High Holiday sermons offered by Rabbi Ohriner 5777

The Mashgiach and the Captain: Lessons in Judging Others Favorably

Rabbi Philip Ohriner

Rosh Hashanah Day #1, 5777

There once was a great mashgiach, a supervisor of kosher standards at a food processing plant. The mashgiach was revered by rabbis and his community for upholding the highest standard of kashrut. The trusted mashgiach spent his days travelling from one factory to the next inspecting kitchens and ingredients without a single incident. One day, a factory manager pulled him aside as he entered the factory’s kitchen for an inspection. The manager told him that one of the security guards had seen someone come into the kitchen, look into the pots, and reed the ingredient labels. The mashgiach was a bit miffed at this intrusion. “If a fellow Jew had a concern about my supervision,” he responded, “why didn’t he come speak to me to ask questions. Instead he comes here and pokes around by himself, behind my back.” The thought of this interloper gnawed at the mashgiach the rest of the day and even into the next, but soon the mashgiach forgot about the incident. Well, some time passed. One day the same factory manager took the mashgiach aside:  “I’m sorry to tell you, the same employee reported that our intruder returned. He was nosing around in the kitchen”. Now, the mashgiach was indignant. “One time he comes snooping around, okay. But he’s back again?” After the third time this happened, the holy mashgiach began to think some very unholy thoughts. “What kind of person would sneak around like this to check up me? What a low-life! He’s no better than a thief! Or maybe worse! Maybe he is out to dig up something with which to ruin my reputation! May he be cursed! May his car die so that he cannot come and spy on me! May he lose his vision so he cannot indict my supervision. A pox on him!  And his children, and his children’s children, too!” I could go on with the mashgiach’s diatribe, but there are children here and we are in shul.  As his next visit to the factory approached, it was all the mashgiach could do to contain his anger. He prayed that he would run into this buttinsky so that he could confront him in person and voice all of the curses he had concocted for God to bring upon his nemesis.  Fuming and sputtering the mashgiach entered the factory. Before he had made it ten feet, the mashgiach saw the manager approaching, and before the manager could say a word, the mashgiach launched into his now practiced list of curses, “may that no-goodnick lose his mind, may that less-than-a worm of a human-being rot in Gehena, no,  even that is too good a fate… “Hold on! Hold on!” said the manager as he burst out laughing. “We’ve solved the mystery. That person who keeps poking around the factory? It turns out he’s you! That new, security guard—he’s never heard of a mashgiach. He couldn’t figure out why an intruder would be looking in the pots and inspecting the labels on ingredients, so he kept reporting you!” The boss was enjoying a good laugh while the mashgiach stood stock still, reviewing all of the curses and nasty thoughts he wished on this unknown person and prayed they would not come true![1]

Today is yom hadin, the day of judgment, the day on which our tradition encourages us to consider ourselves as the defendants in the heavenly court, passing before the majestic, blessed, Holy One. Implicit within this metaphor is Judaism’s assertion that there is only one True Judge. And yet, we all know that feeling—the feeling of being the mashgiach, of issuing premature, unfavorable judgment upon others to the benefit of no one. When someone is late to an important meeting, when we don’t receive a reply to our email, while watching television, reading the news, driving behind the slowest driver in Santa Clara county, and standing in line at the grocery store we’re prone to jump to conclusions about those around us without any knowledge of the circumstances. And we also all know the painful feeling of having something we said or did completely misunderstood by a family member, friend, or colleague who was simply too quick to judge us.

When I look at our world today, I see this great mashgiach everywhere. Whether on the basis of skin color, religion, political affiliation, or simply misunderstanding we are so quick to judge based on so little. Sure, there are individuals who earn our scorn, those whose unabashed immoral language and deeds deserve harsh judgment in the court of public opinion and in our own minds. If only we could reserve our judgments for them alone. It’s just so easy to assume the worst about someone else’s motives or intentions. How many of us know of friendships ruined, families torn apart or separated for years because of an unfair, premature, unfavorable judgment?

