Friday, October 7, 2011

Yom Kippur Sermons, 5772

Yom Kippur Sermons

Audio for Kol Nidre

Audio for YK Day

Kol Nidre 5772

Engaging Our Pain

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Last week I spoke about some of the more exotic aspects of what was an eventful summer for me. Tonight I want to speak about another, less enjoyable event, but perhaps one of even greater significance.

Some of you know that on a Friday evening in late August, as I was leading services here, I began to experience discomfort in my abdomen that, by the time I got home, had become severe pain. When it got to the point where I could neither lie down, sit nor stand, I realized there weren’t too many choices left, so I went down to the emergency room where, after a couple of agonizing hours, the problem was diagnosed as a kidney stone. I spent the next three nights in the hospital, right through the hurricane. For the next few weeks, that stone – or more precisely, the pain caused by that stone – became the defining factor of my life.

When I was in the hospital, they kept on asking me, on a scale of one to ten, how much pain I was feeling. I was never sure what to answer. If I said a ten, I’d come off as a wimp. There are people who endure much more pain than this. I know. I have too. I’ve been to the dentist! Football players feel more pain than this while they’re still singing the National Anthem. But if I said “two,” where would that get me? They’d wonder why I’d even bothered to come. I hovered at somewhere around a 6.5 but really just wanted to say, “a lot.” I’m not sure pain can be quantified. The only way I can describe it to you is to say that the morphine didn’t help. I’m not sure you can ever say my pain is greater than your pain, or the pain of a kidney stone is greater than the pain of a broken leg, or the breakup of a marriage or a sudden death in the family. It’s all pain. It all hurts. For me, in fact, the proper number at that moment was infinity. All that mattered was the pain. Everything else became secondary.

This week we’ve been talking a lot about engagement. On Rosh Hashanah I focused on engaging our world, engaging with Israel and engaging community. Tonight we turn inward: engaging our pain.

Until this experience, I’d never had to stay overnight in the hospital for an illness of my own. I’ve visited Stamford Hospital literally more than a thousand times over the past two and a half decades, but until now I had always been on the caregiver side of the bed. This experience was very different. It will help me, for sure, to be a better pastor, but an in-service training class would have been fine, thank you very much.

It hit home, just how different this was, when the priest came by and he blessed me. And we know each other well. But when Father Dora came in, this was different. I was the patient.

Last week we noticed how our choir has disrobed; well, here I felt defrocked, in his eyes and my own. But I appreciated being in his prayers.

I now realize just how helpless a patient feels. The nursing staff was terrific and I have a new appreciation for the work they do. They were angels responding to every prayer, and most of the prayers involved pain management. But I was totally dependent on them. Every movement was difficult. With the IV in me, my mobility was severely limited and showering was out of the question. And even the slightest twist of the IV tube would result in that annoying beep and I’d have to call the nurse to reset it.

With the hurricane coming, I thought, at least I’m in the one building in town guaranteed not to lose power. At 5 AM on Sunday, the hospital lost power. The emergency generator kicked in to maintain essential services, but evidently hot and cold food are not considered essential. And with the a/c off, it became uncomfortably steamy. The only thing air conditioned in the whole room was the back of my gown. With no TV, I lost touch with much of the outside world. The shades were shut so I couldn’t even hear the winds of Irene. I lost all sense of time, except in counting the hours between medications. Given the weather and subsequent state of emergency, no one could visit, which I was OK with, because I felt so lousy and looked even worse. It also kept me from reenacting that classic scene where the president visits the rabbi in the hospital and gives him the good news that the board passed a resolution calling for his full recovery, by a vote of 8-5.

I tried to sleep assisted by the pain medication. The room just kept getting darker and darker and I felt myself closing in more and more, cocoon-like, into myself. I found myself wanting to be alone yet feeling lonely at the same time.

And I wondered if that’s how everyone feels, and whether it really helps when I come by to visit patients, with my prime role being to reconnect them to the outside world, to re-engage them, to unite them with something beyond their own pain. Can anything I do really make that pain go away? And I wondered whether those patients who are asleep when I come to visit are really asleep, or they just don’t want to deal with visitors.

I wondered, had I visited me, would I have appreciated it, or would I have pretended to be asleep?

By the third day, the day after the storm, I was attuned almost exclusively to the rhythms of my own pain. The world around me was tuned out. The same nursing staff cycled back a few times, so I got to know them. But interestingly, not one asked what I do. It’s just one of the ways that the pain transports you to a totally different world. When you’re in HERE, it doesn’t matter what you do OUT THERE. In fact I didn't want to be made a fuss over. I asked once about whether they had Kosher vegetarian food and got a “say what???” look that made me realize this wasn’t the check in counter at La Guardia. During the afternoons my fever would spike as the pain returned.

