Divrei Torah -
Words of Torah
January 19, 2020 MLK Day – Bethel AME of Ardmore by Rabbi Shelly Barnathan
Good morning! My name is Rabbi Shelly Barnathan, and I am the rabbi of Or Zarua, a new Jewish community located here in the Western suburbs. Our name, Or Zarua, means “Light is Planted”, and it is our goal to increase the light in the world through acts of love, kindness, and hope. We are a co-constructed spiritual community, meeting in members’ homes and also hosted by the wonderful Friends of Old Haverford Friends Quaker Meeting in Havertown.
It is a huge honor to be here today at Bethel AME along with Beth David Reform Congregation, Gladwyne Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church and Old Haverford Friends Meeting to sing, to pray, and to honor the great Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in unity and in fellowship. I want to specifically thank Reverend Carolyn Cavaness for inviting Or Zarua to be a part of this gathering. I am honored to call Reverend Carolyn both a wise peer and a caring friend.
During my studies in Rabbinical School, I learned from one of my esteemed teachers, Rabbi Ira Stone, that books used to be written from the middle out, with the most important message placed exactly in the center of a book.
If we open the Hebrew Bible or Torah, what is the message in the very middle? (open the Chumash)
Leviticus 19:18, located right in the middle of the Torah reads – V’ahavta L’Reyacha Kamocha –
“You shall love your fellow human being as yourself:”
Ani YHVH – “I am YHVH – I am G-d.”
This teaching, Vahavta L’Reyacha Kamocha – You shall love your fellow human being as yourself- is part of the Bible’s Holiness Code.
And what more basic teaching on holiness could there be, than this verse?
V’ahavta L’Reyacha Kamocha – love and respect yourself, love and respect others. I, the Lord, am holy, and you are created in my image – so you, too, shall be holy.
You can live a life of holiness – of Kedusha as we say in Hebrew, by loving and respecting yourself, and by equally loving and respecting your fellow human being, by finding our commonalities, and by honoring our shared humanity.
Notice how this central message, in the very middle of the Hebrew Bible – to serve from a place of love, resonates with the message of Dr. Martin Luther King:
Dr. King said:
“Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it.
Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it.
Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it…
I’ve decided to stick with love.
Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
And as the theme of this year’s Martin Luther King weekend teaches us, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The time is always right to do what is right.”
So, let us commit right now, in this moment, to do what is right, to live and to serve one another with love. May we see the light in each other. May we see each other through the eyes of G-d, each one of us a reflection of the holiness of G-d.
“V’ahavta L’Reyacha Kamocha.”
And you shall love your fellow human being as you love yourself.
May we love and honor the humanity in each other. May we honor and respect each other. May the words of the Bible and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King ring true for us and guide us, as we serve each other and the world from a place of Ahavah – a place of love.
And as we honor and love one another, may we lift up the light in each other, so that each one of us can serve as a beacon of light in our world. Find your way to serve, find the way that feels right for you, whether it be big or small. Act for justice, equality, and peace in this world that is crying out for our help.
So, on this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, as we love each other as ourselves, let us sing, pray, and act for justice and equal opportunities for all. And let us say together – AMEN!
Kol Nidre Sermon – Or Zarua 5780/2019 – Rabbi Shelly Barnathan – Cracks and Wholeness
There is a wonderful and powerful book on the topic of the High Holidays to which I return each and every year as I prepare for the Yamim Noraim. The book was written by the late, great Rabbi Alan Lew, and it is entitled, “This is Real and you are Completely Unprepared- The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.” I so admire the late Rabbi Lew, and on page 9 of this spiritual treasure, he writes:
“Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings… and they are fully expressed during the Yamim Noraim.”
This quote was lifted up by our own Abby Stamelman Hocky in a past Or Zarua High Holiday teaching during the month of Elul. And, in our Or Zarua style of appreciation, Abby honored her teacher, our own Florence Manson, for bringing Rabbi Lew’s book to her attention. Thank you, Abby and Florence, for your wisdom and guidance– you are always finding Or/light in the world and lifting it up for us.
What does it mean to “crack ourselves open” on this Yom Kippur day, this day of Atonement, this day of At-One-Ment? Rabbi Lew maintains that during the Yamim Noraim, the High Holiday period beginning in the month of Elul, we are called to enter into a journey to awaken to our truest Neshamot, our truest souls, to “come home” to ourselves. As we are taught in Torah, Lech Lecha – “Go to yourself”….
The late Rabbi Lew proposed that during this time of the High Holidays, we are asked to move from denial to awareness, from self-deception to judgment, from anger to healing, from hard-heartedness to broken-heartedness.
Rabbi Lew explains that this period is a journey from “little mind to big mind, from confinement in the ego to a sense of ourselves as a part of something larger. It is the journey from isolation to a sense of our intimate connection to all being.”
Rabbi Lew says, “This is the longest journey we will ever make, and we must complete it in that brief instant before Neilah, when the gates of Heaven are said to clang shut.”
Wow- what a daunting task! This is powerful, intense work that we are asked to do in this season, ending tomorrow night, at Neilah of Yom Kippur. We are called by the Divine to crack our hearts open, to examine ourselves deeply, to do a true, Cheshbon Ha’nefesh, accounting of our soul. We are called, like the prophets and leaders before us, to answer the holy call, and we try, as best we can, to be fully present and to answer, Hineyni – here I am, G-d; Hineynu – here we are, G-d, on this holy journey of self-reflection, cracking open our hearts to discover and to uncover our truest and best selves.
What does it mean to “crack our hearts open?” For some of us, this feels relatively safe, while for others of us, this is a truly frightening endeavor.
What will happen if our hearts are cracked open? Will we be too vulnerable? Will we expose too much of ourselves? Will we get hurt? Will we ever be able to “put our hearts back together again?”
Sadly, life has cracked many of our hearts wide open already - illness, loss, tragedy, disappointments, conflicts in jobs and relationships, angst, anger, and sadness over the plight of so many suffering in the world. So many of us are living with a broken heart.
And though we may resist our broken-heartedness, one of our basic Jewish teachings is that G-d is closest to those of us who have open and yes, broken hearts.
Rabbi Alexandri, a rabbi of the early centuries of the Common Era, taught, “If an ordinary person makes use of a broken vessel, it is a shameful thing. But G-d, the Blessed Holy One, makes use of broken vessels all of the time, as it is written in Psalms 34:19, Adonai Karov L’nishberei Leyv. “Adonai is close to the broken-hearted.”
Can you imagine – we are loved, cherished and valued by G-d, the Divine, particularly in our brokenness?
And why would that be? Aren’t we always trying to get things just right – neat, clean, organized… perfect? Torah, in its sacrificial system of Temple times, focused on perfection. In Temple times, it was forbidden to sacrifice an animal that was “imperfect”. Leviticus 22:22 instructs that an animal is “unfit” if it is “broken or maimed or with a growth”. In contrast, the verse in Psalms 34 that we just lifted up tells us that the imperfect and broken heart of a human being is considered completely fit and even desired. We are comforted by our verse in Psalms, “Karov Adonai L’Nishberei Leyv”– G-d is close to the broken-hearted.”
Our High Holiday liturgy contains the famous prayer Avinu Malkeinu, Mkoreynu Imeynu, our Father, our Mother, our Source; an image of G-d, or the Divine, as loving parent. If you are a parent or grandparent, think about your own children. Are you not closest to them, the most attentive, the most caring, the most compassionate when they are hurting, troubled, or crying out to you? Aren’t you willing to do anything for your child who calls out to you in need or in pain? So, it is said that G-d is that loving parent to us, closest to us when we are calling out from the place of our brokenness.
The Yiddish term for brokenness is “Tzubrochenkeit”, and in a beautiful anthology entitled “Chapters of the Heart – Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of our Lives,” my Rabbinical school pastoral care teacher, and instructor to many others here today, Dr. Barbara Eve “Bobbi” Breitman, describes her personal understanding of Tzubrochenkeit, following the tragic loss of her husband at age 46.
