Time for us to remember how to work it out


My parents, and grandparents, of blessed memory, taught me well. They handed down lessons from their parents and grandparents and beyond. Among my favorite lessons: “You want to keep a friend? Never talk about politics and religion with them.” 

So here is my dilemma. As a rabbi, it’s my obligation to talk about religion. But, I do so only when asked – at least I try to do that. I have also made it my practice to never, ever, talk politics because I am not a politician, and what I believe is my business and what you believe is yours. I respect your perspective, and, in turn, I hope you will respect mine. Unfortunately, politics has brought out the worst in many of us, especially this year.

Perhaps we have to Yizkor to remember the lessons of the generations before us.

A couple of stories on perspective might illustrate this.

Little Moishe was sitting between his parents watching his first wedding. He sat in awe from the very beginning to the very end of the ceremony. When it was over, Moishe asked his mother, “Mommy, why did the lady in the Cinderella gown change her mind?”

“Moishela! What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well,” Moishe responded, “when she came in, she walked down the aisle with one man, but she left him for another one.”

Rachel noticed her husband, Shmuel, was standing on the bathroom scale, sucking in his stomach. Thinking he was trying to weigh less with this maneuver, she laughingly said, “I don’t think that’s going to help.”

“Sure it will,” Shmuel responded. “When I do that, I can clearly see the numbers on the scale.”

Perspective can bring us together or drive us apart. Each of us perceives what is going on around us very differently, based on our learnings, experiences, culture and values. The way you or I see the world is, very often, not the way others see it. A lot of our problems are due to our narrow perspectives. Most of us are comfortable with what we know and quite uncomfortable with things we do not understand. By living our lives this way, we are sure to come to the same conclusions as Moishe and Rachel.

Perspective is amazing and powerful. Imagine that I am holding a coffee mug that has a handle. While I am not hiding the handle, those who are sitting directly in front of me cannot see it. Those sitting on either side of me see it clearly. If those who are in front of me did not know there was a handle on the mug and I asked, “By observation, is there a handle on this mug?” the only correct answer would be no – but those on either side of me would insist it was there. Soon, an argument would break out. 

How do I know an argument would break out? We are Jews, after all. Arguing is in our DNA; it’s been going on for a long, long, time. 

The only way everyone could possibly understand each other’s perspective is if I turned the mug or if everyone changed seats.

Religion is like that. Some of us clearly see how fulfilling the traditional teachings can be. Just as in the example of the mug, Torah, Talmud and Jewish history form the “handle” that helps us understand our Jewish heritage. I find it extremely unfortunate that many Jews chose not to learn, or even try to understand, those most beautiful and timeless lessons that have been passed down l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation).

As it turns out, not all Jews feel this way. Throughout the years, different communities have developed diverse customs to help them understand a Jewish way of life. The one thing we must all understand is that our most meaningful and beautiful traditions did not come from Sinai. Not only that, I’d be willing to bet that there is not one movement of Judaism, nor any synagogue in the world, that can honestly say that they are the only one that does everything exactly as was directed at Sinai.

Our Rhode Island community is a melting pot, just like most communities in America. I have seen people come and go, lay leaders and professional teachers, rabbis, and cantors among them. Many of our community members came here after spending years in one or more other community or place. 

Most of us have learned to work hard together to open our minds to understand each other’s and our community’s true needs and perspectives. Every day, we learn that we all have a different set of experiences and views that can make us a better and stronger people. It means that some of us are in a position to see the handle on the mug and others are not. We just have to accept that. This reality of acceptance has been going on l’dor v’dor. That is something that ties us to those we remember at Yizkor. 

This year during Passover and as this D’var is published in the Voice, we will be reciting the Yizkor, or memorial service, prayers. We Yizkor at Passover, again on Shavuot, then on Yom Kippur and finally once again during Sukkot. We gather together to remember our loved ones, just as our loved ones did. 

My fear is, in this new world of the Internet, blogs, smartphones, Facebook, and I-got-to-have-it-now, with little study or investment in fact-finding, the question we face that generations before us did not is: “How far am I willing to go to try and understand things from the other person’s perspective and respect our differences?” Some will always sit front-row center, never allowing them to ever see the handle; others won’t even attend the service to see what is truly going on around us.  We must Yizkor and we must Yizkor together to see life from all corners and perspectives and respect our different opinions and learn from each other. 

Because of lessons I have learned, I know that even if I were looking directly at you, there is no doubt that  I could never see what you see because I am standing where I cannot see the handle. On the other hand, I can see the mug because I have spent my adult life in this community listening intently as many of you have shared some of your most private moments and feelings with me. 

Think of the mug. Is it more important for us to think there is a handle on it, or is it more important to go out of our way to make sure that there is a handle on it? If we simply stand up from where we sit and move a few feet one way or the other, we will understand things so much better.

For now, let us look back at those who have gone on to a better place. The most important thing we should learn from them, regardless of how they lived their lives, is to understand that there is nothing more important in the world than shalom bayit, peace in the home. I extend that to klal Yisrael, to all of us in our beloved community. That, after all, is the most important lesson we can learn from generations that lived before us.

The mug has a handle; the mug has no handle. Stop arguing, learn to respect each other, it’s time. 

How long are we willing to let that debate go on? Shalom bayit, peace in the homes, in our community, in our political and religious differences, is the most important thing of all. 

When the children of Israel walked the path to change, from slavery to freedom, that walk took 40 years. Forty years to remove the lessons of a land filled with slavery and customs that did not unite us. Since then, we have walked many more years together. Nu? Can we respect each other, love each other, if not for me, for them, our children and our grandchildren? Let’s do it for the loved ones we remember this year at Yizkor, on Passover and again on Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Let’s remember the good we have been taught everyday! 

Hag Pesach Sameach. 

Richard Perlman is rabbi of the West Bay Community Jewish Center.