Seeing the Israel-American Jewish Reality Through a New Lens

 

The Bible is filled with quotes, someone once said. But of course, often what we think is a quote is in fact not.
For instance, Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Neither Ingrid Bergman nor anyone else in Casablanca says “Play it again, Sam”;
Leo Durocher did not say “Nice guys finish last”; Vince Lombardi did say “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” quite often, but he got the line from someone else. …
William Tecumseh Sherman never wrote the words “War is hell”; and there is no evidence that Horace Greeley said “Go west, young man.”
Marie Antoinette did not say “Let them eat cake.”

Everyone distinctly remembers Michael Douglas uttering the words “Greed is good” in Wall Street, just as everyone distinctly remembers Ingrid Bergman uttering the words “Play it again, Sam” in Casablanca, even though what she really utters is “Play it, Sam.” When you watch the movie and get to that line, you don’t think your memory is wrong. You think the movie is wrong. …

Quotations are in a perpetual struggle for survival. They want people to keep saying them. They don’t want to die any more than the rest of us do. And so, whenever they can, they attach themselves to colorful or famous people. …

–Louis Menand, “Notable quotables: Is there anything that is not a quotation?” The New Yorker, February 19, 2007.

 

This week gives us a Torah portion and a Haftarah passage that offer famous lines to quote.

 

Our first prayer when we enter a synagogue is a line from this parsha: Mah tovu ohalekha Yaakov – “How fair are your tents, Jacob!”

And then there is the Haftarah, finishing with Micah’s message: Higid l’kha Adam mah tov – “He told you, oh man, what is good.” Great quotes!

 

We can also find a powerful political message in these readings.
The king of Moab sees swarms of aliens entering his country. This is not good. There goes the neighborhood, right? These aliens will “lick up the land,” he says. They’ll take away jobs, housing, public facilities.
So what does he do? Build a wall? No. He sends for a sorcerer named Bilaam. “Come put a curse on them,” he says. “Keep them out of our country.” It’s also clear that this curse is worth money to the king.

Bilaam invites the delegates to spend the night while he consults with a Higher Authority, seeking a message from the Divine. God says don’t go.
Of course, Bilaam is thinking with his pocket. If he shouldn’t go with this committee of PR men, then maybe a more important committee will be different, meaning more money. So he doesn’t go with Balak’s first group, but he does go with the next group.
The story continues with the tale of Bilaam’s journey by donkey, his repeated forced stops along the way, and his projected curses which all turn into blessings.

So how do we think of Bilaam?
He certainly had an evil streak – greed and cunning and a deep desire to destroy Israel.
And yet he found himself unable to utter the curse.
He himself could not see what the donkey saw – an angel blocking his way.
What’s angel? Literally a messenger! He’s more than that.
Perhaps the angel with the drawn sword is the consequence of Bilaam’s action.

It takes a lot of wisdom to see the consequences of what we plan to do. Bilaam couldn’t see those consequences, but the donkey could. The third time she sees the danger, the donkey squats down on the ground for safety, whereupon Bilaam blows his stack and beats his donkey with a stick. Only then does the donkey speak, saying, in effect: “You think I’m only a jackass, but I’m smarter than you are. Open your eyes and look what you may be getting us into!”

Isn’t that what any political leader, in fact any responsible human being needs to hear? Sometimes it takes the talking donkey in our midst to open our eyes.
You can discriminate against people. You can keep them down. You can exploit them. You can even praise them while you’re doing it. That’s what Bilaam did when he said Mah tovu, isn’t it? Praise the aliens for building nice tents. But his real objective was to get those tents for himself, or to destroy them.

Sooner or later there’s an avenging messenger to deal with.
And here’s where the prophet Micah in the haftarah portion comes in, to tell us: Look ahead, and see the real purpose. What does God require of us? Asot mishpat – DO justice, don’t just talk about it.

Secondly: Ahavat Khesed – love mercy. Know the difference between love and seduction.
Bilaam wanted to be seduced by Balak’s riches. When that didn’t work, he stirred up some seduction himself, and spread disease among Israel. Sex passed as love.
So Micah comes preaches: Ahavat Khesed – love mercy. More than passion is compassion.
Third: And always, whether you lead a nation, a city, a family, a local organization, or a chapter of a global movement – or just lead your own life – Hatzneya lekhet – walk with humility.

Humility does not mean to be timid and always take the back seat. Humility means, be ready to listen – listen to the message of your heritage, and even be ready to listen to somebody you may think is only a talking donkey. Just be careful. Don’t confuse the talking donkey with the prophet.
Today, we need to listen to the Prophet Micah.
Especially today.

As you know I have just returned from more than two weeks in Israel. During the time there the Netanyahu government bent to the will of the ultra-orthodox and reneged on its promise to build a permanent prayer space at the Western Wall for liberal groups. He also backtracked on a conversion process that recognized the rights of non ultra-orthodox Jews.

He did this for one reason, politics. His coalition government depends on the support of a small number of Jews who wield great power. In response there has been righteous indignation which is not helpful. But there has also been among some liberal leaders a new way of seeing (like Bilaam’s donkey) in which the truth is apparent. Politics in Israel is a serious game and the other side plays it better than we do. The response is not to boycott Israel but to engage in Israel even more and to play our cards much better.
Speak to the consul general as I have will be doing next week.
Meet with the Israel minister of tourism and express your disappointment in his current approach to non-Israeli Jews.
Attend a rally at the prime ministers house, as I did last Saturday night.
Write and tell people the real truth which is that the ultra-orthodox are on the defensive. That’s why they are fighting so hard.
And let’s remember that Israel is not just a political state. It is also the Jewish homeland. We have a stake in its survival and its improvement. But Israel doesn’t need lectures from us. Israel needs engagement and tough love. That’s how it works.
Micah in the end is right. Love mercy, do justice, walk humbly with God. But also fight for what matters most. To repeat: Humility does not mean to be timid and always take the back seat. Humility means, be ready to listen – listen to the message of your heritage, and you have a great one…listen to the voice of your conscience…even be ready to listen to somebody you may think is only a talking donkey. Just be careful. Don’t confuse the talking donkey with the prophet.

This is our way forward.

Temple Sholom Israel Trip Officially Begins!

Shabbat on Tel Aviv Beach
At Tel Dan in the North
The Border with Syria
In a Wadi (river bed)
Camel Riders in the Negev

Our bus

Wine tasting in the Golan
Chocolate Bakers in the Golan

A wonderful Friday in Jaffa and the heart of old Tel Aviv.

