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Friday, November 16, 2018

Finding Balance

Thanksgiving is peeking around the corner. The hours of daylight are dwindling. We know well that this is part of a cycle. Yet, I also feel as if the darkness which surrounds us is growing in more than just the natural world around me. With last week’s elections mostly in the rearview mirror, I had hoped the tenor of our national discourse might die down a bit. Alas, we live in a world in which events – both those resulting from human actions, as well as what our insurance policies label as “acts of God” come in a seemingly never-ending stream.

I keep reminding myself that this Shabbat will mark just three weeks since the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh. That nightmare thrust not only the Pittsburgh community into darkness. A shroud descended on Jewish communities throughout our country. Judging from the kindness and comfort of neighbors, friends and the communities which surround us, the darkness was felt far beyond the boundaries of our Jewish communities. And dark events have continued: shootings in numerous settings and communities, the ongoing fires in California, more revelation of anti-Semitic incidents, the ever-present political noise, and so much more.

In the weeks since Pittsburgh, I have found the conversation and mood in the various Mussar groups with which I work around Boston deepening. The groups involve some 85 or so participants. There is seems to me, a shared sense that our study and practice of Mussar – the Jewish spiritual practice of character development and moral improvement -- has taken on a new urgency and a deeper purpose. I know that for me, my personal journey into Mussar study and practice has been a source of grounding in a world which it can be so hard to maintain a sense of balance. To paraphrase my teacher Alan Morinis, the founder of The Mussar Institute, the purpose of Mussar practice is to help individuals deepen their understanding of the ways of the soul, and to guide them in overcoming obstacles which keep them from attaining a sense of inner wholeness (shleymut) and holiness (kedushah). 

A core teaching of Mussar is that our deepest essence is inherently pure and holy. However, our inner is obscured by extremes of emotion, desire, and bad habits which veil the inner light within us. Our task in life is to break through the “veils” and uncover the brilliant light within our soul. The Mussar masters developed a host of teachings and practices—some of which are contemplative, some of which focus on how we engage with other people in daily life, some seek to impact our sense of relationship with God. All are designed to help us heal and refine ourselves. Mussar is both a body of knowledge and a perspective on life. It is also a discipline because Mussar knowledge is not meant to be a merely intellectual pursuit. The teachings of Mussar are meant to be activated in our daily lives.
Mussar is built on the concept of middot (singular – middah), “soul traits” which are elements of our character. These include humility, honor, patience, gratitude, generosity, anger, forgiveness – and the list goes on. We each carry all the traits. However, we each carry them in different ways and different strengths. The path of Mussar invites the student/ practitioner to consider a single trait for a period of time so she can learn about her strengths and opportunities for growth.

Each middah is imagined along a spectrum ranging from extremely strong to absent. The general goal, I believe, is to try to walk within what I like to call “the broad middle.” Akin to Aristotle’s Golden Mean, Maimonides’ Shvil HaZahav (the path of moderation), Buddhism’s Middle Way, and other similar portrayals of the ideal path in life, the “broad middle” beckons us to strive for a balance. We can track a similar range for each of the middot. For example, we should exhibit not too much humility (or a lack of self-worth), but neither should we allow our sense of self to grow unbounded so that there a total absence thereof. In the case of generosity, we should strive not to be miserly. Yet nor should we be so generous as to give it all away. As Alan Morinis teaches, there are times when the middle is not the ideal path: For example, “in the face of injustice patience is not a virtue.” Just like a gymnast who navigates a balance beam, we must make constant adjustments. As dynamic beings, each of our middot/soul traits is in flux. So too, is the world around us. Through Mussar study and practice we hold up a mirror in order that we might examine ourselves with an eye towards personal improvement and growth. 

Part of what I love about the study and practice of Mussar is that while we each have what Alan calls our own personal “soul curriculum” soul traits which need more or less work, we practice in the context of a va’ad, a group with whom we share the journey. At present, I work with five such groups. I also study as part of two personal study pairs (hevrutot) with dear rabbinic friends and colleagues. Sharing the journey helps me as I learn from those around me with whom I share my struggles, my insights, my successes, and the learning. In the darkness which I so often feel pervades our world, I have trusted companions with whom I can share the journey. This adds meaning to my life. The study, practice and my companions help provide a sense of balance.

