Saturday, September 30, 2017

“Finding our Way Back” – Sermon – Yom Kippur Morning – September 30, 2017

     The rabbi was about ready to get that last High Holy Day sermon underway.   He had experienced a meaningful Rosh Hashanah with his congregation.  His Yom Kippur evening sermon was done.   After a couple of community meetings which had reminded him of the challenges of finding common ground and engendering good values, he welcomed an opportunity to focus on the principles embodied in the Torah and Haftarah readings for Yom Kippur.   Every year, these portions challenge us to recognize that the teachings of our heritage are near and dear to us so that we can easily observe them.  We hear the words of Isaiah, who proclaimed that prayer and ritual mean very little if they don’t lead us to care for our fellow human beings and attend to their needs.  We tell the story of Jonah to remember that every person should have an opportunity to find their way back to goodness if they have, for some reason, gone astray.  
     The rabbi tried very hard not to think about politics.  It didn’t work.  His mind wandered to certain expressions by national and international leaders that included unbridled ridicule and statements intended to isolate certain citizens. The rabbi had thought that leaders are supposed to lower the temperature of potential conflicts that could go nuclear.   He didn’t see that happening.  
     The rabbi thought back to these words, once spoken by a former president at the national prayer breakfast:  “At times, it seems like we're unable to listen to one another; to have at once a serious and civil debate. And this erosion of civility in the public square sows division and distrust among our citizens. It poisons the well of public opinion. It leaves each side little room to negotiate with the other. It makes politics an all-or-nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong when, in reality, neither side has a monopoly on truth. And then we lose sight of the children without food and the people without shelter and the families without health care. Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility….progress doesn't come when we demonize opponents. It's not born in righteous spite. Progress comes when we open our hearts, when we extend our hands, when we recognize our common humanity. Progress comes when we look into the eyes of another and see the face of God. That we might do so -- that we will do so all the time, not just some of the time -- is my fervent prayer for our nation and the world.”
   The rabbi knew that times had changed since then.   He needed time to think.    So he decided to get out of town just a short distance.  He drove to one of his favorite spots that overlooks his city, near the majestic mountains that tower over his beautiful locale.  He got out of his car and gazed at the length and breadth of the town. But he hadn’t rested well on the previous nights.  He sat down at a nearby picnic table.  It was all too easy to close his eyes and….
   The next thing he knew, he was standing on a higher mountain, looking across a great valley to another range of hills. In between, there was a river going to the north, and, to the south was an unusual looking sea. He thought a moment and said to himself, “Wait, I know exactly where I am. Where are the other rabbis on my trip?” He was imagining himself in Jordan, on a tour of the Middle East in January of 1996 with 54 of his colleagues. He saw some of them milling about at first…and then they disappeared.”  He was alone…or was he?
 There was another man nearby, with a long white beard and an impressive white robe, just looking out over the expansive landscape before them.
    The rabbi knew that he was standing on Mt. Nebo, the famous overlook of the Jordan Valley from where Moses was allowed to look across to the Land of Canaan, the Promised Land, a place where the Israelite leader was not allowed to enter.  That privilege was given to Joshua.
   The rabbi knew that, on his visit in 1996, he had been able to stand in that spot because two leaders had found their way back from a continued state of war to a measure of peace. King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin completed a process of turning their two nations from mutual hostility to clandestine cooperation in the 1970s and 1980s to the beginnings of a civil dialogue and, finally, to peace in 1994.
   The rabbi’s thoughts were interrupted when he felt a tug on his coat.  The man with the white beard had approached him to make some connection.
  “Amazing view, isn’t it?” he asked.
    The rabbi was startled at first, but then he regained his composure and said, , “I can’t believe I am seeing this view – it is incredible, and it’s only possible because these two nations made peace. The hills on both sides are like mirror images of each other. The road up to Amman looks a lot like the road going up to Jerusalem, winding around the hills near the cities and towns. You feel like you are doing a real ALIYAH – going higher and higher – literally.”
   The man with the long white beard said, “I never had the chance to see Jerusalem from the ground – only from above. Heavenly Jerusalem – Y’rushala-yim shel ma’alah – is one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a lot quieter than the Jerusalem you know.”
