"A Letter To My Children About Chesed"
Dear Roni, Tom, Danielle and Yonatan,
It is Yom Kippur, the beginning of 5777, and I am worried. I am worried about the growing displays of hatred, lack of tolerance and divisiveness that are striking our country.
These are difficult times and I think we can, and have to change this, and I believe we can do it, if we all just knew more about CHESED.
Chesed is the Jewish attribute of grace, loving-kindness, benevolence, or compassion. According to Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, when Chesed is demonstrated and extended to others - we are able break our own boundaries of selfishness.
When you are able to treat others with true Chesed, you become a better person and the world becomes a better place. What more could a father hope for you, than to become the best possible people you can be, in a much better world than we are living in today.
That’s why I want to share with you my thoughts about Chesed.
Sometimes the best way to truly understand a behavior, is to find a strong role model, and for me, a person that taught me what Chesed was, and had a great impact on my life, was Shimon Peres.
Born in 1923, during the stormy days leading to the establishment of the State of Israel, Peres’ life was tied to the life of our Jewish homeland. He was an incredible statesman, three times a prime minister and the ninth president of the State of Israel. Chosen in the early 1940’s by David Ben Gurion as his prot�g�, Shimon Peres served as a member of twelve cabinets in a political career spanning nearly 70 years. Peres was not your ordinary politician. Not only did he speak six languages, was a poet and songwriter, but above all - he was a visionary.
At Peres’ memorial service, President Obama said: “He knew better than the cynic that if you look out over the arc of history, human beings should be filled not with fear, but with hope.”
Peres was a visionary, a dreamer and an advocate for peace. He often had many people who did not see eye to eye with him. He faced opposition and controversies more than any other Israeli politician, after all, it’s impossible to be a leader for such a long time, with such a clear vision, and to not have people who will disagree with you. And yet, not even for one moment did he lose his ability to handle his critics and his foes with Chesed. And with grace, loving-kindness, and compassion in a way that broke his own boundaries of selfishness.
Handling disagreements is a normal occurrence in leadership, unfortunately, treating those who disagree with you with Chesed, is not.
I am very proud of the leadership roles you kids have already assumed in your school and in the NFTY youth movement, and I have no doubt that you will continue to play even bigger roles as you mature. As you assume these roles, remember that you too will have your share of people who don’t see eye to eye with you, however, what is yet to be determined is how you will handle these differences. In those moments, I hope you remember Shimon Peres, his ability to treat his foes with Chesed, and that you too will be able to be the better person in any argument or dispute you face.
Peres was not loved by all Israelis, but he was respected by them. In his life he dealt with thousands of Israelis, many who were his opposition, people who called him “naive” at best, or “traitor” at worst, and yet those thousands, still came to display their last respects to him when he was brought to his final rest and they were joined by over 90 world leaders who came to fare him goodbye. Such displays of respect are becoming very rare in our world. But I believe it is not surprising, because when you deal with others with Chesed, and break your own boundaries of selfishness, others will do the same.
I want to share more about my role model, Shimon Peres. But, before I do, I want to segue for a moment and tell you a different story. It’s a famous story from the Talmud. It’s about a party that took place in Jerusalem, in the time before the destruction on the 2nd Temple.
It’s a story about a wealthy man who throws a party for his friends. Unfortunately, the servant who delivered the invitations got confused and accidentally, invited a person called Bar Kamtza to the party. Bar Kamtza happened to be a long time enemy of the wealthy man.
The party begins, and immediately with it, so does the trouble. The wealthy host finds his sworn enemy sitting at the party, enjoying himself, and immediately demands that he get out!
Bar Kamtza, already seated and wanting to avoid the embarrassment, offers to pay the host for what he is eating and drinking.
"No!", the wealthy man responds.
Trying to avoid a scene, Bar Kamtza says, "Listen, I'll pay for half of the party, if you let me stay!"
"Listen, I'll pay for the entire party, just don't humiliate me by throwing me out!"
But the host was adamant, and Bar Kamtza was physically ejected from the party.
At this party there were also few leaders of the community, including lay leaders and rabbis, including Rabbi Zechariah, who witnessed the whole scene.
I can only imagine his internal struggle being witness to this scene. On one hand, he is only a guest at the party, and he might not know all the details leading to this confrontation. On the other hand, I am sure that as a rabbi he was thinking to himself that he should intervene and help prevent the public humiliation of Bar Kamtza. Perhaps he could say a few words to the host and convince him to allow Bar Kamtza to stay. After all, Jewish tradition teaches that embarrassing someone in public is like the spilling of his blood.
But he did nothing. Rabbi Zechariah remained silent and Bar Kamtza was disgracefully kicked out of the party.
I wish I could tell you that the story ends here, but unfortunately that is not the case.