In one of my groups, we have been working for the past month with the middah of menuchat ha-nefesh which is often translated as “equanimity” or “tranquility.” So much has happened since we began our focus on this soul trait which has thrown us off in terms of a sense of equanimity. The rash of pipe-bomb packages; the shootings in Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks and elsewhere; and the terrible loss of life and property in the fires consuming vast parts of California; all disrupt the sense of wholeness in our world. Add to this the hateful rhetoric which flies in too many directions and too many places in our country. Just yesterday morning I awoke to a news story about a 10-year old Framingham girl, a Muslim student who received two notes in her school box. One accused her of being terrorist, and the other threatened her life. Why do our times make such forms of expression possible? A 10-year old child? That expression was learned somewhere. How do we dial that back? I also read yet again about the intensifying wave of anti-Semitic and other hate expression uncovered in the Reading Schools to the north of where I live. This morning it was at UMASS-Amherst. How do we impress upon our elected officials that hate, division, demagoguery, bullying, and personal attacks are unacceptable? We are better than this.
To enhance my sense of menuchat ha-nefesh, to strengthen my sense of balance, I have decided to tune out of social media, and indeed, most media for the week ahead. I want to focus my Thanksgiving week on middot, such as kavod/honor and hakarat ha-tov/gratitude for the people in my life, and for the blessings I enjoy. It’s not that I think the world will suddenly straighten itself out next week. I don’t. But I can find balance, strength, and blessing by stepping back and refocusing. May the coming holiday week bring us a sense of awareness of our blessings, and a sense of balance so that, renewed and strengthened, we can return to the work of making our world one in which the blessing of shleymut/wholeness can be shared more broadly.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Strive For Truth - An Election Eve Mussar Lesson

It’s the eve of our US midterm elections. The hype, rhetoric, and anxiety that have been part and parcel this election cycle is supposed to reach its climax in the ballots that will be tallied tomorrow. There is little reason to believe that the hype and rhetoric will abate, as the passing of this Election Day gives way to two years hence and the election for President of the US. I suspect that there is little reason to expect that the anxiety which seems so widespread will lessen either. The toxicity of our political arena has been building over years and even decades. The anxiety about our civic arena grows not only from the divisive discourse but from the accompanying horrific events which seem to be increasing in frequency and violence.

It was refreshing, therefore, to take a short break this morning from the news and the tension by diving into some study about one of the great Mussar masters, Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953). I should have known better than to think that my study would remove me from our existential reality. I was sitting in my favorite coffee house near our home, reading an article about Rav Dessler which I had found several months ago. Its title “Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler: Not Quite the Musar Traditionalist” piqued my curiosity. I really thought it would take my mind off of this week’s elections. I was however, surprised when the author, Esther Solomon, proceeded at one point to reference a teaching from Rav Dessler’s magnum opus, Michtav Mey-Eliyahu (rendered in English as Strive For Truth!) The intersection of Rav Dessler and our reality came with the author’s reference to the Rav’s interest in bringing philosophical discourse into the world of Mussar. By and large, this was unheard of the formative years of the Mussar Movement, which began with Rav Yisrael Salanter in mid-19th century Lithuania. Philosophical themes were very much the province of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) of 18th century Europe. The Mussar Movement emerged, in part, as a reaction to the Haskalah. Ms. Solomon notes that Rav Dessler, a product of traditional Mussar learning, broke new ground by bringing the worlds of Mussar (as a Jewish spiritual character-building practice) and philosophical discourse on issues such as good and evil, truth and falsehood, the meaning of life, and other such themes into a common arena.

Reading her article, I was struck by these lines: “In deliberating the philosophical constructs of truth and falsehood, Rabbi Dessler posits that telling the facts does not, in itself, constitute the truth. True statements depend on their human context, particularly on the teller. Thus, if a person spends his life pursuing falsehood, any true facts he tells will nevertheless constitute falsehood because that is his life’s orientation.” Lest you think I am overreading Esther Solomon’s article, it was published before the 2016 election. While that timing might suggest that it was written in response to the then-current presidential campaign, at no point in the article does the author make any reference to current events, of that year, or any other, save for those from the lifetime of Rav Dessler (e.g. the Holocaust), who died in 1953. Sitting with my cup of coffee in the quiet of the cafe, I sat straight up as if she had aimed a megadose of caffeine at my consciousness. I was wide awake. I finished reading the article and raced home to grab my Rav Dessler volumes, both Hebrew and English, only to learn that in fact, he had written an entire discourse entitled, “What is Truth, and What is Falsehood?” I will be reading that selection as this week unfolds. But in a quick scan of his discourse, I quickly realized that his proof text comes from this week’s Torah portion – Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)! Our portion reflects much of Isaac and Rebecca’s adult life, including the birth of their twins, Jacob and Esau, their challenging childhood, and their oppositional characters. In his discussion of truth and falsehood, Rav Dessler uses Jacob’s deceptive behavior towards their father in stealing his slightly older twin brother Esau’s rightful blessing as the firstborn.

