Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Seder Trivia - 2017 / 5777 edition

At our synagogue's congregational seders for the last few years, we have played the following game:  I have collected unusual Pesach stories, and shared three such stories with the community:  two true stories, and one fictional story.  Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false.   (If you listen to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.)

You can see previous editions of this game here http://rabbischeinberg.blogspot.com/search?q=trivia.

This is what was presented at our congregational seder in 2016, in honor (?) of that election year. All 3 stories this year have to do with people who reached, or aspired to reach, the Presidency of the United States.  2 are true; one is fictional.


Many of us saw videos of visits to Matzah factories in the spring of 2016 by presidential candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich.  For some people with long political memories, these campaign stops were reminiscent of the first ever Passover-oriented campaign stop, back in 1988.  

Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic front-runner, and his wife Kitty Dukakis were getting a lot of questions about their family’s religious practices, as Governor Dukakis was a Greek Orthodox Christian, and his wife Kitty was Jewish.  In response to a reporter’s query in February 1988, Michael Dukakis indicated that his family had a Passover seder every year, and they would likely host a Passover seder in the White House if he won the election.  

The B. Manischewitz Company, upon hearing this, invited Governor and Mrs Dukakis to come to tour the Manischewitz processing plant in Vineland NJ, at that time a major employer in the Vineland area.  During the tour, the chairman of B. Manischewitz Co. joked that Manischewitz would be the ideal choice to be the official matzah of the first-ever White House Seder.

The tour nearly came to an end, though, when Kitty Dukakis removed a rice cake from her purse.  The sight of unauthorized food in a kosher for Passover facility nearly made the Manischewitz kashrut supervisor lose his composure, but he collected himself and calmly asked the prospective First Lady to refrain from eating until she got back outside.


Passover shopping promotions have a long history:
Buy $50 of groceries and get five pounds of matzah for free!
Buy 3 Passover products and get a free Maxwell House Haggadah!

But did you know the story of the first ever Passover shopping promotion?  It happened in 1889.  The United States was celebrating 100 years since the inauguration of George Washington, who became president in March of 1789.  The entire nation seemed to be celebrating - but this posed a dilemma for the Jewish community because the anniversary of the inauguration fell during Passover.

Well, New York Matzah bakers came to the rescue and announced a way that the entire Jewish community could join in the celebration:  Anyone who bought 10 pounds of Matzah would receive as a free gift -- a portrait of George Washington, suitable for framing.
And thus -- that year, George Washington was a welcome guest at many passover seders throughout the United States. I cannot tell a lie.


Various products bear the name of Donald Trump -- some elegant, and some ridiculous.
Trump Tower, Trump Place, Trump Palace, Trump Plaza - - Trump Shuttle, Trump Steaks, Trump University, Trump Fragrance, Trump Mortgage, Trump Natural Spring Water.
But one of the very craziest of the Trump products has special relevance to Passover.

Trump Vodka was not a particularly successful business venture. Introduced in 2006 to great fanfare, it never sold very well, and the brand had completely gone out of circulation by 2011, at which time Trump Vodka could no longer be found anywhere in the world….

Except for one place:  Israel.  For some reason, the distributor of Trump Vodka in Israel kept on distributing it after the brand had been officially terminated. The Trump organization even sued the distributor to stop him from distributing Trump Vodka -- but Trump apparently settled the lawsuit (even though, as Trump says, “I NEVER SETTLE LAWSUITS.”)   So Trump Vodka can be purchased legally in just one country in the world:  Israel.  

pictured:  a different kind of k-p vodka?
And even in Israel, Trump Vodka doesn’t sell so well.  But relatively speaking, Trump Vodka IS  popular in Israel at this time of year, in that it is not made from wheat, but from potatoes.

And thus -- Trump Vodka happens to be one of the only brands of vodka in Israel that bears kosher for Passover certification.
Please note, however:  drinking four cups of Trump Vodka at your seder (or, for that matter, drinking any Trump Vodka at all at your seder)  is strongly, strongly not recommended.

Scroll below for answers!


For the two true stories, click these links:

Trump vodka

(Dukakis story is not true, though it is true that he said that he would host seders in the White House if he were elected.)

Friday, March 10, 2017

Haman on the Couch....

see http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/haman-on-the-couch/ for something I wrote in honor of Purim this year, making an effort to peer into the mind of Haman, everyone's favorite Purim villain.   Purim Sameach!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Quebec City, Har Nof, Charleston, Oak Creek, Hebron, Birmingham....

