Tag Archives: Mussar

The Truth Is . . . (Yom Kippur Morning sermon, October 12, 2016)

In the summer of 2005, I made the first of two trips to the fascinating city of Prague in the Czech Republic.  That first visit came as a rabbinic chaperone for 600 NFTYites who were setting out on their summer adventure. The journey would take them from several days in the Czech Republic learning about the life of our people in Europe, to Cyprus where we hebrewclock04boarded a boat (at 4 am I might add) to set sail for Israel. It’s really about a half-day trip. However, so the NFTYites could learn about the boatloads of refugees who tried, some in vain, to make it to Israel seeking refuge from the ravages of Eastern Europe, we spent three days going in circles in the Mediterranean Sea. Our arrival was greeting by faux-British airplanes and boats seeking to block entry to these “refugees.” (Think “Exodus”)  Once in Israel the teens spent the next 4 weeks visiting Israel from top to bottom. I headed for Jerusalem to study. I jumped at the chance to accompany the NFTY groups because it afforded me that first opportunity to see Prague, as well as the Nazi Concentration Camp of Terezin, some 50 miles from the Czech capital.

Prague is a magical place. It is beautiful. Its Jewish Quarter was virtually untouched by the horrors of World War II.  We cannot say the same for the city’s Jewish inhabitants, who were deported en masse to Terezin. Yet, Prague’s synagogues, Jewish cemetery, and more were spared destruction. One lingering image of my visit comes from the city’s association with an important 16th century Rabbi by the name of Judah Loew. Rabbi Loew (whose grave is in that old Jewish cemetery), is best known as the popularizer of the legend of the Golem.

The Golem might be viewed as our tradition’s equivalent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While the concept of a golem can be traced back to early rabbinic times, it was Rabbi Loew’s telling that brought this figure literarily and symbolically to wider attention.  His golem was a sort of superhero, made from a lifeless mass, brought to life, and set on a mission to deliver the Jewish community from difficult and dangerous circumstances.  In golem_by_philippe_semeria_539_332_c1Rabbi Loew’s formulation of the narrative, the creature is brought to life by inscribing the Hebrew letters Aleph-Mem-Tav on his forehead.  These letters form the Hebrew word emet, or truth. Elsewhere, tradition teaches us that “Truth is God’s Signature,” or perhaps God’s ultimate reality. Should the golem become uncontrollable, or a danger to the Jews, it could be deactivated by erasing the letter aleph, simply leaving the word Met or “dead” on its forehead, returning it to being a shapeless mass. On the streets of Prague, and in all of the gift shops, even beyond the Jewish Quarter, one finds little figurines representing the Golem – one of Prague’s claims to fame – in all shapes and sizes.  I was bemused by the ever-present totems.  I didn’t buy one.  But I have to say, the legend has been much on my mind of late.

Well, it’s not really the Golem I have been pondering. Rather it’s the word inscribed on the forehead of this mythic figure that I’ve been thinking, reading and studying about in recent weeks and months. In particular I have been studying Jewish teachings on the value of emet, truth.  Emet is one of the middot, or soul-traits of the Mussar literature and practice. Some of you have explored it with me in our mussar groups over the past two years. In these complicated times, I suspect I am not the only one thinking about the meaning of truth.

 As I noted last night, when asked to comment about the lessons of her battle against Holocaust-denier David Irving for our cacophonous times, Professor Lipstadt stated: “There is a difference between facts, opinions, and opinions based on lies.”  If I were to recast that statement in light of my study of Jewish teachings on emet, I might put it this way: There is a difference between God’s Truth, which we cannot fully know; opinions, which are a part of our God-given capacity to think and articulate how we see the world before our eyes; and lies, which are virtually always destructive for both the liar and those to whom the lies are spoken.

