I’d like to begin by reading to you a short piece by Wendy Langer:
“My father had been gone for months. Across oceans, I imagined him walking beaches in leather strap sandals, sipping black coffee in a glass, thinking of us when he passed a payphone. He was far away from everything that tied him down: my mother, my siblings, and me.
He came back to Connecticut for a short visit, and though my mother wanted it, he had no will to stay. Their relationship was like a baby grasping for the string of a balloon; just as she tried holding on, he slipped away. This is the way it always felt, whether he was with us or not.
He honked the horn outside my mother’s house, his house, my house; his headlights blinded his face from me. It was just the two of us. The car glided through the night; the drive was irritably smooth, and the night was eaten by black, by fog, by cold. I remember gestures: his fingertips turning the wheel, his jacket zipper being pulled halfway up. The silences between us pounded on me, a rainstorm of what should I say now; should I tell him about school, what would he want to hear, should I talk to him about coming back. And he sat there, dry, his back molded into seat leather, clean shaven and unflustered.
I would have given gold to have something to say, but there was nothing to say. There was nothing there. It was a hole where there should have been a wound. He stopped at Toys R Us. The thrill of a child in a toy store, it wasn’t there. I was too old for this, but I was also too young.
I could grab from the rainbow of toys on the shelves, pull them all down and pile them into a cart and say, “Buy me all of these.” I could have tried to make a dent somewhere, to hurt him and let him know, you owe me. But I knew this then: filling my cart with possessions would leave me emptier than before.
Running out of options, not wanting him to feel bad, I took a basketball in a cardboard frame. I did not hate him because this is what I expected of him. He was consistent in his unpredictability. He was consistent in his disloyalty, in his unconventionality. He was consistent in his leaving.”
Concludes the writer, “So, who then, is God when He is referred to as “Father”? He leaves when He loses interest? He leaves when there’s something better out there, far away from me? Is it always me taking a giant leap to Him, Him never meeting me halfway? Who is God when He is my Father? A relationship based on need? There only when I need Him? A provider when I seek Him out?
This was my battle. I believed in God, so I wanted to learn more, understand more, and be more than I was. But I wasn’t certain of His loyalty. When I turned to God for practical purposes — money, admittance to school, a good parking spot — I felt at ease to ask, just as it was with my own father.
But when it came to emotional closeness, feeling God’s presence and love, I would find myself in a brief moment of connection and lose it as fast as it would come, with the thought, “God has left me to be with another.”” (aish.com)
People have asked me over the past few days, so what’s the connection between the two themes you discussed over Shavuos? On Shavuos night, I discussed the #METOO movement; sexual abuse, the misuse of power, and throughout Shavuos, there has been lectures on the topic of Faith; Emunah and our relationship to G-d. They wanted to know why I chose to speak about two completely unrelated topics.
And the answer is that they are not unrelated. As Wendy so powerfully conveyed, our perception of G-d as a loving father is deeply impacted by our perception of our own father or mother. Along the same lines, our perception of G-d as a king is deeply impacted by our perception of our leaders. And our perception of the Torah as an authority is deeply impacted by our perception of authority figures in our lives.
To quote Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz:
“We live in the era of the fallen hero—indeed the tragic hero who is destroyed by the fatal flaw that lies within. In all walks of life, people whom we admired have disappointed us with their failures and weaknesses. We have become disillusioned and cynical. Unfortunately, even within the Torah camp, leaders in whom we placed our trust have betrayed us. And while the overwhelming majority of rabbis, teachers and spiritual mentors perform their tasks with integrity and commitment—and we should never make the mistake of condemning the many because of the sins of the few—many of us have lost faith in the very people who are supposed to inspire us in our faith. We see them engulfed in sexual scandals, child abuse, political intrigue, bribery and fraud. Some are accused of direct wrongdoing, others of cover-up and dissembling. Many have lost faith not only in those who are supposed to transmit Torah but, to some degree, in the goodness and morality of the Torah itself. God’s name and His glory quite literally have been besmirched, the very definition of chillul Hashem.”
He continues, “The tragedy of cynicism presupposes that everything is tainted. Nothing good is real. No one is sincere. Everything is a gimmick. Everyone is a charlatan and a faker. And what is the use of pretending otherwise? These attitudes suck up hope the way a fire sucks up oxygen. They destroy spiritual strivings. They destroy hope for the future. They engender passivity and bitterness and ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy of defeatism and hopelessness.” (Jewish Action Magazine)
Rav Michel Twersky once commented on the words we say every year in the Haggadah, arami oved avi, that Lavan, the Aramite tried to destroy my father. The simple understanding is that Lavan tried to kill Yakov, our forefather. Asks Rabbi Twersky, there is nowhere in the Bible where Lavan attempts to kill Yaakov? What then does the Torah/ Haggadah mean that Lavan tried to destroy my father? And why is Yakov referred to as Avi? Why not just say his name?
And he answers, Lavan deceived Yakov so many times, Lavan mistreated Yakov so many times, Lavan abused Yakov so many times, that Yakov’s perception of Avi, of my Father – our Father in Heaven – was at risk of being lost. You don’t have to hut someone physically to destroy their notion of trust, of hope, of faith.
So yes, #METOO and our destroyed sense of trust and respect, and the subsequent explosion of cynicism, has a lot to do with our faith in G-d.