The view from our Tel Aviv Hotel

Carolyn Bronstein brought the shekel note her mother gave to her to bring to Israel after decades away. A 1980-era shekel!

We had a wonderful Yemenite Dinner tonight in classic old Tel Aviv and many of us walked back to the hotel. Tomorrow bright and early for our first full day!

Six Day War, Fifty Years Later

I am here in Washington, D.C., with many members of the congregation and the wider Chicago Jewish community, attending the annual Global Forum of the American Jewish Committee. The 2500 attendees are here to learn from top scholars and politicians on matters of world justice and continued engagement in the State of Israel. Since the Six Day War began exactly fifty years ago today (June 5), the war and its aftermath is a prevalent concern at the conference and has been a lot on my mind as well.

I remember the war, at least the religious school party we had when the war ended and the State of Israel was still standing, stronger than ever. I also remember the relief that people felt, as well as the pride. The pride was because Jews were able to defend themselves so well. The relief was because the rhetoric leading up to the war was so evocative of the Holocaust era. A great foe (Nasser) was calling for the destruction of Israel. The head of the nascent PLO warned that all Jews would be driven into the sea. The American State Department was vocally neutral and the churches of America offered a deafening silence.

Recent literature on the war tends to argue that the existential crisis was not real and that the war was waged by Israel because zealous Israeli generals wanted more defensible borders. There may be some merit to this argument but it only tells one small part of the story. Occurring some twenty years after the Shoah, it is not fair to accuse Israel of irresponsibly giving into hateful rhetoric in the lead-in the war. We still – even now – do not have the luxury of not taking the statements of our enemies seriously.

Unfortunately the aftermath of the Six Day War has led to moral and demographic challenges for a country that was not created to control the lives of non-citizens and disputed territory. As far-fetched as it may seem today I hope – as does the American Jewish Committee – that there is still a chance of a two-state solution. In short, it is in Israel’s long term best interest for there to be a Palestinian state of some kind.

As American Jews we cannot make this happen. Indeed, the hardest work will have to come from the Palestinians themselves. Nevertheless there are a few points to remember. We should feel comfortable voicing our dissent with Israel when we disagree with her policies but the de-legitimization of Israel is off the table. And, we should remember that the reason there is no State of Palestine today is because of the myriad of times their leadership refused to accept the generous peace agreements proffered, beginning as early as 1947 and most notably shortly after the Six Day War.

The best way to support Israel is to get to know the real country. I am so pleased to be leading a trip, along with Melanie, to Israel, beginning in a couple of weeks. (Please check the Sholom blog for updates.) For those without travel means or plans then please consider other avenues to support Israel through education. Read the books. Meet Israelis. Consider diverse media outlets. Educate yourself on the facts not the propaganda. Most importantly, engage in understanding the bigger story of Israel and the struggle of our people to live with both peace and security.

One of the speakers at the conference, Dr. Steven Bayme, taught that recently he was confronted with many hostile questions after suggesting that the best solution in the Middle East is two states. A Russian man, who immigrated to the State in 1990, was especially critical, calling Dr. Bayme’s view naïve. In response Dr. Bayme said that, if in 1985, someone would have said that in 5 years this man and others would be allowed to leave Russia, he would have been laughed off the dais. And yet that is exactly what happened.

The moral: fifty years after the Six Day War, let’s not forget that history has its own surprises for us. And so we Jews are permitted a little naïve hope. We have earned it.

With sholom,

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

Making the Most of Our Time

 

Chag Sameach! A Quick survey: How many people in the congregation regularly wear a wristwatch?
{Ask for a show of hands of those who use another device to tell time and the youngsters will happily pull out their cell phones (be advised that you may lose them for a minute while they check their Snapchat account).}

Regardless of what timepiece you carry, it’s clear that we live in a world obsessed with time.
Rarely does anyone sidle up to you in the grocery store anymore and ask, “Do you have the time?” because everyone has it attached to their body in some way.
We have multiple apps for tracking our calendars, managing our deadlines and even timing our walk to the office. We have time staring at us from the corner of our computer screens, from the dashboard of the car and from the digital clock on the bank sign down the street. I can always look at the old Marshall Fields clock down my street.

In some cities, in fact, telling time is literally a big deal. If you’re in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for example, you can’t help but see the Abraj Al Bait Towers clock just about anywhere you go. Its clock face is 43 meters in diameter, roughly the size of a luxury yacht, built on a tower that’s 601 meters (almost 2,000 feet) tall. By comparison, Big Ben, arguably the most famous clock in the world, is just over 6 meters in diameter on a 96-meter-high tower on the bank of the Thames.

Other cities around the world have similar “big time” clocks to help residents and visitors track the time, some even assisting with chimes or bells when the clock strikes the hour.

You’d think that the plethora of clocks in our world would make us better at managing our time, but the truth is that time management is one of the biggest stressors in our culture. We work too many hours, we have too many distractions, and we’re trying to squeeze in more work in less time.

Procrastination is often the result of being so overwhelmed with tasks that we keep putting things off, only to find that we’re now even more squeezed for time.
True story: The first-grader asked his mother why Daddy brought home a briefcase full of papers every evening.

She explained, “It’s because Daddy has so much to do he can’t finish at the office and has to work nights.”

“Well, then,” said the child, “why don’t they just put him in a slower group?”
One of the iconic images of the silent-film era is that of funny-man Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a giant clock on the side of a big-city building, many stories above the street. The scene is from the 1923 comedy, Safety Last.

The man in the picture is Lloyd himself. There is no safety net. In those early days of cinema, stunt doubles were only just emerging as a specialty, and CGI effects were completely unheard of.

Perhaps the reason that scene is so memorable is that a man dangling precariously from the hands of a giant clock seems to capture our ambiguous relationship with time.
As we prepare for Yizkor it is hard not to be aware of that relentless ticking of time.

The relentless ticking of the clock (or, in their case, the movement of the shadow around the sundial) is what the ancient Greeks referred to as Chronos time, from which we get “chronological” time.

If you buy an expensive watch today (either to actually tell time or to make a fashion statement), the jewelry store will likely refer to it as a “chronograph.” It keeps the time that we’re always tracking, managing and running out of.

Another kind of time is Kairos.
Kairos is the brand of time most often mentioned in the New Testament, but there is nothing particular un-Jewish about it. You won’t find it on the hands of the dial or the digital numbers on a screen. Instead, kairos refers more to a decisive time — the right time, the appropriate time.

The writers of the New Testament seem to understand kairos in relation to the moment when God intervenes or is about to intervene in human history.

Life in the Spirit is life in kairos time, and religious people set their watches and calendars by that standard.

