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Rabbi Seidel Drash Yom Kippur Yizkor 5776-2015

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Yom Kippur, Yizkor - 5776 (2015)
Being There


Here's an article that appeared just last week (9/16/2015) in the Washington Post - it's by Brian Fung:

     After years of requests from its users, Facebook has finally confirmed it's working on a dislike button.
"People have asked about the 'dislike' button for many years. Today is a special day, because today is the day I can say we're working on it and shipping it," said Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg during a live Q&A session Tuesday.

      You've long been able to Like something on Facebook with the click of a button. But for some content, that mechanic doesn't always work so well, according to Zuckerberg.
     "Not every moment is a good moment," he said. "If you share something that's sad, like a refugee crisis that touches you or a family member passes away - it may not be comfortable to like that post."

Though I am not now, and never have been, on Facebook, I think I understand the problem.  Clicking "like" is a way to tell someone you've viewed their content and you like it.  It's convenient - you don't have to pick up the phone, you don't even have to send an email.  You just have to click on "like".  However, if someone posts that, say, a close relative has died, it doesn't feel right to click "like".  So a new button needs to be created that can be clicked to show that you care.  The "I'm so sorry" button, perhaps.  But would that work for everyone?  Maybe there's a way to have a button that, if you put your cursor over it, would give you a few options on which you could click, depending on your religious preference:  "Hamakom y'nachem etchem, May God comfort you" if you're a Jew, for example.  Or "Praise the Lord, your loved one is with Jesus now", if you're a Christian.  Of course, there are a lot of different cultures and religions out there, and what is considered supportive in one could be offensive in another. I think I see why Facebook has had trouble figuring out just how to create this new button.

But a deeper problem here is that just clicking a button can only offer so much comfort. If you are merely clicking to support someone you've friended, maybe that's enough.  But for a real friend in the traditional sense of the word, maybe Facebook just isn't the right medium in which to offer solace, and creating a new button is not going to change that fact.

Along these lines, here's another recent article, this one from the Sunday New York Times advice column authored by Philip Galanes.  This query appeared about a month ago (August 20th, 2015) and caught my eye:

     Missed Messages

     I belong to a group that meets monthly to watch films and discuss them over coffee. Two years ago, an interesting woman joined us. A month ago, she had a bad accident and required surgery. I sent her a get-well card, and we exchanged several phone messages but never spoke. Eventually she asked if we could schedule a call. I replied, by voice mail, that I preferred not to book a phone date. I like to keep my schedule flexible. I tried reaching her a couple more times, but she stopped responding. Was I rude to refuse her request? Is she justified in being miffed? [signed] ANONYMOUS

Before I give you the answer printed in the Times, I'd like to focus on the reason given by Anonymous for not scheduling a call.  "I like to keep my schedule flexible."  From my own anecdotal observations, I believe that one reason scheduling anything nowadays has become so much work, is that many people - especially young people - like to keep their schedules flexible.  Plans tend to change last minute. It was not always this way. This "need" for total flexibility may well have been created by our ability, thanks to the new technology, to be so continually in touch.  And being continually in touch has meant that plans can change quickly. Technology is changing our moral compass, and not always for the better.  Maybe I exaggerate.  At the very least, we can agree that tying folks down to a date to do something, anything, can be very hard.  
So, Anonymous wants to keep her schedule flexible. One cannot help but wonder - what does Anonymous do that she thinks is more important than talking with a sick friend?  We know that she does make some appointments - she goes to a monthly film-watching group.  And presumably she goes to her film-watching group not just to be entertained, but to actually discuss films, and not just any films, but films that have something to say about the human condition.  I cannot help wondering: is Anonymous learning anything about humanity from the messages of these films, that she could deny even a phone conversation to a sick friend?
Ok, I'm getting a little shrill here, I realize.  There are plenty of folks here tonight, myself among them, who will read endless prayers today about our obligations to our fellow human beings, and then go out tomorrow and not be as kind as our tradition would have us be.
All I want to say with this example is that it's not just Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, Snapchat, Instagram, where ill-thought-out, abbreviated communication can be easily misconstrued - it's also the telephone that can be misused, that can get in the way of our making the kind of human connections that make life worth living.
Anyway, here's the answer given in the NY Times to Anonymous:

Do none of you have cellphones in this land where interesting-sounding film clubs thrive? You were not obliged to make a phone date with your club mate. But considering her hard-luck story, it would have been kind of you. (And it was only one call!) Reach out to her again. Apologize for feeling overwhelmed earlier and suggest three times when she will be sure to reach you. And please add "Clouds of Sils Maria" to your film roster. It is the best movie I've seen all year.