In a moment of weakness, I remarked to the nurse "this is a nightmare." She looked somewhat taken aback. And then I heard a voice within me. This is the only time that voice came out. It was the voice of the guy who has been on the other side of that bed at least once a week for the past 25 years:

"Idiot! Are you kidding me? THIS is a nightmare? Walk down the hall and I'll show you a real nightmare. Walk down the hall and visit the people who don't know if they will ever get that inane wrist band removed until it’s replaced by a toe tag. You call yourself unlucky? You’re walking out of here. You feel pain, but you’re walking out of here. There are people dying in here and you’re carrying on and kvetching because of a little pebble. Get a grip! Man up!”

After that, I was ok. Grubby, but ok. I realized my pain might feel infinite, but it is also relative.

A farmer was riding into town on horse and buggy with a load of grain, when he was struck by a car. Seriously injured in the accident, the farmer filed a claim, but his insurance company didn’t want to pay, so he was dragged into court. The lawyer representing the insurance company asked him: “Sir, while you were lying at the scene of the accident, is it not true that when asked how you were feeling, you answered: ‘I never felt better’?”

“Yes,” the farmer answered, “that is true.”

“I have no further questions,” the lawyer said.

The farmer’s lawyer, on redirect, asked his client: “Can you tell me the circumstances in which you said ‘I never felt better’?”

“Sure,” the farmer said. “After the accident, I was lying on the ground and the deputy sheriff walked over to my horse, saw that its legs were broken, took out his revolver, and put him out of his misery. He then looked at my dog, also very badly hurt and in great pain, and did the same to him. Then he came to me and asked: ‘And how are you feeling?’”

Pain is relative – and so is how we endure it.

They say that having kidney stone is like delivering a child. When I say “they” I mean everyone. I mean I must have heard it a thousand times. It didn’t make me feel any better. And I have no way of knowing that, but I do know that my stays in the hospital when my kids were born were much more pleasant than this one. For me, anyway.

Amazing things happen at the hospital. Miraculous things. This past year, a congregant lay near death in one room, while, just down the hall, his great grandchild was being born. My God! I always feel it is such a gift to be part of all that. When I first became a rabbi, going to the hospital was hard for me. The smells, the alarms, the gyrations of hope and despair, all on the same floor, and the burden on the pastor to do something about it all, to explain the inexplicable. But I came to see these visits as gifts, as blessings.

Until August 26.

Until I was there myself. By myself. Helpless to do anything for anyone. Helpless to take my dogs out in the storm, to bring food home, to make sure my family was safe. Helpless even to walk across the room, much less to leave that room. Unlike other times when I’ve been at the hospital with other family members, this time I never left the room and I kept the door closed.

So I stopped complaining. At least I tried. I left the hospital with an ample supply of pills and an appointment for lithotripsy, which shattered the stone, but the fragments did not come out. So the pain continued to govern my life in the ensuing weeks.

Ethan went back to college by train, because I couldn’t drive him. I missed minyan here several mornings and a couple of shivas at night. I would take pain pills as infrequently as I could, not wanting to become too dependent on them, but I made sure to take them a couple of hours before I really needed to function. On those few occasions when I was hungry, I knew I wouldn’t really enjoy the food because everything tasted different. I had to build up fortitude before going to the bathroom, knowing that it would involve pain. I slept in a certain way, hoping it might reduce the pain if I woke up in the night.

At work I was able to function as needed. We had some wonderful bar and bat mitzvahs and the 9/11 program. Clergy tend to want illness to be a private thing. Heaven forbid, people might actually think we’re human! But I felt it was important to be transparent about this, so that inaccurate rumors wouldn’t spread, and also to encourage all of us to never fear openly confronting fear of illness and the reality of pain.

But while I talked the talk, I found it hard to walk the walk. I just couldn’t go back to the hospital. Having now been in the bed, rather than merely looking down at it, it was just hard to go back there. I had a visceral, gut response that just told me to stay away. I couldn’t deal with it.

It took me a couple more weeks to build up the fortitude – or as I joked, the stones - to go back. And if you were there during those weeks, I apologize. When I went, it was exactly three weeks from the day I first took ill. I was just at the point where I was thinking about what the next step might be to finally pass this kidney stone. After visiting a patient, I stepped into the third floor bathroom, and it came out.

The stone came out in, of all places, the hospital, the hospital where it had been first discovered.

I’m probably the only Jew on this planet, who, just two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, celebrated Passover.

I thought of the prayer we say each morning about the wondrous intricacy of the human body. I felt an immediate sense of healing and relief. And I was amazed that it almost seemed preordained that in order to get this thing behind me, I had to back to the hospital, the place where I had felt so much pain. I had to face those demons square on. I had to overcome that revulsion and get back to the task of living, and my body responded in kind.

How we deal with pain defines how we deal with life. It is estimated that 50 million Americans live with chronic physical pain. A recent analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that drug deaths now outnumber those killed in traffic accidents, and deaths from prescription pain medication far surpass those from heroin and cocaine combined. It is now being called an epidemic. And its all about people needing to deaden the pain, whether it be physical or emotional. I promised myself I would veer away from the trial over Michael Jackson’s death, but really what’s on trial here is our growing addiction to pain medication.