These days we might have atomic clocks in our homes that are accurate to the second because they synchronize automatically by radio frequency with the National Institute of Standards and Technology atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. The watch on our wrist or the clock in the bell tower might be fast or slow, but the NIST F-2 clock is always right.
But knowing the time is not the same as how we use our time.
How we “make the most of the time” is thus a function of how well we use our chronos to focus on the kairos. How does your calendar reflect time spent cultivating your relationship with God? Does your daily rhythm include time dedicated to the spirit?

Rather than just letting time tick away, what would it be like to endow our time with more spiritual uses?
If you regularly carry a timepiece of some sort, be it analog or digital, consider the practice of saying a short prayer every time you check the time. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, pray for whatever is happening or whomever you’re with at that moment. Coupled with a disciplined and regular spiritual life, it’s a practice that makes the most of the time in a way that allows the spiritual to work in us and through us.

Yizkor is about memory but it’s also about seizing each day as an opportunity for deep and real experiential living. It’s about being 9n 6he moment because that’s all we actually have.

A friend once came to Harold Kushner, author of the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and said to him: “Two weeks ago, for the first time in my life I went to the funeral of a man my own age. I didn’t know him well, but we worked together, talked to each other from time to time, had kids about the same age. He died suddenly over the weekend. A bunch of us went to the funeral, each of us thinking, ‘It could just as easily have been me.’
That was two weeks ago. They have already replaced him at the office. I hear his wife is moving out of state to live with her parents. Two weeks ago he was working fifty feet away from me, and now it’s as if he never existed.
It’s like a rock falling into a pool of water. For a few seconds, it makes ripples in the water, and then the water is the same as it was before, but the rock isn’t there anymore.
Rabbi, I’ve hardly slept at all since then. I can’t stop thinking that it could happen to me, that one day it will happen to me, and a few days later I will be forgotten as if I had never lived. Shouldn’t a man’s life be more than that?” (When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, p. 20. )

A story that comes from Rabbi Eli Schochet. It is a childhood memory of his.
Rabbi Schochet grew up in Chicago. His father and grandfather were rabbis there. And Eli tells this story:
One Shabbas afternoon, when he was about 8 or 9 years old, he was at his grandfather’s house, when a Cadillac pulled up,–on Shabbas!
3 burly guards got out. You could see that they had holsters in their inside coat pockets. And then the back door of the Cadillac opened, and a famous Jewish gangster got out. He walked up the stairs to the porch, took out an envelope, laid it down on the table next to Eli’s grandfather, and said, “Nem far de yeshiva kinder, iz mein mama’s Yahrzeit.”
Take this for the yeshiva kids, its my mother’s yahrzeit”.
With that, he turned around and walked down the stairs.
Eli said, ” At first, I was angry, that a man would dare bring money to my Zeidi on Shabbas. That a gangster would dare bring money with which to salve his conscience? And that my grandfather would take it”?
He didn’t know if he was angrier with the man or with his grand-father.
Eli kept that anger, that shame, that embarrassment inside him for many years, and never told anyone about it. And then, one year, when he was much older, the-incident somehow came up in the conversation when he was talking to his grandfather.
He said to him: “Zeyde, how could you have done such a thing? How could you have let him get away with such a thing? How could you have let a gangster give you money for charity on Shabbas?
His Zeyde answered him: “Don’t you understand what happened that day? Here was a man who had lived a certain way all his life, who lived in an ugly, criminal, wrong way. And then, one day, he happened to look at a calendar, and he realized that it was his mother’s Yahrzeit, and he remembered the dreams that she had once for him, the dream that he would grow up to be a mentsch, the dream that he would grow up to be a Jew, and for one brief minute, he wants to live up to that dream, for one brief minute, he wants her memory to live within him, and so he did what he did. That’s not hypocrisy. That is a moment of truth, and whether it lasted or not doesn’t matter. It was a sacred moment”.

We could say chronos became kairos.
The right moment was realized.
I challenge — actually Yizkor challenges us — to do the same.
Chag sameach.
It’s later than you think.

Open The Gates

“For you have known the heart of the stranger….” (Exodus 23:9)

The picture above shows my mother, Regina Ohringer, mostly hidden by the man in the white suit in the middle. You can see on the right my Aunt Lottie. They were with their parents on the SS Flandre, a French ship that in May, 1939, along with the German ship, the St. Louis, was trying to bring its Jewish refugee passengers to freedom in Cuba. When Cuba changed its mind and would not let them disembark, the ship went to Miami Beach. President Roosevelt instructed the Coast Guard to block the ship from docking. My mother and her family were forced to return to France, where a few weeks later the Nazis overran the country. Fortunately, due to the combined efforts of generous Chicagoans like Grant Pick, Sr., Sam Block (of Jenner Block Law Firm), and William Paley (of CBS) my mother and her family were able to get to America in 1941 by Pan Am flying boat.

Because of this personal history I cannot stay silent when I see what is happening to legitimate refugees who are coming to America for the same reason my family and maybe yours arrived, so well captured by the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty. If we stop being a country that welcomes the poor, tired and frightened, then we no longer are serving our famous mission that President Reagan liked to call “the city on the hill”. Obviously we are required to protect ourselves from terror. But think of the countless Jewish refugees not allowed into America during the Holocaust because they might be Nazi spies. Think of the cruel American Japanese internment camps. Have we not matured as a country in 70 years?

When, in the 1970s, my mother was well established in this country she began taking me and my twin brother with her to furnish the homes for Russian Jews who were fleeing the USSR and being welcomed in the U.S. I know in her way she was trying to give back for the belated gift of being welcomed in this country. I hope all of us feel a debt to help others, just as we or our ancestors were helped.

My synagogue, Temple Sholom of Chicago, had planned to welcome a refugee family this spring. Our Sholom Justice group will be doing whatever they can to keep us ready for the time when we can enact our plan.
In the meantime, I cannot stand by and let our country sink into cruel xenophobia. We are better than that.

Included in the poem on the Statue of Liberty are these words: A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning. Imprisoned lightning? Perhaps this refers to the latent power in each of us to redeem the world though righteous acts of kindness for others. If so I hope we find a way to release this lightning, through pressure on our government to open our gates to the needy and persecuted, and through welcoming the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

My mother has passed away but her voice is still strong. It says to me: “Take care of these people!”

marching

This week the Jewish People read in the Torah about the enslavement of our ancestors.
The daily fare of the Jewish slaves in their Egyptian exile was cruel. What began as forced labor steadily degenerated into acts of unspeakable brutality and horror, leading to Pharaoh’s decree to murder all newborn male infants.
While the physical labor was backbreaking, the moral toll was similarly bitter. The family unit was shattered, wives separated from husbands, who were forced to remain at their work sites in faraway fields. The people were demoralized and depressed, stripped of any of their former dignity or self-respect. Under the daily terror of the slaver’s whip, it appeared that any good future was hopeless.

