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.

The Beautiful Prisoner, The Great War, and the Yetzer Hara – Ki Teitzei 5778

This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more mitzvot, more commandments than any other parashah in the Torah.  Many of those mitzvot have direct applications to our lives today.  It is easy to see how these are timeless principles by which we ought to lead our lives.

Other mitzvot seem to be better suited for a different time and place.  In fact, we sometimes encounter mitzvot that seem to run counter to what we understand to be proper, moral behavior.

Before judging too harshly, we must remember to read on multiple levels.  Our first task is to try to understand what this law meant in the time and place in which it was given.  The Torah is a very old book.  Ancient social norms were vastly different.  We cannot judge ancient practices by modern sensibilities.

The second way of reading the text is to see it through the lens of Jewish tradition.  It turns out that our ancestors were also disturbed by some of the same things that disturb us, and they often came up with creative ways to interpret or allegorize difficult texts that made them meaningful and applicable to life in their own day.

Then, we can begin to consider how this difficult mitzvah might have meaning for us today.

The first mitzvah in today’s Torah portion is of this kind.  The opening verses describe the treatment of female captives by victorious Israelite warriors.  At a time when plunder and rape were standard practice in warfare, the Torah places extreme limits on the behavior of Israelites soldiers.

If a soldier takes a beautiful woman captive whom he desires, he cannot touch her.  Instead, he must bring her into his house.  She must shave her head, trim her nails, and go into mourning for thirty days.  Basically, he makes her as unappealing as possible.  Then, if the soldier still desires her, he must marry her.  If not, she goes free.

The Torah’s restriction on the behaviors of Israelite soldiers stands out in the history of human warfare until modern times.  Nowadays, the Geneva Convention includes accepted laws of ethical behavior in war which are agreed to by most nations in the world, including Israel.

The Torah’s regulations, therefore, would seem to be no longer relevant.

Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz was a Polish Rabbi who moved to Tzfat in the Israel in 1621.  He was an important Kabbalist who had a great influence on Chasidism.   As is often the case, Rabbi Horovitz is best remembered not by his name, but by the acronym of his major literary work, the Shlah.  The Shlah, Shnei Luchot HaBrit, meaning “Two Tablets of the Covenant,” is a commentary on the Torah that was popular among Ashkenazi Jews.

In discussing the opening theme of Parashat Ki Teitzei, the Shlah acknowledges that the pshat, or plain meaning of the Torah, indeed describes laws and limitations of warfare.

But that is not what interests him.  The text hints at a more personal lesson pertaining to each individual human being.  The law about the woman captured in war is an allegory for an internal war that all of us wage.  It is the greatest war of all, the war against the yetzer hara, the evil inclination.

The Shlah tells a story:

There was once a pious man who encountered some soldiers returning from a war against their enemies.  With puffed up chests, they were carrying spoils that they had captured during the fierce battle.

He said to them: “You have just returned from the small war with your spoils.  Now prepare for the big war!”

“Big war?” they asked, looking around in surprise, as if there was an impending sneak attack.  “What are you talking about?”

To which he responded: “The war of the yetzer and his legions.”

The Shlah explains that when the Torah speaks of the soldier’s desire for the beautiful woman taken captive, it is really presenting an allegory about the pull of our urges.  Those urges are hard to resist.  They lead us down paths of self-destruction.  The Shlah equates committing a sin to losing a battle against our urges.  

In a real war, if one is victorious against one’s enemies over the course of a few battles, the enemies (usually) learn their lesson and surrender.  But the big war against the yetzer hara never ends, whether or not we are victorious in its individual battles.  That is the great war which all of us wage.

The soldier’s feelings of desire for the beautiful woman are a metaphor for our attraction to those urges that tempt us.  We desire many things: good food and drink, honor, wealth, possessions, power, recognition, sex.  The ultimate goal is not to suppress those feelings entirely, but rather to channel them appropriately.  The Shlah suggests that we do so by figuratively paring the nails and trimming the hair.  In other words, by making those desirable things less desirable.

The Torah recognizes that these urges are real, and in some senses are even good.  For without the Yetzer HaRa, the midrash teaches, nobody would ever build a house, get married, have children, or conduct business.  (Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

To this list we can add that the proper channeling of our urges leads to healthy living, meaningful friendships, supportive communities, joy.

Through this channeling of our urges, what might have been a sin is transformed into a merit.

The Talmud teaches that “in the place where those who have repented stand, those who are completely righteous cannot.”  (BT Berachot 34b)  The Shlah explains that because the penitent person has made mistakes, worked on them, and trained himself in the ability to resist temptations, he is thus better equipped to deal with new temptations when they arise.

It is the middle of the month of Elul.  We are just over two weeks from Rosh Hashanah, followed ten days later by Yom Kippur.  This is the time when we are supposed to be focused on cheshbon hanefesh, taking account of our souls.

Where am I in life right now?

Have I wronged anyone and not made amends?

Did I make promises that I have not kept?

Have I gone astray in other ways?

In some way, our yetzer hara is mixed up in every mistake or transgression we have committed.

My wrongdoing, my inability to control my desires, comes from selfishnesss and greed, from putting my own desires ahead of the needs of others.  My yetzer hara was victorious whenever I expressed my anger in ways that were hurtful to others, whenever I allowed my fear to cause inaction or laziness.

