Temple Beth Torah

THE THREE "D"'s AND THE THREE "T"’s

I have a bad case of the three “D”’s.  I hear a lot of it has been going around lately; maybe you’ve got it, too.

I’m DISCOURAGED. I’m in DESPAIR; and I’m DEPRESSED.  Not in the Anthony Bourdain, or Kate Spade sense, God forbid.  But nevertheless, the Three “D”’s have me feeling like there’s a black cloud overhead, and something very heavy is weighing on my shoulders.  I feel a knot in my stomach, and I’m filled with fear, and with anger.  It’s brought on by several current situations.

First, there’s American politics.  For years now, our country is virtually split down the middle:  Red States vs Blue States, Conservatives vs Liberals.  Some nights I turn on MSNBC, and then switch to Fox News, and it’s as though they’re on two different planets. They can’t even agree on what’s true and what’s a lie.   And the disdain and hatred the two sides have for one another has me yelling at the television and ready to pull out what hair I have left. 

The lack of civility in our country goes far beyond politicians or the Press.  In Charlottesville, last year, crowds marched in the streets shouting “The Jews will not replace us!”  What people say about Mexicans, and Muslims, and African-Americans is even worse.  And to go from the deadly serious to the ridiculous, conservative bakers won’t make a wedding cake for a gay couple, and liberal restaurant owners won’t serve members of the current administration.

Every week brings another mass shooting.  Lobbyists hiding behind the Constitution have bribed Congress into doing nothing.  We’ve gotten used to first graders slaughtered, and high school students massacred;  we feel sick for a day- and then life goes on.

Reasonable people can argue about how best to deal with illegal immigration:  Some believe: “We are a nation of immigrants; it’s what the poem on the Statue of Liberty proclaims at the gateway to America.  Declare an Amnesty and open our arms to the world’s refugees!”  Others say:  “We need to protect our nation’s security and insure our financial viability by restricting and carefully monitoring who we let in.  Build a Wall!”  But instead of having an intelligent debate about public policy, we do the unthinkable: We separate little children from their parents, send them a thousand miles away, and put them in cages.  And the Attorney General of the United States of America justifies this by quoting from the New Testament! 

It seems that all three branches of our government are poised to take our country down a very different path: Where a woman’s right to make reproductive choices are curtailed; where same-sex  marriages are illegal; where a pharmacist can decide- based on his religious beliefs- who gets what prescriptions; where the environment is sacrificed to greed; where a citizen’s right to vote can be taken away by technicalities, or gerrymandering, or by our nation’s enemies.

And I’m disheartened by what’s happening in Israel, which- as a Jew- is my other home.  The possibilities of a two state solution seem more remote than ever, and with one state - Israel will become either not Jewish, or not democratic.  It seems just a matter of time until the next war in Gaza; hundreds of Palestinians storm the border fence or use kites to set Israeli fields on fire.  In Lebanon, Hizbullah has 100,000 missiles ready to be launched at Israel on orders from Iran.  Religiously, the Haredi Parties have quashed the compromise that would have allowed egalitarian prayer at the southern end of the Western Wall.  An Israeli Conservative rabbi was arrested for performing a wedding service outside the authority of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.  That same Rabbinate refuses to allow the conversion of over 300,000 Israelis from the Former Soviet Union whom they don’t consider fully Jewish.  And the Democratic Party in America continues its drift leftward, its rising stars increasingly antagonistic to Israel.

Here in our local community, demographics are changing the neighborhood before our eyes:  Older members are passing away or moving out of the community.  Younger Jewish families are not moving in- either because of the high cost of homes and taxes, or because they are concerned that their children are now an ethnic minority.  Think about all the synagogues in Nassau County that have closed in the last 25 years: Hicksville, Levittown, Farmingdale, Bethpage, New Hyde Park, Freeport, Baldwin, Massapequa, Elmont, Franklin Square… and the list is bigger when we include Suffolk County.  Here’s the million dollar question:  Can Jericho continue to support three Temples?  Will there even be a need for a Hebrew School here in 7 years?  Will we have enough people showing up on a Shabbat morning to make a minyan?  Many congregants wonder: “Is $3000 too much to pay if I just come three days a year?  I can go to Chabad for free; Or to my kids in Westchester; Or I can just stay home.

