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The Heart Knows: Why We Do the Things We Do

What follows is the written text of my Yom Kippur evening sermon exploring human motivation and in particular the motivation for good.

The summer that only recently ended has been an excruciating few months. While the weather was nearly perfect we watched the world slip into chaos. To name but a few of the tragic events there was the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, the unchecked terror of the Ebola virus, the racial riots in my hometown of St. Louis and the antisemitic mob hysteria in Europe, the war between Israel and Hamas and the rampaging destruction of ISIS. As ISIS rapes and murders its way across Syria and Iraq, a few Westerners were caught up in its path. Steven Sotloff was such a man. He was gruesomely murdered on September 2nd. He was kidnapped a year earlier.

Most people did not know until some time after his death that not only was he Jewish, but Israeli. He made aliya to Israel in 2005. In a letter written in May and smuggled out to his parents, he wrote, “Please know that I’m ok. Live your life to the fullest and fight to be happy. Everyone of us has two lives. The second one begins when you realize you only have one.” The second one begins when you realize you only have one. That is what I would like to explore on this Yom Kippur. Not the evils that surround us but instead the motivation for good that can emerge from each of us. We can learn much when it blossoms forth especially from a young man held in captivity. If we are to confront this evil, part of the answer must certainly be that we can pledge to do good. How can we make doing good more of our everyday lives? The other piece is of course that our leaders, most especially President Obama, must fight to keep the evils such as ISIS in check. It seems clear that our president now understands that reason alone cannot bend the arc of history. More about that tomorrow morning. This evening I want to talk about us and the motivation to do good. I wish to ask, where can hope be found?

People do not know this but the reason we remained unaware of Steve Sotloff’s Jewish identity is that soon after his capture, some 150 of his friends scrubbed his online identity removing all mention of his being Jewish or Israeli. I have been thinking about these unnamed friends this past month. I admit, sometimes it is hard to do so amidst the chaos and destruction, but that is what I wish to dwell on. Why did they do this? Why did they devote themselves to this task, spending countless hours scouring the web? It was because Steve was their friend and they wanted to do whatever they could to save his life. Even though their efforts proved unsuccessful I draw hope from their motivation. I am stirred by their actions. The Talmud counsels: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a) It was worth the hours. It was as if the entire world rested in their hands, and depended on their efforts. Friendship calls us to action. We will run in charity events for friends. We will volunteer for boards because friends ask us. We will sit in front of our computer screens hoping and praying that our efforts might save a life.

Then again I am appalled that the mere mention of a person’s Jewish identity would further endanger him. We have seemingly moved backward in time. Is it possible that publicly declaring one’s Jewish identity might once again mark someone for death? The world appears as if it is propelling back toward medieval times? Then again, can an identity be erased? It was reported that during Steve Satloff’s captivity he went to great lengths to observe his Jewish traditions, secretly fasting on Yom Kippur and surreptitiously praying towards Jerusalem. The second life begins only one you realize you have one. What courage! What inspiration! What motivation.

Many of us participated in the recent ALS ice bucket challenge. Why did we pour ice cold water over our heads? Because our friends asked us to. Or more exactly because our friends cajoled us to do so by publicly challenging us. The ALS foundation raised over $60 million. I hate to be a cynic on this our most holy of days but how many people poured ice water over their heads for the entertainment of their friends, and the appearance of doing good, but never sent in a donation and how many quietly made a donation to the ALS Foundation but never did anything with ice water except to drink it on the warmest of days? Which act is more worthy? The unheralded donation or the public pronouncements? There is nothing of course wrong with the ice bucket challenge as long as it leads to the good of giving tzedakah. The ice bucket challenge is not a good unto itself, except perhaps in how it increased awareness about ALS. Of course one could argue that in an age of limited resources this popularized challenge sidetracked resources from other worthy charities. So I challenge you that if you participated in the ice bucket challenge and gave to the ALS foundation for the first time then be sure that this does not divert you away from your other tzedakah commitments. I continue to wonder about why we do what we do. Sometimes we give because we want to, and other times we give because friends cajole us. Sometimes we give because we are told to, and other times we give because our heart inspires us. Judaism teaches that the act is more important than the inspiration, that a good deed redeems even the basest of motivations.