Jewish tradition does countenance what we might call “little white lies” in situations wherein a small lie will do less damage than the clear truth.  In the Talmud we read of a famous debate between Rabbis Hillel and Shammai over whether it’s permissible to shade the truth when addressing a bride on her wedding day. Shammai, ever the strict, authoritarian figure teaches one must speak the absolute truth, even if it means harming the feelings of the bride, diminishing her special day.  By contrast, Hillel suggests that one must always praise the beauty of a bride on her wedding day. Shading the truth supersedes being completely honest, out of sensitivity to the feelings of the bride. The difference between truth, opinions and opinions based on lies is a powerful theme for our time. I’d like to share three examples of how I believe we can challenge ourselves to see the differences.

holocaust-museumOn Rosh Hashanah I spoke about my trip in August to Berlin. For about a day and half before the Rabbinic mission began I had the opportunity to explore the city and visit a number of its important sites. I had never been to Germany, save for changing planes on our first Temple Shalom Israel trip in 2004. I was hesitant about visiting a place which for so long had been about as far down on my list of places to see as it could be. Yet, the opportunity to participate in that mission in regard to the Syrian refugees pushed me past my qualms about going to Germany.  On my first day, and numerous times in the days that followed I had the opportunity to visit Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is a breathtaking site. Beyond the site itself, it was striking to me that the Germans had chosen to name the memorial so honestly.  As several guides explained, in naming the memorial as being dedicated to “the murdered Jews of Europe” the nation was owning its past and its transgressions. Rather than attempting to soften the historical reality they are saying, “As a nation, are responsible for the destruction of over 6 million European Jews. We will own that truth.” It was inspiring. While not God’s Truth, Germany’s decision to so name the memorial speaks truth, even as that truth is still painful and challenging to fully comprehend.

Last year, our Newton community was visited by a number of incidents involving hateful graffiti, ugly chants at a high school basketball game, and even more recently, the display of a Confederate flag by some students from Newton North High School. There was a rather vigorous response to these incidents late last Winter and throughout the Spring.  There were gatherings for parents at the Day Middle School where the initial graffiti incidents took place, and for the larger community at City Hall in early May. Some saw the incidents as harbingers of a rise in anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech. Let’s be clear. There is a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes in our nation and world today. There has also been a rise in racially-motivated hate crimes.

Back in the Spring there was cacophonous debate over the handling of the incidents in our schools. There are a variety of opinions about how the principal of Day Middle School, School Superintendent, Dr. Fleischman, Mayor Warren and others handled these incidents and their aftermath. The incidents are hurtful and should not be simply swept under the rug.  At the same time, there are different views, even among leaders of groups like the Anti-Defamation League, Facing History and Ourselves, the American Jewish Committee and others about how best to address such incidents. Many people were respectful of the varying opinions around our community. At the City Hall gathering, the best responses were those of the students themselves. They conducted themselves with dignity and clear-thinking about how we heal and move past these incidents.

Yet, there were disturbing signs as well. In some responses, at the Day Middle School, at City Hall, and in various media outlets there was evidence of Professor Lipstadt’s third category – facts based on lies. This was not a complete surprise. Our community proved to be a mirror of the larger climate in our nation. Politics always seems to involve some measure of stretching and bending the truth. Yet I wonder, is this worse in our time?  Opinions based on lies, “it’s true because I say it’s true” is a part of the zeitgeist of our times. With the spread in recent decades of the internet, social media, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of digital media, we live in a world wherein truth is all-too-often determined by the ability to broadcast one’s message, irrespective of any basis in fact.

Our current Presidential Election has far-too-often been conducted in this third category. To me, it’s deeply troubling. When I can say one thing today, deny I said it tomorrow, and my denial becomes truth, we are on shaky ground. The movie about Professor Lipstadt is, I believe, aptly titled.  “Denial” – of facts, of scientific evidence, of historical realities, of the words I said – whatever, it’s a deeply troubling turn we’ve taken as a society.  If this is the “new normal” when it comes to public discourse, how will we teach younger generations to research, to examine history, faith traditions, sociological patterns so long as anyone can proclaim “my statement of my view is no longer simply a matter of opinion. It is “the truth,” and the only truth that matters.  How will we ever turn this tide?  I have no large-scale answers. But I do believe that in some way the process begins with each of us, starting with ourselves.

