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D’var Torah – Second Day Shavuot/Yizkor                      May 18, 2021

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

The great Rabbi Akiva did not begin his studies until he was 40 years old. He had to go to school with his young son to learn to read. It is not recorded how embarrassed he was to be in an elementary school class at midlife, but he was determined to be something more than an illiterate shepherd. His wife encouraged him to be more than what he was, and as he learned the wisdom inside of him became apparent to all. 

On this holiday as we celebrate the Giving of the Torah, we remember how Rabbi Akiva boiled down the entire Torah to the verse from Leviticus (19:18), “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the essence of what the Torah tried to teach us with every verse. Today, this verse is as important as ever. Social media, email and blogs, radio and broadcast media all are filled with name calling and the denigration of all who might disagree with the author. We don’t seek to understand those who disagree, we only want to destroy any trace of them and their ideas. We live in rather nasty times. 

Rabbi Noah Farkas of Los Angeles recently wrote in his blog about racism, but I am not sure that it is relevant only to how we treat others of different races ; there is a lot in his writing that applies to how we speak to each other. Rabbi Farkas teaches: “I learned this story from my very good friend Chloe Valdary, the founder of Theory of Enchantment, which I believe is perhaps the most important anti-racism training organization in America. Chloe’s work has gained international recognition, so much so that she was featured in The Atlantic Magazine this year. At the heart of the Theory of Enchantment is a remarkably Jewish idea. Every one of us is more than an abstraction to be looked upon as an object, and if we want to build a better society, we must raise each other up instead of tearing each other down. Or to put it more religiously, each of us is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, imbued with a unique spark of holiness; and to make the world better, we must collect the sparks into a beautiful spectrum of God’s light through the process of tikkun or repair. In other words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  

The Amidah that we say three times a day states, “Our God and God of our Ancestors”. Are these two different gods being addressed in this most central prayer? Clearly Judaism has only one God. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement teaches that there are two ways to know God, either from our own theological studies or from the theology we learn from our parents. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. We can believe what we learn for ourselves, but someone else might come along and have a better teaching. That can’t happen with what we learn from our parents, but that teaching will never be “ours”. So, we need both; we need the lessons from our ancestors as well as the lessons we learn for ourselves, and this builds a strong faith. 

Other people have lessons to teach us. There is wisdom all around us being taught by those others who are not “enemies” because they disagree, but who are B’zelem Elohim, they are in the image of God and they bear important lessons for us to learn if we can hear their words. If we can see the divinity in each other, and treat everyone with the respect that we want them to have for us, if we can love them just as we love ourselves, then the world would be full of wisdom and not hate, full of understanding and not denigration. Different opinions would not be disagreements but opportunities to learn and grow. 

Steven Covey writes that we must first seek to understand before we can be understood. There is a humility here that is critical, and it is missing in the discourse of today. Today, we have access to knowledge that past generations could not even dream about. That is our teaching, but the teaching of our ancestors is to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and that teaching is also critical for advancing knowledge and understanding. Otherwise, we end up like a verse from Shakespeare, “Our life will be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

1.    Jack Reimer in his famous poem, “To Hear” claims that all to often, “we hear but we don’t really hear”. There are more sound bites than we know what to do with, but do we really hear what others, especially others we disagree with, are saying? And if not, should we expect them to “really hear” us?

2.    Why should we respect the opinions of those who disagree with us? Where does the value of their opinions come from?

3.    Why are we so quick to tear each other down, rather than building each other up?

4.    Why is what we say, so much stronger if we understand what others are saying first?

5.    Real humility is what is needed in the world. Why is it so hard to find? Is it that we are all too cynical to believe in humility? Or is it that there is more money to be made when we are full of ourselves? What do you think?

Yizkor is about thanking past generations for the wisdom they imparted to us. Let us consider the lessons our parents and grandparents shared as we begin, this day, our Yizkor service.

Fri, March 24 2023 2 Nisan 5783