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How can we change? Yizkor 5778

YK Yizkor 5778 2017 Yom Kippur

Sep 30, 2017

Rabbi Philip Weintraub

Congregation Agudas Israel

 

In 1965 John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote:

There are places I remember

All my life though some have changed

Some forever not for better

Some have gone and some remain

All these places have their moments

With lovers and friends I still can recall

Some are dead and some are living

In my life I’ve loved them all

Copyright John Lennon and Paul McCartney, https://www.thebeatles.com/song/my-life

 

In a few minutes, we will recite Yizkor.

May God remember the soul of my ____________ who has [have] gone to his [their] eternal home. In loving testimony to his life [their lives], I pledge tzedakah to help perpetuate ideals important to him [them]. Through such deeds, and through prayer and remembrance, may his [their] soul[s] be bound up in the bond of life. May I prove myself worthy of the many gifts with which he [they] blessed me. May these moments of meditation strengthen the ties that link me to his [their] memory. May he [they] rest in peace forever in God’s presence. Amen. (Machzor Lev Shalem)

 

Today is a complicated day, emotionally.  We are thinking of our own lives.  We confess our sins.  We beat ourselves up.  We consider where we have been and where we want to go.  At the same time, we think about those that came before us.  This ratchets up the emotions, as well.  I am very pleased that in our Yizkor booklets this year we have two special additions–one that is for a difficult parent–how do we honor their memory when they caused us so much harm?  The second is for those who are fortunate to have living parents and offers thanks to God for that blessing.

Using my eclipse theme of the last few days, I wonder how does the eclipse change us and our views of the universe?  How do we look at the world differently, seeing that even the sun can sometimes be hidden from sight?  

 

In a way we find ourselves in two separate timelines–one is our own and one is that of the people we remember.  With both we are looking backwards.  We need eyes in the back of our heads, but we cannot forget the eyes in the front!  Looking forward is essential also.  If we spend the entire day (or our entire lives) beating ourselves up for the past, we cannot move forward.

 

In Masechet Sanhedrin 37a, we study a powerful Mishnah: we discover how the court interrogates witnesses.  This is not a simple affair.  They do not just swear to tell the whole truth.  In a capital case they are reminded that someone’s life is literally in their hands–if their evidence helps convict someone–they are the one who must help with the execution!

 

Several stories on the page draw my attention.  The first is of Rabbi Zeira.  He always saw the best in everyone. (I have spoken regularly about the importance of that noble trait!)  When he was presented with thieves, he tried to help them repent.   

הנהו בריוני דהוה בשיבבותיה דר’ זירא דהוה מקרב להו כי היכי דניהדרו להו בתיובתא והוו קפדי רבנן כי נח נפשיה דר’ זירא אמרי עד האידנא הוה חריכא קטין שקיה דהוה בעי עלן רחמי השתא מאן בעי עלן רחמי הרהרו בלבייהו ועבדו תשובה:

The Gemara relates: There were certain hooligans [biryonei] who were living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Zeira. He brought them close, i.e., treated them with friendship, in order to cause them to repent of their sins, but theother Sages disapproved of his actions. When Rabbi Zeira died, those hooligans said: Until now, there was the short one with singed legs, i.e., Rabbi Zeira, who would pray for compassion for us. Who will pray for compassion for us now? They thought about this in their hearts and repented. Ultimately, Rabbi Zeira’s actions were proven correct, as they repented.

What does this say about how we interact with one another?  What kind of world do we live in if we judge each other in the most lenient ways, if we expect that others are doing their best?  We are all flawed.  We are all imperfect and if we remember that about the other, how much more positive will our interactions become?

