The Five Languages of Apology- Yom Kippur 2020

        A member of our community recently shared with me his frustration that he had apologized to someone, “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” and he sensed that the person was still withholding forgiveness and reconciliation.  In that moment, I reflected on The Five Languages of Apology as defined by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas.  Their theory, which actually parallels Maimonides’ guidance in Hilchot Teshuva, is that there are 5 primary ways to apologize, and that we are each attuned to, we each resonate with, one or two of these more than others.  So my response to this individual was that they were just not speaking in a language that their friend could understand.  “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” may make your heart sing, but if your friend is longing to hear, “I was wrong, what can I do to make it better?”, then you are just not speaking the same language and your apology will not be heard as heartfelt and meaningful.

        It is so hard to apologize.    Apologizing does not come easily or naturally.  It is equally hard to forgive, to let go of our desire for justice and validation of our hurt.  Sue Monk Kidd, in her wonderful book, The Secret Life of Bees, writes that, “If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.”

        For many people, I would submit, this is the greatest spiritual challenge of their lives.  Rabbi Harold Kushner wisely notes that the four holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong.”

It is part of the deep wisdom of our tradition to set aside this season for us to examine not only our relationship with God and the ways in which we need to do better, but also our relationships with each other, to take responsibility for the pain we have caused and to seek and offer forgiveness. 

        More than 800 years ago, Moses Maimonides compiled Hilchot Teshuva, The Laws of Repentance, in which he detailed the 5 major components of a successful apology.  First is hakarat ha-chet- recognizing that we have done wrong.  We cannot begin this process of return, to restoration of our relationship with others or with God, or with ourselves, for that matter, until we become aware of our errors. Denial is a strong temptation, so this first step is critical. This is followed by ha-ra-ta- a sense of regret.  It is so easy and so tempting to rationalize our behavior.  We excel at making up excuses.  That still small voice of conscience within must be heeded, that nagging sense of guilt which is the moral equivalent of physical pain, alerting us to the fact that something is very wrong, must be treasured as a divine gift.

        The third step is viddui- a process which is an important part of our ritual for this holy season.  We acknowledge out loud the nature of our misdeeds and our regret at having performed them.  This is followed by the resolve not to repeat our errors in the future.  We know that our repentance is truly completed when we reach the final stage- when we have an opportunity to repeat the same action and we restrain ourselves from doing so. 

        In 2006, Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas published a book entitled, The Five Languages of Apology.  When I read it, I was struck by how their findings paralleled the wisdom of Maimonides.  I am a big fan of Dr. Chapman’s earlier work, The Five Love Languages, in which he outlined the intriguing thesis that each of us experiences a feeling of being loved in different ways, and that it behooves us to become familiar with our partner’s primary and secondary love languages.

        In this book, the authors apply the same theory to the language of apology.  They emphasize the fundamental significance of apologies in the restoration of relationships, for without a heartfelt apology in a language the offended person can understand, there is no mandate for forgiveness and we can all too quickly become estranged from those we care about most.

        Maimonides, we recall, included 5 steps- recognition, regret, confession, acceptance of responsibility, which included resolve not to repeat the action, and, finally, actually following through when presented with another opportunity to commit the same wrong.

        Chapman and Thomas identify expression of regret as the first apology language, into which they incorporate Maimonides’ emphasis on verbal acknowledgement.  This is followed by acceptance of responsibility.  They add a third concept- the offer of restitution- “What can I do to make it right?”  Maimonides and our contemporary authors each include genuine repentance, the resolution not to repeat the same misdeed, as the fourth stage.  Chapman and Thomas offer an important fifth “language of apology”- a specific request for forgiveness.  Each of these deserves a closer look.

        The first language of apology is expression of regret. For this language to be truly effective, the authors posit, it must include not only the words “I’m sorry”, but also the specifics of the offense.  I’m sorry is generic. If our friend is to be moved from offense to forgiveness, it is most helpful for us to specify what we did wrong and how we believe it negatively impacted them.  Once they understand that we know, that we really get the nature of their hurt, it is much easier for them to open their hearts, secure in the knowledge that they won’t be further wounded.  After all, once we have caused our loved one to suffer, it takes a real leap of faith for them to be willing to open themselves up again. 

Chapman and Thomas stress the need for our body language to match our words.  Think about children when we say, “Say you’re sorry.”  The forced “I’m sorry” is  accompanied by a scowling face and crossed arms, and is not a particularly effective form of apology.  They also remind us of the critical need to restrain ourselves from the temptation to add a “but” to our sincere expression of regret.  Because it is so hard to do, they even offer some sample language as to what this might sound like, “I know now that I hurt you very deeply.  That causes me immense pain.  I am truly sorry for what I did.”   “At the time, obviously I was not thinking very well.  I never intended to hurt you, but now I can see that my words were way out of line.  I’m sorry that I was so insensitive.”[1]  Vicky, a 26-year-old single woman, summarizes this apology language succinctly, “I want them to feel bad for making me feel bad.”[2]

The rabbis teach that we should train our tongue to say, “I was wrong.”  This is the essence of the second language of apology.  Too often, we consider it a sign of weakness to acknowledge the error of our ways.  One of the reasons that our confession on Yom Kippur is in the plural- “For the sin that WE committed. . . “is to lend each other support with this sometimes overwhelming challenge.  Somehow, knowing that we all have made mistakes, gives us the courage to own up to our wrongdoing out loud.  “All of us make mistakes,” write Chapman and Thomas.  “The only mistake that will destroy you is the one you are unwilling to admit.”[3]They provide some concrete language for our consideration- “I made a big mistake.  At the time, I didn’t think much about what I was doing.   But in retrospect, I guess that’s the problem.  I wish I had thought before I acted.  What I did was wrong.”[4]  It would be difficult to resist the sincere introspection reflected in these words.

