Congregation Or Chadash
5763 Rosh HaShanah Evening
The Difficult Task of Forgiveness
Friday, September 6, 2002
Jewish Community Center
1 It has been a long year for all of us. For most the roller coaster seems to have been on its downhill slide with the terrorism of September 11, US armed forces in Afghanistan, the meltdown of the peace process in the Middle East, the stock market, to name but a few of the concerns on our minds, let alone our personal and family concerns.
But tonight, we celebrate new beginnings! Tonight we begin a new year! And tonight I want to talk to you about attitude, your attitude as you face these and future concerns in your lives. For I believe it is not what happens to us that matters. What matters most is how we respond to what happens.
Victor E. Frankl, psychiatrist and leading advocate of logotherapy wrote in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning,
We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who
walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece
of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient
proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last
of his freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circum-
stances, to choose one’s own way.
For the past thirty days, our tradition has asked each one of you to reflect, to think, to consider “your attitude” about your relationship with God and others, and to thoughtfully “choose your own way” for the coming year. We are all asked to “return.” Return to God. Return to family. Return to your true self. And if you need help, there is a vast and heartfelt literature in Judaism to assist in your teshuvah; your “return.”
But tonight I don’t want to spend time with you on repenting for past wrongs; rather I want to spend this time talking to you about how you must “forgive” those who have wronged you.
This is not a sermon touching on the philosophical question about global atrocities, about people capable of heinous crimes against humanity, the dying Nazi SS soldier desiring forgiveness from a Jew. This is not a sermon about whether the Catholic church ought to seek forgiveness from its religious community. It is not about whether the world needs apologize to the Jews for 2000 years of anti-Semitism. This is a sermon about every day trauma which has been wreaked upon each one of you and which some of you may have wreaked upon others. This is a moment when you need to seriously look into that mirror of your soul and answer the question; must I grant forgiveness to stop the torment of my soul and theirs?
In the Talmud we read an interesting story about forgiveness:1
Rabbi Elazar was coming from the house of his teacher and was very proud of because he had learned much Torah. A certain man happened to meet him who was extremely ugly. He said to him, “Peace be unto you, my teacher.” But Elazar did not return the greeting. Instead he said to him, “Worthless person, how ugly you are! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?” The man said to the rabbi, “I do not know, but go and say to the Craftsman who made me: ‘How ugly is this
1 Taanit 20a-b, p 81 in Steinzaltz
2 vessel that you made!’” When Elazar understood that he had sinned, he got down from the donkey and bowed and said to him, “forgive me!” The man said to him, “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman who made me and say to Him: ‘How ugly is this vessel that you made!’”
The two walked into town where everyone had heard what had happened. The townspeople were aghast at the story. The man asked them, “Whom do you address with such deference? If this man is a Torah scholar, let there not be many like him in Israel!” “Even so,” they said to him, “forgive him for he is a man who is a great in Torah knowledge.” He said to them: “For your sakes I will forgive him (mochel), provided that he agrees to guard himself against arrogance and pride and does not become accustomed to behave in the way he did.”
Immediately Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon entered the Academy and expounded: A person should always be soft as a reed, and should not be hard as a cedar. And therefore, the reed merited that a pen be taken from it with which to write the Torah scroll, tefillin, and mezuzot.
A person should always endeavor to be soft in his relations with other people, like a reed that yields even to a gentle breeze, and should not be hard on others, like a cedar that stands firm even against a strong wind. It is a person’s hardness or arrogance toward other people that lead him to sin. According to some authorities this is why a scroll must be written with a reed rather than a quill. Today, Ashkenazi scribes use a quill while Sephardic scribes use a reed.2
From the story, it would appear that, like God, one must be "ready to forgive." But even if one is not sure of the sincerity of the request, like the rabbi, the person must be ready to forgive after appropriate acts of humility and, even more so, after public humiliation.
But we just don’t want to forgive. We just don’t want to give it up. We want to dwell on it. We want to swim in it—the pain, the emotion, the garbage of it. We, as individuals, are fully aware of the emotional pain that has resulted from a deep, unjust injury. Characteristic feelings of anger or even hatred—Yup. We feel that. And we carry this with us like an old piece of baggage, for months, yes, and for years. We carry small pieces and large, heavier pieces of luggage around with us. Sometimes we show them to our friends. “Look what I’m lugging around. Look who caused it. Aren’t I a martyr?” Sometimes we try to hide the baggage we lug around. But those close to us see it and know it.
None of us are in good enough shape to carry this baggage with us every day without it having an effect on our families and our friends.
