God Is On Everyone’s Side, And No One’s – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (first day)

Many of the ideas in this D’var Torah were taken from a presentation by Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute.

Upon election to his second term, Abraham Lincoln delivered as his inaugural address one of the greatest speeches in American history.  It was four years into the Civil War.  The war would end and the President would be assassinated just a few weeks later.  Lincoln articulated one of the most profound statements of religious humility ever spoken.

He was meditating on the use by pro-slavery Confederates and abolitionist Unionists of religion to support the morality of their respective claims.  How is it possible for diametrically opposed sides to claim God’s blessing with equal passion and conviction?

Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.

This is not to say that Lincoln wavered one iota in his belief in the evil of slavery and the moral imperative of eradicating it.  The best that President Lincoln can hope to do is, through his own wisdom and faith, choose a course and pray that it aligns with the will of the Almighty.

In the Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, God is on everyone’s side, and no one’s.

As the reading opens, God takes note of Sarah, as promised, and she becomes pregnant with Isaac.  At her son’s birth, Sarah declares, “God has brought me laughter.”  (Genesis 21:6)

Some time later, Sarah demands that Abraham send away her maidservant Hagar along with Hagar and Abraham’s son, Ishmael.  Abraham is upset, but God reassures him, instructing, “whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says…”  And regarding Ishmael, God “will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.”

When the provisions run out, Hagar places Ishmael beneath a bush and walks a distance away so that she can weep without having to watch her son die.  It is then that God sends an angel who declares that “God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.”  The angel reveals a hidden well and reassures Hagar that Ishmael will father a great nation.

In the same story, God is on Sarah’s side, Abraham’s side, Isaac’s side, Hagar’s side, and Ishmael’s side – even while these individuals oppose each other.

What does God stand for in this story?  Life.  The flourishing of human potential.  Each of these characters, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, and Abraham have a path before them that they cannot discern.  They cannot see the world as God sees it.  Each of them chooses what he or she thinks is the best course of action.  Those choices bring them into irreconcilable conflict with one another.

And yet God’s role is not to negate one or another person’s choices, but rather to direct them towards the paths that will lead to blessing.  God enters the story at three critical points.  The first is to bless Sarah with fertility.  The next is to reassure Abraham that Sarah’s seemingly cruel demand will in fact turn out okay, something that Abraham is incapable of realizing on his own.  God appears for the third time when Hagar has given up hope.  Once again, God directs Hagar to the well that will save Ishmael’s life and lead to his thriving.

These characters are blessed to have God step in at just the right moment to redirect them and let God’s will be known.  We are not so blessed.

We suffer from a terrible case of moral hubris.  It is a pervasive disease across the entire political spectrum: right to left, liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican.

As we celebrate the world’s birthday, it is hard not to consider the extreme rancor that exists in society.  There is so much partisan hatred.  People are feeling more politics-derived anxiety in their personal lives than ever before.  It is tearing the social fabric apart.

Some of us right now are thinking, “It’s not me.  It’s the people on the other side who are unable to see things as they really are.  They are the ones who are full of hate, who are naive, who are blind to the truth.”

Consider the following:

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found that “the level of partisan animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.”  In other words, Americans hate people from the opposing political party more than they hate people of different races.  Further, partisan differences are driving people apart with regard to behaviors and identities that have absolutely nothing to do with politics.

We all know about the divisions between red states and blue states.  But increasingly, people of the same political parties are segregating themselves by neighborhood.  Parents are often upset when a child intermarries into a family of the opposite political persuasion.  A 2009 survey found that only 9% of marriages were between a Republican and a Democrat.

Dating websites have reported that party affiliation is a more important criteria in a potential mate than physical appearance or personality.  And it is not that people of similar values end up falling in love.  This political discrimination comes into play at the initial mate choice.

The animosity that we feel towards those from the opposing party is stronger than the favoritism we feel towards those from our own party.  Partisanship pushes us apart more than it pulls us together.

