Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"10 Jewish Things to Do Before You Die": Yom Kippur Sermon from 2008

This was a Yom Kippur sermon from 2008 .... but as I was looking over it I decided I liked it enough to put it on my blog.

One of the themes of Yom Kippur seems to be making lists:  lists of categories of vows that get annulled in Kol Nidrei; lists of sins to which we confess in Al Chet; lists of loved ones who have died, whom we remember at Yizkor; and perhaps most importantly, the lists we make inside our minds:  Lists of people to apologize to and to reconcile with, and lists of changes we pledge to make in our lives during the coming year.

List making is in vogue this year in a big way.  Look at recent or current best selling books like “101 Things to Do Before I Die,” and “1000 Places to See Before You Die.”  These books address the phenomenon of “life lists” - lists of things that people want to accomplish at some point in their lives.  It’s a practice adapted from bird watchers who keep lists of the varieties of birds they have seen and aspire to see, and of mountain climbers who keep lists of the mountains they have climbed and aspire to climb.  There are books with sample life lists and suggestions for creating your own life lists, and of course there are web sites where you can keep track of your progress towards your list and take a peek at what’s on others’ lists:  items like running in a marathon; climbing a tall mountain; skydiving; learning a new language; and - of course - losing weight.  And the first “life-list-themed movie” is coming out in December (which makes me think this trend has probably peaked already).

Even if you haven’t written a life list written down yourself, you probably have a list of your life goals in your mind.  Some say that keeping life lists is popular because it’s a practical and tangible way to feel that you are accomplishing goals and that your life has direction.  It also permits us to do the difficult but essential work of confronting our mortality, but in a softer, gentler, even fun way!  And everyone loves checking items off a list when we’re done with them.

On the one hand, I look at the “life list” phenomenon and I see obvious and appealing parallels in Judaism.  One midrash teaches that over the course of one’s lifetime, one should make an effort to have a child, plant a tree, and write a book – as these are three ways to perpetuate one’s influence and legacy in the world after one is gone.  There are some of the mitzvot – the commandments – that are described as incumbent upon every Jew at least once in their lives, such as the commandment to assist in the writing of a Torah scroll.  And of course, the Jewish life list par excellence is the list of the 613 mitzvot, the 613 commandments of the torah – though, traditionally speaking, that’s not a list of items that you do once and check off.

But at the same time, it is clear that most life lists are written in the spirit of personal fulfillment, rather than in the spirit of personal responsibility that Judaism tends to encourage.  Items on a life list are thought of as new experiences to be collected, new thrills to be sought, rather than commitments to be fulfilled to God and the community and the world.  And the focus is on novelty, rather than on regularity.  Checking items off of a list once they have been accomplished is very different from Jewish tradition that promotes spiritual discipline, that encourages us to take the most important activities in our lives and work them into our regular routine.

But sometimes we are so used to talking about Judaism and Jewish practice as a responsibility, and an obligation, that we forget that many traditional Jewish practices
Fit quite perfectly on a life list –  activities that are fascinating and engaging, that give the satisfaction of accomplishment, and that enable a deeper level of appreciation of life.  In fact, those people who make a commitment to do Jewish things on a regular basis, as their own spiritual practice or as their commitment to the mitzvot, usually STARTED to do Jewish things on an OCCASIONAL basis because they found them to be life-enhancing and personally fulfilling.

So whether or not you keep a life list, I’d like to share with you a list of ten experiences that I strongly encourage every Jew to have at least once over the course of their lives.  Per the recommendations of the “life list” experts, the items on this list are ambitious but achievable.  Some of the items on this list – you may already do all the time;  some of them – you may never have done.  The goal for all of them – traditionally speaking – is that they get incorporated into one’s regular routine.  But nothing has ever gotten incorporated into someone’s regular routine until it has been accomplished once.

So here is Rabbi Robert Scheinberg’s list of 10 Jewish Things to Do before you die:
(And yes, a copy will soon be on the synagogue web site, as there’s no note-taking tonight.)

