Yom Kippur – 5778


Rabbi Susan Elkodsi

There’s a widely quoted ancient Chinese curse, that says, “May you live in interesting times.” We could spend all day talking about what that means, but apparently, this saying is neither ancient nor Chinese. Who knew? Wikipedia says – so it must be true – that the nearest related Chinese expression, which I won’t attempt to pronounce, is usually translated as “Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a chaotic – meaning warring – period.” That expression originates from Volume 3 of the 1627 short story collection by Feng Menglong, called Stories to Awaken the World. I couldn’t find an English version of that collection, and my Chinese is limited to what’s on Wing Wan’s menu, but what a great name for a book. I suspect we could all come up with stories that would awaken us to the realities around us, positive, negative and neutral.

Whether the phrase “May you live in interesting times” is as ancient and authentic as the fortune cookie is debatable, we do know that it was in use as early as the 1930s. In a memoir written by Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, then British Ambassador to China, he mentions that before he left England for China in 1936, a friend told him of a Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

Frederic René Coudert, Jr. who represented New York’s 17th District in the US House of Representatives, also recounts having heard the phrase then. He said he had ended a letter to Sir Austen Chamberlain with what he called “a rather banal remark, ‘that we were living in an interesting age.’” Chamberlain replied, “Many years ago I learned from one of our diplomats in China that one of the principal Chinese curses heaped upon an enemy is, ‘May you live in an interesting age. Surely, he said, ‘no age has been more fraught with insecurity than our own present time.’” That was 1933.

What happened in 1933? Well, it was the worst year of the depression with unemployment peaking at 25.2%. The Midwest was suffering a drought that made even more of the land into dust bowls. Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary, there was a civil war going on in Cuba, and Prohibition was repealed. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – Sir Austen Chamberlain’s brother – returned from a trip to Germany and announced “Peace in our Time” and oh yeah, Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

In the words of Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?”

So let’s skip over World War II, the Holocaust, McCarthyism, civil rights, Vietnam, 9/11 and fast-forward to now, 2017. To say that we are living in “interesting times …” well, interesting is an interesting word, isn’t it? These are scary times, unsettled times. We’re overwhelmed with the news from within the US and outside of the US. We suffer from information overload to the point where our brains and bodies just can’t absorb anything else. And of course, it’s never one thing at a time; when it rains, it pours, literally. Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Maria came on the heels of Harvey as major earthquakes rattled Mexico and wildfires raged in the west. With all our technological advances, why can’t we divert all that rain from the hurricanes to where the wildfires are? Why doesn’t God fix things so this kind of devastation doesn’t happen? Seems rather simple to me
I wish it were so simple. The rational intellectual in me understands that it’s not God’s job to control nature, and I’m not sure we’d want God to. When the Nile River flooded each year, it meant that the land would be fertile and crops could be planted. When the city of Houston floods, as it did in 2015 and 2016 and several times previously, it’s a problem. Lives, possessions and property are lost and everyone has to adjust to a new normal.

Speaking of adjusting to a new normal, how’s everyone doing? I have to say I often feel overwhelmed. I worry about where our country is headed … America, the country that gave my grandparents and millions of others refuge and new lives has been forgetting that even people who came over on the Mayflower were immigrants! The pioneers who went out West were immigrants! And just like in the 20s and 30s, there’s talk about closing our borders and deporting people. Hate groups plan marches and shout “Jews will not replace us” and other terrible things.

And we can’t help but pick up on it. After the president spoke to thousands of Boy Scouts and adult volunteers at the National Jamboree, my husband told me that in his Youth Leader Training Course two weeks later, they had to do a special presentation about hate. In addition to general behavior unbecoming a Scout, teenagers were running around yelling “Allahu Akbar” to insult each other. What they didn’t know is that “Allahu Akbar” means “Allah,” which is the Arabic word for God, “is great.”

There seems to be a general decline in basic civility, and I don’t think it’s because Donald Trump was elected; somehow it started happening early on in the election process. He threw out lines, and the other candidates took the bait. That’s part of the campaign process, and it has been since John Adams and Thomas Jefferson ran against each other in the 1780 election. In 1776, they had nothing but love and respect for one another. However, by 1800, party politics had so distanced the two, that for the only time in U.S. history, a president found himself running against his VP. Jefferson’s camp accused President Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Adams’ men called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” As the slurs piled on, Adams was labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. Ah, the good old days.

What was it Ecclesiastes said? Ayn chadash tachat ha shemesh, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” But just because our founding fathers and their adherents behaved poorly doesn’t mean we have to. Somehow, the lines in the Al chet about “the sin we committed in speech, or in wronging our neighbor” have taken on new meaning.

Many people like Donald Trump because he’s not a polished politician and because he says what he’s thinking. Others vilify him for the same reasons. It has been years – perhaps decades – since our representatives in Washington have worked together across party lines. Several years ago, an AIPAC lobbyist I met told me that the younger congressmen spent as little time as possible in Washington. They slept in their offices and showered at the gym. The old guard – Kennedy, Dole, Hatch, Thurmond and others – would fight tooth and nail on the Senate floor and then go out for drinks and dinner. They got to know each other and their families. They were also committed to the idea that while they disagreed politically and philosophically, it was vitally important that the opposing opinion be present. And when you shared the joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of your opponents’ lives, it became a very human and personal encounter.

The word “human” shares the same root as “humor” and “humility,” the Latin word humus, which is defined as “the dark organic material in soils, produced by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter, and essential to the fertility of the earth.” It makes sense, Adam was created from the soil of the earth, and they even share a name in Hebrew – the feminine noun Adama, which means earth.

