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Getting the Message Straight

By Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank

Midway Jewish Center, Syosset, NY
1-2 Tishrei, 5776 - Sept. 14-15, 2015

     Shanah Tovah - A Good New Year, everyone.  So good to see you all in a new space for a new year.  The holidays should not only be a time for accepting apology and granting forgiveness, but also for expressions of appreciation and gratitude for what we have been given during the year.   And I want to begin with a thank you to you all.  I want to thank you for teaching me so much and sharing your wisdom with me.  When I listen to you, your challenges and frustrations, the lessons you have gained through professional and personal experience, I gain a great deal-with almost every interaction I have with you.  And the insights you give me, the perspectives you grant to me are greatly appreciated.  That kind of knowledge you've imparted to me cannot necessarily be found in books-secular or sacred-which make those lessons all the more special.

     Imparting the right lesson is not always easy and even professional teachers run the risk of in advertently communicatinimparting the wrong lesson. There was the crisis of the grammar school teacher who wanted to convey to her young charges the evils of liquor so she secured two o very large glass jars, one filled with pure spring water and one filled with good ole' Kentucky Bourbon.  She had her fifth graders gather around the exhibit and then took a worm and dropped it ever so delicately into the jar full of spring water and there the worm swam about in carefree delight to the amusement of all the children in the class.  The teacher then took another worm and dropped it every so delicately into the jar of Kentucky Bourbon and within ten seconds the worm grew listless and, to the horror of the children in the class, sunk dead to the bottom of the jar to the horror of the children in the class.  The teacher then looked at her stunned class and asked, "Children, what do we learn from this little experiment?"  And one kid in the back shouted, "Drink Bourbon and you'll never get worms."

     So that clearly was not the moral of the story, at least as the teacher hoped it would be conveyed,  but there you have it-we don't always learn what we are supposed to learn and when our learning seems off, when the message doesn't seem right, it's important to stop and seriously question whether we got the message right, if the message was in some way garbled, or flawed in its transmission, or if we simply misunderstood it in some way.

     The fact is that we live in an ocean of messages.  The music we listen to, the ads we read, the television shows we watch, etc. all are designed to convey something to us.  And one of the great message delivery systems that surround us on a daily basis is architecture and design.  The way we arrange the space in which we live is a message about what is important to us or what values we aspire to.  If you look at your living room or den, the place where you spend the most time, perhaps it is the kitchen, those spaces and how you have arranged those spaces tell a story about who you are.  Maybe it's a story about elegance, or hobby collections, or revolt against authorityorganization; or maybe a message about, safety, or living life in a fun way.  When I see a mezuzah on the front door, or if I don't see one, it tells me something about the people inside.  It may be the wrong message or the right message.  The mezuzah on that front door conveys some message.  But ask yourself, and ask your family, what your home design reveals about what is important to you and above all, if the message that is being conveyed is the message you want conveyed.  What might you do to tweak the design in order to tighten the message?.  It's an interesting question and I'm sure there are several interior designers in the congregation today who would start passing around their business cards were it not for it being Yom Tov, a sacred day when we don't do business.

     We just finished a major renovation of our synagogue and sanctuary.  We've pulled out the building a bit, installed an elevator, made the building handicap-accessible, redesigned the Ark, installed new lights, tore up the carpeting and laid new carpeting, and replaced individual seats with bench pews, and made all public areas of the sanctuary handicapped accessible.  The new design says something about us as a Jewish community.  It says a lot of things about us, including the desire to feel uplifted, and necessarily by the springs in the seats we sit on.  Ta preference for not feeling springs when we sit down for services, but there is something else that our new sacred space says about us louder than anything else and I think it would be a shame to leave its identification only to our imaginations.  So I'm going to spell it out for you.

     But before I spell it out for you, I want to talk to you about an issue that has been particularly troublesome to me and to the Jewish community in general.  It has been this controversy in the community about our government's leading role in creating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more popularly known as the Iran deal.  Senator Schumer and Congressman Israel have both come out in opposition to the deal, but Congressman Jerry Nadler didn't.  And Congressman Nadler represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan-a pretty liberal concentration of people-but also some very Conservative areas of Brooklyn-Midwood and Borough Park.  Anyway, after a truly consistent record of supporting Israel throughout his lifetime, Nadler was condemned as anti-Israel and New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind parked a double decker bus in front of the Congressman's Manhattan office with a banner of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei smiling and thanking America.  And then, what happens, is the New York Times and the Jewish Week print articles about how the Iran deal is tearing the Jewish community apart.  The New York Times, August 28, 2015, headline:  "Iran Deal Opens a Vitriolic Divide Among American Jews."