    The rabbi was puzzled, “So why haven’t you been to Jerusalem like I have?” The mystery man lamented, “I wasn’t allowed to see what you have seen.  My assistant and successor was, though. His name was…..”
   The rabbi interrupted, “Joshua? I had a feeling. Then I am speaking with…Moses?”
  “How did you know?” asked the stranger who was no longer a mystery.
   The rabbi’s uncertainty turned to excitement. “You look a lot like you do in the movies – even Prince of Egypt –wow, how did they know?  I seem to have these unexpected encounters just when I need them. So, Moses--by the way, you look great for 120 - what did you learn about shifting conflict towards civility and peace during all those years of leading the Israelites in the wilderness? I know what it’s like to lead a congregation – there are always challenges along the way.”
    Moses looked at the rabbi, “Sounds like we have a lot in common. I will answer your questions.   So you were amazed at being able to stand here, were you? Don’t think I haven’t kept up a little with history over the last 3200 years! I was glad to see my descendants and some of their neighbors start to figure out how to make peace by identifying their common goals, trying to discover a way to build up their countries without the threat of war, and being willing to share all kinds of knowledge and resources because it would bring them mutual benefit. And it couldn’t have happened unless they toned down the rhetoric at some level and stopped talking about how much they hated each other.  I know they may not be doing all of that now as much as they had before.  Hopefully, they will be able to continue to engage in honest and civil conversations about what it would take to make peace not only among leaders, but also among the people. I have seen where it has worked, and, also, where it hasn’t.  Hatred and demonization of ideological opponents persist even within each of these two countries and in neighboring nations. It may take a long time to bring complete healing and peace, but I believe it will happen someday.”
    The rabbi wondered, “Moses, I had the impression that you felt that you hadn’t been treated well as a leader, and I wonder how you felt about not being able to cross into the land where your people would settle.”
Moses said, “Well, I was disappointed, but I realized that our struggles along our journey had put me in a difficult position. At first, I felt I had to directly battle with the pessimists and naysayers who kept on shouting, ‘Why did you take us out into the wilderness where we have nothing? Lead us back to Egypt!’ Even when I reminded them that they were slaves in Egypt who suffered from oppression and cruelty, some of them didn’t want to remember that part of the experience. Freedom is a gift, but keeping it requires taking responsibility and maintaining cooperation. I felt so much better when I had judges and priests who helped me lead. And when the Israelites turned time and again to focusing on the uncertainty of their new life, I would still plead to God on their behalf. I was committed to keeping them secure and together as a community, because it was all important to me to sustain their newfound liberty. It took almost everything out of me. By the time I gave my farewell speech – which you may know as a book called Deuteronomy – I had put everything into perspective. I accepted that Joshua would ‘take it from here.’ I reminded the people of all that had happened to them, and outlined rules that they needed to live by: Don’t gossip, don’t stand by when someone is being harassed or bullied, offer criticism as gently as possible, and, in your words and actions, love your neighbor as yourself.   Maybe you know those rules?”
The rabbi was excited to hear these teachings directly from Moses.  “Yes, I know all of those rules, and we still teach them, discuss what they mean and try to apply them to our lives now. And you should know, Moses, how much your story as the leader who liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt has been at the foundation of the story of my country, the United States of America.   George Washington, the first president of my country, was seen as an American Moses. Several of the founders of our nation, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were asked to create a seal for the newly formed United States – and their proposal depicted you, Moses, leading the Israelites across the sea. Harriet Tubman, who fought against slavery in our nation, called herself the ‘Moses of her people.’ Abraham Lincoln, a president who paved the way for slaves to become free, saw himself as taking up your role as a liberator. On the night before he died, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke as if he was you, standing here at Mt. Nebo.  A man named Bruce Feiler wrote a book about all these references to you, calling you America’s prophet. That is in addition to you being so significant to the great religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our teacher; Moses the Lawgiver and Liberator, and Nabi Musa, Moses the prophet revered by Muslims. Your legacy is revered the world over. How does that make you feel?”
   Moses thought a moment and said, “I am overwhelmed, and extremely humbled.  I am not sure I deserve such an honor.  But I appreciate being remembered, and I hope that my story and the tale of my people’s journey to freedom is a uniting force in the world.”
