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Rabbi Seidel Drash | Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 5774 (2013)

 

In May of this year, Rachel and I flew out to Oberlin for our daughter's graduation.  It was a wonderful visit.  We have many fond memories of our own years at Oberlin, in the late 70's, and it always feels good to go back.  And on this visit, as it turned out, we found that some our favorite college friends from those years were also in Oberlin for the graduation of their children.

Among the nice moments during the three-day graduation weekend were: meals at the Kosher-Hallal Coop, where I had baked hundreds of challahs in my years there.  We were also invited to a meal with Rabbi Shimon Brand, the current Hillel director who was Hillel director when Rachel and I were students.  Shimon did much to inspire me to enter the Rabbinate, when I was a student.  But among the nicest moments for me were the many recitals that took place during graduation weekend. 

My favorites were the two concerts showcasing the best performers - mostly seniors - in the Conservatory.  I love those concerts partly because they are so unpredictable.  No-one performs the old favorites at such a concert.  Hardly any of the music presented, whether ancient or modern, were pieces that I had heard before.  And all of the music is performed with enormous heart and commitment.  I did not care for all of it: there was a baroque ensemble playing on period instruments, and a fair amount of cutting edge modern music - much of which left me cold.  But there were also some amazing performances of great music that left me in tears.  I know how much work it takes to perform at that level, and I always feel honored to be in the presence of people who have put in the time and the thought to pull it off.  And as for the less successful performances - well I enjoyed playing the critic, sitting up in the balcony with an old friend who was also a piano performance major, kibitzing about each work.

               One performance in particular I cannot forget - it was a duet for violin and harp, by the early 20th century composer, Camille Saint-Saëns.  It's a great piece, and the performance was electric.   You have probably been to a performance like that, where you hear a piece you've never heard before, played by performers you'd never heard of, and are unexpectedly transported to a place to which only music can take you.  And for me, there was the added emotional overlay of hoping for the best for these young performers, who had given so much of themselves towards this performance, who were both - according to the program notes -intending to make a go of it as professional classical musicians.  I also loved the response by the crowd to this duet - it was deafening.  We all felt lucky to have been in the audience.  That was Saturday night.

  The next afternoon, Rachel and I were wandering through the streets of the small town of Oberlin, Ohio.  Suddenly, on the sidewalk across the street, I saw the harpist walk by.  I was tempted to go up and thank her, but I was shy, as I always am in such situations, and slunk away, feeling foolish.  That was Sunday. 

The next day was the Monday of graduation.  You've all been to graduations, and in many ways, this was typical.  There were some terribly banal speeches, plus some merely mediocre speeches.  But the commencement address, by the author, Oberlin alum Tracy Chevalier, was quite good.  Unfortunately, rain drizzled heavily throughout - typical Oberlin weather - dampening our clothes and our mood.  Finally, after all the speeches, came the time for the calling out of all the names of the graduates. 

They started with the conservatory graduates.  The name of the first graduate was called, and as he or she walked up to the stage, a loud cheer, presumably of the drinking buddies of the graduate filled the air.   It was a neat moment in a way, that first cheer - the oppressive formality of the lengthy ceremony suddenly changing to raucous celebration.  Then the second name was called, and another loud, obnoxious cheer, and the second graduate accepted her diploma.  Already, the cheering was getting a little old.  So we settled in, Rachel and me, wet, cold, waiting for Hannah's name to be called - I figured that we probably had at least an hour to go.

Then the third name was called, and I realized I recognized the name. Rebekah Efthimiou - not the most common name - she was the amazing harpist from Saturday night's performance.  I wanted to shout out a woo-hoo; but I did not.  And to my surprise, no-one else did either! There was complete silence as the figure on the distant stage accepted her diploma.  And then the fourth name was called.  And then the fifth.  And the 100th, and the 500th.  Some got huge shout-outs.  Plenty got just silence. 

