My sacred task as rabbi is to ignite the God-given hidden spark within each person, and connect this light to others through building spiritual community. The tool of ignition, inspiration, and agitation is our Torah, 70 Faces and all, and my task is make Torah come alive (through diverse venues) in the present so it will live in the future. I seek to be a madrich/guide and leader who can help others traverse through the windy pathways of life.
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Being The Giver and The Receiver – Yom Kippur 5775
How many people in here have lost someone close to
I am sure you have experienced immense pain from these
How many people would want me to take away your pain?
Here’s the catch – the only way I can do it, is to take away
Do you still want me to take the pain away?
Every year, we make this choice – do we choose the pain of
memory, or the comfort of forgetting?Do we choose the joys of love but along with it the pain of heartbreak;
or do we choose a life free from pain, but devoid of feeling and connection?Do we choose brokenness or what seems
This is the premise of the book, the Giver, written by Lois
Lowry in 1992 and adapted to a movie, that has become a favorite for teens for
some time now.
The movie offers a possible future scenario.A society strives to eliminate war, bloodshed,
violence, and all pain, but in order to achieve this; they have to eliminate
certain aspects of life.The
memories of the past are taken away from them.They are assigned spouses.Their children are born through surrogate mothers and
assigned to families so their children are not really theirs.They are assigned jobs and purposes in
life.They get daily injections which
dull their emotions.Even the
temperature is controlled.Snow is
eliminated so they can have ideal growing conditions for crops. When someone is
too old to function in society, they are released into a place called Elsewhere,
and their lives are celebrated in a ceremony.In Elsewhere, no one will see the elderly in pain as they
end their lives.
On the surface, it looks like a perfect society.The philosophy of the city is Sameness
because differences bring conflict.
But it turns out that they need memory for the society to
function, so one person, called the Receiver, holds all of the memories of
human history.The hero of the
book, Jonas, is to become the new Receiver, so the old Receiver becomes the
As the story progresses, the reader or audience sees the
faults of this society.Everything
looks to be in black and white, devoid of color.When the elderly or sick are released into Elsewhere, they
are actually euthanized because a quick death is better than a life of pain.
As Jonas receives memories from the Giver—memories of
pleasure and pain, of bright colors and extreme cold and warm sun, of
excitement and terror, hunger and satiation, and love and heartbreak—he
realizes how bland and empty life in his community really is. The memories make
Jonas’s life richer and more meaningful, and he wishes that he could give that
richness and meaning to the people he loves. But in exchange for their peaceful
existence, the people of Jonas’s community have lost the capacity to love him
back or to feel deep passion about anything. Since they have never experienced
real suffering, they also cannot appreciate the real joys of life, and the life
of individual people seems less precious to them.
Jonas sees this, the connection between joy and pain, but no
one else can.Jonas feels joy and
pain, but no one else can.Jonas
sees color in the world, but no one else can.
As I thought about this society, I realized how seductive it
could be, not to feel pain.How
many of us try to take the pain away?Some of us use substances, drugs, whether legal or illegal and alcohol,
some of it necessary, and some not.
There are times when
I feel we are the people who surround the Receiver and the Giver– comfortably
numb, and tranquillized – devoid of pain, but also devoid of joy.We are so afraid of pain that we avoid
it at all costs, even at the cost of feeling joy.
The pain might go away, or at least, we think it goes
When I was a rabbinical student, I once visited a substance
abuse recovery floor as part of my hospital chaplain.In the beds were men and women, young and old, and they were
extremely emotional.I saw 40 year
olds acting as if they were 14 year olds; people would start sobbing and
laughing at the drop of a hat.It
was the most emotional space I had ever been in – and I wondered why?
The doctors explained it to me – these people have been
medicating themselves for so long, that they haven’t allowed themselves to feel
anything, so they’ve reverted back to the emotional state they were the first
time they used.That’s why that 40-year-old
woman is acting like a 14 year old – because that’s when she started
using.That’s why they are
laughing and crying so often – because they haven’t let themselves feel emotion
It’s not just drugs that we use to numb the pain.Some of us use food, we over eat, or we
under eat, some of use sex, and for some of us, money or greed, or work are our
drugs of choice.
We think the pain goes away, but it doesn’t, it lays dormant
until we choose to let it out.
Thousands of years ago, the Rabbis read Leviticus 16:31,
describing Yom Kippur as - Shabbat Shabbaton hi Lachem Vinitem Et Nafshotechem
Chukat Olam – It shall be a Sabbath of Sabbaths for you all, you all shall
afflict your souls – this is an eternal law.They interpreted afflicting your souls’ to mean that you
must practice self-denial, abstaining from food and drink, sexual relations,
anointing ourselves with perfumes and oils, wearing leather shoes which is a
great luxury, and bathing – you shall make yourselves empty and pure and only
then can you feel affliction, the pain you’ve been avoiding all year, but also
the potential of future joy.
