Archive for October, 2014

Tony Dorsett Pitt

I attended the University of Pittsburgh from 1972 to 1976. In those years Pitt football transformed from being an embarrassment, to being a power on the verge of national prominence. Indeed, the year after I graduated, Pitt won the national championship. By my senior year we all knew the program was poised for success. Pitt had gone back to a bowl, Johnny Majors had recruited a load of blue chip players, led by Tony Dorsett, and in the fall of 1975, Pitt dominated then national power Notre Dame, breaking through with its first significant win in many years. Against this backdrop, the athletic department announced that Pitt students would have to obtain colored coupons to exchange for tickets, thus limiting the amount of free tickets given to students. A protest occurred among the students, as everyone saw the next step as outright charging students for their tickets.

At that time I was a columnist for the student paper, “The Pitt News.” Here are some excerpts from a column I wrote about the issue in September 1975:

“The basic accusation leveled at the athletic department is that it is trying to run its football program as a business. This really is not so bad. After all, Calvin Coolidge told us America’s business is business. Since football is as American as apple pie, it follows that football should be a business since business is American. Right?

Not quite.

You see, Pitt runs an amateur football program, designed to help poor athletes, promote school spirit…and all that jazz. Therefore, football is really for the students and not for Calvin Coolidge after all. Right?

Well, not quite.

The athletic department is trying to run an amateur program like a business. That is, it wants to preserve all those hallowed institutional trappings that accompany football…and at the same time turn over a profit that will enrich the war chest and enable Pitt to eventually take its place among the Oklahomas and Penn States…”

Here is the solution I proposed:

“A lot of headaches would be avoided if the aathletic department would just drop any pretenses of trying to preserve amateur football. It should become professional in name as well as in reality. In fact, major colleges would do well to band together and create a minor league for NFL football…

Instead of being the Panthers of the University of Pittsburgh, the University would become owners of a minor league, professional team known as the Pittsburgh Panthers. Cas Myslynski (the athletic director at Pitt in 1975) could be the general manager. That way, all of his shenanigans that are now called “dirty tricks” would then be called good business practice.”

Here is perhaps the most important aspect of the solution I proposed:

“The relationship between the University and the players also would undergo a drastic change. Instead of giving them scholarships to attend classes and live in the dorms, they could be paid salaries. Instead of taking up class space and dorm space that many players do not care about, they would be responsible for finding their own apartments. If any wanted to go to school, then a special arrangement could be made for them to go during the winter and spring semesters so that the fall will be open for them to concentrate solely on football.”

I have never claimed prophetic powers, but my somewhat “tongue in cheek” suggestions from 39 years ago seem very relevant today.

My last blog post discussed the sickness of how we regard players: we defend them of all transgressions if they play for “our” team and condemn them otherwise. We fail to see the players as exploited products of a system that uses them, at very little cost to the university, to raise a pile of money and then discard them when they are no longer useful. Players are induced by the lure of professional ball, and many have little if any interest in the education a university can offer. This is being recognized by some of the players – witness the suit leveled against Northwestern by players to pay them for their services.

The problem is not only at the university level. This fall football programs have been suspended at two high schools, Sayreville, NJ and Central Bucks West in Doylestown, PA. Both suspensions are due to sexual hazing of younger team members by older team members. The suspension of the CB West program hits home personally, as we lived in that school district when our daughters were very young. They would have attended that high school if we had not moved closer to Philadelphia. While I have not read any statements defending the actions of the players, I have read lots of reactions by students and parents saying the suspension of the program is not fair to other students ranging from band members to mere spectators. No one wants to be robbed of their football. Yet, at least in these two schools, football culture has proven to be poisonous. I have come to believe the presence of football in academic settings, even when not resulting in something as radical as sexual hazing, is poisonous.

I think it is time to propose a radical change in the relationship between football and educational institutions. In high schools, football should be discontinued as a school activity. Young people, who are accomplished players wishing to participate in a competitive league; should be able to do so through club sports. This is exactly what happens in Europe. High schools need to be focused on educating students, not being a feeder system for major college football. The sick football hero system really starts by the hyper focus of a high school on its team and the elevation of the players to a level in which they rule the school. There have already been cases of districts discontinuing interscholastic athletics – football in particular – and seen their academic scores rise.

