Sunday, September 18, 2011

Have You Shown Love and Affection To Someone Today?

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
The following sermon was delivered by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue this past Shabbat
A few summers ago, I was walking down Ben Yehuda St. and I saw something startling. There were young men and young women holding up signs that said two words on them - free hugs. They had big smiles, positive demeanors and an upbeat attitude and they were literally promoting themselves as available to give free hugs to anyone who wanted. Even more remarkable to me, was that people were actually taking them up on it. I watched as someone would walk by, pause to read the sign and actually go up for their free hug before continuing on their way.

As it turns out, these individuals are part of a worldwide campaign to offer free hugs. What I saw that day on Ben Yehudah is taking place in cities around the world. On the website, the initiator of this campaign tells how it all began:

"I'd been living in London when my world turned upside down and I'd had to come home. By the time my plane landed back in Sydney, all I had left was a carry-on bag full of clothes and a world of troubles. No one to welcome me back, no place to call home. I was a tourist in my hometown.

Standing there in the arrivals terminal, watching other passengers meeting their waiting friends and family, with open arms and smiling faces, hugging and laughing together, I wanted someone out there to be waiting for me. To be happy to see me. To smile at me. To hug me.
So I got some cardboard and a marker and made a sign. I found the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city and held that sign aloft, with the words "Free Hugs" on both sides.

And for 15 minutes, people just stared right through me. The first person who stopped, tapped me on the shoulder and told me how her dog had just died that morning. How that morning had been the one year anniversary of her only daughter dying in a car accident. How what she needed now, when she felt most alone in the world, was a hug. I got down on one knee, we put our arms around each other and when we parted, she was smiling.

Everyone has problems and for sure mine haven't compared. But to see someone who was once frowning, smile even for a moment, is worth it every time."

Don't worry, I am not suggesting this be the newest campaign for BRS, but the relative success of this initiative reveals something very insightful - people are so desperate for a display of affection that they will even take it from a complete stranger.

"V'haya ki savo el ha'aretz asher Hashem Elokecha nosein lecha nachala..." Our parsha begins with the commandment of bikkurim, obligating the farmer in Israel to bring his first fruits each year to Yerushalayim to be given to the Kohen. Part of the ceremony is the recitation of what we call the mikra bikkurim, a declaration that accompanies the giving of the fruit. In it the farmer reflects on Jewish history, particularly how our forefathers were persecuted, we ended up as slaves in Egypt, but ultimately, Hashem emancipated us, brought us into Israel to settle our homeland in fulfillment of His promise to our patriarchs, and here I am to now, concludes the farmer, to offer my first fruit.

While we traditionally refer to this recitation as mikrah bikkurim, the Rambam, curiously, has a different name for it. In his introduction to the mitzvah of bikkurim, the Rambam writes: "mitzvas asei l'hisvados b'mikdash al ha'bikkurim;" There is a positive commandment to confess in the Temple regarding the first fruit. The Rambam peculiarly calls it vidui, confession, but all we do is mention some aspects of Jewish History and thank the Almighty for providing our sustenance.

When we think of confession, we normally think of a different statement of the Rambam in the laws of teshuva. There, the Rambam tells us that verbal, explicitly articulated confession is a critical component of repentance. The term vidui in the context of admitting one's mistakes and setting out to repair them makes complete sense. But why use the same term to describe a declaration about Jewish history and appreciation of sustenance that includes no admission of wrongdoing or expression of remorse?

The question is bolstered when you keep reading our parsha. The very next section deals with the process of taking tithes from our produce and includes a declaration the farmer recites when he has appropriately and accurately completed his tithing. He states - "I have done everything correctly and not omitted even one detail." Our Rabbis call this statement - vidui ma'aser, the confession of the tithes, though the term confession once again seems entirely inapplicable.

What then does vidui really mean? Vidui does indeed mean confession, but confession does not necessarily mean an admission of wrongdoing or error. Even in our vernacular, when we want to be honest about something we are feeling inside, we may say "I must confess to you what is in my heart." Chazal saw confession as the revelation of what someone is truly and honestly feeling. The statement of appreciation when bringing bikkurim is called confession, because we are obligated to use our words to express the appreciation and gratitude that we are supposed to genuinely feel. When we properly tithe, we recite vidui ma'aser to verbally affirm our deep commitment to share generously and be charitable with our income. And of course, when we are sincerely remorseful, we recite vidui, we admit out loud what we did wrong and affirm our commitment to improve.

The Sefer Ha'Chinuch explains that vidui must be fulfilled verbally, because in order to validate what is in your heart, you must be able and willing to put it into words. The formula and its words are not for God, but rather the declaration helps us actualize the feelings that are to be in our heart. It isn't enough for the farmer to say listen, in my heart I am grateful. The Torah asks him to put it into words and in that way concretize and actualize those feelings.

Just as it isn't enough to feel love and affection for God in our hearts, but we must display those emotions through words and deeds, the same is true in our relationships with those around us.

This morning, in the third installment in our series on "Giving is Getting," I would like to focus on the critical importance of giving love and affection through words and through deeds and all that we get in return when we do.