In her segment of “Chapters of the Heart”, which she titles “A Heart So Broken It Melts Like Water”, Bobbi Breitman explains that Judaism, especially the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, speaks of the transformation that can happen through suffering and teshuvah, using metaphors of smashed tablets, shattered vessels, and broken hearts.
Bobbi explains “A well-known midrash says that the Holy Ark of the Covenant carried through the desert by the Israelites contained both the broken tablets that Moses smashed when he came down from Mt. Sinai to discover the Golden Calf AND the whole tablets that he carved the second time he ascended the mountain, after the people had done teshuvah for creating the Golden Calf. Both the broken tablets and the whole tablets had an honored place in the Holy Ark.
The carrying of both of these sets of tablets in the Holy Ark lets us know that for us, as humans, both our wholeness and our brokenness are honored.” What a beautiful teaching Bobbi lifts up. Yet, it seems like a great paradox to hold both our brokenness – our tzubrochenkeit- and our wholeness on a parallel level. We ask ourselves – Can we really hold our brokenness as equal to our wholeness? Is that truly possible? The great Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotzk gives us the answer in his teaching, “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.”
To crack open our hearts is to be exposed and vulnerable. For many of us, this is terrifying. And no one is asking us to be completely vulnerable at all times, with everyone we meet. We couldn’t exist that way – we need our healthy defenses and boundaries. But with our closest loved ones, with G-d, with ourselves… for all of you therapists out there, isn’t it healthy to find safe places to open ourselves and to express what is truly in our hearts?
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, great spiritual master of the late 18th/early 19th century, who himself suffered from bi-polar disorder but was always looking towards the light, taught us the value of cracking open our hearts. The secret of sincere prayer, Rebbe Nachman taught, is a practice called Hitbodedut – a special dimension of aloneness, in which we speak to G-d, the Divine, in the language of our own heart – in our own words, in our own language. Rebbe Nachman taught that established prayers were never intended to preclude the heartfelt cries that can well up at any time, at any place, in an outpouring of emotions from the depths of the soul. Rebbe Nachman taught us that the most sincere prayers are not the prayers in the Siddur, but rather the authentic prayers of the open heart.
In his 2014 Kol Nidre sermon at West End synagogue, our rabbi and friend, Rabbi Marc Margolius offered a beautiful teaching about opening our hearts. Rabbi Marc said, “When we live with open hearts, when we love as deeply as possible, we enter the realm of heartbreak. Rabbi Marc continues, “On Kol Nidre and on Yom Kippur, we crack open our hearts. We repeatedly tap our chests. Yom Kippur is a day of spiritual CPR. And while heartbreak leads us to sadness and grief, as we keep walking deeper into the cracks, we find it leads us as well to wisdom, to connection, and even to joy.”
Rabbi Marc wrote this sermon just a month after the passing of his and our dear friend and teacher, Miki Young, aleha hashalom. Miki was a source of light to all who knew her, she was intentional about bringing light into the world, and at the bottom of her e-mails, Miki inserted the quote from the great singer/composer Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
Artists honor cracks and imperfections as well. Think about mosaics created from shards of beloved family platters or teacups. And in the Japanese art from of Kintsugi, cracks in pottery are not hidden, but are rather highlighted and mended with gold. This highlighting of cracks honors the Japanese/Buddhist concept of “wabi-sabi”, a philosophy centered on the acceptance of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
How many of you remember the childhood sidewalk superstition about avoiding cracks?
“Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.”…. I remember walking to synagogue on Shabbat or to school during the week, looking down at my feet, being careful not to step on any of the cracks.
But our wise teachers, Rabbi Marc Margolius, Miki Young, Leonard Cohen, and the Kintsugi artists of Japan are telling us not to avoid the cracks, but rather to open them and to go into them deeply. Avoiding our sadness, our losses, our sorrows, our imperfections, our heartbreaks – this may be a temporary balm to the pain that resides within our cracks. But in order to get to the other side, to get to healing and joy, we need to open the cracks, for as Leonard Cohen said – that is how the light gets in.
And we know that when we feel our broken-heartedness and begin to see it in the light of day, we open ourselves to the broken-heartedness of others. Through deeply experiencing and not shunning our own pain, we feel deep compassion for all others who are suffering, who have sustained losses, who are ill, who are homeless, who are marginalized, who are scared and vulnerable. We recognize our shared humanity, and we become beacons of light in the world, because we know what it feels like to be broken-hearted ourselves.
To return to the words of Rabbi Alan Lew with which we began, “Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to crack itself open. They are among the most ancient of human yearnings… and they are fully expressed during the Yamim Noraim.”
My blessing for all of us tonight, on this Kol Nidre evening 5780, is that we crack open our hearts to what lies inside of us, our gifts and our flaws, our strengths and our weaknesses, our joys and our sorrows, our happiness and our grief. May the cracks of our open hearts let the Or/ the light in, so that we can in turn, become true beacons of light in our world, so in need of our compassion, our empathy, and our care.
Shanah Tovah to each one of you. G’mar Hatimah Tovah. May you and your loved ones be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life and Blessing.
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan Kol Nidre, 5780. October 8, 2019
The Book of Life: Reaching Across the Generations
Cyd Weissman, Yom Kippur 5780/2019
As you know, Jews practice the art of time travel. With a word, bereshit, we transport to the beginning of time. With a phrase, olam ha ba we to jet to the future to the world to come. In a single night we transport willingly to stand as slaves in ancient Egypt and with a turn of the page we arrive next year in Jerusalem.
I love travel. Especially time travel. I also love journaling. When I was a 10th grader at Lower Merion High School, our creative writing teacher, Mr. Mims, gave us the assignment to keep a journal. For the past 48 years, I’ve kept that assignment. Volumes are in the attic. Journals have been a place for me to hear myself think, record events and feelings, work out my muddles and meanderings. To be clear, these journals are meant for my eyes and my eyes only. For years, I literally kept them under lock and key.
This summer, when I was ready to start a new volume, I was drawn, after all of these decades, to try something different. With the skills of a time traveler, and a journal writer, I began to write, not to myself, but to my grandchildren-- in the year 2050.
I had been wondering, maybe even hoping, that one of our grandchildren one day in the far future, might come looking for my voice, asking: Who was my Savta?
I didn’t want the only answer to be filtered through their parents. So I wrote. Not about ethics or values, because if they haven’t been transmitted through our lives and the lives of our children, no document will suffice.
I wrote so I could try to traverse the time and place continuum to sit at the table with them, share a cup of coffee.
And it worked.
I was able to meet our grandchildren. I met the ones who have already been born and those who are now conceived or adopted as an aspiration of our four sons and their partners. It was surprisingly easy to imagine a very full table of these adults in their 20’s and 30s.
So many stories to share-- I couldn’t write fast enough. I wrote about important objects like great-grandmother Rosalie’s ring that became mine, and then theirs-- literally a hundred years of laughter and tears in a single stone. I wrote about family celebrations and travel and what their fathers were like when young. I wrote about the challenges too, confessing my own misses. They would want to know that the good old days are complicated.
All summer, I urgently put pen to paper while on planes and trains, at the beach, and on the porch-- ignoring the mosquitos. I filled pages after pages. The back of my new leather bound journal softened from so many entries.
But then, a funny thing happened on the way to telling my stories.
I began to get know them, each and everyone of them. I could see them as vividly as I see you. Really, it was an unexpected joy.
I spoke to the eldest, long dark hair, sprinkled with grey. In 2050 she is 39 years old, the very same age as her father, our eldest son, is today. I started to get to know the youngest too. He was born in the late 2020’s to our youngest son and his wife. Fair haired, like his parents, a sabra, like his mother, he told me about serving in the IDF at a time when the world no longer was held hostage by Middle Eastern oil. And I sat with all of their first cousins. Most arrived by hyper-loop, a pod-like capsule, going at 500 miles an hour. Traveling by 3-D printer, they told me, had recently been banned, due to a fly or something.
