight, tomorrow, and for the days ahead, we are held to account. Some of those here may not believe that God is out there somewhere judging us. But they should realize that we also judge ourselves in a similar fashion. It is all too easy for us to fail to hold ourselves to account and to end up without self esteem simply because we fail to value own our decisions or we judge ourselves too harshly.

Do not pretend that we are totally defined by the way in which others see us. We are our own greatest critics, our own greatest judges. Over the days ahead, you will place yourself in your own court with you as judge over your life and you will decide how successful you have been and how much harder you must work to be the best you can be.

I thought about Rabbi Aaron's words, about the idea that being held accountable means counting, means mattering. I thought about how that applies beyond the individual. How many times over the ages have our people been held accountable? To hold the Jews to account, to blame the Jews, is practically a pastime in some corners of the world. We, as a people, count more than any other in that respect.

We also know that many times we as a people are held to account for false reasons based on incorrect thinking and bias. We decry this kind of judgment. It is an evil. It breeds hatred and contempt. We know it is wrong.

This day and in the days ahead, remember that. Apply that thought to yourselves in your judgment. You are human. You make mistakes. You err. We all do. Sometimes we may well deliberately do wrong. For that, we must hold ourselves to account. Sometimes, we may seek to do the right things and fail to achieve them. Sometimes we may even have been forced to do what we know to have been wrong. We must ask ourselves, "Am I being fair to myself?"

Then when we hear the words on Yom Kippur, "I have pardoned in response to your plea." We will feel that indeed—being held accountable to God and to ourselves, we count.

In the coming year, may we see the importance of our actions and inaction as individuals, may we strive to strengthen our congregation and our community, and may we judge and be judged fairly—and with compassion to ourselves and others.

Shanah tovah u’metukah!

May you have a happy and sweet new year!