Last month the British heart foundation shared a fascinating study which revealed that 18% of people kiss their spouse less than once a week. That means 1 in 5 couples can go an entire week without a kiss hello, a kiss goodbye, or a kiss goodnight. As life has gotten more chaotic, busier and pressure filled, many people are forgetting to provide and to fulfill a very basic human need - the need for affection and for love. We are too satisfied feeling love only in our heart and we forget that to actualize that love and make it more real, we must communicate it through words and other expressions of affection.

Affection and love are not necessarily romantic. Physical gestures serve to connect, to comfort and to uplift. Indeed, there are studies that correlate children's self-esteem with the amount of affection their parents shower on them. Are we sharing enough hugs and kisses with our children? Do we show them affection for no reason at all, just to communicate that we love them or do we only give them a hug when they bring home a good grade or help us do the dishes? When in the correct context, do we reach for our spouses hand as a way of saying I want to connect with you and I want you to know how much I love and appreciate you? Do we place a hand on a friend's shoulder as a way of saying I feel your pain and I am aware of your challenges?

But affection is not only communicated through physical contact, it can be expressed through thoughtful actions. Rav Reuven Feinstein, remembers how his father, one of the greatest Rabbis of the previous generation whose halachik opinions were universally sought out, would wake up early on cold winter mornings in NY City to lay out little Reuven's school clothing on the radiator in order to warm them up and remove the chill. This gesture of caring, this display of affection left an indelible impression of Rav Reuven so much so that he never forgot it.

What is the last affectionate gesture we have done for those around us? Simple things like making a cup of coffee for our spouse, without being asked, or picking up our kids favorite snack without needing to be nagged can communicate a message of love and devotion.

But as much as we must be more generous and magnanimous with affection and through physical contact and action, we must increase our gestures of affection and love through words as well.

Affection through words can mean asking how the day went and actually caring enough to pay attention to the details in the answer. Affection towards a friend could mean taking notice of something new about them and offering an unsolicited compliment. I have learned so much from my daughter Atara, who so naturally and intuitively is generous with her compliments. I have watched many of your faces light up when she approaches you on a Shabbos morning and says, "are those new shoes you're wearing, I love them," or "did you get a haircut, you look so pretty."

The gemara in berachos 6b says amar Rebbe Ashi, agra d'bei hilulei milei - the reward for attending a wedding comes from the generous and kind words one shares with the Chassan and Kallah endearing them to one another and bringing them great joy. The gemara bava basra 9b states, amar Rebbe Yitzchak, kol ha'noesin peruta l'ani misbareich b'sheish berachos, v'hamefyso bidvorim, misbareich b'yud berachos. While a check or some cash will certainly help put food on the poor person's table, it is encouraging words and reassuring gestures that can return dignity, self-esteem and hope to the indigent individual.

When one gives affection, comfort and love through words and deeds, one gets deep satisfaction, joy and personal fulfillment in return. A few years ago, there was a man in our community who lost his mother and I noticed he would only lead the davening for the very end. One day, he took over at yishtabach and after davening I went over to him and said, "you did a great job, you really should consider leading the whole davening every day, it would be a great merit." Frankly, I thought nothing of my comment and forget it immediately after saying it. That day, he sent me an email, listen to what it said:

"Rabbi - I really appreciated your kind words today. One never knows how a smile or a compliment at that right moment can change a person's day. I was quite apprehensive for months to lead davening. You have given me inspiration now to daven in the zechus (merit) of my mother."

It is so easy to share a compliment, a kind word, or a gesture of affection. It costs us nothing, but it can mean the world to our spouse, our children or our friends. The mishna in pirkei avos tells us to be a student of Avraham Avinu who is characterized as having an ayin tova, a generous eye. The Maharal says that elsewhere we are told to have a leiv tov, a generous heart, what is the difference? A leiv tov, says the Maharal, means display kindness and compassion when asked. An ayin tovah means see things in others that are worthy of compliments and share them. See the behavior and conduct in others that is worthy of love and be affectionate towards them.

Our spouses, children, parents and friends should never, ever, be so desperate for a hug, that they would accept one from a stranger. Don't allow one night to go bye without giving your kids a hug and kiss goodnight. Never go to sleep without telling your spouse you love and appreciate them. And make sure to compliment at least one person a day with no ulterior motive. You will find that as much as you give love and affection, you will get much more in return.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the Sr. Rabbi of Boca Raton Synagogue. He is the Posek of the community Mikvah, the Co-Chair of the ORB Va'ad Ha'Kashrus (Kosher Commission), a member of the RCA South Florida Regional Beis Din (Rabbinic Court) for Conversion, Vice President of the Rabbinical Council of America, and Chaiman of the Orthodox Union Legacy Group. Rabbi Goldberg serves on the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, Hillel Day School, Torah Academy of Boca Raton, and is a member of the AIPAC National Council. Rabbi Goldberg graduated from Yeshiva University with a B.A. in psychology and received Semicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University, and completed the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management Advanced Executive Program. Rabbi Goldberg is married to Yocheved and has six daughters, Racheli, Atara, Leora, Tamar, Estee and Temima.

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