The problems are intensified on college campuses. The players are expected to perform like professionals, yet integrate into the school setting. These players are not equipped to really benefit from classes. They are part of a football mill. They hope to make it to the NFL, but the vast majority will never play professional ball. Even those who are drafted by the pros are ill prepared to handle the riches that will be dumped on them by an NFL contract. How many instances are there of pro players frittering away their earnings, completely oblivious to the reality that no matter how huge their contract, it does not last forever unless invested and handled properly.

No, my proposal in September 1975 makes a world of sense. The major college programs should become a system of minor league ball – even layered into A, AA and AAA levels of competition, much like professional baseball. Players should be paid for their services, increasing as they work their way up through each layer of competition. Those who are not promoted early will have a chance to opt to go to school, to get a degree that can put them on a productive path.

As for the universities, one purpose of football programs is to fund those sports that make no money. Often scholarships for students in those sports is the only way that student can get an education. Let’s face it, no one is going to make a fortune running woman’s track, or playing college soccer. If the universities, FSU for example, own a minor league franchise affiliated as feeder to an NFL team, it can still serve as a fund raiser for the university. But the players will not be part of campus life, which is likely a very good thing for most students.

As I mentioned in the beginning of my last post, I am a lifelong sports fan. My habit is to live and die with my favorite teams. But I have reached a point where I am having a hard time balancing my passion for sports with my conscience.

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After almost a lifetime of enthusiastically following college football, I find my taste for it growing increasingly sour. No, it is not because my own alma mater, Pitt, is a program hopelessly mired in mediocrity. I have grown tired of football culture, football worship, football excuse making, and most of all, football’s skewing of our moral compass. I live in Tallahassee, home of the current national champions and home to the latest national media campaign condemning the alleged preferential treatment of football players. It is home to the latest poster child for the discussion over what is wrong with college football – Jameis Winston.

So let’s start with Winston. Whether or not you see his December 2012 incident as sexual assault depends on the loyalties and politics of the person pronouncing judgment. If you are a feminist, you tend to condemn him as a rapist. If you are an FSU football loyalist, you assert this was consensual sex, and this, along with all of Winston’s other public escapades are more the product of him being an immature, enthusiastic kid than bad seed. That is the point of a recent editorial by the Tallahassee Democrat’s Corey Clark – we see what we expect or want to see. Clark makes a valid point but to conclude this discussion by simply stating our desires drive what we see avoids deeper issues.

Let’s revisit, for a moment, that December 2012 sexual encounter. Here is the most lenient, most benign interpretation of what happened. Winston had consensual sex with a young woman while his roommates and teammates watched and commented (cheered?), because that is what football players do. This is not rape but it is sordid enough. It is reflective of a rather depraved moral environment no matter how you interpret the reasons for the other players watching then have sex. AND, the way we can casually dismiss this as just immaturity, or playfulness, or just as what football players do, is indicative of the destructive impact the presence of football has on universities. A great example of that destructive impact is the victimization of Jameis Winston.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Winston is a victim of the football system. Here is why. The only reason anyone cares about him at all is because of his ability to play football. Were he not a gifted athlete, he would just be another troubled black kid, probably not in college, probably with little hope for the future. His problems get noticed because he is able to help FSU raise large amounts of money through football. University supporters will try to help him not because they care about him as a person, but as a tool that benefits the university. If not for football, he might end up on the streets, possibly arrested and incarcerated for his indiscretions. No one would read about him. He would just be another statistic.

Herein is the destructiveness of the football system. It takes kids, largely black and largely poor, and gives them the false hope of striking it rich in the NFL. The colleges compensate them with scholarships. But is this fair compensation? Are these young men attending classes that will teach them to support themselves when the false hope of professional football dies? The path of man of these young people’s lives is evident from a very early age, and I witness it every week. It is tragic.

I am now in the second year of mentoring students at a local elementary school. I had one last year, and two this year. All three are young African American boys. All three are really sweet, nice kids who want to learn, but are struggling in the traditional school environment. They are extremely responsive to the attention I give them as a mentor. But I worry about their futures. If they do not have the tools to succeed academically, they will be lost. If they have any athletic ability, they will cling to the false hope of a professional career. The best most of them will be able to hope for is to become part of a system that will use them, and then discard them.

Major college football programs are their own “Towers of Babel.” The heavens the builders wish to reach are not the realm of God, but the prestige of winning and the financial awards that accompany winning. Much of that money is put to good purpose, yes, by supporting other university programs. However, the players in the system are disposable, interchangeable parts. They lose their humanity for the price of the dream of football heaven – the NFL.

Midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer says that the people building the Tower of Babel paid no heed if one of the workers fell to their death. If, however, one of the bricks fell and was smashed, they would sit down and weep saying, “Woe is us! When will another one come in its stead.” Football players are the bricks of the athletic towers being built by universities. We mourn when one falls (by suspension, injury, etc.). We value them for what they contribute to our structure. But what about the average young person, who becomes another statistic of violence, of dropping out, of going to jail? We pay little heed. Shame on us for being contributors to this contemporary Tower of Babel.

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Anyone who has raised children is familiar with this scenario. You give your child an instruction; they ask “why.” You tell them a fact about something and they ask you “why.” You tell them you have to go on a trip for a few days and they ask you “why.” Why, why, why – kids are great at asking “why” to the never-ending annoyance of parents. How many times does the answer become, “because I said so?” Which of course never satisfies the curious child and just creates frustration for everyone. Yet, in our impatience to get the child to go along with us, or to just listen to what we say, we often forget how poignant the question of why is.

For there is a “why” behind everything we do. There is a “why” behind every organization, every human gathering, and every political or religious movement. If there is no “why” then the rest has no meaning. If there is no “why” then human activity is empty. Yet, we probably spend much less time thinking about our “why” than we do those other question words, namely our “what” and our “how.”

That is the premise behind Simon Sinek’s book, “Start With the Why.” Sinek writes that most organizations, be they businesses, non-profits, or political movements, focus on what they are doing and how they are doing it. Many organizations do these things quite well, businesses make profits; politicians get elected. But, Sinek proposes, what separates the successful from the game changing; the business making a profit from the business changing an industry, is knowing your why. He gives a great example – Apple versus Microsoft. No one disputes the success of Microsoft. Its presence in the computing world is almost ubiquitous. However, when we think of innovation, not just in computers, but an array of products, the revolutionary company is Apple. Yes, we have yet to see if that remains the same in the absence of Steve Jobs, but, Apple is a company that for 40 years understood its why – to be the cutting edge in expanding the use of computerized possibilities for consumers. Name a company in the last 20 years that has started more trends than Apple. The reason? Apple knew its why.

Here is another example. No one can deny the influence of Disney. What built Disney’s success is summed up in the company’s why – “dare, dream, believe, and do.” Disney is much more than just a profitable corporation. It is a company that changed family entertainment several times, through movies, animation, and theme parks. Only a company that knew its why would dare to produce a film like “Fantasia” in 1940; marrying classical music, film and animation. Disney’s history is to be a game changing company.

Sinek is not just discussing profits. He is trying to finger that fine line between being a success, and being a change agent. You can do very well and be quite comfortable knowing what you do and how to do it. But the “what” and “how” are not inspiring. A why, if you know your why, can inspire. And, by the way, making money is not a why – that is a result. What employee of a company is inspired by the company’s ability to increase profits? Sure, if the company increases compensation, it can manipulate loyalty in its employees. That is not inspiration; that is manipulation. What makes an employee loyal through a company’s tough times, when raises are not forthcoming?   For Sinek, that loyalty comes from the company’s ability to know its why, to communicate it, then to use that why to inspire its employees and eventually its customers. A why is no less than your raison d’etre, your purpose.

Tonight I would like to speak with you about our why – first the why of Judaism; second the why of our congregation, Temple Israel. In truth the sermon I gave last year about how we create a big tent for those who are anywhere on the Jewish spectrum; from intensely Jewish to exploring Jewish possibilities – well that sermon should really come after this one. That sermon was about our how and our what. Creating that big tent is not our why – it is how we express our why. The various programs and activities are our what – the means for carrying out our how. Now if all of this is starting to sound like Abbot and Costello’s baseball routine, “Who’s on first,” bear with me a few moments. Although “Why” might be Abbot and Costello’s left fielder, tonight it becomes the center of everything.

Perhaps you think our big tent approach is inspiring. Yes, it is a wonderful characteristic of our congregation. However, I will tell you that those who are seeking Judaism, be they Jews returning to the fold or non-Jews on a path to Judaism, well, they are not seeking Judaism because of our big tent. Rather something in Judaism has inspired them and our congregation’s attitude, our how, draws them to Temple Israel as an institution. This raises an important point. Institutions in and of themselves do not inspire. Ideas inspire. Beliefs inspire. Judaism inspires. If we are an institution that lives the inspirational ideas of Judaism, we know our why. As a result, our how becomes more powerful.

