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Angels/Malachim -- Yom Kippur Morning, 2015/5776

Rabbi Deborah J. Brin

RabbiMaryandGaryI grew up in a Conservative synagogue in Minneapolis. I learned to recite the Hebrew prayers without much knowledge about them. Post-WWII was an era when the Jewish world was pushing away as fast as it could from everything that reminded us of the ‘old world’ Jew and embraced everything that had to do with the ‘new Jew’. Yiddish and Ladino, the spoken languages of those murdered by Hitler, gave way to Hebrew – with a Sephardic, not Ashkenazic pronunciation because that sounded too much like Yiddish. Folk tales and folk wisdom gave way to rationalism; faith and belief in God and all things unseen gave way to what could be proven by science.

Looking back at the Judaism of my childhood it seems that the driving force for the Hebrew schools and Sunday schools of that era was: “don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory”. I have compassion on the generation of my parents, the “greatest generation” who at the same time that they were starting families of their own, they were struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible, and deal with the shock, horror, trauma and denial of the far-reaching impact of the genocidal mania of the fascists.

Motivated by fear and trauma, anxious that horrible things could still be just around the corner, our elders failed to teach us some of the juiciest parts of our traditions and cultures. Our mystical traditions are many and varied, and our written record of them began with the Prophets Ezekiel, Zachariah & Isaiah and those mystical traditions, thought, writings, meditation techniques and prayer practices, permeate our history, through every time period from the Prophets until now.

During the post-war years in Minnesota, there was a sharp divide between the cocoon of the Jewish world and the ‘outside world’. Distinctions were made about what was “Jewish” and what was “Christian”. It was an either/or proposition, and in the world of my childhood, anything that wasn’t Jewish was Christian, or to use the pejorative term that I was raised with, ‘goyish’.

Somehow, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, I thought that angels belonged to the ‘outside’ world, to the Christians. In cartoons, there were the two angels who would perch on the hero’s shoulders and whisper in his ear - - one angel had a halo and urged him to do good things, and one angel looked like the devil and urged wicked things. There was the cute little cherub, a rotund little boy with wings, who shot arrows at people so that they would fall in love – usually near Valentine’s Day.

Looking back on it, I am surprised perhaps even stunned by how many references there are to angels in our Biblical literature and in our prayer books. Let me remind you of some of the Biblical examples. Angels came to Abraham and predicted the birth of Isaac. An angel of God called out to Hagar after she was banished by Abraham and Sarah – from the traditional reading for the first day of Rosh HaShannah. An angel of God called out to Abraham to stop him from sacrificing Isaac – the traditional Torah reading for the second day of Rosh HaShannah. After Jacob ran away from home he had a vision of angels going up and down a ladder. Jacob wrestles with an angel and has his name changed to Israel. And one of my favorites, the story of Balaam, his donkey and a menacing angel sent to kill Balaam. Balaam could not see the angel standing in the path with a drawn sword in his hand, but the donkey could. The donkey refused to go forward into the reach of the menacing angel and his sword. Balaam beats the donkey to no avail. Finally, the donkey is given the gift of speech and an argument ensues between the two. Balaam’s eyes are suddenly able to perceive the angel and he falls to the ground in supplication. This is the Biblical prelude to the phrase, ‘mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha, Yisrael’; ‘how fair are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel’.

Our prayer books are replete with references to angels. At Jewish summer camp and hanging out at Hillel in college, I connected with the energy of everybody being together, sharing food and stories, and after dinner singing and pounding on the table during the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal.

One of the songs that we sang with great vigor was Shalom Aleichem, welcoming the angels to be with us on shabbat. We welcome the Angels from the Most High, from the King of Kings; we ask that they come in peace, bless us with peace, and then to leave in peace.

So who are what are angels in our tradition? As you can imagine, we have many different ideas. One thing that is agreed upon is that they are messengers from God. The Hebrew word for ‘angel’ is ‘malach’ and it means messenger. It is also related to the word for ‘work’ or ‘task’. That brings us to the second thing that is agreed upon about angels, they usually have one task to do. For instance, the angel named Rapahel, is a healer - - his name combines one of the names of God “EL”, with a word for healing – ‘rafa’. Some say that angels are real - - Adin Steinsaltz, the pre-eminent living scholar of the Talmud, says that angels have real existence and are not abstractions. Others say that angels are metaphors for forces within us: our feelings, our thoughts, and our impulses.

What do you think about angels? Please turn your chairs into small discussion groups and use the study sheet about angels that I have prepared for you.

