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Rabbi Seidel Drash Rosh Hashanah Day One 5777-2016

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Rosh Hashanah Day One - 5777 (2016)
Friendship: Facebook vs. Ayn HaRah

 

[As soon as I begin, someone brings me a letter, which I won't open till later]

Like some of you, I go to professional conferences once, sometimes twice a year.  And for many years now, during these conferences, I've noticed a recurring pattern in my mood.  The first day is always great: travelling to the conference, seeing old friends, and enjoying just getting away from it all.  But by the second day, I always start to feel depressed and lonely, for reasons that were not clear to me.  However, by the end of the third day, I somehow always feel renewed and wonderful, and happy that I came to the conference.  Weird!?

This year, I think I figured out what has been going on.  After the initial newness and excitement wears off, I start to feel down because I hear stories that upset me.  Some of these stories are from acquaintances, about how amazingly well they are doing in their congregations. Some of the stories are from the classes I'm taking at the convention: "If you only did this, you'd be a much more successful Rabbi!"  I start to feel like a failure.  But then, by the end of the third day - and this is true especially of the small conferences I go to, when a group of 10 or so Rabbis will meet daily throughout the conference, and gradually feel close enough to share true things about their lives - by the end of the 3rd day, I start to feel close again to my colleagues.  I remember: we all have very similar challenges.  And most of us want to share both the ups and downs of our lives.  But we cannot do it on the 1st or 2nd day of the conference.  It takes awhile, usually in the confines of a daily group that meets and shares, to build the trust it takes to be honest with each other.  And that honesty works to dissolve the competitiveness inherent in the Rabbinate, and I would guess, in many professions.  In the presence of this honesty, I end up not jealous, but rather admiring my colleagues, and also feeling better about myself at the same time.

Today I want to explore the relationship between friendship and honesty.  For honesty about ourselves is crucial, as we begin these 10 days of repentance.  I want to reflect on what it is that makes friendships more honest, more real, more supportive, more helpful?  In particular, I can't help wondering how what we tell our friends about our lives, has influence on what we tell ourselves about our lives.

I going to frame my drash today by exploring two extremes of dishonesty, extremes with which we are all familiar.

The first extreme, I'll call positive dishonesty.  This is how we interact with people we don't know all that well.  A casual acquaintance asks us, "So, how you doing?", and we answer, quite appropriately, if not entirely honestly, "Fine thanks, and you?"  Or, we may go farther with the dishonesty, and take the opportunity to brag a little.

Ok, so what is this? Ah, an invitation!

Rabbi Seidel:  We are so pleased and proud to invite you to the weaning of our amazing son Isaac next month, at this time.  Our little bundle of joy is incredibly precocious, and we know you will want to see this firsthand!  Here he is, not yet three, and he is running almost as fast as his big brother!  And he is already reading chapter books, something his big brother never mastered.  Isaac has become quite comfortable already with a bow and arrow - so watch out Ishmael!  What a blessing is our little Isaac.  Our world is complete, and we want to share our good fortune with you, so we hope you will join us when he is weaned at the next full moon! Abraham and Sarah

Don't you hate these things.  All the self-congratulation in that invite, I'd be tempted to skip the weaning ceremony.  What is a weaning ceremony anyway?  You pull the kid from the mother's breast and listen to him scream for several days?? 

Sorry, I got distracted.  Back to the interaction with a casual acquaintance.   Now, the casual acquaintance may press you further, and you may give a few details about your life, but you would be unlikely to give a full picture of your life, with its successes and disappointments. And not only would you be unlikely, you would be unwise to give such a full picture.  It's TMI, to much information.  A casual acquaintance doesn't want to know your sorrows, unless, of course, you are a celebrity.

But note that TMI is a relative term.  What's too much information for a stranger, might be TLI, too little information for a close friend.  You cannot keep a close friend close if you don't share what's really happening in your life.  If you just share what's on the surface, you will have a mere surface relationship.  If you want a deep friendship, a relationship that will give you support and encouragement in good times and bad  - well for a friendship like that, you have to take risks, you have to go deep.  And you have to put in the time.

And that's hard.  It takes time to build up trust, and somehow, we seem to be too busy to spend the time it takes to build such friendships.  But without that trust, who has the courage it takes to confess disappointment?  But we all know it's so worth it.  A friend who knows you well can tell you things about yourself that you didn't know, or you kind of knew, but tried to ignore.  A friend like that helps you with your own personal honesty.