Today, on Yom Kippur, is when we let ourselves feel the joy
of being alive, but also the pains of life.Today, we choose to afflict our souls.
Some use substances to take the pain away, others choose
another method – they opt out of relationship.
The movie, Good Will Hunting, tells the story of Will
Hunting, a janitor at MIT who is actually smarter than the professors but no
one will even so much as look at him because he’s a janitor, which is just the
way he likes it.One day, his
secret is discovered and after getting into trouble with the law, he is forced
to learn with a professor who thinks he is going to change his life for the
better, but he must also meet with a psychologist played by the late Robin
Williams.As the movie progresses,
we learn that Will grew up as a foster child – and he went from home to home,
abused at almost every stop.
How does Will cope with this pain?He avoids meaningful relationship, and the ones he has are
superficial at best.Will immerses
himself in books and knowledge, but he never gets too close to any living
One day, his therapist, played by Robin Williams, confronts
him on a park bench in one of the most famous scenes of the movie: “If I asked
you about women you'd probably give me a syllabus of your personal
But you can't tell me
what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy.
I ask you about war, and you'd probably throw Shakespeare at
me, right? "Once more into the breach, dear friends."
But you've never been
near one.You've never held your
best friend's head in your lap and watched him gasp his last breath, looking to
you for help.
And if I asked you about love you’d probably quote me a
sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known
someone could level you with her eyes. Feeling like! God put an angel on earth
just for you...who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn't
know what it’s like to be her angel and to have that love for her to be there
forever. Through anything. Through cancer. You wouldn't know about sleeping
sitting up in a hospital room for two months holding her hand because the
doctors could see in your eyes that the term visiting hours don't apply to you.
You don't know about
real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love
yourself. I doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much.
In Psalm 23, we read the famous words, “Though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death.”The valley of the shadow of death is a real place that
everyone in this room has been in.
When we lose someone, we feel as if we are in the valley of
the shadow of death.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes:“There are times when the shadow that death casts over our
lives is not the prospect of our own death but the death of people close to us,
people we love.They die and the sunshine
goes out of our lives.All we can
see is the darkness.The pain and
grief we feel at a time like that is the price we pay for having loved.If we didn’t love people that much, it
would not hurt nearly as when we lose them, whether to death or to other
circumstances.To love someone is
to make yourself vulnerable.It
means taking off the armor you habitually wear to protect yourself against the
forces in the world that would hurt you.
To love someone is to say to that person, being close to you is so important to me
that I will give you the power to hurt me because I trust you not to use that
power.Sometimes people do
take advantage of another’s vulnerability – spouses and lovers who grow angry
at each other, parents who abuse their children physically or verbally,
children who find ways to hurt their parents by hurting themselves with drugs
or alcohol or by their choice of a career or a marriage partner.And of course, everyone you love will
hurt you, or be hurt by you, when they die, or you die.”
I have built my rabbinate on the premise that relationships
build better spiritual and religious communities, and better and more
meaningful lives.It’s a risky
thing to build your rabbinate on.We live in a society where fewer people are choosing marriage, and if
they are choosing to be with someone, they choose to be together, but without
the commitment.We are having
fewer kids than we used, or choosing not to have kids, perhaps so they won’t
hurt us later with the choices they make that are out of our control.We might have many Facebook friends,
but the we see fewer and fewer people face to face.
Through the years, I have asked you all to build
relationships with each other, but I haven’t told you one thing – that you
might experience real pain because of it.Being in relationship with others might be one of the riskiest things
you do in life.As Rabbi Kushner
said, eventually, you will be hurt, eventually,
you will feel pain, but we need pain to grow.
In the Yom Kippur liturgy, there is a beautiful, powerful,
and some would say scary poem called Ki Hinei KaChomer – As clay in the hand of
the potter, who thickens or thins it at will, so are in Your hand, God,
Guardian of love.
A story is told of an Eastern village that, through the centuries,
was known for its exquisite pottery. Its urns were the most beautiful; high as
tables, wide as chairs, they were admired throughout the country for their
strong form and delicate beauty.
Legend has it that when each urn was apparently finished, there
was one final step. The artist broke it – and then put it back together with
gold filing. An ordinary urn was thus transformed into a priceless work of art.
What seemed finished wasn’t, until it was broken.
So what do we do with our scars?What do we do to become whole again?
