Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Healer of Broken Hearts - (Yom Kippur Sermon)



Rav Levi of Berdichev would constantly challenge God to see the greatness of His children. One Yom Kippur, Rav Levi overheard the tailor in the corner of the synagogue doing a spiritual accounting before God. The tailor conceded he had done some misdeeds in the previous year. But then again, so had God; He had allowed some terrible injustices to occur. So the tailor looked up to God and said: “God, you have done things wrong, and I have done things wrong; why don’t we just forgive each other and call it even?”. Upon hearing this, Rav Levi couldn’t contain himself, and shouted out: “Why did you let God off the hook so easily?”

I wish we had Rav Levi here today. Most Yom Kippurs we ask questions of ourselves, but this year our community has many questions for God. In the past year, we have experienced the heartbreaking loss of 4 young people.

Maybe Rav Levi could explain to God that we cannot let Him off the hook this year.

With broken hearts, we must wrestle directly with God. And that is very difficult for man to do; we wonder if in the heat of battle we will let go of our faith, or if in response to a heretical maneuver, God will push us away. However, some have wrestled with God and never let go of their faith. Elie Wiesel wrote the following words to a Cantata entitled “Ani Maamin”:

I believe, Abraham,
Despite Treblinka.
I believe, Isaac,
Because of Belsen.
I believe, Jacob,
Because and in spite of
Majdanek.

Elie Wiesel is engaging in Rav Levi’s type of wrestling, where one contends with God but never lets go of Him. This type of wrestling that is worthy of the descendants of Jacob, who strove with God and prevailed.

But the grief stricken don’t just wrestle with God; they wrestle with life itself, and question if they can recover from their loss. The words from Psalms (147) declare: “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”. But tossing and turning in bed late at night, the broken hearted wonder: when will my broken heart heal?

Some think that “closure” can heal the broken heart. The term “closure” first originated with the Gestalt school of therapy in the early 1900’s, and specifically applied to resolving incoherent feelings into stable mental patterns; today, closure is catch phrase for rapidly ending all types of pain, including the pain of mourning.

I have a problem with closure. Acquaintances with good intentions badger mourners in the name of closure, telling them to “move on”. This has the contrary effect of making the mourners feel even worse, because they now are both grieving and embarrassed by their own grief. (This actually happens; I have seen people turn to the mourners on the first day of shiva and say “you know, you will have to move on”).

But closure is not just misused; it is a lie. At best, closure is an elaborate self deception encouraged by a societal aversion to grief. For the truly broken heart there is no closure. In my previous synagogue there was a Holocaust survivor named Shulem who had lost his first wife and children during the war. He eventually made his way to Montreal, remarried, and had two more children. Yet he would come to synagogue on the yartzeit of his first family and would speak with me about their deaths. It was clear that even 60 years later, even after rebuilding his life, Shulem still carried painful wounds. There was no closure for Shulem.

Instead of closure, the Jewish tradition embraces memory, even memories of loss. At weddings, there is a custom to break a glass, so that even at the happiest of times the destruction of Jerusalem is still remembered. And it is often at the best of times, at celebrations and holidays, when the comfort we experience becomes undone. We hit the heights of joy, only to recall who we can no longer share this joy with; and we immediately feel the pain of loss once again.
Shulem taught me that closure is impossible; but his willingness to rebuild offered me an insight into a passage in the book of Job, and in turn, an insight into what it means to live with a broken heart.

The storyline of Job is a test of faith; God takes away Job’s wealth, livestock, and afflicts him with boils; tragically, Job loses 7 sons and 3 daughters in a house collapse.

Yet after these tests, despite having to endure the sanctimonious preaching of friends, Job holds on to his faith. In return, at the end of the book, God decides to reward Job with twice his previous wealth. Not only that, Job is rewarded with another 7 sons and 3 daughters.

Since meeting Shulem I started to wonder about this text: How is this closure for Job? Twice as many animals as a reward?; that I understand, OK. But replacement children as a path to closure??? How can that even be suggested?

