Saturday, October 4, 2014

Cherishing the Struggles: Living Each Day to the Fullest - Yom Kippur Morning 2014

The High Holidays are a time when we take the measure of our lives. What have we done well? At what have we missed the mark? What must we do to make up for our failings and improve our life and our world? It is also a time when we notice what is missing from our lives as well as what we have: health, happiness, love, financial security, friendship. Most of all, we note the absence of those who once were here alongside us. There have been separations and divorces. Children have gone away to college or for work. Some have returned home for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. There may be friends with whom we’re no longer close. Most painful of all is the absence of loved ones who have passed away, whose very presence enriched our lives; whose glance was reassuring, whose smile lit up our world, whose touch warmed our hearts. Our thoughts may be of them today.

Many of us will attend the healing service this afternoon and the Yizkor service that follows it, seeking healing as we remember. The services are both filled with prayers and readings of comfort. One particular reading, written by Herbert Louis Samuel, challenges us to consider the benefits of death and new birth:

“If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others—could the answer be in doubt?”

The expected answer is “No.” Our minds tells us “No.” Of course, those new things are some of the best things in life, some of the most joyful. Yet, for some of us, if not for all of us in some way, our hearts say, “Wait a minute!” If we could live in health, if we could be young always, in love always, if we could sit here today and close our eyes and know that, if we put out our hand, it would be grasped by someone who loves and cherishes us… Could the answer be in doubt? “Yes.” Our minds understand that we must let go. Our hearts may never agree.

The rabbis tell us that Yom Kippur is the day when to an extent we rehearse our own death, the white of our robes and our kittels, connecting to our desire to humble ourselves on this day. On Yom Kippur, we are especially aware that we are mortal and we ponder life’s big questions: How good do I have to be? Why do bad things happen to good people? What is the purpose of my life? Why must we die?

Today, I am going to speak about the last of these, about death. However, I am not going to talk about what happens to us after death. Instead, I am going to talk about what the fact that we are mortal should mean to us in relation to three other questions:

What would we do if we knew how much time we had to live?
What would we do if we had no idea at all, that it would simply happen?
What lessons may we learn from reflecting and considering our mortality?

First, what would we do, if we could, to use the terminology of our tradition, number our days?

To an extent, over the past two years, I along with my family, many colleagues and friends, and untold others lived vicariously through the writings of Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, friends of our family, from rabbinical school days. Their son, “Superman Sam,” was diagnosed with Myeloid Leukemia in 2012 and died in December 2014. They came to call his illness, “Ninja Leukemia,” because it kept evading treatments. Their campaign to raise money to combat childhood cancer is the reason that my hair is this short. I shaved my head in March as one of over 70 rabbis who responded to a call for #36Rabbis to do so. Working with St. Baldrick’s, we raised well over $600,000 for Childhood Cancer research and raised awareness about the need for research. My wife and children have also been running races in honor of Sam.

Over the course of the past two years, we learned many things from the Sommer family as they faced the challenges brought by Sam’s illness. Phyllis Sommer wrote in January after Sam died:

Throughout the last two years, Sammy used to say to me often: "I miss my old life." I feel that way all the time now. I miss my old life. I miss my family of six. Desperately.

Do I want to turn the clocks back to May of 2012 and be in our "normal" life? Oh yes, I miss the oblivion of a "charmed" and "perfect" life with four healthy children whose biggest problems involved birthday parties and math problems and potty training.

Oh the pain and guilt of telling you that I don't know that I would want to give up some of the last two years. We made friends -- real, beautiful, powerful friendships -- with families in crisis, people who helped us, doctors, nurses, staff and volunteers at so many organizations....all of the people [who] touched our lives and became our community. How could I beg to erase that even as much as I wish I could turn back the clock? 

It’s this idea that led to me entitle my sermon today, “Cherishing the Struggles.” It is the understanding that for Phyllis and for many others, there are meaningful things that can be cherished even from times of deep struggle. Time and again, I have heard from families about the people who helped to care for their loved one during their illnesses. In some cases, they became like family members. Those relationships were born of the struggle. In the case of Superman Sam Sommer’s struggle, there was the addition of not only raising money and awareness but of educating hundreds of thousands of people about childhood cancer.