It has gotten so bad that party affiliation even compels us to change our preferences for things that have absolutely nothing to do with morality or politics.  The author of a recent study summarized the issue like this:

Imagine that you walked into an ice cream shop on Election Day.  You discover that the shop is filled with supporters of the presidential candidate you oppose, and you find supporters of that candidate morally abhorrent.  When you get to the front of the line, the worker tells you all of the other customers just ordered red velvet – normally your favorite flavor.

[The] studies demonstrated that when asked to order, you are likely to feel an urge to stray from your favorite flavor toward one you like less, politically polarizing an otherwise innocuous decision.

We are willing to abandon our favorite ice cream flavor because we perceive it to be popular with our partisan opponents!

This trend affects the Jewish world as well.  Increasingly, communities are become segregated by party affiliation.  Synagogues have split in half over politics.  It is tragic, because our Jewish values, shared history, and beliefs should be bringing us together.  Instead, partisanship is driving us apart.

But God does not have a party.  God is not from a “Red State” or a “Blue State.”

As a Rabbi, I struggle with how and when to engage with what happens out in the political realm.  As the Rabbi of a diverse congregation, what is my role?  What should Sinai’s role be?

Should it offer an apolitical respite?  Is it a sanctuary in space in the way that Shabbat is a sanctuary in time?

Or perhaps the synagogue is the place where we come to affirm our moral grounding.  Maybe we need a place to engage constructively and thoughtfully on what happens “out there.”

Some congregants urge me to get more political.  Others come to shul looking for a break from all of the noise and contentiousness “out there.”  Let synagogue be a place in which politics is not mentioned.  Let it be a place where we can focus on our inner lives, on the spiritual.

I would kind of like it to be both.  A place where we come together as brothers and sisters in unity.  Celebrating what we share in common, which is a lot.  And learning from each other’s differences with love and respect.

The truth is, regardless of our politics, most of us share the same essential moral beliefs.

Morality is a system of values and principles of conduct having to do with good and bad, right and wrong.  They are developed throughout childhood, strongly influenced by the people who raise and teach us.  They are molded by the standards of the communities in which we live.  Of course, religion plays a huge role.

Our core moral beliefs should direct our political viewpoints.  Let’s say that my moral code tells me I have an obligation to feed the hungry.  There are people in every society who do not have enough to eat, and cannot satisfy their basic needs.  The Torah tells me that I cannot remain indifferent.  I must do something about it.

That should lead me to take a political position.  What do I think is the best way to feed the hungry?  Should the government redistribute wealth from those who have it to those who do not?  Or, should it be left to individuals and private groups to take the lead, with the government either encouraging such efforts from the sidelines or simply staying out of the way?

While the Torah and the Rabbis legislate specific ways to give, the rules around tzedakah focus mainly on individual responsibilities, or those of a tight-knit community, not on society’s obligation.  They do not provide any specific guidance for determining how or even whether a government should provide welfare, food stamps, or social security.

This means that people with similar moral beliefs could end up embracing completely opposite policy solutions – even though we are pursuing the same goal.  This is a good thing, as none of us knows how to end poverty.  The best way to find solutions is through open political systems.

This is how it should work:  our moral convictions should lead to our political positions.

Unfortunately, things are working exactly backwards.  Partisanship has co-opted politics and corrupted morality.

The research shows that my primary allegiance is to my party, not to my morals.  When the opposing party embraces a particular idea, my knee-jerk inclination is to oppose it – not because my morals tell me to, but simply because my opponents favor it.  And the idea itself, along with those who support it, become morally tainted.

It is a serious problem when vast swaths of Americans label each other evil, racist, fascist, and communist because they hold different political views.  After all, it is possible for intelligent people to reach different conclusions.

Religion bears some responsibility for the extreme polarization that we now experience.  In the last century, Judaism and Christianity in America embraced the biblical prophets as models of righteousness.  This may sound surprising, but this embrace of the prophetic ideal has created some rather severe moral traps.  The left has been particularly drawn in.

