Be Kind is my sermon from Erev Rosh Hashanah. At the conclusion of the text is a video of the sermon anthem, Kinder by Copper Wimmin.
The streets of Kolkata were dangerous, dirty, and crowded. People were infected with cholera and leprosy, dysentery and other diseases that were fatal in most cases. There was a woman who led a community who went among them every day with courage and conviction to do what she could to ease the people’s pain.
One day, this leader came across a young woman in the gutter of the street, directly in front of one of the Kolkata hospitals. This woman picked up the ill woman and carried her into the hospital. She told the nurse inside, “This woman is dying. She needs help.”
But the nurse replied. “Sorry, no room for her here. She is poor and can’t pay and we can’t save her anyway, so we can’t waste a bed on her. Now please move along.”
The woman’s heart broke as she carried the dying woman back to the street, and there she stayed with the woman for hours until she died. This kind woman was angry and she felt like no one should have to die alone, forgotten and in despair in the dirty street.
Instead of dwelling in a place of indignation, she found an old abandoned hotel just behind a Hindu Temple and started bringing in the people the hospital refused to admit. They were so sick that she knew there was no hope of survival for them, but she felt compelled to make a place they could come to die. The Hindus from the Temple did not want these people close to them and threw garbage and rocks at this kind woman
One day, the woman saw a man lying on the steps of the Hindu Temple — very sick. She learned he was one of the Hindu priests and no one at the temple would touch him for fear of getting his disease. So they put him on the steps to die. The woman picked him up and took him to the old hotel where she cared for him until he died a peaceful death. The Hindus at the temple saw what she had done and never gave her any trouble again. (Adapted by Rabbi Eleanor Steinman from a story found at: https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/The-Evidence-of-Kindness-Mother-Teresa-Caring-for-the-Poor)
Saint Teresa, known before her death as Mother Teresa was not a flawless person, those do not exist. She was a good, kind soul and she demonstrated kindness to those who needed it most.
Friends, we are living in a time when kindness, basic human decency, and empathy are hard to find. Devastating natural disasters have torn through the Caribbean, Texas, South Florida, and Mexico. Watching or listening to the news is causing nightmares and sleepless nights for some. Others have created a bubble around them, pretending the current state of our country is not what it is. And on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, a few weeks ago, the anti-Semitic, racist, xenophobic vitriol that is the worst of humanity took to the street. Other incidents of misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and racism happen so often, they are becoming de rigueur. This is not acceptable. This is not kind. This is not decent.
And, there are others among us with deep wells of kindness. We have increased our financial contributions to causes that matter. We have marched in the streets for women, living wages, interfaith solidarity, reproductive choice, health care, and meaningful paths to citizenship. Our capacity for compassion numbs our aching feet and fuels our fire.
On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, we all need to foster kindness. Kindness between people, kindness in our relationship with God, and we need show kindness to ourselves.
The story is told in the Talmud of Kamza and Bar Kamza(this is my adaptation of Gittin 55b-56a).
An unnamed man knew two people, his friend Kamza, and his archrival Bar Kamza. The man was throwing a party and instructed his servant to bring him his friend Kamza. The servant erred and Bar Kamza was brought to the feast. When the party’s host found Bar Kamza sitting at his celebration, the host said, “What are you doing here? You are my enemy! Get out of here.”
Bar Kamza replied, “Since I’m already here, I’ve already had food and drink, let me stay and I will reimburse you for the cost of my food and beverage. Just don’t embarrass me by sending me away in the middle of the party.”
The host said, “No, you must leave.”
Bar Kamza replied, “I will give you money for half of the feast. Just don’t send me away.”
The host said, “No, you must leave.”
Bar Kamza pleaded, “I will pay for the whole feast. Just let me stay.”
The host said, “No, you must leave.” And took Bar Kamza by the hand, stood him up, and walked him out.
Bar Kamza said to himself, “Since the Sages were sitting at the feast and did nothing to protest the behavior of the host, they must have been content with what he did. I will therefore go and inform against them to the emperor.”
The social slight by the party host and the seeming assent by the leaders of the community left Bar Kamza with a bruised ego, angry, and vengeful.
Bar Kamza went to Rome and received an audience with the emperor. He said to him, “The Jews have rebelled against you.”
The emperor responded, “Who says this is the case?”
Bar Kamza proposed, “Test them. Send them an offering to be brought in honor of the government and see if they will sacrifice it.”
The emperor sent a choice three-year old calf to the Temple in Jerusalem for sacrifice. While Bar Kamza was traveling with the calf to the Temple, he cut the animal’s lip creating a blemish making it unfit for sacrifice according to Jewish law, yet still fit per Roman custom. When Bar Kamza reached the Temple and presented the animal, the priests could not sacrifice it upon the altar because of the blemish; however they could not satisfactorily answer the inquiries of the Roman authorities who did not consider the animal blemished.
The blemish notwithstanding, the Sages considered whether or not to sacrifice the animal in order to make peace with the government. One of the rabbis said, “If we sacrifice this animal, the people will think that we have no regard for law and will begin to present blemished animals as well.”
The Sages said, “If we do not sacrifice this animal, we must prevent Bar Kamza from reporting this to the emperor.” The Sages thought to kill Bar Kamza. One rabbi cautioned, “If we kill Bar Kamza, the people will think that one that makes a blemish on an otherwise perfect animal is to be killed.” As a result, they did nothing, Bar Kamza’s slander was accepted by the authorities, and the Great War between the Jews and Rome began eventually leading to the destruction of the Temple and the diaspora of the people.