     Now I have to tell you, I am really opposed to this deal.  In fact, I am scheduled to speak at a rally in New York City, just outside the United States Mission to the United Nations, East 45th Street between First and Second Avenues this coming Sunday, September 20, at Noon.  That's how opposed I am to this deal.  I don't like this deal at all.  I don't believe that this is the only way to respond to a belligerent nation like Iran; given all we know about the historically lethal mixture of religion and politics, I don't think nuclear power and a theocracy is a combination that in any way serves American interests; I especially distrust that combination when such a country refers to us as the Great Satan; and although I don't trust Iran to abide by whatever protocols have been set, I really don't trust the inspectors to reign in Iran when Iran will, as even the deal's supporters admit, violate the agreement.  But I say all this with the following caveat:  I may be totally wrong.  I am, as someone once said, really bad at predictions, especially about the future.  And that's why Jerry Nadler deserves better, especially from the Jewish community, because he's doing what I'm doing-really what we are all trying to do-each from our own peculiar perspectives:  Do what is right for the free world.  He may be right or he may be wrong.  I may be right or I may be wrong.  One thing for sure: Neither he nor I, nor anyone in this room, can predict the future and that ought to dampen some of the passions that have erupted in the Jewish community.  We all ought to state our positions with a little more humility.

     Bur first, I want to tell you just how wrong the messages can be.  Several months ago, Newsday asked me to write a piece for their weekly Ask the Clergy section, and the question was whether we should take the Bible literally.  This is the kind of question I love and so I consented to write a piece, which they edited-I would say conservatively-and even the photo they printed of me was a faithful rendering of exactly what I looked like 17 years ago.  But aside from that, in that piece, I quoted Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great theologian and poet of the 20th century who wrote: "The surest way of misunderstanding revelation is to take it literally…"  He is basically saying-Don't be a fundamentalist.  Don't read the Torah literally.  Don't be so sure that reading the words themselves gives you a full appreciation of what the Torah is trying to say.  And though that may sound radical or even heretical, it is pure rabbinic Judaism-whether one is Conservative, Orthodox or Reform, none of us reads the Torah literally because we have always read the Torah, these Five Books of Moses, through the lense of another Torah, namely the Oral Torah or the Talmud.   

     The Talmud has a curious way of presenting arguments to us and it's a bit frustrating but it's the Talmudic style.  It begins with an old rabbinic teaching called a Mishnah, and then later rabbis give us some interpretations of that Mishnah.  Maybe it's a Mishnah about when Rosh Hashanah begins, or what constitutes a kosher sukkah, or whether to believe witnesses when they bear testimony.  Once the Mishnah is stated, rabbis who live at a much later time give us their interpretations of what the Mishnah really means, and guess what, the Talmud often rejects the rabbis' interpretations as illogical or irrational.  You may ask, well if that rabbi's argument was irrational or illogical, why did it find its way into the Talmud?  Great question.  And the answer, I believe, is that the rabbis weren't put out by illogical or irrational answers.  They were delighted that anyone would take the time to argue a point of Torah.  The Talmud is what we would refer to as a sefer kadosh, a holy book, and its holiness comes not from is dogmatic prescriptions but in its respect and admiration for all those who would busy themselves with words of Torah, who would struggle with those words, play with those words, debate those words.  They saw a certain sanctity in the conversation and in the dialogue.  In fact, on those occasions when the Talmud will actually cite the law, it will give us the opinion of the hakhamim, the Sages, which one generally can assume to be the Law, but then it also might include words to the effect of Rabi Me'ir Amar-But Rabbi Mei'r says something else.  In other words, the Talmud gives us the minority opinion.  But why should we care about the minority opinion?  It's not the law.  We shouldn't follow it.  It's only one guy's opinion-but the Talmud sees that solitary opinion as critical.  There is a respect shown to the minority by citing the opinion.  My friends-this is Judaism at its best.  This is a Judaism that creates a safe space for people to speak honestly, openly, and respectfully.  And even though it could very well be that one positon is correct and the other is not, both positions are accorded a certain degree of legitimacy.