The first trap is an oversimplification of the moral imperative.  Think about the central message of just about every single prophet in the Bible.  Let’s take, for example, Isaiah’s rebuke in the Haftarah that we will read next week on Yom Kippur.  It is beautiful and inspiring:

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh.”  (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Isaiah seems to think that, if we only dedicated ourselves to it, we could end human suffering, inequality, and poverty.  The prophetic era lasted for hundred of years.  Most of the prophets offered some version of Isaiah’s message.  At no time did a prophet ever say:  “You guys are doing a great job.”  At no point in human history has a society ever managed to achieve Isaiah’s vision.

Why? Because the problems of human suffering are really complicated.  There is a reason why none of the biblical prophets succeeded.  They were overly simplistic and quite inflexible.

Think of Jeremiah.  He runs around speaking truth to power.  He lambasts the people for their greed and corruption.  He ends up getting himself thrown into a pit for his moral high-mindedness.  There is no doubt that Jeremiah was right.  He was living in a society that had lost its way.  He could see the righteous path forward.  But his message, like so many of the other prophets, failed to take into account the complexity of human beings.  He did not consider how they might feel if he insulted them.

The prophets label behavior as either good or bad, moral or immoral.  If you are not with us, you are against us.

This kind of righteousness is lonely, and if taken too far, can turn violent.

When Moses comes down from the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, he declares, Mi L’Hashem Elai!  “Whoever is for God, to me!”  There is no in-between.  The Levites heed the call.  At Moses’ instruction, they take their swords and march back and forth through the camp, killing “brother, neighbor, and kin.”  Three thousand die that day.

The Rabbis, in transforming Judaism, understood the risks inherent in the prophetic tradition.  Rabbi Yohanan declares, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.”  (BT Bava Batra 12-12b)

Where the Bible speaks in absolutes, the rabbinic tradition is steeped in uncertainty.  The Talmud is filled with mostly unresolved arguments.  There is deep suspicion of anyone who would claim to know the will of God.

Another righteousness trap that we have made is in elevating the idea of tikkun olam as the religious goal.  Tikkun olam means, literally, “fixing the world.”  The term has been applied differently over the millenia.  At first, Tikkun Olam referred to a rabbinic decree that fixed a specific problem created biblical law.  Later, it took on mystical aspects.  The idea that tikkun olam is about social action and the pursuit of social justice is a uniquely 20th and 21st century innovation.  In many segments of American Jewry, however, tikkun olam has become the central religious message.

And this is a problem.

To speak of a fixed world implies, first of all, that I know what a fixed world looks like.  What does that say about someone who does not share my vision?  And finally, is it not a little audacious to imagine that the Jewish people, comprising less than two tenths of one percent of the world’s population, are going to be the ones to fix it?

Should we really be pursuing a perfect world?

A story in the Talmud relates a conversation between philosophers in Rome and Jewish elders.  “If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not just abolish it?”  “If it was something of which the world had no need,” they replied, “God would abolish it.  But what do people worship?  The sun, moons, stars, and planets.  Should God destroy the universe on account of fools?  Rather, olam k’minhago noheg.  The world pursues its natural course…”  (BT Avodah Zarah 54b)

We live in an imperfect world.  It is never going to become perfect.  There is no “fixing” the world.  The better model is that taught by Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot.  Lo alekha hamlakha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimenah.  “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”  (Avot 2:16)  The world remains a work in progress.

The Rabbinic model, as opposed to the prophetic, is one of moral humility.  It is one of engagement with others, including especially those who disagree with us.  It is making sure, always, that the solutions we pursue emerge from the core moral principles of the Torah.  But we recognize that no human being can know the mind of God.

It is through struggle, together, that we get closer to it.

Lincoln concludes his second Inaugural Address with an appeal for compassion for the common humanity of all and a prayer for peace, knowing full well that the fight to end slavery had to continue until its conclusion.  We would do well to embrace his words.