One group of slaves, however, did not give in – this group continued to hope. They preserved their human dignity; they continued to dream of a better life.
This group of slaves was the Jewish women.
“In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt.” So says the ancient Jewish text, the Talmud.
The Talmud explains: After an exhausting day of excruciating labor, the women would polish their mirrors and use them to beautify themselves for their husbands.
At night, the women would sneak out to the men’s camps, bringing hot, nourishing food. They would heat water in the fields and bathe their husbands’ wounds.
The women spoke soft, soothing words. “Do not lose hope. We will not be slaves to these degenerates all our lives.”
Many women conceived during these visits, subsequently giving birth to the children who would ensure the continuity of the Jewish people.

How appropriate that we learn of these women in connection with this week’s Torah portion. As you know many thousands of women will be marching in Washington and elsewhere – including downtown Chicago – on this Shabbat. The reasons for the marching are many. The anger is real. But so is the hope that says we cannot give up on our country’s ability to find the right tone of civic discourse, to reach out to those who have been unlucky in life, to those whose fight each day is filled with despair and disillusionment.
Politics aside, the reality in our country these days cannot be ignored. There is much anger, argument, refusal to listen, and lack of respect. There is genuine inequality and needless suffering. But there is also hope that we can reorient our society based on mutual respect and that indescribable but genuine American spirit.
And so I ask that, whatever our mood or politics this weekend, we remember the ancient courage of Israelite women, who would not settle for a life of despair. Such courageous women saved us before and they can do so once again.
With sholom,
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg
PS Please join us for worship this Friday night, January 20, where the sermon will not be about the Inauguration.

Words of Comfort in a Dark Time

The Journey to a Better Tomorrow Begins Today
A Message from Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

November 9, 2016

This morning many of us in this country and congregation feel as though they are in mourning. I certainly feel that way. This is not because of Democrats or Republicans but because our country has been through a horrific experience in which our language has been debased and our old hatreds, once thought to be diminishing, have returned. For those bothered by the uncertainty of the election, the uncertainty of the future is far worse.

I am comforted nonetheless by this week’s Torah reading in which Abraham (and Sarah) are called upon by God to go on a journey to a new land. As the late Rabbi Alan Lew once pointed out, in the Bible no one ever goes on a journey willingly. Either they are commanded (in Abraham’s case) or fleeing for their lives (see: Jacob and Moses). Or maybe their brothers have sold him out (Joseph). But the journey happens and the true self shines through. Were it not for the journey they never would have known their true, resilient selves. Think of what President Kennedy said when asked how he became a hero in WWII, saving his crew from drowning. He said that he had no choice once they sank his boat.

So moving forward we are on a journey as a country that looms with terrifying uncertainty. But I pray that, like Abraham and Sarah, we will embark upon this journey with faith in God, the ultimate goodness of humanity, and the calling to make the world a place of justice, compassion and peace.

I also hope that you will join your congregation for worship this Friday night (6:15 p.m.) so we can come together as a community of hope and support. Please know this: we are not alone. You are not alone.

If you would like to have a member of our clergy team speak with you, please reach out. We are always available.

One final thought: a few weeks ago, as our late Kol Nidre service ended, Melanie and I walked by the security desk and were told the Cubs were losing to the Giants. It was the ninth inning. People were surprised when I smiled and said, “The Cubs will win this game.” I knew they would win because this team – when things seem to be going wrong late in the game – starts to go to work. That is their comfort zone. (As game seven of the World Series amply proved.)

So here is the point: the months ahead will determine whether or not those of us who care about respect, decency, compassion, and justice for all are ready to fight for what we believe. Will we fold or will we suit up and play the game of our lives?

I want to believe in the best that is in us. I hope you can too.

With sholom,

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg

Get Outlook for iOS

Therefore, Choose Life

imageCan we talk about things that annoy us?

Every day brings us an array of stuff that tries our patience. You buy something that needs to be assembled, and the instructions don’t make sense. You’re out on a golf course and you hit a straight drive; but when you get to where it ought to be lying, the ball is not there. You toss 16 socks into a clothes dryer and you get only 15 back.
And then, we all have special pet peeves.
Me, I really hate cliches. In fact, I avoid a cliché like I avoid the plague! And even though a theme of Yom Kippur’s traditional Torah reading for Reform Jews (which we will read tomorrow) features the words, “choose life,” I often get annoyed at this phrase.
Indeed, for many years I thought the charge to “choose life” was an unbearable cliché. Except for the severely depressed — of course a tragic phenomenon — who would not choose life?

It’s like when Margaret Fuller, the nineteenth century transcendentalist, declared, “I accept the universe.” To which Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle sardonically responded, “Gad, she’d better!”

“Choose life” strikes me as a watered down version of “keep passing the open windows”.
“Keep passing the open windows” is the phrase that comes from the John Irving novel The Hotel New Hampshire, published in 1981. It is a catchphrase among the Berry family, the characters whose story is told in the novel. It is drawn from a story that the Berry parents tell their children, about a street performer called “The King of Mice.” He committed suicide in jumping from a window. “Keep passing the open windows” is the family’s way of saying to each other to carry on when the going gets tough.
But the Bible says, “Choose life” and not “Keep passing the open windows”. So we are back to a cliché!
For more than a hundred years Reform Jews have featured these words in our Yom Kippur morning service, reading from Deuteronomy 29 and 30 instead of from the traditional selection of Leviticus 16.
Presumably our Reform forebears were more interested in avoiding congregational attention focused on the scapegoat – featured in the traditional Yom Kippur reading from Leviticus 16 – than they were emphatically promoting the notion of choosing life. Early Reform rabbis felt that Jews were already well acquainted with being scapegoated and didn’t need any blatant reminders. Also the primitivism of the scapegoat clashed with their Age of Enlightenment sensibility.
I am also quite sure that they had no idea that the words “choose life” – when found on a car bumper sticker – would have a specific meaning concerning abortion issues.
But back to our cliché.
Fortunately, I do believe that an important message can be mined out of the phrase if we look a little more closely.
The context of this appeal, in Deuteronomy 30, is the need for each of us to decide what path in life to take, the blessed or the cursed, of life or of death. Life here is not the literal opting to not die (sorry, Hamlet) but the sum of all of our choices. The words are a general call to follow a good path.
Not many people are going to argue against this appeal, even if their life choices do not always reflect this advice. So once again, we seem to be dealing with a cliché.

