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Peter J. Rubinstein
Personal Character in Adversity (Yom Kippur 5770)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  September 27, 2009

Last Tuesday morning I became a grandfather for the first time.

Many of you have already entered the blissful and blessed stage of grandparent-hood. You have told me that there is nothing like it, that the love for a grandchild is different from the love of a child, that there is a preciousness in being a grandparent that is “beyond description” even though “beyond description” hasn’t curtailed any grandparent from having tried to describe it.

I cannot say whether Gabriel Nathan, my grandchild, will be extraordinary except in the most obvious and personal way. He is mine and for the time being this child will be my single link (God willing for a very long time) to a time in which I will no longer be alive.

“Who shall live and who shall die; how many shall pass on, how many shall come to be?” 

Ordinarily in the past when hearing these words I thought of my parents and their parents. Now I am thinking of my children and their children.

This liturgy reminded us this evening: “We, tonight, are memories in the making; warming seats for others who will remember us in some Kol Nidrei they shall hear when we are gone.

Kol Nidrei commands and summons our acknowledgment of time. What we recall of others past and what we vow to leave behind for others still to come, who will remember us.”

How will I be remembered? How will we be remembered?

Not for our curriculum vitae and career successes. Rather our friends will pay tribute to our sensitivity to them when their lives were disrupted by loss.

Not by the possessions we have amassed. Rather our colleagues will give testimony to the decency with which we treated them.

Not by the inheritance we leave them. Rather our family will speak of the ways we shaped their lives by example, by our character and with our love.

Last week I spoke about our communal character, a measure of who we are as a people. Today we speak more personally, about individual character, the ways we live, the decency and integrity we embody.  This is how we will be gauged.

What are the anchors of our character? I will mention a few that have been manifestly tested during this difficult unsettled year.

1)  First: Trustworthiness.

“Who shall dwell in God’s sanctuary?” asks the Psalmist. “And who shall abide upon God’s holy mountain?”

“It is the person who lives with integrity, who does what is right and speaks the truth that is in his or her heart. It is the person who does not slander. It is the person who takes an oath and keeps it even to one’s own harm. These people stand upright and firm forever.” (Ps. 15)

When we were together last Yom Kippur, we foresaw a bit of the messiness of life that awaited us. We were setting forth on murky waters of an economic morass, beleaguered by uncertainty with no oracle guaranteeing how long we would be shaken.

The breadth of this year’s financial frauds, the faltering of once great financial houses not only cataclysmically obliterated life savings of investors and workers, not only destroyed society-enhancing foundations, not only curtailed the operations of charitable institutions. Of greater spiritual consequence frauds and malfeasance, it destroyed our trust.

In speaking about the economic upheaval at an annual investors meeting the chairman of his company, a member of the congregation, rued the complicity of Congress, the Federal Reserve, the SEC, Wall Street firms and even a series of presidents for not delivering on promises to curtail dependence on foreign oil, faulting in their roles as guardians of the public trust. Trust in institutions of finance and government has been shaken at its roots.

Even more painful is the devastation of our trust in people. Humiliated investors reeling from financial wreckage witness betrayal by people they had considered impeccably trustworthy, even calling them friends.

In conversations with some of you I have searched for a primer, guidelines for deciding whom to trust and when. One of our members wisely advised me, “You place trust in those who share your values, the people you believe are living a moral code.” Then he was silent. He reflected and then he warned, “There really is no protection against people who choose to defraud or betray you. When that happens you are just battered.”

Trust is collateral damage to something as great as rampaging malfeasance. But trust is also maimed by little “white lies”. Building trust begins with each of us. In Resh Lakish’s words the 3rd century sage taught, “First clean yourself before you clean others.” (BB 60b)

We can restore sacred trust by speaking the truth, behaving with impeccable integrity and keeping our promises.

Our mandate is to live by inviolable principles despite seductive personal benefit or proffered justification. To be trustworthy is keeping social commitments even when a more favorable offer comes along. To keep trust means honoring the pledge you made when you became a bar or bat mitzvah to continue studying through Confirmation despite all the pressures to do otherwise. Trust means being on time for the commitments you have made.

