Rabbi David Gelfand: Yom Kippur 5779
On this Yom Kippur, when we are told to be honest, honesty would suggest that the world that we are living in is beyond challenging. It is beyond difficult. It is vulgar, and it is far from what our dreams and aspirations are, that we have shared as Jews for thousands of years in services such as this. Okay, maybe not exactly like this. But on the other hand, if there was a way to suggest that there is an antidote…an antidote to the ills of the world, it might begin, if only we had, for one another, and others for us, just a little more respect.
I always wanted Aretha Franklin to do Avinu Malkeinu and this was as close as I could get.
A student once asked his professor, “Is there anything I can do to improve my ability to learn?”
“Yes,” said the instructor, “There is one thing you can, and must do, and if you will listen, I’ll tell you.” And for the next several moments, there was silence.
And the student said, “I’m… um… I’m listening, professor.”
“Good,” said the teacher. “You see, you’ve begun to learn.”
In a world filled with constant chatter, raucous sounds, and vulgar diatribes against “the other,” it is clear that we have lost the art of listening. We are more interested in expressing our own opinions than in quietly reflecting on the next person’s views. We would rather tell another person what’s on our mind, than hear what they have to say. Could it be that we are afraid of listening to others? Does our reluctance to hear the next person indicate that we are so closed to new ideas and nuances that we have built invisible walls around us.
Listening is a skill. It’s a skill that all of us need, and that most people, here and everywhere, could develop further. Sometimes we have to listen, not only with our ears, but with our other senses too. A young girl came home from school, filled with enthusiasm about the things she learned that day. As her Mom busily unpacked some groceries, the youngster began to talk. And as she spoke, the mother kept saying, “Yes, yeah, yeah, that’s really nice. Really, really, really good.”
The little girl realized that her mother was paying more attention to other things than to her. And not content with the responses to the adventures of her school day she blurted out, finally: “Mommy, you’re just not listening to me!”
“Oh, but I am. I’ve heard every word you’ve said.”
“But Mommy,” the girl poignantly said, “you are not listening with your eyes.” The Mom was showing only limited respect, and so often that’s what we do too.
In our fast paced world – and it’s not only about adults, it’s also about children. It’s not only about kids with one another, it’s about us with our loved ones. It happens in the street, in the workplace, and in our homes. We tend not to listen very well, and too often, not with our eyes.
The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, was very, very critical of others for not properly attending to other people. So often, he declared, we see others as an “it”, an object to please and placate, rather than as an “I”. Buber tells us that he learned this lesson the hard way. Before he moved to Israel he was a professor, a young professor in Berlin, pre-War when he was approached by a teenager who seemed adrift and upset. Buber told him that somehow he’d find his way, and went back to whatever it was he was doing. A few days later, the boy committed suicide, and Buber never got over it. Throughout his life, he berated himself for not taking the time to listen to that boy’s quest for his complete attention. The young man, perhaps, was saying something important to his teacher, or perhaps it was just that he needed to be heard – and Buber, the professor, good as he was, was not there for the cry for help, and he was plagued for the rest of his life.
Out of that encounter, though, the master teacher grew in his perception of what people were saying what they needed, and he created a philosophy entitled “I-Thou”. Each of us, he concluded, needs to be seen as a person in our own right, as a “Thou”. Not as a problem to be addressed, but as a human being whose needs have to be listened to, and fully absorbed.
The great psychoanalyst Theodor Reik called this process, “Listening with a Third Ear.” It’s not simply enough to hear someone’s words, it’s like the Torah portion, Re’eh not just to physically hear, but to listen with understanding. To know what it is that pains that other person. To know what it is to bring joy for that other person.
Too often we give a glib answer – “Hi, how are you?” – and we keep going. In short, we each need to learn better how to listen with a third ear, and with our eyes. And to show some added respect to the wholeness of each person created B’tzelem Elohim in the image of God.
