D'var Torah by Rabbi Harold J. Kravitz
on Yom Kippur Day 5778
An incident occurred at this very location many years ago. It happened early in my career when I was responsible for running the Kallah program of retreats for Adath’s young teens. As many of you know, before this building was built, this property was the original location of our Kallah retreat center. The Kallah Center space was shared by our Gan Shelanu Nursery School. One weekend we were here for a Shabbat Weekend and all appeared to have gone well, until I got to work on Monday morning. I heard from Susie Chalom, who was the Gan director, that some school equipment had been damaged over the weekend. There was no doubt that kids attending the Kallah retreat were responsible.
I met with Susie to see if we could come up with a plan to deal with it. I was really not eager to play detective, to investigate who exactly was to blame. Susie responded that in Israel kids learn that if such a problem occurs on a program, then everyone is held accountable. This was a really different way for me to think about the problem. That idea provided a solution. I sent a letter to the entire class announcing that every kid in the class would be charged a small amount- it was something like $2.23 and in that way everyone would take responsibility for repairing the damage to the Gan’s property.
The response to that letter was fascinating. Some families understood the principle intuitively and the checks were sent. Others sent indignant letters asserting that those who didn’t do anything wrong should not have to pay even a token amount. It is not fair! Some girls blamed the boys for monkeying around and suggested that only the boys should pay. Others want to get to the bottom of things and figure out who exactly was responsible. In the end every kid in the group made their contribution and the Gan was made whole.
I think back to that incident and I am still struck by the lessons I learned. How American a response it was to have people argue that only those found to have committed an offense should be held accountable. That individualist response did not account for those who stood by and watched without calling out the perpetrators. Nor did it account for those who knew what had happened and did not report it. What was their responsibility? After that one incident, I made it clear at the start of each Kallah retreat that if any damage was done to property over the course of the weekend, then everyone in the group would be held responsible. Guess what? In all of my subsequent years running the Kallah program there was never another incident of anything being damaged by our kids.
While this was not an especially American way of dealing with the issue, it is an approach that has deep roots in Judaism. This world view is captured in one of my favorite Jewish parables. Found in Midrash Rabba on the book of Leviticus (4: 6) Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who lived in 2nd c Palestine taught: Men were on a ship. One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath himself. The others said to him: What are you sitting and doing?! He replied: What do you care מָה אִכְפַּת לָכֶם ? Is it not underneath me that I am drilling לֹא תַחְתִּי אֲנִי קוֹדֵחַ?! They said to him: But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship!
The message of this ancient parable is clear- we are all in the same boat!
The context in which the parable is found makes clear that if one person commits a sin we are all responsible. This is the meaning of the often cited teaching, “All Israel is responsible one for the other Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh bazeh.”
Often that statement is cited to teach that when Jews are having trouble in one place, others have a responsibility to help, which is true. But this saying is primarily understood by the rabbis as teaching that if one person is misbehaving we are all accountable, because all of us are responsible for each other’s conduct- hence the approach that we used so successfully on our Kallah program. This idea of group responsibility may seem odd in this country, which prizes individualism, but it is a very Jewish view of how to create a just society.
This value or middah of responsibility, in Hebrew achrayut, plays a central role in the Jewish tradition known as Mussar that we have been actively promoting here at Adath this past year. You have heard me speak about Mussar before. It is the spiritual discipline that was most highly developed by Rabbi Israel Salanter in 19th c Lithuania to help enhance our personal character with the guidance of ancient Jewish teachings.
The Mussar tradition has seen a surge of popularity nationally and we have been hard at work here at Adath creating study circles to immerse people in this Jewish spiritual practice with truly astounding results. Small groups study middot or character traits together and then individually and together review their progress. Those who have participated report being truly transformed by the practice that has enhanced relationships and changed how participants deal with difficult situations.
Taking responsibility - in Hebrew achrayut - plays a core role in the Mussar endeavor. It is captured in the teaching of Hillel (Avot 2:6) that I introduced earlier “uveemkom sh’ain anashim hishtadail lihiyot ish” that in a place where people aren’t taking responsibility, we each need to step up and be that person who takes responsibility.
