Yom Kippur Morning Sermon
October 9, 2011-10 Tishri, 5772
Ralph was a single Jewish man who lived by himself. He thought that he wanted to take responsibility for something besides himself so he decided he needed a pet. He went to the pet store and told the owner he wanted to buy something unusual. After some discussion, he finally bought a talking centipede, a 100 legged bug, which came in a little white box to use as its house. He brought the centipede home, found a good spot for the box and decided he would take his new pet to shul with him. So he asked the centipede in the box, “Would you like to go to shul with me today? We’ll have a good time.” There was no answer from his new pet. This bothered Ralph a bit but he waited a few minutes and then asked him again, “How about going to shul with me today so we can pray together?” Again, there was no answer from his new pet. So he waited a few minutes more, thinking about the situation. He decided to invite the centipede one last time. This time he put his face up against the centipede’s little house and shouted, “Hey in there! Would you like to go to shul with me to learn about God?” This time a little voice came out of the box, “I heard you the first time! I’m putting my shoes on!”
It is always good to laugh on this most serious day of the year, a day devoted to prayer, reflection, and introspection. There is so much to discuss with you this morning. I hardly know where to begin. I have, however, chosen two prominent news stories of the year to bring to your attention. While it may not be immediately apparent, there is a connection between them that I hope to make apparent in a few minutes, a link that speaks directly to us on this most holy of days.
One of the most controversial books of this year is called “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” written by Amy Chua, “whose severe methods of demanding achievement from her two daughters opened a national parenting debate. Reports about her have appeared all over the media, some attacking and some praising her unbending rules. Those rules included never allowing her two daughters to have sleepovers or play dates, to watch television or get a grade lower than an A.”[i] “Chua was not about to raise prize less slackers. She wanted prodigies, even if it meant nonstop, punishing labor. So “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” chronicles its author’s constant demanding, wheedling, scolding and screaming. It describes seemingly endless piano and violin sessions that Ms. Chua supervised. It enforces a single guiding principle that is more reasonable than all the yelling suggests: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”[ii] Her book contrasts the strict and challenging Chinese method of child raising, which emphasizes a child’s achievement, against the Western liberal method which emphasizes a child’s self-esteem. It is also a family memoir as it chronicles how her daughter Sophia (who, by the way, was raised as a Jew) rebels against her mother when she was thirteen, forcing her mother to retreat and loosen her grip.
Just this week on the latest episode of “Glee,” Mike Chang’s father excoriated him in front of the principal for getting an A- in chemistry. He told him, “An A- is an Asian F.” How would we like to live with that kind of pressure?
Contrast for a moment the Chinese Tiger Mother with the stereotype of the Jewish mother, a strong woman who was overprotective and loving, one who pushed her children to success through a mixture of prodding and guilt. Listen to this Jewish Haiku circulating on the internet:
Testing the warm milk
On her wrist, she sighs softly
But her son is forty
This next Jewish Haiku illustrates the guilt inducing Jewish mother:
Is one Nobel Prize
So much to ask from a child
After all I’ve done?
While it seems that the classic Jewish mother has much in common with the Chinese Tiger Mother, there are some profound differences. “Chinese parents believe that the kids owe them everything. While the Jewish Tradition also highly values honoring parents, it places equal or greater importance on caring for our children as our parents should have cared for us. To that end, we rightly laugh at the overprotective Jewish mother warming her son’s milk, but in the actual world a little parental overprotection can provide the extra security children need to defend against the cold and indifference they will face outside their homes. The greatest difference is that Jewish mothers provide values education. While they urge individual achievement, they also stress that their children have a responsibility to make our world a better place. They urge their children to earn a good name for themselves. While many mothers do not use these exact words, every Jewish mother I know teaches her child to “be a mensch!” Every Jewish mother teaches her child right from wrong. “Be an honorable person,” she stresses. “Make a good name for yourself!”
The second story of this morning is a very sad one. On a Saturday morning last December, Mark Madoff, the older of Bernie Madoff’s two sons, hung himself in his Manhattan apartment. He died on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. As you recall, Bernard Madoff was arrested and imprisoned for running a gigantic Ponzi scheme that shattered thousands of lives around the world. Despite the fact that Mark and his brother Andrew turned their father in to law enforcement, they were both implicated in receiving at least $67 million in improper proceeds from their father. Mark had been named in nine lawsuits that sought to recover millions of dollars in damages. His professional reputation sullied, he was distraught over the damage to his name. He could not live with himself any longer. His name was now a curse. His father was not an honorable person, he was not a mensch. The sins of the father were visited upon the son. In contrast to his father, Mark Madoff had a conscience.
Our two stories intersect at this point. The Jewish mother insists that her children be menschen, that they lead a righteous life and have a good name. She teaches that anything her child does that could bring shame to a mother is wrong. Anything a parent does that brings shame upon a child is wrong. Our mothers teach us that nothing is more important than earning, and keeping, a good name. They teach us to think before we speak, to reflect before we act and always keep a Shem Tov, a good name, as our paramount value.
Our sages teach that there are three possible crowns we can wear, the crown of kingship, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of a good name. The latter, the rabbis tell us, is the most important of them all because this is the only crown that we are able to earn for ourselves. This reminds me of an uneventful afternoon in my life, the memory of which has stayed with me for fifty years. I was about ten years old and walked uptown to our local business district by myself. My parents sent me on an errand to buy some needed items in several stores. Those were the days when children would not hesitate to go places without adult supervision. It was also the time before we had credit cards and cell phones. I remember walking into one store after another, telling the clerk what I needed, and asking him to charge it to my father, Jake Fink. Everyone in town knew that my father was an honorable man, that his word was his bond and that if his son charged something, Jake, of course, would pay for it. I remember how proud I was to be his son, the son of a man whose name inspired such respect.
We read once again this week in the Baltimore Sun about Raphael Palmeiro, the former Oriole great who returned to our city for the first time since he left in disgrace in 2005. Palmeiro had a brilliant twenty year major league baseball career and was a shoe in for the Baseball Hall of Fame. At least he was, until he testified before a Congressional sub-committee in March, 2005. We will never forget the scene in which he “famously wagged his finger in front of the Congressional committee and said: I have never used steroids. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that.” Later that season, just days after he got his 3,000th career hit, the news broke that he had tested positive for steroids. Palmeiro claimed that teammate Miguel Tejada gave him a tainted Vitamin B-12 shot. No one believed him. “After the season, Palmeiro went back home to Texas in disgrace. He was bitter and depressed about the damage done to his reputation and his legacy as one of the best to ever play the game of baseball.” He still repeats that this is the true story and says, “People can choose to believe me or not.”
Whether or not Palmeiro is telling the truth, the damage to his reputation is beyond repair. He was one of the greatest ball players ever to wear the Oriole uniform- and today he hangs his head in disgrace. With one questionable act, and one possible lie, he ruined his life forever. This is an important lesson for each one of us.
On this Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, we pray that God will safeguard all our Jewish mothers, those great women who instill the knowledge of right and wrong within their children and who are still the moral arbiters in their homes and our community. I pray that God will protect our Jewish fathers, those whose good names garnish honor throughout the generations. Let us always remember that if we are embarrassed to tell our mothers and our fathers what we are doing, then we should not do it! If we are embarrassed to tell our children what we are doing, then we should not do it! As we re-connect with God and one another on this holy day, these are important words to remember. Let us take a moment to thank our mothers and fathers, surrogates for God, in teaching us how to become menschen. Amen
Baltimore Sun, October 3, 2011, Sports, page 10.