Angels Study sheet, Yom Kippur 5776

Commentary on the Kedushah, Rabbi David A. Teutsch

“This passage pictures an angelic chorus singing God’s praises. In Jewish tradition, angels have had a long and varied history - - messengers warning Abraham of Sodom’s destruction, the heavenly choir of Isaiah, The Talmud’s host of heavenly functionaries, the impersonal forces of medieval philosophy, the presences of the Kabbalists. The tradition leaves ample room for each generation to understand angels as it will, whether as natural forces or revealing moments in our lives, the divine in the people we meet, or manifestations of the goodness in our world or in the inner workings of the human heart. (Kol HaNeshamah Shabbat and Holidays; Reconstructionist Press, p.264).

“The angel cannot reveal its true form to man, whose being, senses, and instruments of perception belong only to the world of action: in the world of action there are no means of grasping the angel. It continues to belong to a different dimension even when apprehended in one form or another. This may be compared with those frequencies of electromagnetic fields that are beyond the limited range ordinarily perceived by our senses. We know that human vision assimilates only a small fragment of the spectrum; as far as our senses are concerned, the rest of it does not exist” (Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 8).

“It would be quite misleading . . . to regard angels as abstractions, as hypothetical conceptualizations . . . that have no real existence. Each angel is a complete being that possesses consciousness of itself and awareness of its surroundings”.
(Adin Steinsaltz, Strife of the Spirit, p.45).

“Among the many thousands of angels to be found in the various worlds are those that have existed from the very beginning of time, for they are an unfaltering part of the Eternal Being and the fixed order of the universe. These angels in a sense constitute the channels of plenty through which the Divine grace rises and descends through the worlds.” (Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 7).

“But there are also angels that are continuously being created anew, in all the worlds, especially in the world of action where thoughts, deeds and experiences give rise to angels of different kinds. . . More precisely, the person who performs a mitzvah, who prays or directs his mind toward the Divine, in doing so creates an angel, which is a sort of reaching out on the part of man to the higher worlds. Such an angel, however, connected in its essence to the man who created it, still lives, on the whole, in a different dimension of being” (Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, p. 7).

“Rabbi Yose ben Yehuda taught, ‘two angels accompany every man from synagogue to home on the eve of the Sabbath. One good angel and one bad angel. If he enters his house and finds the candles lit, and everything clean and tidy, the good angel exclaims: ‘May it be thus next Shabbat!’ and the bad angel is compelled to respond, ‘Amen’. If the case is otherwise, and the house is messy and unprepared for Shabbat, the bad angel exclaims, May it be this way next Sabbath as well! And the good angel is compelled to say, ‘Amen’.’ BT Shabbat 119b

Psalm 91

4: Inside divine wings you are nestled,

Beneath God’s pinions you are housed,

A shield embracing is God’s truth.

11: For God shall bid the angels to you,

to protect you upon all your paths.

“This psalm [91] revels in the many words for the enclave of divine protection: secret [place], shade, fortress tower, wings, pinions, embracing shield, canopy, abode, tent, angels, divine hands”. Comment by Joel Rosenberg, translator

(Kol HaNeshamah Shabbat and Holidays; Reconstructionist Press, p.197)

“Angels are another name for feelings” Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Angels are another name for feelings.

When we love and act with kindness

We create angels of love and kindness;

When we hate and act with violence

We create angels of hatred and violence.

It is our job to fill our world with angels of love:

Messengers of kindness

That link people together as one family.

(Kol HaNeshamah Shabbat and Holidays; Reconstructionist Press p. 12)

Strengthen Our Hands -- Kol Nidre, 5776/2015

nmgay45Rabbi Deborah J. Brin

The call came a few days before Rosh HaShannah.

A plan was in the making to hold an interfaith vigil for immigrant justice between Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, and the caller wanted to know if I could be one of the speakers. This is the busiest time of year for any congregational rabbi and my plate was totally full. My reaction was swift and certain: I said “no”. As soon as I hung up, I began to reconsider. A few minutes later, I called back. Justin was overjoyed when I told him that this is such an important issue for us in Albuquerque and around the world that even though it was so close to Yom Kippur, I would be there. The two main organizers of the event were Rachel LaZar of El Centro and Justin Remer–Thamert of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice.

Last Thursday, I wrote my three-minute talk, grabbed my shofar and went to the vigil in the Barelas neighborhood. Out of the approximately 150 men, women, girls and boys present, there were maybe 4 Jews and about 15 other non-Hispanics. There was no press coverage. The Catholic priest spoke first, in both English and Spanish. Then I spoke. I explained about our High Holy Days, about missing the mark, and about the symbolism of the shofar.

