Rabbi Freedman: Yom Kippur Sermon: 
Middot (Character Values) for the Pandemic

Who here still has one of these? [middah bracelet] Last year, in conjunction with my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon, we gave out these middot bracelets. Middot are the character virtues taught by mussar, a values-based approach to Jewish ethics and character development. The bracelets were meant to serve as simple reminders, like a string around your finger, to work on a middah/a particular character trait. Last year we gave out three bracelets: binah/seeking meaning, nitzachon/perseverance, and rachamim/compassion. 

For those who took a bracelet last year, a few questions to reflect on: Which bracelet did you choose? Why? How long did you wear it for? What effect did it have on you?

Last year, I shared stories from our Reform movements overnight camp, Camp Harlam. Stories of campers living out these middot; showing kindness, perseverance, and understanding. This summer, there was no camp; there is a pandemic. And so, this year, I want to share some stories from the pandemic, examples of middot/character traits to help us get through 2020 and beyond. 

I reached out on social media and asked what middot have been most important during this pandemic? In your responses, three middot really stood out: savlanut/patience, hakarat hatov/gratitude, and achrayut/social responsibility.

Have you seen the viral video of Israeli comedian Yonatan Gruber helping his mother learn Zoom? Have a quick look at this clip.

The first time I saw this video, I could not stop laughing. But what really got me was at the end when Yonatan and his mom could finally see each other face to face. They were getting frustrated but they didn’t give up; their patience paid off with a beautiful moment of connection.

I imagine many of you can relate to our first middah, savlanut/patience. Maybe you’ve also had to persevere through the impatience of learning a new technology. Or maybe you had to push through the impatience of teaching it. 

Related to the Hebrew words lisbol/to suffer and sovel/a burden or load, Jewish tradition teaches that patience is the ability to bear the burden of your feelings without reacting. Savlanut does not mean that you are always in a completely calm and unruffled state of mind, but rather that you are aware and conscious enough of your emotions that you do not allow them to get the best of you. 

The cause of our impatience is usually not the situation itself, though that is how it might appear to us. A situation that perhaps infuriates us might not cause the slightest bit of concern to another person. We experience impatience only when we strain against a situation we cannot control.

Earlier in the service, when we took the Torah from the ark, we sang the words, “Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum, v’Chanun, Erech Apayim…” Quoting from the story of the golden calf, we describe God as merciful, compassionate, loving, and erech apayim/slow to anger. 

Can you imagine?! God parted the sea, freed the Israelites from slavery, gave them manna and how did they show their graittude? By building an idol! 

Talk about patience?! It must have taken a lot for God to bear a burden like that without losing it. But here’s the thing — God does lose it. So much so, that in a moment of impatience, God almost wipes out the entire nation of Israel. And then Moses gently reminds God of our covenant; God’s promise to us, v’yanichem Adonai/and God is merciful and spares the people.

We are created b’tzelem Elohim/in the image of God. We seek to emulate God’s erech apayim, God’s slowness to anger, God’s savlanut, God’s patience. But even God needs help sometimes in this hard work. So what will be your Moses? What will help you to be mindful in those moments of frustration? What image, phrase, or other prompt might remind you to bear the burden of your feelings of impatience? How will you cultivate savlanut this year?

Our next middah is gratitude. In his book, Flourish, University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Martin Seligman encourages readers to try the “What Went Well” or “Three Blessings” Exercise. Here’s how it works:

Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. Here are a few examples:

“I’m thankful for the chance to walk around outside this afternoon.”

“Thank you, God, that my family is healthy.”

“I’m thankful for that phone conversation with my parent, spouse, partner, friend, sibling, child, or grandchild today.”

Our Jewish tradition guides us to say 100 blessings a day. That might seem like a lot right now – but three blessings a day is certainly doable, and I think you’ll find it comforting and empowering. Simply spend a moment during your day reflecting on three things that went well or that have blessed you in some way.

Research suggests that this simple gratitude practice will increase your well-being and decrease anxiety and sadness because it focuses your attention and awareness on the good in your life. It cultivates emotions like joy, love, hope, awe, and serenity. Judaism calls this spiritual practice hakarat hatov, literally, “recognizing the good.”  

