Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rosh Hashanah 5772 - Healing the World Through Loving Your Neighbor

Summer already seems so far away, doesn’t it?  But what a summer!  What a year!  Tropical storms!  Floods!  Blackouts!  Terrorist threats!  Droughts and wildfires!  Even an earthquake!

There is something about natural disasters that brings people together.  In difficult times, we tend to seek each other for help, for community, for contact with others in the face of danger.  

I am told that there was a time in America that everybody knew their neighbors.  When I was nine years old, this was true for my family.  We knew everybody that lived on our street; some we liked, some we didn’t.  The man whose yard abutted ours on one side put the fear of God in me.  My mother told me he hated Jews, although from my perspective it did not matter, because it was clear that he hated kids just as much.

How many people here know all of their neighbors?  I met one of my neighbors last month when Tropical Storm Irene visited.  On that windy Sunday afternoon, when it seemed safe to go out for a walk, I did so, with my two-year-old son Zev strapped to my back.  As I was walking by a house across the street, my neighbor was in his driveway, and he introduced himself.

We chatted for a bit, primarily about his volunteer work for the local Hevra Qadisha, the Jewish burial society run by the Vaad Harabbanim of Queens (the “VHQ”).  (This is, by the way, particularly holy work, and he takes great pride in helping families in times of need.  Most of the people he works with in the context of the loss of a loved one are strangers to him, but he is just as committed to them as he is to his own friends and family.)

We had never met prior to Irene, although we have lived about 50 meters away from each other for the last four years.  What’s wrong with this picture?


Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Jewish sages who ever lived, points to the following verse from the Torah as being his favorite:

Ve-ahavta le-rei-akha kamokha.”  (Leviticus 19:18).  Love your neighbor as yourself.  You’ve all heard of that.  It’s one of my favorite verses as well.  I would like to propose that this verse is the key to healing the world.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I am worried.  There are some scary things going on in this world right now.

A year ago at this time, who would have thought that the Arab world would be turned upside-down?  Who could have predicted that Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and maybe Syria (nearly 2,000 killed by their own government since March) and Yemen would have thrown off their tyrannical rulers?  This may be a good thing, but it has upended the stability of the region, and left us wondering not only who will replace the tyrants, but also about how this changes the situation for Israel and Middle East peace.

And, of course, the Arab Spring has helped to propel the unilateral Palestinian request for full membership in the UN, a move that complicates the peace process, potentially bypassing the direct negotiations that are so sorely needed.

And speaking of Israel, I am sure that many of you heard of the cost-of-living protests in Israel that began this summer, where thousands set up tents all over the country, and hundreds of thousands marched in rallies in all the major cities.

Consider what happened a little more than a month ago in England, where young people of various ethnic backgrounds were rioting and looting.  Neighborhoods around the country were turned upside-down for a week.

I know that we have all been touched by the economic recession, with three years now of high unemployment and weak consumer spending.  Not to mention the higher oil prices, higher bridge tolls, higher food prices, and the whole paralyzing congressional debt crisis that took place this summer and is once again on the horizon.  

As many as 25 million people in this country are unemployed or under-employed, including some of us in this room.

And then there are all the weather-related disasters that I mentioned earlier.  After Irene, there was flooding in my hometown of Williamstown, Massachusetts, where a couple hundred people were displaced, something which has never happened there in my memory.
You might be aware of the terrible drought in Texas, where it did not rain from mid-June to mid-September.  I heard a story on NPR a few weeks ago about Texas ranchers, family farmers, who are selling off their cattle, because there is nothing for them to eat or drink.  The earth is parched.  Some of these ranch families have been working the same land for generations, and for them this seems to be the end of the line.  

All of these recent weather events, in my mind, only heighten the anxiety I feel over global climate change and of the anticipated consequences.

