The road from Thousand Oaks to Palm Springs is a long one, at least twenty-five years long. That is how long I have not spoken to my uncle who lives in Palm Springs. It’s not just me. Most of the members of my family have not spoken to him and have no desire to. But I do, although I’m not exactly sure why. The year is 2015, and I am drawing to the end of my first tour of duty here at Temple Adat Elohim, just a few months before I leave Southern California forever (or so I thought at the time). Before I travel to my next congregation, I feel compelled to drive on the road from Thousand Oaks to Palm Springs. I just don’t know if it should be a road of forgiveness.
Like many family quarrels, the details are often unclear; they change depending upon whom one is speaking with. What I do know is that my uncle’s behavior is at times self-centered and hurtful, and at other times earnest and hilarious. We often want to cast people who have hurt us as all good or all bad, but that’s rarely the case. He is fun and funny, and he emotionally and economically hurt people I love. But he and I have never had a problem in our relationship. So why have I refrained from speaking to him for twenty-five years? Do I want him to apologize for the harm he caused others in my family? Given that I never hurt or angered him, do I want to know why he remained distant from me? This feels like a moment where someone should be forgiving someone else. However, I’m not convinced that forgiveness is always the proper course.
Last year, when I worked in Mahwah, New Jersey, I thought about the role of forgiveness. Mahwah is about 45 minutes from Manhattan, which looms large on the conscience of the region. While the superficial scars may be gone, 9/11 left deep psychic wounds that can surface unexpectedly. On one occasion, I remember speaking to a minister after a community clergy meeting. As we shared our ideas about repentance and sin, the discussion turned to 9/11. He told me that before the second building had fallen, he had already forgiven the terrorists. I realized he was exaggerating to make the point that forgiveness should be an automatic reflex. Exaggeration or not, his conviction forced me to consider whether forgiveness should be one of our highest virtues, bestowed automatically and fully. Perhaps because of this minister’s powerful words, or because we are in this season of the High Holy Days, or maybe because my uncle died this past year, I am struggling with the idea of forgiveness.
I know I am not alone in feeling confused and ambivalent about forgiveness. As their rabbi, people often share glimpses of their lives with me. Sometimes they reveal that they are not speaking to someone in their family or, even more painfully, that someone in their family is not speaking to them. But even more than the pain of separation, a twinge of shame often threads through their emotions, as if to imply that this is not only sad but also a moral failure. And at some level, estrangement is a failure—at least, a failure to forgive. But is estrangement a moral failure? Are we required to forgive? I know that, for many, like me, this topic touches close to home. But that’s exactly why we should explore it—not to engender guilt or to deepen our sense of loss, but to plumb our tradition’s wisdom so that we can enhance our lives.
The struggle over when and if we should forgive is woven into the earliest threads of our tradition. It’s easy to dismiss Judaism’s earliest roots—when we sacrificed animals to God—as something primitive, and I’m certainly not advocating returning to animal sacrifice. But buried in that system is an important thought, which this quick-to-forgive minister may have missed: Forgiveness must start with contrition.
The Torah’s system of animal and plant sacrifices were kind of like grand gestures directed toward God. Think of it this way: If a parent misses an important childhood celebration because of a deadline at work, the parent might want to express their regret, so Mom or Dad buys a big present for their child as a grand gesture. At one level, that’s what sacrifice is, bringing something of value to assuage God. We transgress a rule, we bring a goat; if we transgress another rule, we bring another goat. If we miss a childhood event, we bring a present; if we miss another childhood event, we bring another present. But the Prophets tell us that sacrifices don’t suffice. Speaking on God’s behalf, the prophet Amos says, “I hate all your show and pretense—the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. I won’t accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings (5:21–22). . . . You trample the poor, stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent. Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses, you’ll never live in them (5:11).” In other words, Amos is saying that sacrifices are not enough if our hurtful behavior remains. How many times can a parent miss an important event before the sophisticated child says, “I don’t want your gifts. What I want is to be more important to you.” God is like the child, or spouse, or sibling, who is not appeased by empty gestures or words. As Amos suggests, if sinners do not recognize of their mistakes and offer no contrition, no commitment to change their behavior, then we don’t have to forgive them. We’re left to ask: When should we forgive and when shouldn’t we?
It takes me the better part of three hours to drive to Palm Springs. As my uncle answers the door, I can see the toll that the cancer is taking. We embrace and sit down together to catch him up on my entire adulthood. I think about the times when I was struggling and wanted to reach out to him, and I feel a deep sadness that he has never met my wife, Sandy, or my kids, now all grown. I learn about his life over the past twenty-five years and meet his partner. I learn they never married and actually maintain separate households. He smiles wryly. “We both like our own space, but we only want to be with each other.” The conversation turns from the mundane stories of our lives to the rift in our family. He wants to tell me his side of the story, but I’m not there to judge who is right or wrong. I’m asking a different question: Is forgiveness and reconciliation possible? Often there is a clear perpetrator and a clear victim. But, perhaps just as often, both sides contribute something to a breach in a relationship, although maybe not in equal amounts. When siblings argue, when spouses argue, when business partnerships break down, there is a good chance that upon reflection, each side can identify its pieces of the broken puzzle.
So I wonder: Does he believe that he caused harm? Does he take any responsibility for harm that he may have caused? Were there ways in which he, too, was wronged? Ultimately, does he want to be forgiven? It becomes clear to me that he doesn’t see himself as responsible for harming others; in fact, he views himself solely as the victim. Whether or not his perception is right, it’s clear that he doesn’t see the need to change his behavior, so reconciliation and forgiveness just isn’t possible.
But then that other nagging question begins to take form, the one that I couldn’t previously put into words: Is the separation worth it? For my uncle or for anyone who is neither seeking forgiveness nor seeking to forgive, we can ask if being separated from the family is better than reconciling and being together again? Hidden in the crevasses of my soul, I had one other question for my uncle: Was it worth his being away from me?
