Like and Follow TBE on Facebook

High Holy Days

Below, you can find Rabbi David’s talks from this year’s High Holy Day services:  

 Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780 talk – The Shabbat Principle

          As many of you know, my family and I are now in our second year of dog ownership. Cocoa the labradoodle has been a wonderful addition to our lives – she’s an energetic playmate, an empathetic companion, and, as our younger members know, she’s also a valued member of our religious school community (you can find her at the synagogue, hanging out with our students and teachers, just about every Sunday morning). Adding a dog to a busy household can present challenges – figuring out how to fit Cocoa’s need for daily exercise into our full schedule has sometimes been one for us. On our busiest days, helping her run around enough can feel like less of a fun treat, and more like a household chore that we need to check off our to-do list. On those days, it can be tempting to take her outside and just run with her, as hard and as fast as we can, until she’s been tired out. My teenage son runs on his high school’s cross country team – the two of them could probably run farther and burn more energy in a ten minute sprint than Cocoa and I do in a 45 minute walk. There are days when the human-dog sprint seems like a great idea.

          But then I read an article about what happens for your dog when you let them walk at their pace. The article suggested that for your dog, regularly meandering up and down your street is how they check in with and connect to the world around them – it’s how they discover what’s going on in their environment. I was thinking about this on a recent morning walk when Cocoa and I weren’t in any kind of hurry, as I watched her wander from one thing that she found interesting to the next. As all dog owners know, when you’re not hurrying them along, your dog will explore the sights, sounds, and especially smells in their environment at will, checking in – sniffing – to their heart’s content. Watching my dog do this on that unhurried morning made me reflect on how rarely most of us give ourselves this same opportunity, and what our lives are like when we do get to do this, and when we don’t.

          It’s become trite to observe that many of our lives are so busy, our schedules so full, that some days it feels like all we’ve done is run from activity to activity to activity. With so much on our plates, these activities can easily lose whatever meaning we intended them to have, and they end up feeling like nothing more than successfully checked-off items on our endless to-do lists. Tearing through life at a breakneck pace can result in our getting a lot of things done. But in order to keep up with that much activity, we tend to shift into overdrive, feeling like we’re always on – which makes it very hard for our bodies, minds, and souls to slow down, rest, and experience shalom, peace and wholeness (which is the thing we Jews pray for the most). Feeling like we’re always on also means that our minds are constantly trying to figure out how to handle all of that activity, and instead of being ever fully attentive to whatever it is that we’re actually doing, we become preoccupied with the other items on our to-do list, and/or the logistics of how to manage it all, and/or we start thinking about some other thing we could be doing that might relieve some of the stress we’re experiencing because we’re so busy. Eventually, we get used to not being mentally present to whatever we’re doing, and we end up having difficulty focusing on even the things we truly want to be present for. Genuinely connecting to the world around us, and paying real attention to what’s in front of us, can easily become casualties of an excessively busy life. Often, that results in another casualty in our lives – any sense of shalom.

          Luckily for us, stopping to pause, to breathe, and to connect with what we’re doing now happens to be a particularly Jewish behavior – Judaism is replete with moments when we’re supposed to do this. Practically speaking, that’s what happens every time we say a brachah, a blessing, before a particular activity. In spiritual terms, when we say a blessing before doing something, we’re sanctifying that activity, invoking the very idea of divinity before we proceed, and recognizing the holiness that’s potentially present in what we’re about to do. In practical terms, when we say a blessing, we are stopping whatever we’ve been doing before that activity, and pausing; allowing us to connect with, to hopefully be present and pay attention to, this thing that we’re doing. That moment of stopping to say the blessing is our opportunity to do the human version of sniffing whatever is in front of us. It stops our ongoing thinking about whatever we had been previously engaged with, and makes us aware of both the potential sanctity of what we’re about to do, and the simple fact that we’re doing it, right now. The process of pausing to say a prayer before an activity requires us to be genuinely aware of that activity – which may not have been the case if we hadn’t stopped before doing it.

          Stopping our everyday activities is at the root of the most foundational ritual practice of our people, Shabbat. The Hebrew root of the word Shabbat – ש, ב, ת – literally means ‘cease.’ This day of ceasing is the only ritual behavior in the Torah’s story of creation; in fact, the day of rest, the one day each week when we cease doing and just are, is what completes the story of creation – according to the Torah, the world couldn’t exist without it. As valuable and meaningful as the day of Shabbat is, I’ve been thinking that in this excessively busy culture that I’ve been describing, Shabbat could be more than a once-a-week practice. I’d like to suggest that Shabbat is actually a principle, a foundational aspect of Judaism, which recognizes that humans need to deliberately stop, take a break, breathe, and cease engaging in never-ending activity. As the new Jewish year begins, it’s my goal to find ways to incorporate this Shabbat Principle into my life – and hopefully yours, too.

          Over the last several months, I’ve been quietly working on this on my own, through a new practice of mindfulness and meditation. This is not the first time that I’ve practiced meditation; 23 years ago, I learned to meditate at a school in Manhattan, and for about two and a half years, I meditated for half an hour, twice a day, every day. This spring, someone recommended to me a book about mindfulness, I tried it and liked it, and I decided to try out the accompanying app – called Headspace – on my phone. Since late April, I’ve been using the app every day to meditate, and I’ve been working on incorporating some basic concepts of mindfulness into my life. These practices have always felt very natural to me, and a few weeks ago, I realized that that’s because they’re actually very Jewish concepts, based on the fundamental Jewish principle of Shabbat. Meditation is essentially the act of quietly focusing your attention on one particular thing, noticing when your attention strays from that thing, and then gently returning your attention to that thing once you’ve noticed that it strayed. The thing that you focus on varies – usually it’s one of our senses, an image, a particular word, or our breath. Doing this requires focused attention on something that’s happening right now, and therefore requires you to try to stop whatever you’ve been doing, to try to stop thinking about whatever you’ve been thinking about, and to try to only pay attention to what you’re doing at the moment. It’s a way to mirror the relatively brief experiences of saying blessings, and the day-long practice of Shabbat, in a practical period of time – often, between 10 and 30 minutes. When we practice meditation and incorporate moments of mindfulness into our days, we have more and more moments when we cease doing or thinking about whatever we’ve been occupied with, and are more able to connect with – to sniff – whatever is happening in front of us. That’s a pathway to more shalom for all of us.