Remember the Japanese tsunami?  This was not related to climate change, of course.  Cantor Frieder and I attended the Cantors Assembly convention in Toronto in May, where we heard a Japanese choir sing songs in Hebrew.  They also sang a Japanese song that had become very popular in Japan in the wake of the tsunami.  It was a translation of the well-known poem, “Do not stand at my grave and weep,” written in 1932 by Mary Elizabeth Frye.  By the end of the song, the choir was crying, the conductor was crying, and the whole audience, which filled the Holy Blossom Temple, seemed to be crying.  It was truly a moment unlike any other, reflecting a deep pain that all of us felt collectively for the people of Japan, and perhaps the suffering that many of us feel in our own lives.

And, as if all of this were not enough, we just passed the 10th commemoration of 9/11, and with all the tearful tributes and personal stories retold in the media, I know that this brought to the fore many painful memories for all of us.

Ladies and gentlemen, the world is in pain.  I sometimes get the sense, following the news, that everything is out of whack. I am not sure which looming threat is the most dangerous.  And I feel helpless.  What can I do?  What can any of us do to change the course of events?

The world needs healing.  And that’s where we come in.  We, the Jews, because we are obligated to repair the world, according to the rabbinic principle of Tiqqun Olam.

Here’s the thing that we should all remember: Healing starts at home.  Repairing the world requires a global effort, but we have to start locally.  There’s a bumper-sticker slogan that you might have seen: “Think globally, act locally.”  Well, that very idea came from none other than Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Rambam, aka Maimonides.  He was born in Spain, fled to Morocco, and lived his adult life as a physician in Cairo in the 12th century, where he also wrote some of the greatest works of Jewish literature.

Maimonides identifies concentric circles of responsibility: it is true that we are first responsible for ourselves, our families, our own towns, and so forth.  But that does not mean that we must take care of those close to us to the exclusion of people in the next town, or another continent.  On the contrary, we do indeed have obligations to everybody, and once we have taken care of ourselves, we must take care of the rest of the world.

But Rabbi, you might ask, the problems of this world are all much bigger than I am, than anything that any single person can do.  What can I do?

Thank God, as individuals, we live quite well here in America.  Most of us have enough to eat; most of us have our basic needs met, and most of us can afford an array of creature comforts.  We have a high standard of living and great personal autonomy.  We don’t need to rely on others, and this is a luxury that most of the world does not have.  Each of us seems to be master of our individual destinies.

But that autonomy comes with a hefty price, and that price is isolation.  Because we don’t need others for support, our society suffers from a lack of communal connections, a frayed social network that is even further masked by our apparent electronic interconnectedness, and for many a sense of helplessness in the face of all of the things that are wrong in his world.  It is very easy to throw up your hands in frustration, to ask, “What can I do about the European debt crisis?  Or outbreaks of dangerous strains of E. Coli?  Or the hundreds of thousands of Haitians that are still homeless?”  Well, as individuals acting alone, we cannot do much.

Most of us, I think, want to effect change in this world.  Too often, the optimism of youth becomes the pessimism of adulthood as we resign ourselves to accept the things that we feel are too big or complicated to change.

It does not have to be this way, and here is how we can beat the isolation: we have to commit to doing things together for the collective benefit of the community and the rest of the world, as well as for ourselves.  This is unquestionably a great nation, a place that all of our families immigrated to in order to improve their opportunities.  What is preventing us from building the world that humanity deserves?  What is preventing us from making the connections to others that will create that upward spiral of positive energy?

Ve-ahavta le-reiakha kamokha.  By acting locally, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, we can defeat that sense of helplessness.  Interaction with others for a common good creates a momentum that has greater power than any of us possesses as individuals, and can effect real change that is bigger than all of us individually.

Let me tell you a great story I heard recently.  This is a true story.

A few years back, a fellow named Arthur Rosenfeld in South Florida is in the drive-through lane at a well-known coffee franchise.  The guy behind him can’t quite reach the microphone to place his order, so he starts honking the horn so that Arthur will pull up.  But Arthur cannot do so because he might rear-end the car in front of him.  The guy behind gets really angry, and starts yelling at Arthur, who starts to get angry himself in response to this guy’s rudeness.

Now it turns out that Arthur is a tai chi instructor, and therefore a master at keeping his cool.  When he gets to the window to pay, he asks the clerk if he can pay for his order AND for the order of the angry, impatient guy behind him.  The barista points out, “But he’s a jerk!”  Arthur waves this off, hands her his credit card, and she rings him up for his coffee and the breakfast for five that the jerk behind him has just ordered.  Arthur drives off and goes on about his day.

