Hamakohm-A New/Old approach to spirituality begins this Sunday

 

Introducing 

hamakom

The Place to Reconnect and Recharge your Soul

hamakohm will be an hour filled with new and old approaches to prayer, music and meditation. This will be a laboratory for the creation of new and innovative ideas, as well as a place to revive ancient spiritual approaches.

This program is for anyone who is seeking to enrich their sense of personal Jewish spirituality within the context of a wonderful community. No knowledge of Hebrew is required, just an open heart and mind.

hamakOhm will meet on Sunday mornings at Adat Shalom Synagogue beginning in October. We will start at 9:15 am. Sessions will be facilitated by Rabbi Aaron Bergman, Rabbi Rachel Shere and Hazzan Gross, and last an hour.

October sessions are 10/3 and 10/17.  We will meet in the social hall.There is no charge.

My Yom Kippur Sermon

 

Some of my best friends are professors of Jewish history. They are wonderful people, and love what they do. However, they spend a lot of time trying to make sense of something completely illogical and improbable, namely the continued existence flourishing of the Jewish people.

If the history of the Jewish people were a novel it would already be on the discount sale rack because the story is just so preposterous. We should have vanished into history many times over, but here we are.

The questions I would like to look at are where do we come from, why are we still here, and what are we here for?

Let’s take a quick look at the last thirty eight hundred years of Jewish history, because I want to show you that at no point was our survival as a people predictable or probable. Even our origin defies logic.

Think about Abraham and Sarah. God wants to start a new people. Who would you start with? Would you pick an elderly couple who was childless, homeless and jobless? Probably not, but that is who Abraham and Sarah were. God chose them because they were always on the side of the oppressed, the disenfranchised and those for whom society could find no use. They saw things in others that no one else did and created the family that would become the Jewish people.

Let’s go forward 1800 years. In the year 70 the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and set in motion the exile of the Jewish people around the world that would last into our own time. The reason you destroy a temple is to show that your god is more powerful than the god of the people you conquered. It would be logical and reasonable for that people to adopt the god or gods of their conquerors. We did not do that. We believed that God was not done with us, that God still loved us, though, it must be admitted that it seems at times God has a funny way of showing that love. Nonetheless, the Jews who went through that terrible period persisted in their faith.

The Jews of that time had, though, in some ways a bigger problem than the Roman occupation. The temple and its system of sacrifice was the one place for Jews that served for the expiation and forgiveness of sin. If you could not have your sins forgiven, then you could not have a relationship with God. Therefore, Judaism really should have stopped there. Instead, our sages said that there was a substitute for sacrifice that God actually preferred. That is Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness to others above and beyond the minimum. This becomes Judaism as we know it today.

The sages created a system that was no longer dependent on a particular place, nor on an elitist priesthood, and made it accessible to every Jew, including those who went into exile. You cannot carry a temple with you, but you can carry your heart, mind and soul. Acts of kindness toward others, Jewish or not Jewish, was the equivalent of the high priest bringing the Yom Kippur sacrifice.

The idea was so revolutionary and against any conventional thinking about religion, that if they were to try it today they would be scorned by the very people who benefited from their courage.

Our sages, though, believed that we still had something to offer the world, the belief that might does not make right, and that there is no one stronger than the one that shows kindness to others, even during the worst of circumstances, even when it seems that that world has gone dark.

A thousand years later were the Crusades which destroyed so many Jewish communities of Europe. At this same time, Rashi and his students were writing some of the greatest Torah commentaries of all time, commentaries we study to this day. If you read their works, you would never guess the complete chaos of their lives. They refused to give in to that chaos, and created intellectual beauty, because they still believed in the essential or at least potential goodness of humanity.

Four hundred years later is the Spanish inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It is also the flourishing of Jewish mysticism, of kabbalah, as we know it. The kabbalists knew that their physical homes may be under threats from others, but the spiritual homes they built were permanent and eternal.

The most extraordinary period in all of Jewish history was of course the middle of the twentieth century. The holocaust should have meant an end to Judaism. Who would ever want to be Jewish afterward? Who would ever want to raise a Jewish family again? One of the most impressive acts of courage was the fact that so many survivors began families after everything they went through. Some of them started new families after having lost everyone in their previous family. They refused to allow the darkness to win.

