Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Do You Love me? Yom Kippur Yizkor 2013

Do You Love me?
Yom Kippur Yizkor  5774 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Richmond, Virginia

I normally write the Yom Kippur Yizkor sermon first. It breaks the log jam in my writing. Yet this time I left it for last. The reason will be self-evident, as this has been the one most difficult to compose.

In the musical “Fiddler On The Roof,” after deciding to permit Hodel to marry Perchik, Tevye turns to his wife Golde and asks her: “Do you love me?”  I am sure that everyone, hopefully, remembers this scene. In a shrill voice Golde responds: “Do I what?” Tevye repeats the question and Golde responds. He asks again a second time and she responds and then Tevye asks Golde one more time and she responds:
                        “Do I love him?
                        For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him
                        Fought with him, starved with him
                        Twenty-five years my bed is his
                        If that’s not love, what is?
And Tevye, finally responds: “Then you love me?” Golde answers: “I suppose I do.” And he rejoins: “And I suppose I love you to.”
In a final duet they sing together:
                        “It doesn’t change a thing
                        But even so
                        After twenty-five years
                        It’s nice to know.”

And when we are laying in a hospital bed, or in a nursing home, or perhaps in our own bed at home unable to speak for any number of reasons;
Or perhaps we are the ones standing at the bedside of a loved one, a parent, a spouse, a friend, for me it has been congregants, and we can only see their eyes but cannot communicate;
As the doctor or nurse is asking: “What do you want us to do?” I imagine that the one laying there is asking: “Do you love me?” And we are standing there responding: “Do I love you?”
The supreme question of life and death is contained in that question: “Do you love me?”
Perhaps we say under our breath: “God! What should we do?”
Though I am neither God nor His surrogate, too many times in my Rabbinate families have turned to me and said: “Rabbi! What should we do?”

It is a question that must have an answer.
And the answers should have been given a long time ago.
If we love them and if they love us, as hard as it is, we must ask them and we must answer them, when we are still able and in full control of our thoughts and speech. If we love them, we won’t make them answer these questions. They will know ours.

Perhaps when you were admitted to a hospital they asked you questions pertaining to Advance Medical Directives which included documents for a Living Will and Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. These are important documents but do not allow for us to give specific directions or express our wishes. The document Five Wishes to which I will refer later goes a few steps further. Fortunately the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, through its sub-committee on Biomedical Ethics has created an excellent instrument for these purposes. At this location in the electronic edition of this sermon I am inserting the link to the page on the web. http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/publications/medical%20directives.pdf I recommend this document most highly because not only does it provide the detailed questions that are necessary to address, but it does through the prism of Conservative Judaism and allows us put our faith into action while we live for when we are dying. It helps us face our decisions. I wish to share a section from its introduction, Jewish Teachings about Health Care.

“Jewish tradition as understood by Conservative Judaism teaches that life is a blessing and a gift from God. Each human being is valued as created b’tselem elohim, in God’s image. Whatever the level of our physical and mental abilities, whatever the extend of our dependence on others, each person has intrinsic dignity and value in God’s eyes. Judaism values life and respects our bodies as the creation of God. We have the responsibility to care for ourselves and seek medical treatment needed for our recovery – we owe that to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to God. In accordance with our tradition’s respect for the life God has given us and its consequent bans on murder and suicide, Judaism rejects any form of active euthanasia (“mercy killing”) or assisted suicide. Within these broad guidelines, decisions may be required about which treatment would best promote recovery and would offer the greatest benefit. Accordingly, each patient may face important choices concerning what mode of treatment he or she feels would be both beneficial and tolerable.

“The breadth of the Conservative movement and its intellectual vitality have produced two differing positions put forward by Rabbis Avram Reisner and Elliot N. Dorff both approved by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. I am pasting the web connection to both these documents into this sermon at this location so that you can read them in their entirety.

“Both positions agree on a large area of autonomy in which a patient can make decisions about treatment when risk or uncertainty are involved. Both would allow terminally ill patients to rule out certain treatment option, to forgo mechanical life support, and to choose hospice care as a treatment option.

“Nevertheless, important differences between the two positions may be found regarding both theoretical commitments and practical applications. Rabbi Reisner affirms the supreme value of protecting all life. Even the most difficult life and that of the shortest duration is yet God given, purposeful, and ours to nurture and protect.….Rabbi Dorff finds basis in Jewish law to grant greater latitude to the patient who wishes to reject life-sustaining measures…In such circumstance, a patient might be justified in deciding that a treatment that extends life without hope for cure would not benefit him or her, and may be forgone.”

