Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur Sermons 5774

Sermon for Kol Nidre  - click here if the player does not operate

Sermon for Yom Kippur Day (begins at 3:55)-click here if the player does not operate


Kol Nidre 5774: The Better Story

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Late last year, a film came out, “Life of Pi,” based on a bestselling book, that drew lots of attention and an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  It was also the most overtly religious film of the year.    The protagonist, after all, is a Hindu who adopts both Christianity and Islam in his childhood, and, when challenged to select one, Pi quotes Ghandi in saying "All religions are true."  All except Judaism, evidently, which is nowhere to be found on his quest.  At least on the surface. 

The story is a complex one, and in the end, it’s really hard to say what has transpired.  For most of the film, we are witness to a world where faith and kindness miraculously prevail as Pi survives a horrible shipwreck and floats across the Pacific with the only other survivor, a ferocious Bengal tiger, whom Pi befriends and tames.  But at the film’s end, insurance agents demand a more believable account, and Pi is compelled to provide a much harsher version of what happened.  We are then challenged to choose which truth to accept.  The brutal but more believable story, or the one with the tiger, the one that leads to God, the one that Pi calls the “better story.”

The message of “Life of Pi,” is that a life imbued with meaning and purpose, a life where kindness prevails, where the storm is defeated and death is vanquished, that is, in truth, a better story than a life devoid of meaning, a life of randomness, chaos and coincidence – a life without God - even if that latter version of events appears to be more factually correct.

We choose the story that we wish to accept as the means to organize our lives.  And like Pascal, Pi believes it is best to place our wager on God.  In some cases, as with Don Quixote, the choice is really not a choice at all, but a descent into madness, albeit a madness marked by beauty, dignity, and chivalrous love.  The message of “Life of Pi” is that the world is better off with the God story, whether or not it is true.

For Jews, the choice is much more difficult – because we are big on reason.  For us, it’s not a matter of faith or reason.  We have faith IN reason.  You don’t win about ¼ of the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, Economics and Medicine if you don’t believe in reason. The more factual story needs to be the better story, even with all its horrors.  We accept the awfulness of this world and we believe - in spite of it.   

We continue to struggle with that God, the one who allowed Jonah to be thrown to the waves, who allowed 6 million to die in the Holocaust, who allowed 20 children to die in Newtown, who allowed the Boston bombers to shatter lives at the finish line, who allowed 1127 people to die in a decrepit Bangladesh clothing factory, who allowed Moore, Oklahoma to be flattened by a twister.  We accept the reality of all that. 

And we look for signs of the better story in how God’s kindness emerges in these storms, through acts of human courage and dignity.  We saw it in those exhausted runners in Boston, who ran toward the explosion to assist the injured last Patriots Day.  We saw it in hoards of volunteers who poured into Long Island and New Jersey after the flood waters of Sandy receded – some from right here.  We see it every day in our community.  We see it at every shiva.  We see it while we wipe every tear.  That is OUR better story.  It is the story we tell – and the story we write – even when God seems so far away.

Allied troops discovered a poem written on the walls of a basement in Cologne at the end of the war:

            I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.
            I believe in love even when feeling it not.
            I believe in God even when God is silent.

There is no greater statement about how and why Jews believe.

And here’s the amazing thing.  “Life of Pi” is telling us the exact same thing – this film about a Hindu who converts to Christianity and Islam is actually a very Jewish story.

The ship that sinks in the Pacific – Pi’s ship – the name of the ship is the “Tsimtsum.” Next time you see the film, look for the name – you have to be ready, and stop the tape.  But it’s there.  And it tells a story.

Tsimtsum is a theological concept created by Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, arguably the greatest of the Kabbalists of 16th century Safed.  He was troubled by the existence of evil in the world and asked the Jewish question – how could God be present in the face of such a dire reality.  Is there a place for God in this world?  Is there a place for faith in the face of a horrible reality?  His world was not that different from that of Don Quixote – but rather than choosing madness as the solution, he chose Tsimtsum.  In order to create a finite world, the Ari theorized that God had to voluntarily contract, create space, pull back – LEAN OUT, as it were, like a parent, to allow the universe to grow.   God became hidden and evil became possible.  But so did good.  So did choice.  So did reason.

Our quest, then, mirrors the Kabbalistic quest, and it has been the prevailing Jewish theology since the Ari.  And that is to restore God’s presence to the world, to heal the world, or as we say in the Alenu, l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai, to repair the world as a place for divinity to reign.  Tikkun Olam – that oft used concept that is now a pillar of our new strategic plan, comes from this. 

So this is how the Jewish story goes.  The Tsimsum is sunk, and Pi’s life is thrown into chaos, and whatever happens next, whether or not there is a tiger, there is a lion – that is, an Ari, (which means lion); that is, there is the Lurianic vision.   Pi becomes the instrument of God’s goodness - and in maintaining his humanity, despite the calamities he faces in either of his accounts, he is the author of the better story – he brings God back into the world, with or without the tiger.