When I was a child, my father
used to make me leave the sanctuary during the Yizkor service, and I always
wondered what I was missing out on.I remember the first time I went to Yizkor without my father, who is
very much alive and well, excited to see what I had been missing, what magic
happens in Yizkor.The rest of our
services are packed with words and songs, piyutim – beautiful poems, even times
when we prostrate ourselves on the floor, but Yizkor is only seems to focus on one
paragraph of text – We ask God to remember the souls of our departed loved one,
and then we say, “I pledge tzedakah to help perpetuate ideals important to
them.Through such deeds and
through prayer and remembrance, may their souls be bound up in the bond of
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig writes,
“When we plead for God to remember the soul of our loved one, we are not asking
God simply to open the Book of Memories and read what has been inscribed there,
but to take note of something that hasn’t yet happened, something that has yet
to be inscribed:some concrete
acts of ours that will change, if ever so slightly, our relationship with our
lost loved one and their impact on the world.”
When we remember our loved ones,
a part of us becomes broken again – we again feel the pain we felt when we lost
them, we become broken again, but tzedakah is how we make ourselves whole, how
we add the gold to the clay pot thereby transforming it into a priceless work
On June 7, 2007, the Levine
family, long time members of Congregation Beth Tikvah, lost their daughter and
sister, Emily Rachel Levine, in a tragic car accident very close to our
shul.Emily was just 18 years old
at the time, about to go to college and start her life as an adult.The Levine family was one of the core
families of Congregation Beth Tikvah, just as they are to Shaarei Kodesh today,
and were, and continue to be loved by so many.Emily’s death not only broke them, but it broke an entire
community.This community who
watched Emily grow up, who watched her become a bat mitzvah, who saw her
through her teen years, who thought they were sending her off to college.The loss of a child is perhaps the worst
loss a family can encounter.I
cannot fathom what this felt like for the Levine family.
It was at that same exact time,
the two communities Shaarei Kodesh and Beth Tikvah formally merged.I asked one CSK member, what was it
like?She described going to the
shivah home to this family who she had never met, but they were now tied to and
thinking: I’m going to visit them
and open my heart, because they are part of my community now.
A broken community became a
little more whole, but the Levine family was still utterly broken.
I knew Emily’s family through her sister Shoshanah at Camp
Ramah Darom, and I’m sure I met Emily before as well.But I have gotten to know Emily through her legacy, Emy’s
Promise, a foundation created by Emily’s family two years ago.
It is our goal to keep Emy’s spirit and memory alive by
connecting with disadvantaged girls in the foster care system who do not have
the comfort and guidance of a loving family to support them, as Emily did.
Emy’s Promise is OUR promise to help young women aging out of the foster care
system surmount obstacles to become strong and confident. Emy’s Promise, through grants for education
and training, will bridge the wide gap from obstacle to opportunity for these
But here’s the most important sentence on the entire
And with every girl we help, we do so with love and respect
for our beloved Emily Rachel.
Emily’s spirit will live in others through acts of tzedakah.The Levines are utterly changed by the
loss of Emily – and that part of them will remain broken forever, but through
these acts of tzedakah, with each girl they help, they become a little more
Tzedakah is more than charity – tzedakah is a vehicle to
bring righteous to the world, to help heal a broken world.
We are all clay in the hands of the potter. Broken by
hardships, disappointments and tragedy, we can become discouraged and cynical.
But we do not have to remain broken forever, we can begin to mend.We can put back ourselves back
together, but we will never be like we were before.
Like the urns in that Eastern town, the damaged pieces of
our lives can be reassembled with a golden bonding of patience, love, and
righteousness that can help reform us into exquisite masterpieces.It is as if people have to be broken
before they can become more whole and complete.
That’s why I want you to stay for Yizkor.Each one of you has someone to
remember, and with that remembrance comes pain.In these shorts moments of remembrance, you will become
broken again, taken back in time to that moment of loss and pain, but moving
forward from here, you will become whole through building new relationships,
and honoring the relationships of the past through actions in this world,
During this New Year, I want each
one of you to be two things:
I want you to be Receivers – I
want you to love someone new this year, and to deepen the love you already
have, thereby making yourself more vulnerable.
I want you to take off the armor
you habitually wear to protect yourself against the forces in the world that
would hurt you.
I want you to say to someone close to you – you are so important to me
that I will give you the power to hurt me because I trust you not to use that
I want you to be Givers – I want
you to give that love to others, but to try your hardest not to hurt the people
who let you into their lives.I
want you to give to bring righteousness to the world not just for yourself, but
for your loved ones who are no longer here, and when you give, you will bring
their presence back into the world.
Life and death, giving and
receiving, the broken and the whole – that’s what our existence is all
about.Let’s make the most of it
To those who are still with us,
to the people I speak to today, to the broken people, I say this:If you feel broken remember that you are a work
of art. As a work of art, you may never be finished, but that is the process of
a lifetime. And your very brokenness serves a purpose.
Remember this, too: Every time you decide to mend, you become a little more
complete. And a little more beautiful.
RabbiHarold Kusher, The Lord
Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-third Psalm.
Story from Steve Goodier at www.LifeSupportSystem.com
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig
DD – “For I Pledge Tz’dakah on Her Behalf
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