Quebec City... Charleston ... Oak Creek ... Har Nof ... Hebron ... Birmingham ... 
The word 'sanctuary' implies a place of safety, a place where one can stand or kneel before God in prayer and fully inhabit one's vulnerability. But we also know that houses of worship can be targets of hatred and murderous violence. I remember my reaction upon learning about the massacre or worshippers in the synagogue in Har Nof in 2014 -- and I imagine that Muslims throughout the United States and Canada are feeling something similar now to what I felt, some painful mix of grief and fear and indignation and concern, as I made unsuccessful efforts to cleanse my mind of images of blood and violence in what is supposed to be a place of peace and tranquility. The horrific murders in the masjid in Quebec City yesterday should shake every person of every faith -- because of the precious lives that were lost, and because we know that this massacre could have taken place in our own houses of worship.
Our synagogue leadership is meeting with the Hoboken Police Department tomorrow, as we do periodically, as part of our process of keeping our synagogue safe, with the knowledge that there are those who would do harm to our community if given the opportunity. Certainly the leaders of masjids throughout the United States and Canada are having similar meetings to assure their safety at this time when it is clear that there are haters who would do them harm. I feel so fortunate to know that the Hoboken Police Department would come to our aid if we were in need; they have our back -- as should always be the relationship between law enforcement and law-abiding citizens and residents. (And I know that there are so many Muslims in the United States who equally deserve to feel protected by government and law enforcement and yet they feel, through no fault of their own, that that relationship is antagonistic. I pray that over time, that relationship between communities and law enforcement gets better and better, not worse and worse.)
At the Shalom Hartman Institute Conference on Jews and Muslims earlier this month, I got to learn from Haroon Moghul, who gave voice to his experience as an American Muslim a few days before the new administration. How much and how little has changed in a few days... in the brief interview below from earlier today, he expresses what it is like to be an American Muslim today, and why and how he remains hopeful despite all the fear and anger and grief.
In memory of those who were murdered in Quebec City, and in all houses of worship, may we work to fulfill these verses about the security to which we all aspire:
ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם ואין מחריד
I will bring peace to the land, and you shall lie down and nothing will make you tremble. (Lev. 26.6)
וישבו איש תחת גפנו ותחת תאינתו ואין מחריד
Then everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and nothing will make them tremble. (Micah 4:4)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thoughts on the Inauguration

I have started blogging at the Times of Israel web site -- you can find my thoughts on the US Presidential Inauguration there, at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/kings-and-presidents-bowing-and-standing/

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Some thoughts on the West Bank ... from 1986

Israel's policies regarding settlements in the West Bank aka Judea and Samaria are in the news even more than usual -- with the United Nations Security Council resolution two weeks ago, Secretary  of State Kerry's address last week, and the nomination of a US ambassador to Israel who stakes out a position to the right of Prime Minister Netanyahu by stating his principled opposition to a Palestinian state. 

One of the more entertaining books about Israeli society of the 1970s and 1980s is Zeev Chafets's book "Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men: Inside the New Israel," published in 1986 (and with used copies now available for nearly free). I remember enjoying this book when I was in high school.  I recently took a look at it and was sad to be reminded that more than 30 years and so many lives later, not much has changed regarding the major outlines of the conversation about Israeli policies regarding the future of the West Bank. The choices remain more or less those that are described in this piece (except, of course, that all the population numbers have steadily increased). People who think this is an easy problem to solve probably don't fully understand it.  This piece reminds us why the status quo has endured for so long, as all other possibilities have such strong negatives.  And yet the difficulty of the situation notwithstanding, everyone has been paying a terrible price for the endurance of the status quo for so long. 

Zeev Chafets, "Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men: Inside the New Israel," 1986

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Four Jewish texts in response to the Election of 2016

I write these words as an individual, who serves a Jewish community that is diverse in many ways, including national origin, race, sexual orientation, and political perspective, among other points of diversity.  I don’t have the illusion that everyone in our community will agree with what I am writing below, but it is my hope that you can find at least one thing with which to agree.  

My tendency at times of joy and at times of difficulty is to look to traditional Jewish writings for wisdom and solace. Here are 4 traditional Jewish texts that are helping me through this day.

