What Is a Good Jew?…
Erev Yom Kippur 5771
by Rabbi Sim Glaser
I wanted to speak tonight on the subject of What is a Good Jew? Like any scholarly rabbi I surfed the web asking that very question – and what do I find? A good Jew supports Israel no matter what. A good Jew keeps a kosher home… a good Jew does mitzvahs, good deeds, a good Jew marries a Jew, a good Jew doesn’t drive on Shabbat. A good Jew calls his mother. A good Jew counts her blessings. A good Jew attends all Shabbat and holiday services, prays three times daily and wears a big furry hat or at least a yarmulke and tzitzit. Boring.
Are our beliefs in line with the title Jew a Jew to begin with? Some certain set of beliefs? Years ago I consulted the on line religion test site – belief-o-matic. I answered a set of some twenty questions about my beliefs and the results came back that I was somewhere between a Quaker and a Unitarian Universalist.
My children when they were little used to say they were Jewish and then point to me and say “daddy’s really Jewish! As though rabbis are super Jews, but we’re not necessarily any more sure of what we should be doing that’s authentically Jewish. It’s complicated. I was at a retreat this summer and I was the only rabbi there. When we met for morning services this guy from Denver pulls out the tefilin and wraps himself in it, puts tallis around shoulders and starts swaying in prayer. Everyone in the group was staring – not at him, though. At me! Like, you’re the rabbi dude, why aren’t you doing that??
For God’s sake What is a good Jew these days? I gave it some thought, and I decided, heck, it’s a new year and maybe we need some fresh definitions. Here, then, is a Yom Kippur recipe, as it were, with 5 ingredients for being a good Jew, circa 2011, or 5772.
1. A good Jew practices optimism
A good Jew says l’chaim to the glass half full! We’ve been doing it for centuries. We look a bad situation in the face and ask: Where can I find the good in this?
A good Jew looks at the horrific newspaper headlines and sees indications that the world is indeed becoming a better place to live in. That resources are there for us all if we share, life expectancy is longer, infant mortality rates are way down, and overall, the world is getting richer, healthier, better educated, more peaceful and better connected.
Yes, a good Jew weeps at the sadness and suffering, then dries her eyes, and begins taking action to fulfill the promise of humankind.
A story is told of a family who had twin boys who were opposite in every way: one was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist. Just to see what would happen, on the twins' birthday their father loaded the pessimist son's room with every imaginable toy and game, and he filled the optimist's room with horse poop. When the father went to the pessimist's room, he found his son sitting amid his new gifts crying bitterly. "Why are you crying?" the father asked. "Because I'll have to spend all day reading instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, and I know all of these great toys are eventually going to break!" This shocked the father, but not as much as what he discovered in his other son’s room. Visiting the optimist, the father found him diving around, dancing for joy, and throwing the horse poopy all over the place. "What are you so happy about?" his father asked incredulously. To which his son replied, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"
2. A good Jew shows up
Tomorrow morning’s Torah portion - Atem nitzavim – states that we, all of us, were up there on the mountain, from the woodchopper to the water drawer – we all showed up! And everyone has a role, except for the Jew who doesn’t opt to show up and assume a role. Here’s the good news. We all showed up today, even the twice-a-year Jews are here. And you know who you are. But you’re here!
The great Jewish sage Woody Allen was known to have said: 90% of success is just showing up. My daughter Hannah is in NY trying to make it in the theater world. Any advice for me dad? She asked. Yes, I said! Show up for everything! You can’t win if you don’t play as they say in the Power Ball world.
The word Hineini – here I am! Appears no fewer than 178 times in the Torah. That’s the Torah’s way of saying “show up” The rate of young voters has increased massively over the last few decades. 400,000 Israelis took to the streets to demand a better quality of life. The good Jew is not, nor has ever been a quiet bystander. We have to make our voices heard! We have to show up at the ballot box, we have to show up with our Jewish community. We have to be present for those we love.
3. A Good Jew Does Not Believe in Human Perfection
One of the reasons we are reluctant to show up, to make the scene, or say “put me in coach” is because we don’t believe we’re perfect enough.
A good Jew rejects perfectionism, and accepts that we are all flawed in some way or another. The good Jewish singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote in a song: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in”.
There is no such thing as a perfect offering, because each of us contains imperfections and brokenness, each in our own unique way. Thus the importance of this very holiday. We’re imperfect, we blew it last year, and we showed up to admit it. Good Jews.
Some of us apply imperfection to God. Woody Allen once said, “If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. The worst that you can say about God is that he’s an underachiever. “
Why do we try to be perfect? Why aim for the impossible’. Imperfections are sometimes what people are known and loved for. All her life Madonna’s had a gap in her teeth which she’s refused to get fixed, because that’s simply her. The way’s she’s born, the way she’s chosen to stay. Megan Fox’s weird thumbs, Steven Hawking’s ALS, Drew Barrymore’s acne. AlbertEinstein may have been brilliant but socially he was a scatterbrain and he failed his early math classes. Moses, our greatest leader had a quick temper, a speech impediment and was full of doubts as to his ability to lead at all.