          In the interest of increasing shalom in our community, we are starting a Meditation and Mindfulness Group at Temple Beth El. We’ll meet once a week, starting after Simchat Torah, and we’ll study both meditation and mindfulness techniques, always looking at the Jewish components of our new practices. I’ll be leading the group, in consultation with TBE member Becca Marcus, who is the Director of Mindfulness Training at William and Mary’s Center for Mindfulness and Authentic Excellence. Please contact me if you’re interested in participating – I’ll respond to you, and we’ll figure out scheduling, after Yom Kippur.

          We have already started to incorporate ‘Shabbat moments’ – silent moments of mental rest – throughout the things we do. We’ve already started to practice some silence on Sunday mornings at religious school; you’ll find Shabbat moments scattered throughout High Holiday services, and they’ll also start appearing on Shabbat. Our services are crammed full of ideas, questions, quotations, and supplications, written in a language that is not native to almost all of us. It’s my hope that adding moments of ceasing in the midst of so much mental and verbal activity will help us all to be more present for and connected to all of these words that we’re saying.

          On this Rosh Hashanah day, we celebrate the creation of the world, and as part of our celebration, we consider ways that we can re-create ourselves in the New Year. This year, can we emulate creation, and learn to include Shabbat, to include ceasing, in our lives? In Exodus 31, in the passage sung on Friday nights and Saturday mornings that we know as Vesham’ru, it says וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ – “on the seventh day, God ceased, and God refreshed God’s soul.” May 5780 be a year in which we all create for ourselves more opportunities to cease, and to refresh our souls. Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will. And let us say, Amen.

Rosh Hashanah 5780 talk – If I Am Not For Myself

          I know this may not be the best way to start the New Year, but I’m going to cheat on my own rules a bit this morning, by talking about the topic for the Yom Kippur morning service – ten days before Yom Kippur. A few weeks ago, I sent out an email inviting all of you to log on to a specific page on Temple Beth El’s website, and to write something there about your favorite Jewish teaching. In that Email, I shared the idea that as non-Halakhic, non-Orthodox Jews, it can be difficult to say what the things are that we all share, that unify us, and that for many of us, specific values and teachings from throughout our tradition are what end up defining Judaism. Some of you have already logged on and shared your favorite teachings and your thoughts about them – I invite everyone who hasn’t written yet to please do so in the coming days. I will share many of your favorite teachings, and your thoughts about them, during my talk on Yom Kippur morning.

          The teaching that I’m using to answer this year’s question has three discrete parts, so I’m going to use rabbinic privilege and “cheat” by talking about the first part this morning, and then the second part next week on Yom Kippur morning (I’ll speak a bit about the third part on both mornings). This teaching is a very well-known saying from the Talmud, from chapter one of Pirke Avot, in which Rabbi Hillel states:

אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי – “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now when?” I imagine that many if not most of you are familiar with this saying, as it is one of the most frequently quoted of all Jewish teachings.

          I love this teaching both because of what it tells us about Judaism when it’s read as a whole, and also because of the different particular ideals it espouses. The totality of the three parts illustrates that ours is a tradition of balance – one in which we are constantly seeking the proper, most manageable relationship between extremes, like being completely focused on the individual or the communal. It also illustrates that ours is a tradition that can at least recognize the value in most sides of most arguments – illustrated here by emphasizing both of these concerns. This teaching embodies the fact that, in one way or another, at one time or another, Judaism is about everything that we experience during our time in this world – a fact that can be easy to forget when we zoom in on the values of our favorite specific teachings, and as we inevitably base our everyday lives on just a few of those values. The self-reflective nature of the High Holiday season, in conjunction with the liturgy’s attempt to touch on nearly every conceivable aspect of our behavior, makes this a particularly appropriate teaching for this season.

          In addition to its universal nature, I also love the specific issues raised by this teaching. Its three different questions raise some of the most vital dilemmas that we confront as human beings. The question “If I am only for myself, what am I?” – which will be my primary focus next week on Yom Kippur morning – is probably the most celebrated part of this teaching, and is often talked about in conjunction with Judaism’s plethora of teachings about being kind to and taking care of other people. This morning, as we start a new Jewish year, I’d like to focus on the first question in this teaching, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” The apparent self-centeredness of this statement can sound somewhat anomalous in a tradition that so heavily emphasizes caring for and helping others – which I think makes it particularly meaningful to explore and understand. I should mention first that many commentaries on this text say that you should actually read the question as an indictment of selfishness and self-centeredness. The Hasidic commentary Pnini Avot, for example, teaches that when Hillel says “If I am not for myself,” he is describing a situation in which a person does a purely altruistic favor for another – not for themselves – and in that situation, “Who is for me?” means “Who can say anything negative about me?” Other commentaries also read selflessness into the language of this question, usually based on the Talmudic tradition that Hillel was an unusually humble person, and therefore must have had altruistic reasons for this phrasing. I appreciate the selfless reading here and in other, similar approaches to this text, but I think that these commentaries are missing the opportunity for self-examination that the most basic reading of this question offers us. Asking “If I am not for myself, what am I?” requires us to ask one of the most basic questions we can: What is ‘myself’? Who am I?

          This is the perfect question for us to ask on this first day of the Jewish Year. At no other time in our calendar are the questions of who we are, who we’ve been, and who are we going to be as prominent in our ritual lives as they are right now. This is the season of self-reflection, the moment when we’re supposed to take stock of ourselves, and to chart better, and perhaps new, courses for our lives. It’s the moment for us each to try to understand what it means to be me – both as individuals finding our ways in the world, and as parts of the larger community around us.

