Grate-Full.

Parashat Eikev

The blessing for lighting candles, Kiddush, reciting a memorial prayer on the Yahrtzeits of our loved ones — these prayers are fundamental to Jewish liturgy and Jewish ritual. Yet none of them are instructed by Torah. There’s only one blessing the Torah commands us to recite, and the instruction comes in Parashat Eikev:

וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ

עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ׃

“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God 

for the good land which God has given you.”

(Deuteronomy 8:10)

This line of Torah is the cornerstone of Birkat Hamazon, the blessing we recite after meals. But, separate and apart from its mealtime context, in this passage we also hear the echoing voices of all the parents throughout the generations who have prompted their sons and daughters — at the end of a play date, when receiving a gift, after a lesson, a kind deed, a compliment. We hear that oh-so-familiar cue: “What do you saaaaay?” And the answer of every dutiful daughter and son who knows the routine and mumbles the expected response: “Thank you.”

But what exactly are we teaching with this routine? Or rather, we know what we’re trying to teach: Good manners and a sense of gratitude. But what are our children actually learning from it?

Two years ago, Larissa Kosmos wrote about these ubiquitous exchanges for The Washington Post. [1] The routine, she noted, felt just a little bit off. 

We’re coaching our kids to say thank you as merely a habit, akin to brushing teeth or clearing their dishes from the table, a behavior to be practiced at certain times. 

But saying thank you should involve more. Before our kids express appreciation, they should experience appreciation. The thank-you’s will always sound empty if they’re not weighted with gratitude. To that end, I, and it seems other parents, had been applying the wrong sort of effort: We were nudging our children to say words of thanks, but we weren’t nurturing feelings of thankfulness. It’s like sprinkling just the leaves of a plant when what’s needed is to water the roots.

When we return to this week’s Torah portion, we realize our tradition is sensitive to the need for gratitude beneath words of appreciation, as well. The Torah doesn’t say: “When you’ve eaten a sandwich, say a blessing.” Or, in more ancient parlance: “When you’ve eaten the equivalent of an olive or an egg…” — though the rabbis will develop Halacha in precisely this direction. But the Torah’s concern isn’t what we’ve eaten, or how much we’ve eaten, or even what specific words we say. What the text asks us to do is pay attention to how we feel. “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai.” Are we satiated? Are we full? Then stop. Recognize all that allowed us to be so — the chefs, the farmers, the good land, and God who gave it to us. And when that feeling of fullness becomes a feeling of gratefulness, stop again, and express our thanks.

Realizing the importance of nurturing feelings over words, Kosmos changed her practice.

Expunging “What do you say?” from my parenting script years ago, I launched a new habit in situations when someone deserves thanks: I illuminate for my children what has just transpired. For example, I’ll say, “Dad spent time fixing your toy instead of relaxing” or “The librarian left the work at her desk to help you find that book.” Instead of cuing words to be spoken, I’m aiming to trigger something deeper and more meaningful — awareness.

To adults, these explanations amount to stating the obvious, but they are revelations to kids who take everything for granted, naturally, because everything is granted to them. Allowing my children a moment to process what they’ve just heard, to register that they’re the recipients of kindness, I follow with, “How does that make you feel?” My intention is to guide them from recognizing kindness to valuing it.

When they were younger, my kids usually responded to the question with a simple, if perfunctory, “Good.” From this humble seed, I tried to foster their appreciation. I’d suggest that they were lucky to have received that sticker from the pediatrician. Not every kid had just enjoyed a chocolate-chip-pancake breakfast at a restaurant with their grandpa. Whatever the circumstance, I’d point out that they had experienced special treatment, which was indeed something to feel good about — and thankful for. Then I encouraged them to share their thankfulness with the person who deserved to hear it.

I think we all share the author’s hope, that our children will develop into adults who don’t take others for granted; who recognize the kindnesses extended to them and take the time to articulate their appreciation. And it takes practice, intentional practice — not just for kids.

Author A.J. Jacobs set out on a gratitude journey, which he wrote about in the book Thanks a Thousand. It started when he paid attention to his cup of coffee one morning. Really paid attention. He really enjoyed that cup of coffee, and the local coffee shop in which he enjoyed it. He shuddered to think how his day might have gone without it. “How did I come to be able to enjoy this cup of coffee?” he wondered. He thanked his barista with kind words and a smile. And he thanked the proprietor of the shop, as well. And then he just kept going. He found the people who made the cup into which it had been poured, and that little protective cardboard sleeve that keeps us from burning ourselves — and he thanked them. He found the person who sourced and selected the types of coffee beans that would be used in his morning cup — and he thanked him. He went to the vast warehouse that stores the massive quantities of coffee beans imported into the country — and he thanked the workers there. He traveled to the coffee plantation in Colombia where the beans of the coffee he drinks are grown — and he thanked them. And the project just kept growing. “If something is done well for us,” he wrote, “the process behind it is largely invisible.” [2] So Jacobs sought to expose and recognize all that had been done to make this one, small, meaningful part of his day possible. “Gratitude is a discipline that needs to be practiced,” he says. “It doesn’t always come naturally, even to glass-half-full types.” [3]

But it is well worth practicing. Gratitude, thoughtfulness — it’s a gift to those we thank, and, sometimes, to ourselves, as well.

