Rabbi Yergin's Inspiration Blog


High Holy Days

92nd Street Y – New Year Greeting


To My Ex-Best Friend

Social Media and Atonement

5777 HHD Sermon

High Holy Day Morning Sermon

5777 – 2016

In 5th grade I started a club named “I hate Alyssa.” A club without meetings or a budget, without official membership, but a club whose title was meant to hurt one of my classmates. She was athletic, pretty, intellectual, perky, and feminine. Alyssa and I had been sort of pitted against each other by our teachers and parents – competing academically. The club allowed me to feel like I had the leg up – moving the focus away from academics and onto social status.

By today’s standards, this would likely be labeled as bullying.  But what is bullying, exactly? In the Texas Education Code for Bullying Prevention Policies and Procedures, bullying is defined as “engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct…AND that has the effect …of physically harming a student, damaging a student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or of damage to the student’s property OR [if the conduct] is sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that the action or threat causes an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student. [The] conduct is …considered bullying if [it] exploits an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim and interferes with a student’s education or substantially disrupts the operation of a school.” Did you follow that? I had trouble. This is a definition that could describe many different situations, on scales both large and small.

For centuries, bullying has by and large been considered a fact of life. Now, however, we seem to have a bullying epidemic on our hands – we see it all over the place. It induces panic, fear, concern, and a feeling of helplessness. “Bullying has emerged as one of the biggest problems facing our nation’s schools to date, but this is largely due to increased awareness and sensitivity about the consequences of being victimized. The media has created a sense of urgency around bullying, and parents are desperate to protect their children.”[1] “But bullying, wherever it takes place, isn’t on the rise. It feels more pervasive only because the Web is pervasive.”[2] Many people point fingers at the internet and social media as the culprit for bullying – bringing about the term “cyberbullying” – a term that does not have an agreed upon definition.

The panic that cyberbullying has caused makes sense. The internet and social media create an unavoidable, constant connection to the outside world. A connection that gives a false sense of privacy when, in reality, social media posts have the ability to “go viral” – just like bacteria, a far-reaching and rapid spread of harmful material. Cyberbullying is a large facet of the bullying epidemic today, however, it is important to recognize that “the way kids treat each other on the Internet is merely an extension of the way they treat each other in person. The depersonalized features of technology can exacerbate the cruelty, but its roots are in the real world rather than the virtual one.”[3]

Now, this is the time when many anti-bullying speakers would give tips for children to stop bullying. However, in my mind, there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed; adults play a crucial role in bullying. Adults are the ones raising bullying to an epidemic – a pandemonium that hurts rather than helps all involved. It is imperative that we, as adults, pause, be realistic, take a step back, and watch our own actions.

If the “I hate Alyssa” club had been formed in today’s society, and Alyssa went home and told her parents, I’m sure both sets of parents and the school would be involved and there would be a mad panic. Alyssa’s family would be negative towards me, labeling me a bully and Aly a victim, while my family would be defensive. As the situation escalated, I might be suspended – forever scarred by the situation, seeing myself as a failure and a bad person who could never redeem herself. Alyssa would also be forever scarred – perpetually seeing herself on the outskirts of groups, potentially withdrawing into herself and losing her own self-esteem.

This really isn’t an exaggerated description for a situation like this today. We have to be rational and take the time to see the full situation – all sides. In Talmud,[4] there is a Midrash about why the sun and moon are different sizes. The moon said to G-d: “Sovereign of the Universe, can two kings share a single crown?” G-d replied: “Go and make yourself smaller.” “Sovereign of the Universe,” she said to Him, “because I made a proper claim before You, am I to make myself smaller?”…On seeing that the moon would not be consoled, the Holy One said, “Bring an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.” In commenting on this story[5], Chana Weisberg, a contemporary author and educator, explains that God is saying: “I see your tears. I hear your cries. I empathize with your pain. And despite its necessity, because I diminished you in size, and put you through the suffering of inequality, I will bring an atonement offering.” Weisberg is showing that God, as a parent, is listening to the child, but not immediately running to the moon’s rescue and coddling it. Instead, the moon has to learn its own value and find the “potential for growth through [its] rises and declines….” This Midrash teaches us that we must let children learn on their own. That is not to say that we ignore them or tell them to brush it off, in fact, the opposite. We must listen, but we cannot be reactive. By maintaining a level head and being calm, we teach our children how to maintain their sense of self and how to develop their problem solving skills.

