Say Something Nice, Even If You Don’t Want To – Ki Tetzei 5775

Like the last several Torah portions, Ki Tetzei is comprised entirely of mitzvot, commandments.  Most of these mitzvot are bein adam l’adam.  They address our relationships with each other: relations between husbands and wives, children and parents, brothers and sisters, neighbors, customers, proprietors, friends in our communities, and those whom we don’t so much care for, the poor among us, citizens, as well as resident aliens.  Several mitzvot address compassionate treatment of animals.

We live interconnected lives, supporting and depending on vast networks of people on a daily basis.  The Torah teaches us that how we conduct these relationships is of ultimate importance.

Being Jewish is not limited to a set of cultural practices and rituals.  Just as important is our system of mitzvot, which is undergirded by an ethical system that treasures the inherit worth and equality of every human being, as well as the accountability that each of us bear for our decisions and actions.

It is just over two weeks until Rosh Hashanah.  We are halfway through the month of Elul, which means that we should be taking stock of our lives, conducting a cheshbon nefesh, a self-examination.  A big part of that self-examination should focus on our relationships with each other.

The mitzvot in the Torah portion deal primarily with specific events that occur between people, including dealing with misbehaving children, divorce, using honest weights in business dealings, fulfilling vows, and so on.  When we take a step back, we see that each individual interaction that we have with one another is a manifestation of our overall relationship.

According to family systems theory, as described in the book Generation to Generation by Edwin Friedman, relationships exist under a condition of homeostasis.  There is a balance between us, with each of us playing a set role.  It might not be a healthy balance, by the way.

Homeostatic relationship systems don’t like to change, but they are dynamic.  If one person in the relationship draws near, the other is likely to pull away, often unconsciously, in order to maintain the balance of the relationship system.

This is the time of year, however, when we have the opportunity to take a good, and hopefully honest look at ourselves and ask how we can be better.  We examine our relationships with the people in our lives: husbands, wives, partners, children and parents, siblings, friends, and coworkers.

But because our fundamental relationships are homeostatic, it is really hard to make a difference.

Let’s think about the following single aspect of our relationship with one person who we care about.  Consider how we speak to that person – specifically, how often we say something positive compared to how often we say something negative.

What is the ratio?  Let’s be honest.  One to one?  One compliment for every criticism.  Three to one?  Ten to one?  Or maybe it’s something like one positive statement for every three negative statements.

It might be difficult to estimate for ourselves, but we have got two weeks before Rosh Hashanah to gather some data.  That should be enough time.

A 2004 study looked at a group of sixty leadership teams at a large information-processing company.  It was trying to determine which factor made the biggest impact between the most and least successful teams.  The conclusion was that the ratio of positive comments to negative comments within members of the team was the greatest determining factor in their success.  They divided the teams into three groups.  The average ratio of the highest performing teams was 5.6 – that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative comment.  The ratio of the middle group was 1.9 – about two to one.  And the ratio of the lowest performing teams was 0.36.  In other words, team members criticized each other almost three times as often as they praised one another.

This should not be surprising to us.  Most people tend to dwell on the negative rather than the positive.  Receive a performance review with ten positive statements and one critique, and the only one we pay any attention to is the negative comment.

This is not only true in the workplace.  The number one determinant in predicting the likelihood of a married couple getting divorced is the ratio of positive to negative comments that the partners make to one another.  The ideal ratio?  Five to one.  For marriages that end in divorce, the ratio is .77 to one – about three positive comments to every four negative ones.

I suspect that the language we use with one another is more likely an indication of the state of a relationship rather than its cause.  But, I also believe that conscious adjustments to how we speak with one another can have a beneficial impact on the underlying health of a family, a marriage, or a friendship.

Make the effort to be more positive, even when it does not feel natural, or does not come easy to us.  In the moment, it will certainly make a difference for the other person, and probably also for ourselves.  Over time, it can also change the relationship itself.

Let me offer a few examples.  It does not have to be complicated:  Start with household chores:

• Thanks for setting the table, doing the dishes, taking out the trash, and so on.

• Thanks so much for working hard to provide for our family.  It must be stressful to carry that burden.

• Wow.  The house was so clean when I came home today.  It was nice to walk in the door to that.

• You really kept your cool when our daughter had her shouting tantrum.  I could not have remained so level-headed.  I’m glad you were there.

• Good job for going to the gym today.

• This morning, you worked hard to get everything done so that you could be out the door on time.  It helped make things really calm in the house, and helped me start off my day on a good note.

Even the superficial things matter.

• I like your shirt.

• Those pants look nice on you.

This might seem obvious, but I wonder if we take advantage of every opportunity to say something nice to the people in our lives.

After all, there is a lot that holds us back.  Anger, for one.  When we are mad at someone, the last thing we want to do is compliment them for doing something nice.  We want to punish them.

We also take each other for granted.  We do not always recognize the stress that another person is experiencing.  We often fail to notice the effort our family member has made to vacuum the house, make dinner, or take the kids to school.