Who could have imagined after such devastation, after such helplessness, that we would have our own country, or that in other countries such as America you would have more synagogues and yeshivot and day school and religious schools than in any point in our history? We should have disappeared from history, but instead we became a critical part of the world.

It sounds like a big part of being Jewish is experiencing tragedy. There are some who say that we have suffered more than anyone else in history. We certainly have had our share, but everybody suffers. The difference is that while so many other people’s have vanished or became marginal after their suffering, we have always found ways to recreate ourselves and continue to grow and develop.

None of this was predictable. None of this was logical. How did it happen? I think what we see is that throughout our history, we have always made a commitment to find meaning in life in times of tragedy and optimism in times of despair. We have always found light in the darkness, and have tried to bring that light to others. I believe that is the main reason for the Jewish people, and what we must always do if we are to continue as a people. If we do not, then Judaism becomes empty ritual and ethnic exclusivity.

The idea of revealing the light hidden in the world has been built into all aspects of Judaism since its beginning. In the Torah, the first thing that God creates is light. It cannot be sunlight, because the sun is not created until the fourth day. The kabbalists understand that light to be God’s spirit on earth. The world was a place of darkness and chaos, and God bring light and warmth to it. When humanity is cruel, then that light diminishes. When humanity is kind, then the light it revealed. Judaism, both in ritual and practice is about revealing that light.

On Shabbat we have two sets of light. Friday night when it begins, and Saturday night when it ends. The first set of lights are for you and your family at the end of the week. It is a reminder of the spark of God found within each of us, and a sign that we somehow made it through a week we may have thought we could not have. The lights of havdallah, though, are for us to bring that light with us wherever we go during the week. It is to remind us to be a source of light and comfort to everyone we encounter, including people we find difficult. It is amazing how quickly a kind word can change a challenging person into a grateful one.

The most famous lights of all are probably the Chanukah candles. This is more than bringing some light during the darkest time of the year, but remembering that we have survived the darkest moments in history and are here to celebrate. I want to share a story with you that I find so powerful. Our enemies have always tried to demoralize our leaders, because if the leader gives in, then all the followers will, too. During the holocaust a chasidic rabbi and his followers were all brought into a large warehouse. They had been in the camp for a while and were on the verge of starvation. The commandant of the camp when up to the rabbi and asked him if he would like the stick of margarine in his hand, which had enough calories to sustain a person for a number of days. All he had to do was fall on his knees and beg. The followers assumed the rabbi would refuse, but the rabbi begged. The commandant laughed, put the margarine on the floor, and ground it with the heel of his boot. He then left the warehouse to tell the others of how he had gotten the rabbi to beg. As soon as the commandant left, the rabbi told his disciples, “Don’t you know tonight is chanukah.” He pulled a button off his jacket, pulled off a few threads for a wick, gathered the margarine, and created a menorah. When the commandant returned, he found four hundred Jews singing maoz tzur. I wish I could tell you that they were all saved. They weren’t, but for that moment they showed the potential of the human spirit.

This is what it means when God tells us to be a light to the nations of the world. A light to nations, not to the world as a whole, but each nation and its individual needs. It is our task to help each country find the best within themselves. This is one of the reasons it is hard to neatly define the Jewish people. Who we are depends so much on where we live, and the people with whom we live. The goal is always the same, to make wherever we live better for all people. Every country we have lived in has been better because of us. It is no just a matter of business or science and technology. We have helped spread democracy and tolerance. We have stood up for the poor and disenfranchised often against our own economic interests. We have risked our lives for others, even those who do not love us. We have shown that loyalty to the country you live in and loyalty to your faith are not a compromise, but the fulfillment of that faith.

Jewish mysticism says that when God was creating the world he tried to contain the light in special vessels, but those vessels shattered. The shards of those vessels fell to earth, with a spark of that light attached to each broken peace.

The chasidic masters understood this as a metaphor for all the brokenness in people, that could be repaired if we found that spark of light within them.

This why so many Jews created organizations like JARC, Yad Ezra, Kadima and Friendship Circle, and have supported endless numbers of non-Jewish charities.

It is why so many Jews got involved in civil rights. For example, the late rabbi Ernst Conrad was in Germany during kristallnacht. He ironically had just left a Wagner opera, when the riots began all around him. When he came to America, he fought for the rights of others, because he knew that the oppression of one group leads to the oppression of all.