I hadn’t realized how much my being separated from my uncle hurt. But his decision to not seek forgiveness was not about me, nor was my family’s decision to not offer forgiveness. Both my uncle and my family, each in their own way, refused to entertain ideas of forgiveness because the distance protected each of them from pain and harm. That’s what distance and estrangement often does—it protects us. Sometimes the pain is psychological, and sometimes the harm is tangible and ongoing.
According to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of the book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, the Rabbis said that we are not required to forgive someone if the harm done to us is permanent or ongoing. The idea of preemptively forgiving the 9/11 hijackers would have been dismissed by the Rabbis. They specifically said that we cannot forgive people for the wrongs they may have done to others. Rabbi Telushkin tells a story about a nun who was one of several women sexually assaulted by a serial predator. When the police asked her first to identify and then testify against the man, she refused because, she said, “I have already forgiven him for what he did to me.”
Good for her, but the threat to other victims is ongoing. She may have been able to forgive him for herself, but it was not her place to forgive him on behalf of others. Her first responsibility was to the other victims, both current and potential. Nor was it the minister’s place to forgive the terrorists when he did not suffer the direct harm. But does that mean that forgiveness is not that important? On the contrary. It just means that sometimes forgiveness isn’t always mandatory. However, often it is.
What if the threat against us is not ongoing? The Rabbis suggest that even if someone harmed us and then stopped, we are not required to forgive. But sometimes the person who harms not only stops but wants to make things right. This process for making things right is called teshuvah. Translated as “repentance,” teshuvah literally means “turning,” in the sense of turning around one’s conduct. It’s the process by which we demonstrate to others and commit ourselves that we will no longer cause them harm. Even beyond stopping the harm, the process of teshuvah involves repairing the damage we may have caused, if possible. Teshuvah involves readily acknowledging the pain we have caused another person and then committing to stop those behaviors; admitting the mistakes both privately and publicly; repairing the harm, if possible; and, finally, refraining from making the same mistake again. Many variations of these general steps exist, including the 12-step program from Alcoholic Anonymous, but they all are meant to signal to the victim that the harm has stopped and—with ongoing work—will not return. However, let’s be clear. The Rabbis were not naïve. They recognized that the path of teshuvah is not a straight one. Even if someone sincerely desires to change, many false starts may occur. The Rabbis knew, as do we, that sometimes people only act as if they are on a path of teshuvah. It’s hard to know whether or not a person is earnestly trying or cynically lying. If we feel we may still be harmed, we are not required to forgive. That would be like the person who brought a sacrifice to the ancient Temple but still committed injustice to their neighbor.
What about forgiving someone who does earnestly embark on a path of teshuvah? What of someone who is truly repentant? What if they acknowledge the harm they have caused? What if you sense that they feel genuine remorse within themselves, that they are doing what they can to repair the damage they have caused and are actively trying not to repeat it? In this case, the Rabbis say that we are usually required to forgive. In fact, if someone honestly and earnestly performs teshuvah and asks our forgiveness for their mistakes on three separate occasions, we take on a sin of our own if we refuse to forgive them. Because the Rabbis recognized that experiences of loss, betrayal, and hurt are inevitable parts of the human condition, we need a path to repair our inescapable mistakes if we are to survive as individuals and as a community. We need not always forgive, but we always need forgiveness.
Still, something crucial missing is from the Rabbis’ discussion and through many other discussions of forgiveness. We often think of forgiveness as an all-or-nothing endeavor: either we grant it or we don’t. For many, this black-and-white thinking prevents individuals from providing a measure of forgiveness to others and even of relief for the self. But even if we forgive, we can choose the degree of forgiveness. According to Rabbi Mordechai Finely, who based his view on the teaching of Solomon Schimmel, the lowest level of forgiveness is simply releasing the desire for revenge or retaliation. Anger protects us like armor, but armor is heavy, restrictive, and uncomfortable. Resentment and anger make us acutely sensitive to anything that may feel like an ongoing threat, even if the threat is trivial. Once we are convinced that the threat really is gone, reaching this first level of forgiveness and releasing our own anger may help us as much as it helps the repentant person who harmed us.
The second level of forgiveness is letting go, decreasing our need for moral estrangement and increasing our willingness for social connection. It may only be a nod of the head from across the room, but this, too, is a higher level of forgiveness. A third level is deciding to have a minimal relationship beyond a simple greeting. It may be guarded chitchat or serving on a project team with the person who caused the harm. The fourth level is to slowly and tentatively open a relationship, perhaps talking about what is happening in one’s life or work. Finally, the highest level of forgiveness is full reconciliation, that is, fully restoring the relationship and trust.
When the Rabbis of old tell us that we must forgive a person who honestly performs teshuvah, they don’t tell us how much to forgive the person. That is left in our hands. Knowing that forgiveness may only mean releasing our anger but not lowering our guard, we may choose to superficially connect rather than deeply trust; we have more choices about how we can meet the repentant person along their path.
My uncle and I hug each other goodbye after 25 years, and he says he would like to get together soon. I do, too, but because it is 2015 and I know I will soon be moving out of state as I travel around the country as an interim rabbi, I think it’s unlikely at best. As I watch him grow smaller in my rearview mirror, my hopes of our families’ reconciling grow smaller as well.
