Audio for Yom Kippur Sermon: "Truth and Trust" click here for audio website
Thursday, September 24, 2015
Yom Kippur Sermons 5776
Audio for Kol Nidre sermon: "Back to the Future" click here for the audio website
Audio for Yom Kippur Sermon: "Truth and Trust" click here for audio website
Kol Nidre – Back to the Future
By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
As we sit here this Yom Kippur, we are approaching an important date, a watershed in American history, one that’s been anticipated for three decades. Almost exactly a month from today, the world will usher in the date October 21, 2015. And if you happen to be in Hill Valley, California, down by the Texaco station and the clock tower, you might just see Marty McFly whiz by on his hoverboard.
That’s right. October 21, 2015 was the date McFly and Doc Brown set their sites on – you see, they needed to come to that future date from the present, that is, October 21, 1985, which is now 30 years ago, in order to correct something that was about to go terribly wrong to McFly’s family. This came immediately after “Back to the Future I,” when Marty and the Doc corrected a fatal flaw in McFly’s parents’ relationship by going back 30 years earlier, to October 21, 1955, the date of the high school dance where Marty’s parents had to fall in love.
So after all these years, we have officially arrived in the future.
When I re-watched the films recently, it was most interesting to see the world of 2015 as imagined in the mid 1980s. The flying cars were a bit ambitious. But the automated gas stations were a good call. The power, self-tying shoelaces, ah, not so much, although the smart watches and smart glasses they predicted have come to pass. The flying cameras were spot on. We call them drones and they are annoying. The garish outfits were a little off.
As was the assumption that sometime between 1985 and 2015 the Cubs would win a World Series, against a team from Miami. What amazed the 1985 McFly in the movie was not that the Cubs won, because of course they would have won a World Series at some point in those 30 years, but that there was a team in Miami, which didn’t get a team until 1993. And it’s almost eerie because it was the team from Miami that broke the hearts of Cub fans in 2003. So chalk one up for the Hollywood prognosticators.
Over these High Holidays, I’ve talked a lot about the past and the present, using as a framework the ethical dilemma regarding whether, if given the chance to go back in time, we would undo the Holocaust by killing little two year-old Hitler in his sandbox.
This evening, I want to use that speculation as a means to draw our attention not to the distant past, but to the distant future, something that is much more difficult to do. Because it means getting beyond our own expected lifespans. How often do we actually pause to imagine a world six or seven decades from now, a world where most of us in this room will no longer be alive. How often do we stop to think about the world after us – one that will somehow go on without us? It’s a scary thing to do. But it’s something we should do – and if not on Yom Kippur, when?
We tend to live in the past. It is a lot easier, in truth, to focus on the past than on the future, and when we do look into the future, we typically don’t venture out far beyond the tip of our noses. Even in “Back to the Future 2,” after just a few scenes in 2015, the plot immediately takes Marty back to the safe and solid ground of 1955, where most of the movie takes place – 60 years ago.
There’s good reason for this. Whenever we try to guess what’s coming far down the road, even experts tend to be dumbfounded. In 2006, technology whiz David Pogue wrote in The New York Times, “Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’ ”
In 1950, Ray Bradbury predicted a necessary colonization of Mars in the early 2000s due to a global nuclear war that would render the Earth unlivable. In 1900, the Ladies’ Home Journal predicted that by now, all mice and rats would have been eliminated. So would the letters C, X, and Q.
Plus, we don’t like to look too far down the road. We’ve seen time and time again how people will willingly mortgage the long-range future for the sake of short term gain, in terms of debt, carbon emissions, food supply; hey, even in the Torah, the future is mortgaged for a bowl of lentil soup. It was that incident that the Torah uses to demonstrate that Esau is not fit for leadership. But Esau is hardly to be blamed for doing what the rest of us do all the time. It is much easier to look backward, or just a little bit ahead, than to gaze far into the unknown.
On a given Thursday, my Facebook page is treated to dozens of throwback photos of creatures that look strangely like people I know, except they are fifty pounds lighter, are wearing light blue leisure suits and they have hair. Thus far, I’ve yet to see a throw-ahead Thursday, where people post photos of what they will look like thirty years from now. There actually are several websites that generates such photos. Almost all the ones I saw are of current babies. Almost no one I know wants to do that for themselves. We think we looked much better in the past, in the superficial way we tend to judge appearance. Sometimes, quite often, in fact, people really do look better as they age. We can see that in some of the amazing photos you sent me for our montage in the lobby.
When I picture my father, the photos of him toward the end of his life are the ones that warm my heart the most – especially those few I have of the two of us together. I’ve included the last photo of the two of us together in that montage – I was 21 at the time.
If we can imagine ourselves in the distant future, studies show that it can be beneficial to how we make key decisions today.
So close your eyes for a minute and imagine this place, this exact spot, thirty years from now on Yom Kippur. Imagine it 70 years from now – that’s the amount of time Marty traversed in Back to the Future 3, where he located Doc in the old West. He actually could have looked in Stamford, where Christopher Lloyd was born.
Well, I have a prediction, and you can take it to the bank. The Jewish people will still be going strong 30 years from now, when Marty McFly’s grandson Michel, comes to services here on Yom Kippur, and 70 years from now, when his great grandson Marty comes here. And I predict that this synagogue will be here. And I’m going to go out on a limb and predict… that I won’t.
