Rabbi's Bulletin December 2018

GRATITUDE IN OLD AGE

No one I know cultivates gratitude more faithfully than my mother, who turns ninety this week. Maybe it’s because of the time she lay helplessly on the African veld with fractured ribs (having been thrown from a horse), vultures were circling overhead, and she thought she was going to die then and there. She has greeted every morning since as an undeserved gift. Taking to the slopes last year, she praised God that her body still allowed her to engage her greatest athletic passion. When she finally put away her skis at the end of the season, she acknowledged it might be last time. Now that she broke her elbow four weeks ago, only Hashem knows when she will ski again. Meanwhile, she has reveled in each small measure of recovery: the joyful liberation of having the cast removed, or the first time she could wash her own hair without assistance.

The medieval Rabbi Bachya ibn Pekuda taught that although every person at every stage of life benefits from innumerable gifts, we tend to suffer a kind of blindness that blocks us from recognizing them. There are several basic reasons for this: we endlessly and compulsively pursue material pleasures—which can never be satisfied, leaving us in a constant state of want; we are so used to our blessings that we don’t notice them anymore, but take just one thing away and we quickly realize how much we took it for granted; we focus on challenges and afflictions to the exclusion of all that is going well in our lives. To counter these three tendencies, we should seek contentment in what we have as opposed to ruing what we lack, form the habit of enumerating even commonplace experiences in our lives as if noticing them for the first time, and express our appreciation directly to others at every turn for their kindnesses. 

Rabbi Bachya’s guidance is as relevant in the 21stcentury as when he wrote it. He reminds us that gratitude is a practice rather than a feeling. He admonishes us not to wait around passively until the sensation of appreciation spontaneously washes over us.  Instead, we are to train ourselves to articulate gratitude—out loud and with words—not just when we’re in a good mood but especially when the impulse to give thanks is absent.

One might think that as we age—as strength declines, as the horizon narrows, as personal autonomy erodes—there is less to be grateful about. However, the reverse is also possible. Restrictions and limitations can serve to increase appreciation for the pleasures and freedoms that still remain. As one elderly blogger puts it: “When we strip away the prizes of youth—the achievements, the possessions, the positions held, the money earned—can there still be joy? Yes, but one has to look in different places. It may be less in competing for the next prize and more in enjoying simple moments of contentment and connection with others.”

There are several faculties that never diminish with age: thecapacity for wonder, the wisdom that comes with experience, and the evolution of the spirit. One supreme imperative operates at all times for the human being, no less than for the blade of grass: “Grow! Grow!” Another sage, the Alter Rebbe of Slabodka, wrote: “if one would only hold in the mind’s eye the taste of sheer pleasure at one’s continued growth, then, even at the last moment of one’s final day, one would still feel the joy of the infant who takes her first step.” 

We don’t have to wait until old age before preparing for it. After all, it is unlikely that we will reshape, at the eleventh hour, attitudes and behaviors honed throughout a lifetime. Rather, we are bound to deal with infirmity and encroaching death the same way we have faced other acute challenges. If we constantly struggle with discontents and rail against our own deficiencies, we may approach the last stage of life with desperation and regret. On the other hand, by practicing gratitude daily for the ordinary and extraordinary gifts we possess, we are likely to bid farewell to all of them, when the time comes, with thanksgiving and joy—just as King David did on his deathbed in Arthur Honegger’s symphonic oratorio Le Roi David:

Oh, cette vie était belle si belle! Je Te bénis, Toi qui me l’as donnée! “Oh, this life was beautiful, so beautiful! I bless You, You who gave it to me.” 

Rabbi's Bulletin November 2018

OUR COMMUNITY RESPONDS TO ANTISEMITISM

 

Last night, hundreds of congregants and guests packed our Beth Shalom sanctuary to overflowing for an interfaith memorial service of healing and unity, comfort and resolve, in the wake of last week’s murderous antisemitic attack in Pittsburgh. Participants included Jews, Christians, Muslims, and many other faiths, black Americans, white Americans, and people of many races and ethnicities, straight people, gay people, transgender people, and people of different sexual and gender orientations: all standing together to proclaim solidarity with us—the Jewish community of Bloomington—and to oppose bigotry against all groups. 