Last week, I spoke a lot about Leaning In and Leaning Out.  I suggested that Judaism at times calls on us to lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg would want women to do more often, and it’s what we need to do to protect our kids, and at times we lean out, as we need to do to give space for the earth to replenish.

But for Isaac Luria’s God, Tsimtsum is the ultimate act of leaning out, modeling for us an example of how important it is to pull back – not to disengage, but to engage with deference, not to run and hide, but to give space to the other, not to give away, but to share, to accept, to include, to love unconditionally, without demands, to forge a covenant of peace with others and with ourselves.

I am, in that sense, a proponent of Lean Out Judaism – what I’ve called “Jewish and Gentle.”  And I believe that is Judaism’s truest nature as well as Judaism’s better story.

The defining battle taking place in the Jewish world right now is not between Orthodox and liberal, because the same war rages within each of the movements too.  It is the battle between justice and love, din and hesed – between strictness and acceptance, between exclusivity and inclusivity, between keeping out and welcoming in.  THIS is the defining battle in Judaism today.    
This is in fact the defining battle in world religion today.  It rages in Islam and Christianity, as we’ve seen, and in other religions too.  IN Judaism, It is being played out at the Western Wall plaza, to be sure, where Women of the Wall have valiantly struggled for basic religious rights for 25 years. But in Israel, it is also being played out on every public bus, where women often are asked to sit in the back by Haredim.  It is being played out in the military, and it is being played out in the public square and in the halls of the Knesset. 

It is being played out in America as well, on issues like immigration and gay rights.  And not just in the courts or Congress but in every house of worship in this nation. 

At Beth El, our new vision statement clearly defines us as a community that welcomes everyone unconditionally, and this has been our calling card for many years.  There is a place for din, for strictness, but in almost every case, here, love, hesed, wins out.  It does for us as it did for the sage Hillel, who welcomed the non-Jew who asked him to define Judaism while standing on one foot.  “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he stated.  “The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

That is Judaism’s better story.  Despite the torture, despite the pogroms, despite Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, Titus, Hadrian, Torquemada, the Czars, Stalin, Hitler and Ahmadinijad – despite them all, and despite the horrible reality they perpetrated, despite it all, our real story is that we have never abandoned our basic human capacity for kindness. 

Being Jewish and Gentle makes me an “Af al pi” Jew – “Af al pi” means “despite it all” – and it forms part of Maimonides’ ultimate principle of faith in Messianic redemption.  It’s what Jews muttered on the way to the gas chambers.  We’ll chant it again tomorrow during the martyrology section of the service.  “V’af al pi, sheyitmamaya, im kol zeh ani ma’amin…”

When Jews who survived the Holocaust had a choice, to die or live on, the easy choice would have been to give up and die.   But many tried to slip past the British blockade into Mandate Palestine on old battered ships.  116 such ships succeeded, despite all the odds, and over 100,000 Jewish refugees were rescued.  That one surviving ship, now standing proudly as a memorial on the coast near Haifa is called The Af-Al-Pi-Chen.  Despite it all.

We are “af al pi” Jews.  We believe, despite it all.  And we are kind, despite it all. We are not vengeful.  We do not restrict, exclude, spit at, and humiliate people because they happen to be different from us.  We do not ignore the plight of refugees, for we were strangers in the lands of Europe, and off the coast of Corsica and in the camps of Cyprus. 

This Yom Kippur we mark the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  It was, without question, the most harrowing few days of Israel’s existence. A surprise attack on our holiest of days.  Services were interrupted as sirens sounded and soldiers names were read off, calling them to their units. For several days, Israel’s very existence hung in the balance.  The Egyptians broke through in the south.  Syrian tanks were that close to cutting off the Galilee.  Israel won this war, thank God, but the scars of 1973 still remain.  Just weeks after, Elie Wiesel wrote a passage - our teens will be quoting more of it morrow – an essay called “Against Despair.”

He wrote, “We owe it to our past not to lose hope…That is the lesson Judaism teaches us: that one must turn every experience into a life force.  One must not let the enemy impose his laws.  The enemy wants us to be angry so as to let anger distort the image we have of ourselves?  We will not let him.  He wants us to open ourselves to hate and despair?  We will not listen.

“We owe it to our past not to lose hope,” Wiesel continued.  ”Say what you may, despair is not the solution. Not for us. Quite the contrary: we must show our children that in spite of everything, we keep our faith – in ourselves and even in mankind, though mankind is not worthy of such a faith.”

“To despair now,” he concluded, “would be a blasphemy.”

In spite of everything.  Af al pi.  And isn’t it strange how “af al pi” sounds like “Life of Pi.” 

In spite of the fact, af al pi chen, that we have been the most persecuted people in all of history, we do not bully!  In spite of the fact, af al pi chen, that we been denied basic human rights time and time again, from ancient Egypt, to the Nuremberg laws, we do not deny basic human rights.