Now you’re hearing all this talk about the future from someone who is absolutely in love with history. I’ve compiled over 250 online photo albums for the temple and my family. I’ve archived all my sermons going back 30 years. All my home movies are safe in the cloud. Every Bar Mitzvah speech from here is on my server, and most emails going back at least fifteen years. It’s my job to love the past. That’s what rabbis do. Every year, not only do I recall the Exodus at my seders, I’m schlepping out of Egypt myself.
Reverence for the past is a great strength of Judaism, giving us sense of roots, but what good are those roots if the branches aren’t reaching far up into the sky?
We’re great at looking back – we need to get better at looking ahead. And not just ahead to next Rosh Hashanah, or to the break the fast, or to the end of this sermon, which I promise will be before the break the fast. While we also need to focus on the moment, we also have to look ahead - 30, 60, 70 years ahead.
Yom Kippur, after all, is not about cleaning up last year’s mess. It’s about preventing next year’s. The Kol Nidre prayer specifically asks God to annul, not vows that we’ve made over the past 12 months, but the ones we will make over the months and years to come.
There’s the classic Talmudic tale of Honi the circle drawer, the Jewish Rip Van Winkle. Throughout his life Honi was always bothered by the verse from Psalms:
"Shir ha-ma'alot: be-shuv adonai et shivat tzion, hayinu ke-cholmim
“When the Lord returned the exiles of Zion, we were as dreamers.”
He said, "Is there anyone who dreams for seventy years? In other words, is it possible that the whole seventy-year Babylonian exile would seem like a dream?" One day, he was walking down the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree.
Honi said to the man, "How many years will this tree need to produce fruit?"
The man answered, "Seventy years". There’s that time frame again.
Honi said, "Is it so clear to you that you will live seventy years?
The man answered, "I found carob trees in the world. Just like my ancestors planted for me, I plant for my children."
Honi sat to eat some bread, and fell asleep. A pile of rocks and dirt rose around him, and he was hidden from sight. He slept for seventy years.
When he woke up, he saw the same man picking (carobs) from the tree. Honi said to him, "Are you the man who planted this tree?"
The man answered, "I am his grandson."
The Talmud is teaching us to take the long view. Always look ahead – and don’t get so hung up the woulda coulda shouldas. We should always be as dreamers, imagining a world 6 or 7 decades from now, like the exiles did in Babylonia, which, almost by definition, will be a world without us.
David Brooks who wrote a terrific book this year about character, devoted a recent column about learning from mistakes. His point:
WE CAN’T CHANGE THE PAST, NOR SHOULD WE WANT TO.
Interestingly, Brooks began the column with that same Hitler analogy that we’ve been discussing. If we could go back and somehow undo the Holocaust by killing baby Adolf, would we?
So imagine a world with no Shoah? That is, imagine a world where the deed of killing the young Hitler had taken place. How different would it be? A third of our people would not have been killed. They would have survived to write great novels, make fantastic scientific discoveries and bring Judaism to new heights.
But Brooks asserts that the world we have could never have come to be without World War Two. The Hitler question is really about changing all of the past. To erase mistakes from the past is to obliterate your world now, he says. You can’t go back and know then what you know now. You can’t step in the same river. Even Doc Brown could tell us that.
It’s a real good point. If we were to change any event in history, especially a massive event such as the Holocaust, everything taking place after that event would now be different. Which means, if you want to get technical about it, that anyone born after the Holocaust would most likely not have been born. If that’s what almost happens to Marty McFly when his parents nearly don’t fall in love at the high school dance; how much more so would it happen to us if 6 million Jews had not been killed and the world had not been decimated by a cataclysmic war.
So here’s the tradeoff – and THIS is the real ethical dilemma - It’s not whether or not to kill Hitler, so one life would be sacrificed to save millions. What if the quandary is whether to kill two-year old Adolf and save the six million, but the cost would be giving up your own existence. Six million survive – and most of us are never born. Not even Sophie faced such a choice!
Would you choose to have the world exactly as it is right now, with a Holocaust; or one without a Holocaust, but without you…a completely different world with a completely different set of people? Who knows, possibly no Israel; on the bright side, no Kardashians – but if you are under the age of 70, no you.
So that question about changing the past, teaches us that it is pointless to dwell on the could-have-beens, and points us toward the might-yet-be’s. The real question at hand, the one I touched on at the beginning: Can we take the long view?
And the corollary: Can we get beyond ourselves?
Taking the long view and getting beyond ourselves has been the secret to Jewish survival for 3,000 years.
One rabbi who survived a Siberian gulag, spoke of how he learned the secret to survival from a tightrope walker who was also imprisoned there. The rabbi asked the tightrope walker the secret of his art. Is it balance? Concentration? Stamina?
“No,” the tightrope walker said. “The secret is always keeping the destination in focus. Because, when you lose sight of your destination, even if just for a second, that’s when you will fall.”
The whole world is a very narrow bridge; so the key is not to fear – and not to look down!
You can’t look down. You can’t watch your toes. And you can’t look back. That was the sin of Lot’s wife.
