Take a Seat on the Throne of Mercy – Yom Kippur 5780

Think about an argument that you have had with someone in the past year.  Some time when you really got angry.  Picture the scene.  What did the other person do and say?  What did you do and say?  Think back to what led up to the fight, and what happened after it was over.  Are you still angry about it?

Now I have a question: What color were the other person’s eyes?  Can you even picture their face, or is it a blur?

It is not only when we are in a fight that we don’t look at one another.  We tend to be pretty self-centered in most of our interactions.  As society becomes more fractured and people become more atomized, this is only getting worse.

Self-centeredness lends itself to being more judgmental of others.  We are less willing to see things from another person’s perspective.

And yet, that is exactly what we ask God to do for us.  We want God to take note of us, to see things from our perspective, and have mercy.

It is ironic, because the dominant depiction of God during the High Holidays is as a King.  Last week, for Rosh Hashanah, we celebrated creation.  God is a Creator King.  Today, on Yom Kippur, we stand in judgment before our creator.  God is a Judge King.  

What does every King need? A throne, of course.  The Hebrew word for throne is kisei. The image of God’s kisei appears frequently in our High Holiday prayers.

One of those thrones appears in the prayer, Unetaneh TokefV’yikon b’chesed kis’ekha — “Your throne is established in love.”  V’teshev alav be’emet — “and You sit upon it in truth.  ‘Truth’ for you are judge and prosecutor, expert and witness…” The image is of God as a King and a Judge, reviewing the deeds of all of Creation, passing judgment on us on Rosh Hashanah and sealing it on Yom Kippur.  It is a terrifying image, suggesting that our actions in the past year seal our fate in the year to come.  There is no escaping the truth of our deeds.  The best we can do is avert the severity of the decree.  It is not particularly reassuring.

Fortunately, this is not the only kind of throne that we find in the Mahzor.  Another part of our Yom Kippur service is called Selichot.  We recite the words El Melekh yoshev al kisei rachamim.  “God, King, who sits on a throne of mercy.”  That is the image of God that we want.  “acting with unbounded grace, forgiving the sin of Your people, one by one, as each comes before You, generously forgiving sinners and pardoning transgressors, acting charitably with every living thing; do not repay them for their misdeeds.” The God of Selichot is the polar opposite of the God of Unetaneh Tokef: a God of mercy rather than a God of justice.

Our goal, through the season of repentance, is to elevate the Divine King from the Throne of Judgment to the Throne of Mercy.  It is why, for example, we add an extra l’eilah to the Kaddish.  L’eilah l’eilah: Higher and higher.  Rise up, O Lord, to Your Throne of Mercy.

This tension between justice and mercy, din and rachamim; law and righteousness, mishpat and tzedek, is found throughout Jewish tradition.  

It is in the commentaries and midrash and even in the Bible itself.  It is reflected in two most commonly appearing Divine names.  Yud Hei Vav Hei is the unpronounceable name that we read as Adonai or, “The Lord.”  The other name is Elohim, which we translate simply as “God.”

Jewish tradition understands these two names as reflections of the two aspects of the Divine persona.  These attributes oppose and balance one another.  Adonai is mercy and Elohim is Judgment.

Throughout the creation story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Divine is repeatedly referred to by both names, together: Adonai Elohim—”The Lord, God.”  This is atypical.  Usually, the Torah uses one or the other name.  It must mean something important.  A midrash offers a parable (Genesis Rabbah 12:15).

There once was a human king who had some drinking cups.   The king said to himself, “if I put hot water in them, they will shatter, and if I put cold water in them, they will crack.  What to do?  What to do?”

So what did the king do? He mixed the hot water with the cold water and then filled up the glasses so that they would not break.  (This is not rocket science, folks.)

So too did the Blessed Holy One say: “If I create the world only with the attribute of compassion alone, I will tolerate everything and the sins will proliferate uncontrollably.  But if I create the world only with the attribute of justice alone, how would it be able to stand?”

“So,” the Lord God concludes, “I will create it with both judgment and compassion.”

So far, this is a pretty straightforward midrash.  There are several rabbinic texts that say something similar.  But the two concluding words are unique:  V’halevai ya’amod.  “Would that it stands.”

This ending is delightfully ambiguous.  God says, “I’ll give this a shot.  I hope it works.”

The resulting world, our world, is a confusing mess.  Fate is unpredictable, and may or may not reflect a fair consequence of our actions.

This tension is on display in full force in the Book of Jonah, which we will read this afternoon.  The book opens with God’s command to deliver a prophecy against the residents of the wicked city of Nineveh. Without any explanation whatsoever, Jonah runs the opposite direction, booking passage on a ship.  When the inevitable storm appears, Jonah is asleep in the cargo hold.  The other sailors are doing everything possible to survive.  They each pray to their own gods.  They throw overboard anything that is not nailed down.

Nothing works.  When the captain finds Jonah asleep, he is incredulous.  “How can you be sleeping at a time like this!  Get up and cry out to your god!  Ulai—Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish!”

Jonah ignores the captain in silence.  It’s like he wants to go down with the ship.  So they cast lots to identify the person on whose account the storm has come.  Of course, the lots indicate Jonah.

“What did you do?” the sailors cry.

Again, Jonah is silent.  

“What can we do to calm the sea?” they ask.

Finally Jonah speaks, “Throw me overboard and the sea will calm down, for I am the cause.”

The sailors are heartbroken.  They do not want to perform such a terrible action.  But the storm is raging stronger by the minute, and they have no alternative.  Before they do it, they offer a prayer to Jonah’s God.  “Please, Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life.  Do not hold us guilty of killing an innocent person…!” Then they toss the prophet, and the storm ceases.  In appreciation, the sailors offer sacrifices and make vows to God.  