 We project God’s love to all humanity and fight to protect the innocent from despots who seek to harm innocents.  And we do this, even when God is silent – for if we do this, God is not silent.
My God is a gentle God.  My God is a loving God.  My God is a healing God.  We need to promote a theology of inclusion and we need to do it unapologetically, despite all our scars – maybe even because of them. 

Too often in the past, we’ve ceded the field to those who spit at women at the Kotel.  “Of course we want women’s rights,” they say, “but doesn’t normative Judaism forbid women from wearing a tallis?”  Well, actually, no. 

Too often in the past, we’ve allowed religious rigidity to blind us from basic injustice.  “Of course we want equal rights for gays,” they say, “but doesn’t Judaism actually frown on that?”  Well actually, no. 

Too many Af-al-pi Jews donate huge sums of money to organizations that bill themselves as representatives of authentic Judaism, even when their leaders profess the inferiority of gentile souls, or condone violence against non Jews in Israel and the territories.   I’m a lifelong pluralist.  There are many ways for Jews to observe rituals, many authentic ways.  But if you don’t love your neighbor as yourself, you are an inauthentic Jew.  And it’s time for us to stand up and be proud to be Jewish and gentle! Despite it all!

Af-al-pi means to believe in a world where love can prevail, despite it all.  And y’know, it’s actually happening.  We are living in the most peaceful period in human history.  People are actually becoming nicer.  I know this is hard to believe.  What with Hizballah and Hamas and Assad, and not too long ago, Pol Pot and Stalin, Hitler and Mao.  But it’s true.  Despite Auschwitz, Rwanda and Darfur. 

According to author Steven Pinker, the real story is also the better story.

 You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades and over years.   Until 10,000 years ago, humans lived as hunter-gatherers, with no government or permanent settlements.   In these ancient times, and well beyond, the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man, in the Amazon Rainforest or the New Guinea Highlands, was almost 60 percent.  And then things didn’t get much better.  Think of the horrific battle scenes described in our own Bible.  It was mass carnage.  Think of something that happened exactly a hundred fifty years ago in Gettysburg.  Utter carnage. 

In the 20th century, supposedly the worst, most warlike century of all time, 100 million people died in war.  If the death rate of ancient times were applied to the population of the 20th century, 2 billion would have died.  Throughout history, torture was routine, people were killed for the smallest crimes, tongues were cut out, hands were chopped off, and entire nations were enslaved.  Your name didn’t have to be Jean Valjean to be sent to the dungeon for stealing a loaf of bread.  Pinker speaks of medieval festivals featuring a popular form of entertainment: the practice of cat burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and lowered in a sling into a fire, and the spectators shrieked in laughter as the cat, howling in pain, was burned to death.  I saw the square in Madrid where the Inquisition did that to people.  What fun!  People were pretty nasty back then.

This was a much crueler planet just a few years ago.  But homicide and violent crime rates have dropped significantly in our big cities, despite the continued danger posed by the proliferation of guns.

Pinker presents a number of theories as to why people are becoming nicer, including a greater premium we place on the value of life.  And he world has gotten a lot smaller.  With the advent of social media, it has gotten smaller still. And with the proliferation of new technologies of death, these weapons of mass destruction have paradoxically made people more attuned to the supreme value of life, and more vigilant that they not fall into the hands of the wrong people.  

 We’re seeing that play out right now, in Syria and most pointedly, with Iran.

On the individual level, another factor is at play.  We are all very concerned about the loss of privacy in our society.  The various leaks and scandals have been disturbing.  But the loss of privacy has also had the effect of making us kinder people.  Why?  Well, it’s just like it used to be when everyone believed in God.  We know that all our actions and words are being watched and judged.

It’s like that old New Yorker cartoon, where the guy comes out of the men’s room and a buzzer sounds and the sign flashes above the entrance, saying, “Didn’t wash hands.”

As Fareed Zakaria writes, “Every life today has a digital signature. Where you eat, shop and travel; whom you call, e-mail and text; every website, café and museum you visit even once is all stored in the great digital cloud. And you can't delete anything, ever.”  

Talk about a “Book of Life” – Each of us is now written into the Cloud of Life.

Everything we do is being watched.  But long before Snowden and face recognition, Jews recognized that everything we do is subject to scrutiny.  It says above the ark up in the chapel, “Shiviti Adonai L’negdi tamid.” “We stand before God always.” So now, we’re all getting religion again.  We stand literally before all the world with everything we do.  We didn't need Snowden to prove that.  We are on display at all times everywhere.  And, despite the real dangers posed by the loss of privacy, knowing that we always being watched has made us better people. 

But we should be Jewish and Gentle not because we are being watched, but because that is the right way to live.   This is message of the book of Jonah, which we read tomorrow afternoon. At the end of the book, Jonah mourns the death of a simple gourd that had given him shade and God scolds him for not feeling similarly empathic toward the people of Nineveh.

That is final text message that we receive on Yom Kippur.  Be Jewish and Gentle.  That is our best story.  It is a story of the triumph of human goodness as the manifestation of God’s love.