The human tendency to judge others for the worse likely stems from our fears, fears of being deceived, of being played. By being quick to judge we believe we are staving off the heartache or embarrassment that might come later should we turn out to be correct. But in behaving this way we erode the fundamentals of relationships: trust and love. This is why one of the earliest rabbis, Yehoshua ben Perahia, taught that it is a mitzvah to judge others favorably דן כל אדם לכף זכות. Our tradition teaches that we are actually obligated to give others the benefit of the doubt, to look upon one another meritoriously until we have reason not to. More than assuming innocence, we are to assume goodness until proven otherwise. Judaism teaches that when we fail to judge others favorably we impoverish our relationships, we diminish our own well-being, and we tear at the very fabric of society.

Fundamentally, all of our relationships are founded on כף זכות, judging others favorably, because doing so is a way of showing respect.  Our core belief is that all human beings are made in the image of God and, therefore, demand our respect. In fact, the word “respect” comes from the Latin which means “to look again”, to look beyond our initial gut reaction that may have manifested negatively– and entertain a more favorable judgment. Relationships are predicated on our ability to foster respect for one another. As Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, the great 11th Century Italian philosopher writes: “without a strong cultivation of favorable judgment, relationships are impossible. There are always circumstances when it is easy to find fault. Doing so destroys relationships.” According to Sforno, the price we pay for ignoring the principle of כף זכות, of judging favorably, is loneliness, frustration, and isolation.

In addition, our tendency to judge others unfavorably sets up a serious road block to our growth and may even endanger our own lives. The story is told of a naval encounter between two ships off the coast of Newfoundland on a dark and foggy night. The two ships found themselves on a direct collision course. One ship, a massive aircraft carrier, radioed to the other, “Divert your course 15 degrees to the North.” The second ship replied, “Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.”  Well, the captain of the aircraft carrier was on the bridge at the time and immediately became angry, “who do they think they are!  This is an aircraft carrier.” There was no way he would divert for any ship. The captain snatched the radio from the radio operator, and said, “This is the captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.” The second ship replied: “I say again; you must divert.” Now the captain was irate. How dare this other vessel challenge him. He screamed into the radio, “This is the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that you change your course 15 degrees north. That’s one-five degrees north.” After a split second, the second ship replies, “Well, unfortunately I simply cannot do that. This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

It is no coincidence that the stories I have shared with you this morning of the mashgiach and the captain both revolve around their predisposition to the “other”. The mashgiach endangers himself psycho-spiritually and the Captain does so physically by being unwilling to judge the motivations and intentions of the other favorably. In both cases, our protagonists embrace anger, fear, inadequacy, and embarrassment—character traits unbecoming of us all. Their vulnerabilities come to the foreground for us as the listener while they as the protagonists become embroiled in their own narcissism. It turns out that preoccupation with finding faults in others, blinds us to seeing our own. The Jewish philosopher, Bahya Ibn Pekuda, teaches that “our focus on the potential blemishes and shortcomings of others, prevents us from engaging in the far more necessary task of investigating our own faults and defects.”[2] It reminds me of the famous Betsy Streeter cartoon depicting a bookstore (remember those?) with a vacant “self improvement” section next to a section full of people entitled, “Telling other people how to improve themselves”.

