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RH 2 Sermon 5778

Rosh Hashanah, Day 2 - 5778

Rabbi Michael Mishkin

Temple Beth Israel

Breaking Down the Walls that Divide Us



Does anyone know what happened on February 25th, 1979?


That’s the date that the longest running sports chant in history was born.  To this day, 38 years later -- New York Ranger fans chant—at every home game—two words, which basically mean former New York Islander, Dennis Potvin is not very good. 


On that date in 1979, a talented Rangers team was firing on all cylinders. Ulf Nilsson, a young forward with a lot of promise was becoming an offensive force for the Rangers. Enter Denis Potvin--the hard-hitting young defenseman with the Islanders.

With 1:20 left in the period, Rangers fans saw a sight to enrage them, when Potvin crushed Nilsson against the boards in the left corner--resulting in a broken ankle.

Nilsson was lost for the season and was never the same again. The Rangers made it to the Stanley Cup Finals that year that year, only to lose to the Montreal Canadiens.  Rangers fans still ponder, what if Ulf Nilsson had been healthy -- could they have won the Stanley Cup?


One of the reasons this interaction between the two hockey players was so momentous is that the Rangers would have to go another 15 years before they won the Stanley Cup—ending a 54 year drought, while the following year, the Islanders rose to the top of the NHL—winning their first of 4 straight Stanley Cups.


The reason I tell you this story today is if you ask any Rangers fan what happened that night in 1979, they’ll tell you it was a cheap hit.  If you ask any Islanders fan, they’ll say it was a hard hit, but a clean hit.


You could put an Islander fan and a Ranger fan in a room for a month to discuss this—they will never see eye-to-eye.  They will never come to an agreement.


And that’s the way it should be when it comes to sports.  Sports fans are partisans of their teams.  They see the world through blinders, which predisposes them to always see their team in the best light, and to always see their arch-rivals in the most negative light.


So it’s easy to understand why two hockey fans (of different teams) can have vastly different opinions about each other’s teams.


But having different opinions is not so benign when it comes to issues and events outside of sports.


Having different views and opinions on issues, events, and politicians can make life very difficult.  Look at the United States Congress, the different views and opinions of those on the Left and those on the Right have led to extreme gridlock.   In the United States, Israel, and many other countries -- communities are becoming more and more divided -- and the chasm seems to be getting wider every day.  Social media and 24-hour cable news have only made the situation worse.  People with different opinions are demonizing each other.  They are not listening to each other.  They are screaming past each other. 


The divisiveness and destructive behavior are enormous problems, but the problems are not caused by the fact that we have different opinions, --the problems are caused because of how we behave vis-à-vis our different opinions.


According to Judaism, people having different opinions was built into the structure of creation.  The Talmud teaches that God created humans in a way, so that they would understand things differently, and have the ability to develop different opinions from one another. 


Why did God do this?!


I will share with you a Talmudic story that addresses this question:


One day Rabbi Yochanan, who was a very good looking man, was swimming in the Jordan River.  Just then, a man name Reish Lakish came by.  Reish Lakish was a criminal, a bandit, the head of a gang of bandits.  He saw Rabbi Yochanan in the river from afar, and thought he was a woman.  Reish Lakish wanted to see this person who he thought was a woman—up close.  So what did he do?  He was a man of great strength—and he took his spear, planted it in the ground, and vaulted himself to the other side of the river.  When Rabbi Yochanan saw Reish Lakish, he said to him, “You have incredible strength, you should dedicate it to Torah.”  Reish Lakish responded, “you have incredible beauty, you should use it to be with women.”  Rabbi Yochanan said to Reish Lakish—if you do teshuvah—if you repent--and become a Torah scholar, I will give you my sister as a wife –and she is even more beautiful than me.  Reish Lakish consented.


Rabbi Yochanan taught Reish Lakish -- Tanach (the Bible) and Mishna, and made him a great scholar.  After a while, they became a chevrutah—regular study companions.  They would learn Torah and Mishnah together, and debate their different understandings of the texts.


One day they had a major disagreement over a detail, relating to a particular law.  The topic had to do with manufacturing swords, knives, and daggers.  The question was: in constructing these items when are they considered fully made or complete?  They disagreed on the answer.  So then Rabbi Yochanan said to Reish Lakish, “A bandit knows all about the tools of robbery.”  Immediately, Reish Lakish was hurt.  But instead of telling Rabbi Yochanan that his comment was out of bounds and hurtful, Reish Lakish decided to return fire with fire, so in anger he said, “What have I gained by learning from you?  When I was the leader of a group of bandits, they called me ‘Master.’  And here—in the study hall, they call me ‘Master.’”  Rabbi Yochanan said, “I benefited you in brining you under the wings of the Divine Presence.”  Rabbi Yochanan was deeply insulted by his friend’s words. Then, as a punishment for causing Rabbi Yochanan’s hurt feelings, Reish Lakish became sick.