Edie Windsor, the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, is a member at Bet Simhat Torah, New York’s LGBTQ synagogue.  So is her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, who gave a stirring D’var Torah there a few days after the ruling.  Kaplan discussed how Judaism, despite the pleas of its most rigid obstructionists, is susceptible to change. Her evidence was that week’s portion, Pinchas, and its narrative of the five daughters of Zelophehad and how they stood up for their inheritance rights — and how God heeded them.

Kaplan brought that lesson with her into the courtroom, when she pushed back against Justice Roberts’ intimation that politics drove the change she sought. She countered:

“What truly has driven the change we have all experienced is not the so-called political power of gay people, but instead “a moral understanding today that gay people are no different, and that gay married couples’ relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people.”

She then went on to describe how phenomenal and swift had been the softening of American’s attitudes toward gays. She mentioned how only a decade ago, her rabbi had to remain in the closet at the Jewish Theological Seminary, but now, that week,  JTS had signed on to a brief at the United States Supreme Court arguing that the marriages of gay people should be respected under the law.

No, Justice Roberts, the shift that so dismays you did not occur because of politics.  Gallup polling support on the issue didn’t rise from 27 percent as it was in the late ‘90s, to 56 percent today, including a dramatic rise in red states, without something dynamic and fundamental happening in American society.  America is becoming more inclusive.

Truly, as the video campaign proclaims, it gets better.  It is getting better because we are getting better.

And that is the better story.

It’s getting better in Israel too.   This summer, across the Jerusalem divide, an Israeli volunteer medic named Haim Attias, who is also an Orthodox resident of the West Bank, resuscitated an Arab Jerusalemite named Haitham Azloni who lay dying in the Old City.

Azloni was somehow electrocuted while sitting next to a stall in the Arab bazaar near the Old City’s Damascus Gate. His heart had stopped beating and “he was dead,” a local Arab man who witnessed the scene recalled. “I couldn’t bear to look. I walked away.”

It was the final days of Ramadan, and there had been some minor clashes between local Arabs and Israeli security forces in the area, and Attias happened to be nearby. A certified medic, he noticed Azloni lying on the ground and rushed to his assistance. After a long attempt to resuscitate him, Azloni’s heart rate was restored and stabilized. He woke up in a hospital several days later.

“No one came to help me, none of the brothers, no Arabs. Only one Orthodox Jewish man came to help me,” Azloni’s brother recounted him as saying upon his awakening. “I want to meet the man that saved me.”  And so, a few days later, they met.

“I’m hard to forget,” Attias noted, motioning with a smile to his big crocheted yarmulke, sidelocks and beard.

It seems totally absurd to have the Palestinians and Israelis talking peace right now, with everything else that is happening around them.  But when you read stories like this one, you can’t help but wonder. It sort of shuts up the cynic in each of us.

Yes, it’s getting better in Israel, as we can attest with the recent coronation of a young Ethiopian woman as Miss Israel, and the victory of a young Palestinian-Israeli woman on the popular reality show "The Voice."  Israeli society, like American society, is moving toward greater inclusiveness.

In the Shma, the paragraph beginning “V’ahavta,”  “You shall love,” it states that these words shall be “al levav’cha,” “on your heart.”  Why “on your heart” and not in it?  The Kotzker rebbe responds:

“Surely, God’s words should be held in the deepest depths of our hearts, not “upon” them! It seems to me that the meaning is this: we should at least keep the words “upon” our hearts, for everyone has a time when his heart opens, and if we have kept the words upon our hearts, then they will be ready to fall in, in that short moment of openness. Then we will see the light of the words and we will be made new when our souls receive these words from God.”

And so we ask, has the world reached that point, where those divine words, imploring us to love our neighbor are beginning to sink in?

Despite some of the evidence I’ve provided, the jury is still out. 

But for this Yom Kippur, a second question is far more important:

Has the divine imperative to love our neighbor penetrated our hearts?  Each of us, individually, must answer that question over the next 24 hours.  

My prayer is that by tomorrow night at this time, we will all be able to answer that question in the affirmative – and with affirmation.

Each of us has plenty of reason to be bitter.  Each one of us has plenty of reason to succumb to cynicism or despair.  Each one of us has found him or herself, like Jonah, abandoned and cast aside.  Each one of us, like Pi, or Elie Wiesel, has come face to face with the certainty of death.  Each one of us, like Israel 40 years ago, has been caught by surprise by the cruelty of its neighbors.

And yet.

We must never despair.  For we are the instruments of God’s kindness and love, even when God appears silent. It is ours to share, to accept, to include, and to be vigilant in the pursuit of peace with our neighbors. To believe, despite it all.   To be kind, despite it all. To be Jewish and gentle, to BE Judaism’s better story. 

Af al pi chen.  Despite it all.

