Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Embracing the Subjunctive

Embracing the Subjunctive
Yom Kippur 5775
October 4, 2014
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL

I recently watched a TED talk by a teacher of classic languages named Phuc Tran, titled “Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive.”  While the topic sounds dry, Tran made a fascinating argument about how grammar shapes our perspective of the world.  Tran, who emigrated with his family from Vietnam in the 1970s, explains that the subjunctive mood, while prevalent in English expression, is not present in Vietnamese.  This gives Tran access to a worldview and a means of expressing himself that is not available to his other family members who never fully assimilated into English language and culture.

         As Tran describes the subjunctive (and I don’t claim to be conversant enough in the technical intricacies of English or Vietnamese grammar to affirm whether his premise is entirely accurate), it is the mood that expresses a possibility, or the conditional nature of an action.  The indicative mood in English is the one that describes an actual action: “I am giving a sermon right now.”  The imperative is one that makes a command or request: “Sit back, relax, and pay attention.”  And the subjunctive wavers in-between, used in statements that do not describe known, objective facts: “I fear this might take a while.”  Tran confesses that at times he has found the subjunctive to be dangerously disheartening, as it can lead one to dwell on “what might have been.”  He makes reference to a Gallup poll that was conducted in 2011 that found that residents of Vietnam were among the most content in the world, and posits that this might be because their language shields them from grappling with the subjunctive.

         But I think that it is the subjunctive that gives purpose and meaning to our lives.  Particularly during these High Holy Days, when we are challenged to engage in introspection, we need the subjunctive to help us envision opportunities for the future.  The process of teshuvah requires us to live in the subjunctive world of possibility: May we keep far from evil in the coming year, may we resist the temptation to do things that we know are wrong or hurtful.  Were we to ignore this potential for change, were we to eliminate the subjunctive from our liturgy and from our personal atonement, we would lose the depth and nuance that make these High Holidays so essential to our spiritual growth, we would deny ourselves the opportunity to see the world as it might be, rather than settling for the status quo.

We are commanded on this Day of Atonement to afflict ourselves; the Torah states: “V’anitem et nafshoteichem; you shall afflict your souls.”[1]  .  For most, this means engaging in the fasting that has become so closely associated with this day.  But the rabbis defined other forms of “affliction”: abstaining from sexual relations, avoiding washing or bathing, not wearing perfume or ointments, and shunning leather shoes and garments.  By refraining from these items and activities, they theorized, we could focus more acutely on our needs and the needs of those around us.  We could live for a moment in the land of the subjunctive, our eyes opened to the chances for change within ourselves, and to the possibility of helping to make the world a better place.

Isaiah, whose prophecy we read from as our Haftarah for this morning, recognized that in his day, people were following the letter of the law by engaging in the prescribed fast.  However, they were ignoring the spirit of the mitzvah.  They were failing to live in the subjunctive moment, failing to imagine how their affliction could awaken them toward empathy for their fellow Israelites.  Isaiah declares, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”[2]

When we permit our imaginations to take us into the realm of the subjunctive, to imagine things as they might be, we may be inspired to heed Isaiah’s call.  We may come to believe that we can truly make a difference in the life of others, and improve the world in the process.

In November of last year, my friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr posted a Facebook message that was as intriguing as it was cryptic: “Looking for 36 brave rabbis.”  I messaged her back, asking if she was looking for nominations or volunteers, and quickly was drawn in to the scheme she had devised: 36 rabbis would agree to shave their heads for the sake of raising funds and awareness for pediatric cancer.  The project was conceived in honor of Sammy Sommer, the eight-year-old son of my dear friends and classmates Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, who was then battling leukemia.  Those of us who signed up for the project—which eventually grew to more than 75 participants—were moved not only by our love for the Sommer family, but also by our belief that our minor sacrifice could have a major impact.

Shaving a head, of course, does not directly lead to a cure for cancer.  If it did, I’m sure that all barbers would have lines out the door.  Sammy died in December, and our endeavor was transformed from being in his honor to being in his memory. 