The idea that each person has a spark of God within is even a reason that so many Jews became therapists. There is evidence that even Sigmund Freud was influenced by this idea of finding the light within the shards of the shattered vessel. Psychotherapy and other therapeutic treatments became a way of repairing the world, and saving people from the darkness of their lives.

The chasidic rabbis even extended this idea to how we think about our enemies. We must always defend ourselves, but we must still remember that our enemies are human, and have within them a spark of God as well, deeply buried as it may be. We must fight our enemies, not by our enemies standards, but by the standards of Jewish ethics. Psalm 27, the Psalm for the high holidays, says, Do not put within me the spirit of my enemies.

When we remember this we have done well. Our worst defeats have been when we have forgotten this. There is nothing greater that we can do than transform hatred into enlightenment. I believe this is the reason that we have returned to the land of Israel. It was not to build a Jewish fortress, but to help create a promised land for everyone. It is taking longer than we would like, but there is a reason that the national anthem is called Hatikvah, the hope. To be a Jew means to always have hope, even when there does not seem to be a chance. There is nothing logical about this hope, but as I have mentioned nothing about our history is logical. We might be the ones who truly see the dream of our ancestors fulfilled, that nation will not lift up sword against nation, and that humanity will no longer no war.

In every synagogue in the world there is an eternal light. It means that every generation before us defied the reality of the world, defied all the forces that tried to extinguish what was best in humanity, and chose life. It is also a challenge to us to stay strong, to not become bitter or cynical, and to embrace lives of meaning for us, our loved ones, and all of humanity even when things seem hopeless. If we do, we will be the light of a splendid and brilliant future.

Yom Kippur 2010

Rabbi Aaron Bergman

 

Some of my best friends are professors of Jewish history. They are wonderful people, and love what they do. However, they spend a lot of time trying to make sense of something completely illogical and improbable, namely the continued existence flourishing of the Jewish people.

 

If the history of the Jewish people were a novel it would already be on the discount sale rack because the story is just so preposterous. We should have vanished into history many times over, but here we are.

 

The questions I would like to look at are where do we come from, why are we still here, and what are we here for?

 

Let’s take a quick look at the last thirty eight hundred years of Jewish history, because I want to show you that at no point was our survival as a people predictable or probable. Even our origin defies logic.

 

Think about Abraham and Sarah. God wants to start a new people. Who would you start with? Would you pick an elderly couple who was childless, homeless and jobless? Probably not, but that is who Abraham and Sarah were. God chose them because they were always on the side of the oppressed, the disenfranchised and those for whom society could find no use. They saw things in others that no one else did and created the family that would become the Jewish people.

 

Let’s go forward 1800 years. In the year 70 the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and set in motion the exile of the Jewish people around the world that would last into our own time. The reason you destroy a temple is to show that your god is more powerful than the god of the people you conquered. It would be logical and reasonable for that people to adopt the god or gods of their conquerors. We did not do that. We believed that God was not done with us, that God still loved us, though, it must be admitted that it seems at times God has a funny way of showing that love. Nonetheless, the Jews who went through that terrible period persisted in their faith.

 

The Jews of that time had, though, in some ways a bigger problem than the Roman occupation. The temple and its system of sacrifice was the one place for Jews that served for the expiation and forgiveness of sin. If you could not have your sins forgiven, then you could not have a relationship with God. Therefore, Judaism really should have stopped there. Instead, our sages said that there was a substitute for sacrifice that God actually preferred. That is Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness to others above and beyond the minimum. This becomes Judaism as we know it today.

 

The sages created a system that was no longer dependent on a particular place, nor on an elitist priesthood, and made it accessible to every Jew, including those who went into exile. You cannot carry a temple with you, but you can carry your heart, mind and soul. Acts of kindness toward others, Jewish or not Jewish, was the equivalent of the high priest bringing the Yom Kippur sacrifice.

 

The idea was so revolutionary and against any conventional thinking about religion, that if they were to try it today they would be scorned by the very people who benefited from their courage.

 

Our sages, though, believed that we still had something to offer the world, the belief that might does not make right, and that there is no one stronger than the one that shows kindness to others, even during the worst of circumstances, even when it seems that that world has gone dark.