 

I know how difficult this is!  There are many lessons in our tradition that are regularly repeated.  The importance of fair judgement is one of those.  We are told to favor neither the rich or the poor, nor our friends.  We are told to judge others for merit, for good, to see the best in one another.  If something has so many reminders in our tradition, you can be darn sure that we NEED the reminder.  Elsewhere in Sanhedrin we learn that there is no unnecessary repetition in the Torah–if something is repeated, there is a reason!  We NEED the repetition not to judge each other harshly.  We NEED the repetition to treat one another fairly.  We are inclined to favor those who will favor us.  Depending on the moment and circumstance, we may favor the more well off or the less well off–whether for personal reasons or communal ones.

 

Returning to our text: the second story is part of the intimidation and interrogation of the witnesses.  There they are reminded that saving one life is saving an entire world and ending one life is ending an entire world.

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא

The court tells the witnesses: Therefore, Adam the first man was created alone, to teach you that with regard to anyone who destroys one soul from the Jewish people, i.e., kills one Jew, the verse ascribes him blame as if he destroyed an entire world, as Adam was one person, from whom the population of an entire world came forth. And conversely, anyone who sustains one soul from the Jewish people, the verse ascribes him credit as if he sustained an entire world.

Finally the third is about how we are all created by God from one ancestor–maybe not genetically–but so that no one can claim their father is greater than another.

ומפני שלום הבריות שלא יאמר אדם לחבירו אבא גדול מאביך

The mishna cites another reason Adam the first man was created alone: And this was done due to the importance of maintaining peace among people, so that one person will not say to another: My father, i.e., progenitor, is greater than your father.

If we see ourselves as coming from a common spiritual ancestor, we see that we are all one family.  Looking at our world today, we can use this reminder.  Whether our skin is light or dark, we come from one ancestor.  Whether we like low taxes or high taxes, we come from one ancestor.  Whether we believe that government is a force for good or a force of bureaucracy, we come from one ancestor.  Whether we are right or left, love Israel or do not care, we come from one ancestor.  If I believed it was acceptable for me to have a tattoo, I might put these words on my forehead!  We must see the commonality in one another, the humanity and the Divinity in one another.

What is it about these texts that draws me back again and again: the importance of relationships; the importance of continuing to work on our relationships; the importance of recognizing that others are ALSO working on their relationships.

 

Ok, I want to see if you are awake for a moment.  I’m going to ask you raise your hands.  How many people here email? text?  Do you ever talk to people on the phone?  On facetime?  In person?  Now I need a shout out, which of those options creates the least amount of confusion?  Probably in person.  Yet how often do we use other forms.  They are substitutes, and important substitutes, but how often do we misconstrue and misunderstand.  We write a message with love and kindness, expecting someone will read it that way.  Yet how often is a message hastily sent, responded to in haste?  How often do we read a message and think someone is annoyed with us–and find ourselves completely wrong!  Tone, body language, facial expressions are essential to our communication–yet we are missing those so often.  I know I have this challenge, and I bet you do, too!

 

This is clearly not a new problem–well maybe the texting or snapchatting is–but as I shared from the Talmud–we have been having unnecessary disagreements forever!

 

It seems one of the main tasks of this time of year is attempting to repair relationships.  That works fine if the other party is on the same page, but what happens when they are not.  Not everyone is open to renewing relationships.  Not everyone is capable of it.  Some people just are not ready.  Some situations are not meant to be reconciled–if someone was abusive–neither side may find reconciliation productive–and it can even be harmful.  If we are the damaging party, we may ask forgiveness, but we are not guaranteed it!  If we are the injured party, we may forgive if asked, but we are not 100% obligated to do so.

 

Earlier this week, I met with my Tuesday morning Mishnah group.  We looked at a tshuvah, a rabbinic answer, of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, the former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, may his memory be a blessing.  He was asked could one write a letter of apology before Yom Kippur, if one was too embarrassed to go in person.  While his answer strongly implied that going face to face was best, he implied that we should do whatever we can to repair what he have broken.  We learned that while we must make at least three attempts to ask forgiveness from a friend, from a teacher we must ask even 1000 times!  Yet in our conversation, we wondered about the broader implications.  Few relationships are broken through the fault of only one side!  

