Saturday, October 4, 2014
Kol NIdre Audio
Yom Kippur Day Audio
Kol Nidre 2014 - Jewish Stories
Those of you who were here on Rosh Hashanah will recall that for this year’s sermons I’m focusing on the big questions, as inspired by a prayer that frames the High Holidays liturgy, recited both early in the morning and again at the very end of Neila tomorrow night. Mah anu, Mah hayyenu, Mah hasdenu, mah tzidkenu – What are we, what our lives, our goodness our righteousness. What does it all amount to? How do we live lives of cosmic significance and personal satisfaction?
This evening,: Mah hayyenu? What are our lives?
This past year, congregants were invited to share the wisdom gained from their life experiences. We called this series, “This American Jewish Life.” We heard from a congregant courageously overcoming the disease of alcohol addiction; another who had survived a horrible accident, another whose father was shot, another who had dealt with the difficulties of her non Jewish family having difficulty accepting her choice to marry a Jew and ultimately to convert, another who made aliyah. There were others too – and there will be more this coming year.
Each of these accounts moved us tremendously. They weren’t just thought provoking. We don’t come to services to have our thoughts provoked. We come here to be shaken and stirred.
And each of these stories is a building block – a brick. And brick by brick we are building something – a grand construct that is the sum of all our stories. And that grand project is called the future – and it is the future of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Judaism is not an abstraction, something on paper. It lives and breathes through us, through our lives. And I’ll tell you a secret: that’s how it’s always been. Why is that a secret? Because it scares the heck out of every authority figure – every rabbi, every professor, every Talmud scholar, every know-it-all who pulls out a book and tells you “that’s Judaism.” It’s so fitting for an age that has abandoned authoritarian structures for the democratic ways of social media. Judaism always was like that, even before Twitter was wreaking havoc on powerful people and entrenched old boys clubs, everywhere from the Middle East to Hong Kong to the NFL. It was always about people. It was always about the stories. That’s what precipitates change, nowadays for the world, for centuries for the Jews. It's not the elites that determine the direction of culture. The elites are always trying to catch up.
Mah hayyenu. What are our lives? If you want to know Judaism, start there. Our lives are everything. Our stories are THE story.
Let me give you some historical perspective.
Back in 1492, Jews were kicked out of Spain after flourishing there for 500 years. it was one of the most traumatic events in all of Jewish history. A century later, many of those Jews had settled in Amsterdam. Some complicated identity questions developed for Jews in Amsterdam and elsewhere. Many Conversos lived among them, who wanted to return to Judaism and break from their Christian past. A book about Salonica, which had a similar influx of Spanish refugees, details how some people went back and forth, switching identities like we change shoes. Some people might have had a Christian family in Portugal and a Jewish family in Salonica.
You think we have confusion now. THIS was complicated. So how did the rabbinic authorities deal with this? They drew lines to keep undesirables out. They reinforced old boundaries.
Add to that one more complication. A few decades before the Spanish expulsion, this guy named Gutenberg printed a Bible – and suddenly information that had only been available to a few was out there for everyone. Another threat to the rabbinical establishment – and the church as well.
So as a result, as the world left the 16th century, there were more writs of excommunication drawn up in a 50-year period in Amsterdam than in the prior 500 years. Rabbis were deathly afraid of the swift changes going on around them and the fact that they were losing control.
So that takes us to a guy named Baruch Spinoza. On July 27, 1656, still in his 20s, he was excommunicated by the rabbis of Amsterdam. The writ of excommunication says nothing about what he said or believed. He had barely written anything at that point. But people were instructed not to have any dealings with him. No one could even eat dinner with him. The rabbis wanted him out, not for who he had married but for what he believed. The censure was not specific, referring only to the "abominable heresies that he practiced and taught." One of those heresies was the idea that the Torah had human authorship. He also questioned the immortality of the soul. He asked lots of questions that ticked people off. Baruch Spinoza was the first modern Jew.
And so, three and half centuries, later, who can name the rabbis who excommunicated Spinoza? Show of hands? Good. Neither can I. Two points: Spinoza’s views would now be considered mainstream. Even modern Orthodoxy is coming around to the notion that the Torah has complex origins.
But the bigger point is precisely my main point. Judaism changed because of Spinoza. The world changed because of him. Dramatically. And this is a guy the establishment tried to silence.
A quote I repeat often, by Edwin Markham. “He drew a circle that shut me out- Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!
How much more so now, when everything is percolating from the grass roots. It took 2000 years for there to be female rabbis and cantors. It was courageous individuals who moved the needle. It would never have moved by itself behind the ivory towers of the Seminary – I can promise you that. I was there at the time.
And were it not for the courage of the Women of the Wall, working from the grass roots, the needle of women’s rights would not be shifting in Israel now either. And it is. Neither would the movement for gay rights in Judaism, which required upending the plain meaning of a Torah verse. We now understand that verse in the Torah very differently and we’ve come to recognize that while we are the people of the book, it is the book that serves the people, helping us to serve God.
Every great social movement has needed its Rosa Parks to emerge from the shadows. Does anyone know the name James Fred Blake? He was the bus driver that Rosa defied. The person driving the bus could never have instigated the change. Like the rabbis of Amsterdam, he is just an asterisk to history.
