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High Holiday Sermons
ROSH HASHANAH I (2014): MY HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD SUMMER
by Rabbi David Klatzker
Someone asked me the other day how my summer had been. Great, I replied. But, as soon as I said that, I knew that I was hiding my true feelings. Actually, this summer I had a bad case of the blues.
Why was I so down? Well, just before the summer began, it became clear that Commack Jewish Center is likely to close its doors in a year’s time, and that was sad news for us all. When I came here, I had hoped that we could keep the synagogue afloat despite the rough waters in which we find ourselves. But that was not a realistic hope.
Then, as the summer progressed, I fell down some stairs and injured my foot; I was stuck in a wheelchair for five long weeks. I was forced to cancel my plans to go out to California to see my children there.
Next came the bloody war in Israel and Gaza; I was glued constantly to the news, worrying about the tunnels and the rockets, and horrified by the pictures of death and destruction. Then my wife lost her job. To top everything off, at the end of the summer, one of our cars was nearly totaled. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the accident.
Now of course I know that in the wider scheme of things, I’m really pretty lucky. Many of you had summers that were far worse than mine. Some of you lost loved ones; some of you heard disturbing diagnoses from your doctors. I want to say to you that we need to share these things with one another. Tzuris (trouble) should not be kept private.
There is a medieval Jewish story that goes like this: A king was wooing a woman he wanted to become his queen. They sat together on the couch and he told her about himself. He boasted, “I rule over a huge country and I am in charge of an army that numbers tens of thousands. She listened and started to move away from him. He continued, “I am consulted by kings and princes from all over the world.” She moved further away from him on the couch. And then he said, “Sometimes I’m lonely. Sometimes I’m scared and don’t know if I’m doing right with my life.” And when he said that, she moved closer to him and took his hand.
The truth is, we actually become more attractive to others, when we are able to share our hopes and our fears. In fact, haven’t you noticed that people who have struggled, people who have suffered, are more interesting, more grown-up, and have more to say than people who walk through life unwounded? They are less wasteful of time and love, and they often have deep insights to share.
Why do we insist on being such shtarkers—to use the Yiddish word—why do we pretend to be so strong? A woman once said to me that she wanted to protect her children from the pain that she felt about a personal loss of hers. I told her that I thought she was wrong; our children ought to see us suffering, so they will be aware of our pain. How else are they going to learn to take care of us? Rather than shelter them, we should share at least a small part of our suffering with them. That’s what family is all about. I know that my own children were an immense help to me when my parents died a few years ago. Their hugs were a great gift to me.
I read somewhere that the actress Jane Fonda said that she has absolutely no regrets, none at all, about her three failed marriages. I find that hard to believe. I do not think that any of us can live without feeling regrets. We regret our lost loves, our careless words, not having a child, not having more children, and so on and so forth. It is only natural that we feel remorse about the failure of our hopes and dreams and goals.
In the old East European synagogues, on the High Holy Days, people would cry as they read the prayers and reflected on their disappointments and losses. I wish Jews in suburban America would give themselves permission to do the same thing. Real Jews do cry. The ARI, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the 16th century mystic of Safed, wrote: He who does not shed tears on Rosh Hashanah bears witness to the deadness of his soul.
So, to sum up the first part of this sermon: Don’t keep the lid on. Acknowledge your pain. You will feel better if you do, and you may be amazed to discover that people will respond with great kindness to you; they know what you are feeling, because they=ve experienced most of the same feelings themselves.
The second part of my talk this morning has to do with the phenomenon of depression, which is far more common than most people think. I’m sure that many of you were as stunned as I was by the death of Robin Williams, the brilliant comedian who committed suicide. But we should really not be
surprised by anyone’s suicide anymore; in fact, more people die of suicide than die in car accidents in this country. A great many of us suffer from depression, even if most of us do not contemplate killing ourselves. Depression strikes smart people and attractive people and hardworking people, and yes, creative people like Robin Williams. Depression often leads to alcoholism and drug abuse. It kills marriages and carves up families, it steals love and happiness.
So what should you do if you are depressed? Deep and constant depression can be treated; if you are stuck in depression for a long time, you should get professional help, just as you would if you were feeling a pain in the chest. Clinical depression is an illness, not a personal failure. I know many people who spent years dreading getting out of bed, but are now healthy, thanks to medicine and the support of family and friends.
If you encounter someone who seems suicidal, my advice is: don’t tell them to just buck up and don’t tell them to count their blessings. Instead, you should ask them how they feel. Let them know you love them. And tell them that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem; that they owe it not only to their family and friends, but also to their future selves, to stay alive. Tell them to hold on and give it time; they may feel very differently about their situation a week or a month or a year from now. We can never know what the future may bring us. (This advice by the way comes from the 16th century French philosopher Montaigne, who feared the loneliness and physical pain of growing old. He contemplated suicide, but rejected it because of his belief in surprises. Indeed,he tells us that some of his best friendships and richest happiness came late in life.)