    The rabbi lamented, “I wish I could say it is. Sometimes people fight over who really speaks for you. One group or another says that they have the only correct interpretation about what your teachings represent. I would have hoped that the universal appeal of your story would bring people together. Is that even possible in a world where civility is so hard to come by?”
   Moses was assertive in his response, “There was a good reason they called me Moses the teacher. So listen now, rabbi, to what I believe. You know where it says at the end of the book of Deuteronomy that all of the people were standing together in front of me? That was quite a scene – with people of all ages and all walks of life assembled, listening to what I had to say. I told them that God’s teachings were in their mouths and their hearts, and that they should choose life and goodness.  One way to choose life and goodness is to choose and use words carefully, and to listen to your heart and what it guides you to do. Love your neighbor as yourself really means putting yourself in the place of the other person, imagining that, when you speak, you are the other person listening to you. Think about that –see how that feels to you before you speak. You know in your heart what it means to choose life.  I am sure that you have a sense about what it means to do right and good for others and for yourself.   Civility breaks down when we stop using words that can be encouraging and healing.  Without civility, peace is a distant dream.   You know that you couldn’t have ever stood in this place without someone having let go of hatred and realizing that civil conversation and peace were well within their reach if they could only commit to listening to each other and recognizing their common goals.”
    The rabbi was awed by what he heard. “So we don’t have to be stuck with polarization, disrespect and hatred?”
“As long as you think about those words, rabbi – UVACHARTA V’CHAYIM, Choose Life.”
   “And rabbi, there is one more thing.  One of my worst mistakes that kept me from entering that land across the way was when God had told me to speak to a rock to get water for my people, who were extremely thirsty.   They were shouting their complaints to the point where my brother Aaron and I just couldn’t stand it anymore.   So I snapped back in a fit of anger, “Hear now, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  And then I struck the rock and water did come out, but I was wrong. Totally.  My first mistake was not following, to the letter, the instruction that God gave me to merely tell the rock to give water but, instead, striking the rock with my staff.  My second mistake was saying that my brother and I would get water from the rock, when we knew that everything we were able to do for the people came from God.  And my third mistake was that I called the people rebels.   Now maybe they were engaged in a sort of rebellion at that moment, but I didn’t have to call them names.  Afterwards, I felt like a bully, even though I could have justified my anger by saying that their cries pushed me beyond the limits of my patience.  A leader should not marginalize his own people like that. Keep that in mind, rabbi, because you never know when someone may believe that name-calling is actually productive and acceptable.  It’s not.  Trust me.”
“Moses, thank you, again, for being my teacher. Your message is very timely for me.  So where will you go now?”
    The rabbi looked away from Moses and out at the view for a quick second, and then turned around.
    He was standing alone, looking across the Jordan Valley towards Israel and then…..
    The rabbi woke up, sitting still at the picnic table.  He stood up and saw again the impressive local landscape that he had come to enjoy for a few minutes. The rabbi thought, “If people could only realize that it is possible to reflect, in our words and actions, the beauty of the world, our lives would be so much better.    As the natural world seems to foster cooperation among animals, plants, and the land to fashion a vista that can take our breath away, so can our approach to life do the same if we act based on unity, respect, and goodness.” 
    The rabbi stood in silence, and in the breeze, he began to hear a familiar tune with its words echoing inside of him….Hinei Mah Tov U-Mah Naim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – how good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together. Any place where people are gathered, he thought, they don’t all need to agree, but they can find ways to commit themselves to engendering civility and harmony as they move forward towards whatever promised land is spread out before their eyes and ready for their arrival.
  And so we pray: may our journeys in the year to come bring us all life and good, blessing and peace.

Source:  National Prayer Breakfast Talk – President Barack Obama, February 4, 2010.

"The Art of the…Apology" – Sermon–Kol Nidre/Yom Kippur Evening–September 29, 2017

     We are about to do it again.  It’s something we have done every year.
It’s something that could be easy, but it’s very, very difficult.
According to a Scottish proverb, open confession is good for the soul.
  Why is that so? 
