22 Cheshvan, which this year falls out today, October 31, 2018, marks the 11th yahrtzeit of my dear Sabta Dina Lerner. Sabta Dina led a very rich and exceptional life, and died at the age of 96. She was born in Bessarabia, married and moved to Peru, then to Israel, then to New York, then to Colombia, and finally to the Twin Cities, where she spent the last three decades or so of her life living with my family. Sabta Dina is one of three people, no longer with us, who has had a profound influence on my life. Strangely, with each passing year, I miss her more, and the pain of her loss is more acute.
Sabta Dina was not what one might view today as a conventionally religious Jew. She did not, in the large, observe Shabbat or kashrut as Jews who label themselves “Orthodox” do today. (For example, she used to enjoy watching television on Shabbat, especially the original Star Trek in reruns, because William Shatner looks like my uncle.) Nonetheless, reflecting back, she was a deeply religious Jew, certainly being a better exemplar of authentic Jewish values than many who call themselves “Orthodox” today.
I want to write about two of those authentic values. Both values are guiding principles by which I live my life every day.
Sabta Dina had a simple recipe for dealing with anger. “If someone offends you,” she used to say, “write a letter to them and mail it to yourself.” Far from being a sophisticated method of ignoring and stuffing anger, it was a very clever way to make explicit the Jewish value of “kol haposeil b’mumo poseil” — flaws which we see in others are generally a reflection of a flaws we ourselves possess. When one is angry, and one is tempted to point a finger at another, one ought to be careful first to examine one’s own behavior and see whether what they see in the world reflects an external or an internal reality. One needs to be sure what one is seeing is bona fide before they ever open their mouth to attack another human being in anger. Anger and self-righteousness are usually loud warning bells that something is going on inside.
Another value which Sabta Dina expressed was the idea of “tocho k’voro,” that what goes on inside ought to be consistent with one’s external demeanor and vice-versa. Many times, when I was heading off to day school, Sabta Dina would see me and stress that it was not my kippa and my tzitzit that made me who I was, it was my behavior. “Don’t wear those,” she would say, “unless you are willing to live up to what they represent.” The lesson that one must be mindful of one’s behavior has stayed with me my entire life. It is not the office, or the title, or the dress, that make one who they are. It is their behavior.
I function as a chaplain, and as a rabbi. You can be sure that when I take on the cloak of a chaplain or a rabbi, that I am mindful to act the part. It is my behavior that makes me a chaplain or a rabbi, not the parchment or the title or the name badge or the paycheck. And I realize, as I consider whether to offer critique or criticism, whether I am being honest with myself and whether perhaps such critique or criticism might be applied to me. I work hard to live up to my role; sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail.
If she were alive today, Sabta Dina likely would have been perplexed at the tone and demeanor with which we conduct business in 2018. The decibel level at which we engage in “dialogue”, the partisanship, and the projection of our own problems and insecurities onto others are totally contrary to the values by which she lived her life and which she imbued in me. It would do well for us as a society, and as residents of this small planet, to take Sabta Dina’s authentic Jewish values to heart.