I expect to be disappointed as I drive home. But, strangely, that is not what I feel. Rather, I realize that it’s the role of a jury or historians to judge whether our harm is only caused by the person we blame. The more important questions, the more empowering questions—the questions we should all ask on an ongoing basis—are: How am I contributing to this conflict and the pain that everyone might be feeling? Did my actions make this situation worse in some small way? Am I still contributing to my own pain and the pain of others? We shouldn’t ask these questions to blame a victim of harm, rather we ask because this is the one question that gives us the greatest power over our lives. As I apply these questions in my own life, I wonder if there was some small way that I contributed to the relationship rupture. If I did contribute, then I can own my small part and decide if a measure of forgiveness is called for. At the very least, I can choose to improve those actions that may have contributed to the problem to prevent problems from happening again. After all, isn’t that what teshuvah is for—people taking responsibility so they will prevent future harm and pain?
We are not required to forgive someone who causes us permanent harm. Nor are we required to forgive someone who is likely to harm us again. But if we choose to withhold our forgiveness, let’s do it thoughtfully. Let’s maintain as much choice and control as we can so we can feel the power to lift ourselves up, even when those around us cannot. May we be open to forgive and worthy of forgiveness.
It’s three balls, two strikes, and one out at the top of the ninth inning in Yankee stadium. The Red Sox are ahead 3–¬2. Up in the right field bleachers, a young couple wearing red baseball caps and Red Sox jerseys watch the game hopefully. She yells, “Go, Red Sox!” Two rows in front of her, another man, wearing a black overcoat and sitting next to another young woman, answers, “Go away.” (Actually, he doesn’t say, “Go away,” but what he says does start with “Go.”) The first woman stands up, her left hand holding a half-consumed beer and her right-hand gesturing and making it clear that the Red Sox are the better team. The Yankee fan stands up among the sea of blue Yankee shirts and begins making his way out of the stadium, right past the Red Sox fans sitting on the aisle. He bellows, “This is our realm.” He shakes his right hand up to the heavens, like Eva Peron addressing her subjects. “We don’t want you here. We don’t want you here.” ” The dispute over territory continues for a few more seconds. Then the male Red Sox fan stands up and leans into to whisper something in the Yankee fan’s ear. I thought he would say something like, “Hey man, keep cool. It’s just a game. We’re all here to have fun.” I was naïve. The Red Sox fan sits down and the Yankee’s fan takes in his words and says, “Oh yeah!, Oh yeah!” As he walks by the Red Sox fan, the Yankees fan smacks the Red Sox fan’s beer out of his hands, knocking it to the floor. Without losing a beat, the female Red Sox fan takes the beer that she was holding and unloads it right in the Yankee fan’s face.
As I watched a recording of this play out, I couldn’t help asking myself, Why are they fighting? What were they even fighting about? Two groups arguing over a game where the stakes are, at best, the ability to brag—and then they would do the whole thing over next year. It’s hard to conceive of lower stakes, but psychologists have tried.
In 1954, psychologists Muzafer Sherif and Carolyn Wood Sherif wanted to see if they could watch the origins of prejudice and intergroup conflict. They took twenty-two boys from similar backgrounds, who didn’t know one another, and randomly divided them into two groups. The Sherifs took both groups to a summer camp setting at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. Each group worked on its own and created their own flags and names: the Eagles and the Rattlesnakes. The boys were no longer just boys; they were Eagles or they were Rattlesnakes. They identified fully with their groups. After a few days of this bonding, the experimenters put the two groups together for some friendly competition, where the winners would receive prizes and the losers would receive nothing. Within a few days, the Eagles stole the flag of the Rattlesnakes and ripped it to shreds. The Rattlesnakes then broke into the cabins of the Eagles and turned over their beds and stole property. Soon fistfights broke out, and the experimenters had to physically separate the boys. When they asked each boy to rate the talent and intelligence of the two groups, each youth said that his group was smarter, stronger, nicer,—basically better on every scale,—than the other group. All that was needed to create prejudice and conflict was a group identity and a situation where there would be winners or losers. Remember, they weren’t just boys; they were Eagles or Rattlesnakes.
I saw the same dynamic happen in my previous congregation in Mahwah, New Jersey, right on the southern border of New York. Two-thirds of the members live in New Jersey, and the other third lives in New York State. At a Sukkot potluck, one of the members complained to me that the food from the High Holy Days food drive went to the local New Jersey food bank that was just around the corner. I explained that it was so close, and we have a close relationship with the organization. She wanted nothing of it. “I am a New Yorker and I want to help New Yorkers.” The fact that we might be helping the same number of hungry people wasn’t enough for her; she wanted it to be hungry people from her tribe.
Our study of why people conflict with one another has continued unabated since the 1950s and is more relevant today than ever, given the fraying threads that are holding our society together. I personally find these ideas to be difficult and distasteful because they describe me more accurately that I would ever like to admit.
One of the key findings is that we all have groups that we identify with. To discover some of your groups, just complete the sentence “I am a. . . .” I am a man. I am a Jew. I am a Californian. I am white. Some of these groups we identify with more strongly than others. I am a Libertarian or Republican or Democrat. Some identities may be less central to us. You can think of your strongest identities as the tribe you belong to. The fact that we all have identities or tribes may not be surprising. What is more surprising is how hard we work to maintain those identities. I thought I basically held beliefs because my beliefs are based on the best reasons. I would assume you would feel the same about your beliefs. You hold your beliefs because your gut tells you what is right, or your mind evaluates the evidence and comes to the best conclusion. Maybe that’s true for you on some issues. However, after doing countless experiments, psychologists now tell us that we generally hold our beliefs so that we can feel part of our groups. Sometimes good arguments and new information changes our beliefs, but more often than not, our beliefs are shaped by our identity. It’s interesting that if you know someone voted for Barack Obama, you also know that they are prochoice and supportive of gun control. If you know someone is a Republican, you also know they are against most regulation and for increased military spending. I bet we can all think of some people who don’t follows these rules, but I also think you would agree that they are the outliers.