But here is something important: the actual Hebrew, u-vaharta bahayim, doesn’t exactly translate as “choose life,” but rather “therefore, choose life.” Often over-looked, I am intrigued by this word “therefore”.

In general, Hebrew is a much more compact language than English. One Hebrew word might take three or more English words in order to provide an accurate rendering. The Hebrew letter “vav” – actually pronounced “u” at the beginning of the word “u-vaharta” — can be understood in this case as implying a logical conclusion to the argument. That is to say, “therefore”.

For instance, here is a translation from the 1917 edition of the Jewish Publication Society:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; [u-vaharta] therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”

Hebrew scholars connect the letter “vav” (rendered here as “u” in Hebrew for grammatical reasons far beyond my explaining tonight) with the image of a “hook”.
Hence, one might argue that the “vav” in our phrase is the “hook” that turns the cliché into an important message. In other words, this word “therefore” is important.

The implication is that God has made a case for choosing life beyond the oft-repeated parental phrase, “Because I said so.”
And the “therefore” is the key.
So what does this “therefore” reflect? What is the great argument that God makes for choosing life?

The answer is this: the “therefore” indicates the great power of each of us to make any choice we want.
In other words the point of choosing life is that we all have that choice. This is far from redundant and it is not merely a cliché.
It is in fact novel and extraordinary.
Hear this: Nothing is preordained.
There is no destiny, only choice.
This is the great outlook of Judaism whittled down to a deceptively simple sentence. A profoundly simple sentence.
It’s what God tells Cain when he complains that his sacrifice was not received with the right amount of respect. God says to him: you can sin or not, you can hold a grudge or not. It’s your choice.
What we may think of as predetermined actions, fate or destiny is purely an illusion. The reality is completely different: we have absolute free will.
All the time. Whether to love or hate or feel indifference. Whether to care or not care. To respond or not respond. Our physical bodies may operate without our consent — it’s called breathing — but morally and emotionally we are free agents.
The author Isaac Bashevis Singer was once asked whether he believed in free will or predestination. “We have to believe in free will,” he replied. “We’ve got no choice.”
Yes, some of us are born with great opportunities and others come into the world imprisoned by poverty and even illness. I’m not addressing at this moment the great social, physical and material inequalities in this world, this city, or even this congregation.
I’m speaking about our own individual awareness of the choices before us. I’m arguing that our choices, what we can choose to do, are far greater than we might imagine.
We are not prisoners of fate. Nothing is decided in advance. Our choices are freely ours to make, and the consequences that follow are on our account as well.
We all know some people who live and die with bitter hearts, and it might seem cruel to say but let’s be honest: it’s a choice to live that way. In this one regard, we all have the power to decide how tragedy affects us. We can choose bitterness, that is our right. But it is not our fate.
After a crisis or disappointment we can look at what’s gone or we can look at what’s left. It’s a choice.
The takeaway from this understanding of u-vaharta bahayyim – “therefore, choose life” — is the dizzying reality of what it means to be completely free in our moral agency. In short, we don’t choose what people do to us but we do decide how we respond and how we treat others.
I’m not suggesting this is necessarily good news.
Actual free choice can be terrifying. Think this through with me: We are all equal in this matter, rich or poor; we are all given the same 168 hours a week. We are all presented with an avalanche of choices every second of every one of those 168 hours.
And I have to ask: More often than not do we choose the path of kindness over pettiness? Do we share our time and treasure with others? Do we better our minds and ennoble our hearts? Do we nurse grudges or make a new plan?
Be honest: who among us wants that kind of responsibility? Wouldn’t we rather question our moral agency? You know, let ourselves off the hook?

Understandably there are times when we want to be let off that hook. When we can shrug our shoulders and say, “it’s beyond my control.”
I get it. We are not given the same amount of opportunity and good luck. And life is not fair.
But this doesn’t negate the choices before us.
And Yom Kippur is not the time for turning away from the truth, even when it’s disturbing. Especially when it’s disturbing.
Viktor Frankl, a medical doctor who spent much of World War II in the concentration camps, wrote extensively on human choice and the meaning of life. He concluded that our freedom as humans is not freedom from conditions, but rather it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions. This is the choice we face. We cannot choose our past. But we can choose how we respond to that past. We can be victimized, of course, but we need not be victims.
To be fair, in recent years there are those in the science fields who argue that free will is only an illusion, that we are encumbered by our biology. Were this true it would make “choose life” even worse than a cliché. It would render it a cruel irrelevancy.
For instance, Sam Harris writes in his 2012 book, Free Will, that free will itself is an illusion, and he uses science and his own cognition to attempt to prove his thesis. Here is his conclusion:
It is not that free will is simply an illusion—our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality. Rather, we are mistaken about our experience. Not only are we not as free as we think we are—we do not feel as free as we think we do. Our sense of our own freedom results from our not paying close attention to what it is like to be us. The moment we pay attention, it is possible to see that free will is nowhere to be found, and our experience is perfectly compatible with this truth. Thoughts and intentions simply arise in the mind. What else could they do? The truth about us is stranger than many suppose: The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.
Sam Harris has been one of those writers who challenges belief in God (his book is dedicated to that late confirmed atheist, Christopher Hitchens) and now he appears to be challenging our belief in ourselves. His reasoning is clever, and maybe even entertaining, if at times confusing, but that does not mean I agree with him.

I choose – using that specific word – to believe in a world where there is free choice. (Ideally I also want to believe in a Deity who cares about the choices I make.) Therefore, the “therefore” in “therefore, choose life” to me means rejecting appeals to fatalism. It means expanding our awareness of the choices before us.
And it means, whether we like it or not, taking responsibility for our choices.
Consider the story of the rabbinical student who has left the study house and is hurrying home. A peasant on the way asks the student to help him with his spilled wares. He responds that he can’t. The peasant rebukes the student: “Don’t say you can’t. Say you won’t. You always have a choice.”

