Forgiveness Takes Time

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Many of us have been in awe of the families of those murdered last week at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. Somehow, someway, these families were able to forgive the man who killed their loved ones. This forgiveness is an integral part of their religion. For them, granting forgiveness is a tremendous gift of love that they can bestow on another person – a gift, they believe, is inspired and expected by God

As I spoke about a few weeks ago at Kabbalat Shabbat services, part of me envies those who are so quick to forgive and let go. Some of you know that I had a great-aunt who was murdered many years ago. I openly admit I don’t have it in me to forgive my great-aunt’s killer. I can’t get my head around some folks’ ability to forgive people who murder and cause so much destruction and, on top of this, link forgiveness to God.

While I certainly don’t believe in a God that punishes us, I do not believe in a God that – “poof” – just forgives people for their wrongdoings simply because they ask for forgiveness. Again, I don’t believe in a God that punishes us, but I do believe that we have the right and obligation to punish those who do wrong.

A few weeks ago, we read in the Torah about how Miriam and her brother Aaron are caught by God as they gossiped about their brother Moses. Miriam starts the gossiping, talking in a negative way about her sister-in-law, Moses’ wife. The gossip-fest continues as Miriam and Aaron ask: “Who does Moses think he is acting all powerful? What, is he better than us?”

God hears the gossip. Remember, Judaism teaches us that gossip is equivalent to murder since wicked words can destroy a person’s reputation and, therefore, destroy a person’s life. So gossip is not a petty crime. Because of this, God inflicts Miriam (not Aaron – this is a whole other conversation) with a terrible skin affliction that requires her to be removed from the community and put in isolation outside of the camp where she is confined for seven days until the skin affliction clears up.

Some might say that Miriam’s punishment – a skin infliction that heals and seven days of isolation – is not a severe punishment for such a serious crime. But let’s look at the symbolism surrounding Miriam seven-day punishment. As you know, God created the world in six days and relaxed on the seventh day. Over seven days, the entire world was created and the Creator was able to rest. Seven days represent everything, a lifetime, wholeness. This is the reason a little boy is circumcised on the eighth day of his life. It is after living seven full days that he is considered a complete human being – having lived a whole cycle of life on earth. So, some might say that Miriam is punished for only seven days. But those seven days are symbolic of a lifetime. Her punishment is no small thing.

The Torah teaches us that Miriam has to face the consequences of her actions. We don’t see God sweeping in and forgiving her. Moses actually tries to get God to do just this, begging God to heal his sister, but it doesn’t work. As we read the Torah, we see Miriam being called on the carpet and paying the price for her crime. Yes, eventually, once her seven days are up, she rejoins the people and they begin journeying once again in the desert, making their way to the Promised Land.

It is interesting to note that the Torah teaches us that the people wait for Miriam while she serves her punishment. They remain in place while she does her time outside of the camp. The people appreciate that the punishment process has to proceed as planned. Once it runs its course – Miriam comes home and everyone moves on. She is forgiven. But it takes time – time to heal, time for Miriam to face the consequences, time for the people to forgive.

My heartaches for the families who lost loved ones in Charleston. The senseless act of hatred and violence that took their loved ones from them is proof that evil does exist. Yes, part of me envies those who have been able to forgive the Charleston killer so quickly, but it is just a small part of me. While I do not stand in judgment of those who have forgiven him, my Jewish view of forgiveness, so powerfully expressed in the story of Miriam’s punishment, teaches me that forgiveness takes time. One can be forgiven. This is an essential part of our faith – just think about the High Holidays. Each of us can forgive and be forgiven. But, as we learn by Miriam’s symbolic seven-day punishment – forgiveness can’t be rushed. When people face the consequences of their actions, when punishments are served, when people truly learn from their mistakes and truly change, when genuine remorse is expressed – this is when forgiveness can be given.

Certainly, we can choose to forgive someone before she has to face the consequences of her poor choices. As I mentioned, even Moses tries to get his sister off the hook before she is exiled from the camp. But the story of Miriam’s punishment does not condone this path. Judaism does not teach us about a God that forgives simply because the sinner believes and proclaims her faith. Judaism does not teach us that by quickly forgiving others we make ourselves and the world a better place. No. Judaism teaches us that forgiveness is a process that requires the “sinner” to do her time, change her ways and earn back the trust she lost by acting inappropriately. Judaism also expects the one who did wrong to seek forgiveness from those she has wronged. This is part of the process. (It is important to point out that once someone has faced the consequences and sincerely asks us for forgiveness three times, if we refuse to grant forgiveness, we become the “sinner”. Something to think about.)