Those of us who have followed the Sommers’ blog, as they chronicled their son’s battle, saw this in every posting. On November 13, 2013 Phyllis Sommer told the world that the cancer had returned, even after the bone marrow transplant, and that there were no more options left. I can’t read much of that posting without tearing up, but these words are important for us to hear on this day when we think of what is most important in life. She wrote:

He still feels well. We don't know how long that will last. We're going to "suck the marrow out of life" as long as we can.
Quite literally and figuratively. Capitalize on his good days. Fill them with joy and blessing and delight. Stick his feet in the ocean and his head in the clouds. Fill his days with wonder and love.

When I look around this room, I see people with whom I know those words resonate because they have experienced similar feelings with their own family members and friends. In this room are wives and husbands, children, parents and others who have similar experiences. As you and your loved one faced illness, there were good days and there were bad days. Like the Sommer family, you did your best to capitalize on the good days, often altering plans to seize the day.

Knowing that time may be limited, we make different choices because our priorities change. Make a Wish Foundation is an organization that helps families “suck the marrow out of life” and work to accommodate that changed set of priorities. They helped to bring Sam and his family to Disney World, in August of last year, four months before he died. Make a Wish, along with help from the Sommers’ rabbi and congregational community, sent a special plane to bring Sam and his family to Florida so that he would not have to face all of the viruses that are found in the air of commercial planes. Then at Disney World, they provided a special suite at a hotel, a guide for the family, and a permanent-Fast Pass, enabling the family to skip all the lines. Phyllis wrote:

From 9am-3pm, we rode over 11 rides (and had lunch and met Mickey!) and some of them twice. It was awesome. Sam kept repeating over and over, "this is the best day ever!"
Gratitude? It doesn't even begin to describe it. We are bursting with it. It was the most amazing gift our family has ever received. It was an experience that will hold its magic for us for a long time to come. 

When Disney wants to do magic for an eight-year-old, very sick child and his family, they’re stellar at it. For kids like Sam, families may not have lots of opportunities to achieve “Best Day Ever!” Disney is exceptionally good at delivering that. And with the help of Make a Wish Foundation, children like Sam are enabled to have experiences in life that they would otherwise miss.

Regarding priorities, as we approached Rosh Hashanah this year, Phyllis remembered the conversation that she had with Sam’s doctor last year.

Sam was 8 days post-transplant. His immune system was incredibly compromised.
Solly [Sam’s younger brother] had just begun a new preschool. Germs....everywhere. (no matter how much hand sanitizer we used!)
I posed the question [to the doctor]: Tomorrow is Rosh HaShanah, I said, and it's Day 8. I really want to know if I can bring Solly over here. Sam hasn't seen him in over a week, and I just think it is important to have them all together. But if you think this is a bad idea, I will get over it. 

That’s the “time isn’t limited” mindset. It’s the “maybe next time” or the “I’ll get to it later, when it will be better” mindset. It’s the mindset through which most of us interact with our world most of the time, especially as parents: relatively cautious, prioritizing health and safety. It isn’t the “time is limited, there may not be a next time, just do it” mindset. Phyllis described the doctor's response:

Dr. M cleared his throat, and I could tell he was going to say something that I knew already. "He has a bad leukemia," he said. "That's the biggest threat to his life."
I remember taking a very big deep breath.
"Are you saying that I may never have all of my children together again on a Rosh HaShanah? That this could be our last one together?" The words came out all in a rush, almost defiantly. 
"Yes," he said. "That's what I'm saying."
Fine. Decision made. Solly will come. We all will be there. Together.
So I brought Solly on Erev Rosh HaShanah.
I imagined that every day was his last.
Just in case.
Today, I'm glad I did that.

At the end of her blog posting from November, when she announced that the cancer had returned and that time was limited, Phyllis wrote:

From now on, we will hold on tightly to each moment, we will celebrate and we will play and we will laugh and we will create a lifetime's worth of memories and moments in the time that we have left.
We have no other choice.

We understand that. When we know how much time we have, we maximize it. More magical moments: more hugs, more kisses, more time spent together. We call the family together because we know we won’t have many more, if any, opportunities to do that.