And, one more thing: you can’t take a selfie when you are on a tightrope. I believe that was what Lot’s wife was doing.
This has been called the “Age of Entitlement,” and it’s arguable that we are living in the most narcissistic era in human history.
It’s not just about one generation. Can’t just blame the millennials here. After all, the baby boomers have been the most entitled generation in history. New York Magazine dubbed the 1970s the “Me Decade,” and Time Magazine recently called those born since the 1980s the Me Me Me Generation. So there’s a healthy competition as to which generation is more self centered, but it’s the culture as whole, all generations that have been moving inexorably toward the veneration of “me”.
There are psychological tests for self-centeredness. For whatever reason, the median narcissism score has risen by thirty percent over the past twenty years.
A recent book, “The Narcissism Epidemic,” describes a broad range of cultural symptoms, including increases in materialism and self-promotion. There are specific, “measurable changes in many variables, including plastic surgery rates, credit card debt, the use of "my" in web addresses, and the square footage of personal homes. Then there are the reality TV shows, the narcissistic song lyrics, and the fake paparazzi one can now hire to experience what it’s like to be famous.
If my sermons were Oscar nominated films, Rosh Hashanah’s would have been “Boyhood” and tonight, “Birdman,” which won Best Picture; it’s all about self centeredness and facing the fact that what we fear most of all is not simply our mortality, but the prospect of disappearing and becoming irrelevant while we are still alive, or of living only in a world where one can’s existence can be validated only by a naked jaunt Times Square that goes viral.
What is most remarkable about all the characters in “Birdman” is that, whether or not they are relevant, they are all miserable as they wallow in their self-centeredness. It is the perfect film to for this era. We’ve gone from the “Greatest Generation” to the “Instant Gratificat-est Generation.” The ideal relationships have gone from ones that can’t be torn asunder, to ones that are born of Tinder. (And, yes. I do know that some wonderful committed relationships have come from Tinder – but I couldn’t resist the line!)
And the me me me era is being showcased in the current presidential campaign. I’ll say no more about that!
Like the Pharaohs of old, we try to ensure immortality by building monuments to ourselves, but that’s hard to achieve. As Woody Allen said, “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
There are also some wonderful things about this culture. But it becomes dangerous when we lose the ability to get beyond ourselves.
Now Judaism is not looking for us all to become selfless ascetics and shuffle off to a monastery in the Wilderness. Thank God for that. It is possible to live a life of service to others while also maintaining a healthy concern for number one.
In the Yom Kippur liturgy, we read how the most selfless figure imaginable, the high priest, made three confessions in the Holy of Holies. The first was for himself. But even in praying for himself, he includes his household, his family. Then he confesses for all the cohanim; and only then for all the people of Israel. And before he does this, he immerses in a ritual bath, taking care of his own spiritual and physical needs. We do have to think of ourselves first – like that announcement on an airplane to put the oxygen mask in ourselves before our children.
We have to think of ourselves, but it can’t end there.
As David Foster Wallace, the brilliant writer who died in 2008, said in a famous commencement address at Kenyon College, “Think about it,” he told the graduating millennials, “there is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of.” He said “natural, basic self-centeredness…is our default setting, hard-wired into us at birth.”
And then he spoke of his life’s work seeking liberation from the tyranny of the self. We need to do that too.
This list was found in a church-based periodical. It rings true for all of us:
HOW TO BE PERFECTLY MISERABLE
- Think about yourself.
- Talk about yourself.
- Use “I” as often as possible.
- Expect to be appreciated.
- Be suspicious.
- Be jealous and envious.
- Be sensitive to slights.
- Never forgive a criticism.
- Trust no one but yourself.
- Demand agreement with your own views on everything.
- Sulk if people are not grateful to you for favors shown them.
- Never forget a service you may have rendered.
- Do as little as possible for others.
- Love yourself supremely.
Those who can never get beyond the “me,” whose lives consist only of instant gratification and the illusion of immortality, for whom it is always about “me,” they will find only despair in the end.
Because I have news for you. If we are lucky enough to live long enough, life eventually crushes us all.
I visit hospitals and nursing homes several times each week - more now than ever, since my mother went to the Jewish Home. So now I see it up close, all the time, professionally and personally. I spend my life witnessing crushed dreams, dreams demolished by disability and disease and the lengthening of the human life span.
“We were as dreamers” the Psalmist said. But when Honi slept for only 70 years, and he did not wake up with Alzheimers, or cancer. He just had a sleep disorder.
The Jewish concept of immortality forces us to get beyond our little selves. Yes, there is belief in the immortality of the soul, but our salvation is guaranteed primarily through the endless chain of Jewish tradition – handed down from generation to generation – through the collective enterprise, on this earth, known as the Jewish people, an enterprise that will be here long after we are gone.
To ensure that Jewish future, one that will fill this room a generation from now, when we are all gone, we need three things:
1) We need Jews, actual living Jews. So go make some! (Thare are lots of ways to do that – I might be doing it right now!)
2) We need Jews who dream Jewish dreams.
And the third thing: we need to never give up, on anything or anyone. Because the Jewish story is constantly unfolding.