  There are numerous biblical explanations, one coming from the 32nd Chapter of the Book of Psalms:  “Happy is one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over. Happy the person whom the ETERNAL ONE does not hold guilty, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. As long as I said nothing, my limbs wasted away from my anguished roaring all day long. For night and day Your hand lay heavy on me; my vigor waned as in the summer drought.   Then I acknowledged my sin to You; I did not cover up my guilt; I resolved, “I will confess my transgressions to the ETERNAL ONE,” and You forgave the guilt of my sin. Therefore let all faithful people pray to You upon discovering their sin that the rushing mighty waters not overtake them. You are my shelter; You preserve me from distress; You surround me with the joyous shouts of deliverance.”
   We learn from Psalm 32 that confession is good for more than just our soul.  This ancient song asserts that failing to admit one’s wrongdoing can destroy us inside and make us feel as if floodwaters have swept us away, never to return.  Confession, on the other hand, preserves our strength and prevents the destruction of our very essence. 
   So open confession is good for the body as well as for the soul. That well-known Scottish proverb has nothing on Psalm 32.   Apparently, the main benefit of reciting the VIDUI, the confessional prayers, during our Yom Kippur worship is that we will feel better.  
    We may even feel better when we confess sins we did not commit. Reciting these prayers as a community reminds us that we are responsible for each other.   We are all admitting, together, that we human beings have much for which we need to apologize, at least to God, and often, and more importantly, to each other.  And we can, if we choose, offer support and guidance to one another, which can strengthen our own individual moral character and the integrity of our community as a whole.
     Apologizing is an important step in the process of T’SHUVAH, repentance, in which we engage every High Holy Days.  We probably don’t think of the VIDUI, the confessional prayers, as a model for everyday apologies that we might make.   Our prayers, though, do present us with the proper language to use when we say we are sorry and admit our culpability to the people whom we have wronged or disappointed.
   In the introductory paragraph in this section of the service on page 82, we admit that even though we may tend to be arrogant and stubborn at times, we need to be self-aware about the fact that we make mistakes.  We have, most definitely, sinned.
    The ASHAMNU prayer on page 82 presents a detailed list of human errors in judgment and action.   There are no ifs, ands, or buts about what we in the human family have collectively done.  It’s all there. It is an alphabetical listing in Hebrew.  In English, it is just overwhelming.  Look at it for a few moments and examples will too easily come to mind of real situations that could illustrate each of those sins.
    The AL CHEIT recitation in this new prayerbook, MISHKAN HANEFESH, on page 86 and following, precedes each act of wrongdoing with phrases addressed to God that recount “the ways we have wronged You” or “the harm we have caused in Your world.”  It doesn’t say “the ways that only some of us have wronged You, God, and because I didn’t do it, I am skipping out on this one.”   If we are committed to being a close-knit community, reciting every line reaffirms our resolve to collectively act with a sense of righteousness and goodness.
   All of these prayers lead us to confess our sins sincerely, honesty, and directly.   We don’t make excuses.   Being human may be a reason that we inevitably make the wrong choices.  Being human also calls on us to restore relationships that need repair.   Even if we have engaged in bitter conflict with other people, I believe that the human spirit and the still, small voice inside of us crave equilibrium. 
    We can, I am sure, think of times when apology from a friend or colleague or when our own apology to another person brought healing.  There may have been other times when an apology did not help.    We can also think of many instances when a lack of apology left a lingering residue of disappointment, sadness, and regret.    
     And some leaders of organizations and corporations don’t know how to reach beyond their own concerns when they apologize.    After the recent Equifax data breach, NBC news reported on September 10 that Richard Smith, now former chairman and CEO of Equifax, apologized to "consumers and our business customers for the concern and frustration this causes.”  He said,  “This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do.”
     Smith didn’t do badly, but it could have been a lot better.   Perhaps he could have spoken directly to the customers like this: “We are sorry for how this breach has hurt you, our customers. We will help you to ensure the security of your information, from now on, with even greater diligence than before.  We know we need to do better.”   Mr. Smith could have said that.  But he didn’t.    
