Rabbi Toba Spitzer
This past summer, I went on a meditation retreat at a center located in the town of Barre, Mass. At the end of the retreat, I went to a little diner and enjoyed a breakfast of eggs, homefries, and iced tea – all of which cost $2.50.
When it came time to pay the bill, I looked in my wallet, and saw that the smallest bill was a $10 bill. But here I was, after a week of silent contemplation, in an expansive space, feeling generous. So when my waitress took awhile coming back to my table, I went up to the front and gave the woman, the owner I think, the $10, and told her to keep the change, to give it as a tip to the waitress.
What struck me in that moment was the look on her face. She didn’t seem happy, or pleased, but incredulous, in fact upset. She didn’t even look at me, just stared at the bill, and said “That’s crazy.”
That’s crazy. Why is it crazy to be generous? It struck me, that morning, how turned around things are in our world. What I did was not so magnificent—granted, a 300% tip isn’t the norm, but neither is $7 and 50 cents the greatest gift ever given. But I’ve discovered, that more often than not—when I’m honest in a transaction, when I act from a place of generosity with someone I don’t know, it’s often greeted as something quite out of the ordinary; almost shocking, even.
Most of us are decent people, and most of the people we know are decent as well. Most of us don’t wake up in the morning thinking, “hmmm, whom can I harm today.” But somehow this doesn’t translate into what we expect of the world around us. “Crazy” is outside our realm of expectation; normal or “realistic” is what we expect. I have begun to wonder if we’re just not comfortable calling that which comes from our better sides “realistic.” It’s “realistic” to be cautious, to expect the worse—especially from other people. It’s “realistic” to have low expectations in general, whether of ourselves or others. It’s “realistic” to think that people more often than not will behave badly. This seems to be true both in daily life, and even more so on the level of nations and politics.
This summer, on a plane, I saw the movie “The Rookie.” A lovely movie, based on a true story, about a man in his mid-30s who realizes a life-long dream of playing major league baseball, at a time in life when most players are ending, not beginning, their careers. The movie was about determination, and human kindness, and the possibility of fulfilling a childhood dream. But when I thought later about the tone of the movie—I realized it had a dreamy, completely unrealistic quality about it. The texture of the movie said “fantasy,” even though it was based on real life. And then I thought about all those thrillers and cop movies and even so-called “fantasy” action pictures, which are always filmed in a hyper-realistic style. What is our culture trying to tell us about what is “realistic,” and what is not?
It matters, what we think is “realistic” and what is not. We order our lives around what we think is realistic. We vote for people to govern us based on what we think is realistic. We set goals for ourselves according to what we think it’s realistic to achieve, to be. It’s an important question—what do we think our reality could be?
I’ve had an image, in recent weeks. In my imagination, I see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center as two aspects of human nature, two sides that were revealed in those horrifying moments one year ago. In one tower—the absolute destruction that we are capable of. The prejudice, the narrow-mindedness, the rage, the fear, the hate. We have to admit, whether it’s Sept. 11th or any other example of human cruelty, what it is that we are capable of.
Yet in those minutes when that cruelty was revealed, and in the hours and days that followed, the other tower also became visible. And in this tower was selflessness, and care, and generosity, and a huge expansiveness of spirit. Not just from those on the scene, but also in the outpouring of caring and support that came from all over America and from all over the world, even from places we may not have expected. So this is also what we human beings are capable of. We can call it “heroic,” but it happens all the time, and it is also us.
Both of these towers are true; both are capacities that we all carry within us. Yet when we remember that moment, one year ago, what stands in our minds first and foremost is the first tower, the dark side. Not that the kindness and selflessness aren’t remembered; many of those acts were beautifully memorialized this past week. But when it comes to how our nation has reacted, overall, I’d have to say that we’ve decided that what’s “realistic” is the possibility of more violence and more hate, not the profound possibility of fundamental human good. We honor the heroes but we don’t imagine that such “heroism” could be a norm in our lives—it remains the exceptional response to an exceptional event. Hatred and violence, on the other hand, we don’t deem exceptional—in fact, we are on constant guard for more evidence of the same.
