At almost two months old, Abigail had plenty to say and no time for sleep. On this day in particular, she had been awake and screaming since 5 and by 7:30 in the morning, I had already experienced more than I felt I could tolerate for the day. So, at precisely 7:30, I completed the handover and Andrew began walking the well worn path in the carpet – around and around the house. At this time, we lived in a house high on top of a hill over the Hudson River in New York – overlooking the Tappan Zee Bridge. We would walk back and forth, back and forth in front of that window – pointing out boats, traffic and anything else we could find all in an attempt to quiet the ever cranky child. I went to lie down and was interrupted at about 8:35am when Andrew yelled for me to come upstairs. I could hear the urgency in his voice, so as I rounded the corner, I took comfort in the fact that Abigail had finally fallen asleep in his arms. But, as I looked past father and child, I noticed a plane, probably a couple thousand feet outside of our window, just skimming over the top of the Bridge. “It’s so low – Should I call someone?” he asked. “Who would you call?” I responded. “The police maybe?” he said. “You could, but by the time they get here, the plane will be long gone.” I assured him. But an uncomfortable feeling settled deep within and as the plane passed, I was surprised to see people looking back at me. I can’t say that I could identify much about the people looking out, but I did see faces turned toward me as the plane passed by and I had the real sensation that my eyes locked with some of the passengers for a second or two as the flight headed toward New York City. Ten minutes later, as our infant daughter slept soundly in my husband’s arms, we heard a huge explosion and every car alarm in our neighborhood began to scream. As smoke rose across the Hudson, we heard Matt Lauer announce “American Airlines flight 11 originating from Boston has just crashed into the north Tower of the World Trade Center.”
We all know what would happen that day – the words September 11th etched into our brains for all time. I can’t speak to what was going on in the rest of the world, but I can tell you that for those of us living in New York, there was mass pandemonium. Everyone began working together to find loved ones– and we were no different as the Vice President of our synagogue would not be found until almost 24 hours later when he was discovered terribly burned, but alive, in a NYC hospital. Within that chaotic frenzy, a local news station suggested that we go to the supermarket in order to stock up on provisions, just in case. Think of the week leading up to Hurricane Irma, and you will get an idea of what the supermarkets were like. As we hurried into the local market, we were stunned by the other people we saw – strangers and friends alike – pale with blank stares; others wandering up and down aisles openly crying. We looked on, never letting go of our young baby and watched as an incredible thing began to happen – New Yorkers, notorious for being in a rush and blatantly rude to one another- were embracing each other – literally hugging one another. Strangers walked up to one another and lent a comforting arm or a compassionate ear. Young housewives, toting their screaming children were met with grandmotherly types offering to help. It was as if, in the blink of an eye, societal norms shattered around us. No one complained about the lines being long – in fact the lines were welcomed as a time to connect to one another. Gone were social constraints – the New York adage to never look a stranger in the eye was forgotten. People were caring, they were compassionate and they were radically kind to one another.
Perhaps you have never heard of Radical Kindness – the idea that by simply doing what is right, by expressing your generosity, by expressing your care and compassion for others, by truly loving each other – we can bring about radical change that will make our lives and lives of those with whom we share a community so much more meaningful, beautiful and purposeful. Though the kindness that I witnessed on and around September 11th was beautiful, it was, of course short lived and It was some time before I would experience radical kindness once again. In the wake of Hurricane Irma, we emerged from the dark cocoons of our homes to be greeted by the light of neighbors offering generator produced cups of coffee. We emerged to find strangers hugging each other in Home Depot, trying to provide one another with some sort of emotional comfort along the empty water aisle, and we emerged to find unprecedented radical kindness as people from all walks of life came together to provide toiletries, clothing, food and paper goods for strangers. There was no thought, no restraint, just kindness – and through the exhausted haze that permeated every ounce of my being, I found it to be stunningly beautiful though fleeting.
And so, the past couple of weeks, I’ve thought quite a bit about this “post traumatic radical kindness”, and I’ve asked myself again and again – why can’t we all be nicer all of the time? Why don’t we smile more, make more of an effort, and be generally more friendly, kind and agreeable with strangers and friends alike. Disasters, whether man made or otherwise, often serve as reminders that everyone is dependent on their friends and neighbors and community at large. There are many things that divide us – politics, religion, race, but in a disaster, people are forced to put their differences and their daily routines aside to come together to help each other. It’s amazing to watch and even more incredible to be a part of but why does this bright light of humanity only shine during our darkest hours?
