Say more “yes” and “no” less

1 Tishrei 5777 // October 3, 2016
Olam Chesed
Chesed is…saying more “yes” and “no” less.

Shana tova.
I believe that we often discover our deepest values
by what we decide to teach our children.
This is why I want to use this opportunity to explain
why we changed the name of our Religious School
to the Olam Chesed Education Center.
Some people have asked me why we changed the name,
and so in spiritual and practical terms,
I would like to take you on a journey of why we made that change.

By design,
every service that we gather together,
we sing the words from the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, of Psalm 89:3,
ע֭וֹלָם חֶ֣סֶד יִבָּנֶ֑ה, Olam Chesed Yibane.
We sing this prayer for peace and lovingkindness
in our community, and in our world.
Our tradition teaches that King David,
a fierce warrior in his day, wrote the Book of Psalms.
ע֭וֹלָם חֶ֣סֶד יִבָּנֶ֑ה means something like:
“G-d’s חֶ֣סֶד, G-d’s steadfast love, mercy, or kindness
יִבָּנֶ֑ה shall be built up or established ע֭וֹלָם forever”.
And as we sing it today,
we understand that the words are about building a world of love.
Perhaps because of the incessant wars King David was involved in,
he knew that his people and his world needed G-d’s lovingness.

In this often senseless time of ours,
as much as in King David’s day,
we all know that singing alone won’t bring about a world
where everyone treats each other with lovingkindness.
Still, we might also learn from King David,
who mentioned חֶ֣סֶד, G-d’s lovingkindness and mercy
no less than seven times over the course of the Psalm.
We too must put our stake down;
we must make clear that lovingkindness must start somewhere,
so we sing this song every service we gather together.

To talk about חֶ֣סֶד, about lovingkindness,
I want to take you back to a very important and personal lesson
I learned one day.
I want to bring you all back to Alison and my wedding day.

It was a camp wedding,
with family and friends bunking in cabins for the weekend.
After an incredible Shabbat shared together
of schmoozing and singing and food,
I woke up abruptly quite early Sunday morning of our wedding,
getting excited about the day and unable to sleep further.
And what kept me up that morning was this insatiable feeling
that I needed to bring more חֶ֣סֶד, more lovingkindness, into my life.
I woke up wanting our wedding day and the many years to follow
to be filled with חֶ֣סֶד.
I woke up wanting my relationship with Alison to function
as a vessel for more lovingkindness in the world.

This feeling all coalesced around the word “YES”,
That morning, I was sure with total clarity
that I needed to say “yes” more, and to say “no” less often,
to say “yes” even in those moments when I felt the urge to say “no”.

You see the Hebrew concept of חֶ֣סֶד is not
some easy, simplistic concept of love.
חֶ֣סֶד is the moment when you offer to drive someone home,
and you find out they live 20 miles
in the opposite direction of your own home.
It is the moment when it is your first day off in weeks,
and you are called to spend the day helping a friend move.
חֶ֣סֶד is a way of acting with other people
that unites with them in what they want.
It is the moment when you might have that urge to say “no”
to doing an act of kindness,
but instead, you find the resolve to say “yes” instead.
חֶ֣סֶד is about going above and beyond normal expectations
in going out of your way to offer kindness.

So that morning, as I got out of bed, I had this strong urge
to write the word YES down on a piece of paper.
I clamoured for something to write with,
looking for a pen and paper everywhere.
As I was searching around,
I saw an envelope right there on the table,
a card a close friend of mine had handed me the night before.
She told me that I was to only read the card on my wedding day,
and I was eager to read it.
But my mind came back to that visceral feeling
of focusing on חֶ֣סֶד, on lovingkindness.
Amidst all the distractions of preparing to get ready for the big day,
I found a piece of paper
and I wrote the word YES in big letters on it.
Then, I immediately opened the envelope from my friend…
Right there on the cover of the card, in BIG print,
was written one single word,
the word YES.
The universe had sent me a clear message,
affirming that, saying yes to greater kindness
was indeed the right focus.

One of the most powerful teachings I have read on חֶ֣סֶד
comes from Rabbi Shlomo Noah Berzhovsky,
known as the Slonimer Rebbe,
a late 20th century rabbi for the Slonim Hasidim in Jerusalem.
Sometime during the holidays, I want to invite you
to make your way down to the Rabbi’s Study
where we have set up, for the first year,
a quiet, meditation space
where the entire quote is displayed for further reflection.
For now, here is an excerpt of how חֶ֣סֶד
can manifest itself in the personal attributes
of someone who cares deeply for others.

In the Slonimer Rebbe’s words:
“[A person’s] only goal in life
is to be a loving and compassionate person.
He builds his world on love…
and always seeking to help everyone in thought, speech, and deed…
All his thoughts are about how he can help another person…
He sees only the positive in others.” (P.102, Devarim.)

Later, The Slonimer says:
“Beyond all the charity and kind deeds she performs,
what sets apart a truly loving person is that
her very essence is transformed into love…
so that she herself becomes a blessing…
Someone who is truly loving always feels for the other person,
to whom she offers her whole heart…
“When a friend is being strangled by suffering
and their spirit is choking, she fulfills the verse
“I am with him in his trouble” (Psalm 91:15),
encouraging them and breathing hope into them.
In times of happiness, she truly shares her friend’s joy…” (p.98)

Have you ever met someone
like the person the Slonimer Rebbe is describing?
Someone who embodies so many of these attributes?
For the Slonimer,
there is nothing more sacred than lovingkindness.
Though his words may be more aspirational than realistic,
it is our responsibility to put our stake down,
to live into these values,
and say, yes, this is what I am striving for.

