To Begin Again
By Rabbi Carmit Harari
Temple Beth Ora — Edmonton, AB
When I was a high school student, my favorite band was Indigo Girls. A folk rock duo, based in Georgia, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers brought a unique blend of voices and politically charged messages to their Joni Mitchell and James Taylor inspired melodies. At youth group conventions, there was never a song-session that didn’t include at least a few of their songs, and at camp, every one of us knew every single word to every single song, and we sang them all as often as possible. I recently found an Indigo Girls CD in my car and decided to have a listen. I discovered that although nearly two decades have passed since I’d listened to them regularly, I still knew every word to every song on that CD. But I also discovered something else: Many of the lyrics I could recite aloud from memory, are far deeper and more meaningful than I’d realized. One such lyric comes from a favorite song of mine, entitled Watershed: “Well there’s always retrospect to light a clearer path. Every five years or so I look back on my life and I have a good laugh. You start at the top, go full circle round, catch a breeze take a spill. But ending up where I started again makes me wanna stand still.”
This time of year, our tradition bids us to take a good, hard look at our lives. And Yom Kippur, is, in some sense, a watershed; a fork in the road which requires us to look back at the path we have traveled to get to where we are now, and apply the lessons we’ve learned to the one we are about to travel. So this year, though I have only been an ordained rabbi for four and not five years, I have decided to try and follow the advice in the song: I looked back on my life, or rather the past few years of it, and this morning, I’d like to share with you the lessons that I’ve learned.
Over the past four years, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of sharing an incredible variety of experiences with many of you. I have officiated at your weddings and I have named your children. I have called our youth up to the Torah, and I have joined you at gravesites to mourn the loss of loved ones. I have worshiped and sung, studied and celebrated with you. And from all of these experiences, I’ve taken away two very important things:
1) Tell the people that you love that you love them- every day
Now at this point you might be saying to yourself, “rabbi, really? In four years that’s all that you learned? Where are the quotes from Torah? The wise words of the prophets or the sages?” I suspect that you expected more. But the truth is that I don’t have any more to give you. You see, in the end, all the wisdom one attributes to sacred text and a rabbi’s breadth of knowledge, don’t really factor into our lives as centrally as one might think. It’s not to say that they don’t matter- they very much do. But, what I’ve learned is that in the end, what really matters, are the people in our lives and the relationships we build with them.
When I was a rabbinical student, bright-eyed and eager to work with a community, I thought that my job was to connect people to Jewish tradition and to God. Now, four years later, I must confess that I see my role a little differently. I now understand that my job is to connect people to people. All the rest is, in the words of our sage Hillel, commentary. Jewish life is lived in community and my goal is to help create, foster, and nurture community and the connections among its members.
There are three words in the English language that have the power to change our lives. Three little words that often go unsaid or implied, when in fact they ought to be uttered aloud, as often and as deliberately as possible. I love you. We often hear these words exchanged by loving partners, and we hear parents tell them to their children. But as those children grow, they tend to become embarrassed by them, or by any show of affection that comes from the adults in their lives. The recitation of the formula lessens in frequency, and soon, we simply assume love, rather than express it. Sometimes, we come back to the words as we grow older, but other times, we simply go on, certain that our loved ones know how we feel about them, even if we haven’t told them in so many words. But three little words, I love you, have the power to make all the difference.
Many of us have seen statistics surrounding the links between childhood neglect and social deviance. One study, cites that “Neglected children who are unable to form secure attachments with their primary caregivers may:
- Become more mistrustful of others and may be less willing to learn from adults.
- Have difficulty understanding the emotions of others, regulating their own emotions, or forming and maintaining relationships with others.
- Have a limited ability to feel remorse or empathy, which may mean that they could hurt others without feeling their actions were wrong.
- Demonstrate a lack of confidence or social skills that could hinder them from being successful in school, work, and relationships.
- Demonstrate impaired social cognition, which is one’s awareness of oneself in relation to others and an awareness of other’s emotions. Impaired social cognition can lead a person to view many social interactions as stressful.
The recitation of three simple words, can help to build confidence, and assure the simple knowledge that one is loved. And, in turn, knowing one is loved increases the likelihood of social and academic success. Saying “I love you” can mean the difference between feeling neglected, and feeling part of a community; it connects people to people.
We live in a world of uncertainty; none of us knows exactly what each day will bring. And while we might think we have all the time in the world, sadly, there is no guarantee that we’ll get to say what we want to those that we love. Rabbi Naomi Levy knows this tragic reality all too well. Her father was murdered in a robbery gone bad when she was just fifteen years old. In her book, To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times, she relates the following experience: “When I was in high school, after my father’s death, my friend Susan invited me to sleep over at her house on a Friday night. We played piano, sang and gossiped for hours. Her mother was cooking the Sabbath dinner, and the sumptuous smell of roast chicken and onions filled the air. Then her father arrived, and we were all summoned to the dinner table. I had never met her father before. He was short and bald, and he reminded me of my father. We lit the Sabbath candles and stood up as Susan’s dad recited the blessing over the wine. I had forgotten what it felt like to have a father’s presence at the dinner table. At my home, the responsibility of presiding over all the Sabbath blessings had fallen on me. Afterward, Susan’s father hugged her, kissed her lovingly on top of her head, and said, ‘Good Shabbas to you, my little angel.’ I could see that Susan was embarrassed. In my presence she wanted to seem adult and mature, yet her father was treating her like a little girl. She rolled her eyes at me, the way teenagers do, as if to say, ‘I’m so above this childishness.’ But I would have given anything to have my father’s hug and kiss once more…” We don’t know when the conversation we have will be the last one. Let the people in your life know that they matter. Tell the people that you love that you love them – every day.