After Sammy’s death, any one of us could have pulled out of the venture.  To be honest, my own family wasn’t thrilled with the idea of my impending baldness. They understood and embraced the cause, but weren’t so happy with the shave itself.   But, as one of my colleagues noted, hair grows back; children don’t.  My belief in the world of the subjunctive was one of the things that cemented my involvement—my conviction that our efforts could create a world of possibility so that other families would not have to endure the pain and heartbreak that the Sommers had felt.

On April 1, when I stood on stage with my colleagues and the shave began, a flood of emotions washed over me.   I felt a mixture of love, sadness, and pride.  I knew that I had just been involved in something very important, possibly world changing, because we had dared to wander into the world of the subjunctive, the world of potential.  We were able to project what might happen if drug therapies were developed that were designed specifically for pediatric cancers, rather than relying on toxic cocktails developed for and tested on adults.  We were able to envision that the 43 children who are diagnosed daily with pediatric cancer could have hope of growing into healthy adults, without residual side effects from their childhood treatments.  We had no way of knowing whether the money we raised would be sufficient to fund the research toward finding a cure, but that did not prevent us from dreaming big.  To date, our campaign has raised over $650,000 through the St. Baldrick’s fundraising community, and we continue to accept donations at least through the close of this calendar year.

Money, prayer, outpourings of love—none of these could bring Sammy back, no matter how fervently we wished it were possible.  But through my involvement with St. Baldrick’s and with this project, I learned the stories of other children battling cancer.  Through my work with all of you, I have learned additional stories of loss, of struggle, of suffering, and of survival.  And I am strengthened in my resolve that we must continue to work toward a cure for cancer, for Alzheimer’s, for Parkinson’s and for the myriad of other ailments that are so devastating to our families and our communities.  I am emboldened in my belief that we can change the world for the better, and I find encouragement within the realm of the subjunctive.

The Hebrew term Tikkun Olam—literally, “repair of the world,” is often used to describe such deeds of social action.  As Jews, we believe that we have both the opportunity and the obligation to perfect the world, to help fulfill God’s original vision for creation.  It’s not an easy task, but it’s a rewarding one.

On Thursday, I met with a group of clergy, laypeople, and social service professionals as part of an interfaith alliance that we are attempting to put together in Champaign-Urbana.  Our plan is to utilize the collective strength of our congregations and institutions to bring about positive changes in our communities.  We hope to address issues such as poverty and homelessness, sustainability and the environment, and children and family issues in order to work for the common good.  Among our first undertakings will be exploring how we can help to ensure that emergency shelter spaces are sufficient to meet the needs of the homeless during the cold winter months.  As our group evolves, I hope that many from Sinai Temple will embrace our undertakings.  We believe that our various faiths have the common goal of helping the less fortunate in our midst, and we believe in our ability to make a difference.  That’s the power of the subjunctive.

Here at Sinai Temple, there are many opportunities to engage in Social Action.  Of course we have our annual High Holiday food drive today, benefitting the Eastern Illinois Food Bank.  Through your generosity, we donated over $5,000 and 500 pounds of food last year; we hope to meet or exceed that amount this year.  Hunger and poverty continue to plague our community, with more than 22% of children in Champaign County living below the poverty line.

Our ongoing partnership with the Atlanta Bread Company allows us to share their extra baked goods every Monday with the residents of the TIMES Center.  When you leave Temple today, you may wish to take with you either “Mitzvah Bags” or “Comfort Bags,” which are found by the front door.  Mitzvah Bags contain non-perishable snacks; Comfort bags contain toiletries.  Our Religious School students packed these bags last spring as part of the Jewish community’s Good Deeds Day.  The intent is that you keep them in your car; when you encounter an individual who is in need of assistance, you may distribute the bags instead of cash, and help to brighten his or her day.

