Recognizing the Good

Kol Nidre

Octber 3, 2014

Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

Recognizing the Good

Perhaps you’ve heard this story about violinist Itzhak Perlman. One evening, he was in New York to give a concert. Perlman was stricken with polio as a child, so getting on stage is no small feat for him. He wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. Perlman crosses the stage painfully slowly, until he reaches the chair in which he seats himself to play. As soon as he appeared on stage in New York that night, the audience applauded. They then waited respectfully as Perlman slowly made his way across the stage to his chair. He took his seat, signaled to the conductor to begin, and began to play. No sooner had he finished the first few bars than one of the strings on his violin snapped sounding like a gunshot. Perlman was close enough to the beginning of the piece that it would have been reasonable to halt the concert while he replaced the string, and begin again. That’s not what he did. He waited a moment. Then he signaled the conductor to pick up just where they had left off. Perlman now had only three strings with which to play his soloist part. He was able to find some of the missing notes on adjoining strings, but where that wasn’t possible, he had to rearrange the music on the spot in his head so that it all still held together.

Perlman played with passion and artistry, spontaneously rearranging the symphony right to the end. When he finally rested his bow, the audience sat for a moment in stunned silence. They then rose to their feet and cheered wildly. They knew they had witnessed an extraordinary display of musical skill and ingenuity. Perlman raised his bow, signaling for quiet. “You know,” he said, “sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much beautiful music you can still make with what you have left.”

The story may be an urban legend. Who knows?  My teacher, Alan Morinis suggests, “Even if it is, it is nonetheless full of truth. We have to wonder, was Perlman speaking of his violin strings, or his crippled body?” Commenting on this story Morinis notes, “We are all lacking something. We are challenged to answer the question: Do we have the attitude of making something of beauty out of what we do have, incomplete as it may be?”  This strikes me as a powerful question as we gather on this holiest night of the Jewish year.  On Yom Kippur, we are called to search our souls with honesty and clarity: How have I used the gift of the year now ended?  Have I been able to rise above my imperfections and live life to the fullest possible? Have I cultivated an attitude of making something of beauty out of what I do have, incomplete as it may be?”

In January, my hevruta study partner of many years, Rabbi Jonathan Kraus of Belmont and I decided that after two plus years of studying a particular midrash collection we were ready for a change in our weekly sessions. We settled on the subject of Mussar. The Hebrew term Mussar (מוּסַר), is derived from a Biblical verse which speaks of the search for wisdom and knowledge. The word has come to refer to moral conduct, instruction or discipline. For me, much like the teachings of Talmud and Midrash, or our Jewish mystical tradition, Mussar is another Jewish prism through which to see the world and our lives. Most historians trace its origins to a 19th century Lithuanian Rabbi, Israel Salanter, who began to teach a message promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct among religiously observant Jews. His efforts were a response to the Enlightenment, which had taken root across Europe. As the ghetto walls surrounding Jewish life fell, and Jews entered broader society, Jewish life too became “enlightened.” Within the Jewish community the Enlightenment came to be known as the Haskalah.” Through mussar Rabbi Salanter sought to protect the Jewish community from this “enlightenment,” these new ways of thinking which the Haskalah brought. (By the way, among these dangerous ideas was Reform Judaism.) At first the Mussar movement sought to influence small circles of businessmen but it soon became an elitist movement, attracting especially students in the Lithuanian Yeshivot. Today it is variously described as, “A Jewish tradition; a spiritual discipline; a body of literature; a way of looking at the world; and an ethical philosophy.” Mussar has-emerged and is being revitalized in our day through the work of people like Alan Morinis, who I mentioned earlier. Morinis was one of the founders of The Mussar Institute which offers study programs promoting a modern-day approach to mussar which they view as a treasury of techniques and understandings offering valuable guidance for the journey of our lives.”

Before we began our study of mussar in January, I knew a bit about the Rabbi Salanter. I even taught a course grounded in mussar here a few years back.  Jonathan and I approached the Mussar Institute to see if we could “buy in” and study one of their programs. Their initial answer was that they appreciated our interest, but that their programs and materials are intended for groups led by their trained facilitators.  I guess we were persistent, because after a few weeks of back and forth they agreed to let us be a “group.” As it’s Yom Kippur, I should apologize to those of you who took my Downtown Study or Lunch and Learn course on mussar a few years back.  I now know how much I didn’t know then. With summer over, Rabbi Kraus and I have resumed our study sessions.  Later this month I will be attending a seminar at the URJ in New York at which I will be trained to lead a program of the Mussar Institute.  I am honored to be among the handful of rabbis selected for this first Reform movement Mussar cohort. I imagine the Salanter Rebbe is turning over in his grave to see our movement which he opposed adopting and adapting his teachings.

Tonight I want to lift up just one principle of Mussar I believe is pertinent on this day. In Hebrew it is known as Hakarat HaTov. It’s often translated as “gratitude.” For me, a more accurate rendering in English would be “Recognizing the good.”  On this Day of Atonement, when so much of our liturgy is focused on what we have done wrong and how we can set ourselves back on the right course in the year ahead, I believe we also need Hakarat Ha-tov as part of our repertoire.

Teaching on Hakarat ha-Tov, Alan Morinis suggests that we humans are hard-pressed to stop and focus on gratitude. He suggests “practicing gratitude [is a] means [to] recognizing the good that is already [ours.]” It means focusing first on what is right, and on what is good. Let’s face it, for some of us, its a part of our nature that we first notice what’s missing, what’s broken, or what’s imperfect. Hakarat HaTov is about looking for the good, and acknowledging it – first in ourselves, then in others, and in our world.