The long, wet morning, gave me plenty of time to ponder a question that troubled me: How could it be that the harpist didn't get any noisy acclaim as she accepted her diploma?  It wasn't just her Saturday night performance - the program notes said she'd also been one of the winners of the annual concerto competition at Oberlin - that is a huge deal at Oberlin.  Surely everyone must know her name?  And isn't a big part of success having lots of friends raising a ruckus when you get your diploma?  And isn't silence from the crowd at such a time a sure sign of failure?

On one level, of course I don't believe that nonsense.  But on another level, maybe a deeper, more primal level, the level of the awkward middle-schooler that resides inside all of us, being noisily liked by many people is success pure and simple, and nothing else really counts but to be well-liked, and not just well-liked, but publically well-liked.  I couldn't help but feel terrible for the harpist.

And then I thought about what it takes to perform on that level, a level I have never reached in my own performances.  The hours, the years, the decades alone in the practice room. And of course there is the attitude you need in that practice room.  You need to be relentlessly criticizing yourself, perpetually unsatisfied with anything less than perfection.  How could anyone so focused as to produce a topnotch performance have had the time to have cultivated a group of rowdy friends?  Maybe the silence at her walk across the stage was a testament to her dedication.  But then the middle-schooler in me chimes in again: maybe that silence was merely a testament to loneliness.

But then the grown-up thinks: It wasn't about the performers.  It was about the performance.  There was plenty of noise made after that performance!  And isn't that what life is about or at least what performance is about?  Being a musician - a classical musician, at least, is not about pushing ourselves forward, but rather about promoting the music itself.  It is not the musicians that are supposed to be transcendent, it's the music - that is what uplifts us.  In a sense, the musician and the music are a bit like the body and the soul.  The performer will die, but the performance, and the music itself - they are as eternal as they are evanescent, like the soul.

I forgot to mention the violinist in the duo.  His name was not so unusual, and I don't even remember hearing it called out during the graduation.  But I do remember his bio in the concert program.  It made me jealous.  Not only did he have this fabulous technique on the violin, and a mature musical sensitivity, but he, like me, was a double degree student!  He was getting a degree in the college, as well as the conservatory.  How could he be so incredibly good technically, and be getting a degree in History (a department of which I'd been so afraid that I never took a single History class)?  No double degree student I had known was ever that good at the musical side of things.  And that wasn't all, oh no - he also was on the Tennis team. 

Perhaps this is an inevitable part of coming to a graduation, this unwise judging of yourself and others.  Catching myself feeling sorry for the harpist, and then jealous of the violinist, without ever having met either of them - it got me thinking.  I thought about how little it is we know about others, and their lives.  Their successes, their failures, their backgrounds.  We can witness important moments in people's lives, and be inspired by those moments, but unless we know them very well, we probably don't know them at all.  And so it doesn't make sense to make any judgment or comparison.  This may seem like an obvious truth, but I forget it regularly.

 

It reminds me of Abraham in the parasha we read, especially the last little paragraph.  I've spoken of this before, but I felt it worthwhile to think about more, since I for one need to be reminded.  You recall, after the sacrifice of Isaac was narrowly averted, a messenger from up north came to tell Abraham about how fertile Abraham's brother Nachor is.  Twelve kids - some from his wife, others from his concubine.  Makes Abraham look pretty shabby, no?  Abraham has just one child from his concubine, Hagar.  And that child is long gone, exiled from Abraham's house.  And Abraham has just one child from his wife Sara.  And God only knows how the Akedah will affect their relationship, how long Isaac will want to stick around, given his experience on Mount Moriah. 

Maybe this messenger from up north, trumpeting Nachor's 12 children, was the real test of Abraham.  How are you going to deal, Abraham, with your brother's apparent success?  I can imagine Abraham thinking to himself.  "I thought God was communicating with me.  I thought I was a prophet.  But I almost sacrificed my only son, thinking that was what God wanted.  I guess I misunderstood God's instructions.  I guess I'm just mixed up.  I don't seem to be getting anywhere in my chosen profession.  And I'm certainly not leaving behind anyone who's going to follow in my footsteps.  Somehow, I don't think Isaac is going to be too keen on Judaism after this episode.  But Nachor - he's shooting bullets.  Twelve kids!  And he's got grandkids already.  I'm just a nobody.  What have I got?  One child banished forever, and now a fractured relationship with the other.  And, I have even less confidence than ever that I know the will of God."