One day a couple of weeks ago, my friend Amy heard me lamenting the elusiveness of radical kindness and suggested that I learn a little bit about David Foster Wallace. Wallace, for those who don’t know, was an American writer, University professor and tortured soul that delivered a now famous Commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 in which he challenged the young graduates to be just a little less arrogant as they surged forth to conquer the world. He asked that they develop an acute awareness about themselves and their preconceived notions and ideas. Be careful, he warned, “A huge percentage of the stuff that you tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.” And he went on to say, “Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence.” I too initially chuckled at his humorously honest and blatant observation, but was he so wrong? I’m sure most of us don’t think much about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it seems socially unacceptable, and who among us is truly comfortable admitting that we are, in fact, narcissistic? But today is a day of intense self reflection so I ask you…was he so far from wrong? Wallace identified this self centeredness as our default setting which is hard-wired into our brain boards at birth. Think about it, he warned the young graduates: “there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent and real.” Wallace has a real point. It’s hard to stay alert and attentive, when it’s easy to become hypnotized by the constant monologue running inside our own heads. To be alert means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from each experience.” Wallace’s point is that it is not just in the time of great disaster, but so much more so in those petty and frustrating situations where our ability to choose will come in. For example, how often do you choose the longest checkout line with the slowest cashier? In this long line, you have plenty of time to think, obsess and brood. Freeze this fantasy for a moment and envision yourself at the end of this long, tedious line: At this moment, if you don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, you’re going to be annoyed and miserable every time you have to shop. Because your natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about you. About YOUR hungriness and YOUR exhaustion and YOUR desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in your way, an impediment to your goal. And these people in your way? Why didn’t they check to see if their cereal was open before they got into line; why didn’t they look for their coupons while they were shopping; and why do they have to talk so loudly on their cell phones in the middle of the line? Look at how deeply annoying and insulting this is to YOU. And let’s be honest, we all think this way. But stop for one moment and realize that we have all gotten to the point where thinking the worst tends to be so easy and automatic that we no longer make a choice. It is our natural default setting to be annoyed and frustrated with one another. It’s the automatic way that we experience the more mundane parts of life all while operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that we are the center of the world, and that our immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
But if we just stop and think, we know that there are many different ways to see the same situation. When we are stopped at a red light and the car in front of us doesn’t immediately go as soon as the light turns green, it’s easier to lean on the horn then to consider that maybe the person in front of us was once in a terrible accident that has them a little bit cautious about pulling into traffic. Or maybe that the guy that just cut me in line at the drugstore has a sick child at home and in his desperation to get home to that child, he inadvertently stepped in front of me. Maybe, just maybe he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: and it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do. And just maybe, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at the lady screaming into her cell phone in the middle of the line, you can consider that maybe she’s not usually like this and that maybe she is going through a personal struggle that you know nothing about. And OK, maybe none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It truly depends on what you want to see. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you’re certain in your position as the center of that reality, then everything I’m saying will seem absolutely useless and trite. However, if, just once, you are willing to consider that everyone lives a complicated, rollercoaster life, then it may actually be within your power to experience a long line, or uncomfortable situation as not only meaningful, but sacred.
In a few minutes, we as a congregation will be reciting the sacred Ashamnu and Al Chet which, on Yom Kippur, constitute the Jewish confession. Confessions in Judaism, you will notice, are always in the plural: “We have sinned, we have transgressed”. They are always meant to be said by the entire congregation, even by those individuals who feel that they themselves have not been guilty of the sins listed – as my husband always reminds us, you may not have committed the sin for which you are confessing, but you can be pretty sure that the guy three rows up and ten seats over has, and it’s your duty ask for forgiveness for him as well. When one Jew sins, it is as though we all have sinned. We are all responsible for one another. The confessional prayers for the High Holidays are constructed in order to intensify our feelings of responsibility and kindness for one another. When an individual Jew celebrates, the whole community rejoices; when he weeps, the community shares his grief with him; when he sins, the whole community shares his sin. The group recitation of the confessional is intended to remind us that the failure of the individual is very often the result of the shortcomings of the society or community in which one lives.