I would answer that the new family isn’t a reward for Job; actually it is his most difficult test. Job has proven he has faith in God; what remains to be seen is if Job can maintain his faith in life. Sometimes resignation offers the greatest comfort to those hurt by tragedy. Yet Job refuses this path to comfort. Instead, he teaches us one last lesson of faith: don’t lose faith in life itself. Even after disaster, one must live. To do so is an act of defiance, a refusal to give in to the angel of death.

Closure is the false refuge of emotional weaklings, while defiance is the heroic willingness to live with pain.

When in pain, there is a howling sense of injustice. We are angry at God, yes, but even angrier at the angel of death. Rav Soloveitchik explains that defiance is the only Jewish response to evil: “one must never acquiesce in evil, make peace with it, or condone its existence. Defiance of and active opposition to evil, employing all means that God put at man’s disposal, is the dominant norm in Halakhah (Jewish Law).” This defiance is present, even at the funeral. The Mourner’s Kaddish, and in particular the version of Kaddish recited in the cemetery, focuses on redemption and peace. Grieving at graveside, we turn to the angel of death and defiantly proclaim that we will never lose faith in life.

Yet defiance is an act of courage, not consolation. On the contrary, an enduring grief can disrupt the joyful moments of life with tears and sadness. And one is still left to wonder: what type of comfort is available without closure?  

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Priest, wrote an essay in 1979 entitled “The Wounded Healer”. He found the inspiration for his title in a passage in the Talmud Sanhedrin 98a that speaks about the Messiah:

“R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai's tomb…. He then asked him, 'When will the Messiah come?' — 'Go and ask him himself,' was his reply. 'Where is he sitting?' — 'At the entrance of Rome.'  And by what sign may I recognise him?' — 'He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie their bandages all at once, and rebandage them together,  whereas the Messiah unties and rebandages each separately”

The Messiah is sitting at the epicenter of exile, the city of Rome, and sitting with those exiled from the city, the lepers. He himself is hurting, wrapping and unwrapping bandages; the only difference is he does them one at a time, in order to remain ready to bring redemption at a moment’s notice.

Inspired by this passage in the Talmud, Nouwen emphasizes that the Messiah is wounded himself. But what makes the Messiah different is that he sees beyond his own pain and is ready to help others.

This ethos is deeply embedded in the Jewish way of seeing life. We view exile as the basis of an obligation to love the stranger; we see a history of loss as a reason to stand up for other losers.

Wounded healers defy the cruelty of fate with compassion, the pain of loss with love.

Jews have always been wounded healers. Actually, we have gone a step past the Berdichever Rebbe: Not only have we not let God off the hook; we have not let ourselves off the hook either. With tears in our eyes, we insist on making the world a better place.

In 2004 years ago, I visited Beersheva in the aftermath of a terror attack. We visited people who had survived a bus bombing at Siroka hospital, and were taken on a tour of the emergency room. Outside, there was a Magen David Adom ambulance. I was moved to tears by the inscription on it which said:

“Given by the wife and children of Benzion Rosenswajg, of Melbourne, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, 6 August, 2004. And in memory of his wife Sarah Chana, children Yechiel Shlomo and Yitzchak Meir and siblings, Nathan Moshe and Feige, who perished in the Holocaust.”

Here was a man like Shulem who had lost a wife and children; he too had rebuilt his life and started another family. And that family was inspired to generously give an ambulance to heal others.

This ambulance proclaims the philosophy of the wounded healer; One can grieve and love with the same heart, one can remember and repair at the same time. The broken hearted can lead the way to redemption.


As we start the New Year I pray: May God give us a year of blessing and happiness.

And may God inspire our hearts, the broken ones and the whole ones, to fix this world, bind the wounded, and heal the broken hearted.


Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Lamedvuvnik Life



Great men do great things. Thomas Carlyle argued for the “Great Man” theory of history, that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men". Others debate this idea, and see the great leaders of history as merely a product of their society; as Herbert Spencer says about the Great Man: “before he can re-make his society, his society must make him.”

