Psalm 109

“Do not keep silent.” (109:1)

Our Torah is a Torah of love and justice. In 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel sent a telegram to President John F. Kennedy: “Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement, not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church and synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice … The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”

A leader cannot be silent. A leader must speak forcefully and unequivocally when the situation demands.

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Psalm 108

“Human help is worthless.” (108:13)

Pirke Avot teaches, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Everyone goes through periods when they need help. Those who are securely plugged into a community, whether it is a religious community or other kind of social network, have the resources upon whom to call when they need it. Those who isolate themselves from a community because of suspicion, mistrust, bias, or the arrogance of believing that they are strong enough to get by without help, will find themselves at a loss when they realize that can’t do it alone. Trust Pirke Avot.

Psalm 107

“Some lost their way in the wilderness.” (107:4)

We get lost a little at a time. Addictions begin with legal prescription painkillers, social drinking that’s “under control,” or just a late night snack while watching TV. But the stress of navigating the politics of the workplace, raising a family without much support from a spouse, or finding one’s way through the mysteries of middle school social relationships puts intense pressure on the weak points in our psyche. If we are inclined towards addictive behaviors, stress will encourage us to eat to feel better, drink to fit in, sample street drugs to forget or to feel better. Little by little, we get lost in the wilderness. Remember — there’s no shame in asking for help finding the way out.

Psalm 106

“They grumbled in their tents.” (106:25)

When my wife complains to me about something that happened in the supermarket, at work, or with the kids, she feels better. I don’t have to do anything. Simply by listening attentively, I can enable her to off-load the frustration. However, I have trouble refraining from trying to fix the problem and suggesting what she could have done or might yet do. I want to take action because “grumbling in the tent,” only soothes the complainer, it doesn’t make the rest of the world any better. On the other hand, I remind myself, if attentive listening alone makes a happier wife which leads to a happier me and a measurable increase in world happiness. So I shut up and listen.

Divre Harav – September/17

Rabban Gamaliel, son of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, says, “All who serve the public should serve them for the sake of Heaven. The merit of their ancestors helps them so that their righteous deeds will endure forever. [And God will say] ‘As for you, I credit you with a great reward, as if you had done [the work].’ ” Pirke Avot 2:2b

As an ideal, engaging in public service, whether for a congregation, a civic organization, or a government, is an act that ought to be done out of love of God rather than out of a desire to benefit. I don’t know what Rabban Gamliel would say about those who are paid to serve the public, but I imagine that he might allow it on the grounds that the public or non-profit sector can only attract competent talent by paying a competitive salary. Otherwise, only a very small class of people could afford to serve; the rest of us have to earn money to support ourselves and our families.

Nonetheless, to be most satisfied, a person has to be primarily devoted to serving the mission of the organization rather than the paycheck. You are happiest when do what you do because you love the work that your organization does, not because you love the bump in your bank account every two weeks. To be fair, this is also true when you work for a small business or a large corporation. If you believe in the product that your job helps to produce, you will be more effective than if you are working only for the money.

Next, Rabban Gamliel reminds us to be grateful to those who came before us. Our parents, who taught us a diligent work ethic. Those who helped build the company or served the community before us. Be mindful that our world is in a constant state of flux. Companies and communities evolve and adapt or die. However, if we see more and farther than our predecessors, it is not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature [attributed to 12th century Bernard of Chartres]. Our community and our economy exist because of those who preceded us and built it over hundreds of years.

Finally, Rabban Gamliel reminds us that no matter what role we have in the final product, God credits us with a reward as if we have done all of the work. Owners and managers would do well to keep this in mind. Without the employees who do the menial labor, without the skilled technicians who operate the machinery, without the marketing department and sales force who promote and sell the product, without the finance department who keeps the money flowing in and out, without the customer service department who keeps the customer happy, the product would not exist. A government leader who hoards the credit is going to have many unhappy people working for the city watching as its infrastructure crumbles.

This is a lesson in devotion and dedication, gratitude and acknowledgement of the past, and humility. As we stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we stand with devotion to the teachings of our faith; dedication to the Torah; thanks to God and acknowledgement of the spiritual power of our heritage; and the humility to admit our shortcomings and learn to do better. I wish you a New Year 5778 of goodness and sweetness, may you be written and sealed in the books of life, happiness, and prosperity, and I look forward to greeting you on the holidays.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • L’shana tova tikateivu v’teikhateimu – May you be written and sealed for a good year.
  • Shana Tova – A good year.
  • G’mar Hatima Tova – May you be sealed for goodness.
  • Hag Sameah – A happy holiday.