Yom Kippur Yizkor Sermon 5778
Filling Our Lives with Virtues, Starting with Gratitude
Rabbi Michael Mishkin
Temple Beth Israel
Shabbat Shalom and Good Yantif.
In the Musical Rent, there is a beautiful song called – “Seasons of Love.”
Sorry, I didn’t prep the Cantor—so he’s not going to sing it – and neither am I.
It famously opens with these lines: “525,600 minutes, 525,000 moments so dear. 525,600 minutes – How do you measure, measure a year?”
When you take a unit of time and break it up in new ways, it can have a big impact on how you see your life. This song is a great example of that.
There are, in fact, 525,600 minutes in a year, and the song asks us to think about the ways we use those minutes, and mark time.
Recently, I saw a short film, (30,000 Days, on www.letitripple.org) which asks us to look at our lives, by measuring them . . . in days.
If someone were to live to be 100 years old– that would be 36,500 days. However, if one were to live to 82 —which is just a little bit longer than the average American life span—that would be equivalent to nearly 30,000 days! 30,000 days here on this earth.
How do we fill our days? How SHOULD we fill our days—God willing, 30,000 days or more?
Each of us should think about the following questions:
- What do I want to contribute to the world?
- What gives my life purpose?
- How am I spending my days -- and how do I plan to continue spending my days?
If a person does not believe that world has meaning—it can be very difficult to fill those days with meaningful activities.
However, if we believe the world has meaning, then it becomes a positive challenge to try and fill each day with joy and meaning.
Last year, I read a very powerful statement about the meaning of life. It’s something that I think about often—because it’s connected to a prayer in the siddur. The statement, written by Rabbi David Wolpe—a Conservative Rabbi and one of the leading rabbis in America today --appeared in one of his “Musings” mini-columns in The Jewish Week.
Rabbi Wolpe wrote:
“Each morning in the [prayer] service, we say that the advantage of the human being over the beast is nothing, ‘ki hakol havel’ – for all is emptiness. The prayer echoes Ecclesiastes, with its refrain that in the face of death all can be seen as empty or vain.
But following a suggestion from Rabbi Simon Greenberg, we should translate ‘ki’ to mean ‘when.’ Then the prayer teaches that we are no better than beasts, WHEN we see everything as empty or vain. If we do not understand that the world is meaningful, that our actions matter, then we ultimately live empty lives.”
Rabbi Wolpe concludes, saying, “The deepest wisdom is not knowing your exact purpose in this world, but knowing that you do indeed have one. The conviction that God placed you here for a reason is a ‘Kiddush Hashem,’ a sanctification of God’s name,” (The Jewish Week, May 27, 2016).
How do we know that God placed us here for a reason?
Some people intuit it.
Rabbi Naomi Levy, who recently wrote a book about the soul (the book is called Einstein & The Rabbi), and will be coming to TBI this January, says that if we learn to hear the voice of our soul—our soul will tell us very clearly—that we are unique, and that we have a unique contribution to make to the world.
According to the first chapter in the Torah, God created the world and human beings with a purpose. It’s an idea we can and should think about every Shabbat. God created the world with purpose, and rested with purpose—therefore, all of creation was created with meaning.
Several verses in this chapter speak about the meaning of the creation of humanity. I will share one of them with you. It’s chapter 1, verse 27, which says:
“And God created Adam (the first human being—Ah-dahm from Ah-dahmah—which means “earth.” So Adam here, really means something like “earthling”) in His image, in the image of God, He created him; male and female He created them.”
Usually, this verse is understood to mean that being created in the image of God is such an important and radical idea, it’s said twice in this verse.
But, the great Chasidic Sage—Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk—says this verse is actually teaching us two different things about the nature of humanity. The Kotzker Rebbe interprets this verse saying:
When the Torah says, “And God created Adam in his image”—it means that God created Adam in Adam’s own image first, and then, “in the image of God He created him”—then God put some of His Divinity into Adam.
According to this interpretation, every human being is special and holy, because each human being is unique and each human being has God within him or her.