 

A thousand years later were the Crusades which destroyed so many Jewish communities of Europe. At this same time, Rashi and his students were writing some of the greatest Torah commentaries of all time, commentaries we study to this day. If you read their works, you would never guess the complete chaos of their lives. They refused to give in to that chaos, and created intellectual beauty, because they still believed in the essential or at least potential goodness of humanity.

 

Four hundred years later is the Spanish inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It is also the flourishing of Jewish mysticism, of kabbalah, as we know it. The kabbalists knew that their physical homes may be under threats from others, but the spiritual homes they built were permanent and eternal.

 

The most extraordinary period in all of Jewish history was of course the middle of the twentieth century. The holocaust should have meant an end to Judaism. Who would ever want to be Jewish afterward? Who would ever want to raise a Jewish family again? One of the most impressive acts of courage was the fact that so many survivors began families after everything they went through. Some of them started new families after having lost everyone in their previous family. They refused to allow the darkness to win.

 

Who could have imagined after such devastation, after such helplessness, that we would have our own country, or that in other countries such as America you would have more synagogues and yeshivot and day school and religious schools than in any point in our history? We should have disappeared from history, but instead we became a critical part of the world.

 

It sounds like a big part of being Jewish is experiencing tragedy. There are some who say that we have suffered more than anyone else in history. We certainly have had our share, but everybody suffers. The difference is that while so many other people’s have vanished or became marginal after their suffering, we have always found ways to recreate ourselves and continue to grow and develop.

 

None of this was predictable. None of this was logical. How did it happen? I think what we see is that throughout our history, we have always made a commitment to find meaning in life in times of tragedy and optimism in times of despair. We have always found light in the darkness, and have tried to bring that light to others. I believe that is the main reason for the Jewish people, and what we must always do if we are to continue as a people. If we do not, then Judaism becomes empty ritual and ethnic exclusivity.

 

The idea of revealing the light hidden in the world has been built into all aspects of Judaism since its beginning. In the Torah, the first thing that God creates is light. It cannot be sunlight, because the sun is not created until the fourth day. The kabbalists understand that light to be God’s spirit on earth. The world was a place of darkness and chaos, and God bring light and warmth to it. When humanity is cruel, then that light diminishes. When humanity is kind, then the light it revealed. Judaism, both in ritual and practice is about revealing that light.

 

On Shabbat we have two sets of light. Friday night when it begins, and Saturday night when it ends. The first set of lights are for you and your family at the end of the week. It is a reminder of the spark of God found within each of us, and a sign that we somehow made it through a week we may have thought we could not have. The lights of havdallah, though, are for us to bring that light with us wherever we go during the week. It is to remind us to be a source of light and comfort to everyone we encounter, including people we find difficult. It is amazing how quickly a kind word can change a challenging person into a grateful one.

 

The most famous lights of all are probably the Chanukah candles. This is more than bringing some light during the darkest time of the year, but remembering that we have survived the darkest moments in history and are here to celebrate. I want to share a story with you that I find so powerful. Our enemies have always tried to demoralize our leaders, because if the leader gives in, then all the followers will, too. During the holocaust a chasidic rabbi and his followers were all brought into a large warehouse. They had been in the camp for a while and were on the verge of starvation. The commandant of the camp when up to the rabbi and asked him if he would like the stick of margarine in his hand, which had enough calories to sustain a person for a number of days. All he had to do was fall on his knees and beg. The followers assumed the rabbi would refuse, but the rabbi begged. The commandant laughed, put the margarine on the floor, and ground it with the heel of his boot. He then left the warehouse to tell the others of how he had gotten the rabbi to beg. As soon as the commandant left, the rabbi told his disciples, “Don’t you know tonight is chanukah.” He pulled a button off his jacket, pulled off a few threads for a wick, gathered the margarine, and created a menorah. When the commandant returned, he found four hundred Jews singing maoz tzur. I wish I could tell you that they were all saved. They weren’t, but for that moment they showed the potential of the human spirit.

 

This is what it means when God tells us to be a light to the nations of the world. A light to nations, not to the world as a whole, but each nation and its individual needs. It is our task to help each country find the best within themselves. This is one of the reasons it is hard to neatly define the Jewish people. Who we are depends so much on where we live, and the people with whom we live. The goal is always the same, to make wherever we live better for all people. Every country we have lived in has been better because of us. It is no just a matter of business or science and technology. We have helped spread democracy and tolerance. We have stood up for the poor and disenfranchised often against our own economic interests. We have risked our lives for others, even those who do not love us. We have shown that loyalty to the country you live in and loyalty to your faith are not a compromise, but the fulfillment of that faith.