What is up with Jonah?  Why does he run?  The text offers no explanation.  You would think that he might try to argue with God.  Perhaps he could pray when the captain approaches him.  What is going on in this guy’s head? The man has a death wish.  He is on a one-way journey of self-destruction.  If not for the piety of the sailors, he would have brought them down with him.

God will not let Jonah off so easy.  Instead of letting him drown, God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah alive and deposit him on dry land after three days.  God orders Jonah, once again, to deliver a prophecy of destruction to Nineveh.  Realizing that there is no escape, Jonah performs his task.  He walks through the streets declaring, Od arba’im yom v’Ninveh neh’pachet—”Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overturned!”

Compelled by these five inspiring words, the entire city—from the King to the people to the livestock—puts on sackcloth and fasts in repentance.  God backs down from the evil that had been planned for them.

Jonah’s reaction is exactly the opposite.  The forgiveness of the Ninevites “was exceedingly evil to Jonah, and he was angry.”

Now, finally, at the beginning of chapter four, Jonah reveals his motivations in what the text describes as a prayer to God.  It does not sound much like a prayer, though.  “This is exactly what I said would happen.  That’s why I ran away so quickly.  I knew that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil.  Now, Lord, please take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

Jonah still harbors his death wish.  Why is he so upset? In this book, God is governed exclusively by the attribute of mercy.  Jonah knows it well.  He is certain that when the Ninevites hear his prophecy of doom and destruction, they will repent.

God, who is always ready to forgive a sinner, will then have to forgive the Ninevites.  Jonah’s prophecy of devastation will never come about and he will be made to look the fool. He would rather die than be embarrassed.

If God is driven solely by mercy in this story, then Jonah is governed by strict judgment.  The world he wants to live in is a world in which the wicked are always punished. He is willing to suffer to make this happen.  Jonah would rather die than act to prevent the deaths of others he deems not worthy. He wants to invoke the God of justice, but this is not a story about the God of Justice.  In this book, it is a merciful God who saves the sailors, prevents Jonah from drowning, and forgives the Ninevites, along with their animals.

Jonah is closed off to the possibility of change.  He is closed off to considering the internal feelings, thoughts, and experiences of anyone but himself.  He will not allow himself to consider it.  Justice prevents it.

Contrast him with the ship’s captain.  The captain says Ulai—”Maybe.”  What a beautiful, hopeful word.  The captain does not know why the storm has risen.  His world, and that of the Ninevites, is one in which is mercy is possible.  He does not know if Jonah’s prayer will work.  But he is hopeful.  Ulai.  “Maybe the god will give us a thought and we will not perish,” he offers wistfully.

The captain’s ulai sounds like God’s Halevai ya’amod from the midrash of the cups.  “Would that the world stands.”  We live in a world in which justice and mercy are both present.  Harsh, unrelenting punishment, competing with forgiveness and second chances.

I have suggested before that whenever we talk about God, we are actually talking about ourselves.  The midot, God’s qualities. are what we imagine to be the best possible attributes that a human being can achieve, but better.

So when we ask God to ascend from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy, and when we read how Jonah is unable to prevent God from acting with compassion, we are talking to ourselves. It is we who are overly judgmental, and who suppress compassion for others in our relationships and interactions.  We are the ones who need to rise to the throne of mercy.

But it is so hard.  Every day, we have to deal with people who drive us crazy.

That person who lives under the same roof, who leaves their socks out on the floor of the living room, or the family member who yells at them for it.  The child who screams at a parent to change the radio station in the car, or the parent who insists on listening to the news.  (This is all hypothetical, of course.)

At school: the disruptive student who takes up 50% of the teacher’s time.

At work: the coworker who stubbornly refuses to see that my solution to the problem at hand is clearly the best one.  The employee who arrives late and goes home early while I work hard at my desk.

In the news: the politician who is clearly driven by the pure quest for power and ego-fulfillment, and the blind, naive supporters.  Why can’t they see the facts, which are so clear and straightforward?

My knee-jerk response is always to judge others.  Like Jonah, I do not take time to consider the experiences and emotions that another person might be feeling.  Instead, I judge that person only according to the impact of their actions on me, personally.

One of my favorite lessons in Pirkei Avot is taught by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perachya.

Hevei dan et kol ha-adam l’khaf z’khut. “Judge every person to the scale of merit.”

Pirkei Avot 1:6

Imagine scales of justice, with one side representing guilt, and the other side representing or innocence.  We are encouraged to do everything possible to load up the side of innocence. 

I am really good at this, an expert, really… for myself.  I find all sorts of ways to justify my behavior, to excuse my mistakes.  I am so good at defending myself against the critiques of my family members, friends, and coworkers.

When it comes to other people… not so good.  Giving other people the benefit of the doubt does not come easily.

Consider every confrontation with another person that you have ever had.  Estimate the percent of time that you were the side in the right.  What would the percentage be?  50/50?  I don’t think so.

Human beings are naturally biased.  We have a strong tendency to be merciful with ourselves and judgmental of others.  This is called “illusory superiority.”  It is when a person tends to overestimate his or her own qualities and abilities compared to others.

80% of all drivers think they are above average.  Look around the room.  80% of us think that we are better than half of you.  

I know what you are probably thinking, because I am thinking the same thing: “but in my case, I actually am better than average.”  Sure you are.

Mashing up the Pirkei Avot teaching with the Torah’s commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century founder of Hasidism, adds

Since you always find excuses for your own misdeeds, makes excuses also for your fellow.