… With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

The Lesson of the Tower of Babel: Unity with Humility – Noach 5777

The bulk of this morning’s Torah portion describes the flood.  Humanity has become so corrupt that God regrets having created the earth, and decides to wipe out almost all life.  Representative samples of each species are gathered together and entrusted to Noah, who builds the famous ark to serve as a shelter during the deluge.

After the waters subside, life emerges from the ark and begins anew.  Hopefully, humanity has learned a lesson from the experience.

Several generations pass.  Humans multiply, and eventually find themselves living in Mesopotamia, where they embark on a scheme which nearly results in a calamity as serious for humanity as the flood: the construction of the Tower of Babel.

The entire passage is described in just nine eloquently-crafted verses.  (Gen. 11:1-9)  We learn that all of humanity has settled in a valley in the land of Shinar, also known as Mesopotamia, Babylonia, and Iraq.  Everyone speaks the same language.  Together, they decide to make bricks, with which to build “a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

At first glance, it sounds like a pretty good idea.  Everybody gets along.  They are united in a shared vision.  There do not seem to be any major disputes.  Many people might wish things were a bit more like this today.

Yet, there seems to be a problem with this giant public-works project.  God comes down to look at the tower that the humans are building and reacts with disapproval.  “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.”  (11:6)

God confounds their speech so that the humans do not understand one another, and scatters them over the face of the earth.  The project grinds to a halt.  The story ends by explaining that the city is called Bavel, or Babel, because it is where the Lord “babbled” the speech of the whole earth.

That is the basic story as it appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  Our inclination might be to sympathize with humanity.  After all, has there ever in history been a time during which everyone agreed?

But the Torah is very deliberate.  If it tells us that there is something wrong with what these humans are doing, then there is something wrong with what these humans are doing.  The reason is not easily apparent, and so it is up to us to dig deep to figure it out.

Jewish tradition is in agreement that the generation of the Dispersion, Dor Haflagah, as that generation is called, was in the wrong.  The Mishnah, from the second century, declares that members of that generation do not have a place in the World to Come.  The Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 109a) concur, but have trouble agreeing on the specifics.

The school of Rabbi Shilah, located in Babylonia not too far from where the Tower of Babel once stood, offers a novel explanation.  In the ancient world, people believed that the world as we know it was surrounded by water, both below the earth, and above the sky.  The humans wanted to build a tower that was high enough that they could cut holes in the firmament, presumably to have access to water.  The Talmud reports that when this theory made its way to the West, that is to say, to the land of Israel, the scholars laughed and made fun of it, suggesting that if that was their intent, it might have made more sense to have built the tower on top of a mountain, rather than at the bottom of a valley.

Rabbi Natan suggests that they built the tower as an expression of some sort of idolatrous belief and practice.

Rabbi Jeremiah claims that the people of Bavel were not quite as united as the Torah makes it seem.  One third of them want to build a city and tower in which to live, perhaps to escape a future flood.  Their punishment is to be scattered across the land.  A second third wants to build the tower to worship idols.  They are the ones whose tongues are confounded by God.  The final third intends to use the tower to wage war against Heaven.  They are transformed into apes, spirits, devils, and night-demons.  Ouch!

But what of the tower itself?  After all, significant progress is made before God takes notice.  The tower is quite substantial.  Rabbi Yochanan says that the bottom third sunk into the ground, The top third burnt up, but the middle third is still standing.

Other midrashim add colorful details to the legends.  Genesis Rabbah describes how those who wanted to rebel against God planned to place a giant statue on top of the tower with a sword in its hand pointing a challenge directed at the Heavens.  I imagine it looking kind of like the Titan of Braavos, for you Game of Thrones fans.