For generations, American Jewish leaders have been flailing away against the dangers of intermarriage. And the statistics are still daunting. But while rabbis rant and rant, no one is listening. Some of the rants might have validity, but it doesn’t matter. The story is being written by lives, many lives, of people who are struggling to forge a Jewish path in blended families - or a blended path, that in a generation, if they are nurtured and accepted, might find its way to becoming a Jewish path again – albeit for a Judaism very different from the one I grew up with.
That Pew report from last fall told a fascinating story. Three quarters of non Orthodox Jews are intermarrying. But 89 percent of all Jews are very proud of being Jewish. No matter who they are marrying, Judaism is important to them. And in truth, as much as Jews are assimilating to become more American, American culture is also assimilating to becoming more Jewish. And now, all eyes are on the most important baby born in American Jewish history: Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky. What will it be? Baptism, mikva – or neither? For American Jews, this is the “will she or won’t she” regarding a female Clinton that we’re watching most closely. But whatever they choose, we will remain what historian Simon Rawidowicz, as the “ever-dying” people. Our leaders will continue to warn that we are dying, and we’ll just go on living.
So Mah Hayyenu? What is American Jewry becoming? Is it disappearing?
I don’t think so – and I can say that confidently because I’ve heard the stories. I’ve been amazed by the stories.
Norman Mailer wrote, “I don’t think life is absurd. I think we are all here for a huge purpose. I think we shrink from the immensity of the purpose we are here for.” Each of our lives has tremendous significance.
And the Judaism we are forging is going very different from what has come before – but somehow still imbued with the values I’ve been sharing for the past weeks in “Judaism’s Top 40.” The world is changing so rapidly, as we’ve gone from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg, but these time-tested Jewish values and concepts still have an enormous place.
In our modern Spinoza story, the role of the Amsterdam rabbinate is being played by the Israeli interior ministry. Boundaries are dissolving all over the world, and they’ve responded by getting more and more strict. This year it has led to the horrible treatment of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, which American Jews have tried to ignore, but it is a desecration of God’s name, a hillul hashem. And for Jews, it has led to much stricter standards for conversion and aliyah. They are now intensifying the demand that those applying for aliyah submit proof of their Jewishness, ironically, by soliciting testimony from rabbis like me, that the rabbinic authorities over there don’t even consider rabbis. This process is designed to somehow maintain the purity of the Jewish people, which I think is a questionable battle to be fighting right now.
But in any event, it’s been great for me. Because I’ve been reconnecting with lots of people, I haven’t heard from in years. Let me share three situations that occurred in rapid succession earlier this year.
So I got this email from a young man named Alan, who became bar mitzvah here in 2002. I remembered him well. His family left Beth El pretty soon after, and in truth, of the well-over a thousand students who have become bar mitzvah here since I arrived, he is not in the highest percentile of those whom I would have expected to hear from again.
After college he wandered around and ended up in Paris. He went on Birthright in 2010 and that changed his life. “It was crazy experience seeing so much of Israel in such a short period of time,” he wrote. I knew I had to go back.”
Last November, he decided that he wanted not only to return to Israel, but to immigrate. He asked for my help and then concluded the email, “I would like to let you know how grateful I am for being so warmly welcomed and accepted into Beth El's community and for everything the synagogue has taught me. I hope to hear from you soon.”
I wrote him the letter. What a journey – what a story.
A very short time later, I heard from another young man named Tom, who also has roots here in Stamford. But he did not grow up a Jew, though he had a Jewish grandmother, who had passed away when he was two. Both his parents are practicing Catholics and he was raised by grandparents who were very religious – so he attended Catholic schools and went to church each Sunday.
He had been encouraged to visit Israel by two friends who has just returned from Birthright. When he went there for an internship he fell in love with the country and immediately felt a sense of belonging. He wrote, “The sense of community, acceptance, and generosity is something I have never in my life experienced. I am unwilling to give up on the idea of living here.” So he contacted his two friends, who happened to be from TBE and they gave him my name. He concluded the email, “If you can help me in any way I would appreciate it. I feel it is unfair that I should be denied my destiny because I was brought up in a different religion than everyone else. It was not my choice. My choice was to explore the unspoken side of my background and that choice has opened my eyes and showed me where I TRULY belong. I appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you.”
Such is Israeli bureaucracy, Tom, a Catholic, needed a letter from his rabbi in order simply to work there, and, as he put it, ““Clearly I do not have a rabbi.”
I confirmed his identity with the two Beth El students, and then wrote back:
“You said, ‘Clearly I do not have a rabbi.’ Well, you do now. I’m happy to assist you on your journey, wherever it happens to take you.”
I was able to provide him with the letter that he needed. That was in the early spring. This week I contacted him and asked for an update and permission to use his story. His reply shocked me - pleasantly:
“Shalom! I was actually going to reach out to you within the next week because I am excited to inform you that I have been accepted into the November 2014 Guided Aliyah group! If all goes as planned, by November, I will have successfully made Aliyah. Please, feel free to use my story for anything you'd like. To me, this is the beauty of being within this community. The willingness to help others is one of the biggest draws for me. You have helped me tremendously and I'm happy I can, for lack of a better word, "repay" you.” I will keep you updated!