I point out all of this not to critique what we do. Instead, I want to put what we do and how we do it into a larger context, to provide a frame of meaning. I want us, institutionally and individually, to move into this next year thinking about our meaning, our purpose. I want us to think about our why.

Let’s start globally. All religions have a why, a purpose which inspires its adherents. That purpose is bound intrinsically in the foundational stories of the religion. Here is an example. A key foundational story of Christianity is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on his way to Damascus. Saul had been among the doubters of the early Christians. He describes himself as a Pharisee who persecuted early Christians. Here is the account Saul gives of this event in chapter 26 of the Book of Acts.

Who are you Lord? The Lord answered, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles – to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

After this experience Saul becomes Paul, the author of most of the epistles in the Christian Bible. You can see the why of Christianity in the story. Through faith in the salvific power of Jesus, one’s sins can be removed. That person can ascend to heaven to join all those sanctified by faith in Jesus. This “why” of Christianity, that God sacrificed part of himself through taking on the suffering of the cross, thus providing humanity a way to salvation – is inspirational. And Paul’s personal why becomes to spread this among the gentiles. Yes, Christians debate the details of the how and the what – how important are deeds versus faith, how exclusive is the heavenly club that includes Jesus believers, what are the necessary rituals – the list of possible hows and whats is almost endless. But the why is very clear. It provides purpose for every church, every Christian sect, every individual Christian.

So what is the why of Judaism? That too gets lost in the debate of how and what Jews are supposed to do. But it is also present in the foundational stories of our people. The Jewish why is different from the Christian why. This is beautifully articulated by one of the great orthodox scholars of the last century, Joseph Soloveitchik, in his book “Halakhic Man.” The title is his term for the Jew, who I would say understands his or her why. Listen to Soloveitchik’s words, “The ideal of halakhic man is the redemption of the world not via a higher world, but via the world itself.” His term for those who believe we must be elevated to heaven is “homo religiosus.” Here is his contradiction between homo religiosus and halakhic man. “Homo religiosus ascends to God; God however descends to halakhic man.” In other words, the why of every Jew, the why of Judaism, is to work to bring that which is divine, that which is godly or heavenly – into this world. Rather than elevate individuals to heaven, Judaism teaches that every act has the potential to infuse our world with divinity.

How we do this and by what means are much debated. Those debates represent the differences between the various Jewish movements. A typical argument in the Jewish world is not between faith and acts, but between the importance of ritual acts versus ethical acts; between ritual piety and commitment to social justice. Whatever details you embrace, whether you observe more or less tradition, the why remains absolutely the same. Judaism attempts to find ways to take the divine from heaven and to express it in our world.

As with Christianity, this purpose, this why, is reflected in our foundational stories. Let’s take a few moments to look at the most powerful, most poignant foundational story of all Judaism, the Exodus from Egypt. I would wager that most people, most Jews even, would say the Exodus is the story of the journey from slavery to freedom. Perfectly true, but that is a story within a much larger story – the story of a distant God coming closer and closer to the children of Israel, until God’s presence dwells among the actual Israelite camp. You can glean this story from the arc of the entire book of Exodus.

Exodus opens with a description of the Israelites’ oppression in Egypt. Then, we learn of the birth and early life of Moses. It is not until the end of chapter 2 that God is even mentioned, finally noticing the outcry of the Israelites. So what does God do? God recruits a leader for the Israelites – Moses – who is invested with the ability to lead the people. For the first parts of the story, God is very distant, only communicating with Moses – often in seclusion or in the wilderness. Even after the Israelites leave Egypt and are trapped at the Sea of Reeds, God does not just appear to rescue the people. Rather God tells Moses to raise his hand and tell the people to move forward – in other words if they expect God to act, first the people must act.

At Sinai, it is Moses who is on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. While the people of Israel, are not directly experiencing the act, they witness the lightening and the thunder. The relationship between Israel and God has taken a step closer. After the apostasy of the Golden Calf, the people construct the mishkan, a portable sanctuary that is to rest in the middle of the Israelite camp during their travels through the wilderness. As the Book of Exodus draws to a close, God’s presence settles into the completed mishkan. God’s journey, from a remote non-presence, to a daily presence in the center of the community, becomes complete.