These friendships help you do teshuva. This time of year especially, you want to be meeting with your close friends, asking forgiveness, and listening to advice and comfort.  Don't neglect these relationships, these connections, this central part of being human.

I worry that we, nowadays, spend too much time on casual acquaintances.  Old high school friends we've connected with on Facebook, 2nd cousins, former co-workers, ex-lovers, ... Not that the internet is all bad in this respect - by no means.  Sometimes casual acquaintances can be of great help: if you are part of a small interest group far flung around the country or even the world, it's a great way to keep in touch, and share information.  But all that connectivity can also be a distraction.  There's the temptation to think that you can really be close friends, you can really have important connections with many many people.

There is an article that I included in my packet about this.  Let me read you a selection:

Because time is limited, so, too, is the number of friends you can have, according to the work of the British evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar. He describes layers of friendship, where the topmost layer consists of only one or two people, say a spouse and best friend with whom you are most intimate and interact daily. The next layer can accommodate at most four people for whom you have great affinity, affection and concern and who require weekly attention to maintain. Out from there, the tiers contain more casual friends with whom you invest less time and tend to have a less profound and more tenuous connection. Without consistent contact, they easily fall into the realm of acquaintance. You may be friendly with them but they aren't friends.

"There is a limited amount of time and emotional capital we can distribute, so we

only have five slots for the most intense type of relationship," Mr. Dunbar said. "People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships."

[End quote] You only have so much free time.  If you want to spend way more time than previous generations did on cultivating casual friendships, geh gesunt.  But something else will have to go to make time for all those casual friendships.  And I'm afraid that what tends to suffer, due to all this flowering of connectivity with casual friendships, is the memory of what it takes to nurture close friendships.  What with the convenience of casual relationships online, versus the challenging nature of honest, close friendships, the temptation is to go with the easy, the casual, the more superficial. But if you make that tradeoff, and emphasize the casual over the serious relationship, your honesty to yourself will suffer.  For how often can you post only nice things about your life on social media, without starting to pretend to yourself that your life is composed only of nice things?

Again, I'm not here to bash Facebook.  Facebook didn't create the phenomenon of casual acquaintances.  It just expanded the possibilities.  You may have good reason to maintain connections with a wide swath of humanity.  Just make sure you still have the time and energy to nurture your close friendships.

So much for positive dishonesty, the dishonesty about how great our lives are.  It has its place, for sure, with superficial friends.  But positive dishonesty, like any good thing, it has its downsides.

On the other side of the coin is what I'll call negative dishonesty, in which we tell stories about ourselves that are more negative than our lives really are.  The opposite of bragging. Though, truthfully, constant complaining about one's life can also have a bit of a braggy air to it. There are those who love to complain about their misfortunes, who display a sort of "triumphant unhappiness" to use a phrase from an article in my packet.

[A second congregant hands me another letter]

Another letter!?

Rabbi Seidel:  Sarah, here.  I'm very sorry to trouble you again, but Abraham sent out those invitations without my having a chance to look at them.  Listen, I've read your High Holiday sermons, and I know that you know how it really is here in our camp.  The work is endless - and Abraham sees his role more as an inviter that a cook or a host.  Isaac is bright, thank God, but he doesn't show much initiative.  The worst is that Ishmael bullies him constantly; I've got to keep my eyes on them every second to keep Isaac safe.  I feel so mixed: here I'd wished for a child for decades, and now that I've finally been blessed with a child, I feel like I've been cursed.  And I'm worried what people are going to say.  I've heard that people don't even think he's my baby, that I could not possibly have had a child at my age.  They think he's some foundling, or even worse, that he's another child Abraham fathered with Hagar.  They're laughing at me, I'm sure of it.  I'm not looking forward to this simcha, that's for sure.  But Rabbi, if you can come to the weaning, we'd love to see you, though honestly, if you are too busy, that's more than fine: I'll have my hands full with the local self-important dignitaries whom we need to invite, and who take care never to miss a good spread.  But please, come if you can.

Wow.  Way too much information. It doesn't really feel like a simcha.  If  I attended this kind of thing at all, it would be to support Sarah, not to celebrate with her.  But I hardly know her!? Why is she telling me all this?  She's undercutting her happiness at the miracle she's been granted.  It doesn't feel healthy. But there is, I'm afraid, a Jewish feel to it.

