Rabbi David Gelfand: Yom Kippur 5780
I don’t know about you, but this has been a rough morning for me, so far. I was here in this room with about 400 people for our kid service, our Tot Yom Kippur, and I lost my voice. Some people said, what are you going to do? I said pray, it’s Yom Kippur.
Then, since Rabbi Buyer-Witman is upstairs in the main sanctuary today, and well, we’re friends, I thought I should be nice, and leave her the lighter Torah. There’s only one of them, this one. It’s really heavy, almost twice as heavy as the one she had upstairs. Okay, in a few years I’ll have seniority in a real sense, the joke’ll be on her then.
But now for something, as always a little different, my sermon this morning, my remarks are participatory. It’s not Q&A, but you are going to be doing something during the sermon. And it’s something you’ll know, that you’ll feel comfortable with, I know. And Hadar will be helping you, so you kind of get the hint. I’ll tell you what in a few moments.
We live in interesting times, amidst cruel behaviors and an undercurrent of incivility, and it has been like a disease that has infected our nation’s character, and far beyond the global community. It affects not only the news that we listen to, or wish we couldn’t listen to, or wouldn’t listen to, but still listen to, but it affects, in many ways, even how people do business, how they transact their lives, how they fear for their children. It affects how we learn, and it is so insidious it affects even our interpersonal relationships.
We are, in this day and age, in the 21 st Century, facing a new kind of civil war. Not one being fought with soldiers and artillery, not those, but a civil war, using untruths and spreading them through technology. Words and ideas that claim to want to protect us, too often destroy the very structures and societal fabrics that they claim that they were saving.
Irrational behaviors are rapidly being established as the new normal. Their attempts to create protectionist rules and laws, polarizing behaviors, and anti-intellectual theories that just boggle the mind. I mean really, if the news of today, or yesterday, or the last year weren’t enough, if you stop and think about it, and someone had made a movie of this 10 years ago, people would have said it was absurd, and why would you go see it? Right is said to be wrong, wrong is said to be right, up is down, down is up, and then tomorrow it’s all sideways, or inside out.
My teacher, the great philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, once suggested, at least one day a year, we should recognize the failures, our own, and those around us. We should give them that which they are due. And we should recognize that we must do all we can… all that we can to promote truth and civility. Well these days, the truth be told one day doesn’t seem nearly enough.
The Hebrew phrase: derech eretz literally means the way of the lamb. But is it… it is properly translated, also as common decency, fairness, truth, virtue, civility. All things that we could use a heavy dose of. We need a strong dose of derech eretz in dealing with each other, to navigate the troubled waters that we need to cross.
Would you turn to page 13 of your handout. It’s your turn.
The waters are troubled, and it’s difficult to cross the bridge. It’s trouble because up is down, and down is up, and sometimes it’s sideways. It’s challenging to stand up for what we believe in. It’s not as easy as it was in the old days, but the truth be told, it wasn’t easy then either. Today say the wrong thing amongst supposed friends at dinner, and well, they may be no longer friends. Talking religion or politics today is challenging. Be careful. And be careful who’s recording you as to whatever it is you might say. After all, it may be out there on social media.
The shoals of our current culture of incivility is profoundly difficult to navigate. Today what is civil behavior, expletives fill the airwaves as never before, and people demonize one another as “the other.” They are quick to destroy self-esteem. It’s become a blood sport.
Yom Kippur is here to remind us that Jewish tradition has much to say about that, and it is resolute that we treat other human beings with decency, and with dignity, and that we must take responsibility for our actions. Lame excuses for coarse behavior, I didn’t really mean it, it was only a joke. I didn’t say it, even when it’s right there on the screen.
It’s supposed to mean, for the sin that we have sinned. It’s not supposed to mean, don’t blame me, I’m not responsible, I’m the victim here. It was the medication that made me a little crazy. It was the water. But I was haunted by an experience, or you remember the famous legal case, it was the Twinkies.
Al cheit she-chatanu l’fanecha.
Yom Kippur calls on us to be the best that we can be. To be our greatest self. Okay, even that has been corrupted. You know, that thing about “great again” whatever that means. The truth be told, Judaism runs counter to the spirit of the question, who is strong? The rabbis are very clear, who is strong? A person who can control their impulses, not very common these days.
We are taught, if your enemy – forget about your friend or some stranger – your enemy is hungry, give them food to eat. If he is thirsty, give them water to drink. It doesn’t say anything about separating families, or putting kids in cages. Or, as Rabbi Leo Beck taught, though he may be our enemy, let him never cease be our fellow human being. And 36 times – not twice, not seven times, not 10 times – 36 times, the most oft repeated command in the Torah, there are n: protect the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in your midst. The immigrant, the refugee, and the asylum seekers. There are no exemptions here. Everybody’s in, nobody’s supposed to be out. Inclusion is not a word created in the 21 st Century, it is taken from that scroll. And it is a commandment. 36 times.
