Yom Kippur, 1929, Louis Fleisher, Harry Fleisher, and Henry Shorr attended services at B’nai David, an Orthodox Congregation in Northwest Detroit. The three men, decked in their Yom Tov finest, taleisim over their heads, were leading members of the Purple Gang, Detroit’s mostly Jewish mob.
They had plenty to atone for. The Purple Gang controlled the city’s illegal gambling, smuggled liquor during Prohibition, and had a hand in most of Detroit’s underworld vice. The gang never hesitated to resort to violence—arson, bombings, and murder—when its operations were threatened. They were reputedly more ruthless than Al Capone’s gang in Chicago.
The three gangsters, engrossed in the services, did not notice three other men sitting in the back of the synagogue: Police disguised in black Chasidic garb who hoped to arrest the three hoodlums after the service. But when the non-Jewish policemen lit up cigarettes during the intermission, their cover was blown and the gangsters got away. (Robert Rockaway, Tablet Magazine)
The rabbi of the shul, was a man by the name of Rabbi Joshua Sperka – I don’t know anything about him. But I wondered what went through his mind, to have in the front rows of the shul, criminals with blood on their hands, wishing to pray for forgiveness and atonement, knowing full-well that tomorrow they’d be at it again. Did he shake their hands, did he give them an honor, or did he really want to tell them that there is no place for such people in a house of G-d?
If I were him, there would be a part of me that would not be able to concentrate during services with them in the crowd, a part of me that would very much like to forbid them from joining our services. But I think the right thing to do would be to welcome them in, graciously and lovingly, and I’d like to explain why with another story.
Late in the 19th century, somewhere in Eastern Europe, a group of Yeshiva students were arguing fiercely over a section of Maimonides.
They couldn’t make sense of it and so they did what any good student does when they are stuck, they turned to their teacher, the Rebbe.
They showed him the section, it was in the laws of Repentance, Hilchos Teshuva. Maimonides writes, “One can sin their entire life, the most vile, most terrible sins, but if they repent sincerely, even with their final breath, G-d will accept their repentance entirely and take them back.”
“How could it be?” they asked their rabbi. “How could a person commit their lives to every wrongdoing and in a single moment be taken back by G-d? Where’s the justice in that?! It’s wrong!”
The rabbi gently closed their books. “The answer,” he said, “is not found in the holy books. Let me tell you something. My youngest son has veered away from the path of Judaism. He is a leader among the revolutionaries. He despises religion, he mocks it, he antagonizes the faithful. He has said terrible things to me, he has wounded me and my wife with his words and his behavior. I haven’t seen my son in years, and it breaks my heart into a million little pieces whenever I think of him and imagine what he’s up to.”
“But if my son were to knock on my door right now, I would smother him with hugs and kisses. I wouldn’t ask him where he’s been, what he’s done. I don’t care! I would just be so happy, ecstatic! to have him back in my life.”
When we think of G-d as a judge, it is very hard to understand how and why He would welcome us back after all our misdeeds. You can’t just erase the past! But if we understand that G-d is our father, our loving father, well which father wouldn’t give anything to embrace his son, especially a son who has been so distant for so long?
Last night, we spoke about the soft side of love, of vulnerability, how in order to let someone into our lives we need to be soft; we need to lower the walls around us. But maintaining love does not come from a place of weakness. Love is anything but a soft emotion. To hold on to a loving relationship, regardless of how much pain, hurt, confusion the relationship may bring with it, that takes strength; superhuman strength.
In 1973, Rabbi Yaakov Yisroel Twerski, called in his son, Dr. Rabbi Abraham Twerski to discuss his medical situation. He had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. The senior Rabbi Twerski had visited many patients as a rabbi and he knew exactly what his prognosis was with such a diagnosis.
He asked his son, the doctor, “Chemotherapy is not going to work at this point, is that right?”
The son, based on his medical knowledge, confirmed his father’s prediction. The father continued, “I am going to suffer terribly from the chemotherapy. Correct?” The son nodded.
