My Sermons from Rosh haShanah 5778

Toward Righteous Indignation

Rosh haShanah Eve 5778 – September 20, 2017

They say that we “store” our emotions in our bodies. I’ve experienced this in the past and am experiencing it in the present. I remember one massage session when the masseuse touched a particularly “frozen” muscle and asked me, “What’s that?!” I didn’t know but I certainly had some good guesses as to what events in my life were stuck in there.

So, is anyone else suffering from some chronic ache or pain since last November – headaches, back or neck pain, tight shoulders and the like? My tight muscle isn’t contagious but the number of people who tell me they’ve been physically impacted by our political situation makes me think that “something’s going around” like a flu or a virus.

What are we to do? How are we to find a sense of normalcy in this unprecedented time? Part of the challenge is to constantly work our way out of any doubts we might have about our ability to resist and/or create the society that we believe best reflects our national and spiritual morality and values. I love the Talmudic dictum that says, “Remove doubt”. It doesn’t say, “Don’t doubt” but rather, “When you doubt, move with it. Work through it, even with it! Let it motivate you. Climb out!”

 

Our doubting is like our frozen muscles. When we are so afflicted, we feel like it will never get better. However, when we understand that at least some of our frozen muscles can be the result of an internalization of our doubting ourselves and our capability to speak out and fix the world around us, then we know that we can, eventually, move those muscles. As Jews, we are mandated to speak out and move those muscles. It’s a “spiritual must”, a mitzvah. In Leviticus 19:17 the Torah says,

לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֨יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹֽא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא

“Do not hate your neighbor in your heart. You must surely rebuke your neighbor and do not cause yourself to do wrong on [the wrongdoers] account.” The center of the verse, “you must surely rebuke your neighbor” is not a suggestion; it’s a command. If we have an opportunity to sign a petition, we sign. Go to a protest, we go. Call our Congressperson or Senators, we call!

But what about those curious parts of the biblical verse at the beginning and the end, “Do not hate your neighbor in your heart” and, “Do not cause yourself to do wrong on [the wrongdoers] account”? The first phrase, “Do not hate your neighbor in your heart” can certainly underscore the commandment to “surely rebuke”. But it is also saying much more. In our hearts, it is easy to hate, to not merely perceive that someone is doing or saying something wrong or hurtful, but to jump to conclusions and “hate” this person. That is why we are told not to keep silent but rather to express ourselves when another is acting in a way that we perceive as immoral – acting toward or even with another person’s humility – not against it.

And the phrase “Do not cause yourself to do wrong on [the wrongdoers] account”?  The simple understanding of these words might be, “Don’t compound the wrong by saying nothing”. On the other hand, the early medieval French commentator Rabbi Shlomo the son of Yitzchak, know better as “Rashi”, said, “[In the course of your rebuking your fellow,] do not embarrass her/him in public.” [Torat Kohanim 19:43; Arachin 16b. Another commentary says: “When rebuking another, address him in keeping with his qualities, his intellectual abilities, and his character, rather than your own qualities, intellectual abilities, and character. When the Torah says that ‘you shall surely rebuke your neighbor’, rebuke him as ‘your neighbor’ – as he is, and not as you are.”

Rebuking is serious business, and can often seduce us into narcissism, being sanctimonious and even aggressive. Many of us know the power of attending a large rally and feeling the “roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd” and the intoxicating feeling that comes along with it. We feel emboldened, empowered and sometimes we actually become intoxicated by the rhetoric of others, become thoughtless, and slide toward being the least of the people we are supposed to be or want to be.  It is so easy in those exciting and purposeful moments to feel better, superior and indignant. We feel like the superheroes we create in fiction, comic books and on film: fighting for justice, having absolute visions of right and wrong and the way that society must journey in order to progress. Sometimes, those superheroes, instead of being righteous, become self-righteous. So can we. It’s a thin line of which we must be aware.