Is that doable?  The next time someone cuts me off on the freeway without indicating their turning signal, can I make an excuse for them?  Let’s try.

  • Maybe there is a woman about to give birth in the backseat.
  • Maybe there is a toddler having a temper tantrum.
  • Maybe the driver did signal, and I just didn’t see it.
  • Maybe the driver has been on the road for three hours and really needs to find a bathroom.

Imagine the story that would explain the behavior to be perfectly reasonable, even preferable perhaps—given the circumstances.

This is easy when it comes to people we don’t know and whom we do not have to face directly.  It’s easy to make up a creative story that probably isn’t true about someone I have never met before.  What about people we do know?

I recently heard an interview of Alan Alda on the podcast, Hidden Brain.  He wrote a book called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? in which he draws upon his work helping engineers and scientists to become better communicators.  Effective communication all comes down to “empathy and learning to recognize what the other person is thinking.”

In the interview, Alda quips, “I’ve noticed that the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are.”

He suggests a simple practice that can help us develop greater empathy, improve communication, and improve our relationships.  While  interacting with someone, try to name the emotion that this person is feeling.  Psychotherapists are trained to do this in clinical settings, but there is no reason why the rest of us cannot employ this practice in our everyday interactions.

Alda suggests that we don’t even need to name the emotion.  Just taking note of the color of a person’s eyes can help us become more loving in our relationships.  

I am far less likely to get mad at somebody if I have a sense of what they are feeling and thinking, or if I have taken a moment to look deeply into their eyes.  This can be an effective way to elevate ourselves from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy.  It is a way of conveying to myself, and to the other person:  “I see you, and I am listening to you.”

Alda writes that

Real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking…  Unless I’m responding with my whole self—unless, in fact, I’m willing to be changed by you—I’m probably not really listening.  But if I do listen—openly, naively, and innocently—there’s a chance, possibly the only chance, that a true dialogue and real communication will take place between us.”

Alan Alda.  If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? (New York: 2017). pp. 10-11.

What a profound statement!  In how many of my conversations can I truly say that I was willing to be changed by the other person?

That is what it means to sit on the throne of mercy.  In our prayers, this is the essence of what we ask for from God.  Take note of us.  Look at our lives.  See how much we struggle.  Look at the good things we have done.  Look at how hard we have tried to repair our mistakes, to improve?  See us.  And forgive us.

I do not know whether there is a God who is listening to all of these prayers, but I do know that I ought to be listening.  Am I able to get up from the Throne of Judgment, and take a seat on the Throne of Mercy?

What Is Life Worth? – Yom Kippur 5779

[I got the idea for this sermon from an interview of Kenneth Feinberg by Steven J. Dubner on the podcast Freakonomics (of which I am a regular listener).  You can listen to the podcast here.]

Last week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we observed the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, when 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.  Nearly 3000 people were killed and more than 6000 were injured.

Almost immediately after the attacks, the airline industry started lobbying Congress.  It worried that the victims would bring lawsuits that would bog them down in court for years.  Congress worried that lawsuits would cause Americans to lose faith in air transportation and stop flying, which could have devastating effects on the country.  It quickly began drafting a law to limit the airlines’ liabilities.  But that meant victims’ family members, as well as those who were injured, would be restricted in their abilities to seek compensation.

At the last minute, Congress added a provision to address this concern.  They created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001, to which eligible persons could apply in exchange for foregoing all rights to sue.  The American people would collectively pay damages to the victims of 9/11.

On September 22, 2011, just eleven days after the towers fell, the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act passed and was signed into law by President Bush.

The Act required the Attorney General to appoint a Special Master, who would be granted sole authority over the entire program.  The Special Master would be responsible for developing procedures by which family members and injured persons could apply for compensation.  He would have to develop a formula for determining award amounts.  He would also determine the total amount of money that the fund would distribute.  No distinctions whatsoever were to be made between citizens and non-citizens, including victims who were undocumented.

In effect, Congress gave the Special Master a blank check with which to compensate the victims and family members of 9/11.  Short of being fired by the Attorney General, there would be no oversight and no review.

No program like it had ever existed.

Attorney General John Ashcroft turned to a lawyer by the name of Ken Feinberg.  Feinberg was a Democrat, having worked for Senator Ted Kennedy early in his career.  Feinberg also had prior experience serving as a mediator for victim compensation funds.

Although a Democrat. Feinberg was well-respected and liked across the aisle.  Perhaps most importantly, he could be easily jettisoned if things did not go well politically.

Feinberg turned out to have been the perfect choice to serve as Special Master.  He demonstrated wisdom and sensitivity for the victims and their families.  He took his role as fiduciary for the American people seriously, and he considered the precedent that his decisions would set.  After closing the compensation fund three years later, Ken Feinberg wrote a book called What is Life Worth? in which he describes his experiences.

Consider the difficult position into which Feinberg was placed.  In administering the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, he found himself in the unenviable position of having to determine how much the lives of thousands of human beings were worth—in dollars.  He would have to weigh the relative merits of competing claims and decide whose death would be compensated with more and whose would be compensated with less.

It would have been far easier to simply state: “a life is a life.  We are all equal in the eyes of God,” and allocate identical amounts for each victim. 

But, in its hastiness, Congress ruled that the awards needed to be based on economic loss, that is to say, current and future anticipated earnings.  That meant that the family of a bond trader who earned $20 million annually would receive a greater payout than a firefighter, police officer, or soldier, not to mention a busboy who earned $20 thousand per year.