The Rabbinical Assembly document Jewish Medical Directives for Health Care which you can download and print or purchase, guides us through the questions of goals, knowledge, treatment, health care agent, Rabbinic consultation and the detailed questions for irreversible terminal illness with options to follow either Rabbi Reisner’s posture or Rabbi Dorff’s. I must stay that the former is a personal friend and the latter has been my teacher. Both opinions are heartfelt, sensitive, thorough and compelling. It is a matter of personal choice and vision.

At the very end, above the place for our signature it says:
“As God is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, so may God be my refuge, my shield and my salvation forever.”

So may He be.

The organization “Aging With Dignity” [www.agingwithdignity.org] created a booklet entitled “Five Wishes.” The fifth wish is entitled: “My Wish For What I Want My Loved Ones to Know.” In looking through many documents, I found this section to be most special and moving.

*I wish to have my family and friends know that I love them.
*I wish to be forgiven for the times I have hurt my family, friends and others.
*I wish to have my family, friends and others know that I forgive them for when they may have hurt me in my life.
*I wish for my family and friends to know that I do not fear death itself. I think it is not the end, but a new beginning for me.
*I wish for all of my family members to make peace with each other before my death, if they can.
*I wish for my family and friends to think about what I was like before I became seriously ill. I want them to remember me in this way after my death.
*I wish for family and friends and caregivers to respect my wishes even if they don’t agree with them.
*I wish for my family and friends to look at my dying as a time of personal growth for everyone, including me. This will help me live a meaningful life in my final days.
*I wish for my family and friends to get counseling if they have trouble with my death. I want memories of my life to give them joy and not sorrow.

It concludes with the following, allowing space to write in the answer: If anyone asks how I want to be remembered, please say the following about me….

I would like my family and friends, my congregants and colleagues to know that these are my wishes and I will include them there for all to know. Could you echo these sentiments? Would like to make statements similar to these to family and friends? Maybe you have personal ones to compose? Don’t wait.

When this sermon is distributed electronically, the web site for this document will be included.
I close this section with a famous quote that has been alternatively attributed to Professor Reinhold Niebuhr or to Admiral Halsey:

“God give us grace to accept serenity in the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”


For over forty years I have been writing four yizkor sermons each year, talking about death, the meaning of life, relationships, what might be life-after-death, rituals and rites. I have written hundreds of eulogies for all the funerals at which I have officiated. In the beginning it was quite difficult and I was happy to have material shared across the non-electric Rabbinic network. It was very difficult when I was young because I had to face my own mortality as I looked at my young children and wife and couldn’t deal with thinking about life for them without me. Buying life insurance the first time was spiritually very traumatic. I have grown accustomed to these sermons, eulogies and introspection. My children are all adults on their own two feet, and the three young ones have their parents. With the passage of time and the changes in medical technology, life has focused me on dying more than death.

I am comfortable and at peace in my faith that there is an “other side,” that there is another realm of existence after this one. I embrace the classical Jewish belief that in its incorporeality I will be near God, held close in His non-physical warmth and light. I hope that the Rabbis were correct in saying that God holds class on high for all eternity. I might even, metaphorically, “sit” in the back of the room.

At this time in my life I am more concerned on “how to die,” even as I work hard at “how to live.” I have the same fears that most of us have.
            I must add – pooh-pooh-pooh! – that -
            I want to live out the maximum years of my life.
I want to grow old with Ruby.
I want to see the continuing episodes of our children’s exciting lives.
I dream about being at our grandchildren’s life-cycle celebrations.
And I won’t push God too hard to ask for more.
 But I want my family and doctors to know:
what I want,
what I don’t want,
what to do,
what not to do,
when to wait,
and, when not to.
I need to tell them while yet I can and not wait for when it is too late. So I this summer I sat down and answered all the questions. Now you know why I wrote this sermon last. I procrastinated quite a bit and needed the time to do so. So I wrote all the others and got them out of the way.

I most strongly encourage everyone who hears these words or who reads them to take the time and do the same. Get it done. Put it in the right places. And may they not be needed for many years.

