Monday, October 2, 2017

Yizkor - Our After Life

Our After Life

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Yizkor, 5778

One thing which often surprises people about Judaism is that we don’t have a definitive answer to the question, “What happens after we die?” Naturally, sages and scholars have been discussing this mystery for thousands of years, but it remains exactly that — a mystery. No one knows for sure what the afterlife is, or if there is one at all. It is, I would argue, a rather sensible form of agnosticism. The simple truth is that no one has been there and back, and we have no reliable communication from beyond. The matter could hardly be anything other than unsettled.

What we do have, then, is an endless string of supposition, imagination, hope, and storytelling. Throughout the generations, we have not so much tried to define precisely what the afterlife is actually like, as we have told stories about what it might be like, and about how we can imagine it. One rabbi tells a story of sitting in an eternal study hall, pouring over sacred books, day after day. One mystic tries to explain what it must be like to be reunified with the All. And so on.

One of the most moving moments of afterlife theology came to me from the most unlikely of sources: my non-Jewish, devoutly atheist brother-in-law. Once, at a family gathering, another family member was quizzing him about his lack of belief in God. Along the way, he was asked if he believed in any kind of an afterlife. After thinking for a moment, he answered, “I believe that I will live on after my death in precisely the same way my personality remains in the room after I’ve left it.”

I will die someday. Of that, I can be sure. When that day comes, will I, in some literal way, ascend up to heaven, and find a seat at the right hand of God? I don’t think so, but I can’t say with any certainty whether I will or won’t. Will I possibly remain on this earth as a disembodied spirit, trying to contact my relatives and descendents for all of eternity? I doubt it very much, but I suppose that anything is possible. I won’t claim any special knowledge; certainly not more than the sages of our tradition.

What I know for sure is that, when I do finally pass from this world, I will not be fully gone. I will have students who learned from me, and carry my lessons, and through them a piece of me, in their hearts. I will have people I’ve helped whose lives will be better because of me, and who will spare me a kind thought, now and again. I will have friends who remember a joke that I loved, and will tell it in my name. I will have family members who love me, and speak of me often. In that way, at least, I know I will live on after my life.

My father died a year ago, but I can still remember his laugh, and the look of almost confused awe and pleasure which crossed his face when he held his grandchildren for the first time. My grandpa Bernie died while I was in rabbinical school, but I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, the stoop of his shoulders, and the slow, quiet way he talked about things that concerned him deeply. My grandma Gus died my first year as Rabbi here, but I can still remember the taste of the chocolate cake she made me for every special event, knowing that it was my favorite. I could go on, but I’m sharing these not because they’re particularly special, but because they’re so common. Each of us could list the people we’ve lost, and the almost tangible memories they’ve left behind with us.

There is nothing in the world which is more real than the memory of a loved one. When we remember them, we deeply and truly keep them alive in our hearts, and therefore in this world. Through us, even if through no other means, they live on after their life. Through us, even if through no other means, they have an afterlife.

Zichronam Livracha—may their memories be an abiding blessing.

Yom Kippur - Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Yom Kippur, 5778

2000 years ago, a potential convert went up to one of the great sages of the day — one of the great sages in all of Jewish history — by the name of Shammai. This anonymous man demanded of Shammai, in a nearly always mistranslated quote, “Teach me all of the Torah in a single rule.” Shammai, apparently not without a sarcastic side, grabbed a nearby measuring stick — a ruler, if you will — and beat the man away. The man then tried again with Shammai’s counterpart, Hillel. “Teach me all of the Torah in a single rule.” To which Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to any other person. All the rest is commentary; now, go and learn it.”

Hillel’s quote has, of course, become one of the most famous in all Judaism. Perhaps, the most famous of all time. In various forms, it has become known as the Golden Rule — the most basic guideline for decent living. If you would hate having something done to you, don’t do it to anyone else. We hear the quote, or something like it, so often that is easy to not take it seriously. It sounds almost trite to our ears — something more deserving of being on a bumper sticker or an Internet meme than as a foundational text for a major religion. And so, it’s easy to miss how incredibly profound, and how incredibly challenging, Hillel’s maxim actually is.

What the Sage was trying to teach that man — what he was trying to teach all of us, really — is that, in Judaism, morality is primary. Morality comes first. Morality isn’t the entirety of our religion — there is more, and we are obligated to learn it, according to Hillel. But, the first thing we have to know if we’re going to be engaged in Judaism is that we are obligated to lead moral lives. That’s the source text around which all of the rest of Judaism is commentary.

