Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Curing the National Pain Yom Kippur 2017

Curing the National Pain   Yom Kippur 2017
            Those of you who were here Rosh Hashanah the second day will recall that I spoke of the power of stories.
            Among my favorite story tellers is Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. You see, my Hebrew name is Nachman, too. He is Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and I am Rebbe Nachman of West Hollywood. He is famous for his Kafkaesque stories.
            Among his stories is one called the Tale of the Princess. I am going to read you only the opening few sentences:
            “Once, there was a king. The king had six sons and one daughter. The daughter was very dear to him, and he would cherish her exceedingly and play with her very much.
One time, while he was together with her on a certain day he became angry with her and the words, "Let the not-good one take you away!" escaped from his mouth. At night she went to her room; in the morning no one knew where she was. Her father was very afflicted and went here and there looking for her.”
The story goes on and on, a never ending story, of how the king’s trusted servant is sent out to find and return the Princess to her father. But I will stop here, as I have gotten to the point of the story that interests me.
The story is filled with kabbalistic meanings.The is King is of course, the Ain Sof, the Infinite One. The daughter is the Malkhut, the Kingdom, the Malkah, the Queen, the Shekhinah, the divine presence. She is the vehicle whereby the infinite is engaged in the finite world. She holds the spiritual and physical realms together.
Now, we come to the end line—the Princess is captured by the “ Not –Good One”. That is the “ Other Side” in Kabbalah. The universe is in turmoil. Something has come between God and his universe and he has become angry. In Rebbe Nachman’s twist on kabbalistic philosophy, even the King, the Inifnite One, has an anger-management problem. We, as Jews, as God’s servant, have to repair the terrible breach.
            We have a national breach here, as well, in which a mood of discord and anger seem magnified beyond the norms. 
            I am not going to get into politics. People have posted how much they appreciate that we have managed to avoid it, and allowed them to feel the warmth of the services.
            So,  instead of politics, will talk of "Unpolitics." I will talk about healing, what we call, in Jewish parlance, tikun hanefesh, repairing the soul, of getting us down from our national malaise. It will begin, here, today, in this sanctuary.
            Almost all of us use Facebook for posting. We share events, we share news, we share images, and we share moods.
            I believe that you have noticed something happening with the posts in the past year. The posts are becoming increasingly volatile.
It started with using all caps on key words, then on entire posts. “All caps” is a stand in for “shouting”. I saw more as time went on. Soon, “Caps” was not enough. The people at Facebook clearly enjoyed this, so they allowed for more shouting--oversize fonts and dark red backgrounds. No longer just screaming, but screaming bloody murder. Families and friends have suddenly been “ unfriending” and “ unliking” each other.
We get carried away. We become so sure of our position that we block out any other position.
A handful of students at UC Irvine a few years ago discovered that they could block the Israeli Ambassador from being heard just by being obnoxious. Now, it has spread to many campuses, wherein a core of students effectively barred speakers from appearing. The first targets were Israeli speakers, and while far-right speakers have been the ostensible targets, it has spread to the point that UC Berkeley spent  $600,000 on police protection to enable a columnist for the Jewish Journal to speak because someone had decided he was a Nazi.
It happens on the right- it happens on the left. We are living in some echo chamber. One person sends one message and is echoed a million times over because of very effective and powerful social networking. This is how, our sages taught us, the plague of frogs began. One frog croaked, and then a second frog appeared, and another and another, until the land was flooded with croaking frogs. 
Even if we are mostly decent and well-thought, what we see outside is a cacophony, magnified, until it overwhelms us. A plague of croaking frogs.
It is time to turn things around. And it will start with us. It will not come with demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, it will not come with twitter –blasts of denunciation and empty symbolic acts.
We all know that disease is contagious, but now we also know that the contagion is not solely spread by microbes. There is a famous case of the June bug epidemic, in which workers in a factory showed signs of illness from an infestation of bugs. There were no bugs, but people fell ill and were hospitalized. People infect each other in many ways.
It also means that health is contagious.