    When it comes to apologies, we know better.   I recently asked congregants to respond to two questions:  “What are the elements of a good and sincere apology?   What keeps people from apologizing when they did something wrong?”    Your responses demonstrate a sound understanding of human nature and personal and communal consideration.
Here are some of your statements about the art of making a good and sincere apology:
·         The person means what he or she is saying.   What not to say is, "If I've offended you.....".  There are many examples of this type of statement from politicians.
·      An apology should be honest and from the heart, and should not include the word “but.”
·      For sincerity, one must openly acknowledge and express what one is apologizing for, very specifically.   One should speak exactly to the act or words that might have caused hurt, to whatever was not considerate or proper. 
·      The apologizer has to understand the "affront," realize its wrongness and accept responsibility for his or her words or actions. 
·      The apologizer should try to empathize with the "affronted" person and understand his or her pain.
·      The apologizer has to be committed to changing his or her behavior so that it won’t happen again. 
·      You can't apologize to someone other than the person harmed. This is because no one else can forgive except the injured person. And that's because an apology that does not offer genuine and substantial restitution is no apology at all and is undeserving of forgiveness. If no other restitution is possible, at the very least the one who did the harm can take substantial steps to avoid doing similar harm in the future.
·      You can't apologize for someone else. You can apologize for unjust harm you or your organization caused but you can't apologize for doing something for which you bear no personal responsibility. 
·      An apology should serve to bring together members of the community who have been driven apart by evil acts. Mutual apologies can be perfectly legitimate and are useful in ending cycles of recrimination.
·      We need to be able to recognize when “I’m sorry” isn’t enough.” 
·      There are times when an apology should not be accepted, especially in situations where the purpose of the apology is to avoid legitimate consequences for one's evil act. 
·      Both people need an opportunity to understand each other. Even those who are self-aware might not realize that they have caused any pain or sadness.  
And the second question: What might keep people from apologizing? 
·      Pride, tired of being the big person, realizing that often an apology is one sided, and there is too much stuff piled up so that you can't remember the original "sin."
·      Not everyone is able to muster the necessary courage to face the person to whom the apology is due. 
·      Fear of the reaction and possible rejection they will get from the person to whom they are apologizing.  
·      An inability to admit having made a mistake or hurting others or a refusal to own one’s words or actions. 
·      Fear of being isolated by the group.
·      Anger, stubbornness, ignorance of one’s own rudeness, and being self-absorbed with no concern for another’s feelings.
·      For some, to apologize may carry legal liability (like after a car accident or related to professional malpractice).   One interesting study said that doctors or hospital authorities who apologize were less likely to be sued than those who didn't.    
·      The person is not sure what to say or how to say it.  
·      Being overcome by embarrassment or shame once they recognize the wrong they did. 
   In an article several years ago in Psychology Today, Dr. Denise Dellarosa Cummins gave valuable counsel to people who have trouble apologizing.  She said,  “Apologizing doesn’t mean admitting inferiority, unworthiness, or weakness. It doesn’t mean groveling or debasing yourself. People who demand that of you aren’t asking for an apology. They are asking for submission, and that is quite a different thing.  An apology first and foremost communicates a simple message that affirms your humanity and that of the injured party: ‘I see and I care’.”
      Writer Marjorie Ingall once offered a meaningful insight about apologizing in an article in Tablet magazine:  “A good apology means laying yourself bare…It means putting yourself in the other person’s position, giving them what they want and need. In short, it’s not about you. And even though I’ve been analyzing apologies for two years, it’s something I need to keep reminding myself, during the High Holidays and all the time. Sinning is easy; apologizing is hard.”
     The original impetus that led me to discuss what makes for a good apology came from the publication this past January of Dr. Harriett Lerner’s book, Why Won’t You Apologize?.  I have always seen Dr. Lerner as a great source of wisdom and counsel since the time when she and her husband and their two sons were members of the congregation I served in Kansas. Her book presents a wide range of situations and examples from which she derived important guidelines for how to say we are sorry and how we can overcome our reluctance to do so. 