The fact is, we Jews do negative dishonesty as well as anyone.  Perhaps this pessimism comes from the ancient concept of Ayin Harah, the evil eye.  Here's a helpful definition of the Evil eye from the Jastrow dictionary of Aramaic: Ayin Harah, or even just 'ayin' in the Talmud, is "the evil eye, an envious glance that brings harm to the person looked at..."  [repeat it].  It is such a weird thought: the idea that what I'm thinking about you, could actually hurt you in some direct way. 

Note, this concept is not unique to us Jews.  In fact, the evil eye exists in many cultures throughout the world.  You can find it in the Qur'an, and especially in later Islamic writings. The idea of the Evil eye probably predates Judaism.  The Hamsa, the amulet in the shape of a hand that some Jews wear, has, among its traditional functions, the job of warding off the evil eye.  I want to spend a few minutes examining the evil eye in our tradition, and the social utility that might be found in this superstition.

There are a number of Talmudic stories about the evil eye.  Here is a representative story - we actually covered it this past year in my Shabbat morning Talmud class (Brachot 58b).  The context of the story is a discussion of the halacha: "One who sees a friend whom he has not seen in more than 30 days should say the Shehechiyanu..."

Two Rabbis were walking along, and they encountered Rav Hanina.  They said to him:

"Now that we've seen you, we can say two brachas, 1) the brachah for seeing a sage ... and, 2) since we haven't seen you in over 30 days, also the shehechiyanu!"

 Rav Hanina responded: "And as for me, now that I've seen you two, who are such great sages that I equate you to 600,000 of the house of Israel, I can say three blessings: the two you just mentioned, as well as the blessing one says upon seeing 600,000 of the house of Israel!"

The two Rabbis responded: "Oh, you are so clever!"  They set their eyes on him, and he died.

Whoa!?  Seems a little harsh for a little game of who can say the most brachot!

But the evil eye is, for the Rabbis, a fact of life, a danger that exists in the world, like a cliff, or a raging river.  Any responsible person needs to take care to avoid incurring jealousy.

Nobody meant harm to Rav Hanina; they just felt a little envious.

So: is there a message for us here?  I think so, in fact I can think of two messages.  1) Avoid jealousy.  It doesn't just hurt you - it can harm others.  And 2) Try to prevent making others envious.  Play down your successes, your brilliance, the wondrousness of your blessed life.

Speaking of a blessed life, I have read that the term "blessed" is used online nowadays as a way to pretend one is not bragging.  You send a photo of your beautiful child or whatnot, and you caption it "blessed", as if you're not bragging at all, you're really just being thankful for what God has given you.

It all makes me think that the concept of the evil eye has some social utility. There is value in the custom of avoiding another's envy.  At the very least, a person who seriously believes in the evil eye cannot be a braggart.  They won't do anything to provoke others' jealousy.  And such modesty, even if it come as a result of superstition, might be a good thing, right?  Not to mention the utility of a person trying to avoid becoming jealous of another.  That could make your life happier, if you avoided places - social media, say - that led you to envy.  Of course, I'd have to avoid the 2nd day of every Rabbinical Assembly convention, as well.  Or at least stay for the third day, when that jealousy begins to dissipate.

Now, you may be thinking: "Hello, Rabbi, none of us believe in the evil eye anymore, so what's the point of arguing that has some purpose.  We're not superstitious!"  Hey, we may still wrestle with a vestigial belief in the evil eye. Some American Jews, combine a belief in the ayin harah with the more American custom of strutting your stuff.  We have a methodology of both bragging, like good Americans, and avoiding the evil eye at the same time by spitting three times, as in:  "My son, he got into med school, poo poo poo."  The "poo, poo, poo", or the knocking on wood, or whatever you do after mentioning something good - somehow that ritual wards off the evil eye.  It may seem like a stupid custom, the spitting three times so that you can say what you really wanted to say.  But I like the tension there.  In the old country, I'm guessing, at least at one time, you wouldn't even said the positive thing.  But in the last few centuries, we have begun, perhaps influenced by surrounding cultures, to want to say nice things.  And the "poo poo poo" makes it possible to care about the evil eye, on the one hand, and on the other, to share your good fortune.

But at the end of the day, I think it's good that we care less about the evil eye than we used to.  Life is depressing, if you can never share good news.  Who wants to live like that any more?  And yet, life is also depressing if you only share good news - apparently, studies show that reading other's peoples Facebook posts tends to get you depressed, as you start to envy others picture-perfect lives.

