Thursday, June 21, 2007

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg - Sermon on Sexual Abuse in the Baltimore Community


The following sermon was given by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg as a reaction to the case of Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro being published in the Baltimore Jewish Times and the letter that was created by the Vaad of Baltimore.

Shavuot Yizkor Sermon
(Sermon on Sexual Abuse in the Baltimore Community)
May 24, 2007
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg

For 23 years not I’ve paused at this moment to say Yizkor for my father. And so many different memories of him are recalled. Today for the first time, I pause to say Yizkor for my mother, or blessed memory. What memories did she leave me? Well, this I can tell you: the memories that I will always have of my mother are going to be quiet different than the memories Ale Baldwin’s daughter is always going to have of her father.

Even those of us who usually are not caught up in the latest Hollywood gossip or scandal could not help but take note of what recently took place with the actor, Alex Baldwin and his daughter. As upsetting as it was, it can serve a positive purpose in helping us better understand the strange rabbinic commentary and verse in The Book of Ruth we read this morning, will help us better understand the meaning of God and the giving of the Torah we celebrate on Shavous. It will also help us better understand the tragic affects of sexual abusers and will help us better understand the purpose of the Yizkor memorial service we are about to recite.

Alec Baldwin is divorced from his wife, actress Kim Bassinger. They have been involved in a bitter custody fight over their 11 year old daughter, Ireland. On April 11th Alec Baldwiin called his daughter and when she wasn’t there to answer, he called her a “thoughtless little pig” and went on to say, “Once again I have made a ____ of myself trying to get you on the phone. . . I don’t give a damn that you are 12 years old or 11 years old or a child, or that your mother is a thoughtless pain the ___ who doesn’t care a your ___ out.” It is a terrible thing for any father to say to a child under any circumstances. But here the circumstance made matters even worse because everything Alec Baldwin said to his child had been recorded on the phone’s answering machine. And it is suspected that Baldwin’s ex-wife, Ms. Bassinger, - atstaska in her own right -- made the recording available for the world to hear.

You have to wonder if Mr. Baldwin would have spoken differently if he had known that his words would go public. According to our sages, he most certainly would have! Our sages expressed this thought in commenting on an incident in The Book of Ruth we read every Shavuot. The story of Ruth is a beautiful, moving and touching one; a story exhibiting the goodness and devotion of plain and ordinary people. Ruth, a Moabite woman, widowed, was a devoted daughter-in-law, a righteous convert of our people. One day, searching for food in a time of famine, she meet a true gentleman named Boaz who generously gives of his own food to her, described by the Bible with the touching words, “Vayitzavat la koli v’tochal vatisba vatotar -- these words our sages in the Midrash, recognizing the generosity of Boaz, still go on to say, “Had Boaz known that the Bible would eternally record that he gave Ruth some parched grain to eat, he would have given her a royal banquet.” Yes, Boaz, you didn't realize it but your actions were being recorded. Sure it was nice that you gave Ruth something to eat . . . but you would have given a lot more than “parched corn” if you knew people would be reading about it until the end of time. If only you had realized it, you would have acted differently. And that’s what the Torah means when we are told, right in the beginning of Genesis: “Zeh sefer toldot ha-Adam-- this is the book of the story of man.” Just as the story of adam and Abraham and Moses and Boaz are recorded in this book, so too all of our lives are being recorded. As we are told in The Ethics of the Fathers: “V’chol maasecha b’sefer nichtavim - all of your deeds are being recorded in a book.” It’s not just Alec Baldwin speaking to his daughter. . . it’s all of us in our day to day existence whose words and actions are being recorded.

Many of our children, when asked to choose a reading for their Bat Mitzvah service, have recently started choosing a reading called “When You thought I Wasn’t Looking:”

When you though I wasn’t looking,
you hung my first painting on the refrigerator, and I wanted to painting another.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
you fed a stray cat, and I thought it was good to be king to animals.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
you baked a birthday cake just for me, and I knew that little things were special things.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
you said a prayer and I believed there was a God and that I could always talk to.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
you kissed me goo-night and I felt loved.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
I saw tars come from your eyes and I learned that sometimes things hurt -- but that it’s all right to cry.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
you smiled and it made me want to look that pretty too.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
you cared and I wanted to be everything I could be.