What happens if someone is gone?  If they are dead?  In these cases, expressing our feelings in other outlets can be productive.  We can write a letter, an email, speak to a rabbi, a friend, a therapist.  If we give ourselves outlets to discuss these losses, we may find ways of working through them that did not seem open before.

 

But of all these friends and lovers

There is no one compares with you.

And these mem’ries lose their meaning

When I think of love as something new.

Tho’ I know I’ll never lose affection

For people and things that went before,

I know I’ll often stop and think about them,

In my life I love you more.

 

The way we move forward is by having these conversations–before it is too late as often as we can.  Our biggest failure is thinking we cannot change–and neither can the ones we love.  We think we and they are immovable and inert.  The holidays, the shofar come to blast us out of this fallacy.  We can do it.  We can improve ourselves, our relationships.  Last night I referenced the Unetanah Tokef, reminding us that we can be alive, but we have the choice of existing or living.  The central line of that prayer is that

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

But teshuvah and tefillah and tzedakah (return and prayer and righteous acts)

deflect the evil of the decree.

In many ways THIS is the lesson.  THIS is how we can react.  THIS changes our fate–or at least how we understand it.  We CAN change.  We CAN pray.  We CAN help the world.  If we make those choices, our world is a better place–not in some future time, but NOW.  L’shanah tovah.  We now open our yizkor books.

Sources:

https://www.thebeatles.com/song/my-life

https://www.sefaria.org/Sanhedrin.37a.10-37b.2?lang=bi

Machzor Lev Shalem

Elul, Again.

Elul is upon us.  Rosh Hashanah is a month away.  Rabbis are frantic.  Cantors are frantic.  What about you?

What does this time mean for you?  Is it a time when you reflect on the year that has been?  Or is it just another month?

Do you plan for the future?  Do Chesbon hanefesh/an accounting of your soul?

Today is my anniversary.  I think of the last eight years and am grateful for each day–or at least that’s what I say.  Like everyone we have amazing days and lousy ones.  Sometimes I’m rude, can’t agree on what to make for dinner, or ignore the children or the stinky diaper.  This time of year reminds me that I can’t ask the Holy One for forgiveness for the mistakes I’ve made with my wife.  First I have to talk to her.  If she can forgive the dirty diaper, then I can talk to G-d that I did not see the Divinity in her in that moment.  I can pledge to do a little bit better this year.  On the wall in our bedroom is a beautiful painting, of a candle.  The flame is written in Hebrew and shows the Hebrew words for fire, God, man and woman, depending on the direction it is read.  It shows that without God, a couple have only fire, but together, they can build a sacred life.

Together we can build a home of Torah, of love, of laughter.  Thank you!

” Marci Wiesel was influenced by the Midrash, the Talmudic legend based on a biblical verse 2:18 of Genesis: And the Lord God said, It is not good for the man to be by himself: I will make one like himself as a help to him. In the flame appear the Hebrew letters that form the words Ish, man, and Isha, woman. The two letters Yud and Heh are shared by both words and make up the name of G-d. Without His name Ish and Isha become only Aish meaning fire. The verse in the candle whose explanation appears in the profile on either side and below the paper cut were taken from the Midrash while the Hebrew and English passage inscribed along the outer edge is taken from the Zohar.” Image and text from:(http://www.gans.co.il/man-woman-paper-cut.html)

As we enter this new month, as we count down the days to Rosh Hashanah, I think of the messages that I share, the hope that I have and the love of family, of the Holy One, and of our community that keeps me going every day.  May my accounting of my successes and failures, my deeds, my thoughts and my prayers help me to better serve them all.

 

Vows and Oaths–the Israeli Dream edition

Note: These were my notes for Parshat Mattot-Maasei.  The spoken version rarely coincides with what I wrote, but it should give you an idea of my thought process!