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, 2nd c. CE), 4:10:
 ואל תאמר קבלו דעתי, שהן רשאין ולא אתה  
“[Rabbi Ishmael taught:]  Don’t say to someone else, “You must come around to my opinion!”  That’s up to them, not to you.”

Western democracy may be young, but the idea of majority vote and (in some circumstances) majority rule has been a hallmark of Jewish tradition for thousands of years. The book of Exodus tells us, אחרי רבים להטות “Incline yourself after the majority.” (23:2)  And this passage from Pirkei Avot, probably intended to describe a dispute among judges, reminds us that minds are changed only through persuasion, not through coercion.  It is a great blessing to live in a country that is characterized by the orderly transition of power between adversaries, where we are educated to grow accustomed to the notion that we will often disagree with our government.  If the result of yesterday’s election was surprising to me and to most pollsters and journalists, it’s a sign that there is a significant segment of the United States population that we don’t understand beyond an inaccurate caricature.  As Secretary Clinton said in her concession speech today, those who disagree with President-Elect Trump “owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”

Psalm 146:
עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט לָעֲשׁוּקִים נֹתֵן לֶחֶם לָרְעֵבִים ה' מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים. ח ה' פֹּקֵחַ עִוְרִים ה' זֹקֵף כְּפוּפִים ה' אֹהֵב צַדִּיקִים. ט ה' שֹׁמֵר אֶת גֵּרִים יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה יְעוֹדֵד וְדֶרֶךְ רְשָׁעִים יְעַוֵּת.
God upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry; God sets prisoners free.  God gives sight to the blind, lifts up those who are bowed down, and loves the righteous.  God watches over the foreigner   and sustains the fatherless and the widow, and frustrates the ways of the wicked.

The core of Jewish ethics is support for those who are most vulnerable: those who are oppressed, impoverished, unjustly imprisoned, those who are ill and disabled, those who are bereaved and without protection, and those who are foreigners.  This is the way that the Jewish community has always strived to be -- even when Jews lived under the dominion of ruling authorities who felt otherwise.  Embracing these values is part of what it means to live a traditional Jewish life.  These will remain core Jewish values for the American Jewish community.  It is my sincere and deep hope that the President-Elect will embrace these values as president to a much greater degree than he has embraced these values as a candidate.  If he does not, I have confidence that the American Jewish community will agitate for the fulfillment of these values, as Jews have done so frequently throughout our history.

(Moses Maimonides (Egypt, 12th c.), Mishneh Torah, Laws of Temperament, 2:7)
ואמרו שכל הכועס--אם חכם הוא, חכמתו מסתלקת ממנו, ואם נביא הוא, נבואתו מסתלקת ממנו.  (הלכות דעות ב:ז)
Our sages said about those who are full of anger: if they are wise, their wisdom departs from them. If they are prophets, their prophecy departs from them.

For those who find the outcome of the election to be troubling, now is a time to be gentle with each other, as nerves are frayed and tension is high.  Many of us (myself included) may need reminders over the next few days to walk and drive more slowly and carefully, to react more slowly, and to avoid taking out stress and anger on loved ones and random people.  Crises often bring out our best impulses but sometimes (in the short term especially) our worst tendencies.  This may be why Maimonides cautions so strongly against expressions of anger even for causes we regard as righteous (and, of course, to the angry person, anger is always righteous):  anger corrodes and corrupts our souls and causes our wisdom to dissipate.

Rebbe Nahman of Breslov (19th c. Ukraine)
כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאד והעיקר לא לפחד כלל
The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to fear at all.
In these famous words, it is hard for me to believe that Rebbe Nahman of Breslov was really suggesting that people should never fear.   Fear is an essential emotion -- and fear plays a vital role in keeping us safe.  Those who have a realistic sense of fear are much safer than those who are never afraid.  My sense is that Rebbe Nahman was identifying that fear is a distorting emotion. In fact, (in my opinion) irrational fear of the other is exactly what led so many to make the electoral choice they made.  To me, this quotation by Rebbe Nahman is the Jewish version of the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Whatever happens, we do better when trying as hard as possible to lead with other emotions rather than fear.  