Now is the time to face these negative emotions, to confront them, look at the injury, and allow it to be honestly understood. All of us have experienced considerable emotional distress. Do I have to tell you how much energy we use dwelling on this hurt? In the course of a lifetime, most of us have been or will be unjustly harmed by another person in ways we cannot hope to remedy. There are those minor violations of a spouse forgetting our birthday, a child who stays out past curfew, or the friend who stands you
2 Yoreh De’ah 271:7
3 up for a date—the day-to-day stresses and strains of daily life. These, hopefully, can be remedied and forgiven quickly, though we may still have a strain on the amount of trust we can now allocate to these relationships. “All is forgiven.” Maybe. Maybe not. We tend to have long memories.
Then there are those major violations, those incidents where a trusted individual has harmed our spouse, our children or us physically or psychologically. We mark these as “unforgivable.” Our first and only desire is to completely sever our relationship with that person. We do so in the hope that the infraction will never reoccur and that the pain we feel will go away. Well, the infraction may never occur again, but I guarantee you, that the pain has never subsided, never disappeared . . . has it?
These problems disturb us and our relationships with others. They, in some manner, require mending the torn fabric of connection. There are times, often unexpected times when the fabric of our lives seems to have been shredded and run through the garbage disposal. No matter how much we try to distance ourselves from this hurt, this emptiness, time and again we relive it. We talk about it with others. It will not go away.
Though we may not want to face it. The only way we can heal, the only way we can regain a sense of shleimut, “wholeness,” the only way to “choose one’s way” (as Frankl remarked) is to forgive and move on.
The traditional Jewish perspective of forgiveness is that it enables the wrongdoer to achieve atonement for his act. It is a firm doctrine of Jewish belief that God doesn't grant full forgiveness for our sins against our fellow man until we obtain forgiveness directly from the wronged individual.
But there is a problem with this. What if the “jerk” doesn’t apologize? What if he doesn’t apologize sincerely enough? “Francis, apologize to your brother!” “Ok, mommy. I’m sorry!” This doesn’t mean much. Furthermore, what if we just don’t want to see this person again? We have been hurt so badly that “nothing he says to me is going to make a difference. And you know what I could care less about his teshuvah.”
The most important thing to understand about forgiveness is that it is for one's own benefit (in a cosmic/mystical sense) and not always for the person who has hurt us. Forgiveness is a letting go of the pain another has caused us. It must be entered into freely without obligation. The reason to forgive is not because the other person wants it, rather because picking at the open wound harms the victim, harms us.
Forgiveness does not mean pretending to forget what happened. Forgiveness does not require re-entering relationship with the person who violated you. Forgiveness does not mean giving up a legitimate claim for justice. You can forgive the person who stole your wallet and still want that person to go to jail.
Forgiveness does not require restoration of relationship. A daughter can forgive her father for physical abuse in her childhood but require a great deal of remorse, repentance and restitution before letting him anywhere close to her emotional life.
The key to forgiveness is giving up the grudge, which only the victim can do. One can give up the grudge independently of whether the perpetrator shows any remorse. The primary reason to give up the grudge is not because we are all sinners and only God can judge us but rather because of the tremendous harm it does us to hold the grudge. We can murder, draw and quarter our enemies a thousand times in our minds but ultimately the only one who suffers is us.
4 I am told that a rattlesnake, if cornered, will become so angry it will bite itself. That is exactly what harboring hate and resentment against others is—a biting of oneself. We think that we are harming others in holding these spites and hates, but the deeper harm is to ourselves. It is quite possible, that a person’s buried rage can compromise an immune system and make one vulnerable to a variety of ills. Forgiveness is for the victim's physical and mental health, NOT the perpetrator's.
As I think we all know, giving up a grudge is hard to do especially when we have been greatly and profoundly wronged. The prisoners of war, of conscience, and of domestic violence carry deep festering wounds that ooze venom not outwardly but inwardly dripping into the heart, slowly poisoning the soul. Giving up a grudge requires moving beyond the wounds and beginning to see something we would rather not: The humanity, the inherent worth and dignity as well as the hardness coexisting in the person who has wronged us.
I am sorry; I do not believe that there are sinners and saints among us. I think that there are those who are ignorant or operating in their own self-interest, who cause harm by running through us in their wakes. By placing horns on that person’s head does not make the hurt go away. We are all made of blood, bones and brains. We all harm each other. We all help each other. We all have the potential to heal each other.