Rav Dessler writes: “When we went to school, we were taught that truth is to tell the facts as they occurred, and falsehood is to deviate from this.” The line that really struck me was his statement, “No one can succeed in bringing his behavior into line with the veritable truth as long as materialistic, selfish, and evil will dominate his mind. His eyes will be blinded, and he will inevitably pervert everything to accord with his desires.”

I suspect I need not explicitly connect the dots from his teaching to the tension of our existential reality as Americans. The campaign which ends in tomorrow’s vote has been riddled with falsehood. Now I know that some will say that all or most politicians lie or stretch the truth. Indeed, I have grievances with leaders from all sides of the aisle. Yet, never in my life have I seen a leader so doggedly promote falsehood, and outright lies with the regularity of Mr. Trump. For all his attacks on the media as purveyors of “Fake News” it’s not lost on me that (a) journalists are human, and as such, they make mistakes. Most responsible journalists will own and correct their mistakes when they are made known, and (b) the “media” is a broad spectrum of outlets. These include some that have a proclivity for falsehood, including some of Mr. Trump’s favorite outlets. Is there “Fake News” out there? You bet there is. But it emanates more regularly from some of the sources that are absolved while Mr. Trump’s attacks CNN, the New York Times, and his other favorite bogeymen.

Tomorrow we get to render a verdict on the truth of where we wish to see our nation go in the years ahead. This may be the most consequential election day of my life thus far. While this is but our midterm election cycle, the outcome will impact the latitude with which this current Administration operates. You may not like your options – as many reportedly did not in the 2016 Presidential election. But not voting is voting. It is silent assent to the status quo. It may yet turn out that, as Americans, we will support the status quo after all the ballots have been counted.

In my eyes, this election is as much, if not more, about our value of truth over falsehood, as it is about candidates and ballot initiatives. Ms. Solomon’s summation of a key point in Rav Dessler’s teaching about truth and falsehood echoes aloud for me. I ask you, read it aloud to yourself a few times before you cast your ballot tomorrow. Let her echo of Rav Dessler’s teaching guide you, however, you choose to cast your vote: “If a person spends his life pursuing falsehood, any true facts he tells will nevertheless constitute falsehood because that is his life’s orientation.”

May we be guided to differentiate between truth and falsehood so that we, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and all who share our world will be guided towards the truth that leads to Shalom!

Monday, October 22, 2018

"Our Opponents Are Not Evil"

We are racing headlong towards next month’s Midterm Elections. Much is being made about the consequential nature of this particular election for our nation and for the state of our democracy. Given the turbulence of recent years, how could it possibly be otherwise? I do not mean to infer a partisan sentiment. For in truth, no matter where your political sensibilities lie, you likely see the upcoming elections in a somewhat black-white, binary fashion. Whichever party you favor, you likely see the other party in a relatively dim light. Though I certainly have my own point-of-view, I am trying to step back and take a broader view. Nonetheless, I find it hard to feel good about most of the actors on today’s political stage, irrespective of their party affiliation.

In my darker moments, I find myself muttering that in light of so many of today's examples of leadership, we are less a Democracy, and we are more of a Hypocrisy. Day after day I see core principles and values being set aside for the sake of political gain. I find it hard to maintain respect for those whose faces and voices fill our newscasts. I am truly sickened by the hyperbole and vicious rhetoric tossed into the public by flamethrowers from both sides of the political divide. The zero-sum game of today’s politics is toxic, and I fear, it is destructive, in ways that will take a long time to undo.