There is a midrash illustrating this interpretation of the Exodus story. Pesikta d’Rav Kahana teaches that in the beginning of time, God’s presence resided in this world. After Adam sinned it began to withdraw. As succeeding generations sinned, God’s presence with drew farther and farther from our world. Then began the work of righteous men, beginning with Noah, then Abraham. The works of these men drew God’s presence ever closer to this world until finally the work of Moses and the Israelites, upon completing the mishkan, made it possible for God’s presence to exist once again in our world.

Our daily lives are supposed to be lived in a way that invites and promotes and maintains God’s presence within our communities. Yes, the method for doing this has changed over the centuries just as Judaism has changed. But that does not change the underlying purpose – the why of Judaism. In Leviticus the community’s dedication to increasing the presence of God is expressed through the sacrificial system. Those sacrifices were a smoke signal to God, if you will, that the Jewish community was addressing issues that were repelling God’s presence. Inspiration came from everyone’s ability share in the responsibility for maintaining God’s presence. All were able to participate in the system, as the sacrifices were egalitarian. The level of sacrifice you brought was determined by what you could afford.

Leviticus contains a lot more than sacrificial details. Tomorrow afternoon we will read from the Holiness Code in Leviticus chapter 19. That is a moral code, more powerful, I think, than the ten commandments. It is punctuated by the phrase v’ahavtah l’rei’echa kamocha, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now the theology of Leviticus becomes clearer. Through our physical and moral acts, we can either attract or repel God’s presence. The entire system linking personal responsibility, sacrifices, and a moral code is meant to maximize God’s presence in the community – the Jewish why.

The various approaches to Jewish practice are just the means different Jewish groups try to express that why. For the orthodox community, it is about adherence to halakhah, to strict Jewish law, particularly ritual. Doing one of the mitzvoth is expressing God’s presence in this world. For the Reform movement the same goal, bringing that which is divine into this world, is emphasized not by ritual, but by acts leading to social justice.

Whatever the approach a Jewish group chooses (its how), there are some important common links. First, this is a human endeavor. God’s presence will increase only through human effort. Our actions count. That is why we are here on Yom Kippur, because our actions really do count. We affirm this in the closing to the most fatalistic prayer a Jew can recite, the Untaneh Tokef, through these words, “but repentance, prayer, and righteousness temper the severe decree.” Nothing is truly fated. Our actions can change everything.

Second, we make a free will choice to either live this Jewish why or to not live it.  Torah states numerous times to choose between blessing and curse. We are given potential paths and their possible consequences. We hold the power of choice. I would propose that the only true commandments given in the Torah are for us to see the choices, and then to choose. If we choose poorly the divine presence is reduced. If we choose wisely it is increased.

How do we bring all of this home? How do we now translate this discussion of the Jewish why into our community at Temple Israel? First, we judge each of our actions, activities, and decisions on the basis of whether or not they are consonant with our why. Is what we are doing increasing the Divine presence in our community? That measuring stick works whether we are talking about large scale projects such as our work with the Alzheimer’s Project or the simple individual interactions we have with each other. That measuring stick works for every activity taking place as a result of Temple’s Israel’s efforts, be it the Jewish Food and Cultural Festival, religious services, or Jewish education.

However, there is another layer. All Jewish institutions are unique communities that reflect its members, the area in which it is located and its affiliations nationally or even internationally. Each institution has an individual why, its core purpose for being. For example, this is Chabad’s why: every Jew is holy and can participate here. Chabad sees a special purpose in reaching out to Jews and teaching their method of expressing the Jewish why. Their approach is positive, not negative. A Jew going to Chabad is told that each mitzvah they do brings a spark of godliness into the world. Their emphasis is overwhelmingly on ritual acts. There is never a condemnation of your failure to do mitzvoth, just encouragement to do them.

Our synagogue’s additional why is shaped by our location, beliefs and affiliations. We are a progressive Jewish community in a midsized city that does not have many Jewish institutions. We are the largest Jewish institution, as you have heard me say, along the I-10 corridor west of Jacksonville all the way to, but excluding New Orleans. We are affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, which has been a pioneer in outreach to non-Jews who find themselves somehow connected to a Jewish community. If anyone within many miles of Tallahassee has any interest in Judaism, they should come to us. So here is our Temple Israel why: every person is holy and if they have any desire to participate in Judaism, they are welcome do it here.