In April of 2015, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu traveled to Dharamsala, India to celebrate the 80th birthday of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and in the words of author Douglas Abrams, “to create what they hoped would be a gift for others.” For a week, the two close friends and towering world figures looked back on their long lives to answer a single burning question: How do we find joy in the face of life’s inevitable suffering?

One of the answers, which makes up Chapter 3, is humor. We know that laughter is good medicine, and that it can often be used to diffuse a tense situation. Bishop Tutu, who led his community through South African apartheid, spoke of the many funerals he officiated, and how making a joke, often at his own expense, could calm the angry crowds. The Dalai Lama told of traveling to Ireland, where a former Protestant militant told a group that when he was growing up, it was ok to persecute Catholics because Jesus was Protestant, not Catholic. “Knowing that Jesus was, of course, a Jew,” Abrams wrote, “the Dalai Lama laughed so hard that he completely changed the atmosphere.”

The fact that humility and human have roots in the humus, helps to bring us back down to earth when we get too full of ourselves. It reminds us that we all come from and return to the same place. His Holiness the Dalai Lama insists that he is but one of the seven billion people on this planet, a simple monk. And while he could certainly claim sainthood, Archbishop Tutu – doesn’t.

The two men have worked tirelessly for decades to help create a better world, and both see themselves as part of it, not above it. Both have overcome tremendous obstacles in their 80-plus years, but both continue to live joyful lives, and to model and radiate compassion, even for – perhaps especially for – those who have hurt them.

God willing, most of us will never have to go through what these two men have, but knowing their histories, we’d certainly understand if they were angry or refused to forgive those who have hurt them. Compassion leads to forgiveness, but forgiveness doesn’t mean we forget what happened, and it especially doesn’t mean we condone terrible things that people do. Compassion means that when we think of people who are suffering, we have a strong desire to alleviate their suffering, not necessarily to take on their suffering. As the Dalai Lama described it, “if we see a person being crushed by a rock, the goal is not to get under the rock and feel what they are feeling – that’s called empathy – the goal is to help to remove the rock.” Compassion is what many of us have been feeling over the past few weeks with the devastating hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes. We imagine ourselves in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico or Mexico. We think of how we might feel if we were there. Our compassion is heightened because we were there 5 years ago with Sandy. We want to help alleviate the suffering, and it’s our nature to do so. We send money and supplies as well as our thoughts and our prayers, and they do help.

Having compassion towards someone who hurt us is another story. That’s a lot harder to do. Bishop Tutu spoke of individuals, many from the US, who were murdered during apartheid, whose parents came to South Africa and not only forgave the murderers, but wanted to help them become contributing members of society instead of serving prison sentences. I don’t know if I could do that. I’m not sure I’m worthy of being that humble. It took me 25 years to forgive my cousin’s mother-in-law for putting out a Haagen Das birthday cake long enough to sing happy birthday, and then telling her daughter to put it away because there wasn’t enough for everyone. And I wasn’t the only one!

Many of us carry grudges and stay angry, and for a variety of reasons. Some reasons are vivid and memorable, and sometimes the reason we were angry in the first place is long forgotten, but the hurt isn’t. This isn’t to say that there aren’t times when we have a right to be angry, but as the parents in South Africa understood, anger and lack of compassion won’t bring their children back.

The Dalai Lama has been in exile in India for 56 years. Six years ago, the Chinese government, which controls his native Tibet, pressured the South African government to rescind the visa that would have allowed him to join Archbishop Tutu for his 80th birthday. His Holiness has a right to be angry, and certainly would be justified if he never forgave China for its actions. Yes, he is an exceptional individual, even though he doesn’t see himself that way, but the reality is that we all have the ability to decide how we’re going to see situations, and decide how we’re going to react. The Dalai Lama couldn’t stop China from invading, and the Archbishop couldn’t stop the violence, but they could choose to see their situations from a variety of perspectives.

In 1990, a group of 8 distinguished Jewish leaders, including Reb Zalman and Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg, traveled to Dharamsala at the Dalai Lama’s invitation. He wanted to learn how Jews and Judaism have managed to survive and thrive in exile, and understand what lessons he could apply to his own Tibetan Buddhist community. That trip became the book, The Jew In The Lotus by Rodger Kamenetz. Babylonian and then Roman exile forced Judaism to change from a central, temple-based cult practice to one that’s more home and community-based. Had we continued the sacrifices, I wonder if we would still be here. The Dalai Lama said that becoming a refugee allowed him to have experiences he never would have had. If he had remained in Tibet, he’d be cloistered in what he called “a golden cage, the Lama, the Dalai Lama.” In exile, he has had the opportunity to travel the world, to meet scientists, writers and different spiritual practitioners, and us mere mortals. He can be one of the 7 billion people of which he sees himself as just one.

Has he forgotten what happened? Has he forgotten what it was like to leave everything behind and escape in the middle of the night? Probably not. But he has adjusted and embraced the opportunities presented to him.

I hope I never have to show the kind of forgiveness and compassion that His Holiness and the Archbishop have. What I hope to have is the ability to not sweat the small stuff; to forgive those who hurt me or people I care about. To have compassion for those who are suffering whether from natural or human-created disasters and problems. To have compassion for everyone who is hurting, including those who have hurt others.

We have hours to go until our Neila service, when the heavenly gates begin to close. Since Rosh Hashanah we have been praying and singing, wishing and hoping, to move God from kisei din, the throne of judgment, to kisei rachamim, the throne of compassion. As we continue to examine our inner selves, as we reach down into our kishes and ask ourselves, “is there someone whom I need to forgive?” “Is there someone who needs my compassion” I pray that our prayers be heartfelt, whether they’re printed on the page or not. As we think about our need for compassion and forgiveness, may we resolve to live our lives so that we continue to be deserving of forgiveness, compassion and love from God, from others, and from ourselves.

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