 On this Day of self-examination, I urge us each to face ourselves as honestly as we possibly can. Let us tear away the masks behind which we sometimes hide. Let us own the truths of our lives, not the prettified version we tell ourselves and others, but rather the honest truth – or as we might say in Yiddish­das emes.

Emet has been a driving value in our tradition since Biblical times. The Psalmist wrote: “God is close to all who call upon God, to all who call upon God in truth. (Ps. 145:18) Our liturgy calls out, “Purify our hearts in truth.”  Psalm 15, which is often read as part of the funeral service asks: “Who may ascend Your Holy Mountain? The one who walks uprightly and performs righteousness, and speaks the truth within his heart.” (Ps. 15: 1-2) In a 15th 3207_2century Mussar text, Orchot TzaddikimThe Ways of the Righteous, which I have been studying for almost a year on a weekly basis with my study partner, the author elaborates on this passage from Psalm 15.  In the chapter on the Soul Trait of Emet he writes, “It is not written, ‘speaks the truth with his mouth.’ The idea is that emet/truth must be implanted and fixed within a person’s heart.”  Truth is not just about what we say. It is the honesty with which we face life and all of its messiness, with truth in the depths of our hearts.

Human beings make mistakes. We misspeak. We exercise poor judgment. This day is about facing our shortcomings truthfully. It’s about coming clean – with ourselves, with those around us, and from the vantage point of tradition, with God. If we can pursue truth with honesty, we can reorient ourselves. Having done so, perhaps we strengthen ourselves so as to be capable of heading back out into the world able to face dishonesty with honesty, to fight lies with emet. With it all, we must always recognize, as Moses Maimonides would teach, that we limited human beings are not ultimately capable of seeing, knowing, or even consciously speaking absolute truth.  We are only asked to be the best we can, given our human limitations.

The hateful speech and widespread dishonesty in our society deadens us – as individuals and as a nation.  Rather than allow the aleph of emet to be erased from our foreheads, allowing ourselves to be turned into lifeless, thoughtless lumps of clay, let us embrace our God-given capacity for rational thought and human expression.  Let us pursue truth, with honesty, with openness to divergent opinions and respect for the dignity of the other. Hopefully we can tilt our community, our nation and our world towards wholeness.  Rather than allow ourselves to be turned into golems, let us fully embrace our humanity, and pursue emet/truth as we prepare ourselves for a year of learning, living, celebration, deeds of lovingkindness and justice, and let us pray, our world for that wholeness and healing we call shalom!

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Kol Nidre – The Road to Character

Kol Nidre
September 22, 2015
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

The Road to Character

Gut Yontif – Shanah tovah!
Just over 3 weeks ago we learned of the death of acclaimed author and neurologist, Oliver Sacks. As the NY Times stated in their obituary for him, Sacks “explored some of the brain’s strangest pathways in best-selling case histories . . . using his patients’ disorders as starting points for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition.” Like his life, Sacks’ death has touched many. Robin Williams’ powerful portrayal of him in the film “Awakenings” exposed Sacks and his work to a broader audience.

In February, I read a NY Times op-ed Sacks’ published entitled, “My Own Life.” In the piece, Sacks recounted his response to learning that he had terminal cancer. I made a note to myself that his column might be fertile material for a sermon on this very evening when Jewish tradition beckons us to face our mortality. Sacks wrote, “I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face-to-face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted . . . It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” That last bit has stayed with me.

To me, the ending of Sacks’ piece summarizes the core message of this day of Yom Kippur. None of us ever knows when we will draw our last breath. None of us knows how many pages are left for us to write on in tradition’s metaphorical “Book of Life.” To paraphrase Oliver Sacks, it is up to us, each of us, how to live out the life that is to be ours. On this most sacred day of our Jewish year, each of us is called to assess our lives. We are called to answer the question, How do I want to live my life “in the richest, deepest, most productive way [I] can?”

