Conquering our Anger with Love Kol Nidre 2015
I want to share a story related to me by Cantor and Rabbi Baruch Cohen of Temple Emanuel.
He befriended a Jewish jazz musician who had never set foot in the synagogue and had only recently developed an interest in Jewish music. At the Cantor's invitation, he visited the synagogue for Yom Kippur, stayed through the entire service, down to the shofar blown at Neilah, and he truly relished it all.
The next day, he came to visit the Cantor--he was overjoyed and he had a real confession to tell:
You know something? I've apologize for sins today that I wish I had committed!"
I certainly hope that his one attendance at synagogue did not serve as an inspiration to go out and commit something new.
This is a day which we dedicate to cleansing of our sins and our failings and we have in the al het and the ashmanu such a long list, that as the jazz musician told the cantor, we wish we would have done some.
But, as we know, God is long forbearing and compassionate and forgiving of anything done against him. When you have been around for billions of years, and you are going to be around for billions more, you can afford to be forgiving.
However, we mortals are of short duration, a century at the best, and God cannot afford to be so easily forgiving of our sins towards our neighbor. Our neighbor, after all, won't be here a billion years from now.
It is only we, not God, who can make our Shalom, our peace, with our fellow human beings, man, woman, and child, Jew or gentile, native born and stranger.
When the sage Hillel was asked for an ideal role model for his students, it is ironic that he did not select Abraham or Moses or King David nor any of the prophets. Instead, he selected Aaron.
"Hevey mitalmidey shel Aharon", Be like the students of Aaron.
What an odd choice, for the Aaron of the Bible made the Golden Calf at the request of the raging mob. He displayed a spineless, gutless character.
Yet Aaron is the hero, for he is " Ohev Shalom, rodef Shalom, Ohev et habriyot, umekarvan latorah" --he loves peace, pursues peace, loves all creation and brings them closer to the Torah."
Jewish literature abounds with tales of Aaron the peace-maker. The legends tell us that when a husband and wife came to him in anger, seeking a divorce, he would take the husband aside and tell him, “ You know, she really told me some wonderful things about you.” And to the wife, he would say, “ You know, he really told me some wonderful things about you.” For the sake of Shalom Bayit, peace in the household, the truth could be enhanced somewhat. Our sages note that when Moses, the greatest of all prophets, died, the Torah states that the people of Israel wept, but when Aharon dies, " kol bet yisrale", the entire people of Israel weep, for he had brought them peace.
One of the classic figures of Jewish piety of the last century was a Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen, who was nicknamed after the title of his first book, Chofetz Chaim. It is a book on the dangers of slander and gossip. He took care never to say any word that could hurt or harm anyone and he attempted to teach that thought to his students. The title of that book comes from a verse in Psalms:
" Mi haish hehafetz hayim”- Who seeks a long life, who loves to see beautiful days". The psalm does not suggest" cut smoking, no caffeine, and avoid fats in the diet." Rather, it says hold back your tongue from evil and most appropriate for our words tonight--"Bakesh Shalom verodfeihu--Seek peace and pursue it ."
Sadly , what seems to be an easy message is easily obliterated. It is all to easy for hatred and anger to creep in and destroy peace.
The same sage Hillel, who spoke of Aharon, saw a country of one faction pitted against another. Hillel, upon walking by a river bank one day, spies a skull floating in the water, and in five words he sums up the real world:
"De-atyft- atfuch vsof metafayich yetufun."
Because you have drowned others, so they drowned you. And in the end, they who drowned you shall be drowned.
This could have been Syria or Iraq, for sure, where neighbors have turned on neighbors. It could even be in this country, where someone, bearing some ancient grudge or hatred, walks into a church or movie and begins to shoot.
Hillel wasn’t talking about some distant country, nor some large powerful nation. He was talking about us, Jews. In the end, tragically for the Jewish people, Hillel did not get his message across. Hillel raised many students, but not enough to change the course of history. Roman armies set fire to the ancient Temple, but it was not Rome that destroyed Jerusalem, our sages told us, but "sinat hinam," senseless hatred, of neighbor pitted against neighbor, of factions at odds with each other. That destroyed the ancient Temple.