At Yom Kippur, I wrote and spoke about my admiration for the late Senator John McCain. Though I shared precious few positions with Senator McCain, I admired his humanity, his service to our country, and his capacity to understand and articulate the reality that elected officials on both sides of the aisle want what is best for our nation. Time and again he would acknowledge the humanity and essential goodness of an opponent. And he did so even in the face of derision from folks gathered at a political rally or amongst members of his own party.

In the past few days, I believe we have seen another example worth noticing. Soon-to-be-former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, with whom I also have my differences, earned my admiration for a stand she took late last week. In a speech at charity dinner in New York, she tossed out quite a few laugh lines, which included poking fun at herself. But Ambassador Haley also took aim at a serious theme when she stated: “In our toxic political environment, I’ve heard some people in both parties describe their opponents as enemies or evil. In America, our political opponents are not evil. In South Sudan, where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war — that is evil. In Syria, where the dictator uses chemical weapons to murder innocent children — that is evil. In North Korea, where American student Otto Warmbier was tortured to death — that was evil. In the last two years, I’ve seen true evil,” Haley continued. “We have some serious political differences here at home. But our opponents are not evil. They’re just our opponents.”

How refreshing! I wonder if any of the hundreds of candidates running for office – for the US Senate, the House of Representatives, any of the governorships up for election, or at the state and local levels heard her statement. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear politicians from across the spectrum stand up and endorse her words?  Of course, I would most love to see it come from the highest level of our nation’s government, from the Administration from which Ambassador Haley will soon depart, and from its leader. I am not holding my breath on that.

I believe that in addition to voting on November 6th, we must each take the time to let all our elected officials know that we heard the Ambassador’s words and we must demand that her message become one that all of our leaders are prepared to stand by and live by.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Seeking Emet/Truth in an Unnerving Time

I sat down to write a response to the events which took place in our nation’s capital yesterday with the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. In short, I want to call for a vote of “No Confidence” in our elected officials in DC. Then I reminded myself that while that maneuver works in Israel and in Great Britain, it does not in our system. What poured forth as I wrote was an angry screed. I have tried to set it aside for now. I may or may not return to those writing out and sharing those thoughts. Among the wide range of emotions with which I found myself sitting with late last night was a strong feeling about how damaged we are as a nation; about how damaged our government is, and about how fractured the very concept of “truth” is in our days. As I sat thinking what do with my feelings I remembered a post I wrote several years ago, on the subject of Emet/Truth.  I have adapted part of it here:

Those who know me, know that I have been a student of Judaism’s Mussar tradition for a number of years now. Riffing on the title of David’s Brooks’ inspirational book The Road to Character, I have taken to calling Mussar “the Jewish Road to Character. What started as a weekly dive into mussar texts with my hevruta (“study partner”), Rabbi Jonathan Kraus almost five years ago, has led to a dramatic realignment of my life, my focus, and my work, as I now spend a great deal of time reading, studying, and teaching about Mussar. Indeed, as the Holy Day/Festival season ends in coming days, my main work focus over the coming year will be leading Mussar groups around the greater Boston area, as well as continuing my personal research and writing in the field of Mussar.

As I tried to bring myself back from the soupy mix of emotions after yesterday’s deeply disturbing hearings I was reminded of a Mussar teaching on the middah/value of Emet/Truth from an early 19th century text entitled Cheshbon HaNefesh (literally “Accounting of the Soul”) by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Leffin of Satanov. In my various mussar studies, with my friend Rabbi Kraus, and under the auspices of the Mussar Institute, I am constantly struck by the immediate sense of applicability of these teachings from centuries earlier than our own to our own time and its challenges. As we come to Shabbat, I share just a small piece of Rabbi Leffin’s teaching on truth. While it might seem that I am bringing it out in response to these past days, I lift it up, also as we approach the coming days. May we all consider its applicability to our lives, and to our complicated time. Rabbi Leffin teaches (in the 18th century!):

"TRUTH - Do not allow anything to pass your lips that you are not certain is completely true . . . Lying is a most despicable spiritual illness. At first it stems from the pursuit of permitted pleasure, money, prestige or the esteem of men. It then progresses towards the pursuit of prohibited pleasures. At the end, it becomes an acquired inclination of its own lying for the sake of lying! When it is combined with the yetzer hara (“evil inclination”) of mocking and of idle talk, it brings man to the point where he will even swear falsely, God forbid. For example: A haughty person expends all of his efforts to flaunt virtues which he does not possess. He strives to deceive others through mountains of lies and exaggerations hoping that they will believe him.