Rebecca Sabky was the director of international admissions for Dartmouth College. In her role, she would read applications from students all over the world — 2,000 applications, every year. The applicants, she notes, are always “intellectually curious and talented. They climb mountains, head extracurricular clubs and develop new technologies. They’re the next generation’s leaders. Their accomplishments stack up quickly. The problem is that in a deluge of promising candidates, many remarkable students become indistinguishable from one another, at least on paper. It is incredibly difficult to choose whom to admit.” [4] But in all her years, one particular student stood out — because of a letter of recommendation.

Letters of recommendation are typically superfluous, written by people who the applicant thinks will impress a school. We regularly receive letters from former presidents, celebrities, trustee relatives and Olympic athletes. But they generally fail to provide us with another angle on who the student is, or could be as a member of our community.

This letter was different. [It was from a school custodian.]

The custodian wrote that he was compelled to support this student’s candidacy because of his thoughtfulness. This young man was the only person in the school who knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff. He turned off lights in empty rooms, consistently thanked the hallway monitor each morning and tidied up after his peers even if nobody was watching. This student, the custodian wrote, had a refreshing respect for every person at the school, regardless of position, popularity or clout.

This student was exactly who Dartmouth College wanted. And it’s who we want our children to be, as well. What we really want from our children is not, first and foremost, the proper pro forma responses. We want them to feel, be aware, notice what is happening around them with a sense of appreciation. And this is what Torah wants from us all.

“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.” And we are so filled with gratitude. In the words of our liturgy (Mishkan T’filah):

For the gift of life, wonder beyond words;

For the awareness of soul, our light within;

For the world around us, so filled with beauty;

For the richness of the earth, which day by day sustains us;

For all these and more, we offer thanks.

May words of thanks always flow from a grateful heart. And let us say: Amen.

 

[1] “I Stopped Forcing My Kids to Say Thank You, and They Learned True Gratitude,” Larissa Kosmos, The Washington Post, 9/29/17.

[2] A.J. Jacobs, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, p. 13.

[3] Ibid, p. 111.

[4] “Check This Box If You’re a Good Person,” Rebecca Sabky, The New York Times, 4/4/17.

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Common Sense.

Remarks at a press conference in support of H.R.1112 to close the “Charleston Loophole.”

“Do not stand idly by where your neighbor’s blood is shed.” (Leviticus 19:16)

In the three and a half years since the attack here at Mother Emanuel, in the four months since the attack at Tree of Life, synagogues, churches, and mosques have hired security guards; we’ve consulted with experts and fine-tuned safety procedures. We’ve followed the recommendations of “industry standards” and increased our insurance coverage in the event of an active shooter. 

In the six years since Newtown, and the twelve months since Parkland, students and teachers have practiced lockdown drills. We’ve put locks on doors, covered windows to classrooms. We’ve asked our children — in the places that are supposed to be safe havens — to visualize and anticipate the reality of an active shooter on the premises. Do we even yet know the long-term effects of such drills?

We do these things because it’s a matter of safety and security. Yet it’s supposed to be a BOTH-AND. 

While our children visualize shooters in their classrooms, while worshippers prepare for an attack in their house of worship, we have yet to pass a single meaningful piece of legislation that might have a real impact on preventing such an attack in the first place. 

We know that background checks work. And we also know that sometimes they may take longer than 3 days — particularly in the case where there is more data to sift through; an indicator that the completion of the background check is that much more essential, not less so. And the vast majority of Americans want to see this loophole closed.

Let’s get this done. And the next time our children come home from school, telling us they’ve practiced a code red to prepare for gun violence, we’ll be able to look them in the eye having done something of significance to protect them from gun violence, as well.

My Year in Books – 2018

A few notes about this list: These were my favorites among the books I *read* in 2018. Several of them were published in previous years, though I was pretty good about getting on reserve lists at the library early and often and so many were new releases. Some (like The Sun Does Shine) I believe would hold up as favorites at any time and recommend without qualification; others just felt perfectly suited for a particular moment (Beatriz Williams, for example, is my favorite ticket for pure escape, and I picked up The Secret Game the day I walked onto the hallowed floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham). And one warning: Between Only Child and A Place for Us, I think I used up an entire box of Kleenex.