Now you have the why behind our big tent approach to Judaism – our how. We must be an open, accepting institution, one that does not judge on the basis of economics, sexuality, ethnicity, or religion of origin. We must provide a means for anyone who wishes to experience or explore Judaism. That experience must be consonant with Jewish tradition, yet flexible enough to embrace diversity of interests. We must maintain a high quality of programs, classes, and religious services that speak to the committed, knowledgeable Jew; yet conveys the beauty of Judaism even to the novice. Finally, everything we do must be an expression of the Jewish why – to increase the Divine presence in our world.

I believe that Temple Israel is positioned to do amazing things. I see every day how Judaism inspires people to bring God into this world. I see every day how our community is already doing that. Can there be a more worthy, more inspiring reason to be a Jew in Tallahassee? No matter what of our activities you might be doing or contemplating, know it all has purpose, it all is part of a larger reason – a why. Yes, I know; for Abbot and Costello, who is on first, what is on second and “I don’t know” is on third, but why – well, why is the reason we even play the game. Come, be part of the team.

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I love “Peanuts.” No, I do not mean the food (although I do like to eat all things peanuts), but the comic strip. I used to own several books of “Peanuts” cartoon strips run in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but they have long been lost. Around my 13th birthday in 1967 (May 29, 30, and 31), a series of strips ran that has always stuck with me – probably because I first read them at a very impressionable age.

In the first strip Charlie Brown sees Linus patting birds on the head. The birds love this. Charlie Brown goes up to Lucy and says, “Your brother pats birds on the head.” POW! Lucy levels Charlie Brown. In the last frame of that strip he says, “Some people are pretty sensitive about their relatives.”

The next day’s strip opens with Linus patting a bird on the head. The bird is sighing with contentment. Lucy comes up to Linus screaming, “What are you doing!” She tells him people are coming up to her saying “Your brother pats birds on the head.” She yells at him to stop doing it. She walks away from Linus in anger. In the last frame a bird sticks out his foot and trips her.

The last strip in the sequence has Linus talking to Charlie Brown. “What’s wrong with patting birds on the head?” he asks. “It humiliates your sister,” responds Charlie Brown. “I can understand that,” says Linus, “but what’s WRONG with it. It makes the birds happy and it makes ME happy…so what’s really wrong with it?” Charlie Brown stares at Linus for a panel then responds, “No one else does it.”

Think about the roles of each player in this strip. Lucy is the control freak who cannot stand actions that do not conform to her particular standard of behavior. All of us have our Lucy moments and I hate it when I find myself becoming Lucy.   Charlie Brown is the innocent messenger. He is honest to a fault, often paying a price for his honesty by getting slammed. Charlie Brown is a realist. Yes he still has his dreams, like he will actually kick the football Lucy is holding. But his busted dreams just train him to accept the world is not just. That prepares him to be the honest messenger, the objective observer. There are moments when we all have to be Charlie Brown. The danger of being Charlie Brown is not to let it lead to detachment, discouragement, and thus disengagement in our world. Linus, however, well Linus is the person I really want to be.

Linus, you see, is altruistic. He is kind. Yes, his behavior gives him a satisfied feeling, but his behavior is one of trying to make others feel better. Even more, Linus will be kind without concern for social norms. Yes, the more I think about it, the more I want to be Linus.

The prophet Jeremiah said “Thus said the Lord, ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory – in his earnest devotion to Me. For I, the Lord, act with kindness, justice and equity in the world; for in these I delight.’” (Jeremiah 9:22,23) The implication of these verses is that devotion to God is reflected through acting like God.

God delights in kindness, justice and equity. Well, we spend a lot of time talking about equity, or inequity actually. We lament a society that spurns impartiality, one that tilts towards those with the resources to buy favors and influence. “All men are created equal” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the world is filled (as the Charlie Brown in us would observe) with nothing but inequity. We support institutions that fight that inequity. As a result we engage in the fight for justice. We attend rallies, march in demonstrations, and profess our commitment to equal opportunity for everyone. We vote for candidates who echo our desires for a better, more just world. Of course we cannot agree on how this will happen, as our true dividing lines become political parties, with Republicans and Democrats each claiming to be the true providers of a system that will provide equal opportunity for all. For many of us, our political affiliation is our true religion. Each political party promotes its own approach to justice. We often substitute a political perspective for moral perspective – justifying how we vote with our professed morality.