A good Jew doesn’t react well to demands for perfection. Even in finding our partner in life we come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning see an imperfect person perfectly.
Look up Perfection in the Thesaurus, referred to as ideal, just right, great, wonderful and what the doctor ordered, and at the same yet a perfectionist is referred to as obsessive! A good Jew understands that life is about striking the balance, setting realistic goals and trying to do things well but not resenting yourself if you don’t get it right and have to try again.
Of course the classic Jewish story about perfection is that of the King’s beloved ruby he drops one day while showing it off. He is devastated and none of his sorcerers, magicians or wise advisors can cure the problem. An old stone carver – who we will call tonight, a good Jewish old stone carver asks the king if he can borrow the ruby for a couple of weeks. When he returns with it, he presents it to the king and he has sculpted a beautiful rose into the ruby, using the crack as the stem.
4. A good Jew struggles toward a relationship with God
I’m not saying you have to buy into the God as described in the Torah or even in our prayer books. Did you know that only 25% of American Jews believe in a God we can have a relationship with or that we can talk to? Waning belief in God is one of the greatest challenges to Judaism today.
Rabbi Yonatan Sadoff at the Adath Yeshurun congregation spoke over RH about the super God and the Relationship God. Most of us grew up with the concept of the super God, the God that can prevent disaster, prohibit tragedy and protect good people. The God that rewards and punishes - a concept that is so doubted today that few, in our hearts can hold on to it in any meaningful way. I think it is the reason so many of us choose to opt out of the God conversation altogether.
But that ain’t Jewish. The word Yisrael means struggle with God so nobody ever said it would be easy. The mystical God of relationship and partnership portrays a divine being who greatly desires to be in relationship with us divine creatures.
We tell the story of a king who wants the love and companionship of his people. He creates a beautiful castle that is only an illusion and issues a proclamation asking his people to come visit him in his throne room. But when the people reach the castle they are so taken with its huge walls and the treasures lying about, no one seems very interested in going into the throne room.
We are the people in the story, the King is God and the castle is the material world that keeps us distracted from meeting the king. A good Jew reaches out and touches the castle, and seeing that it is just an illusion, walks through the walls and searches for the throne room.
Atheism is all the rage these days. But a good Jew doesn’t give up on the search so easily.
5. A good Jew practices compassion
Last Sunday’s Compassion Fatigue article in NY Times noted that with all the issues of the day confronting us, our hearts built for compassion might simply have no more room. When we are overcome with floods and earthquake victims, and famine we grow weary and pull back. Interestingly the research has shown that when it is the suffering of an individual, we tend to have renewed energy to assist.
The good Jew figures out a way to not run out of compassion energy. Our Torah is filled with admonitions to feel for the stranger, to defend the widow and the orphan, to feed the hungry person, house the homeless person, clothe the naked person. To seek peace with your neighbor. Never are we asked to do it all, but we are always admonished to pump compassion iron to keep our hearts strong. It may be as simple as taking one person on as a project and saying – I cannot save the world of people but I can save this person’s world.
Story of a man named Reuven who was a caring involved member of the village community in which he lived. Reuven saw to people’s needs, felt their suffering. After some time he became wealthy and decided to move to a mansion at the top of the hill where he was alone. He saw no one and nobody saw him. And even with his newfound wealth he gave nothing to the people of the village. Years passed and one day there was a knock at his door and the mayor of the village stood there and presented him with a picture frame with a plate of glass in it. Reuven thanked him, though he had no idea what to do with the thing. A week later the mayor was there at the door again, this time with a silver tray that fit neatly behind the glass. Again, Reuven thanked him.
A few days later the mayor reappeared and asked Reuven: so, when you looked through the framed glass, what did you see? I saw the townspeople coming and going down in the village. I recognized each and every one of them. I miss them. And when you put the silver in the tray what did you see? “Why,” Reuven said, “I saw only a reflection of myself.” “We miss you too Reuven”. Come back into the world of people. Live with us, face to face – this mansion life – it’s not so good for you.
A Jew gets a new shot at being a good Jew every year at this very time. Here we are, on the cusp of a new year, with so many new opportunities and possibilities. May this new year bring us the chance to be optimistic and say l’chaim to a glass half full… Opportunities to show up, and be counted and noticed… Another shot at becoming this much closer in partnership to God who so desires to join with us in holiness. The vision to see that imperfection is beautiful, that there is a crack in everything and in every one of us and that’s where our most precious potential for growth lies. A chance to refuel our capacity for kindness and empathy and compassion…
It is a tall order, but 4000 years of our tradition teaches us that it is not impossible. Gmar hatima tova u’metukah – may you be inscribed for a sweet year.