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Getting Back To The Family Table - Pursuing Peace After the Pandemic©

Kol Nidre 2022 - Rabbi David Baum

The last two and a half years of Covid prevented us from having large holiday gatherings with our extended families. Thankfully, those days are coming to a close, and it’s time to return to the table. I want you to ask yourself the following question:

Were you secretly happy that you didn’t have to share a holiday meal with your crazy aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew that fights with you about politics over these last two and a half years?

Or, another question: are you that crazy uncle, aunt, niece, or nephew?

I cannot help but recall the scene from the movie Avalon where the family is about to sit down for a Thanksgiving meal and they are waiting for Uncle Gabriel who is late every year, and they begin to debate – should we wait for Gabriel so we can cut the turkey? Every year, they wait, but this year the kids were more antsy than usual and the family said, “Ok, we are cutting the turkey without him!” As the family is eating, Uncle Gabriel comes in, and says the famous words, “You cut the turkey without me!” Then immediately Uncle Gabriel storms out.

“That’s it,” he says, “I’m leaving and I’m never coming again. Now that you are rich and in the suburbs, you have changed. In Avalon, the old neighborhood, we waited until every relative was there until we ate!”

And like that, the family is fractured. Let’s take a step back – the fight is over turkey! But these fights over the little things can lead us to take steps back and abandon these family meals.

Let me ask, who in here hasn’t thought twice about inviting a family member who argues with you about politics? They’re either blue or red, and you don’t want them at your table.

Is that less ridiculous? As the pandemic comes to a close, or as we learn how to live with Covid-19, the question I have is, how are we going to get back to the table?

Tonight seems like the perfect night to speak about it because there are no meals tomorrow, but there will be soon enough.

On this Kol Nidre evening, I want to teach about what Judaism has to say about getting back to the table, how we interact once at the table, and how we can right the wrongs of the past.

There’s one important text I want to teach you all tonight, a text you may have learned before from Pirkei Avot:

This teaching seems simple, and yet, it is one of the most important teachings in our tradition because it really sums up what it means to be a Jew. Judaism is not an individual endeavor; and the rabbis were greatly concerned with people who isolated themselves. They believed it would lead to moral problems and feelings of despair. To make our lives better, they offered three solutions:

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב,וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת:

Yehoshua ben Perachia says, "Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and judge every person as meritorious.” (The Ethics of Our Fathers 1:6)

Seems like an easy ask, but it is a lifelong journey.

Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire a friend.

There is a story in the Talmud that teaches us about the beauty and the pitfalls of finding teachers, and acquiring friends.

One day, a rabbi named Yochanan who was famous not just for his wisdom, but also his good looks, was bathing in a river in Israel. A Jewish gladiator named Reish Lakish sees Yohanan bathing and jumps in the water, likely to rob him or hurt him. Rabbi Yohanan stops him in his tracks when he says, “a strong man like you should be devoted to Torah, not robbery.”

Reish Lakish, resisting this stranger’s compliment shot back, “your beauty should be for women.” Rabbi Yohanan doesn’t fall for the bait; he says, “if you do Teshuvah, if you repent, I will not only accept you, but I will offer you can marry my sister who is even better looking than me and you will become my brother in law.”

Reish Lakish agrees, and after a few years of study, he becomes one of the greatest Torah scholars in all of Israel. For years, the pair studied Torah together, and everything was going well until they got into an argument that we may think is silly. Here’s the issue:

At one point do swords, knives and daggers become impure? Rabbi Yohanan said they become impure when the smith hardens them in the furnace; Reish Lakish disagreed: the object can only become impure when it is placed in water to cool. Rabbi Yohanan became especially annoyed with his chevrutah Reish Lakish.

He blurted out: “only a robber understands his tools.” Reish Lakish fires back, “What good then have you done by influencing me to give up my life as a bandit? When I was a gladiator, I was called Master, Rav, and now here, in the Beit Midrash, they call me by that same title!”

The two were never the same after that argument - they stopped speaking with each other. Shortly after, Reish Lakish falls ill, likely from heartbreak, and dies.

Rabbi Yohanan realized that he could not study alone, he needed a partner to learn with. The rabbis send Yohanan a young learned rabbi named Elazar Ben Pedat. They began to study, but every time Rabbi Yohanan would bring up a point, Rabbi Elazar would agree with him!