Restitution is the third language of apology.  For people like me, it doesn’t matter how sorry you are or that you understand how you hurt me.  What I and others like me want to know is- what are you going to do about it?  A psychological study suggests that, “To offer restitution is to equalize the balance of justice.”[5]  Just to complicate things further, the appropriate restitution may depend on what that person’s love language is- we can talk about that in our discussion if you like.  Restitution sounds like this, “Is there anything I can do to make up for what I have done?”  “I know I have hurt you deeply and I feel like I should repay you for the hurt I’ve cause.  Can you give me a suggestion?”[6]

The authors’ point is that, while each of these aspects is an element of a comprehensive apology, as individuals we are finely attuned to one or two of these apology languages, such that, if we don’t hear the words we are listening for, we don’t feel that we have been effectively “apologized to” and it will be hard for us to move forward.  The most successful apology, then, will include all 5 of these elements- regret, acceptance of responsibility, an offer of restitution, genuine repentance and a specific request for forgiveness.

 What if we don’t know the other person’s apology language?  There I was at Fort Hood, trying to apologize to the woman whose white car I had sideswiped with my red rental car.    As I apologized to the owner of the car for the inconvenience I had caused her, I found myself consciously running through the languages of apology in my head, to ensure that I touched on whatever would be most meaningful to her.  When I said, “I hope that you can forgive me”, she lit up, visibly released the tension in her body, and replied, “There’s nothing to forgive- accidents happen”. Clearly I had discovered her primary apology language!

In Hebrew, the word for repentance is “teshuva”, from the root “lashuv”, to return.  Chapman and Thomas note that the English word repentance is also derived from this notion of “turning around”. “The person regrets the pain he or she is causing to the other person, and (he) chooses to change (their) behavior.”[7]  The resolve to change is an internal one, but it sure moves the apology/forgiveness process along when we verbally state this intention.  Recruiting our friends and loved ones as allies in our goal to change our behavior will have the additional benefit of helping them to be more patient when we fall short of achieving our stated goal.  Repentance is the fourth language of apology. 

Maimonides asks, “What is a complete act of teshuva?  A person who has the opportunity to transgress in the way they have previously, and they are able to do so, and they abstain and don’t do it as a consequence of their teshuva, of their repentance- not from fear of lack of strength.”[8]

Finally, the stage we too frequently omit, the fifth and final language of apology, simply asking for forgiveness.  We can say we’re sorry all day long and offer restitution on great orders of magnitude, but to those whose primary language of apology is requesting forgiveness, there is no substitute for hearing those words- “Will you forgive me?”  At the conclusion of the al cheyt prayer, we beg God, “V’al kulam- for all of these- eloha selichot- God of forgiveness, slakh lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu- forgive us, excuse us, erase our wrongdoing.”

In our personal relationships, Chapman and Thomas remind us that “when you request to be forgiven, you are making a huge request.  It will be costly to the person you have offended.  When they forgive you, they must give up their desire for justice.  They must relinquish their hurt and anger, their feeling of embarrassment or humiliation.  They must give up their feelings of rejection and betrayal.  Sometimes they must live with the consequences of your wrong behavior.”[9]  It’s no wonder, as Sue Monk Kidd wrote, that most people would rather just “order their coffin”.  Yet, the older we get the more we appreciate the ultimate value of loving and supportive friends and family. 

How much richer our lives will be if we can learn to speak the words that others are longing to hear.  May we all be blessed today and every day, with the emotional maturity and strength to acknowledge and accept responsibility for our wrongdoing, to be willing to do what it takes to right that wrong, to resolve to do better in the future, and, in the end, to ask for forgiveness.

Now let’s talk about YOUR apology language and how knowing this might be helpful as you seek forgiveness and perhaps reconciliation on this holiest of days.

REFLECTIONS

  1. In theory, what are your primary and secondary “languages of apology”?
  2. Does this finding accurately reflect your intuition and experience about yourself?
  3. Can you think of an incident in your life that affirms this truth?
  4. Can you think of a time in your life when this information might have changed the outcome of a situation?
  5. How might this concept be helpful in your relationships with friends and family?

[1] Chapman, Gary and Thomas, Jennifer, The Five Languages of Apology, Chicago:  Northfield Publishing, 2006, p. 35

[2] ibid., p. 33

[3] Ibid., p. 47

[4] ibid., p. 50

[5] Everett Worthington Jr., quoted in ibid., p. 54

[6] Ibid., p. 67

[7] Chapman and Thomas, op. cit., p. 69

[8] Maimonides, op. cit., 2:1

[9] Chapman and Thomas, op.cit., p. 100

This I Believe- Rosh HaShanah 2020

This I Believe- Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

        A few lyrics- “I believe the children are our future.”  So sings Whitney Houston, and I am inclined to agree.  “Do you believe in life after love?”  Cher posed that question and I believe that I do.  The Lovin’ Spoonful want to know, “Do you believe in magic?”  I guess it depends on how you define the term.  Of all places to find inspiration- Elvis Presley[1]

I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come
To show the way
I believe, I believe

I believe above a storm the smallest prayer
Can still be heard
I believe that someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word

Everytime I hear a new born baby cry,
Or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why, I believe

        What do we believe and why do we believe it?  What do I believe and why do I believe it?  Well- if I had an unlimited amount of time and an unlimited number of words, I’m sure I could come up with a LONG list of things that I believe.  I believe in family and community, I believe in kindness and forgiveness, I believe in truth, justice and the American way.  The list could go on and on and on.

        But what if I had only 350-500 words?  That’s the challenge that National Public Radio created when it launched the series, “This I Believe” in 1951.  “The core principles that guide your life.”[2]  The invitation went out and the series was born.  Participants were challenged to focus in on one- only one- belief.  Something that could be summarized in a sentence or two.  A challenge and an opportunity.  One writer compared it to “packing for a long trip using an overnight bag.”[3]

        I’d like to share with you some of the responses collected in a book published in 2006.  Then I’ll attempt to share my own “This I Believe.”  And then it will be your turn to at least discern the seed from which your core belief grows.

        The editors note some common themes- “the Golden Rule, living in the moment, the importance of love and giving. . . family, god, and country.”[4]  Many lessons were gleaned from times of challenge, from illness and death which have a way of focusing our attention on ultimate issues.  Jay Allsion, one of the editors, commented that his own “This I Believe” essay begins, “I believe in listening. . . “”[5]  That’s a darn good answer; I wish I had thought of that!