I’ll mention one final midrash.  Someone made some calculations and determined that the flood occurred 1,656 years after creation.  The people of Babel come to the conclusion that this is a built in feature of the firmament, the giant expanse of water suspended over the sky.  Once every 1,656 years, the firmament totters, and the waters of chaos above break free and inundate the world.  To prevent it from happening again, they decide to build four giant pillars to support the heavens – one in each of the cardinal directions.  The Tower of Babel is supposed to be the pillar of the East.

This final midrash sounds appealing, actually.  All of humanity becomes aware of an impending natural disaster that will have catastrophic effects for life on earth, albeit not for one thousand years.  So they join together to invest massive resources into a technological solution to prevent the deluge.  We are in desperate need of that kind of long-range planning.

The problem, from the midrash’s perspective, is that the people have removed God from the equation.  The periodic flooding of the earth happens on its own, and is not the result of God’s actions.  In fact, just a few chapters earlier, we read of God’s promise, symbolized by the rainbow, never to destroy the earth by flood again.  Their sin, therefore, is a lack of faith.  They have placed nature above God rather than God above nature.

So what was the sin of the Tower of Babel that provoked God so greatly?  We have just heard numerous suggestions, and believe me, we have only scratched the surface.  Whenever the Rabbis offer this many explanations for something, it means that they have absolutely no idea whatsoever.

But to me, all of these “sins” share a basic feature.  “Come, let us make a name for ourselves,” they declare.  Humanity, collectively sees no limits on itself.  Whether the people want to overthrow God, build a monument to themselves, or reverse the forces of nature – they lack basic humility about their place in creation.

Perhaps a lesson to be learned is: God is God, and we are not.

There is still something appealing, however, about the unity that exists at the outset of the story.  Is cooperation and a universally shared vision inherently problematic?  I cannot believe that the story of the Tower of Babel is disparaging the idea of humanity collectively working together.

I would like to think that we, as a species, have it within us to both have some humble respect for our place amidst creation, as well as come together to solve problems and challenges that affect us all.  Some of those problems are of our own making.  Others are external.  But we all make our homes on the same planet, and we eventually have to pay the cost of our collective hubris.

We face numerous challenges that can only be solved through joined effort: challenges of inequality and oppression, environmental destruction, climate change, and on and on.  We live in a scattered world, in which we do not all speak the same language.  Even when we share a vocabulary, we often are not speaking the same language.

Perhaps the Tower of Babel can inspire us to, humbly, find a way to come together.

Finding the Factory Reset Button – Yom Kippur 5775

Yom Kippur, as the Torah describes it, is a “restore device to original factory settings” button.  It reformats the relationship between God and Israel, wipes our souls clean, and enables us to begin the new year bug free.

Unfortunately for us, the factory reset button is really hard to find, and requires a special kind of tool to reach.

It must be nice to live with the certainty of knowing exactly where we stand with our Creator, to know that, once a year, all of the bugs in the system are eliminated.

Our reality is of a world in which God is hidden.  In our day, we live with tremendous uncertainty.  It seems like we never know where we stand.

The Bible begins with God actively involved in history.  In the beginning, we find God creating the universe, walking about in the Garden of Eden, speaking to Patriarchs and Matriarchs, defeating Pharaoh and leading the Israelites into freedom.  Then God gradually steps back.  By the time we reach the Book of Esther, God is not even mentioned, and the fate of the Jewish people lies entirely in the hands of human heroes, villains, and fools.  Sound familiar?

Towards the end of the biblical era, and certainly into the Rabbinic period, our ancestors’ experience of God becomes much like our own in the present.  We, and they, pray to a God whose Presence is hidden in our world.  We follow a covenant that establishes our relationship with a God who never communicates directly with us.  We never receive clear affirmation that we are doing the right thing.  Our relationship with the Divine is intangible.

In contrast, the biblical narrative that serves as the basis for Yom Kippur presents a relationship to God that is extremely tangible.  The Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur describes it in great detail how the High Priest’s ritual maintains a healthy relationship between the Jewish people and God.