The middah of responsibility is so important to the Mussar tradition that my Conservative colleague Rabbi Ira Stone included the word in the title of his groundbreaking study, A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar (2006). He explains that, “Critical to Salanter’s Mussar is the idea that service to and responsibility for other human beings is the single most important human value” (p. xxii)…Salanter believed that the process of transforming ourselves into ethical, responsible beings was too difficult to leave to happenstance. It required active effort.” (p. xxiii) We invite you to Adath the weekend of March 10 when Rabbi Stone will be our scholar in resident to shed more light on the Mussar path. Take a look at the program guide assembled so capably by Adath’s Director of Congregational Life, Jennifer Gray, to learn more about other programs we are offering and about the launch on Oct 9 of our next Mussar learning circle.
The High Holiday season is an especially good time for each us to think about how our community and our world might look and feel if each of us really took to heart the middah of achrayut- of responsibility as we think about how we relate to others and what are the consequences of our action, or inaction . That is the lesson captured in that little story I told earlier “Not My Job.” In which “Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.”
Alan Morinis, the founder of The Mussar Institute, who has done much to spread the contemporary practice of Mussar, provides a valuable understanding of the Hebrew term for responsibility achriyut. He explains that, “There is debate among scholars whether this word is derived from the Hebrew root achar, which means “after,” or acher, which means “other.” In other words, is the essence of responsibility being concerned about what comes after (i.e., the consequences of one’s actions) or to be sensitive to the other (i.e., attending to the needs of the people around you)?” Both meanings of this middah or soul trait get developed in Mussar practice.
The call to responsibility is evident in the very first stories of the Torah we read when we start the cycle of the Torah anew next week. When God confronts the first man about having eaten the fruit of the tree forbidden to them, how does he respond? Of course the man blames the woman and the woman in turn blames the serpent (Gen 3:11-13). Later in that first portion Beresheet, when God confronts Cain who has just murdered his brother asking, “Where is your brother Abel?”, Cain responds, “I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper HaShomer Achi Anochi?” This is a story about avoiding responsibility in which the message is clear. Yes- drop the question mark, “I am my brother’s keeper Hashomer Achi Anochi!” Genesis teaches us that every human being is created in the image of God and has responsibility one for the other.
This year when we were introducing this middah of achrayut to our Mussar Vaad, study circle, I invited them to consider a fine article by a colleague Rabbi David Rosenn called “Ethics in Action” from the Sh’ma Journal (Dec, 2003) that powerfully conveys the importance of taking responsibility. Rabbi Rosenn’s article delves into an often quoted statement of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the foremost religious figures of the last century. He was well known for marching arm in arm in Selma with the Rev. Martin Luther King with whom he was close. Rabbi Heschel’s inspiring statement that first appeared in his classic study “The Prophets” is that, “In a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” Rabbi Heschel proclaimed these words at the National Conference of Religion and Race in Chicago, in 1963, where Dr. King also spoke. That gathering is credited with sparking the participation of many clergy in the Great March on Washington in August of that year calling for an end to racism and economic injustice.
Rabbi Heschel invoked the same expression in a significant essay he wrote decrying the My Lai Massacre of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in 1968 by American soldiers under the command of Capt. William Calley. A deeply learned man, Rabbi Heschel was drawing on the kinds of Jewish teachings that I have already presented today and one that Rabbi Rosenn adds from the Talmud Shabbat (56b) that: “Whoever has the power to protest wrongdoing by members of his or her family but does not is caught up in their sin; whoever has the power to protest the wrongdoing of his or her city but does not is caught up in their sin; whoever has the power to protest the wrongdoing by the whole world but does not is caught up in its sin.”
Until his death Rabbi Heschel served as the conscience of our community and of our country. What do we think that Rabbi Heschel would be speaking out about today? How would he apply the expression he coined so powerfully that “In a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible” I have not the slightest doubt that he would decry just as vehemently the continued racism that permeates this country. We should never forget the chilling images of torch bearing white supremacists marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia chanting. “You will not replace us, Jews will not replace us,” and invoking the Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” Moral leadership obligates us to condemn this abject evil without hesitation. (We thank the Minnetonka Church Leaders for their personal letter to the synagogues and the way they have stepped up.)