Social service agencies discovered that when they brought people together in social networks that shared activities and healthy living advice, these healthy behaviors spread from person to person all around .” We call this process “contagious health.” (
Contagious health.
If it is true for physical health, then it is even more so true that Emotional health and social health are contagious.
I want to start a health contagion here, at Hollywood Temple Beth El. We can undo the rancor and the divisiveness around us. So we need to make our first steps.
We start with ourselves.
First step- we are commanded, as Jews, to celebrate in “ Simcha”, in happiness. The same Rebbe Nachman of our story , taught”- Mitzvah gedolah -“It is a great command to be happy always and fight away sorrow and bitterness with all one’s might.” It’s a mitzvah, a command-  Happiness is a big task. That’s why our Declaration of Independence made it a basic right: “The pursuit of Happiness”  
Our happiness requires also that we broadcast it:
One of our Sages, Shammai, himself very impatient and honestly blunt, nevertheless insisted  .” Greet every human being  “besever panim yafot” - with a pleasant face, with a smile.  I assume the Dalai Lama studied Pirke Avoth, because he too said: “My practice when I see someone, is to smile”
Take that inner happiness and broadcast it out side. Do it on the street, do it your emails, do it on the phone, do it on your posts. Even if you don’t feel like it, do it; it will be contagious. It will come back to you. Instead of flaming and shouting, send good messages. Report on good things you have seen or observed.
Next step-
We all know the phrase “ kina hora”- no evil eye, Ayin HaRa. It is a look of jealousy, a look of meanness. There is its opposite, “The Good Eye”. 
The Rabbis teach that one of our key goals to attain is ” Ayin Hatov”, the Good Eye. ( Avoth 2:10)
What if we would look at each person we meet with a “Good Eye”. That means to look for good aspects, good potentials. Suddenly, instead of seeing people in silos, we begin to see individuals. Instead of splitting ourselves up- left versus right, red versus blue, bi-coastal versus fly-over states, race versus race, male versus female, and all the other tiny button-holes we are pegged into, we suddenly see people, like ourselves.
The Torah tells of a very old Abraham, who sits in his tent in the heat of the day, presumably after his circumcision, and God has appeared to him. He sees three strangers walking in the desert sun and abruptly abandons God, gets up and runs to greet these strangers. He did not ask what party do you belong to, what is your position on x, what passport do you have. At that moment he saw three people in trouble in the desert. Our commentaries teach us from this that reaching out to our fellow human being is greater than being with God because that is where God is to be found.
Looking at our fellow human being and seeing the presence of God. That is the “Ayin Tov”- the Good eye.
The third step-  cultivate a circle of people who are positive, who can help you grow and whom you can help grow.
That same verse of Pirke Avot that talks about the “ Good Eye” also states, in the list of desirable attributes—A good neighbor—and chaver tov,a good friend.
In truth getting a good neighbor sometimes is out of our hands,  but getting a good friend is in our hands and is something we can do. In every bad neighborhood, there are good friends, just as, in the best of neighborhoods, there are bad friends.
If we build a circle around us of positive friends, who build us up, whom we can lean on, we begin the process of spreading our immunity. Eventually, our circle will grow, and we will change those around us. You can start building your healthy community with the people here today at Hollywood Temple Beth El.
Finally, the last step, in our search to cure what ails us:
Do we wish to live long and well? The psalms tell us: “ Netzor leshoni mera.“ Keep my mouth from evil. “Sur me ra”. It’s Google’s famous slogan, “ Don’t be evil.”  “V’aseh tov”. and do good. That’s the challenge. We move away from attacks, pot-shots, innuendoes, slights and slurs-whether in person, or email, twitter, Insta- this and that. 
We move on to “Do good”. That’s the big challenge.
Anger and hatred are contagious, they spread when there is no group immunity. Good deeds and good words are vaccines. As in all vaccines, they create a herd immunity, wherein even the dour and morose are saved by the goodwill of the others.
