Yom Kippur Morning
September 23, 2015
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis
This summer I went back to college. At least that’s what it seemed like. In early July, I arrived in Gambier, OH for Beyond Walls, a weeklong Writing Workshop for Clergy at Kenyon College. Upon arriving in Gambier I was directed to the bookstore to collect my student ID, my room assignment, and my binder of study materials for the week. It was quite a throwback walking across campus with my backpack on my back and my suitcase in tow as I headed for my dorm. Just before dinner we gathered for Orientation. Over the years I have attended many conferences. This one set my memories aflame. Later, we were sent to meet our Writing Groups. We had our “homeroom” meeting location and a member of the faculty as our “homeroom” leader. My group, Group F, which I nicknamed “F Troop” became quite a warm and welcoming team along the way. The entire experience was eye-opening, nourishing and worthwhile.
As our week of learning, writing, and mentoring unfolded, something else struck me along the way. I’d never been to Gambier before. It’s a very small town, essentially founded to host what has become Kenyon College. A single main street runs through the center of Gambier which is also the center of campus. There’s a post office, a Mini-Market, the College Bookstore, the Police Department, the Kenyon Inn (where our teachers were staying), one restaurant, and a coffee shop (thank God, a coffee shop. True to form it became a haven for me, and many of my new-found friends.) Having attended a large State University, I never had the small college experience. Gambier is Kenyon, and Kenyon is Gambier. It’s an incredibly beautiful setting. We were pretty much given license to settle in to any spot we could find to write during the long, five-hour afternoon writing blocks. I found some truly inspiring settings in which to write. One afternoon we thought we’d head over to the restaurant for a change of venue. Unfortunately, they too had decided on a change of venue. They were closed for vacation, coinciding with our entire visit in town. Another night, after the evening session, a few of us decided to head over to the Inn where we could continue our conversation but the bar had closed at 8:30. I began to realize that the setting was not only impacting the way I think about writing. I was also learning a lesson in how to make do with fewer choices. It was quite nice. One bookstore, one market, one coffee shop, and so on. Sometimes simple is truly a blessing. But for most of us, simple choices are not the order of our days. We live at a pace in which we race from one commitment to another. Along the way we make a myriad of choices. Sometimes we’re aware that we are making choices. At other times we do so unconsciously.
Our Torah reading this morning teaches what Jewish tradition says about making choices in life. Even though we live in a complicated world in which much is beyond our control, our tradition teaches that we are, nevertheless, free agents. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I put before you: life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—by loving the LORD your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him.” (Deut. 30:19-20) Many choices are in our hands. Over the course of our lives we make hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of choices. We make choices based on our appetites and choices based on our desires. We make choices based on what we have learned from past experience. Tradition states the hope that we make choices that are good, that enhance life, and bring blessing.
We are complex beings, with a wide range of emotions. As Rabbi Abrasley said on Rosh Hashanah eve, this summer’s hit film, Inside Out beautifully takes the viewer through the power and range of human emotions. Jewish tradition posits an additional dimension in framing the complexity of human beings. The Rabbis teach that each human being is born with two inner dispositions or inclinations: yetzer tov and yetzer ha-rah. I translate yetzer tov as “the inclination towards good.” Yetzer ha-rah is usually rendered as “the Evil Inclination” which I find a poor translation. In Rabbinic literature, and beyond, we find countless teachings which declare the yetzer ha-rah is an important part of our makeup as humans. The rabbis proclaim that without “the yetzer ha-rah, no one would build a house; no one would get married and no one would bring children into the world.” Yetzer ha-rah cannot be simply understood as “evil.” It encompasses a larger category of actions and behaviors. This broader understanding of yetzer tov and yetzer ha-rah is a fascinating topic. In this year’s Lunch & Learn and Downtown Study groups we’ll focus on this paradoxical aspect of how Jewish tradition views human nature. For now, I suggest that rather than “the Evil Inclination,” we translate yetzer harah as “the inclination to that which is not [yet] good.”
“Evil” is a profoundly difficult word. I am not interested in explaining away evil, nor does Jewish tradition permit us to do so. In the words of the prophet, Amos, we are taught Sin’u rah, v’ehevu tov – “Hate evil and love that which is good.” Amos continues, linking hating evil and loving the good to the command that we are to “establish justice within our gates.” The Psalmist instructs, that “Those who love God hate evil.”