Best Fiction: Only Child (Rhiannon Navin)

Fiction Runner-Up: A Place for Us (Fatima Farheen Mirza)

Also Notable:

  • Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)
  • The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai)
  • An American Marriage (Tayari Jones)
  • White Houses (Amy Bloom)
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (Kathleen Rooney)
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain (Garth Stein)
  • The Story of Arthur Truluv (Elizabeth Berg)
  • A Hundred Summers …and anything and everything else by (Beatriz Williams)

Best Non-Fiction: The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row (Anthony Ray Hinton)

Non-Fiction Runner-Up: Becoming (Michelle Obama)

Also Notable:

  • Educated (Tara Westover)
  • Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor (Yossi Klein Halevi)
  • The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph (Scott Ellsworth)
  • Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America (Calvin Trillin)
  • Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death (Lillian Faderman)
  • In Pieces (Sally Field)

The book I read in 2017 that, given current events, has stayed with me throughout 2018: Lucky Boy (Shanthi Sekaran)

Yizkor

Yom Kippur, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Sue Taylor Grafton, prolific author of mystery novels, passed away last year. She was 77 years old. Grafton published her first book 50 years ago, and another would follow two years later. In 1982 she published what would become the first in an extensive series of mysteries that followed detective Kinsey Millhone book after book after book. The first in the series was titled “A” Is for Alibi, followed by “B” Is for Burglar, then “C” Is for Corpse. Her obituary in the New York Times says she was inspired for the idea of an alphabetical series by The Gashlycrumb Tinies, “a 1963 rhyming book in which 26 children meet bizarre ends.”

Over the next 35 years, Grafton wrote 22 more books in the series. Her last was published in August of 2017, four months before her death. The book was titled “Y” Is for Yesterday.

Grafton’s canon fell one book, one letter, short of her goal.

Death, how well we know, doesn’t come on our terms. We die despite appointments and feuds. We die despite contracts and business trips and vacations we have planned. We die despite a long list of things to do. We die despite passions we cherish, despite marrying whom we love, despite children and grandchildren still growing before our eyes. We die at the tops of our careers, when we’re finally able to hear the accolades, or before our careers, or even the best parts of our lives, have even begun.[1]

Kohelet wrote: “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8) “Young or old, those who depart this life never see enough of the world, never complete their task, never cherish their loved ones enough, before they are called home. … Whenever parting comes, it comes too soon.”[2]

The ritual of Yizkor doesn’t gather us together because it can impart some special, secret knowledge about death. It gathers us together — we who have loved and lost spouses, parents, dear friends, children — because it can teach us who carry permanent scars on our hearts something about life. It’s a lesson everyone is meant to internalize as we face our mortality throughout this fearful day of Yom Kippur — in its liturgy, its scripture, its fasting. But we in this club of which no one wants to be a member, but everyone is eventually admitted, are naturally open and receptive to hearing it.

As we cherish the memories of those we’ve loved and lost, we know the message of Yom Kippur in our bones:

Take nothing for granted. Live every day to its fullest. Do not delay until tomorrow the love, the forgiveness, the changes that can be resolved and demonstrated today. And even as we make and aspire to achieve goals, remember that our biggest accomplishments may never have a finish line.

Why does the book of Deuteronomy, the last in the Torah, end with the death of Moses, asks Rabbi Louis Rieser. After all, the first chapters of the book of Joshua tell more of the wilderness story and see the Israelites enter, finally, the Promised Land. Perhaps to teach — as Zola Neale Hurston writes in Moses, Man of the Mountain — that though Moses may have felt he “had failed in his highest dreams, he had succeeded in others. Perhaps he had not failed so miserably as he sometimes felt.” It wasn’t deliverance to the Promised Land that sealed his stature as the greatest prophet of Israelite history; it was everything else he had done and given and achieved along the way.

“And so we understand,” writes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, “that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity, often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said or did what they did, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now. Never forget that you, too, yourself may be a messenger. Perhaps even one whose errand extends over several lifetimes.”

With the memories of our loved ones as an abiding source of strength and inspiration, may we give all that we can to each and every day we are granted. May we build upon the achievements of those who came before us, fulfilling their dreams and continuing their pursuits into lifetimes beyond their own. May we reach for our own dreams, knowing, as our liturgy reminds us, “that victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey.” May we live and love fully beginning with the only day we are guaranteed — may we live our very best lives starting today.

 

[1] Inspired by the readings in Mishkan HaNefesh, p. 550.

[2] From CCAR Rabbi’s Manual, p. 137.