But when the moment comes, as surely it must, when we lie there in bed looking or sensing the presence of our loved ones, we will ask them: “Do you love me?” And they must surely respond: “Do I love you?” Or, perhaps we are the ones standing by the bedside and our loved ones are in the bed and we sense them saying to us: “Do you love me?” And we must surely respond: “Do I love you?” And then we will have all the answers to all the questions.
        And there will be peace.

May God bless us all with many years.
May God bless us with those who love us.
May God bless us with peace.

“And I suppose I love you, too.”                                                                                  Amen.

What does God want from us? Peace.

What does God want from us?  Peace.
Kol Nidrei 5774 – 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Richmond, Virginia

Forty years ago tonight Ruby and I went to sleep in our room in the Seminary building of Neve Schechter in Jerusalem contemplating our Kol Nidrei prayers. Little could we have known that the next day would change the course of Jewish history. The Bar Lev line on the Suez was pierced, Israeli jets fell from the skies, and Medinat Yisrael’s very existence was in grave jeopardy, as were our lives. As communications with the outside world were severed, as windows were blacked out and food rationed, we sensed the danger even as the battles were being fought at a distance from the city. You knew more here than we knew there.

Once there was a war that we thought would be our last.
Once there was a war which we prayed would be a harbinger of peace.
Once there was a Yom Kippur whose silence was shredded by sirens and by bombs.
Once we hid in a make-shift bomb shelter, and implored God that we should emerge in safety.
Once there was a war on Yom Kippur.

I never looked at life again the same way after that Yom Kippur.
I never looked at Israel the same way again.
            I thought of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Babylonian exile.
            I thought of the destruction of the Second Temple and the Roman exile.
            I thought of the defeat of the Bar Kochba rebellion and the end of Jewish life in Judea.
I could not bear, abide the thought of life, of Jewish history, of being a Jew, without Israel.

Sometime afterwards a song was written by Dov Seltzer and sung by Yehoram Gaon that encapsulated all the tumultuous emotions. It was written and sung as an oath, that that war would be the last. A poetic translation of “Ha-Milchamah Ha-Achronah” – “The Last War”:

“In the name of all the farm boys who let fruit spoil on the vines
To die, themselves unripe, on shrapnel-spitting mines;
In the name of all the pilots who streaked out with somber aims,
Who fused with missiles and were purified in flames.”

Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot tihyeh ha-milchamah ha-achronah
I swear my little girl, I swear to you once more,
I swear that this will be the last of all the wars;
I swear, I swear to thee,
I swear on all that’s free,
I swear that this war will be the last you’ll ever see.

“In the name of gentle teachers who went out to take their stand
And left their marks on blood-red blackboards in the sand;
In the name of children forced to sleep in sandbag sheltered holes,
Or front line doctors who pumped blood back into souls.

Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot tihyeh ha-milchamah ha-achronah
I swear that this war will be the last you’ll ever see.

In the name of men of vision who came out with blinded eyes,
Of grief –struck mothers who saw sons burst into skies;
In the name of fathers bandaged white – but still in place,
Who dream each night of going home to kiss your face.

Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot tihyeh ha-milchamah ha-achronah
I swear my little girl, I swear to you once more,
I swear that this will be the last of all the wars;
I swear, I swear to thee,
I swear on all that’s free,
I swear that this war will be the last you’ll ever see.

Yom Kippur comes every year, but it has been forty years, a number fraught with Biblical meaning and power, since “Yom Kippur.” And times does not erase the memories nor remove the ache as I recall embracing friends who exchanged talit for khalki green, and machzor for an M-16. The synagogue was so empty at Mincha on Yom Kippur. In place of confronting God, they were now on their way to the front.

Left behind in their absence, we sat and contemplated more seriously than ever before the words of our prayers. On Yom Kippur 1973 we wept as we chanted the U’ne’ta’neh Tokef:

“B’rosh Hashanah yiy-katay-vun, u’v’yom Tzom Kippur yay-cha-taymun.”
“On Rosh HaShanah we are inscribed, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed:
Mi yichyeh                  - who will live
U’Mi yamut                 - and who will die
Mi b’kitzo                    - whose life will end in its appointed time
U’Mi lo b’kitzo             - and whose life will be cut short
Mi ba-aysh                  - who by fire – of tanks, artillery and napalm
U’Mi ba-mayim           - who by water – in the Bar Lev line on the banks of the Suez
Mi ba-cherev              - who by sword
Mi  ba-ra’av                - who by hunger – after days of unending battle on the Golan Heights
U’Mi ba-tzamah          - and who by thirst in the Sinai sands
Mi Yishaket                 - who will be tranquil, in the still after the battle
U’Mi yitaref                - and who will be torn apart – by mortar and mine, grenade and bullet.
B’rosh Hashanah yiy-katay-vun, u’v’yom Tzom Kippur yay-cha-taymun.
On Rosh HaShanah we are inscribed, and on the fast of Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

“Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot tihyeh ha-milchamah ha-achronah
I swear that this war will be the last you’ll ever see.”

When Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of negations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority you may well imagine every thought and emotion that flooded through me, every shred of optimism and pessimism, every wisp of skepticism and cynicism, every memory of Camp David and of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin z”l on the White House lawn. I had an instantaneous flash of Jewish history from the Dreyfus Affair and Russian pogroms to the Holocaust, of Israel’s four major wars – 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, two in Lebanon, those with Gaza and the Intifadas, of buses blown up and of the school Ma’alot, a name hardly recognized or remembered. I can, but not here, make every case for every position, for two states, one state, confederation or domination. I can explicate the Palestinian views even as I reject them yet acknowledge them. Everyone is right. And everyone must be somewhat wrong. I do not care about the shape of the table or who sits around it. I do not plead nor pray for a particular plan or line of border, settlements here or there.
I plead and pray for sanity,
   for reason,
   for humanity,
   for the end of pain and death and destruction.
I plead for peace.
   A real peace.
   A true peace.
  A peace for everyone.
  A peace that will last forever.
            And I plead to hear an echo to my plea from every church and mosque.

Embedded in Yom Kippur is the expectation of the coming of the Messiah. The purpose of Yom Kippur rituals of the Temple and of Judaism ever afterwards is the cleansing of our souls, represented by the color white. In removing our sins we are able to unite with all other human beings and with God is pristine purity. And  thus when the Messiah finally comes, after the millennia of our tears and prayers, our belief is that there will be perfect peace. But that peace is not just for Israel and for the Jewish people. We are not self-centered. Judaism has a universalistic vision for all humanity. So, we believe in peace for all peoples in every place on earth. It is for Israelis, Jews, Palestinians, Moslems and Christians, Egyptians and Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians, Libyans, Afghanistanis, and on the streets of Richmond too. I don’t know how he or she will arrive, what language they will speak, or how they will look. As Danny Siegel once wrote, we don’t have to worry if we will recognize the Messiah. The question is: will the Messiah recognize us? We believe that when the Messiah really does come, there will be peace for all and forever, and borders will not matter.

What Israel needs from us, what God wants from us, is our love, our unmitigated support as it navigates treacherous and unknown paths, our public voice of encouragement, and as Americans, to our government to continue to be Israel’s undying partner for its existence which is beyond any particular issue. We live in a dangerous world and Israel lives in a most dangerous neighborhood. Perhaps God has directed us to be a strong community in this country so that we can advocate for our people who have rebuilt and populate our homeland, who in blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice created the Third Commonwealth in our history, gathered in the exiles, saved those in distress, rescued the saving remnant of the Holocaust, and redeemed our honor and dignity. And God, by His very name, wants peace, for them, for all, for the world.

So I want to share with you tonight, and share with the world, with all those who say “I can’t,” “I won’t” or any other negative, contrary and adversarial verbiage, the following story. I read it in the publication “Teaching Tolerance” published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is entitled: “Rabbit Foot: A Story of the Peacemaker,” told by Joseph Bruchac.

Many hundreds of years ago
before the Europeans came
the Five Nations of the Iroquois,
Mohawk and Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca,
were always at war with one another.

Although they had a common culture
and languages that were much the same
no longer did they remember
they had been taught to live
as sisters and brothers.

Once they had shared the beautiful land
from Niagara to the eastern mountains,
but now only revenge was in their hearts
and blood feuds had made every trail
a path leading to war.

So it was that the Great Creator
sent once again a messenger,
a man who became known
to all of the Five Nations
by the name of the Peacemaker.

To help the people once again
make their minds straight
he told them stories
about peace and war.
This is one of his tales.

Once there was a boy named Rabbit Foot.
He was always looking and listening.
He knew how to talk to animals
so the animals would talk to him.