We are gearing up for our next Mitzvah Day, which will take place on Sunday morning, November 2.  Our Social Action committee is hard at work lining up Tikkun Olam opportunities; watch for a link to the sign-up website in Monday’s email blast.  There you will be able to register for great projects, including donating blood with Community Blood Services, or getting your cheek swabbed so that you may be added to the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry.  There are options for people of all ages.  Join with us to make a difference; help us to transform the world as it is into the world as it should be.

There will be a number of other Social Action projects throughout the year. On Thanksgiving, your generous donations will help us provide full turkey dinners to clients of Family Services.  During the winter holidays, we’ll again deliver Meals on Wheels.  In January, we’ll collect funds to support local scholarships in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; last year Sinai Temple raised nearly $3500 for this worthy cause, which is a congregational record.  Our Social Action committee is always welcoming new participants and new ideas for engagement with the community as we strive to make a difference.

Making a difference is, I believe, our highest calling.  If we spend our lives focused only on our own needs and desires, and don’t interact with this world, then we are not, in my opinion, living up to our fullest potential.

There is a story- a folktale claimed simultaneously by many cultures.  It tells of a wise sage who was approached by a boy seeking to test his wisdom.  The boy stood with his hands behind his back and said, “In my hands, I hold a bird.  Tell me, sir, is the bird alive or dead?”

The sage pondered the question for quite some time.  He realized that the boy was trying to trap him.  He knew that if he said the bird was alive, the boy would crush the creature in his hands and reveal that it was dead.  If he answered that the bird was dead, the boy would open his hands and release the bird to the winds. 

At last the sage spoke. “My son,” he said, “I do not know the condition of the bird.  But I do know this.  You hold the answer in your hands, in your hands.”

In this New Year, we hold in our hands a world of possibility, an opportunity to truly make a difference.  May we each have the courage to respond to the challenge, to enter the realm of the subjunctive, and in so doing, may we change the world for the better.

[1] Leviticus 32:23
[2] Isaiah 58:6-7

Erev Yom Kippur 5775

Erev Yom Kippur 5775
October 3, 2014
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL

In early August, as rockets from Gaza were being fired steadily into Israel, I saw a post on Facebook.  A friend of a friend, living in Tel Aviv, had been forced to go into his apartment building’s bomb shelter in the middle of the night.  The man’s wife and daughter had been mortified that he had worn a flimsy t-shirt and ratty black boxer shorts when he knew they might encounter friends and neighbors, and so he was inquiring (after-the-fact) about appropriate miklat-wear.  Was his chosen outfit, he asked, appropriate in the given situation?

The post was clearly only half-serious, intended to bring a bit of levity to an extremely upsetting and tense situation.   The man’s friends egged him on, urging him to wear even skimpier clothing were he to find himself in a similar situation in the future.  Though I would not comment myself, I did find myself getting more and more upset as I continued thinking about the situation.  No, I determined, the outfit was not acceptable; no outfit is acceptable, for no Israeli citizen should be expected to tolerate these ongoing attacks engineered by the terrorists of Hamas who will not rest until they see Israel destroyed.

It’s unacceptable that in her 66 years of existence, Israel has continually been drawn into defensive campaigns against its enemies at such a great price that there is hardly a family among her eight million citizens that has not been impacted in some way by a wartime casualty.

It’s unacceptable that when preschoolers and kindergartners in Israel hear the words tzeva adom they think not of the color red in their crayon boxes but of cowering with their classmates in reinforced bunkers.

It’s unacceptable that the so-called “leadership” in Gaza has spent money and energy stockpiling weapons, building underground tunnels designed solely to facilitate deadly terror attacks on the civilian population of a sovereign nation, leaving the citizens of Gaza to live in squalor and insecurity while they rule by proxy from the comfort of a luxury suite in Qatar.

It’s unacceptable that the media and the court of public opinion deride Israel’s every move, trotting out anti-Semitic canards and misplaced buzzwords like “genocide” and “apartheid.”