In more recent years, Yale law professor, Stephen Carter wrote, “Civility is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called upon to make for the sake of living together.” Wasn’t that the fiber, also, with which America was built? The story of people crossing an ocean to come to a promised land, and the fiber to hold it together was supposed to be the civility and the sacrifices, as others made for our families when they came here – is it not yet the fiber that holds us together? Tragically, we wonder in the 21st Century.
A story of tradition. When Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Zantz. was young his ambition was to break to everyone in his country in order to get them to change their ways. But when he reached 30, and evil was still all about him, he thought that perhaps he had been too ambitious, and therefore he limited his preaching to just the neighborhood, the region where he lived. By the age of 40, he wasn’t so successful of that, so he said, from now on I preach only in my own village.
But his community had not changed by the time he was 50. So he decided to focus on his own family, but when he looked around he realized that his family, most of them had grown, and many had moved away. And before the decade was over, he was the last of his family still living in the town.
It made him realize he had lived life backwards. He should have begun with himself, then his family, then the village, then the region, and then far beyond. For the rest of his life he decided, I better concentrate on improving myself. Though the days are dark, and the waters are stormy, we have to begin with ourselves. Yes, when you’re down and out, you need to find comfort, and do our best.
How do we find the way? How do we travel, traverse the bridge, how do we swim in the waters when it feels like there are rip currents that are going every which way? The normal way would be bad enough. But it’s everywhere, it’s every time, it’s every time you wake up.
It’s every time before you go to sleep. Dr. Hal Toplowitz, last year in this very room on Yom Kippur said, “Do yourself a favor, don’t turn on the TV or your phone after dinner to see the news. You’ll sleep a lot better.”
Is that enough? What’s there to see… what’s the secret to heal the wounds when you’re down and out, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, when everything feel so hard, and darkness is all around where can comfort be found? Is there even really a bridge to cross over? A path to clean? A safer way to go?
As a Rabbi, I am privileged, truly privileged, to help others heal broken hearts and shattered souls. But I am also blessed to share in Simchas, where not only do people lip smiles, lips smile, but I get to see their eyes smile, and their hearts smile. I get to officiate at weddings. Most couples ask me for advice, subtly, reading between the lines… very few come out blatantly and ask. But the most common inference is, is there a secret to a successful relationship? If someone is so brazen as to ask, I’ll say, “Wait until the end of your ceremony, and see if you still need to ask.” But the truth be told, it begins every day. I share with them, this: by sharing just a word of praise, or taking someone’s hand, by saying something small, or big that gives security, that is not about the business of daily living. Not about the bill to be paid, or what time you’ll be home, but to really look and say something to someone that means something. It must come from the heart, and it must be received by the heart. That’s the secret, but it’s not only for anniversaries, and birthdays, or special occasions. It only works if it’s for every day.
When I perform weddings, the moment to me that is very precious, other than simply watching them is when I come to the end, beneath the huppah, and go to bless the couple. I end with an interpretation of the poetic words by Danny Siegel, I tailor them to the couple, but it goes something like this: “My gift to you is this blessing. As day turns to night, and night turns to day, I pray that God will bless you, and that you will bless one another, as only two partners who truly love one another can do. My gift to you are these words, may you take them to heart. Because of you… because of you I shall never know despair, or the claws and clutch of loneliness. You… you are a constant revelation and reminder of all that is good and upright. And I shall never know for what reason I have been so graced by your love. You are my companion, my ineffably precious friend. Each moment is a blessing because of you, and each day a portion of the mysteries of creation, and each tomorrow a taste of future worlds. And then, as the day turns to dusk, and the dusk turns to night, and again before you go out to the day, as the darkness turns to dawn, and the dawn to the day, may you remember, in your own way, to say I love you for always, I love you completely. I love you forever. Words that come from the heart, that can be taken to heart.
The erudite Rabbi Jonathan Sachs learned the same lesson from the late Lena Rustin, a speech therapist who helped stammering children, legendary. The average age of the kids she helped was 5. She founded the Michael Palin Center for Stammering in London. While most speech therapists focus on speaking and breathing techniques, she focused on relationships with parents and not just children. Her view was that she could do much more if she could change the family environment. If a child has a stammer, the family adjusts to it. To lose the stammer, all relationships must be renegotiated. What she discovered was that by assigning praise to every family member, having each of them give and receive praise with mutual respect, and positive reinforcement, she could move mountains and disappear stammering.
The BBC filmed her on the state of the family in Great Britain. And then Rabbi Sachs interviewed some of the parents, who said that while she helped every one of their children, she did more than that. She sometimes saved marriages and other times enriched them. With one little ritual she transformed relationships, horizontal and vertical. Maybe she understood what Maimonides taught hundreds of years ago, that we yet have to relearn, especially in these days. To speak praise to people is part of the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
But we live at a time when people destroy others, where self… where cutting people down, and breaking self-esteem is a blood sport. People are quick to diminish the humanity of others, especially those who are different, those who are “the other.” By Yom Kippur standards, make no mistake about it, that’s a sin.
Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar famously wrote Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, and he argues that in nature groups are held together by devoting a considerable amounts of time to building relationships and alliances. We can see it in non-human primates. They do it by grooming, by stroking and cleaning one another. It’s actually where the expression, “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” comes from. The problem is, in a fast paced world, it’s time consuming – but it is so necessary, to care, to share, to stroke, and to help one another clean up each other’s acts. It’s where real communication comes from. And at the end of the day it’s the only way to create blessings.
But how do you do it? Where do you begin? After all, it feels like most people today don’t really care. But I’m not talking about most people, or the people out there. I’m talking about us, in here. Yom Kippur, a time that beckons us to ask important questions. A time to think about important answers.
My gift to you today, this story by Mitchell Chaffetz: Once Upon a Time, once upon a time there was an officer of the law, a newly minted graduate of the police academy, filled with pride, and dressed in crisp, blue uniform adorned with brass buttons, gold epaulets, and a ceremonial silver sword that he always wore. The young officer also was filled with self-importance, and as the days turned to weeks, he became more and more arrogant and even cold-hearted.
One day while walking his beat, he heard a commotion in an alleyway, and stepping into the darkness he saw a strange man dressed in rags. “Come forward,” he commanded. But the guy didn’t move. “I am an officer of the law!”
But the man still didn’t move. Instead, in a calm voice he said, “I just don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”
“Do with me,” the officer replied, “do with me? You don’t do with me, I do with you. I am an officer of the law, and I order you to come forward.”
“Ach,” said the man in the rags, “now I know what to do with you.” And he drew a silver ceremonial sword, identical to the policeman’s. “Now I know exactly what to do,” and without another move, he stepped forward as though he was going to attack.
The officer, confused, drew his sword in defense. “Stop that,” he ordered, “put down that sword right now, or someone is going to get hurt!” But the man in rags continued moving forward. “Stop!” he said. No avail, the man kept coming. And he thrust the sword forward, and the officer of the law did the same like a cartoon character.
But in that moment just as the young officer moved to attack, all became silent and still, like he was frozen in place, as though he couldn’t move, but he could hear. And what he heard was the man in rags muttering, “I’m leaving you now, but as I do, I place upon you the curse… the curse of blessings. Every day, you… you, Mr. Officer, you must offer a new blessing, one you’ve never spoken before. And on the day that you do not say something good, a new blessing, on that very day, you’ll die.”
He thawed instantly, returned to normal. Looking at himself, wondering, why in the world do I have that sword in my hand? He lowered it, wondering what he had just seen, and what he had just heard. He was totally spooked. He shook his head from side to side and thought wow, it’s not like I had a drink today. I just imagined the weirdest thing.
But he realized time had passed, it was late, the sun was setting, and the officer felt his body growing colder. Did that man in rags exist? Did he really speak those words? Was the officer about to die? He got colder and colder, and in a panic he blurted out a blessing: “Thank you, God for creating this gorgeous sunset today.” And strangely at once, he felt warmth and life flow back into him. And he realized with both shock and relief, the curse was real.
The next day, upon waking: “Praise be the source who has allowed me to waken this morning.” He had never said anything like this in his life before, he was totally irreligious, cocky as could be. But he realized he had awoken cold and now was warmer.
The next morning he blessed his ability to rise up from the bed; the following day, that he could tie his shoes. Day after day, he named features that he could bless, that he could take care of his body, that he had teeth to brush, that each finger of his hand worked, that he had toes on his feet, hair on his head. He blessed his clothes, every garment, his house, his roof, the floor, the furniture, every table and chair, his shoes, everything.
One day, running out of blessings for himself, he decided to try something else. He changed his tune. He began to bless others. He blessed his family. They stared at him, thought what had gotten into him. He blessed his friends, they thought he was really strange. He started blessing the other police officers, and they knew he was strange. He blessed the mailman, the clerks, the firefighters, the teachers.
He was surprised to find that they appreciated his blessings, and he realized in some strange way, he was not diminished by saying nice things. In fact, people started to like being around him. He became known as that unusual officer of the law, the good guy who said good things.
Years passed, and decades. The policeman had to go further and further afield to find new sources of blessing, he blessed and was invited to bless time and again, city councils, judges, and their courtroom, university buildings, scientists and their discoveries. He was invited, literally, near and far, and he grew in awe of its balance and beauty of the world, and he had a whole different view on life.