 

Jewish mysticism says that when God was creating the world he tried to contain the light in special vessels, but those vessels shattered. The shards of those vessels fell to earth, with a spark of that light attached to each broken peace.

 

The chasidic masters understood this as a metaphor for all the brokenness in people, that could be repaired if we found that spark of light within them.

 

This why so many Jews created organizations like JARC, Yad Ezra, Kadima and Friendship Circle, and have supported endless numbers of non-Jewish charities.

 

It is why so many Jews got involved in civil rights. For example, the late rabbi Ernst Conrad was in Germany during kristallnacht. He ironically had just left a Wagner opera, when the riots began all around him. When he came to America, he fought for the rights of others, because he knew that the oppression of one group leads to the oppression of all.

 

The idea that each person has a spark of God within is even a reason that so many Jews became therapists. There is evidence that even Sigmund Freud was influenced by this idea of finding the light within the shards of the shattered vessel. Psychotherapy and other therapeutic treatments became a way of repairing the world, and saving people from the darkness of their lives.

 

The chasidic rabbis even extended this idea to how we think about our enemies. We must always defend ourselves, but we must still remember that our enemies are human, and have within them a spark of God as well, deeply buried as it may be. We must fight our enemies, not by our enemies standards, but by the standards of Jewish ethics. Psalm 27, the Psalm for the high holidays, says, Do not put within me the spirit of my enemies.

When we remember this we have done well. Our worst defeats have been when we have forgotten this. There is nothing greater that we can do than transform hatred into enlightenment. I believe this is the reason that we have returned to the land of Israel. It was not to build a Jewish fortress, but to help create a promised land for everyone. It is taking longer than we would like, but there is a reason that the national anthem is called Hatikvah, the hope. To be a Jew means to always have hope, even when there does not seem to be a chance. There is nothing logical about this hope, but as I have mentioned nothing about our history is logical. We might be the ones who truly see the dream of our ancestors fulfilled, that nation will not lift up sword against nation, and that humanity will no longer no war.

 

In every synagogue in the world there is an eternal light. It means that every generation before us defied the reality of the world, defied all the forces that tried to extinguish what was best in humanity, and chose life. It is also a challenge to us to stay strong, to not become bitter or cynical, and to embrace lives of meaning for us, our loved ones, and all of humanity even when things seem hopeless. If we do, we will be the light of a splendid and brilliant future.

 

My Rosh HaShanah Sermon

 

 The world has never been an easy place. There are no good old days, just nostalgia for a time that was far more difficult than we remember. There have always been external circumstances that have caused us great difficulties, whether war or famine or economic collapse. However, we create a great deal of the pain in our own lives. A lot of the suffering in our lives and the lives of our loved ones comes from trying to control everything in everyone’s lives including our own. Even believing that it is possible to do so is a cause of suffering.

We believe that if we try hard enough we can cause outcomes to occur the way we want them to. We believe we can create the perfect world if only everyone would come to their senses and just listen to us.

Our desire to control may come from good intentions, that is, wanting the best for ourselves and our loved ones, but based on what we think it should be.

Our desire to control might come from trying to live up to the illusions of ourselves and others that we have created and are afraid to face.

Our desire to control others and ourselves may come from anger, anger at the way our lives turned out, anger at the way the world turned out, anger at the people whom we hurt.

The good news, is that if we cause this suffering, we can alleviate it as well. One of the first essential truths of the Torah and Judaism is that so much of our suffering in the world is precisely because of our need to control ourselves and those in our lives, especially our loved ones, instead of appreciating and understanding them and ourselves for who we are. Judaism has powerful teachings on how to let go of control issues without feeling out of control. In fact, these teachings will bring greater freedom, wholeness and happiness than you may have thought possible.

This morning, I would like to look at some stories from our tradition which highlight the problems that come from constantly trying to be in control, look at the reasons why we might always feel the need to be in control, and then look at some solutions that might be helpful.