So Feinberg went to his Rabbi for advice.  It was not so helpful.  His Rabbi acknowledged that 9/11 was unique.  There were no ready-made answers contained in the Torah or Jewish wisdom.  “I alone had the ultimate responsibility of determining each award,” Feinberg wrote,

based largely on a prediction of what the victim would have earned had he or she survived.  It was a job that called for the wisdom of Solomon, the technical skill of H&R Block, and the insight of a mystic with a crystal ball.  I was supposed to peer into that crystal ball, consider the ebbs and flows that made up a stranger’s life, and translate all of this into dollars and cents.  (87)

Reactions by victims’ family members were all over the place, as one might imagine.  There was tremendous distrust of the program at first, and of Feinberg in particular, who became the public face of the U.S. government’s response to the families.

This program became the primary way that the American people would acknowledge the families’ losses in the first few years after 9/11.  It was inevitable that these payouts would be perceived as determinations of the worth of a person’s life in the eyes of the public.  

But money cannot bring closure.  Feinberg tried hard to emphasize that the purpose of the fund was to meet financial need, and not to value the moral worth of the victims.  But in creating this fund, Congress set up a dynamic which encouraged people to translate the value of their loved ones in dollars.  That perception was difficult to overcome.

Feinberg knew that the families’ emotions were raw, and that they would need time and space to vent.  At the beginning of the process, he personally led public meetings, strongly encouraging all family members to attend.

He and his office personally tracked down the relatives of every single victim, in the US and abroad.  That included eleven undocumented workers, whose foreign relatives were especially difficult to locate.  He made himself available for one on one meetings with anyone who desired, at any stage in the process.  In two years, Feinberg personally met with over 900 families.

In those meetings, they told him stories about their loved ones.  They expressed anger and sadness.  They wanted to know why it happened, and why their loved ones had to die.  Some expressed faith.  Others shared their loss of faith.

Of course, every family had a story to explain why their loved one was unique, and why their death deserved greater compensation.  After all, if money is the measure of a life’s worth, I would be disrespecting my loved one’s memory if I did not argue for more.

How can the pain and suffering of two different people be compared?  Is the loss more difficult for a spouse who enjoyed thirty years with another person, or for a newlywed who had an entire lifetime taken away?

Should the family of a firefighter who died saving the lives of dozens of other people be worth more than that of a secretary, or a chef, or a lawyer?  Should age be a determining factor?  What about the more than 60 widows who were pregnant with a child who would never know their father?  Is that worth more?

In the end, Feinberg decided that he would not distinguish.  Each victim would get $250,000 for pain and suffering, and each surviving spouse or dependent would receive $100,000. 

Nevertheless, he encouraged families to talk about their loved ones, inviting them to share what was special and unique.  This program could help serve as witness to their grief.  It was an important step in reframing the program and helping families begin to move on.

Senator Kennedy advised Feinberg “to make sure that 15% of the families don’t receive 85% of the taxpayers’ money.”  While the awards could not be identical, they also did not have to be proportional to income.  Feinberg could nudge low amounts upwards, and nudge higher amounts downwards—and he did.

He developed a formula to determine awards, and further reserved the ability to make adjustments in special cases.

In the end, ninety seven percent of all eligible families entered the program.  Spouses and dependents of 2,880 victims received almost six billion dollars in tax-free compensation.  The median award was just under 1.7 million dollars, and the maximum award was 7.1 million dollars.

2,682 of those who were injured received more than one billion dollars in compensation.  

When the fund was closed at the end of 2004, it was considered to have been a tremendous success.  The families were appreciative of Ken Feinberg and his team.  The compensation they received did not bring their loved ones back, but did help them to piece their lives back together and begin to move on.  It was not so much the money that did that, but the respect and dignity that was afforded to each individual life.

Judaism has many teachings about the extraordinary worth of an individual human life.  The earliest law code, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:3), imparts this lesson as early as the second century.

Therefore, Adam was created by himself, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.

The context of this teaching is important.  It is a short speech that is delivered to witnesses in a murder trial before they present their testimony.  It is supposed to warn them of the importance of testifying truthfully, as the accused’s fate will be determined by their words.

Each human being must be considered to be like Adam, the first human, from whom all of humanity descended.  “Choose life,” the Torah instructs us.  Life is of such enormous value that, with just three exceptions, we are commanded to violate every mitzvah in the Torah to save it.  In Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, we learn that a person is an olam katan, a small world, a microcosm of heaven and earth itself.

To quote a certain credit card company, a human life is “priceless.”

Valuing a life in dollars and cents is cold and arbitrary.  But we tend to do exactly that.  Think about the expression, “So and so is worth x amount of dollars.”  Or a company.  Apple recently became worth more than one trillion dollars.  I hope we can agree that a person’s real value, and even a corporation’s real value, should not be determined by income or wealth. 

To do so would seem to go against everything that Judaism teaches us.

But, in other contexts, Judaism does value human life in shekels.  In ancient times one of the ways in which a Jew could express gratitude or hope to God, would be to proclaim a vow.  A vow is essentially a promise to deliver something specific of value to the Temple.  

In making a vow, I might dedicate a field, a particular animal, or the income that someone will earn over a period of time.  Or, I could dedicate a person—either myself or a member of my household.

If I dedicate an animal, I am obligated to bring that specific animal to the priest.  No substitutions are permitted.  So if I offer a person, must that person be sacrificed, or sent to work in the Temple for the rest of his or her life?  How do I dedicate a person to God?  

The Torah establishes that to fulfill a vow for a human being, I must pay that person’s value, in shekels, to the Temple treasury.

The exact value is determined by the priest, and is based on the ability of the vower to pay.  But there is a minimum and a maximum.  The minimum, according to the Mishnah, is 1 shekel of silver.  That is about $9 in today’s money, at current silver rates.