This is some of what I said to them: “This ten day time period is a time of reflection followed by action. . . As for individuals, so it is for communities. [This] is a time when we look at our collective responsibilities and think about where we may have fallen short, and how we can do better. It is clear that one of the ways that we can do better as a community is to address the concerns of immigrants to this country and their families.

We need to wake up to the terrible trauma and devastation to our communities when family members are separated from one another and people are forced to live in the shadows because they don’t have the right pieces of paper and have no way to obtain them.

“During these High Holy Days, we blow a ram’s horn during services. It is called a ‘shofar’. We are taught that the shofar is sounded to wake us up from our habit of walking around the world as if we are asleep; to refocus our attention on what we need to be doing, and to remember what we need to do in order to live up to our goals and aspirations as a society to treat one another with dignity and respect and to help those we can.”

Then I told them that I was going to “sound the shofar for justice for immigrants. It is also a symbolic ‘wake-up’ call to all of the citizens and political leaders in our country. The shofar is calling to all of us to awaken to the issues and concerns of migrants in our midst. The shofar is urging us to identify what is wrong with our

immigration system and to work together to create compassionate and respectful solutions that bring people out of the shadows, and reunite families.”

Rachel LaZar summarized what I had said in Spanish, and then I sounded the shofar – I blew a tekiah, a shevarim, a t’ruah, and a tekiah g’dolah.

I stayed for the rest of the vigil. Watching everyone around me, listening to the rapid Spanish, hearing the translations into English when they were offered, I floated in my mind between the present and the past; between thoughts about the traumas and struggles of this Barelas community, and the traumas and struggles of our recent past. In that liminal state, I had two stark memories. One was from rabbinical school and one was a line from one of my mother’s poems that you heard earlier this evening. The line that echoed in my ear was: “we repent the weakness of our hands”. [excerpted from “In the Fall” Harvest Ruth F. Brin].

My rabbinical school classmate, Mordechai Liebling, is the child of holocaust survivors. It was from him that I first learned that the trauma our parents experience is passed directly to us.

We studied the Holocaust for most of a year, and on one of the many days that we were discussing it, Mordechai asked the rest of us what we keep in the suitcases under our beds. To his surprise, and to ours, it turned out that he was the only one who kept important papers, a few family photos, cash and a valid, up-to-date passport in an easy to grab case under his bed. It got us all thinking what we would do if we had to flee suddenly. What would we take?

What was my unconscious mind, what the mystics call ‘the still small voice’, trying to communicate to me?

We all know about the chaos in our world today, the thousands upon thousands of migrants fleeing Syria; and others who have fled from hotspots all over the world, from: Asia, Afghanistan,

Africa, Nigeria and the Sudan, the Ukraine, and South America, mostly from Columbia. Just a few months ago, the UN released its estimate that in 2014 there were 60 million displaced people and homeless refugees wandering from place to place looking for food, shelter and safety. This is the highest number of displaced people since World War II. The UN breaks that vast number down into more understandable bits. Worldwide one in every 122 humans is displaced and that means that everyday more that 42,500 people pack up and flee their homes. Startlingly, more than half of these displaced people and refugees are children.

Four months ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a man named Antonio Guterres, was quoted as saying,

“With huge shortages of funding and wide gaps in the global regime for protecting victims of war, people in need of compassion, aid and refuge are being abandoned. For an age of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing conflict & persecution." [‘Worldwide displacement hits all-time high as war and persecution increase’ 18 June 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/558193896.html]

These are complex and desperately urgent issues that no one knows how to solve. In the September 18th issue of the Forward, there was a provocative piece about the current refugee crisis by Deborah Lipstadt, a Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. In her article she acknowledges the inevitability that our holocaust memories and traumas will be triggered by the current crisis. She, like us, is struggling to discern what is truly happening.

She has made donations to refugee assistance funds, and still she wonders: Do we need to make distinctions between those fleeing a war zone and those who are seeking to leave a poor country with limited opportunities? How will Europe be changed by integrating these massive numbers of people – will they be integrated, will they be able to function in a democratic society or will this lead to a rightwing backlash? Why haven’t the oil-rich Gulf States, who are Muslim, not taken in any of these Muslim refugees?

Lipstadt closed her article by saying, ‘when people are drowning and babies are suffering the time to deliberate and search for answers may well be a luxury’. Here in the United States we are insulated from the ceaseless waves of migrants by an ocean and the European Union. These are dark, frightening and chaotic times at home and all over the world.