The first character, for lack of a better word, in the bible who understands that controlling others leads to suffering is god. God is essentially the first parent of teenagers. God has the perfect plan. Create two people. Create an environment for them, over which they had no say. Give them orders. Don’t ask for their input or their feelings about the situation, and then act all surprised when it does not work out. Eden was paradise to God, but it was a prison to Adam and Eve. They had no room to develop or grow into the kind of people they wanted to be. God eventually allows them to live their own lives together, and to figure things out on their own. Things were not perfect, but it was the first step in allowing people to become fully human.

Ten generations later is the Noah story. People have become violent and destructive, bringing the world closer to its chaotic origins. They have abused the free will god gave them. God has had enough. God tells Noah to build an ark. Not a ship, but an ark. A ship can be steered. An ark goes where the water and the wind take it. We do not know how many people God told to make an ark, but it is possible many others refused because they could not control where the ark was going. They did not have enough trust even in God to let go. Noah agrees, and is eventually saved along with his family.

Noah recognized that life in general is much more like an ark than a ship. We think that we are steering our lives, but when we look back it might be surprising to see how much of our lives were unexpected and surprising. If we were like Noah, we would have embraced the surprises and looked for the opportunities they created for us.

Ten generations after Noah is Abraham. Abraham is from the area now known as Iraq. His family were idolaters, and according to tradition, were manufacturers and distributors of idols. Idolatry at its core believes that if you do certain things, then the world will act the way you want it to. When this did not work, which was probably all the time, people would switch idols. Abraham’s family had a good business. Abraham, though, was the first to recognize that idolatry could never work, and that there was no magic formula to getting exactly what you wanted. The name of the city they lived in was Charan. Charan means anger, which probably limited their tourist business, but was reflective of the result of what happens when we do not get exactly what we want when we want it. Instead of changing their approach to life, the people of Charan keep pursuing their ways, thinking that maybe this time the world will work the way they want it to. We do not know how many people God approached to leave that unhealthy society, but only Abraham and Sarah leave. They knew that to live more meaningful lives, they were going to somehow have to leave their anger behind and go to a place where they could be themselves.

They turn the frustration they experienced in their lives into compassion for others. They become famous for helping others who were lost on their journeys. They began with little in their name except their belief that people could transcend their pain and learn to live meaningful lives in a world that was unpredictable, uncontrollable and a bit scary. This is why we think of them as the models for the Jewish people who would develop from them. It did not matter whether you were directly part of their family. All that mattered is that you would live a life open to seeing the potential in yourself and others, and would live compassionately.

The greatest example of the power of compassion is Moses, who is also our greatest leader. Moses is raised as an Egyptian prince, an excellent job for a nice Jewish boy. I am pretty sure he did not know that he had been born a Hebrew. That would have been too dangerous for him to know. He never could have kept that secret as a child. This is why the verse that said he saw the suffering of his brothers and sisters so powerful. He felt they were his family not because they were Hebrews, but because they were human. He flees Egypt after saving a Hebrew slave by killing the taskmaster. Pharaoh was not mad at Moses for killing the taskmaster. If you are a prince that is one of the things you get to do. Pharaoh was mad because Moses treated a slave like a person.

Moses returns to Egypt, not just to liberate the Hebrews, but to free the Egyptian rulers from their belief that they were gods that controlled all of time and space. Pharaoh refuses to believe that he was just a human being prone to all the uncertainties of life that every one else has. This attitude does not save Egypt, but destroys it. Pharaoh is so afraid of not looking powerful and in control that he loses everything, and Egypt is plunged into a depression that last a thousand years.

It is the slaves who become free by taking a chance on leaving the place that was miserable for them, but a comfortable misery, a misery in which they knew exactly what they were doing every day.

I bring these stories today, because so many of us are struggling with the same issues. We may not even be aware of the hurt that we are causing others and ourselves from our inability to let go and let people live their lives the way they want to, not just the way we want them to.

How often have we begun sentences with, don’t you think, or why don’t you? How often have we asked a young person what they want to be, and we respond. Oh. That’s nice. Do you really think you can make a living doing that? In fact I would ban the question of what do you want to be when you grow up, for what brings you joy now?

I would like to discuss the reasons we become so controlling. The first stems from a desire that our loved ones be successful. This seems fine, but we have to ask ourselves, is our primary motivation that our loved ones be happy and successful, or are we afraid their failure will make us look bad? How many children get pushed into the wrong schools and careers because the parents are afraid to tell their friends that their children were not as accomplished as others?