Their diversity was not just in age, hair color and geography. It was expressed boldly in their politics and religious practices, in their conforming and non-conforming identities and ways of life. But I witnessed, I am sure I did, that despite their differences, they remained bound to one another by a love of family and a yearning for the good, the way their parents had.
Each one was a unique expression, revealing glimpses of the best of their parents, magnifying their senses of humor and creativity, their zest for problem solving and learning.
And don’t think I couldn’t see their imperfections. I could see variations of their parents and grandparents’ fault lines—but in a diminished form.
Each generation evolves or tries to, consciously working on their inherited challenges. The familial evolutionary cycle does turn toward redemption and growth.
Proof: In Jay’s genealogical searches, from generations past he has found arsonists and thieves. Today-none—we think.
To better know our grandchildren in 2050 I had to also see, as clearly as I could, the world they inhabit. Sadly, I saw the plagues of 2050, the one’s predicted and the ones not yet imagined. Oddly, I found comfort in the knowledge that we have always, as the seder reminds us, lived with plagues.
Each time I closed my journal I felt a little more hopeful, realizing that it was a foolish notion to want to imagine a future without brokenness. What I could and should imagine, is a future where the next generation has a light that can be sown.
The children of this community, most of whom I have seen grow up, and their descendants will be those lights in the future.
This realization, a comforting antidote to the pessimism that pervades our times about the future, was what I took back from my time travels. But what did I give?
Sitting together at that long table over a cup of coffee, I can tell you that my grandchildren weren’t asking for ethical lessons. For a while, yes, they were interested in my stories. What I heard in the white spaces, as they too tried to navigate a riptide-changing world, raising their own children, mending the earth’s fractures, was that they needed one thing that I could I uniquely give.
With this knowledge, I wrote anew—more slowly and deliberately:
If you come looking for my voice, asking, who was my Savta, this is what I hope you hear. I love you. I love you tenderly, deeply, without condition. You are loved.
If you are ever standing alone, feeling uncertain, or discouraged and those times will come, know that I am loving you, from now till then and beyond, I love you in a way that is not bound by time.
And when joy greets you in the morning, and it will, with the birth of your own children and grandchildren, with the stories that you will write and paint and sing, I want you to feel that your joy is magnified because my cup is running over for you.
You are the next ones to write the family story. You are the next evolutionary cycle, gifted to make it your own. I confess a tug on me sometimes that your way is different that mine. I am trying to learn that is the way of the generations.
I give you this blessing.
I am kissing you on your keh-pee. Maybe that’s a word that got lost by now. I mean to say, kissing you on the top of your head, saying to you, as I often did when parting from your fathers,
God bless you and keep you safe and sound.
Today we say to each other,
Gmar chatimah tova. Literally this translates to: A good final sealing.
But, what we are really saying to each other is:
May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for good.
And if I can add:
May we be inscribed in the book of life that reaches across the generations-- to our own children and to one another’s children.
May we be able to reach back, draw on the light and love given to us and pass it on to the next generations who will shine in their own unique ways for good.
To practice the art of time travel, Gmar chatimah tova
Drash by Debby Swirsky Sacchetti – Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 2019 – The Voice of Hagar
I want to begin by acknowledging the gift I’ve been given by Rabbi Shelly and the Or Zarua community to share yet again a midrash on Rosh Hashanah that develops the voices of women in today’s parshah. After a rendering during Or Zarua’s first High Holiday season raising up Sarah’s voice, and another last year lifting up Hannah’s, more than one person approached me to ask about a midrash on Hagar.
Taking those requests to heart, I have chosen to speak for Hagar… though not in a singular way, or as you might expect.
I must also, before Hagar’s story unfolds, credit the thought-provoking works of many others. Years ago, Ilene Wasserman gave me a copy of Beginning Anew, A Woman’s Companion to the High Holy Days. Edited by Gail Twersky Reimer and Judith Kates, with midrashim by Rosellen Brown, Ruth Behar, Judith Kates, Carolivia Herron, Marsha Pravder Mirkin, and Tamara Cohen, it has been a staple of my reflections each Rosh Hashanah. And this year, I had the privilege of revisiting “10 Imaginings of Sarah & Hagar”, a play by Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, with music and lyrics by Juliet Spitzer, and produced some years ago by Theatre Ariel at Beth Am Israel. It, too, provided invaluable creative and inspirational material for my own musings.
Lastly, I would like to dedicate my midrash to my parents, husband, and children alike… all links in a chain of generations standing one upon the shoulders of the other in our journey toward “Teshuva”, turning around with greater compassion and generosity toward ourselves and others.
I am the voice of Hagar. By what miracle do I stand before you, free to speak and share my story as I see it, rather than through the lens of ancient biblical script?
I count my blessings….and though weary and a bit numb after so many years of being in the shadows, I am truly delighted to add my voice to your proclamations and supplications today, to accompany the reverberating blasts of the shofar in its call to humanity.
Let me begin by reminding you of the traditional narrative of my journey in the book of Genesis.
Hagar, as it is told, was handmaiden to Sarah, wife of Abraham. Sarah, childless at the age of 90, ushers Hagar into her own husband’s bed to conceive the son and heir needed to secure Abraham’s line and, by surrogacy, her own status.
Hagar, now pregnant with child, is said to treat the barren Sarah disrespectfully, subsequently running away from the harsh response of her mistress. She returns, however, when an angel of God exhorts her with the promise that multitudes will spring forth in the name of her babe to be, Ishmael.
Years after Ishmael’s birth, Sarah herself is “remembered” by God and miraculously gives birth to Isaac. Wrought with worry about the future of her own son, Sarah approaches Abraham and entreats him to banish Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham, it is said, is concerned about the child, but goes ahead with the plan after God tells him to hearken unto Sarah’s voice.
Cast out, and close to death in the wilderness, Ishmael and Hagar are saved when she cries out to God and is directed to a nearby well of water. They are nourished, and move on. Eventually, Hagar finds an Egyptian wife for Ishmael, who is destined to become the father of Islam.
But hear ME now. The traditional telling of the tale of Sarah wronging me, of woman wounding woman, is far from justly construed. Mine is, at core, a story of patriarchal and social power so unjustly stacked that many were fundamentally oppressed. We, as women, were granted status in direct proportion to the status of the men in our lives, valued primarily for our ability to bear sons.
Ours is not a story of Sarah and me in relation to each other that can be judged independently of the world in which we lived….nor by the assumed accuracy of the narrative as written by the very men who did not seem to see that we had our own stories to share.
Sarah and I were, you see, intimates. We were thrown together by the tides of history that labeled us both first and foremost as women, subject to the power and choices of our fathers and husbands.
It wasn’t Sarah who cast the first stone. I was the daughter of Pharoah, and when Abraham and Sarah sojourned in our land to escape famine in Canaan, Sarah was made by Abraham to pose as his sister. Sarah was, you see, quite beautiful, and though my father would have taken her for his own pleasure in any case, he would have killed Abraham first had he been known to be Sarah’s husband. Later, I was given by my very own father to the house of Abraham as Sarah’s handmaid when he saw the power of their God who delivered mighty plagues to free her.
So you see, Sarah and I shared deep personal legacies. We were both enslaved by the men who ruled us…and though I was her handmaid, a slave in the house of Abraham, we lived in close proximity to the daily flow of each other’s lives. We were, in truth, sisters of a sort before I was made to sleep with Abraham and conceived Ishmael…and even after, as Sarah nursed me through my pregnancy…and years later as I was by her side when she birthed Isaac.
Why doesn’t the biblical rendering acknowledge that our closeness was as such closenesses were…. steeped in complicated connection, yet afflicted by the impossible demands of the patriarchal, tribal, and polygamous culture in which we lived.