A recent study by a group of psychologists, led by professor Dustin Wood of Wake Forest demonstrated that your perception of others reveals so much about your own personality. The researchers found that an individual’s tendency to describe others in positive terms is an important indicator of the positivity of that individual’ own personality traits. They discovered particularly strong associations between favorably judging others and how enthusiastic, happy, kind-hearted, courteous, emotionally stable and capable an individual describes oneself and is described by others. The study also found that the favorability you offer in making judgments of others shows how satisfied you are with your own life. As Wood states: “A huge suite of negative personality traits are associated with viewing others negatively. The simple tendency to see people negatively indicates a greater likelihood of depression.”[3]

So, how do we learn to embrace the mitzvah of כף זכות, judging others favorably? The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism offers one prescription: “If you see another person doing something that strikes you as ugly, meditate on the presence of the same ugliness in yourself. And know that it is one of God’s mercies that he brought this sight before your eyes to remind you of that fault in you, so as to bring you back in repentance…Without a doubt, anyone who follows this path and behaves in this way will not judge his fellow unfavorably, for he will see with his own eyes that he is no better than the other person and has the same fault and blemish in himself.”[4]

However, the most important thing we can all do is to consistently remind ourselves that we really have nothing to lose.  As Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Psischa teaches: If the individual you are tempted to judge prematurely does turn out to have good intentions and honest motivations, then you acted correctly and in accordance with the truth. On the other hand, if the person is guilty, your act is not irrevocable. Either way, you have acted in accordance with the sacred obligation of כף זכות.

Of course, we are allowed and even obligated to make judgments that protect ourselves from harm. But in most instances our judgments of others do not function on this level. As Judaism and modern science teach, our relationships, well-being, and society will all benefit from our collective commitment to judging one another favorably. On this yom hadin, this day of judgment, may we all embrace the teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahia: דן כל אדם לכף זכות, judge other favorably. Learn to see the good qualities in all those whom you meet and not only their faults and believe that others will do the same in turn. If we can just learn to do this, to see the good qualities in each other, to judge one another favorably how good and sweet and blessed our lives and our world will be.


The People of the Memory Palace

Rabbi Philip Ohriner

Yom Kippur 5777

“What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.”[5] These were the words spoken to Joshua Foer prompting him to undertake a journey that would end in winning the 2006 US memory championship. His path to memory champion began as a journalistic interest. Foer was curious about the men and women who make up the sport of competitive memory, individuals who are capable of memorizing the first and last names of dozens of strangers in just a few minutes, thousands of random digits in under an hour, and poems in just seconds. In spending time learning about how memory works and how humans remember large amounts of information, Foer became hooked.

As it turns out, the techniques of remembering complex sets of information hasn’t really changed in over two and a half millennia. In the 5th Century BCE, the Greek poet, Simonides was the sole survivor of a banquet fire. In giving an account of those present when the banquet hall collapsed, Simonides closed his eyes and reconstructed the building in his mind. This led Simonides to a stunning realization. Even though he had not set out to memorize the layout of the room, it was there in his mind, nonetheless, allowing him to remember who was sitting in each seat. From that simple observation, Simonides invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the “art of memory”. He realized that if there hadn’t been guests sitting at that banquet table but, say, the words to one of his poems or numbers or animals— he would have remembered those things in the chairs rather than people. He reasoned that just about anything could be remembered by constructing a banquet hall or building in one’s mind and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled. One could then walk through their imaginary structure and remember all the things they had put there. This is what those involved in the sport of competitive memory call a “Memory Palace”.

I frequently hear Jews referred to as the People of the Book, a term bestowed upon us by the Quran. However, the reality is that we are the People of the Memory Palace. In his groundbreaking work, Zakhor, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi points out that we are the only people on earth who elevated the act of remembering to a religious imperative. זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר־וָדוֹר, “Remember the days of yore, learn the lessons of the generations that have come before us”.[6] Zakhor, remember, is the commanding verb of Jewish life. It is a call we hear close to 200 times in the Torah. Remember, don’t forget. Our accompanying Oral Torah, the wisdom of the rabbis was actually conceived within and transmitted by memory from one generation to the next by Jewish individuals who likely made use of the Memory Palace of Simonides to remember the contents of the Mishnah and other early rabbinic material. Even outside of Jewish culture, for most of human history remembering was considered a form of character-building, a way of gaining wisdom and, by extension, ethics. Only through memory could ideas be incorporated into our psyche and their value absorbed.