Trust is an understanding that friendship transcends rocky times: behaving well even when you feel hurt by what a friend has done or not done. Being trustworthy means telling the truth when honesty demands a difficult conversation you would rather not have.

We are trustworthy when we are faithful in marriage, friendship and in business unless there is a manifest and clearly expressed decision to part ways. As Rabbi Irwin Kula instructs, “Being happy isn’t only about feeling good; its about doing good.” (241)

Our character is as noble as the trust we bestow and the trustworthiness we inspire.

2)  Second: good character is Generosity of Spirit.

The Torah portion read on Yom Kippur morning begins with now familiar words “Atem Nitzavim hayom culchem lifnay adonoi eloyaychem”—“You’re all standing here this day, all of you: you leaders, you elders, you officials, along with the water bearers and wood choppers and all the men and women and children.”

Moses is about to speak. They knew that these would be his last words. He would die soon. But on this occasion the assembled multitude standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai was somehow different than they had ever been.

The Hebrew word used is “Nitzavim” and not Omdim. Omdim, just standing around, would describe slovenly demeanor, the Israelites’ leaning on each other impatiently, chatting away and behaving like the ignoble miscreant mob as they had behaved for decades.

But on that day at the foot of Mt. Sinai the Israeilites were Nitzavim-ing. The people stood with attitude, at attention, and with intention. They stood there rich and poor, young and old, men, women and children. The miracle was that they stood there with people they liked and people they didn’t like at all.

They stood there together with those in their family to whom they may not have spoken for years. They stood together with the members of tribes on the other side of the encampment for whom they harbored long-time animus. They stood together with neighbors they considered unworthy. That was their triumph.

They had learned a basic Jewish value: to treat people well, to do the right thing even if you didn’t want to, even if you didn’t like them.

One of our members who was mourning for her father remembered with regret that she hadn’t extended “generosity of spirit” when she was annoyed or angry or embarrassed by her father as children can often be. I asked what she meant and she explained, “I could have been more patient, understanding, and appreciative.”

As she said those words I realized she was speaking for me and for all of us. Generosity of spirit is fundamental to character. It defines how we behave when we’re pressured, when we’re annoyed, pre-occupied or angry. It defines how we behave in adversity.

To our children, generosity of spirit is being kind to classmates who are shy, clumsy, nerdy, a geek—whatever makes them different or unique and, as we might describe it, not “one of us.”  The secret is many of the adults here, myself included were shy, clumsy, nerdy, socially awkward, a geek…or at least we felt that way when we were young. Generosity of spirit includes being kind to each other.

To our teenagers, having a generous spirit is speaking well, at least not demeaning classmates you think are just not “good enough” to be part of your group. You can injure a person by ignoring them. You don’t need words to insult.

And for the rest of us generosity of spirit takes account of our treatment of people with whom we disagree: an adversary across the table in business, law, or even during a divorce. Generosity of spirit foregoes gossip about those who have lost money, choosing never to embarrass anyone. To be generous of spirit means to relinquish gloating at someone’s misfortune. It even means not speaking disparagingly to friends about other friends.

Having generosity of spirit is expressed in the halls of Congress by sitting respectfully even when you abhor your President’s position.

When Edward Kennedy Jr. spoke about his father, among much else about which he was so very honest, he said about his dad, “He believed in developing personal relationships and honoring differences.”

Having a generous spirit though does not demand accepting misbehavior even in international affairs. In that regard I applaud our President for finally confronting Iran’s very obvious and now publicly documented duplicity. Turning the other cheek is not our tradition. We can be generous of spirit even when we respectfully tell someone that we believe they have done wrong.

I confess that I am still working on this for myself. My instincts are not always good especially when I feel bombarded by expectations and my patience runs thin and I’m frustrated with myself for not being able to do it all and am short-tempered.