In the early days, we often walked together at nightfall, after I had finished ministering to her and she to Abraham…sharing our hopes and calming each other’s anxieties. We often talked of bearing children, wondering about our destinies, and the future of daughters and sons.
Yes, we struggled. We both had our share of resentments. How could we not? I was, in society’s eyes her slave. She became, even in that very same regard, a withered woman who saw no way out but to offer me to Abraham.
And cast each other out, we did. Once my fertility decreed itself, I could hold myself above her barrenness…and she, threatened by Ishmael’s very existence once Isaac was born, was still a member of the ruling class that decreed our exile.
But this problematic part of our story must be seen in its fullness too. We are all too quick, are we not, to cast out others and parts of ourselves that we fear… all too quick to react with walls and weapons, emotional or material, whose misguided purpose is the protection of an insecure self.
Yes, though our relationship was problematic in near tragic ways, Sarah and I knew each other well, and with a profound, if complicated, measure of care.
Hence ours is not a story that can be truly told in isolation, the lens of judgement cast solely in our direction. It goes back as well to my father’s callousness…my mother’s absent voice….to Abraham’s treachery, and his complicity in the triangular mess in which we all lived. It takes place, rather, in the context of a system so flawed that all of us were wounded, and none of us knew how to shed our tears, cradle our vulnerabilities, and find a path toward understanding and inclusion, boundary and compassion.
Perhaps, though, you will learn from our shortcomings. Perhaps you will find your voices and your courage to journey on more humanely. I leave you with a prayer to this end, written as I pondered how I would close what I shared with you today about my story, the story of Hagar and Sarah. Add, if you will, my voice to your stories, my plea as I now record it on this Rosh Hashanah.
Do not cast us out
To parched desert sands
Reluctant tears in tow.
Bathe me once again in your communal waters
Knowing my sisterhood as your own.
Scorn not my words
Uttered in haste,
Fed by troubled waters
Beneath the social veil.
And judge no more my sister’s pain,
For she, too, knows
The weight of oppression…
Violations from on high
Tethered to a system of privilege and power.
Rally, rather, each self and join together.
Turn toward the light,
Repairing and forgiving the wounds
Inflicted in the halls of human commerce.
Replenish our wholeness.
Re-imagine a world
Where all shall know freedom,
And all shall know kindness…
And the sounds of the shofar will travel far and wide
To proclaim our vision.
September 30, 2019
Rosh Hashanah 5780
Ethics, Leadership, Moral Vacuum, Hope and Action
Sermon Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 2019 - by Rabbi Shelly Barnathan
Shanah Tovah, Or Zarua! –
Here we are, together for our 5780 High Holidays - our third High Holidays together as a holy, unique, co-constructed community! Amazing, our third year together! From a tiny spark, to rays and beams of light, we gather here at Or Zarua, as our name says, to sow seeds of light to increase peace and understanding in the world.
And here we are, on this Rosh Hashanah, to begin a New Year of reflection, insight and change together.
I want to share a little secret with you! Crafting sermons for you - our Or Zarua community –-our highly educated and socially conscious community - is both a holy and daunting task! The responsibility to dig deep, to share messages of relevance and significance, to motivate and to inspire – this is a rabbinic responsibility that I take very seriously!
Somewhere in the middle of summer, it hits me – High Holidays are on the way – what are the pressing and relevant topics that we might explore together? I begin my sermon research at our annual summer weekend at Walker Lake in the Poconos, at the home of our dear friends Ellen and Chuck Shechtman. I pack inspirational books and articles, my trusty notebook and pencil case filled with pens, pencils, highlighters, and of course, sticky notes. I arise early, before everyone else, so that I can sit on the dock by the peaceful expanse of Walker Lake, surrounded by the sounds and sights of nature, all of which allow a calm to come over me.
By the lake, blue sky above, trees surrounding me, I begin to reflect. After a busy and action-packed Or Zarua year, I start to unwind and to relax just enough to think deeper thoughts, to allow connections to be made between my mind and my heart. I read sermons by rabbi friends, I delve into spiritual books with inspiring stories and poetry. I start to feel that I am again in the Shefa – in the flow of creativity, connection and meaning-making. Ahh – what gratitude there is in those moments of Shefa, the flow that matches my yearning to make meaning in life and to reach places of awareness and understanding.
High Holiday themes begin to bubble up – themes of challenge and resilience, support and care, forgiveness and compassion, brokenness and wholeness. Personal reflections on my children and grandchildren, my husband, my mother, my family and friends, flow into thoughts of community, country, and the world. I reflect on the year - on both natural disasters and tragedies caused by humans, on truth and lies, on good and evil. My mind is pulled in so many directions - how to choose? How to select rich and meaningful themes for our High Holiday Divrei Torah together here at Or Zarua?
And then I remember something special that is packed in my backpack – something that I tucked in to provide extra inspiration - it’s my little Ruth Bader Ginsburg finger puppet! I place little Ruth carefully onto my index finger, smile at her sparkly green earrings, black gown and elegant white collar, and gaze into her bespectacled eyes.
This small, mighty woman who upholds justice, who stands for rights of women and the downtrodden, who fights for others and is still fighting her own battle with cancer – the Notorious RBG lifts up the very topic that has been on my heart and mind, and likely yours, ever since November of 2016. It is something that we are lacking in our country and something for which we are all yearning- leadership –ethical, principled leadership in our country–leadership that reflects high moral standards, leadership that speaks truth, stands for justice, that supports those in need – leadership that aligns with our own Jewish values, the ethics that guide us in our personal lives, the morals that inform our behavior and our choices at home, at work, and in our communities.
I think I speak for all of us when I say that we here at Or Zarua are guided by ethics. You and I work hard to live moral lives each day –– we uphold values that we were taught by our parents, and by our honored teachers and role models. We try to live honest, conscientious lives of integrity. We teach these values to our children and grandchildren, as we are instructed in Torah in the V’ahavta prayer – V’shinantam L’vanecha – you should teach these values to your children… And here at Or Zarua, in our Wise Aging/Composing your Ethical Wills group–(which is still open for this Fall) we clarify our deepest values, creating letters, essays, poems or artwork that articulate the moral values that we want to pass on to our children, our grandchildren, our friends, our community, and our world.
As ethical and moral citizens, we open our eyes to, as Mussar says, “the Other” - the downtrodden, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. Torah commands us to attend to the needs of “the Other”, specifically telling us 36 times that we must take care of the stranger, because we ourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt, and we know what it is like to be marginalized and persecuted.
And as Americans, we expect our leaders, on every level, to do the very same thing – to move out of the “Self” to truly see the needs of the Other. I believe that most of us here grew up with a deep sense of “right” and “wrong” – our parents and teachers instilled this in us. And I think that we also grew up expecting the authority figures in our lives– our doctors, teachers, coaches, rabbis, elected officials - and yes – even presidents, to know “right” from “wrong”, and to live and behave according to a high moral code. I was taught to believe that positions of authority come with the obligation to serve with wisdom and with justice, with honesty and dedication, with integrity. We expect our leaders to be role models, and to be guided by the same moral and ethical standards that we uphold and strive to exemplify in our lives.
But, is this the case in the United States today? I think you know where I am going here…But before we examine the presence or absence of moral leadership in our country, let us first take a look at the Jewish view of “leadership.”
For reasons both theological and historical, Judaism has always maintained a certain distrust of human leaders. After all, isn’t G-d, the Divine, our ultimate leader!
From ancient times, Jewish sources have recognized that there is a direct correlation between high office and possible abuse of power. Therefore, the Jewish world has always placed strict limits upon those in positions of authority, from kings to judges, teachers to rabbis. Were we only to have these same strict limits on the American presidency and executive privilege today!