You know, there’s a Jewish story of a superhero with which some of us may be familiar. It’s the story of the Golem. In the book of Psalms and in medieval writing the term golem refers to amorphous, unformed material. Later, a folkloric vision grew of a Golem as an animate, anthropomorphic being that can be magically created entirely from inanimate matter (often clay or mud). In the classic tale of the Golem from 16th century Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, using a series of mystical incantations and ceremonies, fashions a golem to defend the Jewish community from anti-Semitic attacks. Eventually, the golem becomes unpredictable, uncontrollable and violent against friend and foe alike and Rabbi Loew is forced to destroy it. As one website describes the aftermath of the advent of the Golem: “The power of life is so strong, that it brings both promise and terror.”

In a story told about Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi it is said that the Rabbi invited a simple local teacher to come before him and rebuke him to correct and balance the Rabbi’s ways. The teacher was terrified. How could he, a learned man, yes, but nowhere near the intellectual brilliance of achievements of the great Schneur Zalman, in any way even propose to reproach the great rabbi? So, the teacher thought and thought and finally said, “Reb Scheur Zalman, you know so much and I know so much less. I have much to learn to ever reach your stature. “Even so, the difference between that which I have not yet attained and you have already attained is far less than the difference between what you have already attained and that which you have not yet attained.” At that, Rabbi Schneur Zalman burst into tears. The lesson: we must hold on to our own humility as we call upon others to be humble and/or contrite. We are fortunate in America that not only are we permitted to call our leaders to task when they are doing what we believe is wrong, we are expected to. Our rights to freedom of speech, press and assembly are irrevocable and, even though threatened, ultimately sacrosanct behind thick walls of legal precedent. Still, Jewish tradition is clear: how we say what we say matters.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s dear friend and confidant, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, taught us that mere indignation, an emotion into which it is so easy to descend, cannot be our goal. Instead, righteous indignation is that for which we strive. We must resist and push back against immorality, hatred, the degradation and scapegoating of others, the overvaluing of monetary wealth over richness of character with morality and kindness. We must be exemplars of true pluralism and continually deepen our strength of character so that no matter the provocation or the momentary inspiration, we hold fast to a set of values and mandates that push us to be righteously indignant and not merely overcome with despair and futility or the momentary high of a protest.

Our president, like all presidents, is, relatively speaking, a momentary president. He has been described by some as mean-spirited and crass. If this is so, we cannot become him, in any way. We must never give ourselves permission to act in ways that are counterproductive and antithetical to our goals because of the ways in which some who are now in power choose to behave or those who organize a particular protest choose to behave. I’ve heard that chant “Not my President!” around me at protests and even at dinner conversations. I won’t say it. Not because I approve of my President. I disagree with just about everything for which he stands. Still, I believe too much in the benefits of this democracy, no matter how blurry and distant they feel at times, to say he’s not my President. He is my President, and that’s why I’m on the street, at the airport and speaking from this pulpit. I am one among millions. I am small…but mighty.  So is each one of us.

We must remember that we are powerful and impacting simply by being present. Our role is to bring justice where there isn’t any and preserve justice where it is being threatened. And…we must always do so with justice, with respect and a sense of righteous indignation so that when we look back not only on what we accomplished but how we accomplished it, we, and the generations that follow us, will be proud.

Let us use the great advantages of this glorious democracy to speak out and to express what we oppose. Like other giant souls, Martin Luther King, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Gandhi, Caesar Chavez, Heather Heyer from Charlottesville, we are able to look Golems in the eye, stand our ground without becoming Golems ourselves and be superheroes whose strength comes from an ethical backbone that works for the equality of all people.

Let us use this unprecedented time to defrost our moral muscles to not only rebuke those with whom we disagree, but also challenge ourselves to create a vibrant platform to express what we are for: Liberty, justice and peace…for ALL.