A book I was very excited to read this summer was NY Times columnist David Brooks’ latest work, The Road to Character. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, “Brooks’ writing often makes me stop and think, even when I don’t agree with him.” I read Brooks because he always challenges my sense of perspective. I believe The Road to Character is an important book. On this Kol Nidre night I want to lift up a powerful, and central part of his thesis. Brooks posits that we live our lives by two different sets of virtues: what he calls “Resume virtues” and “Eulogy virtues.” He writes, “Resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to [your] external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed. Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues.” He proceeds to “confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former.” Brooks contends that we live in a world which celebrates the resume values, and demands that we enhance those values. Think about it for a moment. Which set guides you in your daily life?

Over the last 35 years, I have written hundreds of eulogies. There have been times while preparing a eulogy that my mind would drift to wondering what might be said at my funeral. With his book Brooks handed me – and hands all of us – a useful framework for reflecting on our lives along with Oliver Sacks words, “It is [now] up to us now to choose how to live out the [time granted us.] [We each must] live in the richest, deepest, most productive way [we] can.” This is the focus to which we are called on this day of Yom Kippur. As we engage in heshbon ha-nefesh – taking stock of our soul, of our life, we should each ask ourselves David Brooks’ question, “By which set of virtues am I living?” This is what we must ask ourselves today. Am I on the path I want to be on? Am I living the legacy I intend to leave my loved ones when it comes time for someone to reflect on my life?

Part of what drew me in as I read Brooks’ book earlier this summer was the fact that in unpacking his notion of resume and eulogy values, he drew on one of the most powerful Jewish theological works of the 20th century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith. I studied it in college, again in Rabbinic school, and I’ve returned to it over the years. Often referred to simply as “the Rav,” Soloveitchik was one of the most important figures in Modern Orthodoxy, and Jewry in a larger sense during the 20th century. He was an important figure here in the Boston Jewish community as he was the head of the Maimonides School.

In Lonely Man of Faith, Soloveitchik writes of a distinction between two paradigmatic figures in the Creation narratives as we read them in the opening chapters of Genesis. He names these figures Adam I and Adam II. Soloveitchik compares and contrasts these two models as emblematic of the struggle central in each human life. Brooks borrows these two figures to flesh out his two models of virtue. He names Adam I as the career-oriented, ambitious, largely externally focused person. Adam I wants to build, create, produce and discover things. There are measures of Adam I in each of us. It is driven, at least in part, by the yetzer ha-rah which is often described as “the inclination to evil. However, over the centuries teachers have noted that describing yetzer ha-rah simply as “evil” is too facile. In the Talmud we are taught that the yetzer ha-rah plays an important role in human creativity. I’ll say more about it tomorrow morning.

Adam II, as Soloveitchik presents it, and Brooks elaborates, is the more internally focused person. Adam II wants to attain a serene inner character and may outwardly appear quiet. Adam II has developed a solid sense of right and wrong. For Brooks, this is the person who is not driven, or is at least not primarily driven by the desire to attain worldly success. Adam II sees success as having a transcendent, sacred purpose. Adam I wants to know “how do things work?” Adam II seeks to understand “why things exist.” Adam I’s motto is “success.” For Adam II “life is a moral drama.” Adam II is driven by charity (or might we say tzedek and tzedakah), love and redemption. Consciously or not, each of us struggles with both of these natural human inclinations. Rav Soloveitchik writes that “we live in the contradiction between Adam I and Adam II.” To this Brooks adds, our task in life is to master the art of living between these two sides of human nature.

Brooks recounts the stories of a number of figures, some well-known, others lesser-known so that we can witness how certain people have lived the struggle along “the road to character.” In each chapter Brooks focuses on a particular dimension of character: for example, Self-Conquest, Struggle, Self-Mastery, Dignity, Love, and Self-Examination, and more. Through telling the stories of different people, some well-known, others less so, to unpack these characteristics. I thought it might have been subtitled “Profiles in Character.” By book’s end, David Brooks has laid out a curriculum, as it were, for pursuing character development. Indeed, in his final chapter he offers a summary of his key points. Each point could have been a stepping off point for a worthwhile message on this holy day.