The Hebrew word for leadership is manhigut. It derives from the root – להתנהג “ to behave.” – to conduct oneself. For Judaism, leadership is not about position; it is about behavior and how one conducts oneself. The rabbis were very clear on this concept: one can lead effectively without holding any title or office, as long as one behaves ethically.
In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Ancestors, Tractate 4, Rabbi Masya son of Cheresh teaches,
“Be rather a tail to lions than a head to foxes,” which means,
“It is better to be someone of low rank among those who are moral and ethical, than to be someone of high rank among liars, manipulators and cheaters.
In evaluating those who would be our leaders then, Judaism suggests that we would do well to consider their behavior, not their resumes. Do our leaders, for example:
· Demonstrate an understanding that power must be restrained and shared, lest it be abused, even by good people?
· Do they live by high moral standards, using their words and speech for justice - telling truth, not lying, fabricating, misleading, name-calling, or bullying?
· Do they keep their personal business dealings outside of and separate from their governmental dealings and time?
· Have they the proven ability to see beyond their own personal agenda to truly serve the people they are leading, respecting others and advocating for the less fortunate?
· Do they surround themselves by wise advisors, empowering others to have leadership roles? Do they lead collaboratively?
· Do they think of themselves as humble servants of the people, or are they egocentric, narcissistic leaders seeking to maximize their position of power, wealth and position?
Very relevant questions with regard to our current national leadership, no? This last concept of humility or Anavah –is, pardon the expression, hugely important. While conventional and perhaps secular wisdom associates leadership with self-assurance, bravado, and certainty, Jewish sources offer a very different view, one which identifies humility as the essential attribute of effective leadership. Humility, the recognition of one’s limitations, regardless of position, is a natural consequence of Judaism’s traditional thinking that only G-d - the Divine One - has absolute authority in our world, and that human leaders, however powerful, are servants of G-d and can never be above the law.
Jewish sources insist that arrogance and inflated sense of self, often found in people with power, are, in fact, antithetical to effective leadership. While acknowledging the undeniable majesty of the King, the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah - Law of Kings, insisted that the most effective king is one who is able to “cultivate a humble and lowly spirit … and deal graciously and compassionately with all - both the small and the great.”
Humility, according to Judaism, is not a sign of weak leadership, but is rather a sign of awareness, depth and insight. To highlight this value of humility, in Numbers 12:3, Torah tells us that our greatest leader Moses, Moshe Rabeynu, who didn’t even want to be a leader, yet led the Israelites out of Egypt, was “the most humble man on the face of the earth.”
So, where does this leave us today, in our world – with so many leaders who have let us down, who have who have abused, who have lied, cheated, fabricated, bullied… sounds just like the Ashamnu and Al Cheyt lists for which we beat our chests on these High Holidays. What has happened to our world? Where have morals, ethics and values gone? What have been the precursors for this state in which we find ourselves? There are many of you here, experts in the fields of sociology, psychology and history, who I am sure could answer this deep question with great wisdom and insight.
The fact is, however, that, no matter how we arrived here, we ARE here in this exact moment in our country and in our world in which a lack of moral leadership is all too prevalent. Our government, and particularly our president and those around him, are prime examples of such a lack of moral standards.
How would we characterize the leadership style of Donald Trump? Our president’s leadership style is not ethical, but is rather transactional. You have to give him credit for being consistent, for as President, Mr. Trump has consistently displayed all of the behaviors and characteristics of his long business career as a deal maker. For Donald Trump, every interaction is a transaction - an opportunity to win at someone else's cost. And he will do anything to “win”.
Mr. Trump lacks the ethical values of honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness. He name-calls and bullies to gain power. He switches positions to be on, what he considers, the “winning” side. He aligns with dictators. He uses his power and position to aggrandize himself, his business, his position, and his fortune. He remains the inveterate salesman – and truly, how could anyone have expected him to be anything else? As we said in last year’s Words Matter sermon, Donald Trump is the “Music Man”, the “Harold Hill” of the presidency. How did anyone expect his behavior to change? Once a manipulator, always a manipulator. I could go on and on and on. And so could we all...
Last year at Rosh Hashanah, we studied the power of words, concluding that words matter - and they do! But, I think that the issue in front of us is now much larger than words. The question is –what do we do about this current climate in our country and in our world? How do we, as moral, ethical human beings, respond to this crisis? As my mother says in German – “Wie der Herr, so das Gescherr.” As the leader leads, so the others follow.
How do we face the situation in our country and prevent even more individuals from following this President, who is not acting for the good of the people, but who rather acts for himself, his family, and his base? How do we stem this tide of unethical behavior? How do we effect change?
Aleynu – It is upon us. We must speak act, write to our Congress people. We must demonstrate, march, and protest. We must exemplify the highest ethical and moral standards in our own actions. We must demonstrate for our children and grandchildren that speaking out for the rights of the immigrant, the downtrodden, and the stranger, protesting racism and Anti-Semitism by being proud, active Jews are all the work of Tikkun Olam – of repairing what is broken in our world. We must fight the spirit of selfishness that is invading our culture. We must stand up for all – Jew, Muslim, black, white, immigrant, stranger, gay, straight, and transgender. We are in crisis mode in America, with our President and his base leading us down a path of greed, self-absorption, hatred, and racism, and we must act.
We are all created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d, with infinite worth, each and every one of us. And we need to advocate for the humanity of each of G-d’s creations.
And in addition to advocating by writing, demonstrating, speaking out, marching, donating to causes that support the victims of hatred in this country, the most important act that we must do is to VOTE for ethical leadership in 2020. We can take nothing for granted in this next election. Our world has changed since 2016 – this is not politics as usual. This election is about the moral fiber of our lives. We must vote for ethical leadership at every level –at the Presidential level and the Congressional level as well. The future of the Supreme Court depends on this election, and may G-d bless our dear Ruth Bader Ginsburg with many more years as a Supreme Court Justice. Our future and the future of our children and grandchildren depend on this election…. We need to elect ethical leaders who will advocate for a safe, just, and healthy world.
You can see how passionate I am about this – and I know that you are as well. And where does this passion come from? – Our great Jewish teachers have always taught us to be activists.
The great Rabbi Hillel, in one of the most famous sayings of Judaism, proclaimed ,“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I, and if not now, when?”
The wise Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The world is not a vacuum. Either we make it an altar for G-d or it is invaded by demons. There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred, or slaves of evil.”
And the late, great Elie Wiesel, during the 150th Commencement ceremony at Washington University in St. Louis, where our daughter Marissa went to college, instructed the graduates, “Do not stand idly by if you witness injustice. You must intervene. You must interfere.”
Aleynu – This work of marching, protesting, writing, getting out the vote, is upon us as moral, ethical citizens of these United States of America. But it is heavy work – intense work that can be draining. It is not work that we can do without a pause.
As Rabbi Tarfon said in Pirkei Avot, 2:16,
“The day is short, and the work is much…
it is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it…”
Aleynu – This work is upon us. But it is not upon us as individuals. This is collective work. We must surround ourselves with others who are also doing this work of Tikkun Olam, so that we feel supported. And no one has to do this work in the same way - some of us are marchers, some of us are letter writers, some of us donate money, some of us offer our time…
Choose what is fitting for you, but in this New Year of 5780, when this moral crisis stands right before us, let us each stretch ourselves. Let us each explore new, and yes, uncharted paths of Tikkun Olam, taking ourselves out of our comfort zone to bring justice and ethics to our world. And as you do this challenging work, know that, as Rabbi Tarfon said, you don’t have to do it all! Your one part will be so valued and appreciated and will have great impact!