Mr. Galanes always likes to end on an upbeat, light-hearted note.  Which is probably a good thing; I just wanted to wring the neck of Anonymous, which would have helped no-one. But I wasn't too happy with Mr. Galanes' answer either.  What does he mean by "Do none of you have cellphones"?  Of course they have cellphones - that's the problem.  

I have found, as I am sure you all have, that with regards to telephoning a friend: unless I know the person well whom I'm calling or emailing, I will probably not get a response.  And even friends can be slow to respond.  And nowadays, it's not even considered rude not to answer.  The claim is that we are better connected than we used to be, thanks to cellphones, and email and Facebook etc.  If you count clicking the "like" button as connection, maybe so.  And I guess texting between close friends can be effective at connecting people to some degree.  But for any other kind of communication, I think not.

I am guessing that Anonymous has gotten a call from the invalid, checked the number, and chose not to take the call, either because she didn't recognize the number, or more likely did recognize the number, and didn't want to be bothered at that particular moment.  And then later, at a time that the invalid was unlikely to pick up, she called back.  Hoping, perhaps subconsciously, that the voice mail chain would eventually peter out.  
Mr. Galanes goes on to say that Anonymous is not required to make a phone date, but that it would have been kind.  And of course, he's not writing a religious column, or even a secular ethical column: his column is called merely called "Social Q's". So for the record, let me note that in our tradition, you certainly are required to, at the very least, make a phone date with this invalid.  Though I understand that perhaps such obligations are outside Mr. Galanes' purview.

But I will take Mr. Galanes to task about what he says next: "And it was only one call!"  Ah, I'm not so sure.  And this is the real root, I believe, of Anonymous' predicament.  She doesn't want to get involved with this sick person.  Who knows where this call might lead?  This sick person might need a visit, or groceries, or a ride to the doctor.  Anonymous would like to keep her schedule flexible, and sick people are notorious for having inflexible needs.  You make a phone call with the intent of really trying to connect, and you have no idea what they're going to want next.  Best just to leave a sympathetic, noncommittal voice mail, and cut your losses.

Both of these articles, the first about the new Facebook button we can click to show concern, and the second about the person unwilling to even have a phone conversation with a sick person, reflect a bigger problem.  Our society has come, as Sherry Turkle puts it, to "have the illusion of connection, without the demands of friendship".  My point today is, that one of the essential demands of friendship, is presence.  Face to face interaction.  Being there, when our friend needs us - not electronically, but physically.

Listen, I know it's not always possible to be there, in person, for a friend.  And some of these media - phone, email, Facebook, Skype - can be of great help when there's no way for us to be in the physical presence of a friend in need.  And they can be a big help when a community works to coordinate care for a needy member, as TI does with the coordination of Sue Catler and the Helping Hands website.  But what's happening now is that these less-than-ideal ways of connecting are used even when the real thing is possible. It reminds me of that great Motown song from the late 60's about just this point, how hard it is when one finds oneself physically separated from one you love:  Ain't Nothing like the Real thing Baby, ain't nothing like the real thing...

Okay, so if it's nothing like the real thing, we do we increasingly do it?  Why are we distancing ourselves from each other, while pretending in fact that we're more connected than ever before?  Why do we avoid face to face interactions?

First, let me admit that sometimes face-to-face meetings are in fact best avoided.  Sometimes a phone call is better than a meeting, and sometimes an email is better than a phone call.  Sometimes, to spare the feelings of, say, a person who you have just decided not to hire, an email will allow the rejected applicant to read it and weep, without anyone having to watch their tears.  Or, for a more serious applicant - a finalist, say - a phone call is really necessary, given all the effort that had been put into the process by both parties up to that point.  But you know all this.  I'm just reviewing what you know to remind you that, in parts of your lives you put in careful thought to the mode of communication, picking the medium that is most appropriate to the message and the context.  I'm just here to remind you to put that same care into your friendships, and the modes of communication you use to nurture them.

I also admit that face-to-face encounters are often more difficult than electronically mediated communication.  For many reasons.  For one, in a direct encounter, you're always having to improvise, creating responses in the moment, where in the comfort of email, you can carefully construct your response.  And long silences can be awkward if your friend is right in front of you, whereas with email, you can take awhile to reply.  Another reason face to face can be hard: you have to guard your facial expressions in a direct encounter, at least if you are trying to be polite.  Whereas with a conversation by phone, it's easier to hide what you're feeling, if necessary.

