Rabbi Ackerman's Blog
Rabbi David Ackerman
09/27/2010 - Yom Kippur 5771
Yom Kippur 5771-2010
The word “complex” best describes the relationship between a congregational rabbi and a synagogue president. When a rabbi has the misfortune of speaking after his synagogue’s charming president, that complexity becomes even more pointed. Recognizing the disadvantage that he has placed me under throughout these holidays, Joe very graciously handed me the following joke, even challenging me to work it into one of my Yom Kippur sermons. Here goes:
A man has a slight pain and after a few days he goes to the doctor who treats him with some pills. The pills don’t work and a few days later the man comes back for an injection. That too doesn’t work and when the man returns a few days later the doctor offers him this advice. “Go home, take a hot bath, and before you dry off, while you’re dripping wet, open up the window and let in a draft of cold air.” “But doctor,” says the man, “I’ll catch pneumonia.” “Pneumonia,” says the doctor, “I know how to treat.”
On this Yom Kippur day, I’d like to reflect with you on a malady that I suspect many of us feel but don’t quite know how to treat. The malady in question is our apparent inability to understand what we want from, and in, our lives, our shared difficulty in figuring out what will make us happy.
Just about a year ago, a new Whole Foods opened in Plymouth Meeting. It happened to be directly on my daily route back and forth between our home in Blue Bell and Beth Am and so became a frequent stop. It was there that I began to think about the abundance, and even excess, that marks our contemporary lives. A beautiful, spacious store, Whole Foods is packed full of organic and wholesome food and beauty products; it’s frankly overwhelming. The next time you’re in a supermarket, particularly if it’s an oversized one like the new Whole Foods, stop and ponder it for a moment. Look around, survey the scene, take in the extraordinary variety and quantity of the inventory. Then perhaps, like me, you’ll ask yourself, is this all really necessary? Or as a New York Times headline put it a few weeks ago, “But Will it Make You Happy?”
The irony of Whole Foods of course is that it presents food in overwhelming abundance in the name of simplicity. Choosing from among five varieties of organic tomatoes, it seems, will make our lives easier, less stressful, filled with deeper meaning. Don’t get me wrong; I like Whole Foods. I shop there frequently. There are many items that I won’t buy anywhere else. But there remains something unsettling to me about the effort to achieve simplicity and coherence and significance by throwing more stuff into the mix. Will the homemade mozzarella from an organic dairy in upstate Pennsylvania make me happy? Certainly it will improve dinner, but then what? What do I really want?
A little line, hidden away in the Kol Nidre service, answers that question this way:
They hunger for your goodness
They thirst for your love and kindness
They have an appetite for your spacious liberation.”
Indulge me in a bit of Hebrew language work.
טובmeans good; it also means pleasant, joyful, and agreeable. Joy, the deep and enduring kind, not the fleeting variety, tops our request list.
חסד means faithful, devoted, love and kindness. A professor of Christian Ethics with whom I studied in college defined it as “steadfast covenantal love.” We seek loving connections that outlast the fresh mozzarella from Whole Foods.
ישע isthe trickiest term here. It’s usually translated as salvation or deliverance, which I find not terribly helpful. What, I ask you, does salvation mean? With a little help from my friendly Bible dictionary, we get possibilities like spaciousness and capaciousness, providing that which is sufficient, breadth and width and liberation. We want that satisfying feeling of “enough” from God and from one another.
So there it is; a recipe, perhaps the recipe, for happiness and fulfillment in our lives. טוב, חסד, ישע– goodness, love, liberation. What could be simpler?
And yet, over and over again, we seek to fulfill those wants not with the deep connections that the Mahzor recommends but with material goods, with abundant merchandise, with “stuff.” Yes, it’s true, we live in a highly consumerist culture, one that values accumulation and acquisition of things. You know the old wisecrack: at the end of the game, whoever has the most toys wins! And on some gut level, I think we actually believe that to be true. And yes, it’s true, that material well being does indeed insulate us from much suffering and indignity. And yes, it’s true, that we Jews have a long history of living fully in the material world, at times, relying on our possessions to survive the calamities and catastrophes that have befallen our people throughout the ages. And yet, it’s true, that all the stuff that we’ve acquired and accumulated can feel more like a burden than a blessing. Money can’t buy you love.
