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Pathways toward Human Love and Humanity’s Existence - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780 Sermon

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah tovah. May this be a good year for us all!

“Dear Amy,

“My family tries to be close, but when it comes to me (the youngest) and my oldest sibling (eight years older) — we just don’t click.

“Despite being born to the same people and raised in the same household, we have very different views, opinions and beliefs about nearly everything. I don’t recall having a good relationship as children; he was always yelling or angry at me.

“My sibling never seemed interested in being close, though we did have our moments of getting along. As adults, this feels unchanged and strained; he’s made it clear he doesn’t approve of my career, schooling, and spiritual beliefs.

“He always talks down to me, and once stated out loud that he can’t respect me as an adult. That hurt more than he’ll ever know. “He seems to believe that I don’t want to be his brother; I think he just wants me out of his life. My parents wish we’d get along, but I can’t force myself to pretend anymore.

“I will be civil, but I don’t feel we can be regular friends.

“Is this awful of me? Should I keep trying? I just don’t see the point.

“Signed, Youngest of two.”[1]

This letter appeared recently in an advice column in the local newspaper, but it just as well could have been written by the biblical character Abel referring to older brother Cain.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As someone who works with families confronting all kinds of issues, I can tell you that problems of love – or the absence of love and familial connections – are becoming more prevalent and more tenacious.

So, I begin my series of remarks for this holiday season on matters of individual and family love: first, because they are so pressing, and second, because unless we achieve wholeness as individuals – which we achieve through addressing issues directly within our families – we won’t be able to focus on the major world issues that we also need to address.

One simple way that we develop love for family is appreciating the Jewish value of derech eretz, our ethical standard of interpersonal behavior about which I have been writing this summer.

This Hebrew expression, derech eretz, translates into English as the “way of the land”, and the connotation is “the best and kindest way to treat other people”. Using derech eretz can be challenging, because it requires us to recognize the image of God in each person around us, and give that person dignity because, indeed, they embody the Divine.

We are required to show derech eretz to strangers we encounter, the homeless on the street, those who suffer the oppressor’s hand, and – yes – even those family members we don’t get along with.

Simply put, conducting our lives with a healthy dedication to derech eretz means refraining from self-aggrandizement, and rather, treating all those around us with dignity, and sincere and genuine human kindness.

When I read that letter in the advice column, my thoughts immediately went to the story of Cain and Abel, the two children of Adam and Eve. They apparently had similar issues. But in the Torah, the result wasn’t simply Cain and Abel distancing themselves from each other; their story ends in murder.

Recall that Cain slays Abel because of Cain’s jealousy of Abel’s sacrifice being more acceptable to God than his own. After trying to hide the evidence of his crime, God puts to Cain a simple question: “Where is Abel, your brother?”, adding the phrase “your brother” as if Cain might not recognize that Abel was even related to him. After all, the concept of siblings did not exist before them.

Cain, of course, provides this well-known response. “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The appalling second half of Cain’s answer, the rhetorical question, answers itself. Of course, we are responsible for one another, and siblings should be responsible for each other despite the sibling rivalry that is sometimes so ingrained in our family dynamic.

But the first half of Cain’s statement – lo yada’ti, “I do not know” – is more revealing.

That Hebrew phrase lo yada’ti, which has been translated as “I do not know”, actually reveals a continuing past-tense action, meaning “I have not known”, maybe even “I have never known”. Cain could have had a very long lapse of filial responsibility, if he had any to begin with.

With this broader translation of the Hebrew, the transgressions of Cain expand to include sibling neglect and a careless disregard for humanity, as well as murder.

I raise this issue tonight because I grow concerned about the families in our Temple Beth El community.

Let us think carefully: Have we, within our own families’ lives, faced disregard, violent disagreement, separation, estrangement, or abandonment? Have we neglected an email message from a family member who longs to connect to us? Have we not returned a phone message from a parent or a child, who is anxious to hear from us? Have we avoided discussions on sensitive matters because we think they’re too sensitive? And has our avoidance caused difficulties? Should there ever be legitimate reasons for any of this? How can we best repair relationships within our family constellations?

