Yom Kippur Morning Sermon
10 Tishri, 5778 – September 30, 2017
Shana Tova and G’mar Chatima Tova! While this is the holiest and most serious day of the year, I cannot help but look out at this congregation and grow a bit maudlin. This is our 19th High Holy Days together. Over these last two decades our lives have touched and intersected on a number of levels. Sally and I know most of your stories. We have shared your happiest as well as your saddest times. We are repositories of your secrets and your sorrows, your hopes and your dreams. It is the listening to and sharing of stories that builds relationships and, in fact, creates a congregation. While this is Oheb Shalom’ s 164th year of existence, Oheb Shalom is much more than this building. It is the mingling of our stories over six generations, creating a unique narrative that we call a congregational history as well as a congregational culture. It is the story of our individual as well as our congregational lives. It is our relationship with one another and our relationship with God. That is what we will be speaking about this morning- the power of relationship.
Our ancestors understood that relationships are at the center of human life. In the second chapter of Genesis, God created a mate for Adam so he would not be alone. Eve was called his ezer k’negdo, translated somewhat inaccurately as “helpmate,” but is better understood as “a partner.” Maimonides differentiates three friendship categories that, while understood to be about marriage, one can certainly extract meaning applicable to friendships, business dealings, and even a relationship with community. First is haver le’davar, a useful friend, or a utilitarian association that depends on reciprocal usefulness. Often, when the davar – the thing that binds the parties disappears, so does the bond of connection as well.
Second, is haver le’deagah, a pleasant and concerned friend, someone with whom to share sorrows and joys. This kind of relationship is needed by each of us in order to share the burdens and celebrations of life. This kind of companion can be regarded as delightful (as in the case of a lover) and trusted (as in the case of a confidant), and can both be found in a single person or in more than one.
The third category is haver le’deah, a friend who shares knowledge and a joint dedication to common goals. One who might inspire and instruct, a relationship where both parties dream of realizing ideals, and a readiness to sacrifice for their attainment.
Each category represents a deepening level of confidence and trust in both intimate relationships and deep friendships. Human beings are drawn to one another for so many reasons, it is especially meaningful to see that reflected and refracted through many traditional texts on what it is to be in relationship. From the beginning, the underlying mission of relationships between men and women, and really, between all living creatures has been one of interdependency.[i]
Modern Jewish theology centers on the relationship between God and human beings. No one understood this better than Martin Buber, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, best known for his elucidation of I-Thou, the religious philosophy of dialogue. In his book, I and Thou, Buber describes two kinds of relationships, the “I-It”, and the “I-Thou”. The I-It relationship is one based on detachment from others and involves a utilitarian approach, in which one uses another as an object. In contrast, each person in an I-Thou relationship fully and equally turns toward the other with openness and full engagement. This kind of relationship is characterized by dialogue and by “total presentness.” In an I-Thou relationship, each participant is concerned about the other person. The honor of the other–and not just her usefulness–is of paramount importance. The ethical response of the I-Thou relationship is central to Buber’s understanding of God. For Buber, God is the “Eternal Thou.” God is the only Thou which can never become an It. In other words, while relationships with other people will inevitably have utilitarian elements, in a genuine relationship with God, God cannot be used as a means towards an end. In addition, our relationship with God serves as the foundation for our I-Thou relationships with all others, and every I-Thou relationship–be it with a person or thing–involves a meeting with God. God, in a sense, is the unifying context, the meeting place, for all meaningful human experience. According to Buber, one encounters God through one’s encounters with other human beings and the world. “Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God.”[ii]
When we meet each other as a Thou, not as in It, God is present. When we truly are present for one another, God is present. When we take the time to enter into relationship and genuinely listen, God is present in the relationship between two people.
I read an article this summer in The Atlantic (September, 2017) that has me very concerned about the future of relationships. The article is by Dr. Jean Twenge, a mother of three young daughters and a psychology professor at San Diego State University. Dr. Twenge reports that what she calls the iGen, those born between 1995 and 2012, experience much higher rates of sleep deprivation, depression, and suicide than earlier generations, such as Generation X and the Millennials. She says “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones…There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives- and making them seriously unhappy.”[iii] Professor Twenge goes on to recount the results of many studies which show that today’s adolescents are less likely to date, drive, work, and leave home. They don’t need to leave home because they spend time with their friends on their phones. She recalls a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse which shows that teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy than teens who spend more time on nonscreen activities. Adolescent girls, in particular, report feeling much more lonely and depressed when looking at their phones. Girls feel left out of social groups and activities and are more prone to cyber bullying. As Dr. Twenge writes, “Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face to face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.”[iv]
The clear message for parents is simple: Limit your children’s phone time! Of course, this message is not just for parents but for adults as well. We spend too much time absorbed in social media and messaging than we do in actual, real time relationships. While social media is very helpful in passing along information, and I am an advocate of it, we cannot use it instead of developing personal relationships. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to develop an I-Thou relationship on Facebook. If we cannot create meaningful relationships on line, does God exist on social media? While I am not prepared to answer that question now, it is one I am seriously thinking about.
Did I tell you about the time our dog, Lucy, took my cell phone and hid it in the backyard? For five days, I was untethered to my phone. I felt liberated. It was like Shabbat during the week. I did not have to immediately return emails or be disturbed by a scam callers. It was truly delightful. I eventually found the phone in the mud and fortunately, it still worked. I am certainly not opposed to phones and I am by no means a Luddite. I strongly believe that the foundation of relationship is spending time together, in person, talking to one another. Without that, there cannot be love, friendship, or community. Without that, congregations would not exist. Without that, God would not enter our lives. Without God, our lives would be severely diminished.
So, dear friends, let us limit our phone time and expand our relational time. Let us listen to one another and, as we do so, we will enter into relationship with God.
Amen and G’mar Chatima Tova
[i] Sharon Rosen Leib, San Diego Jewish Journal, January 3, 2017.
[ii] Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit- Halachmi, My Jewish Learning
[iii] Dr. Jean Twenge, The Atlantic, September, 2017, page 4.
[iv] Ibid., page 18.