Yom Kippur Morning Sermon
10 Tishri, 5771 – September 18, 2010
This is the holiest day of the year. We stand alone before God as the Holy One examines us and our actions. God cares about what we do and what we say. God offers forgiveness to those who atone for their sins. God offers atonement to those who sincerely seek it. A perfect example of this is the parrot I recently received as a gift. The parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary. Every word out of the bird’s mouth was rude, obnoxious, and laced with profanity. I tried and tried to change the bird’s vocabulary. I spoke to it politely, played soft music, and rewarded it when it was civil. Finally, I was fed up. I yelled at the parrot. The parrot surprised me by yelling back, cursing up a storm. I got so angry I shook the parrot and put him in the freezer. For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed. Then, suddenly, there was total quiet. I didn’t hear a peep for over a minute. Fearing that I froze the bird, I immediately opened the freezer door. The parrot calmly stepped out onto my outstretched arms and said, “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I’m sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate language. I fully intend to do everything in my power to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.” I was stunned at the change in the bird’s attitude. As I was about to ask the parrot what had caused such a dramatic change in him, the bird continued, “May I ask what the turkey did?”
It happens at least once a year. I receive a call from Levinson’s that another young Jewish person has died of a drug overdose. Inevitably, I knew this young man or woman. I may have blessed them at their bar or bat mitzvah or mourned with them as I officiated at their grandparent’s funerals. I know their parents. So why didn’t I know that they were drug addicts? Why wouldn’t the family tell me or anyone else in this synagogue? It is not a secret that we have Jewish addicts. We even have AA and NA groups that meet here every Monday and Tuesday night. So why the secrecy? Why do we keep secrets from one another? Why do we not tell others about what is happening in our families? Why do we not seek out help and support from community institutions? I think it is because these families are not only embarrassed but ashamed. They do not want me, or the rest of us, to think they are not a successful Jewish family.
It was not so long ago when if someone said the word “cancer” they would say it in whispers, perhaps fearing that if we said the word aloud cancer, like leprosy, would be contagious. We are far beyond that today. We openly speak of cancer and other diseases that afflict us. Just a few months ago, two very brave members of our congregation spoke publicly at an Erev Shabbat service about the physical and sexual abuse they endured as children. Yet there are certain things that we still will not share with others. There is a “cult of secrecy” at work within the Jewish community. We are still ashamed of allowing others to see our pain. We are still embarrassed to share our sorrow with those who may offer some support. Why are we Jews like this?
A recent article says it succinctly. “The pressures that induce Jews to keep secrets have changed over time. In past generations, Jews felt great pressure to keep up appearances and respectability. Even when more Americans began to publicly discuss such issues as domestic abuse, sexual molestation, and drug addiction, the Jewish community was slow to acknowledge that these problems affected us…Now, in light of our greater acceptance in society, we are more concerned about projecting an aura of success- a cohesive family in which the parents are prospering and the kids are going to the top schools. The very achievements in which Jews typically take pride- family, education, career, are the same areas we feel most ashamed about when a reversal of fortune happens, and these become family secrets.”
We do not share our secrets because this Jewish community, like many, places a premium upon self-image. We need to look great, dress well, and appear to be successful. Success, defined as financial prowess, is the way to achieve status in our Jewish community. We show the world we are successful by having lovely homes, nice cars, and shaped bodies. We also need to show off our accomplished, handsome, and married children who will soon, if they haven’t already, provide us with gorgeous, brilliant, and high achieving grandchildren who continue the cycle for another generation. The problem is that we are reluctant to admit to anyone that we are hurting, that our families are not perfect, and that we need help and support. Why are we like this? As the article says, “We act this way for our self-protection. We all want to be seen positively and don’t want to risk being embarrassed, judged, or rejected by others.” The truth is, my friends, that there is no such thing as a perfect human being or a perfect family. We all have pain. We all have our imperfections. No one is who they appear to be. We live in our gilded ghettos pretending that all is well. Too often, that is not the case. We are too embarrassed to share our pain and ask for help. That needs to end.
The One who knows all, to whom we speak today from the inmost recesses of our hearts, understands our pain and calls out to us. We pray to God and ask for comfort and peace. We implore Adonai to give us the courage to bare our souls, to unlock our secrets, and to open our true selves up to others. It is too difficult to continue with this allusion of perfection when we hurt so bad.
