IF

There’s one practice that many engage in prior to Yom Kippur, that causes me to lose my appetite. Well-meaning individuals approach others and parrot the following meaningless phrase:

“If I have offended you in any way over this past year, I ask your forgiveness.”

The word “if”, suggests uncertainty. Not only does “if”  indicate that such an offense may or may not have occurred, “if” indicates that the one asking for forgiveness is clueless as far as having committed  the offense, whatever it may have been in the first place. I’m not aware of anyone ever having questioned the aphorism “everybody loves somebody sometime”. Shouldn’t the converse to that aphorism also hold true, namely “everybody hurts somebody sometime”? And if the likelihood exists that we have hurt somebody sometime, especially those with whom we have frequent contact, then surely there are better ways of wiping the slate clean.

If one truly wishes to make amends, one must learn to live by the following truism: “We just don’t realize the impact that we have on others…good and especially bad”. As long as we interact with others, chances are good that we will hurt the feelings of others. Most of the time, we won’t even realize it. And quite often, when a third- party points this out to us, that we have in fact hurt the feelings of another person, up go our defenses and we suddenly become a babe in the woods. “What did I say” we ask in all innocence. Short of being a saint, as long as we are alive and healthy, as long as we possess the power of speech, we will offend. The are no “ifs” about it.

The most meaningless, vacuous phrase, I’ve ever heard is: “I know how you must feel”. I have heard fellow rabbis use it. The perfect response to such inanity would be “You couldn’t possibly know how I feel”. We are individuals. We are unique. No two people respond to the same situation in the exact same way. Each person responds to hurt (or joy) in his or her very own way.

A close runner up to the most meaningless, vacuous phrase, but one that in all probability pours salt on the wounds is “I don’t understand why you are so upset”. Anyone obtuse enough to add this hurtful phrase is partially correct. Such a person does not understand. Such a person does not understand that he or she has hurt someone’s feelings; such a person does not understand how to ameliorate the situation, when told that feelings have been hurt.

If one is truly sincere as far as apologizing,  then rather than offer the meaningless “if I have offended you in any way”  it behooves that person to approach the one to whom an apology is being offered with the following: “in all likelihood, I’ve said or have done something hurtful or embarrassing to you since last Yom Kippur. Could you please point it out to me, because I’m going to make every effort not to do it again. Had I taken the time to realize the implications of my word or deed, I’d like to believe that I would have stopped myself in my tracks” Alternately, one could set things right by approaching another person with whom there has been much contact and  sharing the following: “as a far from perfect human being, I need your help speaking to HaShem on Yom Kippur. If you could just point out how I have wronged you since last Yom Kippur and allow me to properly apologize for it, you will be enabling me to present myself before my Maker as one who is sincerely looking to improve my ways”.

With Yom Kippur behind us, let’s leave the “if’s” to HaShem. Let uncertainties be left to our Maker. We so much as said so in the powerful magnum opus prayer U’NeTaneh Tokef. With an entire year ahead of us, let there be no if’s in our interpersonal relations. Chances are that we will hurt or wrong those with whom we have frequent contact. Let’s ask those who seem to be so much of our lives to point out where we went wrong so that we can make it right.

No if’s, ands or buts!

MOORE AND McCAIN

It’s been close to half a century since Annie Johnson planned her own funeral. Annie Johnson was the black housekeeper played by actress Juanita Moore in the remake of the all-time tear-jerker movie “Imitation of Life.” Knowing that her death was imminent, Annie – much to the chagrin of Miss Lora (played by Lana Turner) – leaves no stone unturned, as she prepares for her final journey. I thought about Annie Johnson ever since I learned that for the last several months, John McCain, two-time presidential aspirant has been doing precisely the same in anticipation of his own demise. Senator McCain’s penchant for details is both understandable, as well as justified, given the fact that for five years he was a P.O.W. where he had no control over his own life as he suffered under the most inhumane conditions, including torture. I therefore begrudge neither the fictitious Annie Johnson, nor the true to life John McCain for attending to such arrangements. In fact, their doing so has provided me with much insight and understanding.
For every Annie Johnson and John McCain who were so very particular about their own death, there are innumerable individuals who are so very carefree about their own life. Despite a culture that is built around career choice, independent of the fact that our society seems to be saturated with planners urging that we look out for our financial future, there are a goodly number in our country who prefer to cast their fate to the wind. How ironic, that one’s send off from this world, one’s farewell from the land of the living which typically lasts but a few short hours, merits such time and effort and meticulous planning, yet a life which will hopefully continue for years, if not decades, is guided by the attitude of que sera, sera!
Yes, it is true that more often than not, life is filled with the unexpected, as well as the unknown. But it is also true that playing life’s cards that are dealt us, requires forethought, as well as contingencies. Neither ought to be relegated to decisions that are made on the spur of the moment. “Every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser” are quite likely among the most misunderstood lyrics. Rather than refer to the five cards dealt us, “every hand” refers to our own five-fingered hand and how we use it to respond to that which life hands us. Those of us who have taken the time to plan and prepare will come off as winners; those of us who fail to take the time to plan and prepare will come off as losers.
In less than a week, we pray that the heavenly hand will be inscribing and ultimately sealing our names in the heavenly Book of Life. Both the inscribing, as well as the sealing, ought to serve as a sign that our prayers have been answered. Yet, before HaShem affixes His imprimatur, He has every right to ask us about our plans for the future. It makes perfect sense for HaShem to turn to each of us and ask what plans, if any, we have for the year that He has granted us. It’s totally understandable for HaShem to want to know whether the plans we have are general in nature or have been thought ought to the minutest detail.  For those of you who take the exact opposite approach and cite the Yiddish aphorism “a mentsch tracht un Gott lacht” or “HaShem chuckles as we plan and prepare,” I would add yet one more component. As much as HaShem might chuckle at our planning, HaShem cries at those who fail to plan, in that it shows that they fail to take life seriously.
Let’s applaud the fictitious Annie Johnson played by Juanita Moore and the very real John McCain for planning their funerals. Despite the twists, turns and detours on the paths we take during our years here on earth, despite the unexpected pockets of turbulence that jolt us along the way, let’s laud those who plan their lives.