        I loved the very first answer in the collection- “I believe in being cool to the pizza dude.”[6]  I think that if we extract that principle and apply it to the current moment, we all have come to notice all the folks we have never appreciated who keep the wheels of our lives in motion. The pizza dude is symbolic of all the unsung heroes who have emerged to the fore during this terrible time of quarantine.  The grocery clerks.  The delivery folks.  Coolness to the pizza dude represents kindness and seeing the tzelem Elohim, the image of God, in every person we encounter.  “I believe,” one person observed back in the 1950’s, “in the patient gallantry of nurses, in the tedious sacrifices of teachers.”[7]

        A mother who lost her child speaks of “throwing overboard all excess baggage.”[8]  In the wake of that tragedy, she came to understand the insignificance of all of the things we spend a lifetime accumulating.  Her conclusion?  “You only have what you give.”[9]  How many of us have spent these past months cleaning closets and cabinets and letting go of “stuff.”  How blessed we are that it did not take a devastating personal loss to shift our focus from getting to giving.

        There are individuals who have, quite literally, died of loneliness during this quarantine.  According to one author, “I believe this is the worst thing in the world- that loneliness.”[10]  As God creates the world in the early chapters of Genesis, each act of creation concludes with the refrain, “And God saw that it was good.”  What is the first thing in the Torah about which God says, “It is not good?”  “It is NOT good for humans to be alone.”  (Genesis 2:18) Our interdependence may have been driven home in a negative way as we have watched the COVID-19 virus spread across the globe.  Yet, we can’t escape the way we can and must depend on each other.  Listen to these prophetic words, “In my own life, I’ve put great stock in personal responsibility.  But, as the years have passed, I’ve also come to believe that there are moments when one must rely upon the good faith and judgment of others.”[11]   Another writer put it this way, “I believe in my neighbors. I know their faults, and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults.”  [12]We are designed to be in community and I have become powerfully grateful for the technology that has allowed us to stay connected during this pandemic.

        Other takeaways:

  1.  “I have a simple faith in (God) and a hope that my attempts to live a decent life are pleasing to God.”[13]– Amen to that.
  2. “Being fully open to your grief may be the hardest work you will ever do.”[14]– That has certainly been my experience
  3. “I believe that the world is inherently a very dangerous place and that things that are now very good can go bad very quickly.”[15]– Wow, yes, and NOT written in 2020!
  4. “I believe in the simple healing power of presence.”[16]– This is my summary statement regarding the work of our incredible Elisa Lanes Caring Community.

So much wisdom- the belief in humility and in a little outrage, in empathy and poetry.  And this favorite-

  •  “I believe in the absolute and unlimited liberty of reading.”[17]
  • As well as this- “I believe in always going to the funeral.”[18]  It is never convenient to go to a funeral.  Always go the funeral is a metaphor for “always do the right thing,” even when it’s inconvenient.

So, then, what do I believe?  Well, I believe in holiness.  I believe that the possibility of holiness inheres in every moment, in every action, in every relationship- if only we open our eyes and our hearts.  I believe that God wants us to be holy- it says so right there in the Torah, “You shall be holy as I, God, am holy.”  (Leviticus 19:2)  When we say a blessing before we eat, we lift up a mundane act and make it holy.  When we are kind to someone who challenges us, we walk the path of holiness.  When we are moved by the beauty of nature, this is a moment of holiness.

I believe that many of the insights the teachers in this book direct us towards are fundamentally about creating holiness.  The gift of our listening presence, our patience and humility.  The gift of forgiveness of self and others.  The gift of community sharing the journey.  The gift of teaching and learning. 

I believe that Judaism is a spiritual path that leads us towards holiness.  When I pray with someone who is ill, I experience a sense of holiness.  When I offer guidance in a moment of anger or sadness or worry, there is a sacred nature to that interactions- it is holy.  When my heart swells with love towards a family member or a friend, I recognize that fleeting sense of completion and I call it holy.

I believe that we are surrounded by the possibility of holiness, that there is always potential for holiness if we are open to it.  On May 1st, Rabbi Chernow invited davveners to share their experiences of holiness on our Temple Chai Facebook page during services.  Here are a few of the responses:

Holiness is a smile that comes up from inside and gives energy to the world. It moves the wind and sets things on fire and hallows everything.  Holiness is swimming toward the light and missing and getting up the next day and striving for it again. Nancy Dallett

Holiness is the love of friends and neighbors waving, saying a kind word while walking their dogs, leaving cookies on our doorstep! Holiness is watching a little bird take a drink from our birdbath.  Alan Zeichick

Holiness is serenity and peace. I still feel the holiness around me when I stream Friday night services from my home. Cori Rosen

Holiness seems to me to be a state of being filled with goodness in both deeds and thought… comes sometimes from being with friends, family, or out in nature, helping others…. many ways. Sarah Paikowsky

Interesting that the Torah asks us to be Holy because it says that I, Hashem, is Holy. Holiness is the work of Tikkun Olam. Felix Salomon

Holiness is community. Teri Cohen

Holiness is loving humanity and community; treating each other with kindness and compassion. It also means protecting the universe that God created. Joyce Opria

Holiness happens when we take early morning walks under the beautiful blue sky and listen to the birds chirping. It’s as if all is perfect in the world. Ann Spector

Holiness is the commitment we are all making (large and small) for the greater good. Hilary Barnes

Holiness is the empathy we can feel for others and it’s the actions of helping others. It’s kindness. Holiness is also looking around and seeing the beauty of nature- feeling the wind, listening to the sounds of life, tasting a snowflake, smelling the rain, seeing a newborn. Joan Neer

During hard times one can see so much HOLINESS in so many different ways!! Ruth DuBois

Holiness is the empathy we show for each other. We value the love and caring we have for each other. Joel Zolondek

I’d like to conclude with the words of Elizabeth Deutsch, as they encapsulate, for me, the essence of what this holy day is all about.  She writes, “I’ve come to appreciate once again that communal reflection about life’s deepest matters is sustaining and uplifting and provides a consistent nudge in worthy directions.”[19]  May you feel sustained and uplifted, and may we all feel that nudge in a worthy direction, as we reflect communally. 