          Answering that question requires honest self-evaluation, and this morning, I encourage you to ask yourself some fairly self-centered questions, starting with these: in this past year, have you genuinely cared for yourself? Have you taken the time, and created the space, to prioritize what you truly need? Have you truly listened to, did you truly respond to, your physical, mental, and spiritual needs? For many of us, the idea that we might not be focused enough on ourselves may ring hollow – you might be thinking “aren’t I supposed to focus on taking care of others?” But these are particularly valid questions in our culture, in which – as I spoke about last night – so many of us are so busy, our schedules so full of activities, that we rarely take the time for genuine and meaningful self-care. On this New Year’s Day, I invite each of us to ask ourselves if we do the things for ourselves that we truly need to do.

          Asking these questions isn’t easy – nor is figuring out what to do with our answers. I think that when we know that we’re being deficient in these areas, many of us have a tendency to hope that others we spend time with might call these deficiencies to our attention, and maybe will even do something about them. However, waiting for someone else to help with a personal issue that we observe and become aware of is negating the third part of Hillel‘s teaching. In this context, “If not now, when?” means that we are obligated to take the time and make the room to do this self-work, to engage in this self-care, as soon as and whenever we’re aware of the need. Waiting for someone else to tell us that our bodies need exercise, that our souls are calling out to us to do something, or that our minds need rest and peace, means that we just spend a lot of time waiting. If not now, when? is the siren call to our inner selves, pointing out the need to wake up, to evaluate what we need to do, and to determine what we need to do about those needs. There is no better time for we Jews to engage in this work then today on Yom Teruah – the Day of the Shofar Blasts (which is what Rosh Hashanah is called in the Torah) – the day when our rituals are designed to grab our attention and to stir us to action. I urge everyone, if possible, to please stay after the Torah service for the Shofar service, when we will hear the horn blasts 100 times. Our liturgy on this day is designed to capture our attention, to wake us up, to put us in the frame of mind of answering some of these questions, and doing some of this work. If I am not for myself, who will be for me? can be answered individually by recognizing that your community will be for you, but only you can truly know what being for you means at this moment – and at any given moment. We are here to all help each other – now is the time to assess, and to act.

          As Jews, we are members of a community that is meant to support each other in our quests to be our best selves, in helping each other to have more genuine shalom in our lives. Many of the occasions that bring us together are designed to promote exactly this – occasions like a weekly holy day devoted to rest and peace, or an annual holy day so devoted to self-examination that we take a break from as much of everyday life as we can imagine in order to do that work. Today, we use the image of the creation of the world to inspire us to be awake and alert, to call out to our deepest selves in order to facilitate genuinely transformative inner work. “If I am not for myself” is a truly Jewish question, because Judaism recognizes that we must work towards being our best selves in order to make the world we live in the best place it can be. Judaism is extremely concerned with the welfare of the underprivileged – it constantly reminds us to take care of those who need taking care of – but it also recognizes that an unhealthy caregiver is ultimately an unsuccessful caregiver. Jews ask “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” because our tradition recognizes that we all have some needs that no one else can articulate.

          As members of the greater Jewish community, we are responsible not just to our fellow Jews, but also to our individual Jewish identities, and to the greater Jewish enterprise itself. In addition to exploring our own needs, on this Rosh Hashanah, I invite you to ask this modified version of Hillel’s question: “If I am not for myself as a Jew, who will be for me as a Jew?” The start of this new Jewish year is the time for us to reflect on what it means to each of us to be Jewish, and to be a representative of Judaism in our world and in the greater world around us. This question is relevant to everyone who has chosen to come to Rosh Hashanah services today, instead of being at school, at work, or anywhere else. By making that choice, you have prioritized your Jewish identity, and made yourself a representative of Judaism to everyone who’s going about their business at the place where you would normally be right now. Today, now, is the moment to evaluate what your Jewish identity means to you.

          Being Jewish in America in 2019 is a complicated thing. We are a minority in this country – there are somewhere between 5.5 and 8 million of us, depending on which population survey you read – and yet many of us don’t appear to be that different than our neighbors. Because of this, we have a unique status – many of us blend in with our country’s white Christian majority, and can be treated like them and live similar lives to them, more easily than most other minority groups. Most of us want to live similar lives to our neighbors: we want to be able to go to Jewish services and celebrate Jewish holidays when they take place, and otherwise share public activities with our neighbors like work and school and restaurants and ballgames. The founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, described this by saying that North American Jews live in two civilizations: the American one, and the Jewish one. As citizens of both of these civilizations, we want to participate in the communal life of each of them. We attend religious services on Friday nights or Saturday mornings when we feel like doing so – but also we have a wide variety of other interests and commitments that might take place at those times. Using myself and my family as an example, I often leave services on a Saturday morning and head straight to another, non-Jewish obligation (usually, a ball game one of my children is playing in). If we never did that, there would be no way for us to participate in activities, like ballgames and school dances, which are foundational parts of communal life in Williamsburg. Doing these things helps my children to bond with all of the non-Jewish children with whom they share their lives. To not do so would make them more different than they already are.

          And yet, we – all of us here – are unquestionably different, and once we’re identified as Jews, we are recognized as such. We are the people who don’t seem that different from everyone else, but who celebrate all of these “strange” holidays that fall on different days each year, instead of the holidays everyone knows on which most people are off from work and school. We are the people who don’t seem that different from everyone else, but who don’t believe in Jesus. We are the people who don’t seem that different from everyone else, but who, not that long ago, were the focus of a program of mass extermination that wiped a third of us off the planet. We are the people who don’t seem that different from everyone else, but who have increasingly become the targets of discrimination, hatred, and violence over the last few years.

          According to the last Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents by the Anti-Defamation League, “anti-Semitic incidents in the United States surged nearly 60 percent in 2017. This was the largest single-year increase on record, and the second-highest number reported since the ADL started tracking such data in 1979. The sharp rise was due in part to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for a second year in a row.” Since the last time we came here together to celebrate the new Jewish year, terrorists have twice walked into synagogues and opened fire on the people inside. The first time was one of the most shocking and frightening incidents that many of us have experienced in our lifetimes. The second time this happened, it was tragically no longer something brand new, and therefore, I think, an indication that our lives have truly changed. Hatred towards us has now been expressed in the most consequential of ways, multiple times; we can no longer say that we live in a country where something like that wouldn’t happen to us. Anyone who counted on the boundary of that statement for a sense of protection no longer can.