Can you imagine what Rabbi Heschel would have said about this brazen expression of racism and Nazism. It was such forces that led to the annihilation of his entire family and of the Eastern European Jewish community that produced him. I have no doubt that Heschel’s heart, if not necessarily his feet, would have been with those who are at the national March for Racial Injustice taking place in Washington DC today. It came to my attention just yesterday that Rabbi Ira Stone, citing the example of Rabbi Salanter eating publicly on Yom Kippur during an epidemic, has taken a very public stance in traveling today to attend this march on Washington saying, “This will be my Yom Kippur.” Though I would have approached it differently than Rabbi Stone, it seems that he was adopting the approach Rabbi Salanter that we saw in the stories of his doing things to wake people up to their responsibilities. We can ask him when he visits us.
I want to remain focused now on honoring the teaching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who we should also remember was an immigrant to this country, saved from destruction by the American Jewish community. How do you think he would respond to the growing fever of anti-immigrant rhetoric burning in our country? It was the deplorable anti-immigrant attitudes of an earlier generation of Americans that prevented many Jews from fleeing Europe’s Holocaust when they could have. This awful nativist narrative is again rearing its ugly head urging us to close our country’s doors to immigrants and refugees as they are maligned and portrayed as being a curse on our country when quite the opposite is true. I want to thank HIAS the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the preeminent Jewish immigration organization, for speaking out on behalf of our community. Their CEO Mark Hetfield spoke here at Adath in August, thanks to the active involvement of our member Bob Aronson who serves on the HIAS Exec Committee. As they made clear, “HIAS used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish, and today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.” What a powerful example of Jews stepping up to take responsibility for others because they are created in the image of God.
There are so many issues that I have no doubt Rabbi Heschel would be challenging us to respond to with his exhortation that “few are guilty, but all are responsible” I want to take us back to the Mussar endeavor to think about how each of us can respond to the challenges that abound. Rabbi Stone opens his book A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar by asking: “What prevents me from doing what is good? If I know what is right, if I espouse a set of values that describe the good, why is it so difficult to act on that knowledge and those values? Faced with a world where there is so much evil, what can I do to make a difference?” (p. xv) He goes on to write that “if those questions resonate with us [and I hope that they do], then Mussar can provide a structure for beginning to address them. It demands that our day-to-day actions be suffused with a concern for doing the good. It also demands that the good that we do be grounded in communal norms and obligations, rather than left to the whim of the individual.” That is the essence of the path on which we have been embarking here at Adath. That is the essence of what it means to live, as Rabbi Stone captures in the title of his book, A Responsible Life. As we make acharyut a core value, we can then begin the work of expanding our circle of influence and there is no telling the good that can result.
On this Yom Kippur, may our eyes be open to the challenges we face and may we support each other in pursuing paths of righteousness and responsibility. We cannot stand by and watch while anyone drills a hole in the boat claiming that it is only their side. We are all responsible one for the other.
Intro to the Maftir Torah Reading 5778 2017
Having read today’s Torah reading, which describes the elaborate ritual of Yom Kippur in Biblical times, we now turn to the Maftir Torah reading on p. 282 describing the sacrifice offered on that day. There is a lovely passage in our Machzor Lev Shalem on page 282 in the left margin that you might want to read depicting our ancestor Abraham worrying about how our people would gain atonement for their sins, lest they suffer the terrible fate of the generation that perished in the flood in Noah’s time.
The rabbis see Abraham as a model of taking responsibility for others. Abraham worried even about the inhabitants of sinful places such as Sodom and Gomorra for whose sake he negotiated with God to save whoever could be saved. That God respects this quality is reflected in God debating whether to even tell Abraham about the plan for the evil cities. That abiding respect for Abraham is captured in the verse in Gen 18:19: For I have singled him [Abraham] out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right [tzedakah u’mishpat], in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what God has promised him.”
כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְהוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃
Viktor Frankl, the great Jewish psychoanalyst, once said that “Being human means being conscious and being responsible. By becoming responsible agents for social change we actualize not only our humanity but also our mission as Jews." (cited by Shmuly Yanklowitz http://utzedek.org/images/middah%20reflection%201.pdf
As we dedicate this day of Yom Kippur to considering our misdeeds and how we can atone for them, let us follow Abraham’s model to also think about our responsibility to others and how we might fulfill them so as to live up to this lofty goal as Abraham’s descendants to become “Shomru Derech Adonai Laasot Tzedakah u’Mishpat” guardians of the way of the LORD doing what is just and right”
Intro to Yom Kippur Musaf 5758 2018
As we prepare for the Musaf service I want to call to mind the example of a Rabbi about whom you have often heard me tell stories in the past. The rabbi is Israel Salanter, the 19th c Lithuanian founder of the Mussar Movement that prioritized the cultivation of people’s good character.