Over the course of the year, the sanctuary becomes polluted through sin, preventing God’s Presence from dwelling among the nation.  Only the High Priest has the ability to clear the sanctuary of its spiritual contamination.  The ritual involves: sacrificing goats, bulls, and incense; making formal confessions; wearing special clothes; sending a goat off into the wilderness; and entering the Holy of Holies.  When the High Priest does everything correctly, God washes the stain of impurity away from the sanctuary.  The Israelites are now pure before Adonai, so God’s Presence can return into their midst.  The relationship returns to its perfect state as if nothing has happened.  Factory reset.

From the Torah’s perspective, this is no metaphor.  It is real.  The stain of sin is tangible.  The ritual literally scrubs it away.  It really works.

How comforting it must have been to know where one stands in the universe, to know with certainty that we have done everything that God expects of us!

Yom Kippur is the one day of the year on which I feel reasonably confident that I have done everything I am supposed to do.  Pray – check.  No food – check.  No drink – check.  There is nothing in either my or God’s to-do list that I have forgotten.

Every other day of the year, I truly do not know where I stand.  It always feels as if there is so much more to do.  It seems like nothing is certain and there are no definitive answers to the questions that really matter.

Have I taken the right path?  Did I marry the right person or choose the right career?  Have I paid enough attention to the people I love?  Have I given my children enough to succeed in life?  Have I donated enough to tzedakah?  Have I worked hard enough to improve the character flaws that I see in myself?  Have I been kind enough to other people?

Have I done what God expects of me?  Has my teshuvah been accepted?  Has God forgiven me?  For that matter, does God exist, and if so, does God even care?

Today, we have no ritual to reset everything.  The “restore system to original factory settings” button is hidden where we cannot find it.  We are never fully certain about where we stand.

This creates tremendous spiritual and moral anxiety – and there are psychological implications to this.  We feel that we have never done enough.  We beat ourselves up over our flaws.  We are tormented with guilt.  And no matter how hard we try, we can never truly know if we have fixed things.

The idea of atonement, the wiping clean of our souls, allows us to move on.  But if the question of God’s forgiveness is always a mystery, how can we ever move on?

This is not a new dilemma.  It became an issue already during the time of the Second Temple.  In the Yom Kippur ritual, the High Priest would draw lots to determine the fates of two male goats that were brought before him.  One was selected to be sent off into the wilderness as the scapegoat, to carry away the sins of the people.  He would tie a red string to the horns of the fated animal.

The Talmud (BT Yoma 67a) explains that there was a matching red string that was tied to the entrance of the sanctuary.  There was a kind of wireless signal between the two strings.  If the sins of the people were forgiven by God, both strings would turn white, and everyone would rejoice.  If the strings remained red, the people would be sad and ashamed, because they knew that God had not forgiven them.

Some time later, the Talmud reports, the string was transferred to the inner part of the sanctuary, where the public could not see it.  Nevertheless, people continued to peep through.

To solve that problem, they sent the second red string out with the attendant who led the goat out into the wilderness.  There, with nobody around to watch, he would tie it to a rock before hurling the goat off a cliff.  He was the only one who knew what happened to the string.

Why did the location of the second string have to change?  People really wanted to know what happened to the string.  They wanted to know if the ritual worked.  Red or white?

But did the strings really change color?  It seems that those in charge, and we do not know who it was, wanted to protect the people from the knowledge that there were, in fact, no physical signs that atonement had taken place.  The burden then shifts to the scapegoat attendant to report on the fate of the string.  We can only imagine the pressure he must have been under to come back with a white report.

This was a paternalistic approach to the problem.  We do not know who was making the decisions to move the red string, but it seems that “they”  felt that the people needed to be protected from the despair of not knowing where they stood with God.  “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” the wizard shouts desperately to Dorothy and her companions.

At some point, however, the curtain falls and we all must deal with the uncertainty of our existence.

