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Yom Kippur 5780. October 9, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Gemar Hatima Tova – May we be sealed for Good in the Book of Life.


The late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to tell a story about a man who heard that Shabbat, in the town of Libush, when its rabbi was still alive, was like Sabbath in Paradise: beautiful, joyous, peaceful beyond description. And he was determined to discover the secret of this town. At great expense the man traveled to the town, but the people had forgotten the secret of Shabbat because either they had not been born at that time or they were too old to remember the Shabbat in the days of the great rabbi. Finally, the traveler found an old washerwoman who had worked in the kitchen where the rabbi lived.

The traveler asked, “So what was the secret of the Shabbat day that made it like the Messiah’s time? Exactly what did the rabbi do that made it so sweet?”  The old woman tried to remember, “Oh I was just a girl,” she said, “I remember that in the kitchen before Shabbat there was a lot of commotion. Important guests were arriving from far and wide. Everything had to be just so. We were all under a great deal of pressure. In the tumult, we would bump into one another, step on each other’s toes and sometimes we would yell at each other.”  “Yes,” said the traveler, “but what was so special about Shabbat?”  “I only remember,” she said, “we would get very angry with one another. And … Oh yes, and every week we would always forget.”   “Forget what?”  “The Rebbe would walk in, and in the most kindly voice he would ask us if we remembered. But from one week to the next we always forgot.”   “Forgot what?”  “We always forgot to forgive one another, and as soon as we remembered to forgive one another, it was Shabbat. Just like that.”


On Rosh Hashana we spoke about Avodah, about worship and we focused on creating a new daily minyan here at our synagogue. Last night, we spoke about Torah, about committing ourselves to learn more about who we are and what we believe. Today, I want to focus on Gemilut Hasadim, acts of Kindness, sometimes called Hesed, the Hebrew word for a special kind of lovingkindness. A synagogue must be about prayer and study, but it also has to be about Hesed. Our shul is not about each of us becoming experts in prayer and learning; it is about welcoming here all who seek to experience the power of prayer and discovering the wisdom found in learning. And yet we can’t be a place where we are so conceited about our accomplishments that we don’t let anyone in who is not up to our standards. We must welcome with a warm heart, all who wish to know the essence of Judaism.


We read in our Machzor that if we fear a severe judgement on this day, that teshuva, tefilla and tzedakah can blunt the severity of the decree against us. Teshuva means we must practice the intellectual program of learning where we made our mistakes and going back to correct them. Tefilla means to pray with kavana, with determination, that we not repeat our sins and tzedaka, means acts of charity to show our remorse. But charity alone is not enough; tzedaka implies an act of justice, an act that makes this world a bit more fair in the way people are treated. By helping to make the world more just, we hope to have a more just verdict on this holy day.


But Justice and Tzedaka are not enough. Life requires more of us if we are to create a better world for everyone. The Rabbis compared Tzedaka to Gemilut Hasadim in the Talmud in Tractate Sukkah where it is written: “Our Rabbis taught, Gemilut Hasadim are superior to Tzedaka in three respects. Tzedaka can be accomplished only with money; Gemilut Hasadim can be accomplished through personal involvement as well as with money. Tzedaka can be given only to the poor. Gemilut Hasadim can be done for both the rich and the poor. Tzedaka applies only to the living, Gemilut Hasadim applies to both the living and the dead.


Hesed is more than how we treat each other, Hesed is a way of living our lives so that the entire world is sweetened by our being here. This in no way denigrates Tzedaka; the money that we give to others is one way of making life more equitable and fairer. When we give what we have to someone who does not have what they need, we take the worst of Capitalism, the poverty and biases it promotes and makes our community better for everyone.  But Hesed is different than tzedakah and I will use Eric Liu, Arthur Brooks and Pixar to make my point.


The Talmud teaches us that Hesed involves money as well as personal involvement. When it comes to personal involvement you have to hear what Eric Liu has to teach. If you are not one of the 1.4 million people who have viewed his TED talk, “How to Revive Your Belief in Democracy” on YouTube, I do recommend you take the time to hear him soon. Eric Liu uses the language of religion to teach about the power of democracy. He claims that democracy requires us to have faith in each other, not in a leader or a political party. Democracy is fueled by faith; it is a gamble and a miracle in its existence. Mr. Liu teaches that democracy is what fueled our greatest moments in history; Abolition, Women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights movement, the landing at Normandy and the fall of the Berlin Wall.


But I want to focus on some other things Mr. Liu says. He claims that society becomes how we behave. He says that homelessness, gun violence, mistrust of strangers, fake news, all the intractable problems in our society, all of them are our responsibility to fix; it is our responsibility because we created these problems with our own bad habits. We expect our representatives to solve these problems for us without us having to change the way we behave.