Let us use this annual time of introspection and life review to understand those moments when our urges have gotten the better of us.  What can we do to channel those desires into constructive actions that bring us closer to our loved ones, our friends, our community, and God?

Cultivating the Ability to Say “I Love You” – Yom Kippur 5778

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, once said:

I came into the world to show another way, to cultivate love of God, of Israel, and of the Torah, and there is no need for fasting and mortification.”

Now don’t get too excited.  I do not think he was saying we should not fast on Yom Kippur.  But he is suggesting that the cultivation of our ability to love is the most important thing we can do.  How do we cultivate love?

Today’s Torah reading does not offer much guidance.  It describes the ritual that Aaron, the High Priest, performed on behalf of the Israelites on Yom Kippur.  It goes into all of the technical details of washing, dressing, offering sacrifices, and even sending a goat off into the wilderness.  All of this so that the Tabernacle could be purified of the sins that had accumulated over the course of the year.

The High Priest had a crucial role to play, and only he could play it.  In describing the ritual, the Torah speaks matter-of-factly.  We gain no insight into the internal emotional state of the High Priest as he performs the rituals.  But it must have been a terrifying and exhilarating experience.  I imagine that many High Priests might have been motivated by their love for the Jewish people.

The single hint of what Aaron could have been feeling appears in the opening words of the reading.  “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of Adonai.”  (Lev. 16:1)  The language is cold and factual, but it draws our memories back to the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, six chapters earlier.

Is this a detail that we need?  After all, it does not add anything to the procedures.  Perhaps, as our Mahzor suggests, it is a warning to remind the High Priest of what is at stake if he is not careful to perform the ritual exactly as prescribed.

Or maybe the Torah is trying to remind us that the individual who performs this ritual on our behalf bears his own burdens and struggles.  “After the death of the two sons of Aaron” brings us back in time to the moment and its aftermath when Nadav and Avihu were inexplicably struck down.

Moses steps forward to take charge.  Explaining the tragedy, he comes off as something of a “know it all.”  His grieving brother’s response?  Vayidom Aharon.  “Aaron was silent.”

Moses instructs a couple of cousins to remove the bodies.  He tells Aaron and his sons that, due to their position, they are not permitted to engage in public mourning.  He instructs them to continue the sacred offerings, as if nothing has happened, reviewing in detail all of the procedures.  Then, when Moses sees Eleazar and Itamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, doing something which he thinks is improper, he scolds them.  That is a step too far.  Aaron ends his silence, pushing back against his brother’s cold, by-the-book attitude.

Moses relents.

Aaron needs something from his brother in that moment, and he does not get it.  Moses shows no compassion, no acknowledgement that Aaron has just experienced the worst loss a parent can suffer.  Surely Moses loves his brother, but he fails to look beyond the garments of the High Priest to the suffering person underneath.  What would have comforted Aaron?  What would have reassured him that his brother, his family, and indeed the Israelite nation, loved him?

We do not know.  The Torah is silent.

As human beings, we are social creatures.  Included in our basic core requirements, in addition to food, clothing, and water, is our need to be loved.  And not only romantic love, but the love between parents and children, siblings, other relatives, friends, and even God.

When a person knows that he or she is loved and accepted unconditionally, that person is better able to return love, feels more settled, and is more willing to take risks with the knowledge that love is not on the line.  And when that person suffers a loss, as Aaron did, he is able to move through the stages of grieving with more resilience.

One of the unconscious mistakes that most of us make is assuming that we know what other people need from us.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is not necessarily the best advice, as each of us wants different things.

Centuries after Aaron performed the ritual in the Tabernacle, the High Priest would conduct a similarly intricate series of rituals in the Temple in Jerusalem.  As in earlier times, the purpose was to bring about atonement on behalf of the Jewish people.  Over the course of the year, the people’s sins accumulated, polluting the sanctuary.  God’s Presence could no longer remain in a polluted sanctuary.  The atonement rituals served as a spiritual cleansing, enabling God’s Presence to return.

The Talmudic Tractate, Yoma, goes into great detail about the rituals of Yom Kippur.  In the fifth chapter, it describes the incense offering.  (Yoma 5:1)  The High Priest places the specially formulated incense on hot coals in a metal pan so that the entire chamber of the Holy of Holies fills with smoke.  He then exits the Holy of Holies, walking backwards.  When he reaches the outer chamber, the High Priest pauses to recite a short prayer.  The Mishnah emphasizes that the High Priest would not pray for too long, so as not to alarm the people who are waiting for him outside.

It is known that a priest who alters the recipe for the incense, or who is not himself fit, can be struck dead on the spot while in the Holy of Holies.  If such were to occur, the regular priests waiting outside would have a problem, as none of them are permitted to enter the sacred precincts while the High Priest is in the Holy of Holies.  Maimonides reports that many Second Temple priests perished while conducting the Yom Kippur ritual .

After completing his duties and emerging safely from the Holy of Holies, the High Priest throws a big feast for his loved ones to express his gratitude that no tragedy has befallen him.  (Yoma 7:4)

The Talmud (Yoma 53b) relates a particular incident that occurs one year.  A certain High Priest is inside the Holy of Holies, reciting his prayer after the incense offering, but he is not coming out.  His fellow priests are worried.  Maybe he needs help?  Maybe he fainted?  Maybe he has been struck dead by a bolt of lightning!?