This tale is an appeal to stop lying to ourselves. Our actions are not predetermined or based on factors beyond our control. We are free moral agents, and that implies the great power within us.
As Marianne Williamson wrote (and Nelson Mandela cited in his 1994 inaugural address), “…Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” When seen in this way, “therefore, choose life” ceases to become a cliché and instead can be regarded as a sobering realization. Our personal responsibility for who we are is far greater than we imagined.
God is saying to us in stark terms: I gave you life. I gave you free choice. Now choose wisely! Therefore, choose life!
Therefore, choose life!
You know, contrary to what I said before, sometimes choosing life can be quite literal. Consider this tale of Gisella Perl. She was seized by the Gestapo, along with her parents and husband, in March 1944. She came from Sighet, the same village as Elie Weisel’s hometown. She was taken to Auschwitz and, being a physician, was put to work under the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
Mengele performed savage medical experiments on prisoners, especially women and the disabled. He would tell pregnant women to report to him so that he could send them to another camp for better nutrition. Women would run to him and tell him, “I’m pregnant!” Dr. Perl soon discovered that these women were then taken to the research block and used as guinea pigs, after which mother and embryo would be thrown into the crematorium.

Gisella Perl decided to warn the women of the danger. She would abort every pregnancy she could in order to save the mothers’ lives. In addition to the abortions, she was one of five doctors at Auschwitz who were supposed to operate a hospital ward with no beds, bandages, drugs or instruments. She had to try and heal the many diseases brought on by torture, starvation, and filth. She had to treat broken bones and heads that had been cracked by vicious beatings. Her only medicine to offer was the spoken word. She would tell her patients that one day life would be good again.

When she was liberated, she wandered through Germany on foot, searching for her family. She quickly learned that her husband had been beaten to death just before liberation and her teenage son had died in a gas chamber. She herself now succumbed to grief and tried to kill herself with poison. Unsuccessful, she was taken to a convent in France to recuperate.

In 1947, Gisella came to the United States to speak to doctors of the horrors she saw. One day she met Eleanor Roosevelt and they had lunch together. The former first lady told her, “Stop torturing yourself; become a doctor again.” With the help of a local congressman, she opened an office in Manhattan and joined the staff of Mount Sinai Hospital. There she became an expert in treating fertility and delivered three thousand babies. In her seventies she moved to Jerusalem and donated her time to the gynecological clinic at Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, helping women to give birth.

Whenever she entered a delivery room, after she began to deliver babies again after the war, she would always first stop to utter her own special prayer: “God, you owe me a life, a living baby.”
Gisella Perl knew firsthand despair and fear. But she also was able to draw on a wellspring of hope and faith. She was a living embodiment of courage and the choice to choose life.

Therefore, choose life.

Therefore, meaning: we have the choice.
As we age, will we become bitter or better? Will we be victims or victors? Will we see the glass half-full or half-empty?
None of these choices is predetermined. We can always bear a grudge, but that too is a choice. A seductive one, yes, but nursing such grudges is often like gnawing on a bone. It might taste good for awhile but we gradually realize the bone we are gnawing on is our own bone. And it is not going to end well.
Is that the choice we want to make?

So herein lies our path. We make ourselves aware of the choices, we determine how we want to respond, and if we choose to live with integrity, we act accordingly.
It is precisely this profound simplicity at the core of the exhortation to choose life.
There’s an old Arab story of a spy who was captured and then sentenced to death by a general in the Persian army. This general had the strange custom of giving condemned criminals a choice between the firing squad and a big, black door next to the execution site. As the moment for execution drew near, the spy was brought to the Persian general, who asked the question, “What will it be: the firing squad or the big, black door?”
The spy hesitated for a long time. It was a difficult decision. He chose the firing squad.
Moments later shots rang out confirming his execution. The general turned to his aide and said, “They always prefer the known way to the unknown. It is characteristic of people to be afraid of the undefined. Yet, we gave him a choice.”
The aide said, “What lies beyond the big door?”
“Freedom,” replied the general. “I’ve known only a
few brave enough to take it.”

My question tonight is this: When it comes to the courage it takes to greet the world with awareness of the choices before us, how brave are we?
Moving forward into the new year will we:
Choose to love — rather than hate.
Choose to smile — rather than frown.
Choose to build — rather than destroy.
Choose to persevere — rather than quit.
Choose to praise — rather than gossip.
Choose to heal — rather than wound.
Choose to give — rather than grasp.
Choose to act — rather than delay.
Choose to pray — rather than despair.
Choose to forgive — rather than curse.
And so I pray: May we choose to follow this appeal this day, every day, and for the rest of our lives.
U-vacharta bachayim – therefore, choose life. Amen.

Civility (Derekh Eretz), Now More Than Ever

img_0120Shanah Tovah. You may or may not like it, but I promise this day I am not going to speak about the current presidential campaign; I mean, hasn’t enough been said already? And yet, I do want to wax nostalgic for a moment about a previous campaign, not that long ago.
These days past presidential campaigns seem like from a classier, more aristocratic era. You may not remember that, in the midst of the hard-fought presidential battle between Barack Obama and John McCain, there was a remarkable moment of grace. The night Senator Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator McCain ran a television commercial that was not the typical campaign fare.

Senator McCain reminded the nation of the historical nature of his opponent’s nomination as the first person of African ancestry nominated as a presidential candidate by a major party. Not only that, the nomination took place on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here’s what Senator McCain had to say:

“Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed. So I wanted to stop and say ‘Congratulations.’ How perfect that your nomination would come on this historic day. Tomorrow we’ll be back at it. But tonight, senator, a job well done.”

Now, television advertising isn’t cheap. Surely there were some in the McCain camp who thought the commercial was a waste of money, that he should have stayed relentlessly on the attack. In fact, the commercial was much-celebrated as a rare moment of civility — a brief and much-appreciated vacation from the barroom brawl that is the modern political landscape.
I said I won’t speak of the current campaign and I won’t. But let’s not fool ourselves: the current campaign is not only about politics. It is ultimately about us. And whether or not we think America is already great or can be great again, the tenor of our national conversation is worrisome.

Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal this past July (7/19/16), asks this question:
When did the decline of American character begin? Maybe it was between July 1969, when two Americans walked on the moon, and a Saturday that August, when 400,000 Americans rolled in the mud at Woodstock.

Or maybe the date came later, when American culture sanctioned the idea that self-actualization should count for more than your children’s emotional health. Or when bragging ceased to be considered uncouth, and ignorance ceased to be embarrassing, and lying ceased to be shameful, and the habits of understatement gave way to ever more conspicuous displays of wealth, desire, feelings, skin.

Whenever. Whatever. Pick your date and trend. Not everything that happened to the American character in the past 50 years is bad—we are more tolerant, more empathetic and more relaxed—but much of it undoubtedly is.
Bret Stephens writes as a conservative and we may disagree with his negative reaction to what is happening today. But it would be hard to take issue with the fact that civility is on the wane.