It’s about the Numbing of America.

So how can we engage our pain?

Jonathan Franzen said to a group of graduates last spring, “To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.” He was talking about the risks of rejection in relationships, but he could be talking about physical pain as well.

To go through life painlessly is not to have lived.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we must engage the pain, the fear, head on. “Afflict yourselves,” is the commandment from Leviticus pertaining to Yom Kippur. “Ta’anu et nafshotaychem.” The word ta’anu comes from the Hebrew root ‘ana’ which has shadings of humbling and torturing, as well as afflicting. A whole tractate of the Talmud is called “Ta’anit,” devoted to special fasts that were declared in times of drought, times of great physical pain. At first only community leaders would fast, and only on given days or days of the week. If that didn’t help, more people would fast for longer stretches. Then, if that didn’t work, people would begin to give up other pleasures of the body, like anointment with fine oils, marital relations, wearing leather shoes. At that point, life came to be one long, endless Yom Kippur.

You almost get the feeling that the Jewish view on pain is that if we can somehow learn to overcome it, then we can become immune to it. In the gym they say “No pain, no gain.” For Jews the message is, “Only by experiencing pain can we immunize ourselves from further pain.” The sages called these divinely inflicted trials “Yisurim shel ahava,” “Afflictions of love.” Thank you very much, God. And Ta’anit extols the person who joyfully bears the suffering that befalls him.

If we can bear the pain, we can gain. In the case of Ta’anit, they believed that pain could bring rain. They felt that if they actually cared enough about the world around them as to cause tears to flow, the world would care back, and the heavens would flow with rain.

And similarly, when we fast, our hunger makes us acutely aware of our bodies. And once we surmount that anguish, it helps us to focus on the pain of those around us.

It helps us to face the demons head on and choose life!

There’s no hiding those demons on Yom Kippur. The dryness, of my throat and lips; that usually lingers through the day; the headache in the morning, without that cup of coffee. If I can fight through it, it’s usually gone by noon. But by 2 or 3 o clock, I start to feel it in my back and legs. All the standing, all the talking. Then there’s the general clamminess and the stubble and the unwashed face and the unbrushed teeth. By Yom Kippur afternoon I feel, well, sort of like I’ve just spent a night at Stamford hospital. Without the Morphine. It’s just me and the pain.

But not really. Because here it’s me, YOU and the pain. My pain and your pain. We all got pain! A room full of pain. And we’re all together.

And on Yom Kippur all we do all day is read about others who have dealt with trials of the body: People like Rabbi Amnon of Maintz, who, according to legend, composed of the Unetane Tokef prayer after his limbs were cut off by the Archbishop of Maintz when he refused to convert to Christianity during the dark days of the first Crusade in 1096. Rosh Hashanah arrived and Amnon ordered his students to carry him into the synagogue. As the cantor was about to begin the Kedusha, Amnon asked him to wait. And he preceded to utter his passionate response to his unbearable affliction "Unetanneh Tokef Kedushat ha Yom," ("Let us tell how overwhelming is the holiness of this day"). And then he immediately died. But the prayer lived on. We should think of the unbelievable pain of Amnon when we belt out that prayer tomorrow – and his even more incredible, his ability to overcome it.

That’s what that prayer is teaching us. The greatest pain we have to endure as human beings is the knowledge of our mortality. Who shall live, who shall die. Dogs don’t have to deal with that. They have fears. We have angst.

We could be paralyzed by that. We could be humming “who shall live, who shall die” all day, every day. But we take our cue from Amnon, who composed this prayer as he was bleeding to death. Overwhelmed by the holiness of the day, his response to the pain was Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakkah – we have the power to change our lives. To face the demons.

Later tomorrow, we’ll dwell on the stories of the Eyleh Ezkera - and the execution of ten martyrs during the reign of terror of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century. Among them was Rabbi Akiva, who recited the Sh’ma as he was being killed, and he stated that finally, at long last, he could fulfill the mitzvah of loving God with all his soul – because at that very moment, his soul was being taken. He died reciting the Sh’ma, and with his final breath he uttered to word “ehad,” One.

There’s enough pain there to take our minds off caffeine withdrawal and kidney stones.

But can it take our minds off our sins? Scientific American released a study this year indicating that people seek out physical pain to provide an emotional catharsis for feelings of guilt or shame. We’ve been doing that every Yom Kippur for three thousand years. But for all you thieves, slanderers and adulterers out there, know that Yom Kippur doesn’t let you off the hook. Fasting only enables us to gain forgiveness sins between people and God. When we have guilt from sins committed against other people, fasting will not get us off the hook. We’ve got to rid ourselves of the pain the old fashioned way, by confessing and apologizing directly to the person we’ve harmed.

Later in the day tomorrow, we read how Jonah was unable to feel the pain of the people of Nineveh, who were warned of pending destruction if they did not changed their ways. It turns out they did and were saved.

One could say, then that the entire day of Yom Kippur is designed as a training session in pain management.