I am not a naïve person; I try to keep myself informed of all the various injustices and harm being done by human beings to one another all over the globe. And yet I know that just as many acts of kindness and generosity, probably many more, are also occurring each and every day, even if our media sees little interest in reporting on it. Which is more “real”? Is it possible that neither has dominance over the other, that each aspect of human nature is in potential in each of us, that neither has the innate upper hand?
If this is so, then I would suggest that our job is to work to make sure that the good side wins. The good is not concentrated in certain individuals, certain nations, certain religious or ethnic groupings. The good is a human capacity that needs to be nurtured and taught. It lies within all of us, but if we want it to manifest not only in times of crisis but on a daily, fundamental level, then it needs to be organized and expanded in a conscious way.
The word “religion” is a problematic word, because it implies primarily a system of belief. In Biblical and rabbinic Hebrew there is no word for religion; it had to be made up in modern times. When a Jew talked about Judaism, she or he used two words: “Torah” and “halacha.” And both carry essentially the same meaning: a way of life as laid out in Jewish teachings. “Torah” comes from the root for “instruction.” And “halacha,” which is usually translated as “Jewish law,” doesn’t mean literally mean “law.” It comes from the root of the word “to walk.” Halacha means walking, it means a path. In modern lingo, we’d say it’s a “spiritual practice.”
Jewish tradition teaches that positive attributes need to be taught, practiced, and developed in each of us. We aren’t born saintly or sinners; we’re born as human beings with a wide array of choices before us. What matters is our halacha, our walking, the path we take in this life.
A few years ago I had an experience that shocked me, a little bit—I was reading a column by Jeff Jacoby, in the Globe—someone with whom it’s safe to say I vehemently disagree about 99.9% of the time—and I found myself in total agreement with him! He was remarking on the phrase that had grown popular at the time, “practice random acts of kindness.” Jacoby noted how, in Jewish tradition, kindness is not left up to randomness or whim. It’s not even left up to choice, really. We perform deliberate, organized, mandated acts of kindness. It becomes something that one practices, in the real meaning of the word—just as a musician has to sit down and work at it for hours a day.
The idea of “spiritual practice” or “Jewish practice” might feel somewhat strange to some of you, or perhaps it just sounds too difficult. But it’s probably true that we all have some kind of practice. Sadly, that practice can often be a negative one. We could call this misery practice, the practice of bringing out the negative in ourselves and in others. There is so much misery practice going on in the world, sometimes I’m amazed.
We practice having a negative attitude by complaining. This is a fairly common practice. We tell ourselves and others how lousy something is, how poorly someone behaved, how disappointed we are in all kinds of things. We don’t just say it once, we may feel the need to repeat it many times. Practice. It’s amazing how the practice of complaining can make the world smaller and darker, how we can come to expect disappointment, to be guarded against it at every turn.
We practice selfishness a lot as well, worrying about what we need and what others are getting that we don’t have. We practice anger—this is an easy one to practice, it seems to come so naturally. I was interested to read recently that the popular theory of the 1970s, that anger needed to be expressed in order to be released, is in fact quite wrong, and that expressing anger only makes us more angry. I could have told the researchers that. During the baseball season I listen to sports radio—and if you want to hear people who have a serious anger practice, who can work themselves into a frenzy about things that are of less than life and death importance, give a listen to WEEI. It’s amazing how practiced in anger some people are. And what does this practice achieve? Usually a lot of suffering, for ourselves and those around us.
And the list goes on—some of us practice despair, some of us practice cynicism, some of us practice denigrating ourselves. I don’t think we practice these things because we’re inherently evil, and for the most part we don’t even intend to practice these things. They are unconscious practices that are in some way reinforced by the culture around us. You deserve better—it’s right to complain. Someone hurt you—you’re justified in getting angry. Only suckers tell the truth—you’re smart to take advantage if you can get away with it.
This is what Jewish practice is for—to teach us that we can in fact learn to live our lives in a more positive way. To teach us that our souls, our neshamot, are pure and that we can live our lives as if we really believe that.
I’d like to talk about just a few of the Jewish practices that are enormously helpful in getting us to expand those aspects of ourselves that can help make us, and the people around us, happier and more whole. People sometimes denigrate Judaism for having so many rules, but there’s great wisdom in it. All true spiritual & ethical practice has rules. All true spiritual and ethical practice is somewhat hard, and doesn’t always feel natural at first. If you’ve ever tried Eastern meditation and tried to wrap your legs around in that unbelievably uncomfortable way, you know what I’m talking about. It’s easier if you start when you’re young, but it’s never too late to start.