After speculating on the increasingly gruesome possibilities, they finally agree to enter.

Just at that moment, the High Priest emerges, triumphant.

“Why did you take so long to pray?” they ask him.

“What are you so worried about?” he responds.  “After all, I was praying for you and for the Temple to not be destroyed!”

Angry, they respond, “Well, don’t make a habit out if it.  You know what the law says; ‘He would not extend his prayer, so as not to alarm the Jewish people.'”

Clearly, there is a failure of communication.  The High Priest is convinced that he is doing the right thing for the people.  He loves them.  He is praying for their survival, and for the survival of the Holy Temple.  “Everything I did, I did for you,” he seems to be saying.  What could be wrong with that?

He has miscalculated.  In fact, his prayer is somewhat self-serving.  He prays for the people, and for the temple to not be destroyed.  He, of course, has a personal interest in the continued functioning of the Temple.  He assumes that everyone else wants the same.

It turns out, the people want something different.  “But what you did for us is not what we wanted you to do for us.”

What do they want?  He is their beloved High Priest, their religious leader.  They are worried about him.  They want his presence, not his prayers.  They are looking for a more intimate relationship than what he has offered them.  He does not seem to understand their needs – much as Moses fails to understand Aaron’s needs in his moment of loss.

This is one of the major stumbling blocks in relationships.  We do not pay the right kind of attention to what the people we love need.  Different people need to be loved in different ways.

Let’s each think for a moment about someone who loves us, either now or in the past.  It could be or have been a partner, a parent or child, a relative, or a friend.  Let’s ask, “How do I know that this person loves or loved me?”

The marriage and family counselor Gary Chapman wrote a well-known book called The 5 Love Languages which he has subsequently expanded into a small empire.  (I am indebted to Rabbi Laurie Matzkin for making this connection.)  His basic premise is that there are five essential ways of communicating love of all kinds.  Every person has a primary emotional language that determines how they best receive love.

Chapman argues that by knowing which is our own primary love language, and which is the primary love language of our partner, child, parent, or friend, we will be able to both give and receive love in a fuller way, and will have deeper, more fulfilling and compatible relationships.

If we are having difficulties in a relationship, it may very well be the case that the two individuals are not speaking one another’s love language.

The five love languages are, in no particular order:  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” and “Physical Touch.”  I will briefly summarize each of them.

Someone who responds best to “Words of Affirmation” likes to receive unsolicited compliments and kind words.  Saying “I love you,” sincerely of course, leave this person feeling great.  Conversely, this person takes insults very hard.

A person whose primary language is “Quality Time” appreciates nothing more than full, undivided attention.  Put the cell phone on mute, turn off the TV and be present with this person for focused conversations or shared activities.

Some people blossom by “Receiving Gifts” that reflect care and thoughtfulness.  Don’t mistake this for greed.  A meaningful gift could be a flower plucked from the garden.  Marking birthdays and anniversaries with a gift are important for those who speak this language.

Those whose primary love language is “Acts of Service” appreciates it most when things are done for them.  Washing the dishes, performing other household chores, or relieving a burden are received as expressions of love.  On the other hand, laziness and not following through communicate to this person that he or she does not matter.

Finally, some people communicate love through “Physical Touch.”  Hugs, a pat on the back, holding hands, or simply sitting close to another person are received as acts of love.  When a child who is feeling bad comes over to sit in a parent’s lap and nuzzles their neck, it is probably a good indication that “Physical Touch” is that child’s primary love language.  When a person who speaks this language does not experience physical contact, it can be lonely and insecure.

We all speak each of these languages, but for most of us, there is one that is dominant.

So… which do you think is your primary love language?  Think back to how you answered the question about how you knew you were loved.  “Words of Affirmation,” “Quality Time,” “Receiving Gifts,” Acts of Service,” or “Physical Touch.”

Chapman identifies three questions to help us figure it out.

1.  How do I typically express my affection for other people?  Our natural inclination is to express love in the way that we hope to receive it.  That is why the High Priest expresses his love for Israel by praying that they and the Temple will not be destroyed.  In Chapman’s language, we might say that the High Priest’s language is “Acts of Service.”

2.  What do I most complain about to my loved ones?  This could indicate that I am feeling abused in my primary love language.  The people complain to the High Priest that he was not there with them.  Their primary love language is “Quality Time.”

3.  What am I most likely to ask for from my loved ones?  The thing that we most often request from our friend, partner, or family member is likely connected to the thing that would most likely make us feel loved.  A spouse who insists that her partner mark her birthday with some sort of present or special activity speaks the language of “Giving Gifts.”

Knowing this about ourselves, and about each other, can make a tremendous difference in our relationships.  I may hate to do the dishes… with a passion.  But if I know that my spouse’s love language is “Acts of Service,” then by doing the dishes, I am actually saying “I love you” to her.  It even makes me feel differently about doing the dishes.  And my partner feels loved.

When we love another person, we want to make that person happy.  We want that person to feel secure, and to know that our love for them is unconditional.  Knowing which language to speak is key.

Can we apply this paradigm to God?  What is God’s primary love language?