In our busy lives, many of us do not take, or make the time for reflection. We do not pause often enough for introspection, for heshbon ha-nefesh – the soul work our tradition prescribes as a healthy part of living. This soul work is not relegated solely to this day of Yom Kippur, or in a larger sense, these Days of Awe. Jewish tradition erects a framework to enable us in this self-reflection. We must each embrace the paths that suit us. It may be through worship; by engaging in regular study; or by the work of tzedek, the pursuit of justice. Last year ago I spoke of mussar as one of our tradition’s pathways to examining and perfecting ourselves. While reading Brooks I realized mussar can be viewed as a Jewish Road to Character. The opportunity for self-reflection can come by entering what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “the palace in time,” Shabbat, which can aid us in slowing down, stepping back, and reflecting. In today’s world we are educated and pushed to enhance our Adam I side. We are encouraged to pursue our resume virtues. A successful life is so often defined as a life of material success and recognition of that success by those around us. Yom Kippur calls us to embrace our Adam II side. This Holy Day, its liturgy, and most especially the Viddui/Confession calls us to focus on that more internal landscape. Viddui is our tradition’s acknowledgement of human frailty. In the eyes of our tradition it is inevitable that we will, in the course of living our lives, fail in one, and often more ways. Our communal confession pushes us to consider our sense of purpose, our place in the human moral drama of life. In our quieter moments, we allow ourselves to turn inward and face our hearts and souls, our lives as individuals. We are called to check our internal moral compass. With each High Holy Day season we promise to make adjustments that will play an important role as we steer ourselves into and through the New Year for which we pray we will be inscribed in the Book of Life. Then we charge back out into the fray of daily life.

On this day, we should ask ourselves: What is my intention for the year ahead? Will I focus only on my resume values? Will I also think and act in regard to my eulogy values? Am I only working on Adam I or can I also set as a goal, work on my Adam II side? Brooks admits that he wrote the book as an act of challenging himself as he is not sure he can follow the path of character. By sharing his act of self-reflection, I believe he has offered us a model and given us all a framework with which to engage ourselves in this significant act of self-examination. Come sundown tomorrow, as we stream out of the synagogue and into the New Year we can choose the ways in which we will each continue the process of reflection and course correction.

One final notion David Brooks presents is what he calls a “Crooked timber” approach to life. He brings this notion from a teaching of philosopher Immanuel Kant who wrote, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Brooks uses this notion of “crooked timber” to reflect what he terms a “moral realist’s” approach to the reality that we are all flawed. “Character,” writes Brooks, “is built in the struggle against [our] own weaknesses.” A “crooked timber” approach to life does not excuse failings. It acknowledges that we are, all of us, to varying degrees weak, foolish, and sometimes “just plain inexplicable.” Living as “crooked timber” is acknowledging and accepting that we are, each of us, in some way broken. Our Adam II side asks us to approach this brokenness and the struggle to perfect ourselves and to repair what is broken which can lead us to a strengthening our character. It can help us strike the appropriate balance between resume and eulogy virtues; between our Adam I and our Adam II side. There is no single path for each and every person. Each of us has our own struggles to meet; our own challenges to face. Yet, the power of relationship and community allows us each to walk our particular path without facing the struggle of life alone.

This day we take a long hard look at ourselves. The Road to Character, both for David Brooks, and for our Jewish tradition passes again and again, through life in the world; through our daily interactions with family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers. May we carry our words of contrition during this Yom Kippur away as this day fades and turn to living in what we pray will be a year of manifold blessings. May we live the commitments we make this day – to one another, to God, and perhaps most importantly, to ourselves. May we carry Oliver Sacks’ words as a charge for life in the year before us: It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me! I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

G’mar Hatimah tovah
May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life
for a year of sweet blessings and shalom!

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