Cacophony

Rosh Hashanah Morning – September 14, 2015 

Cacophony – Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

If you could sum up the summer now ending in just one word, what word would you choose?  That was the question I posed on Facebook as August was rounding the corner with September coming into view. What’s your one word? (Turn to your neighbor and share just the word – no explanation.  Just your one word.)words2

If time allowed, I would so love to hear what you’ve shared.  Perhaps you’ll say more to on your way out as services end, or at the lunch table with your family and friends later today.)  In response to my Facebook query I received quite an array of answers – from “awesome, surprising, sunny, and fantastic,” to “magical, and blessings.”  Others wrote “gevalt, complicated, and challenging.” One friend answered “fractal” and a former camper answered “trumptastic.” Others are not ready to move on. One wrote, “it’s not over yet,” while another proclaimed “hooray!” (adding, “I’m not a fan.)  My mother even wrote in from South Florida: “Our summer lasts till December.”  What a diverse range of perspectives from a simple question!

A short while ago we read yet again the Torah portion many of us find quite unsettling, as our Patriarch Abraham is called to take his beloved son Isaac to the top of a mountain. There, he prepares to offer his son as a sacrifice to God.  Each year I wrestle with this story. I seek out new perspectives on this disturbing passage as I try to find meaning in the story and its inclusion in our ritual on one of the holiest days of our Jewish year. A few years ago I came across a comment suggesting we read the Akeidah as a lesson about how we should never be so convinced of our own sense of certainty. I’ve forgotten who said it but this teacher suggests that when God calls to Abraham, he is absolutely certain he knows exactly what God wants him to do.  He hurriedly prepares to sacrifice his son in the service of God until the call comes for him to stay his hand.  It is, this commentator notes, as if God is saying, “Wait a minute Abraham.  You’ve taken this too far.  Don’t sacrifice your son.  That’s not what I want.” Yes, even Abraham, our paragon of faith, has his limitations when it comes to knowing the absolute truth. God reminds him, “I called for us to walk together.  Walking together does not mean committing an act of murder in My Name.” So many ways to read a single story.

My teacher, Rabbi David Hartman z”l would often remind us, “No one has all the truth.” Reb David’s words echoed often for me this summer as I paid attention to the cacophony swirling on the airwaves, in my email, on my Facebook newsfeed, and in truth, virtually everywhere I looked or listened. Whether it was presidential candidates; cable news pundits; leaders in the Jewish community; elected officials or people around me – it was astonishing to note how many people speak their version of truth with absolute certitude. Some speak as if there’s no possibility that they might be even a bit off the mark, or that someone else might have a piece of the truth.

I was reminded this summer of a short film I’ve used in teaching as a discussion starter since early in my rabbinic career. The 1968 short is an interpretation of a 1957 work by Dutch educator, Quaker missionary and pacifist, Kees Boeke, entitled Cosmic Zoom. Both the book and the film suggest that wherever we are in our world, we only see just so much of reality. Boeke suggests that we must acknowledge that there is so much more, within and beyond us than we are capable of perceiving. The film opens with a young man rowing a boat on a lake which is in the heart of a large city.  With no words, the film switches to animation as our view slowly zooms out, until the we are looking from the farthest reaches of space. The animation holds focus from a point in deep space, and then rapidly zooms back into the original scene.  The film then takes the viewer into the scene, focusing on a single spot on the boy’s hand until we are ultimately looking at a single cell.  Again, the image pauses. Then it rapidly makes its way back to the original scene. The boy rows on and the film ends. In its time, this 8-minute film was hailed as a ground-breaking portrayal of perspective in life and our world. For years I used it as a trigger film to open Confirmation Classes so as to bring the group into our year of learning together.

