Dissolving Boundaries

Kol Nidrei 5779

My Friends,

I had a remarkable and uncommon experience this summer in Jerusalem and tonight I want to tell you about it, and what I took away from it.  The focus of this experience was on the boundaries that can exist between people, and how listening, truly listening to each other can help break them down.

Some boundaries, both physical and intangible, are necessary and important.  Countries need to maintain borders and checkpoints to preserve the world as a safe and civilized place in which to live.  Physical boundaries between countries can provide safety and protection for their inhabitants.  Boundaries between countries and states can also provide a sense of identity, allowing people to preserve cultural traditions that are unique and special to them.  Social boundaries are important for preserving human relationships.  We can’t and shouldn’t have the same level of closeness and intimacy with every person we encounter and must filter the information we share about ourselves according to the boundaries that we maintain in our relationships.

Some boundaries rightly separate people from one another.  But other boundaries, like attitudes and pre-conceived ideas about people that persuade us about who they are and what they value in life, create unwelcome distance between people that makes the world a less friendly, less civilized place.  The experience I had this summer in Jerusalem was about dissolving boundaries and, as a result, people coming closer to each other.  Amy, Aaron and I heard this message, loud and clear, on a 5-hour walking tour through the city that took us by foot, by  bus and by light rail from the Damascus Gate and parts of East Jerusalem, to an ultra-Orthodox Chareidi neighborhood, to the market at Machaneh Yehudah.  Along the way we met community leaders whose work is devoted to breaking down barriers in this unique city that defies logic.  This remarkable trek was run by an organization called Mekudeshet as part of their annual summer festival in Jerusalem.  Mekudeshet’s leaders say that Jerusalem both conquers us and liberates us, thus enabling us to unite around a common love for the city and for one another.  Their mission is to dissolve boundaries.  By doing that, by trying to see past what separates us as human beings, we can open hearts and minds to one another.

Our trek took us first to the Paulus-Haus on Nablus Road in East Jerusalem, a pilgrim hospice under the care of the German Association of the Holy Land.  There we met Benjy Balint, a writer and translator who teaches literature at Bard College and Al-Quds University in Jerusalem.  He told our group two intriguing stories about dissolving boundaries.  The first was about a time he brought a Palestinian woman from Al-Quds to the Kotel, the Western Wall in the Old City, to see what it was like there.  The woman looked around and was particularly intrigued by the men wearing tefillin.  She asked, “What are those black boxes the men have on their heads?”  Benjy told her a bit about tefillin.  She listened and then said, “It’s interesting that they wear black cubes on their heads.  They remind me of the Kaaba, the huge black stone structure that sits at the heart of the Grand Mosque, Islam’s most sacred place of worship.”  For Dr. Balint, that association triggered the larger idea of dissolving boundaries, a focus on what we have in common, not what separates us.

The second story he told was of a Yeshiva in the Old City at the time of the 1948 War of Independence.  As the Arab armies were closing in on the city, the Yeshiva and its precious library were imperiled.  The caretaker of the Yeshiva was an Arab man who, understanding the value of books and setting aside any partisan feelings about who the volumes of Talmud and Midrash belonged to, and unbeknownst to the Jews who lived in the Yeshiva, built a temporary, dummy wall to conceal the bookcases just before the building fell to the Arabs.  19 years passed and in 1967 the Israelis recaptured the Old City in the Six Day War.  The Yeshiva’s rabbis returned to their former home and found that the caretaker had since died but that his son was living and had taken over his father’s job as custodian.  They asked him about the condition of the Yeshiva, and especially about the library.  “Oh,” said the son, “come with me.”  He took them into what had been the Yeshiva’s Beit Midrash and proceeded to take down the dummy wall and reveal the entire library, intact and spared from destruction.  The rabbis sat with the family in their home, viewed photographs of the now-deceased caretaker, talked with his family, and paid tribute to his selfless act of heroism, another act of dissolving the boundaries that otherwise separate us from one another.