Mr. Liu also insists that with our rights come civic responsibilities. In fact, our rights ARE responsibilities. Freedom for all does not mean free for all. Freedom means being bound to others in aid and obligation. He teaches that we should have values and we should hold on to them and then, in the company of others, we should put them into practice.


I think we all can see here the Jewish values found in Mr. Liu’s civic religion. There is the emphasis on community, the responsibility we have for each other and not expecting others to clean up the mess that we have made. But the first lesson of Hesed is that it can be performed with both money and personal involvement. It is the personal involvement that is the first level of living a life of Hesed. Buying someone a fish to eat for dinner is important. But it is so much better when you help someone learn the skill of fishing. Giving a hungry woman a sandwich can be critical but teaching her to how to farm and grow her own food, can change her life.


I once heard a story of a junior executive on Wall street; in his hurry on the subway, saw a homeless man selling pencils. As he rushed by, he gave the man a contribution, but the homeless man chased after him saying, “Hey Mister, you forgot your pencil”. The executive apologized as he took the pencil and ran off saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were an entrepreneur. It got the homeless man thinking, “if that wall street guy thinks I am an entrepreneur, then maybe I should act like one. Several years later the jr. executive met the same man again, except now he owned several newsstands in NYC.  Without even knowing it, he had changed a man’s life.


I learned firsthand the power of personal involvement when I first went with my synagogue in Florida to feed the homeless. We spent Sunday morning making sandwiches and putting donated food together to feed those in need because the community soup kitchen was closed on Sundays. I will tell you. The first time you take a sandwich and put it in the hand of someone knowing that it will be the only decent meal he or she will have that day, you not only are saving a life, but you, yourself are changed forever. I never see anything as impossible anymore when it comes to helping others.


The ills of our society are the ills that we have created by our laziness and our bad habits. We know we can reduce our carbon footprint, use less plastic, and we can buy a car that uses less fuel rather than more fuel. It is our own discomfort that allows us to view strangers with fear. We know we should not be promoting on social media news that is not fully truthful, that we should not be forwarding it on to our friends. We know that guns are no more and no less dangerous than automobiles, and that if you need to pass a test and get a license for one, there is no reason not to require a test and a license for the other. Corporate America is sensing the power of citizens to make a change for the good and they are responding in kind. Our rights are our responsibility, it is not only good citizenship, it is good Judaism as well. Hesed teaches us that we need to take responsibility for our actions and then get involved in solving the larger problems.


The Talmud teaches that Hesed can be done for both the rich and the poor. It is in some ways easier to be kind to the poor, but Judaism teaches that we have to be kind to everyone, no matter their economic status nor their status in our society. Every person has the right to be treated with love and respect. This is the lesson that Arthur Brooks teaches in his book, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt.


Mr. Brooks notes that our culture today is to confront contempt with contempt. He tells a story of someone from Texas, who contacted the author on Social Media to tell him, “you are a fraud.” And from there, the Texan used 5000 words to go through the book, chapter by chapter criticizing it with vitriolic detail. He informed the author that his research was inadequate, and he was inadequate as a person as well. Brooks said that it took 20 minutes to read the whole screed. Brooks says he could have ignored the Texan, he could have returned the insult and tell the Texan to get a life. Or he could use a couple of facts from the book to prove to the Texan that he didn’t know what he was talking about. But ignore, insult or destroy is not what Brooks did. After reading the screed Brooks realized, “He read my book!” Brooks is an academic and nobody reads his books. But this guy did! So, Brooks wrote back and told the man that I know you hated my book, but I had put a lot of work into writing it, so I appreciate the time and attention to every detail that you gave it. Fifteen minutes later he got another message from the Texan saying that he was shocked the author had read his note and the next time he came to Dallas; Brooks should look him up so they could have dinner together. Said Brooks, “Did he suddenly like my book? Of course not. He simply learned that he liked ME in the way that I responded.


Here is the second lesson of Hesed. No matter how much contempt others may throw at us, we can always respond with kindness and compassion. And when we do, we can change the world. So many people heap contempt on people they don’t know because they don’t like something that they said. We get so caught up in defending our positions on issues that we forget that the people we are arguing with are also good people who just so happen to have an opinion that is different than ours. Everyone wants the same thing, what is best for our government, what is best for our synagogue what is best for our family; we only disagree on how to get there. We need to remember that we can argue passionately for what we believe in without slinging contempt at anyone who disagrees.


If we are to end the incivility of our society, the path forward leads to acts of Hesed. Anger, contempt and incivility can only exist if we return anger for anger, contempt with contempt. It is almost impossible to continue being angry if we meet the anger thrown at us with love and kindness. I am not sure that I can promise a dinner invitation if we act with Hesed, but we will be responsible for a miracle when we bring kindness and peace to our world.