          “If I am not for myself as a Jew, who will be for me as a Jew?” is a different question for North American Jews now than it has ever been before.

After the shooting at Tree of Life, I encouraged us to not allow the shooter, the terrorist, to win by derailing us from living our Jewish lives. Aside from eliminating us, the most realistic goal for our enemies is to get us to stop doing, to stop being, the thing that they distrust and oppose. Being who we are – in so many, many ways – threatens these people. Continuing to do Jewish things, to live Jewish lives, to be and identify as Jews in our everyday lives, is the way that tell these people that they are not going to win. Staying away from synagogues, avoiding Jewish programming, disavowing our Jewish selves, is exactly what they want us to do. When we do that, they win. We have to stand up for ourselves, we have to stand up for each other as members of the Jewish community, and we have to continue to do Jewish – to do more that’s Jewish – in order to not allow our enemies to win.

          We each have the responsibility to figure out what that means for us, and how we can realistically do that. Our tradition tells us that each one of us was there to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. I believe that means that each one of us is the inheritor, and the progenitor, of one unique way of being Jewish. We each have the sacred responsibility of carrying on our tradition in a way that maintains and upholds it, that makes it something unique, and that passes it on to others. We each hold our own way of being Jewish, and no one else can effectively manifest that or teach it to anyone else. If I am not for myself who will be for me means that no one else can do for you the particular things that you do. It is the responsibility and privilege of every Jew to discover what those things are, to teach them, and to live them. And, by the way, if you can stand up for yourself, it’s much easier to help others stand up – but I’ll talk about that next week… 

          May 5780 be a year in which we are deliberate and proactive about caring for ourselves: physically, psychologically, mentally, spiritually, and soulfully. May we assess ourselves honestly, and may we address our needs with fortitude, courage, and generosity. May we support and help each other in this work, doing what we can to enable our family, and friends, and members of our community to have more shalom – more peace and wholeness – in their lives. May this be a year when each and every one of us asks ourselves to do more for our Jewish identities, and our Jewish community, both locally and globally. May this be a year when we ask not just the question “If I am not for myself who will be for me?,” but also “If I am not for my Jewish self, who will be for me as a Jew?” May we support each other in doing what we need to, to enable and empower these stronger individual and communal Jewish identities. May the words of our liturgy and the blasts of the shofar truly wake us up, so that we can do this now – not when. Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will. And let us all say, “Amen.”

Kol Nidre 5780 talk – Teshuvah Stories with Introduction

          I’m reading a novel right now in which a teenage girl starts to randomly encounter magical doors, which take her to strange, faraway places. She’s lived a fairly sheltered life, and her father, an explorer of sorts, is missing, so the doors are exactly what she needs, exactly when she needs them. She begins a journey away from her cloistered existence, heading out into the dangerous world in search of her father, and herself.

          This is not an unfamiliar theme for a novel – and it also shouldn’t be an unfamiliar theme to all of us gathered together this evening to begin this day of atonement and repentance. Yom Kippur concludes a 40-day stretch during which we’ve been focused on the work of Teshuvah, repentance – the work of making amends to others, and today specifically to God, for the ways in which we’ve wronged them over the past year. Teshuvah is the word we use for the act of seeking repentance, but as many of you probably know, its literal meaning is turning, or returning. This leads to one of the perennial questions we ask about this Holy Day: when we do the work of Teshuvah, of repentance, what are we turning from, and what are we returning to?

          Doing Teshuvah can be an almost magical process, in which a simple action can take us to a strange, new place. The act of apologizing for the things that you’ve done wrong to someone else can be one of the most emotionally and psychologically difficult things that you ever do, but the action itself is incredibly simple. Picking up the phone, picking up a pen (or a keyboard), or walking up to a person and communicating an apology, is really as simple as walking through a door into a new place. And, like the main character in the book I’m reading, when you do Teshuvah, you never know where it’s going to take you. The person to whom you’re apologizing might be resentful or unreceptive to your apology – but they also could be incredibly appreciative and kind. Your relationship with that person might not change at all – or it could become something new and different and transformational and wonderful. You might not feel any different for having taken the initiative and reaching out – or you might feel clearer, freer from guilt, and less encumbered. Any or all of these things might lead you, might turn you, to a new place in your life – a place where you’d rather be, a place where you’re a better version of yourself.

          We must also never forget that, like everything in Judaism, Teshuvah is not a one-way process, but is actually an interactive, interpersonal experience. You can only control what you do when it comes to Teshuvah – the response of the other person, the outcome, is out of your hands. The part you need to think about is your apology – what that leads to is on the other side of the portal, and is something you don’t get to see, something you can’t know about, until you take the initiative and step through. Therefore, it’s also important to think about what we would do if and when someone came to make amends to us. With that in mind, I’d like to share to quotations that I came across online this week, which stuck with me.

          The first is from the Christian writer Lewis Smedes, who said “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” The second is unattributed. it says “Apologizing does not mean that you’re wrong. It means that you value your relationship over your ego.”

          I’m going to share two stories about Teshuvah tonight. I’ll share one long one now, which I’ll also refer to tomorrow morning, and then I’ll share a much shorter story later on in the service.

The Mirror and the Reflection of the World

          This is the story about a very beautiful and special mirror. It hung on a wall in the dining room of a fine house belonging to a rich man.  The mirror was large and square, with a wide, thick gold frame carved with beautiful designs of leaves and flowers. Everyone that saw the mirror admired it, but everyone also noticed that it was imperfect. On one of the corners, you see, the silver backing had been scraped off so that this part of the mirror was plain transparent glass. People would remark upon its beauty and then say, “Oh, what a pity! Too bad the mirror is damaged.” To everyone’s surprise, the mirror’s owner would tell his visitors that it was he himself who had deliberately scraped the silver backing off!