Happiness

Rosh haShanah 5778 – September 21, 2017

In a favorite e e cummings of mine and many of us, he writes:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

We can receive a similar message from Bobby McFerrin’s song:

In every life we have some trouble

When you worry you make it double

Don’t worry, be happy…

Don’t worry, BE happy!” What a concept! Yes, but is it Jewish?!

In his book “Zen Judaism”, David M. Bader notes:

“Unhappiness stems from not having what is desired, or from having what is not desired. This can be avoided by neither having nor desiring. You can also try to exchange what you have but do not desire for what you desire but do not have. This requires knowing what store it came from.”

“Accept misfortune as a blessing.

Do not wish for perfect health or a life without problems.

What would you talk about?”

“To find the Buddha, look within.

Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers.

Each flower blossoms ten thousand times

Each blossom has ten thousand petals.

You might want to see a specialist.”

These days happiness seems so far out of reach, so impossible, especially when we look at our world squarely in the eyes: Wars, floods, earthquakes, the resurgence of the international nuclear arms race, the resurgence of the Cold War, the warming of the planet, the demise of the bees, mortgages and rents that only an ever-smaller minority can afford, the continued misreading of the First Amendment, leading to the protection of bigotry, the continued misreading of the Second Amendment resulting in the endless proliferation of guns, the hard-lining of borders and the definitions of “immigrant” and “refugee” and brazen appearances by Nazis and White Supremacists in our streets and even at the meetings of the Democratic Club and the Committee for Racial Justice…in Santa Monica.

And yet – people have babies, go to school and work, create, eat, laugh, care for each other and about each other, care about themselves and try to fix that which is broken. Why is this so? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to surrender to depression and hopelessness? That’s not Jewish either. Otherwise, we Jews wouldn’t be here. We would have given up and given in long ago. Perhaps the reason we’ve sustained so long is because happiness is not really emphasized in Judaism. Judaism’s goal is for us to be good, not happy. Happiness cannot be a goal. Happiness is an attitude! In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, ben Zoma asks rhetorically, “Who is rich?”, and he answers, “The one who is happy with his/her portion.”

The secret is how to maintain such an attitude. An interpretation of the famous image of the pillar of cloud that led us by day through the desert for 40 years and the pillar of fire that led us at night helps to frame the perspective:

Exodus 13:21

וַֽיהֹוָה הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן לַנְחֹתָם הַדֶּרֶךְ וְלַיְלָה בְּעַמּוּד אֵשׁ

לְהָאִיר לָהֶם לָלֶכֶת יוֹמָם וָלָֽיְלָה

The Eternal went on ahead to guide them during the day in a cloud shaped like a pillar; at night Adonai appeared to them in a fire shaped like a pillar to light their way. So they were able to travel by day and by night.

One would think that this verse is self-explanatory: The softness of the cloud kept us comforted and confident during the days and the fire would help us feel protected and secure at night, lighting the path. Not so, says at least one rabbi. In his commentary Menachem Tzion, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov calls upon us to look at these two powerful symbols, not as relics from an ancient past, but rather as active images in our contemporary lives. As such, they have a different meaning for us than they did for ancestors. In the eyes of the Rymanover, we need to make the cloud present in our lives and know that it is there to remind us of…well, exactly that, clouds. He teaches that days filled with sunlight, prosperity and happiness can be seductive and lead us to believe in our own power to maintain these conditions. He teaches: the cloud is a reminder “that suddenly a cloud can appear and darken our bright skies, for no one knows what a day will bring. The thought of this potential ‘cloud’ will help lead us on the straight path in the eyes of God and other people.” Similarly, night is a symbol itself for times “when the world is dark for a person and poverty and severe sickness are her lot in life.” The presence of the pillar of fire says that even so, “[a person] should not give up hope. Rather, she must have faith in the light of God which will chase away the shadows of the dark night and light up her path in life.”

 

“Thus,” he says, “if a person will think about the ‘pillar of cloud in the daytime and about the ‘pillar of fire’ at night, she will find herself protected and cheered by these powerful and strong pillars to help her walk on the proper and straight path day and night.”