To some extent, it can strengthen a group’s identity if its members shape their beliefs to fit with their group identity, but it has a dark side, as well. We have long struggled with competing political beliefs–that is the marketplace of ideas–but our current political rancor has not been this severe since our Union nearly split in two in the 1860s.
Again, this problem is not new. The Rabbis faced a similar problem nineteen hundred years ago. While we may be trying to work out our political differences, the Rabbis were trying to understand what God was asking of us by creating rules and standards of conduct. The stakes couldn’t be higher. The rabbis began their work in earnest just after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. If they failed to rebuild Judaism without a Temple and sacrificial system, all would be lost. As they worked, the Rabbis tried to understand why they were unable to deal effectively with the Roman threat. Many argued that the reason was because of two simple words: sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Rather than working through its problems, Judean society broke apart at the seams under Roman pressure. And so the Rabbis wondered: Is there a way that Jewish society or any society can work through its problems constructively rather than falling prey to sinat chinam?
As they rebuilt Jewish life, the Rabbis realized that differing ideas existed and there needed to be some way of working through those ideas to find a path forward. There were no prophets to whom we could turn, no priests who could divine answers. It was just them—the Rabbis—and all they had to use were words. They needed to build ideas like an artist constructs a mobile, each item connected to the next. But how to decide which ideas were correct? Which ideas were worthy? The Rabbis realized they would have to pore over the texts and argue with one another. But what if arguing leads again to the vicious rancor of sinat chinam?
Over a lot of discussion, the rabbis began to distinguish between two types of arguments. First is the argument that focuses on furthering one’s own power or ego to the exclusion of other concerns. We all have seen those arguments on cable news or proffered by internet trolls. The second type argument is different. The Rabbis called it a machloket, an argument, leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Rather than simply seeking to win at all costs regardless of the damage that is caused, those who engaged in a machloket leshem shamayim simply seek the truth, wherever that truth may be found. A machloket leshem shamayim is not about winning, it is about discovering.
According to the Rabbis, people who engaging in a machloket leshem shamayim must first be willing to sit down with and explore together. They need to thoughtfully consider the opinions of others and be willing to modify their opinions, if needed. Finally, they need to maintain and foster affection for one another.
As bad as we may think our society is, if we actively look, we can find examples of people arguing leshem shamayim. As much as the Internet was supposed to bring us all together, what it often does is release the mean ten-year-old bully who lives inside of us. And yet, even on the internet, we can find leshem shamayim discussions. One that I have been following can be found on a vast online discussion forum called Reddit. On these discussion forums, someone posts a comment and everyone else adds their comments, and so on. What could go wrong?
One of the groups on Reddit is called Change My View. In this group, people state an idea that they want to explore and then ask people to help them change their view. They might say, “Life begins at conception. Change my view.” One of the most important rules of the group is that one should not post a statement unless one is actually open to having one’s mind changed. It’s not a forum for debating, where one person makes an argument and another person tries to undercut their opponent in any way possible. This is a group about discovering. Other people then posts reasons why the original poster might want to change his or her mind. If this group was on Facebook, people who liked an idea would give it a thumbs-up to show agreement. But what often happens—on Facebook, at least—is that rather than offering thoughtful arguments, people receive more thumbs-ups by insulting the person who posted before them. Not on Change My View. Rather than people being influenced by the crowd, people are meant only to be influenced by the quality of the thinking.
However, groups like Change My View and many others will only have a limited benefit if we are defending our identities rather than considering reasons. That’s why I believe we need greater identity, a higher identity—greater than being a Republican or a Democrat or an American or even a Reform Jew. What I would want our higher identity to be is that of a leshem shamayim Jew: someone who is committed, first and foremost, to respectfully seeking truth, especially with people holding different beliefs.
On Rosh Hashanah, I talked about our desire to create small groups who meet together to connect, to socialize, and, sometimes, to learn and explore. Sometimes the groups may get together just for the pleasure of members’ company, and sometimes they would get together to address some of challenges we see in the world. I have been meeting with groups of congregants to learn about your aspirations for your lives, and about your concerns for your lives as well. One of the topics that is repeated again and again is the caustic political environment we now find ourselves in. I could not agree more. This is something that weighs heavily on my heart, as well. As a congregation, one of the ways that we bring value to our community and our lives is to repair a sense of community, especially among people whose beliefs lay on different sides of the political spectrum. As part of our Small Groups Initiative, we want to create a pilot group so we can learn what will lead to a meaningful community. So, I propose that we initiate one small pilot group now and call it a leshem shamayim group, a group for the sake of heaven. A leshem shamayim group is for people who are excited about exploring ideas openly, thoroughly, and lovingly, where truth is our highest goal. A leshem shamayim group is not for everyone. It’s not for debaters or warriors for any side. It’s for the humble, the curious, and the open hearted. There will be rules requiring respect and prohibiting rancorous debate, and, as the Rabbis suggested, we will spend time just connecting with one another.
I realize that for some people, this group sounds like torture. I respect that. This is only one small example of the kinds of groups we will create in the future. But I also know that there are people whose souls are crying out for a place to be civil and rigorous, to ask hard questions and be open to actually exploring the answers. There are people who do not want to act like animals, like rattlesnakes or eagles.
After the fist fights in Robbers Cave, the psychologists entered a new phase of the experiment. A staff member entered the dining hall and said that a truck carrying supplies got stuck down the road. If they didn’t get that truck unstuck, there would be no food to eat. Every boy went down to the truck, tied ropes around the fender, and pulled with every ounce he could muster. In time, the truck began to move, and so did their impressions of one another. Afterward, the water tank “suddenly” stopped working, and the boys had to join together to fix it. Then they worked out how they could pool their money to rent a film they all wanted to watch. In short, they moved from being the Eagles and the Rattlesnakes to being campers at Robbers Cave.
