Lessons for the new year

Joseph Aaron

#metoo and McCain.

The Jewish year now just about over, began with the biggest story being that of one Harvey Weinstein, which gave birth to the #metoo movement. And the year ended with the biggest story being that of John McCain, the shining role model of a mensch.

And so as we are about to usher in a new Jewish year, I think we should enter it learning lessons from #metoo and McCain, lessons that can make us better Jews, lessons that can make us a better Jewish people, lessons that can make this a better year for Judaism.

Let’s start with #metoo. There are so many Rosh Hashanah teachings that it highlighted, brought vividly to our attention. First is that your life choices don’t fade into the ether. They are part of your permanent record. Just because 20 years have passed since you did something, doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. And if it’s a bad thing, it doesn’t mean you’ve gotten away with it.

We are urged at this time of year to do a spiritual accounting, to look at our deeds of the last year and examine honestly where we fell short, what we did that we shouldn’t have done, where we didn’t do what we should have done.

And we are taught that on Rosh Hashanah, G-d judges each and every one of us, looks at each and every one of our deeds, looks at the good we have done and the bad we have done.

Though I hate the internet and iPhones and twitter and Facebook and the whole technological prison we have all been put in, slaves to our devices, there is one thing I like about the fact that we can now have the whole world in the palm of our hands.

It makes it much easier to grasp the concept that G-d hears every word we each say, knows everything we each do, is aware of all our sins and all our mitzvot. When you see that if you Google something like ten million references pop up, when you hear that the National Security Agency has huge radar that sucks up trillions of conversations going on all over the world, when you see how Amazon is listening to what you say in your kitchen and immediately send ads for something you’ve been talking about to your computer or smartphone, it is not so impossible to imagine all-knowing G-d hearing everything we say, seeing everything we do.

What the #metoo movement has taught us is that money and fame and power are no protection against being called to account for our actions. Incredibly powerful and wealthy and famous people like Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose and on and on could not hide from, could not run from what they did.

In the end, it’s who you are, how you are that catches up to you and in the end all the money and power doesn’t insulate you from G-d’s judgment.

A very important lesson for us to ponder as we begin Rosh Hashanah and the days leading up to Yom Kippur. What you do matters, everything you do matters, you are judged on everything, even the things you have been able to keep secret. In the end there are no secrets from G-d, who sees exactly what is in your heart and what you have done in your life.

We should be cognizant of that every day of the year, and act accordingly, and we should be especially so at High Holiday time when we stand before G-d as He meticulously examines our record of the past year. In the end, who you are, what you are catches up with you, as it did to all the #metoo men.

Another lesson from #metoo that is relevant to this time of the year is the amazing grace of G-d, the amazing gift He has given us in tshuva, repentance. No matter what we have done, how many and how bad are the things we have done, He stands ready, indeed eager, to forgive us, if we but repent sincerely.

Think what an amazing thing that is. With #metoo, the minute we learned about what some of these creeps did, it was all over for them. Matt Lauer out at the Today Show, Charlie Rose out at the three shows he was on, Harvey Weinstein fired from his own company. No opportunity to do tshuva, no chance to admit wrongdoing, to express remorse, to vow to not repeat the sin.

I’m not saying any of them are capable of doing sincere tshuva, taking the steps that true tshuva entails, what I am saying is that they were not given the chance. One day we learned of their sins, literally the next day, they were gone, banished, their careers over, they lives ruined, no one wanted to hear from them. They were guilty and that was the end of it.

Not so with G-d. He says whatever you’ve done wrong, even if you’ve done things horribly wrong, I am open to you, open to listening to you, give you the opportunity to say you’re sorry, to say how bad you feel for what you have done. He says if you tell me from your heart you will not do these things again, I will believe you, I will embrace you, I will forgive your sins and give you a clean slate, a fresh start.

Imagine. Even though we have sinned against G-d, He is happy to forgive us, He is ready to believe we feel bad for what we have done and will work hard to not do it again. And He will grant us a new year in which to do so. #Metoo allowed for no such opportunities, judgment was swift and unmerciful, no second chances were given, no opportunity was afforded the guilty to say anything it all. It was off with their heads and we don’t want to hear anything from you.