Looking back at the last century, a strong case can be made for the‘“Great Man theory”. (note: the phrase “Great Man” is not meant as a reference to character, but rather to the person’s impact). Milton Himmelfarb wrote an eloquent essay entitled “No, Hitler, No Holocaust”, in which he explains that “Anti-Semitism was a necessary condition for the Holocaust, but it was not a sufficient condition. Hitler was needed.” Himmelfarb’s point is indisputable; the horrors of the Holocaust are inconceivable without Hitler. Larger than life individuals play a unique role in determining the course of history.

Great Man theory is a staple of the Tanach’s narrative. The Tanach focuses a great deal on heroes such Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and David; to this day, Jewish liturgy mentions these transformative leaders more than anyone else. For much of the Tanach, a central character takes  the stage and directs the course of action, and the Great Man is the organizing principle of much of the Biblical narrative.

For Jews, Great Man theory plays a significant role in our lives. It’s more than our theory of history; greatness is also our highest aspiration. Maimonides (Deot 3:3) makes a telling remark about childrearing when he says:

וישים על לבו שיהיה לו בן אולי יהיה חכם וגדול בישראל

“You should consider that you may have a child who will be a wise and great man in Israel”

This is the Great Man theory of child rearing. Our expectations for ourselves and our children are geared to greatness. The comedian David Bader highlights this reality in a short Haiku entitled the “Jewish mother’s lament”:

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?”


Jews live the great man theory of history.

This is why Noach is so significant a character. There is no question that Noach is a “good” man, not a great one; he is righteous for his generation of wickedness, but not truly exceptional. Even so, he is good enough to save the world. Noach, like Ruth, Esther and several other characters in Tanach, makes a great impact by being a good person.

Noach’s low profile heroism is reminiscent of the fascinating Chassidic tradition about the “lamedvuvniks”. The lamedvuvnik is one of the 36 hidden righteous men upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. They appear like ordinary men, live ordinary lives, yet they do extraordinary things; in undertaking an important act of piety or charity, these otherwise ordinary Joes save the world. Gershon Scholem has noted that this idea of hidden tzaddikim has some basis in the Talmud, particularly in one passage in Sukkah (45b), but that the primary source of this tradition is in Chassidic thought.

There is an irony that the Chassidic movement, which is oriented around the Tzaddik, (a divine intermediary who is the ultimate Great Man), promotes traditions about the simple looking lamedvuvnik.  But perhaps that is the point: even when recognizing great heroes, the quiet contributions of everyday heroes should never be forgotten. The beauty of the lamedvuvnik tradition is that anyone might be great, even the common man; and who knows, maybe the gruff, grizzled and wrinkled water carrier is holding the fate of the entire world on his shoulders. The lamedvuvnik offers us an alternative paradigm of greatness: a good man quietly doing good things, off on the periphery and away from the limelight.

This lamedvuvnik lesson is more relevant in the 21st century than it was for 18th century Chassidim. We live in a generation that obsesses with greatness. Jean Twenge, who has studied contemporary narcissism, writes in her book Generation Me: “In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a “very important person.” By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.”. Everybody expects to be great and famous, and that makes it difficult for people to be content with living ordinary good lives.

Parents feel this strain in particular, when being pulled between their career and their children. Anne Marie Slaughter wrote Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family to respond to authors who argued that with a bit of planning, working mothers can have it all. Slaughter passionately responds: they can’t. Thankfully, the lesson of the 36 hidden tzaddikim is you don’t need to have it all, and you don’t need to be great to be great.

The lamedvuvnik life offers opportunity for understated greatness, to change the world one person at a time. George Elliot expresses this idea beautifully when she writes at the end of Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life: "The growing good of the world is…..half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

In the course of my career, I have met many great people; but I have been inspired the most by the lamedvuvniks I have met.

In my previous congregation, we had a congregant named Harold. He was the “candyman” who gave candy to the children in synagogue, and the greeter who helped people find their seats. At his funeral (which was filled to capacity), I said the following in his eulogy:

“But what was it about Harold that was special? Harold was not a wealthy man, (although he was more contented than virtually anyone); he was not a Nobel prize winning scientist, (although he had more horse sense than most geniuses); he was not an Olympic athlete, not a cabinet minister, and you didn’t see his name in the newspaper. Fame and fortune were not Harold’s calling cards.