So often, when we’re asked what we want for our children and grandchildren, the youngsters in our family, we are quick to say, we want them to be happy. And if we’re thinking a bit more we of course add health, but that’s just not enough. Not for our children, and not for us, and not for this world, which feels as if it’s being ripped to shreds.
Do we not want, for our children and grandchildren, and for all our children, above all else, to be compassionate human beings? In a troubled world, fears unite minds. Fears build walls, and fears slam doors. Do we not want our children to have the tools they need, not only to protect themselves, but to help mend this world? Here we try to help make them responsible and honorable, honest and kind, and generous. I agree with the fellow clergyperson, the Dalai Lama, who said, “If you want to be happy, be compassionate. And if you want others to be happy, be compassionate.” A good life, a meaningful life, begins and ends with compassion.
We know this, and our tradition has been teaching it for millennia. An ancient midrash depicts the angels inquiring of each other, with the craziness of the Jewish calendar: “Excuse me… excuse me… when does Rosh Hashanah really begin?” And none of them seemed to know. And finally they realize that the answer can’t be found in the calendar. The answer, they say, is found in our deeds. For the angels contended, that when we recognize the humanity and the divinity within every human being, and act accordingly, then it’s worth the while, and the time, to start over again in a new year.
We need these High Holy Days this year. We need the spirit of reflection and of hopefulness that is supposed to come with them. We need to recognize, that to be written in the Book of Life suggests that there are certain behaviors, but today there is a glaring lack of humanity, and of decency. Rage, and fear, and divisiveness fill our streets, and afflict our souls in every corner of the world. Families have been torn apart. Women and men have been degraded. Many women have been degraded, even here in the Jewish world, and far too many beings are behind dehumanized every day. I know the angels said we should wait until everybody can see divinity and humanity in the other, but I’m afraid we’ll be waiting forever.
And our children’s future is at stake. And the soul of our nation is at stake. And the state of the world is at stake, and our planet is at stake, and perhaps even our very humanity is at stake.
The founder of a branch of Judaism, the Hasidim, the Bal Shem Tov, the 18th Century Rabbi recognized, like the angels, that the most important thing we can do, even before loving God, is to love one another, and see holiness in people. In fact, every day before he prayed he engaged in the following practice: He composed a chant to the words, “Here I am, ready to accept myself, the Mitzvah, the obligation, the good deed, to do the most difficult thing… to love your neighbor as yourself, especially if you have a neighbor like mine.” He recited the chant, over, and over, again and again, and only when his heart was touched, would he conclude. He knew that there are ways to connect, and that the only path or way to connect with God, is to connect with other human beings.
To understand it is not easy. It wasn’t easy hundreds of years ago, and it’s not easy today. And maybe that’s why this year, in the state of the world as it is, we should really wonder about why a particular movie that came out just a few months ago, is now the highest grossing biographical documentary of all time. I mean really, what’s with this? Maybe it’s an antidote to what ails, even beyond respect.
Okay the truth be told, Rabbi Stoloff is using a reference, today, upstairs, to Mr. Rogers. And I’m the Senior Rabbi, and he’s not. So I told him… he didn’t have to sing the song, but he had to wear the sweater. It’s hot up here. I am not also wearing a sweater. But it’s true. “Won’t you be my neighbor?” is now the largest, highest grossing biographical documentary of all time.
Now, I’m not a kid, but even I watched Mr. Rogers. How is that possible? You see, it was actually first broadcast in a Pennsylvania station 65 years ago, as a local TV show. A tall, thin, unassuming man came through the door, took off his work shoes, and blazer, and donned a colorful cardigan and sneakers. “Hip to be square” was not just a phrase from a Huey Lewis song, it was Mr. Rogers to a T. He began, and I was privileged in the ‘50s to see him on WQED as the Children’s Corner. And a decade later, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was born, and then in 1968, it became a highly regarded children’s show, and lived on Public Television for 40 years until 2008, though he died in 2003.