And for Jews, the prime way to deal with pain is – as always, through relationship. Through engagement with fellow sufferers, because we all are fellow sufferers, especially today. We confess in unison, in the first person plural.

Jean Paul Sartre said “L’enfer c’est les autres,” “Hell is other people.” Judaism says, ‘Au contraire. Hell is loneliness. HEAVEN is other people.”

There is very little about hell in rabbinic folklore, although there are lots of speculations about heaven. But most of these stories about the afterlife are intended to teach us how to deal with this life.

One Hasidic tale, speaks of the difference between heaven and hell. In hell you’ll find row after row of tables with platters of delicious food. Every person holds a spoon but no one can eat, because they cannot bend their elbows. In heaven, exactly the same scene. Same table, same food, same number of people, same locked elbows. But there everyone is feeding his neighbor, so no one goes hungry.

So for Jews, hell isn’t other people. Heaven is. We often hear that when you laugh the world laughs with you and when you cry you cry alone. But whoever wrote that never experienced Yom Kippur, the day when we all beat our chests and cry together.

When people are in pain, we comfort them. Tomorrow we also have Yizkor, a time when we would naturally focus on our own pain of loss. But by then we are ready to give comfort to those around us. They are all around us, and they all need our care. And as we are forced to confront our mortality all day long, by the end we begin to realize how much of a gift it is to be alive.

Here’s one more midrash about the afterlife, which again, is really a parable about this life. In the Talmud there is a widespread belief that we get our bodies back in the World to Come. So, the rabbis wondered – which one do we get back? What will we look like?

Will I look like I do now? Or like I looked when I first came to Beth El, so young and spry? Which me will be me?

They come up with a brilliant response: They divided the night into four equal sections. So during the night's first watch, we are children again, during the second watch, each righteous man (the midrash talks only of men here) “becomes young and rejoices the way young men rejoice. On the third watch he becomes middle aged and on the fourth, he’s an old man and rejoices like an old man.”

The rabbis are suggesting something that would be unthinkable in American culture. They imagined eternal bliss, the perfect life, as one where we get to enjoy each of life’s stages. The carefree play of a child, the sensual exploits of the young adult, and the aches and pains of the old man. In the other world, we’ll get to relive it all.

At all ages, this midrash is teaching, we have to enjoy living in this world, to know and appreciate he full joy of what it means to be human. Even when we are old! This diseased, imperfect mortal body, this painful body, thirsty, slightly overweight or too skinny body, this misshapen, flawed vessel – is in fact a beautiful gift. For the young person too, who isoften so concerned about body image to the point of obsession and eating disorders, this midrash is for you. Your body is literally heavenly. It’s the one you’ll have in heaven.

As imperfect as it may feel to you, it is beautiful. And that is true for all of us.

So many of us deal with disease, and end up with bodies that feel less than whole. This is so often the case for cancer survivors or those whose bodies are susceptible to it. In August an article appeared in the Forward about a young mother who learned from genetic testing that she carried a mutation that, without radical surgery, would put her at high risk for breast or ovarian cancer. After much debate, she opted for the surgery and the prospects of a full life with her family. Despite this radical procedure, there is nothing less whole about her or her body. She confronted a painful decision squarely, and chose life.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the photo and realized that the courageous mother in question is Jill Steinberg, who in my mind will still be far better known as Jill Rothkopf, my first bat mitzvah here as senior rabbi.

In the face of pain, we choose life. Confront the pain, and we gain.

And then there was the great singer, songwriter Debbie Friedman, who died suddenly this past year. For most of her life, she endured a debilitating neurological illness. She compised the healing prayer, Misheberach, that so many synagogues now use, and in explaining that song’s power, she said, “Sometimes life takes its turns into the unknown and presents us with challenges we would have preferred not to encounter under any circumstances. Suddenly we are confronted with our pain. It is a strange thing that pain creates beauty and potential for healing. It is hard to imagine that it can provide a foundation for beautiful moments to arise. Our pain need not bury us, instead it may elevate us to the point of healing - if we choose to allow it.”

Ultimately, our greatest healing will come when we use our suffering to heal another’s pain – “to release another from their confinement. And (then) you shall be a blessing.”

What I learned when I returned to the hospital to expel my kidney stone is what Jonah learned as he was being expelled from the belly of the fish. You can’t escape it. You can’t run away from it. The burden of responsibility. The pain of rejection. The afflictions of body and soul.

Tomorrow, don’t be misled by the liturgy when we contemplate “Who shall live and who shall die?” We all will live and we all will eventually die. There’s no drama there. The question really is how we shall live and how we shall die. How we confront the throbbing aches of life will define how we have lived. Pain brings us to the ethical precipice. The eternal question is not simply whether we can endure hardship, but whether, despite the hardship, we can live gracefully.

The next time I get a kidney stone (God forbid), I’ll be prepared. I’ll remind myself of the afflictions of our ancestors and the people down the hall in the hospital, and their grace under pressure. I’ll remind myself of the intricate beauty of the body I’ve been privileged to know as mine, and its miraculous ability to heal. And I’ll be comforted by that.