There is even scientific support. You see, if you don’t believe the rabbi because he quotes the Torah, or the sages, or even the Dalai lama, surely you will believe a science report. This is from a chemist who specialized in pharmaceutical chemistry. You want to live longer? Here is his explanation:
“Genuine kindness creates feelings of warmth and connection, as does love.” In short, it produces agents in the body that lower blood pressure, stimulate anti-oxidents, and relieve inflammation, among other benefits.
. (How Kindness Can Heal The Body .Published on May 11, 2017 by David R. Hamilton PhD)
For this project to succeed, we need to begin with the first step within the context of community. Remember that the internet, ipads and smartphones were prophesied to solve our great problem of loneliness and isolation. With so many friends and so many likes, we must all feel very, very happy. But we are not. It tears us apart as much as it brings us together.
We need flesh and blood, people we actually know. We need community to help us stay well.
I have seen it in my former congregations and in this one. I have seen it when someone has died. It is the circle of friends and companions coming to the home, bringing food, calling up, visiting, that helps us all deal with our pain and move on. It is found in reaching out to each other in times of trouble.
It is also in good events- in weddings and Bnai mitzvah celebrated together. I just officiated at the wedding of a young man at whose Bar Mitzvah I had officiated some 25 years before. People have come to me with memories of something I said over 40 years ago. Memories of good things.
We are an old establishment by Los Angeles standards, going back nearly a century, to the early studio founders, the Laemmle of Universal, the Warner Brothers, the Meyer of MGM
That is a glorious past and we have an opportunity to create a glorious future.
 We are at a unique junction here at Hollywood Temple Beth El. We sit at the major north-south and east-west thoroughfares of Los Angeles. We are in the heart of a region of artists and musicians, entertainers and performers, young people trying to find themselves and older people still trying to find themselves, and just plain folk.
We will soon continue with our memorial to the martyrs of our people. We are here because we are heirs to a stubborn and stiff-necked people who have survived the worst that humanity could devise. Yet we are here because we are the heirs to those who refused to give up, who refused to lose hope in the ultimate redemption of humanity. By supporting this community at Hollywood Temple Beth El, we give testimony to their dedication.
We will then continue with our Yizkor service in memory of those whom you loved during their lifetimes. Among you today are those whose parents and grandparents dedicated themselves to this community. Again, as you involve yourselves in this community, you bear active witness to the love and support they gave you.
With you, we can create a community of support and friendship. Here is the first step in reversing the alienation, the loneliness, and the anger. I will start with us and spread out, a good contagion, to the rest of the country. We can instill in us all with words that we use in the Jewish wedding ceremony:“ Ahavah v’ achvah, shalom v ‘reut—Love and  brotherhood and sisterhood, peace and friendship” and then we will find “gilah-rina-ditza v Chedvah” -Joy – and song- gladness and laughter.

May we see this happen, here, today, on this Yom Kippur Day, this day of redemption and reconciliation. Amen.

We fall into our own traps- but we can still get out of them!

We fall into our own traps- but we can still get out of them! 
Based on “ A Pinch of Snuff” by Y L Peretz-
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 -2017
            We Jews love a good story. Why do we love stories—so we can take them apart, turn them inside out find meanings where there were none. Tell a Jew a story, and he will immediately give you a better one, with a better ending.
            To prove it, I’ll tell you a story. A tale from the Talmud, of two preachers who set up open air classrooms in the middle of the market place. (Sotah 48a)
            The first, the scholar, a brilliant teacher, leads a difficult discussion on a very complicated and intricate piece of law. Hardly a minyan listens to him.
            The second, whom we would call a maggid, a story teller, offers a simple tale, some verse from the Torah, and then a string of beautiful stories and examples that address the imagination.
            The scholar realizes that his audience has shrunk, while the other’s has grown. Very frustrated, he goes over to his competitor.
            “ I don’t understand it. I have studied under the greatest scholars, I can present arguments that split mountains, but—no listeners. You, however, you come by with some simple tales and legends, and you are surrounded. How can that be?
            To this, the story teller replies,” I will answer you with a riddle.”