Practice #1: The power of speech, shmirat lashon. Jewish tradition puts an enormous amount of emphasis on the power of our words. Our foundational story tells us that the world was created through speech—God just said, “let there be—“ –and there was. There are many many specific rules about speech, but I just want to summarize a few here. The main rule is, avoid negative speech, lashon harah. This means, in practice, to not say anything bad about anyone at any time. Not so easy. It includes not saying something about someone to someone else that might prompt that person to say something negative about them. It includes not saying bad things about oneself. It includes not saying bad things about groups of people. Some of the rabbis taught that silence was best; and the truth is, if we stopped talking badly about others, our conversation might indeed be drastically reduced…
But start small; don’t try all at once to cut out all negative speech. Try becoming aware of when you do it. You might want to ask yourself, why am I doing this? Am I making someone else appear small because I’m feeling small? Am I doing it to amuse myself? Am I doing it out of habit? Imagine that person standing directly behind you as you say it. Try stopping yourself just once or twice during the course of a day from some unnecessary act of lashon harah. See what it feels like when you do that.
There is also a belief in the power of positive speech. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, taught that whatever the first thing is that you say in the morning, that will set the tone for your entire day. This is a great teaching. Notice the first words to come out of your mouth in the morning. If they’re negative, try waiting until you have something positive to say, or learn the traditional words that a Jew says upon awaking: Modah ani lifenecha, ruach chai v’kayam, sh’chazarta bi nishmati b’chemla, rabah emunatecha. I am grateful before you, living and enduring spirit, for bringing me to consciousness with love, great is your faithfulness. A shorter version would be to just say, “Thank you,” every single time you wake up.
Practice #2: Gratitude. About 75%, maybe more, of traditional Jewish liturgy is the expression of gratitude and praise. This is not because the rabbis believed that God needed to hear our thankyous. It’s because experiencing the world from a place of gratitude is a wonderful way to live. But it’s natural to not always feel so grateful, and so we have this practice of saying blessings in order to awaken within us a sense of gratitude. This is what blessings are for. There is a blessing for just about everything. A blessing for waking up. Blessings for getting out of bed and putting on clothes. A blessing for when we take a poop—my personal favorite! Blessings whenever we eat or drink. And the list goes on. A system of constant awareness that to be alive is a blessing, to have what we have is a blessing, to be aware is a blessing in and of itself.
I would extend this practice and say that we should express our gratitude not only to God, but to the human beings in our lives. All of them. Especially the ones we sometimes tend not to see—the people who bag the groceries, and put gas in the car, and hand us our sandwich, who wait on us in a million different ways. Our teachers, our kids’ teachers, the person at the tollbooth. Jewish practice tells us that you don’t always have to feel so grateful to say “thankyou.” Sometimes the saying creates the feeling. Gratitude needs to be increased in our world, and especially in a society like ours where we are using up the earth’s resources as if it’s our right, as if it’s owed to us. There is a serious gratitude lack in American culture. When you’re grateful for something, you realize how precious it is. When you’re not grateful, you think you don’t have enough, and you are driven to accumulate more.
In addition to saying blessings, you can keep a gratitude journal. Make a practice to write down every day a few things that you are grateful for. This is especially good to do if you’re feeling depressed, if the world feels like a hard place to be. Becoming aware of even the small things for which you are grateful can help shift your outlook, and can make others respond to you in a different way.
Practice #3: Chesed, lovingkindness. As I mentioned earlier, Judaism doesn’t leave acts of kindness up to chance. In a traditional Jewish community, acts of kindness are highly structured—caring for those who are ill or in mourning, providing for those in the community who lack what they need—there are guidelines and teachings about how to perform all these mitzvot of chesed. We need this practice from all sides. It’s good to practice giving, even when—perhaps especially when—we don’t feel like it, it’s not convenient. It’s good to practice giving without expectation of anything in response. In the traditional understanding, the one who gives another person the opportunity to do a mitzvah is doing that person a favor—not the other way around. So we don’t wait for thanks when do an act of chesed—we thank the person we did it for, thanking them for giving us the opportunity to practice a loving act.