It’s unacceptable that the United Nations, established in the hopes of creating a level playing field for all peoples and nations, continues to isolate, marginalize, and condemn Israel, including twenty-one anti-Israel resolutions during 2013, while countries such as China, Syria, and Iraq- rife with violations of human rights and personal liberties- garner no such attention.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  Israel’s enemies and critics have become more vociferous, and instead of reasoned critiques that might stem from disagreement over the policies of the Netanyahu government, the legitimacy of her very existence is being called into question.

Let me be clear: my heart breaks for the citizens of Gaza who have been caught in the crossfire of this conflict.  I feel great pain for their situation, and mourn the innocent civilians who have been killed or injured.  But unlike those who have chosen to be public faces of the pro-Palestinian movement, such as Roger Waters and Desmond Tutu and Javier Bardem; and those who have chosen to embrace the BDS movement, which advocates boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, I know that I can feel compassion toward Gazans without finding it necessary to tear down Israel. 

This spring, when I began to decide on my sermon topics for the High Holidays, I knew that I wanted to give a sermon about Israel.  I hoped that I would tell you about the country’s beauty and its importance to our people throughout our history.  I planned to invite you to come with me and my family on our congregational trip this summer- a trip which I still strongly encourage you to join.  Perhaps I would have touted the many technological innovations that Israel has introduced to the world, or spoken about Israeli contributions in the fine arts.  If I’d wanted to confront more difficult issues, maybe I would have mentioned the struggle for Jewish pluralism and women’s religious rights.  Yet while I am thankful that the truce seems to be holding and the rockets have stopped, at least for the time being, I know I cannot give the Israel sermon I initially sat down to write.

The purpose of a sermon or other public speech is to inform, to educate, and perhaps to be persuasive enough to win over a listener to the speaker’s point of view.  In this case, however, I know that the battle is not likely to be won through skilled rhetoric. People are pretty steadfast in their positions and have already chosen sides.

So the vast majority of you have already formulated your opinions on Israel, and the information I offer here in the next few moments probably will not garner converts to a different point of view.  Perhaps some of you will be upset with me for choosing to speak about Israel this evening.  Perhaps you question the connection between Yom Kippur and Israel; perhaps you feel that American Jewry has its own issues without coming involved in Israeli affairs; perhaps you have other reasons why the mention of Israel elicits an uncomfortable response.  After all, according to the Pew study on Judaism, released last year, 30% of American Jews do not feel an attachment to Israel, and up to 57% disagreed with the statement that Israel is an essential part of Jewish life.[1] 

But wherever your personal feelings on Israel may lie, I hope that you will hear me out.  For I believe that Israel remains vitally important to the Jewish people, and that there is much that the world can learn from her.

Much of the media, particularly during this summer’s escalation, has tended to portray Israel as the primary aggressor.  But throughout Israel’s existence, this has rarely- if ever- been the case.  In 1948, Arab armies attacked just after Israel’s declaration of independence, with the belief that they could destroy the new state before it could ever gain a foothold.  In 1967’s Six Day War, Israel did launch the first formal strike, but that came only after Egypt’s President Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran and Iraqi and Jordanian forces had amassed along the Jordanian border.  And on Yom Kippur 41 years ago, the Arab states launched attacks on Israel purposely timed to coincide with the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.  Similarly, this summer, Israel felt compelled to respond when its citizens came under a constant barrage of rocket fire.  Surely, we in C-U would not sit idle while under constant attack from Gifford or Cerro Gordo.