"A person who mocks also slanders and discredits decent people. A person who flatters, uses falsehood as his chief weapon . . . Then there’s the cheat who lies for money; building his livelihood and his prestige and his business on this virtue. His expertise in deception, cheating, wrongdoing, mocking, slandering and flattering makes him a person to be feared . . .  But in the end, falsehood has no base on which to stand. And if the liar should later speak truthfully, no one believes him any longer. This is the punishment of those who are haughty, hypocritical, deceitful or who cheat others they are discovered and exposed, first by one friend and then by another, until their lies are publicized and they become full of shame, debased and hated by all.

"Therefore, one must, from the very beginning of its appearance, search for the root of this illness and root it out by applying the disciplines of humility, righteousness, and silence. Afterward, one must include the discipline of truth by committing himself to the positive precept of loving truth even when doing so will cause him to forgo some monetary pleasure or presumed honor . . ."   (from Cheshbon HaNefesh, chapter 12)

Yesterday brought powerful testimonies from the two central figures who spoke before and were questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee. For the most part, our elected officials have lined up along partisan lines. Their respective senses of the “truth” are, I daresay, not based on the words of the two individuals who gave testimony yesterday. We heard histrionic displays from quite a number of other players – both inside the hearing chamber, as well as from various figures around our nation’s capital, and on our airwaves. Not lost on me personally is the irony that some who spoke the loudest have, it seems to me, not even a passing acquaintance with the truth.

Many things are getting lost in the tumult of these days. Not the least of these is any semblance of, or respect for, “truth.”  I am fairly certain we will never really know the “truth” in this ugly chapter. I am deeply troubled by those who wish to rush this nomination for our nation’s highest court in the face of such confusing and troubling discourse. I can only hope that all the players step back over the weekend to reflect on it all. I confess I am not optimistic that many will do so.

For now, I pray that Shabbat and what remains of Sukkot gives us pause and time for reflection and honesty for each of us within our own kishkes before we – and our leaders – we return to the battlefield in the week to come.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Stopping By the Woods . . . At the Start of a New Year

At the end of 10th grade, I was part of the celebration at my home synagogue of the year’s Confirmation. As I recall, there were a good number of us in the class, and I can still picture many of my classmates. I can also easily remember the speech I gave that day (we all gave speeches.) Mine was based on Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. As I have written previously, my father believed I was telegraphing my intention to study for the rabbinate in that talk. 

I’ve now been up in the North Country of New Hampshire for the better part of three weeks, sharing the journey into the New Year with the wonderful folks at Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation. Prior to my arrival up here, I had done my homework about the area online, as I knew I would have some time to explore. One site I put on my agenda was what is known asThe Frost Place, the Franconia home in which Robert Frost and his family lived for five years in the early in the 20th century. I just felt like this was a must-do. Today was the day.  A crisp chill in the air, and a clear blue sky, it seemed like the perfect day to head down the road to nearby Franconia.

The Frost Place is not a glitzy site, but it is deeply inspiring. And, it is easy to see why Robert Frost was drawn to Franconia and the White Mountains. I watched the film they show, I toured the house which I filled with memorabilia.  The gentleman who welcomed said, “Be sure to sit on the porch a while.” Boy, was he correct, I could hardly tear myself away from the majestic view from that porch. It is so easy to see why Frost was drawn here and why the Frost Place organization invites rising poets to spend a summer here to soak in the beauty and tap into what surely inspired Robert Frost.
Before leaving I went for a walk in the woods along the “Poetry Trail.” It’s a beautiful, easy walk through the woods surrounding the home, speckled from time to time with bits of Frost’s poetry. I wasn’t familiar with several of the poems I encountered along the way. But I suppose I wasn’t surprised when I came upon the familiar Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. Somehow, reading it there in the beauty of Franconia’s woods it sounded different and even more powerful.  A short while later, I suppose I was not entirely surprised to find "my Frost poem" – The Road Not Taken. 
Reading it in the quiet serenity of these beautiful woods, and at yet another juncture in my own personal journey, it was quite the powerful moment. I do not know where the road ahead will lead me, but I am certainly glad that my road has brought me to this beautiful part of New England, and back to the poem that was a touchstone for me long ago. And just before I left The Frost Place, I spied a short few words by Frost I'd never hear before. But they were well placed for this juncture in my journey and I snapped a quick photo!