We today, of course, have confidence in Abraham.  We know how the story turns out.  We also know that being unsure of God's will is not a flaw, but rather a strength for a religious soul.  And we know what Abraham cannot know: that what God is promising him - that Abraham will be the father of a multitude of nations - will actually come to pass.  But Abraham himself, at the moment after the akeidah, hearing of his brother's success - what does he know about how things will turn out?  We in our lives, are regularly tested as was Abraham in that moment.  And if we make the mistake of comparing our lives to others, if we wrongly imagine that we know the last word as to the meaning of our lives, we fail the test.

 

Enough about stories for a moment - I'm going to switch to halacha.  I want to speak of some of the details of the laws of repentance, in particular, the laws about asking forgiveness before Yom Kippur.  Then, I promise, I'll relate this halacha to the stories I just analyzed.

First, the basics.  As most of you know, we Jews believe that God does not grant us atonement for sins that we have committed against our fellow human beings.  God can forgive us for, say, not coming to shul as much as we should have, or eating treif, or not studying Torah.  We can indeed expect that feeling of a fresh start after Ne'ilah, with regards to commandments involving our relationships to God, just by showing up and davenning with the community.  However, prayer and fasting cannot get you a fresh start, after the sin of say, insulting a fellow.  We Jews feel that it is cheap repentance that doesn't involve apologizing to the ones we have hurt, repaying debts we owe, etc.  God might inspire us to make the face-to-face effort to ask forgiveness, but God's not going to do it for us.

So, what are the guidelines for asking for forgiveness?  Many of you are familiar with them, but let me go through them for a moment, adding what I hope will be some new angles for you.

First, you must approach the one you have wronged and ask for forgiveness.  This is a very hard step to take for pretty much everyone.  You may have noticed a short article in my packet of readings by a doctor who struggles to apologize to patients for his mistakes.  The author notes how hard it is, even after many years, to make these apologies.  Now for me, the article implicitly asks: if we think doctors should apologize for their mistakes, shouldn't the rest of us, in our own lives, also do this hard work?

Many doubts confront the one who would apologize: What if the person won't forgive me?  Then what?  And what if I think that 90% of the problem is the other guy; why should I have to make the first move?  And what if the person has been harassing me at work, and this year I finally got sick of it and let him have it, and I feel bad about what I said - I was way harsh, but if I apologize, that might well open the door to further harassment in the future??

Here are some answers.  So what if the person won't forgive you? If the person won't forgive you, you can take the next step, which is asking some mutual friends to plead your case.  If you send some friends to plead your case a few times, and he still will not forgive you, then you can leave it - leave it for another year, perhaps, or just drop it - consult your Rabbi if you're not sure what to do at that point.

But what if it's mostly the other guy's fault??  Why should I apologize to him??  If I apologize to him aren't I essentially forgiving him for what he did to me.  And he never asked me for forgiveness!?  But I'm supposed to ask him for forgiveness?? 

Ok, so first, you need to calm down.  Step back for a second.  Breathe.  Ok?  If you're ready to listen, know that among the kind of people that the Rabbis value most highly, is the ma'avir al midotav, the one who is able to overlook the bad stuff that happens to him.  That's not forgiveness, exactly - it's really forbearance.  You don't have to forgive the person who did bad stuff to you and never apologized.  But it's a positive personality trait to be able to overlook it.  Shrug your shoulders, shake your head, and deal with life as it is - not everyone is as nice to you as you deserve.  The Rabbis say that if you overlook other's sins, God will be more likely to overlook your sins.  And if you fail to overlook other's sins, can you reasonably expect God to be generous when considering your faults?  So that's one reason to ask forgiveness from someone who has also wounded you.  It looks good with the boss.  Or to put it another way: asking forgiveness can bring you closer to the Divine.