Then, at almost the same exact time that I heard from Alan and Tom, I was contacted by a college student, whom I know well, who grew up in a Reform synagogue. She has a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother and, following Birthright, an Israeli boyfriend. It was only on Birthright that she discovered that she is not Jewish by the traditional definition. It was such a blow to her. I told her that I always have thought of her as a Jew, but it would be important to take care of the technicality and take a dip in the ritual bath, so that she would be Jewish in the eyes of a much larger percentage of the Jewish world. That’s what happened. She did that and was overjoyed. Another story. Another life.
We are the sum of our stories. Tomorrow night during Ne’ilah, we’ll follow our custom of inviting congregants to come up to the ark for moments of personal, intimate prayer. At no other point during the High Holidays is there a greater sense of awareness of the many deep stories in the room. It is overwhelming to watch from up here, because I know many of these stories.
Meanwhile, at the beginning of Yom Kippur, as you just saw, we invite all those who have suffered losses this year to come up and hold the Torahs for Kol Nidre. So, at the end of the holiday we connect to our present pain and future hope – as we bless the new babies too – and at the beginning, we connect to the stories of those who came before us.
Mah hayyenu? The Jewish story includes chapters that are still being written, as well as those that have been completed, which are equally important.
For this year’s Book of Remembrance, I invited you to send in brief blurbs about your loved ones, quick reminiscences that would help us recall what that person meant to you and others – and place that person’s story as one more brick, part of the foundation of our Jewish future.
"Eulogies aren't résumés," David Brooks wrote in June. "They describe the person's care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region."
Tomorrow when you come in – those reminiscences will be available in the lobby. I hope that throughout the day people will reflect and discuss what these people meant to us, and how these stories continue to inspire us.
And there is so much to be inspired by. Just this year, we’ve lost the likes of Arthur White, whose indefatigable optimism moved mountains. And Meryl Aronin, whose clear shofar call still reverberates in this sanctuary. And so many more, as reflected in the people who held the Torahs for tonight. Their lives have become sacred scrolls for us, as they are now written into our Book of Remembrance.
I’ve done hundreds of funerals here, and with each one I take up the challenge of documenting the lasting impact of a life. This summer I looked back at some of the eulogies I’ve written – I keep them all – and tried to imagine how each of these life stories has lent a sense of exaltation to the human condition and the Jewish narrative. While there are far too many to recall here, let’s roll through the rolodex of memory – and present a tiny excerpt from Beth El’s Book of Life.
There was Janie Kane and her courage through illness, and Judy Isser and her compassion for all creatures, and Pamela Cohn Allen who opened our eyes to wonder, and Norma Mann, who broke every Jewish glass ceiling in town, and the warm smiles of Marsha Gladstein and Ed Golove and the sense of humor of Jeff Shendell and Hesh Romanowitz; and Marjorie Laff, who taught me how to explain death to children, and Myna Schwartz – unsinkable, heroic, who adorned every Seder table with sparkling beauty, and Karen Jossem, who when she was told she might have one year to live, refused to travel or otherwise address the bucket list, instead telling her son, “Why would I want to go anywhere else when I can spend that time right here with you?”
And Bruce Feinberg, who pushed and pushed and pushed some more, willing his body up to this pulpit for one final aliyah. And Lori Frank, who, when she belonged to an Orthodox havurah before coming here, was asked how she could reconcile Orthodox Judaism with her feminism, and she said, “Ask God. She’ll understand.”
And Shirley Fish – our assistant principal, who embodied the unlikely and precious balance between a strong will and profound humility – and Larry Bloch, her partner in education, a perfect combination.
Adam Weissman – wheelchair bound, who taught us that the sky’s the limit, a lesson that we also learned from David Jaffe, and Pamela Weisz. And Bruce Martin, who passed away a few months ago. So many heroes who refused to be defined by disability or or to be weighed down by mortality itself.
These are our Torahs. They are our living scrolls.
How about Moe Tunick and Frank Rosner, who could sit around the men’s club breakfast table and spin tales about the way things were here so long ago, along with Dave Gruber and Ed Kaplin and Sol Siskind and Bernie Nemoitin and Josh Lang and so many more who would chomp down bagels here on a Sunday morning.
And Mildred Miller an elegant and sweet lady, who never missed a yahrzeit,. And Lillian Lapine – with her deep, deep faith and love that sustained her family through a prolonged illness, all-the-while clutching an old, sacred tattered prayerbook. And David Dember, for whom every day was a Dayenu, and Howard Arons, who defied the convention of males of his generation by demonstratively showing love. Edith Sherman built a city, and Mel Allen defined a dynasty.
Heroes all – I rummage through the eulogies…. Lois Fink, Martin Benjamin. Gloria Baum. Al Golin, who blew the shofar here for so long. And Jack Malin, whose deep love for tradition is reflected in each of the restored Torahs in this ark. And Renee Beningson, whose grit and courage were unmatched.
I could go on and on. I apologize for the hundreds of names I left out. There are too many.
And when you think of these people and see some of some profiles tomorrow morning in our Book of Remembrance, how could anyone possibly believe that American Jewry is dying? Each of them contributed a brick – one brick to a foundation that is so strong and vibrant, and changing.
