Friends, I confess this has been one of my most difficult seasons over the course of nearly 40 seasons of preparing, in one form or another, to stand before a community. There’s no shortage of material ripe for messages from the bimah this year. In Social Media, and in private, rabbis around the country have been wrestling with what to address during these Holy Days. We live in a complicated time. The world around us is noisy and chaotic. Our world and nation are filled with strife, conflict, deep division and ugly, hate-filled rhetoric.
Each year, I begin gathering ideas and materials for the next year, almost as soon as the Holy Days end. I clip articles. I make lists of ideas. I attend seminars with wise teachers intended to kindle sparks among those in attendance. I read a lot over the summer. In many respects, I prepared for this year no differently than any other. The late secular date of these days has been helpful – for those who like to procrastinate, and for others, like me, who have really struggled with what to say. On Kol Nidre night, I always seek a message that speaks to the heart of Yom Kippur. We spend more hours together in synagogue on this day than at any other time of the year. In our gathering there is a profound and important sense of aloneness. On this day we are called to turn inward, beckoned to assess our lives with brutal honesty and searing soul-searching.
Over the past year I have been more deeply troubled than at any other point in my life by the world and times in which we live. Most especially, the overpowering shadow of our national elections has, at times, thrust me into despair. I truly believe that no matter the final outcome of this year’s Presidential election, our nation will be even more deeply divided than at any other point in my lifetime and memory. No matter who captures 270 Electoral College votes on November 8th, I believe we will see the chasm in our nation grow. I fear we may see violence. I hope I am wrong. I believe in our country and strongly believe in our democracy, and the values we hold as a nation. But I fear the restlessness, venom, hatred, and xenophobia that have been stirred in the tempest of this particular election season.
I will not stand here and tell you for whom I believe you should cast your vote. I do implore you to vote on November 8th. This is a time of great consequence in our nation’s journey. I have no crystal ball. I do have a deep-seated belief that each and every one of us who is entitled to vote must do so. For me, participating in our democratic process is always a responsibility. I would even elevate it, in a Jewish sense of responsibility, to the level of mitzvah, of sacred responsibility. I also believe we must each play a role in the healing I pray will come post-November 8th and post-January 20th.
So what can I say on this holiest of nights that will touch our hearts and souls? The answer to that question eluded me for weeks, even months. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night searching for an answer. In part, one answer came as I sat in a darkened auditorium several weeks ago in an audience invited for a sneak preview of the new motion picture Denial. The film tells the story of author and historian Deborah Lipstadt’s courageous and scary battle in a London courtroom 16 years ago as she and her legal team defended truth against the lies of a well-known Holocaust denier by the name of David Irving about whom Lipstadt had written in her acclaimed work, Denying the Holocaust.
A provocateur, Irving, chose to sue Lipstadt, and her publisher, Penguin Books for libel. A renowned professor of history at Emory University, and an award-winning author, Lipstadt learned that the British courts flip the burden of proof to place it squarely on the shoulders of the accused. She feared that if she were found guilty, the impact would be on more than her reputation. She, along with many Holocaust survivors, worried that an Irving victory would in essence declare that the Holocaust is fiction, or its reality merely “an opinion.” The stakes were high. At the talk-back following the screening of Denial, which I urge you to see, Professor Lipstadt was asked what she had learned from her experience, and how she feels it applies to our time. She replied: “There is a difference between facts, opinions, and opinions based on lies.” Her words were a direct hit for me. She spoke to a part of what I view as our national malady as we sort through our political morass.
Her words also spoke to me about the meaning of these Days of Awe. We need to face decisions in our lives and our world with openness and honesty. To do so, we must first start with ourselves. Before we assess the words, and positions of others – even those closest to us, we must check our own hearts, our own words and deeds, our own souls. This is the essence of this Day of Atonement.
Thinking about Professor Lipstadt’s story, and her words to the audience at the Kendall Square Cinema, I was reminded of a note I had made to myself earlier in the summer while reading a book which languished on my shelf for a number of years. The book was Erica Brown’s In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks. The Three Weeks refer to the period in the Jewish calendar beginning with the 17th Day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, when in 586 BCE, the Babylonians breached the outer walls of the city of Jerusalem. The day is a fast day, and the Three Weeks then stretch on to the 9th Day of the Hebrew month of Av, the date on which the Babylonians finally reached and destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem. By some quirk of history, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE on the very same date, the 9th of Av, or Tisha B’av as it is known. It, too, is a fast Day. Indeed, Tisha B’av is likened to this Day of Yom Kippur in its intensity. In more traditional communities, the Three Weeks become a period of intense focus on Jewish history and some of the darker periods in that history. In these communities, weddings and other joyous occasions are generally not scheduled. Once the month of Av begins, many traditional Jews refrain from eating any meat, also a sign of spiritual preparation and mourning. As a lifelong Reform Jew and a Rabbi, these Three Weeks have mostly been relevant when I find myself in Israel where many around me are observing, to some degree, the strictures of this period. By contrast, Tisha B’av has been in my life since my earliest years attending a Jewish overnight camp.