Or Zarua member, Tammy Forstater and I were talking over the summer about the state of our country and all that there is upon us to do. Realizing that no one person can possibly devote every waking moment to social action, OZ members Tammy and Audrey Fingerhood created a lovely image of the way in which this holy and challenging work of Tikkun Olam can be done. For those of you who are singers, it’s like being in a chorus and holding one long note– the note needs to be sustained over an extended period of time, but of course, no one person has the breath to hold the note fully! So, a collaborative system of staggered breathing is created - one person starts to sing, and then when that person’s breath is exhausted, someone else takes over, and so on and so forth, much like passing a baton from runner to runner in a relay race. No one of us can run the whole race, but when we combine efforts, each doing our part with integrity, we can get closer and closer to the finish line!
Aleynu – This work of Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, is heavy work upon us. We need energy, we need help to keep hope and motivation alive.
In the Torah portion this past Shabbat, Parshat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 30:19, we read:
“I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse — therefore choose life!” At this time in our country, with so much critical work upon us, let us choose hope and positivity, and life – together we can do this! We choose life!
So now, let us end where we began- with our small but mighty hero, our role model and leader, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, guiding our way, inspiring us to live according to our morals and values, to speak out for the oppressed, to be the voice of the minority, to stand tall always, and to find loving support around us to do this holy, challenging work. And as RBG does each and every day - let us choose life!
To the notorious RBG – we thank you, we admire you, and we say a special Mishebeyrach for you – may you be strong, in good health, continuing to be the role model of ethical, moral leadership to which we all aspire.
Shanah Tovah, Or Zarua – may 5780 be a year of strength and courage for all of us, a year in which we can be leaders for morals and ethics, for life and for peace, and justice for all. And let us say, Ameyn.
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan, Or Zarua, Rosh Hashanah 2019, 5780
Jacob Fogel - Yom Kippur Day Drash 5779
Jacob Fogel – Yom Kippur 5779/2018 Or Zarua
I am honored to be speaking to you all this Yom Kippur and appreciative of Rabbi Shelly for the opportunity to share my thoughts.
Out of respect for the members of the Old Haverford Friends Meeting and the beautiful meetinghouse they have shared with Or Zarua, I ask you all to join me in a centering moment of silence and reflection…
I have spent the better part of my life connected to Quaker education, 13 years as a student and 7 years as an educator, and as a result, the last two High Holidays in this building have had an elevated sense of home for me. Growing up surrounded by the teachings of Judaism and Quakerism has led me to find many connections between the two.
Quakers utilize the power of silent reflection during Meeting for Worship, waiting to be moved by the Spirit or G-d before speaking and sharing their ministry. At the core of each Jewish service is the Silent Amidah, a time for us to pray directly to G-d, offering praise, gratitude, and asking for that which is needed. The Quaker testimonies and teachings encourage those within the Society of Friends to regularly take part in community service. Within Judaism, many of our Mitzvot specifically call for us to better our communities and help those who are in need.
Finally, Quakers believe that there is “that of G-d in everyone” and refer to the presence of this spirit as the Light. Our name, Or Zarua, translates to the light that is sown, encouraging each of us to plant seeds of our light to strengthen, or illuminate, the good in the world.
Yom Kippur is my favorite holiday and I am aware that this may not be a common sentiment. Yom Kippur not only utilizes the practice of self-reflection but also the calls on us to withdraw from distraction. While other Jewish holidays and traditions intentionally build community around the dinner table, Yom Kippur reminds us that there is a need, at times, to take stock of how we as individuals are interacting with and impacting our greater community. In a way, Yom Kippur asks us to shift our perspective from “community” as a holistic unit to “community” as a collection of individuals.
On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Shelly expressed her appreciation that Vidui, our confessional, is written in the first person plural. Ashamnu, Bahgahdnu, Gahzahlnu… We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen… One interpretation of this is to focus on the collective nature of community; while I may not have stolen, someone has and thus, we all have, emphasizing the intertwined nature of our souls on this day. Alternatively, the use of “we” instead of “I” as we confess could be to serve as a reminder that the failures of an individual are often the result of shortcomings within their community. While I have not stolen, my actions, or inaction as an individual contributed the environment for others to transgress in this way.
Over the past few years we have found ourselves in a political and social climate that unfortunately is not unique. As a history teacher, I have the privilege of teaching young people to identify how populist, egocentric, and anti-press political bodies have been established, how they have worked to maintain their power, and, most importantly, how they have eventually lost their standing in the global arena. Additionally, I have had the opportunity to hold up the voices of inspiring individuals who, through their words and actions, provided road maps to a peaceful society.
I am drawn to a letter from July, 1939 that I recently came across. It was sent a few months prior to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, yet well into their control of Germany’s people and its government. The letter was written by Mahatma Gandhi and was sent to Adolf Hitler “for the sake of humanity”. In this short note, Gandhi exhibits his compassion for the world, he recognizes Hitler as “the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to the savage state,” and offers his sincerest apologies for any offense this letter may cause. In his strength, Gandhi embraced the difficulty of reaching out to those with whom we share no common ground. While many of focus on never forgetting out of fear for history’s repetition, I encourage us to never forget because of the solutions that are hidden within our history.
The rhetoric and raw emotion that surges through our daily lives today is palpable and, yet, its meaning is heavily influenced by our diverse socioeconomic, cultural, or political backgrounds. The pathways to communicate have been eroded and, with them, our ability to empathize has been diminished. Why has it become so difficult to maintain the plurality of communities that make up our global society, when each and every faith-based and secular belief system highlights the importance of traits such as peace, family, community, charity, and kindness?
In the moments of silence that we share today, whether they are in atonement or reflection, I ask that we, specifically as members of Or Zarua and more generally as peoples of the world, turn a portion of our attention to this query.
- What have I done in the past year to help sow the seeds of light within a community that is not my own?
It will require immense love, understanding, and a willingness to embrace discomfort, but I believe that it will aid us in our effort of Tikun Olam. How can we become the change we wish to see, how can we share the seeds of light that this community works so hard to cultivate?
G’mar Chatima Tova
May we all be inscribed in the book of life.
Yom Kippur 5779/2018
Yom Kippur Day Sermon – Wednesday, September 19, 2018 –
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan, Or Zarua
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. The person who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn – and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.
Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
If you want to see the brave, look to those who can return love for hatred. If you want to see the heroic, look to those who can forgive.– Bhagavad Gita
“Slichah”– I’m sorry…Forgiveness is one the major themes of our Jewish High Holiday season. During the month of Elul which precedes the High Holidays, we reflect upon our successes and missteps during the past year. On the Shabbat evening during the week before Rosh Hashanah, there is a special evening service called Selichot, a service of forgiveness. And during the Aseret Ymei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Returning between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are commanded to seek forgiveness from those in our lives whom we may have wronged, and to offer forgiveness to those who seek it from us.
Forgiveness– Not a simple concept by any means. When I seek understanding, my inner linguist always begins with a definition.
According to Merriam Webster, “to forgive” is: to stop feeling anger toward someone who has done something wrong; to stop blaming someone; to stop feeling anger about something.
And according to Wikipedia, “forgiveness” is:
“the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense; letting go of negative emotions such as vengefulness; forswearing recompense from or punishment of the offender, however legally or morally justified it might be, and with an increased ability to wish the offender well. Forgiveness is different from condoning, excusing, forgetting, pardoning, and reconciliation.”
These definitions address those situations in which someone has wronged us, in which we hold hurt, anger and blame against another, and in which we, allowing ourselves a healthy process of letting go over time, eventually release ourselves from the intensity of anger and blame that we have been holding towards that person.
Not a simple process, but one that is encouraged and described in explicit detail in Judaism – we are commanded to both seek and offer forgiveness from and to others at this time of Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, this Day of At-One-Ment.
So, hopefully you have done your Teshuvah with others, apologized and sought forgiveness for ways in which you may have missed the mark with loved ones and friends. And hopefully, as well, you have offered sincere pardon and forgiveness to your loved ones for ways in which they may have missed the mark with you.