So where does that leave us?  As usual, it leaves us performing a balancing act between the two extremes.  Too much bragging, or too much negativity - both are bad, and it can be hard to find the right balance.  I find that striking the right balance is often tricky, when I'm talking with anyone who is not a very close friend.  I don't want to brag, and I don't want to whine. Honestly, I find it easier to just listen.  Which is fine: I like to listen, and just listening can be very helpful for the person you are listening to.  These conversations, with more casual acquaintances, are good, and important.  But though they can sometimes be a real meeting of minds, they are rarely a meeting of souls.

The best conversations are with close friends.  In fact, I might even define a close friend as someone with whom I can brag.  I can brag, they can brag, I can complain to them about my life, and they can complain to me about theirs.  A friend is someone about whom I love to hear good tidings, whose triumphs don't get me jealous, and then depressed. And a friend is someone who can also complain to me honestly about their lives.  Often, with close friends, it feels like the balance between bragging and whining has been struck just right, and I come away from the encounter with a friend, enriched, enlivened, with a better understanding of my own life.  I might even come away with good advice, advice about how I could to better, advice about repentance. Often the advice isn't stated explicitly - it doesn't have to be, between good friends - and given that this indirect advice is gentle, it is more likely to be helpful.

I will also say that the length of conversations with friends adds to the positive effect. Sometimes truth comes right away, blurted out at the beginning of a conversation.  "Ethan, I'm worried that I'm about to lose my job!"  And sometimes, maybe even more often, the truth seeps in, at the end of an hours-long desultory talking.

Alas, life nowadays is so hectic that long conversations don't happen so often.  Maybe, maybe, by the third day of a conference.  Even a phone call is a luxury we don't always afford ourselves, making do with an email or a text.  We're so busy, we don't have the time to invest in maintaining or developing such friendships.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we have many friends, because we can, with our modern technology, be in constant contact with so many people.  But what is the nature of those many friendships?  And how honest are they?  How supportive?  And how to find the time for such deep friendships?

A quick note here to introduce my drash for Yom Kippur morning, in which I will focus on the issue of loneliness.  Not everyone has close friends, and it's not always from lack of trying.  There is lots of loneliness in this congregation, and that is a shame.  I think we as a community can do something about this.  My talk this morning about close friendship is not meant to pour salt in the wounds of those who could use more friendship.  It is only to encourage you think seriously about the issue of friendship.  More on this in 10 days.

I've spent much of this year studying and teaching the writings of the S'fas Emes, a Polish Rebbe of the late 19th century.  There is a theme that he weaves through much of his writing that is relevant here.  The S'fas Emes believed there was a spark of God in everything. Every material thing, every living thing, certainly every human being, even every human action all have an essential core of holiness. And not just holiness, but the potential for growth, novelty, development. However, in this world, that spark of holiness is concealed.  We forget about it. Fortunately, God has given us tools, spiritual practices if you will, that enable us to reveal God's presence in the mundane.

One of those tools, especially appropriate to a discussion of friendship, is Shabbat.  God has blessed us, the people Israel, with time.  Time to go deeper.  Time to have a conversation without electronic interference, or even electronic mediation.  Time to take a long walk, time just to hang out with each other.  Time to sing together.  Time to listen carefully, time to get close to those we cherish.  Maybe this is the extra soul that or tradition promises us on Shabbat.  It's the soul of our friend, whom, on Shabbat, we have the opportunity to know better.

Listen, we're a modern non-orthodox congregation.  If you want to work on Shabbat, nobody is going to say boo to you.  If you want to fill your Shabbat running errands, or shlepping kids to their sports events, or waiting for the electrician, that's your business.  But with the backing of the S'fas Emes, I'm here to remind you that there are certain gates that only open on Shabbat.

For many, life feels so busy that it's hard to justify spending the time it takes to get close to another, and so get close to the Holy One.  You almost need an excuse nowadays not to be busy.  Our tradition gives you that excuse: remember Shabbat, and keep it holy.  The "it", of "keep it holy" of course, is not Shabbat - that is by definition holy.  The "it" you keep holy is your own soul, your openness to the new and the holy in those you love.  And, most importantly at this time of year, Shabbat can give you time to nurture the friendships, that in turn will nurture you.

If you want to do teshuva this year, it's going to take time.  You've started out well by coming here today, giving yourself time for prayer and contemplation.  Perhaps, during this year, you might increase that investment, giving yourself the time to uncover the holiness in God's creatures.

May you be inscribed for a good year.