    Now, it’s your turn.  This I Believe. 


[1] Words & Music by Erwin Drake / Irvin Graham / Jimmy Shirl / Al Stillman

[2] Allison, Jay, and Gediman, Dan, editors, This I Believe, NY:  Picador, 2006, p. 1

[3] Ibid., p. 5

[4] Ibid., pp. 4-5

[5] Ibid., p. 6

[6] Ibid., p. 8- Sarah Adams

[7] Ibid., p. 120- Robert A. Heinlein

[8] Ibid., p. 14- Isabel Allende

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 16- Elvia Bautista

[11] Ibid., pp. 35-36- Warren Christopher

[12] Ibid., p. 119,- Robert A. Heinlein 

[13] Ibid., p. 54- Elizabeth Deutsch

[14] Ibid., p. 38- May Cook

[15] Ibid., p. 78- Newt Gingrich

[16] Ibid., p. 100- Debbie Hall

[17] Ibid., p. 159- Rick Moody

[18] Ibid., p. 235- Deirdre Sullivan

[19] Ibid., p. 56

September 11, 2020

September 11, 2020

         It’s Sept. 11th.  You just can’t ignore that date.  Or maybe you can?  It’s hard to believe it was 19 years ago, so there is a whole generation for whom Sept. 11th is the day after Sept. 10th and the day before Sept. 12th.  But not for me.  As with so many profound moments in our lives, I know exactly where I was when I heard the news.  I felt like the fourth child at the seder, the one who doesn’t even know how to ask the question.  Unlike that fortunate child, my ignorance stemmed not from innocence but from shock. 

         This week we read a double Torah portion- Nitzavim and Vayelech.  In parshat Nitzavim, the entire community comes together, and the Torah makes it clear that this means everyone- men, women, and children, from the mightiest to the most humble.  The word Nitzavim means, “standing.”  You are all standing here together.

         Vayelech means, “And he went forth.”  What a funny juxtaposition.  Are we standing still or are we moving forward?  When those airplanes hit the World Trade Center, when United Flight #93 went down, we were stuck in that moment.  We couldn’t move.  It was incomprehensible.

         Yet, time moves relentlessly forward, so, as individuals, as a community, as a country, we went forth.  We went forth, reminded of, armed with, the terrible knowledge, as Franz Kafka put is to hauntingly, that “the meaning of life is that it ends.”  So many lives were cut short on that terrible day.  We, who are blessed with the gift of life, what are we doing with that blessing?

         “In his book Lessons for Living, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg cites a study by psychologist William Marston who asked three hundred people this brief question: “What do you have to live for?”  He found that ninety-four percent of his respondents were simply enduring the present while they waited for the future.  They were waiting for:  “something to happen- waiting for the right man or the right woman; waiting for children to grow up; waiting to pay off the mortgage; waiting for a vacation; waiting for retirement; waiting to get involved in the community; waiting to learn some new skill or hobby.”  Ninety-four percent of us are waiting while each new day passes us by; one-hundred percent of us are running out of time.”[1]

         Rosh HaShanah is one week away.  What are we waiting for?  The High Holidays are finally and ultimately about our confrontation with our own mortality.  The words of the Makhzor, “Who shall live and who shall die?  Who in the fullness of years and who before?  Who by fire and who by wild beast?”, have never been more meaningful.  Our days are, indeed, like a “passing shadow”. 

         The story is told of a Talmud professor who asked the student hurrying by, “Where are you running to?”  “I’m rushing home to look over the High Holy Day prayerbook, the machzor, before I have to lead services in my congregations,” replied the student, catching his breath.  “The prayer book hasn’t changed since last year,” said the professor.  “But perhaps you have?  Go home and look yourself over.”[2]

         This is our task.  The meaning of life is that it ends.  We have one more week to consider- what is the meaning of our lives?  If our lives ended tomorrow, what would we regret most?  What changes would we wish we had made?  What are we waiting for?  Even within the confines of the pandemic, there are many opportunities to earn that greatest honorific in our tradition, “She was a mensch.”  Shanah Tovah- may you be blessed with a good year.  May you be blessed with the strength, wisdom, and courage to MAKE it a good year.


[1] Quoted in Leder, Steven, The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, NY:  Behrman House, 1999, pp. 94-95

[2] Ibid., p. 3

A Time For Introspection

         I want to invite you to take a breath.  A deep breath.  Let it out slowly and luxuriously.  Pause now, and, at your leisure, inhale once again.  The average person takes 23,000 breaths a day, virtually all of them completely unconscious.

         What is it like when we hold our breath?  It becomes very uncomfortable very quickly.  What would it be like to hold our breath involuntarily?  What would it be like to not be able to breath for 8 minutes and 46 seconds?  Imagination fails us; we cannot imagine the unimaginable. 

         And yet, that was the unimaginable horror that George Floyd experienced in his final moments of life.  Our instinct is to look away.  It’s too awful.  The sadness, the anger- overwhelming.  The urge is to wring our hands, to put our heads down, and weep. 

         That’s what we, as a society, have done again, and again, and again, with every death of an unarmed person of color.  This week, the tide shifted.  Violence is not, cannot, should not be the answer.  We would all prefer the path of non-violent protest.  Moral authority is lost when we cede the high ground and yield to a mob mentality.  We echo the words of Sheriff Paul Penzone, quoted by Rabbi Chernow in her mailing earlier in the week – “As the public demonstrations continue throughout Our Valley and the nation, it is imperative that we separate lawful thoughtful exhibitions of peaceful protest from the egregious acts of criminal behavior and violence. The event leading to the death of Mr. George Floyd was a criminal example of police abuse. It was not policing.” 

         Despite our vision of the United States of America as a place of refuge for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”  as a place of “freedom and justice for all,” we have not, yet, lived up to this highest vision of ourselves.  Racism endures within our culture.  If we are honest with ourselves, and we must be honest with ourselves, it endures in our Jewish community, this despite the fact that 1 in 7 Jews in contemporary America is a person of color.  And yet, Jews of color are all too often viewed as outsiders.  How many times have people assumed that YOU converted to Judaism?  Likely this is not your routine experience.  For Jews of color, it is the opposite experience.  Funny, you don’t look Jewish. 