We live in a world in which we have too many ready examples of what can be labeled as rah/evil in the word’s most literal sense. We are often frustrated by what the evil in our world. We react, we condemn, and at day’s end we feel largely powerless to bring an end to the evil. On some fronts, it’s appalling to me that we do not act. For example, with each new incident in which innocent people are killed with guns, I am left to wonder how long we will continue to we wring our hands and decry the lack of action from our political leaders. As Bob Dylan’s iconic lyric echoes in my head, “How many deaths will it take till we know, that too many people have died?” At what point we will have had enough of the murders and tragedies to actually stand up and demand a sensible approach to gun control and a serious approach to bringing an end to the killing of innocent people, in their homes, on our streets, at movie theatres, in our schools, on college campuses, and in truth, everywhere. For the very reasons I discussed on Rosh Hashanah, gun control is a complicated subject. There are different perspectives on the matter of gun ownership and regulation. At what point do we summon the courage to pass laws that will enable us to live as part of a society absent the current toll of gun violence. It is a complicated reality. I believe that not acting is as our legal minds might categorize it, “aiding and abetting” the heinous acts.
I am certain it’s not a matter of complexity or perspective to name the acts being perpetrated by ISIS as evil. How the nations of the world should address the horrific violence and terror wrought at the hands of ISIS is complicated. This evil must be confronted. What are our country’s responsibilities as a leader among the nations of the world when it comes to addressing the violence? What must now address a major consequences of ISIS’ reign of terror: the flood of refugees pouring out of Syria and into both nearby and farther flung countries? As I briefly mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, we can respond to the reality of the refugees who are fleeing their homes by strengthening the arms of those organizations that are trying to address the needs of the refugees. We should be proud of the efforts of those arms of the Jewish community which are playing a role. I was asked a number of weeks ago why we, as Jews, would play any role in rescuing people who have been taught to hate Jews and Israelis. My response is that the refugees are, first and foremost human beings. “I put before you: life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” Helping those in need is good and it is choosing life. Our people knows all too well the experience of finding our own refugees ignored and turned away. We cannot close our eyes and ears and pretend that nothing is happening. I am especially proud to see HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, playing an important role in responding to this crisis. We may not have all the answers, nor do we bear all the responsibility. That does not allow us to choose to ignore what is unfolding entirely. Let us choose good and life – let us work to strengthen the relief efforts in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
Yom HaKippurim, this Day of Atonement, helps us focus on our own lives, words and deeds. AS I said last night, the most important work we are to do this day involves heshbon ha-nefesh, taking stock of our souls, and our lives. This must include paying attention to how we use the capacity make choices. We must also examine how we respond to and govern our twin impulses, the yetzer tov and the yetzer ha-rah. This day is about regaining our perspective and our mastery of these inclinations. Furthermore, Yom Kippur is a community-based holy day. We stand and reflect as individuals. We each take stock of our own souls and lives, and we do so in the context of community. We must also reflect on how we, as a collective, as a kehillah, are doing in fulfilling our responsibilities to build, heal and perfect this world. Take for example our efforts to feed the hungry, such as we do with our regular collections of tuna fish and crackers for Family Table; or our more substantial and concentrated effort during these days, as we fill the truck parked outside to strengthen the efforts of the Newton Food Pantry. These acts of self reflection are important on both the individual and the communal level.
“Choose life” is not a once or twice a year matter. It is something to which we should direct our attention each and every day. The choices we make, especially when they impact how we engage with one another and with our world are our response to the brokenness, the injustice, the rah/evil in the world around us. This afternoon’s Torah portion reminds us, “Do not stand idly by while your fellow human being bleeds.” Neither individually nor collectively are we permitted to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear. Our tradition demands action. Rather than seeing us as powerless figures living out a pre-determined script, Jewish tradition makes us active players. We inhabit the world of Jim Carrey’s character, Truman Burbank, in Peter Weir’s thought-provoking 1998 film “The Truman Show.” Truman learns that he is, in effect, living in a world in which every moment of his life, and every aspect of his constellation of relationships are part of an elaborate stage production in which is the main character. As he becomes aware that he is essentially a puppet, he works to break free of the set and players who define his life. At movie’s end he does so, and we left to ponder what happens to Truman Burbank as he exits stage left and heads off for whatever future he will create.
Our New Year is but 10 days old. What will we choose in this New Year? Will we choose tov? Will we not only hate rah, but fight against it? Will we choose good, life and blessing – not only for ourselves, but for our families, our neighbors, our community, and even strangers who need our help so that they can choose life?
Temple Shalom has a proud history of Tikkun Olam/Social Action and Social Justice engagement. In this New Year, we are re-energizing our efforts. I invite you – come, let’s have coffee. Join our Tikkun Olam, and Community Organizing efforts. We may not solve global challenges, but we will do our part to make a difference. It will require as many of us as possible, and you’ll get to strengthen old relationships and form new ones here within our Temple Shalom community. Together let us choose to engage that mischievous side of our yetzer ha-rah which can drive us to think creatively about how we choose good, life and blessing. Our lives are not as simple as mine was for a week at Kenyon College when I had few choices to make. Let’s turn our words and deeds towards impacting the lives of others, upon our community and our world. Let’s choose life. Let’s choose blessing. Let’s choose to make 5776 a year in which our choices strike out against those instances in which the yetzer ha-rah is responsible for true evil, or even just brokenness in the world around us.
G’mar Hatimah tovah!