Still, many writers and pundits argue that Israel responded inappropriately.  They use terms such as “disproportionate force,” and point to the disparity between Israeli and Palestinian casualties.  Yair Lapid, Israel’s Finance Minister, noted in a speech given in Germany back in August that Israel’s “moral test … is to continue to distinguish between enemies and innocents…People sit in their comfortable homes, watching the evening news, and tell us that we are failing the test.  Why?  Because in Gaza, people suffer more.  They don’t understand – or don’t want to understand – that the suffering of Gaza is the main tool of evil.  When we explain to them, time after time, that Hamas uses the children of Gaza as human shields, that Hamas intentionally places them in the firing line to ensure that they die, that Hamas sacrifices the lives of the young to win its propaganda war, people refuse to believe it. Why? Because they cannot believe that human beings – human beings who look like them and sound like them – are capable of behaving that way.  Because good people always refuse to recognize the totality of evil until it’s too late.”[2]

As Lapid notes, we find that each side in this conflict emphasizes different priorities.  Israel was able to greatly minimize the number of deaths on its side thanks to tremendous infrastructure investments in bomb shelters and in the Iron Dome missile defense system, both of which served to insulate Israeli civilians from the attacks.  The leadership in Gaza, on the other hand, elected to invest its money in stockpiling weapons and building a network of tunnels into Israel, through which they intended to kidnap, attack, maim, or kill Israelis.  An estimated 600,000 tons of concrete were diverted to build these tunnels at an estimated cost, in both parts and labor, of nearly ninety million dollars.[3]   Had this money been used instead to provide opportunities for the citizens of Gaza—to fund education and infrastructure projects, and to restore hope to a downtrodden community—this summer’s events could have unfolded much differently. 

Some will still protest that Israel’s bombing raids unfairly targeted civilian areas.  While there is believed to have been some discrepancy in the reporting of Gazan casualties,[4] it is of course, extremely lamentable that any loss of life was incurred during this summer’s battles.  But to suggest that the Israel Defense Forces attacked haphazardly, that they sought to escalate the death toll in any way, again distorts the reality of the situation.  As has now been widely reported, and even acknowledged by the United Nations (an institution that is frequently quite critical of Israel), the IDF regularly provided advanced warnings of attacks in an effort to allow civilians to clear the area.[5]  That many chose to stay, heeding the urgings of Hamas leadership, testifies to the mindset of the Hamas commanders.  Their endgame has little to nothing to do with freedom, self-determination, peace, and security for the citizens of Gaza.  They are driven instead by a desire to maintain the struggle, for doing so keeps them in power, and bolsters their image as heroes or martyrs.

Another argument that is frequently heard regarding casualties in Gaza holds that since Gaza is so densely populated, civilians had no place else to go.  Gaza is indeed a small country, but as Alan Dershowitz and others have noted,[6] there are open areas away from population centers.  Hamas fighters chose not to do battle from these locations, and continually discouraged civilians from fleeing to these locations.  Instead, they repeatedly fired from civilian areas, including schools and hospitals, which is not only a violation of international law, but is also morally indefensible.

My outrage is directed toward Hamas and its combatants.  This is not a group of intrepid freedom fighters engaged in civil disobedience in a battle for self-determination, despite attempts of the media to portray them in that light.  Hamas is a terrorist organization, designated as such by the European Union, the United States, Canada, and several other countries.  In contrast, I do feel empathy for the citizens of Gaza.  I pray that they will have the opportunity to live in peace alongside their Israeli neighbors.  I still cling to the belief that there can be two states whose rulers recognize and respect the right of the other to exist.  And I hope that a resolution can be found soon, so that our children, the children of Israel, and the children of Palestine can be spared the pain and frustration of repeating the same conversations.

So, somehow, Hamas must be removed from the equation.  And the world must understand that Israel’s struggles against Hamas are not isolated battles to protect Israeli interests; they are part of the global fight against terror.  Though they may bear different names and fight on different fronts, all of the groups who have made headlines in the past year for kidnappings, beheadings, rapes, executions, and other violent acts purportedly carried out in the name of Allah—all these groups are essentially one and the same.  Ignore the threat of Hamas—or of Hezbollah, which is strengthening its presence in Lebanon—and we risk watching their counterparts in Islamic Jihad, Boko Haram, and ISIS grow in strength and tenacity.  As Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Monday in his speech to the United Nations, “When militant Islam succeeds anywhere, it’s emboldened everywhere. When it suffers a blow in one place, it’s set back in every place.  That’s why Israel’s fight against Hamas is not just our fight. It’s your fight.”[7]  Radicalized, jihadist Islam—a perverse distortion of normative, moderate Muslim beliefs—represents an existential threat to us all.