This happened during every study session, and finally, Yohanan had enough. He said, “do you think you are Reish Lakish? Whenever I gave my opinion, he would raise twenty-four objections, and from those objections, I was able to strengthen my arguments. But Elazar, you agree with everything I saw - I know I’m right, I don’t need you telling me!”

Rabbi Yohanan, finally realizing the mistake he made, tore his garments as one does when they bury a family member, and screams: “where are you Reish Lakish, where are you?!?” And then, shortly afterward, he too dies of a broken heart.

There are several powerful lessons we can learn from this story. One is that the ones who are closest to us, the ones who give us the most joy in the world, can also hurt us the most. To be a teacher for someone else is a great responsibility that we must take seriously. Nowadays, we play another role as influencers. If you have followers on social media, you are ‘influencing’ others; it’s not too different from being a teacher.

As teachers and influencers, we have the power to lift up others who learn from us, and we have the power to tear them down. That power is in our hands; we must use it wisely.

Another lesson is about how we should argue.

There is a well-known story about another famous pair of rabbis and their academies: Hillel and Shammai. For three years, the two academies argued about an issue of Jewish law. Finally, after three years, the voice of God came down to the world and declared: “Elu v’ Elu Divrei Elohim Chaim - ‘Both the words of Hillel and Shammai are the voice of the Living God, but the Halacha, the answer according to Jewish law, is Hillels.’ (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b)

The Talmud asks why one opinion is Jewish law, while the other isn’t, if they are both the words of the living God. The Talmud teaches that the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas of the students of Shammai. Not only for this reason, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.

I like to think that there’s something deeper here than just presenting your opponent’s side first.

One of our congregants, Nachshon Carmi, taught me a valuable tool to speak with people whom you disagree with. We ask questions: Why do you feel this way? What happened in your life that brought you to have this opinion?

It is a bold and challenging question - suddenly, your opponent becomes three dimensional - they have feelings, negative and positive experiences. They are like you; complicated and unique.

In order to present your opponent’s side, you have to learn why they hold this position. When we ask those questions: tell me why you feel this way, we are inviting someone to share their story, and we must listen.

When we do this, we recognize their humanity. It’s so easy to argue online because we think everyone is a two-dimensional character, but behind that screen is a three dimensional human being. We still may disagree with them, but at least we can understand why they feel that way, and we can also share why we feel differently and share our life’s story with them.

This is what it means to be in relationship - to acquire a friend - Knei Lecha Chaver. The word for acquire, Koneh, is also used in business. It is a give and take; a transaction. We make ourselves vulnerable by sharing a piece of ourselves with our friend. This is how we build up trust in our relationships.

Returning to our original learning pair, Yohanan and Reish Lakish: Rabbi Yohanan’s sin was that he made Reish Lakish into a two dimensional character. When Yohanan reminds Reish Lakish that he was a thief once, he tells him, you will always be a thief. They were more than friends, they were family, and Yohanan knew exactly where to stick the dagger.

Reish Lakish also knew where to stick the dagger. He played on Yohanan’s insecurity; if a Gladiator can change and become the greatest Torah scholar of his generation in just a couple of years, then what does that say about Yohanan who studied Torah since he was a boy?

The final part of that teaching from Avot about judging others meritoriously, Dan El Kol HaAdam L’Chaf Zechut, is not easily translated. On its surface, it means, give the benefit of the doubt to each person, but we could read it as judge every person as a whole.

That person is bigger than their most regrettable moments.

Reish Lakish was always more than a gladiator; Rabbi Yohanan was greater than that one moment when he betrayed his best friend and brother in law.

What happens when we find ourselves at an impasse with a friend or family member, when we know that we can place that dagger in the exact spot that will hurt them the most? You want your side to endure, the other wants their side to endure - what can you do?

Aaron the high priest, who is the main character of Yom Kippur, was widely known as a Rodef Shalom, a pursuer of peace. He would intervene between two parties and figure out clever ways, even lying at times, to get them to the table to make peace with each other.

Sometimes, peace is more important than winning.

I began by asking you about your relatives with whom you have disagreed in the past. I want to get a little personal and share the story of my late uncle, and how we made peace with each other.