As regards the more common sort of depression, the light fog which so many of us experience, I will tell you two things that I have found helpful when I myself am depressed.
First, although you may think that I am a religious fanatic to suggest this, I am convinced that you need to experience a real Shabbat.
At the end of this unhappy summer, Randy and I got away to rural Vermont for a few days. We stayed in a country inn far off the main roads, a container of silence, with no TV or radio, and no cell phone reception. We could sit on the porch and just admire the landscape. We left the world behind for a few days, and it was wonderful. It revived our spirits. It made us calmer, more patient and more affectionate with each other.
But you don’t have to go to the country to do that. You can do it every week, on Shabbat. And if that sounds scary to you, remember that you don’t have to do it for the rest of your life—only for one Friday night a week, if that is all you can spare. The point is, you know how to keep busy, but you don’t know how to be still. When you feel stressed, nothing is better than slowing down, and letting your resting revive you.
The other advice that I want to give you is this: if you are down and can’t imagine getting up again, the best thing you can do is stop asking “What do I need?” and start asking “What do other people need?” The greatest way out of depression is to serve someone else. It can be a very small gesture—making a phone call, preparing some food, smiling at someone, saying thank you, making an anonymous donation. Do something to lighten someone else’s load. Just do it, don’t analyze it. It will at least for a moment take you out of the deep hole you’re in and it may help you grow big enough to embrace life as it is, with all of its dimensions, both good and bad. It will free you from what the Jewish Mussar masters call “timtum ha-lev,” a blockage of the heart.
In the last part of my message today, let me return to something I mentioned earlier: the proposed synagogue merger. You and I have every reason to mourn. It is very sad to think that this synagogue may be going out of existence. We love this building, despite its signs of aging; we are attached to the seats where we’ve always sat, and to the way the light streams into the sanctuary. This is where we celebrated births and b’nai mitzvah debuts, this is where we mourned our dead. We made deep friendships here.
But I urge you to try to reframe the issue. Not today this synagogue is dead. Not today. We are not closing our doors immediately after my sermon this morning. We still have work to do. I don’t mean cleaning the kitchen or fixing the leaks in the roof. Rather, I mean the work for which this shul was founded: to connect with God and Jewish tradition and the State of Israel and the Jewish people, to educate our children and ourselves Jewishly, to refine our character traits, to do Tikkun Olam (to help repair the world). These are Jewish responsibilities and they do not end.
And I ask you to stop thinking of yourselves as failures because the synagogue is likely to merge. There is a mindset that because a synagogue was planted in a particular place at a particular time in a particular form it must be there in perpetuity or else the synagogue has failed. That is not true; sometimes a synagogue needs to stand aside to make way for something new to be born. We will carry our gifts and talents with us to Dix Hills, and will create a new entity that will be more vibrant and attractive than the two synagogues could be on their own.
My friends, I had a horrible, no good, very bad summer. And some of you had summers that were even worse than mine. But let’s remember the meaning of the shofar blasts today. When we blow the shofar, we start with as tekiah, a long blast—we start out whole. Then we sound shevarim, three small blasts, or teruah, nine very short blasts—we break down, we are shattered. And then finally we have tekiah again—another complete and unbroken blast. We emerge whole again.
Isn’t this a musical retelling of our lives? We start out whole and complete. But the experiences of life break us down. Disappointments, injuries, illnesses, losses break us into pieces. But with God’s help, we slowly rebuild, we try to reassemble. And often, as Hemingway put it, we discover that we are strongest in precisely those places where we are broken.
I wish you all a shanah tovah, a good year, a year of hope and healing. AMEN.
ROSH HASHANAH 2 (2014): GAZA AND FERGUSON
by Rabbi David Klatzker
Summer is supposed to be fun and refreshing. But, as I explained yesterday, the summer of 2014 was a difficult summer for me—and for all of us, I think. This morning, I want to respond to two painful events that took place over the summer: the Israel/Gaza war, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. I don’t want to repeat what you’ve read on the op-ed pages of the newspaper; I hope to give you a different way of looking at these events.
The Jewish community stood with Israel as closely as it could during the fifty-day war in Israel and Gaza. When thousands of rockets were raining down on Israel and Israelis ran into their shelters, we worried about them. I downloaded the Tzeva Adom (Color Red) app for my smartphone, which clicked every time a warning siren sounded in Israeli cities. It soon got to be too much for me; I muted the sound.
On what was the second day of Operation Protective Edge, a 45-year old man named Amotz Greenberg from Hod Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, got called up. He reported for duty with his brigade, and by the end of the day he was dead. He was in Israel, not in Gaza, when it happened. A couple of Hamas operatives popped out of a tunnel and shot an anti-tank weapon at him and a 20-year old soldier; the two were killed instantly.