This is why the tradition gives us a list of commandments and not a code of feelings. Virtue is not found in motivation, but action. True the inner intention, the kavvanah, can help to inspire action, but it must never come to replace the deed. How do we know what is right? We consult our tradition. As Reform Jews we believe that our inherited tradition must always have a voice, but never a veto. We also explore this path in the context of community. The group is the corrective to individual wants and desires. This is why our ideal prayers are said with others. We are more apt to ask for the right thing when standing with others. We look to our right and to our left, and see, for example, the pain of others, and then discover that our mundane goals of a new, larger house might not be as important as their restored health. We even recount our sins with others. On this day, we say “For the sin we have committed…” It is not that we believe that every one of us did every one of these wrongs but instead that we are strengthened by our joint words. We gain courage to repair our lives and mend our ways by attaching our words to our neighbors’. The tradition offers us a path. It gives us a road in which to locate ourselves. We walk together.

Why? So that we might add a measure of good to the world. I admit, sometimes we do things for the sake of a reward. People like posting pictures and videos of themselves. People like the accolades and approvals of others. Do you know that there are only two commandments in the entire Torah in which a reward is attached to them, specifically the reward of a long life? They are: #1. Honor your father and mother. The Torah states: “Honor your father and mother that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning to you.” (Exodus 20:12) #2. “If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with your young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you fare well and a have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

I have often wondered about these mitzvot. Why are they so important that they only offer the promise of reward? I wonder not so much about the honoring parents so much as the bird’s nest. The commentators ask what is the connection between these two commands. They draw a connection between the fact that both commandments deal with the relationship between parents and children. We are commanded to show compassion to parents. Love is not commanded, but care. There is another connection. More often than not no one knows if you observe these commandments or not. I know that this is not so likely, but it you were to happen upon a bird’s nest, perhaps a wounded animal, do you look to your right or left to see if anyone is watching or do you look above and recall God’s commands? Behind closed doors, when, for example, your mother or father are sick and in need of care, or perhaps if you are younger when they discipline you, do you speak to them with words of compassion or of frustration? It is not an easy mitzvah, but that is exactly why it is a command.

No one knows if you were kind to an animal. They cannot speak. They cannot report on you. And this is why there is a reward attached. In the quiet of your homes, amidst the humdrum of daily life, I challenge you to honor your father and mother. Take up that challenge. Show concern for even the animals that surround us. That would be but two more measures of good added to our world. Long life perhaps. Good most certainly.

Then again we care deeply about what others think. How else can one explain the near frenzy with which the ice bucket challenge raced throughout the country? Are such communal expectations and pressures really so bad? Some of us had the pleasure of examining a beautiful story on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi and is the story of Shimon ben Shetah. (Jerusalem Talmud, Bava Metzia 8a) Here is my rendition of that story. Rabbi Shimon ben Shetah traded in cotton. (It is a modern innovation for rabbis to be paid as full time rabbis. In ancient times they supported their families with their trades.) His students loved him so much that they said, “Master, let us buy you a donkey so you won’t have to work so hard. Then you can spend more time teaching us.” They went and bought him a donkey from a neighbor, from someone who was not Jewish. Lo and behold, they found on the donkey a precious stone. They ran to their teacher and exclaimed, “Now you won’t have to work at all.” Shimon asked them, “Does the owner know of your discovery?” They said, “No.” Their teacher admonished him, “Go and return it.” They argued, “But we did not steal the stone. We bought the donkey for a fair price. The law allows us to keep the donkey and anything we find on it.” Some even argued, “Besides we bought it from a non-Jew.” When hearing this, Shimon became enraged and shouted, “Do you think I am a barbarian? I would rather hear, ‘Blessed be the God of the Jews’ to all the riches of the world!”