            “Two merchants came to market. One sold diamonds, the other sold pins and needles. Which one do you think had more customers?”
The scholar answers scholastically, “ Low price, high demand draws more buyers than high price, low demand.  The seller of pins and needles had more customers
The story teller replied.” You just answered yourself. You sell diamonds, which no one needs, but I sell pins and needles, which everyone needs.”
So, I am going to sell pins and needles.
I have adopted a story by the Yiddish writer, Yitzhak Leib Peretz. He, like most Jews of his day, were no longer religious but he used the world of Jewish imagination and folk belief as the vehicle for his tales
So I will use his story, as we explore, on this Rosh Hashanah, how it is that we still  didn’t get our act together since last year. It is called “A Pinch of Snuff” . (Maurice Samuel Translation). For those of you too young to know, a pinch of snuff was an old Jewish and non-Jewish social activity, tobacco without cancer and no drug abuse, but with a lot of sneezing.
Satan, the Evil One, the Enemy of Mankind, the Tempter and Destroyer, sat one day in his private office, idly examining his account book.
. . .And then suddenly his complacency vanished and he clapped his palms together: he had come upon the page bearing the name of the rabbi of Chelm, and it was as blank as blank could be. . . .
(Satan understood that he had only a short time to make the old Rabbi fall into his trap. After all, for a human to have lived without a single failure would undermine both Heaven and Earth) . .
Some little lust of his," murmured Satan, licking his chops. Some tiny desire, some obscure appetite!"
He calls upon his demons to do their best to entrap the rabbi of Chelm.
So, as the story unfolds, the Rabbi of Chelm is offered a bribe of a bag of diamonds to settle a case between a driver and passenger, and of course, he rejects it. The diamonds and the two litigants vanish in a puff.
Now, dear friends, that should not worry us either. Very few of us have the chance to have a bag of diamonds dangled in front of us. It’s not our problem.
He is then presented with a roll of money by an itinerant beggar, money that had been earned by conning others in the name of fake charity. “ Give it to the poor.” At once, the Rabbi gleefully shouts for all the poor to come. And the beggar and the money all go up in a puff.
And that too, my friends, is unlikely to be our problem. These big bundles of money, after all, for most of us, are only in fairy tales.
The Lillith, Queen of the demons, knows how to trap him, "I'll bring him in—the old ways are the best."
Here, too, she fails miserably, to seduce, even to have him glance at her for a moment, for the rabbi of Chelm is so deep in his prayers, that he ignores her completely.
Even here, to be frank, how many of us are going to be approached by “ drop-dead gorgeous.” Hah! A pipe dream!
Finally, Lillith recalls that the Rabbi had only one habit- he would take a pinch of snuff.  An entrepreneurial demon hits upon the solution. . ..
Every Friday afternoon, having bathed for the Sabbath, the rabbi of Chelm used to go for a walk in the woods. He always took the same path and as he walked, he repeated by heart  the Song of Songs.

Now, knowing himself to be an absent minded man, and fearing that some Friday afternoon he would wander out too far and fail to return in time to receive the Sabbath, he had measured the distance against the time it took to repeat the Song of Songs and halfway through the prayer he reached a certain tree. There he would sit down, treat himself to a hearty pinch of snuff , rest awhile, then get up and return, saying the second half of the prayer. Thus, he would get back exactly in time to welcome the Sabbath.

One fateful Friday, just before the rabbi of Chelm set out for his walk, a spindly-legged little fellow, . . . appeares on the scene, uproots the tree mentioned above, and carries it out farther into the woods; he replants it and sits himself down on the farther side.

The rabbi, meanwhile, arrives on the spot where he has always found the tree. He is halfway through the Song of Songs, and the tree, he perceives, is quite a distance off. He is shocked. Obviously, he has been repeating the prayer mechanically, rapidly, without absorption and contemplation. He will do penance at once. He will refuse himself that pinch of snuff until he has reached the tree. His nose itches for the grateful tickle of the snuff, his heart is faint with longing — but no! Not until he has reached the tree.