But it is those small statements we make that communicate “I care about you.  I am happy that you are in my life.”  It feels good to receive them, and it feels good to make them.

That is my challenge to us for the next two weeks.  Pick one person in your life.  Count the number of positive statements you say to that person and compare it to the number of negative comments.  Calculate the ratio.  And then find more opportunities to give that ratio a bump upwards.

Pursuing Righteousness at Hanaton – Shoftim 5775

It is not possible for me to cover everything that I would like to share about the past five months in the next few minutes.  Expect it to come out in dribs and drabs over the course of the coming year.

This morning, I would like to describe a bit about the community in which my family and I lived for the majority of our time on sabbatical.

When trying to figure out where we would live, we initially thought of Jerusalem.  It soon became apparent that finding a school that would accept our children for only three months would pose a challenge.  So we started to think of alternatives.  In the course of asking around for suggestions, several people said, “Why don’t you check out Kibbutz Hanaton?”

Hanaton is located on a hill in the Lower Gallilee, about 30 minutes East of Haifa, a few kilometers from the Movil interchange.  It overlooks the Eshkol Reservoir, the major water reservoir serving the North.  It lies between the Bedouin village of Bir al-Mahsur and the Arab town of K’far Manda.

Dana and I had heard about Hanaton.  We knew that it was a Masorti kibbutz in the North.  Masorti is the name of the Conservative Movement in Israel.  It has a guest house that some USY Pilgrimage groups used to stay at for a few days, although neither of us had been there.  But we did not know anything beyond that.

So we started to inquire, including sending an email to a friend who had a friend who lived  part-time on Hanaton.  That friend of a friend sent an email to the Hanaton listserve, and before we knew it, people that we had never met were reaching out to us, offering to answer questions about life on Hanaton, school options, and living opportunities.

We lucked out in finding a basement apartment for rent, and then we started making our plans.

But let’s back up.  Eight years ago, Kibbutz Hanaton, which was founded in 1983 by a group of Olim from North America, was down to about three members, and had hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of debt.  It was on the verge of collapse.

Rabbi Yoav Ende was a recently ordained Masorti Rabbi who had a vision of building an inclusive, open, pluralistic religious community.  He recruited a small cohort of young families who were ready to take a risk and try something new.  In 2008, they moved to Hanaton and transformed it into a kibbutz mitchadesh – a revitalized kibbutz.

Hanaton is not what you are thinking of when you hear the word “kibbutz.”  Kids live with their parents.  Each family lives in its own home, owns its own belongings, and has its own car.  There is no community dining hall.

Collectively, the kibbutz owns a few businesses, the largest being a refet, or dairy farm, which is wisely located at the top of the hill, upwind from the housing area.  This ensures that kibbutz members have a constant olfactory reminder of the shared enterprise which is the kibbutz’s most profitable endeavor.  I like to call that reminder eau de refet.

There is a fantastic boutique winery called Jezreel Valley Winery, a hydroponic lettuce farm called Yarok al HaYam, a ceramics studio, and a horse therapy center.  Most kibbutz members work outside of the kibbutz in just about any profession you could imagine.  There are several nursery schools, and a group is actively trying to establish a grade school on Hanaton.

So in what way is Hanaton actually a kibbutz?  It’s collective in the sense that the people who live there have joined together to build a community founded on shared values of Judaism, pluralism, democracy, and egalitarianism.  Members come from diverse backgrounds: Masorti, Reform, Secular, and Orthodox.  They come from diverse political persuasions.  There are all sorts of family configurations living at Hanaton, including single parents and same sex families.

On Shabbat, the central streets of the kibbutz are closed to automobiles, although not every kibbutz member keeps Shabbat or kashrut.  If someone wants to use their car, they just park it outside the gate.  Friends who identify as secular explained to us that they want their children to grow up with a deep knowledge, learned from lived experience, of what it means to be a Jew.  Friends who identify as religious talk about wanting to raise their children in a pluralistic community.  There are nine Rabbis living on Hanaton, hailing from every single major movement in Judaism.

There is no Mara D’atra, or person who is in charge of making religious decision on behalf of the community.  Questions are dealt with somewhat collectively.

Tefilah on Shabbat feels a lot like here at Sinai – informal, participatory, child friendly, and non-judgmental.  Each week, a different family or group takes responsibility for Shabbat services, assigning services leaders and Torah readers, preparing the D’var Torah, and sponsoring the kiddush.

Now at 70 families and growing, Hanaton recently closed its debt and is continuing to attract members, construct new homes, and build new community facilities.  Because just about everyone there has moved in within the last seven years, the community is comprised mostly of young families, meaning there are kids everywhere.  They are free to roam unsupervised.  That took a little bit of adjustment for our family.  We knew our kids would be safe, because we knew that there would be an entire kibbutz of adults looking out for them.  Needless to say, it was great for them.