 

And what is this “proper and straight” path to which the rabbi alludes? How do we get there and do our best to stay there? Another biblical image, again, not what it seems in the eyes of rabbinic interpretation, concerns the description of the keruvim atop the Ark that was in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple in Jerusalem:

Exodus 21:20

וְהָיוּ הַכְּרֻבִים פֹּֽרְשֵׂי כְנָפַיִם לְמַעְלָה סֹֽכְכִים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם עַל־הַכַּפֹּרֶת וּפְנֵיהֶם אִישׁ אֶל־אָחִיו אֶל־הַכַּפֹּרֶת יִֽהְיוּ פְּנֵי הַכְּרֻב

And the keruvim shall stretch out their wings on high, covering the cover with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another…”

The term keruvim was anglicized and are now what we call “cherubs”. Images of two keruvim, two cherubs, were placed on the top of the cover of the ark facing one another, their wings stretched out from one to the other with the tips of those wings touching. Beautiful. “But wait!”, say the rabbis of the Talmud (Baba Batra 99a). They notice a contradiction between this image of the cherubs facing one another and another image from the book of Chronicles (3:13) in which it says ‘their faces were towards the building”. The Talmud comments: “When Israel does the will of God, the Cherubim face each other. When they do not do the will of God, they face the house.”

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan of Kovno explained…as follows: “When Israel does the will of God” …“their faces are towards their fellows”,…they turn face and heart to each other and each one is interested in the condition of his fellow, happy in his joy and sad in his misfortune, a brother to him in a time of trouble, a help and support when he feels bitter.

“When Israel does not do the will of God” that is when ‘they face the house’, and each one worries only about himself, his soul and [his] house, not asking or inquiring about the welfare of his brother, not worrying about the condition of the other person.”

And here’s the commentary of my new ‘rabbi”, my new teacher. His name is Terrance Veal, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina and recently Hurricane Harvey. Mr. Veal was interviewed on National Public Radio a couple of weeks ago. Given what he went through, he was amazingly articulate and positive. I hope you find him as inspiring as I do. Terrance lived the metaphors we’ve been painting. The Veal family, Terrance, his wife Zida and their six children, relocated to Houston from New Orleans after Katrina because as Terrance notes, Houston was “where FEMA had…set up infrastructure.” The interviewer, the gifted Michel Martin, asked him how it was in Houston when they arrived as refugees from Katrina. Mr. Veal replied, “Overall, Houston was…prepared for us.” That preparation, he noted, was not just in the form of supplies and shelter, it came in informal ways as well. “In New Orleans,” he says, “we have a strong accent.” Houstonians could identify people from New Orleans pretty easily. He recalled, “…there were times when if I was…in Walgreens just [talking]. “…people just kind of walked up to me and put $10 or $20 in my hands. You know, Houston was…an amazing, welcoming place from my personal experience.” So, Houstonians were acting just as the rabbis of the Talmud encouraged us, mirroring the Cherubs facing one another, being concerned with, about and for the other.

But, Mr. Veal notes, Houstonians were also filled with what he calls an “arrogance”. He remembered feeling that arrogance first in New Orleans. In 2004, a year before Katrina, there was an evacuation as a precaution for the landfall of Hurricane Ivan that many, in retrospect, considered unnecessary because Ivan did little damage in New Orleans. As a result, as Terrance puts it, the “arrogance” grew toward “Mother Nature”

“…like we can just withstand her, you know.” It was the seduction of days filled with sunshine when nothing happens that humans can’t control or handle. Mr. Veal describes the same arrogance in Houston, “[Houston] was my big brother that rescued me from the bully Katrina. [So, I felt like there]’s no way that anything can happen bad in Houston. So, I had that arrogance.”