So does that mean that we ignore what the Torah says about Yom Kippur?  Of course not.  We do with it what we have done so well with all of our holidays.  We transform it.  It is the Don Draper strategy: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

A story is told of a High Priest, a direct descendant of Aaron, who came out of the Temple one year to throngs of excited people surrounding him.  But then the proto-Rabbis Shemaya and Avtalion appear, the two greatest scholars of the generation, who are said to be the descendants of pagans.  When the people see them, they abandon the High Priest to follow the Sages.  Shemaya and Avtalion eventually pay their respects, and the High Priest blesses them:  “May these descendants of heathens, who do the work of Aaron, arrive in peace, but the descendant of Aaron who does not do the work of Aaron (i.e. the priest himself), he shall not come in peace!”

It is a nice story if you are a Rabbi, to have a High Priest acknowledge that it is the study of Torah which best transmits the legacy of Aaron, the original High Priest.  More so even than the Temple ritual itself!  (BT Yoma 71b)  It establishes the primacy of Rabbinic Judaism over Temple Judaism.

Our own Yom Kippur services take the ancient ritual and reinterpret it.  During the Avodah service, which occurs during musaf [in a little while], we reenact, in moving poetry, the Temple service, with the Cantor playing the role of High Priest.  Every detail is captured.  The most uplifting part comes at the end, in a song called Mar’eh HaKohen, the Appearance of the Priest.  It describes how ecstatic, exalted, even glowing, was the High Priest when he emerged from the Holy of Holies.  He is so overjoyed and relieved to have successfully performed all of the rituals and restored the relationship between God and the Jewish people that he throws a big party for his family, friends, and everyone he knows.  It is simply glorious.

Another poem immediately follows: Ashrei Ayin – “Happy is the eye that saw all these,” it begins by listing the marvelous experience of witnessing Yom Kippur in the Temple.  But then it sounds an ominous note: “For the ear to hear of it distresses our soul.”  While it may have been incredible to have been part of the ancient drama, those days are over.  The memory of that loss brings only anguish to our souls.  Instead of partying with the High Priest, we have six more hours of fasting.

Then we turn to Eylah Ezkerah, the martyrology.  We recall ancestors who were murdered for their faith, pious individuals who died for God and Judaism.  It is almost an “in your face, God” kind of moment.  “Where were You, when those who loved You were being slaughtered?”  It starkly raises the uncertainty and injustice of our broken world.

Leviticus is now seen as a metaphor.  Maimonides, in the 12th century, goes so far as to say that God does not even want animal sacrifice.  The Torah merely grants it as a concession to human beings in the ancient world who did not know any other way.

In a world without a Temple, we have other ways to accomplish the same tasks.  Our texts credit prayer, acts of lovingkindness, tzedakah, and teshuvah as equal, if not better, than animal sacrifices.  It turns out, we have not lost our ability to restore our relationship with God after all.  In fact, our relationship with God may be even stronger.

This is what we call, “putting the nail in the coffin.”  When we start to memorialize the good old days, it means they are over and we are ready to move on.  While the rabbis speak wistfully and longingly of the days of the Temple, they much prefer their model of Torah study and a portable, community-focused Judaism that can be practiced anywhere that Jews gather together.

So how do we accomplish today what the High Priest once accomplished in the Holy of Holies?  We need a faith that enables us to live with certainty in an uncertain world.  We need to find a way to perform, if not a full factory restore, then at least a “soft reset.”

Our Jewish tradition has been struggling to find a middle path between despair and extremism for more than two thousand years.  Not surprisingly, several approaches.

Yeridat Hadorot means “the decline of the generations.”  It is the idea that the further in time we get from the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the more we decline spiritually and in our proximity to God.  The destruction of the Temple and the negation of the Temple Ritual nearly two thousand years ago, therefore, signify the growing chasm between us and God.

A Mishnah (Sotah 9:16) describes the deterioration of Judaism as various second century Sages pass from the world:

When R. Meir died, the composers of fables ceased.  When Ben Azzai died, the assiduous students [of Torah] ceased…  When Rabbi Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased…  When Rabbi Ishmael ben Fabi died, the luster of the priesthood ceased.  When Rabbi [Yehuda the Prince] died, humility and fear of sin ceased.