Mah hayyenu? We are the sum of our stories. And each of our stories is like an interactive novel, spinning off numerous sequels. And each of us touches the lives of others in ways we can barely imagine and often never know.
TBE congregant Carolyn Beck was telling me about something that happened to her recently when she announced her retirement from teaching after a long and fulfilling career with the Stamford schools. She got a letter from a younger teacher at her school who told her about how, when she was a student many years before, Carolyn had been her teacher at a precarious time in her life. Her parents had recently gotten divorced when she first came to Stillmeadow, in the middle of her fourth grade year, 35 years ago. So she was extremely nervous.
She picks up the narrative:
“When I walked into the room I was immediately greeted by your bright smile, enthusiastic voice and warm demeanor. You made me feel so welcome, as if I had always been a part of your class. You reminded me so much of my mother, with your short dark hair and motherly love. You meant the world to me. I am positive that you have meant the world to many kids that you have taught, but I wanted you to know what you meant to me at a very difficult time. All of us were blessed to have you in our lives.”
Wow. What a gift. Such a beautiful letter. Memo to myself: Don’t wait until someone is retiring to tell them how much they’ve meant to me.
As a postscript, Carolyn shared this story with me a few weeks ago, just as she was about to take the plunge, as it were, and become a Jew by choice – after so many years of involvement with our congregation. It was just the right time. A new chapter in her story is being written as we speak.
We never rarely know what impact we have on the lives of others. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner wrote a book called “Invisible Lines of Connection,” where he claims that our lives are all interconnected. Sometimes happenstance encounters can change the world.
“Each lifetime is [like] the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. For some there are more pieces. For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble. Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle. And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that. Trying to assemble the myriad parts.
But know this. No one has within themselves all the pieces to their puzzle.
Like before the days when they used to seal jigsaw puzzles in cellophane.
Ensuring that all the pieces were there.
Everyone carries with them at least one and probably many pieces to someone else's puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don't.
And when you present your piece,
(Which is worthless to you) to another,
Whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.”
Kushner writes about an evening when he and his wife were shopping for clothing for their children. He caught a glimpse of a tall, carefully made up woman out of the corner of his eye, who seemed to be distraught. Pretending not to notice her as she moved into the aisle where he stood, he saw that she was very pregnant and accompanied by a man. They were discreetly moving toward him and she was trying to catch his eye. But even if she did, he continues, “I would have feigned ignorance. Yes I know, I’m a rabbi, a public person, but gimme a break, I was shopping for clothes.
It didn’t work. She was closing in and moving through the bright florescent lights like a guided missile. “Aren’t you Rabbi Kushner?” “Yes, I am; have we met?” “Not exactly; we attended a service that you did. My husband and I thought you were very nice.”
She moved in for the kill. “Oh Rabbi, we were at the doctor’s this afternoon. The third opinion. He says I have an inoperable tumor. I’m going to die.
He says the baby will be fine.”
Kushner continues: “They introduced themselves to me, gave me the details. They’d been thinking about joining my congregation. Their world had collapsed. Why has this happening? Would I do the funeral? They joined. She bore a daughter, she died. I did the funeral.”
“Not long ago,” he continues. “I was sitting with the other members of my synagogue’s high school faculty… My glance settled on a short vivacious, red haired girl of seventeen. She had just finished telling a joke or playing some kind of a prank. Everyone laughed with her. She is popular. I love that girl. I am honored that she looks up to me. That girl’s father never did remarry. Last week the father told me that his daughter was thinking of becoming a rabbi.”
“Look,” Kushner concludes, “I don’t think that God made a tumor grow in that girl’s mother’s brain. Or that God has anything to do with the choice of careers or where I used to shop for bargain basement clothing. But I can’t get it out of my head that somehow God is mixed up in the whole horrible, holy and joyous thing.”
These life-stories remind us that our stories define us and refine the Jewish experience. From Rosh Hashanah we learned what is a Jew. Tonight we’ve learned the true definition of “Who is a Jew.”
Who is a Jew? The Jew I am. And the Jew I strive to be. We forge our own Judaism. Our lives – our stories – define who we are and point us toward who we are becoming, how Judaism itself is evolving, and the impact we will ultimately have on one another and on the world. Our lives are not merely important. Every act, every choice we make, reverberates through the high heavens and ripples through the lives of both neighbors and total strangers.
Rabbi David Ingber notes that letters of the Hebrew word Kaporet – from Kippur, which means atonement, are interchangeable with the letters in the word Parochet, the curtain that separated the high priest from the Holy of Holies.
Thus, Yom Kippur is really a day when we pull back that thin fabric, that membrane that divides us from our own holy of holies, and we enter into that sacred space. There we see how much our destinies are intertwined. “We can open up our hearts to breathe in what the other is breathing out, to take in their deepest need, their ultimate concern and the yearning in their hearts.”
Mah hayyenu? Over the next 24 hours that’s exactly the question that each of us must answer. And by sunset tomorrow, a new chapter will have been written – for each of us – in the Book of Life.
Yom Kippur Day – Happy / Mah Hasdenu?