Oliver Sacks, who passed away a couple of weeks ago, would have been considered a dropout by the established Jewish community. I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah that he left partly because of the abusive reaction of his parents to his coming out. He also was turned off by the internal politics of the Jewish community. Join the club!
But in his beautiful and valedictory op-ed in the New York Times last month, “Sabbath,” he described a renewed appreciation for the spiritual underpinnings of his childhood faith – a spirituality that never left him, even as he left what we short sightedly call the fold. He never abandoned our Jewish cultural propensity to ask questions, something a Jewish child learns at our very first Seder.
“The thousand and one questions I asked as a child,” he wrote, “were seldom met by impatient or peremptory answers, but careful ones which enthralled me (though they were often above my head). I was encouraged from the start to interrogate, to investigate.”
No, Oliver Sacks was never lost to the Jewish people. In fact, we can now look back and thank God that he did leave the insular world of his childhood. Had he not, the world would have been denied a brilliant thinker – one who thought Jewishly. We need to take the long view, as one would with so many others who were thought lost, or whom we think are lost today.
In the year 2025, ten years from now, Judaism will still be alive, and it will be in 2055 too. But in 2055, or 2075, what will our lives have meant. When people are seeing OUR photos on the montage in the lobby, or visiting us in the cemetery next door, or remembering us right here at Yizkor, will they remember that we were able to get beyond our self centered impulses to live a life of service – and that we did what we needed to do to assure that the Jewish dream would continue to thrive – so that we might help repair the world?
Reinhold Niebuhr said famously, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”
And Rabbi Elazar Ha-Kappur said, "It was not your will that formed you nor was it your will that gave you birth (Avot 4:29).”
Our purpose comes from beyond us. We didn’t choose to be born. We can’t determine what will be our most lasting legacy. But to be truly lasting, it will need to outlast us.
Similarly, Victor Frankl, who survived the Holocaust, said he was able to survive because survival became his calling – something that helped him to transcend his sorry lot: “It really did not matter what we expected from life, but what life expected from us.”
It’s not all about me.
It reminds me of the incredible scene I witnessed when I visited Terezin fifteen years ago.
At the end of a long and emotional tour of the camp, the guide brought us to a site only recently discovered, a small synagogue hidden in the basement of a bakery. It was an oasis of holiness in the midst of hell, never defiled by the Nazis, a place where the condemned could utter ancient prayers and dare to hope.
On the walls are Hebrew liturgical inscriptions, two of which absolutely floored me. One says, "Know before whom you stand," a verse found in synagogues everywhere, but one that took on a whole new meaning in that place; for on the other side of that wall stood the S.S. guards. They knew in their hearts that the One before whom they really stood was God, a sovereign whose very existence they certainly had every reason to doubt. In spite of it all, they believed.
And with belief comes vision. On the front wall of the synagogue is inscribed a verse from the Amida, "May our eyes be able to envision Your return to Zion in mercy." “V’techezena aynaynu b’shivcha l’tziyon b’rachamim.” The Jewish people waited 2,000 years to return to Jerusalem. They recited this line 3 times a day, facing Jerusalem, whether living in Babylonia, Spain, Alsace, Lublin, London, Moscow or Buenos Aires. Or Stamford Connecticut. What sustained them was their ability to take the long view.
"Hazon" in Hebrew means "vision" and that word is embedded in the inscribed verse. Note that the prayer doesn’t ask that the people themselves be whisked to Zion. The Jews of Terezin were not so quixotic as to imagine that they themselves would ever see the spectacular sunrise over Jerusalem. Even though they said, “May OUR eyes behold…” they really weren’t praying for their own return to Zion, but for God’s – and the Jewish people’s.
Hidden away for a moment of sanity amidst the madness, these selfless heroes had the audacity to pray that God and the Jewish people survive the Holocaust, even though they knew that they themselves most likely would not. They not only saw the light at the end of the darkest tunnel in human history, they shined it toward a distant future that no sane person could possibly have imagined, a future that certainly would not include them.
A future where they, though long dead, could be redeemed. And now, seventy years later, Honi has awakened and seen that planted carob tree in Jerusalem. And we are all as dreamers. That is the future that they imagined – and the one we must imagine. One that we can inspire. One that we can advance. A healthier planet, a safer world, a more peaceful world. A more peaceful Israel.
Maybe a world without hoverboards. Maybe a world where Marty McFly has Parkinsons and Doc Brown goes on to play Uncle Fester in the Addams Family. But a better world. And a world where the Jewish message will be more relevant than ever, and - if we play our cards right, there will be more than enough Jews to carry it, refine it and reinvent it.
Rabbi Israel Salanter wrote: “Every act of kindness is a prayer – a prayer that walks, moves, breathes and lives.” If we can live exemplary lives, lives of service, our very lives will become the prayers of our children and grandchildren, or the child we mentored and hugged.
So my third answer to the ethical dilemma is this. No, I would not change history and kill two-year-old Hitler in order to prevent the Holocaust. Nor would I go back and change a single choice that I’ve made, even ones that I regret. Life is not lived backward; it is lived forward. In fact, it is lived fast forward. It is lived far forward.