The next is a fear of disappointing others. The economy is not helping. The role of provider is being threatened. There are so many people who are living so far above their means because they do not want anyone to know the difficulties they are having. The irony is that so many people are in the same situation and would be relieved to know they were not the only ones among their friends. Many of us act like they are in control all the time because we are afraid that if our friends and family really knew us and our situation, they would not like us anymore, or would be disappointed in us. The truth is that our loved ones probably really do know us better than we think and are waiting for us to figure it out.

Even those who are successful professionally still suffer when they cannot come to grips with their controlling tendencies. They tend to wear people out in the workplace. They tend to land on their feet, but either they have a lot of staff turnover, or they get knew positions fairly frequently. A bigger problem, though, is often their home life. Many people are happier at work than at home, because they have more control over the situation at work than at home. Because of the economy, a lot of people no longer have the refuge of work and are confronting a situation that seems much more chaotic and uncontrollable, their homes. They become even more controlling at home in order to compensate.

Maybe we are afraid that our loved ones will repeat the mistakes that brought us so much pain. There is no way to be a person and avoid pain. We do our our loved ones no favors by controlling everything they do to avoid the pain we experienced. They will never develop the tools to cope by themselves.


The ultimate reason, though, for our controlling behavior can be found in a popular Jewish text from two thousand years ago. It is a text I have studied dozens of times, but last week I think I finally understood it. Pirkei avot asks, who is a strong person? The ones who conquer their inclination. This is often translated as the inclination to do the wrong thing, but I think there is something else going on here. Our sages understood this as a psychological phenomenon, not an angel or demon sitting on your shoulder. Each person has their own. I came to a startling conclusion recently. I had always been aware of that I had a yetzer, an inclination to do things, but it had always been on the periphery of my vision. I realized recently that it looked just like me. I had been tormenting myself. Let me explain. The word for inclination is yetzer, which is comes from the same word as creation. Yetzer is the illusion we have of our selves that has developed over the years and prevents us from being the kind of people we know we could be. Each of us has our own yetzer that we created in our image.

The source of so much of our suffering is that we try to live according to the illusion of ourselves that we have created and the illusion that we expect others to live up to. This is what causes us to pursue professions that do not interest us. This is what allows us to talk ourselves out of doing things we do want to do, because that is just not us.

Judaism has some powerful teachings that can help us. The first is what we say every morning as part of our prayers. God, the soul that you put within me is pure. This means that we are fully human and worthy of love and dignity at all times. We do not have to earn it, or fake our way to it. We just have to realize that we are already in the image of God. This also means that everyone we know is also created in the image of God, and are worthy of love dignity and respect, even the people we may not like or agree with.

The most powerful teaching is the Ten Commandments, which were brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses. Yom kippur is in fact the anniversary of the giving of the ten commandments on the tablets that survived. If you remember, the first set got broken because the people created an idol, believing that they could determine when Moses would return and give them exactly what they wanted. The Ten commandments are really a tool for liberating ourselves from the thoughts and actions that prevent us from having better relationships.

Let’s look at a few.

Honor your parents. Remember where you came from and all the effort that it took to raise you. You may not have been a picnic, either when you were young, and may not have done everything your parents told you. Your children won’t either, but they will still love you, and they will still turn out okay. Most of the time.

Do not murder. People are entitled to their own lives. You are not the master of their destiny. Do not steal-it is not yours just because you want it. Do not covet and do not commit adultery means appreciate what is yours, and do not destroy other people’s relationships through your jealousy. Maybe the most important is Keep the Sabbath. This means that one day a week we realize that we have everything we need already. Nothing has to be done. It also means that world will actually keep spinning on its axis without our interference.

It is liberating to know that we do not have to solve everyone’s problems. It is impossible, anyway. We can learn what hurts people, and we must be brave and calm even if we learn that we are a source of their hurt because of our need to control them. Our task is to help people with the lives they want to lead, and help them pursue the opportunities that mean the most to them. It is up to them to decide what to do about them.

This does not mean that we should not try to improve our lives and to grow spiritually, physically and emotionally. I read the advice a jazz musician gave to his students. Be prepared. Show up on time. Work hard. Don’t get married to the results. We cannot control every outcome, but we can enjoy the process.

Most importantly, we can learn who we really are, and what we want to accomplish. It is not too late. By giving up the illusion that everything can be the way we want it, we will discover lives truly worth living.

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