For the Jewish people our past is not the past, nor are our present and future independent of it. For us, memory must be alive and dynamic. This notion of living memory and its profound importance is so ingrained in the consciousness of the Jewish people that there isn’t even a Hebrew word for history. Judaism holds that history is someone else’s story. Memory is our narrative. History is an amalgam of facts, dates, and happenings, but memory is different. Memory molds, shapes, and guides one’s values, choices, and actions. History happened to someone else— once upon a time; memory is the past as present, as it lives in each of us. Without memory there can be no identity. Once, Elie Wiesel z”l was criticized by an interviewer who said, “Professor Wiesel, you seem to live in the past,” to which Wiesel responded with the quintessential Jewish answer: “I don’t live in the past. But what can I do, the past lives in me.”

This distinction between history and memory does not merely describe how we speak or write about the past. In a much deeper way it characterizes how we are meant to act, who we are meant to be. Mental athletes in memory competitions fill their Memory Palaces with numbers, faces, and names. We fill our Jewish Memory Palace with rituals. As Foer point out, “In Judaism, observance and remembering are interchangeable concepts, two words that are really one…For Jews, remembering is not merely a cognitive process, but one that is necessarily active. Other peoples remember by thinking. Jews remember by doing.”[7]

Each year when we sit with family and friends at the Passover Seder retelling the story of the Exodus, we do so to remember that we were the stranger, persecuted, shunned, and feared. We remember the blood libels. The scapegoating. We remember the massacres. We remember the forced conversions. The expulsions. We remember the genocide. We remember what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land. We remember what it is like to be on the margins, to be the minority, to be “other”. We remember all of these things viscerally, through ritual. We don’t just speak about matzah. We hold it, break it, and search for it. We don’t just talk about the bitterness of our lived experience. We force ourselves to actually ingest the bitterness. We bring forth all of these ritualized memories, our experiences of the past, to sear within our consciousness a singular imperative— to care for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the disenfranchised, and those on the margins of society; to never be silent in the face of fear mongering, discrimination, and human degradation, because we have been there and we know.

Next week when we dwell in Sukkot, we will do so not to remind ourselves that at one point a long time ago someone possibly related to us wandered from place to place in a wilderness, dwelling in temporary abodes in search of a better future for their children; we dwell I the Sukkah because right now our world is saturated with men, women, and children wandering from place to place in a wilderness, dwelling in temporary abodes in search of a better future for their children. We remember not because these things happened once upon a time in a whole bunch of places far away but because they are happening here and now in our world right before our very eyes. Our rituals, with almost no exception, are stored in the Memory Palace of our people so that we will perennially align ourselves with the central project of Judaism—to turn memory into empathy and a devotion to sacred responsibility.

When I look at the 21st Century Jewish American landscape I worry that we have largely allowed our Memory Palace of sacred obligation to become a mechanism for nostalgia, allowing us to simply remember vestiges of the past—bagels and lox, kitschy klezmer, and yiddishisms. There is nothing wrong with nostalgia, but nostalgia is incapable of transforming our lives or our world. Nostalgia draws us away from memory into the realm of history. Sitting at the Shabbat table isn’t solely for recalling fond memories of watching our parents or grandparents light candles or to relish the familiar olfactory memories of family dishes.  We don’t blow the shofar to remind us of the years gone by. Nostalgia is a nice, pleasant, but largely passive experience. It took a burning banquet hall for Simonides to teach us how to just remember. It took the Torah and Judaism to teach us that remembering is necessary but insufficient. Memory must also move us.

Tonight/Today is the Day of Atonement. The day on which we take an accounting of our lives. This year it seems particularly fitting to walk through our own Jewish Memory Palaces. When you walk through your Jewish life in your mind what do you find? Is your Judaism a dynamic, sacred set of ritualized memories or just a vehicle for nostalgia? How familiar are you with our people’s lived experiences and do you view your life through those memories—learning from them, and allowing them to influence your behavior, language, and approach to the world? How closely have you hewn to the sacred responsibilities and empathy called for by our shared, collective memory? How hard have you fought for those in our own country and in Israel currently living what has too often been our own reality—immigrants, minorities, scapegoats, those threatened with expulsion? Have you been an advocate for the stranger in our midst?