For while we humbly accept that we can’t change history, let us boldly affirm that can make history – and let us forge that future as we walk along that tightrope, one step at a time, never looking down, never looking at ourselves, but always by imagining unborn worlds while fulfilling ancient dreams.
Yom Kippur 5776 - Truth and Trust
By Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
A rabbi told his congregation, “Next Shabbat I plan to preach about the sin of lying. To help you understand my sermon, I want you all to read Ecclesiastes chapter 13.”
The following week, as he prepared to deliver his sermon, the rabbi asked for a show of hands. “How many read Ecclesiastes 13?” Several went up. The rabbi smiled and said, “Ecclesiastes has only twelve chapters. I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying.”
How often on a given day are we lied to? According to a 2002 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, three quarters of adults can't have a ten-minute conversation without lying at least once (well, actually it’s 60 percent…I lied).
But even that number makes it sound better than it really is; those people in the study who did lie actually told an average of 3 lies during their brief chat.
So where do we lie most? 40 percent lie on their resumes. Online dating sites? 90 percent lie on their profiles. About what? Weight, height, wealth, education, age, and of course, weight. And we won’t even begin to talk about the altered photos.
By about age 2.5-3 about 70% of children are capable of lying, and some can do it well. At age four, they will peek when told not to do so. Young children will lie about actions, but not about how they feel. By age 10 they are more sophisticated because they can pretend. As they get older, cheating becomes more common.
“Most of us lie and are lied to on a regular basis,” wrote Ralph Keyes in his book, “The Post Truth Era.” The lies run the gamut from “I like sushi” to “I love you.” Even though we are more likely to deceive strangers than friends, we save our most serious lies for those we care about the most.”
Shmuel says in the Talmud, "The Commandment 'Do not steal' includes the prohibition against stealing a person’s trust with misleading words.” It’s called “G’nayvat Da’at”. The sages delineated seven types of thieves, and that this was considered the worst. And indeed, so many of the sins we talk about on Yom Kippur involve words and deceit.
Truth and trust are inextricably linked. In the evening service, the prayer just after the Sh'ma begins with those two words, interlocked, “Emet V'Emunah," truth and trust, in Hebrew. They go hand in hand. The Talmud (Berachot 12a) notes that the word Emunah is included in the evening service in particular, because, in the words of Psalm 92, "It is good to give thanks unto God and to declare your trustworthiness at night (emunatecha balaylot)." When things are dark and murky, the truth is much more difficult to discern. At times like that, when things are not so black and white, we have to rely on trust.
These days, there’s a whole lot that is murky. Even back in the Vietnam and Watergate eras, people could still believe in the tooth fairy and Walter Cronkite. But now we are witnessing a total, worldwide breakdown of trust such as we have never seen before.
Here in America, a Pew survey on trust in government last year showed historic lows. In 1958, 73 percent of Americans trusted the government. But by 2014, that number had gone down to 23 percent.
But government is not alone. Trust in the military is dropping, as is trust in the media. Only seven percent of Americans polled have a large amount of confidence in the media, while 44 percent have hardly any at all.
Not that we in the religion biz should be getting too complacent – Gallup this past June released a survey stating that Americans’ distrust of religion is on the rise. Just 42 percent said they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in “the church or organized religion.”
But among Jews, confidence was put at an astounding 98 percent. It’s right there in Ecclesiastes 13!
No, in fact it’s been a bad year for rabbis and trust. One glaring example is Rabbi Barry Freundel, who spied on conversion students preparing for ritual immersion in his synagogue’s mikva in Washington – he was one of the most trusted rabbis around.
We’ve come to believe in the old X-Files catchphrase, trust no one.
Every year Readers Digest puts out a list of the most trusted people in America. If you were to look at any random year over the past couple of decades you would undoubtedly see, right at the top, names like Brian Williams and Bill Cosby. I venture to guess that their names might drop a tad on next year’s list. I won’t even try to discuss the substance of these two cases, which are very different, but we all shared a deep disappointment.
Deflated footballs this year became the very symbol of how deflated we all have been felt about our role models and leaders. The specifics of the case are not relevant to this discussion, which is a good thing – ‘cause don’t get me started - but whether our ire was directed at the player or the league, everyone was deeply disappointed in someone. While I’ve stood by Tom Brady, I recognize that there is something far more important happening here. As Neil Gabler wrote, “If Tom Brady was the quintessential American during his time of grace, he may be even more quintessentially American in his time of his alleged disgrace. We just don’t believe in (our heroes) anymore.”
Dan Wasserman wrote: When we talk about American exceptionalism, it used to be that we were talking about our innate goodness. Now we’re talking about our exceptional capacity to swindle. For the last 50 years, “we have been living within a well-earned nimbus of cynicism that has taught us that even when there isn’t smoke, there is likely to be fire. You could even call cynicism a form of self-protection — a way to prove that we can’t be duped by anyone. It is also a form of sophistication — a way of saying we are now too smart to believe that everyone isn’t basically corrupt. In short, we don’t believe in innate goodness any more.”
We’ve given up on heroes. We’ve given up on trust itself. We’ve changed our language to reflect an inbred cynicism that has become downright Orwellian. Stephen Colbert even invented a word, “truthiness,” meaning “lies that sound like the truth.” And the person who steadfastly denies widely accepted truths should be called a liar, but instead that person is now called a “truther.”
