Rabbi Cohen’s Kol Nidre 5778 Sermon – Respect – Find Out What It Means Today!

Erev Yom Kippur / Kol Nidre 5778
September 29, 2017
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Respect – Find Out What It Means Today!

Turning on the television or radio has been challenging over these past few weeks and months. I have to admit, I’ve been listening to a lot more music in order to keep a bit of my sanity. From North Korea, to Hurricanes that leave entire communities completed devastated. From Football, to emails from personal accounts, to examining Twitter messages and notifications when they are deleted because they no longer serve a purpose. From news anchors moving networks, to interpreting what someone means when they say one thing but make bodily gestures that say something completely different. With all of this we have seen a decline in basic civility that has come to permeate our society. We have seen greater divisions between racial, religious and gender boundaries. News programs include panels of experts that turn into shouting matches as one person tries to speak over the other rather than listening and having a conversation. Politicians are drawing lines in the sand on issues rather than considering engaging in thoughtful conversation in order to solve problems. And we have seen a rise in anti-Semitism unlike anything we could imagine, taking us back to the images what we thought – what we HOPED – was a bygone era of hatred and intolerance. There has been a great decline in just basic human decency and respect.

Jewish tradition and text ground us in the basic foundations of how we are supposed to treat others.

Remember Joseph. His brothers were jealous of his being the favorite child of Jacob, so they threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery in order to get rid of him without blood on their hands. When he finally has the chance to confront his brothers after so many years, after rising to power in the palace of the Pharaoh with soldiers at his command and unspeakable punishments at his disposal, he doesn’t attack them for their treatment of him; rather he asks, “How is your aged father of whom you spoke?”  “Is he still in good health?” From this we learn that asking about a person’s well-being became an expected norm in rabbinic Judaism. This was an act of friendship and was a way of knowing when to fulfill the commandment – the mitzvah – of visiting the sick, bikur cholim.

In Exodus, chapter 12, we read, “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” This means that fair treatment, just treatment, and compassionate treatment is to be offered to all.

In Exodus, chapter 22, verse 18, we are commanded neither to wrong nor to oppress the stranger for we, too, were strangers…. a commandment which, by the way, is mentioned some 36 times in the Torah – more than any other commandment. We are prohibited from mistreating the widow and the orphan. We cannot take interest from the poor, and if someone is in need of a loan and we take a neighbor’s garment as collateral, we must return that garment to them by evening so that they are not cold, even if payment has not been made. During the Sabbatical year, when the earth rests, we are to allow the needy to collect whatever fruit or vegetables the land produces so that they have food for themselves, for they had no means of storing food before the Sabbatical.

In Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 10, we are instructed not to pick the vineyard bare, so as to leave the fallen fruit for the poor and the stranger. It continues with, “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.” And, in a wonderful statement regarding the centrality of civility to Jewish life, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” With the final climax, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:10-18)

Even in later generations, in the Talmud, we learn the story of the stranger who approaches Rabbi Shamai and demands that he teach him Torah in one sitting. Rabbi Shamai is insulted by this request and sends the man away. The same man approaches Rabbi Hillel and ups the anty with the same request, ‘teach me Torah,’ but adds, ‘while standing on one foot.’ Rabbi Hillel looks at him unphased and says, ok, standing on one foot, ‘do unto others what you would have done unto you – the rest is commentary, now go and learn!’

I wonder, do we just believe that Torah and Talmud really no longer apply to us because the text is no longer relevant? Most of us do not have fields that we have to leave the corners for the stranger. We are not giving loans to neighbors and asking them to serve us in return. Those among us who have businesses are not thinking about making sure that everyone gets paid on a daily basis; rather, we hope the payroll company gets the checks out on time.