Fred Rogers was an ordained minister, and he was a person defined by his faith, who illuminated a singular message, as each show responded to the issues of the time. In his own words, the message is simple: Love and understanding are at the root of everything, all learning and all relationship, love, or lack of it. Love and respect, for “the other” defined Fred Rogers. He was, for those of you who are too young to know about this – or so old you don’t remember – he was television’s version of The Golden Rule, and he was there every day.
A non-Jew sitting… wishing to convert to Judaism nearly 2000 years ago went to the home of Rabbi Hillel, one of our greatest Rabbinic sages, “Teach me, you remember he said, “teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.”
Hillel responded: “Love your neighbor as yourself, and everything else is commentary.”
And Mr. Rogers just used a slightly different translation and he taught, quote: “When we love a person we accept him or her exactly as is, the lovely with the unlovely, the strong with the fearful, the true mixed in with the façade, and of course, the only way we can do it, is to begin by accepting ourselves that way.”
His gentle, calm wisdom helped three generations of us to come to understand that growth and healing come from action. I believe he would say that the Meditations phase, and therapy, and yoga, and self-help introspection craze, and all those things are good – but not good enough, if they don’t help you to integrate respect and love into your behavior.
Mr. Rogers understood what the great Talmudic sage, Ben Azai taught: The most important teaching in the Torah is that God created us as one human family, so that no could say “my people are better than yours.” He shared that every human is endowed with a spark of the divine. The Hebrew word for neighbor is Shachen. It’s the same word we use to describe the presence of God: Shechina. It is our goal to see some bit of divinity in every person.
I do know… I do remember how the show made me feel, comfortable and comforted, and that I was really, somehow, magically a part of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, with its magic trolley, animal puppets, and King Friday the 13th. Each had a distinctive personality, and unique ways, in which they constructively contributed to the community. They were my first view into a family of families. And I watched it myself, and then I watched my children watch it, and watched with them.
What you may, or may not remember, especially if you’ve not seen the movie, and even beyond the movie… it turns out that Mr. Rogers tackled the day’s most weighty and complex issues on his children’s program: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the assassination of JFK, Dr. King, and Bobby Kennedy. The one I remember – vividly – was Dr. King’s assassination. I happened, as a teenager, to be in Pittsburgh where Mr. Rogers lived, and when Dr. King was assassinated, Pittsburgh was one of the cities that was set on fire with riots. And there was Mr. Rogers, being interviewed on the news. There was his voice, explaining to people.
He talked about racism. And he tackled issues way ahead of his time: death, divorce, disease. For him, the neighborhood was a microcosm of the real world. The King, Friday the 13th was opposed to change. Do you remember what he did? He didn’t like change, so he built a high wall… a big wall, with sharp edges, to keep strangers out. Fred Rogers, he helped to make sense of a troubled world in turbulent times. He taught us how to be compassionate and caring.
In an episode from the late 1960s… 1960s, step back in time, even if you weren’t born. He invited Police Officer Clemons, an African-American man, to join him in soaking their feet against a backdrop of racial intolerance in a child’s wading pool. No one had ever seen something like that on a television before. No one. It was downright revolutionary. He had the courage of his convictions to find ways – gentle, smart ways – to make a difference.
And as he aged out, the tenuous days following 9/11, Fred Rogers implored the American people to bring healing and love to their neighbors instead of fear, saying… this minister said, this television icon said: “We are all called upon to be Tikkun Olam, [22:36] repairers of the world, repairers of creation.” As a devout man of deep faith, his theology was clear: love your neighbor, and remember, we are all neighbors.
Over the last few months there has been extensive focus, here and abroad, on how we treat our neighbors. On the other side of the aisle, and across the borders, our neighbors across ethnic and racial lines, and our neighbors on the other side of political and economic divides. The lack of humility and humanity is staggering, and the nature of social media, and news invades our presence time and again – and its impact on children, on parents, on grandparents is profound. If you don’t believe me, come hear Harold Koplowitz, one of America’s great psychiatrists this afternoon here. As he would say: we are in an epidemic of depression and anxiety.
