Rabbi Smason’s Remarks at Sunday’s Zoom Yizkor

Rabbi Dovid Trenk, a yeshiva high school rebbe in Lakewood, New Jersey, had a problem.

One Friday night Rabbi Trenk was told that one of his students, Chaim, had found the keys to his car and had taken it to go to the movie theater.   It was Friday night – Shabbos.   Chaim had stolen his car, violated Shabbos, and was sitting in a movie theater, something which the students were not supposed to be doing any night of the week.

Rabbi Trenk put on his jacket and his hat and walked the thirty minutes to the movie theater. When he arrived there, he approached the ticket window and said, “I am really sorry to bother you. I did not come to watch the movie, but I do have a student inside who is watching it and I just need to go in for a couple of minutes to tell him something.”

After being given permission, Rabbi Trenk entered the darkened theater, and – trying very hard not to block anyone’s view – began to walk the aisles of the theater as he sought to recognize his student in the shadows. Eventually, he found him and slid into the seat next to the shocked student.

Rabbi Trenk had something to say to Chaim.  If you were in Rabbi Trenk’s shoes, what would you have said?  What do you think the Rebbe said?

As we look back at the past year, our minds can’t make sense of all that has happened.  The global pandemic’s staggering death toll, economic fall-out, and disruption to our communal and personal lives is far beyond what any of us has experienced.  Pre-Covid, did we have control of our lives? We lived with the illusion that we had control of our lives, but now realize that, to a great degree, that illusion has been shattered.

The limits imposed by the pandemic have drastically changed our interpersonal contacts, affecting our physical interactions outside the home, communally and professionally, as well as with our friends and family.  We haven’t been able to share simchas with others.  We haven’t been able to comfort others in moments of loss.   This Yom Kippur I will be part of many who will be conducting a private conversation with HaShem, rather than like in past years, joining all of you in shul when we were shoulder-to-shoulder as we raised our voices together to HaShem in song and prayer.

With so many areas of our personal, social, religious and synagogue life now clearly beyond our control, what are we supposed to do?

What message does this Yom Kippur have for us?

Rabbi Trenk was in the movie theater on a Friday night, wanting to have a word (or two) with Chaim, a wayward student who stole his car and drove on Shabbos.   What did the Rebbe say to Chaim?

Rabbi Trenk leaned over and whispered in the young man’s ear, “Chaim, I just wanted to make sure you knew that the popcorn here is probably not kosher.”

With that he stood up and just as careful not to block anyone’s view, made his way out of the theater. He thanked the ticket agent and started walking back home, but within moments, he had company. “Rebbe, Rebbe – I am coming with you.”  Chaim would walk him home.

What a story!  But why? If it were me – first, I would have to process my anger at the fact that the boy took my car without permission. Second, I would have to further deal with the fact that he took my car for a drive on Shabbos!   And finally, that he would have the nerve to take it to a movie, breaking yet another rule in our relationship.

But Rabbi Trenk did not react that way. He did not get angry about the stolen car. He did not say a word – not then and not ever – about his student driving on Shabbos. He did not reprimand him for the movie. He just reminded him that the popcorn may not be kosher.  Not only did he respond with kindness by not getting angry;  He doubled down on kindness and showed Chaim that he cared.

As the pandemic continues on, the cumulative effects of isolation, loneliness and suffering hasn’t necessarily elicited more empathy; on the contrary, counter intuitively, it has brought about apathy. The magnitude of the pandemic’s suffering has caused some people to become less compassionate, says Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, due to a phenomenon he calls “psychic numbing.”

You’ve heard of Zoom fatigue.  But people are suffering a considerably more serious type of fatigue.  With the pandemic now past the six-month point, people are experiencing compassion fatigue – a psychic, numbing apathy to the cumulative physical and emotional toll the pandemic is having on those around us.

But we can’t allow that to happen.  And there’s good news.  We can do something about it.

As the pandemic goes on, and as the path of least resistance directs some to apathy, we can create a redirection; we can obliterate ‘compassion fatigue’ by doubling down on kindness.