Too Many “Others”

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

The year was 1827 and the place was right here in Charleston. While the details of what happened are unknown, an outline remains: One Dr. Edward Chisolm, presumed to be “a gentleman of respectability and honorable feeling,” made an “illiberal expression” to a certain G. P. Cohen (most likely a member of this very congregation) which left the latter feeling dishonored and insulted. So Mr. Cohen demanded an apology and, if that was not promptly given, then “the only redress that Honor [has] long established as the practice in these cases” — he demanded a duel.

Yes, this really happened. Charleston’s own Hamilton and Burr. But Dr. Chisolm would not engage. Mr. Cohen, he explained, was a Jew and he did not “conceive any Jew to be on [equal] footing with him!” Well!

Mr. Cohen posted a Notice to the Public in the Charleston Courier, the preeminent local paper.

It therefore becomes my painful duty — he wrote — to intrude these remarks on the public, in order to expose [Dr. Edward Chisolm] to the community in which I live, the place of my nativity. The Constitution of the U. States, and of my native state, give me and every citizen, of every religious denomination, equal rights and equal privileges. Religious distinctions are not known in this country. Members of the same community are valued only according to their conduct in life, and none but a bigot and a Coward, like Edward Chisolm, would attempt to insult a whole nation, by refusing that satisfaction which every gentleman is ready to give, and to receive.[1]

Oh, my! Mr. Cohen is “a Jew;” Dr. Chisholm is “a bigot and a Coward.” Something transpired between these two individuals — an offense of some sort, an insult — and the result was this: Both parties turned into something “Other” to one another — and, rather than strides toward reconciliation, tension, animosity, and division only grew.

There’s a lot of that going around right now, isn’t there? Rather than our common humanity, otherness is being emphasized wherever we look. “Others” based on religion, race, or sexuality. “Others” based on nationality, culture, or creed. “Others” on the socio-economic spectrum. “Others” on the political spectrum.

How many times does Judaism implore us to do away with this sense of Other-ness? To see the common humanity in both our neighbor and the stranger alike, to love him as ourselves, recognize her hopes and fears as our own? And the more fractured society is, the more vital it becomes to be able to look into the face of both neighbors and strangers; citizens and immigrants; someone with whom we tend to see eye to eye and someone with whom we invariably disagree; and recognize in that person a brother or sister whose humanity is completely equal to our own.

 Yet, as important as this mitzvah is — loving the stranger is the most repeated commandment in all of Jewish tradition — that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. When it isn’t — when those we encounter seem wholly Other and unloveable to us — we do well to remember that curiosity, empathy, and a touch of mercy go a long way.

Albert Einstein wrote that one should “never lose a holy curiosity.” The holy curiosity that led Abraham to see the ram in the thicket, Pharoah’s daughter to notice a baby floating in a basket on the river, Moses to gaze upon a burning bush. Holy curiosity helps us go deeper into the world around us, including our interactions with the people we meet — even those whose demeanors do anything but encourage us to draw closer.

Atul Gawande shared the following story with UCLA’s graduating medical students:

One night, on my surgery rotation, during my third year of medical school, I followed my chief resident into the trauma bay in the emergency department. We’d been summoned to see a prisoner who’d swallowed half a razor blade and slashed his left wrist with the corner of the crimp on a toothpaste tube. He was about thirty, built like a boxer, with a tattooed neck, hands shackled to the gurney, and gauze around his left wrist showing bright crimson seeping through.

The first thing out of his mouth was a creepy comment about the chief resident, an Asian-American woman. I won’t repeat what he said. Suffice it to say that he managed in only a few words to be racist, sexist, and utterly menacing all at once. Understandably, she turned on her heels, handed me the clipboard, and said, “He’s all yours.” …

The man’s vital signs were normal. [He’d done damage, but not too much.] … I’d heard that inmates sometimes swallowed blades wrapped in cellophane or inflicted wounds on themselves that, though not life-threatening, were severe enough to get them out of prison. This man had done both.

I tried to summon enough curiosity to wonder what it had taken to push him over that edge, but I couldn’t. I only saw a bully. As I reluctantly set about suturing him back together, … he kept up a stream of invective: about the hospital, the policemen, the inexpert job I was doing. I don’t do well when I feel humiliated, [and] I had the urge to tell him to shut up and be a little appreciative. I thought about abandoning him.

But he controlled himself enough to hold still for my ministrations. And I suddenly remembered a lesson a professor had taught me about brain function. When people speak, they aren’t just expressing their ideas; they are, even more, expressing their emotions. And it’s the emotions that they really want heard. So I stopped listening to the man’s words and tried to listen for the emotions.

“You seem really angry and like you feel disrespected,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I am. I am angry and disrespected.”

His voice changed. He told me that I have no idea what it was like inside. He’d been in solitary for two years straight. His eyes began to water. He calmed down. I did, too. For the next hour, I just sewed and listened, trying to hear the feelings behind his words.