The final teaching of the Talmud insists that we can do Hesed to both the living and the dead. I speak about this at almost every funeral. The greatest act of Hesed is to assist with the burial of the dead. It can involve anything from preparing the body to be placed in the casket to putting a few shovels of earth on the grave. The only thing we can never do for ourselves is to bury ourselves in the earth. We rely on the kindness of others to do this. Those that perform these acts of Hesed stand at the pinnacle of what kindness is all about. The deceased cannot thank them for their efforts. There is no chance that the deceased can return the favor. To bury the dead is the one act that is truly selfless.


But there is also a deeper lesson about gemilut Hasadim performed on behalf of the dead. For this I turn to Pixar, the movie company that is part of the Disney organization that puts out animated movies with messages far beyond the usual childish level that such animated movies are usually directed to. Two years ago, Pixar put out an animated movie called “Coco”. It has found its way to the top of the best loved movie charts in a very short amount of time. Some of the reasons are obvious. It is the first movie to speak to Mexican culture without stereotypes and pandering. It is the first movie where Spanish and English are intertwined without repeating every sentence. But the plot of the movie is where I want to teach my lesson.


If you have not seen Coco, I am sorry but there will be several spoilers here. You should see it anyway. You can get it easily online from almost any movie streaming service and while it is not a free rental (does Disney do anything for free?) it is way cheaper than going out to a movie. Go see the movie, I can’t really do it a great service in just one sermon.


In Mexican culture, Oct. 31st is called the Day of the Dead. Rather than have a Yahrzeit on the anniversary of the death, Mexican culture observes a day of remembrance for all past generations for everyone on the same day. It is not a sad day but a joyful day as deceased family members are remembered and celebrated. For one young boy, his great, great grandmother and his great, great grandfather had a terrible falling out over the great, great grandfather’s musical talent and his quest for fame. Because they split up, the great, great grandfather was written out of the family history and music was forbidden for all generations.


The young boy in the story, had inherited the family musical talent. When his quest for a guitar lands him in the land of the dead, he has to reconcile the great grandmother that he knows with the great, great grandfather who is a mystery. But if the great, great grandfather is forgotten by the only family member still alive who knows him, he will disappear forever from the land of the dead. In the end, it is the music that saves the family and sets everyone free from the pain of that long ago separation.


Perhaps it is the same reason that Jews say Kaddish for the dead, the need of the living to believe that what we do here can change what happens in the world that we can never know. Our faithfulness to Judaism, counts to the credit of the deceased even though our dead are gone from this world. As long as they are remembered, their spirit can never die.


Unlike Mexican culture that has one day to feed and celebrate the dead, Judaism would have us keep a memory alive by keeping the name alive. When we name a child after someone who has died, we not only carry on the name, but we commit to teaching the child about the person for whom they were named. That they can, if they choose, live their lives by the same principles and values that are remembered by his or her family. This is gemilut Hasadim for the dead. There are many ways to honor the living, but we have a special act of kindness that honors and celebrates those who are gone. Not all of us here today will spend the entire day in prayer, but we have also come to honor our dead, to let them know that who they were and what they stood for has not yet died in this world.


Gemilut Hasadim can be performed with both money and personal action. It can be applied to both the rich and to the poor. It can be performed on behalf of the living and the dead. It is the third leg of Hesed that our faith stands on, with prayer and study, that helps us build the kind of world that would make God proud. A world where prayer reminds people of what God expects from them. A world where we study Torah to serve as a blueprint for what a better world can be. A world where acts of loving kindness break through the barriers of society and transcend the boundaries between life and death.


In the village of Libush, they would prepare themselves with prayer for the holiness of Shabbat and that made Shabbat more spiritual. In the village of Libush, they would study all week to understand Torah and then study more on Shabbat itself and that was enough for everyone to experience the wonder of Shabbat. But it was the moment when the kitchen help would stop their bickering and their mad rush to finish their work, turn to each other and ask forgiveness from each other, that was the moment when Shabbat became an experience of paradise. This was the act of kindness that made all the difference.


One this day of Yom Kippur, we will have our day of prayer and the prayers of this day, along with the rituals of fasting have the power to change the course of our lives. On this day of Yom Kippur, we will learn Torah about how we can live together in holiness and purity and it has the capacity to change the direction of our community. And on this day of Yom Kippur, if we can find the way to completely and unselfishly forgive each other for whatever slights we might still remember. If we can forgive each other for words spoken in haste or anger. If we can forgive each other and then live by the values and examples set by those who have lived this life before our time, then this Yom Kippur will be a taste of Paradise and an example to all of how to bring blessing and peace to this world.  If that is the kind of Yom Kippur we aspire to. Let us begin that journey, with showing our respect for ancestors with prayer to show we have not forgotten and with Tzedaka given in their name so that through our actions, they can still perform acts of kindness in this world.


May we live this year with our full attention to Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim, to study, to prayer and to performing acts of kindness and may God grant us this year the life we need to make it all happen as we say … Amen and Gemar Tov


We now rise for the Prayers of Yizkor


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on October 9, 2019

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782