The Torah lists the maximum amounts, based on age and gender.  Adult males between twenty and sixty are worth 50 shekels of silver.  Females are worth 30.  And so on for children, babies and elders.

The only factor that can be used is personal wealth.  The Mishnah specifically states that the maximum assessment of 50 selas (the replacement for the shekel) would be identical for the finest looking and the ugliest person in Israel.  (Arachin 3:1)

This formula is not so dissimilar to the formula that Ken Feinberg used.  Values based on wealth, with minimum and maximum caps.

What is a life worth?

Since none of our riches will come with us, what can serve as the true measure of a person’s value?  

The High Holidays bring the question of our life’s value to the forefront of our consciousness.  It is nowhere better expressed than in the prayer Unetaneh Tokef in our mahzor.

This prayer, which is really an allegory, takes place in a courtroom.  God is never mentioned directly by name, but presides as Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.  Each of us is the plaintiff, with our actions serving as evidence and the fate of our lives hanging in the balance.  Every deed, public and private, remembered and forgotten, is entered into the record.

The shofar sounds, and the allegory shifts.  Now we are sheep passing before the Shepherd, one by one.  The Shepherd examines each one of us, counting and inspecting, and determining our fate for the year ahead.

Who will live, who will die.  Who by fire, who by water.  Who will be impoverished.  Who will be made rich.  Who will be brought low, and who will be raised up.

The results are not shared with us.  But that is not all.  Read the prayer closely.  There is no causal relationship between the verdict and the sentence.  We emerge from the courtroom in suspense, with our destinies hanging.

Unetaneh Tokef captures the fragility of our existence.  There is no appeal for the Judge to change the verdict, nor for the Shepherd to alter the decree.  The imperfect world we live in does not work that way.  Despite the illusion of control, we know that so much of our lives are determined by forces outside of our control.

In the year ahead, it is certain that each one of us will experience disappointment and loss, joy and success.  At some point, may it be many years from now, each of us can be certain that we will face the end of our own life.

While terrifying, this allegory invigorates.  It tells us that every action, in every moment, matters.  Every deed in the Book of Remembrance is a record of our impact on the universe.  

So what is a life worth?  From one perspective, almost nothing.  One of the prayers after Unetaneh Tokef compares a human being to: a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, and a dream that flies away.  In the vastness of the universe, we are almost nothing.

But each of us is also an olam katan, a microcosm of that same universe, with a spark of divinity hidden inside our hearts.

The knowledge that there will be a reckoning makes life matter.

The value of the lives of the 9/11 victims could not be measured by any dollar amount.  It is measured by the deeds they performed in the time they were allotted; the love they shared; the people they helped; the mistakes they made; the husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, parents and friends they left behind; the communities they enriched; the traditions they passed down; the beauty they paused to acknowledge; and the growth and learning they experienced each day that they were blessed to be alive.  The lives of those who died rescuing others are valued by those whom they saved.

The same is true for all of us.  Unfortunately, that is a lesson that we too often learn at the end.

What is life worth?  It is worth what we decide to make it worth.

Rabbi Harold Kushner once told the story of a man who, at the end of a full life, dies and suddenly finds himself standing at the end of a long line that leads to two doors — and there is an usher. 

“Move along,” says the usher.  “Keep the line moving.  Choose a door and walk through.”

Looking ahead, the man sees, at the very end, one door marked “Heaven” and the other marked “Hell.”

Gradually, the man proceeds up the line.  He observes that most people, without hesitation, walk confidently to the door marked Heaven, open it, and enter.  For every person whose turn arrives, someone new joins the back of the line.

Eventually, the man finds himself up front.  This is his chance to ask the question that has been burning inside.  “Wait a minute.  Where’s the Last Judgment?  Where am I told if I was a good person or a bad person?  Where are all my deeds weighed and measured?”

The usher looks at him and says, “You know, I don’t know where that story ever got started.  We don’t do that here.  We’ve never done that here.  We don’t have the staff to do that here.  I mean, look, you’ve got ten thousand people showing up every minute.  I’m supposed to sit here with everyone and go over his whole life?  We’d never get anywhere.  Now move along.  You’re holding up the line. Choose a door and walk through.”

“You mean I really have to choose?”

“Yes.  Now pick one already.”

Heaven.  What would that mean?  All would be wiped away — the acts of cowardice, the mistakes and regrets.  But also the agonized moral choices, the moments of courage, the times he chose the more difficult path.  

Hell.  That would bring judgment and accusation.  It would mean risking punishment.  Can he face that?  Will his merits outweigh his misdeeds?

“Come on.  We don’t have all day,” complains the usher, tapping his foot.

Taking a deep breath, the man says to himself, “I want my life to have mattered,” and walks through the door marked “Hell,” ready to be judged.

Who Shall I Say Is Calling – Kol Nidrei 5776

Who By Fire

By Leonard Cohen

And who by fire, who by water,

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,

Who in your merry merry month of may,

Who by very slow decay,

And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,

Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,

And who by avalanche, who by powder,

Who for his greed, who for his hunger,

And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,

Who in solitude, who in this mirror,

Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,

Who in mortal chains, who in power,

And who shall I say is calling?

Leonard Cohen recorded this song in 1974.  The words are based on the prayer in Unetaneh Tokef, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live, and who shall die…”  The music is based upon the melody that he heard as a boy on Yom Kippur in Montreal.

In a 1979 interview, Leonard Cohen is asked about the last line:  “Who shall I say is calling?”  The interviewer asks:  “So who is calling?”

The artist answers: “Well, that is what makes the song into a prayer for me in my terms which is Who is it or What is it that determines who will live and who will die?”