I recognize that this is easier said than done. We tend to want to jump in and fix everything. We rush to defend our children because seeing them in pain is painful for us. “Helicopter” parents “inhibit the ability of children to develop good conflict-resolution skills. Ironically, in trying to protect them, we may actually set them up for future harm if we rescue them every time their feelings get hurt.”[6] Think of the times in your life when you changed the most. Were they easy? Quick? In most cases, no. They were painful and difficult, but helped create who you have become. It is important that we distinguish between normal, social conflict and bullying – reminding “ourselves of the characteristics of bullying: a repetitive, unwanted attack in the context of a power imbalance.”[7] We should be supporters and advocates for our children, not rescuers.

In order to be true advocates, we have to understand the full situation. While discussing bullying, Rabbi Edie Mencher reminds us of “a Chasidic teaching that asks ‘What might we find if we could see within the heart of evil? The answer: A crying baby.’ As the teaching suggests, when we encounter someone acting in seemingly cruel, selfish, even monstrous ways, often deep within the person is a hurt, desperate child who feels unheard and wants to be loved.”[8] Too often, we see the bad and cannot think about the other factors involved. As adults, we are quick to speak up about injustice when it involves our kids. Everyone worries about their child being hurt by an aggressor, but not about the reverse scenario — when our child is the aggressor. We have to take a step back and see the full situation. “It starts with examining our behavior as parents and role models. We can have a huge impact on how our children act, simply by being aware of the subtle messages we send through our conversations and body language, through our parenting styles and home environments, because children learn about social relationships at home.”[9]

We complain that our children are glued to their phones and devices, but are we any better? We are lowering the standards for the digital community by sending mean, gossipy texts and posting derogatory comments.[10] Our kids see this. How many times do we see young children with their parents’ phones in a restaurant – playing a game or watching a movie? What happens when a text message flashes across the screen from another adult making fun of someone’s newest picture on facebook or Instagram? The child sees that and may even click to further investigate the conversation that has happened previously. They might see their parents are the ones starting mean conversations and/or laughing at the cruel comments of others. “We have to step back and analyze our own culpability in creating a culture that has fostered attitudes of entitlement and condescension toward those who are different. It is uncomfortable to explore our own secret inconsistencies and stereotypes”[11] but we must do it.

One of the inconsistencies we encounter in this bullying epidemic is our propensity to label others. Labels have become the easy way to describe behavior, but we get caught up in letting that behavior define one’s identity. We have all bullied, been victimized, stood quietly looking on, stood up for others, but as soon as we are labeled as a bully, a victim, a bystander, or an ally – it becomes our identity. One of my favorite Midrashim says that “In life, you discover that people are called by three names: One is the name the person is called by his father and mother; one is the name people call him; and one is the name he acquires for himself.” The Midrash concludes by saying that “the best one is the one he acquires for himself.”[12] Normally, I love this text, but thinking about this in the context of today’s society, it worries me. By using labels, we see how others, including parents, are influencing the way a child sees his or herself. If a child is called a bully often enough, will it get into their head so much that they believe they are a bully and cannot change? If a child is called a victim by adults around them, will they lose their sense of self and become dependent on others for everything? “Trudy Ludwig, an activist and bestselling author of anti-bullying books, [explains] bullying behavior without labeling the perpetrators as bullies. ‘I say that they put on a ‘bully hat,’ and they act like a bully while wearing the bully hat. But this means that they can take the hat off and change.’”[13] It is important to remember that people have the capacity for empathy and it is our job as adults to nourish and encourage that thinking and behavior in children so that they can recognize it in themselves.

I am so glad that the “I hate Alyssa” club happened in a non-bullying crazed world. The club died out in a matter of months with little to no damage done to anyone involved. How do I know that? Because Alyssa is one of my best friends. Our lives changed in junior high as we became inseparable. In high school we drifted apart a little bit because we didn’t have classes together and our extra-curricular activities didn’t overlap. In college we rekindled our friendship, even though we were across the country. After college, we stayed in touch, traveled together, and visited each other. In the past two years, she and I stood up in each other’s wedding. My friendship with Aly is one of my most cherished, longest-lasting friendships. I know that if the adults around us had taken charge of that situation years ago, I wouldn’t have this relationship with Aly. Instead, the adults realized that we were teenage girls, and that the behavior was not threatening, repetitive or taking advantage of an imbalance of power. I am not a bully, but at that point, I was wearing the bully hat. However, I eventually took it off and learned from it.