What about when we don’t know how much time we have?
Our priorities are different. We are very willing to wait for the next opportunity. We might say, “We’re too busy to go to Disney World this year.” “Next time around, we’ll see if we can go to Israel.” “I know that concert is happening next month and you’re really excited to go, but I have to work that night.” “I’m on a diet.” “I’ll try it next time.” “I’ll travel when I retire.” We postpone.

Then, often we never get the chance to do what we hoped to do. Physical limitations may make it difficult for us to travel: our knees, our back, perhaps the onset of a disease. Sometimes, we are not afforded the opportunity to live with the slow onset of age related limitations. We suddenly find ourselves limited or infirm. Sometimes, death comes with no notice at all. “If only we had… gone on that trip that we kept putting off.” “If only we had gotten that convertible this past year.” We’re left with “If only.”

In either case, there are regrets. We will always have regrets that we misspent our time together and that we did not have more time with our loved ones when things were good. That is not affected by whether or not we were given notice that the end was near. What we miss are the highlights, the magic that we could have created, the joys we could have experienced, had we seized the day.

What lessons do we learn from considering our mortality?

We are reminded again and again today that life is fleeting. No matter how much we think we are in control, we’re really not able to say, “I’m going to have 95 years and from 65-85 I’m going to travel the world.” We really cannot look at the calendar and plan that African safari for January 2020 with a degree of certainty. Neither can we wait to change the way we live our lives if we need to do so.

God may be endlessly patient with us, but God is endless, eternal. We are not. We are a people who believes in righting our path every year. We are the people who know that Unetaneh Tokef with its “Who shall live and who shall die” is the nature of life, even if we do not believe that God is somewhere writing names down on a ledger or, for some of us, even believe that there is a God. If I asked those in this room to stand if a loved one or a friend died too soon, there would be few who would remain seated and more than likely all of them would be young. The Yiddish proverb is “Der Mesche Trakht un Got Lakht.” “People plan and God laughs.” Often, our plans fail.

Our tradition sounds the Shofar. Not just for us to atone. We sound the Shofar to wake us up and to pay attention to our lives. We sound the shofar to get us to remove our faces from our cell phones and see the world that is more than two feet from our eyes and more than an instant into the future.

The words of this morning’s Torah portion include a stark choice: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.” Let us consider today that this choice is not one facing us only on Yom Kippur, but is instead always before us. We always have the choice to act or ignore, to seize the day or postpone. We always have a choice whether or not to take advantage of the good days and “suck the marrow out of life.”

The Torah gives us, in this context, the best advice I can offer:

“Choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live.”

Choose life: go on that magical family vacation, play that round of golf, go to see that concert with your kids. When it’s all said and done, it is better that more was done than said.

When it comes to the end, you’re not going to want your epitaph to read, “Always had time for work,” “There’s always next time,” or “Never Really Lived.”

So how about on this Yom Kippur Day, we all take the advice that Phyllis and Michael Sommer decided was best for Sam:

[Let’s stick our] feet in the ocean and our heads in the clouds. Fill our days with wonder and love.

Let’s choose life.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah tikateivu u’t’chateimu. May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet year!

Tikkun Olam in a Very Broken World – Kol Nidrei 2014

This weekend, Jews and Muslims each have major holidays. This conjunction of the Islamic and Jewish calendars happens every 33 years. Muslims celebrate a major feast holiday, Eid Al-Adha. Instead of feasting this weekend, we Jews fast.

In discussing Tikkun Olam, the Repair of the World, in connection with the fast day of Yom Kippur, as I will be doing today, the actions of Mohandas Ghandi came to mind. Ghandi used fasting as a way to bring awareness to important issues and promote what he believed to be right. Once, he pressured the British and Indian leadership to reconsider a Constitution that would have enforced the Indian caste system and maintained the oppression of the “untouchables.” Another time, in fact, the last fast that Ghandi undertook, was an effort to encourage Hindus and Muslims in New Delhi to work toward peace. Peaceful relations between peoples was a primary goal of Ghandi’s life’s work.