To forgive when there is no remorse, to forgive when there are no consequences, to forgive because we love the sinner and hate the sin – this is not the Jewish way. It does not teach the sinner. It does not encourage change. It does nothing to make the world a better place.

May we all find within ourselves the strength and courage to forgive those who have hurt us, but may we do so in a way that insures that lessons are learned and lives are changed for the better.

Inspired By Today, I Wrote This Prayer For Tonight

 

 

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The words of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy:

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.

Tonight, as we light the candles of Shabbat, may their glow remind us of the wisdom of the generations that came before us and symbolize the amazing power of new insight. As we gather together with those we love, may our ability to come together remind us of our tradition’s insistence that we must do what we can to end discord and pursue justice. And may we all have a Shabbat Shalom.

Live The Words of Pastor Pinckney

 

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Pastor Clementa Pinckney

One of the nine victims of the horrific shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church this week was Pastor Clementa Pinckney, the church’s spiritual leader. On April 26, two months before his brutal murder, Pastor Pinckney led the “Requiem on Racism”, a moving service that called for an end to racism, bigotry, and violence. The Requiem was hosted at his church.

At this service, which was held shortly after the shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American man, by a Charleston Police Officer, Pastor Pinckney said: “We hope this program will help each of us to look deeply into our own hearts and minds and inspire us to root out any forms of violence and bigotry in our own lives.” The Pastor was joined at this service by U.S. Representative Jim Clyburn, State Representative David Mack, and Rabbi Stephanie Alexander of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim of Charleston.

Pastor Pinckney opened the service with the following prayer. “We know that only love can conquer hate, that only love can bring all together in our name…Irregardless of our faiths, our ethnicities, where we are from, together we come in love. Together we come to bury racism, to bury bigotry, and to resurrect and revive love, compassion, and tenderness. We pray that you would bless and empower all of us who are here to reach and to feel the love and to share the love.”

At the end of the service, Pastor Pinckney described the Requiem on Racism a “a funeral, a mass, a service” in which to bury racism.

Tragically, his congregation and the larger community must now bury him and the other victims of this hateful crime fueled by racism. May his wife, Jennifer, his children Eliana and Malana, his congregation and all who have been inspired by him find within themselves the the strength and courage to believe his words: “We know that only love can conquer hate, that only love can bring all together.” And may we all try to do as the Pastor asked his community to do just two months ago – pray that we all have the strength “to reach and feel the love and share the love.”

May it be a Shabbat Shalom – a Shabbat of peace for us all.

Me, Barbra Streisand and My Grandfather

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Barbra Streisand on the Jack Paar Show – April 5, 1961

Today, my grandfather, Louis Landesman z”l, would have turned 102. As many of you know, if it weren’t for my grandfather, I would not have become a rabbi. I was raised in a very secular household. I was not affiliated with Judaism in any way. But, I had my grandfather – who was raised by Eastern European, Jewish parents who immigrated to the US in the late 1800’s and settled on the Lower East Side of New York. My grandfather was raised in a traditional, Jewish household. As he got older, he was, like most kids in his situation, Americanized. As an adult, he was by no means a practicing Jew. However, he carried with him the stories of the Old Country and life on the Lower East Side. I was lucky enough to hear those stories. They inspired me to learn more about who I was and where I came from. My grandfather and his stories gave me the ability to discover my connection to the Jewish world and started me on a path that would lead me to the rabbinate. I am forever grateful for my grandfather and the gifts he gave to me.
In his memory, I thought it was important to share a story that he loved to tell – a story that had nothing to do with the Old Country and the Lower East Side. This story was about a young secretary who briefly worked for him in the early 1960’s at his advertising agency in Manhattan. According to my grandfather, this secretary had a very breathy voice, wore a lot of eye makeup and was really not into the job. So, just days after she was hired, he fired her. And, soon after doing so, my grandfather turned on the Jack Paar Program (The Tonight Show) and who was on the screen singing her heart out? His former secretary – Barbra Streisand. This was Streisand’s first appearance on television, an appearance that helped to launch her spectacular career. My grandfather loved to say that if it wasn’t for him, Barbra Streisand wouldn’t have been unemployed and therefore, capable of appearing on television. He loved to tell folks that he changed Barbra Streisand’s life. While some might challenge this assertion, I am proof that my grandfather did indeed have the power to change lives. He changed mine and as Judaism teaches us, when you change just one life, you change the world.
Gramps, thanks for all that you gave me. Your gifts continue to define who I am. In her song “If I Could”, Barbra Streisand sings, “how I’d try to change the world I brought you to and there isn’t very much that I can do but I would if I could.” Barbra might not have been able to change the world – but you, Gramps, you did.