Ahavah, the Hebrew word for love, means something different in the Torah than the word love means to us today.  The concept of ahavah is wrapped up in covenant.  In the Shema, we recite V’ahavta et Adonai Elohekha b’khol levavekha uv’khol nafshekha uv’khol me’odekha.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, and with all of your might.”

The Torah is not talking about an emotional feeling.  It is talking about actions.  How do we express our love for God?  Through actions.  By teaching our children, reciting words of Torah at home and on the road, at night and by day.  By putting up mezuzot on our doorposts and wrapping tefillin on our arms and our heads.  These are concrete deeds which express our relationship as individuals and as a people to God.

So we might say that God speaks the language of “Acts of Service.”  Through our actions, through performance of mitzvot, we express our love for God.

God has a different way of expressing love for us.  The language is all over our prayers.  How do we know that God loves us?  “Gift Giving.”  In the morning service, we recite Ahavah rabah ahavtanu.  “You loved us with a tremendous love.”  How?  Through the gift of Torah.

In the Torah’s covenantal language, God gives us the Promised Land, along with peace, security, and prosperity.  But is this all we want?  After all, the rabbis insist that we should strive to serve God not for a reward, but for God’s own sake.

In a more spiritual sense, what we long for is “Quality Time.”  In today’s Amidah, we say vatiten lanu Adonai Eloheinu b’ahavah… “You have given us in love, Adonai our God, this Shabbat day for holiness and rest, and this Yom Kippur for pardon, forgiveness and atonement…”  The ability to experience a sense of holiness in time comes through the weekly gift of Shabbat, as well as the annual cycle of holidays, each of which offers a unique opportunity to relate to God.

In Biblical and Temple times, the Yom Kippur ritual is what enabled God’s Presence to remain or return into the people’s midst.  With the knowledge that God was with them, the nation felt safe and protected.

The rituals of the Temple have been replaced by synagogue worship and personal teshuvah.  It is now we, individually, who long to feel the Presence of God in our lives.

As the 20th century theologian Martin Buber describes using the language of I-Thou, it is when we can fully encounter another person with our entire being that we experience God.  I would suggest that this can only happen when we are feeling loved, and are able to express love to someone else in the language that they understand.

In this new year, to experience God more fully, let’s strive to experience each other more fully.

Let’s figure out our own love language.  And them, let’s pay attention to our partners, parents, children, and friends to learn how to better express our feelings to them in the language that they will understand.

May we be sealed in the book of life for a year filled with the cultivation of love, both expressed and received, for God, for Torah, and for each other.

The Day Of Forgotten Things – Rosh Hashanah 5778 (second day)

A Hasid once complained to the Gerer Rebbe that he was always forgetting his lessons.

“When you are eating soup, do you ever forget to place the spoon into your mouth?” the Rebbe asked.

“No, of course not,” was the student’s puzzled reply.

“Why not?” asked the Rebbe.

“Because I cannot live without food,” said the student.

“Neither can you live without learning,” responded the Rebbe.  “Remember this and you will not forget.”

The Jewish people is a people of memory.  Over the millennia, we have gotten pretty good at it.  Maybe the best.  This talent of ours is rooted in the Torah.  The Torah opens with the Creation of the world in six days.  On the seventh day, God ceases laboring.  It is this ceasing which completes the act of creation.  Later, God instructs the Jewish people to replicate God’s act of Creation by laboring for six days and then resting on every seventh.  Shabbat, the anchor of Jewish life, is an act of memory.

This weekly cycle of work and rest creates, as Heschel describes it, a Palace in Time.  Every Shabbat becomes a memorial for what we are marking today – the Creation of the universe.

And it is does not end there.  The entire Jewish calendar is built around memory.  All of our holidays memorialize formative events of Jewish history.  Exodus from Egypt.  Dwelling in booths in the wilderness.  Overcoming destruction in ancient Persia.  Even in recent times, we memorialize our people’s suffering in the Holocaust, and celebrate the establishment of the State of Israel.  Wherever we are in the physical world, our Jewish calendar emphasizes that sacredness is experienced not in space, but in time.

We do not encounter God by walking into particular locations.  We encounter God by being present in discrete moments of time.

As America struggle with how to remember difficult parts of its past, it would seem that our Jewish expertise may be able to offer some guidance.

And yet, we are no different than anyone else when it comes to forgetfulness.  Especially when it comes to our own lives.  What have we forgotten?

At forty one years old, I have forgotten many things.

Sometimes I forget where I put my keys.

I have forgotten the wonder of childhood, the belief that anything was possible, that there was no barrier between what is real and what is magical.  At a certain point, cynicism and skepticism intruded and shackled wonder.  (For a reminder of what it used to be like, just talk to a four year old.)

I have forgotten the dreams and imagination of youth, when I longed to be an astronaut, a Jedi knight, and a baseball player.

I have forgotten what it feels like to fall in love, to feel unquenchable passion and longing.

I have forgotten what it feels like to be present when a new life comes into the world, or when my child takes her first steps.

The idealism of youth has been replaced by a realism forced upon me by responsibilities and disappointment.  The excitement of unlimited possibility has been stifled by the realities of bills and deadlines.

Even more numerous are those things that I cannot even remember forgetting.

We could fill books with everything we have forgotten.

