Audio for Kol Nidre
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.
"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’?”
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.
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.
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.
Yom Kippur 5772
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!
…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.
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!!
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.