Compassion In Judaism: Wisdom and Loving-Kindness for Jewish Parents, Children, Mentors, Teachers and Students of All Ages. COMPASSION (n.) - Genuine sympathy for and desire to help others who are suffering.

Selected Sermons by Rabbi Jonathan Kohn

Acharei Mot
"Love of man is not in competition with the love of God... It is an expression of our love of God."

Chukim umishpatim. Mishpatim are laws for which reasons are given, such as Kashrut (part of the imperative to be holy) and Tsitsit (to remind us of the Mitzvot).

Some say that all laws that we accept must have reasons. But 1), that makes religion as small as we are, rather than as big as our world (for many aspects of which we can provide no reason), and 2), laws without reason allow us to show deference to God's wisdom and authority.

This year I learned a third.

Rabbi Brad Artson once attended a non-Jewish wedding in which the officiant instructed the couple that though they must love each other, they must love God more.

Rabbi Artson was appalled. Love of man is not in competition with the love of God, he said. It is an expression of our love of God.

God's love is the model for ours. Now, imagine someone saying, "All I ask of my spouse is that they make sense all the time." Such a one would be as lonely as God.

If God is to model what our love for others should be, and if through our love for others we learn to love God, then we have to deal with everything about them that makes no sense. We must accept things in our lives that have no reason. And for this need also, God provides.

Acharei Mot
"You want to be a better person? ...Take the course of action... The heart will follow."

Pesach is coming, but we read about Yom Kippur. The two seasons have something in common: a feeling of coming clean. But what does the Parasha's ritual have to do with anything? The ritual for Yom Kippur doesn't even mention repentance. It is just a series of actions. Well, consider this story I offer of one Inspector Bendrix.

Bendrix inspected cars. He was assigned, specifically, to inspect bumpers and steering wheels. But over the next year, in half a dozen cars, at high speeds the bumper fell off. It crashed through the windshield and took off the steering wheel.

So Bendrix was reassigned, and now he inspected toys, to make sure that they had no small parts that could choke a baby. He had two conveyor belts, one bringing him toys and the other babies, and he would test the toys against the babies. But over the next year, half a dozen babies went to the hospital, and when asked why, their parents said, "It's because of the toy that they were eating."

So Bendrix moved over to inspecting blue jeans, and over the next year half a dozen people had their pants fall down, and in each case there was a tag that said, "Inspected by Bendrix."

Well, Bendrix was filled with guilt, so he went to Shul on Yom Kippur, and there he heard that at the end of the day he would be forgiven for all his sins.

He asked his friend, "Really?"

"Oh, yes, but only if you thoroughly inspect your heart and go over all your past deeds and repent them."

"I have to inspect everything, and otherwise I won't be forgiven?"

"That's right."

"But I'm a lousy inspector. I'm in big trouble. Tell me, last year, were you able to do this?"

"Oh, yes."

"And what kind of sins, if I may ask, were you repenting?"

"Well, if you must know, they mostly had to do with arrogance."

"And you repented?"

"Probably better than anyone else. I'm very good at this."

And Bendrix thought, we're both in trouble.

If God forgives only the penitent, how do you know at the end of the day that you're forgiven? It's not like cleaning house for Pesach, where you know what you did.

In the words of the poet Omar Khayyam: "Indeed, indeed, repentance oft before/I swore, but was I sober when I swore?/And then, and then came spring, and Rose-in-Hand/My threadbare penitence apieces tore."

That's where today's Parasha comes in. It's all actions.

The Kohen does this and that, and the people are forgiven. We can't always know, and certainly not control, our heart, but we can control our actions, and that's how we change our lives.

You want to be a better person? You want to be more loving, more trusting, more open to your spouse and kids?

Don't try working on your heart. Change your actions. Act like that better person. Do the things that you would do if you were more loving, open, trusting, and courageous. Pretend. Introspection may or may not work. Take the course of action. Pretend to be the person you want to be. And don't worry about the heart. The heart will follow.

"'One nation, under God...' All our loyalty to America is under God. Our greatest obligation isn't to support this country, it is to do the right thing."

We are now moving from spring to summer. We have the autumn for major holidays, Christianity has the winter, we've got the spring (or perhaps we share it), but who has the summer? Answer: The United States, many of whose values are similar to those of Torah.

"Proclaim liberty throughout the land, and to all the inhabitants thereof" comes from this Parasha. And Benjamin Franklin proposed depicting the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on the Great Seal of the United States. But let me suggest that beyond those, there are reasons why the US is the easiest place to live as a Jew outside the State of Israel.

"... [O]ur fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." What other nation is "dedicated to a proposition"? But a nation of immigrants needs that in order to unite. And there is another nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition: the People Israel.

Pesach is the beginning of our liberty, and Shavuot is its completion. At Sinai, God propositioned us. We began with a contract, just like the pilgrims. The US is most like the People Israel, more than any other non-Jewish nation in history. The US is exceptional.

But that's not the main reason that it's easier for us to live here. Here, there is no question of dual loyalty as there is, for instance, anywhere in Europe. That's because of another value that we share. It's found in this Parasha, with the sabbatical and jubilee years. The land rests every seven years.

Why seven years? Because it's the land.

Humans rest every seven days. But how long does it take for the land to wake up and go back to sleep again? A year. So it is the land's Shabbat. And the Jubilee. What is God's reason for making these demands? He says explicitly: Because all the land is Mine. You are resident aliens with Me.

From the beginning of the Holiness Code in Leviticus, from right after we finished with the dedication of the Tabernacle, this was the theme. Kashrut, because our food isn't ours, it is given on the sufferance and beneficence of God. Our lives don't belong to us, they're only lent on trust. The Broadway question, "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" is answered, "Not yours." Well, we have this same kind of eminent domain in America. You can see it in our loyalty oath.

Other nations have loyalty oaths, perhaps, but none like ours, and no other nation could have done it, because it does not demand loyalty. "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God..." All our loyalty to America is under God. Our greatest obligation isn't to support this country, it is to do the right thing. And that's our loyalty oath. Even our loyalty to the United States belongs to God.

When Napoleon took over France, he was faced with the question of whether the Jews could become citizens. He convened the Jewish leaders and asked them a number of questions. Most important, I think, was, "In a war with Germany, would you fight against a German Jew?" If the Jews answered yes, then they could be citizens of France. If not, then they remained resident aliens. The Jews, who wanted desperately to be citizens, answered, "Yes. Our loyalty is to France alone, not to foreign Jews. Judaism is only our religion." But in the US it's different.

What if there were a conflict between the US and Jewish interests? We can say that it can't happen, but it's not inconceivable. Which would we defend? Here, there is no question of dual loyalty. We love them both, and we will defend whichever one is right: not the Jewish or the American interests, but God's interest.

"One nation, under God." "Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad." There is no dual loyalty here. There is no conflict of interest. We are all under God, says the US, and, the Torah answers, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.