Yom Kippur Day 5774: Regret

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

            This past summer, I fulfilled a lifelong dream.  Visiting Australia and New Zealand, was great, but the lifelong dream was not the destination, but rather the journey.  For in order to get there, I had to cross the International Dateline.  When I did that, I got to live in the future.  It really hit home when I was sitting at a café on Sunday while listening to Saturday’s Red Sox game.  I noted it on Facebook and a friend from back here asking me what the final score would be.
         But my lifelong dream wasn’t in fact to cross the dateline going that way.  It was the return trip.  For the first time in my life, I got to live an entire day all over again.  “Groundhog Day” over the Pacific.  We were scheduled to fly out of Fiji on Sunday evening, which, once we crossed the dateline, I realized would have put us perilously close to backing into the prior day’s Shabbat.  But it didn’t happen.  A flight cancellation forced us to stay Sunday night in Fiji (what a horrible fate) fly out early Monday morning to LA, arriving on Sunday night, yes Sunday night again, and too late to make any connections – forcing us to spend the same night at a second hotel, thousands of miles from the first.  I bet the credit card companies had fun figuring that one out!

             It was what one could call a Control-Z day.

            Control Z is what we do on a computer when we want to erase a mistake and have a do-over.  Two keys, simple and clean.  The reset button.  The old Etch a Sketch shake. A hi-tech mulligan.   A moment when the past doesn’t have to be re-lived, regurgitated and regretted – but just erased, as if it never happened.  If only life were as simple as Control-Z.

            Last Yom Kippur, you may recall, I spoke on the topic of failure.  I spoke from personal experience, but I found that sermon to strike a strong universal chord. I made the claim that failure is not only an option, it’s a given, and a necessity to growth.  We are not doomed to fail, we are blessed with failure.   

            So today I take the next logical step. The topic: Regret.

            If failure is the kindling fueling future growth, regret is the match.  And we who now live in a world of Control-Z need to understand that there are times when we simply can’t have a do-over, and that that is a good thing, no matter how much it hurts.

            A story is told of a bank that opened a branch in a new location. The bank manager received a floral arrangement from a friend for the grand opening. When the friend who had sent it arrived at the opening, he was appalled to find that his floral arrangement bore the inscription, “Rest in Peace.”  

            He was really angry, so he complained to the florist. 

            After apologizing, the florist said to him, “Look at it this way – somewhere today a man was buried under a wreath that said, ‘Good luck in your new location’.”
            So, lesson one, we all do things that we later regret.  Regret happens. It is part of the flow of life.  It is the essence of being human, and sometimes we can laugh it off.

               Lesson number two: Sometimes we can’t.

            For Golda Meir, her greatest regret occurred 40 years ago nearly to the minute.  At around 2 PM, on Yom Kippur, 1973, sirens sounded throughout Israel, on our holiest day, with the entire nation at prayer.  The surprise attack came after some warnings, and yet Meir and her government were not prepared.  When knowledge of the impending attack became more definite on the day before the invasion, Golda called an emergency meeting, and it was decided to order a partial mobilization.  Golda accepted the reassurances of her military leaders and held off mobilizing the reserves, and a preemptive strike was ruled out. 

            Through the courage of its soldiers and the help of a US airlift, Israel ultimately won the war, but for days, Israel’s very survival hung in the balance.  Meir was totally exhausted. She later wrote in her autobiography:  “I couldn't even cry when I was alone." Just this week, her testimony before a commission of inquiry was released for the first time, and she said, "I am haunted by the decision not to have acted preemptively against the Egyptians, always wondering if some of the soldiers who are not with us would be with us today if I would have agreed to a strike. On the other hand, if we had struck, we probably would not have received the American airlift of arms." And she said in her memoirs, "I shall live with that decision for the rest of my life."

            Regret can get very personal.

            Linds Redding was a New Zealander and popular blogger who worked in advertising.  He died this year at age 52 from inoperable esophageal cancer.

            He wrote in a blog post: … turns out that my training and experience had 
equipped me perfectly for this epic act of self-deceit. This was my gig. My schtick. Constructing a compelling and convincing argument to buy…. “Don’t sell the sausage. Sell the sizzle” as we were taught at ad school.

            Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…

            So was it worth it?

            Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling. No ultimate prize. Just a lot of faded, yellowing newsprint, and old video cassettes in an obsolete format I can’t even play any more even if I was interested. Oh yes, and a lot of framed certificates and little gold statuettes. Lots of empty Prozac boxes, wine bottles, a lot of grey hair -- and a tumor of indeterminate dimensions.

            It sounds like I’m feeling sorry for myself again. I’m not. It was fun for quite a lot of the time. I was pretty good at it. I met a lot of funny, talented and clever people, got to become an overnight expert in everything from shower-heads to sheep-dip, got to scratch my creative itch on a daily basis, and earned enough money to raise the family which I love, and even see them occasionally.

            But what I didn’t do, with the benefit of perspective, is anything of any lasting importance. At least creatively speaking. Economically I probably helped shift some merchandise. Enhanced a few companies’ bottom lines. Helped make one or two wealthy men a bit wealthier than they already were.

            As a life, it all seemed like such a good idea at the time.


            Oh. And if you’re reading this while sitting in some darkened studio or edit suite agonizing over whether housewife A should pick up the soap powder with her left hand or her right, do yourself a favor. Power down. Lock up and go home and kiss your wife and kids.