But when we are violated, we passionately bury any sign of betrayer's goodness, and for that matter, our own goodness. We are horrified at how friendly and kind con men can be as they take full advantage of our trust and the warmth of our affections. And all of them, whether we like it or not, will still have good and decent qualities which coexist with their capacity for evil.
So no matter how vile the person who stabs us in the back may seem, they are still human. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way: "The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human, and therefore, brothers." Seeing the humanity of our enemy brings them closer to us and prepares the way for the next stage of forgiveness: Letting go of our right to get even.
Who is mighty? He who makes of his enemy a friend.3
Letting go of one's right to get even is letting go of the need for revenge. It is relenting from the demand for a pound of flesh, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It does not require the abandonment of the call for justice. In fact, a tremendously healing thing can be to direct the pain into action. Forgiveness, in fact, can be the key to freedom. The tremendous pain of the mothers who have lost family members to drunk drivers gave Mothers Against Drunk Driving the power to dramatically change the drinking and driving behavior of this country. The abused woman who works in a battered women's shelter and the crime victim who organizes a Neighborhood Watch all transform their pain by trying to make a difference. Letting go of the need to even the score allows the wounded person to liberate that anger and use it toward the good rather than as a weapon of self- destruction. Our tradition teaches:
To an earthly monarch one goes with arms flowing with gifts and returns empty handed. To God, one goes with empty hands and returns with a full spirit (Pesikta Rabbati). The problem is that when we are full of anger, we feel constantly empty handed.
3 Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, chapter 23
5 By reaching past our hatred to seeing the other's humanity and releasing the need for revenge, our feelings can begin to change. It is only in the softening of our feelings that forgiveness can fully take place. A change of feelings cannot be commanded or programmed; it is a spontaneous restoration of love, which truly accepts the humanity of the other and welcomes them back into the human race. The problem is that this change of feeling can be quite unwelcome if we are still clutching the grudge. The final stage of forgiveness is to wish the bastard well as he journeys on in life with or without us.
In addition to forgiving the other person, you have to forgive yourself. Then the quality of your life and love can grow.
Before he offered his evening prayers, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great medieval cabbalist, would begin: “I hereby forgive all who hurt me this day.” Ridding himself of everything that might weigh him down during prayer— “taking his heart in his hands,”—he was able to lift himself heavenward. If we can’t leave the baggage behind, we will drag it everywhere, slowing and weighing us down.4
It is so easy to hide behind the illusion that we are always right. Others are out to get us or hinder us, want to see us fail. This kind of thinking will destroy us. Before we are so willing to point the finger, look in the mirror. There we might see the adversary we fear!
We are responsible for our own behavior. But we are not responsible for other people’s reactions; nor are they responsible for ours. We put too much energy into taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts, and behavior. That’s Jewish guilt and that is part of our tradition!
One of the key aspects of forgiveness is humility. This is so difficult for many of us. It is tough to be humble, especially when you live life always being in the center. When things go right, I did it. When things go wrong, we ask, “why did this happen to me?” Rather in Judaism, we need to learn and understand that only God is in the center. That being true, then the question ought to be, “What is it that is taking me from the Source of Life and Love?
If we truly live in a God-centered universe and not the ego-centered one we dwell in too often, then we know and have been taught that our task is to restore order and goodness to the world. We need to mend imperfections in the world, Tikkun Olam. We often look outside and see a world torn by injustice, poverty, imperfections, and inequalities. Well, maybe this year we can be a bit more shortsighted and look at the imperfections, the defects within our own world, within ourselves. The Psalmist cried out Bakesh shalom v’rodfeihu, “Seek peace and pursue it.” The commentator teaches, “seek peace/wholeness/well-being within yourself and your home first, then pursue peace elsewhere.” Let us put our own house in order first. Bring God’s mercy and justice to your own life as your first order of business this year.
There are injustices caused by what we have not done. “But I have harmed nobody,” we insist. “They wronged me! They need to apologize!” Listen to the power the energy of those words. Does it sound like a person who is wounded, scarred and hurt? Hurt, yes. But look and listen to the amount of energy expended on a hurt that will never be healed by another. Use that energy in a positive direction instead.
But let us not be completely deluded however, that your act of forgiveness will somehow miraculously change the other person. What we need to do is let people feel
4 Olitzky, Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days, p. 50.
6 the way they want. I have met too many people who thought they could change their friend or spouse. It rarely happens. Don’t count on it. All that you can count on is your own attitude; how you react to others and to circumstances. You can’t affect how people will feel about you. What you say and do tomorrow may not change the way they feel about you, but this act of contrition will help change the way you feel about yourself.5
I am here today to tell you to forgive yourself first for being flawed. Then approach the other (if you can), with the hopes of returning to the loving relationship you once had, and still desire. Don’t wait, as our tradition insists, for them to come to you. You may have judged them wrong anyway.