It’s an idea which is an echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah. The words which we read just a few minutes ago as part of the haftarah:

Is this the fast I desire?
A day to afflict body and soul?
Bowing your head like a reed, covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast — a day worthy of the favor of Adonai?
Is this not the fast I desire —
to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;
to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and to take the homeless poor into your home,
and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?

What Isaiah, Hillel, and countless sages and teachers since were trying to teach us, and continue to try to teach us, until this day, is that there can be no meaningful Judaism, and that there can be no striving for holiness, no attempts to approach the divine, which are not firmly grounded in how we act towards one another. That making the world moral and just is a prerequisite for making it holy. How we treat others is everything. Or, at the very least, it is the beginning of everything. It is the wellspring from which all other good flows. Once, Rabbi Akiva was asked about the Song of Songs, a book from our bible in the form of an extended love poem. Akiva, one of the greatest rabbis, and one of the most dedicated lawmakers in Jewish history, said that if Song of Songs  was the only sacred book which we had been given, it would have been enough. A book about love, he said, would be all that we would really need to understand how we were supposed to act in this world. That, on some level, a much later sage was right when he said, “Love is all you need.” “What is the loving, compassionate thing to do?” might not be the only question we need to answer. But, it isn’t a bad rule of thumb for sacred living, or a bad starting place. It may or may not be all that we need to lead meaningful Jewish lives, but a Jewish life without that guideline is empty.

Hillel’s “What is hateful to you do not do to any other person” was really a variation on the commandment from Leviticus, “V’ahavta l’reecha kamocha-- love your neighbor as yourself.” That commandment is part of what we refer to as “the holiness code,” which will be our Torah reading this afternoon. It begins with the directive, “You shall be holy because I, Adonai your God, am holy.” It is an instruction manual for how to lead a holy life. “Holiness” is actually a tough concept to define. But, the rabbis have always understood it to be primarily about the attempt to act like God. None of us can be exactly like God, of course. But, the more we act in ways which we understand God to act, the more we are living holy lives. And, by including “love your neighbor as yourself” as part of these instructions, our tradition is teaching us that we can’t be holy, we can’t claim to be imitating God, until we learn to love the other as ourselves. We are commanded to love the other as ourselves. But, can we be commanded to love someone? And, what does it even mean to love them “as yourself?”

It doesn’t make sense to command love. Love is an emotion, and we can’t control what we feel, at least, not directly. We’re told that God would never demand something of us that wasn’t in our power to do, so how do we explain this? Our tradition resolves this conundrum by teaching that the Torah isn’t actually commanding us about how to feel, but rather about how to act. I don’t have to love you, I just have to behave as if I do. Hillel’s formulation, which concerns our actions, not our feelings, reflects that understanding, as do countless teachings from the rabbis who follow him. Judaism overwhelmingly takes the view that it is our actions, not our emotions, which define us. How I feel about you is complicated. Regardless, I am commanded to behave towards you, towards everyone, as if I loved you as myself.

But, what about that “as myself?” Can I love anyone “as myself?” What does that even mean? At a minimum, it seems clear that we’re being commanded to do something rather radical. This is not a small commandment. Sforno, one of the great medieval rabbis, says that we are being given the obligation of actually imagining that our roles were reversed. We have to imagine that we were the one in that other person’s situation, and then ask ourselves what we would want someone to do were they to see us so. Not to begin with, “what is my obligation to you in this moment?” Rather, to begin by asking myself what I would hope you would do were you to see me in pain, or in need. Maybe, standing by the side of the road, with a sign in my hand, asking for money for food. How would I hope you would respond were you to notice that I was the one who was cold, or scared? What would I hope your reaction would be? That should be my reaction.

What that means is that we have to see people, we have to encounter people, as they really are. We have to try to see them from their own perspective, not from ours. We have to train ourselves to remember that we aren’t seeing case studies or “just another one of them’s.” We are seeing actual people, as they really are. God, it’s not easy. It’s hard intellectually — we can’t really know another person, or his or her situation, or how we would react, were we in their place. But, more challengingly, it’s incredibly hard emotionally. It’s so much easier to shut them out, even if we’re going to do the kind thing and help a little. Give them a dollar or lend a hand, and then turn away and move on, as fast as possible. To actually imagine that it’s us that’s cold, or hungry, or in need? That it’s our children, not theirs? What will that do to us? How will that make us feel, sitting in our comfortable places? What obligations will we acknowledge, if we allow ourselves to open our hearts that wide?

