Yom Kippur – Yochanan ben Zakkai

Living with Heart

A good teacher knows that the best learning comes through different modalities and allowing students to experience things for themselves.  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was such a teacher.  Living in the 1st century, he instructed his students to leave the study hall, go out to the marketplace and observe human interaction. His question to them was:  What is the most important trait to possess as you go through life? What is the right path in order to live a good life? They all came back with different answers:

Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye – eyin tov – the ability to see others, things as they are, beauty, things that are overlooked, the essence of thing.

Rabbi Joshua said: A good friend – chaver tov –  someone who is always there for you, can challenge you and has your back.

Rabbi Yosi said: A good neighbor – shachen tov – being surrounded by good, ethical people who create a caring community.

Rabbi Shimon said: Foresight ro’eh et ha’nolad – the ability to see what is coming based upon current realities.

Rabbi Eleazar responded: a lev tov – a good heart, and his teacher Yochanan ben Zakkai said, “I prefer that answer – for it includes all of the rest.”   Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai understands heart in the broadest sense: seeing the good, connecting to others with care, wisdom – seeing connections and acting on them. It also includes courage, integrity, resilience, emotional awareness. A lev tov – a good heart is the essential trait needed for this moment in time.  Leave today thinking about and discussing what it means for you to live with heart and what pieces of a good heart you can further develop.

As we reflect on that question, we gain inspiration and insight from our past. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai did not just teach about the importance of a lev tov – he lived it; and in so doing reminds us how to approach this moment with heart.

Step back into his times.  He lived in the late 1st Century CE – at a terrible moment in Jewish history: war, suffering, internal division – our very existence was in jeopardy.  He lived in the walled city of Jerusalem which was under siege from every direction.  Outside the walls, the mighty Roman army with their surrounded the city – building ramparts, preparing weapons of destruction and amassing troops for what would be a devastating attack.  Inside the walls, we are imploding with internal strife – different Jewish factions are viciously turning upon one another. Starvation, desperation, anguish, anger and in the face of impending attack was the reality Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai faced.

Amidst the chaos and before the city fell, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai thought that there had to be another way. If a piece of a lev tov – a good heart is the foresight to see the destruction that will occur – he needed to think about how to respond wisely. He couldn’t stop it and needed to escape. Yet how could he get out of the city? There were Jewish guards at the gates not allowing anyone out – they believed everyone should stay in the city and fight to bring the redemption.  Rabbi Yochanan was trapped and he decided to take an extraordinary risk. Knowing that Jewish custom calls for burial outside the city, he feigns illness and death.  His students smuggle him out of the city in a coffin.

He emerges to an uncertain future.  What would he do? A lev tov also asks us to imagine what can be.   In an extraordinary act of chutzpah, he goes to the Roman commander, Vespasion and makes a request – four words that would change Jewish history: Ten li Yavneh vahachamecha” Give me Yavnah and its scholars.  Yavneh was a small city on the coast – Rabbi Yochanan envisioned what he might grow in that new place.  From death – literally a coffin, came new life. To have a lev tov is to have the courage to act even when the outcome is uncertain.

 With Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed, in Yavneh, Rabbi Yochanan and the sages reinvent Jewish life.  To live with heart is to have the ability to adapt to new realities. Rabbi Yochanan and his students shift Jewish practice to the home, synagogue and academy.  Building on changes that were emerging, Rabbi Yochanan and his colleagues accelerate the process.  Jewish life moves from the Temple – where sacrifices would be brought, to the home where holidays are celebrated and mitzvot define each moment of daily life. Prayers said with the sacrifices now find expression in the daily and Shabbat prayers recited privately and in community at synagogue. Studying sacred text becomes a way for us to learn who we are meant to be and through interpretation find new ways to understand our obligations.  Rabbi Yochanan’s innovations speak to this moment.   We too pivot and adapt when the world changes in incomprehensible ways.

This is what we have been doing. 5781 calls upon us to continue to pick up the mantle of innovation and re-imagining.  It requires each of us to reflect upon how we will create a home center for Jewish life.  For the time being, this building will not be the center of Jewish life – and each and every one of you will need to make personal commitments to have Judaism live through your choices.  For some it will be making Shabbat on Friday night and Shabbat morning.  For others it will mean carving out time to study Jewish texts on our own and with our families.  Many of you joined in with thousands around the world in amazing study at the Hartman Institute via zoom this summer.  It was extraordinary – opening doors to make high level, relevant study a piece of your home Judaism. Re-imagine ritual. Instead of shofar being sounded only in synagogue, get one for yourself.  Sound it.  Let it move you. Go out to others who want to hear its sounds. This is a time to discover personal prayer from our hearts, and re-encounter blessings and traditional prayers which remind us who we are meant to be. For too many, prayer is rote recitation of words we often don’t understand or relate to – let prayer be from the heart.  Let it move you to deeper embrace of values and ethics.   We are in the midst of an evolution that mirrors the innovations of Yavneh.  But now you have to chart your own path. Judaism will thrive only if you devote the energy and time to make it happen. It will be different for each of us – let’s create something extraordinary.  Join me on a journey to create a more personal, home based Judaism that fills our hearts with purpose.  

I believe that we will look back at this time decades down the road and marvel at innovation, creativity and new ways of doing things in Jewish life. The staff and leadership at CBJ will devote our time and energy to work with each of you to build a Jewish life outside synagogue walls that embraces the innovative spirit of the times of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. At the same time, as a synagogue we will continue to meet via technology for services, gatherings, classes and bringing justice and righteousness into the world Join us.  Walk with us.  Discover and Rediscover.   