Rabbi Seidel Drash - Rosh Hashanah Day One - 5777 (2016)
Friendship, Facbook, and Ayn HaRah

 

RH1: Friendship: Facebook vs. Ayin HaRah

[As soon as I begin, someone brings me a letter, which I won't open till later]

Like some of you, I go to professional conferences once, sometimes twice a year.  And for many years now, during these conferences, I've noticed a recurring pattern in my mood.  The first day is always great: travelling to the conference, seeing old friends, and enjoying just getting away from it all.  But by the second day, I always start to feel depressed and lonely, for reasons that were not clear to me.  However, by the end of the third day, I somehow always feel renewed and wonderful, and happy that I came to the conference.  Weird!?

This year, I think I figured out what has been going on.  After the initial newness and excitement wears off, I start to feel down because I hear stories that upset me.  Some of these stories are from acquaintances, about how amazingly well they are doing in their congregations. Some of the stories are from the classes I'm taking at the convention: "If you only did this, you'd be a much more successful Rabbi!"  I start to feel like a failure.  But then, by the end of the third day - and this is true especially of the small conferences I go to, when a group of 10 or so Rabbis will meet daily throughout the conference, and gradually feel close enough to share true things about their lives - by the end of the 3rd day, I start to feel close again to my colleagues.  I remember: we all have very similar challenges.  And most of us want to share both the ups and downs of our lives.  But we cannot do it on the 1st or 2nd day of the conference.  It takes awhile, usually in the confines of a daily group that meets and shares, to build the trust it takes to be honest with each other.  And that honesty works to dissolve the competitiveness inherent in the Rabbinate, and I would guess, in many professions.  In the presence of this honesty, I end up not jealous, but rather admiring my colleagues, and also feeling better about myself at the same time.

Today I want to explore the relationship between friendship and honesty.  For honesty about ourselves is crucial, as we begin these 10 days of repentance.  I want to reflect on what it is that makes friendships more honest, more real, more supportive, more helpful?  In particular, I can't help wondering how what we tell our friends about our lives, has influence on what we tell ourselves about our lives.

I going to frame my drash today by exploring two extremes of dishonesty, extremes with which we are all familiar.

The first extreme, I'll call positive dishonesty.  This is how we interact with people we don't know all that well.  A casual acquaintance asks us, "So, how you doing?", and we answer, quite appropriately, if not entirely honestly, "Fine thanks, and you?"  Or, we may go farther with the dishonesty, and take the opportunity to brag a little.

Ok, so what is this? Ah, an invitation!

Rabbi Seidel:  We are so pleased and proud to invite you to the weaning of our amazing son Isaac next month, at this time.  Our little bundle of joy is incredibly precocious, and we know you will want to see this firsthand!  Here he is, not yet three, and he is running almost as fast as his big brother!  And he is already reading chapter books, something his big brother never mastered.  Isaac has become quite comfortable already with a bow and arrow - so watch out Ishmael!  What a blessing is our little Isaac.  Our world is complete, and we want to share our good fortune with you, so we hope you will join us when he is weaned at the next full moon! Abraham and Sarah

Don't you hate these things.  All the self-congratulation in that invite, I'd be tempted to skip the weaning ceremony.  What is a weaning ceremony anyway?  You pull the kid from the mother's breast and listen to him scream for several days?? 

Sorry, I got distracted.  Back to the interaction with a casual acquaintance.   Now, the casual acquaintance may press you further, and you may give a few details about your life, but you would be unlikely to give a full picture of your life, with its successes and disappointments. And not only would you be unlikely, you would be unwise to give such a full picture.  It's TMI, to much information.  A casual acquaintance doesn't want to know your sorrows, unless, of course, you are a celebrity.

But note that TMI is a relative term.  What's too much information for a stranger, might be TLI, too little information for a close friend.  You cannot keep a close friend close if you don't share what's really happening in your life.  If you just share what's on the surface, you will have a mere surface relationship.  If you want a deep friendship, a relationship that will give you support and encouragement in good times and bad  - well for a friendship like that, you have to take risks, you have to go deep.  And you have to put in the time.

And that's hard.  It takes time to build up trust, and somehow, we seem to be too busy to spend the time it takes to build such friendships.  But without that trust, who has the courage it takes to confess disappointment?  But we all know it's so worth it.  A friend who knows you well can tell you things about yourself that you didn't know, or you kind of knew, but tried to ignore.  A friend like that helps you with your own personal honesty.