Rabbi Milton Steinberg presents another approach to understanding that the world—and thus, each one of us--was created with meaning and purpose. He writes:
“Even if evil were a total mystery on which theology could not make so much as a dent, [faith in God] . . . would still [make sense]. For, at the worst, it leaves less unexplained than does it alternative. If the believer has his troubles with evil, the atheist has more and graver difficulties to contend with. Reality stumps him altogether, leaving him baffled not by one consideration but by many -- from the existence of natural law through the instinctual cunning of the insect, to the brain of the genius, and the heart of the prophet. This, then, is the intellectual reason for believing in God: that, though this belief is not free from difficulties, it stands out, head and shoulders, as the best answer to the riddle of the universe,” (Anatomy of Faith, p. 91).
Whether we sense that we were created for a purpose or not, we might still ask, if I’m unsure of my specific missions in life, how can I fill each of my days with meaning?
One way is by developing our character strengths.
Tiffany Shlain is an American filmmaker, author, and public speaker. She co-founded the nonprofit “Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change.” One of the major projects of Let It Ripple is educating people around the world, that developing our character has a profound impact on how we live our lives, and that we have the ability to develop our character.
Shlain began this project after reading scientific studies, which said that if people focus on certain parts of who they are, they can develop their character, and ultimately live a more meaningful, successful, and happy life. This led to her first film in this project—called, The Science of Character.
After the film was released, Jewish educators told her that the ideas in the film actually predated these scientific studies by hundreds of years. It’s a wisdom that Judaism has known and promoted for a long time. This feedback led to another film, called -- The Making of a Mensch. Here is the link to the film--
I strongly recommend that you watch it. It’s only 10 minutes long, it’s entertaining, and it has a powerful message.
According to our tradition, there are many character traits or virtues known as middot. But more than knowing about these middot, our Sages, from the time of the Talmud on—have encouraged us to work on developing these character traits.
In the mid-19th Century, a whole movement dedicated to improving one’s character traits was created. That movement is known as the Mussar Movement and it was founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter. The Hebrew term “mussar” means -- instruction, discipline, or conduct. The term was used by the Mussar Movement to refer to disciplined efforts to strengthen one’s ethical and spiritual development.
One of the more popular teachings of Rabbi Salanter is based on a real life encounter he had with a shoemaker one very late night. It was Motza'ei Shabbat (Saturday night after Shabbat) and Rabbi Salanter was on the way to the Synagogue to recite Selichot—penitential prayers. Suddenly he felt a tear in his shoe, so he looked around town to see if there was a shoemaker that was still open for work, at this late hour. Finally, he located a shoemaker sitting in his shop, working next to his candle. Rabbi Salanter walked in and asked him "is it too late now to get my shoes repaired?" The shoemaker replied "As long as the candle is burning, it is still possible to repair." Upon hearing this Rabbi Salanter ran to the synagogue and preached to the congregation what he learned from the shoemaker. In his words, “As long as the candle is burning -- as long as one is still alive -- it is still possible to repair one’s soul.”
Musar offers us the tools to help up develop our character strengths—our middot.
Mussar teaches that we should create rituals and practices to help us control or develop these character traits.
What’s the secret to Mussar’s success?
First, mussar advises us to pick one particular quality at a time, and focus on it for a period of time.
We then take some action to strengthen that character trait – and repetition is key.
And finally, we can gain strength in this process by working with someone else, or in a group.
The best part of Mussar is you create your own path—as Tiffany Shlain calls it, “Your own personal mensch code!”
Some of the middot include: Perspective (Chochmah), Bravery (Ometz Lev), Perserverance (Netzach), Honesty (Yosher), Kindness (Chesed), Social Responsibility (Ach’rah’yut), Forgiveness (Mechilah), Humility (Anavah), Optimism (Tikvah), and Humor (Simchah).
Starting in November, we are going to highlight a Middah a Month—I’ll write about it in the Tablet, we’ll discuss it in the Religious School, and hopefully create conversations throughout our community.
I want these virtues to be things we think about, to be things we work on incorporating into our lives, or incorporating them – even more – into our lives.
In addition to the monthly virtues, there is another virtue, which we will highlight throughout the year. That is the virtue of Hakarat HaTov—Gratitude.
Gratitude is a virtue that can open the door to all of the others.