Can we learn to truly listen to the people around us? Can we train ourselves to hear their voices, and to hear their cries, in all the various ways that they cry out? Can we hear them as they want to be heard, as they need to be heard, not as we want or need to hear them? To really listen, not applying our own filters, and not listening with half an ear, in order to better ready our own counterarguments? Can we truly act towards them in the way that we would wish they would act towards us if, God forbid, we were they?

We have to train ourselves to approach other people — each and every one of them — as though they were just as important as we are. Because, they are. Of course they are. That’s what it means when we’re told that all people are created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Each one of us was created by God. Each one of us contains within us a spark, a fragment, of divinity. And, each and every one of us is equally important to, and equally loved by, God. It’s another phrase that gets thrown around so often and so easily that it loses its power. Betzelem Elohim — being created in the image of God — is not a slogan. It’s a radical challenge. It’s the foundation stone of all of Judaism.

Now we can start to understand that loving the other as ourselves is not simply one component of living in a holy way. It is a fundamental, integral piece of holiness. Remember, living a holy life is defined in Judaism as trying our best to act like God. And so, if God loves each of us equally, then treating everyone as if we love them, equally, is part of how we have to act if we want to act in holy ways. Not loving our neighbor as ourselves, or at least not trying to, is understood as denying that we are all equally from, and equally loved by, God. That’s why the Sage known as Gadol Echad teaches that not obeying “love your neighbor as yourself” is the same as refusing to obey “love Adonai your God.” Or, even more radically, why the Ba’al Shem Tov would teach that if we do not love our neighbors as ourselves, then it is as if God is not really God, at all. How we treat each other is how we make God real in the world.

To put it slightly differently, Judaism teaches that morality is theological. Caring for others is theological. It is impossible to be holy, it is impossible to feel the presence of God, without first caring for those around us. For all of those around us. It is through other people that we can most readily meet God. Every time we see someone, especially someone in need, and we ignore them, we push God away. Every time we refuse to acknowledge that person, or to acknowledge their need, we push holiness out of this world. Every act of hate, every act of oppression, every act of uncaring. These are the anti-God, the anti-holiness, which keep our world broken.

Hillel was right — this really is the whole Torah. Loving other people brings God into the world. Treating other people as if we loved them, acting towards other people in the way that we would want to be treated, were we truly in their place, brings God into the world. Hating other people, oppressing other people, refusing to hear the cries of other people — these things push God away. They make our world less holy. Holiness begins with love, and with caring. For everyone.

The Ba’al Shem Tov had a practice. He had written a chant for the words, “Hareini Mikabeil Alai Et Mitzvat HaBorei—v’Ahavta l’re’echa kamocha—here I am, ready to accept upon myself the commandment of the creator: love your neighbor as yourself.” And he would repeat this chant, over and over, before he prayed. He would not let himself begin to actually pray until he could recite this chant with a whole heart. He understood that it was impossible, that it is contradictory, to attempt to reach God, to attempt to touch holiness, without first accepting our responsibility to love those around us. The world is made holy when we accept our obligation to act lovingly towards one another. When we accept our obligation to act lovingly towards everyone, each one of us created betzelem Elohim. All the rest is commentary. Let us go and learn it.

Kol Nidrei - Return To Our Selves

Return To Our Selves

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Kol Nidrei, 5778

Like many of us, most of us, I’d guess, my refrigerator is covered with various calendars, lists, and little comics. But, it’s especially covered by pictures, and mostly by pictures of my kids. And, pretty much all of those are pictures from when they were younger, and smaller. And, I’m probably not the only one here who’s heard the theory that we keep these pictures of our kids when they were young, long after they’re no longer that small, so that now that they’re older, we can remember when they were younger, and cuter. So that we don’t kill them.

I was reminded of this by, of all things, a teaching by Rabbi Chaim Shlomo Halevi of Kasani, also known as the Shemuah Tova[1]. He tells the story of a king who had a loyal servant with a family, much beloved by the king. One of this servants’ family members was so dear to the King, that the king actually had his image engraved on his throne. And, if anyone from that servant’s family displeased the king, and found themselves in danger of judgment, they would shout out to the king, “just look at that form carved on your throne, and you will be filled with compassion because of your love for us.” Like those faded photographs on our refrigerators, the carving on the king’s throne reminded him of the younger, maybe better version of his loved ones. And, that memory made the King, like us, kinder, gentler, and more merciful.

What the English translation of that lovely story can’t capture is that it uses a somewhat rare Hebrew word for “engraved.” When it says that the servant’s family member’s image was engraved on the throne, is uses the word “toke’a.” That word is awfully close to the word “tekiah,” the word which describes the sound of the shofar. In other words, Rabbi Chaim is teaching us, the shofar is like that engraved image, or like the photos on our fridge. It’s really meant as a reminder to God. A reminder of our younger, purer selves. A reminder of who we used to be and, hopefully, who we could possibly be again, one day. We may not merit forgiveness and redemption right now. But doesn’t that cute, innocent baby deserve it?