It's also just healthier.  I saw a tag line once at the end of someone's emails to me this year: Harboring resentment is like poking yourself constantly with a sharp stick, expecting that the person you're mad at will feel the pain.  Clearly, harboring resentment doesn't do you any good, and it doesn't even put the hurt on the person who deserves it.  But by beginning the difficult conversation, by admitting your own culpability, you can often open up an important conversation, and, at least in my experience, you can sometimes elicit the very apology you had been hoping to hear.

And here's a third reason to initiate these difficult conversations with an apology.  It builds community.  It may actually not work for you - you may not get the apology back you were hoping for.  Your request for forgiveness may not even be granted.  But the ice has been broken.  And it is the ice that keeps communities from growing.  That article I mentioned earlier about doctors disclosing errors to their patients claims:

...The University of Michigan Health System implemented a disclosure program in 2001 and compared liability claims for six years before and after its implementation:  Annual litigation expenses dropped from $3 million to $1 million over that period, and the number of claims decreased by 50 percent.

It may be painful - I'm sure it is painful for the doctor to disclose the error.  But in the end, everyone benefits.  We need warmth, conversation, connection to thrive.  Even difficult conversation is better than silence.  The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.  Start the difficult conversation, humble yourself - your community needs your efforts.

By the way, there is an exception to this rule: there are cases when you should not ask for forgiveness.  For example, the question that I posed above - what about the person harassing you in the office, at whom you directed some overly harsh words to stop the harassment.  In this case: maybe you shouldn't have said those harsh words, but apologizing for them could easily restart the cycle of harassment.  The general rule is: if you are afraid that an apology will bring you hurt down the line, it may be best not to apologize - you'll even find that ruling in the codes - Mishneh Berurah, 606, note 10.  Again, consult your Rabbi if you need advice about a particular situation.

Usually, however, the right thing to do is to reach out and ask for forgiveness.  For this is not just about you; Jewish Law is not merely a way to help you feel better about yourself.  It's a way of insuring that we as a nation, as a community, survive.  Maintaining the connections between us, even the difficult connections - especially the difficult connections - is essential.  You may learn the most from the people most different from you, the people you least want to talk to.

But it's not just these people you may need to ask for forgiveness.  In our tradition, it became customary even for adults who are not angry at each other to ask forgiveness before Yom Kippur (Aruch HaShulchan 606:4).   It's a pro forma thing usually, in our family.  "Will you forgive me for the bad stuff I did to you this year?"  "Of course I forgive you".  And yet, I find it's still a little embarrassing to ask for such forgiveness, which makes me suspect it's still important to ask.  It gets me in the mood for the holidays.  I feel cleansed, I am cleansed, when I admit my need to be forgiven.  Yes, it's painful to have to humble myself before someone.  But that's good pain.  Kind of like the ache after a good bike ride.  My soul needs that exercise.  We have been created in such a way that our souls atrophy when they are not stretched.  If we come to services on Yom Kippur without having done that stretching, without humbling ourselves, we are not going to be the servants of God we could be.

Maybe you think the tradition is asking too much of you.  You should just be able to show up and daven?  Listen to this: in the old days, it was not uncommon for Jews to whip themselves before Yom Kippur, to bring themselves to a point of repentance, and prepare for worshipping God with the proper humility. (Kolbo 68, 2nd paragraph).[1]   And according to one commentator, the whips had to be made of leather that was partly from a calf, and partly from a donkey, so as to reflect that painful verse from Isaiah 1:3 "The ox knows its master, as does the donkey, but Israel doesn't understand, my People knows not".  39 lashes, people would hit each other with, to get ready for Yom Kippur.

Ok, I grant you, that's way too much prep for Yom Kippur.  But maybe your preparation is way too little!  Maybe there's a balance to be struck between whipping yourselves, on the one hand, and doing nothing on the other.  Maybe you should discomfit yourself at least a little, in preparation for the big day.  Maybe asking for forgiveness is a good middle road.