         For all that it will be different for each of you, the Judaism that emerges will be grounded in the sacred values that are the essential truths of our faith. When we boil Judaism to its essence, it is to care for and be connected to our fellow human.  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai understood that a lev tov – a good heart includes friendship, community and connection. He knew that as connections fray and break, society crumbles.  Looking back at the reasons the led to the Temple’s destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam – senseless hatred.  He witnessed a society angrily divided – where divisive rhetoric, hateful characterizations of and actions toward those with whom we disagreed caused people to turn away from one another. It created the groundwork for a society ripe for conquest.  The lesson chills, challenges and emboldens me as I reflect on our current moment.

We too are turning away from one another.  The hatred that divided our people and resulted in the destruction of the Temple is alive and well right now.  Over the years I have taught about the danger of increasing polarization – and that lesson needs to be lifted up again and again. Fear and anger are deepening the division in our community, country and world.  The call of this moment is to rise above that – consciously creating ties to those with whom we disagree.

That is a piece of the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Let’s be inspired by the example she set in her relationship with Justice Anton Scalia and others – whose opinions though intensely contrary to hers – never caused their bond to break.  They refused to allow fundamental differences turn them into enemies. It is hard and difficult work – and that is what they did. She shared how Justice Scalia was a great grammarian and if she made a grammatical error, he would let her know by calling or coming into her chambers.  He never sent a message or a memo that others could read because he did not want to embarrass her. And she would walk into his office and tell him if his tone was too harsh.  In private she would say, “Tone it down, it will be more persuasive.”  Hearts stay connected when we consciously nurture respect and friendship – seeking commonalities and shared values, safeguarding the dignity of those with whom we disagree.  Justices Bader Ginsberg and Scalia shared a reverence for the Constitution and for the institution they served.  They both loved opera and good food – hearts bonding over shared meals. They trusted the morality of the other.

Let them inspire us to find respect and care for those with whom we passionately disagree!  It is not always possible – sometimes the hatred that emanates from another must simply be rejected. But that should be the exception and not the rule.  We certainly will hold onto our activism and oppose ideas we find objectionable with every fiber of our being.  But we will not demonize with broad strokes or view those with whom we disagree as foes to be destroyed. In the charged, angry times in which we live – which sadly will only get worse in coming days – let’s be the voices of connection, respect, shared humanity.   Change begins with each of us as we foster respect, find shared humanity and hold onto one another.   What we need now in 5781 are hearts that turns to one another.

         A lev tov becomes fully realized in our deeds.  Listen to this story of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.  He and his student Rabbi Joshua are back in the Jerusalem after the city has been destroyed.  Walking amidst the ruins, Rabbi Joshua laments that we will no longer be able to be forgiven – for forgiveness came through offerings at the Temple – which no longer exists. “How will we ever go on?” he asks. Rabbi Yochanan responds, “Do not lament. Even without the sacrifices we have a way to make atonement. It’s by doing gemilut chasadim – acts of kinds and compassion toward others.” A lev tov – a good heart responds to life with chesed – love and kindness. The most powerful thing we can do right now is to love and care more. 

We have witnessed extraordinary acts of kindness and heart during the pandemic.  It is the antidote to pain and suffering.  Think about how to orient your heart so that kindness defines each day.  It could be simple – a kind word, a note, a call.  It certainly is donations and caring to those in need.  Think about the current realities that impact you and explore how chesed might transform that pain.

A friend shared the story of Sondra Walter, a cardiac nurse practitioner who realized all she heard in the ICU was the hum of machines – no family members, no personal contact. That silence led her to chesed.  She started asking family members to send in photos and stories about each patient in her unit.  She then affixed the photos and messages from families to the handles of disposable lunch bags from the hospital and hung them by patients’ beds or outside their rooms so all the hospital teams could learn more about who they were caring for. The families felt comforted – their loved ones were more than an anonymous face.

The patients became the people that they were before they were sick to the medical team. The details from the patient’s lives impacted interactions. An environmental services worker read one bio about a patient who loved calypso music and brought some in to play.  Lottery tickets were brought for a patient who loved playing the lottery as she emerged from a coma. Chesed brings comfort and healing and allows us to move through these times. Listen to your discomfort – Sondra’s was the quiet in the ICU –  and ask how it can lead to chesed.

         We need the ripples of chesed for ourselves, our nation and our world.  We know there is a connection between chesed and mental health. Mental health will be a challenge of the coming months and years, the more we can teach and live the crucial message of chesed as that which transforms pain, the more we can deal with current and impending crisis.

Let each and every one of us commit to deepen our kindness and caring. Expand acts of love to include those we may have overlooked.  Let’s share story after story and learn from one another – CBJ Chesed stories – for the chesed in this community is extraordinary and the key to getting through this moment.  

         These have been confusing, painful and difficult times.  I know I constantly feel on the brink of overwhelm – holding onto pain and suffering and not sure when it will end.  At those moments I turn to heroes like Yochanan ben Zakkai and hold tight to the lesson of lev tov – cultivating a good heart.  5781 calls for heart.  Let Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai guide you.  I end with a personal prayer inspired by this extraordinary teacher:

Dear God,

Hear our pain – for our hearts are breaking

And at the same time, let our hearts expand as we face pain.

Help us understand that life’s difficulties also have opportunities

Which draw us to new frontiers.

Give us courage to turn to one another – especially when we disagree.

Help us to allow chesed to define each day

Creating change, justice, equality and healing.

Hear our voices. Accept our prayer.  Amen