Kol Nidrei 5779
Al cheit shechatanu l’fanecha … for the sins we have committed …
for raising my voice in anger at my children.
for not being home enough to support my spouse.
for not being as patient of a father as I would like to be.
for not being as patient of a husband as I would like to be.
for neglecting relationships.
for not being generous with my children.
for selfishly venting my anger on my spouse.
for taking my anger out on my mother.
for losing patience with my struggling child.
for thinking ill of my sister.
for speaking ill of my sister.
for not honoring my husband.
These are some of the actions for which we, the TBJ community, asked God for forgiveness last year. Cantor Shira and I read these from the forgiveness cards that you dropped into the Healing Bucket that we place in the vestibule between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
We read very similar comments the year before, and the year before that. And we will read many of these same words tomorrow.
Why is it so hard to be kind to our intimates?
We are Jews, so let’s start by looking at our Biblical ancestors.
We’ll, there’s Abraham. He made his wife Sarah pretend to be his sister when they went to Egypt. He threw out of his house his son Ishmael along with Hagar, Ishmael’s mother. He was ready to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah until an angel of God stopped him.
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, tricked his brother out of his birthright. He then deceived their father in order to obtain the blessing of the first-born. And who helped him deceive his father? His mother, Rebecca.
Miriam speaks badly about her brother, Moses. Why? According to the midrash, it’s because Moses had stopped having intimate relations with his wife, Tzipporah.
And let’s not forget that Cain killed his bother Abel; Noah’s sons ridicule their father when he gets drunk and naked; and Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery to a passing caravan of Ishmaelite merchants.
So let me ask my question again: Why is it so hard to be kind to our intimates? In their book On Kindness, authors Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor write:
“The pleasure of kindness is that it connects us with others; but the terror of kindness is that it makes us too immediately aware of our own and other people’s vulnerabilities (vulnerabilities that we … call failings when we are … most frightened). Vulnerability – particularly the vulnerability we call desire – is our shared biological inheritance. Kindness, in other words, opens us up to the world of others in ways that we both long for and dread.”
That vulnerability in ourselves often causes us to hold back our acts of kindness. As the author Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.”
One way we defend against our own vulnerabilities is by being critical. Criticism is an ego defense. We don’t criticize others because we disagree with their behavior or attitude. We criticize others because we feel devalued by their behavior or attitude.
So, we want to be kind to our intimates, but it scares us to do so. And yet, in our hearts, in our guts, in our kishkes, we know we must. The late cosmologist Carl Sagan offers this simple, yet oh-so-difficult, suggestion: “[Remember that] none of us comes fully equipped. Let us temper our criticism with kindness.”
I recently came across an article about decades of research on how spouses and partners relate to each other.
Social scientists found that the number one predictor of a satisfying and stable marriage or partnership is treating each other with kindness. The same can be said for our relationships with our other intimates – our parents, our children, our siblings, and our friends.
Years ago, a congregant told me about her relationship with her mother. Her mother had been married several times and mostly saw her daughter as a burden. She travelled for long periods of time, leaving her child to be cared for by grandparents, with whom the girl became very close. When the mother would return home, she treated her daughter cruelly – her self-centeredness resulted in a terrible jealousy concerning the girl’s closeness to her grandmother. The daughter eventually walked away from any relationship with her mother. And then many years later, the daughter received a late night phone call from Logan Airport. Her mother had flown in on an international flight – the daughter hadn’t even known that her mother was living overseas – to move back to the States. The mother was elderly and frail and in need of care. The only living relative was her daughter. The grown woman gritted her teeth, thought about kibud av v’eim – the commandment to honor one’s parents – and drove to Boston to get her mother. She put her in a nursing home locally and rarely visited. When her mother died, she asked me to say a few prayers at the house, as she couldn’t bring herself to hold a funeral service.