While they may not have fasted, we remember the actions of other individuals as well. Twenty-five years ago, there were protests in China’s Tiananmen Square. Many thousands of people were involved in the protests, but it is the image of a solitary figure standing in front of a row of tanks that came to symbolize that pro-democracy protest movement. In this country, in Montgomery, Alabama, a half century ago, Rosa Parks, a black woman, tired after a long day at work, was sitting in the “colored” section on a bus on her way home from work, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, and became a symbol for the Civil Rights movement. As I noted on Rosh Hashanah, individuals can make a real difference by inspiring others.

Yet, while there is more freedom today in China than there was in 1989, restrictions on freedom are still a prominent part of life there. In India, violence between Hindus and Muslims occurs regularly. In America, the Jim Crow Laws mandating segregation of public accommodations eventually were overturned and there has been progress, but discrimination still adversely affects minorities in America. The reality is that while individuals can make a big difference, they need a great deal of help from the rest of us to succeed. We have to do our part of the work.
Prejudice, oppression, and hatred remain a part of our world. And so, on this day when we contemplate how we live our lives and especially about how we act toward others, I am going to speak about discrimination in America, the concept of the Shandeh, bringing shame on one’s people, and the challenges we face in trying to overcome the prejudices we all have as we try to repair our world.

I’ll begin with a story from our own tradition. Take a moment and imagine. Close your eyes.

Think of yourself standing at the border of your nation, the only land you’ve ever known, looking out into an inhospitable land before you. You’re holding the hands of loved ones and friends. You’re tired. Exhausted to be more accurate. You don’t have much food to eat or water to drink. You’ve been traveling speedily because you have no choice but to do so. If you fell behind, they would have caught you and that would have meant oppression, persecution, and maybe even death. You yearn to move forward, to cross the boundary before you and to journey toward a place of freedom.

We have been in this place many times before as a people. My own grandparents and great-grandparents lived out this story in Eastern Europe.

Now, imagine yourself standing at the shore of a broad sea. You have no boat, but the pursuers still come after you. Some pray with teary eyes, minds filled with fear. Children look to the adults for answers. The adults look to their leaders. Their leaders plea for divine intervention. Yet, the waters do not part. It looks like there will be no escape.

Finally, you look on as one brave soul, perhaps believing with a degree of insanity that he could make it happen, begins walking out into the water. He has no idea how to swim. Carrying and wearing as much as he is, he’s not going to float well anyway. He walks out into the water until the water covers his head.

Suddenly, the waters part and there you and others, Nachshon and Miriam, Aaron and Moses find yourselves standing on dry land as you continue your walk to freedom.

Now, feel free to open your eyes so you don’t fall asleep!

That is the Midrash, the rabbinical tale of Nachshon, whose faith helped part the waters. The rabbis say that it wasn’t only Moses lifting his staff that made the waters part. It was instead that Nachshon believed that they would part and risked his life to demonstrate that. He had faith in God and because of Nachshon’s faith, the waters parted.

I recently discovered a version of this Midrash with a little modification at the end added by Rabbi Susan Talve, a friend, who is the spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri.

She shared a version of the story of Nachshon with her own ending at a community service in St. Louis following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Here’s my version of the story with Rabbi Talve’s modification.

You look on as one brave soul, perhaps believing with a degree of insanity that he could make it happen, begins walking out into the water even though he has no idea how to swim. Carrying and wearing as much as he is, he’s not going to float well anyway. He walks until the water covers his head. You panic. He’s going to drown! You know it. So you rush to the water and dive in. You’re not alone in doing that. Many people accompany you, all diving in to save this one young man.

Suddenly, the waters part and there you find yourselves standing amid the waters on dry land as you continue your walk to freedom.

Rabbi Talve explained her version of the story in the following way: Nachshon, like so many of us who want to change the world and might respond in a desperate situation, wearied of waiting for a miracle to happen and acted rashly. What really parted the waters was that so many people rushed in to try to save him; not just his parents and those who knew him, but all of the others as well, risking their own lives to save the life of one child.

This ending and its explanation by Rabbi Talve make sense to me. One person can make a great difference. One person can be the catalyst for a movement, its Rosa Parks, but others need to jump in and help if the grand task is going to be accomplished.