     So what do we make of the so-called vitriol of debate within Jewish circles?  Well, it isn't the kind of Judaism that the rabbis ever envisioned.You know, there has been a certain degree of controversy in the community about our government's leading role in creating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more popularly known as the Iran deal.  Senator Schumer and Congressman Israel have both come out in opposition to the deal, but Congressman Jerry Nadler didn't.  And Congressman Nadler represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan-a pretty liberal concentration of people-but also some very Conservative areas of Brooklyn-Midwood and Borough Park.  Anyway, after really a rather consistent record of supporting Israel throughout his lifetime, he was condemned as anti-Israel and New York Assemblyman Dov Hikind parked a double decker bus in front of the Congressman's Manhattan office with a banner of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei smiling and thanking America.  And then, what happens, is the New York Times and the Jewish Week print articles about how the Iran deal is tearing the Jewish community apart.  The New York Times, August 28, 2015, headline:  "Iran Deal Opens a Vitrolic Divide Among American Jews."

     Now I have to tell you, I am really opposed to this deal.  In fact, I am scheduled to speak at a rally in New York City, just outside the United States Mission to the United Nations, East 45th Street between First and Second Avenues this coming Sunday, September 20, at Noon.  That's how opposed I am to this deal.  I don't believe that this is the only way we can deal with a belligerent nation like Iran, I don't think nuclear power in a theocracy is a combination that in any way serves American interests, especially when such a country refers to us as the Great Satan, and although I don't trust Iran to abide by whatever protocols have been sent, I really don't trust the inspectors to reign in Iran when they will, almost inevitably, violate the agreement.  But I say all this with the following caveat:  I may be totally wrong.  I am, as someone once sad, really bad at predictions, especially about the future.  And that's why I respect people like Jerry Nadler because he's doing what I'm doing, just from another angle.  He may be right, he or sure: Neither of us can predict the future.

     When I came out with my article against the deal, it generated several letters from people who took issue with my reasoning.  And that's fine.  That's what healthy debate is all about.  Am I angry with them? , No.  Aare they haters of Israel?  Not the people I corresponded with.  They made some excellent points.  They haven't convinced me, and I don't think I convinced them, but that's okay.  We can disagree with each other and still remain one people.  And by the way, But actually, I'm not telling you any of this because I want to speak about the Iran deal.  What I want to tell you is that wwhenever the media reports that the Jewish community is divided on some issue, that's not news.  TYou want to know how long the Jewish community has been divided f?  For about 3500 years.  But is our primary message a message about division?the message is not about division  Not at all..  The message is this:

     All of Israel are friends.

     It's a phrase lifted directly out of a prayer we recite prior to Rosh Hodesh, each new monthleven times a year.  And it's not a joke.  It's serious, but clearly there are people who got the message wrong.  If the Jewish community, a community that has been divided for 3500 years and a community that has stuck together for 3500 years cannot model how a loving community disagrees, humanity is lost.  The person with whom you disagree may be your enemy, but most likely not.  We should approach these issues, divisive though they may be, with a bit humility and the knowledge that none of us knows the future.  None of us knows the ultimate truth.

     By the way, beware the people who know the truth.  They are dangerous.  In August of this year, Jerusalem was the scene of a Gay Pride Parade.  An d ultra-Orthodox Jew, recently released from jail having served a ten year term for attempted murder and aggravated assault, went on a stabbing rampage in the parade, wounding several people and ultimately murdering a 16 year old marcher by the name of Shira Banki.  When a crime of this nature is committed, and committed by an ultra-Orthodox Jew, it embitters us toward religion, and observance, and Orthodoxy, and even God.  People were deeply upset as well they should be.  And even if you may not have heard of this horror, the crime sent a shock wave throughout Israel.  Shira's name headlined every newspaper in Israel.   Bbut there is a Conservative / Masorti rabbi in Jerusalem, Yosef Kleiner is his name, who wrote something rather remarkable.  He wrote that after all was said and done, he was very proud of what happened.  What happened?