A new movement has emerged to counter some of the excesses of contemporary life. It calls itself “simple living.” Simple living involves learning to do more with less and it’s an approach that values experience above, far above, material goods. Similarly, a new school of Christian theology has begun to eschew the American Dream. The response to excess is to reassert the radical nature of religious commitment and to cast the pursuit of material gain as the great enemy of the spiritual life. A recent David Brooks column introduced me to the very interesting work of Reverend David Platt who recommends renouncing consumer culture entirely as a way of more faithfully following Jesus’ call.
I suspect that we all agree that neither full throated consumerism nor wholesale renunciation represents the best path to a well lived life. Finding a balance between material needs and spiritual demands makes more sense. But how do we manage it?
We live in a remarkable moment of ever expanding community service. We expect Mitzvah projects of our kids, alternative spring break trips are all the rage on college campuses, and many high schools now have fairly hefty community service requirements. Voluntarism in the work place is also up, as more and more companies encourage and even expect employees to “give back” to their communities in organized and consistent ways. All of that is good news and I share with you a great deal of pride in the many tikkun olam efforts that so many Beth Am’ers participate in with passion and commitment.
Here’s the rub. Voluntarism is up and, apparently, empathy is down. A recent study of college students charts a significant decline in “empathic concern” over the past decade, noting a parallel rise in levels of narcissism among the same population. And remember, this is the generation of community service volunteers and alternative spring breakers. Doing community service, it seems, doesn’t increase one’s sense of empathy.
And just to complicate matters further, primatologists have been busy observing and describing patterns of empathic behavior among apes and chimpanzees in many parts of the world. Among the implications of their work is the notion that empathy is in fact part of our “hard wiring” as human beings. We’re actually designed to connect with one another with goodness and love and capaciousness. As the Talmud puts it, anyone who exhibits compassion/rahmanut must be a descendant of Abraham’s; we’ve inherited this attribute from the source. And yet, we often don’t act on our deepest impulses.
The problematic of the mitzvah project is that it replaces a search for real connection with the Other with an objective, measurable activity. The mitzvah project becomes something to cross off the list rather than an ongoing, and, hopefully, ever deepening relationship with another human being. It’s a commodity, not all that different from organic tomatoes and hand rolled mozzarella. Alternative spring break suffers from the same malady. We know how to treat the disease of not enough housing stock in New Orleans. We bring a bunch of twenty somethings down for a week and we build more houses. Treating the ache of despair and indignity still somehow eludes us.
This morning’s haftarah – in many ways the climax of the Yom Kippur liturgy – speaks to the very heart of the matter. Poet David Rosenberg’s retelling puts it strikingly:
“instead of your soul you save face by fasting and I can’t see through that?
wake up to a day beyond acting for yourself
the Lord’s voice speaks for itself: act for others.”
To save our souls we need to act for others: FOR others and not for ourselves. “A day beyond acting for yourself.”
Rosenberg’s rendering feels overly harsh to me, but then Isaiah probably sounded overly strident to his listeners 2,500 years ago. With that bit of softening in place, Rosenberg, channeling the prophet Isaiah, goes even farther.
“instead of filling your stomach
instead of harnessing the weak for it
look at the hopeless around you
put your hand through that invisible curtain
and throw a coat around their shoulders
these are men and women
flesh like you desperate and blind
outside the walls you’ve built to hide in
the otherness you reach for is there”
In Isaiah’s key phrase – ומבשרך לא תתעלם– don’t ignore your own flesh and blood; don’t ignore the plight and suffering of others. Reach out to them; make contact, put your hand through that invisible curtain.
Isaiah doesn’t say don’t buy hand rolled mozzarella from local sustainable farms at your neighborhood luxury organic market; he doesn’t say renounce the world around you. To the contrary, he urges that we live in this world with our eyes wide open and with our hearts and our arms open farther still. ומבשרך לא תתעלם– don’t ignore. Make the connection; bring the empathy gene that’s a part of you into the world. That’s our job, to be pursued, yes, for ourselves, yes, for our children, yes, for our children’s children, and most importantly for others. That is our job.
