Ethics and Morals 101 – Jackie Feldman

Shabbat shalom.  My name is Jackie Feldman.  I had a lot of possible topics I wanted to speak on tonight…mental health, education, politics, my family, and, then I discovered this week’s Torah portion was Ki Teiitzei, from Deuteronomy, which lists and explains over 70 of the 613 Commandments shared at Sinai.  You know, the one that lists mitzvot about not wearing linen and wool together, or not having an ox tethered to an ass when plowing a field. Other mitzvot get much more graphic and dramatic, and have pretty dire consequences if not followed.

As I searched for sermon ideas, I read the parasha and struggled with not only the situations delineated, and the actions considered, but the recommended responses, particularly those consequences that might give present-day Reform Jews pause.  There was a LOT of stoning and killing and chopping off of hands for transgressions that would not have similar responses today.  Although I gotta say, taking the sandal off your brother-in-law and slapping him with it because he refuses to marry you as proscribed by Jewish law, after his brother (your husband) has died has a ring of feminist righteousness to it. I do recommend y’all read the Torah portion; it is replete with common sense, holy, practical, idiosyncratic law, all supported by a variety of commentary.

It seems, however, that the basic predicate for this Torah portion is focused on how we become anchored in an ethical life, to build and support an ethical community, to created order in the midst of chaos, which is what I’d like to speak about tonight.

As I watch events of the day, flipping between MSNBC, CNN, Fox (and The Big Bang Theory and Say Yes to the Dress for relief), I am struck by how the development of ethical thinking and behavior over the last several generations has evolved.

Let me share with you what I call my Popcorn and poverty story….I am a Baby Boomer; my Medicare starts in December.  I was raised in Burlington, IA, a small town on the Mississippi.  We grew up with limited financial resources. My mom stayed at home most of my early childhood; she went to work outside the home when my little brother started kindergarten, much to our relief, because it meant my father, a movie theatre manager, took over cooking dinner.  Sunday mornings before church (I was raised Unitarian and converted 30 years ago) we would dress in the kitchen in front of the oven bc our heating oil had run out; I have memories of eating day old popcorn from the theatre from the oven for breakfast

We got to see movies for free, and played ping pong on our dining room table.  We got 25 cents for allowance (promptly spent on comic books, altho even back then I save 10cents for college), had one phone (rotary, 10 minute limit), had to be in the house when the street lights came on, and walked to school.  We were the TV remote to our one TV, and most summer nights slept on my parents’ bedroom floor bc theirs was the only one air conditioned.

And us kids (all 5 of us) of course had household chores. There were expectations and schedules for setting and clearing the table, and washing dishes (yes, WE were the dishwasher).  By age 8 we all did our own laundry, and knew how to iron.  My first new dress was in the 7th grade.  I went to a junior high that taught Home-Ec, and learned how to sew on my grandma’s Singer sewing machine.  Most of the clothes I wore in my teen years, I made.  When you turned 8, you got to work the huge garden by the Drive In Theatre so we could put up enough food to get through the winter. When you turned 8 you also got a bicycle.  It was never new.  Mine had flat tires, I swear I recollect getting one fixed for my 9th birthday, the other for my 10th.  Home computers, and cell phones did not exist (I didn’t use a computer until my residency). We all worked by age 16.

The family tradition was up and out at age 18, in essence bc no further resources were forthcoming.  And that was ok.  My older brother went to Vietnam, my older sister got married, my little sister took ten years to get her degree in sociology, and my little brother flunked out of Coe College (but went on to become an air traffic controller).  I was fortunate to get scholarships that carried me up and out of a small town, and led to college, and graduate school, medical school and residency.