I didn’t understand him or like him. But all it took to see his humanity—to be able to treat him—was to supply that tiny bit of openness and curiosity.[2]

 “Regarding people as having lives of equal worth means recognizing each as having a common core of humanity. … To see their humanity, you must put yourself in their shoes. That requires a willingness to ask people what it’s like in those shoes. It requires curiosity about others and the world beyond your boarding zone. … Curiosity is the beginning of empathy.”[3] And empathy is the key to seeing a situation from another’s perspective, to being open to hear and feel another’s story. There is always another perspective.

There’s a wonderful cartoon by Paul Noth that appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago.[4] Two medieval armies are drawn facing one another; shields in front, swords and spears at the ready. “There can be no peace until they renounce their Rabbit God and accept our Duck God,” declares one fighter to another. Their army marches beneath banners with pictures of a duck, while the other army marches beneath banners with pictures of rabbits. However, the reader sees that the banners look exactly the same: a circle head with two bars — a rabbit’s ears or a duck’s bill, depending on your perspective. Of course, not all disputes are simple misunderstandings (though it’s amazing how many are). But when we find ourselves looking at someone, treating someone, like an “Other,” if we take a moment to try and see things from their perspective, it can do much to help us remember our common humanity.

This is the most significant contribution of Yossi Klein Halevi’s recent book on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, entitled Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor. “A helicopter crosses your hill,” he writes. “I feel an involuntary relief: We are being protected, especially on this day [Yom HaAtzma’ut – Israel’s Independence Day], a tempting time for terror attacks. But then I think of you: How frightening it must be for you and your children to hear helicopters hovering over your home. This is the curse of our relationship: My protection is your vulnerability, my celebration your defeat.” To be sure, there’s a long journey from empathy to peace — but empathy is nonetheless a vital, significant, and powerful first step.

So curiosity and empathy can help broaden our perspective. But what about when it’s not a matter of perception? When a person has clearly done or said something so terrible that considering them to be “Other” feels not only right, but just? After all, they’ve brought our condemnation on themselves. Here we would do well to remember the sage insight of Bryan Stevenson, echoing Jewish tradition: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Let it be our goal to temper our judgment with mercy.

“We’ve divided the world into us versus them,” says Gawande, “an ever-shrinking population of good people against bad ones. But it’s not a dichotomy. People can be doers of good in many circumstances. And they can be doers of bad in others. It’s true of all of us.” The worst thing we have ever done can never sufficiently describe us, nor can the best. Good and bad — whatever we have done, we are all of it.

Imagine if Abraham were known only for binding Isaac; Moses for killing an Egyptian; David for his adultery with Bathsheba, or killing her husband, Uriah. People in Torah study always like the patriarchs and matriarchs, because they’re fallible. Their transgressions make them relatable, accessible. Why then do the human sins of others do the opposite, make us strip away their humanity?

There’s a story in the Talmud about some neighborhood ruffians who were causing Rabbi Meir a great deal of trouble. So he prayed — that the young men would die. His wife, Beruriah, noting his disproportionate, extreme response, asked him: “What is [the scriptural basis for this prayer]? Is it because of the verse ‘may sin disappear’? Does the verse say chot’im (sinners)? No, it says chata’im (sins)! Moreover, look at the end of the verse, where it says “and the wicked be no more.” This means: because their sins will cease, they will be wicked people no more. So pray not against them, but for them that they should repent and be wicked no more.” Rabbi Meir did, and they repented.[5] And is not such repentance and acknowledgment that all of us are capable of changing our ways what this day of Yom Kippur is all about?

 A rabbi once asked his students: “How do we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?” … The first and brightest of the students offered an answer: “When I look out at the fields and I can distinguish between my field and the field of my neighbor, that’s when night has ended and day has begun.” A second student offered his answer: “When I look from my fields and I see a house, and I can tell that it’s my house and not the house of my neighbor.” A third student offered another answer: “When I see an animal in the distance, and I can tell what kind of animal it is, whether a cow or a horse or a sheep.” And a fourth student offered yet another answer: “When I see a flower and I can make out the colors of the flower, whether they are red or yellow or blue, that’s when night has ended and day has begun.”

Each answer brought a sadder, more severe frown to the rabbi’s face. Until finally he shouted, “No! None of you understands! You only divide! You divide your house from the house of your neighbor, your field from your neighbor’s field, you distinguish one kind of animal from another, you separate one color from all the others. Is that all we can do—dividing, separating, splitting the world into pieces? Isn’t the world broken enough? Isn’t the world split into enough fragments? Is that what Torah is for? No, my dear students, it’s not that way, not that way at all!”