This year on the High Holidays we’ve been focusing on key questions. Last week - “What does it mean to be a Jew” and “Where are we?” Last night I spoke about how Judaism lives and breathes through our life stories. I paid special tribute to some of the people who have made their mark on this community over the years.
But there is one remarkable person that I left out. I saved him for today, because he is,…the Most Interesting Jew in the World
- On Passover, Elijah opens the door - for him!
- He once caught a real gefilte fish.
- On Purim, he comes dressed – as himself!
- He can do Hagba AND Glilah – at the same time!
- At Tashlich, the fish throw his bread back.
He is… the most interesting Jew in the world.
Stay thirsty, my friends.
Seriously. Stay thirsty.
To no one’s surprise, the guy who plays the most interesting man in the world in the commercials, an actor named Jonathan Goldsmith, IS Jewish. And why wouldn’t he be? We may or may not be the Chosen people, but we are, without a doubt, the most interesting.
But does being interesting make us happy? And if not, what does?
So now, the camera is turned on us. Today, a sermonic selfie. Enough with the whats and wheres. Today, we look squarely in the mirror and see what stares back. Who are we? What can give us fulfillement?
Last week I spoke of a prayer that frames the liturgy, which we recited at the very beginning of the service and will recite at the very end of Yom Kippur tonight. And that prayer asks the question. Mah Hasdenu?
Hesed is kindness, goodness. Unconditional love. Tenderness. Consideration. Empathy. Profound connection. Steadfast love. There is really no precise equivalent in English. In fact a word was created to approximate it: “loving-kindness.” But Hesed is not kindness as in when you let someone go in front of you in a long line at Stop and Shop. Hesed is much deeper than that.
It’s mentioned over and over in the Bible, a total of 250 times, involving heroes like Ruth and David. Abraham was a hesed machine. Jeremiah defines Hesed as an Ahavat Olam – Pure, unbounded love.
The prophet Micah defines Hesed further, in a verse that concludes this afternoon’s haftarah as an add-on to the story of Jonah:
“(Mi el Kamocha) Who is a God like unto You, that pardons iniquity, and passes by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retains not anger forever, because Hesed makes God happy. (Ke Hafetz hesed hu.”).
Hesed, then, is the key to God’s happiness - and our own. Hesed allows God to “let it go,” to overcome anger and indignation. So the question “Mah Hasdenu?” really is a way of asking, “How can we find happiness?”
What I’d like to do today is unpack that idea some more. Because in our world there is such profound sadness. I don’t know, it seems to be even more prevalent than at any time since 9/11. Signs of unhappiness are everywhere.
Jacob Burak, a financial and cultural guru, wrote last month in Aeon magazine that Humans seem to be hard-wired for bad news, angry faces and sad memories. He says that we have a “negativity bias.”:
“…While a good day has no lasting effect on the following day, a bad day carries over. We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data, and they affect us longer. Socially, we invest more in avoiding a bad reputation than in building a good one. Emotionally, we go to greater lengths to avoid a bad mood than to experience a good one.”
Needless to say, Jacob Burak is Jewish. If human beings have a bias for negativity, Jews are “exhibit a”. We veer toward the negative. We look up at the ceiling and our eyes are drawn toward the missing tile right away. Of the 613 mitzvot, only 248 are positive. 365 are thou-shalt-nots, enough for us to break one negative commandment each day of the year. Even some of the positive commandments have been given a negative spin. Like the greatest of them all, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which was reframed by the sage Hillel as, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” He takes the ultimate positive and flips it over to its negative side. Hillel, it seems, like the rest of the Jewish people, needs a shrink.
As Henny Youngman put it, Why don't Jews drink? It interferes with our suffering.
As Leonard Fein, a great Jewish pundit who died recently, used to say, a Jewish telegram is one that reads, "Start worrying. Letter follows." Fein goes on, “We worry about everything. We worry about Israel, we worry about anti-Semitism, we worry about demographics, we worry about war, we worry about peace. When someone says "All's right with the world," we know that something must be wrong; he has overlooked the cloud, the flaw, the imminent crisis. He has been lulled; the storm is brewing just out of sight, we can feel it in our ancient bones.”
So here’s where we are. Everything around is conspiring to drag us down. The tragic death of Robin Williams brought home to us the prevalence of depression and mental illness in our society. Last year a study in England warned that teenagers are becoming increasingly unhappy, with growing concerns about school, their appearance and the amount of freedom they have. At about the same time the New Yorker reported that going online makes us unhappy – primarily because we become jealous of all the people on social media who seem to be doing so much better than us.
If it’s not our emotional wiring, it’s our culture, it’s our perfect neighbors, it’s our health or it’s the body’s inexorable decline; it’s our mortality. The rise of mental illness is being called an epidemic, where the CDC, last year, that the suicide rate among Americans ages 35–64 years increased 28.4 percent between 1999 and 2010, where our society breeds anxiety, depression and dysfunction, where people who seem to have every reason to be happy, suffer horribly, and the symptoms aren’t recognized or properly treated, and they do horrible things to themselves and others.
No doubt many of us here have had to stave off bouts of depression. Let me amend that. All of us. All of us. For some the issues are clinical, for others circumstantial – and for some, both.