         Not funny.  A black rabbinical student reports being asked, “Don’t you have to be Jewish to go to rabbinical school?”  Rabbi Marra Gad, author of The Color of Love:  A Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl, writes as follows[1], “ I am black…white…and Jewish. That is my wholeness. I am here to be seen for all that I am…and I will not allow anyone to deny any part of me.

Look at me. See my color. How beautiful and powerful I am. See that my strength and lifeforce comes from being black. Just as it comes from being Jewish.

The world has tried for far too long to keep black and brown people invisible. And a part of what is happening right now in the streets of America is the voice of the people demanding to be heard saying NO MORE. It is a demand to be seen. And my voice is with them.

If you cannot or will not see and honor me for all that I am, you do not see me at all. And if you do not choose to see all of me, you are not being my ally or my supporter.”

It might surprise you to know that racism in Jewish culture is not a new phenomenon.  In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotcha, even our esteemed leaders, Aaron and Miriam, cannot resist calling attention to Moses’ wife’s skin color.  Twice they speak out against his Cushite, that is, Ethiopian wife. 

         This is the first we hear of Moses’ wife being black.  It is unclear whether the reference is to Tzipporah, who is initially described as Midianite, or if Moses has taken a second wife.  We don’t know what their issue is with her.  Here’s the text as it appears in Numbers 12:1- “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had taken as a wife; a Cushite!”  The term is repeated for emphasis.  Cushi is still used in modern Hebrew to describe a person of color.  

         God intercedes immediately to remind us that Judaism is not and never has been about ethnicity.  Miriam is punished immediately; no explanation is offered as to why her brother Aaron is not rebuked.  And Moses, demonstrating why he is still considered our greatest prophet, responds with kindness, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness, calling out to God- “El na r’fah na la- God, please heal her.”

         God, please heal all of us  The midrash asks why does God initially create only one human being?   The answer- so that no one can say that their ancestors are greater.  We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  One God, one humanity. 

         So what are we to do?  You don’t need me to tell you to be open to hearing the experiences of our Black friends and neighbors, to recognize racial inequity, to write to our legislators, to take part in justice efforts.  We can be proud of our legacy as a Jewish community as leaders in the civil rights movement.  Throughout this week, every Jewish organization has issued statements condemning the death of George Floyd, expressing outrage,  and calling for justice.  You can easily find these calls to action and I hope that you will.  The Union for Reform Judaism Religious Action Center is a good place to start.

         Last week our Torah study group was reviewing the curses in Leviticus 26.  One of these leapt off the page at us, “You will quake with fear though none pursue.”  To which one of the students commented- that is the experience of our Black neighbors in contemporary America.  Living in a constant state of fear.  Even when there is no immediate threat, that haunting and overriding fear of what may happen next.  It has to end.  We have to be part of the solution.

         And yet, this is not a call to action in the world.  This is a call to cheshbon ha-nefesh, to spiritual accounting, to introspection.   On this Shabbat, let’s remove our metaphoric masks and, with brutal honesty, reflect on our own internalized racism.  Only from that foundation of truth can we begin to work for justice.

         At its founding, the motto of the United States was, “E pluribus unum- out of the many, one.”  On this Shabbat, our national motto is my personal prayer.  May God help us to fulfill that vision of “ONE nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”


[1] Facebook posting

BaMidbar and COVID-19: Forty Days? Forty Months? Forty Years?

         According to the Torah, we are just now, with this week’s parsha, entering Bamidbar/the wilderness.  According to us, it feels like 40 years of wandering aimlessly, hoping to reach the promised land with no idea how to get there, when we will arrive, and how we will survive along the way.  It’s one thing to experience a sense of transition.  It’s quite another, we are discovering, to live in a state of transition with no end in sight.  It has been an unnerving experience and if you are feeling overwhelmed and unsettled, depressed and tired of the whole thing- know that you are not alone.

         When you’re embarking on a long journey, by foot, you have to really think about what you are going to carry with you.  There is so much that we imagine we need, that we can’t live without.  And then, when it comes down to it, we discover that, actually, we need very little.  I think that is one of the takeaways of the last two months- we have learned that, much as we may be missing and yearning for our lives as we knew them, we have also come to understand that we actually can live much more simply than we might have thought before our world collapsed and we were confined within the small space of our own homes.

         One of the things we desperately need is the company of other people, knowing who is with us on our journey.  Thus, the parsha begins with a census.  When times are tough, we want to know who is with us, who can we count on?  Do we have friends we can count on, people who call just to ask how we are doing?  Who might share a roll of toilet paper?  Who will tell us that we are the best and also when we can do better?

Do we have family members who love us unconditionally with all our imperfections?  We have learned that we can count on medical professionals and teachers, who continue to do the heavy lifting under the most extreme circumstances.  We can count on supermarket staff and delivery drivers.   So many heretofore unrecognized heroes have emerged to the fore.  COVID-19 reinforces the lesson of BaMidbar- everyone is counted and everyone counts.  We have learned how much we rely on each other and how much trust we need to have if our community is to stay safe for all of us. 

Larry Hoffman notes that when King David took a census of the community, the text depicts it in a negative light, while here it is presented from a more neutral perspective.  Hoffman writes- “It must be tied up with the uniqueness of the midbar, the peculiarity of the desert.  David takes a count while preparing to do battle defending Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. . . In David’s case, then, counting the troops before battle reveals a failure of faith.  But battles are not the norm.  They are intrusions on the everyday, when you steel yourself for extraordinary efforts of courage and conviction.  The midbar, however, is different.  In the midbar, every day is potentially your last.  The battles of the midbar are day-by-day affairs.  They never end.  Every morning the sun comes up with brilliance enough to kill; every night, the sun goes down leaving you utterly exposed to wind and cold.  One minute the trenches.. . . that carry water are arid wastes, and the next minute . . . floods surge through with enough force to kill anyone in the way.  The midbar thus calls not so much for strength as for stamina, the stamina we need day by day, our troubles never go away.  The miracles of the midbar are the miracles of every day:  just getting up, getting through the day, going back to sleep, getting up again.  To survive the midbar, we are allowed to count, to “number” our assets, to know in advance where our inner strength lies and what within us is on the verge of shutting down, and, finally, to be reassured that we will make it, even if our personal midbar lasts the proverbial forty years.”