We can heal the rifts of this country, but it will not happen by itself. It will only happen when congregations and communities lift themselves up above the snares that hold us down. I want to tell you about one of my beliefs that changed as I have been thinking about this initiative. Unlike certain elements of Christianity, Judaism does not have a single, coherent explanation of what happens in the afterlife. But one of the ideas that I always thought was especially strange was the idea that when we die, we ascend through layers of heaven where we would encounter the most prominent of Jewish leaders, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and several others. Each one would have their own yeshiva, a school where people would study around a table, uncovering God’s truth. I thought that idea was a little silly, but then I started thinking about leshem shamayim groups and the possibility of actually having open, honest, respectful, and productive conversations about the most important questions of our time, and I thought, That would be heavenly. I hope you will consider creating heaven on earth, together, so our words can become heralds of truth.
I have now lived in states across the country, from California, New Jersey, and Michigan to Ohio, Iowa, and Texas, and now back here. How many of you have lived outside of California? One of the things that separates these places is the disasters that can befall them. Midwestern and eastern cities are prone to blizzards and floods. The East Coast is also prone to hurricanes. In Dallas, you can’t tie your horse to a hitching post without a tornado or two whipping by. And we know what we here in California are prone to: The Big One can hit at any moment, an 8.0 earthquake or a fire that can barrel through a community like a freight train.
Something differentiates some disasters from others. With modern science, we usually have a few days’ warning before a blizzard or hurricane hits. We may have a few hours’ warning before floods and fires; if we’re lucky, we learn about an earthquake a few seconds before it hits. However long we have, when disasters strike, something changes inside of most of us. Sure, there are people who triple the price of an umbrella in a rainstorm, but for many, disaster transforms them from self-focused to selfless.
It’s winter in New Jersey, and we’ve just gotten socked with two feet of snow in a few hours. In my apartment complex, we don’t have garages or even covered parking, so at 10:00 p.m., when the storm dies down, all of the residents break out our shovels and start digging out. The problem is where do we put the snow? First, we dig a path from the doorway to the car, throwing each shovelful of the two feet of snow onto the already snow-covered lawns. Then we dig around the car and we throw some of the snow on our growing piles of snow on the lawns and some haphazardly in the street. Next, we remove the snow from on top of the car, and we end up filling in the path around the car that we just dug. This isn’t a great plan. As I’m shoveling, several neighbors start shoveling their cars, too. The neighbor immediately to my left tells me that in the apartment complex, we are supposed to throw all the snow into the street in front of our cars, so a plow can push it into an unused corner of the parking lot. I smile and thank him, but I don’t really know him until we catch our breaths and start talking. Nathan and his wife, Kaiko, married a few years ago and recently moved to Mahwah. I learn about his job working as a chemist for PepsiCo—sorry no Coke in their house—and I learn about Kaiko’s hour and a half commute to Manhattan each day. We don our gloves again and finish our cars. By all rights, we can return to our apartments, having completed our work, but instead we share a glance and look at the pile of snow on Stephanie’s car. She is a school psychologist who lives alone and has a cotton ball of a dog. As the moisture from our breath condenses on the scarves tied around our necks, we look at the pile on Fred’s car as well. Nathan thinks that someone in Fred’s family may have died few months ago, but I’m not aware. Nonetheless, we begin cleaning off this fourth car as well. A surprised and grateful Fred joins us a few minutes later. It’s 11:15 p.m., and our arms and backs are tired, when Fred and I take our first opportunity in a year and a half to really talk to one another. I discover that not only is Fred Jewish, he actually attended services at my congregation months before, shortly after his wife died. I remember seeing someone I recognized, but out of context, I didn’t make the connection that he was my neighbor. And he left before I could greet him at the oneg. As we speak, I feel an empty pit in my stomach, like there was something that I should have done for him. I wish I had known that my own neighbor had lost someone precious to him. Being so close to him and yet so removed from his life haunts me. The next time I see him, we talk about his work, his life, and his loss. Our apartments didn’t move, but somehow, he and I moved from people living near each other to people who are a little closer to one another.
While two feet of snow is hardly a disaster—more of a common inconvenience—too often, it seems to require the sharing of a serious challenge before we connect with the people around us. My friends in Mahwah tell me it happened to them on 9/11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It happened in Dallas after Hurricane Katrina, when the city opened its doors to weather refugees. In the aftermath of the Hurricane Harvey and the flooding in Houston, the Reform Movement’s Greene Family Camp, a three hours’ drive from Houston, opened itself up, first as a shelter and later as a day-care facility for families devastated by the flood.
In our own congregation, when Israel was dealing with a rash of suicide bombings and was in desperate need of additional ambulances, we asked you to buy an ambulance to send to Israel. Adat Elohim, you doubled that and purchased two. It’s remarkable how shared disasters can bring out the best in us. But why does that have to be? Must we wait for disasters to come together?
Over the past two months, I have been meeting with groups of congregants in different parts of town and at different stages in their lives. What became clear is that we all have different challenges to face. Some of us are wondering how to care for our aging parents. Some of us are aging and wondering how to do so gracefully and with dignity while maintaining as much control over our lives as possible. I learned about a crushing loneliness that can occur when we lose the ability to walk and drive. Many people with children wonder how to raise them with a sense of confidence and a good character so they can grow into decent adults. Many of us wonder how we can improve our own character, so we can live a life of integrity, aiming at our highest understanding of truth. We have lawyers and doctors and teachers and entrepreneurs who wonder how to connect their work to something greater and sacred while maintaining a life-balance. We all have a still, small voice that whispers worries in our ears when we are alone and quiet. Take a moment, right now, to think about what concerns you enough to explore paths of improvement.