            Linds Redding shared his regrets – and in doing so produced his most enduring commercial. 

            So let’s pause here to define regret.  I borrow from a definition presented by Kathryn Schultz, a journalist and author who has made the topic of regret her own cottage industry.  She defines regret as the emotion we experience when we think that our present situation could be better or happier if we had done something different in the past.  It’s not so much about a failure as simply making the wrong choice. 

            Regret requires two things: First of all, agency – we had to make a decision in the first place.  And second of all, it requires imagination.  We need to be able to imagine going back and making a different choice, to click control-Z.  And then we need to be able to kind of spool this imaginary record forward and imagine how differently things would be playing out in our present. And in fact, the more we have of either of these things -- the more agency and the more imagination with respect to a given regret, the more acute that regret will be.

            An example Schultz gives is that of her own youthful indiscretion of getting a tattoo.  I’ve discovered that tattoos and regret often go hand in hand. Maybe that’s why Judaism frowns on it.  She regretted it, almost immediately.  Sort of like Johnny Depp did when he got a tattoo of his fiance’s name, Winona Ryder, “Wynona Forever.”  But then they broke up.  What was he to do?  Well, Johnny went and got a little bit of repair work done. And now his shoulder says, "Wino forever." It’s a humorous example of how we all have the ability to turn lemons into lemonade.

            So lesson three: When it comes to regret, we need to drink, not the Kool-Aid, but the lemonade.

            Regret doesn't remind us that we did badly, Schultz says. It reminds us that we know we can do better.           

            Even God has regrets.  There’s a fascinating Talmudic discussion involving Moses, who actually blames God for the sin of the Golden Calf.  After all, if God hadn’t given Israel the opportunity to take all the Egyptians’ gold at the time of the Exodus, there would have been no gold to create the Golden Calf. 

            That’s chutzpah.  But the real shocker is that in this Talmudic discussion, the rabbis buy into this argument.  And they have God buy into it too, putting in God’s mouth words of regret.  The rabbis went as far as to compare what God did to Israel to giving a spoiled son a sack of money around his neck and dropping him off in front of a brothel. (Berachot 32a)  The temptation is just too great.  Israel was put in a position where they couldn’t possibly make the right choice. (see commentaries here and here)

            Shakespeare wrote, "Things without all remedy should be without regard; what's done is done."  Regrettably, he put those words into the mouth of Lady Macbeth, who felt no regret at all for the crimes she and her husband committed.  Kathryn Schultz points out that “the inability to experience regret is actually one of the diagnostic characteristics of sociopaths. It's also, by the way, a characteristic of certain kinds of brain damage.  So if, in fact, you want to live a life free of regret, there is an option open to you. It's called a lobotomy.  But if you want to be fully functional and fully human and fully humane, you need to learn to live, not without regret, but with it.”
           So, lesson number four: If you never feel remorse for anything, you are a sociopath.
           To sum up journey thus far: We can’t change the past, and neither can we wish it away.  

             We need to be able to confront it, deal with it, learn the lessons, make it part of who we are, and then move on.  We mustn’t let regret consume us, for that would lead to the far greater regret of a life that has been wasted in pity and self loathing.
             I learned during my recent trip that Australia has two animals on its coat of arms, a kangaroo and an emu.  They could have chosen lots of other animals unique to the country.  The koala is a lot cuter.  Some of the species of birds are breathtakingly beautiful.  They actually consider the kangaroos an annoyance down there.  Like we think of deer.  So why the kangaroo and the emu?  Because neither is able to walk backwards.  They can only move forwards.   The kangaroo cannot click Control-Z.  
          Last night, even before the evening service for Yom Kippur officially began, we chanted Kol Nidre.  That prayer, in its current form, gets us off the hook for all the vows that we make that we can’t keep.  But not last year’s promises.  Next years!  Mi Yom Kippurim Zeh ad Yom Kippurim Haba. (see history of Kol Nidre and in particular Rabbenu Tam's formulation of the prayer)

            In other words, even before we’ve completed the process of praying for forgiveness of the transgressions already made, we are assuming that we’re going to mess things up again.  It is a given that we will screw up.  It’s like we’re making a down payment on next year’s sins.  We’re so good at living with regret that we simply can’t imagine being without it, even on the one day during the year designed to cleans us of it! Yom Kippur means, literally, a day of cleansing.   

            Lesson number five: Some live in a sorry state of affairs.  Jews live in an “I’m sorry”state.  Being Jewish is always having to say “I’m sorry.” 

            And no wonder.  Do you know that we utter 40,000 words each day?  Do you think there’s a chance that dozen or two just might come out wrong?  Every day! How often do we bite our lip and ask ourselves, “Did I really say that?”  Our regrets remind us of the sanctity of language, the destructive and constructive potency of each word, but also the ability to forgive ourselves and others for the ones that come out wrong.

            Lesson six: We are flawed and imperfect.  We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them.  

             And by the the way, among those imperfect creations are our children.  We must embrace their imperfections as well, so that later on, they will be able to accept them too.