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה Hashem׃

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the LORD has commanded:

אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽHashem אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

 

Our parsha opens with these sacred words.  The rabbis are very concerned about vows and oaths.  They strongly discourage us from taking them, noting in the Talmud that the Nazir, like Samson, the one who refuses hair cuts and wine, must offer a sin offering at the end of his vow.  The following verses detail how women’s vows are limited; that fathers and husbands can annul their daughters’ and spouses’ vows.  While patriarchal and seemingly sexist, it shows a deep discomfort with the concept of vows themselves.

 

While in other weeks, I have spoke about the concept of shalom bayit, of peace in the home, and how that might seem to occasionally supercede complete honesty; the arc of our tradition shows us over and over again that words matter.  Unlike many of our politicians who seem not to know truth if it smacks them in the face, who make campaign promises they have no intention of keeping, our Torah teaches us that our word must be true.

 

Words are incredibly powerful.  According to Bershit, it is with words that the Holy One created this world.  There are Talmudic stories of people who throw themselves in fiery furnaces to avoid embarrassing another person with their words.  There are many books on Lashon Hara and Motzi Shem Ra, discouraging us from gossip or even sharing painful truths about one another–words are powerful.  All these books show us that even a flippant comment can be dangerous to the wellbeing of others–I know I can be guilty of this!

 

I have been told that in the diamond district, many deals are sealed with a handshake and a “Mazel and Brocha”.  No contract need be signed, because the trust in that community is so strong, the word of one Jew to another is inviolable.  While I cannot attest to the reliability of those deals, I have heard that these words are stronger than any contract.  Is the same true for us?
This week we conclude the wanderings in the wilderness.  Next week we read from Devarim, as Moshe Rabbenu will help us be sure of our commands before we enter the land.  The parsha opens with concerns about vows, with concerns about words and their power.  As we prepare to enter Israel, we are envisioning a perfect society.  As such we are building it peacefully with a reminder of the importance of the truth!  We must be honest!

What are you learning?


Every Thursday morning we study the liturgy of our people. Whether we meet in my office or the conference room, we find new insights into the services-and practice our Hebrew.

When are you going to join us?

Every day is an opportunity to learn Torah, to learn about the world around us, to learn about the meanings of our lives.

Your Torah influences mine. Your learning helps me grow. I need your help!

How do we soar?

The Blue Angels flying over my house during the 2017 NY Air Show

Some weeks just knock you for a loop. This week I found myself in the ER, in pretty terrible pain. Family members had major medical procedures, kids were sick. In between moaning on the couch, I officiated at three different funerals this week. One I had to ask for help–I just couldn’t move.

How do we know when to ask for help and when we can fight through the pain? While it is a judgement call, I see Parshat Pinchas offering us a little help. Pinchas is most well known because of a particularly violent act. He took justice into his hands and killed two people who were flagrantly violating communal and Gd-given laws. When the parshiot were divided, this act was separated from the parsha that bears his name. The rabbis were uncomfortable including it there. Instead, the parsha opens with a ceremony around his covenant of peace, a peace that is not perfect, because of the violence he had committed.

Our tradition believes in the rule of law–but this rule includes the right to a fair trial. Too often we hear stories of vigilante justice, of someone who took the law into his or her own hands. That is a tragedy for all involved–both for the one who tried to bring justice and the one who was harmed. Our American system works when we all have trust in it. For that to work, we must all believe we have a fair stake, a fair shot.

When everyone has opportunity to live their lives, to not be afraid, then we are truly making progress. Then, we can all soar!

Pinchas’ mistake was not asking for help. When he took matters into his own hands, he did not give the community time to act together. Maybe it was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t the right way to do it. The criminals deserved a fair trial. Pinchas denied that to them.

In our own lives, how often do we ask for help when we need it? How often do we wait until we absolutely have no other choice?

I know that I am guilty of this.  I frequently do things myself that I should delegate.  The personal events of this week remind me that we ALL need help.  None of us can act alone.  That’s what it means to be part of a community.  That’s how we can soar.