These friendships help you do teshuva. This time of year especially, you want to be meeting with your close friends, asking forgiveness, and listening to advice and comfort.  Don't neglect these relationships, these connections, this central part of being human.

I worry that we, nowadays, spend too much time on casual acquaintances.  Old high school friends we've connected with on Facebook, 2nd cousins, former co-workers, ex-lovers, ... Not that the internet is all bad in this respect - by no means.  Sometimes casual acquaintances can be of great help: if you are part of a small interest group far flung around the country or even the world, it's a great way to keep in touch, and share information.  But all that connectivity can also be a distraction.  There's the temptation to think that you can really be close friends, you can really have important connections with many many people.

There is an article that I included in my packet about this.  Let me read you a selection:

Because time is limited, so, too, is the number of friends you can have, according to the work of the British evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar. He describes layers of friendship, where the topmost layer consists of only one or two people, say a spouse and best friend with whom you are most intimate and interact daily. The next layer can accommodate at most four people for whom you have great affinity, affection and concern and who require weekly attention to maintain. Out from there, the tiers contain more casual friends with whom you invest less time and tend to have a less profound and more tenuous connection. Without consistent contact, they easily fall into the realm of acquaintance. You may be friendly with them but they aren't friends.

"There is a limited amount of time and emotional capital we can distribute, so we

only have five slots for the most intense type of relationship," Mr. Dunbar said. "People may say they have more than five but you can be pretty sure they are not high-quality friendships."

[End quote] You only have so much free time.  If you want to spend way more time than previous generations did on cultivating casual friendships, geh gesunt.  But something else will have to go to make time for all those casual friendships.  And I'm afraid that what tends to suffer, due to all this flowering of connectivity with casual friendships, is the memory of what it takes to nurture close friendships.  What with the convenience of casual relationships online, versus the challenging nature of honest, close friendships, the temptation is to go with the easy, the casual, the more superficial. But if you make that tradeoff, and emphasize the casual over the serious relationship, your honesty to yourself will suffer.  For how often can you post only nice things about your life on social media, without starting to pretend to yourself that your life is composed only of nice things?

Again, I'm not here to bash Facebook.  Facebook didn't create the phenomenon of casual acquaintances.  It just expanded the possibilities.  You may have good reason to maintain connections with a wide swath of humanity.  Just make sure you still have the time and energy to nurture your close friendships.

So much for positive dishonesty, the dishonesty about how great our lives are.  It has its place, for sure, with superficial friends.  But positive dishonesty, like any good thing, it has its downsides.

On the other side of the coin is what I'll call negative dishonesty, in which we tell stories about ourselves that are more negative than our lives really are.  The opposite of bragging. Though, truthfully, constant complaining about one's life can also have a bit of a braggy air to it. There are those who love to complain about their misfortunes, who display a sort of "triumphant unhappiness" to use a phrase from an article in my packet.

[A second congregant hands me another letter]

Another letter!?

Rabbi Seidel:  Sarah, here.  I'm very sorry to trouble you again, but Abraham sent out those invitations without my having a chance to look at them.  Listen, I've read your High Holiday sermons, and I know that you know how it really is here in our camp.  The work is endless - and Abraham sees his role more as an inviter that a cook or a host.  Isaac is bright, thank God, but he doesn't show much initiative.  The worst is that Ishmael bullies him constantly; I've got to keep my eyes on them every second to keep Isaac safe.  I feel so mixed: here I'd wished for a child for decades, and now that I've finally been blessed with a child, I feel like I've been cursed.  And I'm worried what people are going to say.  I've heard that people don't even think he's my baby, that I could not possibly have had a child at my age.  They think he's some foundling, or even worse, that he's another child Abraham fathered with Hagar.  They're laughing at me, I'm sure of it.  I'm not looking forward to this simcha, that's for sure.  But Rabbi, if you can come to the weaning, we'd love to see you, though honestly, if you are too busy, that's more than fine: I'll have my hands full with the local self-important dignitaries whom we need to invite, and who take care never to miss a good spread.  But please, come if you can.

Wow.  Way too much information. It doesn't really feel like a simcha.  If  I attended this kind of thing at all, it would be to support Sarah, not to celebrate with her.  But I hardly know her!? Why is she telling me all this?  She's undercutting her happiness at the miracle she's been granted.  It doesn't feel healthy. But there is, I'm afraid, a Jewish feel to it.

