From Grievance to Grace

Parshat Va’era
January 13, 2018 — 26 Tevet 5778

Several years ago I accompanied a good friend to her meeting with the beit din, the Jewish tribunal, where she was going to receive her get, her writ of divorce according to Jewish law.  Getting a get is very emotional.  It means that your marriage is over.  That is emotional enough.  But how the marriage ends is also emotional.

My friend had to carry the ketubah that had been on the wall in her home for the years of her marriage to an office downtown.  The last time she had touched this ketubah was her wedding day, a happy day.  Now she carries this same ketubah on a sober day, the day of her divorce.  The last time, the band was playing, the guests were milling around, the waiters were serving glasses of champagne.  This time, we walk up the stairs, carpet stained, into a non-descript office, where the rabbis of the beit din offer her a cup of coffee in a Styrofoam cup, with a powdered non-dairy creamer.   After she and her husband both meet with the beit din, there is a long, awkward period of waiting, where the conversation is not easy, the silence is heavy, as the rabbis in real time write the get on a piece of parchment.  At last the get is ready to deliver.  The husband and wife face one another.  The wife cups her hands together.  The husband drops the get into her hands.  She lifts it up, takes several steps, and the marriage is now over.  Short. Raw. Powerful. Painful.

With the marriage now over, I walk my friend down the stairwell with the stained carpet, with her carrying the ketubah that once heralded the beginning of a marriage.  I’ll never forget what she said as she put the ketubah into the trunk of her car.  She said: I don’t want to be angry.

How do we do that?  How do we not be angry, especially if we are angry?  Everyone of us could walk around nursing a source of anger.

We could be angry at a relationship that took a wrong turn.

Angry at a professional or financial reversal.

Angry at a decline in our health.

Angry that our life is not quite turning out the way we had hoped.  We had a sense of how we would like our life to be, but it is not turning out that way.

Angry with the state of our country.  Whatever your politics, everyone can find a path to anger.  If you are left, you can be angry.  If you are right, you can be angry. If you see yourself in the center, you can be angry.  A miracle.

I was thinking of my friend’s aspiration—I don’t want to be angry—when talking with Micah Goodman when he was here in December.  Micah has thought a lot about anger.  He has studied anger.  And he has something to say about anger.

Namely, the person who is angry, and who gives voice to that anger, often feels a sense of righteous indignation.  The angry person has just spoken their truth, and they are moved by their own words and by their own truth.  The problem is that often the person they are speaking to is not so moved.  In fact, we are often turned off by other people’s anger.  Anger has this perverse, paradoxical quality that it makes the person who is angry feel righteously indignant while being not persuasive to others.

In other words, anger is often counterproductive.  I’m on fire. But you are turned off and tuned out.

In his quest to create a movement of a new generation of Israelis, Micah and his colleagues intentionally nurture the emotion of optimism and hopefulness, not anger.

Every summer, when our group from the shul meets these 20-something Israelis who have been through Micah’s program, Ein Prat, they are optimistic, not angry, and we are always wowed by them.

All of which raises the question:  how do we not be angry, especially if we are angry?

You may remember that Tom Brokaw wrote this book called The Greatest Generation about American heroes who served in World War II.  There is also a greatest Jewish generation  that survived the Shoah.  Recently I read the obituary of a man named Yehoshua Hershkowitz, a survivor who died last month at the age of 92.  His life embodies the answer to our question: how do we not be angry when there are good reasons to be angry.

Yehoshua Hershkowitz was born in 1925 in a village in Hungary.  At 19 he was deported by the Nazis to Dachau where he somehow survived a year.  One of his most searing memories was always being hungry.  There was never enough food.  In 1945 the Allies liberated Dachau.   Yehoshua Hershkowitz  is now 20 years old and emerges to learn that many of his family members had perished.

He moves to New York, joins the Hasidic community of Borough Park, and marries a European refugee to America.  He and his wife have three sons and three daughters.

One day he is made aware that a neighbor was hungry. A postal clerk, he was hardly rolling in dough.  But he remembered what it was like to be hungry, so he wanted to do something about it.  He reasoned that if one neighbor were hungry, more than one neighbor was hungry.  So out of his small kitchen, in his home in Borough Park, he and friends started gathering food that would go into a traditional Shabbat meal.  Meat. Chicken. Gefilta fish. Challah. Onions. They would put this food in a box, and then, to respect privacy and protect dignity, would just leave the box at the front door and drive away.

The idea was so simple and helpful—distribute food anonymously to the hungry—that the idea quickly spread.  He founded a movement called Tomchai Shabbos, supporters of Shabbat, a Jewish meals on wheels program.  This program has been scaled and there are now programs like it  throughout the U.S., Canada, and western Europe.

Yehoshua Hershkowitz has so much to teach us.  If anybody could be angry, it would be somebody whose family died in the Holocaust.  Somebody who spent a year being hungry in a concentration camp.

But Yehoshua Hershowitz refused to live in anger.  Rather, he wanted to channel.  To channel his memory of hunger into feeding others.  Channel his memory of experiencing ultimate cruelty into kindness.  Channel grievance into grace.  Channel anger into love.  How did he do this?   Literally one granular act at a time.   He would gather meat, chicken, sugar, flower, challah, and jars of gefilta fish. He would gather cardboard boxes. He would gather volunteers who packed and volunteers who drove and dropped off these care packages.  It was deeds that turned anger into love.

And what happens when that happens?

His own story changed.  Now that his life is fully lived, we can see this.

In his obituary, his Holocaust story gets one passing paragraph buried in the middle.   His story is not Dachau, it is how he transcended Dachau.  His story is how one Passover, over eight days, his group distributed 30,000 pounds of onions, 4,400 pounds of matzo, 30,000 dozen eggs, 17,000 pounds of chicken.  His story is how his Tomchei Shabbos model is now feeding the hungry in Los Angeles, Toronto, Washington, Phoenix, Miami, Antwerp, London, and many cities in Israel.

What about us?  Can we, our own way, do what he did?

His story embodies a simple principle.  We are what we do every day.  If you paint every day, you are a painter. If you write every day, you are a writer. If you read every day, you are a reader.  If you heal every day, you are a doctor.  If you feed the hungry every day, you sustain the world with decency. The same is true with our emotional life.

My friend said: I don’t want to be angry. If we don’t want to be angry, the lesson of Yehoshua Hershkowitz is, don’t command your heart not to be angry.  Command your hand to be helpful to somebody else.  Shabbat shalom.