From the Paulus-Haus we went to Shuafat in East Jerusalem, home to a unique school for Palestinian children founded and run by Amal Ayoub.  At the Promise School, students learn in English, Arabic and Hebrew and study the Israeli, not the Palestinian, curriculum, including periodic joint studies with Israelis that include the Abrahamic narrative.  Amal believes that her students, some of whom enter Hebrew University, can help dissolve boundaries between Israelis and Palestinians by sharing their stories with each other.

On our trek, we learned about Sarah Weil, a LGBTQ activist in Jerusalem.  Sarah spent some time in the ultra-Orthodox world, who rejected her because of her sexual orientation.  Since then she has worked on bridging her LGBTQ identity and her observant Jewish identity.  Sarah founded the Meeting Place, which helps to build community for Jerusalem’s LGBTQ women that is rooted in Jewish values.  A catalyst for her work was the fatal stabbing of Shira Banki by an ultra-Orthodox Jew at the 2015 Jerusalem Gay Pride parade.  As Sarah said, “All of Israeli society was in shock that something so horrific could be committed in the streets of Jerusalem by a seemingly religious Jewish person.”  Again, work being done in Jerusalem to dissolve boundaries and diminish the space between people.

The final stop on our trek was in the Hareidi neighborhood of Mekor Baruch where we met Fainy Sukenik, founder of “Ba’asher Teilchi,” an organization that provides support to ultra-Orthodox Chareidi who have been divorced by their husbands.  This is usually an enormously painful and isolating situation for Chareidi women who come from a community that places its greatest priority on family and raising children.  Fainy found that, once her husband divorced her, rendering her a single mother, she was virtually shunned by her community, including the women who had been her closest friends.  She was made to feel that she was somehow at fault for her circumstances.  When she looked for help, she found nothing but obstacles and dead ends.  So, she founded Ba’asher Teilchi, an organization whose mission is to provide emotional support, job training and financial aid to women in the ultra-Orthodox sector of Israeli society.  Today, Ba’asher Teilchi gives support to thousands of women across Israel.   Fainy’s work at dissolving boundaries, in this case between the Chareidi world and other segments of Israeli society, has been so successful that she was recently honored by lighting a torch at Israel’s annual Yom Ha’atsmaut celebration, one of the nation’s highest honors.

What I learned, what I think we can all learn, from my summer journey devoted to dissolving boundaries is that we cannot allow ourselves, or our community, to be undermined by stereotypical, pre-conceived notions about the people around us, what they value and what they represent.  The work of dissolving boundaries doesn’t necessarily require us to always be in sync with the other.  As I suggested earlier, boundaries and differences between people are sometimes natural and even necessary.  But we cannot let those differences keep us from talking to and listening to one another.

Listening is the essential tool to dissolving, or at least diminishing boundaries.  Our tradition places great value on listening.  In the Torah portion to be read this Shabbat morning we read a poem offered by Moses to the Israelites.  He begins by saying, “Hear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!”  In the English translation of the text, the verbs are the same.  But the Hebrew uses two different verbs- “ha’azinu” and “shema.”  We can understand the Hebrew text to present a subtle but important distinction between hearing and listening.  It’s one thing to hear people when they speak, but quite another to genuinely listen to what they have to say.  How often do we hear without listening?  How often do we pay partial attention, hear only what we wanted to hear, or begin to formulate our response even before the other person has finished speaking? Maybe Moses calls forward heaven and earth both to hear and to listen in his final message to his people to remind us of the distinction.

Listening is at the core of meaningful, productive human relationships.  The great philosopher Martin Buber taught that listening is what allows us to develop an I-thou, rather than an I-it relationship.  He described listening as “Something we do with our full selves by sensing and feeling what another is trying to convey.” In so doing we can remove the barrier between us.

There is virtually no end to the impact of genuine listening on our lives, both as individuals and as a society.  We so often see others through a pre-determined lens, sometimes based on their appearance or on the little bits of information we may know about someone or the community of which they are a part.  One of the great sins we regularly commit is that of stereotyping the people we encounter and failing to listen to what they have to say and learning who they are.

Our politics are so terribly fractured and polarized today.  It seems that the very term “bi-partisan” is frowned upon and that those who try to step across the aisle in an attempt to listen to the priorities and needs of someone from the other party risks his or her political career.  Would that it be that a required qualification for elected office is the skill and desire to genuinely listen to the other.