If re-evaluate the relationship you must, then do it. Move on. No longer will you feel that emptiness. You must give up your anger which does more harm than you can imagine. Just ask anyone who has been with you at those times.
Will you be able to make amends with everyone? No. Return to humility, however. Put your trust in God’s power. You are not the center of the universe. Ask God for healing, refuah shleima et haguf v’et haneshema. Learn and pray with a full heart the prayer we as congregation pray weekly:
Mi shebeirach avoteinu
M’kor ha-b’rachah l’imoteinu
May the source of strength
Who blessed the ones before us
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing
Mi shebeirach l’imoteinu
M’kor ha-b’rachah avoteinu
Bless those in need of healing with r’fua sh’leimah
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit.
You have to go out and pray for it and do it. Wonderful thoughts do not repair the world. Whatever you do, do it l’shem shamayim, “for the sake of heaven.”
More than just words, true forgiveness takes place in the heart. It begins on that day when we no longer carry ill will toward the person who hurt us.
Forgiveness for some may come suddenly, like a “spiritual flash entering the soul.” For others it may come more gradually, where we feel inside telling us to move forward slowly and improve our ways.
Norman Cousins calls life "an adventure in forgiveness." If we are ever to begin to approach the commandment to love thy neighbor, we must learn to forgive. Peter Ustinov calls love "an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit." Maybe this can be our new habit for the coming new year.
Remember that forgiveness is not turning into a mushy doormat on which the world can wipe its feet but rather a clear-eyed and large-hearted attempt to live in an impossibly flawed world where at times injustice reigns, the bad guys live to a ripe old age eating caviar and drinking fine wines, and the good die young. In the midst of wrong, love can be recovered whether or not justice is served. It is possible to forgive and not forget as an individual or as a nation. Not only is it possible, it is imperative for our own health and the health of the world. Forgiveness returns us to shleimut, tranquility, wholeness and the ability to love fully.
5 Olitzky, pg. 74
7 At the same time:
Categories: Older HHD Sermons
Kol Nidre Yom Kippur 5762
FOR THEIR SAKE
Wednesday, September 26, 2001
Erev Yom Kippur 5762
God sat shocked on the throne in heaven. God couldn't believe what had just happened down on earth. It was September 11 and God saw it all as it unfolded. God couldn't find words to speak, and tears started to form in God's eyes. Then the accusing angel approached, the one who was always trying to get people into trouble with God. He was the same angel who suggested that God test Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. He was the same angel who told God that Job only did righteousness because God was good to him - and that if God took away Job's family and health, Job would lose his faith.
Well, Abraham and Job had both survived those tests of faith. But Satan was still on the lookout for ways to trip up humankind and get God to give up on mankind once and for all. So, when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and into the countryside outside Pittsburgh - Satan thought he had found his moment. As God was sitting there stunned and shocked, Satan slipped up beside God.
"O Eternal One, Master of All, Judge of all Truth: Here it is just a week before the holiest days of the year -- the days when you open the Book of Life and examine the deeds of each human being. And what will you find this year? Just when people should be starting to think about repentance, prayer and charity, you will find that almost twenty sinful people committed a terrible crime - and took the lives of over 5,000 people in one day - in one morning! And, once again, O Master of All, they said they did it in Your name. Now is the time, said Satan, to get rid of humankind once and for all. It was a hopeless experiment, and it's not going to yield any good results."
God now started to weep in earnest. Oh, my children, my children, what have you done! Why do you use hatred and violence to solve your problems! Why don't you listen to my Torah, or the other holy teachings I sent to the religions of the world? Justice, peace, compassion -- these are the ways to serve me -- not death and destruction.
"O Eternal One," Satan spoke in a consoling whisper. "Just give me the word. I will take care of it all. We'll destroy this world and start over again. We angels will help you build a better version."
Now God sat up and started to pay attention. "Wait!" said the Eternal One. "You may be right. Perhaps there is no future for humanity. Perhaps it's time to give up. But I must be certain. I must send three of my loyal and faithful angels to check it out and see if there is any reason to save this world."
So God called three angels, the same three that had been sent so long ago to visit with Abraham in the desert, and gave them their instructions. "Each of you search high and low, and bring back to me any evidence that humankind is still worth saving and helping. Return by nightfall, and I will make my decision."