He was an accountant. He was married. He left behind a wife and two teenage children. The last text message he sent said, “Hakol b’seder.” Everything is fine.
To me this captures one piece of the picture of Israel today: you can be an ordinary suburbanite and the army gives you a call and you report for duty and before you know it, before you even enter enemy territory, you get killed. This fellow didn’t have to serve. He was way past the age of required service. But he did it because he thought it was his duty.
Why am I obsessed with this guy? Perhaps because he was middle-aged and not the kind of a physical specimen that you usually associate with an army hero. Just an ordinary guy. But he had extraordinary courage.
We mourn for Amotz Greenberg and the other brave Israelis who fell this summer. At the same time, let’s say it out loud, we were sickened by the images of death and destruction in Gaza that we saw on CNN and Fox News. How could our hearts not ache for the children of Gaza?
Of course, we have to hold the leaders of Hamas responsible for their heartlessness toward their own people by placing them in the line of fire. But we don’t have to apologize for feeling anguished at the death of innocent Gazans. We need to learn how to remain loyal to our people in an atmosphere of real moral complexity. The fact that the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) is now investigating a number of incidents where it may have made mistakes during the fighting is proof that you can lead with integrity and honesty.
And whatever impression you may get from American press and TV, the truth is that most Israelis are centrists. They are not part of the radical right that thinks that the Palestinians should have no right to self-determination, and they are not part of the radical left that blames Israel for everything and forgives the Palestinians for everything. A survey just a few days ago shows that 53 percent of Israelis who cast their votes for Netanyahu’s ruling party and 58 percent of the general public believe that the government should make a renewed push toward a settlement with the Palestinians, leading to the creation of a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank. 58% is not everybody, but it’s a majority.
A friend wrote in an email several weeks ago that he went to the annual wine festival in Beer Sheva, in the south. Artisanal food and wines were featured, and the place was packed with thousands of visitors. During the war this summer, everyone in Beer Sheva was home sleepless waiting for the air sirens. Now, my friend says, they are “living for life, and are choosing life.” I think that expresses it well. Israel is vulnerable, but feisty and full of life.
Now here is an interesting anecdote. A rabbi I know who lives in the Midwest was invited about a year ago to speak to an 11th grade Islamic thought class at a Muslim school. He was asked to tell a story from the Torah that might be of interest to Muslims. A challenging assignment. Which story would you tell? Think about it for a moment…
My friend chose to tell the story of Abraham arguing with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. He says to God, “Shall not the God of justice practice what he preaches? What if there are fifty innocent people there—will you still destroy the cities? What if there are forty? Thirty? Twenty? How about ten?” Alas, there are not even ten, and the cities are extinguished.
So the rabbi told this story to the Muslim students and Ahmed, a really cool kid, got it right away and asked, “What kind of God do you guys believe in?” And that is precisely the question that I want to ask you, because it relates to what happened this summer.
What kind of God do you believe in? There are plenty of Muslims and not a few Jews who think that God’s most important attribute is his power. They believe in a God of power who is always able to control things. A God who speaks with a demanding voice—thou shalt or thou shalt not! A God who demands submission. A God who will never compromise. A God who takes land from one people and gives it to another. God who utterly destroys his enemies. A God who wants martyrs in big numbers.
That’s the God many Muslims and some Jews worship. They model their lives on him, and they try to become more powerful and more controlling themselves. In my humble opinion, they don’t get God at all.
I can’t deny that there are passages in the Torah that present the image of a God of power. There are plenty of such passages. But there are also many places in the Torah where we see a different image of God, a God who persuades rather than coerces, a God we can talk to and even debate with (as Abraham did at Sodom), a God who sometimes complains that he feels lonely, a God who wants not so much obedience as relationship. Not the kind of God who could have arranged for the Holocaust not to happen, but a God whose power is a different kind of power—the power not to make decisions for us, but to help us correct our mistakes. A God who works with us within the lively, dynamic world to bring forth the highest possibilities.
Today, when the world is on fire, we need a God of goodness, not a God of power. Our understanding of God has been evolving through the ages, and it needs to evolve even further. I would go so far as to assert that if we read a text in the Bible and see a God who is less caring, patient, generous and merciful than the best person we can imagine, then we need to reject that text. We may choose to place it in historical context or interpret away its problematic meaning, but it is not Torah for us.
And the urgent need for a different model of God relates not only to Hamas and the Islamic State, and not only to those Jews who burned a Palestinian teenager alive and those who ran through the streets of Jerusalem yelling “Death to Arabs.” It is an issue for every one of us in our daily lives. If God is the epitome of power, then to be in God’s image, we would have to insist that we are always right. We could never admit a mistake, we could never compromise, because anything less than perfect would mean a falling-away from the image of an all-perfect, all-powerful God.