But our lives are not only filled with worries. We also have dreams and aspirations—for ourselves, for our families, and for the world. For some of us, we want to continue exploring our relationship with God and Jewish tradition. I hope that would be a widespread desire. Some want to enjoy the beauty of nature through camping or bike riding. Other want to actively protect nature or explore aspects of Jewish or secular culture. And most people want to connect with people who care about one another.
Isn’t that part of what we mean when we talk about community: people who feel connected with other people who care? In fact, if you look at the three key actions that describe what we do as a congregation, they are learn, grow, and connect. Creating caring relationships with one another is part of who we aspire to be.
There is a powerful secret about building community this congregation knows, but many congregations still haven’t learned: Connections and community are built in small groups, not in large sanctuaries or social halls. Think about the places where you’ve made friends. Almost always, it happens in small groups that meet together over an extended period of time. Six times, eight times, ten, twelve, or more. Small groups are the foundation of strong communities. It’s nice when the people share the same interests and aspirations. In our congregation, we have groups that gather together for study, like our adult b’nai mitzvah program and our mussar groups, which study texts to explore how to live a truly virtuous life. These groups share a common interest. But even the groups that gather to select new rabbis and often comprise members of all ages and pockets of the congregation—at the end of a year or more of work, they usually come out with a new rabbi and an abundance of friendships.
It is often within small groups that we can aspire together. Parents can join to explore how to raise children of character without the parents pulling their own hair out. People who love the arts may gather to see a movie and discuss it together. God forbid they might hear a sermon and want to discuss that as well. Some groups may want to study and expand their understanding of Judaism or the world in general.
But small groups can also be places to explore challenges together. I spoke with several active, vibrant widows who also feel lonely and vulnerable. They wonder: Whom do we call if we feel sick at night or to check in with when they return home to a dark house. They are creating an informal small group to be there for one another. Another group of women, whose focus had primarily been creating a warm, supportive home to raise their children, are wondering what they should do with their lives now that their children are moving out of the nest.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a group of other people who are navigating the same waters? They can combat the sense of loneliness that men and women can feel no matter what their age. Let’s not fool ourselves, though. Even if we are working at our jobs, or are sharing pictures of our lunch on social media, or are married with a family, we may still feel lonely. Small groups are a way to raise ourselves up with the support of a small community.
We want to build our community by building small groups where our members can gather and connect, build trust and affection, and do something important together. When we build relationships through small groups, it becomes easier to care for one another, to reach out if someone is ill, to celebrate with and for one another. I hope some groups will study, discussing some of the important issues of our tradition and of today. Strengthening small groups within this congregation will strengthen not only this entire congregation but every individual and family who chooses to participate.
The groups would be flexible. They would meet at the place that works for you and a time that works for you. They would be run by you, but behind you, we would create people to support the group leaders. We would develop pathways so people can find a group that is right for them. We would help train leaders so that the groups would be friendly and well run. And we would create materials that groups might use if they want to gather but are not sure what they want to do together.
An individual small group is not meant to meet forever. Maybe six or twelve weeks, six months . . . you decide. At the end, people would have a graceful way to exit the group; if some people want to continue on, that would be wonderful too. I imagine that some small groups will naturally transform into havurot, small groups of friends who act like an extended family for years and even decades.
We already make friendships in our lives: work, our child’s school or sports team. What will make these groups different? As all the research about human creativity and resilience is showing us, groups are stronger and more successful when different ideas and perspectives mix together to create something new and valuable. We all live and feel comfortable with our modern, American ethos of rugged individualism. Part of our resilience as a people is our ability to mix the culture of our country with the challenging ideas of our tradition. And it is here at TAE that all the threads of your life can come together. We are here when families are created and when families expand. We are here when families falter or our health falters. And we are here when life draws to a close and we need someone to sit with us in loving, silent support.
Perhaps most important, we are also a community that is not afraid to ask the biggest questions in life—about the very nature of existence, about how to develop a relationship with God. Your beliefs are not a litmus test. Believers and nonbelievers are embraced; people who currently have a prayer life are cherished, and people without a prayer life are invited to explore, if they so wish. Our mission is to help you strengthen your relationships with yourself, your family, your community, and our tradition, as well as to a sense of ultimate purpose that many of us find through philosophy, theology, and God.
When I’ve spoken to a number of gatherings, people are often very excited about this idea, and some want to know where the signup list is. I want to make sure that we have shared expectations. As I mentioned, there are already some groups that have developed on their own over the years. But for us to create the leadership groups and coaches and even some content for people who want to gather but don’t know what to explore, we will be doing this over the next year. We will be creating a few pilot groups along the way so we can experiment with what makes the best experience possible.
If you are interested, you can do something right now that would be helpful to us. Send a note to SmallGroups@AdatElohim.com. You can just say, “Please keep me informed.” Or “I’d like to explore prayer and meditation.” Or “I’d like to explore no-sweat parenting.” Or you can just tell us your gifts. So many of us have gifts that we don’t even recognize as such. If you are interested in learning about being trained to lead a group, let us know. Your interest is your gift. If you like to schmooze, that, too, is a gift. If you like to write computer code, that is a gift. If you like to make phone calls, do research, take pictures, knit, talk about movies, complain about local government—all of these are gifts. Knowing your gifts is exceedingly important. All we ask in return is your patience as we begin to build this from the very bottom up.
Let’s not wait for a disaster. Let’s not wait for snows to fall or bombs to blast or the earth to shake or fires to blaze. Let the cold of winter draw us together to warm each other, and may the only blast we feel be the blast of the shofar calling us toward one another.