In his ambiguity, Leonard Cohen captures many of our reactions to this prayer.

Who is calling?  God?  The Angel of Death?  Or is it we who determine who lives and who dies?

Maybe it is a cry of injustice, a rejection of a God who callously passes judgment on human beings like they are sheep.

Or maybe the answer is that no one is calling.  We are here all alone.

Is this not the fundamental question that humans have always asked – who shall I say is calling?  Is there someone or something out there?  Is there an order or purpose to the universe?  Are human beings, am I, here for any particular reason, or is it all just a random roll of the dice?  And if there is some Force or Being behind all of this, is there any rhyme or reason to the vicissitudes of life? Or is everything essentially arbitrary, and Divine justice a joke?

Today, more than any other day of the year, these are questions that come to the forefront of our consciousness.  Yom Kippur is the day when we face our own lives, our own mortality, face to face.  It is the day when, after a forty day process of teshuvah that began a month before Rosh Hashanah, our final fate for the coming year is locked in place.  It is the day, more than any other, when God takes interest in each of our lives, and resets our relationship for one more year.  And so it is a day of enormous tension, as our fates hang in the balance.

So who shall I say is calling?  Who is this God – if He or She or It even exists?

As we might expect, our tradition does not speak in a unified voice.  Dr. Ruth Calderon, of the Hartman Institute, points to three images of God that appear in our Yom Kippur texts, three radically different depictions of Who is calling and what is expected from us.  Usually, I refrain from using gendered pronouns to refer to God.  For these images, I need to use them to do them justice.

The first is from our mahzor.  It is the prayer that inspired Leonard Cohen’s song.  Unetaneh Tokef.  God is the Judge, presiding over the courtroom on the Day of Judgment.  He is the Prosecutor, the Expert, and the Witness.  God brings the case against us, listing all of the charges.  All evidence is on the table, written in the Book of Remembrance and sealed by our own hands.  There is no escape.

Then the Shofar sounds, and even the angels tremble in fear and terror, for they know that they too will be judged on this awesome day.

God then becomes a shepherd, inspecting each and every sheep.  Although softer than the judge metaphor, with the Shepherd taking interest in His flock, we are still very small.  As all of creation passes under His staff, the Divine Shepherd issues a verdict for the coming year.

Who will live, and who will die; who will live out his days, and whose days will be cut short; who by fire, and who by water, and so on.

This is a petrifying vision of God, and a scary depiction of Yom Kippur.  And, it is the dominant image in our mahzor.  A God of justice Who gives us exactly what we have coming to us, Who cannot be dissuaded, and to top it all off, Who does not even share the verdict with us.

How many of us have been terrified of this God, or allowed ourselves to be driven away by such a horrifying metaphor?

Who shall I say is calling?

The next image of God appears in the Mishnah for Yom Kippur (Yoma 8:8-9).  It begins with the standard theology of teshuvah.  Atonement is granted when we have conducted the proper steps of repentance.   Sincerity counts.  We seek forgiveness from each other for the wrongs we do to each other, and from God for the sins we commit against God.  That is the part of the Mishnah that Rabbis usually like to quote (including yours truly).

But then the Mishnah continues:

Rabbi Akiva said:  Happy are you, O Israel!  Before Whom are you made pure?  Who purifies you?  It is your Father who is in heaven, as it says: And I will sprinkle pure water on you and you will be purified. (Ezekiel 36:25)  And it says, Mikveh Yisrael Adonai.  God is the hope of Israel. (Jeremiah 17:13)

Mikveh in the passage means hope, but Akiva reads it differently.  He reads it as mikvah, a Jewish ritual immersion bath.  God is the mikvah of Israel.  “Just as the immersion bath purifies the impure, so the Holy One, blessed be He, purifies Israel.”

To go into a mikvah, a person must first prepare.  All clothes are taken off.  Nails are trimmed.  Hair is combed so that loose strands can be removed.  Makeup and jewelry are taken off.  Nothing can get between an immersant and the living waters of the mikvah.  In a spiritual sense, the person who emerges from the mikvah is not the same as the person who entered.

But in Akiva’s metaphor, it is not a physical bath, but rather a Transcendent God Who purifies us.  God is both distant and close.  By jumping in to the water, so to speak, our sins are washed from our souls.  We are completely surrounded by holiness.

It is an intimate, deeply personal relationship, strongly counterposed to the Divine Judge and Shepherd Who dominates the pages of our Mahzor.

Who shall I say is calling?

The third image of God appears in a story from the Talmud (BT Berachot 7a).  Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha is a former High Priest.  He recounts what happened one year during Yom Kippur.

Once I entered into the Kodesh HaKodashim, the Holy of Holies, to burn incense in the Inner Innermost sanctum.  I saw Akatriel Yah Lord of Hosts sitting on a high and lofty throne of compassion.

He said to me:  ‘Yishmael my son, bless me!’

I said to him:  ‘Master of the Universe!  May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger, that Your mercy overcome Your sterner attributes, that You behave toward Your children with the attribute of mercy, and that for their sake, You go beyond the boundary of judgment.’

He nodded to me with His head.

The Talmud then derives a summary lesson from Yishmael’s story.

What does this come to teach us?  It teaches us never to underestimate the blessing offered by an ordinary person.

When we think about family members blessing one another, it is usually parents who are blessing their children.  But in this story, it is the child who blesses his Father.  What does this say about God?  If you were Yishmael, and God asked you for a blessing on Yom Kippur.  What would you say?  How would you bless your own flesh and blood parent?

In this story, God is Immanent.  Yishmael actually sees Him when he enters the Holy of Holies.  He is revealed as a parent in need of blessing – lonely, possibly insecure, and scared of what He might do.