Regretfully I am very aware that I should have done better with my mother.

Though I consider myself generally good and patient with people, no one turned me into a raving lunatic faster than my mother especially as she became older. She knew how to push my buttons. But then again our parents are the ones who put the buttons there. I was short, sometimes rash with my mother. I could have behaved better. Quite honestly by way of atonement I am trying to be better in her honor.

Generosity of spirit is really our life work.

Trustworthiness and a generous spirit are pillars of character.

3)  And so is Optimism.

Leo Baeck once called Judaism a religion of “ethical optimism.” That is an amazing affirmation for a German Jew who had been deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and who chose to stay with his community in that concentration camp despite attempts to attain his freedom. But as Viktor Frankl, another Theresienstadt survivor teaches we can’t control what the world does to us, but we have complete control over how we choose to respond to it.

In a very personal way Michael J. Fox, an amazing human being, a member of this congregation writes, “Parkinson’s had consumed my career and, in a sense, had become my career. But where did all of this leave me? If I had to give up any part of this (my life), how could I possibly protect myself from losing all of it?

The only unavailable choice was whether or not to have Parkinson’s. Everything else was up to me. I could concentrate on the loss…or rely on my old friend from the 1990s: denial. Or I could just get on with my life and see if maybe those holes starting filling in themselves. Over the last ten years, they have, in the most amazing ways.” (p. 5)

Thus begins Michael’s remarkable account “Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist” in which he reflects on his work, politics, faith and his incredible love for his family. The book has become important to me. Michael is a life teacher.

We Jews cannot succumb to tragedy and heartache. We have the chutzpah to choose faith that is to believe in better days ahead. Turning the corner for us is just around the corner. In the words of the song I guess that makes us a collection of “cockeyed optimists.”

Optimism is more than hope. Optimism means not standing on the sidelines of your own life content to mumble hollow aspirations. Optimism is grasping for the stars and trying to build the rockets to get there.

Optimism brings us here. Though we have defaulted on our resolutions, sometimes year after year, we dedicate ourselves to behaving more decently. We bring children into this world despite the death knells of professional negativists who say that the human race is falling on its face and destroying the natural world along with it. We commit to forging peace so that our children will not need to die in war. We are determined to solve environmental, social and economic problems so that our children will not need to suffer from them.

Last June Charlie Rose interviewed Elie Wiesel after the very public obliteration of his personal savings and his foundation’s endowment.  Rose quizzed Wiesel about his resilience and adherence to hopeful possibilities.

Rose asked Wiesel how he would respond to the continuing venom of anti-Semitism, the continuing spread of government sponsored massacres worldwide and the tragedy of rampant inhumanity around the globe. “How do you respond to these devastating questions?” Rose asked.

With his signature smile Wiesel said, “With my two favorite words: ‘and yet…’”

And yet…is the birth of optimism. There is war…and yet I envision and work for peace. I am hurting…and yet I can heal. There is uncertainty…and yet I hold strong to my anchors. I am bereft…and yet I still believe.

No one knows the brutality of which humanity is capable better than Jews and yet…we maintain a vision of a messianic time when each of us will be kind to the other.

At the end of his prologue Michael J. Fox concludes, “sure it may be one step forward and two steps back, but after a time with Parkinson’s, I’ve learned that what is important is making that one step count; always looking up.” (p. 6)

Trustworthiness, generosity of spirit and optimism are what I have learned about character amidst the messiness of this year and a lifetime.

Tomorrow I will meet my grandson in California for the first time at his Brit Milah. I pledge to Gabriel Nathan “to tuck him in, bless his days and console his nights”.

And I promise to him that I will live so that on some distant day when he speaks of his grandfather he might say, “He made me want to live as he lived: as a man to be trusted, striving to be generous of spirit, and passionately optimistic that this world will be a better place and that he made every step count.”

“Who shall live and who shall die?”

About his we have no choice. But in this we do have the choice: to make every step count, always looking up.

May that be our way in life! Amen.

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