Then on the day that Hurricane Harvey arrived, Terrance weighed the necessity for evacuation again. “…My marker was the mailbox. So, the water got up to the mailboxes. And then it came into the driveway. And it came to my doorstep. At that point, I knew I had to get my family out because my wife…can’t swim. She’s terrified of water. You know, I had two [of] my kids here. And I had my son’s girlfriend. And so we had to get out… So I walked out into the water.” “Walked out into the water…”, like the folkloric figure, Nachshon, who walked into the Red Sea when the Jewish people were caught between the water and the advancing Egyptian army. Nachshon walked not knowing if a miracle would arrive. So did Terrance.  He narrates, “And then…just right when I walked out there, [there were]…some random guys doing…rescues in canoes. There was one guy on a kayak. He was…paddling the streets, seeing who needed help. And then behind him, there was…some gentleman with a canoe. And I flagged them down. And they came over and loaded up my family and took us to safety.”

“…I asked them, hey, are you guys an organization or whatever?” The boatman answered, “No,…I just had a boat, so I came to help. And then I met this guy over here, and we just…started helping together. It was an absolute community effort, you know, just…strangers…helping each other. …It’s a real beautiful thing.” Thanks, Rabbi Terrance for showing us this “real beautiful thing.”

Isn’t this just another version of that old adage: “God helps people who help themselves”? Perhaps, unless you see God as the canoe, as the person paddling the canoe. Of course, the canoe arrived at Terrance’s home floating on flood waters from the hurricane. The hurricane and its consequences are also God! God is definitely not the word or concept “good” with an “o” left out. God is. We bring the goodness. We bring the canoes. We’re part of God, too.

In a Torah portion from only a couple of weeks ago, we find words forecasting how wonderful it will be once we, the Jewish people, are out of the desert and responsible for growing our own food. When referring to how full our storehouses will be, we are told in the book of Deuteronomy: “Adonai will command the blessing upon your barns and all your undertakings. [Adonai] will bless you in the land which Adonai-of-Everything is giving you.” (Deut. 28:8). That phrase “Adonai will command blessing upon your barns” is a curious one, noted by the rabbis, because they understand it really doesn’t say exactly that. The Hebrew, יְצַ֨ו יְהוָֹ֤ה אִתְּךָ֙ אֶת־הַבְּרָכָ֔ה, y’tzav Adonai it-cha et ha-b’racha, actually means, “Adonai will command the blessing with you…” “With you…?!” What could that possibly mean? Blessings emanate from God to us, don’t they? What business would God have making manifest a blessing with us? Quite a bit of business, actually, as noted by the commentator we cited above, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov: “The blessing takes effect only אִתְּךָ֙, it-chawith your participation, when you have done everything you can do.” Menachem Mendel quotes an earlier verse in Deuteronomy (15:18) to prove his point: “And Adonai of Everything will bless you in everything that you do.” Menachem Mendel doesn’t stop there. He quotes another commentary called the Sifre in which it says: “I might think even if you stand by idly [you would be blessed], [but that is why] the verse says: ‘[Adonai of Everything will bless you in everything] that you do’. It is not for you to sit with folded hands and hope for God’s blessing without your active participation.” And then the Sifre quotes yet another commentary to prove its point!  “…It says in the Tanhuma (Vayeitze 13) “…A person must not say: “I will eat and drink and enjoy the good things of life, but I will not work, for heaven will protect me.” It is said: [Adonai] blessed the work of [Job’s] hands (Job 1:10). Hence, a person must toil and labor with his/her two hands, before the Holy Oneness sends blessing.”

By the way, the rabbis make no guarantee there’s some kind of award banquet awaiting all the canoers and kayakers of Houston, the Cajun Flotilla. We do just because, לשמה, lishma, as the rabbis say, for its own sake. Will these acts make us happy? Will they make someone else happy? Perhaps, not necessarily. It’s just a small pillar of fire, a tiny pillar of cloud, people acting, for just a moment, like the cherubs atop the Ark, looking into one another, the tips of their wings touching.

 

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