When Yishmael offers his blessing for God’s kinder, gentler qualities to dominate, God nods in approval.  God wants that too, because He is scared that His stern, angry side will rule.  God is a lonely parent that needs our blessing, our help to become the God He wants to be.

Somehow, Yishmael knows exactly the right words to say.

These are three totally unique depictions of God on Yom Kippur.  Who shall I say is calling?  God is a stern, cold judge passing sentence on all of creation.  God is a purifying mikvah, able to cleanse the soul of any who approaches God with honesty.  God is a lonely, scared Parent who needs our help to be kind.

The Torah describes humans as created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the Divine.  Something about us resembles God.  But maybe it is the other way around.  Maybe it is we human beings who have created God in our image.

Most of the language that we use to talk about God is in human terms.  God feels anger, joy, sadness, and regret.  God speaks, forgives, goes to war, and remembers.  These are all finite, human terms that cannot capture that which is infinite.  The only way that we imperfect human beings can even attempt to understand God is from the vantage point of our own experience.  We use what we know as metaphors to convey that which we cannot fully understand.  When we speak about God, we are really talking about ourselves.

Let us explore these three Yom Kippur descriptions of God from the perspective of what we really want for ourselves.

God is a Judge and Shepherd, carrying out justice and issuing decrees that will determine our fate in the coming year.  We want to know that our actions matter.  We want to live in a moral universe in which those who do good are rewarded with long life, health, and prosperity, and those who do evil have their lives taken away from them.

This is the life that parents try to shape for their children.  We strive to maintain the illusion of a just world for as long as we can, but there inevitably comes a time when we have to admit to our kids that life is indeed not fair.

Even though it may not correspond to the world we experience, the idea of a God who is a King, Judge, and Shepherd is comforting.  It is how most of us wish the world operated.

At other times, what we want is not justice, but comfort.  We are lonely, and our souls are restless.  We want to know that God will be available to us if we seek Him, that when we strip off the exterior layers and lay bare our souls, a comforting Presence is there waiting for us.

Finally, we want to know that we matter to God.  That God needs us, is waiting for us.  That we make a difference to the world and will play a part in its redemption.

At the moment that the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies to plead for mercy, he finds instead of the terrifying Power that instantly strikes dead any human who risks a glance, a waiting Parent who needs His child’s help.

Perhaps when Yishmael blesses God with mercy overcoming strict justice, we are really blessing ourselves with the same message – that our world needs more compassion from us.  Just as God needs a blessing to be His best self, perhaps we do as well.

Yom Kippur has just begun.  We will spend the next twenty four hours in prayer and contemplation, hoping that by the end God will have accepted us and cleansed our souls for another year of blessing.

What kind of God are we seeking – a God of justice, a God of purifying waters, or a Lonely Parent Who is waiting for our blessing?

Who shall I say is calling?

Feeding the Wolf – Rosh Hashanah 5776

Every year, as I prepare for the High Holidays, I struggle with how to make our experience here together transformational in some way.  Because I know that, for myself, and probably most of us, we come back year after year with mostly the same sets of issues and concerns.  So I ask myself :  What can I, as a Rabbi on Rosh Hashanah, say that will help us to become the human beings we would like to see ourselves as?

The great prayer which the Cantor chants during the repetition of the Musaf Amidah, Unetaneh Tokef, creates an impression of human powerlessness.  We appear before God on Rosh Hashanah, described as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment.  God is judge, prosecutor. expert, and witness.  God knows all, every forgotten thing, reading it out of the Book of Remembrance.  The imagery shifts, and now God is a shepherd, and we are sheep, passing underneath the staff.  A final shift, and God is decreeing the fates of every living thing in the coming year.

These three scenes convey an impression of our utter lack of control.  There is nothing whatsoever that we can do to determine our destiny.  Everything is in the hand of God.

As frightening as this imagery might seem to many of us, it does convey a truth of human existence.  So much of who we are, our personality and characteristics, are pre-determined.  Whether by genetics or the family and community into which we were born, i.e. nature or nurture – we do not get to decide our core personalities, our innate strengths and weaknesses.

Even the ability to make choices is something of an illusion.  Much of our mental activity takes place on a subconscious level, determined by neurohormonal loops that regulate our emotions.  While it seems to us that we have free will and are making choices for ourselves, in reality the outcome is predetermined by our biochemical makeup.

Religious language that speaks of our utter lack of control over our fate and our total dependence on God would seem to reinforce this notion.  Drawing upon biblical imagery, our machzor describes human life as insignificant, using terms like “a broken shard, withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattered dust, and a vanishing dream,” in contrast to God, who is “the sovereign, living God, ever-present.”  All that we can do is appeal to God to be loving and merciful with us.

We come into the new year wrestling with ourselves.  We have spent the past month inspecting our deeds, focusing on where we have gone off course, and striving to make amends with each other, with ourselves, and with God.  And it is hard work.  To approach someone we have wronged with openness and honesty takes tremendous courage.  Our tradition provides us this annual opportunity to face our imperfections.

However, even when we have bravely performed real teshuvah, there is little we can do to change our core personalities, to affect the neuropathways in our brains that regulate all behavior.  Pathways that we have spent a lifetime establishing.  It is not a simple thing to rewire the brain.

The fact that we return annually to recite the same prayers and make the same confessions would seem to reinforce the notion that from year to year, most of us are the exact same people, struggling with the exact same character flaws.

So how can we make the celebration of the new year personally transformational?

