Resiliency / Overcoming Adversity
B’haalot’cha – Saturday, June 13, 2020 /21 Sivan, 5780 – The challenging journey ahead
When I was finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, I had no idea what my next steps were. I needed a goal, but I didn’t have a clear path, I didn’t know what my career should be, and for sure what steps to get anywhere. I remember my parents pushing me to progress towards my goals, fill out applications for graduate school or teachers college, but I was stuck. Should I get a job, get an internship, get some experience, see the world or remain in school and if so what program and where should I go. I didn’t know what direction to go and how to move forward. I’m sure each of you can think back to a moment where you weren’t sure where you were headed and felt stuck, unsure of the right path.
I think we are all in this right now, with competing information about moving forward. What wisdom does our Torah teach us on how to progress toward our goals? Individually and as a society, how do we know when to move forward, and which direction to go?
At first glance, in this week’s portion of Behalotecha, the description of the Israelites’ journey from Sinai to the Promised Land seems to offer a model of clarity and ease:
Whenever the cloud lifted from the Tent, the Israelites would set out; and at the place where the cloud settled, there the Israelites would encamp. At the word of Adonai the Israelites journeyed, and at the word of Adonai they encamped (עַל־פִּי ה’ יִסְעוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעַל־פִּי ה’ יַחֲנוּ): they remained encamped as long as the cloud rested on the Mishkan. There were times when the cloud was over the Mishkan for a few days—and There were times when the cloud was there from evening until morning and would lift in the morning—they would journey. Whether two days or a month or a year—however long the cloud lingered on the Mishkan—the Israelites remained encamped and did not journey; only when it lifted did they break camp.
It’s a comforting solution—just follow the word of God! —It was a time of clarity for the Israelites. They didn’t have to plan where to go, everyone knew the end goal was Israel. They did not have to plan how to get there, God has created the triptik journey step by step, all they had to do was follow. They did not have to plan when to go, they just followed the cloud, when it stopped, they stopped, when it continued, they continued. How blissful an uncomplicated life. no decisions required, no worries, no plans, no goal setting, just a clear direct path to the future
This portion is not especially helpful today when we don’t have a pillar of cloud telling us where, when and how to go on our journey. If the Torah’s message is eternal, what does this model offer those of us (i.e., all of us) to whom God doesn’t “speak” quite so distinctly?
We are living in a time without definitive answers on time and space. Before this you could reliably plan to be somewhere, but now we are directionless and unbound by time.
Fortunately, it’s not the only answer this Torah portion provides. Intermingled with this description of a straightforward, unwavering journey at the clear command of God, the Torah offers also a counternarrative.
Looking more closely, we come to suspect that God’s directions were anything but clear. As Jan Jan Uhrbach writes in her d’var torah on Bahalotcha, within this passage itself, God’s “guidance” is expressed not in distinct speech, but through a cloud—a metaphor suggesting obfuscation, not clarity. God’s simple directions need to be mediated or interpreted “through Moses.” Moreover, we discover that additional navigational “technologies” are necessary:
- journeying instructions were given via trumpets specially crafted by Moses and blown by the kohanim. (10:1–8);
- the Ark of the Covenant traveled on ahead of them “to seek out a resting place for them” (10:33);
and most tellingly,
- Moses pleaded with his father-in-law Hovav to be their human guide (“[Moses] said, ‘Please do not abandon us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will be like eyes for us’.”) (10:31).
In other words, the path forward is never clear, and God isn’t a divine GPS. Revelation and faith shape our vision of where we want to go; they offer a compass pointing to true north, orienting us in the general direction of that vision. But to get there, we need maps, road signs, traffic signals, and human guides with a variety of expertise.
On the surface God “intended” and Israel expected that they would proceed directly and quickly to the Promised Land, perhaps in a few weeks. The counter-narrative suggests that was never a realistic vision. Turned out it wasn’t a few weeks, it was 40 years – of stopping and starting, waiting and waiting and waiting, not sure when the next move would be, where food and water would come from, their safety at each stop and what the promised land might look like.