Indeed, we do.

We call Rosh Hashanah Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance.

But perhaps that is not the best name.  Maybe it should be Yom Hanishkachot.  The Day of Forgotten Things.

In the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, our Mahzor paints a vivid picture of the Heavenly Courtroom.  God is the Judge, Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness.  Vatizkor kol-hanishkachot.  God remembers all of the forgotten things.  The Book of Remembrance is opened, but God does not read it.  Ume’elav yikarei.  It reads itself, for the hand-imprinted seal of every human being is upon it.

The image of a courtroom, with the evidence comprised of all of the things we have forgotten, is powerful and scary.  But why is the emphasis on the forgotten things?

The nineteenth century Hassidic Rebbe, Yisrael Rizhiner, teaches that God remembers everything we forget, and forgets everything we remember.

We read in the Rosh Hashanah Prayer: “For You remember all forgotten things,” and “there is no forgetfulness before Your Holy Throne.”  This means that when a person performs a mitzvah, but then forgets it and demands no reward, then the Lord remembers it; but if the person keeps it in his memory and expects a reward for it, then the Lord forgets.

Also, when someone transgresses and remembers it, and repents of it, the Lord forgets about the sin; but when the a person pays no heed and forgets his sin, the Lord remembers.  (Louis I Newman, Hasidic Anthology, p. 400)

According to the Rizhiner, the sins we remembered and corrected.  And the mitzvot that we performed for their own sake, the good deeds that we did not allow to go our heads and inflate our hearts, these count as merits on our behalf.

But I suspect that many of us tend to do the opposite.  We act as if we are entitled to be rewarded for our actions.  We behave greedily, without taking responsibility for our mistakes, and yet we expect everyone else to pay for theirs.

And today, on the day of Judgment, it is the forgotten things recorded in the Book of Remembrance that determines our fate.

One of the three special sections of musaf is Zikhronot, remembrances.  Let’s recall some of its opening words:

Before You stands revealed all that is hidden, and every mystery from the moment of creation.

Nothing is forgotten in Your awe-inspiring presence, nothing concealed from Your gaze…

We cite ten verses from the Bible extolling Divine memory.  God remembered Noah and all of the animals on the ark, and caused the waters of the flood to subside.  God heard the cries of our ancestors in Egypt, and remembered the Covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  As destruction threatened Jerusalem, God remembered the idyllic time during the Exodus when God and Israel were like newlyweds.

We bring up these memories to remind God of moments when compassion overcame the demands of strict justice.

Remembrance is more than just awareness.  It is attentiveness.  God does not just remember Noah, God saves him.  God redeems our enslaved ancestors and restores an exiled people to its home.

Why have we placed these verses in our Machzor?  Could it be that we are pleading with God to remember because we feel that we have been forgotten?

We are surrounded by so much suffering.  Recent hurricanes and earthquakes remind us that, for all of our civilization and technology, we are helpless before the power of nature.  As we have just seen, God does not seem inclined to hold nature back.

Despite our immense privilege, living in the wealthiest country at the wealthiest time in history, so many of us feel that we do not have control over our own lives.  Housing is insecure, employment is shaky, relations are frayed.  Has God forgotten us?

Maybe we pray so fervently to God, the Rememberer of Lost Things, because we feel lost and abandoned.  Or maybe, on this New Year, we are reflexively pleading with ourselves to remember.  Perhaps it is we who have forgotten.

We have forgotten to be attentive to the needs of our neighbors.  We have forgotten to look at the world with awe and wonder.  We have forgotten to open our hearts in prayer and gratitude for all of the blessings that we take for granted.

Perhaps we need to add an “al cheit,” to the list of confessions that we recite on Yom Kippur.  Al cheit she-chatanu lefanekha be-hese’ach ha-da’at – “For the sin that we have committed before You of neglect and lack of conscious attention.”

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was a gifted storyteller and a vivid dreamer.  His tales are imaginative, mystical, and deeply symbolic.  He tells a story of an angel named Yode’a, which means, “he knows.”

There is an angel who watches over people, even in the dark.  This is Yode’a, the Angel of Losses.  He watches lives unfold, recording every detail before it fades.

This angel has servants, and his servants have servants.  Each servant carries a shovel, and they spend all their time digging, searching for losses.  For a great deal is lost in our lives.

Even we, who are ourselves lost, search in the dark, aiding Yode’a.

And with what do we search?  With the light of the soul.  For the soul is a light planted in us to seek after what has been lost.

What kind of light is it?  Not a torch, but a small candle.  With it we can search inside deep wells, where darkness is unbroken, peering into every corner and crevice.  (Howard Schwartz, Leaves from the Garden of Eden, p. 21.)

How much have we forgotten!  How lost we are!  But we are searching.  The way to search, the way of the tzaddik, is to use the light emanating from our souls to illumine the darkness.  How can we use our souls to remember forgotten things?

Let’s begin remembering right now.  Turn to the person sitting to your right.  Tell that person one thing that you appreciate about them.  It has to be something you have never told them before.

I bet it feels pretty good to be acknowledged, to be remembered.  I bet it also feels pretty good to acknowledge someone else.  That is the feeling of our souls illuminating something that has been forgotten.

Let’s each commit to doing this at least once more today.