Everything is upside down.
So who tops the current Reader’s Digest list of the most trusted? Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. They’re all actors.
No doubt they are people of integrity, and off screen they have done wonderful things – but their very job is to fool us into thinking that they are someone else!!! Off screen, we call that hypocrisy. Of course, off screen we call the NFL assault and battery. And in case you were wondering, Doctor Oz is number 16 and I don’t think Josh Dugger was ever on the top 100 list; but if he was, he’s not now.
And the first politician on the list? Michelle Obama at 19. And she’s not even a politician.
Back in the ‘80s, Ronald Reagan used to say, “Trust, but verify.” These days, when it comes to politics, the motto is more like, “Mistrust, and vilify.” Or possibly, “Trust, but first, Google the guy, then check out Wikileaks and, oh yes, Ashley Madison.”
I read that the Ashley Madison hack is having a serious effect on churches. As many as 400 pastors, deacons, elders and church staff members were expected to resign after their names surfaced on the list of users revealed in the hack.
I don’t know about rabbis, but it’s a good thing there’s no Ashley Madison for forbidden cheeseburgers.
But here is the premise to this talk: Our society cannot survive without trust.
So we need to discuss how to rebuild it.
Because ultimately, trust has little to do with the NFL or Brian Williams. It’s about something far deeper. It’s about trusting the world. It’s about waking up in the morning, looking out the window and having an innate confidence that the garbage will be collected, the supermarket will have bread on the shelves and the weatherman will be right at least some of the time.
It’s also about trusting that your mom or dad will stand by you when times get rough. It’s about trusting that, when the world is crashing down on you, your congregation and clergy will be there for you. It’s about trusting that your significant other is not in bed with someone else and that your government is not tracking your every move.
And it’s about dealing with people in honest, ethical ways, as was said by Rav Yosi in the Talmud, letting your yes be yes, and your no be no (Baba Metzia 49a), to which Abaye responded, “That means that one must not speak one thing with the mouth and another with the heart.
Judaism guides us on how to rebuild trust on a number of levels: in business and community, in family life and in times of personal crisis. So let’s look at each.
In business and community relations. So much revolves around trust. An entire tractate of the Talmud discusses the importance of returning lost objects to their owner, so that people will know that their neighbors always have their back.
In commerce too. The Talmud states that a merchant may not combine different grades of produce in one bin. A wine salesman whose wine has become diluted with water may not sell it unless he makes it known to his customer, and in any event, he may not sell it to another vendor, even if he makes full disclosure, for fear that the second salesman will deceive his customers.
Here’s an example of how our ancestors strictly avoided benefiting from any form of potentially deceptive behavior. It shows how far reaching and how serious the prohibition of mental theft was taken.
Rabbi Safra was once saying his morning prayers when a customer came by to buy his donkey. Because he refused to interrupt his prayers, Rabbi Safra did not answer. Interpreting the rabbi's silence as disapproval of the price offered, the buyer offered a higher amount. When the rabbi still did not answer, the buyer raised his offer again. After the rabbi finished his prayers, he said to the buyer, "I had decided to sell you my donkey at the first price you mentioned, but I did not want to interrupt my prayers to speak to you. Therefore, you may have it at that price - I will not accept the higher bids."
In personal relationships, trust is paramount.
A couple of weeks ago, I emailed a list of 36 probing questions, devised by a psychologist to help determine compatibility and enhance relationships. The idea is that mutual vulnerability fosters trust and intimacy. I noted in my email that many of these 36 questions can also help us to deepen our spiritual connections with Judaism and our community – a relationship that is also very personal.
It’s so important not to allow the distrust that is so pervasive in our society to seep through these walls, and hold us back from fully realizing our full spiritual potential. Our temple leadership recognizes how fragile trust can be and does all the practical things to enhance trust – the calls made by board members, the surveys, the annual financial reviews, the fifty thousand emails a week, about two thirds of them from me – we are constantly looking for ways to earn and sustain your trust. Full disclosure: we really do aim for full disclosure!
But at some point, religion always lets us down. Maybe it’s something little like changing a start time for services, or our computer messing up a yahrzeit date, or our not being sufficiently attentive at a time of illness, or the real need to raise funds, or perhaps more profound. There are lots of reasons for people to lose faith in religious faith. Many have trouble praying, and in particular to a God who let Six Million die or to a God who let a loved one suffer needlessly, or to a God who would allow them to change the melody to Ein Kelohenu.
Whatever it is, religion constantly betrays our trust, and because of that, we’ve strayed. We’ve strayed. We’ve strayed from synagogue, from community, from Israel, from Judaism, from our deepest selves, from our youthful idealism. We’ve strayed. At times we’ve all become the second child of the Seder, the one who points an accusatory finger and asks, “What is all this to you???” The second child has given up on the very notion of finding any meaning in Jewish life for himself.
So this is a question I want you to ask yourselves right now – where has Judaism let you down, where have you lost trust in it – and how can it – and we – get you back?
If you feel completely at ease and fulfilled as a Jew, that’s great. So then you can ask what we might do to rebuild trust with whoever isn’t here today. And we all know someone. Most of us know many “someones.” It’s important.
