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Rabbi Kalmar's Message - Parshat Yitro 5781

“Understanding God, Others and Ourselves”

This past week we lost Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski.  In an address last evening about his brother, Rav Michel Twerski shared that one amazing trait of his brother was the ability to see the best in other people, to see their potential.  Rabbi Dr. Twerski worked with many people who were at the lowest points of their lives, often struggling with addictions such as alcohol, drugs, or pornography.  But Rabbi Twerski was able to see past the troubling behavior of those in front of him and see them in a better light.  This in turn would help those who were struggling and suffering to see themselves in a better light and help them to lift themselves out of their dark places.   This reminds me a lot of a statement said by my rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, zt”l, who said “we should never judge people by their worst moments”

The beginning of the first of the Aseres HaDibros (Ten Commandments) is אנכי ה’ אלקיך אשר הוצאתיך מארץ מצרים – I am Hashem your God who took you out of Egypt.
Does Hashem really need to introduce himself – I am God – you know, the one who took you out of Egypt – yeah – that’s me.  The Malbim says that this was not an introduction, but rather it was Hashem’s way of asserting authority.  I am the Lord and this is what I am saying to you.
The Medresh Pesikta D’Rav Kahana takes a different approach.  Until this point, says the Pesikta, the Jewish people had only experienced Hashem as a warrior – like at the sea.  At Sinai – he was like a scribe teaching Torah, at the times of Shlomo and Daniel, God was seen in different ways.  
As Rabbi Dov Lerner, rabbi of Young Israel of Jamaica Estates points out - until now God was seen as a warrior and protector and now we experience God as law giver and teaching us ethics.
The point of the statement of Anochi is – I am the same God who took you out of Egypt and you saw as a warrior, and I am the same God who now lovingly shares the Torah with you.
    One reason why idolatry appealed to the ancient world was that it is hard to understand a God who we experience in one way, and then experience in another way and then a third and then another.  It was easier to think about different gods with different attributes acting in their different ways with the world.  Scholars more recently have struggled with the text of the Bible that they see as a mixture of different styles with different names for God – the four-letter name of God vs. the Elokim name and have posited different human authors for the text.  And as human beings we struggle with the same God being responsible for goodness and beauty and bounty and life contrasted with evil and ugliness and famine and death.
    What God is saying, according to the Pesikta, in the first word of this first open conversation with mankind – is Anochi – I am the same God – I am one – even though you experience me in a multitude of ways.  God is complex and life is complex and as human beings it is easier to just expect to relate to God in one way.  What Hashem is telling us is that He has many names and many faces and many ways for us to relate to Him.
    And as human beings, we are meant to imitate God.  And we do imitate God in many ways.  One of the ways that we imitate God is that we are complex beings.  We do not always act the same way.  We do not always behave, think, or speak in consistent modes.   And sometimes our behavior does not match with our stated ideals.
    One of the great traits of Rabbi Dr. Twerski, and Rabbi Kelemer was to look at others without seeing only one dimension.     This is a great lesson for us.  We often associate people that we meet with a particular action or political party they support or decision they have made and we just paint them into a neat corner in our brain.  “That person is that way”  There is no room for the complexity of the whole human being.  It’s easier that way.  But it’s also lazier and it is wrong to do.  To truly understand others we need to be willing to take the bad with the good, to see the whole human being.
    And I would suggest that we also need to use this measure with ourselves.  Rabbi Dr. Twerski was famous for promoting the idea of boosting our self-esteem.   Often times we begin to think of ourselves as failures and we can’t get the worst parts of ourselves, our lowest moments, our most embarrassing moments, our moments of greatest ethical lapses, out of our minds.  We treat ourselves in a one-dimensional way.  “I can’t do/learn/teach/help/be/aspire/hope/accomplish  ‘x’ because I have done Y.”  This is not healthy.  We need to understand ourselves – to spend time thinking about who we really are – all of us – the whole person, the whole picture.
    May we take a lesson from the Pesikta, from Rav Kelemer, and from Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski – and work to stop seeing our God, our fellow and ourselves in a one-dimensional way.  Rather, let us see Hashem, others, and ourselves in a complex way, doing our best to be good Jews and good human beings in our relationships – Bein Adam LiMakom – between ourselves and our God, Bein Adam LiChaveiro, between ourselves and our fellow, and Bein Adam LiAtzmo – between ourselves and our selves.   

Good Shabbos.

Sat, June 10 2023 21 Sivan 5783