This year, as we watch the world around us move at lightning speed, let’s remember not to get caught up in a harmful bullying panic. Take a breath, take a step back, and evaluate the situation. Let us be aware of our actions, how children perceive them, and remember that children take behavioral cues from us. Let us be supporters of our children, not rescuers waiting to swoop in to take away the slightest bit of emotional pain. Let us find the strength to have open, honest conversations with our youth. Let us change the culture of bullying by making positive changes within ourselves. Let us be an inspiration to those around us. Let us make our homes, our schools, Temple Beth-El, and all places into warm, inviting environments that allow for us to have honest, respectful interactions with ourselves and with those around us. Let us stop feeling helpless about bullying behavior. Let us take a cue from Ghandi and “be the change we want to see in the world.”

Shana Tovah u’metukah.




[1] Goldman, C. (2012). Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.HarperCollins.

[2] Bazelon, E. (2013). Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House, Inc.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Chullin 60b


[6] Goldman, C. (2012). Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.HarperCollins.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Atkins, D., & Mencher, R. E. (2010, Winter). Behind Bullying. (A. Hirt-Manheimer, Interviewer) Reform Judaism Magazine.

[9] Goldman, C. (2012). Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.HarperCollins.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Midrash Tanchuma

[13] Goldman, C. (2012). Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear.HarperCollins.


Resolve to Mean It

A Tribute to David at Yizkor by Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

A Tribute to David at Yizkor

This is my first yizkor. I graduated from rabbinical school 34 years ago, and have led yizkor services multiple times every year since then. Yet, and, this is my first yizkor. It has always been a point of personal pride to smugly excuse myself, at least symbolically, from the yizkor service. As if I was somehow personally responsible for the wonderful blessing of living until almost 60 years old without experiencing a loss in my immediate family. I would stride outdoors and rejoice at spending a few moments with all of us “young people,” who didn’t know from the Angel of Death visiting our home. Not this year. And never again.

My beloved husband of almost 30 years died on May 19th. He died. I’m drawn to the harshness of that word. It captures the harshness of the reality. He died. He’s gone. He didn’t pass away. He’s gone, and we broken people remain. David and I saw each other for the first time on Kol Nidre in 1983. The first time we spoke was on Yom Kippur morning, the next day. Each year it was a special joy to remember those moments and to count the years- how many years since we first met? David died, and I will never stop counting- the years with him, the yearswithout him. This is the first year without him. In her book on the High Holidays, Marcia Falk wrote that, “. . . all things are born small and grow large- except grief, which is born large and grows smaller.[1]” A member of our community wrote to me to suggest that perhaps Marcia Falk forgot to mention that the heart grows larger in the process too.

Linda Pastan’s poem “The Five Stages of Grief” so resonates for me. She begins-

The night I lost you someone pointed me towards the Five Stages of Grief Go that way, they said, it’s easy, like learning to climb stairs after the amputation. And so I climbed. Denial was first. I sat down at breakfast carefully setting the table for two. I passed you the toast— you sat there. I passed you the paper—you hid behind it.

It was always David’s job, among his many, many, many, many jobs, to collect the newspaper each morning and to sort it into sections, retaining the sports section for himself. Towards the end of his life, it was a tender kindness for me to bring him the sports section, first in the hospital and then at home. The day after he died, just seeing the sports section was enough to make me dissolve. There was no one to hand the sports section to. I felt so bereft. Slowly healing DOES come. Seeing the sports section no longer reduces me to tears. One small triumph.

I still want to call him throughout the day. I cried on the flight home from Washington, DC, returning from “The Journey for Justice.” Having experienced the intensity of those few days, all I wanted to do was discuss each and every detail with David. David wanted to hear about all of the moments every single day, and we were always in touch every few hours. I open the contacts on my phone, I open the favorites, and he’s still my top, number 1 favorite. I sure wish I could have emailed him a draft of this sermon- we would have reviewed together and I know his insights and suggestions would have made it better.

Pastan’s poem concludes-

And all the time Hope flashed on and off in defective neon. Hope was a signpost pointing straight in the air. Hope was my uncle’s middle name, he died of it. After a year I am still climbing, though my feet slip on your stone face. The treeline has long since disappeared; green is a color I have forgotten. But now I see what I am climbing towards: Acceptance written in capital letters, a special headline: Acceptance its name is in lights. I struggle on, waving and shouting. . .

Acceptance. I finally reach it. But something is wrong. Grief is a circular staircase. I have lost you.

The death of hope is the hardest thing. Grief is, indeed, a circular staircase, and yizkor is the moment when the staircase comes full circle. Teri Berman shared with me some of her beautiful poetry when David died. In “The Metaphor for Loss,” she captures the painful reality that when we lose our beloved, we lose the self we were in that relationship.