My memory of Cosmic Zoom was triggered while reading NY Times columnist David Brooks’ recent bestseller, The Road to Character.” Brooks’ writing often makes me stop and think even when I don’t agree with him.  He almost always challenges my sense of perspective. Brooks reminded me of Cosmic Zoom, and its message that we live in an extremely complicated and multi-layered world. At any given moment, we can only expect to grasp reality from a single perspective.  We must be ever-mindful of the fact that none of us ever has the big picture, the total perspective.  None of us can know with certainty absolute truth when it comes to our world, and life in this world. “No one has all the truth.”

CacophonyThis brings me back to my question on Facebook, if you could sum up summer in just one word, which word would you choose? My answer is “Cacophony.” Cacophony — a discordant mixture of sounds.  As summer went along I had an ever stronger awareness of the cacophony in the world around me.

My summer surely had moments of amazing melody and harmony: a weeklong writing workshop for clergy at Kenyon College; Yo-Yo Ma and the BSO at Tanglewood; James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt at Fenway; the sounds of the Eisner Camp community singing or praying together; the sounds of our community here at Temple Shalom during Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat services; and a 6-day Mindfulness retreat at Kripalu.

However, there were other sounds as well.  Summer began with a sort of one-two punch with the Supreme Court’s twin rulings on Affordable Health Care and Same-Sex Marriage.  Both cases were closely watched on all sides. These two landmark cases set the airwaves burning with commentary, laudatory praise, as well as passionate condemnation. In some corners there were cheers, while in others there were loud cries of denunciation. In Charleston, South Carolina, a single young man galvanized our nation’s focus by cruelly murdering nine people with whom he had just spent an hour in Bible Study. The shooting reignited the clamor over guns and gun control which followed the shooting in Newtown, CT, now almost three years ago. And the incidents continue: in movie theaters, on military bases, and most recently the heinous murder of two journalists, filmed and shared via social media by the murderer. The volume has kept rising as there were more reports of shootings by law enforcement officials in what some view as murky circumstances. These were linked to the string of incidents which flared into a national debate with last summer’s shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.  It would be hard to miss the cacophonous reality of the Presidential Campaign. The tenor and content is already descending to new lows. I imagine we will see, hear and reach even lower lows before we are done.

No small part of the cacophony I found quite unsettling this summer emanated from the loud, angry and often disturbing clamor over the proposed “deal” between the Islamic Republic of Iran and what are known as the P5+1 – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; plus Germany. These six world powers joined together in 2006 in an attempt to reach a diplomatic agreement with Iran with regard to its nuclear program.  Since the announcement in June that an agreement had been reached, our country; Israel; and especially the Jewish community have erupted in a truly cacophonous debate over the deal, and whether is it the right deal, the wrong deal, or a truly dangerous deal – for Israel, and for our country.  I am not going to add to the noise generated over the summer this morning by talking about the deal. I have my opinions about the matter, but on this holy day I want to step back from particulars and focus on a larger theme which arises for me out of the cacophonous noise of this summer.

Perspective.  How we react to any given stimulus depends on our perspective.  This summer, on so many fronts I felt that like Abraham, we were being called, “Wait a minute. You have taken this too far. I called for us to walk together.” How do we walk together in a world of such cacophonous and divisive noise, especially when it seems like it’s all output and no intake? “No one has all the truth.” How do we forge a path forward, when there is seemingly little or no common ground on how we respond to the call to walk together at difficult moments?

In a thought-provoking 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt writes: “Politics and religion are both expressions of our underlying moral psychology …[which] can help to bring people together. My goal, “he notes,” is to drain some of the heat, anger, and divisiveness out of these topics and replace them with awe, wonder and curiosity.” Haidt begins his analysis with our Jewish notion of tzedek, which he identifies as a cornerstone of the notion of right and righteousness.  In a particularly poignant passage, he notes “When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means.”