My bad memory
It’s good to be back at TAE and good to be here with you tonight. More than any other congregation I have served, I have the warmest memories of my time at Adat Elohim, which is why I’m so happy to be back. Of course, the reason that I enjoyed it here so much is because of you. The people I met, the friendships that developed and relationships that formed, were, and are, precious to me. It’s nice to like the people with whom you work and live. And while my affection for you is palpable, it actually causes a little embarrassment as well, because of my poor ability to recall names and facts. It’s usually a problem that can be solved by taking notes and having a good filing system. But it’s a problem when I walk up to a person I know and genuinely like and begin searching for their name like someone fumbling in the dark for their glasses on the nightstand. I may summon with all my strength to say their name, especially if it’s to introduce them to others, but too often their name remains just out of reach. The fact that it’s embarrassing to me is the first problem, but the second, and more serious problem is the way it may make you feel. I know that one of the ways we measure our importance to someone else is whether they know and use our name. Dale Carnegie, in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, said that “Respect and acceptance stem from simple acts such as remembering a person’s name and using it whenever appropriate.” He’s right, and it bothers me to no end if my lack of ability to recall names makes anyone feel less important in my eyes. So, if I break out my camera to snap your picture, it is not to post it to Facebook or Instagram, it is so I can continue to stitch your image more closely to your name in my own mind.
Now, if some of you are thinking to yourself, “Didn’t he give a similar speech when he arrived here five years ago?” The answer is, I don’t recall. But it wouldn’t surprise me. It does make me wonder if the world would be better if we all had perfect memories. If we could recall each detail of our lives with perfect fidelity. We would never lose our keys. When arguing with members of our family about who said what, there would be no question, simply look in our personal Book of Memory that we carry in our minds and get on with life.
It’s especially important to talk about memory today because one of the names of Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance. Today, we imagine God recalling all of our deeds, good and bad, by which we will be judged – every finger we wagged, every piece of dirt we dished, every trust we broke or virtue we failed to uphold – we imagine that they are all recorded into God’s book of remembrance, only to be reviewed for judgement beginning today.
Benefits a perfect memory
Judaism has been concerned with memory for thousands of years. In the Torah God often says, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. In other words, don’t forget who is your most powerful friend. And if you remember, God says in the Psalms, “I will cause you to be remembered in every generation, so the people will praise you forever .” So, part of memory is about maintaining our reputations. We want to know who is trustworthy, and we want others to remember that we are trustworthy. I think that is why we care so much about people in authority remembering our names, because then we can develop a good reputation. Isn’t that why so many people share so much of their lives on social media. We are trying to create an image of ourselves in the minds of others. Wouldn’t it be better if we went back to the ethos of the 1960s and just let it all hang out, share everything we have to share and allow people to get used to seeing each other’s foibles along the way? In essence, that is what we do with God. The Book of Psalms says, “From heaven Adonai looks down and sees all of humanity. That is exactly what researcher Gordon Bell tried to do when he worked at Microsoft. For almost 20 years, he wore a camera around his neck all the time. It took a picture every 30 seconds and recorded every interaction, every presentation, every email or instant message. It was a God’s-eye view of his own life. He discovered that he had amassed mountains of information that burdened him more than enlightened him. Like many people who have left Facebook over the past few years, he stopped life-logging, as it is called when he said, “it wasn’t something that was bringing a lot of value to my life.” But he still holds out hope, if we only had someone to sort through, categorize, and help us make sense of every moment in our lives, we could have, he believes what amounts to a perfect autobiographical memory.
Challenges of a Perfect Memory
But some people already do, or they come really close, and they admit that it is not always a blessing. So far scientists have only studied and reported on a dozen or so people with a condition called hyperthymesia, from the Greek meaning “excessive memory.” The first person in the world diagnosed with hyperthymesia lives down the freeway in Orange County. Jill Price works as an administrator in a Jewish religious school and she has one of the most remarkable memories in the world. Ask her what she did on a particular day in the past and she can tell you. Scientists have checked her memories against a detailed diary that she has kept for decades. In one news interview, Dianne Sawyer peppered her with a series of facts: when was the first episode of the show Dallas or the last episode of the show MASH. Sawyer used a huge book of random facts and asked when Princess Grace died. Price immediately answers, “September 14, 1982-That was the day I started 12th grade.” Sawyer looks sheepish, like a disappointed Alex Trebek, “she died on September 10, 1982.” Price shakes her head, “no, that’s not right.” A few seconds later one of the producers cut in and say that it was on September 14, not the 10th, the book is wrong.
Despite being the best partner ever for trivial pursuit, Jill Price suffers with this remarkable memory. It’s like a “running movie that never stops”. Even when she wants to, Jill can’t forget. For her, every perceived slight, every awkward moment, every devastating failure is in her present. Rather than a god-like memory as being a blessing, it is a constant burden.
Our Imperfect Memory
Luckily for us, hyperthymesia is exceedingly rare. Almost no one’s mind works that way. We don’t remember every day of our life with near perfect fidelity. We have a different challenge with our memories that is as difficult to accept as believing that Price’s memory is so extraordinary. While we imagine that we have a little video in our minds that record what happened in our past and that we can replay it at will, we now know that there is a very good chance that our own memories may be wrong. This is the most difficult and possibly the most religiously significant idea that I can share. When we are called upon, to live lives of humility and reserve, we should incorporate this psychological insight into our lives. Think about some event that happened to you in your past, perhaps it was an important event that you attended or an accident that you witnessed. Rather than having a accurate recording of each event that we replay on demand, as Jill Price or Gordon Bell might, we reconstruct our memories. When I think back on my wedding, it was obviously an important day and I wanted to look my best, so I would want to wear my favorite green tie that my wife, Sandy, says goes with my hazel eyes. That’s what I remember wearing – or at least it was until I looked at the pictures. That wasn’t what I was wearing at all. That tie is my important tie, it’s my lucky tie. Marrying Sandy was the luckiest thing I could have done, so my memory inserted that tie. I constructed that memory. That’s how most of our memory works. But that means it is easy to make innocent, well-meaning memory mistakes. In fact, it is easy to create new memories out of whole cloth.