To me, Yom Kippur is a time to look toward the future, to envision the change that we want to make in ourselves and the difference we want to make in the world, and then to take the necessary steps to bring those changes to fruition.  As we improve our society and ourselves, we renew hope and opportunity for future generations.

I want my children, and your children, and all the children of earth to inherit a world of peace and possibility, in which problems are solved not through violence but through dialogue, in which the inherent worth of every individual is appreciated and celebrated.  In the world I dream of, Israel will live in security with her neighbors, and terror will exist only in ghost stories and Hollywood slasher films.  This is my prayer for the people of Israel, this is my prayer for the people of Gaza, this is my prayer for the whole world.

There are no easy answers to these issues.  Certainly, I’d encourage continued support of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.  Buy Israeli goods, use Israeli technologies (which are already relatively ubiquitous), or travel to Israel yourself.

Advocate and agitate for peaceful resolutions to this ongoing conflict.  As I mentioned, I still hold out hope that a two-state solution can be possible, and that democracy and cooperation can create a rapprochement in the Middle East.  This will require compromise on both sides, which I believe should begin with a freeze on further Israeli settlement construction, and a reconceptualization of the right of return for Arab refugees.

We are B’nai Yisrael, the children of Israel, descendants of the one who wrestled and struggled.  We continue to struggle; we continue to debate how best to engage with the land with whom we share a name and an identity.  May we continue to struggle, may we continue to engage, until that day—may it come soon—when peace shall prevail.

Oseh ha-shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei tevel, v’imru: Amen.  May the One Who makes peace in the heavens, cause peace to descend upon us, upon Israel, and upon all who dwell on earth, and let us say: Amen.

Gather Ye Rosebuds

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May[1]
Rabbi Alan Cook
Sinai Temple, Champaign, IL
Rosh Hashanah Morning
September 25/26, 2014

         When actor and comedian Robin Williams passed away last month, the news hit me pretty hard.  It’s not that I can claim any personal connection to him—I never met him, and I never attended any of his shows in person.  But still, his death had an impact on me in a way that most other celebrity deaths do not.  Mr. Williams had been a significant part of my childhood; I felt as though I had lost a friend.

         Like many of my generation, I first encountered Robin Williams’ zany quick-wittedness on the TV show Happy Days and its eventual spin-off, Mork and Mindy.  I was enough of a fan to suffer through his first major film, Popeye (which was a waste of his talent, in my nine-year-old opinion).  I watched some of his work with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal on the Comic Relief telethons, though much of the political humor went over my head at the time.  In later years, I came to appreciate his skill as a dramatic actor as he broke free from the comedic pigeonhole in films such as Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society.

         Offscreen, Mr. Williams earned a reputation as a warm and compassionate individual; after his death, many in the entertainment industry reported on various kindnesses that he had shown them in the early stages of their careers.  Many Jewish organizations claimed him as an “honorary Jew,” not only because of his use of “Yiddishisms” and his understanding of classic Jewish comedy tropes, but because of the genuine menschlikeit he exhibited throughout his life.  There was near-universal acknowledgment that his passing represented a loss not only to his fans and to the entertainment industry, but also for the many people who had benefitted from his generosity of spirit.

         Given all the plaudits that Robin Williams received, both in life and after his death, the circumstances of his passing were particularly shocking to many.  As has been widely reported, Mr. Williams took his own life after a lengthy battle with anxiety and depression.  When this information was released to the public, many expressed surprise.  How, they asked, could someone who was such a clown, so skilled at bringing joy to others, have such difficulty finding joy for himself?  How could he not have recognized how beloved he was to so many?  How could he not see the light at the end of the dark tunnel?