When that attitude is held by a husband or wife or parent—“I’m right and you’re wrong and I’m not going to give in because I’ll be less of a person if I do”—the results are always disastrous. Imagining that my children are “mine” and I can script their lives for them always leads to trouble. Thinking that my partner in relationship needs to “take care of me and make it all better for me” is a recipe for heartbreak.
In line with what I’ve been saying, I think our task is not to abandon religion to those who believe in a God who pulls all the strings, but to help people picture a different kind of God—a God of relationship and goodness, not an egotistical, all-powerful tyrant. We ought to teach people that the purpose of spirituality and religion is not to make God happy, but to create blessing in our own lives (which is what really makes God happy). We need to learn to think of Islam, Judaism and all other religions as living traditions which can grow and develop over time, never fully defined by what they have been in the past.
Now let me say just a few words about Ferguson. Michael Brown, age 18, was shot six times (twice in the head) and left dead on the street for four hours. I don’t know the full story of what happened and neither do you. I hope the facts will be made public soon. But the protestors on the streets of Ferguson were not wrong when they chanted “Justice is an arrest”—in other words, justice is an arrest and not a killing. I can say that even without knowing all of the facts in Ferguson, because an unarmed person should not be shot multiple times if there is any other way out. The fact that there have so many similar incidents of late—Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, black people who died because white people were suspicious of them—should give us all pause.
Some will tell you that those people asked for it. They weren’t properly respectful. They were thugs or drunks or in some way unacceptable. As though that gives anyone license to kill them.
As for the police, America has given its police a very difficult (and probably impossible) assignment, to push down crime statistics in black neighborhoods, and the result has been zero tolerance even for petty crimes. Blacks go to jail for crimes that are not enforced to the same degree against whites; even though the rate of illegal drug use is nearly identical for whites and blacks, far more blacks go to prison.
We should all be aware that there is a huge number of young black men who are warehoused in prison. A higher percentage of blacks are in prison today in this country than the percentage who were in prison in apartheid South Africa. And do you know that, with only 5% of the world’s population, American has 25% percent of the world’s prison population—that makes us the world’s largest jailor. Hooray, we’re number one.
We say, “It’s not my problem.” But it is our problem, because we can see it live on TV and in the social media, because we all live it. We say, “These people don’t get it. They need to go to school and work hard and make something of themselves.” But many black kids never catch up with school, because they are more likely to come from broken homes and to attend broken schools. When the system itself is broken, it is much harder for people to cultivate personal responsibility.
It has become clearer than ever that we have some serious social issues to deal with. I have heard many people say, “Let’s start a new anti-racism campaign in America.” But I fear that approach is not likely to work.
It’s not likely to work because it is expressed negatively—the goal is anti-racism—and it is hard to visualize a negative goal. It’s like saying, “I want to be less depressed.” If you say that to yourself over and over again— “I want to be less depressed,” “I want to be less depressed” —you won’t be able to stop thinking about depression. It will always be on your mind.
Instead, you ought to think something positive. “I can imagine doing something right now that I love, I can see myself being active, I can visualize something beautiful.” A positive technique is far more likely to rouse you from your depression.
So when it comes to anti-racism training, I am a total pessimist. Can you imagine what “anti-racism training” looks like? What is anti-racism training?…I can’t picture it, because the image of racism is stuck in my head. But if I ask you to create a picture of training that helps you respect the dignity of people of other races and cultures, is that easier to envisage? …I think it is.
This is why Dr King didn’t say, “I have a dream of a place where there is no racism.” Instead, he created a picture of a place where different races could eat together, study together, work and play together. Likewise, we don’t need another ceasefire in the Middle East. We need an outbreak of peace. Can we imagine what peace would look like, can we offer a strong, clear and convincing picture of it, and present that vision to the world? Because if we cannot imagine a picture of peace, it will never come true.
My friends, it was a rather dark summer, and our faith and optimism seemed to disappear. But now it is Rosh Hashanah: Hayom harat olam, today is the birthday of the world. Why is this birthday special? This Rosh Hashanah, we set out on a path of deliberate change. We will blend loyalty to our people with empathy for others. We will model our lives on a God of goodness, not power—a God who does not demand submission to a preordained plan, but tries to lure us to do the right thing, and offers us an open-ended future. Today we bring attention to the ongoing creation of our lives and of the world around us, and we pledge that we will transform our negative self-talk into positive and imaginable goals for the future… AMEN.
KOL NIDRE 2014: “Shmitta”
by Rabbi David Klatzker
When I sat down to write this Kol Nidre sermon, I had a tough time deciding what message I wanted to deliver. There was a lot of paper-crumpling as I started one idea, then another. But then I saw some article in newspapers reminding us that this new year, 5775, is a shmitta year, a sabbatical year. And at that moment I saw some possibilities.