Our rabbis sensitively pick up on the challenges inherent in what became a long, winding road, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes: “it is not so much the strain of lengthy wanderings as the patient endurance of the lengthy stops which seem to be stressed as the real task of the tests.” The uncertainty and unpredictability of the encampments was a difficult and challenging time.
this had two unintended results. One was constant, impatient, self-reinforcing complaining about the current situation – where is the food, will we have enough water, lets go back to Egypt, we will die out here, etc. And on the other hand disastrous spying ahead into the future, when will we get there, what will the land look like, how will we conquer it, will there be enough room for all of us to settle there. Together this sapped the community of courage and kept them from moving forward – even for Moses, our fearless leader who bore the brunt of the complaints until even he lost his patience and grew frustrated and weary.
Combine all these elements and they turned a short trek into a forty-year, some might say, dreadful journey.
Here again, the contrast between the idealized “intent” and the reality on the ground speaks directly to the human condition. A journey worth taking is never linear, never easy, and we never handle it perfectly. While it’s natural to fantasize about quick fixes, and lasting transformation—true progress—takes time, and inevitably meanders through error, regression, and backlash. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, it is rarely as simple as “at the word of Adonai we journey, and at the word of Adonai we encamp.” Rather, our fears keep us stuck when we’re called to advance, and our impatience and inability to bear uncertainty push us ahead when we’re called to stand still.
I remember back in my early 20’s sitting down to fill out graduate school applications and thinking to myself, what am I doing, I don’t know what I want to do, how can I answer these questions, how can I get good references, what are my goals. The uncertainly pushed me back into stasis. What finally clicked for me was a glimpse of what could be when I spoke to a graduate of the Hornstein Program at Brandeis University. This program had exactly of what I wanted, a graduate degree, education courses, Jewish studies, leadership development. It was also in a new city, Boston, for a fresh start and new path, it was non-denominational, with excellent mentors and a stellar reputation. As I looked at the application it fit exactly my goals, and even though there wasn’t a clear career path, and at the time though it was not a step towards the rabbinate, it did provide some parameters to set me forward, to get unstuck and to build some momentum,
I believe that our faith offers a wide complement of navigational tools to make us more sensitive readers of the terrain we traverse, and keep us on the path. Participation in Jewish community -live or virtual—functions as the signposts, and traffic signals we need. They nourish our resilience when the road ahead looks frightening, or the waiting and uncertainty seem almost too much to bear.
Parashat B’haalot’cha recaps, with grandeur, the first leg of the Israelites’ journey from Sinai to the Promised Land. There will be many stops and starts along the way. God will always be with the community, but there will be uncertainly as to how long the journey will be and sometimes the next steps will be impossible to see. But our torah lesson this morning reminds us to not lose patience when we are not sure when and how to move forward, and not to look too far ahead. Stay in the moment, use the time wisely, true progress takes time and meanders but together we will get there. Ken Yehi Ratzon.
Resiliency – Rabbi Stephen Wise – HHD 5780 – 2019
(with Gratitude to Rabbi Mo Salth from a sermon dedicated to Rabbi Aaron David Panken z’l)
There is a moment in every torah service when we recite the misheberach prayer for the sick. And it’s been my custom to ask you to say a name of someone you are thinking of out loud as my eyes meet yours. As I hear the names, I know this isn’t simply a rote exercise; all of us hold some pain deep inside, for an ill person we care about. I have a question: would you ever include your own name in that call for healing and wholeness?
I’m pretty sure that each person here, exhibiting outward signs of growth and happiness, is dealing with something emotional, stressful, and invisible to the rest of us. Some days, in fact, may be harder than others to get up and do the things we need to do while carrying that burden inside.
It might be an overwhelming sadness about a miscarried baby, months or even years ago. It might be trying to stay close and connected to a family member suffering through a debilitating disease, such as Alzheimer’s. It might be struggling with your child as they deal with anxiety and peer pressure within a fast-paced, digital media world. Or perhaps it’s overcoming a painful separation or divorce. Or your health, chronic aches or pains or mental health issues – problems that don’t allow you to live life to its fullest.
Maybe it’s a larger issue, that you are upset by the political polarization in Canada? That there is hatred and violence that we cannot fathom, even in our mostly peaceful country? What about the increase in antisemitism and the suffering we see throughout the world? Or the fact that our homeland of Israel is under constant attack?
Life can be difficult. It can be a struggle some mornings to get out of the house.
As we face life’s inevitable challenges we need the strength and speed to respond to adversity – we call this resilience.
Psychologist Adam Grant describes resilience, as our ability to bounce back. It isn’t about having backbone; it’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone. It’s the human spirit to persevere2.
Much of the scientific research on resilience has focused on how to build resilience in children. While resilience is an essential skill for healthy childhood development, adults need it too. Maybe even more.
