Teaching Kindness
Erev Rosh Hashanah 2014 – 5775
Or Chadash- Rabbi Joseph M. Forman

Shana Tova. A good and healthy and sweet New Year to all of you. It is wonderful to see faces familiar and faces new, as well. And I want to thank all of you for being here tonight to celebrate the New Year together.

We continue to live in challenging times, and many of us face difficult realities. Some of us have aging parents or we ourselves feel the effects of yet another year; perhaps we are still struggling with the economy or looking for work; our kids are tremendously busy, impacting our already full schedule, or they are off at school or living away from family; or perhaps we are on our on, managing. Life is not so easy for many of us.

Or Chadash has always been a place to turn and return to when life challenges us and when we need a haven from its storms. Our Hesed – our Caring Committee is a reflection of the values that Or Chadash stands for. It is very much a significant reason we are here. 

Indeed, the synagogue as an institution has been called a Beit Midrash, a house of study. It is here that our students are learning from a book called: A Kid’s Mentch Handbook.

And we are a Beit Tefillah, a house of worship and service – a place where we engage in acts of Tikkun Olam, repairing our world –comforting members whose family and friends are ill or, sadly, gone from life; and taking care of those outside our community, offering support to organizations like IHN, the Food Pantry and Baker’s Treat.

And we are a Beit Kenesset, a house of gathering. Most of all, Or Chadash is a house…a home for us to share the journey of life. Your other home. It is good to see you all here. I wish all of you a Shana Tova, a good, healthy and prosperous year.

This night, this New Year, hopefully, gives us a respite, a needed pause from our many demands, from our frenetic and perhaps sometimes even aimless wanderings. Tonight, with this New Year, our Jewish tradition grants us an opportunity to claim for ourselves a new direction. Perhaps we are satisfied with the old one, you say. Perhaps we are too set in our ways to ever really change. No matter. Rosh Hashana offers to those able and willing a grand excuse, if you will, to say: now is the time for changing.

So where to go? What to do? How does this grand transformation occur
– if we are game?

There is a story told of Rav Baer, an 18th century rabbi. The Rav once said to his teacher, the seer of Lublin: “Show me the way to the service of God.”

The Tzaddik from Lublin replied: “It is impossible to tell a person what way to take. For one way to serve God is through learning, another through prayer, another through fasting and another through eating. We should carefully observe what way our heart draws us to, and then we should choose this way with all our strength.”

Each of us, at times, struggles with knowing what way is right for us. We can turn to friends, family, rabbis and counselors, but ultimately it remains impossible to tell another person what is best for them. 

That inability to direct others in their choices, however, need not limit us in our resolve to ask from them and from ourselves that they and we live in such a way that the dignity and sanctity of all life is preserved to the best of our abilities.

It is not an easy task. But that is what the New Year can be for us – an opportunity to better ourselves and the world we live in. Not unlike those resolutions we might make as the secular year ticks over to January 1st, we can, tonight, resolve to change. Even a little.

For those of you who have ever actually stood in Times Square to watch the ball drop for the beginning of the secular New Year, I hardly need relate to you how different our celebration is. One of my sisters attended once. Once. I got a pretty full report – only some of which I can share publicly. She has no desire to be there LIVE again.

Surprisingly there are a few similarities. Yes, they have the horns that are many times louder than a shofar. Some folks are carrying what might be called “Shofar in a can.” And you can buy apples — or rather Big Apple paraphernalia — in every conceivable form. There are NYC’s finest, ushering folks in every direction. And they, too, have reserved seats for late-comers; I believe they call
that VIP seating. And finally, as the New Year begins, they do all sing together.

But those similarities aside (and it is funny how many there are), our New Year turns our attention away from mere celebration and asks us to mark what is called in Hebrew: Chesbon HaNefesh, an accounting of our spirit, of our soul.

Our rabbinic sages have encouraged us to make Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Day season not just a celebration of the new, but to realize that even as the leaves are turning colors, as they are beginning to die, we should remember that we, too, shall not be here forever. Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pekuda, the author of the first Jewish system of ethics, written in Arabic in the 11thcentury, said: “Our days are like scrolls: Write on them only how you want to be remembered.”

With those words of wisdom to guide us, the New Year is an opportunity to thoughtfully consider the past, what deeds we wish to be recorded and what deeds are perhaps best forgotten, or in need of repair.

As we welcome our Jewish New year, we do so not with drunken revelry and chaos, but with somber reflection and humility – considering how we might wish to be remembered.