          Many years ago, in a small town, there lived a man who owned a small store from which he earned just enough money to take care of his family. He was not a rich man, but he also was not a very poor man. He had only a few customers. Sometimes people left without buying anything because the merchant did not have many things to choose from.

          The merchant was happy with his life. Though he was not rich, he always had enough to share. No visitor ever left his home hungry. Every time a poor person needed help, the merchant always found money to give them. The merchant and his wife lived a very simple life. Their home was small. The house really needed to be painted, but there was never enough money for that. It seemed to them that it was more important to help someone in real trouble than to paint a house. Their furniture was old and worn for the same reason. The curtains on the window were thin and faded. The merchant and his wife had no carpets on their floor. Their clothes were plain, and they did not often buy new things. Many of their cups and plates had chips and cracks. The food they ate was simple.

          Yes, it was not a very fancy house, but it was a comfortable home. It was a warm and inviting place. Everyone felt peaceful and relaxed there. The merchant had many visitors because everyone knew that he was kind and liked to be helpful.

          One day as the merchant stood in the doorway of his store waiting for customers, he noticed a stranger approaching. When the stranger was near the store, the merchant asked the stranger, “Maybe you would like to come to my home and rest awhile,” he continued. “If you are hungry, please be my guest. If you are thirsty, please come for something to drink. Perhaps you need money? We will help you.” The merchant’s invitation was so warm and friendly that the stranger decided to stop in his house for a rest.

          What the merchant did not know was this was no ordinary stranger. The traveling stranger was a very holy man. The holy man was known to many people who would gather to listen to his words of wisdom, or a source of blessings or prayers in time of need.

          The holy man was impressed by the merchant’s kindness and generosity. He knew many rich people who could have helped the poor much more easily than the merchant, but who did much less than he. The holy man enjoyed his visit with the merchant and his wife. As he was leaving, he blessed the merchant with riches, so that he should be able to continue helping the poor and needy.

          After the holy man left, the merchant’s store became very busy. Everyone found what they wanted, and no longer did people leave his store to shop somewhere else. Each day the merchant had more and more new customers and more money to bring home. In a short time, he became one of the wealthiest men in the town. The holy man’s blessing that the merchant should become wealthy was realized.

          As the merchant became more successful, he spent less and less time studying, and he did not pray as often. He did not even devote much time to helping travelers and the needy. The merchant was only available by special appointment. His servants were told to give money to needy people who came for help, but the merchant had no time to listen to their problems.

          The merchant and his wife built a brand new house that had many rooms. All the rooms were large and beautiful. On the windows hung soft velvet drapes. The floors were covered with thick rugs. The kitchen was filled with new pots and pans. All the furniture was new and expensive. On the walls hung fine paintings. A huge mirror hung in the living room. It was so big it almost covered the whole wall. All around this mirror there was a wide, thick frame of gold. Everyone who saw the mirror commented on its beauty.

          There were many servants in this new house and travelers and beggars were not allowed in. Strangers were no longer invited for a meal. Servants would only open the door and give some food and money to the needy.

          The people noticed that the merchant changed since he became rich. He was always so kind and good natured in the past. They remembered the days when the merchant had never been too busy to help others.

          One day a messenger from the holy man came to visit the merchant. The news of the merchant’s good fortune had reached the holy man who needed his help. An innocent man had been put in prison on false charges and a great deal of money was needed for his ransom. Of course, the merchant was happy to help. He gave the messenger the money and sent him off with good wishes for a safe trip home.

          The messenger had completed his mission, but felt empty. It had been difficult for him to speak with the merchant in person. His servants would not let the stranger into the merchant’s office. The merchant had given him the money, but he had not invited him into his home for some food and rest. The messenger was surprised. The holy man had praised the merchant and often spoken of his hospitality and charitable ways. The messenger could not understand what had happened.

          When he came back to the holy man, he gave him the money and told him everything about his trip. The holy man shook his head sadly. He understood that the merchant, the poor man, had a heart of gold, but the merchant, the rich man, with all his gold, seemed to have a heart more like stone. The holy man decided to visit the merchant to see what could be done.

          When the holy man arrived at the merchant’s house, the merchant welcomed him warmly and invited him into his home. This house looked very different from the home that the merchant had lived in when the holy man first visited him. It was big and beautiful, but gone was the friendliness, warmth and comfort one had felt in the simple, old home. The holy man walked on the heavy rug. He saw the costly paintings. He looked at the expensive, new furniture, and at the drapes made from the finest, softest velvet. And then he noticed the mirror. He looked at its shiny gold frame. It was the biggest mirror he had ever seen.

          The merchant told the holy man. “that mirror is my favorite treasure. Of all the lovely things I own, I like that mirror the best. It cost a great deal of money, but it was worth it. It is truly a masterpiece, a work of art, is it not?”

          “Yes, I see” the holy man answered. “the mirror is really beautiful.” He said softly, in a serious voice, his face sad.

          Suddenly, the holy man called to the merchant. “Come here,” he said, and asked him to walk over to the mirror and stand in front of it. The holy man then walked away a bit and asked the merchant to tell him what he saw.

          The merchant was puzzled, but answered, “Myself. That is what I see in this mirror. My own reflection — that is all I can see.”

          “Look closely,” the holy man said. “What else do you see?”

          “I see my lovely furniture reflected in the mirror. I see my paintings, I see my rugs and drapes. I can see many things in my beautiful home,” answered the merchant.

          The holy man then walked over to the window with the merchant. He pushed aside the drapes and told the merchant to look out into the street. The merchant’s home was on the main street and people were always passing by. Since it was a small town, the merchant knew almost all the people walking past his house. The holy man asked him many questions about all the people they saw. The merchant told him that the woman with the basket was a poor widow with many small children. She was hoping that kind people would put food in the basket for her family. He told the holy man about the old water-carrier who found it hard to carry the water. He pointed out the tailor, who prayed every day, but was very poor and never had enough money for his family.

          The merchant was wondering why the holy man was asking him all these questions. The holy man was a serious man who never had time to waste. Why should he be so curious about all these people?

          Then the holy man said, “It is strange, is it not? A mirror and a window are both made of glass, yet they are very different.”