May we all learn how to engage our pain, never to fear it, and thereby to transcend it. And may we all, despite the inevitable hardship, find the way to lives of holiness, love, grace and dignity.


Yom Kippur 5772

Otherly Love

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Last week I spoke about my recent trip to Africa. Well, it turned out that just a few weeks after I returned, I found myself back there. Kind of. You see, I took my boys to see “The Book of Mormon,” this year’s big Tony winning musical, most of which is set in Uganda. I don’t know how many here have seen it, but two pieces of advice: If you are under 18, don’t. And if you’re over 18, do!

Now I’ve never been a huge fan of Mormonism, but I am a big fan of the show, and while the writers poke plenty of fun at both the Mormons and religion in general, the underlying message is profoundly religious. Now it’s hard for me to explain this to you without giving away too much of the plot or, frankly, because I can’t quote most of the show in mixed company. But let me try to sum it up in a few short sentences.

Mormons have lots of strange stories that explain their world view. Ancient Jews came on boats to America, the Garden of Eden is located in Missouri, etc.. In the show, the Mormons are depicted as naïvely racist and Africans are depicted as primitive and gullible, even as they are ravaged by AIDS, famine and ruthless warlords. But in the end, all the stereotypes are exposed as false. The Mormon characters display a genuine acceptance of the natives, and the Africans display a sophistication and wisdom - and the crazy stories even begin to make sense, when understood as metaphors that teach us to live a life of kindness.

As Judaism teaches us again and again, it’s not enough to love your neighbor who is like you – you need to love the one who is different, the stranger in your midst, as the Torah reminds us 30 times. And no two groups could be more different than these Mormons and these Africans.

These past ten days, we’ve talked a lot about engagement. Last week, engaging the world and engaging community. Last night, engaging pain. Today, engaging the Other, the one who is NOT your brother. Today, it’s about Otherly love. For we are our Other’s keeper.

For that, as you know, is at the very top of our agenda. Just a couple of weeks ago we hosted the community’s September 11 concert of healing and hope and it was one of the proudest moments I’ve had here. For this kind of gathering could not have taken place in any other country, many other cities and I dare say, most other synagogues. We had, on our pulpit, Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews, reciting prayers reciting peace prayers taken from our service guide. And we had a local Imam, a friend, chanting the Muslim call to prayer, from right here, words that are chilling to so many because they have been perverted by a few, but words that Imam Adeeb correctly explained are really words of peace. The cantor and I will be teaching an adult ed series comparing Judaism with Christianity and Islam and the Imam will be a guest panelist. I was honored to be his guest in August, at an Iftar meal held during one of the evenings of Ramadan. I’m also happy to report the findings of a new Gallup poll indicating, perhaps surprisingly, that American Jews express more understanding for American Muslims than any other U.S. religious group. Eighty percent of American Jews believe U.S. Muslims are loyal to the country, placing them behind only Muslims themselves (93%), and far ahead of the next most sympathetic religious group, Catholics, 59% of whom see American Muslims as loyal.

The 9/11 concert here was a loud clarion call to care. It was a supreme moment of engagement with the Other. And it was so needed. I said that night, and again right now – we were put on this earth for no other reason but to love.

This has been a horrible year for the treatment of the Other. In any normal year, the shooting of Gabby Giffords might well have been topic number one of these high holidays. This year it was quickly drowned out by the Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring. But for several weeks, this country was immersed in conversation about the lack of civility in politics and public life. Months later, we were jolted back into that conversation when Giffords showed up in the House for the final vote on the debt package, not Congress’s proudest hour. She received a prolonged ovation, a welcome moment of sanity in a Congress bent on implosion – but a fleeting one.

In Israel, the increasingly strident tones of extremists have been all too prevalent. Extremism goes both ways, what with the attacks on Israelis near Eilat last month and then at the Israeli embassy in Egypt. Meanwhile, some Jews have vandalized mosques in the name of a God I do not recognize. Last Sunday, in the dead of night, strangers entered a mosque in the Arab village of Tuba Zangaria in the upper Galilee. They sprayed graffiti in Hebrew and torched the mosque. In a statement condemning these acts, the Orthodox Union echoed other groups in saying, "Jewish synagogues and holy sites, in Israel and across the globe, have been similarly vandalized and desecrated over the course of history and, thus, Jews should know very well that such actions are beyond the pale." Most of us do.

And then there’s that Florida pastor who last March made good on his threat to burn a Quran in public. In Norway, Anders Behring Breivik called for “a Christian war to defend Europe from the threat of Muslim domination” and then went out and killed 69, mostly teenagers, at a summer camp. Anti Semitism in America is on the rise for the first time since 2004, according to the ADL, and we’ve seen it manifested this year in new ways, like the efforts to outlaw circumcision, and in delegitimization attempts aimed at Israel.

And finally, bullying and cyberbullying have been much in the news this year.