If you are unsatisfied with your answers to these questions its ok. “What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.”[8] Also know that we have an entire staff at CBD ready to help you fill your life with sacred acts of Jewish memory and meaningful Jewish Learning. Like never before, Congregation Beth David offers innumerable opportunities to fill your Jewish Memory Palace. Whether through our Silicon Valley Introduction to Judaism classes, the intense and immensely rewarding process of becoming an adult b’nai mitvah, our weekly Shabbat morning learning and prayer opportunities, our Friday morning and Shabbat afternoon Talmud and Zohar classes, our Jewish book group, Sunday Seminars, Tuesday Conversations in Jewish Learning, Hebrew reading classes, our artist, Yiddish, and Jewish ethics groups, we want to help you more fully live the imperative that comes from our people’s collective experience, to better understand how today’s societal issues frequently have a nuanced and rich Jewish response. If onsite learning isn’t possible for you, let us guide you to online learning resources that can enrich your Jewish practice and fill up your Memory Palace. We are a 3,500 year old people. There is little we have not experienced together.  The wisdom of Jewish memory and the ways in which it might change your life are accessible to you, even if your Jewish Memory Palace feels a little empty right now.

Foer’s study of memory and how we remember led him to write beautifully about Jewish memory.  For him,  Jewish memory “provides a set of foundational ideas and sensibilities with which to move through the world. It’s a kind of structure that shapes our perceptions and how we think about things. It shapes what we pay attention to, what we remember, and what kind of people we are…constantly shaping how we perceive the world. This is part of the genius of Jewish memory: Our present is constantly being informed by this set of collective memories we possess as Jews. We are always supposed to be taking something new from them.”[9] זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר־וָדוֹר, “Remember the days of yore, learn the lessons of the generations that have come before us”.[10] We are the People of memory, and as we contemplate anew who we are meant to be in the world and what we are here to accomplish as individuals, we are also called to return to the memoriws of our people, to engage with them more deeply, to let our collective past experiences guide us in making sense of and addressing all that is currently broken in our country and our world.   We are called to allow the rituals and stories of our people to penetrate our lives so that they might teach us, guides us, and open our hearts to other people currently living our memories. “What you have to understand is that even average memories are remarkably powerful if used properly.”[11] The redemption of our people, our country, and our world will be furthered by our capacity to remember. For we are the People of the Memory Palace.


Becoming Elijah

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777

Rabbi Philip Ohriner

A chassid once went to the great Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. The chasid pleaded with the Rabbi, “Rebbe, I want to see Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the Prophet.” You see, in Jewish folk tradition, it is Elijah the prophet who guides us on our path—reaching out to us in unexpected moments, coaxing us to return to our best selves, leading us back to a life dedicated to sacred obligations and good deeds. It is Elijah, our tradition teaches, that will usher in the Messianic era. And in times of great distress and tremendous despair—periods of hatred, xenophobia, oppression, and fear, Jews have always turned to Elijah the prophet. “It’s simple,” said the rabbi. “I’ll tell you what to do. Get two boxes and fill one with food and the other with toys, games, and clothing for children. Then, before Rosh Hashanah, travel to Minsk. On the outskirts of town, right before the forest begins, there is an old, tired-looking house. Find that house and shortly before candle-lighting time at sunset, knock on the door and ask the residents of that house to take you in for Rosh Hashanah.”

So the chassid went and did what the rabbi had instructed him to do. He filled two boxes with food and clothing and went to Minsk, where he found the broken-down house at the edge of town. Meanwhile, inside the house as the chasid was approaching,  children were wimpering, “Mommy, we’re hungry. And it’s Rosh Hashanah and we don’t even have decent clothes to wear!” “Children, trust in God,” their mother said. “He’ll send Elijah the Prophet to bring you everything you need!”