“And so you mourn,” she writes.

For the one who is gone,

and for yourself who is also gone,

and you cry,

and you’re afraid,

and your vision is clouded

by doubt.

Your north star,

your anchor,

your reflection,

all gone.

Thank you Teri, for speaking the truth.

So how to move forward into a new reality, where our loved ones live only in our hearts, in our dreams, in our memories? Marilynne Robinson, in her profound novel, Gilead (p. 137), writes of the courage to go on, to confront the angel of death with life. “That’s her courage, her pride,” Robinson reminds us, “and I know you will be respectful of it, and remember at the same time that a very, very great gentleness is called for, a great kindness.  Because no one ever has that sort of courage who hasn’t needed it.”  I am so touched by the author’s words.  We don’t innately have courage.  We find it when we need it.  There is a special courage that comes from having suffered a great suffering. If we have courage, it is because we had no choice but to find a way to persevere. “Chizki v’imtzi,” people said to me, echoing the words of Joshua to the Israelites as they were about to do battle for the Promised Land. “Be strong and courageous.” Good advice as we struggle to enter this new reality of living with loss.

A well-wisher said to me that I must want to get back to normal.  I replied that there is no getting back to normal, there is only moving forward into a new normal.  Moving forward slowly, cautiously, consciously, and with courage.  I love what Marilynne Robinson wrote, that when we see people with this kind of courage, we must tread very, very lightly, understanding the depth of the pain that leads to the height of strength and courage.  And, yes, a great gentleness is called for, a great kindness. If you see someone who looks sad, know that there may be a very good reason for that sadness and be incredibly gentle.

Would we choose to live without pain if it meant that we had to forego joy? An ancient Greek myth provides an answer.

A woman wandered into the waters of the River Styx and asked to be taken across into that dark land. Charon reminded her that the dead were offered the option of drinking from the River Lethe, whose waters removed all memory of previous existence.

She wanted to know, “Will I forget how I have suffered?” Charon replied, “Yes, but you will forget how you have rejoiced.” Then she asked, “Will I forget my failures?” Patiently, Charon responded, “Yes, and your victories as well.” Finally, she wanted to know, “Will I forget how I have been hated?” “Yes,” said Charon, “but also you will forget how you have been loved.” After a few moments of reflection, the woman decided to leave the waters of Lethe untasted. We would probably all make the same choice, to retain our memories of pain and loss, rather than surrendering the precious and loving memories we re-visit at this sacred hour

Death is awkward and uncomfortable. We want to be loving and supportive when our friends experience loss. But how? What to say? What to do? For days after David’s death, I heard the same 5 words, over and over and over again- “I’ll take care of it.” And they did. You did! Jewish tradition brilliantly provides structure when it is most needed, when your world has collapsed and it feels like there’s no hope. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to help people grieve. Our community, thank God, DOES take care of it!

When we go to someone’s home for shiva we are not required to greet the mourners. We are urged to maintain silence, to simply be with our friends, and to take our cues from them. That’s hard. We struggle to find healing words. Let me share with you a few of the words that touched my heart the most:

He and all of you are blessed to have such a close and strong family.- Thank you for recognizing the uniqueness of our family.


I hope that with the passage of time you will be able to remember the joy of David’s life rather than the sadness of his death.- Thank you for reminding me that David’s life is about much, much more than his final years of suffering.


One woman wrote- When my husband died 33 years ago I received all kinds of caring and sympathetic words to help heal the sorrow and void that was there. It was actually the following six words on a simple sympathy card that helped me the most. Sorrow is not forever- love is.- Thank you for reminding me that love does not die.

I wish you the support of friends in your grief, and the knowledge that he will be with you in many ways, yet to be discovered.- Thank you for helping me to be open to David’s ongoing presence in my life.

Yom Kippur is the day that we rehearse our own death. We wear a shroud. We refrain from food and drink and intimacy- those things that make life most worth living. In his amazing book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew writes that, “Who will live and who will die? None of us know what will happen this year. Most of us will live, but some of us will die, and it might be me and it might be you. But whether we live or die, we will only have one soul to do it with, one precious soul to inhabit for our brief moment. . . “[2]

We take a few moments now to commune with the souls of those who are gone. To speak to them and share the words that are on our heart. To listen to their voice. To remember their smile and to sense their loving presence, here, with us, at this service of remembering.


[1] Falk, Marcia, The Days Between, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014, p. 135

[2] Lew, Alan, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, NY: Little Brown and Company, 2003, pp. 235-236


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