1:  Lead a Passover Seder.
The Passover Seder is the best example of the educational ingenuity of the Jewish people.
Our sages were so wise to say that, the seder, the most important Jewish educational experience of the year, ideally takes place in the home, rather than in the synagogue, meaning that every Jewish family is asked to produce a cadre of knowledgeable people who know how to lead a seder.  The experience of preparing to lead a Seder can be one of the most intellectually challenging, thought-provoking and entertaining tasks of a Jewish year.  And it’s a palpable way to experience continuity with thousands of years of Jewish history.  Many of us experienced Passover Seders in our childhoods.  If they were done right, the memories are magical and timeless.  I know I will carry the memory of my grandfather’s seders of my childhood throughout the rest of MY life.  If you can create such an experience for the next generation, it’s a way for YOU to continue to have an effect for many decades into the future.  Every spring, I lead training courses to help to prepare a new group of seder leaders for the Jewish world, and it could include you.

  1. Visit Israel
Jews who have grown up in the United States are often unprepared for the emotional impact of visiting Israel for the first time, where Jewish culture is the normative culture; where Hebrew is not just the language of old books, but of television and government and traffic signs; where the stories of the patriarchs are not just world history, but LOCAL history; and where - in the alliterative words of the medieval poet Yehuda Halevi – sham ha-shekhinah shekheinah lakh -  you have a sense that the Shekhina, the presence of God, is your neighbor.  Jews who have returned from their first trip to Israel almost invariably express to me how deeply moving and engaging the experience was, how it helped them to begin to understand the mysteries of Jewish history and Jewish identity.  For many of them, they felt a sense of ‘home-coming’ upon arrival to a place they had never seen before, but that their ancestors had seen in their dreams for 2000 years.  If you’re under age 26, you simply cannot pass up the opportunity to go on a Birthright Israel trip – all expenses paid. And think about our first ever Congregational trip to Israel this coming August, about which you’ll hear more tomorrow.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

2nd day Rosh HaShanah sermon 5772/2011: "Change your perspective, see the invisible gorilla"

Ten years ago, two experimental psychologists at Harvard, named Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, created what has become one of the most famous experiments in the behavioral sciences.

Before you read further, you may want to try this demonstration: 

The participants in this study in the study were given a simple task. They just had to watch a brief video that included several people passing basketballs back and forth to each other. Three of these players were wearing white shirts, and three were wearing black shirts.

The task was simple:  watch the ball that was being passed among the players with the white shirts, and count how many times the basketball was passed. This was not such a difficult task - most people came up with the right number.

But then, the participants were asked: did you notice anything unusual about this video?  A majority of participants said, no, not particularly.  But - if you watch the video again -- you see that right in the middle of this basketball game, strolls a person wearing a gorilla costume.  He walks to the very center of the court, beats his chest a couple of times, and walks away.  And more than 50% of the participants in the study had absolutely no idea, which is why this experiment became known as the ‘invisible gorilla’ experiment.  You couldn’t imagine that you could be oblivious to something as unusual as a person in a gorilla costume. But the participants were so focused on the task at hand, that it crowded out all other information.  They saw only what they expected to see.

The psychologists gave a name to this phenomenon – they called it ‘inattentional blindness.’  (see So many participants were blind to the gorilla because they simply were focusing on other things, and they were oblivious to anything they did not expect to see.

Now I was paying pretty close attention to our Torah readings yesterday and today - these biblical readings with which the Jewish people have welcomed thousands of new years. And I can say with certainty that our torah readings contain no invisible gorillas. But the invisible gorilla phenomenon, however, is not unknown in the Torah.

First, in the torah reading we read yesterday.  You’ll remember that Abraham has sent Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.  For whatever the reason, they are given insufficient water, and the water runs out.  Hagar fears that her son Ishmael is going to die of thirst.  But then, at the last possible moment, an angel of God calls out to Hagar, and tells her that God has heard the cries of the child, and they will be saved.

Usually, when we tell the story, we understand the next thing that happens as a miracle -- suddenly, a well of water appears, to revive Ishmael and Hagar.  But that’s not exactly what the Torah says.  What we ACTUALLY read yesterday, was “ויפקח אלקים את עיניה ותרא באר מים - God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw the well of water.”  The implication is that the well was there all along, but for some reason Hagar was unable to see it.