While it’s easy to be thankful at a moment of great joy, or after receiving a wonderful gift, incorporating gratitude in our lives, means making it a part of who we are.
First and foremost, one can have a strong orientation towards gratitude if he or she believes that life itself is a wonderful gift.
According to Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, who writes in his Guide of the Perplexed, life is an incredible gift that we did not deserve – it was just given to us by God (this is a restatement of Maimonides’ teaching, found in 30:53).
One time Rabbi David Wolpe was speaking to a group of rabbis. In making this particular point he was less eloquent than he usually is—but he made a good point. He said, we should all be grateful that we were born in a time in history when we have modern dentistry and penicillin.
We should respond to the gift of our lives, and to the gift of being born in the modern era, by thanking God – and if we do—it will have a major impact on the way we see the world – and the way we frame our day.
Interestingly, the very first word in the very first prayer in the siddur—the prayer book—is “thank you.” We say, “Modeh Ani Lefanechah, melech chai v’kayam, she’heh’cheh’zartah bi nishmati, b’chemlah, rabbah emunatechah.”
Which means: “I am thankful before You—living, enduring King—for restoring my soul to me in compassion and with great faithfulness.”
It can be very meaningful to recite a set prayer—if you do it with kavanah (intention and understanding), and it can be very powerful to recite a spontaneous prayer—waking up and saying, “I am thankful for these specific things in my life.” Another approach is to combine a set-prayer – like “Modeh Ani” -- and then use it as springboard, for personal prayers of thanks.
In addition to thanking God, it’s important to thank people who are kind to us, and people who help us.
“Gratitude is rooted in remembrance. Therefore we must make a conscious effort to recall how others have helped us. [And if we don’t try to remember the good deeds done to us, then it is easy to forget them],” (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1, p. 97.)
A wonderful and ancient teaching from The Fathers of Rabbi Nathan can help us feel gratitude towards other people. It says, “If you have done a big kindness for your neighbor, let it be in your eyes a small matter. But if your friend did you a small favor, let it be in your eyes, a big favor,” (4:11).
May we all try to be more grateful in this New Year. If we are grateful for what we have, we will be happier and have a greater sense of wholeness. If we are focused on what we don’t have, we will more bitter and broken.
Another reason we are highlighting gratitude throughout the year, has to do with a certain former Broadway actor, accomplished dancer, and Yiddish Theatre legend.
This person left the theatre to become a Cantor and wound up at Temple Beth Israel – 41 years ago—in the Summer of 1977.
This all happened because TBI’s youth director at the time knew Cantor Blum, and uttered these momentous words to him: “You know Baruch, they’re looking for a Cantor in Port Washington.”
Cantor Blum reached out to TBI, and the members of the search committee invited him to come for a tryout.
I did not know this, but Cantor Blum recently told me that he had “a lousy tryout at TBI”—and that’s a direct quote. He was so nervous, he mixed up the tropes, and was singing the Haftarah trope, while reading from the Torah.
Luckily, the search committee was able to see how special Cantor Blum was, and they hired him – and, as they say, the rest is history.
Over the past 8 years, I’ve had the great pleasure of watching Cantor Blum work with our Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. He is thoughtful, patient, and loving. We all know that he gets the kids to prepare at a very high level—so that they all shine on the day that they celebrate their Bnai Mitzvah.
In addition to working with our bnai mitzvah, Cantor, you bring a calm presence and a loving heart when you join with TBI members at their celebrations, and when you support members at times of great loss.
Cantor and Gerri, we are looking forward to not only celebrating with you during this New Year, but also to thanking you again, and again for all the lives you have touched, all of the chesed (lovingkindness) you have given, and all of the beautiful music you have shared with us.
I’d like to conclude by sharing a statement, which brings us back to the importance of character and how it shapes our lives. It says:
Watch your thoughts: they become words
Watch your words: they become actions
Watch your actions: they become habits
Watch your habits: they become your character
Watch your character: it becomes your destiny (--Frank Outlaw)
May we all strive to strengthen our character, and through those efforts, shape our destinies to live lives with greater happiness, meaning, and fulfillment.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed in the Book of life, health, and happiness.
And let us say: Amen.