But for this Dvar Torah, I would like to focus on a kind of forgiveness that is not so clearly addressed in Torah or by the Rabbis, and that is self-forgiveness. Yes – the difficult topic of self-forgiveness. Do we, in our Jewish texts and sources, have any teachings about self-forgiveness, and if so, what are they?
As I’ve shared with you many times, I grew up in an observant Jewish home, the child of German Holocaust survivors. I have many clear memories of Yom Kippur as a young girl in my Orthodox shul. From the women’s side of the Mechitza, or separation between men and women, I could make out the men in their white kittels shuckling back and forth as they davened. And on my own side of the Mechitza, I observed the women, as the day of Yom Kippur wore on, passing smelling salts to one another to keep from passing out. And I remember with great clarity the choreography around the Yom Kippur Al Cheyt prayer, with its long list of sins - sins of speech, of thought, of action, sins that I, as a child, had never even heard of, with words that I didn’t even understand. Yet, as a child, I was being instructed to beat my chest with the recitation of each of these sins. And as the rule-following girl that I was, I obediently recited each line, striking my chest firmly with closed fist, for fear that if I didn’t, I would not be forgiven for my sins.
Was this beating of my chest for a list of sins that I hadn’t committed a practice borne out of kindness? Did this form of prayer reflect self-compassion and self-forgiveness?
No – to the contrary – the message here was that in order to make atonement and to do Teshuvah, we had to overcompensate, recite every wrongdoing possible, and on some level “beat ourselves up.” This did not feel gentle, this did not feel loving. This felt harsh and rigid.
Don’t get me wrong, I experienced many beautiful aspects of Orthodoxy as a child, and over the years, I have worked to “reconstruct” the Judaism of my youth, retaining that which was healthy, life-giving and soul-nourishing, while letting go of the negative, the unhealthy, and the limiting.
We all make mistakes, we all “miss the mark”, we all have disagreements, arguments, altercations; we misspeak, we act out of frustration or anger -- we all let ourselves and others down.
The question is – how do we acknowledge and forgive ourselves gently for our mistakes, for our errors, for our shortcomings? How do we live in healthy relationship with ourselves as human beings, scars and all?
As I give voice to these feelings and these questions now, I feel tension deep inside of me. My upbringing was so rigid; I was raised with so many rules – Shabbat, Kashrut, and in addition to the rules of Judaism, there were messages, or “agreements” (à la our Rosh Hashanah Day 1 sermon) that I received from my family of origin. My grandmother, my Omi, lived by the “agreement”that children should not get “a swelled head” for fear that they would become conceited. Omi would remind my mother of this teaching, making sure that I didn’t receive too many compliments. Was the idea that the withholding of compliments and praise would keep a child from becoming “conceited,” and that by being hard and even critical with oneself, one would somehow grow to be a better, smarter, more efficient, and more productive person?
As a child of Holocaust survivors, I was always trying to be “the good girl,” aiming to please my parents and grandmother, seeking compliments in an environment that was just too sparing with them. Needless to say, this was difficult for me – always trying to please. I was hard on myself, and I didn’t learn much in the way of self-compassion at home.
Over the years, I have learned to forgive my grandmother and family of origin for that which I have just shared with you. I have come to understand and appreciate that, especially with their own trauma of the Holocaust, they were doing their best, trying to raise my brother and me the best way that they knew how. I have truly forgiven them, and that forgiveness has allowed me to regard each of my family members with great love and great respect.
But the question and challenge that still remains is– where is my self-forgiveness and my self-compassion?That is still a work in progress…
What does Judaism have to say about self-forgiveness and kindness to self? Are there teachings on self-compassion and self-forgiveness within Judaism, and what about in our secular world? In writing this Dvar Torah, I turned to several authors, teachers and resources, and I was comforted to find much wisdom, both Jewish and secular, supporting the practice of self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
A favorite teacher of many of us here is the late Rabbi Alan Lew, zichrono livracha, deep spiritual thinker and author of the book, “This is Real and you are Completely Unprepared - A Preparation for the High Holidays,” In his book, Rabbi Lewreflects on the importance of self-forgiveness in the following way:
“Self-forgiveness is the essential act of the High Holiday season. That is why we need heaven. That is why we need G-d. We can forgive others on our own. But we turn to G-d because it is sohardto forgive ourselves. We need to feel accepted by a larger power who transcends us and who embodies our highest values. When we wish to wipe the slate clean, to finalize self-forgiveness, we need heaven– a sense of something or someone larger and beyond ourselves.”
Rabbi Lew states that though self-forgiveness may end with G-d, it begins with us. Lew maintains that self-forgiveness is so difficult largely because we hold ourselves up to such high standards, higher than it is possible to live up to. And it is precisely when we are hardest on ourselves that we are most tempted to bury our misdeeds – to hide from our reality, to deny weakness, to deny that we’ve done anything wrong.
The Jewish concept is that we are each created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d, and though this may come as a surprise to some of you, the G-d of Torah is not a perfect G-d. Kabbalah and liberal Judaism, for that matter, teach us that G-d has many attributes and aspects that are in tension with one another. The G-d of Torah is not consistently loving, kind or patient. G-d is a G-d of Rachamim- lovingkindness, and G-d is also a G-d of Din- judgment. G-d has patience, and G-d has anger. According to Kabbalah, G-d struggles just as we do, yet G-d is holy and sacred. So, if we are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d, then we, too, with our imperfections, our struggles, our opposing attributes and traits, our strengths and weaknesses, our successes and failures, are also holy.
According to Rabbi Lew, if we allow the High Holy Day season, with its prayer, its fasting, and its intensity, to do the work for which it is intended - to open us to our deepest selves, we might realize that we, as imperfect beings, are infused like G-d, with holiness. All of our qualities, attributes, strengths and shortcomings have a holy spark at their center. Acknowledging that we are holy in our uniqueness, says Rabbi Lew, is the essence of self-forgiveness.
“To forgive ourselves,” says Rabbi Lew, “we need to give up one of our most ingrained beliefs – that there is something wrong with us, that we are bad, inadequate, somehow defective, and lacking in goodness. Disciplining ourselves, rejecting ourselves, beating ourselves, leads us farther away from this goodness, not closer to it.”
Rabbi Lew then elaborates on this theme of self-rejection by quoting his teacher, Jewish/Buddhist guide, Sharon Salzberg. Salzberg states,
“If I have an idea about how I should be more compassionate, and I go through a process of rejecting myself every time I don’t meet this standard, I will never find that compassion. One kind of emotional process cannot possibly produce another kind of emotional process. Rejection will notlead to compassion. Rejection will only lead to further rejection. Only compassion can lead to greater compassion.”
And then Rabbi Lew calls upon his teacher Reb Nachman of Bratslav, great Hasidic master and author of the Likutey Moharan, upon which our beloved little book, The Gentle Weapon ,is based. As we have learned together, Reb Nachman suffered from bipolar disorder and was always trying to find the joy and light in life. One of Reb Nachman’s famous pieces of counsel begins, “Judge all people favorably.”
And after instructing us to search for the “point of good” in others, Reb Nachman added: “You must also find the good in yourself.” He advised: “When all we see and feel is negativity, we must search within ourselves for an aspect of goodness, a white dot within the black, and then find another and another until these dots form musical notes.”
Rabbi Lew expounds upon this concept of musical notes by saying, “It is our life’s work to connect these white dots, these musical notes, and to notice the melody that these dots make. This is the melody you were born to dance to. This is the background music for the real life you are living. Listen to it!”
In addition to the late Rabbi Alan Lew, another wise teacher on self-forgiveness is Philadelphia’s own Dr. Dan Gottlieb,best known as the host of "Voices in the Family," a weekly radio program heard for more than 30 years on WHYY-FM.
