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.” ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-zoughbie/health-initiative_b_2821964.html
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”
.” 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.
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.
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.