So the angels went down to earth and began to look through the rubble at each site. They saw the pain of those who were wounded, they knew that under the collapsed buildings there were thousands who had died. But they split up and began to search further for any evidence that human beings, in spite of all this evil, were worth saving.
The first angel came across two men covered in dust. They were embracing and shaking, so he stopped and overheard them talking to a firefighter. Michael Benfante, 36 and his co-worker, John Cerqueira, 22, said, “We were on the 68th floor, they said, when we realized we had to evacuate quickly or we would die. But there was a woman in our office who was in a wheelchair. It was Tina Hansen. She has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was three. The elevators weren't working. We found the emergency wheelchair and moved her over, so we could carry her down the stairs. It was hard work -- coming down all 68 floors. Others told us to leave her and run -- that the firemen would bring her later.” Michael said, “I wasn’t going out unless she was with me.”
“We couldn't desert her. We passed the firemen on their way up to help others, and we kept going. We got her out, and an ambulance whisked her away immediately. Just as the ambulance pulled away, the building collapsed. We ducked under a van, and now we are just grateful to be alive. Another minute, and all three of us would have died in that building.”
Ahhh...thought the angel. The courage of the firefighters who entered the dangerous building to save lives, the compassion these two ordinary men showed for a woman in need, and their gratitude for being alive, surely God will want to save the world for their sake. And so he gently, almost invisibly scraped some of the dust that had fallen from the buildings off of their faces, and flew up to heaven and presented it to God.
The second angel went to Pennsylvania, but all on the United Flight 93 plane out of Newark, NJ had perished. He could sense the spirits of those who died -- could almost feel how they were still linked to their loved ones back home. So, following the trail of connection, he found himself in a home where a wife stood trying to explain what happened to her neighbors.
Tears were rolling down her face, Lyzbeth Glick recounted that Jeremy called me on the cell phone, she said. He told me how much he loved me. We said, ‘I love you’ a thousand times, and then he said that he and four other passengers were going to rush the hijackers and try to stop them. After that, I never heard from him again.
But now the authorities are telling me that the plane was headed for D.C. to crash and kill hundreds or thousands of people. I lost my husband today, but I know that he saved the lives of others by his actions. It seems that Jeremy Glick, Tom Burnett, who called with critical information about the hijackers, Mark Bingham, who called his mother and said, ‘I want to tell you I love you,’ and possibly flight attendant CeeCee Lyles, and others may have saved hundreds, if not, thousands of lives by forcing the plane to the ground.
Ahhh....thought the second angel. The love of this man for his wife, and the courage these men and this woman showed in the face of evil, surely God will want to save the world for their sake. And so he gently, almost invisibly, lifted one tear from her cheek and flew up to heaven and presented it to God.
The third angel went to D.C. He too saw fire and smoke and death and rescuers hard at work. Then he started searching through the city to see how the rest of the people were reacting. Most were in their cars or on the streets heading home. They were in shock and disbelief. But he watched as one woman, a Christian minister, drove past a mosque, made a U turn, and came back again. She parked and got out of her car and walked up to three Muslim women standing outside the mosque. "My friends, she said, what can I do to help?" - for there on the building were scrawled ugly words of hate, spray painted by those who blamed all Muslims for the attacks that morning. The women embraced and cried together, and the Muslim women thanked the stranger for her kindness and caring. She promised to return and bring others to stand with the women in solidarity against hatred and prejudice.
Ahhh...thought the third angel. The way this woman reached out to those who are scapegoated and wrongly accused, surely God will want to save the world for her sake. And so gently, almost invisibly, he captured the words "What can I do to help?" and flew up to heaven and presented the words to God.
Just then, Satan appeared before God to announce that he was ready to carry out the mission of wiping out humanity and that he had the plans already in hand to start over on another world. "All you have to do is give the command, said Satan, and I'll see it is obeyed immediately."
"Wait!" cried God. "You are right that humanity is capable of much evil. And you are right that from time to time it looks as if hatred has won out over love. But I have evidence that we cannot give up on the people down below us. My angels have brought me proof that there is hope for my creation: here is the dust to remind me how compassionate human beings can be - and how much they treasure life. For compassion's sake I will save the world.
And here is a tear, a remembrance of the love shared between husband and wife, and a reminder of one who gave his life to protect others from harm. For the sake of selflessness and love, I will not destroy the world.
And lastly, here is the voice of a woman who saw wrongdoing and did not turn away. She was willing to stand up for what was just and right, and to get involved. For the sake of justice and righteousness, I will not destroy the world, for they will in the end redeem this world."