         Such questions are perhaps inevitable, a natural part of the grief process.  But they are also a bit unfair and unkind.  I am no psychologist, but I have seen enough people struggle with depression to know how cruel and deceptive it can be.  Depression can lie and make you believe that your situation will never improve; it can rob you of any sense of self-worth.  Within our own congregation, there have been those who have suffered with this affliction, and some who have sadly succumbed to its cruelty.  It is not for us to play “armchair therapist” and question the realities that depressed individuals are facing.  I will say, however, that my door is always open to anyone who is feeling sad or hurt or alone; if you hear or read about depression and it resonates with your personal experience, please try to understand this: you are loved, you matter, and there are people who want to help you weather this storm.  Call me, call a friend, call one of the many national hotlines, but please make an effort to seek some help.

         I say this not just because it’s my job; I say this because I honestly do care.  I would hope that when we each look into our hearts, we all can identify ourselves as caring people who feel compassion toward one another.  That is part of what unites us as a kehillah kedosha, a holy congregation.

         In a few moments, we will join in the Avinu Malkeinu, one of the most identifiable liturgical motifs of these High Holy Days.  It has been described as “the oldest and most moving of all the litanies of the Jewish Year.”[2]  In the final verse of the prayer, the one so familiar as a folk melody that it’s been covered by everyone from operatic tenor Jan Peerce to Barbra Streisand to Phish, we make the ultimate supplication to God.  Avinu Malkeinu,” we pray, “have compassion upon us and answer us, though we have little merit.  Treat us with kindness and mercy, and be our help.”

But if we take the time to think about the phrasing of this formula, we may ask ourselves whether this is a request that we really are qualified to make.  Is it right for us to ask God to show compassion to us, to deal charitably with us, if we have failed to show such regard for others? Rabban Gamliel, a first century leader of the Jewish community, recognized this tension when he taught, “[Those who have] compassion for other human beings will merit compassion from above.”[3]

Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that I think that any of us are deliberately unkind or misanthropic.  Quite the contrary—my family and I have been blessed by graciousness, kindness, and generous hospitality from this congregation from the moment that we first arrived in C-U.  But as we go through the routine of our lives, and become wrapped up in our myriad activities and responsibilities, do we take the time to notice others?  Do we know how to recognize when a friend, a family member, or even a stranger on the street is hurting?  Do we pause to see the pain in another’s eyes, to hear it in his or her voice?  And if we do, are we comfortable taking steps to assuage that aching feeling, to reassure those who are suffering and help them to appreciate that they are not alone?  I do not ask these questions in order to create survivor’s guilt if a loved one has succumbed to depression; in many such instances the grip of anxiety and self-doubt is so strong that an afflicted individual cannot rationally process our offers of love and support, as heartfelt as they may be.  But if, universally, all of humankind would redirect our tendency to gave at our navels (or our electronic devices) and really look into the hearts, minds, and souls of others, we might build a more compassionate world on a foundation of love and truth.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, we will read as our Haftarah the book of Jonah.  The story is well known; Jonah initially resists God’s call to go to the city of Nineveh and call upon its citizens to make teshuvah.  After his detour in the belly of the fish, Jonah does finally heed God’s command, but his demeanor still betrays some reluctance.  So God teaches Jonah a lesson: first, God creates a gourd for shade, upon which Jonah becomes fairly reliant.  Then, when God subsequently causes the plant to wither, Jonah is very upset.  When Jonah protests the destruction of his shelter, God responds, “Are you indeed greatly pained?”[4]

To me, this query sums up a major theme of these holidays, the ultimate question that we should be asking ourselves as we stand before God and ask to be absolved of our wrongdoings from the past year: are we greatly pained?  Have we adequately recognized the hurt that our actions and words- or lack thereof- might have inflicted upon others, and have we taken appropriate steps to seek forgiveness or make restitution?  Have we opened our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our minds to the problems of the world, and made some contribution of time, money, or energy to change the situation for the better?  Or is the “pain” we perceive merely skin deep, a response to minor nuisances, to so-called “first world problems”?  How can we turn a blind eye to the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria, the rampant terrorism in the Middle East, the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide, the rape culture that has become pervasive on our college campuses, the sadness and suffering that our friends and neighbors may be facing in silence, and the host of other issues plaguing humanity—and claim to be aggrieved by our own troubles?