The good news, says Tara Parker-Pope, in a recent NYT article on this subject, is that some of the qualities of middle age — a better ability to regulate emotions, perspective gained from life experiences, and concern for future generations —give us older people an advantage. Resilience can be looked at as an “emotional muscle that can be bolstered;3” we can increase our ability to bounce back.
Dr. Dennis Charney, from NYC’s Mount Sinai medical school, began writing extensively on this subject after the unthinkable happened– he was shot by a disgruntled former employee as he left a diner. Dr. Charney spent five days in intensive care and faced a challenging recovery. “After 25 years of studying resilience,” he said, “I had to be resilient myself…” And it was so much harder to do it rather than study it.
So, to help us help ourselves become more resilient, I’ve put together three valuable strategies gleaned from these professionals.
- Practice Optimism and cultivate hope. Optimism is part genetic, part learned. So if you were born into a family of Eeyores, you’ll need to find your inner Tigger. Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of a dire situation. After a job loss, for instance, many people may feel defeated and think, “I’ll never recover from this.” An optimist would acknowledge the challenge in a more hopeful way, saying, “This is going to be difficult, but it’s a chance to rethink my life goals and find work that truly makes me happy.”
While it may sound trivial, thinking positive thoughts and surrounding yourself with optimistic people really does help. Dr. Steven Southwick, a psychiatry professor at Yale Medical School, notes that optimism can be infectious. His advice: “Hang out with optimistic people.”
I got to a lot of baseball games watching Jacob over the summer so we often pay attention to the weather outside. But our rule of thumb is we always go, if its too rainy, then maybe we won’t play. But I hate the predictions that we won’t play. Other parents always tell me the forecast, “there is a 50% chance of rain”. Well guess what, the upside is that there is a 50% chance it will be sunny.
This past August our family had a plan to go the CNE and the forecast was for rain all day, which can put a damper on walking around the Ex. But we didn’t let this spoil our plans, I just made sure we had raincoats. And guess what. Whenever you bring rain coats, it stops raining. We went down and the rain stopped and all the pessimist stayed home leaving us in an uncrowded CNE without any lines for rides or for tiny tom donuts at the food building.
About a year ago, my girls were invited to the international cheerleading competition in Florida. Both seemed a little overwhelmed by the intense rivalry amongst other teams. “We wouldn’t even get a medal” says the pessimist. We talked about seeing the weekend as an incredible opportunity to see Orlando and compete among the world’s best cheerleaders. Set up those pyramids, we said, fly through those stunts, nail that choreography and see what happens. Does it really matter where you place, says the optimist. That will help your resilience if you don’t come in first place.
When C3PO told Han Solo that the odds of navigating an asteroid field were 3720 to 1, Han replied, “don’t tell me the odds.” Then he kept flying. I agree. I like optimistic people and believe you’ll probably find many right here in this shul.
When one of our members, Lynn, received her cancer diagnosis, she never once told me the odds of recovery. Lynn told me exactly how many treatments she will have and how she will get through it. There didn’t seem to be any doubt she would have a refuah shleima, a complete recovery. I believe that positive thinking helped in being resilient to such a dire diagnosis.
- second strategy for resilience – Don’t Personalize It. We have a tendency to blame ourselves for life’s setbacks and to ruminate about what we should have done differently. In the moment, a difficult situation feels as if it will never end. To bolster your resilience, remind yourself that even if you made a mistake, a number of factors most likely contributed to the problem. Then, shift your focus to the next steps you should take.
Dr. Grant writes, “Telling yourself that a situation is not personal, pervasive or permanent can be extremely useful.”
When times are tough, some of us point out how others are far worse off— like war refugees, or those with homes blown away in a hurricane.
While this may be true, you will actually get a bigger resilience boost by reminding yourself of challenges in the past you personally have overcome. This serves as a reminder of how you can overcome problems again, and how this is probably not the most horrible thing you will ever face. You can handle it.
In the book of Genesis, we read that Abraham was tested 10 times by God. Each time was harder, but still, he rose to the occasion, reminding himself that God was there for him. Even when he was asked to offer his son as a sacrifice, he took a deep breath, remembered that every challenge had a reason, and moved forward.