Finally, one more set of symptoms that lead to the 3 “D”’s.  The Talmud speaks about things that truly matter in Life: Hayay; Banay, and Mezonay: Health, Children, and Finances.  As we grow older, we find that the body and the mind can’t do what they once did.  I have to go through th ealphabet to get a clue about the name of the person who I’ve known for decades, but haven’t seen in a while.  Deep down, we fear: Is this the first step towards Alzheimer’s?  Eyes don’t see as well as they once did.  Knees and hips have to be replaced.  The bladder doesn’t work like it used to.  Diabetes and Arthritis and Parkinson’s impinge on quality of life.  And of course there’s the dread of the Big Three:  Stroke, and Heart Disease, and Cancer.  We spend more and more time in doctors’ offices.

And then there’s our kids.  It’s a truism that we’re only as happy as our unhappiest child.  The pressure that kids face today- academically and socially- is so much greater than what we faced growing up in simpler times.  Our children try to find themselves, and then find the right college, and then find a career, and then find the right mate, and then deal with the pressures of work and family.

The cost of living continues to rise, and we’re living longer (though not necessarily healthier) and we’re desperately afraid of what happens if there’s another crash, like in 2008, and then there’s the ultimate fear: What happens if our money runs out?

Deeply worried about all that was going on with me, I went on the internet, and checked my symptoms.  Lo and behold, it was the 3 “D” s:  Discouraged, In Despair, Depressed. But what do you do if you have a case?

Jonah, the prophet, who figures prominently in the haftarah later this afternoon, also had the 3 “D”s.  But he did the worst thing possible: He ran away.   Assyria, was threatening Israel.  God picked Jonah to head East and address the crisis.  Instead, he picked himself up and headed West.  He boarded a boat at the Jaffa harbor and tried to flee.  God chased him down with a terrible storm- and as the sailors tried to save all aboard, Jonah went down into the hull of the ship and went to sleep.  The rest of the story, and the big fish that swallowed Jonah, you know.  The lesson is:  You can try to run away from the 3 “D”s but you can’t hide.

There’s another typical response to this disease:  Look for a quick fix.  In the political realm, we hope for the Candidate-Messiah, someone who will magically solve all our problems.  All we have to do is vote in November- and all our troubles will be behind us.  A lot of people thought it was the Real Estate developer from Queens;  Others believed it was the guy from Vermont with the Brooklyn accent; today, they’re talking about the young Latina from the Bronx.  But if history teaches us anything, it’s that the “knight in shining armor” is usually hiding something under the polished metal.  We exchange one leader’s weaknesses- for those of the next one.  We also need to be wary of becoming like Veruca Salt- you remember, the spoiled girl in Willy Wonka who was always demanding:  “I want it Now, Daddy!”  The quick fix doesn’t lead to a cure; it leads to more problems. That’s the reason we are Facing an opioid epidemic in our country:  “Just give me some more of those oxycodone pills, and Everything will be fine.” No, it won’t.

But there IS a prescription for the 3 “D”’s that works.  It’s been staring us in the face all during the High Holy Days:  The way to fight the 3 ”D”’s  is with the 3 “T”’s:  TEFILA, TESHUVA, TZEDAKA. 

You might be thinking:  “PRAYER, REPENTENCE, and CHARITY?”   How’s that going to help? 

By Tefila, Prayer, we usually think of asking God to help us.  Dump it all in His lap.  But that’s not Tefila.  When the Israelites reached the Red Sea, they looked behind them and saw the Egyptians.  They were trapped between the water and Pharaoh’s chariots.  The people cried out to Moses.  He didn’t know what to do, so he prayed to God.  God answered:  “What do you want from Me?  Tell the people to march forward!”   And as soon as they did, the sea split.  God doesn’t solve our problems; He gives us Wisdom, and Strength, and Courage; the rest is up to us.