What We Want For Our Graduates

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Many of us have recently celebrated or are about to celebrate the graduation of children and grandchildren from high school, college and graduate school. While for some, letting go of our children as they take this next step is difficult, all of us are excited about what the future holds for our kids. They are filled with so much potential. We pray that they discover and appreciate this potential as they begin the next chapter of their lives.
Most of us have invested a great deal of time, energy and resources into helping our children get to this moment. We want this next chapter to lead them toward a path of success. But, in today’s competitive world, what does it mean to be successful? The answer lies in the words of Rabbi Simon Ben Zoma who lived 1,800 years ago:

Who is wise? The one who learns from every person.
Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has.
Who is honored? The one who gives honor to others.
(Pirkei Avot 4:1)

Whether they are going off to college, entering the military or starting their professional lives, may each of our graduates discover that all the people whom we encounter on our journey have wisdom to share. May our kids take the time to learn from as many people as possible and may they, in turn, share their own wisdom with the world.

Let’s hope that our children have the insight to discover how the simple things in their lives are what make them wealthy. While we want our children to be secure and comfortable, we don’t want their happiness to be defined by fancy, material possessions or diverse, financial portfolios. May our children live a life rich in meaning, a life rich in family and friends, a life made richer because they were able to make a difference in this world.
We pray that our children use the next few years to grow and develop as individuals. We want them to find their place in this world and appreciate how important they are. But, we also pray that our children realize that we are here for the sake of those with whom we share this world. May our children learn that by treating others kindly, by going out of our way to help, teach, listen, befriend and love others, we are achieving the highest level of success. May our children be honored for honoring others.

Wisdom, wealth and honor as defined by Rabbi Simon Ben Zoma 1,800 years ago – this is what we want for our children as they step into the world. May we all get what we want and may all of our children flourish.
Mazal Tov to all of our graduates and Shabbat Shalom!

Blessings From Curses

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Curses can become blessings. This is a fundamental Jewish concept that is captured in the song Mah Tovu that we sing at the beginning of every Shabbat morning service. “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael/How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” – these beautiful words that are the perfect blessing to begin a service, words that are from the Torah, were first uttered by Balaam, a prophet hired by a wicked king who despised Israel. The king ordered Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Amazingly, as Balaam opened his mouth to do just this, he spoke the words we call “Mah Tovu”. His mouth was hijacked by God and a curse became a blessing.

Today, curses can still become blessings. I can say this not because I believe that God has the ability to hijack a modern day bad guy’s mouth and make him start speaking words of blessing. I can say this because we have concrete evidence that bad things can, with the godly insight of wise people, do really good things. The radical, new treatment regimen for skin cancer that was published in the The Journal of Clinical Oncology on Tuesday is a perfect case in point. What’s the treatment regimen? Herpes. Yes, you read that correctly. Herpes.

Dr. Kevin Harrington, a Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at The Institute of Cancer Research, headed the team that discovered that by modifying the Herpes virus, it can be used to attack and kill inoperable melanoma in patients. “We may normally think of viruses as the enemies of mankind, but it’s their very ability to specifically infect and kill human cells that can make them such promising cancer treatments,” said Professor Paul Workman, the CEO of The Institute of Cancer Research. And, thus, we have scientific proof of what Judaism has embraced for centuries: curses can become blessings.