Shai Agassi was the founder of the Better Place car company in Israel. 15 years ago, he predicted everyone would have electric cars by now, with battery charging stations set up all over the country. This was brilliant, ahead of its time, and preposterous. He raised 700 million in capital investment, to build charging stations, and burned through every sheckle. By 2013, he was bankrupt. Shai couldn’t really blame himself ,that not enough people bought electric cars. Just 10,000 were sold, yet he needed at least 10 times that number to make his charging stations economically viable.
While people were ready to give up their gas cars, they suffered from range anxiety. They feared their batteries would run out and they would be stranded. Shai, didn’t take his failure personally and didn’t give up. He saw the failure as a learning experience. Like most Israeli’s in the start up nation, he understood that 1 out of 10 start ups fail. For Shai, this was simply one step on a larger journey towards the goal of reducing greenhouse gases and dependency on oil. Since his bankruptcy, Shai has moved on to other companies, trying to encourage electric car ownership and saving the world one driver at a time. He is the very definition of resilience.
- Face reality and rewrite your story.
What does it mean to confront reality?
In the torah portion of high holidays, god challenges the first human being, Adam to not eat the apple Adam goes against God’s wishes and tastes the fruit from the tree of knowledge. God asks Adam, “Ayekah?” Hebrew for: “Where are you, right now5?” God knows that Adam has tasted the fruit and knows Adam is literally hiding behind the tree, as if Adam could escape from being seen.
Yet God still asks, “Ayekah – where are you?” What are you hiding from? What is your reality?” Adam, meanwhile, has to face the truth that he disobeyed God. He has to face the knowledge that he gained from that fruit. With the amount of information at our fingertips today, we know a lot – about everything – maybe too much. But having information is not enough. We have to utilize it properly. Yes, Adam has done something wrong, but he is also ready to face the music and start a new life with Eve, outside the idyllic heavenly garden in the harsh reality of the real world.
Larry Hyett lost his father, Jim, to cancer this past June. Larry was with Jim the weekend he was supposed to do the bike ride to conquer cancer from Toronto to Niagara Falls. Jim could barely speak and knew he was in his final hours. Larry asked his father if he should ride the next morning. In an instant, Jim became clear eyed, grabbed his arm and said, go. Jim was dying, and though Larry knew his father would be gone soon, his resiliency allowed him to move forward with a new reality, guided by the love and strength his father gave him.
Studies has shown how we can benefit from reframing the personal narrative. One study in College revealed if college students were taught to reframe their first year struggles as growth opportunities, they earned better grades and were less likely to drop out.
A Harvard study, by Dr. Southwick, found that people who viewed stress as a way to fuel better performance did better on tests and managed their emotions better physiologically, than those taught to ignore stress. “It’s about learning to recognize the explanatory story you tend to use in your life,” Dr. Southwick said. “Observe what you are saying to yourself and question it. It’s not easy. It takes practice.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that to be a Jew, “is to be an agent of hope in a world constantly threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every page of the Jewish story, is a protest against escapism, resignation, and the acceptance of destiny8.”
Whether circumstances in our life work out for the best, or don’t, we sometimes say it was b’shert, Yiddish for, meant to be. Our tradition doesn’t promote blind optimism. Judaism does not put faith in fate or fortune. Instead, we are commanded each day to get up, affirm life and take responsibility for our share of constructing the world as it should be. What chutzpah we Jews have! Throughout the millennia, we have continued to remain positive, even when our faith in humanity and our faith in God has been sorely tested.
I am reminded of Hugo Gryn, of blessed memory, who was one of England’s most adored rabbis. When he was a child, he and his father were forced into Auschwitz. One Hanukkah, his father improvised and somehow crafted a menorah, using his valuable margarine ration to light a wick for the first night. Young Hugo protested: “Dad, how can you use what little food we have just to observe this holiday?” His father replied: “You can live three days without water. You can live three weeks without food. But you cannot live for three minutes without hope9.”
Faced with the most horrific reality, this father and son managed to create light in the darkest place on earth.
At this time of year when I work on my sermons, it makes me think of my mentor in rabbinical school, Rabbi Aaron Panken, who helped me write my very first sermons. He was down to earth and easy to talk to, a brilliant scholar with a PHD in Talmud, and offered sharp, insightful sermons. His untimely tragic passing in a plane accident last year, at the young age of 53, left a big hole in my heart as well as the entire rabbinical school community. But his words of wisdom stay with me. He said, when you write a sermon, make sure to give lettuce at the end. “Lettuce?” I said. “Yes,” he replied. “Lettuce, as in “let us….the end should allow people to see themselves in the stories or lessons you are giving, so they can take them home, digest the words, and perhaps be influenced positively in their lives going forward. I take Aaron’s advice every time I write a sermon, so his life lives on in me, and now in you.