Last year I spoke at this time about keeping the conversation going in spite of strong feelings of antipathy for each other, or at least our respective political opinions. But I’ve come to learn the problem is actually much worse. It’s not about continuing the conversation. It’s about reclaiming the conversation, that is the power of talk in a digital age.
Writing in her recent book on this topic, Sherry Turkle observes that this new digital life has gotten us into a lot of trouble. Face-to-face conversation is the most humanizing thing we do. These days we avoid such face-to-face conversation whenever possible. Unfortunately, such behavior is only an extreme example of a growing trend in our country: rude, uncivil attitudes. The world in which we live is suffering from more and more vulgar speech, indecent behavior and selfish living. We see it in our entertainment, in our streets, and in the newspaper accounts of hate crimes and vandalism. And we even see it closer to home, in the way we all too often behave.
A perfect example is the cell phone. Witness the behavior of people with cell phones these days. It is no rare thing for a dinner companion to wait fifteen minutes while the other chats into the phone. Important business meetings are put on hold because someone whips out a phone the second it starts ringing. Cell phones also are heard in this sanctuary during services. Even during a funeral.

A couple of weeks ago someone pick pocketed my phone when I was riding home from Temple on the bus. I am not happy with this theft and would not want to thank the culprit, but not having a smart phone for a week did make me see how much people are zoned out on their phones. A visitor from another planet, watching how people obsessively are on their phones and ignore each other might well conclude the human race was being ruled by small, flat-screened robots. It’s kind of sad.
And we all know how cell phones have managed to make driving in Chicago even more dangerous than it was before.

Speaking of bad driving, we should know that the problem is not unique to our area. I recently read of a Colorado funeral director complaining about the impatient drivers who dart in and out of funeral processions instead of waiting for them to pass.
There was a time when, if nothing else, at least a funeral procession received a little respect. But this time is over. Uncivil drivers are not only rude. They bear a great responsibility for the fact that cars kill far more people each year in our country than handguns.
Then there is this: A mother was driving with her young daughter. Traffic was heavy, the weather was terrible and mom got just a bit frazzled and began commenting on the habits and flaws of all the other drivers on the road, and not favorably, either.

As they pulled into their driveway, the daughter spoke up.
“I have a question, Mom. When you’re driving,” she asked, “are you ever the idiot?”
These days, things aren’t any better up in the sky. Airlines have seen a steady rise in hostile passengers. There was the angry man who threw his suitcase at an eight-month pregnant airline employee, all because he missed a flight connection. Or consider the woman who punched a flight attendant because there were no more sandwiches.

It’s also true that some airline employees themselves have become far less polite in recent years. It’s gotten so bad that American Air Lines has begun a civility campaign.
Then there is also a growing incivility in Washington, a phenomenon that will surprise none of us.

The growing incivility naturally has trickled down to our children. According to one survey, almost ninety percent of grade school teachers and principals report that they often face abusive language from students. We have seen the rise of violence in our schools. Guns are easy to be had and tempers are easily flared.

Now, it is important to point out that, when I use the term civility, I mean far more than good manners. Manners are cultural and therefore relative. Good manners in The Midwest may be somewhat different than good manners in Manhattan.

Civility is a broader, more absolute term. Stephen Carter, a professor of law at Yale University, defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”

I like this definition because it reminds us that the goal of civility is not to know which knife to use with our butter. The goal is to get along together. And the means to reach this goal can only be through sacrifice. It can only be achieved by giving people the respect they may not deserve but is ours to bestow anyway. Now, such people may not have earned our civility, but we are not civil because the world is fair or because it gives us pleasure. We are civil because, in the end, it is only such respectful behavior that binds us together as a community. Without such behavior, we have nothing to hold us together.
In Judaism we have a Hebrew expression for this kind of civility: derekh eretz. Literally meaning “the way of the land,” the term refers to common decency and civility. Our heritage even proclaims that the Torah itself means nothing if people don’t practice derekh eretz, if people aren’t willing to make the sacrifices needed to live together.
Derekh eretz is not just a quaint Hebrew term. Nor should it be considered a cliché. Derekh eretz is a significant Jewish value. It was so important to the ancient rabbis that they developed two tractates of the Talmud to describe how we should govern our lives by the principles of derekh eretz. Here are some of their teachings:
Let the honor of another person be as dear to you as your own.
Show respect to all persons.
It is better that you be ashamed of yourself than be put to shame by others. Let not your teeth bring shame upon you, nor your mouth bring you to abuse (Derekh Eretz Zuta 2:8).
Temple Sholom and our wider community are summoned to act by a set of values associated with “derekh eretz.” Our behavior is guided by these principles of respect, honor, honesty, integrity, dignity, and humility. These patterns of behavior are literally “the way of the land.” They are the foundations of our relationship as a community and with one another. And even when holiness hides from us, we still act with derekh eretz because such actions fan the holy sparks within us.

As we as a congregation prepare for our hundred and fiftieth birthday next September, it is so important we remember that a sacred community is measured by its kindness and welcoming spirit, not merely by its historic significance.
And now, this year, as we gather to consider how we might improve our lives, and the life of our community, I would like to imagine what a more civil world might be like. To consider what we should be doing to make such civility a greater part of who we are and what we do.
The baseness of this current political cycle aside, I want to believe we can reverse the slide towards more vulgarity and rudeness. I would like us to see how derekh eretz might help us refine our society and give us more hope for a future of kindness and class, instead of the mean and cold climate too prevalent on our streets and in our world today.

A crucial point: When it comes to civility, we should first understand that genuine civility requires that we make sacrifices, even for strangers. The essence of civility is giving up something for the sake of someone else. In some contexts, this logic of self-sacrifice is easy to grasp. For instance, in the 19th century, as railroad travel became common, it was natural that so many people in tight spaces needed to sacrifice some of their independence for the common good. To help such people practice civility, Isaac Peebles wrote a bestseller, entitled Politeness on Railroads. Here was some of the advice: “[W]hispering, loud talking, immoderate laughing, and singing should not be indulged by any passenger. Passengers should not gaze at one another in an embarrassing way.” In addition, conductors cracked down on passengers who “indulg[ed] personal preferences at the expense of other passengers.”
Unfortunately, these days, we travel under the illusion that we are no longer sharing tight spaces and therefore such sacrifices are no longer necessary. We care less and less about our fellow citizens, because we no longer see them as our fellow passengers.
To put it another way, when we travel on a train together it’s easy to remember that we are sharing a journey. When people are driving alone in their cars, facing traffic from the other direction, it’s harder to remember that all of us are still sharing a journey. And like travelers in a fourth-class railway car, the journey will be impossible if we aren’t prepared to make sacrifices for the comfort of others.