Six hours later, Arthur comes home to find his voicemail full of messages.  Turns out that the guy behind him, the impatient jerk, also paid for the the coffee of the next person in line, and this pattern continued all morning and into the afternoon.  Everybody paid for the order of the person behind them, and the idea was just so great that it kept going all day!

Arthur’s random act of kindness had such a powerful effect that it just kept giving back all day long.  Each one of those people in line responded to the idea of loving your neighbor, and the result was surprising!  Not only did all those people leave the drive-through lane caffeined-up, but also with an invigorated appreciation for society.

Back to reality.  There is no need to be daunted into inaction by the hugeness of world-wide ills.  Where can we start?  Just reach out your hand to your neighbor.  Or the stranger in check-out at the supermarket.  Or the person sitting behind you in the synagogue.

And here’s what we should all be doing.  Here are six simple suggestions to repairing the world through loving your neighbor:

1.  Go beyond your comfort zone to reach out to others, and even to people you don’t know.  We have all been taught to mistrust, to be wary of strangers, but most of us are naturally-trusting people.  Go with that!  Step out of your shell of familiarity.  Greet strangers.  Smile.  Be helpful.

These are words we should all live by.

2.  Be aware of the needs of others, and how your actions affect them.  Yes, you might be in a hurry to get to a very important meeting, but isn’t it possible that driving recklessly to get there might be more of a danger to you and everybody else on the road?  

Remember that everybody around you has a story.  Try to respect that.

3.  Be aware of how your choices affect the rest of the world.  

There is a new website called, where you can take a brief survey about what products you consume, and it gives you an estimate of how many people you keep in involuntary labor situations.  Estimates suggest that there are 27 million slaves in the world, and I found, much to my chagrin, that my lifestyle keeps 73 people enslaved.

This is just one example.  We should all be aware of how what we consume affects not just the people in our immediate neighborhood, but also people far away from us.

4.  Seek out venues in which to have an impact on others.    
My first choice would be a synagogue - not that I’m biased or anything, but there are lots of other possibilities: a book club, bowling team, coffee klatch.  Staying home and watching the Yankees may be fun, but it probably does not benefit the communal bottom line.  Find or create opportunities to rub elbows with other people.

5.  Listen to other sides of the story.  
We live in an era of ever more narrow information forums:  TV news channels and radio stations that advocate one political stance or another, Internet platforms tailored precisely to reflect your exact worldview, and so forth.  The consequence of this sort of thinking is that we occasionally miss the big picture, and we dismiss others merely because we disagree.

6.  Take responsibility.  If you know something needs to be done, even in the public sphere, but are waiting for somebody else to take the initiative, it ain’t gonna happen.


Do you remember the Lorax?  The book by Dr. Seuss?  “I am the Lorax.  I speak for the trees.”  It contains a powerful message about the use and abuse of God’s creation for selfish purposes.  That is an important message indeed, but not the one I am referencing today.

The book concludes by highlighting a word that is absolutely perfect for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  One word: “Unless.”

These days of holiness, prayer, fasting, and hearing the sound of the shofar can come and go, and we can be unchanged; we can fail to be transformed by them, unless:

Unless we commit ourselves to being responsible for one another.

Unless we learn to be sensitized to the needs of others, and step out of our own worlds into theirs.

Unless we understand that sometimes the needs of the wider society are more important than our own short-term personal needs or desires, and that sometimes working for the benefit of the community and the world not only benefits us as individuals but is vital in the long term.

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean.  The surf is up and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them back, they will die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish?  You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf.  Then, smiling at the man, he said. “I made a difference for that one.” (based on a story by Loren Eiseley)

It should not have to take, God forbid, a tropical storm to connect with your neighbors.  Ve-ahavta le-rei-akha kamokha.  Let’s build the community that we need now, so that we might begin the process of healing, and repairing the world.

Shanah tovah umetuqah.
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, September 29, 2011.)