Judaism teaches that each and every one of us was, at one time, perfect. Each morning we pray, “Elohai Neshama she’natata be, tohora he—my God, the soul which you have given me is pure.” We believe that the soul which we were given, which resides as a holy spark inside each and every one of us, is perfect and pure, and incorruptible. When we’re young, when we were born, we essentially had nothing other than that soul, and so we, too, were perfect and pure. But, it doesn’t last long. No one remains pure, or perfect, forever. Almost from the very beginning, our natural instincts, our lesser angels, or greater demons if you will, and the world around us, start pushing and pulling us in different directions. As soon as we can learn anything, we start learning ways to go wrong. Not only that — I’m not suggesting that everything that we learn, and everything that we do, and therefore everything that we become, is terrible. There’s plenty of good in there, as well. But, we know that sweet, cherubic baby will become a petulant, self-absorbed, obnoxious teenager, at some point. And I’m not talking about my kids, or about yours. I’m talking about me, and about you. About all of us.

These Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, are the time of teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance,” but the word comes from the root “to return.” Teshuvah isn’t just apologizing, and it’s not really even about self-improvement. It’s about returning. And, by definition, we can only return to where we were, or to who we were. We were, each of us, maybe long ago, so good, and so pure, and so holy. We can be, again.

Take a moment, and see if we can remember what we were like when we were younger. Can we remember the sheer, endless, unadulterated joy which could be ours simply by means of a bubble wand or a garden hose on a sunny day? When’s the last time any of us felt that kind of joy? Can we remember the fiery, burning, all-consuming passion of our early teenage years, when we first started encountering unfairness and injustice in the world around us? That uncompromising, unreasonable, unmovable certainty that the world wasn’t right, and that the adults around us were too complacent, or too blind to see it, and that we, and we alone, had to wake them up, or make it right ourselves, or somehow fix it? It’s so easy to look back at these earlier versions of ourselves with a kind of dismissive nostalgia. Oh sure, it was nice, and maybe age-appropriate, but it was so childish. So unrealistic. The simplicity and clarity of those early days pretty much inevitably gives way to the realities of adulthood. And, that’s probably necessary, and in many ways that’s a good thing. But, maybe not in all ways. Maybe, tonight of all nights, we should be looking back at our younger, purer selves with envy and longing, and maybe with some hope. Hope that, somehow, we can return to that version of ourselves.

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, the Sefat Emet, has another word for that pure soul with which each of us was born. He calls it the nikudah penimah, the inner point. The tiny spark of holiness, the tiny fragment of divinity, which lies at the heart of every single person. It’s possible to cover up that spark of holy purity within us. It’s possible, layer upon layer, to stifle it with worldliness, with rationalizations, with excuses, with exhaustion and frustration, and with resignation. It’s possible to cover it so completely that it becomes fully and utterly invisible. But, it’s not possible to kill it. It’s not possible to snuff it out. No matter how hard we try, no matter how thoroughly we may bury it, it remains inside of us, a tiny spark of burning holiness. Waiting. If we want to set it free, if we want to see it within ourselves again, we have to start peeling away that which covers it up so effectively. That’s sounds nice, but what does it mean? How can we actually achieve it?

Many of you know that, for a few years now, I’ve been engaging with the world of Spiritual Practice. It’s a fancy sounding term, and it might be off-putting to some. But, all that it really means is that I’ve been trying to find various ways — meditation, inspiring texts, introspection, and so on — to look inward, and to try to be honest about what I see. And, to ask myself whether I like what I see. Or, maybe a bit more accurately, to try to identify the parts of what I find inside which I do like, and those which I don’t. And, to try to be thoughtful and deliberate about asking myself what I have to do, and whether I’m willing to do it, if I want to strengthen those better, holier qualities, and try to move away from the lesser ones. It’s not, as you might guess, always a pleasant process. But it’s one I’ve come to value.

One of the gifts which this world of practice has brought to me is a greater willingness to do more immediate, ongoing self-evaluation, and self-criticism. To step back, just after some interaction, and ask myself what I think about it. Knowing that each one of us suffers from these accumulated, holiness-stifling layers, it also gives me permission to be a bit more gentle with myself when I fall short. Basically, no one is perfect, and no one reacts perfectly all of the time.