Contrary to everything this day in our tradition teaches, we know that there is a difference between right and wrong. And it’s not only in our country, but across the world, and yes, even in our beloved Israel, which I love dearly, but am profoundly disturbed by the nation-state law, which suggests that some citizens, non-Jews for sure, non-ultra-Orthodox for sure, should not be recognized as full citizens. The profound lack of respect for “the other,” here and around the world, means that people are not listening with their ears, or their eyes. We turn away, we close our ears.
Let’s see how smart you are, spell it: R-E-S-P-E-C- T. Each of those letters has been ingrained in the hearts and souls of the American people. Not just because of Hadar but an iconic soul singer who touched the lives of many, was an inspiration in our country. Though the song was originally written by the iconic music figure, Otis Redding, for a call for respect from a man to his wife, Aretha Franklin, because of who she was and how she sang it turned the song into a battle cry for two major movements in our lives, and it resonates: the civil rights revolution, and the women’s revolution. From her mouth, calling for respect was not a hope, it was a demand. She understood #MeToo.
But what was a demand for respect by women and African-Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s has become a demand for respect throughout the world. It is perhaps, ultimately, at the foundation of the challenges we live with. It is a central issue of our time.
One of the most important, enlightening articles I read recently, was found in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs by Francis Fukuyama, not something everybody reads, a highly regarded political scientist, and as well an article by Marc Lynch, a professor of International Affairs. Fukuyama’s essay is adapted from a new book that is just to be released, Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. And while his essay focuses on the situation in both America and Europe, the setting for his article is made by Marc Lynch, whose article is entitled “The New Arab Order,” in which he finds that a major issue that started the Arab Spring eight years ago, is to be understood, to put into context today.
On December 17th, 2010 a man in Tunisia, who was a street vendor – he has a name, Mohamed Bouazizi – has been mistreated by the local police time and again, and that morning, when the police were harassing him again, that he didn’t have a vendor’s permit, and he didn’t have the funds to pay for it, nor to bribe the police officials, nor did anyone else on the street – a police officer slapped him in the face, and spat at him, took his scales, and tossed aside his produce cart. And then this poor man went and acquired a can of gasoline, and set himself afire. He had been humiliated and disrespected, and that was the match, literally, that changed the Arab world. And there are those who write, in Foreign Affairs, that we are about to see something similar occur in Africa.
The collective demand, in this nation, of Blacks and women has changed us, and for the better in so many ways. And from the Left have come demands for respect for Native Americans, for Immigrants, for Muslims, Mexicans, Gay people and Transgenders. And the Right, in seeing and hearing all this has been bothered that, well, their world is being shattered. In Fukuyama’s words, “Nationalists tell the dissatisfied that they have always been core members of a great nation, and that foreigners, immigrants, and elites have been conspiring to hold them down. ‘Your country is no longer your own,’ they say, ‘and you are not respected at home in your land’ – and there is… there are too many who feel, like Rodney Dangerfield, they get no respect.”
I seek not to argue rights and wrongs, Left and Right, but from the perspective of Judaism, the answer is found in two words that I share with you today: Kavod HaBriyot. Kavod, chabeyd, havot. Honor, Respect. HaBriyot like in the center the word “brit” or “bris”, of the covenant between all peoples, of all humanity. It’s found in the Biblical verse, that on Rosh Hashanah, when God spoke the most influential sentence in history: “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness” – it echoed, in the minds of those who founded this great nation, for in our Declaration of Independence, those words, a covenant of respect for people, inspired the founders of this nation to say the words we know so well: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they have certain… that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”
But to most of the world, there is nothing self-evident. There wasn’t in the ancient world, and there isn’t today. We are the lamplighters of history, but we are also the canaries of civilization. When civilizations become insecure, and values begin to be broken, and promises are shattered, we know that our voices need be raised like the canary in the coal mine.