The Hebrew word shmitta—not schmatta—means “letting go.” Shmitta is a Torah prohibition—on the seventh year, you cannot plant, prune, plow or harvest your field. As Leviticus puts it: “Six years you may sow your field…but in the seventh year the land shall have a Shabbat of complete rest” (Lev. 25:2-3). Shabbat for the land. Let it go. It’s not our land; it belongs to God. During the shmitta year we are supposed to rely on the leftover, wild crop. This may sound like a Native American idea, but it is Jewish.
The rabbis say that the law applies only to Jewish-owned fields in the Land of Israel. So if you have a garden at home here on Long Island, don’t worry about letting it go this year. Shmitta is currently practiced in Israel in accordance with rabbinic rulings; for example, many Orthodox Jews in Israel this year will buy fruit and vegetables only from Europe or from Palestinian farmers on the West Bank. But the shmitta idea is of limited relevance to the majority of Israelis and to the rest of the world.
So why do I choose to focus on this strange agricultural law tonight? Because I think there is a lot here for us to think about. I want to invite you to use your imagination. I want you to conceive of shmitta not as a legal regulation but as a challenge to generate some fresh ideas that you can use in your everyday life.
Let’s start with the first principle of shmitta: Let rest and lie fallow. Of course, in the days before agrochemicals were added to replenish the soil, this was good advice for farmers. But it is good advice for us too. Most of us have a real fear of resting and not producing. We think the rule is: get smart, work hard, and everything will be yours. The result is that we are available 24/7 and work 60 hour weeks.
Did you ever experience your own “fallow” period? Maybe you were in-between jobs or had to take a medical leave of absence. Did you feel guilt about not working for a while? Are you retired now? Do you view it as a relief or as a loss of self? Are you able to fill your time with meaningful activities?
I think most of us would like a time and a place to stop and rest and just to be. I especially worry about children today, who never seem to have any unscheduled time. When I say “let rest and lie fallow,” I’m not telling you to be lazy. But there are times when we simply need to let ourselves lie fallow, like a field. This time of lying fallow, when the field is unproductive and nothing seems to be going on, is the time when it is regaining its fertility in preparation for the next growing season. Without this period of inactivity, the field would cease to be productive and would even eventually become a wasteland. And so, I believe, it is with us.
Amazing things can happen when we let go of our need to be busy and accomplish something. We’ve been so busy that we’ve cut off parts of ourselves from our consciousness. We need time to reconnect with ourselves. What parts of your own personality would you like to develop further?
And, if you don’t know it already, here’s the sad truth: we are in a lifetime war with entropy, and entropy will eventually win. Our plans, projects and hard work will one day falter and become mere memories; we will ultimately get sick enough to die. This of course is one of the main messages of Yom Kippur, the day when we abstain from life-affirming activities like eating, the day when we think about “who will live and who will die” in the year to come.
In the law of shmitta, says the Jewish sage Abravanel, we are being taught that “we should consume what is good for our souls.” What is good for our souls. This means, cultivating the love of others, appreciating the beauty of God’s universe, and practicing goodness. Take a time-out, stop fixating constantly on your five-year plan, let go of your obsession to finish that project that can’t be finished, and start to pay attention to the things that will bring you wholeness, the things that entropy won’t eventually dissipate.
So the first principle of shmitta is: Let rest and lie fallow. Take advantage of a time out.
The second principle is: Tap into your inner reservoirs of faith and trust. Imagine that you are a farmer in ancient Israel. Leviticus says, “Should you ask, ‘What are we going to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?’ I will ordain my blessings for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years” (Lev. 25:20-21).
In other words, God promises to give you enough food to store away in the year before the shmitta, to carry you through all the way to the third year, when you will once again be permitted to gather your harvest. But this is a big leap of faith. What if there is not enough to last three years? How will you survive?
The Mussar master Rabbi Yosef Yussel Hurwitz of Novarodok said, “A person who tries to practice faith in God while leaving himself a backup plan is like a person who tries to swim but insists on keeping one foot on the ground.” No plan B!
My father told me how he learned to swim; he said my grandfather threw him in the lake and said, “Swim!” Well, maybe no plan B makes sense if you’re learning how to swim, but does it mean that you are somehow immune from danger? Should you drive fast on icy roads, wander around alone at night in dangerous neighborhoods, or do other risky things because you are sure that God will protect you?
No, of course not. You have to guard your own health and safety. The Torah and Rabbi Yosef Yussel are not saying that you should rely on miracles. Rather, they are saying that you need to believe that you can meet the challenges life has in store for you– that you will not collapse and will not be undone. You will find the strength you need.