His limbs are feeble, and his steps are tottering. It takes him a long time to get there. And all the time there is this aching and longing, so that he can hardly see. And now at last he reaches the tree; he sits down and snatches the snuffbox from his pocket; but his hands are all atremble, and just at that moment a wind begins to blow from the other side of the tree and the snuffbox falls out of the rabbi's hands.
He reaches for it. The wind grows stronger and the box rolls away. The rabbi crawls after it on all fours, his body crying out for the strong taste of the snuff.
Not only has he failed to welcome the Shabbat, but even worse
For the demon kept blowing, the snuffbox kept rolling, and the rabbi, crawling after it in anguish, went out far beyond the bounds of Shabbat.

The brilliant young demon, returning to the nether regions, was at once entrusted with another highly important mission. Addressing the toxic assembly before his departure, he said: "Gentlemen, nobody stubs his toe against a mountain. It's the little lusts that bring a man down."
Very simply, we understand what it is that gets in our way. It is the very little things, the day to day shortcomings that bring us down. “Nobody stubs his toe against a mountain. It's the little lusts that bring a man  or a woman down.”
We all recognize this shortcoming of ours. We don’t need to blame some picturesque demon from a Yiddish tale; after all, we do it by ourselves, very well. And it has nothing to do with keeping the rules of Shabbat or any other religious observance.
We live, for example, in a very fast age. Instant this, instant that. Very good, very convenient, very beneficial, and very much like a pinch of snuff.
Think of friends, for example. At one time, you would actually go across the street to chat in person with your friend. You had eye contact, you could see facial expressions, and you understood well all intentions. Then, we found telephones. No need to walk across the street, but at least, you could hear the tone of voice, and feel the intentions.
Now, that is too time consuming. We email, and text and instagram and tweet. All faster and faster.
Now, admit, how many times are you sorry that you sent a message to a friend that was misunderstood?
You hit send before you finished your message. You forgot to end with a kind word. You type one thing and your smart program types something else. It happens all the time. You push send. Our you push to all your list. Need I say more? All the imps and demons of that Yiddish story are jumping for joy.
Moral of the story- like something as simple as a pinch of snuff, a trivial push of a button, things turn topsy turvy. We don’t stub our toes on huge mountains. It’s the little things that trip us up.
 But if I were to finish my Rosh Hashanah moralizing in this manner, I would be amiss, for it would seem to doom us all, since we all fall short of the Rabbi of Chelm. As a Rabbi, I must end a story on a redemptive note, a note of promise. If we can’t help each other to achieve a change of heart and deeds, then, after all, why be here?
The answer I will give is from a Rabbinic image. From one story to another. We see our shortcomings, and they may overwhelm us. The deck is stacked against us, it may seem. We are constantly stubbing our toes for nonsense, like a pinch of snuff. So this Rabbinic word gives us all hope. ( Talmud Shabbat 32 a)
The account in the Talmud asks us to imagine that we are standing in front of the scales of justice, nine-hundred and ninety-nine angels convicting us, and only one angel in our favor, and even if that one angel is only one tenth of one-percent in our favor, the scales of justice still tilt in our favor.
Yes, we get off track, we fall for a pinch of snuff, we fail for a word sent hastily, or without careful thought.
We can fix, we can repair, we can make amends. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of hope. None of us knows what anyone else has gone through, none of us knows what guilt or pain may be inside. We have our doubts, we fall for something as simple as a pinch of snuff.
But our great message is that, as long as there is one millionth of a shred of  decency in us, we have hope. Hope that we can turn ourselves around, even if it be for something as simple as a pinch of snuff. Hope that we can wake up tomorrow with a sense of decency, hope that we can wake up tomorrow and look ourselves in the mirror and smile.
How much more so is this possible when we are brought together, as today, as a community, as we have here, at Hollywood Temple Beth El. No one of us is an island . Together, we are a continent, a world. We hold and bouy each other up, together.
May we have a million reasons to smile as we face each new day and each new year.  And enjoy a pinch of shnupf tabak. L’ Shanah Tovah.