I tell you this story because we see in it an extreme version of what parental unkindness can lead to. The poet Cathy Song offers these painful words as a reminder in her work, The Kindness of Others:
Those who have never known kindness
drag into the privacy of their smallness
the baskets of fruit
appearing year after year on their porches,
to be picked apart
in the hushed posture of thieves.
They peel skin, probe flesh
the color of honey
as if the seeds will yield something
other than a glimmer of sweet air
rising from the roots of trees
and licorice-laced, half-opened leaves.
Those of the small flame,
who feed off envy and grow old quickly,
live out their lives
glaring at themselves across the table,
wife of the cruel mouth,
husband of the thin broth
trickling like spittle.
Returning to my story of daughter abandoned by her mother, thank heavens, she did not repeat her mother’s behavior and has a very close and loving relationship with her own children.
Because sometimes, that is what unkindness from an intimate can give us: The will to behave just the opposite.
When we are kind to those with whom we are close, we are willing to celebrate their successes without feeling jealous or that their successes somehow diminish our own successes – or even our very existence. Of course, this requires treating our own self with kindness – and that is the topic of my sermon tomorrow morning.
But to celebrate others, we must drop the competition or the thinking that there’s a limited amount of success to go around. Even Darwin, famous for his theory of the survival of the fittest, didn’t believe that humans were self-centered and competitive. While he concluded through the study of biological evolution that certain species would survive, he actually believed that human beings are profoundly caring and kind, instinctively. Behaving the opposite, he taught, is what is learned.
Psychologists John Gottman and Robert Levenson began studying married couples in the mid-1980s, tying to figure out what makes some relationships succeed and others not. They watched newlyweds interact for a set period of time, recording what they saw, and followed up six years later to see whether the couples were still together, and if so, whether they were still happy.
In the follow up, they divided the couples into two categories: masters and disasters. Masters were still happily married. Disasters were either divorced or chronically unhappily married.
Gottman continued the study of the couples by himself. He wanted to discover how the masters created an atmosphere of love and intimacy, while the disasters destroyed it. He created a lab that looked like a lovely bed and breakfast. He invited 130 couples to spend a day at his “lab,” and then he watched how they interacted with each other as they cooked, ate, cleaned up, went for walks, enjoyed music, and chatted. His critical discovery was this: When one spouse called out for a connection – perhaps it was to see an unusual bird that that bird-loving spouse noticed – the other spouse of the master couple responded with enthusiasm.
Psychologist Shelly Gable describes four possible ways one spouse can respond to the other who shares news. She calls them: passively destructive, actively destructive, passively constructive, and actively constructive. Using the bird-watching example, a passively destructive response would include ignoring the partner’s news and imposing one’s own, such as: “Hey, I just noticed they are serving salmon for dinner. That’s my favorite!”
A passively constructive response would acknowledge the spouse’s statement, but essentially ignore it, by saying something like, “that’s nice.”
An actively destructive response would diminish the statement with something like, “Those birds are a dime a dozen. I’ve seen hundreds of them today.”
With an actively constructive response, the other partner purposefully engages, saying something like, “That’s great that you saw such an unusual bird. Have you ever seen it before? And what made you look up in that direction?”
Both Gottman and Gable concluded that these kinds of interactions have substantial effects on the health of any marital or partner relationship. Gottman, in particular, noted that the couples who were still happily together six years after his initial study of them responded in an actively constructive way nearly 90% of the time, while those who divorced or were unhappily still together responded that way only 33% of the time.
When I read about these psychologists and their studies, I immediately remembered a conversation I had had recently. Through Cantor Shira, I met a woman who works with horses professionally, and plays with horses in her spare time. Horses are her passion.
She had recently spent three days at a major annual horse event. Hundreds of horse people come together each year to learn, share ideas, shop, sell things, and do every possible other thing you might do when you are around other horse people. When she returned home, she was eager to share her experience with her boyfriend, a decidedly non-horse person. She hesitantly started talking about her time at the event when her boyfriend cut her off saying,
“You just spent three days with other horse people, talking non-stop about horse things. You don’t need to talk to me about it, too.”