Here is a little homework assignment for you: Think of something you fear that is not dangerous, such as visiting the sick or participating in some group activity that is outside of your comfort zone. During the next month, do the thing that causes you fear. Do it a few times if possible. Each time, before you do it, you might repeat to yourself the line from Adon Olam: Adonai li v’lo irah, Adonai is with me, I shall not fear. Adonai is with me, I shall not fear.
I have been talking about relatively small matters that we put off because we are afraid. But what about more substantial fears? When I speak to people who are dealing with cancer, they often tell me that when they first heard the diagnosis, they said, “I’m not sure I can handle that.” The oncologist reassures them, “Yes, you can. You have loved ones and friends who will support you. I’ll connect you to a support group of other people going through what you are going through, and you’ll help each other. We have great doctors and nurses here. You can do it.” And, in most cases, they can. They have the wherewithal to deal with their troubles.
So the second principle of shmitta is: Tap into your inner reservoirs of faith and trust. You will find more strength than you imagine.
And the third principle is this: Reach out in love and heal old wounds.
Earlier, I quoted Leviticus. But Deuteronomy also talks about shmitta, and it adds the commandment that every seven years you have to let your slaves (your debt slaves) go free, and release any debts that people may owe you. A complete reorganization of the economy.
This is one of the most radical commandments in the Torah. The scholars argue whether it was ever fully carried out in biblical times. But the concept that underpins it clear. The central idea is the need for healing. Things fall apart, people get themselves in trouble. How do you press the reset button?
I heard a story about a woman whose teenage son was smitten with an internet girlfriend who lived quite a distance away. He racked up a lot of credit card charges when he finally visited her in person. He despaired of ever making enough money to get out of debt. His mother told him about shmitta and told him that she wanted to free him from this burden. Tears came to his eyes and he promised to stay out of debt in the future.
Two years later he was working full time and living on his own. Unfortunately, he wound up with too much debt on his credit card a second time. His mother offered once again to help him, but this time he absolutely refused to accept her help. He insisted that if he cut back on his expenses, he could pay off his debt. The gift of shmitta continued to have an impact on his life choices.
This story is not merely about the dangers of credit cards; it is a wonderful example of how to let go of our struggles and focus on our relationships.
Forgiveness of financial debt is a symbol for how it is possible to let new patterns of relating to emerge.
Why do we have “shmitta-phobia”? If someone has disappointed or hurt us, if we think someone owes a debt to us, why are we so afraid to release them? Can we keep our eyes on the prize? What is important—retribution? Punishment? Rubbing in that a wrong was done? Or giving them a chance to repair the damage that was done and to rejoin us?
When I talk about offering someone a break, I’m talking about the small to moderate stuff that needs to be forgiven. Not sexual, emotional or verbal abuse. Those things are much more complicated. I’m talking about things like the person who didn’t say thank you. Your loved one who forgot to call you on your birthday. The argument that would just not go away. The neighbor who borrowed your lawn mower and returned it damaged. We should not allow the everyday frustrations to feel like the great, deep wrongs in the world. They should not be treated the same. For the everyday stuff, you can certainly offer someone shmitta. What do you have to lose?
Note that the act of shmitta is not dependent on a sporadic burst of good-will. Instead, shmitta is on the calendar, and is to be applied whether you feel any good-will or not. So why not take advantage of the calendar and do it this shmitta year? Do it now. Stop obsessing about what others have done to you and focus on how you can reconnect with them and reestablish your relationship with them. Don’t wait for them to make the first move. “Why should I speak to him when he does not speak to me?” Sometimes you have to make the first move.
I urge you to pick one person who owes a debt to you and give them a second chance. Confront them gracefully. Speak to them with words that convey that they are not as bad as they may think; their true self is still good. The results may be gratifying.
Thus the third principle of shmitta : Reach out in love and heal old wounds. Restoration is possible.
There is an interesting connection between shmitta and Yom Kippur. Shmitta comes every seven years, and Yovel, the jubilee, is the 50th year— the culmination of 7 cycles of 7 years—when Deuteronomy says that any land that the farmers have sold over the last 49 years to pay off their debts will be returned to them.
What an amazing idea! Your family sold its holdings years ago, but it all returns to you the way it was originally. Leviticus says that on Yom Kippur in the Jubilee year, the shofar is sounded to proclaim the freeing of the slaves and the return of real estate to its owners (25:9). This may be the origin of our custom of blowing the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur.
Let me wrap this up. I could have given a sermon tonight on economic inequality, land ownership, and environmental sustainability. Shmitta is a critique of the things that make unbearable our entire modern economic and social structure. The New York Times reported this week that some high tech firms in Israel are taking the shmitta idea seriously; for example, one company is going paperless to give the earth (the trees) a rest. And did you read this week that nearly 50% of all plant and animal species on earth have disappeared since 1970—50%! Perhaps some time in the year to come we’ll be able to discuss these matters here in the synagogue. They are important. But tonight I chose instead to focus on shmitta as a prod for us to think about how to let ourselves lie fallow, and how to reset our personal lives and relationships.