What is there to do? Whatever we can do, small or large. Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, zaycher tzadik livracha, used to tell us that we are all on this earth-plane because we are here to be deployed. I can hear him asking each of us: what is your mission to accomplish during this lifetime?

Think about it. Yom Kippur is a long day of communal prayer and fasting. As the music of the liturgy washes over us, it is an opportune time to think deeply about ourselves and to ask what we are each called to do.

What should we do? As my mother said in her poem, may her memory be a blessing: ‘We repent the weakness of our hands. . . mourning [our dead] we are forced into the jaws of self-analysis, into the claws of politics, into the canine teeth of empire.” What should we do? Whatever we are called to do. Whatever we can do.

Many of us will send donations to organizations providing direct aid to the refugees. Some of us may venture into the ‘claws of politics and the canine teeth of empire’ in order to get our government to bring more refugees here sooner than the legal process currently allows. Still others of us may choose to get involved with issues of immigrant justice right here in New Mexico. We are all different from one another and our contributions to the solutions will be different. There are two critical questions to ask ourselves as we go through our day-to-day life: who can we help, and how can we do it?

We need to be careful. Our busyness can keep us inflexible as we rush from one thing to the next trying to hold up our piece of the sky. Our busyness can limit our horizons, like horses with blinders on, we see only where we need to go and what we need to do to get through the day.

Even if we are used to it, it is a place of constriction. If we are asked to do one more thing – we say “no”.

Yom Kippur calls us to lift our heads up and gain a wider perspective. We need to prepare ourselves to notice opportunities when they present themselves. When we do notice, when we see beyond the demands of our own lives we toggle the switch to “yes”. “Yes” is the place of possibility and collaboration.

You may have heard the story about the starfish. The original story was called “The Star Thrower” and was written by Loren Eiseley and published in 1969. The popular version goes something like this: A man was walking on the beach one day and noticed a young girl who was reaching down, picking up a starfish and throwing it in the ocean.

As he approached, he called out, “Hello! What are you doing?” The girl looked up and said, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean”. “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the man. “The tide stranded them. If I don’t throw them in the water before the sun comes up, they’ll die” came the answer. “Surely you realize that there are miles of beach, and thousands of starfish. You’ll never throw them all back, there are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The girl listened politely, then picked up another starfish. As she threw it back into the sea, she said, “It made a difference for that one.”

Our actions, small or large, will make a difference.

In this coming year, let us grease the gears so that we can switch more easily between the needs of our own lives and the needs of the wider world. In this coming year let us notice opportunities as they arise to help others and say “yes”.

If we do, we will not need to repent our lack of willingness or our inability to act. And we will not regret the weakness of our hands. Let us open our hearts and strengthen our hands. Let us do what we can. Remember what Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Changing the Channel: To Fargin -- Rosh HaShannah 5776/2015

Rabbi Deborah J. Brin

nmgay45In some ways I’m good at helping other people because when I need help I seek it from people I trust. I got some advice last summer. I was at a low ebb energetically and spiritually and desperately needed to replenish and rejuvenate before I returned to work in mid-July. The advice I received was that it was time for me to do a personal retreat, a hermitage. I found a one-room place with a kitchenette and a bathroom on the Pecos River. I’ve been on meditation retreats but I’d never done anything like this before – I was going to be alone, on an introspective journey, for five days and six nights. I brought things that I thought I would need – prayer books, a journal, music, books that I hoped would inspire me, my tallis and t’filin, and some recordings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zaycher Tzadik livracha, our teacher and the founder of Jewish Renewal.

One of the books that I brought with me is called Hardwiring Happiness by a neurologist named Rick Hanson. He talks in his book about “red brain” and “green brain”. The green brain is when we are safe, happy, connected, calm, and content. The red brain is when all systems are on red alert, we feel threatened in some way, triggered, frightened, stressed out and quarrelsome. [p.32 – 56].

Hanson’s book describes in detail that our brains our designed to have a “negativity bias”. We actually perceive things that are negative more easily than things that are positive. Our ancient forbears had to learn quickly about what animal or situation posed a deadly threat. Our survival was at stake, and so we biologically fast-tracked negative experiences so that we could learn from them and stay alive. As Hanson says, “our ancestors could make two basic kinds of mistakes: thinking there was a tiger in the bushes when there wasn’t one, and thinking that there was no tiger in the bushes when there actually was one. The cost of the first mistake was needless anxiety, while the cost of the second one was death. Consequently, we evolved to make the first mistake a thousand times to avoid making the second mistake once.” It’s as if our brains have Velcro for difficult, painful, negative and stressful events. These sorts of negative experiences become embedded in our neurological system quickly and easily, because of our need to survive.