"Life," said Woody Allen, "is full of misery, loneliness and suffering - and it's all over much too soon."
Can’t we ever be happy?
Yes we can. And that brings us back to Ma Hasdenu? For while Jews may not score well on the happiness scale, Judaism provides us with the keys to happiness. True, we are glass half empty people, but ours is a glass half full tradition. So let’s learn from it. Here are ten quick lessons Judaism teaches us:
Lesson one: Recognize that Happiness is a worthy and attainable goal.
It’s OK not to feel burdened and guilty all the time. Sometimes we feel guilty when we feel good. Alan Cohen defined guilt as “punishing yourself before God doesn’t”.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said, “Mitzvah g’dolah lihyot b’simcha tamid.” “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.” “He understood, way before Freud, that sadness could lead to sickness – even though Nachman himself struggled deeply with depression. Aristotle called happiness "the chief good," the end towards which all other things aim. And in full agreement, Moses Chayim Luzzato, who in the 18th century wrote “The Path of the Just,” begins the first chapter saying, “Man is created to take pleasure.” For him, there was no greater pleasure than seeking closeness with God.
Which brings us to Lesson Two: Come to Services.
I believe that religion has an enormous role to play in combatting the incessant negativity, cynicism, alienation and depression that surrounds us. Surveys show a distinct correlation between happiness and frequency of church attendance in America. But oftentimes, religion is accused of fostering a false sense of happiness by denying harsh realities. I can’t speak for other faiths, but that’s not true for Judaism. Judaism is not a religion that teaches us to comfort someone on his deathbed by saying that he is going to a “better place.” Judaism does not promote the kind of saccharine happiness that denies life’s struggles; but rather a deep, rich affirmation of life, with no denial, recognizing our mortality. And it’s a life that connects – a life of Hesed.
Lesson three: Remove the Masks.
Happiness happens when we get real. Rav Kook, in his classic work on Teshuvah, stated, “The primary role of penitence is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul.” That’s where Carlebach got the lyrics to the song – return to the root of your soul.
This implies a deep acceptance of who we are.
My colleague Rabbi Irwin Kula has tried something different at his congregation in Chicago. During Neilah, in fact while reciting our prayer, Mah anahnu, mah hayenu? (What are we? What are our lives?), he leads a ten minute, "Who am I" exercise, conducted in pairs.
Each person is allotted five minutes to answer; then the roles reverse. A sample dialogue:
"Who are you?" "I'm Joshua Hammerman."
"Who are you?" "I'm a father."
"Who are you?" "I'm a son."
"Who are you?" "I'm a husband."
Kula says, "By the thirtieth question, the answers reach the level of vulnerability."
"Who are you?" "I'm lonely."
"Who are you?" "I'm scared."
In a room this big, that’s harder to do. But it’s an exercise worth trying in a more intimate setting.
Lesson Four: Let it Go.
With apologies to Idina Menzel.
That song from the film “Frozen” has been without doubt the most repeated and reinterpreted song of the year, except for one. Every little kid I know is singing this song. And some grown ups too. Because, in large part, we recognize that we all need to “let it go” in order to be happy. As we saw from the prophet Micah, even God needs to let it go.
The Talmud tells of a drought, when Rabbi Eliezer prayed for rain, but nothing happened. Rabbi Akiva offered a short prayer and the rains fell. A Voice from Heaven called out, “Not that Akiva is any better than Eliezer, but Eliezer carries a grudge against those who slight him, while Akiva forgets it and moves on.”
The Talmud is clearly telling us – if you don’t let go of your anger or your pain, it will only compound your troubles and make you less able to live a productive life. So let it go.
Lesson Five: Cultivate He-sed-ic Communities
Not Hasidic – but Hesed-ic. Communities filled with Hesed. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement, saw a scholar with a forlorn look on his face during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The scholar said he was worried because these are the days when God is judging us. To which Salanter replied, “But other people won’t realize that that’s what’s bothering you. They might think that you are upset with them.”
In order to be truly happy, we’ve truly got to care about the happiness of others.
Not long ago, PBS aired a film called “Happy,” tracking the phenomenon all over the world. The producer spoke about how he had heard that happy people tend to be healthier, get sick less often and live longer than unhappy people – and that for some reason, the oldest people in the world came from Okinawa in Japan.
He went there on a whim and found that it was a resounding YES, they were happy. The key is was how different generations come together on a regular basis. One day, he noticed a group of elderly women visiting a preschool as the kids were having a footrace. The grandmothers convened at finish line. They hugged all the kids as they finished. The producer went to congratulate a grandmother about having such a grandkid.
She said, ‘That’s not my grandchild. None of these are my grandkids.’ She was asked, ‘Is this your friend’s?’ She said, ‘None of the women here are related to any of these children.’
I would love to see that happen at every bar mitzvah here. Total strangers of the older generations hugging all the kids as they cross the finish line. That is a culture that promotes happiness.
Lesson Six: Fake it
Nachman of Bratzlav also said, “If you are not happy, pretend to be. Even if you are totally depressed, act happy. Genuine joy will follow.”