    In one of her recent articles on this topic, Dr. Lerner presented criteria for “true apologies”:
·      “A true apology does not include the word “but.” “But” automatically cancels out an apology, and nearly always introduces a criticism or excuse.   It keeps the focus on your actions—and not on the other person’s response. For example, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what I said at the party last night,” is not an apology. Try instead, “I’m sorry about what I said at the party last night. It was insensitive and uncalled for.” Own your behavior and apologize for it, period.
·      A true apology does not overdo.  It stays focused on acknowledging the feelings of the hurt party without overshadowing them with your own pain or remorse.  It also doesn’t get caught up in who's to blame or who "started it." Maybe you’re only 14% to blame and maybe the other person provoked you. It can still help to simply say, “I’m sorry for my part in this.”
·      A true apology needs to be backed by corrective action.   If your sister mentions she’s paid for your last few dinners together, apologize and let her know that you plan to pay for the next few.
·      A true apology requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance. Obviously, it doesn’t help to apologize with a grand flourish and then continue the very behavior you apologized for.
·      A true apology should not serve to silence another person, nor should an apology be used as a quick way out to get yourself out of a difficult conversation or dispute.  It shouldn’t be be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse.  Not all apologies are welcome. Making amends may be part of your healing process, but find another way to heal if the other person doesn’t want to hear from you.
·      A true apology recognizes when “I’m sorry” is not enough.  A serious hurt or betrayal requires repair work over time to restore trust.”
In one of the interviews she gave about her book, Dr. Lerner was asked if leaders should be willing to apologize if they want to be effective in their work and service.   Dr. Lerner explained:  “Our ability to lead, whether at home or at work, rests on our ability to orient to reality, and to take responsibility for our mistakes, and to apologize for them. The level of respect we earn from others, as well as our own level of maturity, rest squarely on our ability to see ourselves objectively, to take a clear-eyed look at the ways that our behavior affects others, and to be fully accountable for our mistakes without blaming others.   The courage to apologize and the wisdom to do it wisely and well is at the heart of friendship, leadership, marriage, parenting and being grounded in maturity, integrity and self-worth.  It’s hard to imagine what’s more important than that.”    
     So when we apologize, we are called on to remember that it’s not about us: it is about our relationships, it is about the person who experienced hurt because of something we did or something someone else did that we could have prevented.   As we are about to begin the VIDUI prayers in the service, let us be further guided by this prayer by Alden Solovy:
G-d of Old,
Judge and Sovereign,
Healer and Guide:
Today I recount my deeds,
The sins I’ve committed,
The blessings I’ve bestowed.
Today I recall my year,
The challenges I’ve faced,
The decisions I’ve made.
Today I reach into my heart,
The moments of anger,
The moments of love.
By Your command
G-d of Mercy,
I lay bare the secrets within me,
Light and darkness,
My gentle hand and my clenched fist,
My strength and conceit,
Anger and fear.
By Your command
G-d of Wisdom,
I open myself to see truth,
Beauty and degradation,
The holy and the profane,
The victorious and the guilty.
By Your command
G-d of Salvation,
I reclaim all that I am
And all that I’ve done,
My pride and my shame,
Returning to You
So that I may redeem my days
With awe and righteousness.
 As we recite these prayers, may our sincerity and honesty suffuse our souls so that these words that we recite will guide us to truth, hope, goodness, self-awareness and compassion in this new year.   And may our presence here, standing with our community, strengthen our resolve to achieve and maintain, between us, bonds of love and peace.


·       Are You Big Enough to Apologize?  New research explains why we hate apologizing. Denise Dellarosa Cummins, Ph.D., is the author of Good Thinking, The Historical Foundations of Cognitive Science, and Evolution of Mind Posted Apr 01, 2013

·       TABLET MAGAZINE -  How To Say You’re Sorry - As Yom Kippur approaches, I’ll share what I’ve learned about how to apologize—and how not to -  By Marjorie Ingall - 9/29/2014

· - The 9 Rules for True Apologies - First of all, the word 'but' is never part of one.   Harriet Lerner Ph.D. Posted Sep 14, 2014
·       FORBES  JAN 12, 2017 @ 09:15 AM 4,88 Why Won't You Apologize? Relationship Expert Harriet Lerner Teaches Us How - By Kathy Caprino
·       Meditation before the Yom Kippur Vidui  © 2011 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.