I come from a generation raised on a gimmish of rules and mores and “proper” roles (based on gender, race, religion, SES).  We were taught, on many levels, what was morally right and behaviorally acceptable.  I was raised by parents who survived the  Depression, by a dad who was raised by a single mom.  I was raised by a mother who went to work outside the home to support her family; without much formal education she rose to a practice manager position. They didn’t quite know what to do with a daughter who loved to read and whose 9th grade term paper (typed on a manual typewriter) was on genetics.  With a nod to sexism, they did insist we girls never wear curlers downtown, but pooled resources and got me a chemistry lab set in the 4th grade for my birthday.

They never told us we couldn’t achieve, or dream, and that we each responsible for where our lives lead.  We were taught to take care of ourselves, and to work together, and support each other, to be kind to others and respect our elders, to express ourselves without vitriol, and to fight bullies.  We had serious conversations about racism after a driving vacation (all of our vacations were driving and camping  vacations) through the South, where “Whites Only” bathrooms at gas stations opened our eyes to blatant discrimination.   My parents weren’t raised in the tradition of Torah or Judaism, now was my family. But we were raised to be ethical people, meant to support an ethical community. We held together and succeeded in the face of trying circumstances

Where are we now as a family? My father, of Blessed memory, passed away 6 years ago, but my mother is alive and well, living in an assisted living home in Burlington.  She just accompanied most of us on our annual sojourn to Estes Park Colorado, where we pushed her around mountain lakes in her wheelchair.   She primly scolded us for our occasional expletives, but was thrilled when we brought out her mother’s fascinators (you know, those with feathers and beads and netting) to use for our annual photo shoot.  We have all recently retired, and our own adult children seem to be faring reasonably well.  I am grateful for our loving joyful family, for our peace, for the moral lessons we learned from our parents.

But what of society today?  What faces our children, and their children?  What do we see on our multiple TVs and Smartphones, or hear about on Sirius radio? Much more technology, hopefully longer lives because of advances in medicine and our ability to care for ourselves.  24 hour/day information for many.  BUT even in our own wealthy nation,  there are other realities we are facing as well: an opioid crisis that continues in spite of our efforts, dissipation of the nuclear family, income inequality that leaves millions in poverty, hunger and illiteracy. Inability to access education, barriers to voting.  Even struggles for freedom in the face of trafficking.  Resurgences of blatant prejudice, disrespect of each other, and community violence.  School shootings. Twitter, Instagram, tinder. Me-me-me politics, You-you-you take the blame, although ultimately no one wants to take responsibility, no one wants to be beholding. Chaos.

So now the relevance of this Torah portion, which underscores the importance of ethical behavior of communities and between individuals, the imperative nature of universal ethics, in the face of this chaos.  Can we agree that we have a responsibility for each other, to ease the suffering of others?  Can we begin to understand another person’s situation, to offer support?  Can we choose to engage in addressing difficult situations that need solutions?  Can we be thoughtful about considering the interests of others, in addition to our own?   Can we work, each day, in some small, perhaps anonymous way to mitigate the negative effects of the chaos of the world?  Can we put a dollar in the tzedakah box? Can we bring food on Yom Kippur?  Can we wave the frantic driver into our lane without fury in our heart, and role-model kindness for our children?  Can we smile at one another?  Can we welcome the stranger to our oneg?  Can we be grateful for the wonderful blessings bestowed by G-d, and then share them with others?  Can we encourage our children in their endeavors and their growth and their desire to push us away, even if we don’t understand their teenage or adult angst?  Can we engage in difficult dialogues without name-calling or accusations?  Can we appeal to our better selves, our better natures?  Our more ethical, and holy selves?

I was blessed to be raised by parents in a family who were sufficiently wise and intuitive to infuse moral and ethical teachings into our everyday lives, who modelled acceptance of thinking and behavior that was different from theirs, but who also proffered standards for “holy” living (though my mother, a staunch Unitarian, would be scandalized to have anything referred to as holy).  In these more chaotic times, let us use the blessings and ethical standards offered by our faith and our Torah to mindfully Heal the world.   Shabbat Shalom.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Al says:

    Great message, Jackie.


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