          “What do you mean?” asked the merchant.

          “Well,” said the holy man, “when you looked in the mirror you could only see yourself and your house. You could see much more when you looked out the window. Then you could see all your neighbors and townspeople.”

          “That is true,” said the merchant. “A mirror and a window are both made from glass. The window is transparent. Light can pass right through it. It is clear and you can see everything through it. The mirror, on the other hand, is covered with silver on one side. The rays of light cannot pass through, and therefore a mirror can only reflect what is in front of it.”

          “I see,” said the holy man and nodded his head. “I see. The piece of glass that is plain is clear through and through, allowing you to see others and their lives. Yet the same glass when it is covered with silver, only allows you to see yourself.”

          The merchant’s eyes filled with tears. He felt so ashamed. Finally, he understood everything that had happened to him since he became rich.

          That evening, the merchant made a big party in his home. The whole town was invited, especially all the poor people. Everyone enjoyed themselves. Then the merchant asked for silence. He made a short speech and asked for everyone’s forgiveness. He told his guests that he was sorry for the way he had acted after he became rich. His life would now be different. He promised them that his doors would always be open for everyone, and that he never would be too busy to help those that needed him.

          After all the guests had left, the merchant walked over to his beautiful mirror. With a sharp knife he scraped off the silver covering in one corner. He did not stop until that part was as clear as glass. Only then was he satisfied.

          Yom Kippur is a time for mirrors, when we take a deep look at ourselves, and also for windows, when we look at the outside world.

The King, the Forester and Teshuvah

          A king was once riding through a forest and was so taken by the beauty and wonder around him that he became lost. He rode on for a very long until he met a forester who recognized the king and offered to escort the king back to the royal palace. Along the way the king and the forester spoke about many things and the king became very fond of the forester. The forester even sang an ancient melody from the oldest wood. The king invited the forester to remain on the royal estate as the chief forester and keeper of the King’s Grove.

          Many years passed and the forester served the king as best as he could. Rumours reached the king that the forester may have been rebellious against the king. The king was angry and disappointed, but due to the nature of the reports he received he sentenced the forester to death. Before he was taken out to be executed, the king had the forester brought before him and granted him one last request.

          The forester respectfully requested the he be able to wear the clothes he wore the day he met the King when he was lost in the forest, and that be able to sing the ancient melody from the oldest wood.

          The king granted the forester’s wish, looked at him and remembered that day they met so many years ago. The king closed his eyes and listened to the ancient melody and his heart was melted. The king’s anger gave way to mercy and he proclaimed “By your life, you have saved yourself,” and called off the execution.

Yom Kippur morning 5780 talk – If I Am Only For Myself

          I’m sure I’m not the only person here who provided some kind of explanation about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to friends or neighbors over the past few weeks. As the rabbi of the only synagogue in a place where Judaism is so absent from the public sphere, I’ve come to expect that I will be asked to teach about Judaism, in settings both formal and informal, at moments both expected and unexpected. That’s part of my job. Of course, teaching others about Judaism isn’t a responsibility that’s unique to my professional role. As I’m sure that just about everyone here today has experienced, being Jewish in Williamsburg – really, being Jewish almost anywhere – requires you, at some point, to provide some education about Judaism to your non-Jewish friends or neighbors or co-workers. Whenever this happens, we are all challenged by the fact that our tradition is not the easiest thing to explain simply. Judaism can’t be neatly summed up by what’s in the Torah or Tanakh or Talmud, by any particular author or teacher or behavior or practice, nor by any specific prayer or idea or statement of belief. Ours is a tradition without a unifying code or creed, and it’s also a tradition without any kind of hierarchy or central authority. Jews are a diverse group of people spread all over the planet, engaged in a never-ending, always-evolving relationship with a millennia-old sacred text that we highly value and deeply treasure, yet don’t necessarily take literally. That’s not always the easiest thing to explain to someone while you’re waiting in line for coffee.

          In fact, our most sacred tradition may be the fact that each of us is encouraged to relate to, to interpret, and to live with our sacred texts and shared practices and teachings in our own unique ways. At the same time, teaching and learning about Judaism is an interactive, shared process, and not a one-way experience. Our goal is not just for learners to absorb information, but for them to explore that information with others: to ask questions about what they’ve learned, to wrestle with it, and to determine how to live it with it in their lives, how to make it their own, and how to share that with others. From Talmudic debates about what constitutes the work that we’re not supposed to do on Shabbat, to the variety of choices we all make about how to observe this most sacred of days, our tradition is ultimately the sum total of the manifold texts, interpretations, practices, and teachings, that Jews uphold and pass on. Supposedly, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, used to say that “Judaism is what Jews do.” I’ve always found this to be an accurate statement, although I would make a slight addition. Because so much of what we end up doing as Jews is based on our understandings and interpretations of what others have taught us, I would say that ‘Judaism is what Jews learn and teach, and what Jews do.’ It’s in the learning and teaching, in the discussion and transmission of all of these insights and interpretations, where Judaism lives and thrives, and where it’s perpetuated. Which, again, is not the easiest thing to explain to people who aren’t Jewish.

          This leads us to the question that I asked you by email a few weeks ago: What’s your favorite, what do you consider to be the most important, Jewish teachings? As I said in that Email, a question that often comes up in our congregation is what unites us as Jews, and as a Jewish community. As non-Orthodox, not Halacha-bound Jews, our unifying principles are not absolute adherence, nor aspirational adherence, to static commandments. Instead, we are bound together by something that many of us probably feel like we can clearly identify, but do not always find simple or easy to articulate – our shared values and practices, and the myriad of ways that we interpret them and live with them. It’s specific teachings from throughout our tradition that truly provide us with the core pieces of our identity, functioning as the fundamental building blocks of who we are, and how we live, as Jews. On this day, when we spend more time gathered together with our Jewish community than on any other day of the year, exploring what being Jewish is based on for each of us can make the rituals of this day more meaningful, and more practically useful. We all hope to walk away from here today with a vision for how to be a better person in the coming year. It’s my hope that Judaism can give us not just the framework to accomplish that, but also the tools – the teachings – to chart that better course for ourselves.