Rabbi Yochanan could have prayed for Reish Lakish and healed him, but he did not.  Eventually, Reish Lakish died.  And then—and only then—did Rabbi Yochanan acknowledge what the loss of Reish Lakish meant—so he grieved for him greatly.  The other rabbis from the study hall saw this and said, “What can we do to restore R. Yochanan’s peace of mind?  Let us get R. Eleazar the son of Pedat and have him study with R. Yochanan—for Rabbi Eleazar is smart and he will be a good study companion.” They brought him in, and seated him before R. Yochanan.  For every issue that R. Yochanan mentioned, R. Eleazar said, “There is a teaching that supports you.”  Rabbi Yochanan responded, saying, “Do I need this?  When I made a statement to Reish Lakish, he would object with twenty-four objections, and I would solve them with twenty-four solutions, and thus our knowledge, our traditions, our Torah expanded.  But you say, ‘There is a teaching that supports you.’  Do I not know that my statements are accurate?” 


Rabbi Yochanan tore his clothes and went crying at the gates, “Where are you, Reish Lakish?, Where are you, Reish Lakish?”—he cried out.  He could not be consoled.  R. Yochanan was so miserable--eventually, the sages prayed for him, and he died. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 84a)

Wow! What a story?!


Among the many things this story teaches us, is the value and importance of having different opinions.  When people engage in debates or discuss differing opinions, they can sharpen each other’s arguments and can create new insights.


Another thing we learn is that there is an important balance which must be maintained when we are disagreeing with another person.  If we do it one way, it is constructive, if we do it another way— it can quickly spiral out of control—and become destructive.  There are certain red lines we should not cross.  Rabbi Yochanan initiated the bad behavior, by crossing one of those red lines, when instead of arguing only about the content of the disagreement, he made a personal, verbal attack against Reish Laskish.  Rabbi Yochanan was dismissive and hurtful to Reish Lakish, when he reminded him of his sinful past.


Our Sages provide us with a good rule for how to discuss disagreements”

“Debates for the sake of heaven will have lasting value, but debates not for the sake of heaven have no value,” (Pirkei Avot 5:19).


To debate for the sake of heaven means 2 things.  First, your intentions are noble— you are not arguing in a way to be a nuisance or cruel to the other side. 


Instead, you are arguing an issue because you want to get to a greater truth—either by reconfirming your own view, or by tweaking or changing your view based on the arguments of the other person.


Secondly, arguing for the sake of heaven means you argue strictly about an issue—you do not belittle the other person, you do not verbally attack the other person, or call them names.


Unfortunately, in society today--we do not have many positive examples of people arguing for the sake of heaven.  So it’s up to us to do it.  We should do it so that that we can learn and grow from our debates with others, and to serve as role models.  I would also hope that among the members of our community, we would try to engage in arguments for the sake of heaven, in order to strengthen the community—rather than divide it. 


As great as these Talmudic stories and guidelines are, it can still be very, very difficult to argue respectfully with someone whom you vehemently disagree.  I’d like to share with you some experiences and some words of wisdom from a very special rabbi in Jerusalem—a rabbi named Benny Lau.  Rabbi Benny Lau is the nephew of Israel’s former chief rabbi—Rabbi Israel Meir Lau.  He is also the brother of Amichai Lau-Lavie, a JTS rabbinical school graduate, who founded an innovative prayer community in Manhattan, called Lab/Shul.  Rabbi Benny—as he is known--is one of the few Orthodox voices in Israel who fully supports all streams of Judaism and has dedicated a good part of his rabbinate to bringing together secular and religious Israelis.


*Recently, Rabbi Benny shared some nuggets of wisdom, regarding how to bring together divergent groups.  (*All statements in this sermon attributed to Rabbi Benny Lau were made on a conference call for Rabbis on September 12, 2017.  The call was sponsored by the Jewish National Fund.)


Rabbi Benny said:  “When you live within your own group—when you reside only in an echo chamber--you cannot hear, you cannot see, and you don’t care about any other group.  You want everything to be exactly the way you want it. 


Now if that’s in your own apartment – that’s fine.  However, the problem is that groups behave this way in the public sphere, and it becomes a dangerous situation.”


Rabbi Benny continued, saying:  “However, there is a secret to counteract this dangerous situation.  There is a secret to opening yourself up, so that you can interact with other groups, which hold divergent opinions from you.   The secret is a principle to guide you—and that principle in Hebrew is called—Sod Hatzimtzum – which means, ‘The secret of self-contraction.’  This idea is taken from the Jewish mystical tradition.  According to this teaching, when God wanted to create the world and the universe, there was not any room for it, because God filled up every space.  So God contracted God’s-self, to create an open space for the universe.”   


