In These Times – Choosing Life Yom Kippur 5777

Posted by on Oct 12, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

Shortly, we will read from the Torah,

הַֽחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֨וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה

וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּֽחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

I place before you life and death, blessing and curse.

Therefore, choose life, so that you may live, you and your children. (Deut. 30:19)

 

I want to discuss one way to choose life…

Last week, I facilitated a monthly group meeting on Wise Aging, on the timely topic of forgiveness. I shared the story about Reb Shlomo Carlebach, a major force in Jewish life and music in the 20th Century. His immediate family escaped Germany in 1938, when his father became the rabbi of a shul on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Years later, he was invited to give a concert in Poland. Supporters expressed shock when he accepted: How could he play Chassidic music for—shake the hands of—the children of perpetrators of the Holocaust? Even for perpetrators themselves? He responded, “If I had two hearts, I could use one to hate and one to love. I don’t have that luxury, so I’ll use the one I’ve got for love.”

Beautiful story when we talk about forgiveness, yes?

One of the participants expressed disapproval at his response: she could never forgive the Germans, would never buy anything from Germany, ever. Another person expressed sadness that she clung to such a notion. The disapproving person expressed a thought we have all heard over and over and over: “I’m entitled to my feelings. You can’t tell me how to feel.”

On the way home, as I sought to understand why she had so triggered my own feelings, I realized it was because I strongly believe that, no, we are not always entitled to all our feelings. Indeed, the whole purpose of these holy days is to remind us that we are not entitled to all our feelings, that we are called to examine them, and reject the ones that are not helping us and our soul, or our relationships or the world.

Of course, we all have feelings, and some of them are not going to be good ones. As we confess, we know we have some feelings  that are truly worthy of confession, of some guilt, and some teshuvah.

And that’s the whole point.

We have our feelings—whether or not we’re entitled to them, and many of them are ancient: We are all still controlled in large part by our “reptilian brain”—the ancient part that deals with flight, fight or freeze response, aggression, fear, revenge, display of anger, territorial or tribal protection, survival instinct. The part that never evolved to include ethics, thoughts of equality, fairness, generosity, humility, kindness. That part helps keep us alive, but also causes a lot of problems reptiles don’t have to deal with.

And of course, we have to own the feelings, accept them. As the Rabbi of Lelov taught, “We cannot be redeemed until we recognize the flaws in our soul and try to mend them…Whoever permits no recognition of their flaws…permits no redemption. We can be redeemed to the extent that we recognize ourselves” – all of ourselves, the good, the bad and ugly.

Now, you might say, as we have all heard, “It’s not the feeling, it’s what you do with it. It’s okay to be angry, but how you express your anger is the issue.” [How many of you have heard this? How many of you ascribe to it?] If you sit at home and stew all by yourself and don’t hurt anyone else, then whose business is it? I know that for myself, when I allow the not so exemplary feelings to fester, without examining them for the opportunity for growth, I become much less kind than I want to be.

I think my response was so strong because I’ve been heartsick watching the loud, proud, ugly expressions of feelings that spring from the reptilian brain that play on endless loops on TV, the internet, on the roads, at public meetings, everywhere. Lately, we have witnessed people expressing their feelings, the feelings they have been told they are entitled to, and most of the time I want to send them into a time out (although those aren’t the words I use when I scream at my television). The hatred, the fear responses, the bigotry against people who are LGBT or who are disabled, or women, Muslims, or people of color, or overweight, or… well, anyone who isn’t “me” is overwhelming.

Now I’m not trying to be the Thought Police, not at all. Yes, we all have our feelings. Our feelings are part of what makes us the unique individuals we are, with the tzelem Elohim, spark of divinity in us.

But Judaism—and this holy season—is entirely about us learning to rise above our feelings that can lead to bad outcomes, to become the people we could be if only we recognize that we are not slaves to our reptilian brain.

Jonathan Haidt, professor at the University of Virginia, has described the way our brain works as “the elephant and its rider.” He writes:

I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him… Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work.[1]

How we make those changes is the work of this moment, this day, indeed a way we choose life and blessing for us and our children.

When we look at our feelings as our entitlement, rather than as something to mine, to explore, to know, then we won’t change, we won’t turn, or do teshuvah. And we run the risk of being unable to change, if we feel entitled.

For example, while the facts[2] do not support the idea that undocumented immigrants have an unfavorable impact on the country—economically or in terms of crime, or on most people’s personal economy, studies show that negative attitudes toward immigrants are currently mostly directed at Latinos (as they were once directed at the Irish or the Italians, or any new wave). So the proposal to build an impossible wall to keep out the falsely accused rapists and job thieves “legitimate[es], activat[es[ and even amplif[ies]”[3] people’s negative feelings about Latinos, feelings, I would posit they are not really entitled to. Rather than amplify these feelings, it seems to me, we would be better off to appeal to other feelings, that might make it easier to turn the recalcitrant elephant we ride.