May the shofar blast tomorrow night point us to what we need to do the rest of the year. To let rest and lie fallow. To tap into our inner reservoirs of faith and trust. And to reach out in love and heal old wounds… AMEN.
YOM KIPPUR 5775 2014: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
by Rabbi David Klatzker
It used to be that rabbis had to answer questions in all areas of Jewish law and ethics. How many of you remember what was called in Yiddish a shy-lah? A religious question. In the old country, a Jewish woman would find something wrong with the chicken she was preparing for Shabbat; she would bring the bird to the rabbi for inspection. Today, that doesn’t happen, because food preparation is so advanced that by the time a chicken gets to the frozen food department of the supermarket, it has already been examined and certified as kosher.
Someone put the matter this way: In the old country, the people were healthy and the chickens were sick. In this county, the chickens are healthy and the people are sick.
Be that as it may, I asked the congregation for questions for my Yom Kippur sermon. I only received a few, but they are good. Here they are.
Q: Rabbi, what is sin? And why is sin—what causes it?
A: A great question for Yom Kippur. You probably know the story about Calvin Coolidge, who was notoriously terse. He went to church one Sunday morning without Mrs. Coolidge, who was home sick with a cold. When he returned home she asked, “What was the sermon about?”
“Sin,” said the president.
“But what did the minister say about sin?” she asked.
“He was against it,” said Cal.
Well, you’ll be glad to hear that I too am against it. But we’re all a bit uneasy with that word “sin.” Perhaps it sounds Christian to us; we do not believe in original sin, we think we are born with a clean slate. Or perhaps “sin” does not seem a useful word anymore, since it is used to sell sexy perfume and rich chocolates.
Indeed, I think the main problem with the word is that people apply it much too broadly. How can anyone say that not lighting Shabbat candles is a “sin” in the same way that bullying someone is a “sin”? Those things are entirely different. Not lighting candles is a missed spiritual opportunity, while bullying has to do with aggression and lack of empathy. We have to be careful what we label as a “sin.”
When the High Priest in the ancient Temple prayed for forgiveness for his people on Yom Kippur, he asked pardon for three types of sins: het, avon, and pesha. A het is a sin done unwittingly. It is caused by ignorance, negligence, or both. An avon is an intentional sin, where we know something is wrong but do it anyway, giving in to our desires. A pesha is a rebellious sin, not something done for enjoyment, but an act of defiance and spitting in the face.
But instead of giving you a whole history of sin in Jewish thought, let me tell you what I think. I think these three categories of sin are still viable today. For example, I believe that our rapid depletion of resources and pollution of the environment does constitute a sin. At least it is sin to the extent that I participate more fully in it than I need to accomplish my positive goals. That is, sometimes I judge that driving the car or taking a trip by air, despite the use of scarce resources involved, is the right decision based on all of the relevant considerations. At other times I engage in waste knowingly aware that I could do better.
Now you may ask me, if God does not want me to waste—bal tashit in Hebrew, don’t waste—and I know it and I still act wastefully, is that sheer perversity? Am I evil?
All I can say is that there are multiple pulls on me. I yield to laziness, established habits, or I just choose what is most pleasant for me. I do not understand this as either ignorance or perversity, and it is not an example of a terrible sin.
Nevertheless, if I never pay any attention to such matters, it is likely to make me insensitive to other responsibilities that I have and it is likely to contribute to larger failures in my life. And who will fix the world, if I’m not willing to do anything myself?
Now I want to make it clear that degrading the environment is not primarily the result of individual sins—it results from our industrial-economic system, a system that came into being for many reasons, some good and some selfish. Sometimes people simply do not understand the consequences of their actions; I buy something at the mall, not realizing that it may damage the environment in some far-off place. My point is that the industrial-economic system has a lot to do with the creation of evil, and what we call a sin often results from a mixture of good intentions, ignorance and transgression.
What about evils like racism and war? Here, too, I think we need to be more analytical than we usually are. A major cause of these evils is communal feeling. Such feeling in itself is a good thing. We have special obligations toward our relatives, neighbors and co-religionists. It is good that we are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the communities of which we are a part.
But when your community is threatened, you may feel high anxiety and deep hatred. Your moral sensitivities may be muted. You may even view the threatening other as subhuman. And deep-seated habits of obedience to authority may permit the leaders of a community to do horrible things.
Did see the recent exhibit at Dix Hills Jewish Center about the Albanian Muslims who protected Jews during the Holocaust? Their tolerant Muslim culture, so unlike the fanatical Muslim cultures that we fear today, led them to do the right thing. I’ve read enough about the Holocaust to think that both the perpetrators and the rescuers—both the bad guys and the good guys—acted within social networks. Both the good and the bad were shaped by their group identities. It’s what your mother told you—don’t play with bad kids, they will influence you.