Dr. Dan asks – Why is it so hard for us to forgive ourselves? He suggests that this business of self-judgment is, for many people, the ultimate question. Many good people refuse to forgive themselves, while people who are really bad often have no difficulty forgiving themselves. Why do some people judge themselves so harshly, Dr. Dan asks? He maintains that we beat ourselves up, thinking that we need to do this in order to improve ourselves. “I’m going to whip myself until I improve my income, my looks, my well-being.” And of course, to improve we have to do just the opposite. We have to love ourselves.
Dr. Dan asks, when we feel that we’ve made a mistake, the question is, “Who has made a mistake and messed up? Is it a person for whom we feel compassion? A person whom we love? Or is it a person to whom we withhold compassion and love? A person with whom we are always at odds because self-punishment and being hard on ourselves was what we learned from parents and teachers as a way to keep ourselves in line?
Dr. Dan shares a Midrash to lift up the importance of self-compassion. According to Torah, when Moses met G-d on the mountain, it was the back of G-d that was turned to Moses. The Midrash then says that G-d passed beforethe eyes of Moses, and in one brief moment, Moses saw the world through the eyes of G-d. Moses saw what it is to have compassion for all things. So, Dr. Dan teaches, if we want to be fully human, even G-d-like, we need to see the world with a holy, divine level of compassion for all living beings, including ourselves.
In their book, Wise Aging, Living with Joy, Resilience and Spirit, Dr. Linda Thal and the late Rabbi Rachel Cowan, who just passed away a few short weeks ago, right before Rosh Hashanah, maintain that “holding on to anger with oneself can be as toxic as clinging to grudges towards others.” Thal and Cowan recommend that we must acknowledge our mistakes with as much straightforwardness as we can muster. But, they say, we should not wallow in our mistakes or take on an exaggerated sense of guilt because of them. Dr. Thal and Rabbi Cowan maintain that it is simply counterproductive to beat ourselves up for our mistakes.
They remind us that Judaism is clear about the essential goodness of human beings. And we reiterate this here at Or Zarua in our prayers when we sing – Elohai Neshama Shenata Bi T’hora Hi– My G-d the Soul you placed in me is pure. Here at Or Zarua, we chant this prayer each Shabbat,and it is actually the very first prayer on the first page of our High Holiday supplement.
In our Shabbat Kol Haneshamah Siddur, there is a beautiful commentary on this Elohai Neshama prayer by Eric Mendelsohn, which states –
“This short and beautiful prayer starts each day and offers comfort in times of stress. Self-esteem is a precious gift. Even though we may lose it in the tragedies of the present, it will be restored to us in our future. G-d the healer, returns our soul to us.”
And another commentary on Elohai Neshamafrom the website Belief Net says
“Jews do not believe that humans experienced a “fall” and thus became innately impure. Our core is holy, a spark of the Divine. "The soul you have given me, God, is pure". Rather than merely striving to become better people every day, it might be more accurate to think of ourselves as remembering who we really are: sacred beings created in the image of God. More than doing good deeds, we acknowledge and nurture our pure souls and allow this purity to flow from the core of our beings.”
I love these commentaries on the Elohai Neshama prayer– this prayer that soothes the soul, and provides the basis for self-love, self-forgiveness, and self-compassion.
These concepts of self-forgiveness and self-compassion have become popular today in the field of social work and psychology, and I know that so many of you therapists utilize a variety of strategies and tools to encourage self-compassion in your clients and patients. Experts like Drs. Tara Brach, Kelly Monigal, Kristin Neff, and Chris Germer are among today’s great teachers on self-compassion.
Tara Brach, in her book, Radical Acceptance, reflects on the power of self-compassion and self-forgiveness to lead us on a healthier path.
According to Tara Brach,
“For many of us, feelings of deficiency are right around the corner. It doesn’t take much--just hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, being criticized, getting into an argument, making a mistake at work--to make us feel that we are not okay.
Beginning to understand how our lives have become ensnared in this trance of unworthiness is our first step toward reconnecting with who we really areand what it means to live fully.Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, self-compassion and self-forgiveness release us from the self-hatred and self-criticism that prevent us from responding to our life with clarity and balance.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal, in her book, “ The Willpower Instinct” reflects on self-compassion in the following way:“Self-compassion, being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure, is associated with more motivation and better self-control. We all have the tendency to believe self-doubt and self-criticism, but listening to this voice never gets us closer to our goals. Instead, try on the point of view of a mentor or good friend who believes in you, wants the best for you, and will encourage you when you feel discouraged.”
And Dr. Kristin Neff, a groundbreaker in the area of self-compassion in her book, Self-Compassion, and in her new “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook”, co-authored with Dr. Christopher Germer, provides both a description and a technology for self-forgiveness and self-compassion.
For Dr. Neff, self-compassion entails three core components. First, it requires self-kindness, being loving and understanding with ourselves, rather than critical and judgmental.
Self-kindness asks us to use gentle self-talk, speaking to ourselves as if we were consoling a child or a dear friend. When we are hurting, we should speak words of lovingkindness to ourselves. “This is hard, this is challenging…. You are going through a difficult time, you made a mistake, that’s OK.”
Step 2 according to Dr. Neff requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in our suffering. To be human is to be imperfect. We often feel separate and isolated in our imperfection, when it is actually the common human experience of suffering that connects us to other people. So, in our suffering we focus on our shared humanity, acknowledging that suffering is a universal human experience. Neff suggests mantras such as: “Everyone is suffering, everyone has hardships, everyone makes mistakes, no one lives a perfect life. May I be kind to myself.”
The third step according to Neff is mindfulness- being with what is in the present moment, holding our experience in balanced awareness, neither ignoring our pain nor exaggerating it. We have to be aware of our suffering to give it compassion. We need to acknowledge our feelings and offer ourselves compassionbefore we move to problem solving, says Neff.
And what does the research say about self-compassion? Research indicates that self-compassion is strongly related to mental well-being, yielding less depression, anxiety, stress, and perfectionism. And self-compassion is strongly related to positive states – happiness, motivation, making healthier lifestyle choices, more connectedness to others and deeper relationships.
So, what might self-compassion and self-forgiveness look like for you? For me, self-compassion and self-forgiveness require me to go back and to reconnect with that little girl growing up with my grandmother’s mantra of “withholding compliments so as not to get a swelled head,” as if that was going to make me a better person.
I know better now – I don’t need to beat up on myself or criticize myself to be the best person I can be. I don’t need the harsh inner critic to motivate myself. I am human, flaws and all, with my mistakes and my weaknesses. I cannot do it all, I cannot do everything well – but instead of beating up on myself for being human and flawed, I will respond kindly and compassionately to my mistakes, my shortcomings, and my flaws. And in so doing, I will also respond with more kindness and compassion to others. Self-compassion and self-forgiveness build empathy. After all,if we cannot be kind to ourselves, how can we really be kind to anyone else?
What might self-forgiveness look like for you? Can you turn towards self-compassion, quieting any inner critical voices that you might have? Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment. It does take work to break our habits of self-judgment, but what better time to quiet the inner critic than today, on this day of Yom Kippur, this Day of At-One-Ment?
As the Dalai Lama states: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. Humanity cannot survive without empathy, understanding, sensitivity and kindness. We all need to be compassionate towards others. We all need to be open to receive it from others. And, most importantly we all need to be compassionate towards ourselves.” To close, I offer this Forgiveness Meditation from the Buddhist tradition:
If I have harmed anyone in any way
Either knowingly or unknowingly
Through my own confusions
I ask their forgiveness
If anyone has harmed me in any way
Either knowingly or unknowingly
Through their own confusions
I forgive them.
And for all the ways that I harm myself
By judging or doubting or being unkind
Through my own confusions
I forgive myself.
May we all find the place of self-forgiveness this Yom Kippur day, and each and every day during the New Year to come.
G'mar Hatimah Tovah, May you and your loved ones be inscribed for a sweet, healthy, New Year of self-forgiveness and self-compassion,
and let us say Ameyn.
Rabbi Shelly Barnathan
Yom Kippur Day
September 19, 2018