On the first of Tishrei every year, it is my great privilege to stand on this bimah and speak with you about what I feel is the pressing topic of the day. I choose the subject carefully, asking myself what is the message that is most important for the congregation to hear. This fall, as I think back on the year 5777 and consider where we are now, and as I think about the conversations I’ve had with so many of you and the many hardships you have endured, I come to this conclusion: We need to be good to each other. We need to be gentle with each other.
Life is hard, and even people enjoying the smoothest of lives go through difficulty and sadness. I share this from the vantage point of being your rabbi — of being part of some of your happiest and some of your saddest moments, of sharing your deepest joys and your darkest hours. Through it all, I try to be rigorously realistic about the nature of life. I believe deeply that life is good, that God is real and that life is to be enjoyed. And precisely because of that, and because we are fragile, and because our well-being is always vulnerable, I want to sing the praises of possessing a generous heart. It is hard enough to live each day and ride smoothly through the ups and downs of life without being harsh with each other. We can’t control the world as a whole, but we can control how we approach the world and how we approach each other.
Consider the wise words of Eliot Rosewater, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. Speaking to newborn babies in the hospital in Rosewater, Indiana, he tells them, “There’s only one rule I know of, babies – Gosh darn it – you’ve got to be kind!”
In our faith, we tend to look at matriarchs, patriarchs, and prophets for models of both good and bad behavior. This is great, but we also need to remember to look to God as well. The Torah teaches us that because God is holy, we are to be holy. This is both empowering and inspiring, as it means we can attain a personal level of holiness, and we do it through our behavior – both moral and ritual. God tells us that if we follow God’s example, we can be holy too.
There is a wonderful scene in the book of Exodus, chapter 34, where God and Moses, having just dealt with the golden calf debacle, are at a transitionary point in their relationship. Moses suggests that he needs a deeper understanding of who God is in order to be successful. God agrees, and responds by describing the attributes of God to Moses.
The first two words to describe God are “rachum v’chanun,” generally translated as “compassionate and gracious.” That these are the very first words used, by God, to describe God, means that they are very important to God. And that God believes that by embodying those attributes, we ourselves can come closer to holiness. When I think about what the world needs now, both to flourish as individuals and as a community, I think about those attributes, rachamin v’chein, compassion and grace.
A foundational element of compassion and grace is humility. Showing grace and compassion are not solitary acts. They require relating to other people. In order to understand another person and to treat others with the dignity they deserve, one needs humility. Humility is what prevents us from valuing our ego too highly and blindly placing our opinions above others. Humility is what reigns in egotism and selfishness.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg observes that humility is what makes room for unity and peace.
Pluralism is the living together of absolute truths/faiths/systems that have come to know and accept their own limitations, thus making room for the dignity and truth of the other. This broken truth is the future of truth in a broken world. Rav Nachman of Bratzlav once wrote that there is no heart so whole as a broken heart.Irving Greenberg, “Theology after the Shoah: The Transformation of the Core Paradigm,” Modern Judaism 26, no. 3 (2006).
Not only is it okay for us not to have all the answers, acknowledging that might just bring us closer to harmony.
In today’s political climate, we need humility to ward off toxicity. One can be generally liberal, and one can be generally conservative, one can be a Democrat, or one can be a Republican, and these need not be moral stances. Morality goes beyond partisan divides, and whatever our political beliefs may be, we need to have a baseline of morality.
Community is an important element of establishing a shared sense of morality. John Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and founder of Common Cause, warned against the degradation of community.
When the web of community unravels, fearful things happen… The daily news offers countless grim examples. That is the prime reason for rebuilding community – not to re-create a cozy and nostalgic neighborliness but to provide the web of mutual obligations, social controls, trust and responsibility that family and community can generate. We are beginning to see that in the glorification of the unrestrained self, we forgot that the achievement of our shared goals depends on some measure of social cohesion – a reasonable balance between the claims of individuality and the claims of community.
When the Israelites were in the desert for forty years, the fundamental theme of their voyage was, when we enter the Land of Canaan, what is our community going to look like? What will it feel like? What kind of morals will be the hallmark of our culture? Will we be hard-hearted or compassionate? Will we be able to trust each other? Will we feel safe? And it is clear that the choice was up to the people. God gave our ancestors, and us, free will. The choice was theirs and the choice is ours. We can walk in God’s ways, and we can pursue the prophet Micah’s vision of what God asks of us: “Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly…” Or, we can dwell in darkness.
As with many themes from the Torah, we can see parallels today. There was an advertisement in The New Yorker that caught my attention recently. It reads:
Dystopian novels of the late 20th century have experienced a recent resurgence of popularity as we embark on an era more socially divisive than any known to modern U.S. history. We seek an answer to the question that plagues our nation now – which has been a prevalent theme found in utopian and dystopian worlds for years: Who do we want to be and who are we afraid of becoming?
And here’s where our religious teachings come in. As Jan Zauzmer, a past president of a Reform synagogue writes, “In an era of moral absenteeism, shining an ethical light is Judaism’s forte. It’s what we do best.”