The father then declared, “I am not going to go through with it. It’s not going to help. It’s only going to cause me pain and suffering. I believe the wise decision and the right decision is to not to have the chemotherapy.”
The son gravely shook his head in agreement.
As they were concluding the conversation, Rabbi Twerski Sr.’s wife burst into the room. “I spoke to the doctor.” she said, “He said there’s a chance. I want you to have the chemotherapy.”
The rabbi turned his wife and said, “Of course. Of course, honey. I’ll go through with the treatments.”
After the Rebbetzin left the room, the older Rabbi turned his shocked son, “I’m sure you’re wondering what just happened; why I just agreed to undergo the treatments when we both know it’s not going to help and we both know it’s going to cause me extra pain and suffering.”
“But I want you to know something. If I do not go through with the chemo, your mother will feel guilty for the rest of her life. I have dedicated my entire life to loving her, to making your mother as happy and content as can be. This is my last chance to do so. There’s no way I’m turning down this final opportunity.” (Rabbi Frand)
There are complicated questions of Jewish Law in every end of life circumstance. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from here what could or could not be done at the end of one’s life. But what we most certainly can learn from this story is that love is not soft. This man loved his wife with every fiber of his being, with superhuman strength, regardless of the pain that it caused him.
And although we all know, at least intellectually, that love takes strength, too often we allow for a soft and fragile love. How many of our relationships that are supposed to be filled with love are instead lived on eggshells?
In how many homes is a spouse afraid of saying the wrong thing for fear of a blow up?
How many children are afraid of making a mistake for fear of being criticized?
How many parents are afraid of their child pushing them away even further?
And in that fragile setting, where every action is viewed suspiciously, where every word is misconstrued, and every get-together is volatile, we tip-toe ever so gingerly, softly crushing those eggshells, until we stop tip-toeing all together, and the flame of love is extinguished.
True love is strength. It’s the strength it takes for a parent to accept their child regardless of any, any, any, any decision they make in life. True love is the strength it takes for a spouse to accept their partner when they stumble, when they change, when they age.
True love is the strength it takes for a child to be there for their parent who no longer acts like one.
And yes, there are times that we have to protect ourselves and pull back. There are times when two spouses must go their own way. There are times that a relationship must be ended. But where to draw the line, when to draw the line, how to draw the line. These are questions we need to spend more time asking.
You know why our love is so fragile these days; why the divorce rate doesn’t seem to stop climbing? Why beautiful relationships seem to crumble so quickly? Why no one seems to get along?
There are many reasons of course, but I’d like to focus today on just one. Noted columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, describes “two models of human development.” He writes the following: “The first is what you might call The Four Kinds of Happiness. The lowest kind of happiness is material pleasure, having nice food and clothing and a nice house. Then there is achievement, the pleasure we get from earned and recognized success. Third, …the pleasure we get from giving back to others. Finally, the highest kind of happiness is moral joy, the glowing satisfaction we get when we have surrendered ourselves to some noble cause or unconditional love.”
“The second model is Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. In this conception, we start out trying to satisfy our physical needs, like hunger or thirst. Once those are satisfied we move up to safety needs, economic and physical security. Once those are satisfied we can move up to belonging and love. … when that is satisfied we can move up to the pinnacle of development, self-actualization, which is experiencing autonomy and living in a way that expresses our authentic self.”
Says Brooks, “The big difference between these two schemes is that The Four Kinds of Happiness moves from the… individual to the relational and finally to the transcendent and collective. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, on the other hand, moves from the collective to the relational and, at its peak, to the individual. In one the pinnacle of human existence is in quieting and transcending the self; in the other it is liberating and actualizing the self.”
That’s a fascinating observation. Because when you think about it, it’s quite obvious that it’s the second model that has become the foundation on which all of modern day psychology rests, which all of popular culture revolves, and on which our entire conception of love lies; it’s about self-actualization, it’s about you, your life. Don’t let your family, friends, or faith get in the way. But when I’m only thinking about me and my self-actualization then my relationship is very, very fragile. It actually, almost doesn’t exist.