Changing the world is not easy. A parting of the waters, as difficult as it may have been to accomplish, often merely allows for the first step on a long journey to be taken. Our tradition has the Israelites wandering through the wilderness for two generations, forty years, before we even entered the Promised Land after the waters parted.

Neither will the “promised land” of equality in Civil Rights and an end to discrimination and prejudice be reached easily. That destination will be reached only after a long and difficult journey as well. What has been accomplished thus far for minority rights has required blood, sweat, and tears and there is still much work to be done.

Rabbi Talve, in a recent article she wrote about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, argues that we continue to live in an America divided by gender, race, and class. As Rabbi Talve notes, in many municipalities across the country: 

Driving while black, shopping while black, just walking in the street while black, are crimes.  Talk to any parent of a black male and they will tell you about the "talk" everyone has with their child.  "Keep your head down, be polite, don't run from the police and…lose the attitude." 

A Grand Jury is now deliberating the case in Missouri and will decide whether or not Officer Wilson should be charged with a crime based upon the evidence. That said, the context of the shooting of Michael Brown is that of a broader national narrative: a history of conflict, prejudice, and discrimination. In that context, we encounter the rhetorical question that circulated at the time of Trayvon Martin’s killing by George Zimmerman and circulated again with the death of Michael Brown and events in Ferguson. It comes from The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. I think it says what needs to be said about the way much of our society sees African American men. The question is:

At what age is a black boy when he learns he's SCARY?

It is, of course, a pointed rhetorical question, one that mocks the discrimination that forms its context. In relation to that, the questions I might ask are:

At what age, did you first experience discrimination and prejudice?  When do you notice that people are treating you differently, not because you’re simply growing up and, perhaps, are bigger and stronger than those around you, but because you look differently than they do? Dress differently? Or act differently than they do?

Those are questions with which Jews are familiar. While we Reform Jews may not be readily identifiable as Jews because of the way we dress, our more traditional brethren certainly are and at times they face discrimination because of it.

That said, in Jackson, Mississippi, only recently, a Reform Rabbi colleague of mine, Ted Riter, went to a restaurant as was asked whether he wanted his salad “Large or Jew sized” with the accompanying explanation being that the smaller salad was “cheap, like Jews.” The owner didn’t even know he was speaking to a Jew when he said what he did.

Many of us have overheard conversations about Jews being cheap or untrustworthy. Those words are not usually said to our faces. There is even a term still too commonly used that refers to someone trying to get the best deal from you. The verb used is “To Jew” and means to “act like a Jew” in bargaining. It is a term based in many centuries of Antisemitism, during which Jews were almost exclusively in businesses that required bargaining. Jews were money lenders, tax collectors, peddlers and middlemen in all sorts of business transactions.

While, for the most part, we have not been seen as being a physically scary people, religious based hatred of Jews, conspiracy theories, and simple lack of knowledge about Jews has produced fear of the Jews as a collective. Even in the modern world, there are people who fear that Jews lurk in the background of politics and economics, pulling the strings of leaders.

Fortunately, in America today, we’re unlikely to be pulled over or harassed because we’re Jewish, even if we wear a kippah. But that is not and was not always the case and it wasn’t all that long ago that many clubs excluded both Jews and people of color. Signs could be found on no few establishments in America only half a century ago that read, “No Jews, No Blacks, No Dogs.” The term for blacks was more often the “N” word.

It has taken no little effort by individuals, religious groups, and others around the nation to overcome the stereotypes often at the base of these aversions. There is much more to be done. We also know how easily dislikes are renewed and reinforced.

The concept of a shandeh, Yiddish for shame, has long been a part of Jewish life. A shandeh fur die goyim is something done by a Jew or Jews that is seen as resulting in embarrassment or taint on all Jews in the eyes of those who are not Jewish. No few people would cite the actions of Bernie Madoff, whose financial crimes reinforced the stereotype of Jews and money, as an example.

This problem of a Shandeh isn’t unique to Jews and Judaism, however, though the Yiddish term certainly is. American Muslims regularly face this problem as well and an African American minister friend of mine wrote along these lines the other day about Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and other NFL players accused of domestic violence as resulting in a negative reflection of black men as prone to violence.