Larry Hoffman wrote these words well before any of us had heard of the coronavirus, yet his comments about the need for stamina resonate with us in this moment.  It won’t be 40 years.  Maybe not even 40 months or 40 weeks.  But, however long we need to remain quarantined, we know that every one of you counts, and you can count on us to remind you that each and every person is a vital part of our community, and how blessed we are to have each other.

Tazria, Metzora, and Social Distancing 2020

Tazria, Metzora, and Social Distancing- 2020

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

         An unknown illness erupts.  Waiting for a diagnosis, and then, quarantine.  Have the symptoms dissipated?  Keep checking and continue to stay isolated from the community.  Examination by a healthcare professional to determine if it’s safe to be with people.  If so, purification rituals and cleansing before reuniting with friends and family.  COVID- 19?  No, this week’s Torah portion, Tazria and Metzora.

         This week’s parsha describes what is often translated as leprosy- tzaraat, yet, technically is some other kind of skin affliction.  It is the priest, in his role of medicine man, who is called in to examine the person who is ill and suspected to have tzaraat.  If the priest determines that it is, indeed, tzaraat, there are 7-days of social distancing, then another examination.  This cycle repeats until the priest determines that it is safe for the individual to reconnect with the community.

         The priest needs to check personally.  No diagnosis is made on the basis of rumor or suspicion.  In fact, the phrase “v’ra-ah ha-kohen,” “the priest shall look,” appears no less than 30x in the text.  The priest provides a very personal level of care.  He is there, in person, with the afflicted individual.  If there’s one thing Jewish tradition understands, it is how hard it is to be separated from the community.  It is not something to be undertaken lightly, and the individual who must be separated for medical reasons is still afforded a great deal of support.

         It has been so touching to me how our Temple Chai community has come together to provide support as we are all in isolation.  We feel the pain of the person who is quarantined uniquely as we read Tazria and Metzora in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.  Our caring community has undertaken the task of calling every single member of the congregation to assess how they are doing and what needs they may have, from having a package picked up to be mailed, to help with livestreaming services, to a kind word and a listening ear.

         In Chapter 13, verse 3, we read that, as the priest examines the person who is ill, he is specifically directed to look at him..  This may not seem noteworthy, and yet, when someone is sick they are all too often reduced to “a case of x,” and not seen as a whole person.  “See him,” the priest is told, not, “see IT.”  Commentators emphasize the compassion called for in addressing someone who is suffering.  Make sure you are seeing them in their totality, they remind us, see him or her, not just the illness, not just “it.” 

         The metzora, the person who is suffering, is required to announce their impurity if they are out among the community, so that people know to give them space, to socially distance themselves, as it were.  While this might seem terribly embarrassing, again, the rabbis say, no, this is so that the community will be alerted of the need to pray for the individual’s strength and healing.  We pray for healing for all those who suffer from COVID-19, and, in fact, for all of us who are separated from our beloved community.

         The Sefat Emet focuses on the opening verse, “This is the teaching about the afflicted person.”  The Chassidic commentator connects this with a verse in Isaiah (57:19)- “Peace, peace to the far and to the near.”  The far person, says the Sefat Emet, is the afflicted person who is separated from the community. 

         The Torah recognizes how hard it is to be apart from others, and delegates the priest to work tirelessly to reunite the person who is in pain with loved ones as quickly as possible.  Yet, the Torah also makes provisions to ensure public health and safety, setting in place structured movements towards reunion to protect everyone’s well-being.

         It’s hard for all of us to be separated right now.  We struggle with ways to stay connected and are so grateful for our caring volunteers and for the blessed technology that brings us Zoom learning and livestreamed services.  We are steeped in compassion for those who are afflicted and pray for their health and recovery.  And we pray for ourselves, as well, that, when that time comes that we can be together once again, we never, ever take for granted the profound blessing of being together in community.

Nadav, Avihu, and COVID-19

Nadav, Avihu, and COVID-19

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

         I trust everyone had a good Pesach and our Torah reading this week, Shemini, finds us exactly half-way through the Torah.  It is AMAZING that the rabbis so loved the text that they counted every letter, determining that the letter vav in the word “gachon,” appearing this week, is the middle letter of the entire text.  The Torah has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  We find ourselves now in a moment of the unknown.  It is so comforting to be able to place ourselves in time?  Are we just in the beginning?  In the middle?  Approaching the end?  It’s so disorienting not to know.  If only we knew if we were halfway there, or a third of the way there, or where we are, it would be so comforting.  The only thing we do know is that it WILL end at some point and we WILL return to a sense of normalcy, hopefully with a much deeper appreciation of the blessing of the normal.

         Our parsha echoes the sadness and incredulity that we all feel.  We share Aaron’s pain at the mystery of God’s ways and the loss of young lives.  We feel it profoundly. 

         It should have been a moment of the greatest joy and celebration.  After months of effort and the community working together, the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, was finally completed and ready to be dedicated.  In what the rabbis describe as a miracle in and of itself, the entire people of Israel gathers to rejoice in the fruits of their collective labors.  Somehow, miraculously, there is space for everyone, everyone is included- no need for social distancing.

         Moses’ brother Aaron, and Aaron’s wife Elisheva, are the parents of 4 sons- Nadav and Avihu, Eliezer and Itamar; they are all destined for the priesthood.  As the parsha begins,  Aaron offers a sin offering on behalf of himself and his family.  We learn an important lesson here- before we concern ourselves with the wrongdoing of others, let’s first look within.  Likely there are opportunities for teshuvah in our own lives before we judge the actions of others.  It is so easy to point a finger at others.  Aaron’s example reminds us to be humble about our own imperfections. 

         Aaron then blessed the people, God’s glory was revealed, and the people’s offering was consumed.