People are just not being very nice, and it starts young. The statistics are staggering. According one sobering study, half of high school students have admitted to bullying. One-and-a-half million students said they were threatened with harm, and one million students reported they had their property destroyed during the school year. Kids who are obese, gay, or have disabilities are up to 63% more likely to be bullied than other children. In 2009, 9 out of 10 GLBT students experienced harassment at school. Even with all the attention paid to the subject, bullying still goes on routinely, especially when people now have the cover to do it online, anonymously. There is nothing so cowardly as anonymous bullying.

I discussed bullying at services one Shabbat this past year, in light of the recent suicides, and told the bar mitzvah class, "If you want to see your rabbi cry, all you have to do is be cruel. If you are cruel to a classmate, I guarantee you will see me cry."

It so happens that this year’s bar mitzvah class has been especially caring. But I know the world that they are entering, a world not unlike that faced by the hero of that day’s Torah portion, Noah, a world filled with violence and corruption. I recounted a midrash about Noah, who when he emerged from the ark and saw that the whole world had been completely destroyed cried out, “Lord, how could you have done this?” God replied, “Oh Noah, you are so different from the way Abraham will be. Abraham will argue with me on behalf of total strangers when I tell him that I’ll be destroying Sodom and Gemorrah. But not you! When I told you that I was going to destroy the whole world, I delayed, I lingered. I asked you to build an ark, a project that would take a long time to complete. And you built it in clear sight of your neighbors. I hoped you would speak to them. But you just thought of your own safety and that of your family in the ark. You were not touched by the plight of your neighbors, as evil as they may have been. And now you complain?”

And Noah knew that he had sinned.

Judaism does not ask us to love our enemy, but the point of the midrash is that, if Noah was expected to have some empathy for his violent neighbors, all the more so should we reach out to victims of that violence, all victims everywhere, the weak and the powerless. And this midrash affirms the prophetic vision of Isaiah in today’s haftarah and the famous dictum of Elie Wiesel – that the greatest sin is not hatred, it is indifference. As he said in the White House in 1999:

Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. ….One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response.

…Indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor -- never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees -- not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity we betray our own.”

This summer, on that other major fast day, Tisha B’Av, commemorating just about every Jewish disaster with the possible exception of “Bridget Loves Bernie,” local Jews from all denominations got together to study. I joked at the time that only in Stamford could the Conservative rabbi meet the new Reform rabbi at Chabad on Tisha B’Av. It was great!

That night we studied a text, one that is fairly well known in connection to Tisha B’Av. It was a truly enriching discussion, so enriching, in fact, that I want to invite you to stay during the break this afternoon to study the text with me.

A man in Jerusalem had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He made a banquet and told his attendant to invite his friend Kamtza, but a mistake was made and Bar Kamtza was invited instead. When he arrived, the host told him he was not welcome and should leave. Bar Kamtza begged to be allowed to stay so that he would not be humiliated, even offering to pay for the entire banquet. The host would not be swayed and ejected him, in plain sight of a group of rabbis who simply sat there and did nothing.

Bar Kamtza took note of that and went to the Roman emperor and spread slander against the Jews. All of which led ultimately to the sacking of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple. This, according to the rabbis, was why the Second Temple was destroyed, because of causeless hatred among Jews.

The most troubling aspect of this is not the host’s callous humiliation of another human being, but the fact that the other guests, including these distinguished rabbis, did nothing. Rashi suggests that they did nothing because they felt it would not make a difference. But the Talmud is not so kind to those rabbinic bystanders. The mere fact that they are even mentioned in this story brands them as accomplices to the destruction of the temple.

After all, even if they were reluctant to rebuke their host, someone could have gone running after Bar Kamtza to comfort him and calm him down. Bar Kamtza would at least have known that someone cares. The rabbis had the authority to suggest to the host and Bar Kamtza that they take a time out and let cooler heads prevail. Something could have been done. They did nothing. They were indifferent to the plight of the “other.”

Interestingly the Hebrew word (and vowel) Kamatz means to conceal. In this story, Bar Kamtza and Kamtza wore the masks of opposites, when in fact, had they removed the masks, the host would have found that they are nearly identical, like their names. Today is Yom Ki-Purim – which can mean, a day LIKE Purim. Because, whereas on Purim we put masks on, this is the day the masks come off. In order to engage the Other, the masks have to come off.

Had this banquet been on Yom Kippur, the day the masks come off, maybe it would have made a difference.

But of course, there IS no banquet on Yom Kippur.

And everyone sat by, in silent indifference.

Al chet shechatanu lefanecha b’emutz lev. For the sin we have committed before you with hard heartedness.

We can’t love every Other equally. The suffering from famine in the Horn of Africa – it’s staggering. 750,000 could die in the coming months, according to a UN report. The victims of the earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan or the tornadoes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa. How can we love everyone? I like the advice given in a college commencement address this year by author Jonathan Franzen:

Love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.