Bar Kamtza, humiliated and hurt, was so angry, not just at the host, but even more so at the rabbis who did nothing to stop the travesty. For him, it was clear that if these rabbis, these spiritual leaders of this country, who said nothing and thus approved of such behavior, then the country they lived in did not deserve to exist.
And so, filled with thoughts of revenge, Bar Kamtza came up with a manipulative plan to revenge his humiliation. A plan that incited the Roman Caesar against the Jews and eventually brought upon the destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the sanctuary, and the exile of the Jewish people from our Land.
Why am I telling this story to you on this day?
Because, I am afraid. And, because this story gives voice to some of my personal biggest fears.
Because, even though this is a story about the past, it is just as relevant in the present.
I know that it might be hard to make the connection between a story that happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago and the reality in which we live in today, but I am afraid that history might be repeating itself.
This beautiful country of ours, one which I am proud to have become a citizen of this past year, is facing difficult times. It is being torn up from within, by partisanship, by hatred, by a lack of vision and a lack of compassion, a lack of Chesed. We are in many ways, facing dangerous times.
Often, we focus on external threats which dilutes our ability to see that we might be missing the main message this story is conveying, which is that the biggest threat to any society is “Sinat Chinam" - hatred of each other.
It was only when the Jews of the land of Israel displayed “Sinat Chinam" - the worst kind of hatred, the one displayed to a family member, that the forces from outside were able to destroy all they had.
We too have our “Romans” that are lingering out of our doors, waiting for their opportunity to cause damage, to destroy life as we know it. Be it ISIS terrorists or Russian hackers. Be it the North Korean hydrogen bomb or Iran’s' nuclear and long range missile ambitions. These powers operate best when we are weak from within, when they see, realize and understand that we are spending the vast majority of our energy on internal fights, rather than uniting within to face our threats from without.
If we continue going down the path we are walking on, we are opening the door for these threats to walk in. We need to put a lock back on that door, and that lock must be the attribute of Chesed. If we do more to treat each other with grace, loving-kindness, and compassion, if we break our own boundaries of selfishness, we have a chance to succeed.
But that is just one of my fears.
My other is much more personal, it hits home.
It’s about the role of the rabbis in this story.
Because the story ends with a statement by Rabbi Yochanan who says,
"The humility of R. Zechariah destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land."
I think Rabbi Yochanan is being too nice. What he is really saying is that Rabbi Zechariah’s, under the cover of humility, chose to do NOTHING, and that is why Jerusalem was destroyed, our temple burned, and we were exiled from our land.
The story is very clear that the person to blame is Rabbi Zechariah, and with him all the rest of the rabbis.
You see, this story was written in the Talmud, which at that time was mostly read and studied by the rabbis. It wasn't very accessible to the ordinary person - IT WAS A DIRECT MESSAGE to the rabbis and to all those in leadership positions.
Why were you so quiet when you saw this happening? Why did you not say anything standing in front of such hatred between brothers, between people of the same community, the same country? And why were you such cowards as to not act, allowing the events to get so out of control and lead to such destruction?
And this my kids, is my deepest concern.
I am concerned that I am betraying my role as a rabbi by not standing up and doing all I can to prevent the dangers that threaten us, especially the danger of “Sinat chinam”. I am afraid that I am letting you down as a father, in not doing my role in trying to heal this rupture in our society before it gets even more out of control.
What would I have done, if I had been at that banquet?
In many ways, Rabbi Zechariah had it easy. I want to believe that if it were me, I would stand up and say in the loudest and most authoritative voice I could garner:
I would take a deep breath, look at the fighting sides and remind them of what Hillel taught us, that the entire Torah can be summarized in one sentence, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I would have reminded them, just as I did 10 days ago, here on Rosh Hashanah, that making peace between two people is one of the rabbinic 10 commandments.
I would share with them my message from last night about the power of forgiveness.
Shimon Peres was the exact opposite of Rabbi Zechariah. I say this because he dared standing up, at the appropriate times and saying the things that people HAD to hear, even if they didn't want to hear them.
And so today, I feel I need to be a little bit more like Shimon Peres and a little bit less like Rabbi Zechariah.
Today I want to be true to myself, to fulfill my role as a rabbi, as a leader, as a father, because if I remain silent, I too am responsible, like Rabbi Zechariah for the destruction that might follow.
And my message to you today has nothing to do with supporting any side of any of the arguments that are tearing our society apart. My message today is a message about CHESED.
Just a few days ago, we all saw an amazing display of unity take place in our midst. A hurricane that was supposed to be like no other, was threatening to cause devastating damage to our community, just as it did to the people of Haiti. For 48 hours, it seemed that we forgot our disagreements, that we no longer valued people by their political opinions about this issue or another. For 48 hours, posts on Facebook were not about how ridiculous, non-trustworthy and dangerous those are who think differently than us but they were about helping each other, and genuine concern for others.
For 48 hours we opened our homes, our hearts and truly cared for one another.