Tefila is serious thinking.  The first thing that that can give us is perspective.  Remember the movie “Apollo 13”?  There was an explosion, and the ship was losing oxygen.  It seemed unlikely that the astronauts would make it back alive to Earth.   Everyone was panicking. Gene Kranz, head of Mission Control, asked:  “Can we review our status here?  What have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”  Sometimes when it seems as if everything is going wrong, it’s critical to remember what still works.  We need to take inventory of our blessings; by remembering what we still have, we are able to rally our resources and attack the problems that we face.

People often laugh when they learn that there is a bracha to be said after going to the bathroom.  It’s recited several times a day by observant Jews.  It acknowledges that God made our bodies with pipes and valves, and if just one of them closed that was supposed to be open, or if one opened that needed to stay closed- we could not survive.  It’s a daily reminder of how complex the body is, and tells us that so many things that we take for granted are still functioning as they should.

Tefila is a time to figure out where we want to go, and how we can get there.   The words of the Prayer Book may give us some inspiration, but sometimes they are merely background music; we come into a synagogue Sanctuary- or any quiet spot- and we do serious thinking about what our next steps should be.   The two most important words in the Siddur come in the Aleynu prayer at the end of the service:  L’TA-KEN OLAM.  “To fix the world.”  We often pray because something is broken- in our lives, or in our world.  Hopefully, by the time the service is finished, we have figured out what we need to do to fix it.

Teshuva- Repentance. People might picture someone beating their breast, crying tears of regret, and being religiously reborn.  But that’s more of a Christian notion.  The Hebrew word means “to return.”  There’s a Hasidic story of a man lost in a forest, desperately trying to find his way out.  He comes across a peasant walking towards him, and asks for directions.  The peasant replies:  “I’m lost, too.  All I can tell you is the way you’re headed now won’t get you where you want to go.  Turn around and let’s try another path.”  During the Ten Days from Rosh HaShana through Yom Kippur, we realize that we’ve been on the wrong road, and we try to turn our lives around, and find a better way.

A prophet was sent by God to a city to urge the people to forsake their evil ways.  He carried a sign that read  “Repent! The End is Near!”  At first, the townspeople stopped to hear what the strange man had to say.  After a while, they just ignored him.  One of the locals approached the prophet:  “Don’t you know that no one takes you seriously?  In fact, they’re laughing at you behind your back.  Why are you still here?”  The prophet replied:  “At first I marched with my sign because I thought I could change them.  Now I carry my sign to make sure they don’t change me.”  It’s hard to go against the tide.  Peer pressure can be very powerful. No one wants to be laughed at, or excluded. But standing up for what you believe in, and doing the right thing is more important than being pulled by the group in the wrong direction.

On Yom Kippur, reciting the sins of the Al Het prayer is the sign that we carry.  It’s a reminder:  “These behaviors will take you on the wrong path!  Don’t go down that road!  Turn around and find another way!

By Charity, we usually think of kids putting coins into a Tzedaka box, or adults writing a check to a worthwhile organization.  But the Hebrew word Tzedaka means “Justice” - Justice done by donating money, but more often by acts of kindness.

To most progressive Jews, the essence of Judaism is Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world.”  But the phrase originated not with Reform Judaism in the 1960’s, but with Mystical Judaism in the 16thcentury. According to Kabbala, at the Creation of the universe there was a cosmic catastrophe. The vessels that were supposed to hold God’s Holy Light were shattered and chaos and evil came into the world.  God Himself was paralyzed by this accident.  The only hope for redemption was in mankind repairing what was shattered.  How do we do that?  Every Mitzvah we perform helps to gather the light and repair the broken vessels.  That guy with the beard and black hat who asks you “Are you Jewish? Did you put on tefilin today?” is not a missionary trying to recruit you for Orthodox Judaism.  He believes that each mitzvah a Jew does brings the world one step closer to Tikkun, to ultimate repair.

That’s a very Jewish idea:  The world is changed and perfected one small step at a time.  Imagine a Little League game.  Top of the first inning, the Visitors score five runs.  The Coach of the Home team  tells his players:  “OK- Everybody try to hit a home run. Six homers will do it!”  But the secret to winning the game is not to swing for the fences, but to play “small ball.”  First batter works the count and gets a walk.  He then steals second.  Next batter bunts him to third.  Next batter hits a sacrifice fly and the first run scores.  And so it goes… 

There’s a debate in the Talmud about how to light the Hanukkah Menorah.  The School of Shammai said:  Begin with a bang; Eight candles the first night, and then one less each succeeding night; the School of Hillel disagreed: Start small; One candle the first night, then slowly add every night after.  The law follows the School of Hillel.  We begin with one small act, and we build from there.  That’s how we Jews turn Darkness into Light- one step at a time.