            And you know, the fact that the government is listening to each and every word we say or write one should not intimidate us.  For millennia, long before YouTube and Twitter, we felt we were being watched, if not by God than by something even more powerful than God: the Jewish Mother.   

            So we’ve always felt regret.  Many confuse that with guilt.  Jewish guilt is an entirely different matter.  Jewish guilt is when a man calls his mother in Florida. 

            "Mom, how are you?"

            "Not too good" replies his mother, "I've been very weak".

            The son asks, "Why are you so weak?"

            She says, "Because I haven't eaten in 38 days."

            "That's terrible" says the son, "Why haven't you been able to eat?"

            The mother answers, "Because I didn't want my mouth to be filled with food in case you should call me."

            But Jewish regret is simply this:  “I didn’t call my mother today.  Time just got away from me and I didn’t call.  I feel badly about it, but I’ll just call her tomorrow and apologize.”

            The time for Jewish guilt is past.  We’ve all grown out of that. 

            Jewish guilt is an ethnic stereotype.  Jewish regret is a religious value.  And we have another word for it: Teshuvah.

            For Maimonides, regret is in fact the first step in Teshuvah.  That is followed by other equally important steps – including correcting the misdeed and then resolving not to do it again. (See Maimonides' Laws of Repentance, chapter 2)

            To deal with regret we need to be able to embrace the mistakes of our past and grow from those unfortunate decisions.  We need to remember and find deeper meanings in our experiences.   And, when are regrets involve our relationships with others, we need to be able to forgive.  

            Forgiveness.  In the song of that name, Don Henley calls forgiveness “the heart of 
the matter.”

            Great song, but with apologies to Henley, forgiveness is not the heart of the matter.  It’s important.  We should all forgive those who ask for it – that’s part of the laws of Teshuvah.  But the heart of the matter is not in forgiving those who have harmed us.  It’s to ask forgiveness from those whom we have harmed. 

            Lesson number seven: Asking for forgiveness is the heart of the matter

And there is no statute of limitations.  On the information table in the lobby I’ve put an article about a man named Larry Israelson who waited 39 years before asking his teacher to forgive him.  It is a very moving story – and worth reading at some point today as part of your Yom Kippur reflections. To paraphrase the piece, the beauty of an apology is that it reveals not only who we are, but who we hope to become.  (Read the article here)

            Regret leads to humility and humility opens us up. And when we expose that vulnerability to others, relationships deepen, which in turn makes us happier.  Regret, then, is a prerequisite to happiness.

            Author Brene Brown gave a great TED Talk on that topic – speaking of the power of vulnerability.  For her, shame is understood as the fear of connection.  An example she gives is one that we all can relate to.  When we know of someone who had a loss – it takes courage to call that person.  So let’s say you forget to call that person and then the next week you see her in CVS; what do you do?  If you’re like most people, you hide behind the Cheerios.  But if you open yourself up, as difficult as that may be, you’ll go up to her and simply say, “I’m sorry.”

            The worst that happens is that your friend screams at you, in which case, hopefully you’re fortunate enough to be near the Advil aisle.  But far more likely, you will make that person’s day.  And either way, you will be unburdened.  You’ll be able to sleep that night, for having reached out in the most vulnerable human way.   And if the person screams, don’t take it personally.   There’s a lot of anger that often accompanies loss, a lot of despair and loneliness.  You’ve just done your friend the favor of letting her vent some of that anger in your direction.  You’ve taken one for the team.  

            Most of our regrets are about small things we do - or forget to do - every day, like that missed phone call, or that stupid thing we said, or that the time we mistakenly clicked “reply all.”  Or that missing sock in the laundry.  Doesn’t that drive you crazy?  This summer, our congregation lost a beloved, long time member, Jerry Kanovsky.  When the laundry came out and one sock was left, most of us say, “How could I lose that other sock!”  But Jerry would say, “Hey, what a gift! An extra sock!”                       

            But then there are bigger regrets.  About the life choices we made many years ago.

            Kathryn Schultz gives us six categories of regret:   Number one by far, education. 33 percent of all of our regrets pertain to decisions we made about education.  Others very high on our list of regrets include career, romance, parenting, various decisions and choices about our sense of self and how we spend our leisure time, finance, family issues unrelated to romance or parenting, health, friends, spirituality and community.

            Basically, everything except perhaps how we put on shoes in the morning.

            Regret ultimately is about mortality. It's about letting a single moment of this precious life slip by without fully appreciating it.  And it’s about wasting so much time.

            There’s a neat new website called “Letters to my 25 year old self,” that I read about in my college alumni magazine.  They’ve gotten people from different walks of life to write letters, giving advice to their younger selves. 

            What a great idea!     

            What a depressing idea! 

            But it’s something we all might want to try – and maybe you can share what you come up with.  We should all write letters to our 25 year old self.  If you happen to be 25, then write a letter to your bar mitzvah self.  If you’re thirteen, well, I always love when b’nai mitzvah get up here and say in their speeches, “Back when I was young.”  So if you’re thirteen, give some advice to your five year old self.  If you’re five…I don’t know.