We must be vigilant, especially in identifying the warning signs of the pausing or dismantling of the government’s system of checks and balances on presidential power.   We must be activists on behalf of groups that are an important part of the American mosaic that have been threatened by the President-Elect when he was a candidate. But we should remember that the United States has been through a lot of difficult times in its long history, and the Jewish people has been through even more difficult times in its much much longer history.  The current moment calls for vigilance and activism -- as every moment does.  The current moment does not call for despair -- as no moment does.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Guilt, or Shame? (Yom Kippur eve 5777 / 2016)

Note:  this is an unedited version of the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur eve 2016 / 5777. I am so grateful to my friends and colleagues Rabbis Abby Sosland, Beth Naditch, and Andi Merow -- and the writings of Rabbis Shoshana Friedman and Jonathan Sacks -- for influencing this sermon.

One of my favorite stories about Yom Kippur is the story I heard from Rabbi David Woznica, who is now a rabbi in the Los Angeles area.  He is fond of telling the story of how, when he was a child, his parents -- mistakenly -- informed him that the tradition was to strike one’s heart during the Al Chet - the Yom Kippur confessional prayers - only for the sins that one had actually performed.  Throughout his childhood and adolescence, every Yom Kippur, he would read the list of sins in the Mahzor, the High Holy Day prayerbook, and make a judgment for each one whether he was guilty of it that year, or not.  “We have sinned against you by speaking recklessly” - yeah, I did that one. “We have sinned against you through bribery” - no, not that I can think of. “We have sinned against you through arrogance” - okay, a little.  “We have sinned against you through impure thoughts” -- yeah, I had a couple of those.

Until one year, when he went to a more traditional synagogue for Yom Kippur and during the Al Chet, as he was choosing judiciously when to strike his heart, he noticed that the guy next to him was striking himself for EVERY SINGLE LINE!  And he couldn’t believe it!  What a jerk! How could he possibly have had TIME to do all those things!?

But then, of course, he was shocked to notice the guy on the OTHER side of him was ALSO striking himself for every single line. And the person in front of him.  And behind him.
For God’s sake, what kind of clientele does this synagogue attract?!  And finally he came to the conclusion that perhaps his parents hadn’t accurately transmitted the tradition to him.....

So I counted. Someone who is present in synagogue for the entirety of Yom Kippur and participates in the Vidui - the confessional - every time it is recited, and strikes their heart every time that it is traditional to do so, will end up striking their heart 660 times.  That is a lot of heart-striking.  No wonder Jewish tradition gets the reputation for being really focused on guilt!

(Though I should note parenthetically: my sense is that you are much more likely to think that Judaism is all about guilt if you only come to synagogue on Yom Kippur.  Because yom kippur really DOES focus on guilt.  But if you came to synagogue only on Tu Bishvat, you would think that Judaism is all about environmental consciousness.  If you came to synagogue only on Purim you would think that Judaism is all about partying and drinking.  Each Jewish holiday has its own themes, and you get the full emotional spectrum and full experience of Jewish values only if you experience the entire holiday cycle.)

But the fact remains that Yom Kippur is focused on all these ways we have failed, all these mistakes we have made - this year, and throughout our lives.  Lists and lists of ways we have not measured up.  For those of us who make Yom Kippur a genuine introspective process, not just going through the motions, there is no way to go through this process and not emerge with a sense of our own brokenness, with a sense of the ways that we have failed. Which prompts the serious question: In our achievement-oriented world, in our world in which we strive for excellence and even perfection, where NO ONE wants to admit to mistakes, in our judgmental world where we are often quick to blame others, where we know that most of us are judging each other all the time - why would we go through this process?  What does Yom Kippur do to our sense of self-worth?  How could this possibly be a psychologically and spiritually healthy thing to do?

One of my guides for answering this question this year is Professor Brene Brown, a psychologist and social science researcher in Houston.  You may be familiar with her from her best-selling books and her lectures, including her TED Talk lecture that remains one of the five most popular TED talks ever, Viewed an incredible 26 million times.  Which is all the more amazing when you realize that what Professor Brown studies and talks about is something closely connected to the themes of Yom Kippur - though it’s the thing that no one is supposed to want to talk about - which is shame.  The feeling that ALMOST everyone has, at least from time to time, that they are unworthy - that they don’t measure up to what they are expected to be - that they don’t deserve at least some of the blessings in their lives.