Antisemitism is an American problem, a point that Dr. Mark Roseman emphasized when he distinguished between the particularistic aspect of antisemitism, as a centuries-old hatred specifically against Jews and the Jewish people, and its universality, that is, its “intersectionality” with other marginalized groups targeted by supremacists and extremists. The overall message of the evening, however, was one of hope and conviction.

“It is a tree of life to us who hold fast it.” The Tree of Life Synagogue was the name of the congregation targeted by the terrorist. Eitz chayim hi are the words embroidered on our own cover. What do we mean, exactly, when we say “it gives life to those who hold fast to it?”

It gives life when we hold fast to our practice of Judaism, even when we are under attack. That’s why it’s crucial that we continue “business as usual” at Beth Shalom, as an act of defiance to our assailants and as an act of loyalty to our tradition. Yes, we can and will absolutely take all appropriate security measures, but we will not give in to fear.

It gives life when we hold fast to our basic Jewish values, including the often repeated commandment: “you shall love the stranger.” Congregation Beth Shalom will not curtail one bit, but redouble, our support and advocacy on behalf of refugees, undocumented immigrants, the disenfranchised, and the disadvantaged in our society. 

It gives life when we hold fast to courteous and civil discourse, by disengaging from the hate speech propagating over social media. We must guard our own tongue, and speak not words of spite and malice but only expressions of tolerance, generosity and compassion—to strangers and intimates alike. 

It gives life when we hold fast to the long view. As a people, we have endured millennia of oppression and persecution, enslavement and genocide, and yet we are still here, outliving empires and civilizations, bearing witness to the unity of God and the unity of humanity, still proclaiming our core message: that all human beings are created in the Divine Image, and that each and every life is infinitely precious.

 

 

Rabbi's Bulletin october 2018

Middah of the Month: Humility

As discussed from the pulpit on Kol Nidre evening, we (the Rabbi and President) are launching a Mussar program at Beth Shalom entitled: “Middah of the Month.” Mussar is a Jewish ethical discipline devoted to the cultivation of positive character traits known as middot(singular: middah). Each month, a different middahwill be featured in the print bulletin, at worship services, on the website, at Board meetings, and elsewhere. The Middahfor October is Humility (Anavah).

Alan Morinis, the founder of the American Mussar Institute, writes in his book Everyday Holiness: “Humility is the first soul-trait to work on, because it entails an unvarnished and honest assessment of your place. Without this accurate self-awareness, nothing else in your inner life will come into focus.” Humility entails a right-sized appreciation of self: neither grandiose, nor self-effacing, but in between.

People who flaunt themselves are often compensating for low self-esteem. However, if you feel right with yourself inside, then you can assert yourself in quiet ways without being arrogant or overbearing. In our tradition, Moses supremely exemplifies the proper deployment of ego. The Torah describes him as “the humblest person on Earth,” and yet, as a leader, he doesn’t shy away from resisting his opponents and upbraiding his followers when necessary.

Here’s a completely hypothetical example in my own role as Rabbi. Let’s say that a member were to cast aspersions on a decision I made and accuse me of pride, and let’s say that I were incapable of explaining my actions without breaking another person’s confidentiality. I could “take the high road” and not defend myself at all. I could react indignantly with: “I’m the Rabbi, and you have to do whatever I say.” (By the way, Mussar teaches that anger almost always results from lack of humility.) Or, I might say something like: “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I have valid reasons that I unfortunately am not at liberty to share with you.” That would be an intermediate response. 

As members of this holy community, Congregation Beth Shalom, we each have to decide when to speak up and when to keep our thoughts to ourselves. On the one hand, the Torah exhorts us with: “you shall reproach your kinsfolk,” and on the other hand it immediately goes on to say: “but you shall not incur guilt because of it.” (Leviticus 19:17) The qualifying clause is interpreted to mean: “bring criticism to the other person’s attention in a considered, considerate manner, lest you yourself incur guilt by disrespecting, demeaning or shaming her.”