The shocked students looked into the sad face of their rabbi. “Then, Rabbi, tell us: How do we know that night has ended and day has begun?”

The rabbi stared back into the faces of his students and with a voice suddenly gentle and imploring, he responded: “When you look into the face of the person who is beside you, and you can see that person is your brother or your sister, then finally the night has ended and the day has begun.”[6]

It’s time for a new day to begin. A day in which we are guided by curiosity, empathy, and mercy to recognize the common humanity of every person we meet. A day in which we treat everyone as sister and brother; and stand up for those who have been condemned as someone “Other.” It’s been said that the bottom line of all conflict is about simply not making the table bigger. So, in this new year, let us make space, for everyone — at our tables, in our sanctuaries, in this country, and in the world. Amen.

 

[1] Charleston Courier, July 25, 1827, with gratitude to Dr. Gary Zola and the American Jewish Archives for the introduction.

[2] Atul Gawande, “Curiosity and What Equality Really Means,” New Yorker, June 2, 2018 (adapted).

[3] Ibid.

[4] “An Army Lines Up for Battle,” Paul Noth, New Yorker, December 1, 2014.

[5] B’rachot 10a.

[6] As it appears in Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration, from Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman at Kol Shalom in Maryland, pp. 388-389 (adapted).

A Sabbath from the Speed of Life

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Shanah Tovah. To each of you — to the members of our KKBE family, and your visiting family and loved ones; to those traveling in Charleston and members of the wider community who are here to celebrate with us this Rosh Hashanah morning — to each of you, I wish you blessing and good health, abundant joy and enduring peace, as we enter the new year of 5779.

5779 — what does that number represent? According to tradition, it’s the number of years that have passed since the creation of the world. Five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years since God separated heaven from earth, darkness from light, land from sea. Five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years since God hung the moon, sun, and stars in the sky. Five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years since plants began to sprout, birds began to fly; since human ancestry began.

Of course, few of us here subscribe to the ancient story as a literal accounting of creation. We understand that nearly every component of the created world goes back not thousands, but millions and billions of years. Yet there is one part of creation that is much more recent than the others. One that didn’t exist until Jewish tradition brought it into existence. One that may very well be five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years old — and the only creation in the entire story described as holy: “God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creating that God had done.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches: “The first holy object in the history of the world” was time. Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World, writes: “The first week was the first temporal division not tethered to the sun or the moon.” The concept of a week, and a Sabbath at its end — to be mindful of the idea of time, to keep one week from simply bleeding into the next — had to be created. Shabbat, and its unique way of helping us to value and sanctify time, has been described as the greatest gift God has given to the Jews, and the Jewish people, in turn, to humanity.

So how are we doing with our gift? Are we cherishing time, savoring it, keeping it holy? I think we know the answer. I think our souls feel it. How many of us have commented that, in one way or another, time continually feels like it’s slipping away, like we’re racing to keep up with our own lives? The speed of life is one of the biggest spiritual challenges we face as we enter this new year.

“When will today’s fast be tomorrow’s slow?” an advertising banner asked at the top of a webpage I was looking at recently — and I felt my pulse quicken, terrified. I already feel like life is moving faster than I can sometimes handle — how much faster can time possibly go? Thomas Friedman says we’re living in an age of acceleration. Think about how it feels to ride in a car, a plane: When we’re cruising, we often don’t feel the speed, or if we do, it’s the pleasurable sensation of wind in our hair, the landscape rolling by. But when we accelerate, everything tenses. We’re thrust back against our seats. We physically feel pressure — and it takes a toll. When two people greet one another on the street, the phone, at services, what’s the universal refrain we hear? “How are you doing?” “I’m so busy.” Or, if we can’t afford time for a complete sentence: “Busy, hectic, tired, stressed.” The Chinese pictograph for ‘busy’ is composed of two characters: heart and killing. That is exactly what “busy” — what today’s speed of life — is. [1]

We need to slow down, every single one of us. No one is exempt, and there’s no guilt or shame in doing so. We need to take a break, stop, catch our breath. Especially when we’re bombarded with messages encouraging us to go faster, to increase the busy-ness of our lives, how important it is to remember that five thousand, seven hundred, seventy-nine years ago we were commanded to: “Slow down… you move too fast.” Yes — Simon and Garfunkel are right there in the Torah! We need, every seven days, to let go of at least some of the stress in our lives and accept the freedom Shabbat has always granted. We need the three forms of respite from speed Shabbat offers, if only we reclaim our holy gift.

First, we need Shabbat’s respite from the speed of knowing. Matte Barón works with corporate executives. “I teach them how to be present,” he says. “Stress and anxiety happen when you’re managing the future.” [2] Can we hear the chutzpah in that phrase, “managing the future”? Humans plan, God laughs. Yet how much energy do we expend, how much stress do we incur, in our racing to know what things mean and how they’re going to turn out… right now!