The fact is, we Jews do negative dishonesty as well as anyone.  Perhaps this pessimism comes from the ancient concept of Ayin Harah, the evil eye.  Here's a helpful definition of the Evil eye from the Jastrow dictionary of Aramaic: Ayin Harah, or even just 'ayin' in the Talmud, is "the evil eye, an envious glance that brings harm to the person looked at..."  [repeat it].  It is such a weird thought: the idea that what I'm thinking about you, could actually hurt you in some direct way. 

Note, this concept is not unique to us Jews.  In fact, the evil eye exists in many cultures throughout the world.  You can find it in the Qur'an, and especially in later Islamic writings. The idea of the Evil eye probably predates Judaism.  The Hamsa, the amulet in the shape of a hand that some Jews wear, has, among its traditional functions, the job of warding off the evil eye.  I want to spend a few minutes examining the evil eye in our tradition, and the social utility that might be found in this superstition.

There are a number of Talmudic stories about the evil eye.  Here is a representative story - we actually covered it this past year in my Shabbat morning Talmud class (Brachot 58b).  The context of the story is a discussion of the halacha: "One who sees a friend whom he has not seen in more than 30 days should say the Shehechiyanu..."

Two Rabbis were walking along, and they encountered Rav Hanina.  They said to him:

"Now that we've seen you, we can say two brachas, 1) the brachah for seeing a sage ... and, 2) since we haven't seen you in over 30 days, also the shehechiyanu!"

 Rav Hanina responded: "And as for me, now that I've seen you two, who are such great sages that I equate you to 600,000 of the house of Israel, I can say three blessings: the two you just mentioned, as well as the blessing one says upon seeing 600,000 of the house of Israel!"

The two Rabbis responded: "Oh, you are so clever!"  They set their eyes on him, and he died.

Whoa!?  Seems a little harsh for a little game of who can say the most brachot!

But the evil eye is, for the Rabbis, a fact of life, a danger that exists in the world, like a cliff, or a raging river.  Any responsible person needs to take care to avoid incurring jealousy.

Nobody meant harm to Rav Hanina; they just felt a little envious.

So: is there a message for us here?  I think so, in fact I can think of two messages.  1) Avoid jealousy.  It doesn't just hurt you - it can harm others.  And 2) Try to prevent making others envious.  Play down your successes, your brilliance, the wondrousness of your blessed life.

Speaking of a blessed life, I have read that the term "blessed" is used online nowadays as a way to pretend one is not bragging.  You send a photo of your beautiful child or whatnot, and you caption it "blessed", as if you're not bragging at all, you're really just being thankful for what God has given you.

It all makes me think that the concept of the evil eye has some social utility. There is value in the custom of avoiding another's envy.  At the very least, a person who seriously believes in the evil eye cannot be a braggart.  They won't do anything to provoke others' jealousy.  And such modesty, even if it come as a result of superstition, might be a good thing, right?  Not to mention the utility of a person trying to avoid becoming jealous of another.  That could make your life happier, if you avoided places - social media, say - that led you to envy.  Of course, I'd have to avoid the 2nd day of every Rabbinical Assembly convention, as well.  Or at least stay for the third day, when that jealousy begins to dissipate.

Now, you may be thinking: "Hello, Rabbi, none of us believe in the evil eye anymore, so what's the point of arguing that has some purpose.  We're not superstitious!"  Hey, we may still wrestle with a vestigial belief in the evil eye. Some American Jews, combine a belief in the ayin harah with the more American custom of strutting your stuff.  We have a methodology of both bragging, like good Americans, and avoiding the evil eye at the same time by spitting three times, as in:  "My son, he got into med school, poo poo poo."  The "poo, poo, poo", or the knocking on wood, or whatever you do after mentioning something good - somehow that ritual wards off the evil eye.  It may seem like a stupid custom, the spitting three times so that you can say what you really wanted to say.  But I like the tension there.  In the old country, I'm guessing, at least at one time, you wouldn't even said the positive thing.  But in the last few centuries, we have begun, perhaps influenced by surrounding cultures, to want to say nice things.  And the "poo poo poo" makes it possible to care about the evil eye, on the one hand, and on the other, to share your good fortune.

But at the end of the day, I think it's good that we care less about the evil eye than we used to.  Life is depressing, if you can never share good news.  Who wants to live like that any more?  And yet, life is also depressing if you only share good news - apparently, studies show that reading other's peoples Facebook posts tends to get you depressed, as you start to envy others picture-perfect lives.

