D’var Torah for Yom Kippur
As usual, this time of day, I think: Wow, what a journey coupled with “are we there yet”? The High Holidays are always a journey within another journey. We begin with the celebration of the birth of the world and end with accepting responsibilities of our actions both as individuals and as a people after ten days of introspection, shining a light on ourselves to find the dark spots that need to be lightened if possible or accepted as is. These dark spots are scars within ourselves, all of which have been created by trials, grief and horrors that each one of us has experienced. Today is the final day of the long journey of introspection. Tonight at sunset, this journey ends and another journey begins.
When I first began this d’var, I was planning on just giving a d’var just on this Torah portion but then several readings later, I began to see how tightly but subtly all of the readings that we have heard during the High Holidays were bound together. All contain the message of kindness and mercy within them. Make no mistake about this: mercy does not always contain kindness but kindness always contains mercy. While many use these words interchangeably, they are not same. According to dictionary.com, mercy is clemency or the righting of a wrong; while kindness is compassion or benevolence. On Rosh Hashanah we read the binding of Isaac, in which providing the ram stopped the sacrifice of Isaac. This act was merciful but in no way kind. However, G-d’s action toward the people of Nineveh in the Jonah story was kind as well as merciful. The moment they repented, the curse was lifted. Another example is the creation of the vine for shade for Jonah. I would like to examine the various forms of kindness and mercy shown in these readings.
As it is stated in the book of Micah 6:8: “What does Adonai require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Adonai”. Kindness or chesed is the act of practicing being kind and giving of self without any hope of getting something in return. This is not the easiest task we can ever undertake because kindness is something that needs to be practiced every hour of every day, even without anyone demanding or needing kindness and it must be directed to everybody in the world.
In the portion of Leviticus we just read, there are many laws that seem to devote themselves not only to kindness, but to the mercy that is contained within each law. I would like to look three verses from this parashah.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.
You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.
Both of these verses are acknowledged as excellent descriptions of kindness. But why? What’s so kind about not having to do the work? Wouldn’t it be kinder if we made a huge effort to give? By allowing the less fortunate to do the work in our fields themselves, we are not only giving them food but also hope. Hope that someday they will be able to provide for themselves by using the same skills that they developed when gleaning our fields. Also, there is no shame or shaming involved.
But how can we do this today? After all we are not, as someone said earlier, “outdoor Jews”. A good start is to continue to do what we have done today; giving to the food bank or by supporting Advent House or the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, not just today but the rest of the year as well. Another way to help is to donate non-food items like sanitary supplies or diapers or personal care products. Most women have extra purses that once we just could not live without but are now collecting dust. Why not fill them with sanitary supplies or diapers or personal care products? Or maybe sanitizer or a bus token? A few little things, which like food, are necessary for living and that make life feel good while giving hope without shaming the person who needs the help. Another way is to get active in our local schools to demand that they feed hungry children. No child should either go hungry or be shamed because their parents cannot afford hot lunches.
You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
After copious amounts reading and research, it was very evident that most, if not all, that I was reading was written before the advent of social media, especially Facebook. Although, I do think that Rashi would have had fun using social media.
This verse, as well, is a very complicated one. On the surface this seems straight forward. But like everything else in Judaism, it’s not simple. Let’s start with the deaf. The literal meaning refers to the physically deaf. But what about other types of deafness? Deafness is not just of the body, but of the mind and soul as well. Is not the inability to hear the pain or the laughter of others, deafness as well? What if we are so locked into our own little world, that we no longer hear the words of others? What about the deafness that comes from not listening to our own instincts; what our conscience is telling us to do or not to do? What about the deafness that comes from our reluctance to hear the song our soul sings to us? These and other non-physical forms of deafness that we suffer from binds us to this thought: to insult those who suffer from all forms of deafness is to insult ourselves.
I once asked Walter Kron how this verse, particularly the part about placing a stumbling block in from of a blind person, was even needed. His answer: maybe some people thought that it was funny. We both agreed that we considered the Three Stooges as three good Jewish boys gone bad.
Blindness, as with deafness, is not only of the body but of the mind and soul as well. Our inability to see others as they are or as they need to been seen is a stumbling block for them as well as ourselves. Last summer, I was at Kroger’s in Okemos, where there was a woman behind the counter who was wearing a hijab. It was very beautiful and the needle work was done by an expert. I went up to her and complimented her on her hijab. A family member had made it for her to wear at her first day of work; she had just started in the bakery. After chatting for a bit, I left and went towards the checkout. As I passed thru the pharmacy, I was accosted by two women who were livid that I dared to speak to this employee of Kroger’s in such a manner. One of them asked if I was not a patriotic American. She also stated that she was so offended by the hijab; she wanted to rip it off her head. I asked if she wanted to do it to other women of faith, like nuns. I told her that pulling the veil off a Buddhist nun might not be dangerous, but a Catholic nun could be vicious; I would not advise that move. I also asked if she would pull the shidel from a Jewish woman or pull off the babushka of an eastern European woman. I pointed out that no one was making the employee wear the hijab and that it was her choice. Here in America we have freedom of and from religion. The second woman spoke up to agree with me as the first woman said: “I never saw it that way.” My answer: “the question remains, now that you can see, what are you going to do about it?” Then I left to check out of Kroger’s.
By being kind to those who are deaf and the blind in any form, we further ourselves. Why? Because in some way, we all are deaf and blind, which does lead to us being unkind. So how do we become kind? We start by being kind to the one person in our life to whom we rarely give kindness. First we need to look in a mirror, for we are own worst critic. After the introspection of the last ten days, it should be somewhat easier to see ourselves as we really are. However, even knowing where the flaws are and vowing to correct them will not really help as much as it could unless we start being kind to ourselves. When was the last time you were kind to yourself? We have been trained not to brag but to be humble about what we accomplish. So why not, instead of saying to yourself, “I could have done better”, say “good job”? Why not acknowledge the good that we do privately to ourselves so that no one hears our words but us? By acknowledging the good we do within the privacy of our own minds, we begin to heal the blindness and deafness that are contained within all of us. If we are going to be doing and spreading kindness we need to start with ourselves. Then we will truly know how it feels. Then we can practice kindness to our family, friends and community with the knowledge of the good feelings we are spreading. Who knows, this might even start trending?