There’s an old Taoist story about a wise man on the northern frontier of China:

One day, for no apparent reason, his son’s horse ran away and was taken by nomads across the border. Everyone tried to offer consolation for the man’s ill fortune, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?”

Months later, the son’s horse returned, bringing with her a magnificent stallion. Their household was made richer by this fine horse, which the son loved to ride, and everyone was full of congratulations for the son’s good fortune. But his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” 

One day the son fell off the horse and broke his hip. Once again, everyone offered their consolation for his bad luck, but his father said, “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?” 

A year later the nomads mounted an invasion across the border, and every able-bodied man was required to take up his bow and go into battle. The Chinese frontiersmen lost nine of every ten men. Only because the son was lame did father and son survive to take care of each other. [3]

The moral of the story is not that nothing is as it seems, or that it’s utter futility to try and understand our lives and the world around us. But everything is always changing. Our limited vision yields a picture that is never complete. Under those circumstances, what is lost in taking a one day break? A day on which we admit we’ll never really know, so let’s, just for this one day, let it go, and anchor ourselves firmly in the present. 

“Every person needs to take a day away,” Maya Angelou wrote. “A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future … a day in which no problems are confronted, no solutions are searched for.” Shabbat is our day of freedom from knowing how things are going to get done or turn out. And we need this freedom now more than ever.

Sometimes that from which we need freedom seems like a good thing. But the old adage is true: Everything in moderation. Mindful of every sermon in which I’ve emphasized how important it is to be engaged in tikkun olam, repairing the world — even from this, we need a break. Specifically, we need Shabbat’s respite from the speed of today’s activism. 

Marches, rallies, protests. Speakers, films, book discussions. Town halls, vigils, council meetings. If we care about today’s world, tikkun olam can easily become our full-time job. Yet “the frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace,” in at least two ways, says Muller. “It destroys our own inner capacity for peace.” And it shields us “from the actual experience of suffering.”

In 1973, two social psychologists, John Darley and Daniel Batson, conducted an experiment with students on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary.

First, the researchers ran tests to determine each student’s personality type. Then they announced that the students would have to give a talk. Half of them were asked to deliver a sermon on the Good Samaritan [the parable in which Jesus encountered a wounded man, had compassion for him, and paused in his travels to care for him]. The other half were told to discuss the job prospects that faced them as future ministers. All were instructed to report to another building, where their audiences would be waiting for them. 

As the students left the first building, a researcher urged about a third of them to hurry, because they were already late. He assured another third that they were right on time but shouldn’t dawdle. He told the last third that there was a slight delay in the proceedings but that they should wander over anyway.

As the students walked to the second building, they passed a man slumped against a doorway in an alley. They didn’t know it, but this was the real test. As each student approached, the man coughed and groaned. If the student stopped, the man told them in a confused and groggy voice that he was fine but he had a respiratory condition; he had taken medicine that would begin to work any minute now. If the student insisted on helping the man, he allowed himself to be taken into a building nearby.

After the data was weighted and the variables analyzed, only one thing consistently predicted who would stop to help and who wouldn’t. The important factor was neither personality type nor whether a student’s career or the parable of the Good Samaritan was foremost in his mind. It was whether or not he was in a hurry. … Those who felt themselves to be in a rush didn’t realize that he needed help until after they’d passed him. Time pressure narrowed their “cognitive map,” and they raced by without seeing. [4]

Ask yourself, for all that you care about, and care deeply, in this world — for all the urgency you feel behind the need for change — are you willing to sacrifice recognizing your fellow suffering right beside you? If the experience of life increases in direct proportion to being present in the moment, is there anywhere that a break from the speed of life is more important than in the realm of compassion and justice? On Shabbat, one day in seven, we need to slow down, caring for our own souls as well as those around us.

And what is it that fuels so much of the busy-ness that occupies our time? What is overwhelmingly responsible for the rate of acceleration we feel in so many areas of our lives? The speed of technology. From this, more than anything, we desperately need the respite Shabbat offers. 

Thomas Friedman tells the story of a king who was deeply impressed with the man who invented chess and offered him any reward for his achievement. The inventor asked for rice, one grain of rice, placed on a corner square of a chessboard. “One grain?” the king asked. “That would hardly feed a mouse, much less your family.” One grain, the inventor insisted, but if the king would, double the amount on the next square: Two grains of rice. “Certainly!” the emperor agreed. “In fact, I’ll double the amount on each of the board’s squares.” The inventor agreed, but little did the emperor realize — doubling one grain of rice 63 times would yield something like 18 quintillion grains of rice by the end of the board — enough to feed not only the inventor’s family, but the whole village.