The challenge … the challenge we face, is do we have the strength and the courage, in the midst of depression and anxiety about the world as it is, to yet believe in a world as it could be. Our tradition is so careful about dignity. One of the worst “sins,” if you were, in Jewish tradition, is to embarrass someone. The whole reason that Jewish tradition began to have someone you called up, who had prepared to be a Torah reader, is because all of you were supposed to be able to do it. But nobody should be embarrassed. In Jewish tradition, we know that for the traditional, observant Jews, that issues of use of technology, or electricity is verboten, not to be. But nobody has ever stopped an observant Jew, walking into a synagogue, with a hearing aid. You can go into the Satmar synagogue in Brooklyn, with a hearing device, and you will not be stopped. For a person who has need of one should never be embarrassed.
Okay, this one you’re really going to love from Jewish tradition. If you are self-conscious about your age, 1500 years ago, one is permitted to dye your hair, if you think that someone might ridicule you. Not that they have, just if you think. And beyond that, the search for respect, the idea of never creating a Bushah – I take it to an extreme. I never correct anyone when they’re reading from the Torah unless they mispronounce, or misread, the name of God. I wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone.
Okay, too heavy? Remember that old comedian, Rodney Dangerfield? He would say things like, “I get no respect at all. When I was a kid, I lost my parents at the beach. I asked a lifeguard to help me to find them. He said, ‘I don’t know kid, there are a lot of places here for them to hide.’”
But it’s no joke. It’s no joke. It’s right there in Maimonides’ code, the sages stated that we are not allowed to engage in behavior that will embarrass someone, nor call them by a nickname or a name that will diminish them. Or to say it differently, speaking words in person, or on social media that defame another, are a sin in Jewish tradition.
Let me remind you of best practices, best behavior, as we think of an American hero who was recently put to rest. In the year 2000, when Senator John McCain was in a primary battle to win the Republican nomination for President it was reported that in describing his North Vietnamese captors he referred to them using an anti-Asian slur, which I say only so you will understand, “gooks”. To them, to a Vietnamese, that’s like the “N” word to a Black, or the “K” word to a Jew. No big deal was made out of it in the year 2000. Most Americans didn’t even know what he was talking about. Perhaps we just weren’t paying attention, or as sensitive as we are now. There was no social media to spread the word across the country, but irrespective of all that, when McCain was informed that Asian-Americans were hurt by the slur, he issued an apology and vowed never to use the word again. And he never did.
Do you remember, in 2008 when he lost, his acceptance speech… his speech that night, when he would not be President were addressed to the Democratic nominee, President Obama. “You have my respect and admiration. Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans. That’s an association that means more to me than any other.” That’s what we call respect, and that’s why he was respected. In fact, that’s why he was loved, even by those who disagreed with him.
So here we are. In this sacred moment I challenge you to think about the possibilities of a new year, and how, in some small way, the next time you hear the news that just sends you up the wall – and you will, we all will; and it won’t just happen today, or tomorrow, it will keep happening – think back… think back to what a neighborhood could really be. Think back to why the song “Respect” resonated for so many years to so many people. Think back, to Yom Kippur morning, when your Rabbi challenged you.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T, let us find some respect, to listen to others, and not only with our ears, but with our eyes. Even with those whom we disagree, and maybe we can do a little behavior modification on some people, so that they’ll be willing to listen to us. But even if not, let us remember… let us remember that if we don’t like it as it is if I am only for myself, what kind of person am I? And if we really want to change – If not now… when? Is there not a better way, and a better time to begin to make the world better? Your nuclear world, and the world around you, and maybe… maybe, like saving one starfish, it’ll make all the difference to that one, and all the difference to you. And all the difference to someone who’s watching you.
After all, I assume like you, like I, would like to be worthy of being inscribed in the Book of Life. May this be God’s word, may this be the word and the way of the new year. Amen.