Now Hakarat HaTov does not suggest we turn a blind eye to imperfection. We know our tradition challenges us to seek tikkun – to repair ourselves, and to repair our world. This day, Yom Kippur is very much about tikkun. It is about repairing our misspoken words, and our wrongful deeds. This day is about resetting our inner compass as we set out on the New Year we welcomed but ten days ago.

Our Haftarah portion tomorrow morning, from Isaiah 58 will remind us of our obligations to heal and repair the world around us. The prophet calls us out for not matching our words with action. As we hear his words in the morning, it is as if Isaiah is saying, Don’t just say x or y is important to you.  Live what you say! Otherwise the words you utter are meaningless. Even as we strive to engage in tikkun olam, at the same time we must be honest and realistic with ourselves.  We cannot fix everything. Even in the midst of brokenness and challenge, Hakarat HaTov suggests we start by acknowledging what is, in fact, good.

The new Reform movement High Holy Day prayer book, MIshkan HaNefesh, the draft of which we will use during tomorrow’s Yizkor and Neilah services includes several teachings on this value of Hakarat HaTov.  (I urge you to plan your day so as to remain with us and join in tasting the Machzor.)  I think it is an excellent move on the part of the framers of our new Machzor to specifically include a number of passages on Hakarat HaTov, on “recognizing the good” in our lives.

So often people speak with me of the difficulties they have with our Liturgy, especially that of this Day of Atonement. Atonement does not have to involve simply beating ourselves up.  As we will see (hopefully next year) in the new Yom Kippur Morning Liturgy, our attention will be drawn to a number of teachings which support this value of Hakarat HaTov, such as this one, from the Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav who teaches:

Always look for the good

in yourself.

And remember:

Joy is not incidental to your spiritual quest;

it is vital.

For so it is written (Isaiah 55:12): “You will go out through joy,

and be led forth in peace.”

Focus on the good in yourself;

take joy in what is good,

and you will be led forth from inner darkness.

We often joke in Jewish life about the role that guilt plays in the Jewish experience. Our prayers are not striving to make us feel guilty or badly about ourselves. Guilt is a natural human emotion that can help us to be honest with ourselves and take responsibility for our words, our deeds, and our lives.

Surely there is much that lies out of our control in life. We are not expected to give account for that over which we have no control. At the same time, the words of our liturgy on this day, and the teachings of tradition, are intended to help us come face-to-face with ourselves with honesty. The Zohar, a mystical text from the 13th century, states that Yom Kippurim, can be understood as Yom K’purim, a day like PurimOn Purim we don masks and pretend to be someone other than who we really are. On Yom Kippurim, we must take off our masks, so we can face ourselves, our loved ones and friends, our community, and God without the protective covering behind which we hide during so much of our lives.

Hakarat haTov begins as a self-reflective process.  We must see, and acknowledge the good in ourselves. For some this is a difficult, even terrifying task. But it is an important discipline. For each middah, each quality or value in Mussar tradition, Alan Morinis offers a simple phrase which one can say as a part of mindfully focusing on the particular middah/value at hand.  For Hakarat HaTov his offering is “My cup is filled with gifts.” (Repeat after me: “My cup is filled with gifts.”)  Imagine if we each took just a few minutes in the morning; and perhaps again before we retire at the end of a day – even sixty seconds to recite, “My cup is filled with gifts.”  The practice can help put both good days and bad ones into perspective.

Later this year, I will be offering some sessions to allow you to join me in exploring what mussar can offer for our lives. Some of the other mussar values include: humility, patience, gratitude, compassion, enthusiasm, silence, trust, faith, among others.  Mussar surely has what to teach us even in the 21st century.   To end, I’d like us to join in a moment of Hakarat Hatov. We have a long day ahead of us this Yom HaKippurim. We will recite many passages, some of them many times, which strike us as harsh, foreboding, and challenging. Recently, a colleague shared a Viddui, a confessional, which is said to be inspired by the teachings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rav Kook urges us to flip the traditional Viddui on its head.  Rather than just reciting what we have done wrong, he suggests we recite what we have done well, what we have strived to accomplish – for good in this past year. The words are on your ivory service booklets – Won’t you join me in reciting this viddui – in the hope that we will “recognize the good” in our lives, our words and our deeds.  I’ll lead with the Hebrew term, let’s join together in the English.

An Alternative Viddui/Confessional – attributed to Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

 Ahavnu – We have loved

Bachinu – we have cried,

Gamalnu – we have given back,

Dibarnu Yofi – we have spoken great things!

He’emanu – We have believed,

V’hishtadalnu – and we have given our best effort,

Zacharnu – we have remembered,

Chibaknu – we have embraced,

Ta’amnu sefer – we have chanted Your book!

Yatzarnu – We have created,

Kamanu – we have yearned,

Lachamnu avur hatzedek – we have fought for justice!

Mitzinu et hatov – We have done all the good we could do,

Nisinu – we have tried,

Sarnu lirot – we have turned aside to see,

Asinu asher tzvitanu – we have done as You have commanded us!

Peirashnu – We have learned interpretations of Torah,

Tzadaknu lifamim – sometimes we have even been righteous,

Karanu b’shimcha – we have called out Your Name!

Ratzinu – We have been steadfast in our will,

Samachnu – we have rejoiced,

Tamachnu – we have been there to support one another.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a year of good health, sweet blessings, and peace!

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