I ask us to consider carefully how best to mend our family relationships that are fractured, especially as this New Year’s Day is the moment for cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our soul and our behaviors in the past.

We know families have difficulties, but let us address these issues immediately when they happen, so that small mishaps or slights don’t escalate to full-blown detachments. This is the pathway of derech eretz, of elevating the other above our own needs, of taking their pain into consideration, of reaching out to someone from whom we have been distanced, and trying to set things on a different course. We need reminding that each human life is our responsibility.

* * * *

Two individuals like Cain and Abel can certainly find a way to get along. But what about our ability to be neutral and bring peace to others in conflict?

“Dear Amy,

“I am having a problem pregnancy. After years of trying to conceive, my husband and I were very lucky to finally have gotten pregnant. But I am carrying twins, and I can feel them inside, struggling, pursuing, striving with each other, almost like each is trying to win a battle. Hey, if this is the way things are going to be, what do I matter I all of this? Why did I ever bother getting pregnant?

“My husband: he has such big dreams for his kids. He believes the children represent two nations who would struggle with each other through eternity. Ha! I just wanted a family. Why is my destiny to be an incubator of strife?

“My doctor said I should eat some lentil soup and lie down, but I simply can’t get this situation out of my head. What should I do?

“Signed, still pregnant and not happy.”

That was NOT a letter in the advice columns, but rather a rendering of the feelings of Rebekah, our people’s Matriarch, as she anticipates the birth of her twin boys Esau and Jacob. As we know, they grow up in a conflict-laden interrelationship, aggravated by parents who didn’t know how to parent.

The brothers initially fight over a bowl of soup, then strive over a birthright inheritance, then pledge revenge against one another over possessions and wealth. And all through this, neither parent does anything to intervene in their fighting. In fact, the parents take sides, thereby worsening the problem.

I have seen many families in disrepair. I have heard Temple members’ testimonies of the slights and petty insults made by one family member toward another. They explode because of stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise. And there are few willing to engage these warring family members in dialogue that would lead to reconciliation.

On the other hand I often see potential for a peacemaker to emerge, someone who could remain neutral, and influence the belligerent parties to calm their emotions and work toward peace. I. So. Wish there were more situations such as these.

The sage Hillel challenges each of us to be like Aaron the High Priest, someone who was fearless in engaging in peacemaking. The midrash relates[2] that when two people would quarrel with each other, Aaron, counseling them separately, would say to the first, “My daughter, look what that other person is going through. He beats his breast and tears his clothing, and he keeps crying, ‘Woe is me! How could I possibly stand before her, the one with whom I have this disagreement? I should be ashamed, because it is I who treated her so cruelly.’” Aaron promptly would go to the other person with the exact same story about the first one. So that the next time the two people met they were tearfully hugging each other, embracing in reconciled friendship.

Having witnessed opposite sides of a quarrel within our families, who has been willing to step in and intervene? Or have we served as a peacemaker within our family? Have our families needed a peacemaker, and none was around?

The matter of love of family requires us to take this kind of risk for the sake of unity. How best to bring peace to broken families and relationships? Sometimes it is we who must intervene and bring the inspiration of peace to those around us. Derech eretz, elevating others than ourselves, means that we must actively search for a solution to enable others to find love.

* * * *

And sometimes, the good intentions of some family member are misinterpreted, and seen as insufferable. Or some family members get a reputation for being a little crazy and cannot be viewed as a legitimate member of the family. Some of our family members just don’t fit it.

“Dear Amy,

“I am not sure what to do about my muddled and disorganized son. I love him to bits – he is my second youngest, and most vulnerable, I fear – but he is, in the words of people who will live centuries after me, a “luftmensch’: You know, his body is present but his consciousness flits around and never comes to land.

“Oy, and he’s a dreamer, too, but I fear he infers reality from his imagination. He has dreams of making it big one day: He sees himself in those dreams as one mighty sheave of wheat, and the rest of his family – who are also caricatured as sheaves of wheat – he sees bowing down to him. Having dreams of exaggerated greatness is fine, but hey, Amy, he had the bad judgment to relate those dreams of superiority to his brothers and parents. That did not go well.