We all need to practice what could be called reflective listening.  That is a term, really an aspiration, with which I became familiar from my wife Amy, who last year took part in a 4-day encounter with Palestinians in the West Bank sponsored by a group called Encounter.  Every participant on the visit was invited to attend a workshop on reflective listening that asked people to focus intensely on, and thoughtfully consider, what was being said by the person with whom they were engaged in conversation.  The group practiced skills such as allowing people to finish speaking before replying, always making eye contact, putting aside a smart phone or pen during conversation, and answering with a direct reply to what the person is saying instead of introducing a new comment.   These are skills we all should practice when we engage in conversation.

There is no doubt that the long, anguished and perpetually stalled pathway toward a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be aided by people on both sides engaging in reflective listening to the other’s narrative.  They need to listen to our narrative, and we need to listen to their narrative.  Listening does not obligate either party to accepting every element of the other’s story.  It’s not always pleasant or uplifting to listen to someone else’s narrative.  We’re quick to discount it and overturn it with our own facts to emerge as victors in our struggle to be vindicated and proven right.  But we’ve seen that when people do not listen, genuinely listen to one another, even if they don’t agree with what the other has to say, the boundaries between us remain high and unbreachable.  Dissolving boundaries requires us to engage in reflective listening.

Let us make this an urgent priority in our lives in the year that has just begun.  Let us strive to listen to each other, to learn more about each other, to set aside any pre-conceived ideas we harbor about others.  Let us remember that hearing isn’t the same thing as listening.  By listening to others, we can begin to dissolve the boundaries that keep us apart from each other.  By listening, we can grow closer to one another in mutual understanding and respect.  Keyn Yehi Ratson…may God aid us in this noble quest.

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How To Say Yizkor

Dear Friends,

As Yom Kippur draws near, many of us will recite Yizkor prayers.  I want to share these thoughts that I posted two years ago on how to say Yizkor.  I wish you a meaningful and thoughtful Yom Kippur observance.

On Yom Kippur, Jews everywhere will gather to pray.  Among the most familiar and popular prayers is the Yizkor service, memorial prayers for the dead recited by those who have lost loved ones.  In the midst of praying about our own vulnerability and matters of life and death, we pause to remember family members and friends who have died.

While Yizkor is also recited on the last day of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), the Yom Kippur Yizkor was the first to be instituted as a part of Jewish liturgy.  The Rabbinic sages reasoned that praying about those who have died would cause people to focus intensely on their own mortality, which is one of the themes of Yom Kippur.  Originally the Yizkor prayers were focused on martyrs who had been killed—their names were read aloud in the synagogue.  As the service evolved, people began to pray about their own loved ones.  That is the focus of Yizkor today—memorial prayers for family members and friends.

A common custom is for people who have never been mourners to leave the sanctuary during the recitation of Yizkor.  Many reasons have been offered for this practice.  Some say it developed to avoid causing mourners to feel envious that others around them had not suffered the pain of loss and still had their loved ones around them.  Others say the practice of leaving was intended to prevent people who were not mourners from saying Yizkor by mistake, thus tempting fate.  I know that my own parents never wanted me to stay in the sanctuary when Yizkor prayers were recited, a practice that continues in my own family.

The Sephardic custom is for everyone to stay in the sanctuary during the Yizkor prayers.  That custom seems to me to be the most meaningful.  People who don’t have a personal reason to recite Yizkor should nonetheless stay in the room in order to be supportive to those who are saying memorial prayers.  It’s good and healthy to help a fellow congregant to face their pain and to help soften their sorrow.  And it’s good for everyone, those who have been mourners and those who have been spared the pain of loss, to think about mortality.  Our culture encourages us to avoid thinking about death and dying.  But Jewish tradition encourages us to face the reality of death with our eyes open.  Doing so should not diminish our zest for life or our life span.

How are the Yizkor prayers recited?  Here are some suggestions for a meaningful Yizkor experience.

