Second Day Rosh Hashanah 5774
Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin ICCJ
In one of his newer collections of Jewish law, (Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1, pp. 162-163) Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes about a 71 year old man named Manny, who was bothered throughout his life by a pain he had inflicted on a childhood friend named Eddie. Sixty years after the event, Manny wrote Eddie and recalled the incident. A group of boys had gathered around Eddie and taunted him for throwing a ball like a girl. When Eddie recognized Manny coming toward him, Eddie said something like “I knew you would stand by me.”
But, Manny did not stand by his friend. Instead, he joined the other boys. As he wrote Eddie, “I saw your disappointment in me, as I inflicted such cruelty upon you.”
Manny concluded his letter, “So now I am apologizing for my behavior then, on Wildwood Street. Though I wanted to say these words to you [over the years], I felt that I couldn’t. Typing these words has been difficult enough for me. Your loving friend, Manny.”
He did not just put the letter in the mail box. He delivered the letter to Eddie in person.
The two men reconnected. Eddie shared that he in fact had a weak arm, and that was why he threw the way he did.
Eddie died eighteen months after receiving the letter. When he passed, Manny had no regrets when it came to that relationship. He realized that he was at peace with the situation, because he took the time to have a face to face conversation with Eddie. Instead of putting a stamp on an envelope, or sending an email or a text, Manny renewed a real connection with Eddie.
I share this account because I read a similar story this year, in the form of fiction. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce describes a journey of the recently-retired Harold Fry as he sets out one morning to post a letter. Without giving away too much, as this book will be reviewed during our Book Café later this year, Harold finds himself at the start of a journey, following his own Lech Lecha moment. He will walk hundreds of miles from home, and deliver a letter in person to Miss Queenie Hennessey, a former colleague.
Harold, like Manny, wanted to have that human connection and Harold needed to apologize to Queenie. While he wrote the letter, he too attempted to be there with Queenie when the content of the letter was read.
When a person walks daily for 87 days, or 627 miles, they are bound to meet at least a few colorful characters. From his home in Kingsbridge, England to Berwick-upon-Tweed, Harold bumped into one fascinating individual after another. The stories he heard “surprised him and moved him, and none…left him untouched.”
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the most Jewish themed non Jewish book I have ever read.
About ninety pages into the book, Harold engages in conversation with a distinguished looking, silver haired man. After eating and talking, Harold realizes that the silver haired man was nothing like Harold had imagined him to be when he first saw him, before he took the time to know him. Rachel Joyce writes “He was a chap like himself, with a unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a café…”
Joyce continued. “It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and every day. The loneliness of that. He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. “
“The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal.” Those words resonated with me. We all carry burdens. Some of us have external scars, from childbirth, accidents, hot water, even acne. There are a significant number of people in the room who need assistance when walking, or other activities.
And there are many in this sacred community who keep deep scars buried on the inside, for nobody else to see. As we deepen our relationships with one another at ICCJ, we realize that we are all scarred. Some of our scars are visible, some are hidden beneath clothing, and other scars are impressed so much deeper on the inside. We all know the stories that people wear on their sleeves. What we don’t always know is what lies beneath someone’s smile.
A number of weeks ago, I heard Rabbi Avi Weiss describe two different types of synagogues. The first is the country club model. Just from the name of it, you can assume high dues, and high maintenance. All the details including the furnishing, landscaping and people are pretty and perfect. In this model, people sport fake smiles and don’t try to get to know each other.
The second model is the Bayit, where the synagogue feels like home. Bayit is Hebrew for home. In the Bayit model, one accepts and embraces everyone to grow and heal and develop and become who we need to be. Look around. From my vantage point, ICCJ is a Bayit. I hope we retain this identity. ICCJ should never be mistaken for a Jewish country club. On our publicity literature we describe ourselves as the Caring Community for a reason-that is who we strive to be. When you become part of ICCJ, you notice that there are people like Manny and Harold, who walk that extra mile for you-to pray with you, cry with you and celebrate with you.
Next week on Yom Kippur, we will read the Avodah service, the ritual of the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol. The first pages in tractate Yoma of the Talmud are dedicated to the solitary day each year when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple. There is an intense attention to detail to ensure that this man would be exceptionally fit and ritually pure.It is doubtful that the Kohen Gadol himself was completely unscarred, in some dimension. If so, he would not be able to do capara, atonement for himself when he entered the Holy of Holies. But of course, the people only saw the outside of the Kohen Gadol, not his interior.
Modern day analysis notwithstanding, a blemished Kohen was prohibited from serving. There was even an understudy Kohen waiting in the wings the entire time. In ancient times people were rejected for their imperfections. Looking at this ritual with my post modern eyes, I find it troubling and disturbing. This is not a behavior we should be emulating.