I believe that if we are to expect God to heed the request we make in Avinu Malkeinu—if we are going to ask that we be treated with compassion and kindness, that we may be deemed worthy of inscription in the Book of Life and Blessing—then we must direct ourselves to be greatly pained.  We must recognize that the pain of our brothers or our sisters is our pain as well, and when we can, we must embrace any means at our disposal to try to assuage that pain.

The ancient rabbis taught, “Ahava m’kalelet et ha-shura, overwhelming love disrupts the typical way of behaving.”[5]  When we find within ourselves the strength and love to reach out to another human being, we can change the world.  To offer but one example: Cameron Lyle, a 21-year-old track star at the University of New Hampshire, participated in a “Be the Match” campaign for the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry when he was a college sophomore.  Statistically, there is a one in five million chance that he would match a patient in need.  But Lyle did match, to a 28-year-old male patient.  Lyle immediately agreed to participate in the transplant procedure.

Most donors recover pretty quickly.  But most donors do not regularly participate in shot-put events that require quick lifting and throwing of heavy objects.  Lyle’s recuperation would coincide with conference championships.  Donating would mean ending his shot-put career, or at least putting it on hold for quite awhile.[6]  Ahava m’kalelet et ha-shura, overwhelming love for someone that Cameron Lyle had never met and likely will never meet, had convinced him to disrupt his typical way of behaving.

         One of Robin Williams’ most memorable roles was as John Keating in 1989’s Dead Poet’s Society.  Williams was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of this unorthodox English teacher.  As he instructs his young charges, students at a 1950s New England prep school, he shares a selection from Walt Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass, which seeks to remind the reader of the purpose that we may fulfill in this world:

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.[7]
         If indeed Whitman (and Keating) are correct, and the answer to life’s conundrums is “that [we] are here…that the powerful play goes on, and [we] may contribute a verse,” then the question arises: what will our verse be?  What will be our contribution?  How will we make our mark in this world?  How will our empathy for the pain of others inspire us to act?

         The shofar cries out to us, urging us to prepare for a New Year and all the possibility that it brings.  How will we respond to its plaintive call?  Will we leave the service today and return to our same routine, or will we be inspired to take action, to make meaningful and lasting changes?

         Throughout Dead Poets Society, John Keating repeatedly urges his students “Carpe diem, seize the day.”  Whether we hear it in Keating’s call or in the call of the shofar, it’s a reminder that we all may need, an exhortation against passivity.   My colleague, Rabbi Michael Latz, refers to this philosophy as “Empathy Activism.”  He describes it as, “The radical Jewish ideal that our connectedness to other people inspires us -- demands us -- to respond to their suffering with courageous action. When we can, we must.”[8]

As we enter 5775, may we be inspired to act, not only to better ourselves, but also to better the world around us.  “Carpe diem, seize the day.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

[1] “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” by Robert Herrick.  A reference to the citation of this poem in Dead Poets Society.
[2] Hertz, Joseph H. The Authorized Daily Prayer Book with commentary, introductions and notes (New York: rev. American ed. 1948, Bloch Publishing) page 161.
[3] Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 151b
[4] An alternate translation of a phrase in Jonah 4:4, often rendered as “Is it right that you are angry?”
[5] Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, Vayera, 55:8
[6] My colleague Rabbi Michael Adam Latz brought this story to my attention in his Rosh Hashanah sermon, “Touching Strangers: Chutzpah, Radical Hospitality, & “My Best Friend Has Wheels!”  The full story is at
[7] Poem number 166 (“Oh Me! Oh Life”) in Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman