Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 5777/2016

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
©Rabbi Steven Folberg
Congregation Beth Israel, Austin, Texas

Dear Friends,
Being the parent of a high school age student is fascinating. Just as spending time with a toddler gives you the opportunity to relive some of your own childhood by seeing the world through the wide eyed wonder of a small child, being the parent of a high school student gives you the opportunity to remember what it was like to be a teenager: learning about friendship, figuring out who you are, spreading the wings of your independence, being immersed in the popular music of your generation.
As a music lover, that last point is particularly important to me. Having a teen of my own, I can at last drop the names of current bands to my CBI Sunday School students – musicians like Twentyøne Piløts, Blue October or Regina Spektor, whose music I’ve actually had the opportunity to listen to in the car – and thereby simulate some level of youth credibility, as in “Dude, maybe the Rabbi isn’t such a geezer after all.”
Plunging into the world of teens also means getting a crash course in youth smartphone culture, including texting abbreviations (LOL, OMG) and social media platforms.
My teen technology education, however, has forced me to face a bitter truth. Yes, the teenagers are all over Instagram and Snapchat (and, to a lesser extent, Twitter). But Facebook? Not so much. Indeed, I have been bluntly informed by snickering CBI Sunday School students that, “Facebook is for your grandparents.”
Being active on the social media platform judged most suitable for senior citizens is somewhat unsettling, not because I have anything against seniors, but because I used to take pride in being an early Facebook adopter among my rabbi friends. A few years ago, some of my seminary classmates and I discovered that Facebook could be a valuable professional tool for the congregational rabbi. What a convenient way to stay in touch with your temple’s college students! I felt positively cutting edge. These days, almost every rabbi I know has at least one Facebook account, including rabbis who actually are someone’s grandparent.
I say “at least one Facebook account” because some of my rabbi friends have opted to create two different Facebook accounts. One is their “rabbi account,” where they post their deep rabbi thoughts and promote their congregation’s activities. The other is their personal account, where they talk about fly-fishing, or their record collection, or share cute pet videos, or enthuse over whatever show they are currently binge watching on Netflix. Also on their personal account they can, if they so choose, vent about current events like normal people, but without offending members of their communities who see things differently.
I only keep one Facebook account, because life is already complicated enough and I can’t imagine how much of a “time suck” having two Facebook accounts would be. But I fully understand why some of my colleagues maintain those two Facebook profiles. It turns out that in these polarized and polarizing times, a rabbi with only one Facebook account has to be judicious about what he or she posts.
Here’s a case in point. Back in July, I shared a link to what I thought was an interesting and insightful news analysis about the presidential campaign. And as I usually do when I post such things, I accompanied it with only the briefest of comments, such as “Worth reading,” or, “Interesting analysis.” As in, “I thought this was enlightening but please don’t go after me with lots of ‘shouting’ in capital letters if you don’t agree.”
Within one hour of posting that article, two people who I am quite certain have never met each other were verbally abusing each other over what I had posted. These two thoroughly decent people were impugning each other’s integrity, calling into question each other’s intelligence and bludgeoning each other with links to opposing articles from their favored blogs and news sites. It was depressing that two perfect strangers could hurl sarcasm and contempt at each other with such undisguised loathing because they had different political perspectives. Then, remembering that Facebook gives users the power to edit what appears in their own newsfeed, I went in and deleted all of their comments. “Keep that toxic sludge off my wall,” I huffed to myself, with not a little bit of self-righteousness.
Now, to be real: in the physical world of bloody city streets, desperate refugees, melting polar ice and rising intolerance and fascism, one nasty Facebook exchange barely rises to the level of triviality - it is a “first world problem,” to be sure.
And yet, I believe that this kind of social media nastiness is also a barometer of something larger, something dark and poisonous. It is increasingly normal for us to slide seamlessly from dispute to disrespect, from confrontation to demonization. In this climate, those who disagree with me on important matters cannot be merely incorrect; they must be brainwashed, or stupid, or racist, or mentally unstable, or at the very least, ill informed. They must be bad or defective. And above all, they must be set straight - by me.
Do you remember when it was fun, every four years, to follow a national election? I do. Every four years, like clockwork, I would become an election junkie. I would say to Saundra before one of the debates or some favorite current events show, “Sweetie, it’s time for POL-EE-TICS,” clapping my hands with glee and hunkering down in front of the TV with a popsicle. It was all about the exchange of ideas, the beautiful turning of the gears of American democracy, the possibility of a better future; the miracle of an orderly, quadrennial transition of power. Presidential elections were almost more fun than one person should be allowed to have.
Are you having a good time following the election this year? Is it fun, energizing, uplifting or hopeful for you, regardless of whom you support? Or do you find yourself drained, exhausted, outraged and heartsick? I am sorry to tell you that I find myself in the latter category. Much of the time these days, I just want it to be over. And I think that not all of that downcast feeling can be attributed to the words and actions of the people in the headlines. A good chunk of it has to do with the way that you and I, far from the famous and powerful, are thinking about, talking to and treating each other.
If Rosh Hashanah is about anything at all, it’s about dropping our familiar self-deceptions and rationalizations and being totally honest with ourselves and each other. Therefore, lest we comfort ourselves with the thought that intolerance toward those who differ only finds a home in our national political life or on social media, it pains me to point out that this sort of toxic divisiveness recently found its way into our Austin Jewish community.
As some of you know, only a few weeks ago, one of my rabbinic colleagues here in town was singled out for public vilification in an Internet smear campaign that gained national attention in the Jewish press. Why? Because in the minds of his attackers, he had come too close to thinking a thought, to entertaining a possibility, that would have violated their philosophical orthodoxies about how American Jews should relate to Israel. This coordinated attack wasn’t even about something that had actually happened, or had even been planned to happen. It was merely an idea on a sheet of paper that wasn’t supposed to have been made public in the first place. Yet, for his adversaries, their mere disagreement with this intolerable thought wasn’t sufficient. It was necessary to attempt to to destroy my colleague’s career – to tear apart what he had built, to ruin his life and even threaten his family - to get him fired. What a sorry disgrace.
There is good reason that, when we recite the public confessionals on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we don’t ritually point our fingers at everyone else in the room and say Ashamtem, Bagad’tem, Gazaltem - “y’all have sinned, y’all have betrayed, y’all have committed robbery,” accusing each other of things that others, but not we, ourselves, have done. Instead we say Ashamnu, Bagad’nu, Gazalnu, “We all have done wrong, we all have betrayed our values, we all have taken what is not ours,” and we perform a gesture that locates the wrongs in our own hearts. The Machzor, the High Holy Day prayer book, understands that we cannot just blame the people making headlines for somehow creating dishonesty, bigotry and self-righteousness. We have to take a hard, honest look at the extent to which they are channeling and eliciting our worst instincts, not creating them.
I have come to think of our readiness to jump from disagreement to disrespect and hatred as the “How dare you” reflex - how dare you harbor that thought, nurture that belief or express that point of view? And if you do, what’s wrong with you?
Paul Simon, one of my favorite Rabbis, captured this hostile impulse in a song written ten years ago that seems even more relevant now. The lyrics say,

We heard the fireworks
rushed out to watch the sky
Fourth of July

How can you live in the Northeast?
How can you live in the South?
How can you build on the banks of a river
when the floodwater pours from the mouth?
How can you be a Christian?
How can you be a Jew?
How can you be a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Hindu?
How can you?

Weak as the winter sun
we enter life on earth
Names and religion come just after date of birth
Then everybody gets a tongue to speak
And everyone hears an inner voice
A day at the end of the week
to wonder and rejoice
If the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?

How can you live in the Northeast?
How can you live in the South?
How can you build on the banks of a river when the floodwater pours from the mouth?
How can you tattoo your body?
Why do you cover your head?
How can you eat from a rice bowl?
The holy man only breaks bread

We watched the fireworks
‘til they were fireflies
follow a path of stars
over the endless skies

How can you live in the Northeast?
How can you live in the South?
How can you build on the banks of a river when the floodwater pours from the mouth?

I’ve been given all I wanted
only three generations off the boat
I’ve harvested and I’ve planted
I’m wearing my father’s old coat. [1]

Our up-to-the-minute version of Paul Simon’s lyrics might sound like this:
How can you vote for Donald Trump?
How can you vote for Hillary Clinton?
How can you vote for anyone but Bernie Sanders?
How can you vote for a third-party candidate?
How can you not vote at all?
What do we really mean when we say “How can you say that, or do that, or believe that?” Aren’t we really saying, “I don’t understand why you feel that way?” But instead of inquiring, instead of saying, “I’m interested to hear how you come to that place,” we turn hostile, dismissive, smug and mean. But why?
Well, our heads and our hearts are wired, on one hand, to try to hold onto things that are pleasant. “Oh, I like that bagel, give me another, please!” Conversely, we are wired to try to push away things that are unpleasant, things that we don’t like. “Give me the remote control, I hate this show.”
This pull toward pleasantness and pushing back against what is unpleasant or painful to us doesn’t just apply to physical sensation, like whether the room we are in is too hot, too cold, or just right. It also applies to our thoughts and our emotions. We all build a view of the world that works for us and makes sense to us. Out of what we’ve learned and what we’ve experienced as well as the temperament we were born with, we construct an internal map that helps us make sense of the external world. But when someone (or something) comes along and challenges that roadmap, powerful feelings erupt.
In the wink of an eye, we are blaming the other person for this tremendous emotional discomfort. Our minds and hearts tell us, “Shut that down! Make that stop!” But here’s the thing: the discomfort, the upset, the agitation is ours, not theirs! And it takes a huge amount of practice – it’s the essence of mindfulness, in fact – to slow down, to take a deep breath and say to yourself, “This deeply unpleasant and powerful feeling rising up from my gut into my chest – what is it, exactly?”
The instantaneous, unthinking answer is, “I’m angry at you for being wrong!” But why should your being wrong make me angry? Why should our disagreement, our different way of seeing things, make me feel enraged?
So often the anger and the lashing out is secondary to something else and, most often, that “something else” is fear. Having a core belief challenged by someone else is frightening as all get out – it can feel like my world is about to collapse. And so I blame the other person for my upset. As one of my most beloved seminary professors, Dr. Leonard Kravitz, used to like to say (paraphrasing the Christian Scriptures), “The truth may or may not set you free, but it will probably make you quite anxious.”
And just because my accustomed the way of understanding things works for me and makes me feel safe and secure doesn’t mean that it works for everyone else. After all, the entire world does not live inside my head – only I do. Again, Prof. Kravitz used to like to say to us rabbinic students, “Certainty does not make you correct. Certainty merely makes you certain.”
So, do we have to accept blind rage? Are we doomed to continually striking out at each other, never truly communicating, never approaching shalom, not just “peace,” but shalom in the deepest sense of wholeness and reconciliation? At this moment in history, when there are so many pressing problems to be solved, shall we give up on constructive dialogue and spend our lives crouched in our own little corner, shooting rhetorical BB guns at the people around us?
No, there is a better way. It is a Jewish way. And in the world in which we live, it is most certainly “the road less taken.”
Let’s map out an alternative, peaceful Jewish path by drawing upon three items from the traditional Jewish catalog of human virtues known as middot. ]2]
The first of these virtues is anavah, the virtue of humility. Humility does not mean low self-esteem. It means, as we said earlier, a recognition that no individual human mind encompasses the entire, ultimate truth. This is especially so when it comes to understanding other people. If my own inner life is inherently mysterious, if I can never even completely know myself, how can I claim to fully know another person’s truth? Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, author of a wonderful book entitled, You Don’t Have To Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, says that, “We need to see that everyone who is not just like us not some kind of restoration project, just waiting for us to ‘fix’ them and turn them into poor imitations of ourselves. Do we really want a world of people who look, think, and act just like we do?” [3]
Again, dear Prof. Kravitz used to like to tell us that on his right shoulder there perpetually stood a miniature Litvak, a skeptical, Lithuanian Talmud scholar. And in his ear, Prof. Kravitz would say, this miniature Litvak would regularly whisper the same Yiddish word. And the word is, “takeh?,” which means, “Really? Is that so?” Humility recognizes that there is a thin line between righteousness and self-righteousness, and that self-doubt can be a good thing in the right situation.
The second Jewish moral virtue or middah is hishtavut, from the Hebrew word meaning “even” or “equal.” Hishtavut [4] is the capacity to remain open and fully present, even as we notice our reactions to all kinds of input. It means cultivating the ability to see and except the truth of the moment, whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, without immediately jumping to judge it. It means cultivating an open curiosity about life and about the people around us. It means listening carefully.
Rabbi Hirschfield, who is Orthodox, tells an amazing story about this. Although he grew up in Chicago in a fairly secular Jewish environment, a twist of fate landed him in an Orthodox Jewish day school. Brad’s mother and father were very committed Jews, who never brought inherently non-kosher food into their house, but who ate all kinds of non-kosher items at their favorite restaurants. Yet, wherever they ate, even in non-kosher restaurants, they always recited “ha-motzi” as a family before the meal. One of their favorite family dinners was Chinese food and young Brad’s favorite eating-out food was shrimp cocktail. The story continues in Rabbi Hirschfield’s own words:
“One day in the fifth grade, my teacher was going over the various blessings over different food. I raised my hand and innocently asked: ‘What is the blessing for shrimp?’ She promptly threw me out of class and sent me to the principal’s office. She was appalled because not only had I confessed to eating shellfish (Leviticus states the Jews may only eat fish with fins and scales), but that I wanted to know how to celebrate that and call attention to it. A blessing over shrimp was a double whammy.
“The principal, Harry Kessler, a short man given to loud ties and an even louder voice, had been in vaudeville before he began teaching. He was a great man because he loved the students more than the ideas he was trying to teach us.
‘Why are you here, Brad?’ he asked when I showed up at his door.
‘We were studying blessings, and I asked for the blessing for shrimp,’ I replied.
‘Now, why would you ask that?’ Harry Kessler cried out in his high-pitched voice.
‘Whenever we eat, wherever we are we say a blessing,’ I said. ‘But we use the blessing over bread. When we go out I love to eat shrimp cocktail. I wanted to know the correct blessing – the blessing for shrimp.’
‘Where did you learn this practice?’ He asked.
‘From my father.’
Mr. Kessler studied me. ‘Do you know what the rabbis teach us about the lessons we learn from our parents and grandparents?’ he said. ‘They teach us that those lessons are like learning from Moses on Mount Sinai.’
“Then he told me to go back to class.
“It amazes me to this day that Mr. Kessler wanted to understand who I was before he resorted to doctrine or dogma. Is this the definition of compassion? It could be. It’s my definition based on my life experience. Compassion – or empathy in this case; I don’t distinguish between the two – is about noticing the person in front of you before the ideology inside of you. It’s about making choices to privilege that person.
“There are resources in every spiritual tradition that would encourage us to ask questions before we offer conclusions. When push comes to shove, the conclusions will come. Harry Kessler understood there was plenty of time down the road to tell me about the prohibition against eating shrimp. This sounds easy to do, but when we think we are in the right, boy, is it hard to hold our tongues: we want to jump to that part of the story fast. The choice that Principal Kessler made to affirm what was right in my experience instead of showing me the error of my ways was so important to me. I have used that as a compass in my own life, my own teaching.” [5]
The final middah, the final Jewish ethical virtue that I want to bring to the table, is kavod, which means “dignity” or “respect.” The Mishnah urges us to judge every person lechaf zechut,*6* “on the side of merit” – the Hebrew image is literally of a scale or balance. This means more than “give every person you meet the benefit of the doubt.” It means, assume everyone’s inherent sincerity and dignity from the get-go. Assume their integrity and good will until you have reason to conclude otherwise. Yes, some people will prove unworthy of this trust, but living in openheartedness is better than living in bitterness and suspicion. This is part of kavod, the middah of honor and respect.
Kavod also encompasses compassionate empathy, called rakhamim in Hebrew. It involves taking the time to learn about someone, in this case, someone with whom you disagree, in order to learn more of their story. And that includes learning about their suffering, because we all suffer.
An old Jewish folktale makes this point. The story goes that a rabbi overhears a conversation between two Russian peasants in a tavern. Both have clearly had more than a bit to drink.
The first one says, “Vladimir, do you love me?”
“Yes,” says the second, “of course I love you, Igor.”
“No, no Vladimir,” persists his friend. “I mean, do you truly love me?”
“Yes, yes Igor,” says the first peasant, “I do truly love you!”
“But how can you tell me you love me when you do not know what causes me pain?” [7]
This story embodies the truth that often our preconceptions, ideologies and mental roadmaps crumble to the ground in the presence of another person talking about their pain. And make no mistake: talking to another human being about their suffering and about how their suffering shaped the way they look at things is much, much harder work than shooting off snarky social media comments behind the safe anonymity of a computer keyboard. Clearly, one of the reasons that our discourse is so enraged, unhinged and out of control is that we do not create sufficient opportunities for face-to-face conversations about important things.
In the absence of face-to-face conversations, especially conversations that enable people to talk about their experience and their suffering, we fill the vacuum with self-serving distortions about people we don’t really know and cannot be bothered to actually talk to.
Here’s a particularly ugly example of this, cloaked in the guise of comedy. Some of you may have seen a video produced by the Comedy Central cable channel that was in heavy circulation on social media a few weeks ago. A comedian dressed as a reporter interviewed attendees at a Donald Trump rally. As you would expect, the interview snippets had been cherry picked and edited to play to the perception that anyone at a Donald Trump rally must be ignorant, illogical, unthinking, poorly spoken, dressed in loud clothing and laughably closed minded and unintelligent. And then two things hit you. First, these people are being unknowingly held up for public ridicule, exploited for my amusement and self-congratulation. They are being stripped of their kavod for entertainment and advertising revenue. Second, I am supposed to take pleasure in the same sort of sneering, childish disrespect that the video’s target audience condemns in Donald Trump’s campaign.
Contrast that video with a recent article on They sent a reporter and a photographer on a two week, 11 stop Greyhound bus trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, to interview the passengers about the presidential election. [8] The interviewees are single mothers, undocumented immigrants, recently released felons, recovering addicts and small business owners. Some are actively fleeing the life they are leaving behind. Others are seeking to make a new start. Like the folktale of Igor and Vladimir, there is plenty of pain to go around, and the journalist is willing to listen.
I was particularly struck by the interview with Jason Carpenter, aged 34, from Lexington Kentucky. He is on his way westward to work as a “roughneck” on oil rigs, making $25 an hour. Married at 16 and a recovering heroin addict, he talks about how heroin devastated Kentucky, especially during the Great Recession. He can name over three dozen friends who have overdosed. This will be the first time he has ever voted, and he is voting for Donald Trump, because of the candidate’s promise to stem the flow of drugs from Mexico. He is humble, positive and optimistic, and he cares about his country, but he is sick of seeing his friends die. And so the interviews go, some of the passengers supporting Clinton, some Trump, some voting libertarian and some convinced that voting won’t change anything. And few of them fit any neat stereotype. Each one is a human being with a story. [9]
We can do so much better than “how dare you.” We can choose -
Anavah: humility,
Hishtavut: non-judging, open curiosity, and
Kavod: dignity and respect. All of this is embodied in a quote from the Mishna’s Rabbi Ben Zoma:
Ayzehu chakham? “Who,” he asked, “is wise?”
Ha-lomed mikol adam. “The one who can learn from every person, [10] he declared.
May this be a wiser, more loving, more thoughtful New Year for all of us! Amen.

[1] “How Can You Live In The Northeast,” From the Paul Simon album “Surprise,” 2006.
[2] The term “middot” is related to the Hebrew word meaning “measure” or “attribute.” It is closely associated with the Jewish Mussar movement. Mussar (which is seeing a 21st century revival) was founded in 19th century Lithuania.
[3] You Don’t Have To Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, Brad Hirschfield, page 31.
[4] See, for example, here, for an explication of hishtavut-equanimity.
[5] You Don’t Have To Be Wrong for Me to Be Right, Brad Hirschfield, page 29.
[6] Pirkei Avot, 1:6, attributed to Rabbi Joshua Ben Perachya.
[7] Attributed in various versions to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.
[8] America by Bus: Understanding America's Election on a 3,000 Mile Road Trip
[9] This long-form profile from the Washington Post, about a Donald Trump supporter named Melanie Austin, is very much worth reading and pondering. It is both respectful to its subject and heartbreaking (on many levels).
[10] Pirkei Avot, 4:1. In its original context, Rashi understands it to mean that a even a great scholar can learn much from a less accomplished scholar.

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