Too often in our own age we discount the opinions of others. “Do what you think is right? As long as you are happy it is ok.” are our mantras. Shimon ben Shetah rejects this. It does matter what the world thinks. It does matter what others think. We cannot just say, “What’s fair is fair. As long as it is legal is good enough for me.” This rabbi’s desire was to bring more people to Judaism. That demanded of him an even higher standard, a more scrupulous code. He believed that his actions must bring praise to the tradition he so loves. He imagined that people would look at what he does each and every day and exclaim, “Blessed be the God of the Jews.” Imagine for a moment what the world might look like if we paused and asked ourselves, “Will this bring blessings to my faith, praise to my people and honor to my family?” Imagine for a moment how filled with peace our world might be, and especially the Middle East, if every person who professes a deep faith, if people who proclaimed themselves to be religious, were to ask, “Will this bring honor to my religion?” There is more to life than “Do what you think is right.” Ask instead, “Will this bring honor to Judaism? Will this add merit to the Jewish people?” I am given to such dreams.

Many people have asked me about this summer’s trip to Israel. They ask me if it was hard to be there for the start of the war. To be honest it is not the first time that I was in Israel during a war, although please God may it be the last time. I did leave before the start of the ground war when the Israeli psyche shifts so perceptibly. They ask me what it was like to have to run to a bomb shelter. They search for pain in my answers. They ask me, “What was the most difficult moment?” They are often surprised to find out that the most difficult moment was not even the discovery three boys’ bodies, z”l. Their kidnapping and murder by Hamas was the beginning of this summer’s hostilities. That day was indeed a tragic day. And yet the most painful moment was instead the discovery of the young Arab boy’s body and the realization, which I shared with the majority of Israelis and Jews, that his murderer was also a Jew. The police soon captured the perpetrator and I recall the image on my TV screen as he was led away in handcuffs. He covered his face. And I shouted at the TV, “Cover your tzitzit. Take off your kippah. You barbarian!” I continue to dream. Will my actions bring honor to my faith?

All of these young boys were buried with tears and accompanied to their final resting places with shouts of pain. Some of my friends visited the mourning tent of Mohammed’s family. I recall the funeral for the three Jewish boys: Gilad, Naftali and Eyal. Naftali’s mother, Rachel, spoke at the funeral. She said. “Rest in peace, my child. We will learn to sing without you. We will always hear your voice in our hearts.” I could not begin to fathom her courage. And so I read more about Rachel Frankel. Apparently she is a widely admired teacher among Orthodox women. She is a reasoned voice for women’s participation and inclusion in Jewish life. According to traditional Jewish law a woman is not obligated to say kaddish. She is not required to observe positive, time bound mitzvot, except of course the lighting of Shabbat candles. She would not lead public prayers in a mixed group of men and women because she is not required to pray and so cannot help carry a man’s obligatory prayers. Such is the ideology of my more traditional brethren. And then I witnessed the most remarkable of things. Her son’s body was placed in its grave. The moment for kaddish arrived. And Ruth lifted herself out of her seat and stood and said, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash…” with a full voice. And then an even more remarkable thing happened. Israel’s chief rabbi, David Lau, said, “Amen.”

I wonder. Did he forget his ideology? Did he ignore his beliefs? Perhaps. I doubt he paused to think. His heart said Amen to her prayer of pain. How could he say anything but Amen, I believe, I stand with you? In an age filled with ideologies of terror and death, perhaps the heart needs to teach. I imagine that many have forgotten about funerals. There have been far too many since. And yet they remain imprinted on my soul. I imagine that each of these families continue to relive those days each and every moment of their lives. During a summer filled with violence and bloodshed, murder and death, there was hope to be found in one word: Amen. Perhaps the heart can rescue us. Yitgadal v’yitkadash. Magnified and sanctified is God’s name. Amen. There is hope in one word. There is hope in friends. The second life begins when you realize you only have one.

The prophet Ezekiel lived through extraordinarily tumultuous times. He witnessed the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. He lived in exile and looked to the land of Israel from afar. His initial prophecies fill his contemporaries with vivid images and stern warnings. Later he preaches of a restored and renewed Israel. He proclaims: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26) Perhaps he is still right. This is what is required. Lev hadash, a new heart, a heart not hardened by ideology and not closed to the pain of others, a heart that is no different than our neighbors. A new heart. Yitgadal v’yitkadash. Magnified and sanctified may God’s name be. Amen v’amen.