Here's a nicer image than whipping, from a famous kabbalist: he recommends that right before Yom Kippur, you be sure to cut your nails, and while you do it, imagine that you are beautifying yourself for your beloved[2].  It's a nice image, but I feel I should add here: remember, God is not so interested in the way a person looks.  God sees into your heart.  Prepare your heart for Yom Kippur.  If you do, you have a chance to meet your beloved.

 

To return to the stories of Abraham, and my adventures in Oberlin, and the lessons I was reminded of.  I was reminding you: Do not compare yourself to others.  Do not think you know what others are going through.  If you must judge others, be generous.  Their own successes and failures may not be at all what you think they are.  And your own successes and failures may not be at all what you think they are.

Keeping all this in mind helps me ask for forgiveness at this time of year.  If I remember how little I really know about others, their motivations, their histories, their own sense of their accomplishments - it's easier for me to suspend judgment, and it's thus easier for me to ask for forgiveness.

Along these lines, I'm reminded of an exercise at the meditation retreat I attended in January.  As a way of paying attention to the ways our minds worked, we were asked to focus on the way we make snap judgments about people.  We were asked to note how even when we just passed someone by on a sidewalk, someone who we would see just for a second, we tended to make a judgment, based on their walk, their clothes, their facial expression, whatever.  And often, the judgment we make is harsh.

It takes some concentration, some energy to put aside that instant negative feeling, and replace it with openness.  And if we have such a negative bias towards people we do not even know, what about the people of whom we do have some knowledge?  For our friends also, it takes practice to maintain an openness in the face of our tendency to judge.  And openness to the uniqueness of each individual, to the God in them, and an openness most of all, to what our role might be vis-à-vis the other.  An openness to connection.

 

Life is complicated.  There are moments of transcendence for us to treasure.  Abraham's encounter with an angel on Mount Moriah.  A beautiful piece of music, performed expertly.  Listening to such a performance, and sharing the experience with an old friend at hand.  And there are times of loneliness: Abraham after the akeidah, hearing the news about his super-successful brother up north.  A walk across the dais to accept a diploma, with no cheers from friends.

What carries us on, when we feel confused by life?  Connection.  Listening, being open to other's stories, other's points of view.  It's the only way of getting a glimpse of the whole picture.  And without that glimpse, how can we know how to act correctly in the world?  And we need to be connected not just to loved ones, but to those whom we have injured.  This is what can heal us, and heal the world.

Amidst the loneliness, the challenge is always to find the bright spot, the glow of hope that God grants us.  For instance, in that list of children of Nachor, we hear about the birth of Nachor's granddaughter, Rebekkah, who will eventually become Abraham's daughter in law.  We, living all these years later, know that Rebekkah will become a strong and good woman, worthy of Isaac, stronger than Isaac, really.  We can only hope that at that lonely moment, Abraham had an inkling of the future of his clan, a faith in God's promise, an understanding that his life only made sense, that his actions would only bear fruit, when seen from years after his death.

And we can hope this for ourselves, as well.  We can hope that we will be able to see our own lives from different vantage points, from outside ourselves.  But we don't have to just hope.  We can act.  We can connect with our friends, as well as with those we are estranged from.  Because it is only through these interactions that we can hope to know the truth - the truths of their lives, as well as the truths of our own.

 

 


[1]  ונהגו לקחת מלקות אחר הטבילה להכניע לבבם הערל ולהכינו לעבוד השם הנכבד והנורא באימה וביראה    ...ונהגו לעשות רצועות דמלקות של עור של עגל תפורות בעור חמור ולמה לפי שכתוב (ישעיה א, ג) ידע שור קונהו וחמור אבוס בעליו, יבאו הללו שמכירין ויסרו את זה שלא הכיר.

 

[2]The Sh'nei Luchot HaBrit, as quoted in the Ba'er Heiteiv, 606:9