There is a great cost to ourselves and especially to our children as we try to keep up the allusion of perfection. The need to keep up appearances imposes tremendous psychic pressure upon us, stress that inevitably takes an emotional and physical toll. We sometimes do reckless and thoughtless things to relieve that stress which, in turn, causes more anxiety. We are on a treadmill of our own making, one which we cannot step off. What we do to our children is even worse. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis once said, we make our children into nachas machines. They exist to supply us with pride and satisfaction and help us keep up the allusion of perfection. Our children are not able to live their own lives and pursue their own dreams because we have an overriding need for them to be successful. They make us feel good about ourselves and allow us to maintain our ideal of flawlessness.
Let me tell you a personal story. My father, alav hashalom, was a good man. Had circumstances been different, he would have gone to college to fulfill his dream of becoming a veterinarian. The Great Depression and World War II intervened. He was not able to go to college because he had to work to support his family. By the time the War was over and he was discharged from the Army, he was already thirty years old, too old he thought to go back to school and start at the beginning. My father went to work for the Post Office, the only Jew in a large suburban office in New Jersey. He eventually worked his way up to become a supervisor, the highest non-political appointment in his office. He always, however, felt judged by the Jewish community. He was not a college graduate, not a professional and not successful by the reigning definition. He felt like an outsider and never felt comfortable socializing among Jews whom he thought looked down upon him. This is, perhaps, one major reason why my parents programmed me to become a professional. I had no choice in the matter. Would I become a doctor or a lawyer? I shocked them greatly by becoming a rabbi. Perhaps, in retrospect, I needed to compensate for the lack of respect my father felt among Jews by becoming a rabbi, a position most Jews still hold in respect. I guess now I don’t need to go into therapy to figure this out.
How many of us feel stigmatized by the Jewish community, feeling like outsiders because we can never measure up to the perceived standards? How hurtful it must be to those of us whose children will never become doctors, lawyers, or CPA’s or another high status occupation? How hurtful it must be to have a secret which we cannot reveal because we think others will negatively judge us? How hurtful it must be to feel like an outsider each and every day?
There are three ordinary things we regularly do that affirm the allusion that all Jews, in order to fit in, should be smart, attractive, and successful, three things that must be painful to those who believe they are none of the above. These are rather mundane things that we do without thinking. I hope, after this sermon, we will think before we do them again.
The first is putting bumper stickers on the rear fender of our cars that state, “My kid is an honor student at such and such school.” While being proud of our children is important, hubris, excessive pride, is not a positive Jewish value. Please understand, I am in no way demeaning academic achievement. We need our children to study hard and do well in school. It is just that these bumper stickers indicate that we honor and love our children precisely because they are high academic achievers. They tell us that our children are nachas machines. We value our children for how they make us feel about ourselves. What should the mother of an average but kind and sweet student put on her car? “My kid is nice but academically average?” How will that the mom and child feel?
The second is the ubiquitous practice of showing pictures of grandchildren to absolutely everyone within sight. We all do it, but let’s think about it for a moment? How does it make someone feel who yearns for grandchildren but will never have them? How does it feel to someone who has a disabled grandchild who does not fit our image of physical perfection? The truth is that it is very painful. We should think twice before we whip out those pictures and show them to everyone around. Let’s just be a bit more discreet with them.
The third is the habit of publically sharing that our children just got into medical school, law school, Wharton, Harvard, etc. Just fill in the blank. While this is wonderful news for ones relatives and friends and certainly worthy of celebration, how does it make others feel whose children are not going to a prestigious school let alone to college at all? There are wonderful and kind young people who do great things in this world without going to college. How do we help them fit into our Jewish mold of success? How many Jewish parents brag that their son drives a truck or their daughter is a waitress? How does that produce nachas for us? We need to be more sensitive to the many among us who will never be wealthy, beautiful, or academically successful. Every Jew is equal to another in the eyes of God. There is plenty of room in the Jewish community for all. The more Jews the better! Is our daughter kind? Is our son honest? Is our daughter responsible and hardworking? Is our son doing the best he can? These are values that we should treasure as much as we do academic success.
Dear friends, on this holiest of days, we can share our secrets with God and, I pray, with one another. We should refrain from judging others today and everyday and leave that function up to God. Our Tradition teaches us that all people, rich or poor, gay or straight, black or white, Jew or gentile, are God’s children. We should be less concerned with our image and more concerned with our inner selves. God abhors secrets. God cares about each one of us and is only concerned that we “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” We should be able to open our hearts to one another. We should be accepted and loved for who we are and not what we do. May we strive to look beyond appearance and embrace all those who are good and kind.
Kein Y’hi Ratson– May this be God’s will as together we say:
 Reform Judaism Magazine, Fall, 2010.