A Cherokee legend teaches of a boy who got in a fight.  His parents send him to go speak with his grandfather.  The two of them go for a walk on a path through the forest.  The leaves of the trees and the soft breeze protect them from the heat of the noonday sun.  The two walk in silence, holding hands.

After a time the grandfather interrupts the silence.  “Grandson, there are two wolves fighting in my heart.  One wolf is good and does no harm.  He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended.  He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.  But the other wolf!  Ah!  He is full of anger.  The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper.  He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason.  He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great.  It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.  Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”

Hearing the words of his grandfather the grandson is filled with fear.  With a tremor in his voice he asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the battle of your heart?”

To which he quietly responded, “The one I feed.”

We have Jewish terms that mirror these two wolves: the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra – the good inclination and the evil inclination.

A Talmudic sage teaches a similar lesson about what happens when we continue to feed our yetzer ha-ra.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri taught:  A person who tears his clothing in anger, or who breaks his utensils in anger or who throws coins in anger – consider him like someone who worships idols, for such is the art of the yetzer ha-ra.  Today it says, “Go do this.”  And tomorrow, it says “Go do that.” until finally it says “Go worship idols,”  And he goes and worships them.  (BT Shabbat 105b)

For the Rabbis, idol worship is the paradigm of evil and immorality.  It is the ultimate sin towards which the yetzer ha-ra drives us.  This midrash draws a causal connection between simple, everyday expressions of anger and the ultimate descent into depravity.

Another midrash teaches that Adam and Eve were created today, on Rosh Hashanah.  The Torah describes this moment using the verb vayyitzer ha-adam.  (Genesis 2:7) “God formed Adam.”   A Rabbi in the Talmud noticed that that the word vayyitzer is written in the Torah with two letter yud‘s.  This hints at the creation of two yetzer‘s.  Two inclinations, one for good and one for evil.  (BT Berachot 61a)

Thus the two inclinations, the two wolves, are part of us.  In both the Cherokee legend and the Jewish concept of two yetzarim, we have outsourced agency.  It is not we who personally direct our behavior.  External forces, which happen to reside within our hearts, are at fault.  But those forces cannot be eliminated, for as soon as we did so, we would cease to be human.

A another midrash teaches that after forming humanity, God looks at all creation and declares v’hinei tov me-od.  “Behold, it is very good.”  “Good” refers to the the good inclination.  “Very good” refers to the evil inclination.  “How can this be?” asks the midrash.  Because without the yetzer ha-ra a person would not build a house, get married, have children, or engage in commerce.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

From a Jewish perspective, our goal must be to harness and control our inclinations, not to destroy them.  We are not expected to deny who we are, to utterly eliminate aspects of ourselves.  Neither are we allowed to complacently say, “this is just how God made me.  There is nothing I can do about it.”

Short of brain damage or a lobotomy, we cannot ever banish parts of our core personality, but we can encourage certain traits and discourage others.  As the grandfather acknowledges, while both wolves are always with us, it is we who feed them.

Let’s carry this metaphor a little further.  For each one of us, our wolves have unique appetites.  Some of our evil wolves feed on anger.  We are quick to lose our temper, to shout at family members or friends, to swear at drivers who do not signal before merging, or to judge others harshly without first pausing to consider their perspectives and motivations.

Some of our wolves feed on jealousy.  We compare our lives to others, and hold ourselves to unrealistic external standards.  We want what our neighbors have: their homes, cars, families, bodies, full heads of hair.

Some of our wolves feed on low self-esteem.  We downplay our successes and dwell on our failures.  We strive too hard to be liked.

Some of our wolves feed on lust, or addiction, or greed.

What do our good wolves like to eat?

In the middle of Unetaneh Tokef, in just seven words, the Mahzor hints that our fates may not be quite as out of our control as we thought.  Uteshuvah, utefilah, utzedakah ma-avirin et roa ha-g’zeirah.  “But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can turn aside the severity of the decree.”

Although the decree cannot be erased, it can be redirected.  Perhaps therein lies the answer to our quandary – three actions that feed the good wolf, that can encourage our yetzer ha-tov to take control and direct our yetzer ha-ra.

First:  Teshuvah, repentance.  The path of teshuvah begins with being self-reflective, being willing to admit our weaknesses without blaming others and do the work that is necessary to repair our brokenness.  Teshuvah is ultimately an expression of hope that our loves ones can take us back, and that God will allow us to return.

Second:  Tefilah.  Prayer, but I would suggest that it is really about humility.  We are asked to recognize that there is more to existence than our own egos, to acknowledge the typically ignored blessings in our lives with a sense of gratitude, to turn to God with a sense of wonder and awe at a world that is simultaneously both accessible and unfathomable.

Third:  Tzedakah.  Translated alternately as justice, righteousness, and charity.  We act with the knowledge that what we typically consider to be our possessions do not fully belong to us.  Tzedakah asks us to be generous to others with our time and our resources, to accept that we have obligations to one another, a duty to bring justice and righteousness into the world, and ultimately, to place the needs of others ahead of our own.

Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah:  three feasts for the good wolf.

So although our personalities and characters may be sealed, our strengths and weaknesses determined for us by some complicated mixture of nature and nurture, even our fate in the coming year out of our control, our tradition teaches us that we have a say in the outcome of the battle taking place in our hearts.

It is about conditioning.  Through the small, seemingly insignificant choices from day to day, we in fact have the ability to train our characters.  We can cultivate qualities that make us better people and redirect qualities that separate us from each other and from God.

So as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah and enter the Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance leading up to Yom Kippur, let’s each ask ourselves: What do my wolves like to eat?  How have I been feeding them?  And what can I do in the year ahead to give the good wolf the upper hand in the battle for my heart?