Franzen had lost his concern for the environment, and couldn’t bring himself to love nature until he fell in love with birds.

“Whenever I looked at a bird” he states,” any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And…now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again.”

So, if it is easier to love one than than to love many, pick an individual and love that person. And then let that specific love bubble over so that everyone else is touched by it. Let it start with the one, that that one melt your heart, and then let your heart be open to all. That is how we combat the sin of hard heartedness and indifference.

Maybe that one will be Rachel Beckwith, a 9 year old girl from the state of Washington. Rachel had hoped to raise $300 through the "charity: water" program to bring clean water to an African village. She was close to that goal when she died in a tragic car accident last summer. NBC picked up the story and within two weeks over a million dollars had been raised. The thousands of donors likely had not an ounce of concern for thirsty Africans, until they were inspired by this determined little girl.

Pull back from indifference!

Maybe the one who will change your life is Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who was outed by his roommate last fall, in a cruel and heartless way, and he subsequently posted a Facebook goodbye and jumped from the George Washington Bridge. For those who are gay, bullying is nothing new, but at a time when we thought that maybe we are entering a new era of acceptance, at least among the younger generation, this was a horrifying cold slap in the face. Clementi’s death inspired the series of “It Gets Better” videos aimed at those desperately seeking love and acceptance – I hope it will someday get better.

It didn’t get better for 14 year old Jamey Rodemeyer of Western New York, who created an “It Gets Better” video several months back, talking about the bullying he had confronted. Things seemed to be getting better, his parents thought, until last month he committed suicide. I watched his video, as nearly a million had before me. And I looked at some of the comments left on the page. Most of them were tearful and heartfelt. But there was hate mail too. Lots of it. Imagine the courage it must take to call a dead kid a fag. Must have been one of the guys at the recent candidate’s debate, who shouted “Let him die!” when the topic of uninsured sick people came up, or who cheered executions like there were touchdowns at a football game. The ADL might have to establish a new campaign to fight posthumous bullying.

The Tyler Clementi suicide had a profound impact on a congregant here who was dying of AIDS. For the sake of this sermon, I’ll call him Sam. It led to a series of conversations about how he might be able to make a difference. A few months later, at his request and with his family’s permission, I did one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in all my years in the rabbinate: I outed Sam at his funeral – It had to be done in a way that would send the right message, one that would respect his grieving family as well as Sam’s legacy. Speaking about it today is not much easier, but with the family’s encouragement, I am.

The decision to go public at the funeral had been made in the hopes that young people might not make the mistakes that had caused great pain to Sam and others, in particular the mistake of hiding something so essential about himself for virtually his entire life. Sam felt that if by telling his story he could save the life of just one person, something positive might come of his own suffering and his family’s. For a brief time, some months before his death, he began to write his memoirs. He didn’t get too far – just 70 pages. Here is what Sam wrote about his time in college:

"I was convinced that being gay would cost me all my friends, my family, and my ambitions. After all, who would knowingly hire a gay person? I was convinced that my parents would disown me. I was convinced that all my friends would abandon me. So with the costs so high, I did what most did, I continued to live a life in a closet of my own making.”

He came to realize that that was not the right path. In fact, in the end, when the masks came off, he was not abandoned, by his family or his friends. The world has changed since his youth. It has become more accepting, at least in part. It does get better. And it has gotten better. Nothing can wipe out all the pain, but through the telling of his story Sam found some redemption. Maybe through my telling it today, he’ll find more.

He was buried around Purim, the time when so many wear masks. But this is the day the masks come off. In order to engage the Other, the masks have to come off.

Maybe the one who saves us from indifference will be Alexis Kashar, a hearing impaired civil rights attorney who is president of the board of the Jewish Deaf Resource Center. She wrote recently of her struggles to be accepted in her synagogue, her fear of having an aliyah at her child’s bar mitzvah, and her having to deal with those who told her basically, to hire her own interpreter if she wanted one.

Just this year, the Conservative movement went a long way toward writing a historical wrong in Judaism’s treatment of the hearing impaired. Judaism has long marginalized the deaf. In traditional Jewish law they weren’t allowed to be witnesses, serve as ritual slaughterers or even be counted in a minyan. Attitudes have softened over recent centuries, and the fundamental Jewish values of inclusiveness are reinforced by the Torah commandment not to curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. The new Conservative ruling affirms the equality of all before the Lord and calls on Jewish communities to be more accessible. It allows for the use of sign language in place of audible language for all rituals, including reading Torah. And of course, to count in the minyan.

No one should be cursed with denial of access to Jewish life.

As we sit here in this beautifully refurbished sanctuary that we have just dedicated, I must add that this renovation is not finished. This sanctuary cannot be considered complete until we have a fully accessible bima. The cost was too much for this go-round, but in order to be true to our values of inclusivity, it must eventually be done.