He realized that the more he learned, the more he had to bless, and his life was long. He passed the age of 100, and people celebrated. Most of his friends, though, he realized were long gone. He decided, for however much longer I shall live, I am devoted to searching for life’s purpose. He had long since realized he wasn’t the origin, but merely the conduit, the channel. And even that realization was welcomed with a blessing that sustained him for yet another day.
As he approached the age of 120 the officer decided his life was long enough, for even Moses had lived no longer than that. So, on his 120 th birthday he decided to offer no new blessing, it was time to come to an end.
All that day, out of habit, he recited blessings. But the old ones, nothing new, and he thought about how his life had changed from that night in the alley. As the sun was setting, a chill settled into his body, and into his bones. This time, no new words.
And in the twilight, as his breath grew shallow, a familiar figure reappeared. A man in rags, with a silver ceremonial sword at his side. The police officer whispered, “You? I have thought about you every day for 100 years! I never really wanted to hurt you, please forgive me.”
The man in rags said, “You still don’t understand, you don’t get it, do you? You don’t know who I am? I am an angel who was sent 100 years ago to harvest your soul. But when I looked at you, you were so damn arrogant and cold, so pompous and full of yourself, I couldn’t find it. You were but an empty uniform. That’s all you were. You were a cold-hearted man, so I placed upon you the curse of blessings, and look what you’ve become.”
In this strange encounter, in this existential moment, the officer of the law understood all that had happened, and overwhelmed, he said, “You, my friend, you in your rags have been my greatest blessing.”
And the man in rags replied, “Oh no, look what you’ve done, a new blessing.” They looked at each other, neither knew what to do, so their lips smiled, as did their hearts and their souls.
The waters are turbulent, what shall we do? In a challenged world, where there are many, many curses, I pray on this High Holy Day, that in the new year you will remember the power of praise, and the blessing of the blessings, of the couples, of the children with their stammers, troubled waters our tradition writes of.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught us Kol Haolam Kulo Gesher Tsar Me’od, it’s one of the places that Paul Simon got the idea. Listen, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, of the 1700s. The entire world is a narrow bridge. The most important thing is, don’t be afraid. It’s a new year.
No matter what’s in your head and in your heart, I pray, don’t be afraid. Let us find the courage and the strength to speak words of praise to one another. To the people we work with, for the people we work for, for the people who work for us, for the people in our lives, and our homes, for our children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren even for some, for husbands, and wives, for lovers, let’s not be afraid.
Fifteen hundred years ago, words I sometimes tell at a wedding, they taught that life is like a ladder. I don’t know about you, I’m not good on ladders. And they made it worse… life is like a rickety ladder, but when two people hold hands, and climb the ladder together, [35:00] remembering from whence they have come, helping one another, comforting one another, praising one another, loving one another, then it is said that the very… that very ladder, that journey, your journey can reach to the very vaults of heaven. The entire world is a narrow bridge. The most important thing is not to be afraid.
Let us share kind words, and let us share our blessings. Like a lot of things, it’s hard to know where to begin. You already know, page 13.
A true story to end with, to remind you really how to begin. I learned it from Paul Simon. True. One Shabbat morning in my former congregation out in The Hamptons I was putting my file together, walking in with my prayer book to a service with Bar Mitzvah, going through a quick rehearsal with the kid before the service, and had to get some things in my head, some guy bumps into me, said excuse me. It was kind of a short guy, at the time a little roly-poly. I said, “Sure, let me open the door for you.” It happened to be Paul Simon. I said to him, “Excuse me, Bridge over Troubled Water. You know, a rabbi said something like that a long time ago.” And he looks at me and goes, “Rabbis said everything a long time ago.”
“They told me to come half an hour before the service. Excuse me, who are you?”
“Oh, I’m the Rabbi.”
“Okay, hi, nice to meet you. Come here. Let me show you the most important thing I’m going to do today.” He knew the kid. The kid was scared out of his wits. He stood in the back of the room, yelled his nickname, screamed at him, “Come here!” Put out his arms, like this. The kid came running into his arms. He was a friend of the family, the kid knew him. Gave him a kiss on the forehead and said, “You’ll figure out how to do it, kid. Are you still nervous? Are you still scared?”
And the kid said, “Not anymore.” The kid went back up onto the Bimah to look in the Torah, practice one more time.
And Paul Simon said to me, “What were you saying about Bridge Over Troubled Water?”
I said, “I will ease your mind. You know, there’s a rabbi who once said something like that.”
He goes, “Yeah, I know, there were a lot of them.”
Sail on, Silver Girl.
Sail on by.
There’s been a lot of darkness. There are a lot of challenges, they will not end tomorrow. But how you look at them, and how you live with them will make all the difference, and along the way, a little praise will help. A kind word, a touch, maybe even a hug, or a kiss on the forehead when you’re weary and feeling small. A hug, a handshake, a kiss. Who couldn’t use that now and then? And we’d all be better off if we just had a bit of that every day.