  • Connect to others. Yizkor is a blend of an intensely private experience and a public one.  Before delving into the private prayers, look around the room.  See who else is saying Yizkor.  Imagine yourself as part of a community of people that strengthen one another.
  • Listen to the music. The Yizkor service is more than a formulaic recitation of prayers.  The service begins and ends with music.  Close your eyes and listen to the music, participating when you can and want to.
  • Bring a photo of your loved ones. Having an image of your loved ones to gaze at during the Yizkor prayers will deepen and enhance your memory of them as you speak their names.
  • Take your time. During the portion of the Yizkor service, take your time reciting the passage for each of the people you are remembering.  Speak their names quietly.  Conjure up a fulfilling and uplifting memory.

The Yizkor service can be a very meaningful time.  By being mindful and attentive to its purpose, we can be reminded of the beauty and blessing of the lives of our loved ones and feel that we have been strengthened by the experience of sharing life with them.

Let me take this opportunity to wish you a Gemar Chatima Tova.  May you be “sealed in the Book of Life” for the year that lies ahead and beyond.

This Rosh Hashana, Don’t Beat Yourself Up

As we leaf through the pages of the High Holiday Mahzor, what feelings does it leave us with?  Some prayers help us to soar and fill us with hope.  Others remind us of the finiteness of life.  Still other prayers remind us of our moral and behavioral failings.  Many of the prayers the Talmudic sages composed and passed down to us emphasize the importance of placing our sense of personal significance in check.  Throughout the centuries, Jewish philosophers and sages counsel us to underestimate our own worth and value, at least in the way we present ourselves to others.  The Spanish mystic and philosopher Nachmamides, gave this advice to his children in his Ethical Will: “Let your voice be low and your head bowed; let your eyes turn earthwards—every man should seem in your own eyes as one greater than yourselves.”

Candidly, that’s not a very uplifting or cheery idea to ponder.  Do any of us really want to spend these days being told that we are nothing, that we should walk around with our heads bowed low, deferential to everyone we meet, positioning ourselves as a doormat for others to walk across?  Don’t we want to go home from these days of prayer and celebration feeling strong and content?

Reading between the lines, we can see the message that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up as we sit in the pews and pray with the congregation.  In a famous Talmudic passage, we read of the legendary “Three Books” that are opened on Rosh Hashana:

Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana:  one is of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous, and one for those inbetween.  The completely righteous are written and sealed immediately for life, the completely wicked are written and sealed immediately for death, and the “beinonim” (inbetween) hang in the balance from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur.  If they merit it, they are written for life.  If they do not merit it, they are written for death.”   (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16b)

When I read that passage, what comes to mind is that the first two books are useless.  I don’t know anyone who is either completely righteous or completely wicked.  Our tradition teaches that human beings are imperfect.  In fact, we are taught that it is sacrilegious even to strive for perfection.  Instead, we are expected to live with the fact that we are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil.  Most of us are average or above-average people who do a lot of good things for others and for our community.  But none of us are entirely good or entirely evil.  (For what it’s worth, I presume that Rabbi Kruspedai knew this and wrote his derash about the three books to encourage people to consider their behavior and make a special, concentrated effort to repent during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.)

My take-away from the legend of the Three Books is this:  give yourself a break and don’t beat yourself up as you make your way through the High Holidays.  You’re not perfectly good, but you’re not perfectly evil either.  If you’re like most people, you’re a basically good person who possesses some flaws that need to be corrected.  Accept the fact that you won’t be able to correct all the flaws you possess.  If you’re trying to reinvent yourself as a perfect human being, whether during these sacred New Year days or afterward, you should know in advance that such a state of being will never, ever be achieved by any of us.

Rather, use these days for some reasonable introspection and honest self-examination.  Pick two or three negative qualities you see in yourself and meditate on them, thinking about ways to change or eliminate those behaviors.  The result will be a better, if not perfect, you.

I imagine that the first two of Rabbi Kruspedai’s Three Books are thin and contain few if any entries.  It’s the third book, the one of average people who are trying to be better people, that is filled with names of God’s creatures, His good but flawed human partners on whom He relies to make this a better world.  Rather than beating ourselves up for not being perfect, let’s spend these days trying to be just a little better than we were last year.  The world will be a better place for our efforts.

I wish you a Shana Tova- a year of fulfillment, blessing and good fortune.  I look forward to sharing these sacred days with you and your loved ones as we gather to usher in the New Year.