An ancient rabbi in the Midrash, Rabbi Binyamin, had a provocative comment on this line:  he said:
אמר רבי בנימין הכל בחזקת סומין עד שהקב״ה מאיר את עיניהם מן הכא ויפקח אלהים את עיניה
this verse shows that all people are considered to be blind until God opens their eyes. (Genesis Rabbah 33:14) 

Why was Hagar completely oblivious to the well that was right in front of her, that was the answer to all of her hopes and prayers?  Perhaps for the same reason that 50% of people missed the invisible gorilla.  We are unlikely ever to see that which we don’t expect to see.  Perhaps Hagar was so despondent that she couldn’t see what was right in front of her face, even though it was what she was yearning for more than anything else.

If this were the only example in our torah readings of someone who was oblivious to something hidden in plain sight, we could say that this is only Hagar’s problem, not our problem.  But actually, there’s a similar example in our torah reading from today.

Sermon for 1st day of Rosh HaShanah 5772: "Hagomel la-chayavim tovot" - "Who bestows favor upon the undeserving"

(photos are by Rabbi Will Berkovitz and Rabbi Suzanne Singer)

Baruch atah adonai - eloheinu melech ha-olam - ha-gomel la-chayavim tovot - she-g’malani kol tov.
"Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who bestows favor upon the undeserving,  and has bestowed favor onto me."

Several minutes ago, I invited you to join with me in reciting this blessing - all those who recovered from illness, or had surgery, or extensive travel, or who had endured any other brush with danger during the past year.  It’s the traditional blessing of thanksgiving -- - the Birkat ha-gomel - that is recited upon such challenging moments of life.

More than 12 years ago, I recited this blessing in this congregation after I was attacked on a subway platform and realized how grateful I was to have survived the attack.  And ten years ago, many of us remember how - on the first shabbat after 9/11 - every single person who came up to the torah for an aliyah - a torah honor - recited this Birkat ha-Gomel blessing - because every single person either had worked in the World Trade Center, or had managed to escape from the world trade center or from the vicinity on 9/11.

But listen closely to these unusual words again.  "Blessed are you, Adonai, hagomel la-chayavim tovot. 
Who bestows favor upon the undeserving."

In this blessing, of course, “the undeserving” – is us.   This is a blessing that acknowledges that the fundamental unfairness of the universe sometimes accrues to our advantage.  Some people have a brush with danger and they emerge safe and unscathed – not because they have greater merit than those who do not so lucky, not because they have been singled out for divine reward because of extraordinary things they had done, but rather because God is “ha-gomel la-chayavim tovot’ - the one who bestows favor upon the undeserving.

When we have a brush with danger, we have a special responsibility to experience a commonality with those who have suffered -- to understand that, by rights, their fate could, or even should, have been our fate -  and to contemplate the obligations that are ours as a result of our good fortune.

This summer, I learned a lot about gratefulness, and unfairness, and responsibility when I spent nearly two weeks in Ghana, in West Africa, together with a group of 15 other rabbis, organized by the American Jewish World Service.  I spent those two weeks in a fishing village called Sankor, just outside the city of Winneba, along the Atlantic coast.   We worked with an organization and school called “Challenging Heights.” (   

The motto of “Challenging Heights” is essentially a Christian version of the Birkat ha-Gomel that we said earlier today.  The motto of ‘Challenging Heights’ is:  “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

Now, to understand WHY the motto of Challenging Heights is “To whom much is given, much is expected,” you need to understand some things about Ghana and about Sankor.

In so many ways, Sankor is just like Hoboken.   The people, by and large, are extremely friendly.  There are adorable children everywhere.  The town is right on the water - in this case, the Atlantic Ocean.    (As far as I can tell, here’s a  Google Maps link of Sankor.)   And it’s a genuine community - people live much of their lives outside, together with their neighbors.

But then there are many ways that Sankor is different from Hoboken.   In particular:  in Sankor, the most severe social problem has been families selling their children into slavery.   The people there are poor enough that sometimes, families will allow their sons to be contracted for labor on fishing boats, from as young as age 6.

When people ask me if there was a highlight from my trip,  my answer is obvious: It was the opportunity to meet and learn from a valiant and visionary Ghanaian man named James Kofi Annan, the founder of the “Challenging Heights” organization with which we were working.  And this is James’ story.

He was born in the fishing village of Sankor about 38 years ago.  In fact, the house where our group stayed was the home in which James lived for the first few years of his life.  James was the youngest of 12 children,
and his parents simply had more children than they could afford. At age 6, they contracted with a child labor broker and sent him away to work for the fishermen –for just $40 for each two years of his labor.