“I tried to placate him by getting him a really expensive, colorful coat, but that seemed to have pushed him further from reality. So much so that when his brothers accused him of trying to lord his feigned superiority over them, he remained mysteriously silent. No affect whatsoever. No denial, no warmth, no ‘Hey, I was only joking’. Just a large, enigmatic grin, as if he held onto a secret that he would never share.

“Maybe if I give him some supervisory responsibility around the farm; maybe that will allow him to focus on real life tasks.”

“Amy, tell me I am not spoiling him, and that I am not being too overprotective.

“Signed, Jake who’s not so jake.”

Joseph was the youngest son of our Patriarch Jacob, and he had no awareness of his effect on others; and he was the dutiful son who wished to please. Jacob eventually did give Joseph some tasks around the farm – I guess that went well – and one day Jacob sent him to check on his brothers while they were tending the sheep. Joseph somehow gets lost, and he encounters a stranger, who notices that Joseph is unfamiliar with his surroundings.

“What are you searching for?” the stranger asks him.

Joseph answers, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are tending the sheep?”[3] One aspect of Luftmensch Joseph’s state of mind is that Joseph assumes the stranger knows where his brothers are; there is no “Do you know” or “Have you heard” about them. He only wanted to know where they were.

Joseph is in need of direction, and is very trusting, and luckily the stranger does point him in the right direction. From that moment, of course, his life is never again easy, or the same. (But that is the story for another sermon.)

Joseph was a special young man with different social and emotional needs. Yet his parents did not recognize his special gifts, and they could not handle the challenges he presented. And the question asked by the stranger – “What are you searching for?” – therefore becomes more of an existential one. He found his brothers, but he was completely confused by his life, and was likely confounded by what came next.

I think we all know of young people who have needs that go far beyond those that their parents can handle. Those on the autism scale; those with Down Syndrome; those with psychological and biochemical imbalances; those who are differently abled; or those with language skills that are not as developed as others.

And today we can add to this group of young people with unaddressed needs: young Jews of color; LGBTQ Jews; women; adoptees; those who, for whatever reason, are sometimes ‘left outside the camp’, to use a Torah metaphor.

I have seen many young people who could have been left behind . . . but we can always find room for them IF we know about them, if parents are open and transparent about their needs, if their families come forward to disclose the reality of their situation. Doing that is daunting, as it causes parents to confront – yet again – the difficulties they’ve suffered. Not to mention revealing something that the child may not want revealed.

But I offer advice for all of us tonight: When we see these special children in our midst, let us not shy away from them, or let not their differences distract us from the task of Jewish and social strengthening. All will be welcome here. All needs can be attended to. The answers to their question of "What are you searching for?" will be listened to with respect and acceptance, and we will make the promise to accompany them on the journey. Those young people will find here the love they seek and deserve.

If derech eretz requires us to lift up even those who find themselves on the margins of what others may label as “normal”, then it is essential to bring these young people into the community. We, their family members, do them homage by respecting who they are, by acknowledging directly and addressing their needs, and elevating them as beings made in the image of God.

* * * *

And further:

If derech eretz allows us to lift up anyone who has fallen, haven’t we accomplished something important, something that advances the cause of humanity. Each human life is our responsibility. Each dispute has a role for a peacemaker. And each young person – especially in our day – requires all the love we can muster.

That is a lot for one Rosh Hashanah. But I think we can handle it.

* * * *

“Dear Amy,

“So, I took your advice. I approached my family at our annual Erev Rosh Hashanah family dinner with love and respect. I walked the pathway of derech eretz: I celebrated with them when they told me of their successes over the past year, and I felt no need to crow over my own. I sympathized with their hardships, without drawing attention away with recitations of my own difficulties. We reminisced about past good times, and everyone looked forward to more good times in the future. It was the best Rosh Hashanah dinner we’ve had together in a long time.

“Thank you for your good advice!

“Signed, …….” well, you fill in the blank.

L’shanah tovah!


[1] “Ask Amy” column, edited, Wisconsin State Journal, September 19, 2019

[2] Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 12:3

[3] Genesis 37:14-16

August 12, 2020 22 Av 5780