Monday, October 6, 2014

Being The Giver and The Receiver – Yom Kippur 5775

Being The Giver and The Receiver© – Yom Kippur 5775/2014
Rabbi David Baum 

How many people in here have lost someone close to them? 
I am sure you have experienced immense pain from these losses.   
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 your memories.
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 like perfection? 
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 Giver. 
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 away.    
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 in years.” 
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 person.   
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 favorites. 
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.”[1]
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.[2]
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 life.” 
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.”[3] 
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 of art. 
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 young women.
But here’s the most important sentence on the entire site: 
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 whole. 
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, mainly, tzedakah. 
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 power.   
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.





[1] Rabbi Harold Kusher, The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-third Psalm.
[2] Story from Steve Goodier at www.LifeSupportSystem.com
[3] Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig DD – “For I Pledge Tz’dakah on Her Behalf

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