The Talmud, which is the main body of Jewish law, states that there are three signs that distinguish the Jewish people from all others. they are rachmanim, compassion; bayshanim, having a sense of shame; and gomlei chasadim, performing acts of kindness. The Talmud clearly states that the distinguishing mark of the Jewish people is not our observance of Shabbat, keeping kosher, and a bunch of other mitzvot. Important as they may be, they are simply the reflections of the values that are (or at least should be) the true hallmark of a Jewish person: compassion, shame, and kindness. Jewish law assumes that observing ritual is, at least for those brought up to do so, pretty natural. However, developing excellence of character is a lifelong and most difficult pursuit. Refraining from work on Shabbat is enjoyable and relatively easy; ensuring that one’s employees are treated properly, less so.
The rabbis who codified our Jewish laws note that those who focus on the rituals of Judaism while ignoring its values and ethical teachings cause a desecration of the Name of God. The implication is clear. Better not to observe these mitzvoth or commandments than to have one’s observance cause others to run away from that very observance. The rabbis stress that if one is going to be observant of mitzvot, please ensure that there is an accompanying excellence of character. For those of you who like to say that you are “bad Jews”, you should know that our rabbis teach that “one who eats bread on Pesach, ham and eggs on Yom Kippur, does not have a mezuzah on the door of one’s home, may be sinning, but he or she is still unquestionably Jewish. It is those who are not rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chasadim – compassionate, shameful and kind – whose Jewishness is to be called into question. It is these traits that are “the hallmark of Israel, the holy nation”. Compassion. Shame. Kindness. These are the traits that make a person holy in the eyes of God.
There is a story about a certain monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once it was a great order, but it had lost all of its branch houses and there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order. In the woods surrounding the monastery there was a little cabin that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used as a retreat. The old monks could always sense when the rabbi was visiting the cabin. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other. And as the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, he decided to visit the rabbi and ask if he had any advice that might save the old monastery. The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of this visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “Yes. I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. When the time came for the abbot to leave, they embraced one another. “It has been a wonderful thing that we have talked after all these years,” the abbot said. “But is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded, “I have no advice to give you.” But then the rabbi paused and said quietly to the abbot, “But, there is one thing I have to tell you: One of you is the Messiah.” When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him and asked, “Well, what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving—he said that one of us was the Messiah!.” In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks began to think about this and wondered whether the rabbi’s words could actually be true? The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, who is it? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Or he might have meant Brother Thomas or Brother Jonathan or Brother Philip. Of course, the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? Oh God, me? As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them might actually be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect. Because the monastery was situated in a beautiful forest, it so happened that people occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect and kindness that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, people began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. And it happened that within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirit.
If we could assume the specialness of every person and truly try to be kind in every day life, we could build a culture of respect that generates energy, creativity, and magnetism – something that people can sense and feel, and to which they would be drawn. Highly respectful cultures treat every person with courtesy and kindness, and convey the understanding that every member of the community is valued. By treating every person with the utmost respect and kindness, we can develop a culture in which everyone wants to give their best to others, and expects to receive the best from others in return – everyday, not just in the wake of a disaster. It is the type of culture everyone deserves, and it is up to us to make it happen.
Our tradition teaches: “treat each person as if they were the messiah, and if he does not come within our lifetime, it will not have mattered.”. “treat each person as if they were the messiah, and if he does not come within our lifetime, it will not have mattered.” I am and will always be haunted by those eyes that I looked into on that day in September. All I know of them is what I have read and the supreme sacrifice that they, and their families made that day. I have often thought that the best way to honor them is by doing all I can to make this world a better place, by practicing radical kindness, by treating each person as if they were the messiah.
And so, on this solemn evening – Erev Yom Kippur, I challenge us all to begin to treat those in our lives and even those with whom we have just brief encounters, with radical kindness. This will involve going out of our comfort zones, of making conscious decisions of how and when to react. For me, someone who is painfully shy, chronically distracted and 100% Bostonian, this is going to mean constantly battling my default setting. But I owe it to the people on that plane. I owe it to you, and I owe it to myself. Join me. Try radical kindness in your life and see what happens. I bet that we’ll find that we will feel better about ourselves and others in addition to making the world a better place. Be aggressive with kindness. Social reciprocity theory would suggest that people will behave kindly to you in return. And even if they don’t, so what? You’ll likely feel better anyway. Don’t wait for the next hurricane, the next earthquake, the next illness. Make 5778 the year of Kind over Matter.