Satan's face fell, and he knew he had lost again. "But God," he asked, "how many times will you give them another chance? Take a look at history -- how many wars and genocides will it take before you change your mind?"
"Oh, Satan," said God, rising up from the throne. "You don't understand. I also hate the suffering and pain. But as long as I can still see the goodness and mercy and love in the hearts of my children on earth, I must have hope that the pain will one day end."
And God sat back down on the throne to begin hearing the prayers of those who were calling out from earth, and to record again the deeds of humankind in the Book of Life for the year 5762.
Rabbi Thomas A. Louchheim
An adapted story written by Rabbi Debra R.
(based on similar Jewish stories) of Westborough, MA
Rosh HaShanah Day 5762
EARNED SIN AVERAGE
Tuesday, September 18, 2001
HIGH HOLY DAYS SERMONS 5762
Think of the re-start of baseball last evening. I was thinking about the statistics of pitchers. One of the most important statistics for pitchers is that person's ERA; the earned run average, the average number of runs that is allowed per game. The goal, of course, is to have this be a very low number. Randy Johnson maintained his low number last night, a little bit fewer than three. However, the existence of almost any number is an indication of failure. Of course, some of the blame often goes to the fielders. Nevertheless, the number is on the pitcher's statistics.
So in other words, the pitcher is faced with this failure each time he begins a game. He knows that this number is going to be heard over and over again by millions of T.V. watchers and radio listeners. Now other players in baseball don't have this problem. Their statistics are constantly increasing and are constantly toward the good. So we look at someone's batting average – their runs batted in, their home runs.
However, a pitcher has a problem. It happens to be the same problem many of us have. Look at people who have to lose weight. They are losers because they are losing weight. Maybe that is why it's so difficult to lose weight. [You have to think about that for a moment.] - How terrible it must be for a pitcher each day to face his ERA. Whereas other players are working on their slugging percentage, their RBI's, their hits, home runs, and working towards higher and higher numbers of improvement, the ERA constantly reminds the pitcher of how badly he is doing. He is assaulted by his mistakes all the time.
So, the solution, as we approach Yom Kippur, is not to recognize simply our own mistakes and our faults, and recount our sins that we committed under duress, or by choice consciously or unconsciously in our thoughts. Rather, maybe we should have a different approach. On Yom Kippur we are made aware of our ESA; our Earned Sin Average. Of our EFA—our Earned Failure Average.
Wouldn't it be better to look at an RBI; a number reflecting our successes, our achievements, our victories sustained over the year? Maybe we have to concentrate on how we can increase those numbers while at the same time being cognizant of our mistakes but not looking at them so seriously. Even when we look in our liturgy, we do not ask God to wipe out our mistakes. We just ask God to place a veil over our mistakes so we don't have to look at them and God doesn't have to look at them all the time. We should focus on our successes and the good things that we try to do.
Many of us realize that this review of our ESA and our EFA does not occur only during this time of year, but for some of us it's what happens when we go to work. Our bosses look at our failure rates, the number of mistakes that we make. At school, we are marked down for mistakes. As parents also, maybe we focus too much, on what our children fail to do. Not very often are we credited for the good things that we do or the successes that we have.
Now Buddha instructed us that the mind is everything. We become what we think. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius declared, "Our life is what our thoughts make it." The Bible, in the Book of Proverbs, teaches us, "He who calculates in his heart so is he. He who calculates in his heart so is he." Therefore, as we focus on our failure then so it will be. If we focus on our failures, so we will repeat them. As we focus on our despair, so we will become desperate.
There have been numerous studies published by universities and individuals like Norman Cousins and Norman Vincent Peale that have documented the wonderful dividends of positive thinking and optimism. There is even a new science called, I can't even pronounce it but it's a fancy word describing our ability through thought and emotion to decrease our susceptibility to illness and to increase our internal ability to heal ourselves. If we think positively about our body and our body system then that will help us toward greater healing.
But what is it that stops us from acknowledging everything that's positive in our lives? It comes from a disbelief that we can substantiate our success. People don't feel adequate, don't feel capable, don't feel lovable, don't feel loved. Some are dealing with problems from their childhood that they cannot get over, that they cannot grow beyond. So, they're stopped from doing greater and greater things.