When a bride and groom stand under the Chuppah, there are seven blessings, the Sheva Berachos that we bestow upon them. They all of course relate to the bride and groom and to love – except for the first one. “Blessed are You, Hashem, for everything was created for G-d’s honor.” What does this have to do with a bride and groom? Why is this the first blessing that we shower upon this brand new couple?
One of my mentors, Rabbi Moshe Hauer, once suggested that the first message we give to the bride and groom as they embark on the journey called marriage is that there is no longer a me, no longer a you, and not even a we. We have now created something new, a relationship. It has nothing to do with brides or grooms; it’s a brand new entity called love. The first message shared at a Jewish wedding is that love transcends us as individuals and creates something far greater.
When we think of love in those terms, when we think of love as transcendence it’s not fragile, it’s not soft. When love is bigger than me and you, bigger than my needs, and my feelings, bigger than you being insensitive to me, and me being insensitive to you – to get past all that, to transcend all of that, love must take its true form. That type of love, transcendent love, is a rock; un-moveable, unbreakable, and ultimately everlasting.
I’d like to share with you one final story. It’s a story I did not initially believe until I heard it from the granddaughter of the man it happened to, someone I trust, Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg from Boca Raton Synagogue, and it goes like this. (Rabbi Yoel Gold, Aish.com)
Yocheved then-Bruckstein, was a young girl in sleepaway camp, at Camp Chedva. On visiting day, her parents and grandparents came to see her. As they were walking through the summer camp together, her grandfather walked by another older gentleman and nodded hello and kept on walking. Yocheved’s father was curious. “Who is that man, dad? I’ve never seen him before.”
The grandfather initially tried to brush it off. “It was nobody.” But that made his son even more curious. “C’mon, Dad, Who is he?”
And so finally the grandfather said, “He was my best friend before the war.”
“You’re best friend before the war?! And all you did was nod?! What’s going on, dad? Why didn’t you give him a hug, talk to him?”
The grandfather stopped walking and turned to his son. “Let’s find a seat, I want to tell you something.” They found a place to sit and the grandfather shared this story.
“As you know, I had a wife and a son before the Holocaust. We were living in Romania, I was pretty successful, but I saw the writing on the wall. I managed to get visas for myself, my wife and son, and my in-laws, and I had plans to leave just before the Nazis arrived.”
“The day before I left, I went over to the house of my best friend; we used to study together, we shared so many ups and downs together, I couldn’t leave without telling him. I told him about the visas, I told him they were hidden away and that tomorrow I would be leaving. And we hugged each other goodbye.”
“The next morning, I went to get the visas, but they were gone. And so was my friend and his family.”
“The Nazis came, we were deported to Auschwitz and I lost everyone; my in-laws, my wife, and my dear son.”
The son couldn’t believe his ears. “Dad, a moment ago I wanted to know why you didn’t hug him, now I want to know why you didn’t punch him? He killed your family?! How could you even say hello to him?!”
And the grandfather replied, “Son, it was a different time. People were scared, people acted in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise acted. We can’t understand it. We just have to move on.”
If Mr. Bruckstein had the inner-strength to just move on, what can we not move on from? What could possibly be more hurtful, more unimaginably painful than what Mr. Bruckstein went through, and yet he found it within him to say, “Just move on.”
On Yom Kippur, if we want it, G-d “just moves on.” Our Father in Heaven welcomes us back, embraces us with His deep and never-failing love. And G-d, being our Father, wants us to do the same with one another. Just move on.
This room, in a moment, will be filled with tears for lost parents, siblings, spouses, children. Life is so short. Just move on.
You’ll go home later today, or maybe later this week you’ll be talking to a child, a parent, a sibling, and some of you may feel those eggshells cracking under your toes. Sweep them away with your acceptance, with your ability to forgive the past, to respect and empower to your loved one. Just move on.
Just move on.