In summary, the three strategies for resilience are staying positive and cultivating hope, not personalizing defeat, and facing reality to rewrite our stories. Try to build your resiliency muscles to get through the toughest parts of life. Take responsibility and create a life that you consider meaningful and purposeful. Care for those you love and bring them close. When faced with a huge challenge like an illness or job loss or painful moments you would just as soon forget, dig deep.
Take a page out of torah. Moses and the Israelites are on the border of the Promised Land. God reminds Moses that he is not going into Israel even though he’s led the Israelites for forty years. Moses is not dismayed. Moses doesn’t fixate on what he hasn’t achieved. He doesn’t look back and bemoan his losses.
Moses stays in the present and does his best to gain clarity from all he has learned. He focuses on the possibilities ahead and celebrates the extraordinary bond he has with his people and with God.
These last Torah verses describe Moses’ eyes as undimmed and his vigor unabated, he is…resilient! And so are we. May our eyes shine with promise and our spirits reverberate with resilience.
High holiday sermon 2018
Can we release an artistic creation from the shackles of their creators misdeeds.
When I was 16, as part of my confirmation class at Holy Blossom Temple, I was assigned a book by Rabbi Marmur called, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold Kushner. At the time, while I loved reading, I didn’t like being told what to read and the title didn’t interest me so I ignored it, and the book sat in my bookshelf collecting dust.
Years later I found it and remembered that everyone else thought it was amazing and after all, a Rabbi recommended it. I read it cover to cover in one day. When Bad things happen to Good people, is the powerful and sad story of Rabbi Kushners’ son, Aaron, who was three years old when he was diagnosed with Progeria, a devastating disease that causes rapid aging. Most people suffering from this disease die in their teens. Aaron died two days after his 14th birthday.
Until that horrible day, Rabbi Kushner, an acclaimed author and theologian, believed, like most of us, that the world is fair, that God rewarded the good and punished the wicked. A devout Jew, Kushner believed and trusted in God who controlled our lives and could make anything happen. But all his theoretical assumptions and understandings went up in the air as he faced the challenge and reality of the death of his own son.
He didn’t lose his faith, but he needed to re-examine his view of the world and cobble together a new system of faith. That is what is revealed in his book. Published now almost 40 years ago in 1981, it struck a chord not just within the Jewish community, but with the general population, and became a worldwide bestseller.
Kushner came to the conclusion that God does not control our lives; hence, God cannot meddle in our day to day affairs. God has created a world with certain immutable natural laws, so if conditions are met, a tornado might touch down on your house, or a giant tsunami might crash into the shore, and innocent people might get hurt or killed.
God does not intervene to save one life while another dies because of bad behavior. Because we are free to behave as we want, we are not controlled by god. Fate is in our hands. Every human being has free will – starting from the very first two people on earth- Adam and Eve. They were placed in the garden of Eden, not robots acting out the will of God, but human beings with the ability to make choices for themselves. God assumed they would follow directions because Adonai told them this would be the best thing for both of them, but it was up to them to decide what to do. Right away, they disobeyed the rule of not eating from the tree of knowledge. But this is what it means to be free. God wants us to choose the right and good path, but ultimately, the choice is ours. We cannot be controlled from above.
So if God doesn’t control things, then the counter argument would be, what is the point of God? These are the types of discussions we had last year in my HOOCHY class. We challenged each other with amazing questions, such as: Why offer prayers, does God answer them? Why believe if God won’t prevent bad things from happening to us or allow good things to happen to bad people? It seems so unfair.
So what is the answer? According to Kushner, god’s purpose is to provide strength and solace during the difficult times. As he writes so eloquently in his book:
“The God I believe in does not send us the problem, he gives us the strength to cope with the problem”.
Prayer can’t necessarily stop an earthquake or a gunman on the Danforth. But prayer can bring people and communities together. The Jewish law requiring a minimum of 10 to form a minyan forces us to come together for a Shiva, and so we are there to comfort a family during their most vulnerable time.
Let’s extend this discussion into our behaviour. Even though God doesn’t manipulate our actions, we can control how we treat people who are good and those who are not. In other words, bad things can happen to good people randomly and vice versa. But we can intentionally support and encourage people who make good decisions and turn away or discourage those who make bad choices.