As we emerge out of summer, I yearn for a Jewish community in which differing opinions do not cause us to label one another as traitors, Nazi collaborators, or other similarly hateful tags. I recognize that depending on one’s perspective the Iran deal might be viewed as mortally dangerous, or not. As we reach the end of the voting process in Congress, we now need to forge a way forward – as one Jewish community; and in a broader sense as one nation. We can debate abortion rights, immigration policy, the federal budget, the Iran deal and in truth, just about everything. What we cannot do is so demonize one another that we cannot even speak with one another the day after a critical vote in Congress, or after an election.  We cannot so demonize one another that we cannot worship or study together as a Jewish community.  “No one has all the truth.” How do we pursue tzedek – what we believe to be right, in a complicated world and accepting the reality, “I just might be wrong?”

In his 2006 book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn asks: “Might not our institutions and our politics become healthier and wiser if we all engaged even a little bit in expanding the field of our awareness inwardly and outwardly to entertain the possible validity, at least to a degree, of ways of knowing, seeing, and being that may be profoundly different from our own?” We are, at this moment in time, deeply polarized. I believe that the on-going cacophony, in which everyone screams at one another, accompanied by an inability or perhaps, an unwillingness, to listen to the other is dangerous. I believe this behavior already pollutes the ways in which our children learn to “communicate.” I believe we have already begun to see some of the possibilities unfold in the world of social media. The brutal murder of the two Virginia journalists two weeks ago was, the Charleston shootings; the attacks at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem are, I believe all symptoms of a larger and growing problem.

We Jews live within a tradition in which we recite what most consider our most central prayer which begins with a word which ought to be front and center as we consider the ways in which we live, communicate, and disagree with others.  Shema Yisrael – “Hear, O Israel.” Hearing requires that we stop speaking long enough to allow our ears to hear and our minds to process what others are saying. We must hear our own words and weigh their impact, positively and negatively on those around us – our loved ones, our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers, those who agree with us . . . and those who do not agree with us. In fact, you may have noted that our new Machzor translates shema as “listen.”   “No one has all the truth.”  If we can’t accept that reality, we cannot end the cacophonous noise that pollutes our world and endangers our sense of community and common destiny.

I want to close my message this morning with a poem by one of the greatest Israeli poets, Yehuda Amichai.  I first learned this poem a number of years ago from my teacher Rachel Korazim, who will visit us again next month for a Shabbat dinner study session. I hope you’ll join us for an incredible Shabbat evening.  For me, this poem embodies the essence of Reb David Hartman’s dictum, “No one has all the truth.” Amichai’s poem is entitled, The Place Where We Are Right:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Amichai challenges us to leave room for the voices of others, just as we must leave room for other flowers to gro I challenge us – not to give up our points of view, but to be open to those of others, even when we vehemently disagree. We may feel we are 100% correct; and the other is 1000% wrong.  At the end of the day, we each see life, and our world from a distinct point.  We must remember, “No one has all the truth.” We must remember to zoom out and back in. We may come to understand that we cannot endure if only one voice, one interpretation, or one perspective is acceptable. May this New Year help us to open our ears, our eyes, our hearts and our minds to the truth, not only as we see it. May we also be open to hearing, and maybe even learning from, the perspective of others. May our debates be passionate and vigorous and may they not be filled with hateful noise. May we fill our world with hearing, listening, speaking, sharing, learning – and I pray, more harmony than cacophony.

L’shanah tovah tikateyvu. May you be inscribed for a good year!

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3 thoughts on “Cacophony

  1. peteradler says:

    Cocophany…reads like a very long sermon, guess it was different being there. Thanks Rabbi Eric, Shanah Tova again.

  2. ScottB says:

    Kol ha-kavod for a very thoughtful and timely d’var. One can only imagine what our political discourse would be like if politicians, who ritually embark on “listening tours” at the start of every campaign, would head a fraction of this message.

  3. Barry Pomerantz says:

    Life requires adaptation to the continuing challenges before us.To consider what to do, think or speak or not, we have the opportunity and obligation as members of communities, large and small, to consider which perspectives to draw from.It is our responsibility to do so. Only then can we claim to have done so with good intention.
    Thank you Rabbi Gurvis.

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