The response to a case of the 3 “D”s is the 3 “T”s.  Tefila: Serious thinking about what we already have, and what we still need.  Teshuva: Turning around our lives and stopping our dysfunctional behavior.  And Tzedaka: An Action Plan of small deeds that will begin to make a difference.

Having diagnosed my condition, I am prepared to prescribe a cure.

When it comes to American politics, the first thing I need to do is make my voice heard.  I need to stop screaming at the TV, and instead channel my outrage in a constructive way.    In the olden days, you had to go to Western Union and send a telegram to elected officials. Only a zealot would take the time and spend the money. Today, it’s as easy as taking out your phone and texting, or e-mailing, or calling.  Here’s a number I will commit to memory:  202 456-1111.  It’s the White House Comments Line.  The next step is political activism.  To effect change, I have to play the game.  That means more than just voting each November.  It means supporting candidates who I feel are dedicated to the right causes. And finally- I need to remember the importance of civility.  The School of Shammai and the School of Hillel argued over 300 cases in the Talmud (like how to light the Menorah).   The followers of Shammai were more conservative, the followers of Hillel more liberal.  Yet despite their philosophical differences, they managed to respect one another.  America needs to learn that lesson from the Talmud.

Israel has been engaged in a war for over a hundred years.  Sometimes with armies, sometimes with terrorism, and sometimes on the political battlefield.  I need to remember that we Jews in America have an important role to play.  I will continue to visit- not only because I have grandchildren there, but because being in Israel gives financial and moral support to the State of  Israel.  I will continue to learn as much as is possible about Israel. This summer I read Gil Troy’s book, “The Zionist Ideas”, which spotlights the wide variety of views about Israel among Zionists of all persuasions..  And I read Yossi Klein-HaLevi’s book “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” and Matti Friedman’s “Pumpkinflowers ( both of which are TBT Book Club selections)- to try to better understand the conflict, and Israel’s responses to it.  I will support the Masorti movement (that’s Conservative Judaism’s Israeli name) as they struggle for equal rights from a government that has given control of religion to the Ultra-Orthodox political parties.  And here in America, as a registered Democrat, I need to convey to the Party that the increasingly anti-Israel statements from it candidates and spokespersons are unacceptable.

Here in Jericho, I will urge you to support your Temple.  We need you to talk us up among your friends. We need your financial support in our annual Kol Nidre Appeal.  And we need your presence- at services, at classes, at social events.

As for Hayay- health issues:  A friend I went to the Seminary with died this summer of colon cancer. It turns out that, despite his age, he never had tests that could have detected it.  We often say that on Yom Kippur, Life and Death are on the line.  We need to take that notion beyond the spiritual, into the medical realm.  The annual resolutions that I always make during the Jewish holidays about proper diet, and exercise, and medical conscientiousness- I’m going to keep to the best of my ability.

Banay- our children.  There’s no easy formula here.  The most difficult decisions we have to make as parents- whether our kids are in kindergarten, or have kids of their own, is when to step in and give them advice and assistance, and when to step back and let them figure it out on their own.  My value system hopes not that my children and grandchildren will be the smartest or the richest or the ones having the most fun, but that they each strive to be a Mensch.  And that’s best conveyed not by my preaching at them, but by my example to them.

And finally, Mezonay: Finances.  If God blesses me with material things, it is incumbent upon me to share my blessings with those who are not as fortunate.  And when things are not going as well for me as they are for others around me, then it is prudent that I not get caught up in the conspicuous consumption that is so rampant in upper middle class suburbia.   

I entered the holidays feeling discouraged, in despair, and depressed.  But this is a New Year, a new beginning.  Jewish Tradition has given me the wisdom to turn things around.  When the Shofar blows tonight, I will be full of hope, and ready to fix what’s broken in me-  and maybe even in the world.