Then the chassid knocked on the door. When the woman opened it, he asked if he could stay with them for the holiday. “How can I welcome you when I don’t have any food in the house?” she said. “Don’t worry, I have enough food for all of us.” He came in, opened the box, gave the children the food, and they ate. Then he opened the other box and the children all took clothes for themselves. He was there for two days, waiting to see Elijah the Prophet. He did not even sleep. How could he sleep? How often do you get a chance to see Elijah the Prophet? But he saw no one. So he returned to the Besht and said, “Rebbe, I did not see Elijah the Prophet!” “Did you do everything I told you?” asked the rabbi. “I did!” he said. “And you didn’t see him?” “No, Rebbe.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, Rebbe! I didn’t see him!” “Then you’ll have to return for Yom Kippur,” said the rabbi. “Go back before Yom Kippur, with a box of food, to the same house. Again, be sure to arrive an hour before sunset, but this time don’t knock immediately. Wait for a while and just stand in front of the door, listening.”

So the chassid  \went back to Minsk before Yom Kippur. This time, he went earlier and stood in front of the door, listening. Inside he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry! We haven’t eaten the whole day! How can we fast for Yom Kippur?” “Children!” said the mother. “Do you remember you were crying before Rosh Hashanah that you had no food or clothes? And I told you, ‘Trust in G-d! He’ll send Elijah the Prophet, who’ll bring you food and clothing and everything else you need!’ Wasn’t I right? Didn’t Elijah come and bring you food and clothing? Let’s pray that Elijah will come now, too, and bring you food!” It was then that the chassid understood. And he knocked on the door.

Rabbi Shneuer Zalman of Liadi once taught that: “If you see what needs to be repaired and how to repair it, then you have found a piece of the world that God has left for you to complete.” Each and every day God, the world, and each one of us are becoming, moving closer or father away from redemption and repair.

On this eve of Rosh Hashanah we begin the process of peering into the past, searching for missed opportunities, incorrect action, and hurtful words, so that not another day goes by without us making amends. We resolve in our hearts and minds to live differently in the coming year. Tonight, we follow the path of the chassid to the places that need us. Tonight, we recognize there are people who need us and relationships only we can repair. Tonight, we realize there are tasks only we can fulfill. We need one another so desperately. Tonight, we look out into a country and world literally hanging in the balance between succumbing to the powerful pull of fear and embracing the often difficult command to love. Tonight, more than ever, we need Elijah to paint the path towards redemption. Tonight, in this safe, sacred space, surrounded by family, friends, and holy community we remember Heschel’s words: There is a meaning beyond absurdity, that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that every one of us, no matter how young or old, can do our share to redeem the world despite all absurdities, frustration and disappointments. Tonight, we remember what it means to be a religious person, to knock on the door. Tonight, we begin the process of becoming Eliyahu Hanavi, Elijah the Prophet.


[1] Based on an unattributed story conveyed by Alan Morinis, Jewish Pathways http://www.jewishpathways.com/files/Honor.pdf

[2] Chovot Halevavot, Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh, ch. 5

[3] “Perceiver effects as projective tests: What your perceptions of others say about you.” Wood, Dustin; Harms, Peter; Vazire, Simine, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 99(1), Jul 2010, 174-190.

[4]     Seder ha-Dorot ha-Hadash, quoted in Jewish Spiritual Practices, p. 305.

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/20/magazine/mind-secrets.html?_r=1&

[6] Deuteronomy 32:7

[7] Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/20/magazine/mind-secrets.html?_r=1&

[9] http://bechollashon.org/resources/newsletters/06-11/pages/jews-and-memory.php

[10] Deuteronomy 32:7

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2011/02/20/magazine/mind-secrets.html?_r=1&

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