This one might leave you skeptical, but Reb Nachman believed that when we activate joy, it ignites a spark inside us, it opens up our aliveness and lets us see the world from a God’s eye view. As Rabbi Mark Novak put it in a recent issue of Moment magazine in a section about happiness, “Putting on a smile is not intended to cover over anything, but to make room for what is here – the divine presence – in each breathing, sacred moment. The smile, which leads us to joy, which leads us to wonder, calls upon the child within us to live with curiosity and creativity.”
In that same issue, Rabbi Gershon Wimkler wrote, “Happiness should not be something we strive for. It should be entrenched deeply within us.” And he’s right. Despite the unimaginable tragedies we have faced, we are a people known for our ability to rise above our sadness and smile. Happiness for us is much more than an emotion. It is a divine imperative.
Lesson Seven: Laugh your way through the tears.
When we ask, Mah Hasdenu, what causes us to smile even when we don’t feel like it – it’s our sense of humor.
Henny Youngman put it in the form of a joke: says I go to the doctor and the doctor says I have six months to live. I told him I can’t pay him. So he gave me six months more.
That is the quintessential Jewish joke. We all have six months. We’re all up against literally a dead-line. But if we can laugh at it and stand up to it, it will give us a reprieve from the sadness – and that’s like bargaining for six months more.
Writer Jay Michelson calls the uniquely Jewish form of happiness “unhappy happiness,” “a kind of happiness that lies beneath the surface; beneath, that is, what we ordinarily understand to be sadness or joy. A middle path between two unsatisfactory alternatives: what he calls “the Botox-smiling cheer of the American Dream on the one hand (in which unrelenting peppiness coexists with some of the world’s highest levels of depression and dissatisfaction), and the self-defeating “Oy Vey” of Jewish irascibility.”
Can we talk? Joan Rivers, made us laugh right up to the end, when she made us cry. She once said, in a moment not intended to draw giggles, “I enjoy life when things are happening. I don’t care if it’s good things or bad things. That means you’re alive.”
Lesson Eight: Stay in the moment
There’s an app, Track Your Happiness, which allows people to report their feelings in real time. Its developer discovered that we're least happy when we allow our minds to wander from the task at hand. That’s because when our minds wander, we tend to obsess about things that worry us.
So if your mind is wandering now, you’re probably worried. If you are focusing on me, you are much happier.
But even as we focus on that task, we can also get immersed in it – lost in it. I know that I am often happiest when I look up at the clock and can’t believe how much time has elapsed. Having a direction, a goal, really helps, even if we may never finish what we’ve started. The sages were onto something when they stated that it is not ours to complete the task, but neither is it ours to desist from it.
Lesson Nine: Embrace your brokenness.
The Hebrew word for happiness, “Simcha” was found adjacent to signatures at the bottom of medieval legal documents found in the attic of a Cairo synagogue. Now legal documents don’t typically ask us to express emotion. So scholars concluded that the real meaning of the Hebrew word “simcha” is not “joy,” but “acceptance.” And that is what, for Judaism, happiness is all about. Acceptance of what we can’t change and learning to live with it.
There’s that famous story that was first reported years ago in the Houston Chronicle, about Itzak Perlman once breaking a string during a performance in 1995. Rather than waiting for a new string to be attached, he just kept on playing. When he finished, the newspaper reported, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium.
He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said -- not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone -- "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left."
You might notice that when I send out death notices, I use the traditional Hebrew response to tragic news, “Baruch Dayan Emet,” “Blessed be the truthful Judge.” You might wonder how we could possibly say a blessing for bad news. A student asked that very same question of Rabbi Eliemelech. He was instructed to go to the study hall and ask that question to Reb Zusya.” When the student laid eyes on Reb Zusya, he could have easily imagined the suffering this man must have experienced in his lifetime. The pain of illness and poverty was etched on his face. The student proceeded to ask: How is it possible to bless God for bad news with equal fervor as for good news? Reb Zusya’s reply: “Why are you asking me? How do I know the answer? Nothing bad has ever happened to me!”
OK. If this is supposed to be about happiness, why does it feel like the most depressing sermon of all time?
Because, I have a secret to tell you. Life is really depressing.
And so many of us have learned, the hard way, that happiness does not come automatically from wealth, fame or power, or the instant gratification of our every whim or desire, or an addiction to what feels, smells or tastes good. Revenge does not bring about happiness, nor does unlimited freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, without any obligations or responsibilities. Happiness does not come from the indulgence of the self at the expense of others. If you live this way, you will soon understand why Oscar Wilde said, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.”
Happiness also does not come from the avoidance of risk or adversity.
Instead, it comes from…. This. (Put on Pharrell hat)
I said that “Let it Go” the most repeated and reinterpreted song of the year, except one. Well, this is the one: Pharrell Williams’ irresistibly infectious song “Happy” is one of the best selling of all time. Last month it became the most downloaded track ever in the UK. Including Scotland.
And literally just about every country on earth has created a video using this soundtrack. And I mean everywhere. From Abidjan to Zagreb. Both Tel Aviv AND Gaza did “Happy” videos this summer. Efrat too, right after the three Israeli teens were abducted near there. It inspired from the typhoon-ravaged Philippines. How about Iran, where six young people were arrested for making a completely harmless “Happy” video. They were sentenced to lashes and forced to recant on television.