Safety, security, pleasure, comfort, enough delicious food, fun, and enjoyment are important experiences and create positive emotional states. It turns out that since these states and experiences are not vital for our moment-to-moment survival, they don’t get hard-wired into our rapid response system. If we have Velcro for negative experiences, then the opposite is true for pleasurable ones. We’ve got Teflon for positive feelings and experiences. [pp 21-27]. It turns out that we are not physiologically structured to hold onto our yummy feelings. What lousy news is that! No wonder achieving and maintaining a sense of hope, equanimity, gratitude, compassion or joy are such huge spiritual challenges.

Lest you dive deep into a sense of despondency over the news that we are hardwired for negative emotions and experiences like fear, anxiety, dread, frustration, prejudice, dissatisfaction, disappointment and depletion - - there is hope! Positive emotional states and experiences can become a part of our neurological system, too. This is probably the most important piece of information in Hanson’s book. We can actually remodel our own brains and tilt our experiences toward the positive. We can make choices that will result in rewiring our neurological systems and therefore our responses to everything inside us and around us.

What do we do to become inherently more positive? We need to notice good things or feelings when they are happening, focus on them and then really feel them and enjoy them long enough [about 5-10 seconds] for our brains to notice and lay down new neural pathways. Choose to notice what’s positive and let it soak in for 5 – 10 seconds. That’s the length of one long, deep inhale and exhale. Like most spiritual wisdom, this sounds simple and is hard to remember to do.

My five-day hermitage was wonderful and it was hard. The first two days were delightful and rejuvenating. I davened, meditated, went for walks, lay down on the grass by the river, and tried to draw the hummingbirds at the feeder. The third day was the hardest. I really needed to change the channel, change what I was thinking and feeling, and get into a different space.

I listened to some recordings of Reb Zalman, zaycher Tzadik livracha. Zalman mentioned two different practices from our tradition that can help us change the channel on our interior states. The first practice is that we should remember to look with a benevolent eye at other people, our surroundings, and ourselves. The second practice is that we should say the Shehechiyanu prayer. That prayer is our way of acknowledging that we are grateful for being alive, aware and celebrating this very moment. Zalman taught us that a beneficial spiritual practice is to say as many shehechiyanus in a day as we can. Being aware and being grateful, using the prayers that we know like the Shehechiyanu, brings us back to our center deep inside, anchors us and brings us back home. Zalman taught us that when we aren’t in our deep center we are homeless. At Nahalat Shalom when we “”do Jewish” together we cultivate our deep centers and share our home.

It seems to be a happy convergence that recent neurological insights and our Jewish traditions are telling us the same thing: tilt toward the good, tilt toward the positive. Prayer, chanting and meditation all can help us to switch the channel. And cultivating a positive perspective helps as well. Perspective is a word that comes from the Latin and it means ‘to look through’ or ‘to see clearly’. One of the rabbis from the Talmudic period, Rabbi Eliezer, believed that the best way to be in the world was to have a good eye, an “ayin tovah”. [Pirkei Avot 2:13].

If we have a good eye, then we look out at the world and at ourselves through the lenses of kindness and compassion. Zalman taught us that to have a benevolent eye, in Yiddish, is “to fargin”. When we “fargin” ourselves, we cut ourselves a break. We ease up on our expectations and let ourselves be who we are. When we “fargin” others, it means that we look at them with kindness, and take pride in their accomplishments rather than being jealous or resentful.

The opposite of a good eye, an “ayin tovah” is what we call the “ayin rah” the evil eye, the disapproving look, the glance that is jealous, critical or malevolent. We all know what it feels like when we are on the receiving end of one of those poisonous looks.

When our eyes communicate our disapproval and harsh judgment of another person it is a kind of interpersonal violence. It makes the world a more difficult and bitter place. These harsh looks diminish all of us and that kind of behavior can be very destructive in a community like ours. We will grow spiritually if we notice when our eyes take on that harsh and judgmental gaze. If we can feel it happening, then we can choose to soften our eyes, our face, and our heart. Cultivating a good eye, an ‘ayin tovah’ brings more compassion, kindness and gentleness into our world. Life is so much easier when our eyes smile at one another.