Just feeling “the presence” of Robert Frost and his art this afternoon was an inspiration. And that walk was a great way to launch into Sukkot – when we celebrate nature’s beauty and bounty. Chag Sameach!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Looking Heavenward

I noticed the slender form of the moon high in the sky a few nights ago. I noted how starkly different I felt looking at it, from how I greeted the moon from about mid-July on. For well over thirty years my eyes would glance skyward from mid-summer on, noting the progress of the phases of the moon as my kishkes were telling me that the High Holy Days were advancing. Though my survey has hardly been scientific, I have noted that my Rabbinic and Cantorial colleagues share this astronomic awareness during the summer months.

The summer of 2017 was the first in many decades when I was not feeling the pull of the moon. It was the first year, since high school, when I would play no role in leading High Holy Days services in one community or another. But this year, having accepted the invitation to head to New Hampshire’s North Country and the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation to lead services throughout this year’s season, I found the moon’s pull grabbed me anew this summer. Now that Rosh Hashanah has passed, and with Yom Kippur very much on the horizon of tomorrow’s sunset, noticing the moon is not as daunting as it was but a month or even just weeks ago. I might add, gazing skyward here in the White Mountains is a truly awe-inspiring experience. So too is looking out with a more earthbound gaze.

Over the past 4½ months I have been carrying a heaviness in my kishkes – and I am far from alone. It, too, has to do with looking towards the sky. In early May, a former student, teacher, mentor and longtime friend was tragically killed in an accident which took his life at way too young an age. Rabbi Aaron Panken, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion died in early May. I know that his family, whom I have known on both sides for almost 40 years is shaken to its core. All of us, his colleagues, friends, students – all of us who knew Aaron are still finding it hard to assimilate the reality of his death. Aaron was a teenager and participant in what was then known as CRaFTY – City Region, a Federation of Temple Youth, (as NFTY’s New York City region was then known) when I first met him. While serving at my first congregation, NYC’s Temple Shaaray Tefila I had the privilege of serving as CRaFTY’s Rabbinic Advisor. It was a volunteer role. The young people I met in those early years of my rabbinic raised me as a rabbi (as did many of their parents.) Many of them are still close friends.

Aaron, who must have been fifteen when I first met him, was always full life. He was the perfect blend of serious student and teacher; and playful friend and companion. Over the almost 40 years Aaron and I knew each other we went from Rabbi and student, to colleagues working with NFTY youth and at Eisner Camp, to rabbinic colleagues. In more recent years Aaron became my teacher and mentor, as well as President of HUC-JIR. Throughout all the transitions, he was always Aaron. NO matter what accolades and titles he earned, he remained one of the most genuine and menschlicht human beings I have ever known.

Preparing for these Holy Days I was reminded of an article Aaron wrote which was included in my teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman’s masterful set of prayerbook commentaries, My People’s Prayerbook, published by Jewish Lights. Aaron’s piece is in a volume dedicated to unpacking the prayers of these High Holy Days which in a challenging reality is entitled Who By Fire, Who By Water. The volume tackles the challenging task of helping contemporary Jews and others face some of the most disturbing imagery contained in our High Holy Day Liturgy – the U’netaneh Tokef prayer.  Aaron’s essay is entitled, “The Eternal and the Ephemeral: The Stark Contrasts of U-n'taneh Tokef.” Additionally, a small commentary of Aaron’s was included in the Reform movement’s new High Holy Day Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh  as one of a number of study texts on the U’netaneh Tokef.
Aaron’s words are especially chilling as Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement looms: “Our actions help us live in such a way that when we suffer life’s darkest depredations, we will always have ways of coping with them. Our actions may not change the ultimate outcome one iota, but they alter our attitude, bolster our ability to withstand challenges, and help us handle unavoidable misfortunes better, and see life’s value amid chaos and dismay.”  Aaron, even in death, you teach us. Your words, your words speak to the dark and disturbing reality so many of us have been trying to grapple with since May 5th.

I have been thinking about Aaron daily. I have been unable to push myself to write anything about him since his death. The best I was able to do was post a picture from a few summers back when my son Aaron and I, along with several friends, ran into Aaron Panken on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street after Shabbat had ended. But I set as my task, speaking some words about Aaron at Yizkor (the Memorial service) on Yom Kippur. That time has now come. So too will some words.