I decided to read Brown’s book as she intends it to be read, a small piece each day during the Three Weeks. Brown invites the reader to reflect on themes raised by this period and what, if any, place they have in our lives today. Ironically my reading and reflection spanned the days of my trip to Berlin which fell towards the end of the Three Weeks. The reading and reflection in those days and in that setting took on an additional layer of meaning I could not have predicted.
On Day 3 Brown writes on the importance of lists in our lives, “We love to make lists, to categorize and organize our complex universe and our responsibilities within.” She goes on to examine a number of lists found in our Hebrew Bible and later Rabbinic sources wherein we are offered checklists of values around which to order our lives. She begins with a passage from the Talmud (Makkot 24a) in which the Rabbis depict King David reducing all of the mitzvot to 11 core ethical principles, including:
• Walk in perfect innocence
• Work righteously
• Speak the truth from your heart.
• Have no slander on the tongue.
• Do no harm to your fellow.
The Talmud proceeds to offer up examples of Biblical figures who represent these virtues. Brown then brings texts which reflect the time-honored rabbinic parlor game of reducing the list to as few values as possible. Isaiah reduces the list from 11 virtues to 6. In another passage we know, Micah (6:8) teaches, “Do justice; Love mercy, and Walk humbly with your God” – down to 3. We know Rabbi Hillel is reputed to have summarized all Jewish teaching with the maxim, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it!”
Brown does not stop here. She writes: “God, too, has a list. It’s not a happy list, but rather a catalog of the habits of the religious heart. In the book of Proverbs, we find a list of behaviors that God despises, a catalogue of human weaknesses and failings that keep us distant from justice and righteousness.” In Proverbs chapter 6 we read:
“God hates six things:
A haughty bearing
A lying tongue
Hands that shed innocent blood
A mind that hatches evil plots
Feet quick to run to evil
A false witness testifying lies
And one who incites brethren to quarrel.”
Reading those words anew in July, I was struck by their potency for our time. But it’s too facile to simply look at our political figures and judge their behaviors and misbehaviors. To be sure they are of concern. I found myself reflecting on my own life and the meaning of those words in my life.
I began asking myself where I am in relation to these behaviors. Sitting in that darkened theater listening to Professor Lipstadt, “There is a difference between facts, opinions, and opinions based on lies,” I found myself connecting the dots. I am still engaged in that process as this Yom Kippur lies before me. They are questions which we might all ask ourselves and characteristics against which we might each measure ourselves as we struggle to be brutally honest and allow the process of searing soul-searching to truly take root on this Holy Day.
One last thought. At some point between reading Erica Brown in July and August, and seeing Denial in mid-September, I was driving in my car. As I often do, I was listening to the radio. My radio blared with the endless bleating of political narishkicht. I could no longer listen. I switched over to music on my phone. The song which initially came on, seemingly at random, reminded me why, even in these dark times, I cannot allow despair to hold me firmly in its grip. I listened as Peter Yarrow’s voice emerged from my speakers with words I know so well. They’re words I have sung so often. I truly needed to hear it anew in the depths of this summer’s all-too-present darkness:
You say that you are fearful for the future
And you have grown suspicious of the past.
You wonder if the dreams we shared together
Have abandoned us or we abandoned them.
And you cast about and try to find new meaning
So that you can feel that closeness once again.
Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend
Don’t give up on the dream, and don’t you let it end . . .
You remember when you felt each person mattered
When we all had to care or all was lost.
But now you see believers turn to cynics
And you wonder was the struggle worth the cost.
Then you see someone too young to know the difference
And a veil of isolation in their eyes.
Inside you know you’ve got to leave them something
For the hope for something better slowly dies.
Carry on my sweet survivor, carry on my lonely friend
Don’t give up on the dream, and don’t you let it end . . .
So it may come again, carry on.
Friends, on this holiest of days, let us open our hearts and souls in brutal honesty. Let us examine our words, our deeds, our lives. Let us each form our list – what am I committing to changing in the New Year before me? What values, or soul traits will I work on in this New Year? Then let us stream into the year ahead committed to living the virtues we rehearse in our liturgy and hearts this day. Let us remember our sacred obligations to love justice, and seek mercy. Let us continue to pursue truth, recognizing that our neighbor may see and interpret that differently than we do. Let us vote – however we each choose, on November 8th. Then we must commit ourselves to working together to heal the rifts that divide our nation. Let us carry on, for we have got to leave our children and grandchildren something better.