Everyday we hear about another data breach. Target and Home Depot’s servers have been hacked and it is frightening to imagine what the thieves will be able to do with our social security numbers and credit card account information. Imagine, if you will, a different kind of security breach. What if there were breach in the Sefer HaChayim – the book of life, the chronicle of all our deeds and misdeeds? It is comforting to know that the privacy feature on Sefer HaChayim is set to the very highest level. Only the Almighty has access to that information and we need not fear that God is going to use it to empty our bank account.
Privacy settings are also utilized on Facebook to determine with whom we share the challenges, vicissitudes and joys of our life. Facebook is an amazing tool. It can be utterly silly, giving people the opportunity to make public things that really ought to be kept very private, or it can be a vehicle for imparting truly valuable information and thoughts.
This past summer I saw a lot of Facebook. First, there was Muqata. That was a Facebook page that chronicled the Hamas/Israel War. Every time an alert sounded in an Israeli city that a missile was incoming, it appeared on Muqata. Sadly, that made it a very active page.
Then, there was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It was so wonderful to see social media being used for such an outstanding cause. Facebook promoting Tzedakah, not just reporting on where people went to dinner and what they ate! I read that more than 3 million people donated to the cause and the ALS Association raised over $100 million this past August. That is way beyond the dreams of any fundraiser.
Another challenge within a more limited circle was the Hamas vs. Humus Challenge. I learned about thanks to my friend Lori Greenwald who is always in the forefront of a good cause supporting Israel. The challenge supported Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, a cause I have long considered important so I was happy to make a donation to add some creature comforts to the lives of our brave IDF soldiers.
A less well-known challenge in the Facebook community this summer was the Gratitude Challenge. I learned of it from a young mom who grew up in this congregation. She wrote on her Facebook page that in the spirit of the month of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, she would list three things each day, for five days, for which she is grateful. Then, she made it a challenge, asking three of her Facebook friends to do the same. What an awesome idea! As soon as I read the post, I clicked the comment button and wrote, “This could be the core of a High Holy Day sermon.” In fact it is.
This challenge is important because being grateful for our blessings can add so much to our quality of life. Someone said that the opposite of gratitude is entitlement. If you don’t get what you think you are entitled to, you are annoyed and unhappy and it shows. Everyone with whom you come in contact feels that dissatisfaction. In contrast, if you are pleased about what comes your way, if you recognize the good in your life, you are surely going to be a happy camper. We are so blessed in so many ways, yet it is human nature to complain and to notice what is lacking rather than what we have. A colleague has a great line in the signature block of his email program; “What could you be grateful for now if you were grateful for something?” What a marvelous and enriching thought to share.
My daughter Ariel accepted the Gratitude Challenge, and having the privilege of being one of her Facebook friends, I read her posts. I will share with you her first three gratitude items, although I do so with some embarrassment. You will understand when you hear her words about her parents. These were her first three items for gratitude.
#1. I am grateful for my family –
For my dear husband, Shlomo Dubrowin, who I can’t imagine life without.
My son, who has brought the most challenging job, being a mom, but has also brought the most light and love into my live.
My parents (Richard and Lisa Plavin), who are supportive through thick and thin and are amazing role models for a strong marriage, committed Jewish lives and lives committed to careers and volunteer work that strengthen the community. I could go on and on about the things I admire in them…
My wonderful sisters, Aviva and Ilana, who I don’t get to see enough, but who I love very much.
#2. I am grateful for Shabbat. I can’t imagine how people survive without it. I look forward every week to the opportunity to “disconnect” (from electronics and work) and connect with family, friends and community.
#3. I am profoundly grateful for living in Israel. As hard as it is to live far away from most of the people listed in #1, when I stop and think about it, I am amazed to think of the divine intervention it has taken for Jews to be sovereign in our homeland. I think, what would my great-great grandparents say if they were told that their descendants would live in the land of Israel? I think that the State of Israel would astound them as much as smartphones would, maybe more. I am proud to be part of the ingathering of the exiles.
Reading that post absolutely took my breath away. It was extremely humbling. That post made me realize that the first item on my gratitude list is certainly family.
What courage my grandparents demonstrated in picking up their lives in Europe and coming to this land of blessing. Knowing the history of Jewish life in Europe in the last century, surely I would not be here to speak with you today if they had not made that journey. They raised their children, my parents, with a strong consciousness of their Jewish identity, and for that too I am grateful. How lucky I am that my Neshama happened to go into the little boy born to Ella and Hy Plavin. Had they not treasured our heritage, and promoted my interested in it, would I have been wise enough to know what I was missing?
Gratitude for family moves forward into the present. That blessing begins with my amazing wife, and intensifies each year. It continues with my beautiful and very capable daughters whose characters were so significantly shaped by Lisa’s exceptional parenting skills. As I think about our girls, their husbands and our extraordinary grandchildren, words fail me for the gratitude that fills my heart.
Item #2: I am grateful for my Jewish heritage.
I have always loved the story about Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and I share the feeling he expressed.
Brandeis was a student at Harvard Law School back when quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. His colleagues would say to him, “Brandeis, you’re brilliant. If you weren’t a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don’t you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved.”
He did not respond to such comments, but on his induction to an exclusive honor society, Brandeis took the podium and announced, “I am sorry I was born a Jew.” And he paused as his words were greeted with enthusiastic applause and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. “I’m sorry I was born a Jew, only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own.”
The initial response was stunned silence and slowly it gave way to awed applause. Ultimately, even his anti-Semitic peers rose and gave him a standing ovation.