A BEEF OVER BACON

I’ve never met Angela Montgomery. I know nothing about her, other than the fact that she recently filed a lawsuit against a Detroit area Denny’s restaurant after she found bacon in her vegetarian omelet and that she is a “practicing Jew.” Far be it from me to say that a “practicing Jew” might just need a little more practice (we all do), but from what little I know, I believe that the Latin “caveat emptor” especially applies to “practicing” Jews who dine at non-kosher establishments. To be even more specific, intending no malice to canines and meaning no disrespect to the same, “If you sleep with dogs, you are going to wake up with fleas.” As one, who by my own admission, knows next to nothing about non-kosher restaurant chains, I was not aware that Denny’s ever claimed to be a vegetarian restaurant. Had Angela Montgomery or anyone for that matter been served bacon mixed in with her vegetarian omelet in a vegetarian eatery… As they say in Yiddish: “Doss heist a lawsuit” – that’s what you call a lawsuit. Excuse me if I am wrong, but I would think that Denny’s serves fowl, beef, pork and mutton along with an assortment of dairy dishes.

Mistakes happen, even at restaurants. Would I swear that it never happened, that a delivery truck delivered treif (non-kosher chickens) to a kosher restaurant and these non-kosher chickens were inadvertently cooked and served to unsuspecting observant Jews who came in for a meal? Not on your life! Would I swear that a vegetarian who orders a tuna salad sandwich at a Denny’s or similar was never mistakenly served a chicken salad sandwich, in that the tuna salad and the chicken salad are stored in identical containers placed side by side in the same refrigerator?  Not on your life! For those of us who maintain kosher kitchens in our homes, has it ever happened that without thinking, we grabbed a dairy bowl and filled it with chili or that without thinking, we grabbed a meat bowl and scooped ice cream into it? Mistakes happen! That’s why the Shulchan Aruch or Code of Jewish law devotes pages upon pages replete with commentary addressing when dairy inadvertently gets mixed in with meat or when forbidden (treif) inadvertently gets mixed in with kosher. Succinctly stated, Judaism regards it as damage control. Angela Montgomery apparently regards it as a lawsuit.

Angela Montgomery claims to be a practicing Jew. It might very well be that when it comes to Yom Kippur, Angela Montgomery is somewhat out of practice. Recall if you will, that the efficacy of Yom Kippur is limited to the sins Jews commit both intentionally and unintentionally against HaShem. It would seem to me that unless one flaunts eating treif in front of observant Jews, consuming a vegetarian omelet containing bacon is what Yom Kippur is all about. As to Angela Montgomery’s claim, “It’s like the most vile, disgusting creature on the planet Earth that’s not supposed to go in your body, and I ate it. To me, that’s poisoning, I was poisoned.” I’m not aware that a Yom Kippur service, or a rabbi or even lawyer could provide Angela Montgomery any assistance in that realm. Perhaps consultation with a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist would be the best route to take for Angela Montgomery.

ACCEPT ME FOR WHAT I AM

Every so often, a new prayer book or High Holiday Machzor makes a debut. As leader of a congregation who replaced a tried and true High Machzor a few years ago, far be it from me to speak out against new texts. What I do take issue with however, is the reason for the change.
Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements have been known to come out with new Siddurim and Machzorim because they feel that the Siddurim and Machzorim they have been using up until now no longer “speak” to their members. Is it possible that the exact opposite is the case? Perhaps the Siddurim and Machzorim they have been using up until now “speak” to their members loud and clear. It’s just that the members of Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism have suddenly become uncomfortable with the message. And so, the message is rewritten.
Rephrasing a quote that Cesar A. Cruz once made about art, it can be said that “religion should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. While I’m no psychologist, I can’t help but feel that the vast majority of those who attend religious services would only agree with the first half of this aphorism. Put differently, the vast majority of congregants or parishioners look to religion as well as religious services along with the texts that are part and parcel of those service to rubber stamp their behavior and lifestyle…. if they look at all. It seems that while it is the G-d given right of those who attend religious services to change the message conveyed by their House of Worship either through clergy or text, it also appears to be true that G-d help the clergy or text that seeks to change those who attend those very same religious services!
When it comes to religion, there is a great irony in today’s society. On the one hand, there are untold numbers throughout our culture who espouse “accept me for who I am”. Yet, when it comes to reciprocity on their parts, particularly when it comes to religion in this country, the notion of accepting the church or synagogue for what it is, seems to suddenly disappear.
Isn’t it strange, that Americans who are conditioned to “telling it like it is” and demand from others to “give it to them straight”, suddenly change the rules when it comes to church or synagogue attendance? Maybe I’ve had it wrong all these years, but I was always under the impression that the very purpose of September 13th through September 23rd of this year is to show that what makes us humans is our ability to change and improve our habits as well as our behavior.
Something to think about these High Holy Days… And beyond.