But what about when it's not necessary, not even a good idea to hide your feelings?  There is, apparently, evidence out there to suggest that we are less likely to air unpopular feelings than we used to be, at least in person.  Anonymously, on the internet, there are plenty of trolls, of course.  But in person, we may have become more reticent, less likely to say the potentially awkward truth that needs saying.  I sense this is true, at least in my experience.  Which is a tragedy, because, well, what are friends for?  For supporting us in hard times, for sure, but also for gently criticizing us, when we need to hear it.

This year, as part of the congregation's review of my work here at TI, I had a lovely encounter I want to share with you.  A congregant responded to my suggestion that concerns be shared with me directly, face to face, and not just through the electronic survey.  So we met.  I must say, it was one of the best conversations I had with anyone during this past year.  Not the easiest of conversations, for either one of us.  But among the most helpful to me.  He presented his concerns in an honest, caring, way.  And, as often happens in a conversation like this, his criticisms echoed some of my own suspicions about my performance, and, his concerns jived with what some others have said to me about the issue in question.  And so his words hit home.
Would I have been so receptive to his criticism, had it just come to me electronically, especially if it were anonymous?  It's much easier to dismiss electronic criticism, I find.  But you cannot delete a person sitting in front of you, the way you can delete an email.  And a person who comes to speak to you with criticism knows they need to say things in a kind way - they don't want to upset you.  Whereas even a careful writer tends to be a little less kind when writing an email, than when speaking in person.

But let's not just dwell on the difficult.  The in-person meeting with a friend is often the opposite of difficult.  I find there is often something unhurried, even timeless about such a meeting.  I especially love walking in the woods with friends, and the way sometimes we're talking non-stop at the beginning of the walk, and then later, maybe towards the end of a long hike, when we're all talked out, there's just silence between us.  As we listen to the regular trudge of our feet keeping our thoughts company, we sense the friendship as almost a physical presence, and words seem superfluous, even a distraction from the holiness of the moment.  At such moments, I can just feel the pressures of the world fall away; nothing is required beyond our being with each other.  I feel thanks for this blessed moment of togetherness. Which is not the same feeling I get when I'm responding to a friend on email.  I find that with emails, even though some of those emails be friendly, answering them breeds not thankfulness, but anxiety about all the emails I still have to answer.

During those long walks, there's time to reflect about myself, and about my friend.  And there's time to portray myself accurately, to respond to questions, even to change my portrayal of myself in response to those questions.  There's something about the situation - maybe the back-and-forth of the conversation, or maybe the amount of time we're together - that is conducive to honesty.  Honesty is what brings us together.  And it is together that we are most able to make a difference in this world.

Which is all so different from how we portray ourselves online.  It's now a commonplace that spending time looking at others' Facebook pages tends to be depressing.  On Facebook, we can airbrush ourselves.  We can at least seem to be happy and fulfilled.  This is much harder to do in person.  Of course, projecting a false self to one's friends isn't a way to get close to friends.  But getting close may not be the object of Facebook.  In fact, it may be just the opposite.  It may be about keeping people connected, but at a distance.  Like a Christmas card catching up the relatives on all the amazing things you and your beautiful family have done over the past year.  It keeps alive a connection with the sender, however tenuous the connection, and however dishonest the picture presented.  Sure, we can lie to our best friends right to their faces - but I've found it doesn't come naturally.  And it seems so pointless.  Once you actually take the trouble to meet, it just seems to make so much more sense to tell the whole true story.  Because closeness is possible, when we're together, and it would be a shame not to share.  Whereas on the internet, closeness is not possible, and who has the time, anyway, with all the emails to respond to, and the like buttons to click, and the twitter feeds to check?

When we avoid direct interaction with a friend, we may hold back for another reason.  Intimacy itself is taking a risk.  What if the friend, whom through many meetings over the years you have become close to, drifts away, for whatever reason?  Or what if they die, God forbid?  Getting close to another human being involves the risk of loss.  The closer you get to another person, the more you have to lose, should that relationship founder.  Of course, it's also true that the closer you get to another person the more you have to gain, but it's not a risk-free gain.  It involves the potential for loss; it involves being seen for the imperfect people we are.  It's not for the fainthearted, real friendship.  But if you're looking for life, as opposed to the mere appearance of life, there is no other way.
Ask yourself honestly - why am I meeting personally with friend X rarely, when we used to meet more?  It could be that Facebook is how you both do everything nowadays, and that's simplest.  And it could be that simplest is not the best when it comes to friendship.  Listen, maybe, sometimes just clicking on "like" is the best way to maintain a connection.  Though I doubt it.