If God had not contracted God’s self, we wouldn’t exist.  In a way, if we never contract or minimize ourselves, then—from our perspective—we don’t let anyone else exist.


Tzimtzum—shrinking ourselves, a little—reminds us:  I’m not the whole, I’m only a part of a larger whole.”


A second piece of wisdom from Rabbi Lau is that the way to help people engage in respectful conversation and dialogue, is to remind them that they share core values and sacred texts. 


Rabbi Lau went out and did just that.  He started a 4-year project that is having a major impact on Israelis and Israeli culture.  The program is called “The 929 Project”—based on the fact that there are 929 chapters in Tanach—in the whole Bible.  Not just the Torah, but also the Prophets and Writings. 

On December 21, 2014, the first cycle of the joint reading of the Tanakh (the Bible) began in Israel. Every day (5 days a week – Sunday through Thursday), the daily chapter on the 929 website changes, and the next chapter appears.

The lively discourse surrounding the chapter of the day takes place on social networks, at informal gatherings, and in study groups. Some of the people taking part in this project are Israel’s leading academics, cultural icons, public figures, artists, and writers.  929 offers all participants the chance to open their eyes and be curious about new and varied approaches to understanding the Bible, and seeing how the Bible can be relevant in their lives today.


The project has been a great success.  It has drawn in people from many different groups, including – secular, religious, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.  One of the highlights of the project occurred one year ago—just before Rosh Hashanah. 


Last year, at this time, the project was about to start the 3rd section of the Bible—Ketuvim—the Writings, which begins with Sefer Tehilim—the book of Psalms.  There was a special event at Israeli President—Reuven Rivlin’s house -- and two of the special guests invited to the program were Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, one of the greatest scholars in the world today, and Rona Kenan—a secular singer and celebrity in Tel Aviv.  This singer—Rona Kenan—loves reading the Bible, and has been an active participant in the 929 Project.  So she was invited to sing, and play her guitar at the event.  She started playing a song, the words of which are from Psalms. 


Many people watching this expected Rabbi Steinsalz to leave the room because of an Orthodox practice – which is, in fact, an additional restriction beyond what Jewish law requires -- in which men do not listen to women singing.   However, Rabbi Steinsaltz remained seated and heard the voice and melody—and then tears came to his eyes.  This led others to cry.  Rabbi Lau, describing the moment, said, “There was kedushah (holiness) in the air.


When you get people to meet and to listen to each other -- all walls that we build between groups can fall down.”


Then Rabbi Lau said:  “When we take out the Torah, we sing:  ‘Av HaRachamim, Hay-tivah virtzon-chah et Tziyon, tivneh chomot Yerushalayim.’ – Which means, ‘Source of compassion, favor Zion with Your goodness; build the walls of Jerusalem [to help restore it to a great city].’  However, seeing the tears of Rabbi Steinsaltz, Rabbi Lau had a new prayer for God.  He said, ‘Av HaRachamim -- Source of compassion-- DESTROY the walls in Jerusalem.’”  Not the physical walls, of course, but rather the metaphorical walls that have been constructed in order to keep groups separated from one another.




One of the most important prayers in any prayer service is the Amidah—the Standing prayer, in which we stand at attention, and pray directly to God.  According to our tradition, as we say a line in preparation to begin the prayer, we take 3 steps back, and then 3 steps forward.  Why do we do this? 


The reason is that this choreography captures the tension in what we are doing.  We take 3 steps back—out of respect--because we are standing in front of the Melech, Malchei hamlachim-The King Who rules over kings.  Then we take 3 steps forward so that we can address God.


At the end of the Amidah, we take 3 steps back and bow to the left, to the right, and straight ahead.  This practice is explained in the Talmud, (Yoma 53a) which says, “The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace.” R’ Menachem BenZion Sachs explains that we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities. 

Rabbi Sacks is saying that the choreography at the end of the Amidah is a physical display of Tzitzum—Self-contraction!

Rabbi Sachs continues, “After stepping back, we ask ‘oseh shalom bimromav,’ ‘God, please bring peace,’ and we turn and bow to the left, to the right, and straight ahead -- achieving peace and harmony means bowing towards those on the left of us, and those on the right of us, not just straight ahead on our path.”


Maintaining the capacity and the will to bow towards those on the right and left of us religiously, politically, and in every other way -- is a prerequisite to the peace we claim we desperately seek and yearn for.

In this New Year, may we all strive to engage in Mach’leh’kot l’shaym Shamayim – “Debates for the Sake of Heaven,” and by doing so, may we create more truth in this world and bring us closer to peace.


And let us say: Amen.


Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teychataymu – May we all be written and sealed for a good year, filled with health, happiness, and blessings.











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