When you thought I wasn’t looking,
I looked . . . and wanted to say thanks for all those things you did. . .

When you thought I wasn’t looking,


The poem makes a very important point. . . whether we know it or not, we’re no different than Alec Baldwin. Everything we say and do is being recorded by our children: the amount of charity we give, the excuses we offer for not giving, the comments we make behind the back of friends, our business ethics, our moral behavior, what we eat, drink and watch on TV . . . all of impact that had on us, she would look puzzled and say it was not big deal. But, God Almight, what a big deal it was! What it said to us, how it made us feel, what it meant to us. . . can never -- and will never -- be forgotten.

The poet-Laureate of our people, Chaim Nachman-Bialik, captures this feeling in his poem “Shirati” where he tries to trace the origin of the sigh, the sob, the krechts, so frequently found in his poetry. He describes the misery of his childhood; his father died when he was very young. His mother slaved in a little store supporting his brothers and sisters. Only inn the evening could she begin her cooking, cleaning and sewing. late one night the little boy rose from his bed and saw his mother cooking in the kitchen. In utter exhaustion she was weeping as she kneaded dough for bread. As she baked by candle light, her lips moved in prayer, “May I bring my children to be God-fearing. May they be true to Torah. May they never disgrace me.” As she prayed, the tears rolled down her sweet, tired lonely cheeks. She did not realize it, but her tears mixed with the dough. Little Bialik saw this heart-rendering sight and returned to bed. The next morning he ate this very bread. “as I ate, I swollowed my mother’s tears. Part of my mother was in that bread! And now I know why there are tears in my eyes, why there is a sigh in my breast.”

I exaggerate not. A portion of our parents is implanted within us. Unbeknownst to them, they made indelible impressions on us that have been permanently recorded into our very beings. Their obituaries do not lie buried in some old newspaper. It is recorded and alive in our hearts and souls!

In describing death, the Bible frequently uses the phrase, “he was gathered into his people.” that’s were we wind up - in people. People wind up in people, not in the ground. This, then, is a basic truth of human experience. Whether we like it or not, we are being recorded all the time. Our obituaries are constantly being written and are opened for all of us to see. In the biographies of our loved ones and fellow human beings, in the record of the general community, in the chronicles of Judaism, we are constantly making entries.

In these moments before Yizkor when we remember the entries of those who preceded us, let us ask: “What entries are we making, what actions are being recorded in the lives of those that will follow us?” In the moments before Yizkor I remember countless moments of joy shared with my mother. . . the warmth and love she enveloped me with. What will my children remember? What are they seeing when I think they aren’t looking? Yizkor beckons. We pause to remember: “T’hey nishmosom tsurorom b’tsror hachayim - May the souls of our dearly departed be bound up in the bond of eternal life.” And let us add the additional prayer: “T’hi nishmosi - God, allow my life to be bound up in the lives of others who are living so that after the fullness of my days, others will gather to bless my name for having lived and shared and given and cared.” Amen.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Monica said...

I kept reading the poem "When You thought I Wasn’t Looking" in Rabbi Wohlberg's sermon and couldn't stop myself from crying.

These are many of the things that lack in a home where children are being abused (even in Jewish homes).

My bet is that Rabbi Wohlberg is clueless in what it's like to grow up without.

Rabbi Wohlberg if you read this message try to imagine your childhood without most of these types of experiences.

How do you try to learn these concepts as an adult?

What happens is you trip and fall all over yourself.

You put a smile on your face when others talk about these types of experiences they had growing up because you don't want them to know that you are crumbling inside because you are forever different.

June 21, 2007 12:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hear what you are saying and agree 100%.

I have concerns about what rabbi Wohlberg wrote. He never really addressed the issues. He just skirted around without saying anything.

Could it be true that a rabbi who also runs a grade school and high school never heard about children being molested? Is the topic really new to him?

June 21, 2007 3:36 PM  

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