Being up here in NH’s North Country, where one cannot help but look at the sky, I have thought often of Aaron. May his soul be at peace.  May the hearts of his loved ones find healing and some new form of wholeness in the aftermath of this tragedy. May all of us who knew Aaron, who learned, laughed and cried with him continue to feel his presence. May his memory be for each of, every day, a blessing.

To those who will be fasting, may it be an easy fast; and rather than making us fearful or sad, may Yom Kippur awaken us to life’s blessings and all the opportunities that lie before us in the New Year just begun.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Trifecta in the Dark - A Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon - September 10, 2018

I don’t know about you, but one thing I look forward to during summer is some escape to the movies. Sometimes it’s more about sitting in air-conditioning for a few hours. Often, it’s a time for me to catch up on films I have missed during the busy Winter and Spring. Inevitably, I am also looking for inspiration for these Holy Days. While I saw a small handful of films in theatres over the summer, one night in late July I hit the trifecta: air conditioning on a very hot night; escape from the chaotic realities of our world; and inspiration. It all came together as I ran to catch the very last showing in Great Barrington, MA of a film so many had told me I had to see. As I left the theatre with a friend that night, we were both emotionally drained, and deep in thought as we were trying to wrap our minds around what we had just seen and its relevance for our time. I spent several weeks bouncing that thought around; as well as reading everything I could lay my hands on about the subject matter of the film. I saw the film a second time with my wife and youngest son just a few weeks ago. Its impact was the same. Yet by this time I knew where my soul was taking me.

The film was Morgan Neville’s moving portrayal of the message of Fred Rogers, better known to many of us as Mr. Rogers. The film was aptly entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I entered the theatre thinking, “I know Mr. Rogers.” I know his work was admirable. For some reason, I couldn’t pinpoint why I did not know more than I did about him and his show. Shortly after the film began I quickly calculated, “Oh, I was already a teenager when his program first hit the national airwaves.” While I remembered the program from my own children’s early years, let’s face it, by then Sesame Street, Arthur, and other PBS offerings were more in vogue.

What was it about Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that hit me in the kischkes so dramatically?  A few things – one, I learned more than I had ever known about the gentle, soft-spoken man who touched generations of young children and their parents. I learned about his philosophy, his life and how he came to be the person we know as Mr. Rogers. I learned about how his program was designed to create a fictitious world and neighborhood which would deal with real-life and real-world issues in a manner that would leave children feeling safe. At the same time, this neighborhood would enable them to learn and grow up to be persons of character and value, who were not sheltered from some of life’s harsher realities. I learned that while a Presbyterian minister (something I had known), Fred 
Rogers had a wide-open ministry in which he sought to speak the language of many faiths as well as to those of no faith. I learned of Fred Rogers’ courage in speaking truth to power as he testified before a Congressional hearing which had all but predetermined that funding for educational programming would be eliminated. His genuine and honest testimony moved a Congressman to do a 180-degree turnabout and immediately concede that the mild-mannered man before him had single-handedly saved funding for Educational programming. It was his courage to face tough issues like racism, the equality of all people in God’s eyes, the harsh realities of war; of people with disabilities; and ultimately the humanity and rights of people whom today we would identify as part of the LGBTQ communities. It was his heart-rending PSA after the events of 9-11, for which he had been coaxed out of retirement. All these, and more turned me from a curious spectator into a person who left the theater thinking, “I need to know more about this man, his message, and his life’s work.” His show lacked the pizzazz of so much else in entertainment, and to hear him tell it, intentionally so. Yet, I believe his message and philosophy were right on for the work he was doing. And, against the backdrop of our noisy, cantankerous, bitterly divided nation and the world, I felt as if Fred Rogers was speaking with an honesty and directness that is as relevant today, if not more so than it was in his heyday. As I mentioned, I left the film and sought out whatever I could find to learn more about this man who’d appeared in my home from time to time. I found only a few books – mostly collections of short teachings from the man himself. But I read and listened. Ironically, a full biography of Fred Rogers was published just a week ago.  Perhaps it too will make its way to my reading list.