Or maybe the one who will make us care is a 90 year old woman from Scotland named Mattie, who was very sharp mentally although body was badly ravaged by time. She often complained about being "spoken about" as if she wasn’t there, and very rarely "spoken to." She desperately wanted to be included in the conversation. Our elders have all too often become the “other” in our lives, more often ridiculed than respected, though thankfully now in Wendy’s retro ad campaign the crotchety old women are no longer the only ones asking “where’s the beef.”

According to some accounts, this poem, which has popped up in various forms, was discovered in Mattie’s belongings when she died. Or it was written by one of her nurses. Either way, it reflects what Mattie experienced and felt - what many old people feel - what many disabled people feel –and what it feels like to be the Other.

What do you see, nursie, what do you see,
what are you thinking when you're looking at me?
A crabby old woman, not very wise,
uncertain of habit, with faraway eyes.

Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
when you say in a loud voice, "I do wish you'd try?"
Who seems not to notice the things that you do,
and forever is losing a stocking or shoe.

Who, resisting or not, lets you do as you will
with bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you're thinking? Is that what you see?
Then open your eyes, nurse; you're not looking at me.

I'll tell you who I am as I sit here so still,
as I use at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I'm a small child of ten with a father and mother,
brothers and sisters, who love one another.

A young girl of sixteen, with wings on her feet,
dreaming that soon now a lover she'll meet.
A bride soon at twenty-my heart gives a leap,
remembering the vows that I promised to keep.

At twenty-five now, I have young of my own
who need me to guide and a secure happy home.
A woman of thirty, my young now grown fast,
bound to each other with ties that should last.

At forty my young sons have grown and are gone,
but my man's beside me to see I don't mourn.
At fifty once more babies play round my knee,
again we know children, my loved one and me.

Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead;
I look at the future, I shudder with dread.....
For my young are all rearing young of their own,
and I think of the years and the love that I've known.

I'm now an old woman and nature is cruel;
'tis jest to make old age look like a fool.
The body, it crumbles, grace and vigor depart,
there is now a stone where I once had a heart.

But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells,
and now and again my battered heart swells.
I remember the joys, I remember the pain,
and I'm loving and living life over again.

I think of the years; all too few, gone too fast,
and accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So open your eyes, nursie, open and see,
not a crabby old woman; look closer - see ME!!

Those words could well have been uttered by Hagar, the Egyptian concubine whom Abraham banished. Hagar still has grievances. We now include the matriarchs when we pray the Amida, but we don’t include her.

Look closer, see ME!

Those words could have been uttered Nelson Mandela at the limestone quarries of Robben Island. It could have been said by the poet Amichai’s tourist, the one with the fruits and vegetables, sitting next to the Roman arch.

Look closer, see ME!

They could have been said by Rabbi Amnon of Maintz as he awaited his brutal fate during the first Crusade. Or by Rabbi Akiva in Caesarea as he prepared to die at the hands of vicious Hadrian. Or Troy Davis, as he awaited his execution two weeks ago, for a crime he quite possibly did not commit. Or for that matter, the victim who was murdered, though by whom we are not sure.

Or Elder Cunningham and the young African woman Nabalungi, from the “Book of Mormon.” The little secret about that show is that it doesn’t hate religion. I wouldn’t have cried at the end if I thought it did. It just thinks we need to create new ones where the old ones have failed, new traditions preaching universal love and acceptance. That is, of course, what all religions claim to do. But they all get lost along the way, primarily through their mistreatment of the Other.

Judaism too has had its moments that do not make us proud. But we can correct that. For the heart and soul of our Torah is good. Deracheha darchei noam v’chol netivotecha shalom (we sing whenever we return it to the ark), “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths - are peace.”

As the the Midrash states:

We find God by good deeds and the study of Torah....

through love, through brotherhood and respect

through companionship, through truth and through peace

through bending the knee, through humility...

through a good heart, through decency

through no that is really no

through yes that is really yes.

Take these words and let them guide you through the year.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of the impact the few hours before Yom Kippur had on him. He wrote: "I can only say that they were moments in my life when I felt somehow more than human. These were very difficult hours. It was a great fear and trembling, great awareness that you are now to be confronted."

When we imagine today that we are standing in the presence of ultimate sanctity, and we are straddling that fine, fine line where life and death meet, that place where life is lived in its purest form, where all the masks come off, where we come to recognize that there is essentially no difference between the words brother and other – Ach and Acher in Hebrew – and that the word Acher is virtually identical to Echad – ONE. That recognition, that place, that encounter, that engagement, is our holy of holies.

That is the moment when our tongues can only speak the purest truth, when our yes is truly a yes and our no a no. That is the moment where we discover our capacity to love and love completely and unconditionally – first, one other person. And then, softened to that warm glow, the cup of love runneth over, the moment runneth over, the day runneth over, the place runneth over, and that one encounter, that face in the holy of holies, the one right here right now, becomes all the faces sitting around us, and later pierces the firmament and extends us beyond the protective womb of this very vulnerable maskless day. And we take it out into the world with us, and engage the world and challenge one another and build our community, making this place, God’s place, Beth El, a place of holiness.

And we will be a community of engagement.


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