Like pneumonia, we know how to treat problems of material shortfall. The ache we feel, however, results from too little connection, not too few tomatoes. Not enough stuff is, at the end of the day, easy to cure. Not enough love is much harder to address.
We want goodness, love, and liberation from God and from one another. What might God want from us?
The words of the Midrash describe it well. “So says the Holy One to Israel: My children, I have withheld nothing from you. What do I desire? Only that you love one another, honor one another and revere one another. That no ugliness be found among you…Read the prophet Micah’s famous verse this way: Walk humbly and God will be with you. Whenever you exhibit humility before the Source of Holiness, God will reciprocate.”
God seeks simple living from us, lives that honor experience and connection above material things; God wants humility. God, in other words, desires from us, exactly what we seek from God. And notice that the prophet’s verb is ללכת– to walk. God seeks not just talk from us, but that we walk, that we live, our most deeply held values with one another, each and every day. It may not cure pneumonia, but it should remedy just about everything else.
May 5771 be a time of joy and healing, of goodness and love, of empathy and humility for us, for our families, for our people, and for all people. לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו. May we each be inscribed and sealed for a good new year.
Previous Posts03/31/2013 - Pesah and the Language of Longing (Most Recent)
02/15/2013 - Rabbi David Hartman z"l
01/18/2013 - MLK Friday Night Welcome
02/07/2013 - Last Shabbat (Yitro)
10/10/2012 - Reflections on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes)
09/27/2012 - Yom Kippur 5773
09/27/2012 - Kol Nidre 5773
09/19/2012 - Rosh Hashanah 1st Day - 5773
09/19/2012 - Rosh Hashanah 2nd Day - 5773
10/19/2011 - Shmini Atzeret and Gilad Shalit
10/11/2011 - Yom Kippur 5772
10/10/2011 - A Yom Kippur Prayer for Israel
10/10/2011 - Kol Nidre 5772
10/02/2011 - Two Rilke Poems for This Week
10/01/2011 - Rosh Hashana 5772 Day Two
10/01/2011 - Rosh Hashana 5772 Day One
08/11/2011 - Torah and Water
08/08/2011 - Tisha B`Av 5771
05/04/2011 - Israel: In Our Hearts, On Our Minds
04/20/2011 - Pesah 5771
02/25/2011 - Shabbat Vayakhel
11/22/2010 - Thinking About the Big Stuff
11/22/2010 - Varieties of Jewish Families
10/05/2010 - Bashevis Singer on God & Creativity
09/27/2010 - Yom Kippur 5771 (Current display)
09/22/2010 - Kol Nidre 5771
09/22/2010 - Rosh Hashanah First Day 5771
09/16/2010 - Toward Yom Kippur
08/02/2010 - Palestine in 1912
04/09/2010 ספירת העומר Omer Counting
03/27/2010 - Time Out From Pesah Cleaning Reading
01/23/2010 - Shavua Tov - A Prayer for Haiti
01/22/2010 - MLK Unity Service - Shabbat Bo
11/24/2009 - Parashat Vayetze & Thanksgiving
10/18/2009 - 30 Tishrei 5770 - Rosh Hodesh Heshvan
10/13/2009 - Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, a Tribute
09/28/2009 - Yom Kippur Sermon 5770
09/27/2009 - Kol Nidre Sermon 5770
09/21/2009 - Rosh Hashanah 2nd Day Sermon 5770
09/21/2009 - Rosh Hashanah First Day Sermon 5770
09/17/2009 - L`shana Tova Tikateivu v`Teihateimu
08/21/2009 - Rosh Hodesh Elul
08/18/2009 - The Torah of Trees
08/14/2009 - Parashat Re`eh
08/05/2009 - Tu B`Av [The 15th of Av]
07/24/2009 - Shabbat Devarim-Hazon
07/17/2009 - Parashat Matot-Masei
07/10/2009 - Parashat Pinchas