Twice a month on Sunday afternoons, Reb Miles Krassen teaches here at Nahalat Shalom. He shares with us his deep knowledge of Chassidic ideas and literature. In one of those classes he spoke about a teaching of Reb Nachman’s. Reb Nachman was the great-grandson of the founder of Chassidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Reb Nachman lived in the Ukraine, and died in 1810 – he was 38 years old. The teaching is called “Azamra”, “I will sing”. [Likutey Moharan #282] It comes from the verse in the Psalms that says, “I will sing to my God as long as I live”. It is considered to be Reb Nachman’s most important teaching. It is so important that we should practice it every day. What is it? We should always look for the good in another person. No matter how difficult that person is, we must always search for what Reb Nachman called the ‘n’kudah tovah’, a tiny point of good. In modern Hebrew a n’kudah is a vowel, one of the tiny little dots above or below a letter.

Reb Nachman said, “know that you must judge all people favorably . . . you must search until you find some little bit of good in them . . . and judge them favorably, you really can elevate them and swing the scales of judgment in their favor.”

Later on in the same teaching he cautions us to do the same for ourselves. We must search for the good points in ourselves, we must judge ourselves favorably. This will give us new life and bring joy to our souls.

The more good points we find, the more joy there will be. This he compares to making music. The good points are like good vibrations, and the good vibrations make melodies. When we pray together as a community, the good points within each one of us start to vibrate and we make beautiful melodies together.

In many different ways we are learning that the path we should walk on this Rosh HaShannah, is a path of compassion and kindness. Renewal for our community and for ourselves will come from cultivating a benevolent eye; looking for the good in ourselves and in others; vibrating pleasant vibes, singing, praying and chanting;

noticing what is pleasant, perhaps even miraculous, and in response saying as many shehechiyanus as possible. All of this will tilt us toward the positive and help us to remodel our brains and our neurological systems so that we have more joy in our lives.

But wait – that’s not all!

We have many other teachings from our tradition about judging other people favorably, interpreting their actions favorably, and giving them a break. The Talmudic sage, Yehoshua ben Perachyah, gave us the pithiest advice when he said: "judge all people favorably." [Pirkei Avot 1:6]. The Talmud expands on that idea and adds in the concept of reciprocity. It says, ‘the one who judges his/her neighbour in the scale of merit, will be judged favorably.’ [BT Shabbat 127b adapted].

The Hebrew phrase for ‘judge them in the scale of merit’ is ‘dan l’chaf zachut’. Rashi teaches us that we are all being judged, and if we judge someone else favorably, then when it is our turn to be judged the Heavenly Court will judge us favorably as well.

If we give other people a break, if we look at them with benevolent eyes, then at the end of our days, God will be benevolent to us and give us a break.

The Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, was the founder of Hassidism. He was born in the Balkans around the year 1700. He focuses our attention on the Biblical teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself”. When he brings that idea together with the Talmudic principle to ‘judge others in the scale of merit’, he is saying that we should judge others the way we judge ourselves. Since we always make excuses for our own misdeeds, we should also make excuses for other people’s as well. [Derech haEmunah Uma’aseh Rav].

A contemporary Hebrew scholar, Hillel Halkin, also wrote about this phrase, ‘judge them favorably in the scale of merit’. In 2012, the Forward published an article called “A Guide for the Judgemental”. Halkin wrote this article under his pen name, Philologos. He writes columns that explain Hebrew words and phrases, and it is one of my favorites. He translates the phrase, ‘dan l’chaf z’khut’ – in its literal sense as “in favor of the pan of merit” - - or, as we say in English, by giving it the benefit of the doubt.”

The time period from Rosh HaShannah to the end of Yom Kippur is called the “Asseret Y’may T’shuvah”, the ten days of repentance, the 10 days of turning away from that which is negative or destructive and toward that which is positive and healthful. During these ten days, I hope that each of us individually and all of us collectively as the Nahalat Shalom community can make special efforts to fargin ourselves and each other, to look through the lenses of compassion and kindness, to judge one another favorably, and to make as many shehechiyanus in a day as we can so that we relish the things that are good and delightful in our lives. As we do that, we are remodeling our brains so that we tilt the scales toward the good, the positive, the pleasurable and the satisfying.

During these ten days, it is much more important to focus on what is positive. Change will come from practicing these habits of mind and daily prayer practices that lighten us up, and give us a positive spin on our day. Any change is much easier to accomplish when we are loving, compassionate and kind. In fact that is the change that we want to see. Carrots work better than sticks. In this New Year, may we all enjoy our carrots.


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