This kind of acceleration is precisely what we’ve experienced in the realm of technology. For one generation, the singular defining advancement was the telephone; for another the TV. But “because of the explosive power of exponential growth,” Friedman writes, “the twenty-first century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress.” [5] When advancement happens this fast, how can we not feel out of control — and it just keeps coming. There’s nothing inherently bad about technology; far from it. Look at all that humankind has been able to achieve. Yet in 1951, long before the invention of smart phones and tablets, Abraham Joshua Heschel already understood: “In spite of our triumphs,” he wrote, “we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.” We don’t have to renounce the technologies and gadgets at our disposal, he taught, but we do need to attain some degree of independence from them.

Five thousand, seven hundred and seventy-nine years ago, we were given permission; this year, more than ever, we need to take it: A respite from the speed of life. “The Sabbath is the most precious present mankind has received from the treasure house of God,” wrote Heschel. Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik called Shabbat, “the most brilliant creation of the Hebrew spirit.” (p. xviii-xix) And we miss it. “When we pine for escape from the rat race; … when we fret about the disappearance of a more old-fashioned time, with its former, generally agreed-upon rhythms of labor and repose; when we deplore the increase in time devoted to consumption; … whenever we worry about these things, [our souls] are remembering the Sabbath….” [6]

But all we have to do is reclaim it; it’s ours for the taking. Shabbat “does not require us to leave home, … go on retreat, or leave the world of ordinary life. We do not have to change clothes or purchase any expensive spiritual equipment. We only need to remember.” (Muller, p. 8) And the seventh day doesn’t have to be the arduous “picture-perfect” observance we imagine, either. “In the poetry of the prayer book,” writes Shulevitz, “the Sabbath is a bride greeted by an impatient bridal party with an almost anguished relief. In the more prosaic dominion of my house, the Sabbath sees herself in and sits down to wait.” [7] And. That’s. OK. Shabbat is all about embracing freedom, including freedom from a perfect Shabbat. Stress over Shabbat would defeat its purpose. Candles, Kiddush, challah? You’ll decide. A home-cooked meal? Maybe, but not necessarily. Most important is that you carve out time; how you decide to fill it can evolve later. 

Begin by keeping your calendar open. Make it a personal practice not to schedule meetings or commitments on Shabbat — even for something fun like dinner or a movie. Give yourself the ability to do what your soul tells you it needs to do when you take the time to pay attention to it. Meet a friend on Saturday afternoon because you feel like doing so — not because you’re keeping a commitment that you would. Refrain from doing things which fulfill a goal or purpose, complete something begun before Shabbat, or prepare for something that will conclude after Shabbat is over. With practice, the chores of daily life — folding laundry, grocery shopping, bill paying — will drift away on Shabbat, and what could get done on Saturday will be content to wait until Sunday. And you will, too.

Practice not answering emails on Shabbat — and since you’ve committed to not answering them, why read them either? Phones, television, social media — these are tricky and personal. Each can bring joy, connect families, lift one’s spirits. But they can also make demands, help us to pass time rather than inhabit it, deplete our souls and spirits, as well. So pay attention to how you feel, and remember that, if you wish, Shabbat grants you permission to turn it all off.

This New Year, as we hope and pray that our names will be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life, let our reclaiming of the sacred gift of Shabbat be our first commitment toward that end. As the poet Marcia Falk has written:

Three generations back

my family had only

to light a candle

and the world parted.

Today, Friday afternoon,

I disconnect clocks and phones.

[But] when night fills my house

with passages,

I begin saving

my life.

 

[1] Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delightful in Our Busy Lives, pp. 2-3.

[2] Teddy Wane, “The 7-Day Digital Diet,” New York Times, February 9, 2014.

[3] Muller, pp. 187-9 (adapted).

[4] Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, p. 24ff (adapted).

[5] Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, p. 201.

[6] Shulevitz, p. xxix.

[7] Ibid, p. 3.

A Back to School Blessing for Reluctant Students

Not every student is excited for the first day of school.

 

Not everyone is inspired by the blank pages of a brand new notebook.

Not everyone easily relinquishes shapeless summer days for the confines of a set schedule.

Not everyone looks at ten months on the calendar as a glass more than half full.

No, not every student is excited for the first day of school.

 

But, oh, the excitement when one corner of the world suddenly shines in the light of new understanding. 

The pride of a hard earned Way to Go! and Job Well Done!

The inspiration of a book, a subject, a skill you never even knew how much you would love.

That extra inch taller you feel when, even as you look up to older students, you realize there are younger students looking up to you.

 

So to all reluctant students on their first day of school:

May these joyful moments so fill each of the days of the school year to come that, before you know it, you really will be excited—celebrating the glorious last!