Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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

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