          The folks who shared their answers to this question on our website wrote about a variety of different teachings that are important to them, although they all share at least one particular characteristic: on some level, they’re all about how we treat, how we live with, each other. One person shared the favorite teaching of their grandmother, who was a practicing Orthodox Jew. This teaching states “If you go to shul Friday night and Saturday, or if you go to church Saturday night and Sunday, but the rest of the week you live ‘dog eats dog,’ you are NOT religious. You are a ritualist. Being religious has to do with how you treat your fellow human being 24 hours a day, every day.” The question of whether ritual practice or interpersonal behavior is more important has been a Jewish issue since ancient times, when the Sadducees and Pharisees argued over the importance of the rituals performed at the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, the importance of the letter of the law in ritual practice varies from community to community and from individual to individual, but I think many of us agree with this person’s grandmother, believing that there’s ultimately nothing more important than how we treat other people.

          Another person who wrote on our website also talked about the ethical treatment of others. This person wrote about Rabbi Hillel’s teaching from tractate Shabbat in the Babylonian Talmud (31a), where he is famously asked if he can teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot, and he answers “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” Many of us are familiar with this teaching, both in this particular Jewish context, and as the Golden Rule, an ethical concept that is found in most of the world’s moral and religious codes. This person shared some thoughts about this teaching from an article that compared formulations of this idea in Jewish and Chinese Confucian traditions. The article concludes by saying that “It could very well be that the principal aim of this commandment, as of others, is the avoidance of unfounded hatred which destroys the life of society. It may show a wisdom in considering that the evils that grow from hatred are those that are most to be guarded against.” Our website author – who did not grow up Jewish – shared the following “What I learned first when I began to study the 613 laws of a pious Jew was that kindness to strangers and animals was where my learning started. Rabbi Hillel’s words resonated with me as the underpinnings of the teachings of Judaism, especially on Yom Kippur as we look over what we have done in the past and plan on what we hope for the future.” Reducing hatred is a value, a goal, that I find particularly resonant right now, when so much public discourse and communal life is filled with vehement antipathy. This statement of Hillel’s is also one of my favorite Jewish teachings.

          Another person emphasized the parts we can each individually play in creating a better community. They said “I like the idea that we have the responsibility to complete the world, which I also interpret as making the world a better place. The example I have heard, and used, is that G-d gave us the grapes but we have to make the wine. Every kindness or good deed we do is a step towards completing the world… every kindness, whether big or small, makes the world a better place.” The Jewish emphasis on community – embodied in particular on Yom Kippur by the communal, first-person plural phrasing of the confessional prayers – prevents us from ignoring how what we do and don’t do impacts others. Our actions don’t only complete our own worlds – each kindness that we do completes the one greater world that we all share. It is everyone’s responsibility to do that work.

          Two writers spoke about the interconnected Jewish values of kindness and justice. One wrote about חסד בלב, charity and kindness in the Heart, while the other wrote about צדק, justice, which they described as “living in Jewish thought and tradition as a multi-dimensional teaching, which combines חסד/lovingkindness, רחמים/compassion, and חן/finding favor or grace. Justice informs compassion, without which we would become passive, and compassion tempers justice, to prevent us from becoming too harsh or vengeful.” Judaism emphasizes both the importance of each of these values, as well as the idea that they complement each other – which is an important teaching in itself. The first person wrote that חסד בלב “implies honest goodness, benevolence and compassion,” and said that “recognizing the meaning of חסד בלב may steer one to more profound relationships.” An honest and open heart is both a beautiful image, and also a hoped-for starting point and end result for our work today – I can think of no better description of the place from which genuine teshuvah emanates than ‘an honest and open heart.’ The person who wrote about צדק notes that “In our dealings at all levels, we engage in the compassionate exercise of justice to respect the natural rights of others, to help free others as God freed us across the Sea of Reeds, and to remember the rights and struggles of all oppressed peoples as we do every Pesach. Accordingly, we engage in acts of compassionate justice when we reach out to others with different beliefs without demonizing them, embrace those around us with love and respect, and listen with the heartfelt intent of opening dialogue and dignifying difference. When we help free others, we in turn, free ourselves.” When צדק, justice, comes from a place of compassion and respect, we are able to act fairly, and with love. A people who teach those values is a people who I am happy to be a part of.

          One responder wrote about the inherent value of this overall topic, sharing that their favorite teaching of Judaism is the value of learning and teaching itself (if you don’t know, the two words in Hebrew, ללמוד and ללמד, are different conjugations of the same root, and are even spelled the same way without vowels). This person wrote: “Education is foremost important to me and something I have and will always instill in my children. No matter what we encounter in life, no matter who tries to change us into what someone else wants, no matter what adversity we have to overcome, our knowledge of life and the world around us is what enables us to adapt to ever-changing environments of living and pursuits… This one teaching is what has enabled us to thrive under the harshest conditions life has to throw at us. It has also enabled us to find happiness and love wherever we are.” Learning and teaching, as I spoke about earlier, is a uniquely interactive process in Judaism. Like most things in Judaism, it’s rarely conclusive and never one-sided (by the way, that’s why I invite you to participate in one of my talks during the High Holidays every year – like most things we do, this should be a shared, communal experience). In fact, Jewish learning is traditionally done with a hevruta, a learning partner, so that what you’re absorbing and understanding and interpreting isn’t only about you. Jewish learning and teaching ensures that we connect with others, and that we focus on more than just ourselves. It’s our path to surviving and thriving – it’s how we perpetuate ourselves, and it’s how we evolve.

          A person nearing the end of the conversion process shared this quotation from the book of Proverbs, “The soul of man is a candle of G-d, searching the chambers of our innermost parts.” (20:27) The writer started by noting that, literally translated, this verse deals with the ‘rooms of the belly,’ and that “Back in the days of old, people thought that the stomach was the source of emotion… Maybe this is one explanation for the fasting at Yom Kippur—it’s easier to explore an empty belly.” I have to say that I’ve been thinking about this way to understand the fast ever since. This person went on to say this about their favorite teaching “In the time I have spent exploring Judaism, I have often wondered what it is that makes Jews different… I think it could be this: There is a light inside every person, which has its source in the breath that G-d placed into the first human at creation. This light, this soul, is what allows us to exist and feel and think, and make decisions and make mistakes and make amends… the light inside each Jew is a light that belongs to all Jews… We cannot be individuals without, on some level, acknowledging that we are part of a greater whole… The candle of G-d searches within us, and encourages us to search within ourselves to find the connection we have with every single soul who shares our light.” Once again, a favorite teaching is about community, and the connections we share with each other. The idea that we as Jews, and as humans, are all part of one greater whole is both implicitly and explicitly stated throughout our tradition. It’s vital, as we asses our lives today, that we internalize that fact, and that our actions in the coming year are based on it.

          Last week, I began to speak about one of my favorite Jewish teachings, Rabbi Hillel’s famous set of questions from chapter one of Pirke Avot, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתַי – “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now when?” I primarily spoke about the first question on Rosh Hashanah morning, noting that with the Jewish New Year’s focus on examining our actions over the past year, and trying to atone for the things that we’ve done wrong, the self-focused first of these questions is particularly relevant at this moment. I talked about the idea that being for ourselves means being objective assessors of our deepest needs, and courageous advocates for those needs, ensuring that we make the time to address our physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs throughout the year – that we make the time to become our best selves. By being the best versions of ourselves, we are most able to do the things that we each need to do to bring more shalom – more peace and wholeness – into the world. Understood this way, self-advocacy is our responsibility – being true to our needs is the path to our being most able to serve the needs of others, and the needs of the world around us. I also shared the idea last week that this is a particularly important moment for assessing the needs of the Jewish world, and of prioritizing for ourselves the contributions we can make to the greater Jewish community by more actively participating in it – which is particularly needed right now, when Jews and Judaism have been increasingly under attack throughout the world.

          The challenge of Rabbi Hillel’s teaching of course, is that focusing on yourself is only one part of this equation. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” is an extraordinarily important question, because in most situations, the primal human instinct is to focus on yourself. A basic fact about most of the commandments in the Torah – one that we might not frequently consider – is that rules are given to people whose instinct is to do the opposite of that rule. Not being self-centered, and caring for others, are things that we have to learn that we have to be taught, to do.

          To accomplish this, we are told to care for and to take care of others over and over again throughout Jewish texts, and throughout Jewish life. As part of our morning prayers, it’s traditional to recite, every day, the famous teaching from Leviticus 19:18, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ – ‘you shall your fellow as yourself.’ The most frequently occurring commandment in the entire Hebrew Bible is to be welcoming and kind to the stranger, because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. In the discussion in the Talmud’s Tractate Yoma (82b) that leads to the teaching that Jews can violate all commandments but three if a life is at stake, the following conversation takes place: “The ruler of my village came to me and said ‘kill that person, and if you do not then I will kill you.’ Can I follow his order so that I will be able to save myself?” Rabba responded: “Allow yourself to be killed, but you may not kill another. Who says that your blood is redder than his? Perhaps his blood is redder than yours.” Over and over and over again, Judaism reminds us – in an incredibly wide variety of ways – that no one person is more important than another, and that we are obligated to take care of others. Living only for myself is living in opposition to one of Judaism’s most foundational teachings.

          On the surface, this might seem like a fairly simple idea to grasp, yet, as I see it, there are two main obstacles that stand in the way of our fulfilling this teaching on a regular basis: remembering the teaching, and effectively putting it into action. The first is something that, when we’re willing to participate in it, Judaism does for us; our tradition is brilliant at surrounding us with its most important teachings, using devices like thrice-daily prayer services that address these ideas, and the posting of small containers containing scrolls with the concepts written on them on all of our doorways. The second – knowing how to actually be for others, and how to not end up actually being for ourselves – may be the most important and difficult inner work that we ever do.

          Last night, I shared a story about a man and a mirror. At the beginning of the story, the man – who is known as being unusually generous and kind-hearted – is not particularly wealthy, nor is he particularly poor. He earns enough to support himself and his family, but he gives away a lot of his money helping the underprivileged in his community. He eventually becomes very wealthy, and when he does, he still makes donations to the needy, but he no longer connects with the people he helps out. A wise man who has known him for a long time goes to visit him, and sees a beautiful mirror hanging on the wall in his house. The wise man uses the mirror as a teaching tool, and points out to the man the very slight difference between the mirror – which shows him only himself, and the glass of the windows in his home – which allows him to see the needy people in his community. The man understands that he has been spending so much time looking at himself in the mirror, and so little time looking at others, that he has stopped genuinely seeing his neighbors’ needs. He immediately changes his behavior, inviting the entire community into his home in order to truly connect with them, and at the end of the story, he scrapes some of the reflective silver off of the mirror, turning a piece of it into clear glass.

          The mirror story illustrates that helping others based on what you think, rather than on what you see that they need, is actually being for yourself. This is something that can and often does happen to all of us, and requires dedicated and continuous vigilance to try to prevent. When you spend too much time looking in a mirror, you stop being able to truly see other people and what they need. Instead, you start to think that other people need whatever you see in your reflection – and when you do that, you’re no longer being for others. You’re only seeing yourself, and you’re only being for yourself. That’s not who or what we want to be.

          May 5780 be a year in which we spend time looking at and through both mirrors and windows. May we objectively see, meet, and address both our needs, and those of others. May we spend time engaged in the fundamental Jewish activities of learning and teaching, recognizing that these activities can be both mirrors and windows – they can help us to better see and understand ourselves, and by helping us to see others, they also give us guidance on how to be there for them. May we all have the strength this year to look in our mirrors and to see ourselves clearly, and may we all also have the strength to scrape away a piece of that mirror, and to look out into the world to see other people’s perspectives and other people’s needs. May we all find the proper balance to do both of those things, and may we all have the courage, and may we all find the power, to do our best to meet all of the needs that we see. Ken yehi raton – may this be God’s will. And let us all say, “Amen.”