Let’s recreate a famous study where people were asked to imagine a nurse. Let’s think about his face, his height, how his wear their hair. Imagine that the nurse performs some minor procedure on you, perhaps cleans a wound or removes and IV. If we have created a sufficiently detailed picture of this nurse and this interaction, after a month, twenty-five percent of us will recall and believe that the event actually happened. Not only will we remember how we felt, we will add details, like what the nurse said or how another member of our family winced during the procedure.
I remember when my son, the same one who put his foot through the bathroom door, was driving in the passenger seat with a friend. They were adults, probably eighteen or so, and a car ran a red light and t-boned them just in front of the passenger side door. I remember rushing to the hospital and arriving at the emergency room and seeing him lying on the examination table. As I arrived, the nurse told me that he was alright, they are just running some tests just to be cautious. And remember that even though he is 6’1” and burly, when I first saw him he started to cry. I held his hand and said it’s going to be OK. The only problem is, I’m pretty sure that he was in the passenger seat, but I’m not positive. I think the oncoming car hit them in the front passenger quarter panel, because that would explain why he didn’t have serious injuries. And I think it was the nurse who told me he was going to be OK, but maybe it was the doctor or Sandy or my daughter. Or maybe it was no one and I just inserted that person into my memory by accident. I know he got into an accident and was taken to the hospital. I know he was not seriously injured and I’m pretty sure he was still in the emergency room when I arrived, but beyond that, I’m just not sure. But, every time I recall the event in my head and picture those details, even though they may be wrong, I feel more convinced that that is exactly what happened.
Knowing that our memories are so unreliable fills me with an unsettled and profound sense of humility. After all, there are often pivotal moments when our relationship with other people change because of an event that we remember. I have to be open to the possibility that I am remembering those moments incorrectly, that I may be nursing resentments for the wrong reasons. I am not calling anyone’s specific memories into question, I am just recognizing the potential unreliability of those memories. There’s no way around it. We can continue to blindly believe everything we remember, but from everything that we are learning of God’s universe, we should have confidence that some of what we know we know, we don’t know. So, what do we do when we know our memories are imperfect?
Over the past few months, we have all had a lot of losses. In our congregation, one of things that I have heard several times was the difficulty of going through the home of one of our loved ones who had died and left us with a lifetime of things: clothes, furniture, awards, letters, collections, and more. It often falls upon us as their next of kin to go through these objects and select what the keep and what to discard. I remember a school art project that I did in first or second grade where I built a wooden truck with a back gate that opens. I painted it green and wrote as clearly as I could, Barry’s Pick-up. But the P and the I of Pick-up was too close together so I always thought of it as Barry’s Rck-up. It was a forgettable art project, except my mother didn’t forget it, she kept it and cared for it for forty years until she died and then the Rck-up was returned to me. What should I do with that memory? It’s not just a memory of a second grade project, it is a memory of my mother loving me enough to keep this second grade project. Then there was the clay pinch-bowl glazed in bright yellow or the clay walrus with the broken tusks or a box filled with other objects. What do we do with all our memories?
Dr. James McGaugh, one of the neurobiologists who examined Jill Price, said that Jill may have a near perfect autobiographical memory, a blessing by most standards, but she also lacked the blessing that many of us possess the ability to selectively forget.
When someone gives a huge collection of art or artifacts to a museum, the museum curates the collection. With a compassionate but skeptical eye, they try to separate artifacts that are real from those that are fake. They then try to retain the objects that are particularly unique or valuable but only those that help the museum to tell a story. That’s what curators do; that what we have to do with the objects bequeathed to us by our family members when they leave us a house filled with memories. That’s also what we must do to the storehouse of memories that we collect as we go through our lives. Compassionate skepticism, finding valuable memories that help us tell our story faithfully.
Teshuvah – Knowing what to forget
That’s what this time of year calls upon us to do as well. First, we are called upon to reflect on our memories. Are we confident about the accuracy of our memories, especially about people whom we feel have harmed us? Sometimes we are confident enough. Even with a measure of humility about our memories, we know full well that we have been hurt by others. Then what? Should that memory be permanent? Should we leave the wine stain that our loved one spilled on our carpet as a permanent record of their mistake? The answer is a clear – maybe. Sometimes people deserve the reputation they have earned, and those memories of being hurt are an eternal beacon of warning. But what if those memories have outlived their usefulness? Then how do we respond?
A powerful answer can be found in the name of one of Joseph’s sons. If you remember, Joseph was hated by his brothers and sold into slavery after narrowly escaping execution at their hands. Decades later, he rose to power and only encountered his brothers again when they came begging for food. After toying with them, he finally revealed himself as their brother, and they wept. What is most telling is what Joseph named his two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. On Friday evenings, as a part of Shabbat dinner, there is a tradition for the parents to bless their sons and daughters. The blessing for the sons is, “May you be like you be like Ephraim and Manasseh.” But why did Joseph use those two names? Ephraim may come from the word “fruitful,” because Joseph produce so much for Egypt. Naming his child Ephraim celebrates the blessing of fruitfulness. But the name Manasseh, comes from the word, “forget.” How is forgetting a blessing? Because Joseph was able to forget the pain and hurt his brothers caused him which made room for reconciliation. Forgetting didn’t simply happen on its own. He only allowed himself to forget when his brothers demonstrated true remorse and a change of character. Only when they demonstrated their teshuvah, their repentance, did Joseph forget.
I will do my best to remember your names, and I ask you to remember my limitations. And not just my limitations of memory, but all of our limitations of memory. Let’s remember that each of our memories may not be as true as they feel. So, let’s curate our memories carefully, with a discriminating eye and a humble heart.
If you want to see Barry’s Rck up, all I can share is the love that my mother had for me, but the truck is gone. Let’s all remember to forget wisely.