We can make the angel Yode’a‘s job a little easier and help ourselves and each other regain a little bit of what we have lost on this Day of Forgotten Things.

Castrametation – Ki Teitzei 5777

I came across a new word just this past Thursday in a novel I am reading.  It was used as the title of one of the chapters.  “Castrametation.”  Does anyone know what it means?

Castrametation: the making or laying out of a military camp

Imagine my surprise the next day when I realized that castrametation is one of the themes in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei.

And you shall have a marker outside the camp and shall go there outside.  And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear, and it shall be, when you sit outside. you shall dig with it and go back and cover your excrement.  For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you, and your camp shall be holy, that He should not see among you anything shamefully exposed and turn back from you.  (Deuteronomy 23:13-15)

On a p’shat – plain sense – level, the Torah is describing castrametation – how the military camp should be organized.  Of course, there is the obvious element of sanitation and hygiene, which are at least as significant to the end results of a war as the actual fighting itself

The Torah frames it not as an issue of health, but as an issue of Sanctity.  When Israel goes to war, God is with them.  Their victory depends on God fighting on their behalf.  For God to remain, the latrines must be dug – and used – outside of the camp.  It is not about germs.  It is about holiness.

As we might expect, Jewish tradition digs through the p’shat to find broader messages for our lives.  Several Talmudic midrashim see the various elements of this law metaphorically.

The first midrash (BT Yoma 75b)understands this message not as an instruction about how to set up a military camp, but rather an allusion to the condition of the Israelites’ digestive tracks during their time in the wilderness.  The midrash begins by quoting Psalm 78 (vss. 24-25) which, referring to the manna, states “Man did eat the bread of the mighty (abirim)”  The Gemara asks what abirim are.  Eventually, it suggests that  the word abirim should actually be read as eivarim, which means “limbs.”  The manna was completely absorbed into the Israelites bodies.  There was no waste whatsoever.  How convenient!

If that is the case, the Talmud asks, why do we have to be told to dig a latrine and bury our excrement?  After tossing a few ideas around, the answer is given:

After they sinned, [the manna was not as effective.] The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I [initially] said [that] they would be like ministering angels [who do not produce waste]; now I will trouble them to walk three parasangs [to leave the camp in order to relieve themselves].

So this is really a story about Israel’s sinfulness.  At first, there is no need to build a latrine, and God can walk about the Israelite camp without a problem.  But when Israel sins – by complaining about the manna, says Rashi – their intestines become less efficient.  Now the Israelites have to periodically leave camp to do their business so that they can maintain it as a place in which God can continue to reside.

Midrash number two, from Tractate Sotah (BT Sotah 3b) also tells a story of sin in the wilderness.  But this time, the focus is not on the entire camp, but on individual homes.  At first, Rav Hisda teaches, the Shechinah – God’s Presence – would reside within each and every Israelite home.  After they sin, however, God turns away from them so that God does not see any unseemly matter.

The commentator Rashi explains that the types of sin in question are those pertaining to sexual immorality.  That is why the focus is on God’s Presence within the individual homes of the Israelites.

The final midrash (BT Ketubot 5a) shifts the focus to the everyday situations in which each of us finds ourselves.  Like the first one, this midrash relies upon a pun in the Hebrew.

Bar Kappara asks what the Torah means when it says “And you shall have a spike (tent peg) together with your battle gear.”  “Battle gear” in Hebrew is azeinekha.  Don’t read it as azeinekha, Bar Kappara says, but rather as oznekha, which means, “your ears.”  This means that if a person hears something unseemly, an inappropriate thing, he should place his spike, that is to say, his finger, into his years.

We are exposed to situations that we know are not good for us on a daily basis.  I’ll give just one example: gossip – the most pervasive, and potentially harmful, sin in the Torah.  Even if I am not the person spreading the gossip, even hearing it can have terrible effects.

Gossip certainly harms the person being gossiped about.  The spreader of gossip is committing a sin which Jewish tradition compares to murder.  And when I hear it, it produces negative feelings about the other person, and even harms my own sense of self.

According to this midrash, whenever I find myself in the company of people who are gossiping, I should shove my fingers in my ears – figuratively by walking away, or perhaps even literally.

These three midrashim shift the focus from castrametation to our ability to maintain a community and home in which we are grateful for the blessings around us, respectful of each other’s boundaries, and cognizant of the kinds of people and situations we should place ourselves.  God’s Presence in our midst depends on our ability to maintain proper boundaries.

A 19th century Chassidic Rabbi named Jacob Kattina wrote a book called Korban He’ani.  In it, he directs our attention to an acronym hidden in the text.

כִּי֩ יְ-הֹוָ֨ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ מִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ | בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֗ךָ לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ

For the Lord your God walks about in the midst of your camp to rescue you and to give your enemies before you.

The last four words of this phrase – לְהַצִּילְךָ֙ וְלָתֵ֤ת אֹיְבֶ֨יךָ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ “to give your enemies before you” – begin with the letters ל ,א ,ו ,ל – which are the letters in Elul – אלול, the Hebrew month in which we currently find ourselves.

Elul is the month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we are supposed to be engaged in cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock of our lives.  What sins are we carrying from the past year?  Where are the broken places in our relationships with each other?  What is keeping us from experiencing God’s Presence in our lives?