However, our Torah and Talmud and all of Jewish text is in fact still relevant. That’s why we call Torah a tree of life – it continues to live, grow and change. These ancient lessons teach us values, most specifically, the timeless values of basic human decency. Respect is a quality that we hope to find in every person and especially within ourselves. But where does respect come from? Are we born with it? Or is it a value we are taught or that we have the obligation to teach? Consider small children; they don’t necessarily respect their siblings at all times and always offer to share their toys or ice cream with one another. Or how about when we were in middle school – as the teachers would tell us the rules at school and what was expected, or our parents gave us our chores that we, now being older were expected to do, there was no eye rolling or horrific gasps of astonishment that we were being asked to contribute in some way. Of course not. Such a response would not have been tolerated.

Respect is something that is taught and learned over a lifetime. And it all begins with one very simple idea. You’ve heard me talk about it a thousand times and maybe we’ve got it. Then again, maybe we don’t. Or maybe we just need a gentle reminder or, for some, perhaps not quite so gentle. Here it is: Every person, no matter their race, religion, gender, identifying pronoun, sexual orientation, or place of origin is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Every single person possesses a spark of God within. If we’ve got this down and can hold on to it and live by it, we are on our way. But then, we need to break down more rules of civility and respect.

We are a diverse community, and we hold many differing opinions. That’s awesome! That’s what the Jewish people have always been. That’s why we have 3000 years of text that is nearly impossible to fully digest in one lifetime because of all of the arguments and challenges its commentary contains. But while we might argue, disagree and challenge one another, which is an important part of making our world that much better, there are some very important rules we must abide by.

Like the Ten Commandments, let us consider 10 basic rules of respect for all people, especially because, we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God:

  1. When we differ with someone, and we will, don’t demonize them. Just because someone has a different opinion than yours does not mean that they are a bad person. Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.
  2. You can have a spirited conversation without drawing blood. We don’t have to get so vicious with one another that our arguments turn into knock down, drag out fights. Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.
  3. When others are talking, don’t interrupt them and don’t dominate the conversation. Breathe and allow the other person to speak. Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.
  4. Be careful about the types of language used in a disagreement. Don’t use incendiary or belittling words that hurt the other person.  Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.
  5. Set the example of being kind in word and deed to everyone no matter who they are or what they do. Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.
  6. Never stereotype. We’ve been the victims of stereotypes as Jews and we know how hurtful it is. Therefore, don’t do it to others. Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.
  7. Apologize when we mess up. “I’m sorry” can be the most important words you say to someone. Sometimes we just have to let the ego go and not always have to be right, especially when we are wrong. Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.
  8. Stay open minded! Be careful not to form opinions too quickly without getting all the information. We don’t have to make decisions on one foot. We are allowed to say, ‘let me consider that,’ or ‘give me some time.’ If we are open minded then we are more able to be open to more information that might lead us to a different conclusion by others. Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.
  9. When we say we are going to be present, then be present. It’s easy to think we can do more than one thing at a time. True, some can, but we can’t fully be present when we are trying to multi-task. We will miss something. So fully commit to being present. Everything else can wait. Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.
  10. And finally, create a set of rules of respect for your family, your friends or within your work and help each other to enforce them. Every person is b’tzelem Elohim, created in the Image of God.

These 10 suggestions of respect seem pretty basic, even very obvious. Three thousand years of text create our foundation of how we should behave, and thankfully, we have contemporary text that enhances it: Robert Fulghum takes us back in our lifetimes and reminds us:

All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten

Most of what I really need
To know about how to live
And what to do and how to be
I learned in kindergarten.
Wisdom was not at the top
Of the graduate school mountain,
But there in the sand pile at Sunday school.

These are the things I learned:

Share everything.
Play fair.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life –
Learn some and think some
And draw and paint and sing and dance
And play and work everyday some.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world,
Watch out for traffic,
Hold hands and stick together.
Be aware of wonder.

The answers and inspiration are all around us, we sometimes just forget to see that which is right in front of us because we are looking for something higher. But today, in a world that is providing so much material for us to teach, learn, challenge, be concerned about, and even a little concerned over; sometimes, we just have to go back to the very basics and remember, respect one another and be kind. If we can do that, then maybe we will have a better chance at making our world a little less broken.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon


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