And for some of us, it might be even more important to practice being on the receiving end—because the dominant culture tells us we should be self-sufficient, and that our problems are personal, and nobody else’s business. It’s good to practice letting people care for us when we’re ill, to practice letting people into our homes, even if we don’t really know them—because this is the way that we learn that we are interconnected, that we need other people in order to live. We learn that we can’t do everything ourselves. We learn that it’s okay to be vulnerable. We learn that we can trust other people. We learn, when we give and when we receive chesed, of the great expansiveness of heart and spirit that every human being is capable of.
And finally, Practice #4: Tzedakah, mandatory giving to those in need. This is a practice that most of us know about, but is not so easy to fulfill to the extent that halacha requires. Jewish practice instructs us to give away 10%–which is the average amount, with 5% as the minimum–of our total income to support those in need. There are interesting questions as to what constitutes tzedekah, as the category of “tax-exempt” in American law is somewhat broader than the Jewish category of tzedekah. Traditionally, it has been understood as support for those who are poor, who are most vulnerable in our communities.
But however you define tzedekah, the whole practice of giving away a significant chunk of money to those in need and to address social and economic and environmental problems is quite amazing. Not just because those people and groups need the money. But also because the practice of tzedakah teaches us things about money that we might not learn otherwise. Most importantly, it teaches that our money is not entirely “ours,” not in our control to do with whatever we feel like. We have to give a big chunk of it away. Maimonides, in his code of law, wrote that if people of means failed to fulfill their tzedakah obligation, the leaders of their community could have their property seized and the offender could be flogged. This is a serious practice. But we shouldn’t do it just because we don’t want to get flogged. If we really embrace this mitzvah, we find that it cultivates in us a sense of generosity, a sense of connectedness and obligation to others. In rabbinic teachings, the giving of tzedekah brings a person closer to God and leads to rewards in this life and the next. I would interpret this to mean that giving tzedekah is a powerful spiritual practice, not just a material one. It expands our spirits, helps us overcome the tendency towards selfishness, towards a mentality of scarcity that impoverishes both us and the communities of which we are a part.
I know that many of you are already engaged in one or more of these practices. Let us be teachers for one another, support one another as we try to walk this path. Jewish practice really can’t be done alone; we need the support and encouragement of our community. The Chesed Committee has given a lot of thought to what it means to help people practice chesed in our congregation, and this is important learning and practice that we will need to continue to do. In the realm of shmirat lashon, guarding our speech, we can also help one another out—we can gently remind someone if they are about to say something negative about someone else. One is also forbidden to listen to lashon harah, so it is not out of the question to simply leave the room when you hear it being spoken. The highest value is not to cause shame to another person, so we need to be gentle and thoughtful in helping one another in this practice.
Tzedakah is another place that we can support one another. Finances are such a private thing in America, but in Jewish tradition there is not the sense of shame and secrecy. What would it be like to get together with another person, another family, and work out together the amount of tzedekah you’re going to give this year, and who you’re going to give it to? Perhaps this is the year that Dorshei Tzedek can organize a tzedakah collective, a group that is committed to pooling funds and making joint decisions about giving.
And gratitude. This would be a wonderful practice to really work on together. I have been so pleased at how much gratitude comes my way—not all rabbis receive that from their communities, and so I count it as a blessing and do not take it for granted. Let’s make sure that our gratitude is being expressed adequately throughout our community, to all those who do the amazing work that makes this place run.
As a community, I think it would actually have an impact on the world if the vision we held of human society was one that reflected the Tower of kindness, the Tower of generosity and big-heartedness, and not the Tower of destruction. It would be an amazing practice if we refused to believe that to be “realistic” is to expect violence and distrust to always have the upper hand. If we rejected cynicism and doubt as the most reasonable response to a world that is broken.
Judaism is a messianic religion. This means that we believe that things can be different, and in fact will be different. We are about to say the Aleinu prayer, a prayer originally composed for the High Holydays. This is a prayer that imagines a world transformed, a world where all peoples come together to acknowledge one Truth. It calls us l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, to repair the world based on a vision of the Godly possibilities that we hold within us. And this repair will not be effected despite human nature, but because of it—because each of us is created b’tzelem elohim, in a Godly image, and therefore has the capacity to live from that Godly place within us. I look forward to practicing with you in this new year.
Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Kol Nidre 5763