One day as he walked out in the woods
he heard the sound of a great struggle
coming from a clearing just over the hill.
So he climbed that hilltop to look down.

What he saw surprised him.
There was a great snake
coiled in a circle.
It had caught a huge frog
and although the frog struggled
the snake was slowly swallowing its legs.

Rabbit Foot came closer
and spoke to the frog.
“He has really got you, my friend.”
The frog looked up at Rabbit Foot.
“Wa’he! That is so,” the frog said.

Rabbit Foot nodded, then said to the frog,
“Do you see the snake’s tail there,
just in front of your mouth?
Why not do to him what he’s doing to you?”

Then the huge frog reached out
and grabbed the snake’s tail.
He began to stuff it into his mouth
as Rabbit Foot watched them both.

The snake swallowed more of the frog
the frog swallowed more of the snake
and the circle got smaller and smaller
until both of them swallowed one last time
and just like that, they both were gone.

They had eaten each other,
the Peacemaker said.
And in much the same way,
unless you give up war
and learn to live together in peace,
that also will happen to you.

I would like to dream that in whatever number of years from now, perhaps a Sabbah, a grandfather, or a Sabbah Rabbah, a great-grandfather, will sit his grandchildren or great grandchildren on his lap and will tell them about Yom Kippur, 1973, where he were and what he did, what he saw, and how he lived.

And then he will sing to them in slight variation:
Ani mavti-ach lach, yaldah sheli k’tanah, she-zot hayitah ha-milchamah ha-achronah (2x)
I swear my little girl, I swear to you once more,
I swear that this was the last of all the wars;
I swear, I swear to thee,
I swear on all that’s free,
I swear that this war was the last war there’ll ever be.

I pray that we will live to see the coming of the Messiah.
I pray that tears, and cries, and pain and anguish for all will end.
I plead and pray for peace.
On this night of Yom Kippur, this is my only prayer to God.                                                  Amen.

All About A-Rod

All About A-Rod
Shabbat Shuvah
September 7th, 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Richmond, Virginia

It would be personally very difficult to have this entire Yom Tov season go by without one sermon dedicated to baseball! I contemplate the World Series with my Dodgers battling my brother’s Red Sox - what more could I want! Yet I still want to integrate these remarks into the overall theme that I chose for this season: “What does God want from us?” It is not that God has ordained special rules for playing the game – “God forbid!” But as we play the game, remembering as youngsters and maybe as Men’s Club members with their softball, or as we attend games at the Diamond, or wherever they will play if they stay in Richmond – who knows, or look at baseball cards and remember stars of yesteryear, perhaps there are rules about us, focused on us, not on the game, even as we play it.

I have two stories, one brief and one extended. They are recorded in the volume III of “The World of the High Holy Days,” edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer. I have edited them slightly.

“The first story, from the Sun Sentinel, said that there was a little league game in Broward County (Florida) that nearly ended with a riot.

“What happened was that the umpires decided to call the game off at the end of the sixth inning. They did so because there was a backlog of teams that were waiting to play that day, and they wanted to give some other kids a chance to play.

“The problem was not the children, but the parents. It seems that one of the teams was undefeated all season until this game, and it was behind, by a score of seven to five, when the game was called.

“The kids were willing to accept the umpire’s decision to call the game so that other teams could play. But the fathers weren’t. The fathers began to yell and scream and curse at the umpires. Because they wanted their kids to be allowed to finish the game, in the hope that they could come from behind and win. And if that meant that the other teams that were waiting their turn wouldn’t be able to play, that was their tough luck, according to the parents. Not our problem!

“You have to wonder: What were these fathers teaching their children that day?

“They were teaching them that winning is not the most important thing – that it is the only thing that counts; that you should never accept defeat graciously. They were teaching their kids that it is alright to throw a tantrum in order to win the game.”

My postscript: They were teaching them that you don’t have to care about others, only yourself; that it doesn’t matter that what you do, impacts the lives of others.

“The news item comes from the New York Times. It reports that in certain upper class suburban neighborhoods, parents are now paying tutors $60 and $70 an hour to teach their kids how to play baseball, so that they can do better in little league, because evidently, they believe that doing well in little league is crucial to their child’s self esteem, or perhaps to their own self esteem.”