What was true two thousand years ago stills plagues us as human beings today.
Bumper stickers are a convenient way to study public opinions and sentiments. One popular bumper sticker that I have seen for many years is
“Don’t get mad--get even."
Well, we might ask, why not get even. It feels good.
A Hasidic teacher, Rebbe Shmelke of Nikolsburg, tried to answer just that same question. After all , getting even feels good:
“If your own hand by chance strikes you, would you then take a stick and hit your own hand for its heedlessness? Wouldn’t this add to your pain?
It is the same when your neighbor causes you harm-- his soul is one with yours. Should you retaliate, it would be you who would suffer. After all, every human soul is a part of God. "
The cynics among us may say," Rabbi, that is easy preaching. Do you really believe that it is so easy to change human nature? After all, that’s how we were created!”
Don’t revenge and violence go back to the first brothers on earth, Cain and Abel ? After Cain dispatches Abel, he shrugs off God’s query,” Hashomer Ahi Anokhi?--Am I my brother's keeper?".
The Rabbis elaborate on his reply, in the form of the greatest lame excuse in history:
" I killed him, but You, God, gave me the power to do evil! You protect and guard all, and You let me kill him. You, God, killed him."
We are all, in Cain's pattern, created with the power to violence, to force, to hatred. We all make the lame excuse." God, you made me. I am not responsible. You are."
Cain blamed God for his crime. Today, we blame other factors--When Marxism was in, we blamed the oppressive capitalist system for the violence of human society. When Freud was in, we blamed our parents for not being psychoanalysts. Now, there is a new trend, to blame flawed DNA strands. Public contemporary wisdom says we are not liable for our mistakes. It is all in our biological disposition. Is that true? Is that wisdom?
One of the great students of human behavior, Professor Jerome Kagan, of Harvard University, challenges us,:
" This biological disposition business has become ridiculous. . . .. Don't assume that just because a person has a temperamental quality, he has no conscious control over it. "
If revenge can only breed revenge what then is the cure?
The Hasidic teacher, Raphael of Bershid proposed: Do you desire that people love you? Then love them first.
If Sinat Hinam-- Free hatred, was the cause of all our anguish, then the cure is ahavat hinam, free love-- the only true free love there can be- kindness and compassion towards our fellow human.
Good can breed good, love can breed love, compassion can breed compassion.
Fortunately, not every bumper sticker has a malicious message. There is another popular bumper sticker-" Commit random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty."
Imagine, if you would, that we all go on a rampage of doing acts of compassion- gemilut hasadim? It would be contagious and infectious. Could you imagine a political campaign in which both candidates would say “ Let’s see who can create a more compassionate America, a more compassionate world?”
It is the same idea--if we can go out of our way to do kindness, we can increase and multiply it many times over.
The ideas of Dr. Kagan were presaged by the Rambam, Maimonides, the seminal philosopher of Judaism, who emphasized our ability to take hold of our lives a thousand years ago. As a physician he understood the idea of predispositions and proposed conditioning techniques to strengthen desired behaviors and to extinguish others.
Ultimately however he takes the definitive stance:( Hilkhot Teshuvah:Ch 5)
Free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so..."
The belief in our free ability to choose is at the very heart of Yom Kippur. It is our power and free ability to choose good, to choose life, that is the hallmark of Judaism.
We have the power to lead lives of lovingkindness toward our fellow human being. That power can be contagious.
The sages ask ,”what is the true prayer which we should have in our hearts?” They offer this:
"May it be thy will that hatred of us not arise in any man's heart nor let our hearts bear hatred toward any man, let not jealousy of us arise in any man, nor let us have jealousy towards any man." ( Yerushalmi Berakhot)
God , too, prays, so our sages taught. What is it that he prays?
" May it be my will that my mercy conquer my anger, may my mercy overcome all my other traits, and may I deal in mercy with my children beyond the letter of the law.( Talmud Berakhot)
May our prayer and God's prayer be answered Amen.