All of this involvement, all of this concerned (albeit opinionated) feeling is great; but in a certain sense it allows us to care for the world from a distance. We tend to forget that Jeremiah is teaching us that before mentioning justice and equity, God begins with kindness. We Jews, who are so proud (justifiably I add) of our intellectual traditions and accomplishments, so proud of our focus on justice need to ask our selves a simple question. How much focus do we put on kindness, on the reaching out to another person out of pure, simple kindness? And, if we truly want to be in the image of God, should we not use the same starting point as God – kindness?

Instead, we are often cynical about those who offer kindness. How often do we look at the kind, giving person and wonder, “what is your motive for this?” How often do we think the person who extends herself, who seems too nice to be for real – is, well, a bit of a chump? We do not take seriously people who seem too kind to be true. Even if we are not the control freak, Lucy, but the objective observer, Charlie Brown, do we not wrinkle up our nose and say, “nobody else acts that way?” We cannot and do not think they are for real.

My favorite Broadway musical is perhaps the most Jewish Broadway show ever made – Man of La Mancha. This is a retelling of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” Quixote is an old man who decides that chivalry and good deeds are lacking in the world, so he decides to become a knight errant – in an age in which there are no more knights. Through his journeys, most of them the products of delusions, he sees things differently than we would say they really are. The keeper of a seedy inn is the lord of a castle. The shaving bowel of an itinerant barber is a magical golden helmet. An abused strumpet, Aldonza, is the fair maiden Dulcinea. The people he meets think he is insane. Aldonza thinks he only wants from her what all men want from her. That he could think of her as a high lady seems a cruel joke. Whatever the expectations of the people he meets, all Quixote really wants is “to make the world a little better.”

And he does. Despite his delusions, despite his naiveté, despite his ultimate defeat and death, he does succeed in giving Aldonza the ability to see herself differently, as he treated her differently. His kindness, his dedication to simple goodness, shows her that it does exist. How interesting that most of the other characters sees this as insanity.

What an amazingly Jewish show. To express kindness is to express a central Jewish concept – tikvah – hope. The person who expresses kindness believes that their actions count. They believe it will improve the life of the person they are connecting with, even in just a small way. In our concern for the large scale problems of the world, we find it hard to accept kindness for what it really might be – a simple expression of hope, connection, and change.

Judaism is a very intellectual religion. We are a religion of reason. The Talmud is an ingenious compendium of legal positions and arguments. Maimonides articulates a very rationalistic view of the human/God relationship. Even the mystics understand the power of the intellect and their concepts are often difficult for the uneducated to grasp. From our commitment to reason, we are a religion that urges the fight for justice. We stress education. We value achievement. But – and here is a big but – the simple act of kindness, the good and caring heart, is truly exalted and valued in our tradition. That is the component we often forget. I would like to share some stories that illustrate kindness in varying ways, to show just how prominent it is in our tradition.

Once Rabbi Eleazar fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him. Rabbi Eleazar was poor and lay in a dark room with no windows. Rabbi Yochanan bared his arm and light radiated from him, filling the room with light as he entered to be with Rabbi Eleazar. Thereupon he noticed that Rabbi Eleazar was weeping. “Why do you weep?” he asked. “Is it because you have not studied enough Torah? Surely we have learned that the one who studies much and the one who studies little have the same merit as long as their heart is directed towards heaven. Is it because of your lack of sustenance? Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy both learning and wealth. Is it because you lack children?” Rabbi Eleazar replied, “I am weeping because of your beauty, which will one day rot in the earth.” Rabbi Yochanan replied, “On that account you surely have reason to weep.” And they both wept. After a while Rabbi Yochanan asked Rabbi Eleazar, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” He replied, “Neither they nor their reward are welcome to me.” Whereupon Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Eleazar gave Rabbi Yochanan his hand and that is how he raised him. (Berachot 5b)

The theme of kindness flows through this story. The kindness of Rabbi Yochanan’s visit, the kindness of his empathy. The light, which is on one level his physical beauty is also a metaphor for his kindness which fills the room with light. But the end of the story is profound. The Talmud does not specify names in its last sentence “that is how he raised him.” It leaves open the probability that the grasping of hands, motivated by kindness, elevates both of them.