He was of course a strictly observant Jew, obeying the mitzvoth, but he also possessed a deep sense of social responsibility and concern for people.
In the book he wrote called Iggeret Mussar- Mussar Letters he spoke of the moral weakness of his generation that he considered blemished in too often putting Jewish law before the wellbeing of people. “He protested against the severe gap between the meticulousness with which they observed the mitzvoth between people and God ben adam l’makom [what we might call ritual commandments] and their serious neglect of mitzvoth between one person and another ben adam l’chavero [ethical commandments]. (based on Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth, Immanuel Etkes, p. 173
On one occasion, Rabbi Israel [Salanter] encountered an orphan boy wandering about and not going to school. When he asked those who were responsible for administering charity in the community why they did not arrange to defray the costs of that orphan’s studies, they evaded his question with various excuses. Rabbi Israel responded to them with the cry: “One may sell Torah scrolls in order to pay the cost of study!”
What a shocking response that must have been to them. It is true that the rabbis permitted the sale of a Torah and even of a synagogue in certain circumstances to provide for the wellbeing of members of the community. But would the community really have to resort to such an extreme tactic as selling the Torah in order to take care of a single needy student? It is clear that Rabbi Salanter was trying to impress upon the leaders of his town the weight of their responsibility for making every effort to assure that those in need were cared for by the community.
Such a powerful lesson from Rabbi Salanter on what it means to take our responsibilities seriously. As we begin the Musaf Amidah let us give serious thought to how we are fulfilling our responsibilities to others.
Intro before Repetion of Musaf 5778 2017
Another story about Rabbi Salanter is recounted in Prof. Immanuel Etkes’ Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth, , p.170-1. Actually there are two versions of this story.
It occurred in Vilna on Yom Kippur of 1848, when a cholera epidemic was at its height. According to one version, Rabbi Salanter posted notice in all the synagogues on the Eve of Yom Kippur: …not to fast on this holy and awesome day, to cut short the (recitation of) piyyutim, and to walk about outside in the city during the cool of the day. And the next day, following the Morning Service, he took in his hand some baked goods, ascended the bema, recited the blessing… and ate in the presence of the entire congregation, so that that the people might see and act likewise. [Not everyone agreed with Rabbi Salanter who was publicly criticized.] (One of the worshippers, among the distinguished people (of the town), rose up upon seeing this, excited by zeal for the sanctity of Yom Kippur, and shouted: “Do we not have rabbis and (righteous teachers) who know the laws of Pikuah Nefesh (laws regarding the savings of life)? They did not allow (eating) in public as he has done!” And the entire assembly was greatly agitated.)
This is the version most often told. You may recall me telling it in the past. However, there is another more moderate version (cited by Ya’akov Mark in the name of Rabbi Shimon Starshun, who was present at the time.) According to this version, Salanter issued a ruling on the Eve of Yom Kippur, in coordination with the morei-zedek (halakhic authorities) of Vilna, that due to the plague synagogues would cut short the service and people would be encouraged to be outside in the fresh air as much as possible. In addition, in the side rooms adjoining each synagogue there were to be prepared pieces of sponge cake, cut to less than the minimum size, so that one could eat when necessary. Following the Morning Service of Yom Kippur, Rabbi Israel stood up and announced that whoever felt weak could go into the side room and taste some food even without asking the advice of a doctor.
Whichever version is accurate, they both point to the seriousness with which Rabbi Slanter took the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh of saving lives and the wellbeing of people. Let us think about the extent we would go to care for people as we begin the repetition of the Amidah.
During repetition p. 314 read and explain To Imitate God in Machzor Lev Shalem that describes Abraham Heschel’s view that we imitate God by caring for the most vulnerable.
Elah Ezkarah Martyology Texts 5778 2017
Read Charles B. Resnikoff poem Machzor Lev Shalem p. 342 right margin
Read letter of support to Adath from Minnetonka Faith Leaders HERE
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