I read a thought provoking article recently, about a synagogue in NYC that was dealing with just this type of quandary. Rabbi Angela Buchdal of Central Synagogue in NYC, wrote to her congregation that they have decided to stop using the music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Rabbi Carlebach is one of the most beloved rabbis of the past century, who wrote inspiring spiritual music, most of which found its way into our regular worship and song sessions, including almost the entire kabbalat shabbat service. In fact, there are even synagogues named after Carlebach throughout the world, showcasing his work. So why would one of the largest synagogues in the world, the place where I was ordained as a Rabbi, decide to ban his music.
Its a result of the “#metoo” movement which exploded throughout the public sphere over the past year. Rabbi Carlebach has been accused of infidelity, abusing his role as a leader of faith in relationships with many many women, some of whom finally found the strength to come forward and opened up about their trauma decades after the event and his death. The “#metoo” movement forced the issue, punishing individuals in all walks of life who have abused their positions. This is especially true for clergy who are trusted for their counsel and are supposed to help people. All echa kama v’kama, how much more so should clergy be held to even higher degree of accountability, even if it costs their jobs, their role in society, and their reputation.
Many other rabbis agree that while Rabbi Carlebach died almost 30 years ago, we should stop using and singing his music, especially in times of prayer when people are in need of solace, comfort and strength. Rabbi Corey Weiss of Har Zion Temple in Thornhill, agreed saying:
“not only do I think about the women he assaulted when we worship to his tunes, god forbid we re-traumatize anyone who was a victim…forced to listen to or sing the tune of their oppressor”.
While the music may be beautiful and popular, there are many replacements to choose from that don’t cause any harm. Indeed lets honour those who make beautiful choices and great music – Noam Katz, Debbie Freidman, Dan Nichols, Charles Osborne, Louis Lewandowski to name a few. When people make hurtful choices, god might not intervene, but we can. Rabbi Linda Goodman adds “our obligation is to the core needs of the members of our community, and to give sanctuary (in this case emotional) to those in need of healing and protection. Artistic achievement can never take precedence over personal injury. The principle of piku’ach nefesh – saving a life – suggests that we ought to discontinue using Carlebach’s music.”
This is why Jews refuse to listen to the composer Richard Wagner who held anti-Semitic views in the 19thcentury. Wagner’s music was adopted by Hitler and the Nazi architects of mass destruction and murder of 6 million Jews. Listening to his music reminds us of this horror. The Israeli Symphony Orchestra decided on a lifetime ban of his music. Israeli historian Paul Rose agrees, wrote “while a sequence of chords cannot hate Jews, the context of how the music is written, who the composer was, and who used his music for evil all count towards a ban of his music in Israel and Jewish listening ears.”
Is it fair to ban the art because of the artist? Can they be separated? Can we release an artistic creation from the shackles of its creators’ misdeeds? Rabbi Paul Yedwab, of Temple Israel in Detroit, embarked on the same serious with his congregation but came to a different decision regarding Carlebach. His shul felt that it would make matters worse by tainting the music people sang when they didn’t even realize it was a Carlebach creation. Moreover, his own daughter Neshama sings her father’s music in her albums and concerts. Shall we tell her to stop singing her dad’s music, to not cherish his memory? The music itself should not be punished. The argument by Rabbi Yedwab is that the reward for being a composer is having one’s name remembered and memoralized. So for Carlebach, though the music might still be used, it will be listed in any program as “folk”. This is not far from the truth as, over time, many tunes enter the realm of “folk” music or “mi’sinai” music that we just know. Temple Israel will not publicize his name or accomplishments. There will be no Carlebach services or concerts, no mention of him at all. Rabbi Yedwab admits it might not be a perfect solution, but many sing his tune to Am Yisrael Chai and have been brought closer to Israel because of it. Punish the abuser? Yes. Punish the melody? No.
When faced with such a dilemma perhaps we can find answers in our ancient sources. In a discussion regarding disgraced teachers of Torah, the Talmud tractate Chagigah page 15b relates a story. Rabbi Meir ate a half-ripe date and threw the peel away. In other words, he was able to extract the important content from the inedible peel. Rava taught: Torah scholars are compared to nuts? To tell you: Just as a nut, despite being soiled with mud, its content is not made repulsive, as only its shell is soiled; so too a Torah scholar, although he has sinned, his Torah is not made repulsive.