In biblical Hebrew, rachamim means compassion or mercy. In her book, Hallelujah Anyway, author Anne Lamott writes:Mercy means compassion, empathy, a heart for someone’s troubles. It’s not something you do – it is something in you, accessed, revealed, or cultivated through use, like a muscle.” This means compassion, mercy, a generous heart, are not things we are necessarily born with, they are things we can get better at, through practice and effort.
Mercy means compassion, empathy, a heart for someone’s troubles. It’s not something you do – it is something in you, accessed, revealed, or cultivated through use, like a muscle.
This means compassion, mercy, a generous heart, are not things we are necessarily born with, they are things we can get better at, through practice and effort.
Our sacred texts give us some wonderful examples of generous hearts, and we can look to those figures when looking to strengthen our compassion muscles. When Abraham wants to find the right match for his son Isaac to marry, he sends his servant, Eliezer, to his ancestral homeland. His servant prays to God, looking for a sign to point him to the appropriate bride:
Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ let her be the one who You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.Gen. 24:14
Rebekah arrives at the well, fills her jar with water, and when Eliezer asks for a sip, not only does she let him drink until his thirst is quenched, she also offers to draw water for his ten camels. And then she offers Eliezer food and shelter at her family’s home. In our tradition, simple kindness and a generous heart are so highly valued that this story, from our earliest tradition, guides us to value people who are kind simply for the sake of being kind and who act with generosity of spirit.
What parts of our nature can we tap into to develop a more generous heart? Let’s start with compassion. In the Hebrew Bible, the word for compassion, rachamim, has a full meaning – caring, empathy, a desire to meet the other at the other’s level. The word suggests a parental as well as brotherly feeling and conveys a sense of intimacy. It also suggests gentleness. Gentleness is not always considered a positive attribute in our society. A gentle person is often perceived as weak, one capable of being taken advantage of, or a person not strong enough to endure. In our faith, though, gentleness is a virtue and a sign of strength. It allows us to ask for help, to relate to other people, and to be humble.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg noted how his own thinking evolved: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am older, I admire kind people.”
Besides kindness and compassion, the other fundamental trait of God is grace, a way of being that bestows dignity on everything and every person.
Two relatively minor characters in the Bible, Ruth and Boaz, provide marvelous paradigms for acting with grace. Ruth, a non-Israelite, suffers some of life’s hard knocks. When her husband, an Israelite, dies, she decides, against convention, to stay with her Israelite mother-in-law in the Land of Israel, rather than go back to her ancestral homeland. Her mother-in-law loses in swift succession, her husband and both of her sons, so she is alone and vulnerable. Ruth sees that she needs someone and steps up to be there for her, even though custom did not require her to, and even though her mother in law encouraged her to return to her ancestral home. Her act of grace leads her to another person of grace.
One day, Ruth comes to a field owned by a man named Boaz, a landowner who makes sure his workers in the field observe the mitzvah of leaving the gleanings of the field for those who are needy to come and gather. This mitzvah sustains Ruth, who is without any other means of supporting herself. This is the spirit of the Torah. The needy should not need to ask for food, rather, those who have enough should enable those who don’t the opportunity to come, with head held high, to take what they need. This communal norm comes from a special place: the spirit that there is enough for everybody, and the mechanism of leaving the gleanings allows for a simple redistribution of food. And the story continues. Boaz and Ruth marry, and she eventually becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Our tradition teaches that the messiah will be a descendant of King David, demonstrating the value our tradition places on people of compassion and grace.
The relationship between Ruth and Boaz is born in a graciousness of spirit and it, in turn, gives birth to the idea of a Messianic era when all the world will be filled with grace and goodness, kindness and compassion.
The author Rachel Remen, a physician who works with cancer patients, was traveling home and ended up being seated in the back of an airplane with parents and their children who were returning home from a baseball tournament. There was much chaos – children running up and down the aisles, food bags everywhere. Seated next to her was a woman who was wrestling a two-year-old on her lap – the youngest of her four children. Realizing that there was no chance of rest or relaxation in sight, the author struck up a conversation with her seatmate and told her about the work she did with people who have cancer. Remen writes,
A sadness filled [the woman’s] eyes and she began to tell me about her neighbor, a woman like herself, a single mother with four little kids.
Six months ago, she had been diagnosed with cancer. ‘The chemo she has to take is terrible,’ she told me. ‘It makes her so sick sometimes she can hardly get out of the bed.’ She spoke of her neighbor’s symptoms, her fears, the nightmares that awakened her almost every night. . . . I began to wonder how she knew so many of the intimate details of her neighbor’s life, and so I asked her this question. Her answer stunned me. When tragedy had struck next door, she had simply moved her neighbor and all her children into her own home. They had been there for the past five months. I looked at her closely. There was not the slightest air of martyrdom or self-congratulation about her, just this natural reaching out to a person . . . whose life was next to her own.
This year, may all of us engage in that natural reaching out to people whose lives are next to, or near, our own. May we do so with humility, with compassion and with grace. For we are created in the image of God and therefore capable of godliness – of being compassionate and gracious, rachum v’chanun. May we all be generous of heart.
Cain yehi ratzon, so this be God’s will. Amen.