“Now listen to this story, which comes from a different world. I found it in a book called: From The Maggid’s Table, [authored by Rabbi Peysach Krohn – who I knew as the most popular mohel on Long Island, if not beyond, when I lived there].

“It is about a boy named Shaya, who goes to a day school for learning disabled children. The school shares facilities with a regular day school that meets nearby, including a playground with a baseball field.

“Shaya was a boy who was learning disabled. He was pudgy and clumsy and good-natured, but he could only walk with difficulty, and he didn’t have much physical coordination. One day, Shaya and his father wandered into the playground, while the older kids were playing ball.

“One of the teams was behind, by a score of eight to one in the bottom half of the 8th inning, so when Shaya asked if he could play, they figured: why not? What harm could he do? They were already behind by seven runs, and so it didn’t really matter.

“And then, in the bottom of the 8th, Shaya’s team picked up four runs, and so now it was eight to five, and in the bottom of the 9th, they got three men on base.

“And now, it was Shaya’s turn to bat. There were two outs, and bases loaded.

“The adults who were watching the game were sure that the kids wouldn’t let Shaya bat, not at such a time, not when the whole game depended on the next batter. But to everyone’s surprise, they did. Shaya stood at the plate, and it was soon clear that he had no idea how to hold the bat. So one of his teammates stood behind him, and helped him hold the bat.

“The pitcher realized that Shaya had no idea how to hit, and so he lobbed the ball to him. Shaya swung and missed twice. So it was no balls, two strikes, two out, and bases loaded.

“The pitcher moved in closer, and tossed the ball to him as gently as he could. And this time, Shaya hit the ball, and it rolled a few feet.

“The pitcher retrieved the ball. And everyone cheered as Shaya lumbered towards first base. The pitcher saw what was happening, so he deliberately threw the ball way over the first baseman’s head. While the first baseman chased after the ball, the coach told Shaya to touch the base, and then turn and head for second.

“And the crowd cheered him on.

“The right fielder, who retrieved the ball, had figured out by now what was going on, and so he threw the ball way over the head of the second baseman, and everyone yelled, “Run, Shaya, run!”

“The catcher got the ball, and purposely threw it to the pitcher, who dropped it and took his time finding it, until Shaya and the three other players who preceded him had scored. And then, as Shaya finally lumbered home, his cheeks red with excitement and pride, all eighteen boys from both teams lifted him up on their shoulders and carried him around the field, singing siman tov and mazal tov and David melech Yisrael chay vikayam, and calling him their hero, for having hit a grand slam home run, and for having won the game for his team.

“I am sure that these were kids who loved baseball, and I am sure that these were kids who loved winning, and yet, these kids evidently felt that making a learning disabled child feel good about himself was worth more than winning the game.”

My postscript: This is the Jewish way to play the game of baseball.

I entitled this sermon “All About A-Rod,” the third baseman of the New York Yankees, who was suspended for 211 games, the most ever, besides lifetime expulsion, for use of performance enhancing drugs. He is currently playing while appealing the decision. I could have entitled this sermon “All About Ryan,” Ryan Braun, outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, who received a lesser sentence but also has a sordid story, accusing others, and now has recanted and apologized. I wish both of them, and also the others that have been suspended for differing amounts of games, could have heard this sermon before they took the drugs, before they lied to their families, to their team mates, to the fans, to the little children that idolize stars. I remember being crushed when I learned that Mickey Mantle was a drunk.

A-Rod has not apologized. But even Ryan Braun’s apology is not teshuvah. His team defeated other teams because of his hits because his body was juiced. He did not apologize to those teams. He can’t give them back those games as ‘wins’ while the Brewers takes them as ‘losses.’ You can’t change this retroactively. He won the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award instead of Matt Kemp of the Dodgers. Did he apologize to Kemp? No. Did he give back the award to the National League? No. He didn’t do teshuvah, and neither has A-Rod.

Embedded in the two stories from the Florida newspaper and from The Maggid’s Table and the current sports sections are important lessons that answer the question: “What Does God Want From Us?”
            How does God want us to play the ‘game of life’?
            How what we do impacts and affects the lives of others?
            How we hurt others?
            How we destroy the tzelem elohim, the Godly image implanted within us?
            That real teshuvah is more than a lip-service public apology.

There is much to learn from the game of baseball.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

What Do We Say To Trayvon and George?