When the words of Mah Tovu came forth from Balaam’s mouth centuries ago, imagine the shock of the evil king who was expecting to hear a powerful curse. While none of us want to be like the king, shocked because we received a blessing when we wanted a curse, we would all love to be shocked by being blessed when we were expecting the worst. May God continue to inspire the scientists, scholars and anyone else who is courageous enough to discover new and incredible ways to shock us by turning life’s curses, viruses and challenges into blessings.

Authenticity: The Key To A Meaningful Bar/Bat Mitzvah

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Last week, I shared with you an article written by my colleague, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, that focused on the innovation that is going on within the Jewish world, particularly surrounding the Bar/Bat Mitzvah. In this article, Chai Tech, our own Online Bar/Bat Mitzvah Preparation Program, was featured. Earlier this month, Ritualwell.org, an online source that allows people to learn about and create Jewish rituals, hosted a #ReimagineBnaiMitzvah Twitter chat. The chat – some of which you can see here – explored various ways that make the Bar/Bat Mitzvah experience more meaningful for B’nai Mitzvah and their families. I am happy to report that most of the innovative ideas that were discussed in the chat are ones that we fully embrace at Ramat Shalom. However, while I certainly take great pride in the creativity that we incorporate into our B’nai Mitzvah services and believe that this creativity adds something special to our services, I don’t believe that it is this creativity that makes Ramat Shalom’s B’nai Mitzvah as powerful as they are.

Tomorrow night, we celebrate Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the moment Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai. We’ve been preparing for Shavuot for weeks now. As part of this preparation, we are taught to read Pirkei Avot, an ancient collection of Jewish wisdom. In the fourth chapter of this incredible collection, we are taught: “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it.” As we step back to examine what makes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah service special, we can’t just focus on the vessel, the service itself: the prayers, songs, descriptions of mitzvah projects, readings shared by friends, speeches given by the B’nai Mitzvah and their families. Don’t get me wrong, these words are important! But it takes more than these words to create the energy that we feel at a Ramat Shalom Bar/Bat Mitzvah. It is what is in the words that creates this energy. In Hebrew, we talk about the kavanah of a prayer – the story behind the words. The intensity that we all feel is a result of the kavanah behind everything that is said and done during the service.

So what is the kavanah behind the words shared at a Ramat Shalom Bar/Bat Mitzvah? It is the authentic story of every Bar/Bat Mitzvah that steps foot on our bimah. It is also a desire to truly celebrate the bonds the Bar/Bat Mitzvah shares with his/her family, friends and the Ramat Shalom community. What we do on the bimah is not a performance. It is not a concert or a poetry slam. It’s not about being perfect. Rather, it is about being real. This means different kids do different things on the bimah. Some read Haftarah. Some don’t. Some sing. Some squeak. And it’s all good. Because it’s real, mistakes might very well be made: the Bar/Bat Mitzvah mispronounces a word, the Rabbi calls up the wrong person for an aliyah (yes, it happens!) or your dear aunt completely panics during her Torah reading. And so? We help each other out, laugh and hold hands as we honestly and openly celebrate the sacred rite of passage of a child we love.

Our B’nai Mitzvah are celebrations of relationships. The Cantor and I, along with Beth Michell, our Torah School Director, and Amy Freund and Miriam Lomnitzer, our tutors, are lucky enough to truly connect with each of our students and their families. Our interactions with each other on the bimah are not for show. We know our kids and their families and they know us. The words we all share with each other during the service are a continuation of relationships that were formed slowly, over time. This authenticity is contagious and is picked up on and shared by everyone who joins us for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

As Shavuot begins tomorrow evening, there is not the pomp and circumstance that is associated with the other major Jewish holidays. There is nothing like a Passover seder, a sukkah or a shofar. Yes, on Shavuot, there is cheesecake – but really, there is simply the Torah that we open, study and celebrate on this holy occasion. We don’t need anything else – just the story of our people. The same is true at our B’nai Mitzvah celebrations and, honestly, at any of our Ramat Shalom lifecycle events. We don’t need bells and whistles to make these moments sacred. We just need the story of our people which, of course, includes the unique story of you and your family.

May you find the time to celebrate your authentic story this Shavuot and may we as a community continue to strengthen our relationships with each other, relationships that lie at the heart of everything that is Ramat Shalom.