Rabbi Kattina sees in this verse a “hint that in this month, the Holy One can be found among the Jewish people.  He then cites the Rabbis’ teaching about the verse from Isaiah: “Seek the Lord while He can be found, call to Him while He is near.”  (Isaiah 55:6) The gates of repentance are open, therefore let there not be seen in you anything unseemly and let your encampment be holy.

Let us use these next few weeks take an honest look at ourselves, our homes, and our community.  God wants to walk among us, in our homes, and in our communities.  But it is up to us to make our communities, our homes, and our selves worthy of God’s Presence.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reading – and Speaking – About Sexuality on Yom Kippur Afternoon – Parashat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim 5777

Our Mahzor Lev Shalem offers two possible readings for the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  The Traditional one from Leviticus, chapter 18, or an Alternate reading from Leviticus, chapter 19.

Leviticus 18 describes what are commonly referred to as the arayot – forbidden sexual relationships, mainly incest.  Also included  are adultery and the now infamous Leviticus 18:22, which describes male homosexuality as an “abomination.“

Leviticus 19 is known as “The Holiness Code.”  It opens with the instruction Kedoshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani adonai Eloheikhem – “You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.”  It then lists a variety of commandments that constitute a guide to a life of holiness.  The diverse subjects of these commandments include interpersonal relationships, business practices, ritual behavior, criminal law, and more.

Neither Leviticus 18 nor Leviticus 19 contain a single reference to Yom Kippur or any of its themes.

This morning,  as luck would have it, we read the double portion of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.  In years when these parashiyot are combined, it creates a juxtaposition of the 18th and 19th chapters of Leviticus, the Traditional and Alternate Torah readings that appear in our High Holiday Mahzor.  In fact, parts of both chapters are even read in the same aliyah.

When they chose to add a second possible reading to Mahzor Lev Shalem, the Editors forced communities to ask themselves a question that they might otherwise never have considered: which portion should we read?  This year, our congregation has been addressing this question.

As the Rabbi of Congregation Sinai, I am the Mara D’Atra, Aramaic for “Master of the Place.”  This means that I am entrusted with the responsibility for making halakhic decisions for the community.

As you may recall, I wrote an article about it in the January Voice.  That month, there was an open meeting of the Ritual Committee to learn about the issues and hear from each other.  Personally, I have spent countless hours researching and consulting with members, colleagues, and teachers.

I am enormously uncomfortable being the decider.  When a decision is made to abandon or change a practice, there usually is no going back.  As a Rabbi, I think about that a lot.  Who am I to change thousands of years of tradition?  Sometimes, of course, change is necessary.  But when does the need for change outweigh the demands of history?  I don’t take that dilemma lightly.

For some people, this is a serious, emotional issue.  Whatever the outcome is, someone is going to be upset.  I lose sleep knowing this.  Please understand that I have attempted to reach a conclusion in good faith.  I take the sacred role that you have entrusted with me seriously.  I am strengthened by knowing that, whatever the outcome, you have my back.

Before I share my decision, let me clarify a few things.  We read the entire Torah every year.  We do not skip over any troubling passages because we do not like them.  And there is plenty in the Torah that is troubling.  This is not a question about eliminating a Torah reading.  We will continue to chant Torah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

Let’s be honest about Minchah on Yom Kippur.  When the service begins, around 5:00 in the afternoon, there are typically about 75 people in the room.  At that point in the day, they are weak from the fast, and a bit spacey.  Of those 75 people, how many of them are paying close attention to the Torah reading, and really pondering its message for their lives?  Our sanctuary is not exactly filled with kavanah – religious intension.  From that perspective, it does not matter which of the two readings we select.

I hope that by addressing this question, we can transform a relatively lazy part of Yom Kippur into a meaningful, kavannah-infused moment.

So why would a congregation choose to read the Traditional or the Alternate portions?  Mahzor Lev Shalem includes meaningful commentaries and explanations for both readings.  It does not, however, explain why the Alternate reading was included, nor does it suggest any reasons for why a community might choose to replace the Traditional reading.

I consulted with Rabbi Elliot Dorff, the Chair of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, which issues halakhic rulings for the Conservative Movement.  He responded to my inquiry that the particular selection of readings for the holidays is custom rather than law.  Rabbi Dorff explained that “the authors of Mahzor Lev Shalem were concerned with bringing up the prohibition of homosexual relations in Leviticus 18, given what we have done with that halakhically.”  He was referring to the CJLS’s decision in 2006 to overturn Judaism’s traditional ban on homosexuality.  He added that “Leviticus 19 is much more uplifting and much more connected to the theme of Yom Kippur than Leviticus 18 is.”

In other words, the Alternative reading was added because a lot of Conservative Jews are troubled by Leviticus 18:22, which states “Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

The question comes down to: do we change a long-established custom because we are offended by a particular verse?

Where did the Yom Kippur afternoon Torah reading come from? Even though it makes no mention of Yom Kippur and does not deal with any of the basic themes of the holiday, at some point, a person or community thought it would be a good idea to read about forbidden sexual relationships on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

The earliest mention of it occurs in the Talmud, in Tractate Megillah (30b-31a).  A second century text from the land of Israel states “At minhah [on Yom Kippur] we read the section of forbidden sexual relationships (that is to say, Leviticus 18) and for haftarah the book of Jonah.”