Another wonderful baseball illustration, if you don't mind. Ron Guidry was a pitcher for the Yankees. In 1976, the Yankees' organization sent him back to the minors. He was crushed and he was thinking of quitting the game. As he and his wife drove back, drove away from New York, his wife turned to him and said, "You are a great man. You've got what it takes to be the very best." Finally, she said, "It's going to bother me to think that you will never know whether you could have made it in the big leagues." And so, he turned around. He went to the minor leagues. He worked ever harder. He was brought back to the majors in 1977 and in 1978, he was the unanimous choice in the American League for the Cy Young Award for the best pitcher that year.
It's positive behavior and positive thinking that are the marks of every successful person. Even failure can be seen in a positive way if one can see in the failure a step-by-step process toward achieving one's goal. When I used to be an insurance salesman, I was told a story of a young man who would go door to door trying to sell insurance policies and kept failing and failing. By the tenth door that he knocked on he'd finally sell one policy and maybe earn for himself $250.00. He became very discouraged by this until he thought for a moment, "You know, each one of those doors where I don't make a sale is worth $25.00 to me because by the time I get to the tenth door I've earned that $250.00." Therefore, he walked to every door with greater excitement, with greater enthusiasm. And I can tell you he made more sales than just one out of every 10. A reporter once asked Thomas Edison why he kept trying to invent the light bulb after 6,000 failures. Thomas Edison pointed to the reporter and said, "No, no. You don't understand. These weren't 6000 failures. The invention of the light bulb was a 6,000-step process."
In analyzing our Torah portion we read this morning, we are witness to a similar phenomenon. The rabbis are curious as to why God tested Abraham. We too wonder why so many roadblocks were placed in front of his life. He was a righteous man and he should have been saying to himself, "God, why are you doing this to me?" The book of Psalms gives us the answer; "The Lord tests the righteous. The Lord tests those who are strong." A righteous person is not someone who is ordained by God to be righteous. Because if you understand what God's will is in your life, you walk that path to do the right thing in your life, you are a righteous person and you have your roots firmly implanted in your faith in God. Even when you face many failures in your life, ultimately you will succeed because you are walking that right path.
Like Abraham, we have the capacity for good and righteous behavior. We too have the inner strength to overcome adversity, achieve success, and have a positive impact on other people. For example, the rabbis ask why God delayed in telling Abraham to take Isaac to his particular place. He said, "Take your son, your only one, the one that you love. Take Isaac." He could have just said; "Take Isaac." Instead, God understood that everything in life is a step-by-step process. It doesn't start with complete success.
You know I just noticed, sorry David, I'm going to point you out. David and Wendee Levy are wonderful astronomers here in the United States. I can tell you that David has spent hours and hours and days and days at his telescope and he doesn't always see what he is looking for. However, because he has the patience, because they both have the patience, sometimes they see miracles in the heavens. But it takes that patience. You don't see it the very first time.
And similarly, early in the story about Abraham God doesn't say to Abraham, "Go to Israel you're going to be a blessing." He says, "Go from your country, go from your family, go from your father's house. Go to the place that I will show you." Why? Because each step in our lives is very, very difficult and we are not successful in the beginning. However, if we have the courage of our convictions then we can make wonderful things happen as Abraham made wonderful things happen in his life as well.
In order to achieve important goals, one's journey will be filled with tension and difficult decisions. The ones who take these steps, despite the difficulty, grow, mature and are rewarded like Ron Guidry, like Abraham, like all of us who have struggled so hard to try to achieve something important in our lives. Where our goals might be noble and worthy we have found the risk too great to take the first step at times. Often we allow our thoughts to hold us back. There is a misbelief that others are to blame for us being held back in our lives. However, that simply is not true. We are responsible for our own lives!
Today is Rosh Hashanah. Today is the beginning of the year. Today is a new beginning for all of us. It is the head of the year. It's the beginning to make changes. We celebrate today the creation of the world. So let us recall that in this world we have been given divine gifts not the least of which is our own creation. We are created in the divine image and therefore no role, no thought, no emotion, no body image will denigrate that worthy idea of being in the image of God. The gifts, the skills, the abilities God has given us we need to use, we need to fashion in order to make our lives in this world a better place. God stepped back from the artistry of creation in the first chapter of Genesis and hesitated for a moment, and handed the paintbrush to us. The ongoing creation is in our hands. We need to appreciate all the wonderful gifts that we have. But we also need to appreciate the wonderful gifts that others have as well. We have received many gifts from other people as well and we need to thank them for what we've been given.