This story might teach us that the we can learn from a sinful teacher, that he is like a nut in the garden, soiled with mud outside but not the inside. The torah he teaches can remain valuable and worthwhile. The music of Carlebach doesn’t have to reflect his sins, which are on the outside. His music, remains on the inside, beautiful and clean.
On the other hand, most later Torah scholars had a very hard time allowing the unfit teacher to continue with students because Rabbi Meir “he threw the fruit away.” He may lead a student astray to an objectionable worldview. The sinful teacher is chilul hashem– he or she desecrates god’s name as one who always wants us to follow the good path. The Rambam added, one should not study from a teacher who does not follow a proper path, even though he is a wise man, until he returns to the good path. So do not follow the music/teachings of Carlebach for he did not turn to the good path.
So where is the answer? Can we listen to Neshama Carlebach who sings her father’s songs. Can we watch movies starring Mel Gibson or Kevin Spacey or films created by Harvey Weinstein? Can we root for a baseball player who abused his girlfriend? Can we listen to the music of Wagner without guilt?
Rabbi Phil Bentley argues that humans have flaws and some are worse than others. Wagner wrote beautiful music but said disgusting things about Jews and inspired the most horrific German nationalism. What if the Israeli philharmonic did play his music because, you know what, Hitler did not succeed. How better to stick it to the Nazis then having a world famous group of Jews play his music to the world? Indeed, in July 2001, during a performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv, the conductor Argentinian-born Daniel Barenboim, declared it was time to play a Wagner piece and did so. I agree. The artistic value and beauty of Wagner’s music no longer should be banned from its programs. I find the IPO’s approach to be inspiring. Some of you may disagree. But at the very least, this argument represents one piece of the ongoing struggle that we all embrace in confronting the wounds of the past and the present, with the ultimate goals of healing and reconciliation.
Carlebach wrote beautiful, inspiring music, and perhaps we can listen to it because it takes us to new places and inspires love for God and love for Israel.
Wagner and Carlebach are not alive today so they can’t confront their mistakes and atone. But for the living I think it’s a different story. I don’t want to watch films that star actors I know have hurt and abused women. It’s their face on the screen and it’s hard to ignore. And the baseball player, former Blue Jay, Roberto Osuna. Can I separate the pitcher on the mound from the abuser in the home? The answer for me is no. I am glad that baseball has a separate suspension process for domestic abuse. The court system while fair and just can also be slow. It is pretty clear that Roberto hit his girlfriend and he was suspended 75 games. Friends of mine who work in the sports broadcasting business, said, back in May, he would never play for the Blue Jays again. Good. And I think it was the right decision to trade him away. Yes, he is a very talented pitcher, but we cannot separate the player from his actions. He must pay the price for his decisions.
I am surprised that that the Houston Astros plan to use him as a pitcher after declaring their zero-tolerance policy towards abusers. I guess they wanted to give him a second chance. Certainly, Judaism agrees that one can do teshuva, but real teshuva is admitting you are wrong, then pledging never to do that action again, and then actually following through by not doing the wrong thing when faced with the same situation. We have not had time to allow Osuna to complete all these steps of teshuva. And even if he does fully repent for what he did, either in the court of law or the court of baseball or the court of opinion among fans, it still doesn’t mean he gets the privilege of putting on a Toronto blue jays jersey and pitching for the team. He has lost that honour. He has lost his reputation and he has lost the opportunity. It’s sad and it’s a waste of talent, but there must be consequences for actions. I can’t cheer for a player that hits women, plain and simple.
I started this sermon with the musings of Rabbi Kushner, of how good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. In his view, god does not take an active role in our day to day lives by causing wonderful or terrible things to just happen to us – like sickness or health, prosperity or poverty, blue skies or damaging hurricanes. But god does give us the ability to make choices. We must face the consequences when we make the wrong choices, when we go down the wrong path, when we hurt ourselves or hurt others. And we pay the price as some of the great musicians, athletes, performers, and politicians of the past have done.
Conversely, we can always find a kernel of goodness. We can allow those who want to change their ways the chance to repent and restore their good name, maybe not back entirely to where they were, but give them the chance to rehabilitate. And perhaps some of the things they produce in the world – like music or art or torah lessons – can over time be appreciate and used. That is essentially what these high holidays are for, turning and returning, finding our way back to the right path, to god’s light, to the goodness we all aim to achieve. Shana Tova.