What Do We Say To Trayvon and George?
Rosh HaShanah Second Day 5774 – 2013
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
Richmond, Virginia

From the moment that I first heard about the tragedy that enveloped Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, a needless death and a life ruined, families that will perpetually grieve, violence – gun violence - unleashed again on our streets,  and our nation torn and tortured along different tangents, besides my personal anguish over watching, listening, I was deeply perplexed.
What could I add?
What could I say that has not yet been said?
Should I rail again against the proliferation of guns? How much more can I say?
Should I rail against gated communities and their implications about our society?
Who is locked in? Who is locked out?
We divide and destroy, when we should unify and build.
Not being a civil lawyer, can I really analyze all elements in the controversial “Stand Your
Ground” law better than all the cable outlet pundits?
Besides crying out against the inhumanity of the specter of the trial and its aftermath, what can
we all of say to ourselves, our neighbors, our children, our grandchildren?
I was deeply and sorely perplexed.

During the summer months, weather permitting, I daven alone in my backyard. There are parts in the very beginning of the tefilot that are the foundation for the rest. Out of the necessity of time, we usually omit them. When I daven alone, I say them all. One Shabbat morning I was struck by the message of these particular tefilot. I realized that if I removed the words particular to us as Jews, there is a universal message radiating from these tefilot.
This is the message that America needs to hear!
These are the beliefs that must resound in our country! And I want to share them.
I am convinced that this tragedy – and so many like it - could have been avoided if people lived according the principles articulated in our prayers.
                Perhaps we really need to include them in the order of our tefilot.
                We need to teach them to our children.
                We need to live them ourselves as exemplars and models for all to see.
                                As Jews living our Judaism we have a special message for America.

In a style different from my normal preaching, I want us all to look at these tefilot together. Then I will draw out their meaning and message.

Page 35 Second Paragraph: The Body                                     [All pages are Mahzor Lev Shalem]

We learn:  Our bodies are delicate and fragile. They operate in mysterious and specific ways. Each organ has a function. There is a perhaps inexplicable rhyme and reason why there are openings and closings. In their unity and perfection, we live. Otherwise, we die. This tefilah recognizes that our bodies are gifts from God. They are beautiful, and yet, “if one of them fails to function” we die. This tefilah compels me/us to be sensitive and take care of our bodies and respect those of others. They break easily: from abuse and misuse; from alcohol, drugs and tobacco; from fists and from words; from knives and from guns.

When our children were young they often ran to me saying: “Abbah, fix this!” I guess that I did it too good and too often.  So when they brought me something that I could not fix, they cried out: “but you can fix everything!” But I told them: “No I can’t. Even if I am Abbah. Abbah can’t fix everything.  Some things that are broken can never be fixed.” It was very hard lesson for them to learn.

We learn: Be considerate of others. Be gentle with yourself. Be careful with your body. Be kind. Thank God each day that you are blessed to be alive. Respect others so they can live, too. Remember: Guns make holes in our bodies, wrong openings, and we die.

Page 35 Third Paragraph: The Soul

We learn: We are born inherently good and pure. We label the life-force that is within us, that makes each and every human being different from the other with the word “soul.” It is good to be different. God wants us that way.  I like the use of the translation “Lifeless body.”  In teaching children I explain that the difference between being awake and being asleep is that when we are awake our soul is active. It is the special, intangible ingredient that is “me”. Like our body, our soul is a gift from God. The tefilah recognizes that in the natural course we will die, yet we have the faith that our neshama will live on. How comforting is that faith!

We learn: Each human being is a creature crafted by God. Our faith teaches the respect of each soul, to marvel at the glory that is inherent in each human being. Don’t look at the external shell! Look for the internal holiness that God breathed into each of us the moment we were born. Respect and be considerate of each soul.

Page 37 – The Whole Page: The Blessings of Sensitivity to Existence

We learn: If we remove the blessing about being a Jew and the word “Israel” which I do say with heart and soul, these blessings are universal and sensitize us to human existence. Because these are recited every day of the year there is the temptation to “rattle them off.” I never do.
I don’t ever want to take life for granted.
God wants us to be sensitized to: the wonder of life itself,
  the difficulties of life,
  the blessings we have,
  the needs of others,
  that since life isn’t fair we need help and we need to give help,
  that we can be blinded at birth or be can blind ourselves,
                with carelessness,
                with senseless hatred, - both are wrong!
  that we need to take care of the earth and all its creatures,
 that we need to live with inner, moral, spiritual strength,
 that we need courage to behavior properly,
 that we need distinguish between good and bad
                                and never give up.