According to Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) the Torah “warns against the wronging of a ger [the stranger] in 36 places; other say, in 46 places.” It’s one of the most frequently mentioned commandments in the Torah. Just as we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we are reminded that we must treat the stranger as we would have loved to be treated. Nachmanides wrote in the 13th century that our communal experiences in Egypt—and in the diaspora—taught us how other strangers feel: depressed, crying and sighing, because they do not yet fit in, because this is not their home. The Torah, as is its wont, is trying to teach us that, while we might fear the stranger—who may speak a different language, or even pray to a different face of God—we have to overcome that fear so that we can choose life and blessing. But first we have to acknowledge the fear and assess whether it’s reasonable.

So many people are frightened by the Syrians seeking asylum in the US, not understanding the long refugee vetting process—2 years of living in the limbo and danger that we see all over the news if we have the strength to look. And that fear is despite the reality that of the 745,000 refugees admitted to the US post-9/11, only two have been charged with terrorism related crimes.

As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught,

Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od, v’ha’ikar lo l’facheid klal:

the whole world is a narrow bridge, but the essence is not to be afraid.

We also run the risk of being swayed by demagogues if we aren’t fully aware of the ways our sense of entitlement can influence us. When we hear someone say about protesters, “You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks,”[4] we know these words feed into fears and promote violence among already angry people—who think they are entitled to their anger.

While we all get angry sometimes (has someone actually overcome this?), we are taught by the Talmud, “Whoever flares up in anger is subject to all kinds of Gehinnom” or hell (B. Nedarim 22a). Several of our sacred texts recommend silence as the antidote to anger. The 15th century Orchot Tzaddikim proposes, “If you are angry at someone, try to keep silent, or talk softly.” The Alter of Kelm gave himself permission to get angry only after putting on a specific garment he called his “anger clothing”—giving himself a time out.

A Chassidic rebbe would dispense “holy water” “guaranteed” to end all domestic fights. Whenever a husband or wife felt the urge to argue, he or she was to hold some of the water in their own mouth for as long as possible. This “holy water” worked in stopping fights and diffusing anger.

Another method suggested by rabbis is to imagine the person you are angry at as a baby, innocent, small, and having no intention to harm you. Rabbi Rachel Cowan suggests we recognize that the person we are angry at is likely exhibiting behaviors that we also experience. So you can practice saying, “She’s being so mean, just like I am sometimes.” “He’s being so selfish, and I am too sometimes.”

For me, there are a couple of other ways. For example, in the Jewish psychospiritual practice of Mussar, we talk about balancing middot, or character traits. So when you are trying to deal with anger, or irritation—as I all too obviously am in the Wise Aging group, I have to remind myself that I should work a little harder on my compassion: consider the circumstances, the loneliness, the neediness, and find my own chesed.

Before we can really deal with the feelings we are not proud of, we have to acknowledge they exist, and then we have to decide whether the need, expectation, entitlement or demand we are feeling comes from a rational, useful, moral position, and then we have to decide whether you are really entitled—or not.

This past weekend, anyone watching the news has been watching the debacle of the epitome of rape culture, or as one writer, Lindy West, framed it, “rape culture’s blathering id.”[5] People have seemed shocked—shocked—that this could be possible. This campaign season has been full of objectification of women and our news has been full of the culture that produced a three-month jail term for a Stanford student athlete convicted of sexual assault. And we can bet that young man felt entitled to his feelings and desires.

For weeks, I’ve been waiting—and it seems finally to have come—for people to ask the question Joseph Welch asked of Senator Joe McCarthy during the communist witch hunt— “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

It’s that communal sense of decency that I yearn for. I imagine a kind of spiritual and moral awakening when we recognize that we are each made in the image of God, with the spark of divinity, and that we must treat each that way. That we recognize the power of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro offers a couple of lessons toward that end, in his discussion of the 13 Attributes of God. The first two words: Adonai, Adonai… God, God…The Torah teaches that God originally planned to make us in both the image and likeness of God, but ended up creating us only in the tzelem, image… Shapiro proposes that the image is our divine potential of that spark embedded in us, and it is not until we actualize the potential, when we act like God’s hands, and God’s eyes, and God’s love, that we’re the likeness of God. Then, Adonai is repeated so that we can recognize both the divinity in ourselves and the divinity in every other soul. And when we can do that, then we can reach out to the God of Mercy and Grace, who is slow to anger, full of lovingkindness and truth…

 

Let us remember that we only have one heart, and we must use it to love.

 

 

[Gratitude to Alan Morinis and Rabbis Avi Fertig, Rami Shapiro, Birdie Becker and Lisa Bock, and especially my husband Sam Doctors, who helps me by arguing with me.]

[1] Jonathan Haidt. The Happiness Hypothesis. 2006.

[2] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. News. September 21, 2016.

[3] Cass Sunstein. The Real Reason So Many Americans Oppose Immigration. Bloomberg View. 9/28/16. Accessed 10/8/16.

[4] Robert Mackey. Trump Concerned His Rallies are Not Violent Enough. The Intercept. March 11, 2016.

[5] Lindy West, Donald and Billy on the Bus, The New York Times, October 8, 2016.

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