         And then- the unthinkable happens.  Nadav and Avihu, clearly moved by the day’s ceremony, bring an offering of incense and lay it in a firepan.  Their incense sacrifice was not commanded, not authorized, yet, they experience spontaneous joy and gratitude in that moment of profound holiness.    In one of the most troubling incidents in the entire Torah, a fire descends from heaven.  Instead of consuming the offering, it consumes the two young men, who are immediately killed. 

         The tradition offers many explanations, many excuses, as to why this is okay.  So many, in fact, that it belies the fact that the rabbis are very NOT okay with what occurs.  Well maybe it was for this reason?  Well maybe it was because of something else?  The harsh reality is that terrible things can happen, and there is no good reason at all.

Aaron has no response- he is silent.  What can he say?  In that single moment, his hopes and dreams for his family working together to create holiness, his hopes and dreams are destroyed.  The intensity of his joy is undone in a crashing moment of sorrow and despair.

         And in an act that only feels cruel, Moses tells the family that they are not to observe the traditional forms of mourning.  And THEN, Moses further berates them for not having completed the day’s ritual observances.

         Aaron finally speaks up and basically says, “Are you nuts?  I am in no mood and how can I pretend that everything is normal on such a day as this?”  And to his credit, Moses backs off and more or less responds, “You’re right.” 

         It may be that we all have a little Aaron inside us right now.  We look around and see pain and suffering, the inexplicable death of young people whom we cannot even mourn according to custom, and we don’t know what to say or what to think.  Good people struck down in the prime of life, and how can we go on as if everything is okay?  The answer is we can’t.  We don’t know what to say or what to think or how to move on, and that’s okay.

         I think the message of Parshat Shemini is that, like Aaron, when we don’t know what to say, silence is an appropriate response to the inexplicable.  “Vayidom Aharon- and Aaron was silent.”  And so are we. . .

Shabbat Parah: Clean Hands and a Pure Heart

March 26th will be the first day of the month of Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs.  That means that next Shabbat, March 21, is Shabbat Mevarchim, the Shabbat on which we will officially announce and pray for the new month.  Reverse engineering, that makes this week Shabbat Parah- one of the most mysterious, least understood Shabbatot in the entire calendar!  Shabbat Parah is one of four special Shabbatot in the 6 weeks before Passover.

We know what Shabbat is; what is Parah?  Parah is a cow.  But not just any cow!  The special, extra, maftir, Torah reading for this morning is from the book of Numbers, chapter 19, verses 1-22.  You can find it on p. 1145 in your chummashim. 

With Passover looming on the horizon, the concern was to remind the people that only those who were ritually pure could enjoy the Passover offering.  And how does one become pure again after defilement?  By the ritual described in this chapter, the red heifer, whose ashes were combined with water to purify those who were defiled.  So Shabbat Parah is essentially a public service announcement- Pesach is coming and it’s time to get cleaned up and ready!  “Clean hands and a pure heart”- a verse from Psalms, and (Psalm 24:4), never more relevant than in this  moment!

The haftarah, Ezekiel 36:16-38, also deals with issues of being cleansed from contamination, but the impurity in this case symbolizes human sinfulness. Just like physical impurity, sins, spiritual impurity, according to the prophet,   CAN  be overcome. As God says in Ezekiel 36:25,26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes [idolatrous practices]. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you.”

Is this confusing?  Well, if so, you are in good company.  No less a brilliant mind than that of King Solomon was reputed to have said, “I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah but as soon as I reached this chapter about the red heifer I searched, probed and questioned, I said I will get wisdom, but it is far from me”.” (King Solomon, as quoted in Yalkut Shimoni 759)

The Sefer haChinnuch, an anonymous text from 13th century Spain, writes as follows-  “My hands grow feeble and I fear to open my mouth at all, even with the plain meaning.  For I saw that our Sages of blessed memory spoke at length of the profundity of its mystery and the greatness of its theme. . . “

The requirements for the red heifer are that it be completely of one color, (some say it is brown), and that it had never been yoked.  This symbolizes a sense of freedom.  The animal was sacrificed and its ashes dissolved with water and sprinkled on someone in need of purification. The priest who will deal with the ashes lived separately for 7 days, he was quarantined!, and was sprinkled daily with some of the previous ashes. This time of alone-ness for the priest to come into a sense of purity is a reminder to each of us that introspection and alone-ness may be an important part of our own spiritual development.

There is a middah of silence/hitbodedut.  Silence is necessary in order to hear and to learn; silence is necessary to cultivate our internal life and learn to shut out the distractions of the world.  It is for good reason that we include a period of silence in every service- the Amidah. A chassidic commentary, quoted in our chummashim, notes that,  “The red cow was to be without blemish and without having borne a yoke.  Similarly, if a man thinks he is without blemish we may be sure he has never accepted the yoke of Heaven.  For if he had he would know that he had many faults.”

Shabbat Parah reminds us that Passover is coming.  The holiday of Passover means that it has been 6 months since the High Holidays.  Perhaps, maybe likely?, we have gotten off track?  Whatever our resolutions were for 5780, perhaps we need a reminder?  Shabbat Parah offers us the opportunity to reflect on where we need to do teshuvah?  Where do we feel a need for purification in our own lives?

Shabbat Parah reminds us that however far we have strayed, we have the power through the choices that we make, to purify ourselves. 

We all make mistakes, we all do wrong, we all hurt each other and ourselves.  We pray, “V’taher libenu lavdecha b’emet- purify our hearts to serve You, God, in truth.”  As Reb Nachman of Bratslav put it, “If we are not better tomorrow than we are today, than what do we need tomorrow for?”

We can no longer rely on ritual sacrifices for our own purification- now- the choice is in our hands!

I Know That Valentine’s Day is NOT a Jewish Holiday. . . .

I remember a few years ago- I was standing in the lobby, having just returned from a period of military service. I think I might have even been in uniform. I was definitely still in Army/Colonel mode. I sort of barked at one of my colleagues in a way that surprised even me as I heard the tone of my voice and the words that came out of my mouth. I remember feeling taken aback at my own harshness and immediately requested the opportunity to retract my words and try again.