Shame is such a difficult part of life to confront that Brown has spoken about how even though she had studied intensively about shame in other people for 6 years, she was still not able to truly confront her OWN sense of shame at her own failures and her own vulnerability.  In fact, shortly after recording her remarkably successful TED talk but before it was put on line, she felt bad about various mistakes she had made during that presentation and fantasized about breaking in to the TED offices to prevent the video from being uploaded.   And this ended up influencing the choice of the title for one of her books - which is I thought it was just me! - but it isn’t.

I am pretty sure Brene Brown is not Jewish- but she is quickly becoming one of the wise guides to what happens on Yom Kippur. And the first step to understanding Yom Kippur, through the lens of Professor Brown, is to understand the difference between guilt and shame.

Linguists and psychologists and theologians have pointed out that even though many people use the words guilt and shame interchangeably, there is a world of difference between them.  “Guilt” is the feeling we get when we know that something we have done does not measure up to what we feel we are supposed to do. And guilt can be uncomfortable. But ultimately guit is a productive feeling that often encourages us to do the right thing, to make reversals and changes in our behavior.

And you might have noticed a similarity between the word ‘guilt’ and the word ‘gelt.’  ‘Gelt,’ of course, does not only refer to chocolate coins for hanukkah but is the Yiddish word for money, and is also the Old English word for money.  When you owe someone some Gelt, that’s a problem you can resolve - if you have the Gelt to repay.  And similarly, when you feel guilty, that’s a problem you can resolve - by doing something to relieve the feelings of guilt.  Apologize.  Make restitution. Resolve to do better the next time.

But guilt is different from shame. Because shame is a feeling that something I have done makes me unworthy.   Or in Brene Brown’s formulation:   “Guilt leads you to say ‘I did something bad.’
shame leads you to say ‘I AM something bad.’ ” She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

MOre than 70 years ago, scholars started to describe some cultures as ‘guilt cultures’ and some as ‘shame cultures.’ [1]   Ancient Greece, for example, was a ‘shame’ culture. If you did something wrong in ancient Greece, you could be publicly shamed, deemed to be an unworthy person because of your unworthy deed, and there would be very little you could do to rehabilitate your image.  So what would you have to do? - First of all, you have to hide.  Try as hard as possible not to be found out.  And if you are found out - evade responsibility. Make it someone else’s fault. Don’t admit your mistake unless you have truly exhausted every other alternative.  If you have made a mistake, you are going to be disgraced for a very long time.  Though there does remain one recourse if you are shamed:  You can try to publicly shame everyone else so you don’t look quite as bad by comparison.  Homer’s Iliad includes various examples of great warriors being shamed by each other for their mistakes.  They tend to respond not by apologizing but by retaliating -- by shaming each other in return.  In a shame culture, the act of apologizing for something is regarded as deeply shameful.

So that’s what happens in a ‘shame culture.’  But what about a ‘guilt culture’?  We can joke all we want about how Jewish parents are masters at inducing guilt and about how Judaism is a culture of guilt -- but according to this understanding, Thank God for guilt!  Because that means that our misdeeds are not essential characteristics of us; rather, they are aspects of ourselves that can change.
Teshuvah, or repentance, relies on a guilt culture. Yom Kippur would be inconceivable in a shame culture.  And Yom Kippur is a necessity in this guilt culture that we call Judaism.

It appears that it took a while for Judaism to become a guilt culture.   It’s no surprise that in the Torah, the very first time people make a mistake, they have an instinct to run and hide. Adam and Eve start out thinking that the world is based on shame.  Shortly after being created, we read that ויהיו שניהם ערומים, האדם ואשתו; ולא, יתבוששו “Adam and Eve were both naked and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2)  But then they eat from the tree of knowledge, and God calls out to them,  and they realize that they made a mistake.  Now they certainly feel shame.  Not guilt, but shame.  And so they hide.  And of course the hiding doesn’t work, and God finds them.  And Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent -- with no one taking responsibility for their actions - Just as you would expect in a shame culture.

And no wonder Adam and Eve run and hide and blame others to try to get out of their shame.   
An opinion raised in the Talmud suggests,  צערא דגופיה עדיף ליה טפי מבזיוניה: -- given the choice between shame and physical pain, many people - not everyone, but many people - would choose the physical pain -- because that is how bad shame feels, and how strong the yearning is to become free of shame.  (BT Sotah 8b)

But over time, Judaism changes into a culture focused not on shame but on guilt - a culture in which we are encouraged to feel bad about our misdeeds, not because those misdeeds make us bad, but because our misdeeds remind us that we are good -- and that we can do better.
(And by the way - this is also a reason why the ethics of speech is so important in Judaism, and why we are generally bidden not to circulate embarrassing stories about people, not to let their past misdeeds follow them throughout their entire lives.  Because if my mistakes are always going to adhere to me no matter how sincerely I have repented, then we’re no longer in a culture of guilt. We’re in a culture of shame.  You may have seen some recent writings that suggest that the Internet’s exceptional memory is pushing us towards a culture of shame rather than guilt.)