There were times when I called him my crazy uncle, and as he likely referred to me as his crazy nephew. My uncle Steve passed away this summer after a long battle with various cancers due to a genetic condition he inherited. He lived with my grandfather, of blessed memory, and every time I would visit, a certain cable news channel that will remain nameless was blasting at full volume. You see, Steve had a hearing problem, so the volume was always high, but that noise in the background didn’t help our conversations. Inevitably, we would start arguing about politics, and, as we know, it’s been an intense four years of non-stop political news. We went to battle during these visits; we both said things to each other that we regretted later, but at the time, I think we both wanted to win, no matter what.

Over the pandemic, the cancer spread, and his condition deteriorated. After heart surgery last summer, his body did not respond as expected. He was on a ventilator, unconscious, and the doctor told my family: it’s time to make your peace with him. I thought that was an interesting way of putting it - to make your peace with him. Not to say goodbye, but make your peace with him. Perhaps the doctor was just repeating a cliche line, but I took that charge seriously.

It was during yet another Covid surge, where visitors were extremely limited in the ICU, but clergy were allowed without exception, so my father called me and asked if I could visit his brother Steve. I went into the ICU, alone with my prayer book, and immediately turned the TV volume down.

I spent a little over an hour with him, and something miraculous happened: the next day, he woke up out of his coma, and started talking.

More than a couple of my family members thought I turned from rabbi to prophet; that I somehow brought him back to life. Trust me, I did nothing special!

I recited some healing prayers, I recited several Tehillim/Psalms, and I spoke to him.

First, I said, “Uncle Steve, if you recover from this coma, I promise (pause) I will never again ask you turn down the volume of that cable news channel when I come to visit you.”

But, in all seriousness, I apologized for the times we had our political disagreements, because, let’s face it, life’s too short to fight over politics.

A year later, the doctors informed us that they would not be continuing treatment. Now the doctor said, is the time to make your peace with him as he began home hospice.

Our last meeting was quite remarkable. Something noticeable had changed: the same cable news station was on, but for the first time ever, it was on mute. It could have been unintentional, but I like to think it was a purposeful act, as if he was saying, “what I thought was important before really isn’t that important as I approach the end of my life.” The cable news personality that he might have riled him up at night wasn’t going to visit him during his last days; but his family members who didn’t share those views were there. He passed a couple weeks later, I hope, in peace.

He was the uncle that I argued with - the one that I would go toe to toe with, but in the end, he was bigger than his political opinions. Dan Et Kol HaAdam, LeChaf Zechut - Judge every person as a whole person, not just the parts that you don’t like.

On Yom Kippur, we recite a litany of sins, and most of them are verbal:

idle chatter, foolish speech, gossip, the way we talk, speaking ill of others; the confessional also includes the negative feelings we have when we argue: clever cynicism, arrogance, condescension, stubbornness, rash judgment, and baseless hatred.

As our tradition states, “life and death are in the power of the tongue.” Our words can bring peace and creation, and they can bring war and destruction; it’s up to us to choose which realities we will create with our words.

But Yom Kippur is about something else: confronting death. For one day, we stop distracting ourselves from the inevitability of our fates. All of us, one day, hopefully a long time from now, will die.

The question that Yom Kippur asks us is: how do we want to live? How do we want to live with our teachers and followers, and our family and friends, knowing that there is an end coming at some point. There will always be empty chairs at the table; the question is, do we want them empty before death, or after?

It means surrendering a little bit of our own ego to preserve the dignity and honor of someone else; it means sacrificing short term victories for long term relationships.

Our tradition teaches us, ‘do Teshuvah/repent one day before you die.” Few if any of us will know that day. The Ten Days of Teshuvah are coming to a close, but that just means the 364 days of Teshuvah begin again after this holiday of atonement and forgiveness.

It’s time to come back to the table again - it’s time to share meals and our lives again, and yes, it’s time to argue again; but let’s argue with the understanding that God is a part of those arguments. God wants us to remember that even though one side may be more factually correct than the other, everyone loses when we hurt each other. Sometimes, peace is the more important value to fight for.

May the words of the living God flow through you at your holiday table, and may it lead to a long and loving life for your friends and family.

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