Now I want to come to the religious school.
Our school has been growing by leaps and bounds.
I believe the growth in our school impacts our entire community,
and it is important for all of us to understand
the vibrancy of the programs
we are offering our children and their families.

In response to the incredible numbers in our school,
we’ve got four classrooms, whereas two years ago, we had only one.
We have a new Director of Family and Youth Education, Stacey Oshkello.
We continue to move away from a school-based model,
towards truly fun and experiential learning.
This is true in all of our programs.
We have our Kinderlach “young ones” program
for ages 0-5 and their parents;
we have our Wednesday afternoon program
now covering the expanded ages from K-7,
including newly revised Hebrew and Jewish life curricula;
we also have The Mitzvah Project cohort
of Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.
And we continue to celebrate together with the whole community
during our regular Multigenerational Kabbalat Shabbat services
and our holiday programs.

With everything new here at JCOGS,
we wanted our name to reflect
all that is good and aspirational in our work.

Thus, this year, the Children’s Education Committee,
with board approval,
changed the name of our school
to the Olam Chesed Education Center.
Together, the words Olam Chesed mean
“A World of Love” or “A World of Lovingkindness”.
We made this choice because we seek to focus on
the deepest, most enduring parts of our tradition,
all the way back to King David’s own words in the Psalm.
The name Olam Chesed highlights that we want our children
to shape who they are and how they interact
with others and their environment,
in the image of G-d’s kindness.

Our teachers believe that we must model for the children
what it means to have a robust spiritual life
that is based on acts of kindness towards others.
This includes teaching the children through multiple-modalities
the rich Jewish values related to חֶ֣סֶד.
In this way, the children will feel empowered
to help build a larger world of lovingkindness.

That process of learning begins by developing
the psychological and spiritual lives of the children
including their own sense of self,
and their relationship of belonging and connection to others.

Now I will admit that
you can’t teach kids to say YES all of the time.
The Kabbalistic rabbis understood that
in addition to the creative energy of YES, of חֶ֣סֶד in the world,
there is also the force of of din, judgment,
the power of no, the power of limits.
Wherever we dream,
we must bring that dream into a structure.
The power of “no” is meant
to encapsulate and capture the power of YES.

At Olam Chesed, we understand
that children thrive with clear structures,
that children — as with adults —
need goals and content and curriculum
and restrictions and concrete projects.
We appreciate that children, as with adults, need set boundaries.
We are a vessel and structure
for their growth and creativity to thrive.

But goal is not the vessel itself.
The goal is the lovingkindness shared among people.
We want our children to dream and to feel confident
in their ability to say “yes”.
Saying “no” can be easy.
Saying “yes”, on the other hand,
demands trust and faith and confidence to move forward.

And we have incredible teachers
and very strong new Hebrew and Jewish life curricula
to help us achieve this lofty goal.
Not in a “hey, let’s all get along together”, kind of way,
but through the much more difficult work —
firstly, of investigating the myriad of stories and teachings
from our Jewish tradition that speak about kindness;
secondly, of doing good works for our greater community,
of making change by saying “yes” in our actions,
for we are more a people of behaviour, than belief;
and finally, we will bring more awareness of how
our children, teachers, parents, staff, and our entire community.
interact with each other in the spirit of חֶ֣סֶד.
All of these together comprise a multifaceted approach
to the nitty-gritty of lovingkindness,
and that is where we have put down our stake.

So let us spend a final moment
investigating one story from our Jewish tradition
that speak directly about kindness.
On this first day of Rosh Hashanah,
known as the Day of Judgment,
this morning’s Torah portion is by design
one of the greatest Jewish stories of חֶ֣סֶד,
a story of G-d’s lovingkindness. (Gen. 21:9-21)
The story begins with the not-so-kind actions of Avraham and Sarah
as they kick Hagar, and her and Avraham’s son, Ishmael,
out into the wilderness to fend for themselves,
with only some bread and a canteen of water.
But their water quickly ran out.
Hagar, not wanting to see her poor son Ishmael die before her eyes,
puts her son under one of the bushes,
and sits by herself, at-a-distance, as far away as a bowshot.
Hagar lifts up her voice and she weeps a deep wail.

And here is the great act of חֶ֣סֶד,
for God heard the suffering voices of Hagar and Ishmael.
And an angel of G-d calls to Hagar from heaven and says to her:
“What ails you, Hagar?  Do not be afraid,
for G-d has heard the voice of the boy…
Arise, lift up the boy…for a great nation will I make of him!”
And G-d opens Hagar’s eyes, and she sees a well of water;
and she immediately fills the canteen with water,
and gives the boy water to drink.
This chapter of Ishmael’s story ends with the words:
“And G-d was with the boy as he grew up” (Gen. 21:20)

Indeed, Ishmael’s own name means “G-d hears”,
for G-d heard their suffering and responded with חֶ֣סֶד,
with a great resounding “YES, I am here to help.”

G-d’s kindness in this story is the model
that we are meant to exemplify.
At this season, we ask that G-d’s kindness
outweighs G-d’s judgment upon us.
We too might learn to embrace the power of YES
in our relationships with others.
This is particularly true of our relationships with children,
for surely the kindness shown a child in their formative years
will be repaid a thousand fold to the next generation.
All we need to say is “YES”.