I share this story because we are living in a moment where individuals are not treating others with basic decency and the person-to-person animus causes violence, bigotry, hate, and many of us are living with fear and anxiety. To compensate, our in-person and virtual communities have shrunk. Many of us have unfriended people who disagree with us, and are choosing to surround ourselves with like-minded people. We find our kindness can only go so far.
In this New Year we all need to work on fostering compassion for other people. We must increase our tolerance for ideas that challenge us. We must separate the person from their ideas. We must develop ways to listen and learn about another person so that we can see the fullness of their humanity. This is our task in this New Year.
And on this first night, the first of the New Year, we also are working on our relationship with the Eternal One. God, the Force, our Higher Power, the Ultimate Being, whatever your name for and understanding of God, now is the time to look to God for kindness and to pray for it in return. God is kind. We can be, too.
For some of us the God idea is challenging. Whether or not you are certain in your own belief in God, tonight is the time to begin considering the possibility. And for those here tonight who do not believe in God, your firm position need not be rigid. Tonight I ask that you open yourself to the potential for God, even if you ultimately decide it won’t work for you.
Cheshbon haNefesh, the soul accounting we do during these ten days of awe is about considering and changing who we are for the coming year and confronting our mistakes. We are also to be engaging with God. As the Unetaneh Tokef prayer teaches us, repentance, prayer, and charitable acts avert the severity of the decree. God is to be our partner in atonement so that we can be at one with God.
Within Jewish tradition there is a multiplicity of views of God. God actively engaging with humanity, God who set the world into motion and now watches it spin, God absent from the world, perhaps hiding. God is in nature, in each sunset, in every wave that laps on the shore. God is in the relationships that we create with other people, when we see their entirety and do view them as an object from which we can gain.
In our prayers, most often, we speak about God using metaphor and allusion. Makor, Source, Tzur, Rock, Shechinah, the dwelling. Depending upon the season of the year, the holiday, the Hebrew month, and even, the Torah portion we read, often we have a variety of metaphors to draw from because no one metaphor will work for every person, and no one metaphor can fully explain God. However, on these High Holy Days our metaphors are quite different; allusions of God sitting at a desk before a big book writing names, a God who subscribes to theologies of reward and punishment, an Avinu Malkeinu, a Parent and Ruler from whom we pray for mercy.
These are tough! And, honestly, they do no not reflect many people’s understanding of God or theology. Fortunately, our Machzor, our prayer book for these holy days, is brimming with different understandings of God. We do not have to shut the door on God simply because one prayer or one reading does not strike our fancy. Dig deeper. Read something on a facing page. Seek out a God-idea that is meaningful to you.
Tomorrow, when we remove the Torah from the ark we will recite the 13 attributes of God. “Adonai, Adonai— God, compassionate, gracious, endlessly patient, loving, and true; showing mercy to the thousandth generation; forgiving evil, defiance, and wrongdoing; granting pardon,” this is the Higher Power that many of us seek, a Force in the Universe full of goodness and mercy. (Mishkan HaNefesh, p. 228. Source is Exodus 34:6-7). And in the context of the Torah where these verses come, this is what Moses needs, this compassionate God. In the Torah narrative, Moses is on top of Mount Sinai fuming that the people built the Golden Calf. Moses returns to Sinai, and is busy carving the new set of 10 commandments when the presence of God appears before him in a cloud. This is the God that I seek, and I suspect, many of you do too. In these days when we are vulnerable doing the work of accounting of our actions, we need mercy, kindness, and forgiveness.
The poet Ruth Brin writes:
When men were children,
they thought of God as a father;
When men were slaves,
they thought of God as a master;
When men were subjects,
they thought of God as a king.
But I am a woman, not a slave, not a subject,
not a child who longs for God as father or mother.
I might imagine God as teacher or friend,
but those images, like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now.
God is the force of motion and light in the universe;
God is the strength of life on our planet;
God is the power moving us to do good;
God is the source of love springing up in us.
God is far beyond what we can comprehend. (https://ritualwell.org/ritual/woman%E2%80%99s-meditation)
However we encounter the power some call God, may we do it with grace.
Stress, busy-ness, anxiety, and caring for parents and children are realities of our everyday existence. And in this New Year, may we find the time and space to be kind to ourselves. The story is told:
Once upon a time, there was a cobbler who was very busy.
He lived in a large village and was the only cobbler in town, so he was responsible for repairing the boots of everybody else.
However, he didn’t have time to repair his own boots.
This wasn’t a problem at first, but over time, his boots began to deteriorate and fall apart.
While he worked feverishly on the boots of everyone else, his feet got blisters and he started to limp.
His customers started to worry about him, but he reassured them that everything was OK.
However, after a few years, the cobbler’s feet were so injured that he could no longer work and no-one’s boots got repaired. (https://betterlifecoachingblog.com/2011/08/19/the-cobblers-boots-a-story-about-self-care/)
With so much going on all the time, we each need to ensure that we take care of our own shoes. We need to make a commitment to be kinder to ourselves. In this New Year, how will we make time to catch up with a friend, to exercise, to prepare and eat foods that nourish us, to do the things that enrich our lives? Treating ourselves with kindness will enable us to put more kindness into the world for others and, seek kindness from God because God is kind.
L’shanah tovah tikavteivu, May each of us inscribe our names in the Book of Life with kindness.
Rabbi Steinman and Cantorial Soloist Steinman before the service.
Here is the link to the video of Jessica Steinman, Cantorial Soloist, and I singing. Thank you to Diane Lindsey and the amazing band members for backing us up!