            Here’s an entry:

Hi Joel,

            It's me, 50-year-old you.

            Yes it is - just shut up for a second and let me talk - I know you don't think you'll ever be 50.  But you will.

            I have now lived exactly two of your lifetimes. So here's what I have learned in as short a piece as I can write since I know you hate reading.

            First - let’s get a few things out of the way:

            In three years you are going to meet a girl who you will fall in love with. I know, she's cute and all but she cheats on you six years after you marry her, and when you find out it completely unravels your life and utterly breaks your heart. You're a nice guy and you try to make it work for a couple more years - but it won't - and dude, you can make it without her. So don't wallow, wishing you could hold that relationship together.

            And anyway there is someone else, someone amazing - and so much better for you. You will meet her when you're 42 (yes, you will be 42) - only after you have moved on and begun to find joy again in being alone. This is someone who gives you what you need - who loves you for what and who you really are - someone who does not expect you to change, and embraces you. I mean, dude, she likes Star Trek and Bond movies! She is so right for you, man, you have no idea.  Marry that one. She'll give you beautiful babies and a great life.

            Joel goes on to give himself lots of practical advice, including that he should buy Apple stock in 2002.

            Then he says:

            Joel, your intuition is almost always right. That inner voice of yours is almost never wrong. You just don't trust it right now.        When you get into your mid-thirties it will all start to become clear. But everything before that is kindergarten. I know you don't want to hear that. You're 25 and that feels like an adult to you - but my boy, you are a child with such limited experience. Be patient. Just fill yourself with ideas. Because your best ideas won't come until your forties anyway.”

            So basically, 50 year old Joel is telling 25 year old Joel not to sweat it because nothing good will happen until he’s 42.  But there’s one problem with that.  It’s precisely all the sweating and anguish of the 20s and 30s that gave him the wisdom to finally make the right choices later on. He needed them!  We call them growing pains, and there is no shortcut around them.

            Lesson nine: Our lives consist of the sum total of our regrets and how we respond to them. 

            And hey, who knows what the 75 year old Joel will write to his 50 year old self.  “Don’t sweat it.  Things’ll really pick up at 68!”

            Life presents tough choices every day, for all of us.  Often the better choice is really just the least bad choice. 

            I know that first hand.

            This past December, my mother suffered a series of minor strokes that made it impossible for her to live on her own.  I visited her several times, but each time I could only stay for a day and needed to return here because at the same time a congregant was near death.  Choices… should I stay there or return here? I was torn. 

            She is stable now, in a nursing home, but she has lost so much.  The only possessions she seems to have left are her regrets.

            So almost every time I speak with her she says, “I’m sorry.”  I’m not sure what for – but she seems to know, and that’s the heart of the matter.  She’s holding on to that last vestige of humanity that we all possess – the ability to ask forgiveness, to say “I’m sorry.”  

            And I tell her, every time, “It’s OK.”

            And I say “I’m sorry” too.

            And she says, “Why?  You’re perfect.”

            And you know what?  When I came back from one of those quick trips to Boston last December and visited the family of that congregant who was dying, I expressed my regrets for being away – and they said exactly the same thing: “It’s OK.”

            There are certainly times when it's NOT "OK," but almost all the time, it is.

            The Jewish last rites prayer is a confessional, and it is nearly identical to the liturgy at the end of the Yom Kippur service.  A Jew’s final words on this earth are words of teshuvah - I often recite them at bedside on that person’s behalf.  There is no more powerful moment. Our last human act will also be the most human act possible.   It is the moment where everyone gets to say “It’s OK.”

            And then, and only then, are we unburdened. A prime goal we all have, though rarely stated or understood, is for the rabbi to say at our funeral that we died with no regrets

            We hope to die with no regrets.  But the only way to live is with them.  That’s lesson number ten.

            When we break the fast tonight, the tradition is to have round foods – like at a shiva.  Bagels, eggs, round foods.  They remind us of the cycle of life, the ebbs and flows, the ups and the downs.  I suggest that we add one more item to the menu.  Lemonade. 

            If I were writing a letter to the Jewish people’s 25 year old self, somewhere back in the Wilderness of Sinai, I’d advise them to learn how to make lemonade.  They’ll need it for the long desert journey and for the next few millennia.  And we need it now.

            We need the lemonade to learn how to convert our New Normal into a nice normal, a less threatening world. 

            We need to heed the advice of Golda Meir and Linds Redding, Johnny Depp, Maimonides, Moses, Don Henley and my mother.

            Like the kangaroo and emu, we can't walk backwards.  We can’t click Control-Z.  Instead, we need to reset from this point in time.  Right now.  Right here.  This is not the beginning, but it can be a new beginning – a time when the world, at long last, can be reborn.

            May this be a year with few regrets, but may we make the most of those we have.  May we seek not perfection but correction - and connection.  

           May all our pains be growing pains, may forgiveness light our every path.

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