As a rabbi, I have studied the wisdom of our sages. There is a lot of wisdom in our 3500 year history. But as a student of philosophy at Brandeis many years ago, there was one man whose words have echoed in my mind. His words, in fact, were taught to me by my father when I was very young.

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome in the 2nd century of the Common Era. Considered the last of the Five Good Emperors, Aurelius kept the Roman empire safe from the Parthians and Germans, but he is best known for his intellectual pursuits as a philosopher of Stoicism and for wisdom he learned from his teacher Epictetus. Some of his best writings are gathered in a collection known as The Meditations. There Aurelius wrote: The true worth of a man is measured by that which he pursues. And what did he consider the highest pursuit? Do not act as if thou were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.

Only a century before Aurelius, Shimon the Righteous, a rabbi whose words are found in the Talmud (Pirke Avot) taught that same message. He was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly, and he used to say: On three things the world is sustained: on Torah and learning, on the (Temple) service and acts of reverence, and on deeds of loving kindness.

Marcus Aurelius’s words and those of Shimon the Righteous have always rung true to me. But on this night of the new year, they take on an added meaning. Allow me to explain.

At the close of the secular year, as December draws to a close, we hear from our friends and families and perhaps the checkout person at our local grocery store wishes for a Happy New Year. But our Rosh Hashana greeting to one another stands in contrast to this. At the season of our Jewish New Year we hear the greeting Shana Tova u’ Mituka, literally: a Good and Sweet Year. Nowhere does this greeting suggest 

hope for a year of unbridled joy, a year of immense happiness and grand success. Rather, it is goodness and sweetness that are wished for in the days ahead.

And what is goodness if not being kind and receiving kindness. What is a good year without compassion and care? Our Jewish New Year does not hope that we will accomplish our greatest ambitions, but rather that we contribute a measure of goodness to the world and to the people whose lives we touch.

That is to be the measure of our year; and goodness and kindness are what Judaism demands that we pursue.

We are all well acquainted with our “…unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But for the past few years, a research group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has dedicated itself to examining our ultimate values, and has determined that in far too many instances the pursuit of happiness has exceeded our pursuit of caring about one another.

There is a project now going on at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: Making Caring Common. This project has shown that the pursuit of happiness is winning out over the abilities of parents and caretakers, schools, and community members to develop caring, ethical children. 

Here in America – especially in affluent homes — we are pushing for success at the cost of being kind. According to the study, a large majority of youth in our nation now value achievement and personal happiness above a concern for others. This prioritizing of success over kindness and compassion is found on the ball field, in the classroom and playground. And it is found in the workplace and the home, as well. There is nothing wrong with success, mind you. But when we instill in others the sense that winning at all costs is more important than acts of kindness, we have failed to live up to the values we hold most dear.

At the root of this problem may be the unintentional messages we adults are sending. Our words say one thing but our actions convey another. As the psychologist Karl Weick is fond of asking, “How can I know who I am until I see what I do? How can I know what I value until I see where I walk?” Perhaps our words say that we value kindness. But that is not what others are hearing or
seeing or learning.

As though they had penned the words for the Jewish New Year, a time of reflection and desire to improve ourselves, the Harvard study noted that: 
“Being a role model doesn’t mean that we need to be perfect or have all the answers. It means grappling with our flaws, acknowledging our mistakes, listening to our children and students, and connecting our values to their ways of understanding the world. It means that we, too, need to continually practice …, cultivating our capacities for care, widening our circles of concern, and
deepening our understanding of fairness and justice.”

Those words ring true for us whether we are parents or teachers, colleagues or friends. So how might we restore a measure of goodness and kindness to our lives?
– By not merely empathizing with those who hurt, but by asking how we might actually lessen their burden – and then making an effort to do so.
– By remembering that words can heal, even as they can hurt, and to use our words carefully.
– By remembering the feelings of being a Stranger in Egypt – or a stranger at school or at work or on the field. And going out of our way to welcome the newcomers. 
– By praising our children not only for their grades, but for their deeds of thoughtfulness.
– By showing appreciation for our spouses and loved ones – and telling them the same.
– By living in the world with others and fulfilling our sacred responsibility to act toward them with compassion, with kindness.

It was the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson who admonished: You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.

But the words of contemporary author George Saunders in his convocation speech at Syracuse University say it best.

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering,
and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly….
Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet. 

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.”

This past year has already drawn to a close. Now we begin a New Year together. May it be for all of us a year of creating goodness for others, a year filled with sweetness for those with whom we share our days, and a year of kindness for all.