Like every single person here, I’m often presented with frustrating situations. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Rabbi of a congregation, a manager in a business, a teacher, a clerk at a store, or pretty much anything else — we’re all going to, probably fairly regularly, deal with someone who, deliberately or not, is making our lives difficult. And, sometimes I react to that difficulty, and to that difficult person, with frustration and anger. But, sometimes, more often when I remember to be committed to trying, I can react with kindness, and with love, and with grace. Sometimes I lash out — and, by the way, quiet, seemingly thoughtful responses can sometimes be nothing more than angry lashing out in disguise. Sometimes, I can transcend the seemingly endless supply of pettiness within me, and treat that person as I would want to be treated. To assume that they must be acting with some combination of conviction, pain, confusion, and holiness, and to react accordingly.

I’m pretty sure that, if we could measure such a thing, I’d find that these past few years of Spiritual Practice have help me respond more often than I otherwise would have with kindness. But, what I’m sure about, as I’ve watched myself during this time, is that when I do respond with kindness, as opposed to with anger and pettiness, I like myself more. I admire the person I am when I react with kindness more than I do the other version of myself. I’d want to be with that kind person more than I’d want to be with the petty version of myself, and I know that I would rather be that kind person. Not only because it feels so much nicer, which it does. But also, because it feels so much more honest. It feels like who I really am, or at least, who I am meant to be.

I completely acknowledge that all of these various reactions are mine. I can’t disown any of them, and I’m not trying to. It’s all me. But, when I can manage to bring out that better version of myself, especially in difficult situations, it feels like I am in some way returning. It feels like I have not only found a better version of myself, but a truer version. When I say that this is who I feel I am meant to be, I don’t say that lightly. I believe that, like each and every one of us, I was given a pure soul. Giving voice to that soul feels like a homecoming. A return. Teshuvah.

It’s not easy. It’s really not. Although I take full responsibility for my own actions and reactions, I also have to acknowledge that the world in which we live does sometimes seem to conspire to make this kind of holy living very difficult. I can’t look at the news, or scan through my Facebook feed without encountering vitriolic anger. Although I try never to look at the comments section of anything anymore, if I do I know that I’m going to see a seemingly endless string of ad hominem nastiness and name-calling. I know that people are much more likely to huddle together around grievances and anger, than we are around joy and gratitude. And, we all know that the rumor mill seems to be much more effective at spreading the former, rather than the latter.

I know that my own sense of worry and insecurity makes it easy for me to dismiss the greater pain of others, especially when I don’t really know them. I know that the way that the supposed leaders we see all around us speak and act can bring out the worst in me. And, I fear that I am, at least some of the time, among those leaders. We live in a world which doesn’t seem to value, or reward, or reinforce, or compel kindness. Or justice. Or love. And, so, it takes constant, dedicated work to rise above it. It’s among the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. But, I’m committed to trying.

I’m committed to trying to be kind, and to help those who hurt, wherever I might encounter them, and to lead with empathy. I’m committed to trying to remember the person I thought I was when I was younger, and to remember the kind of person that the childhood version of me believed I would one day become. Can we remember who we thought we were? Can we remember who we planned on being? Can we admit, at least to ourselves, that we aren’t. That we haven’t become, at least not fully, who we knew we could be, and what we knew we had to be? Can we imagine what our truest selves would say about what they see in the mirror, and can we let that drive us to teshuva? I’m committed to working, even through my failures, at being the better, truer version of myself. And, I’m strengthened by realizing that, with every little success and victory, I reinforce my awareness that my nikudah penima, my inner point, my holy spark, remains intact. Still hidden. But, pure.

In The Book of Words, Rabbi Larry Kushner creatively retranslates common Hebrew words. And, his translation of teshuvah is “coming home.” Using that interpretation, he then offers this teaching, modified from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook:

Through Returning Home all things are reunited with God… Returning Home is, in essence, an effort to return to one’s original status, to the source of life and higher being in their fullness, without limitation and diminution, in their highest spiritual character, as illumined by the simple, radiant divine light… It is only through the great truth of returning to oneself that the person and the people, the world and all the worlds, the whole of existence, will return to their Creator, to be illumined by the light of life. This is the mystical meaning of the light of the Messiah, the manifestation of the soul of the universe, by whose illumination the world will return to the source of its being, and the light of God will be manifest on it.

May we all remember the children in those photographs. May we remember who we were, when we were them. May we return home to ourselves, by remembering and finding that holy spark within. Hashiveinu Adonai elecha, v’nashuva. Help us return to You, Adonai, and we will return. Call us back, with the sound of your shofar.

[1] Speaking Torah, Arthur Green, v2, p. 172