My point is how grateful we should be for tshuva, for this time of the year when G-d designates specific holidays, a ten day period, precisely so we can come before Him and admit our sins, when no matter how bad they are, He is very open to hearing from us, is ready to accept our expressions of remorse, is happy to hear our pledges to do better. And He forgives us, believing us that we are changed people, will be better people going forward.

The world did not give Sen. Al Franken the chance to salvage a career in which he did so much good, but because he made some stupid mistakes was abruptly ended. G-d this Rosh Hashanah will be happy to hear from Al and happy to forgive him.

And then there is another senator, John McCain. A senator who, just before Rosh Hashanah, has reminded Jews that there is nothing more important than being a mensch, a good and decent and honorable and kind and nice person. As Judaism teaches, ‘derech eretz kudmah l’Torah,’ acting like a mensch comes before even the Torah.

What is amazing is not only the incredibly large number of kind acts McCain did, many few knew about, such as the fact that for about ten years after Mo Udall, a prominent member of Congress from Arizona, and a Democrat, was struck with severe Parkinson’s, McCain, without telling anyone, would every few weeks visit Udall to talk to him, read to him, even as his condition worsened and it wasn’t clear he comprehended what was going on. McCain was a selfless mensch, coming to visit a friend who was ill. Visiting the sick is one of Judaism’s biggest mitzvahs, but one too many of us either don’t do, thinking a quick text or email ‘hope you feel better’ is enough, or if we do go visit, we do ‘hit and run kindness,’ a quick pop in, a fast refuah shleimah.

I could tell you a million other such stories about McCain’s caring and kindness, of how he spent every single Fourth of July visiting the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and so many more. But what was beyond amazing about how amazing a mensch he was is that he did it even after he had seen the worst of humanity, had been tortured and held captive in a tiny dark cell for more than five years.

He had much more reason than any of us to be bitter, he had every excuse to be full of hate and anger, to feel he didn’t have to do anything for anyone, didn’t have to be kind, didn’t have to act dignified. He could have stewed and cursed and turned inward and the truth is, considering what he went through, who could blame him.

But instead of bitter, he did what G-d wants each of us to do, what Rosh Hashanah time reminds us to do, namely to be a mensch, to work hard to be nice to everyone, to speak ill of no one, to be generous to those in need, to reach out to those in pain, to care for and be kind to every single person we come in contact with.

John McCain lived a life of integrity, of decency, of valuing causes greater than his self-interest, of looking out for others, of fighting for principles that are eternal and that make the world a better place.

Most of all he was kind. At his funeral, Joe Lieberman told the story of how when they would visit Israel, McCain would join Lieberman as he used the Shabbat elevator at the hotel they were staying in. To not violate the laws of Shabbat, a Shabbat elevator is programmed to stop at every single floor of the hotel. As Lieberman noted, McCain had many virtues but patience was not among them. And so he could have said to Lieberman ‘I understand why you as an observant Jew need to use the Shabbat elevator, but considering that I am not a Jew, I’m just going use the regular elevator that will take me straight to my floor and we can meet there.’

That would have been a reasonable thing to do. He didn’t have to join Lieberman on the Shabbat elevator. But he did, even though it tried his patience. Because that’s what friends do, because showing respect for someone else’s beliefs even if they differ from yours is what a mensch does.

I think there is so much to learn from that elevator story as all Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Put yourself out, don’t just do what’s good for you, think of the other guy, show kindness, be a friend, be a mensch, accept what is important to others.

So often being a mensch involves small things, tiny gestures and yet means so much. So many of us don’t bother with such niceties but they make a world for difference, not only for the other person but for our own souls.

John McCain believed in and lived by a code of honor that reflected itself every day of his life in every action he took. He was the ultimate mensch. His life having ended just before Rosh Hashanah begins, is a powerful message that when all is said and done, all the sermons have been given and the prayers said, all the high ideals of the High Holidays talked about, what Rosh Hashanah comes down to is each of us vowing to be a better person, to be a good person, to be a mensch just like John McCain was.

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