The last word (for the present) on humility comes from opera. I happen to be studying Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” in preparation for IU’s upcoming production. At one point, the reverend mother says to Blanche: “unhappiness is not when others have disdain for you but only when you have disdain for yourself.” (Her counsel parallels the Jewish idiom expressed in the Torah service: “not on the opinions of mortals do I rely, but on God alone.”) Only it sounds so much better in French! Le malheur, ma fille, n'est pas d'être méprisée, mais seulement de se mépriser soi-même. 

Rabbi's Bulletin September 2018

TESHUVAH  

To do teshuvah(“repentance”) rates as one of the most arduous demands that our tradition places upon us. As a Torah study participant said last week: “who among us wants to admit she’s wrong?” Teshuvahis a painstaking and comprehensive process. We must go to the person we have hurt, straightforwardly articulate our offense (without explaining, minimizing, or justifying it), express remorse, resolve never to recommit the injurious behavior, and be willing to do whatever is in our power to make amends for the damage. These are the steps enumerated by Maimonides. They take time, effort and courage. Failure to do teshuvah is considered more serious than the original transgression. Judaism ranks transgressions according to their level of severity. A “sin” (cheit) is an unwitting transgression, committed by accident (for example, forgetting a promise or commitment). An “iniquity” (avon)is a willful transgression, committed because we can’t resist the “evil impulse” or temptation (for example, losing one’s temper). Finally, an “act of rebellion” (pesha) is a willful transgression, committed solely to violate another’s authority or dignity—the most grievous kind (for example, acting out of malice or spite).

What’s noteworthy is that when we commit wrongdoing but fail to do teshuvah, the original transgression, no matter how flagrant or slight, now automatically upgrades to the level of pesha, a deliberate and sustained act of defiance. The sage Netivot Shalom explains: “when an individual commits a sin, he transgresses the will of the Creator only once, at the moment of the misdeed itself, but when he doesn’t return in teshuvah, he stands in rebelliousness all his days.” In other words, a momentary lapse hardens into longlasting obduracy.

Given how exacting and even painful the process can be, how do we summon the will to do teshuvah? On the other hand, given how consequential and grave the obligation is, how can we afford not to do teshuvah? Netivot Shalom settles the predicament by offering an extraordinarily encouraging analogy. He compares doing teshuvah before the High Holidays to searching for chametz (bread and other leavened products) before Passover Jewish law prohibits the possession of chametz on Passover—down to the smallest crumb. We’re supposed to scrub and sweep every room during the days leading up to the festival. On the night before, we ceremonially search high and low for the last morsels, armed with candle, feather and wooden spoon. Try as we might, however, we can never be sure of having eliminated all of it. That’s why we conclude with the recitation: “Let all leaven that may remain be regarded as dust of the earth.” As the Talmud directs: “search all the nooks and crannies, but then you must let it go and nullify it in your heart.”

Likewise, the entire month of Elul is devoted to teshuvah, so that we may enter the New Year with a clean slate. We’re supposed to scrupulously inventory our behavior, enumerate our wrongs, identify all those we have harmed, and seek their forgiveness. Try as we might, however, we can never be sure of having atoned for everything. Just like the removal of chametz,the process of teshuvahhas a fixed endpoint when we get to say: “I’ve done all I can.” Concerning past transgression, at a certain point we must tell ourselves: “let it go and nullify it in your heart.” 

Our behavior will always be flawed. Even the way we do teshuvahwill always be flawed. “What does Adonai require of you? Only do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” I take the prophet Micah’s famous tripartite injunction to mean that the only thing that matters in the end is: our constant striving to live according to our principles, our compassion toward others and ourselves when we fall short of our values, and our willingness to learn and grow from every misstep along the way.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu. "Days are scrolls: let us write on them what we want to be remembered."