She was crushed. She asked me if all non-horse loving partners responded this way. “I’m so sorry he rejected you,” I said. “I hope I am more supportive than that with Shira, but you’d have to ask her.”
While Gottman, Levenson, and Gable studied partners, their observations can be extended to other intimate relationships. A college freshman was out with her mother during spring break of her first year at school. Her mother asked her to share what classes she was taking and what she was learning. As the college student answered, her mother cut her off. The daughter asked her mother whey she interrupted her. Her mother responded, “You bore me,” a clearly actively destructive response – and one not all that different from how the mother had spoken to her daughter her entire life.
When the mother first asked the question, the daughter was stunned, thinking her mother had developed a genuine interest in her daughter. She soon realized that wasn’t the case and shut down. To this day, the daughter, who is nearly 60, has never shared anything of meaning or substance with her mother.
Research shows that people who criticize their intimates – partners, parents, children, siblings, or close friends – are unable to see the positive things their intimates do and say 50% of the time, and see negativity when it’s not there. They are irrevocably damaging the relationship by devaluing the people they theoretically love most.
Kindness has the opposite effect. Kindness makes others feel loved, cared for, valued, and safe. Even when we are tired, stressed, focused on our work, or otherwise engaged, responding with kindness will go an infinite distance. Let’s pledge to turn off the TV, shut down the computer or Ipad, or close the book in order to turn our focus to those people whom we so dearly love.
At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned some of our Biblical ancestors for whom kindness to intimates is a challenge. Not everyone in the Tanakh behaves in such a way. We have many examples of the opposite.
When Joseph, whose identity is unknown to his brothers, demands that Benjamin remain with him in Egypt because Benjamin “stole” a goblet, their brother Judah steps in and says, “Take me instead. If you take the boy, our father will surely die.”
After Naomi’s husband and two sons die, her daughter-in-law, Ruth, returns to Canaan with her. Ruth works for her deceased husband’s cousin, Boaz, who marries her in fulfillment of the Leverite marriage requirement, which as a cousin, is not incumbent upon him.
Best friends, Jonathan and David pledge themselves to each other in love. King Saul, Jonathan’s father, is paranoid about David’s royal intentions and orders that David be killed. Jonathan warns him multiple times when to flee, even as he risks his own life.
Taking action to show kindness can be the easy part. The harder part is changing our attitude. We get angry when our spouse forgets to run the errand we had asked about. We lose our temper when our child seems to slow us down – on the day we have an important meeting. We lose our cool with our aging parent who is losing his independence.
Rather than react – externally or internally – with hostility, stop to think about the other’s intention. Our spouse may have had a good reason to not stop at the dry cleaners – or maybe he just forgot. But he probably didn’t do it to make more work for us. Our child isn’t moving slowly so we can be late for a meeting. She may simply be in her own childhood world, taking time to savor what we take for granted. And our aging parent hasn’t lost his independence to annoy us. In fact, he’s probably more upset about it than we are. Let’s try to stop seeing negativity. Let’s let the spirit of generosity and kindness be the norm.
In first part of The Kindness of Others, Cathy Song reminds us:
The kindness of others
is all they ever wanted,
the laughter of neighbors
prospering in the blue light of summer.
Those of the small sputtering flame
and the sudden white sprung hair,
who feed off envy and grow old quickly,
The role of poor relation
evokes a lack
they are not apt to admit,
or unbearable pity.
They prefer to penetrate the giver’s
effortless knack of giving
they perceive as vitality,
a pulsating entity
that rewards the kindness of others
This they have witnessed.
This they have tabulated relentlessly.
The generosity of others
whose spirits, like their long-legged
children blossoming into a progeny
of orchards and fields, flourish.
Shanah tovah. May this be a year of kindness toward our intimates.
DiSalvo, Scientific American, 2017