Those of us who take public transportation in Chicago know that, ironically, a big problem with public transit these days is, er, the public. This despite the fact we actually quite often are on a train. Not all the public. Just the seat hoggers, loud talkers, music blasters, door blockers, smelly eaters, backpack bludgeoners, litterers and boors who won’t give their seats to pregnant or disabled passengers. And of course the manspreaders!
Trying to improve the ride, Metra this summer launched its first courtesy campaign with reminders to “Ride Nice.” The five-poster campaign features images contained within the frame of a mobile phone, reflecting what most riders are staring at these days. One shows a 1960s pop art-style cartoon lady, gasping in horror over people clipping their nails and grooming their beards.
Some CTA ads are startling as well — one has a picture of people on an “L” car waist-deep in garbage, with the slogan “Your Maid Doesn’t Work Here.” An ad reminding people to “Stand Right, Walk Left” on escalators prompted a tweet from a grateful customer saying the poster had taken more time off his commute than anything else the CTA had done.

In the end, it’s not just about nice manners. It’s about thinking about other people. In other words, our society will continue to decline if we are unable to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.

Paradoxically derekh eretz even means at times putting up with the bad behavior of others. We need to be better at tolerating the poor driver who makes us late; we need to keep our mouths closed when some foolish person’s banter invites a stinging comeback; we need to become less self-absorbed and more aware of the people around us. We need to remember their needs and feelings, not only because it will make us in the end feel better. It is also simply the right thing to do. It is derekh eretz.
When the people around us do not behave with derekh eretz we might want to exercise the Jewish virtue – of Erech Apayim – of being slow to anger. In the Torah, this virtue is first mentioned as one of the attributes of God – the ability to show self restraint in the face of repeated Israelite provocation. The Book of Proverbs repeatedly cautions against losing self-control. It is better to be slow to anger, it suggests, than to be mighty, better to have self control than to conquer a city. What it really means is our ability to experience things which are deeply annoying without letting them frustrate or anger us. To quote the 19th Century Mussar leader Rabbi Mendel of Satanov: When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, why aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief?
We cannot control how others treat us but we can control how we respond. Here’s an experiment: the next time you find yourself getting angry at someone or something, ask yourself to find five red things – it can be in the room or on your device, wherever. By the time you find and enumerate them, it is quite possible you will have settled down. Try it!

Of course, the willingness to make sacrifices does not mean there won’t be occasions when we will need to criticize others. Silent tolerance is not always the right response. Twentieth century author Oliver Herford, known as the American Oscar Wilde, may have had this in mind when he observed that “a gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally.” In other words, there will be times when we need to confront another human being. Nevertheless, we should understand that our criticism should always be civil. Any genuine civility must allow us to criticize others but not by jettisoning the respect we owe all of God’s creatures.
When it comes to deciding whether or not to offer criticism, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin gives the following advice. First, we should ask ourselves how offering the criticism makes us feel. Does it give us pleasure or pain? If a part of us relishes the idea of rebuking the person, we probably shouldn’t do it. But if we truly don’t want to offer the criticism and yet feel morally obligated to do so, then chances are we are doing the right thing.
It’s also important that our criticism be non-threatening and useful to the person. The medieval philosopher Maimonides puts it like this: “He who rebukes another…should administer the rebuke in private, speak to the offender gently and tenderly, and point out that he is only speaking for the wrongdoer’s own good….” I personally have also found that, when admonishing someone, it’s important to avoid judgmental words like “bad” or “unprofessional” that immediately put someone on the defensive.
This year Temple Sholom will join four other Reform congregations in the country to meet together and study how to practice responsible conflict resolution. Make no mistake: derekh eretz is NOT about avoiding conflict. It is about dealing with conflict in the right way.
In general criticism should never be used to push people down while raising us up. Such words should never be said in haste, nor without humanity. And never should our goal be to make the other person feel bad. Think about how much more civil life would be if we remembered to always care about the person whom we are addressing.
My yoga teacher puts it like this: “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” Not a bad way to get through the day.

Indeed, when it comes to civility, the sacrifices we make and the sensitivity we observe all boil down to one golden rule: remember the divinity in each other. This is our greatest challenge and our greatest hope. In an age of increasing violence in our entertainment and everyday speech, not to mention the vicious personal attacks in politics, civility means restoring a sense of awe for all human beings.
For a moment, travel back in your mind to this summer in Rio. It was one of the big races. New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin was lying on the track, dazed after a heavy fall and with her hopes of an Olympic medal seemingly over. Suddenly, there was a hand on her shoulder and a voice in her ear: “Get up. We have to finish this.”
It was American Abbey D’Agostino, offering to help. This after the two had collided.
Hamblin had fallen heavily on her right shoulder. D’Agostino got up, but Hamblin was just lying there. She appeared to be crying. Instead of running in pursuit of the others, D’Agostino crouched down and put her hand on the New Zealander’s shoulder, then under her arms to help her up, and softly urged her not to quit.
“That girl is the Olympic spirit right there,” Hamblin said of D’Agostino. “I’ve never met her before…And isn’t that just so amazing. Such an amazing woman.”
In an Olympics that had seen a few unsavory incidents — the Egyptian judoka who refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent, the booing of a French pole vaulter by the Brazilian crowd, the lying Ryan Lochte — Hamblin and D’Agostino provided a memory that captured the Olympic spirit.
Olympic officials also decided that both runners, and Austria’s Jennifer Wenth, who was also affected by the collision, would have places in that Friday’s final.
“I’m never going to forget that moment,” Hamblin said. “When someone asks me what happened in Rio in 20 years’ time, that’s my story … That girl shaking my shoulder, (saying) ‘come on, get up’.”

Moving forward I suggest this is the image we conjure up as we head out the door each morning. We are not judged by who gets there first in the race of life. The greater goal is whom we bring with us. And just imagine: if we treat others as noble people, as people with souls, then we are being civil and courteous, and just maybe we are helping them to grow into civil and courteous people, and we’ll be making a more humane society for us all.
This is not always easy, of course. If someone cuts us off in traffic, I can think of a more gratifying response than pleasantly waving to them. It’s also more enjoyable to yell at an incompetent sales person instead of patiently smiling at them. But when we act with civility despite our more natural instincts, we are giving ourselves a gift. For although in the short term showing our anger may feel wonderful, down the road we will most likely feel bad for our behavior and we will have contributed to the growing incivility around us. And who knows? Maybe our one kind act will tip the balance towards a better world?

Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote:
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

May this New Year be a herald of such a newer world, whose appearance is so sorely awaited. And may the days, months and years ahead be blessed with more kindness, more understanding, more derekh eretz and more peace. Amen.