At last count, there are over 1900 versions of the video online from 153 countries. There’s a site online where you can find them all. The happiest website on earth. The creators of the site explained that their purpose is:
To display happiness all around the world… a beautiful humanity needs to be protected in such times of crisis, and for that we must talk about the good things rather than dwell on what goes wrong.
Sometime this coming week, go onto that site and dance from place to place, randomly, or deliberately. Go from Abu Dhabi to Albuquerque, from the Bahamas to Johannesburg, from Madagascar to Moskow. I t is powerful to see. Who knew Poland was so happy? Or Morocco? There’s one in sign language from a camp for the hearing impaired in upstate New York, and a fun one from . This song transcends language. It is truly universal. This year, “Happy” became the new lingua franca – the language we all speak.
It’s as if, in the midst of Ebola and Ukraine and the two Malaysian planes, Gaza, Syria and Iraq, the Nigerian girls and Ferguson, some inner driving force that propels the world decided to remind us that beneath all the superficial differences, beyond the politics and craziness, we’re all the same. (Take off hat)
In a big square in Copenhagen, there is an enormous interactive wooden pixel screen called the Happy Wall. When I first saw it, I said to myself: Perfect: We’ve got the Wailing Wall and the Scandinavians have the Happy Wall. That’s just the way it is.
But as I drew closer to the Happy Wall, it drew me in. There are 2000 wooden boards of all different colors, and people are invited to write messages on individual boards or, create patterns, animals, words or statements grouping many of the boards.
I looked at some of the messages close up.
“Happy marriage for 30 years: Andrea and Gunnar.”
“My family is my everything: Isabel.”
“M.L: The answer is yes.”
Now I’ve never read the messages that people put into the Kotel, but the messages I saw on the Happy Wall were probably very similar – only happier. At the Happy Wall we might see, “I love my great aunt Sylvia’s potato blintzes more than life itself. I’ll love her forever.”
At the Kotel we might see, “My great aunt Sylvia was bitten by a mosquito in the back yard. Please keep her from dying of malaria.”
The messages at both walls are about caring about something beyond ourselves. And that’s what make us happy. It’s Hesed. It’s unbounded love, the kind of love that makes not only makes forgiveness possible – it makes it inevitable. It’s warm puppy happiness. It’s Hesed: the key to God’s happiness, and the key to ours.
So we approach the end of this four part sermonic grappling with the Big Questions. What are we? We’re in relationship with God, the Jewish people, the Jewish faith and the State of Israel. Where are we? We are wanderers, but wherever we are, we can make that place home. What are our lives? Judaism is no more and no less than the sum total of all our stories. And who really are we?
We’re just a bunch of boys and a bunch of girls, standing in front of the world, asking it to love us.
Embracing our brokenness, focusing on the here and now, laughing through our tears, accepting our flaws, removing the masks, cultivating kindness, letting anger go, smiling even when we don’t feel it, coming together to celebrate and cry with community.
And, oh yes. I did say there would be ten lessons.
So here’s lesson ten: Live your Second Life.
I’m not talking about “Second Life,” the online virtual world followed by a million people.
I’m talking about something that was said by Steven Sotloff, the American Jew (and Israeli citizen too,) whose experience was all too real. Before he was so brutally murdered by ISIS, he was able to smuggle home a few correspondences when former cellmates were freed. Last May, he wrote this letter that was read last month by his aunt at his funeral, before a hushed congregation:
“Please know I’m OK.” He said. “Live your life to the fullest and fight to be happy. Everyone has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.”
If Steven Sotloff could fight to be happy where he was, we have no reason to give in to despair back here. He was the embodiment of that rabbinic dictum that we must repent on the last day of our lives. And since we don’t know when that will be, so must we repent each and every day.
I took some time recently to look through some of the articles and postings that Steven Sotloff left behind. One Tweet stood out: My friend Munthir Hussain was killed 2 days ago in #Al-Sakhoor #Aleppo . Don't 4get people in Syria--on both sides --have names.
His social media posts were largely about the locals he encountered. He often photographed children. He really cared about the people he was covering. An American Jew, who loved Israel enough to become a citizen under the law of return. And yet he loved the people of Libya and Syria. He understood that they all have names.
The victims all have names. The Syrians, the Iraqis, Israelis, Gazans, Ukrainians, Malaysians too. In memory of Sotloff, I’ll be reading names of children from several of these groups during the Martyrology section later on.
When you realize that you have only one life, you will fight to be happy. Even God, according to Micah, fights to let go of that anger and to allow Hesed to prevail.
For those of us created in the divine image, i.e. all of us, we must do nothing less. We must fight to be happy by marshaling the forces of steadfast kindness to prevail inside of us. We must fine a way to let go and forgive. We must find a way to hug someone else’s child. We must find a way to laugh through the tears. We must hold up that mirror or that camera phone and we must find a way to smile.
Mary Oliver, one of my favorite contemporary poets, summarizes here what today is all about:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
May this be a year when we can share our joy and despair, and the soft animal of our body can love all that can be loved, and a year when all our big questions will be answered, for goodness, for happiness and for life.
And – for just another six hours or so - stay thirsty, my friends. Amen.