The Hanaton Educational Center, led by Rabbi Ende, is also doing fantastic things.  It just graduated its third Mechinah cohort.  Mechinah is kind of like a gap year for Israeli high school graduates before they begin their army or national service.  The Mechinistim come from all over the country.  Like the members of the kibbutz, they arrive from diverse backgrounds.  They take classes in which they discuss Judaism, philosophy, Israel, and Zionism.  They volunteer in the surrounding area.  They build connections with neighboring Arab communities.  And they are adopted by families from the kibbutz.  It is really touching to see how past graduates came back to be with their kibbutz families for Shavuot.

This year, the Educational Center is starting a gap year program for North American students as well.  Having lived there, and knowing Rabbi Ende and the other people who are running the program, I can tell you that it will be an incredible experience.  Let me know if you are interested.

And they have more plans for expansion as well.

Rabbi Ende explained to me that his motivation for rebuilding Hanaton and its Educational Center is Zionistic.  He wants to make a positive contribution to Israeli society, and he knows that the best way he can do this is by focusing not on national or international policy, but rather, on his own community.  He is trying to build a kibbutz that embraces values of Judaism, pluralism, and democracy, and that teaches those values to young Israelis before they begin their army service.  That way, they will bring their increased understanding with them when they defend their country.  The Educational Center also tries to pursue those values in the wider community through programming with neighboring villages, especially some of the nearby Arab communities.

Of course, as everywhere, Hanaton struggles over some decisions, and as a young community, is still figuring out how best to talk about controversial topics without dividing people.

So let me tell you about our first days in Israel, back in March.  We arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, spend our first couple of nights with Motti, Sinai’s High Holiday Cantor, and his family, and then drive up to the kibbutz.  We cannot get into our apartment, so we drop our bags off on the porch of someone who until now we have only met by email.  Then, we do what everyone around the world does when they move into a new home – we go to IKEA.

Wandering around IKEA, our phones start ringing and buzzing with calls and texts.  Apparently, there is a gaggle of third graders outside of our locked apartment, eager to meet the new boy and show him around the kibbutz.  What a welcome!  And that pretty much characterizes our experience for the next three and a half months.

Congregation Sinai is a really friendly community.  When someone new shows up in services, our members go out of their way to welcome them and help them settle in.  We found Hanaton to be very familiar in this regard.

This was not our experience at other synagogues we visited in Israel.  When we entered other communities, people did not generally come up to introduce themselves and find out who we were.  But the members of Hanaton went above and beyond.  People offered us furniture and cooking supplies.  Our kids were welcomed into after school chugim, activities.  We were invited to Shabbat meals.

Dana and I tried to help out wherever we could.  When they found out I played guitar, I was recruited to help out with tefilah in “Shishi Yehudi,” a supplementary religious school program that takes place on Friday mornings.  Dana helped prepare food for the Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration and chaperoned several class trips as the medic.  We helped out with Shabbat services.  It was great for us to be able to participate in community life.  It was also kind of nice, I have to admit, to arrive a little bit late to shul, and fall asleep in the back row.

At the end of our time, the same friend on whose porch we left our luggage hosted a goodbye party for us.  We are so grateful to the members of Kibbutz Hanaton for opening up their hearts to us when they knew that we were only going to be there for a limited time.

In Parashat Shoftim, Moshe presents detailed instructions about how the Israelites are to form functioning, thriving communities once they have entered the Promised Land.  As the opening words suggest, shoftim v’shotrim titen l’kha b’khol she’arekha.  “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all of your gates” – the overall emphasis is on justice, or righteousness.  Indeed, a few verses later, we read the famous words, tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.  From the appointment of judges, officials, and leaders, to the conduct of court cases, to rooting out immorality, to waging war against enemies, Parashat Shoftim  recognizes justice as a goal that must constantly pursued, even as absolute justice remains perpetually out of reach.  It also emphasizes that justice can only emerge when members of a society work together to make these ideals a reality in the messy real world.

This is what we found at Hanaton – a group of people who have moved their entire families into a community in order to pursue this vision of tzedek.  I often found myself thinking that Hanaton is what Sinai would be like if we all lived together in a small community.  It is a nice thought.  We are a community made of members who have come together to pursue righteousness.

Sinai has always been lay led, but it is not easy for a synagogue to function without its rabbi for five months.  From everything I have heard and seen, the Sinai community has thrived.  I am not surprised.  We have an incredible community of knowledgeable, talented, and dedicated members.  There was someone to deliver a d’rash, lead services, and chant Torah every week.  Education programs continued while I was gone.  A group of musicians worked together to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services.  Mourners received the care and comfort that they needed.

I am not going to list the names of the many volunteers and staff members who stepped up these past five months, but I do want to let you know how much my sabbatical enriched me.  It deepened my connection to Israel, and my Jewish identity.  And it was a great experience for my family.  Thank you for making it possible.

Todah Rabah.