There is a wonderful, wonderful story. In a small village, there was a poor seamstress. Each new year she would make new clothing for the children in the orphanage. The director and the children were always delighted when these came because they were the only clothes that these children ever received and she did this every single year. Years went by. The village changed from a small rural place to a bustling city. The seamstress died unnoticed. The shul was small in the beginning and then became a great synagogue. The orphanage closed down. As Rosh Hashanah approached, the synagogue needed to raise money to cover their costs. The mayor of the town recalled that there was a wealthy industrialist who lived in a nearby town who was raised in a local orphanage. Possibly, he would come and help raise funds for the congregation. The man came as he was requested and explained that being an orphan was difficult– difficult living with no parents. He went to sleep each night with tears on his pillow. However, every Rosh Hashanah, he and all the other children of the orphanage would receive a new set of clothing. But what was more important to him was that there was always a note attached to every item of clothing. The mayor asked, "What was the message?" And the man answered, "It's not important what the note said. What was important was that someone spent the time to think that I made a difference and that I was someone important. I never felt alone."
As we go about creating and recreating let us too realize that we are not alone. God is present for those wishing to see the divine presence and we need to appreciate God's role in our lives. God is the bestower of many gifts that help make the darkness become light in our lives. God helps us see there are blooms on every flower in this world. There is no way that we should retreat from this world, but we should be a part of its greater creative process. How do we make progress especially in times of darkness and tragedy? By first understanding where we come from, where our roots are grounded. We are grounded in God, in our faith, and by taking risks like our ancestor Abraham took risks. We need to cross boundaries and limits we once felt were impossible.
Dag Hammarskjöld, one of the great Secretary Generals of the UN, who died tragically, wrote something quite marvelous in his diary. And what was interesting is no one thought that this very stern, cold man would have a diary. However, it's one of the more impassioned books I've ever read in my life. It's calledMarkings. He wrote, "Never measure the height of the mountain until you've climbed to the top of it and then you will realize how small it really is." It is something in us that stops us from making that climb – a weakness of thought. This weakness, this fear of failure, even fear of success, often comes from not understanding the divine gifts that we have, that we have been given, the blessings that have been bestowed upon our lives. Abraham knew he had blessings. Abraham asked God, "You knew that I would sacrifice my son if you willed it. You knew what was in my heart. Why did you afflict me like this?" And God said, "It was my wish that the world would become acquainted with you. You are the banner of righteousness that all can witness and learn from your example."
So let us learn from Abraham's example of living, of struggling, that there are tests, roadblocks, and struggles in our life that challenge us, but they make us better. Raise us up so we can become greater and greater at greater and greater blessings. Not for ourselves, but for the glory of God and for our communities. This is achievable only if we think that it is achievable. In one of our mystical texts, Or Zaruach, there is a story of an old man near the end of his days. His entire life was in studying Mishnah and studying Talmud. Just before he dies, he turns to one of his students, raises his own hands in front of his face and asks his students, "What are these for? I don't know what these are for." Your hands are for Mitzvot, to do God's will. Your lives are to bring Brachot, to bring blessings into this world. The Mitzvot are the means by which we bring God's will into reality and the Brachot is an understanding that we are blessed by these divine gifts. And both are raised to a level of Kiddusha, of holiness.
Therefore, let us strive just as Abraham did, with each step achieving greater and greater holiness in the world. This is the goal of the positive steps we can take – to enhance not simply who we are, or what we do in the world, but to enhance God's glory in this world as well. Just as important about how we see accomplishments of our family members and friends and co-workers, we must acknowledge them as well. When was the last time you expressed your appreciation to your spouse, your partner, your loved one or your children? When was the last time you made that co-worker feel a little bit special and honored to be working side by side with you? We need to be aware of these things, too.
So today, as we begin a new year, instead of faults and mistakes and sins, let us look at accomplishments, successes and victories. Remember we are doing the best that we can with the awareness and the skills and the knowledge that we have been given. Remember the origins of your gifts, your God and your family.
In coming back to baseball, there are over 700 baseball players in the professional leagues. All have different skills. None of them is perfect. Not one of them bats a 1,000. Errors are part of every game of life. Rabbi Bernard King, many years ago, noted that to be a good batter you only need to hit 3 out of 10 pitches and that would probably get you into the Hall of Fame. You have a failure rate of 70% and the world honors you. A batter lives with this adversity. The ERA is the adversity a pitcher lives with. Yet the motto is, "Wait until the next game, next year. I will do better."
So here we are, opening day for the Jews. Let us not concentrate on our ESA, our earned sin average. Or our EFA, our earned failure average. Our goal is to take ourselves for a few days back to the minor leagues, work on our skills, improve our averages on the field of life and come back to do the best that we can. Amen.
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