So where does that leave us?  As usual, it leaves us performing a balancing act between the two extremes.  Too much bragging, or too much negativity - both are bad, and it can be hard to find the right balance.  I find that striking the right balance is often tricky, when I'm talking with anyone who is not a very close friend.  I don't want to brag, and I don't want to whine. Honestly, I find it easier to just listen.  Which is fine: I like to listen, and just listening can be very helpful for the person you are listening to.  These conversations, with more casual acquaintances, are good, and important.  But though they can sometimes be a real meeting of minds, they are rarely a meeting of souls.

The best conversations are with close friends.  In fact, I might even define a close friend as someone with whom I can brag.  I can brag, they can brag, I can complain to them about my life, and they can complain to me about theirs.  A friend is someone about whom I love to hear good tidings, whose triumphs don't get me jealous, and then depressed. And a friend is someone who can also complain to me honestly about their lives.  Often, with close friends, it feels like the balance between bragging and whining has been struck just right, and I come away from the encounter with a friend, enriched, enlivened, with a better understanding of my own life.  I might even come away with good advice, advice about how I could to better, advice about repentance. Often the advice isn't stated explicitly - it doesn't have to be, between good friends - and given that this indirect advice is gentle, it is more likely to be helpful.

I will also say that the length of conversations with friends adds to the positive effect. Sometimes truth comes right away, blurted out at the beginning of a conversation.  "Ethan, I'm worried that I'm about to lose my job!"  And sometimes, maybe even more often, the truth seeps in, at the end of an hours-long desultory talking.

Alas, life nowadays is so hectic that long conversations don't happen so often.  Maybe, maybe, by the third day of a conference.  Even a phone call is a luxury we don't always afford ourselves, making do with an email or a text.  We're so busy, we don't have the time to invest in maintaining or developing such friendships.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we have many friends, because we can, with our modern technology, be in constant contact with so many people.  But what is the nature of those many friendships?  And how honest are they?  How supportive?  And how to find the time for such deep friendships?

A quick note here to introduce my drash for Yom Kippur morning, in which I will focus on the issue of loneliness.  Not everyone has close friends, and it's not always from lack of trying.  There is lots of loneliness in this congregation, and that is a shame.  I think we as a community can do something about this.  My talk this morning about close friendship is not meant to pour salt in the wounds of those who could use more friendship.  It is only to encourage you think seriously about the issue of friendship.  More on this in 10 days.

I've spent much of this year studying and teaching the writings of the S'fas Emes, a Polish Rebbe of the late 19th century.  There is a theme that he weaves through much of his writing that is relevant here.  The S'fas Emes believed there was a spark of God in everything. Every material thing, every living thing, certainly every human being, even every human action all have an essential core of holiness. And not just holiness, but the potential for growth, novelty, development. However, in this world, that spark of holiness is concealed.  We forget about it. Fortunately, God has given us tools, spiritual practices if you will, that enable us to reveal God's presence in the mundane.

One of those tools, especially appropriate to a discussion of friendship, is Shabbat.  God has blessed us, the people Israel, with time.  Time to go deeper.  Time to have a conversation without electronic interference, or even electronic mediation.  Time to take a long walk, time just to hang out with each other.  Time to sing together.  Time to listen carefully, time to get close to those we cherish.  Maybe this is the extra soul that or tradition promises us on Shabbat.  It's the soul of our friend, whom, on Shabbat, we have the opportunity to know better.

Listen, we're a modern non-orthodox congregation.  If you want to work on Shabbat, nobody is going to say boo to you.  If you want to fill your Shabbat running errands, or shlepping kids to their sports events, or waiting for the electrician, that's your business.  But with the backing of the S'fas Emes, I'm here to remind you that there are certain gates that only open on Shabbat.

For many, life feels so busy that it's hard to justify spending the time it takes to get close to another, and so get close to the Holy One.  You almost need an excuse nowadays not to be busy.  Our tradition gives you that excuse: remember Shabbat, and keep it holy.  The "it", of "keep it holy" of course, is not Shabbat - that is by definition holy.  The "it" you keep holy is your own soul, your openness to the new and the holy in those you love.  And, most importantly at this time of year, Shabbat can give you time to nurture the friendships, that in turn will nurture you.

If you want to do teshuva this year, it's going to take time.  You've started out well by coming here today, giving yourself time for prayer and contemplation.  Perhaps, during this year, you might increase that investment, giving yourself the time to uncover the holiness in God's creatures.

May you be inscribed for a good year.