There are two things that I read and heard, which struck me as powerful messages for these Days of Awe. And they arise from our Torah readings over these Days of Rosh Hashanah. A short while ago we heard chapter 21 of Genesis, in which we read the news of Isaac’s birth, and at the very same time, of the expulsion of Abraham’s son Ishmael and his mother, Hagar. Tomorrow morning, we’ll read the next chapter, Genesis 22, which we know as Akeidat Yitzchak or the Binding of Isaac. At a very real level, these two chapters, on which we focus for our Torah lessons on two of the most joyous days of our Jewish year are about children – their preciousness, and in a mysterious way, the pains that can come with parenting children. In some ways, these are strange choices for our Torah readings on days which tradition tells us to commemorate Yom Harat Olam – the Day of the Birth of the World. But for this moment I want to pull on the common thread of children and the sons who are so prominent in these two chapters. In our reading this morning, the elder, with his servant mother, is expelled into the desert following the birth of his younger, half-sibling at the insistence of mother Sarah. God assures Abraham that Ishmael and his mother will be cared for. There is a harsh reality at the heart of this story of the expulsion of a young boy and his mother because they are different. It was in this that I found a connection from our portion to Fred Rogers and his “Torah” as I was listening to the audio recording of his book The World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things to Remember when I heard these words: “Please think of the children first. If you ever have anything to do with their entertainment, their food, their toys, their custody, their day or night care, their health care, their education – listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. Think of the children first.”   As I heard those words I could not help but think of the hundreds of children still separated from their families by our government in its execution of a drastic policy as regards illegal immigrants. To be sure immigration is one of the landmark debates of our time. It has been for too many years as our leaders, from all parts of the political spectrum seem to lack the vision and the will to break the logjam that holds much if not virtually all our public policy in gridlock.

Fred Rogers’ words reminded me that in the face of dramatic public and political pressure the administration was forced to reverse its policy of detaining illegal immigrants and separating parents and children. While many of the families detained during that time some months back have been reunited, there are still too many children, hundreds of children, who are still separated from their families. In many cases, their parents have been deported. In many, the record-keeping was so shoddy that our government is unable to make the connections which would allow reunification. This is simply unacceptable – on any level. Reflecting on our Torah portion over the summer, I could not help but see a link between Ishmael’s expulsion (and separation from his father Abraham) and the children whose lives have been changed forever by the cruelty inflicted upon them by these heinous policies and actions. Even one child cruelly ripped from the arms of his or her parents is wrong. That hundreds remain in such a state is beneath the dignity of what we like to think of as our American ethic and values.

The second lesson is a bit broader but also arises for me from our Torah readings for these days of Rosh Hashanah. In tomorrow’s reading, an angel will stay Abraham’s hand as he moves to sacrifice his son Isaac. (I’ll have more to say about it tomorrow) but for now, I read that stay as a reminder of a lesson core to our tradition – that every human life has value and meaning. Again, I am drawn to the words of Fred Rogers, when he says, “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has – or ever will have -something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.” Whether Mr. Rogers knew it or not, in these words he was channeling a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, the Founder of Modern Hasidism, wherein he taught of the infinite value of each person.

We stand on the cusp of a New Year. We spend these days reviewing our lives and asking for a fresh new page in Sefer HaHayyim, the Book of Life. We pray that we will be blessed with a productive, meaningful year. Hopefully, we will return a year from now and re-enact the process again. Undoubtedly, the time between now and then will be filled with imperfections and errors, even as it will I pray, be filled with good health, learning, challenges, successes, and blessings. For this too, Fred Rogers offers us some wisdom: “Little by little we human beings are confronted with situations that give us more and more clues that we aren’t perfect.”  Standing on the threshold of this New Year, with our imperfections and our ideals and values, may we stride forth into the year before us committed to doing our part in making this world the best it can be – perhaps by advocating for children – especially those whose lives have so cruelly been torn asunder; perhaps by reaching out to someone – family, friend, even a stranger, who can use to be reminded of their value – even as we remind ourselves during these Days of Awe of our own worth and potential. 

Oh, one more thing. The moment when my emotions burst forth while watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It was when I heard Fred Rogers say, “We are called to be Tikkun Olam.” And it happened the second time, just as it did the first, even though I knew it was coming.  It was for a host of reasons. Not the least of them was the reality that in a world as broken as ours, we truly are called to be Tikkun Olam and to do Tikkun Olam.  That must be a part of the year ahead.

Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for touching my soul and those of so many others.

L’shanah tovah tikateyvu- May you be inscribed for a good year!