We need to do this and we need to do this urgently, before we all become the fourth child of the Seder, the one who doesn’t even know how to ask.
So we’ve discussed the need to rebuild trust in commerce and business and in our relationships with loved ones and with Judaism and our community.
But on an even deeper level – let’s dig deeper - there is a basic trust in the universe that we are lacking that feeds into everything else. When disaster occurs, how does one go on?
Sheryl Sandberg wrote a moving Facebook posting this year, to commemorate the end of the traditional 30 days of mourning for her husband, Dave Goldberg. She wrote of her experience during that month, and her slow, incremental journey that helped her to open up to the world once again:
“I have learned gratitude.” She said. “Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug…. My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.”
You know the old joke about the Jewish telegram, the one that states: "Start worrying. Letter follows." That perfectly captures the Jewish mindset for the past 2,000 years. There are times when it feels like the universe is crashing down all around us – and for many of us, that has become the default perspective. As Shalom Aleichem wrote, “April Fools is a joke—repeated 365 times a year.”
Several months back, a congregant who had going through tough times was able to summon her strength to at last take a well-deserved vacation. And sure enough, at just that moment, while she was far, far away, just as she let down her guard, she got the horrible word that her mother had died.
She wrote to me, “Now I feel like if I don’t worry about EVERY LITTLE THING IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE, someone I love is going to die.”
I wrote back – it was just before Passover, saying, “I know the feeling. It gets to the point where you start to feel that if you don't constantly revert to grief mode, the Universe will punish you for your hubris. As with any human relationship, when you are burned, it's hard to learn to trust again.
You have every reason to be skittish right now. It's a big leap from misery mode to one-day-at-a-time mode, from Grief Brain to Rational Brain - which still exists in there behind the Grief Brain – and recognizes this is totally irrational and ridiculous, but that doesn’t stop Grief Brain from running the show at the moment. And hovering above it all is the simple horrible fact that what happened is so inexplicable and so unfair - and the loss is so unbearable.
Given all of that,” I added, “this year's Seder will likely be a placeholder - for next year's. At some point, we'll be able to look at this escape from danger on its own merits, detached from the grief of the moment, and say "Dayenu."”
Dayenu. Some people try to get to “Yes.” We Jews simply hope to get to “Dayenu.”
Not “YES.” But “OK…”
How can we at least get to Dayenu? So many forces are conspiring to harden us, to keep us from trusting anything and anyone – all the things I’ve mentioned, from incurable disease to Bill Cosby. But on top of all that, we Jews have one other little matter.
We have the Holocaust.
So the question can be asked. Seventy years after Hitler’s death, is it time for the Jewish people to be able to say, “Dayenu?” Is it time for us to declare that grief brain is no longer running the show?
Seventy years is a biblical lifetime. It’s a Talmudic generation - for those who were here last night, it’s as long as Honi the Circle drawer slept. So it makes perfect sense that after seventy years, we can at last envision new possibilities and remove ourselves from the traumas of the past. And now, it is seventy years after Auschwitz. Is it time, at last, to slay the dragon, the wipe away the nightmare of Hitler, to pull that nightmare out from the roots – as it were – to get up not from shiva but from shiv’im, seventy – and to rise from the chair of grief, to trust the future once again?
Up until these past few weeks, I’ve felt it was still too soon; but recent events have convinced me that it’s important for the Jewish people to get beyond perpetual grief and victimhood, to a place where we can once again see all the colors of the rainbow, rather than looking at the world through the grainy black and white of Schindler’s List, punctuated by the occasional little girl’s red coat – or yellow star?
The use of Holocaust imagery was brought to new lows during the recent Iran debate, yes, by our enemies, as it always is, but also by many Jews, too many Jews. That’s what made me realize how important it is for us to turn the page. We need to remember the Holocaust, but in recent years, we have converted our priceless, forward looking faith into the Church of Our Lady of the Perpetual Victim.
Natalie Portman feels that way. She’s got street cred on this subject. She played Anne Frank on Broadway and her great-grandparents were killed in Auschwitz.
It came as a bit of a shocker when Portman stated that maybe the Jewish community is a little too stuck on the Holocaust. She said:
“We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times…(and we need) to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also.”
She was attacked pretty viciously for those comments, but I think she had a point. It’s time to stop comparing every diplomatic agreement to Munich, every terror attack to Auschwitz and every dude that threatens us to Hitler. With all the times Munich has been invoked, one would think Neville Chamberlain had as many descendants as Wilt Chamberlain.
Google “Hitler” and you will find 101 MILLION results - the past year alone, over seventeen million. The guy is dead seventy years. We are giving this guy a shelf life he doesn’t deserve. It’s time to slay the demon. It’s time to put little Adolf to bed, once and for all.
Listen, no one should be naïve to the real dangers that exist. One reason we are afraid to trust again is that we’ve been burned by trust in the past. And by burned I don’t just mean metaphorically. So I get it. It would be naïve to believe that after the scores of terror bombings, the thousands of missiles, and a million broken dreams, anyone would be willing to take large risks to trust the world right now, especially Israelis.