Often translated simply as gratitude, hakarat hatov, is a middah that I witnessed first hand this summer during Breaking Bread on Broad, our program that provides free educational activities and nutritious meals to the children of our neighborhood. This year, with social distancing requirements, we offered a contactless, outdoor, weekly pickup for families in lieu of our in-person program.

I expected families to be disappointed at the change. To be frustrated. To grieve another loss of normalcy. Instead, all I heard was gratitude. 

One immigrant family from Honduras timidly asked one week if we had any diapers and menstrual products. We didn’t, but our volunteers picked some up the following week and when the family arrived and saw what we had for them, they had tears in their eyes. The profound sense of gratitude from this family for such necessities that many take for granted is a model for us all. 

These families, our neighbors, understand the power of hakarat hatov. How will you cultivate hakarat hatov in this coming year? How will you be grateful? How will you recognize the good?

Our final middah is achrayut/social responsibility. Coming from the Hebrew word, acher/other, achrayut is the moral belief that we as individuals, have a responsibility toward the other and toward society as a whole.

Many of you have probably heard the phrase: My mask protects you and your mask protects me. This is achrayut/social responsibility. When you wear a mask, you are practicing achrayut.

There is even a blessing for putting on a facemask:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu al sh’mirat ha-nefesh.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, commanding us to protect life.

We are compelled by our tradition to think beyond ourselves in order that we might preserve life. The Holocaust survivor and Jewish theologian, Viktor Frankl understands achrayut to mean, “Being conscious and being responsible. By becoming responsible agents for social change we actualize not only our humanity but also our mission as Jews.” This is not just about doing something nice for others. This is our very mission in life.

I was speaking with a recent Bat Mitzvah student in our congregation. She told me about the loss in celebrating her Bat Mitzvah during a pandemic: no big party and, more importantly, none of her extended family could travel to be here. But she also told me about how making these sacrifices made her proud that she was doing a mitzvah. By putting the health and safety of others first, she was taking her place as a Jewish adult in fulfilling the mitzvah of achrayut/social responsibility.

How will you cultivate achrayut this year? How will you think of others and practice social responsibility?

That Bat Mitzvah student, the Honduran Family, Yonatan Gruber and his mom, they aren’t super heroes. They don’t have some secret, magic ability that makes them more socially responsible or grateful or patient than the rest of us. It’s hard and they have to work at it just like the rest of us. 

It’s difficult enough to change in normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic. But it’s worth it. The world feels overwhelming right now. We can become paralyzed to the point of inaction by the enormity of the problems in our lives and across the globe right now. But if we can just work on one piece of ourselves this year, we have done a small part to repair the world. 

Mindfulness, working to repair our inner character flaws not only helps us, it helps the world. We do this work because we want to be the best version of ourselves for our friends, neighbors, family, and community.

We practice savlanut/patience to be a more caring friend, parent, child, or spouse. 

We practice hakarat hatov/gratitude to be a more appreciative member of our community. 

And we practice achrayut/social responsibility to repair our broken world. But achrayut also helps repair our own brokenness; it gives meaning to our days and our lives. Helping others allows us to see beyond ourselves.

These are the middot that are going to get us through the rest of 2020 and beyond. Being grateful for what we have, finding meaning in our lives by thinking of others, and having the patience to understand that there is only so much we can control and that sometimes we just need to bear the burden.

We can do it. We can be our best selves. We can get through this together. 

I don’t have any middot bracelets to give out this year to help you. But you don’t need them. You already have the capacity for change inside of you. That is the very basis of t’shuvah —  repentance or return — the belief that every person has the ability to change for the better. This is the greatest gift we are given; the opportunity for renewal each year, the chance to reevaluate our lives, and to be the person we are meant to be. 

This New Year, may we have the strength and determination to make real change in our lives, to practice patience, gratitude, and social responsibility, to repair our lives, and to repair our broken world. 

Ken y’hi ratzon/May this be God’s will. Amen. Gut Yuntif.