It goes on to describe how the situation falls apart after the Temple is destroyed in 70 CE.

From the day the Temple was destroyed, the Sages began to be like school teachers, school teachers like synagogue attendants, synagogue attendants like common people, and the common people became more and more debased; and there was none to ask, none to inquire.

“So upon whom is it for us to rely?” the Mishnah concludes, “Upon our Father who is in Heaven.”

The good old days are over, and our task is to maintain faith while things continue to deteriorate.  Eventually, when things cannot get any worse, the Messiah will come to redeem the world, restore everything to its proper place, and bring certainty back into our relationship with God – the ultimate factory reset, and upgrade.

It is not a particularly happy message.  Far more appealing is the narrative of “we stand on the shoulders of giants.”  Our knowledge is constantly increasing.  Our understanding of Torah continues to expand.  We are always building on the successes of our predecessors and striving for more.

Although the process had already begun, the destruction of the Second Temple forced the Rabbis to deal with the reality of a hidden God.  For Judaism to survive in a post Temple world, the conversation had to be changed.

The old narrative that relied upon the ritual of the High Priest was gone, and something new would have to replace it.  We needed a way to wipe the slate clean and start over with the certainty that we had been forgiven.  So if there is no longer a red string to turn white, no goat to throw off a cliff, and no High Priest to sacrifice a bull, who will take over the ritual?

Answer: we will.

This is what the Rabbis do.  They add the element of personal teshuvah to Yom Kippur.  Instead of relying upon a High Priest to perform the ritual for us, the burden falls to individual humans.  The Mishnah teaches the following:

If one says: I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given to that person to repent. [If one says]: I shall sin and Yom Kippur will procure atonement for me, Yom Kippur procures for him no atonement.

It may seem obvious to us that we need to be sincere about repentance, but nowhere in the Torah’s description about the Temple rite does it say anything about hypocrisy.  According to a plain reading of the Torah, atonement is automatic as long as the High Priest does his job correctly.  The Rabbis, in changing the conversation, made this part up.

They continue their reinterpretation by taking away God’s ability to forgive fully half of our sins:

For transgressions between a person and the Almighty, Yom Kippur procures atonement, but for transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not procure any atonement until one has appeased one’s friend.  (Yoma 8:9)

The Talmud expands on this idea, explaining that if one person angers another, it is not necessarily the case that he will be forgiven.  I depend upon the person I have wronged for forgiveness.  I am at her mercy.  But with God, it is another story.

… with the Holy One, if a person commits a sin in secret, God is pacified by mere words… And not only that but God even accounts it to that person as a good deed… And not only that but Scripture considers it as if that person had sacrificed a bull.  (BT Yoma 86b)

In other words, God is a sure thing.  All we have to do is ask – with sincerity of course.

When we do manage to appease one another, then God steps in to finish the process by wiping our souls clean.  That part is also automatic.  The uncertain part is each other.

Notice that the ability to grant atonement has effectively been taken away from God and granted to human beings.  It depends on us working with one another to repair our relationships.  It depends on us asking each other for forgiveness, and forgiving when we are asked.  God’s role is to affirm what we are able to accomplish with one another.  The hard work of Yom Kippur is in our interpersonal relationships.  The factory reset button is relocated into our own hearts.

So instead of trying to sneak a peak while an austere man robed in white performs the rituals, we all come together as a community of High Priests.  Success depends on whether we manage to repair our relationships with each other.

At the end of the day, during the final service of Neilah, the atmosphere in the synagogue changes.  Everything feels lighter.  An aura of glorious radiance fills the room.  Despite the chaos out there, we stand together in here, certain in this moment.

We have created that moment by coming together, and God responds by wiping our souls clean, affirming the hard work we have done.  Factory reset accomplished.