But it would be equally wrong for us to crawl into a corner and give in to despair. That’s why we’ll be recalling the hopeful words of Yitzchak Rabin later in this service, marking 20 years since his murder; and it’s why our interfaith council is planning a pilgrimage to Israel next spring - to help nurture a vision of reconciliation, both there and here. The Pope has made it clear that one reason he is coming to our area is that New Yorkers shine a light unto the world in the area of interfaith dialogue. We’ve become leaders in that area. Our local interfaith council is the only one in the country whose president is a Muslim. We need to shine that light to the world. It is not ours to finish the job of finding common ground with our neighbors, but neither are we at liberty to desist from that task.
So I agree with Natalie Portman, who reflects the way many younger Jews are feeling, and why so many have become so turned off by their Jewish communities, especially over the past few months.
By killing the demon, I am not suggesting that we forget. Heaven forbid we should forget the Holocaust! On the contrary, any Judaism to emerge out of this new era must place the Holocaust experience directly at its core, or it will not be authentic; it will fail to speak to our need to confront this black hole in our history. But just as the new Judaism we are forging cannot ignore or deny the abyss, it must also speak to our religious need to affirm joy, beauty, renewed life and at least the possibility of a responsive divinity, or it will not be sustainable. There needs to be a new balance between Auschwitz and Sinai that takes into account the lessons of both.
Our goal should be nothing less than for the next generation to see bearing witness not as a burden, but as a privilege, an honor, and yet another source of pride in who they are.
Just last week, one of our college students, Eloise Hyman, visited Poland. She was in Kraków on Rosh Hashanah and went to the main synagogue so she could celebrate the holiday with other Jews, as she always has. But there were no Jews to be found. The synagogue was open – as a museum. Yes, there is some budding Jewish life in Kraków but it is hard to get beyond the feeling that, Jewishly speaking, it is still one enormous ghost town. The buildings are magnificent, many recently restored: but they are empty shells.
It is a painful and chilling reminder of how much was lost, how many lives destroyed.
Eloise wrote, “I walked in and about thirty seconds later walked out because I was crying: on one of the holiest days of the Jewish year, a synagogue was open as a museum and not used for services or closed out of respect. I very much felt the hole where the Jewish community of Kraków should be.”
Eloise’s anguish is not the anguish of a victim. She is representative of a new generation, one that is demonstrating how the Holocaust can motivate our children toward a positive Jewish identity — not one based on shame, hatred, revenge, victimhood and despair. I believe the Holocaust can be a prime positive factor in Jewish continuity.
I believe that the Jewish people of Eloise’s generation, or Natalie Portman’s, can learn to channel the pain into empathy, and not use it cynically to shut ourselves off from the world or, as still happens all too often – to gain votes.
When I was in Peru last summer, right around Tisha B’Av, I was struck by how the Incan shrines of the Sacred Valley were so brutally destroyed by the same Spanish rulers who were exiling and murdering their nation’s Jewish community. We Jews faced the same exact enemy at the exact same time, but we had no idea that there were other victims of the Inquisition’s iron grip, half a world away.
We were not the only victims of Spain’s greed and missionary zeal. Nor were we Hitler’s only victims. And we are not the only ones to face the evils of our time.
Yes, so many have betrayed us. But we need to overcome the cynicism and despair that absolutely crushes us. Our own pain must not cause us to apply blinders so that we do not see the pain of our neighbor.
How can we rebuild hope in this dark and murky world? One person at a time. One relationship at a time. One act of kindness at a time. We can’t wait for others to do it for us. We have to do it ourselves.
And after all, this is the year 5776, tav-shin-ayin-vav. Reverse two of the letters and you get Ta’asu. “Just do it.” This is year to take action; so that through our love and commitment, through our “yes that is yes,” we all might learn to trust again.
And so our journey comes to a close. So how would I respond to the ethical dilemma put in front of us, the question of whether to kill the two year old fledgling madman?
I’ve presented four responses: By hugging the child, no matter who he or she may be; by reasserting the value of conscience and restraint; by taking the long view and thereby overcoming our inbred self centeredness; and finally, by cutting off at the roots, at long last, the nightmares that continues to haunt us, so that we might learn to have trust once again in the wondrous and priceless gift we have been given. We must conquer the mistrust that paralyzes us, whether in commerce, in the public square, at home, in the synagogue or in the depths of our souls. Too much is at stake – and there is so little time.
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
As we enter this year of action, it is time to turn away from the darkness of the past, to rise from shiv’im and proclaim an end to our grief.
And may we declare to the world – and most of all to ourselves, the most truthful words we can utter: that to be a Jew is to be a victim no more. We must overcome our cynicism and restore trust to the world, finding inspiration from our ancient sources of wisdom.
For as the Bible itself proclaims:
גַּם מִגָּבֹהַּ יִרָאוּ, וְחַתְחַתִּים בַּדֶּרֶךְ
“…When they shall be afraid of heights and there is terror along the way…
… לִמְצֹא דִּבְרֵי-חֵפֶץ; וְכָתוּב יֹשֶׁר, דִּבְרֵי אֱמֶת.
…(Nonetheless let us) find our comfort in our words of delight our deep sources of wisdom and find there the sources of truth.”
Those words come from Ecclesiastes, chapter 12.
And that’s the truth.