I find Yizkor to be one of the most powerful moments in the Jewish calendar, for so many reasons. It is, as a congregant recently put it, a designated time that gives “permission to grieve, not only for parents, but for all the other losses in life.” It’s also a time for powerful and evocative memories; memories of family members that we miss more than words can convey. But Yizkor is also a time of change. It is a time that we use that deep sense of loss and frailty to grow, to aspire, to become.
And so recognizing the impact that we, we as parents, we as educators, and we as adults have on others – especially children, should inspire us to ensure that we are conveying to those around us a sense of trust and trustworthiness, a sense of respect and being deserving of respect, a sense of dignity and a sense of safety.
There has been a growing body of research that demonstrates that it is not only parents who impact a child’s sense of safety and belonging. Any and every adult can change a child’s understanding of the world around them.
I will share with you something personal. One of my earliest childhood memories was a birthday present I received from a family friend. He dropped off a huge box at our house on my birthday. I was ecstatic. And I remember my parents sitting the box down on our kitchen counter and me ripping the wrapping off and opening the box. Inside, was another box covered in gift wrap. Well, I opened that one only, to find another box wrapped in gift wrap. And so on and so forth. Until I came to a tiny little box. I ripped off the gift wrap – and the box was empty.
I was probably five years old at the time. I was devastated.
Every time we promise a child to do something, to be somewhere, and don’t follow through – a little scratch on their sense of trust.
Every time we put a child down – a little dent on their sense of self-worth.
Every time we lose our cool or ignore – a hairline fracture on their sense of safety.
And that’s scary. It’s scary that we wield so much power. But here’s the good news.
Every time we commit to doing something and follow through – their sense of trust grows.
Every time we compliment a child – their sense of self is enhanced.
Every time we are patient with a child, every time we pay attention to a child – their sense of safety is increased.
We, and again, not only parents, but adults, have the power to instill within those around us, and not only children, a sense of trust, a sense of worthiness, and a sense of safety.
I am sure everyone in this room had a teacher or an adult who impacted you positively. Recently, someone shared with me some reflections on Leo Reich, a man who inspired and changed the lives of so many of Ner Tamid’s youth over the years. He did it with genuine love and a genuine respect for the children he interacted with. Mr. Reich created a culture that our shul has to this day, where children are not seen as a nuisance, they’re seen as the future.
And that’s a legacy that Rabbi Sam continued, through 19 years of dedication; always lobbying for more programs for the kids, for more of a focus on the children, for giving our youth respect and confidence in who they are. And as you all know, he’ll be retiring in a month, and will be taken over by Rachel Shar, who I am confident will continue this great legacy.
I hesitate saying what I am about to say at Yizkor; it’s a sacred time that I take rather seriously. But I do mention it because the work that our youth department does is sacred; possibly more scared than what we do in this room. The youth department not only teaches the children about Judaism, but the teachers give these children, our children, a sense of self, a sense of trust, and a sense of importance that paves the way for all their future success, including their faith in G-d. And so I really hope all of you can join us on June 3rd as we thank Sam and encourage Rachel, and we demonstrate how important the future of our youth is to each and every one of us; how we know from our own lives, how every role model can change us, and how every teacher can be the greatest source of strength.
Allow me to conclude by sharing with you a final story. It’s a story about a boy named Mo. Mo tragically lost his father when he was only seven years old. He loved his father, he adored his father, and he missed him terribly. People tried to explain to him how his father was in Heaven but none of that made any sense to this young boy. Shiva could be challenging for anyone, but certainly for a young child, a seven year-old boy, shiva was unbearable.
On the fifth day of shiva, a rabbi visited him. His name was Rav Matisyahu Salomom. Rav Matisyahu, as he is fondly called, is the mashgiach, the spiritual dean of Lakewood Yeshiva, which means he oversees approximately 10,000 students who are enrolled in the school, and the hundreds of thousands of younger students throughout the community. His unofficial job is to look out for the physical, emotional, and material well-being of the entire Lakewood community. He is probably the most sought-after speaker, adviser, and leader in the American Yeshiva world, possibly one of the busiest people in America.
Rav Mattisyahu entered the shiva house. Many big rabbis had paid shiva calls but this rabbi came and made his way past the adults and sat down with Mo who was sitting in the corner.
“So young man what is your name?” he asked.
“Moshe Meir,” the boy replied.
“Is that what your friends call you?”
“Well my friend’s call me Mo.”
Mo was surprised this man was so interested and was spending time with him.
“How old are you, Mo?”
“Really?” said Rav Mattisyahu. “You know, I was also seven when my father passed away.”
Mo’s eyes lit up, someone who could understand. Mo started speaking about his father and all the questions he had came pouring out. And they spoke and spoke and spoke.
Eventually, Rav Mattisyahu had to go, and as he was about to leave, he noticed how sad Mo was that he was leaving. Rav Mattisyahu thought about it for a moment and then turned to Mo and asked him if he would like to start a club for orphans who lost their father’s when they were young? “You and I will be the first members.” Mo was clearly excited about this new club he was joining.
“The rules of the club,” continued Rav Matisyahu, “are such that no matter what, if one of us needs to speak to the other, we are always available. If you call and my wife says I am unavailable, tell her the following message; tell him Mo called. I promise to answer you immediately.”
Rav Mattisyahu stood up, looked deeply into the boy’s eyes and said המקום ינחם , May G-d comfort you. And then he added, “There’s another member to this club. Whenever you need G-d, just let Him know that Mo is calling.”
Trust in parents, trust in adults, trust in G-d.
As we recall our loved ones and the impact they made on us, let’s be moved to be the source of trust, faith, and safety to those around us.