Now that doesn’t mean that shame is all bad.  There are people in the world who truly have no capacity to feel shame. And these tend to be people who have no capacity for empathy, who have no particular desire to adhere to social conventions. We call them ‘sociopaths.’  (My sense is that you are probably not such a person.  Because if you are, Yom Kippur is not for you - because what’s to atone for?)  So having SOME sense of shame is essential.

But having too much shame - that’s the problem that faces far more of us. Brown goes on to describe some of the real life consequences of guilt and of shame.  “Shame,” she says, “is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders.”  And --  even more importantly -- for all that we like to make fun of guilt -- “Guilt is inversely correlated with those things.”

Imagine what it means when someone says the words ‘you should be ashamed of yourself.”  Those are words you might have heard repeatedly this year.  (Maybe this week!)  If you define ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ the way we have today, then saying “you should be ashamed of yourself” is something that should be reserved for the most weighty of deeds that no amount of expiation can heal.  No one, or at least almost no one, should be actually ashamed of themSELVES.  Hopefully we all feel guilty for what we have done.  And hopefully we know how to apologize and make restitution and move on. But being ashamed of your SELF? My HOPE is that most of those who use language like this are just not sensitive to differences between the word ‘guilt’ and the word ‘shame’ - and what they really MEAN to say is “you should feel GUILTY about what you have done.”   My FEAR, though, is that some of those who say things like “You should be ashamed of yourself” really don’t understand that we’re all better off if we live in a culture of guilt, and not of shame.

The difference between guilt and shame could also be described as a difference between focusing on verbs and on nouns. In the language of the Vidui, never do we refer to ourselves as ‘sinners’  - rather, we say ‘anachnu chatanu’ - we have sinned.’  It’s a thing we did, rather than our essential nature.  

There is actually a way in Hebrew to refer to a quality that is part of someone’s essential nature. Which is-- stick a final Nun at the end of a word.  For example, a gozel גוזל is someone who has stolen something, but a gazlan גזלן is a habitual thief. A meshaker משקר is someone who tells a lie, but a shakran שקרן is a habitual liar. And it is interesting that these final-nun words don’t make it into the core parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy. [2]  But when it comes to describing God - we call God mochel ve-soleiach  מוחל וסולח - the one who forgives and pardons - but we also call God solchan u-mocholan  סלחן ומחלן -  the one for whom forgiving and pardoning are part of God’s essential nature.

But no matter how hard we try to cultivate a culture of guilt, clearly we all continue to contend with the corrosive effects of shame.

Pirkei Avot tells us - לא הביישן למד  lo ha-bayshan lamed - a person experiencing shame cannot learn.  Now usually that line is understood as meaning that learners need to be willing to make mistakes, to take risks, and to risk the embarrassment of getting things wrong. And those who insist on being perfect all the time and never showing their vulnerability will not learn as much.
But maybe this line has a more weighty, even tragic meaning:  when we feel shame,  our tendency is to hide.  And every social problem, and every personal problem, is likely to get worse when it is covered up and treated as something shameful and secret.  It is likely to get worse when we hide.   And thus one who is prone to shame will get stuck and will not be as able to learn the life skills necessary to get unstuck.  Which means that the first step of getting free from almost ANY other problem that we face -- is getting free from shame. [3]  (Clearly this applies when we experience shame for things we have done, that we have chosen -- and just as much when we experience shame for things that have happened to us and are not at all connected to choice.)

And here’s where I should note that there is interesting literature about how men and women respond differently to shame.  Lately Brene Brown has especially been studying shame in women and has been directing her message to everyone but especially to women.  Which is why I want to take some time to quote someone who teaches about shame and vulnerability in MEN and directs his message to everyone but especially to men.  And you all know who that is.  Bruce Springsteen.