This Yom Kippur has a unique call to each of us;  Redirect our attention; See and refocus on the things we have forgotten that were most important; family connections, intentional relationships, and now, focus upon the many who are suffering from social isolation, loneliness, sadness and even depression.

A number of years ago I met a young man who was working at a local Jewish institution.  I invited him to shul and he came to a single program.   Once, and that was it.  But I stayed in touch with him over the years, inviting him to programs, though he never again attended.  But I kept him on my email list, staying in touch.

About three weeks ago he told me he had been let go from his job, and was suffering financially and emotionally.  I wrote him back a short note, expressing my empathy and a few words of encouragement.  A few days before Rosh HaShana, this young man who I’ll call Joe wrote back an email that left me agape. Joe wrote:

Dear Rabbi;  I’m actually very embarrassed for how much complaining I did in that email. That’s not something I’m proud of and it’s not healthy.

I appreciate your kind words. You have been the only Jewish person who has reached out to me ever.  That means a lot to me.

I would love to attend your synagogue. I am reluctant only because of my lack of exposure to the Jewish religion other than the books I have read. I do not know how to pray and I don’t know how to conduct myself. Have you been doing the synaplex during this mess with Covid? Maybe on the Internet? I would like to be involved in it so I can learn.

Thanks again and happy new year to you also. Joe

Did you catch that?   A young Jewish man, living and working in the midst of our St. Louis Jewish community, said:

You have been the only Jewish person who has reached out to me ever.

Not ‘the only rabbi’ who has ever reached out to me.  Not ‘the only Jewish professional’ who has ever reached out to me. The only Jewish person who has reached out to me.

Yom Kippur is a day of intense introspection, self-reflection and teshuva.  This Yom Kippur I suggest we spend a significant part of our day thinking  about all those whose tables have been empty and whose tables have been set for one.  Let’s spend some time thinking about people who can’t be in shul and those children who are exiled from their parents’ tables or whose children are exiled from theirs.

This Yom Kippur, let us think about those who find a sense of family with hosts who have been unable to have them. And let’s spend at least a few moments thinking about our brothers and sisters, like Joe, who are living in our community, among us but who have never had a Jewish person reach out to them.

And then,  in the course of our self-reflection and contemplation, let’s decide and commit to do something about it. And make no mistake about it, each and every one of us can do something for others, even those who are completely isolated at home.

I’ll give you an example: There’s one person in our shul who called me shortly after the pandemic began. She said, “Rabbi, I know you’ve been extremely busy giving Zoom classes and calling others.  But I don’t know how many people are calling you.  How are you?”

I was stunned.  I can’t tell you how good that call made me feel.  And that woman has since called me four or five times, just to say hello and see how I and my family are doing.

  • We can call one person a day to say hello.
  • We can join one of our regular Zoom classes — not just for the learning segment — but for the end, where people stay and schmooze, talk with each other, and experience the human touch, as best as possible under these almost-impossible conditions.
  • We can write one letter or card a day with a personal note, letting someone know that we’re thinking of them.
  • Maybe we can invite a friend, a neighbor or an acquaintance to our Wednesday Ethics of the Fathers class or Thursday evening Starting Points program.
  • Maybe we know someone with school-age children we can introduce to our terrific new young rabbi, Rabbi Okin.

Take one of my suggestions. Or better come up with one of your own. But commit to doing something.

Let this Yom Kippur be the Yom Kippur where we finally set aside our anger against someone who we feel justified at being angry at.   And then, either this afternoon or after Yom Tov surprise (or shock them) by doing a ‘Rabbi Trenk’.  Reach out and one way or another and say something that can have the same effect when Rabbi Trent leaned over to Chaim and whispered, “Are you sure the popcorn is kosher?”

Hope is on the horizon.  Scientists and health experts are racing to provide more effective treatments, and we will soon have, G-d willing, a safe and effective vaccine.  In the meantime, what can we do?  We can — and must — swim upstream and fight against compassion fatigue.  On Yom Kippur, let’s make an iron-clad commitment, in some way, to double down on kindness to others.

Gmar Chasima Tova — May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life