I recalled that moment last week when Ron called in the middle of the work day, something he does not often do. I felt my heart skip a beat at seeing his name on the caller ID, and had the opposite experience of that moment in the temple lobby. This time, I was taken aback at the softness in my voice, as I transitioned in a nanosecond from “being in the office” mode to “speaking to my beloved” mode. I wondered about that. I wondered what it would be like if I could be in touch with that gentleness and kindness, that love, all the time, or, at least, more often? What the world needs now is love, sweet love? What if we could ALL live more in a place of love and less in a place of harshness in more of our interactions with each other?

Jews don’t necessarily make a big deal out of Valentine’s Day, yet, today is certainly an appropriate day to reflect on how we might bring more love into all of our relationships, from the most casual to the most intimate. Love is kindness in action. It is being attuned to another person’s needs without their having to articulate them. It is being fully present. We have been reading in the Torah for the past few weeks about the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart. Love is about opening, softening our hearts. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler teaches that, “If you make an effort to help everyone you meet, you will feel close to everyone. A stranger is someone you have not yet helped. Doing acts of kindness for everyone you can fills your world with friends and loved ones.” He reminds us that the personality infused with chesed is not concerned with what he or she can take from the world, but is, rather, focused exclusively on giving.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates the word chesed, lovingkindness, as, “love expressed as deed.” It is love beyond the level of feeling, it is love as doing. The word chesed appears 245 times in the Torah. The Midrash (Sotah 14a) suggests that the Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed, opening with God clothing Adam and Eve and concluding with God burying Moses. The Torah is filled with acts of chesed. On this day, especially, we remind ourselves to fill our days with acts of chesed.

The prophet Micah (6:8) suggests that there are really only 3 things that God wants from us- one is to do justly, one is to walk humbly, and the third is to love chesed, to love loving acts of kindness. Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness. Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin said that “A day that a Jew does not do a kindness is not considered a day in his life.”

At Thanksgiving time, we often reflect that, really, EVERY day should be “Thanksgiving,” a day filled with gratitude and appreciation of our many blessings. What if every day was “Valentine’s Day,” filled with acts of love and kindness? “A physician once said, the best medicine for humans is love. Someone asked, ‘What if it doesn’t work?’ He smiled and said, ‘Increase the dose’.” “The world,” writes the Psalmist, (89:3), “is built on kindness.” Olam chesed yibaneh. Feb. 14th seems to be a good day to renew our own commitment to build OUR world on chesed. Olam chesed yibaneh- I will build this world on love. .

Locusts, Trees, and Tu Bishvat

Did you know that the word Elohim, God, and the word ha-tevah, nature, have the same numerical value in Hebrew?  While Jews are not pantheistic, that is, we don’t believe that nature IS God, we certainly sense the deep and intimate connection between the Creator and the creation.  Rabbi Joseph Leib Bloch taught that, “(a good Jew) will be filled with wonder and excitement at the sight of the glories of nature. . . and will know how to use these feelings for the sublime purpose of recognizing the Creator.”  Nature may not BE God, yet, we experience God’s presence in nature, and, when we hurt the environment, we imagine that God feels that pain.

         This week’s Torah portion, Bo, describes the devastation of the land caused by the plague of locusts.  We read this warning to Pharaoh- (Exodus 10:4-5)- “If you refuse to humble yourself, every tree will be destroyed.”  The text continues, (10:15), “(the locusts) ate all the grass of the land and all the fruit of the trees left behind by the hail, and there did not remain any green of the tree and grass of the field in the whole land of Egypt.”  Yet Pharaoh hardened his heart.  It’s easy to judge Pharaoh for his hubris and his insensitivity to the environmental threat concerning which he had been duly warned. 

         And what about us?  What about our lack of humility, the hardness of our hearts, as we stand idly by the destruction of the environment that sustains us?  We have been warned of the threat to our environment- how are we responding? 

         The Midrash, written two thousand years ago, depicts God as warning Adam, Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah (7:13) – “When God created Adam, God led him around all of the trees in the Garden of Eden. God told him, ‘See how beautiful and praiseworthy are all of My works. . .  do not corrupt the world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.'”

         The rabbis were ahead of their time; millennia ahead of their time.  They understood our responsibility to care for the earth, that we are but custodians of God’s gift to us.  They established the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, which we will celebrate later this month, the new  year of the trees, a time to reinforce our role as guardians of nature.

         Rabbi Rachel Barenblat reminds us that the word for human, Adam, is the same as the word for the earth.  She writes that, “The first human was called Adam: earthling. We can never leave that original name. All

that we are, all that we are made of, all that we live on, comes from the earth. We may try to separate ourselves from the rhythms of the earth. We may heat and air condition our houses and cars, but we cannot live outside the earth. We may shape the earth but we can never completely control it. We belong to the earth; the earth does not belong to us.”

         The second paragraph of the Shema contains yet another statement that, based on human choices, the earth can and will be destroyed with no opportunity to be restored to balance.  We have the power to create and we have the power to destroy.  The Medibozer Rebbe expressed it like this, “God placed sparks of holiness within everything in nature.”  Our task as humans is to sense and protect that spark.

         I’ll conclude with the beautiful story of Choni, as told in the Talmud, “The Rabbis tell the story of Choni, who one day saw a grandfather and his grandchild planting a carob tree. Choni laughed, “Foolish man, do you think you will live to eat the fruit of this tree?” The old man replied, “My grandparents planted for me, now I plant for my grandchildren.”

Weary from the heat of the day, Choni laid down for a nap. The nap became a sleep of many years, and when he awakened he did not know that his hair was white as snow.

Choni returned to the spot where the old man had planted the sapling. He was surprised to see a full grown carob tree, and an elderly woman giving its fruit to the great grandchild of the man who first planted the tree.

Choni then realized what had happened to him, and he told the woman and the little girl how God had taught him that one must plant not only for himself but for future generations as well.  (Taanit 23)  We are all Choni.  We must care for the earth, our gift to the generations to come.

         And a final word from John Wright, “Let the trees be consulted before you take any action.  Every time you breathe in, thank a tree.”   As we read about the plague of locusts, as we heed the warning that, in fact, the earth is a perishable commodity entrusted to our hands, as we prepare for Tu B’Shevat, let us humbly renew our commitment as Adam, as human beings to guard and protect ha-Adamah, the earth.

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