Whereas I know Springsteen’s most popular hits, I confess that I’m not a fan to the level of a lot of people in this room - this being New Jersey and all.  But so many people who I admire and respect deeply are quite fanatical Springsteen fans.  And it appears that what makes him truly not just good but one of the greatest Is a particular mixture of fine musicianship, boundless energy,
And a profound openness to emotion and vulnerability.  And Springsteen gave a particular gift to the world when he wrote his memoir this year and was so open about his struggle with depression for which he has sought psychiatric treatment for the last 30 years.  Reminding the world --in case there was any doubt - that this is what a real man looks like - or can look like -
White t shirt, jeans, bandanna, motorcycles, fast cars, and psychiatric treatment for depression.

And even the metaphors that he uses in interviews and in his book to describe depression are Springsteen-esque.  He says:  “...whoever you’ve been and wherever you’ve been, it never leaves you.I always picture it as a car. All your selves are in it. And a new self can get in, but the old selves can’t ever get out. The important thing is, who’s got their hands on the wheel at any given moment?”  Springsteen understands his vulnerability and is a better person for it.  And what a gift he gives by sharing this fact with the world and removing some of the stigma and shame associated with mental illness.

And what’s true of mental illness is true also about addiction. Financial difficulty. Professional difficulty. Health problems. Abuse. Relationship issues.  Whatever it is, shame is going to make it worse.

Professor Brene Brown has some wise things to say about how we ought to choose judiciously with whom we should share those details of our lives about which we feel the most shame.  Not everyone has the right to hear your shame story.  But someone should, because sunlight is a surprisingly good disinfectant for shame.

One of the messages of Yom Kippur though is that you can look at each and every person here today and know that they are going through some intensely difficult struggle that you know nothing about, no matter what the veneer of confidence and control you see on the outside.
And the Yom KIppur prayers encourage us to see all our misdeeds as verbs rather than as nouns -
As what we have done rather than who we are.

One of the great pleasures I have in serving this community is spending a lot of time with preschoolers. And we teach the preschoolers about the Vidui, believe it or not, even though they don’t really have a lot to atone for yet. We tell them:  What the adults do on Yom Kippur is they are knocking on the door of their hearts.  Saying ‘wake up, heart! Open up, heart! Remember to say ‘I”m sorry,’ heart!”  That might not be the traditional explanation, but it is clearly the explanation that resonates today more clearly than interpretations about imposing harsh punishment on ourselves.

Four-year-olds having limited attention spans, that’s where we stop.  But if their attention spans were longer -- I think this is what I would say:

“When we say the vidui, and people strike their hearts - This is God knocking on your heart. (Or if you don’t like that, it could be you knocking on your own heart.)
God is saying - I know you’re in there - open up!  
I came to visit you. I didn’t come to see your perfect life.
I didn’t come to see your resume. I didn’t come to see your perfect veneer of control.  
All those things are not YOU.  and I came to see YOU. because YOU are the one I love.
About those mistakes you made this year? - Yes, you made them. And you can do better, and I can help you do better.  But that won’t happen until you let go of any shame you are feeling.
Because those mistakes are NOT part of your essential nature.
And you know why?
Because -- God continues -- I am סלחן ומחלן solchan u-mocholan - forgiveness is part of my essential nature.
I am ארך אפיים ורב חסד erech apayim ve-rav chesed --  I am full of generosity and lovingkindness.
Sure, feel guilty for the things you have done.  But NEVER feel ashamed of your SELF. Because that self of yours is made in the Divine image.

I am knocking on your heart this Yom Kippur.
Will you open up for me?
Will you let me come in?


[1]  [Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the work of Ruth Benedict, http://www.rabbisacks.org/the-scapegoat-shame-and-guilt-achrei-mot-kedoshim-5775/

[2] See the discussion in Seligmann Baer, Seder Avodat Yisrael, p. 412. There is one significant exception - the word avaryan עבריין, as used in the introduction to Kol Nidrei - but it is in a line that was added to the Yom Kippur liturgy in the 13th century, after much of the rest of the Yom Kippur liturgy was in place.

[3] My colleague and friend Rabbi Abby Sosland discusses this idea at length in her wonderful ELI Talk (kind of a Jewish version of the TED Talks), making an analogy with the Talmudic concept of tovel ve-sheretz be-yado טובל ושרץ בידו  - one who immerses in a mikveh while holding something that is ritually unclean.  http://elitalks.org/shameless-judaism