We learn: Being sensitive to the full gamut of life is difficult to do on a daily, constant basis. There are many things that distract us, that pull us down, that weigh upon us. It is easy to focus on ourselves and not be considerate of others. It is even easier to look at everyone as “someone else” and fear or hate them. These berachot sensitize us to all existence, the wonder of life, and the difficulties we all share.
God loves all of us.
God cares for all of us.
Not some of us.
We need to love everyone.
We need to care for everyone.
Not some of us, sometimes.

Page 38 Top Paragraph: Wake Me Up!

We learn: We don’t have to only wake up physically, we have to make up morally – every day! There are many things that “get in our eyes” and don’t allow us to “see” properly. There are many temptations in life. We need strength! We need courage! We need to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong every day. We have to start when we are young and never stop. It doesn’t matter if we are the president, the governor, or the “average Joe.”
                We must have a sense of shame and disgrace.
                We need to keep a firm rein on our impulses so that we control them and not them, us.
                We must realize that we can do wrong and want to do that which is right.
                That the true and highest values are grace, love, compassion and lovingkindness.
                                That is how we want God to look at and feel towards us.
                                That is how we need to look and feel towards others.
                                These are the supreme values, not power, not control, not clout, not influence.

We learn: Wake up! It isn’t easy to be good and do good. We have to work at it. We have to be afraid of being disgraced and shamed. We need to control ourselves. We have to have a deep knowledge of what is really important in life – a good heart, love, mercy, righteousness.  Every day. To everyone.

Page 38 Middle Paragraph: Modesty

We learn: Life isn’t pretty. Life isn’t easy. There are lots of not-nice people out there. Sometimes there is little we can do and so we hope that somehow God will help us. But just because others may not be nice, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be nice, or good, or proper, or loving. We need to maintain a modicum of modesty about ourselves. That refers to the phrase about “protect me from arrogance in myself.”

In pre-marriage counseling I suggest to couples that they see life as a “yield sign.” No one has the “right of way.” We have the right to yield to others, who in turn will yield to us. We will all go forward, but gently, lovingly, in turn. And even when the world does us wrong, we should maintain our posture and position.

We learn: There need be a unity of our thought and our actions, whether in public or private. We are not “king of the mountain” – ever. Whatever height we attain, be it pulpit or presidency, is transient. Compared to God, what are we? Compared to eons, how long are our lives? That must infuse us with modesty and humility about ourselves - thankfulness for what we have, graciousness to others as we share our blessings, kindness to everyone- for that is the epitome of being God’s creation.

We learn: We can make a better world. And it begins with each one of us.
Yesterday I said that religion must answer the singular question: What does God want from us?

This is the answer: to live as these tefilot indicate, with a moral backbone, and ethical vision, honorable, principled, decent, and loving. What do we need? That answer is: To remind ourselves of this every day. In Judaism we create our moral compass by reciting these tefilot every day. They direct us to God. They lead us to goodliness.

I wish that I could have shared these remarks with Trayvon and George before that fateful moment. Maybe all the pain and sorrow could have been avoided. But I share, we disseminate this vision to others. Maybe we can make a better world tomorrow, even if we couldn’t or didn’t do it yesterday.

In this vein of introspection so appropriate to Rosh HaShanah and these day of repentance, I close with a poem that I thought was anonymous as that is what it said, until I “googled it” and discovered that it was written by a Dale Wimbrow in 1934. It is called “The Man in the Glass.” It was first shared with me at the funeral for Jay Rostov and I have used a number of times since. There are two versions, the original and the “popular altered.” This is the latter.

When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that man has to say.

For it isn’t your father or mother or wife,
Who judgment upon you must pass;
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one starring back from the glass.

He’s the fellow to please, never mind all the rest.
For he’s with you clear up to the end,
And you’ve passed the most dangerous, difficult test
If the man in the glass is your friend.

You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum,
And think you’re a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.

You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years.
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be the heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.

I want to look in the glass and be modest and humble.
I want to look in the glass and be proud of what I see.
I want to look in the glass and believe that behind the glass and far above me, I will have done what God wanted me to do towards Him and towards others.
When you go home today, pause by the mirror and look.

May God be pleased and bless us all.      Amen.