      What happened was aAlmost every arm of the Jewish world expressed outrage at what this haredi man had done.  It was clear to one and all, froorm the Prime Minister of Israel to the mayor of Jerusalem, that his actions did not represent Torah, did not represent Orthodoxy, did not represent the will of God, and was nothing less than a total hillul hashem, a violation of God's name.  The perpetrator of this crime might sport a beard, wear a black hat, white shirt, black pants, tzitzit flying at his side and the message of his dress saysmight tell me something, but one thing it doesn't tell mereveal is the spiritual state of his heart or soul.   Just because you dress for piety doesn't make you pious at all.  This man got the message all wrong, and that is likely to happen in a culture that closes itself off form the kind of vigorous give and take found outside the shtetl's walls. was so sure of his Torah, so sure of his position that he granted himself the authority to kill.  But I can tell you right now that anyone who operates with that kind of certainty in their life knows nothing about God and what they think they know about God is probably wrong.

     Shlom Bayit - Peace within the home, is a very important Jewish value.  For there to be peace within our community, our synagogue, our homes, we have to think differently about how we listen to each other and how we speak to each other.  A few years ago, Dianne Schilling wrote an on-line article for Forbes on "Ten Steps toward Effective Listening."  You can look it up on-line if you like but I want to underscore just a few of her ten points:  She wrote that in order for listening to be effective, you have to 1) Keep an open mind; 2) Don't interrupt and don't impose your "solutions;" 3) Try to feel what the speaker is feeling; and finally 4) Pay attention to what isn't said-to the non-verbal cues.  I find her advice very wise.  In order to listen to the other person, you have to really keep quiet and engage that person face to face and listen to the words, the feelings and the emotions.  It doesn't matter if we are talking with our boss, our employees, our spouse or our children.  In order to listen you have to be quiet and attentive. 

     When it comes to speaking, you need to ask yourself only three questions before you open your mouth.  The three questions are:  1) Is it true?  Thinking something is true, doesn't make it true.  Hearing that something is true, doesn't make it true.  Reading something on the Internet almost invariably means it's false.   I like to say that everything on the Internet is false until proven true.  Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but really, if you are going to say it, it better be true and that means doing a lot of research before saying anything.  2)  Is it kind?  Words can be terribly damaging.  If you need to say something, you ought to be able to say it in a kind way, without wounding, without sarcasm, without resentment or anger.  I know that's difficult, but maybe it's better to not say anything rather than say something in the wrong way or at the wrong time.  And finally 3) Is it necessary?  What you are about to say, do you really have to say it?  What would happen if you didn't say it?  Sometimes the better part of diplomacy is not what is said, but what is not said.  There is sometimes great wisdom in writing long letters, printing them out, and then ripping them up or deleting them before you hit the Send button.    

     I used to think that our greatest failing as human beings was our love of material goods.  This sacrifice of the spiritual in favor of the material-the pursuit of luxury or money-that was our greatest failing.  But I think differently now.  Today I believe that our greatest failing as human beings is our love of the petty resentments and hatreds that we either nurture or collect year after year after year.  This inability to forgive others and to dwell on the injustices that have hurt us.  The inclination to judge others as if we ourselves were the bearers of ultimate truth.    There is something in human nature that loves that sort of negative energy.  And the thing is this.  You can collect money your whole life and actually create the potential for doing something good with it.  But if you collect resentments and nurture your anger year after year, and indulge your will to judge others, no good, no good at all, will ever come of that.

     The renovation.  I want its message to be clear.  I want the Torah to be read in the middle of the sanctuary, and so that is where the bimah now is.  The Torah has to always be central to our lives.  Those laws that question our instincts and reign in our more unseemly inclinations-that needs to be in the center.   There can be no partition between the bimah and you and there isn't, because the Torah has to touch our lives and we have got to respond to Torah. 

     The word has got to be very close to you. Close enough that you can hear it, understand it, respond to it. In your mouth, so you can repeat it, question it, argue it, love it. And in your heart so that eventually you can do it   (Deuteronomy 30:14). Or perhaps not do it, but you'll never know what to do, unless you come to struggle with the words of Torah that lead us down a certain road.  And what road is that?

     Its road is the road of pleasantness and all its paths are paths of peace  (Etz haim hi…).

     Shlom Bayit - Peace within our home, our community, our synagogue, our world.  This is a great Jewish value.  Let's pledge to listen more intently. Let's pledge to speak more carefully. Let's cleanse ourselves of the petty hatreds and resentments that undercut the positive energy that flows through us from God.  Let's make Torah central to our lives.  This is the year of renovation.  The sanctuary speaks a certain message.  Now is the time to integrate that architectural message into ourselves and by so doing, renovate our very selves.

     Shanah Tovah, everyone.

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