What was special about Harold was a simple trait; Harold never passed by people. Every person he met, big or small (oh, how he loved children!) famous or unknown, important or unimportant, was treated to Harold’s brand of friendship, good humor and charm. What was special was he never passed people by.”

This is the lamedvuvnik credo: change the world one person at a time. In the course of our lives, every one of us has met our own, personal, lamedvuvnik: a parent, teacher, friend, or even a stranger who has made an enormous difference in our lives. And they make that difference just by being good, over and over again.

Sometimes, you can be great just by being good.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The Case for, and Against, Sweetness



This is honey season. In our home, the custom is to dip the Challah into honey from Rosh Hashanah until Simchat Torah, to eat something sweet in prayer for a year that is sweet.

The desire for sweetness should be incontrovertible; of course we want a sweet life. But actually there is room for a debate about sweetness, and there is a case for, and against, sweetness.

The case for sweetness is easy. Life should be sweet, and our Judaism should be sweet. There was a medieval custom that a child would be taught the Hebrew Alphabet by writing each letter in honey on a board, and after learning the letter, the child would then lick the honey; this was meant to symbolize how sweet the Torah is.

Not everyone wants their religious experience to be sweet. It is easy to see religion as primarily discipline and seriousness. H.L. Mencken once quipped that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” In our own community, we need to teach how sweet Judaism is, and that it could be and should be seen as a joy. Our relationship with God is one of sweetness, and many Jewish philosophers see creation as an act of love, a gift of joy to mankind. And this idea is reflected in a Jewish approach to life. In 2012, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that Jews have the highest well-being and happiness levels of any of the American faith groups. Joy is an essential part of Judaism and Jewish culture.

But there is another case to be made: a case against sweetness. Happiness cannot be our ultimate goal, and we need to recognize that happiness and meaning are not one and the same. In a 2013 study, Professor Roy F. Baumeister found that that “happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life”, while “the unhappy but meaningful life..(is)...seriously involved in difficult undertakings”. In other words, to exclusively pursue a sweet and happy life leads to a superficial and materialistic mindset.

So what is the choice? For many the difficult choice is the easier one. John Stuart Mill wrote “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” This echoes the Jewish tradition that you serve God without interest in a reward, and do what is right simply because it is right. And even if you have to make sacrifices, you continue to do what is right because that is what make a man into a mensch. In a choice between happiness and meaning, you choose meaning, because it is better to be a good man than a happy man.

We live at a time where sweetness is the ultimate goal, and that makes the case against sweetness even more important. The American Council on Education has been surveying incoming college freshman since 1966. In 1967, 82.9% of freshman felt that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was essential; in 2015, only 46.5% felt that was an important objective. (In contrast, in 1967, 43.5% of freshman considered it essential to be “well off financially”. By 2015, that number had gone up to 81.9%).

So we pursue happiness almost exclusively; but what is next? As Estragon says in “Waiting for Godot”:  “What do we do now, now that we are happy?”.

Even though Judaism cherishes happiness, we know that it cannot be the ultimate goal. Had our ancestors decided that happiness was the goal, there would not be any Jews today. It wasn’t always happy to be a Jew, but it was always meaningful.

Professor Marc Michael Epstein tells a powerful story of his days working in the rare book department at Sotheby’s. Inevitably, elderly people would show up with old books of little value, assuming they were important antiques. One day, one such elderly man arrived, with a book of Psalms from 1920. Not knowing how to explain that the book had no monetary value, Epstein asked him: “what did you pay for this?”. Epstein describes that “the old man drew himself up to his full 5 feet, 2 inches. “For this, I paid seven days’ Auschwitz bread,” he replied. It seems that the Nazis had caught him with the little Psalm book, and, as a penalty for possessing it, imprisoned him without food—only water to drink—for an entire week. Epstein writes that he stammered, until he finally said: “This....is too valuable for us to sell.”

As we start the new year, we come to celebrate what will hopefully be a sweet future. But we never forget that  there are things greater than happiness,and goals more noble than joy.