Could you imagine if someone in your Bayit, your own home was rejected because of an imperfection-physcial, emotional or mental? That is not how families work. And we should not do that here in our Bayit at ICCJ either. If we detect an imperfection in someone, then we should remain tolerant and welcome, unlike our ancestors did. As the spiritual leader of this community, I would never think of rejecting someone due to genetics or physical reasons. I actually find the ritual of the Kohen Gadol and Yom Kippur offensive
ברוך אתה ה’ א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, משנה הבריות
Blessed are you God, Our Lord, Ruler of the universe, who makes creatures different..
That is the wonderful Jewish response to seeing someone who might seem different. With this bracha, we thank God for all of our differences that God helped create, and then hopefully we can make new friends
Returning to the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce writes “Harold thought of all the people he had already met on his journey. All of them were different, but none struck him as strange. He considered his own life and how ordinary it might look from the outside, when really it held such darkness and trouble. “
As we walk down the street, or sit in traffic on the highways, everyone around us is on a journey. We don’t know other people’s starting points, and we definitely don’t know where they are all going. We don’t know what is happening inside them. It is hard to identify a person who is depressed, the victim of emotional trauma or someone that is lonely.
Rachel Joyce again: “the world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other, and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it has been doing it for a long time… everyone was the same, and also unique, and that this was the dilemma of being human.
At ICCJ, we want to maintain our bayit, where all people are welcome. While our inner scars are invisible, these inner pains can be as numerous as their outer counterparts. We don’t always know what is going on.
Mental health and associated issues still have a stigma, and for some reason, people are less eager to share that they are lonely. We need to change that.
In a recent article in E-Jewish Philanthropy, Marci Mayer Eisen penned a radical blog entry and wrote that the Jewish community needs to “shift from obsessing over our institutions, current events and cultural trends to what each of us is struggling with on a deep and personal level. If we are in the “business” of community, then we need to have more conversations about loneliness and the importance of relationships. If we want our work to be inspiring and relevant, we need to talk about basic human needs.
Everyone is struggling with something – health problems, emotional challenges, deep disappointments and loss. Sometimes these pains are evident, but most of the time we hide our true feelings from those around us… We post our pictures of happy families and good times on Facebook and, at the same time, hide the pain behind the pictures.”
People are vulnerable. People are lonely. People are scared. Thankfully, the doors of ICCJ are open wide to let all people in. But we still need to be cognizant and more welcoming, especially here in our bayit, our home our synagogue.
All of us are broken in some way.
By acknowledging our brokenness we realize we all have room for improvement. We can reach out to God as the Psalmist declares, “A broken heart and a contrite heart, O God, Thou will not despise.”
Dr. Ron Wolfson believes that “Judaism is its very essence is a relational religion, born of a covenant between God and the people Israel, sustained for millennia by a system of behaving, belonging and believing that grows and evolves through time and space. “ We need to ensure that the system we have in place in this Bayit is a system where everyone feels welcome and that they belong, no matter how they feel or what they look like.
At some point in the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Harold becomes a celebrity. He gets some media coverage and even a Facebook fan page. People support his journey. That is what we need to do in our Bayit. We need to realize that everyone is at a different point on their own journey and support those journeys.
There is a beautiful midrash that states that at the time of resurrection if one dies lame or blind, he comes back lame or blind, so that people shall not say, “those He allowed to die are different from those He restored to life.” Ub’sof, Ani Chozer ומרפאן But in the end I will heal them.
The beauty of Midrash is that it is up to the reader to understand it. Who will be healed? Not the individual who was lame or blind. Their limitations will still exist. God won’t give them the ability to do things they could not do when they lived among us. Rather, society will be healed and will not regard these individual as deficient. In the World to Come, people will have scars, but they will not be seen as blemishes. Society will be nobler, welcoming, accepting but not perfect. It will be a world where we love our neighbors as ourself, no matter what condition they are in.
When referring to covenantal and intentional inclusive communities, some people like to use the metaphor of the big tent. I prefer the metaphor of the table. Based on years of summer camp, I associate tents with sleeping, spiders and snoring friends. But what do we do at a table? We eat. We are definitely awake for that activity. It might look to you like you are all sitting in rows, but I see us all as sitting at one huge banquet table, about to break bread together. Let’s pretend we are one of those families that has a no phone at the table rule. If we have no phones, that means we actually speak to each other, and inquire about one another’s day and share successes and frustrations.
Take a moment and find the person sitting closest to you that you don’t know and introduce yourself. Wish them a shana tova.
Hinei Matov umanayim, shevet achim gam yachad
How good and how pleasant it is for people to dwell together as a community. We all have our reasons for being imperfect. But when we sit together at this table, we should focus on what binds us together.
This year, two programs are being planned in addition to the Sisterhood sukkah supper, with the goal of getting more members of the ICCJ family to sit at smaller tables together: a progressive dinner in the fall and a new Shabbat experience called Sharing Shabbat in the Hood, scheduled for 2014. I urge you to participate and deepen you relationship with other people who, like you, choose to cal ICCJ their Bayit, their home.
This year, when you find yourself shooting off an email or a text, remember what Manny did and remember what Harold did.
Whenever you can, go the extra distance. It will be worth it.