The Talmud records numerous variant practices for which portions are read at the various holidays.  There were significant discrepancies between Israel and Babylonia.  But with regard to the Yom Kippur minchah reading, there are no differences.  We can say with a high degree of certainty that Jews have been reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur afternoon since at least the second century, making it a 1,900 year old custom.

But why this reading?  The Talmud offers no answers.  In his commentary, Adin Steinsaltz writes:  “Given the solemnity and holiness of the day, this choice of Torah portion is quite surprising.  Various suggestions for the choice have been offered…”

One possible reason is suggested a Mishnah in Tractate Ta’anit that describes a custom that took place during Second Temple times.

There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such… The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family…’

With all of this matchmaking taking place on Yom Kippur afternoon, it would have been especially important to remind all of the single people who is and is not eligible to them.  This might explain why Leviticus 18 was chosen.  It should be noted, however, that the Talmud itself does not make this connection.

Rashi, in the eleventh century, points out that sins having to do with sexual relationships are ever-present, and a person’s desires and inclinations can be overwhelming.  They also tend to be secret.  And so, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, reading about prohibited sexual relationships is meant to awaken a person to teshuvah about something which is so difficult to resist.

Tosafot, in Rashi’s grandchildren’s generation, adds that women are often dressed up fancy on Yom Kippur.  The Torah reading, therefore, serves as a reminder to worshippers not to stumble.

Turei Zahav, a seventeenth century commentator on the Shulchan Arukh by Rabbi David ha-Levy Segal captures it succinctly:

In my opinion, since a person’s soul thirsts for forbidden sexual relationships more than all [other] sins, we are warned about it on Yom Kippur, which is an awe-some day that is inscribed upon the human heart more than all the other days of the year.

Human nature has not changed much over the centuries in that regard.  Would anyone suggest that we, in our “enlightened” twenty first century, do a better job of controlling our sexual urges than in previous generations?

I think not.

Leviticus 18 certainly has something to tell us today.  It might not be quite as uplifting as Leviticus 19’s “You shall be holy…,” but it is a message we need to hear.

Judith Plaskow wrote an influential article in 1997 called “Sexuality and Teshuvah: Leviticus 18.”  In it, she writes:

As someone who has long been disturbed by the content of Leviticus 18, I had always applauded the substitution of an alternative Torah reading—until a particular incident made me reconsider the link between sex and Yom Kippur. After a lecture I delivered in the spring of 1995 on rethinking Jewish attitudes toward sexuality, a woman approached me very distressed. She belonged to a Conservative synagogue that had abandoned the practice of reading Leviticus 18 on Yom Kippur, and as a victim of childhood sexual abuse by her grandfather, she felt betrayed by that decision.  While she was not necessarily committed to the understanding of sexual holiness contained in Leviticus, she felt that in quietly changing the reading without communal discussion, her congregation had avoided issues of sexual responsibility altogether.

Our failure in the past has not been that we have continued to read a passage that is offensive to gay men.  Our failure has been that we have not openly addressed issues of sexual abuse and impropriety.  To cease reading the traditional Torah portion would be just as problematic as if we kept on reading the words while ignoring their meaning.

We cannot expand understanding, tolerance, and acceptance of GLBTQ individuals if we refuse to acknowledge that there is an issue.

If, instead, we maintain the traditional reading and address the issues that it raises, our kavanah will improve.

This is why I have decided, as Sinai’s Rabbi, that we will continue the traditional practice of reading Leviticus 18 during the afternoon of Yom Kippur – with an addition.  There will be a D’var Torah delivered by a Sinai member to introduce the Torah reading.  The purpose will be to reflect on themes raised by the portion so as to draw us into the reading, and provoke us to respond to it in some way.  Torah is not supposed to make us feel good.  It is supposed to challenge us.  If Torah makes us feel good, it is not doing its job.

Reading and speaking about Leviticus 18, on the holiest day of the year, will give us an opportunity to reflect on the most intimate aspects of our lives, rather than pretend they do not exist.  It will also allow us to recognize the pain and exclusion that our GLBTQ friends and relatives have faced over the millennia because of Judaism’s, and society’s, past intolerance.

In this ruling for our community, both aspects are equally important.  Our members will be called upon to consider how Leviticus 18 speaks to us today.  I hope you will consider giving a D’var Torah on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Of course, I am here to help.

It is important to recognize that this approach – dealing with a difficult text by speaking about it – has been embraced by numerous communities in every denomination: Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox.  This solution puts Sinai in good company.

One of the sidebar commentaries in our Mahzor is by Judith Plaskow.  She writes: “Leviticus 18 seeks to implement [its] ideas in its own time and place.  But we need to find ways to express those insights in the context of an ethic of sexual holiness appropriate for the 21st century.”

May Torah inspire us to holiness in all aspects of our lives.

 

Bibliography

Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, “Preaching Against the Text: An Argument in Favor of restoring Leviticus 18 to Yom Kippur Afternoon” – This is an important article by a Reform rabbi that argues why it is important for communities to continue reading Leviticus 18.

Keshet is a national organization that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.  Its website contains a wealth of information, including numerous sermons and kavanot  on Levitucs 18.