Second story. Rabbi Beroka used to roam the market place where he would often meet and converse with Elijah the prophet (zecher l’tov). One day he asked Elijah if there were any men in the market who merited a place in the world to come. At first Elijah replied “no.” Then he caught sight of a man wearing black shoes and who had no fringes on the corners of his garment. “This one has a share in the world to come,” said Elijah. Rabbi Beroka ran to the man and asked his occupation. “Go away!” said the man. The next day Rabbi Beroka found him and asked him again, “what is your occupation?” “I am a jailer,” the man replied. “I keep the men and women separate and I place my bed between them so that they may not come to sin. When I see a Jewish girl upon whom evil men have cast their eyes, I risk my life to save her.” Rabbi Beroka then asked, “Why do you wear black shoes and have no fringes on the corners of your garment?” The man replied, “I move among hostile gentiles who may not recognize I am a Jew, and if I hear an evil decree against the Jews I go to the rabbis to warn them, they pray to God to get the decree annulled.” Rabbi Beroka then asked him, “When I first asked you your occupation, why did you tell me to go away?” The man answered, “I had just heard such a decree and I needed to get to the rabbis so they might pray to God.” A short time later, while Rabbi Beroka was once again speaking with Elijah, two men passed by. Elijah said, “These two also have a place in the world to come.” Rabbi Beroka approached them and asked their occupations. “We are jesters,” they replied. “When we see men depressed we cheer them up. Further, when we see two people quarreling we strive hard to make peace between them.” (Ta’anit 22a)

What makes this story interesting is the contrast between the dark and the jolly, the cloaked kindness and the open kindness. Both the jailer and the jesters are performing small acts of kindness in difficult circumstances. The difference between them is their appearance, not the content of their hearts.

The final tale is not Talmudic, but a Jewish folk tale. A good man who was approaching the time of death was granted a gift from God, to be able to see both heaven and hell to see what each would be like. First the man went to hell. There he saw a gorgeous banquet table covered in fine linen. Sumptuous food was piled high all over the table. In front of each person was fine china and silver ware with which to eat. There was only one problem. Everyone’s arms were rigid. No one could bend their elbows. So although they could reach the food they could not bring it to their mouths. Thus everyone wailed aloud that they could not partake of the amazing food literally an arm’s length away. The man then went to heaven. There he saw a banquet table exactly like the one in hell. Same food, same china, same table cloth. In addition, everyone’s arms were locked at the elbows, they could not bend them either, yet, no one was crying. Indeed all were happy and enjoying the feast for each was reaching for food and serving it to their neighbor.

What makes this tale so Jewish is the lesson that we actually create our own heaven. And that the difference between heaven and hell is our acts of kindness.

Really, isn’t that the point? Our acts of kindness are what enables us to convert a hellish situation into a spark of heaven. Nice theory rabbi, you might be saying, but give us a practical example. Well, in a world filled with major problems, a world that is becoming more and more partisan, more divided, more polluted, more unjust – your simple act of kindness is the one thing you can do that might just start a landslide that changes everything. Look at the internet. Look at comments posted by angry people who are expressing emotions in what is basically an anonymous forum. They are hiding. No one in this room knows what the person next to him or her might be secretly posting on the internet. You have two courses of positive action. Both have merit. One is to post a very calming comment in response, basically to call out the nastiness through the gentleness, the kindness of your response. But the second I think has greater potential.

Just practice a life of small kindnesses. Hold doors for people, respect them, do not dismiss them based on looks or your preconditioned response to them.   Just be kind. I know this is harder than it sounds. I have a hard time with this as I tend to be a natural cynic. I fight hard to counter my instinctive emotional reactions to people and situations. But I pledge to you tonight I am going to try harder to just sow kindness.

Why? Because in a world in which we control very little, in a world in which all of the problems seem so huge, so overwhelming that we feel we cannot possibly change anything, acting with kindness is something we can control. And, here is the big point; it is contagious. Have you ever had the person in front of you randomly pay a toll or a parking fee for you? It changes your feeling in that moment. If enough of us begin to act with kindness, we can improve our families, our communities and who knows, maybe even the world.

Pirkei Avot teaches us Al sheloshah d’varim ha’olam omeid. Al hatorah, al ha’avodah, v’al gemilut chasadim. “The world stands on three things. On Torah, on prayer and on acts of loving kindness.” I do not know how many of you are going to be Torah scholars. I do not know how many of you believe in the efficacy of prayer. But, all of us are capable of acts of loving kindness. All of us are capable of calling upon our inner Linus. The very best that could happen is we ignite the messianic age. The worst is that we will have a lot of very satisfied birds!

Shanah Tovah u’metukah.



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