I want to say a bit more about that song I mentioned earlier: Ain't Nothing like the Real Thing, Baby.  The song was written by Ashford and Simpson, and it hit the very top of the R&B charts in 1968.  But I myself heard that song for the first time only five years ago, driving in the car with my oldest child, Alex.  I forget who was driving, but I remember that Alex was playing some CD's on the car's stereo.  He was on a mission to help rectify his father's ignorance of non-classical music.  Alex must have been 22 or 23, I'm guessing, just about the age of Tammi Terrell, when she recorded this hit song with Marvin Gaye. And as those of you who are up on Motown history know, Tammi died of a brain tumor, just before her 25th birthday, in 1970.  She had several hits with Marvin Gaye, and they had become close friends; he may never have gotten over her tragic death.

We don't get to see Alex as much as we like nowadays, with him living on the west coast.  I like to imagine, what with our regular phone calls, and visits - sometimes we even get to see him several times in a year - I like to tell myself that we're as close as ever.  But it's not so, it can't be.  There's no-one to blame. Part of it is that he's growing older, and our relationship changes.  But part of the pain is due to our not being together much.  That loss of closeness is an inevitable result of life in our age, because we have the option of travelling far in pursuit of our dreams.
Ah, but who am I to complain of this, right before Yizkor?  Many of you will now remember separations that will never be repaired, loved ones who are not merely living far away,  but are gone completely from your lives.
Well, not completely.  The physical connection is gone, true, but the spiritual connection is not necessarily lost.  I included in my packet this year a striking section from a book on spiritual direction - this passage is found on p.  9:

This peace, which Elizabeth Kubler-Ross calls acceptance, recognizes that mourning never entirely comes to an end and that healing does not mean the cessation of grief.  Rather healing delivers an ability to integrate pain and find a bounded place for the grief in our lives - a holy place where it is neither denied nor idolized but can be nourished, attended to, and recognized as one of many parts of an individual's history.  The great achievement, experienced in the world of Atzilut, is in ceding the physical connection to the person who is gone and coming to a comfortable peace with a spiritual relationship.

Honestly, I don't know how one comes to a comfortable peace with a spiritual relationship, when one has had previously, a relationship with a flesh-and-blood person.  I am blessed in that I have never lost a member of my immediate family.  But I have certainly watched as many of you have made that transition.  I see that it can be done, that a relationship that was once between two people in this world can exist, in some form, even when one of those people has died.  This doesn't just happen in Harry Potter.

Now perhaps you think I am undercutting my point, when I claim that I have seen deep relationships continue when physical presence is impossible.  So maybe physical presence isn't so important!?  But anyone who has lost a loved one knows exactly what I mean by the importance of physical presence.  One may come to terms with a spiritual relationship after a death, but it cannot be the same as the actual presence.  And there will always be times of longing for the other, of acute sadness at the loss of that physical presence.  It's part of the price we pay for love.
The point I'm trying to make here is: don't waste time with those you love who are still around.  See them, face to face, while you can.  Cherish the time you have with them.  However, don't fool yourself.  If maybe you make a resolution to spend more time with those you love this year, that extra time will have to come from somewhere.  And your schedule will end up being less flexible.  It's your choice, of course, what you cut back in order to leave time for friendships, but I recommend cutting back on your electronically mediated connections, to make time for connections in the actual physical presence.  Yizkor is a time to remember what we have lost, but also to remind ourselves to cherish what we still have.

Yizkor is also something we do in the physical presence of others.  Theoretically, you could say all the Yizkor prayers by yourself, with the exception of Kaddish.  But it wouldn't be the same.  There are times when sadness needs company, needs the presence of others.  Saying Kaddish in particular: Kaddish is less about the words you are saying than the place and the people that surround you.  Why exactly that is so is part of the mystery of being human.  There are High Holiday services on the web that you can stream, and listen to in the comfort of your own home.  But it's nothing like the real thing.

In the Torah, it is said that we, as a people, experienced God face to face on Mt. Sinai - you'll find it in Deuteronomy 5:4.  Ibn Ezra notes that that cannot be literally true, given that elsewhere, we're told that we cannot see God's face.  So what does this mean, we experienced God face to face?  It means, says Ibn Ezra (and apparently Rambam says the same thing) without an intermediary - b'lo emtza'i.  This is the relationship we crave - with God, with our friends, with those we love: the messy, awkward, uplifting, unpredictable unmediated relationship with another, through which, even today, we get a glimpse of the Holy One. May God grant us a life full of such encounters in the coming year!