And this, by the way, is one reason why it is so important to join a synagogue. It takes a village to raise a child. You and your children need social bonds and you need to participate in a thick moral culture. A woman once told me that she didn’t require a synagogue, because she got all the community she needed from the other parents she met at her child’s soccer games. I was surprised at what she said and didn’t have the guts to tell her what I really thought—namely, that soccer games are morally trivial. People who bowl together, watch birds together, play chess or bridge together, are having fun, but do not weave strong social bonds, and create a rather minimal moral culture. They may chitchat about TV shows but they don’t talk about the public good or the social and moral order. They don’t discuss global warming, or how much we should allow inequality to rise, or whether we should intervene in Syria or Iraq, or what parents owe to their children and children owe to their parents. Those kinds of questions are frowned upon.
Yet where do people discuss such matters, and where do they get the support they need to get through the trials of life, except in church or synagogue? If the only thing that the Albanian Muslims ever had to talk about was soccer, they would not have saved any Jews.
Mark Twain said that “No sinner was ever saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon,” so I will cut the answer to this question short. But let me conclude with this: We are going to be reciting the Al Het soon. “For the het (the unintentional or ignorant kind of sin) that we have committed before You…” The Al Het implies that “we” have sinned—it’s not just me, it extends our circle of responsibility. And it is a sin “before You,” before God. God sets the standards, and God calls us to new forms of goodness.
Note too that the sins listed in the Al Het are not ritual transgressions; it says nothing about our not keeping kosher or not praying three times a day. The sins listed—and they are sins—are sins against our fellow human beings. Hardening our hearts, plotting against others, betraying trusts. Those are the kinds of things that we ought to regret—and if we are not aware of having done those things, saying the Al Het together as a group will remind us.
We need to think about what it means to say the Al Het, we need to think about what we consider a sin, and we need to meditate on how what is good in human nature can and often does become destructive.
Next question. Q: Rabbi, should Jewish children celebrate Halloween?
A: I plan to sacrifice a black cat so the goblins won’t smash my pumpkin—no, I’m kidding, I am.
To tell the truth, I’m not terribly concerned about the religious origins of the holiday. Although I once lived only a few miles from Salem, Massachusetts, and met a few people there who called themselves witches, they seemed pretty tame to me. And Halloween doesn’t seem to have much religious significance for Christians today. Catholics and Episcopalians do mark All Saints’ Day, but they don’t raise a stink about their kids dressing up and going out to collect candy. The holiday has been commercialized, like everything else in America, and the costumes are more mockery than true belief.
When our children were young, we let them go trick or treating in our own neighborhood, although not on Shabbat. And we have always offered fruit or candy to the kids who come to our house. Maybe it’s good that people come out from behind their dead-bolt doors and alarm systems once a year and greet strangers with a smile.
What does concern me are the Jewish families who celebrate Halloween but don’t bring their children to synagogue on Simhat Torah or Purim, when they can really have a good time here. It is more important to bring them here on Simhat Torah than it is to bring them on Yom Kippur; no one ever had fun on Yom Kippur. But as for Halloween, I don’t worry much about it, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
Q: Rabbi, what is your favorite Jewish book (other than the Torah and the Talmud)?
A: I have so many favorites that I have to list more than one.
I love the Siddur and the Mahzor prayerbooks (they are good not only for praying but also for study), Rashi’s commentaries on the Torah (he saw so many things that we typically miss), and Maimonides’ Mishnah Torah (a book that he thought would replace the Talmud).
Among contemporary books, I would list Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath (a poetic description of the beauty of Shabbat), Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization and Questions Jews Ask (Kaplan always asked the right questions about Judaism), Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People (a book about coping with tragedy), Joseph Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith (a book about the struggle between mastering the world and subjecting ourselves to a higher power), Alan Morinis’s Everyday Holiness (an introduction to Mussar, Jewish character development), and SY Agnon’s Twenty-one Stories (rich language and subtle humor).
There are many others that I would recommend to you. I think your Jewish library should consist half of books you have already read—and will read again—and half of books you plan to read someday and presume will eventually count in the first half.
A final question.
Q: Rabbi, why are Yom Kippur services so long?
A: Well, if I had more time to prepare, my sermons would be shorter. But tell me, do you ask why baseball games are so long, or why the novel War and Peace is so long? It’s not an issue of time, but of personal involvement. I hear more complaints from people who stay only one hour than from those who stay here all day.
Yes, the services are difficult. The language and ideas are challenging. You are tired, hungry, thirsty. But remember that the purpose of the fast is to break down your defenses. Slowly your heart will start to melt, and your light can shine forth, even as the sun sets this evening.
Thank you for your questions. Please ask questions of me whenever you like. G’mar hatimah tovah.