Love isn’t easy, and in any interaction with others, occasional discord is inevitable. How many times have you been hurt by someone else and chosen to express your feelings of hurt and anger for days, maybe weeks, or even years? As a champion grudge-holder I can most certainly relate. Once, when my aunt and uncle visited the Chicago area and neglected to call and let me know they were in town, I didn’t speak to them for more than a year. Certain I’d been wronged and that they “owed me,” I held on to my feelings of anger and frustration, positive that I was achieving something. But much to my dismay, my anger got me absolutely nowhere. “When we bear a grudge,” write Rabbi Levy, “we generally assume that we are the ones who are empowered. We feel indignant and superior, replaying in or minds the various ways a given person has wronged us. But resentment is actually a cage. It is a prison that prevents us from repairing hurts of sustaining lifelong friendships.”
I’ve seen families torn apart by anger and frustration. I’ve seen friendships lost and hearts broken, because people held on to their pain, refusing to let go and forgive. We’ve all experienced the pain that bearing a grudge can bring about. And yet, we are all guilty of engaging in this behavior. We have to learn to let go, to free ourselves from the self-imposed prison sentence that’s enacted when we choose not to forgive.
“We live our lives thinking that we have all the time in the world to change,” writes Rabbi Levy, “all the time in the world to forgive to ask for forgiveness. We say to ourselves, ‘I’m not emotionally ready to deal with this confrontation, but I’ll get around to it.’ But we don’t. Do we want to waste our time on this earth by bearing lifelong grudges against those we love? Do we want to waste it by not being a little more forgiving of those we are closest to? What does it take to be a little more accepting of people’s flaws? …Each of us has the power and the strength to mend relationships with human beings and even with God…each of us has the power to move from envy to compassion. Only when we can gather the strength to exercise this power will we come to understand what returning to life really means.”
A true story: A man died. By all accounts, he was a good man. Generous with his time and energy, he married, raised a family, and was an active member of his religious community. He also served his community as a member of both local and regional government. So when he passed away, and his widow asked if she could speak at the funeral, the officiant thought it only fitting and obliged. The day of the man’s funeral arrived, and with hundreds in attendance, his widow stepped up to the podium. “He wasn’t much of a husband,” she began, and all those in attendance, including the officiant, sat in stunned silence as they listened to her speak ill of the man all assumed that she’d loved. The truth is she had loved him, but she’d allowed her anger at her husband to get the best of her. She’d held on to her frustration so tightly that even in death, she could not find it in her heart to forgive him. I suspect that the man’s widow found little comfort at his funeral, and I imagine that the memory of their shared life haunted her into old age. What a sad, sad way to live out one’s last days.
Unlike the widow in the story, many of us are likely to experience a sense of guilt when a loved one passes away and we were angry and bearing a grudge. If only he were here now, I’d tell him how sorry I was for being angry with him. If only I could have told her how much I regret the time we spent apart as the result of a childish feud.
“The lesson we should learn from our feelings of regret is very simple,” writes Levy.
“We should try with all our might to repair our relationships with those we love right now, every single day.”
Yom Kippur is a day for transformation and change. It is a day on which we examine our actions and ourselves, and vow to do better in the coming year. Perhaps that is what I love best about our tradition. As Rabbi Levy notes, “no matter what we have lost in our lives, there is always something that survives to start over with. There is always some shard, some shred of hope, some way to begin again.” No matter our actions in the previous year, no matter how terrible the rift, no matter how hard the words are to say, relationships can always be renewed, and we can always, in Rabbi Levy’s words, begin again.
The Talmud relates a story wherein a man came to Shammai and asked him to teach him all there is to know about Judaism while the man stood on one foot. Thinking the man a fool, Shammai dismissed him. Undeterred, the man approached Hillel with the same request. Hillel obliged, offering the following: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the rest is commentary, go and learn.’ Hillel’s answer encompasses everything we need to know. Tell the people that you love that you love them – every day, and forgive. All the rest is commentary, go and learn.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah
May you be sealed for a good year
 Saliers, Emily, Watershed, “Nomads, Indians, and Saints,” Epic Records, 1990
(Goldman, J., & Salus, M. K. (2003); Perry, B. D. (1997). Incubated in terror: Neurodevelopmental factors in the cycle of violence [On-line]. Available:http://www.childtrauma.org/CTAMATERIALS/incubated.asp; Sullivan, S. (2000); Kraemer, G. W. (1992). A psychobiological theory of attachment. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15(3), 493-511.)
 Levy, Naomi, To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times, Ballantine Books, New York, 1998, Pg. 132–133
 Ibid, Pg. 138
 Ibid, Pg. 140
 Ibid, Pg. 142
 Ibid, Pg. 110