AND WHILE IT WAS BEAUTIFUL - IT IS NOT ENOUGH. WE CAN’T ONLY BEHAVE LIKE THAT WHEN THERE IS A NATURAL DISASTER THREATENING US.
We must not wait for the sword to be placed on our throats, for the cancer to spread so far, before we act with CHESED towards each other.
It begins with me, and I hope continues with you.
I know I have not just to deliver this message, but to live by it.
And you need not just hear it, you need to be the ones that carry this message.
From this day, into the future. Into your future and the future of our country.
A message, that it is our religious obligation to act with Chesed, with compassion, and with grace toward each other.
TODAY- not tomorrow.
It is my obligation, as a father, that wants you to have nothing but the best, to stand here today and say that if we do not work diligently to heal our country, there will be no winners or losers – for we will all end up losing.
I want to believe that I have a role. I want to believe that someday in the future when you read this letter and judge me, for what I tried to do, you will say I succeeded.
And I know my role is not to share my personal opinions on any of the issues that divide us.
At best I can share with you the Jewish wisdom and teachings regarding the values that should shape our lives and how we make decisions in this country.
But even that is not truly necessary because you have already been exposed to so many of these teachings.
You have celebrated Passover and know that we were once refugees and that our history dictates how we should treat the modern day refugee crisis or handle those seeking to live in peace among us.
You have talked to holocaust survivors and know the dangers that we face when we allow any kind and form of racism to lift its face.
You know that when you don’t stand up to protect any group of people deemed as “OTHER” be it based on ethnicity, color, race, country of origin or religion, then you need not be surprised when no one is left standing up for you.
You heard about TIKKUN OLAM and realize we have a REAL- igious obligation to look out for our environment, to make sure we do all we can do, so that when we leave this planet it is in a better condition than when we were born.
You know what Tzedakah means, and how we as Jews are obligated to take care of the most vulnerable people in our society.
You know that the Torah warns us from having a royal class that is too rich, too influential and too powerfu to a point they can send all the rest of the people to war to protect their financial interests.
You have heard the stories of our dysfunctional patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis, the stories about the failings and wrong doings of great people such as Moses and King David. You know that the Torah does not expect our leaders to be perfect, but rather that the Torah expects our leaders to be imperfect, to make mistakes and what truly matters is if they are able to express sincere remorse for their mistakes, and learn from them.
You, who are affiliated with the Reform movement know that the founders of our movement realized that we are all created in the image of God and that all people should have the opportunity to live in happiness, enjoying the same freedoms as everyone else with the person they love, regardless of their gender.
And you, born in Israel, or born here, but with an identity deeply rooted in our promised land, are aware for the need to have a strong, viable, progressive State of Israel - a state that is an exemplar of all the teaching of our prophets about justice and being a light unto the nations.
So what can I do today? What is my responsibility to you and to my congregation?
It’s to make you carry the word Chesed on your lips, and in your hearts.
I hope I can make a difference, even a small one, by stressing to you again and again the attribute of Chesed. The importance of treating others with grace, loving-kindness, generosity, and compassion. The importance of breaking our own boundaries of selfishness.
I am not one to easily admit I am wrong, but today, I hope I can make a difference, even a small one, by pushing us to distance ourselves from the feeling of self-righteousness and the conception we too often have that we are the ones that hold on to the truth. The absolute truth. In Hebrew, “truth” is “Emet.” It’s spelled Alef, Mem, Taf. The first, the middle and the last letter of the Aleph- Bet. That is the face of truth - it’s held on both sides by the extreme opinions, but it usually is found in the middle.
I pray and hope that we are the people that are more like Shimon Peres and less like Rabbi Zechariah. That we are the ones who know how to ACT WITH CHESED.
That we are the ones who understand the true meaning of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Even the neighbor who disagrees with us, that at best calls us na�ve and at worst calls us a traitor – just like Shimon Peres.
That we are the ones who avoid Sinat Chinam, hatred. That we are the ones who focus on what we have in common with those who think differently than us, That we are the ones finding the truth – in the middle, in the compromise. That we are the ones who realize how at the end of the day, we all want exactly the same things for our children and grandchildren.
I pray and hope, that even if we can’t see the eye of the hurricane on a synoptic map, we do not close an eye to the hurricane that is threating to ruin our lives, the Hurricane of Sinat Chinam.
I pray that we will always be able to focus on working together, to protect ourselves, and each other from the devastating destruction it might bring. Regardless of our differences.
My kids, I hope that if you ever find yourself –anywhere, in a situation where a person is being mistreated because he/she holds a different opinion, that you remember this letter, and that you like the man I admired so much – act with Chesed.
Because then, and only then, the promise we find in Psalm 89 will come true: “Olam Chesed Yibaneh”
That if you build this world with Chesed,
And I build this world with Chesed,
And all of us build this world with Chesed.
God will build this world with Chesed.