We live in a nation in which only slightly more than 150 years ago, those professional athletes could have been considered property. We live in a nation where 50 years ago there were places where black and white athletes wouldn’t have been allowed to play together in no few places because of segregation. Today, laws may have changed, but our minds are still segregated to an extent. We apply different rules to different people, though we may try our best not to do so: sometimes because of their ethnicity or religion, sometimes because of how they dress or, yes, because of the color of their skin.

Our eyes can perceive differences in shade and color, but they do not force us to see those differences in shade and color as determinate of character and worth. Our minds do that. Our feelings do that.

When we ignore how our minds process difference, we can easily fail to realize our own prejudices. We can even allow our laws to enforce them—and as a nation, we have. It did not escape the notice of those protesting the events in a suburb of St. Louis, that in 1857, Dred Scott, a slave, after attempting to sue for his freedom at the Federal Courthouse in that very city, had the Supreme Court of the United States declare in a 7-2 decision that he had no legal standing in the court and even that he was an “inferior being.”

We, Reform Jews, with our belief that all people are created B’tselem Elohim, in the image of the divine, find such a thought unfathomable, not to mention horrifying, repugnant, and despicable. We also have experience with what happens when people come to be considered “inferior beings.” It happened to us only seven decades ago, after numerous times before that.

However, with the rapidity of technological change today, we tend to act as if society and human interaction change equally rapidly. While our society little resembles that of pre-Civil War America, 157 years are barely a blip on evolutionary chart. Much of our prejudice is connected to survival instincts, associating with those similar to us and avoiding those, even fearing those, who are not.

Reform Jews have been and remain at the forefront of combatting this challenging aspect of our humanity and our society, the ease by which we can discriminate and the difficulty we often have in overcoming it. When we add in socio-economic disparity, especially when historically connected to blessing and curse in many religious traditions including our own, the challenge we face is compounded.

Tonight, when we read the Kol Nidrei prayer, we spoke in the voice of the one forced to say “Yes,” when he or she meant “No.” We spoke with the voice of the persecuted minority, with the voice of someone fearful to stand up as Jew and say, “No!” We understand fear as a people. We understand being afraid of threats. Perhaps not so much today, but in past generations, we’ve had “The Talk” or something similar with our own children, warning them not to make waves, not to be noticed, not to trigger Antisemitism.

During the 1960s, as Jews came from the north to the south to aid in the Civil Rights struggle and were at the forefront of demonstrations, no few Jews in southern communities feared that they would face the backlash. However, throughout the Jewish year, we are reminded that we were once strangers. Our history is full of discrimination and persecution and threats against us, too often brutally carried out. We know how it feels and what it means to be considered “inferior beings.” We know the consequences that hatred can have and we should feel obligated to stand against it.

So, on this Yom Kippur, Atem Nitzavim! Here we stand, all of us arrayed before God. Again and again facing challenges.  Perhaps, we will be Nachshon, jumping into the waters before us, hoping that we can individually make a difference. Perhaps, we will be like Susan Talve’s rescuers of Nachshon, jumping in to save a life and parting the waters. Regardless, let us not be onlookers, complacent and silent, in the face of injustice.

Tomorrow evening, I will stand before the ark and read what I believe are among the most powerful words in any of our services over the course of the year:

Called to a life of righteousness, we rebel: arrogance possesses us. The passions that rage within us drown the voice of conscience: good and evil, virtue and vice, love and hate contend for the mastery of our lives. Again and again we complain of the struggle, forgetting that the power to choose is the glory and greatness of our being.

We can make the right choices. We can elevate the voice of conscience not only for ourselves, but for our communities. We can choose to overcome that struggle. Let us choose to stand up, even to march, for righteousness. Let us jump into the waters and change our world for the better.

May our fast indeed be the one of the Prophet Isaiah of which we will read tomorrow:

Is this not the fast, I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free and to break every cruel chain?

And may we do as Isaiah suggests: Let us remove the chains of oppression, the menacing hand, the malicious word. Then shall our light blaze forth like the dawn.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah, May we all be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year.