I know that while most of us share the blessing of Jewish birth, some here today are not Jewish, and yesterday there were even more. One of the things I love about our heritage is that while it is open to all, we don’t believe that we have the only valid path to God. We don’t have a lock on righteousness, but we also don’t have a lock on the door to Jewish identity. Judaism has so much to offer and I know that sharing won’t diminish it.
I became a rabbi because I want to share my joy in living as a Jew.
I am grateful for our heritage because of its emphasis on serving others. Rabbi Akiba’s conviction that the most important idea in the Torah is loving your neighbor should shape the life of every Jew. It certainly is pervasive in our language. We talk about Chesed – kindness, and Derech Eretz – civility, and Tzedakah – righteous giving, and I could go on and on. It makes me so proud to know that Judaism gave these values to the world.
I am grateful to my Jewish heritage for its rituals. For me, there is nothing ‘mere’ about rituals. They give me comfort, joy and pleasure. The Psalmist said, “Serve the Lord with Simcha – with joy” For me that means the ritual mitzvot. I love the ritual we have been doing most of this morning: chanting prayers. I resonate to the words and melodies. They connect me not only with God, but also with our people. Whether you are a Jew by Birth or a Jew by Choice, knowing that people all over this planet to whom you are connected are saying these words, and that others said these same words thousands of years ago – is just mind boggling. That thought fills me with tremendous gratitude.
I am grateful for my Jewish heritage because it stresses the value of learning. The most wonderful thing about being a rabbi is that I get to do for a living what I love doing anyway: immersing myself in our intellectual heritage. I find it so important that our learning tradition is its openness to questioning. No question is stupid and every inquiry brings you deeper and deeper into the wisdom of our heritage. Even more important: no question is treif. Doubts indicate thinking, and that’s never forbidden.
Have you heard of Isidor Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics? He discovered the principle that made possible the microwave oven. Now there’s something for which to be grateful. He was once asked how he came to be a scientist. Dr. Rabi’s answer was profound: ”My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask: ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. ‘Izzy,’ she would say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’
His last name happens to be Rabi, and coincidentally that is very similar to ‘Rabbi.’ In fact, his answer could well have come from a Rabbi. Our Torah tradition encourages questions, and I love that. We don’t just memorize a creed; we probe and poke into every aspect of our heritage.
#3 on my list of things for which I am grateful is the life lessons you have taught me.
You have taught me the life lesson of honoring parents. I have seen families who have brought their parents to live in our community so that they could visit with them more often, care for them more lovingly and allow them to age in place, enjoying the dignity of independent living for more years. Many of those elders became active members of our congregation. Having your parents live nearby isn’t easy. You have to spend your life making special arrangements, limiting vacations, keeping your cell phone always at hand so you can run from wherever to deal with the inevitable emergencies. And yet, so many families in our community have done this over the years, and I am grateful to them for teaching me that life lesson.
And I have learned the life lesson of devotion to parents who cannot any longer live independently. And sometimes it not only parents but aunts or uncles or other loved ones. Thank God we do have institutions when that becomes the best way to care for parents and that also involves sacrifices. It means running so often to visit, keeping on top of the staff to see to that parents get the best care, going to take them out for lunch or bring them home for a Shabbat or Yontif meal, or just sit with them in the sunshine. I know this is constant burden, and you have taught me a remarkable life lesson about the meaning of devotion.
And I have learned the life lesson of loyalty to friends and neighbors. I have seen people do remarkable things for fellow members of BSBI. Going shopping for them, driving hours to get them to medical treatments, traveling many miles to visit in a nursing home, going to see someone recovering from surgery to offer a loving hand, seeing to it that there is a minyan for Shiva or a Yahrtzeit. It’s amazing that when I am worried we won’t have enough people for a special minyan, I can make just a brief announcement and a crowd shows up. All of this teaches me the meaning of Kol Yisrael arayvim zeb bazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another. And you teach me that lesson.
You have taught me what it means to overcome adversity. Over these 35 years I have seen families and individuals struck with the most challenging of situations. Your courage to go on is astounding. I have seen widows and widowers show amazing strength making new lives for themselves. I have visited families during Shiva after devastating and unexpected loses and learned indelible life lessons of resilience and courage.
Our tradition values life, but no matter how many times I have read about that in texts, there is no comparison to the life lesson I have learned from you when a life threatening illness strikes. The medicines are awful, the treatments are painful, and yet that will to live conquers it all. I am grateful for that life lesson so many of you have taught me.
And it not just the difficulties of life that have taught me lessons. I have learned the life lesson of cherishing joy because I have seen so many of you do just that. I have seen you travel cross-country or over oceans to share a simcha with friends or family. I know that people get together for funerals. We have to do that too often. What really teaches me about cherishing life is to see you go out of our way for happy times. That is a life lesson I have learned and for that I am grateful.
I have completed now the requisite three items for the first day of the gratitude challenge, but I must add just one more. You have taught me that Judaism can be important to people in different ways and that my way is not the only way to live as a Jew. Self-righteousness comes so easily. The lesson you teach me by living a very significant Jewish life is of immense value. For that life lesson I am grateful as well.
Now I urge you to take up the challenge yourself. You can start this morning during Musaf when you are starting to space-out and you are getting really hungry. Catalog your myriad blessings, and after Shabbat, start to put them in writing. The exercise will itself be an incomparable blessing for which you can be grateful.
May your list be long and ever growing, and may you have many blessings for which to be grateful in this New Year. AMEN