September 13, 2015: Rosh Hashanah Sermon (Living in a World of Terror)

ROSH HASHANAH EVENING: Living in a World of Terror

We live in a world of chaos, destruction, and evil, much of it caused by humankind. Every day, the morning newspaper confronts us with some new atrocity. “ISIS traffics women as sex slaves in public markets,executes suspected homosexuals, accelerates the razing of ancient sites.” The nuclear deal with Iran stirs up such passionate anxiety, because it has repeatedly cried to annihilate Israel. And then there is the greatest menace of all, imperiling the survival not just of one people but of the entire human species. In an ominous op-ed piece entitled “The World’s Hot Spot,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently contended that the twin calamities of climate change and overpopulation are driving the bloody conflicts in the Middle East and precipitating the refugee crisis. Our assaults against ourselves overwhelm the mind and dismay the soul. Have we past the point of no return?

We are not the first generation to suppose that we confront imminent ruin. As Jews, we know a thing or two about living under the “sword of Damocles.” Since our people’s birth as slaves in Egypt, we have endured exile, if not the risk of extermination. Witnesses to the destruction of the Temple were unable to imagine how the Jewish religion could ever survive the loss of its vital hub, and many contemporaries thought the world was about to end in apocalypse. Fast forward to our own day and age—for which I need hardly mention the Holocaust. When the Dalai Lama first met a delegation of leading Rabbis in the 90s, he asked them: “what is your secret?” His people were forced to leave Tibet only fifty years ago, but no other nation on Earth has survived through centuries of persecution and dispersal, as the people of Israel have.

Rosh Hashanah, in particular, shines an annual spotlight onto the precariousness of existence. Its most troubling prayer demands: “who shall live, and who shall die?” As a child attending synagogue in South Orange, New Jersey, on the High Holidays, I would listen to my grandparents—and my parents after them—commenting on the dwindling ranks of the old-timers in the front pews, each year a few less. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is, above all, a meditation on mortality. “The human being’s origin is dust, and her end is dust”—that part taken directly out of the first chapters of Genesis. “She toils for bread her whole life long. She is a broken shard, the withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a vanishing dream.” The central question becomes: how can we transcend the curse of Adam and Eve?

The Unetaneh Tokef is the product of the Middle Ages, an especially grim period for the Jews, when marauding Crusaders annihilated entire Jewish villages overnight and without warning. The poet responds to the unpredictability of violence with the pious proclamation that vexes so many of us: “Behold the Day of Judgment! On this day, … You decree the fate of human creatures and inscribe their destiny!” At a recent Beth Shalom discussion group, one participant offered a striking insight:“Don’t read the Unetaneh Tokef as a statement of faith,” she suggested. “Read it instead as a protest, a yearning, a longing…” If only the bad guys did get their just desserts, and good ones did live happily ever after, like in the movies! We human creatures seem to have an innate need to establish a cause for what happens, even where none exists. “So strong is the compulsion to make sense of the world that a great many [otherwise] rational adults will sometimes invent the most far-fetched reasons to justify [the tragedies that befall them]…,” says Harold Kushner in his book When Children Ask About God. (pp. 80-81) That’s a good thing, because it attests to the durability of our deeply ingrained feeling for fairness and harmony, despite the chaos all around us.

The Unetaneh Tokef is embedded within the third blessing of the Amidah, known as Qedushat ha-Shem, “sanctification of God’s Name.” For centuries, the phrase qiddush ha-Shem was synonymous with martyrdom. Some went to their deaths willingly, such as the legendary author of the Unetaneh Tokef itself, and some were killed involuntarily, such as Daniel Pearl, the civil rights workers in Mississippi, and others whose stories are detailed in the Eileh Ezkerah section of our new Reform Machzor. Surely, these individuals did not set out to become martyrs, any more than the three American youths who made international headlines set out to become heroes when they boarded the high-speed train from Brussels to Paris last month.

Mother Theresa once purportedly stated: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Likewise, when the Talmud discusses qedushat ha-shem, it illustrates the concept not with heroic self-sacrifice—though Jewish history affords plenty of cases of that—but with everyday examples: “When you speak gently to others, when you maintain honest dealings with your fellows, then people will say: ‘praised be the God of Israel, for instilling honest and compassionate behavior.’” Thank God most of us will never be forced to make split-second, life-and-death decisions. But holiness is not reserved for extraordinary times and circumstances. The Jewish way is to bring holiness into the mundane—to elevate every single interaction, conversation, and gesture.

The Unetaneh Tokef itself provides a softer prescription, short of martyrdom, for sanctifying the Name of God every day. “Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah cause the evil of the decree to pass away.” The dire decree, imposed upon every human being, is death, of course. We cannot avoid the decree, but we can cause the evil of the decree to pass away. We cannot avoid our end, but we can attach ourselves to that which is without end. We touch the Eternal whenever by attaching ourselves to God’s Name. And we attach ourselves to God’s Name by engaging in teshuvah, tefillah or tzedakah.

Repentance, prayer, and good deeds. Each element deserves an entire sermon in its own right, as indeed I have given in the past. What strikes me most about the formula this year is our tradition’s curious and pervasive tendency to assume responsibility upon ourselves, almost to the point of self-blame, for the evils of the world in general. One reason the communal confessional on Yom Kippur is recited in the first person, plural—not “for the sins I have committed before you…” but “for the sins we have committed before you”—is that, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “although some maybe guilty, all are responsible.” Likewise, in a recent talk that Rabbi Arthur Green delivered on religious extremism, he mentioned in the same breath the rape of Yazidi women at the hands of ISIS militants, along with the knife attack against participants of the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and the burning of a Palestinian family in their home, both perpetrated by Jewish fanatics. Some listeners took offense at the comparison, but Rabbi Green’s response was quintessentially Jewish.

We must combat cruelty on two fronts, within and without, and the two aims do not cancel out one another. In Rabbi Green’s own words: “When you look at what ISIS is doing to residents in the territories they’ve conquered, first you have to thank the Zionists for having rescued the Jews from Kurdistan and brought them to Israel years before ISIS came along. But then, we have to do everything we can to resist those people. Now, there are elements of the Jewish people for whom resistance means we must become as tough and fundamentalist as they are. But to me, resisting them means, in part, not becoming like them.”

In the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic first swept through the gay community, self-help guru Louise Hay came out with the national bestseller, You Can Heal Your Life. The book contended that physical disease was an outward manifestation of underlying spiritual “dis-ease.” “Let go of anger and resentment, and replace them with forgiveness, compassion and love,” she urged. Hay infuriated critics who accused her of “blaming the victim” for his illness, but her message nevertheless resonated with thousands who knew they would likely die within weeks of diagnosis. Hay’s counsel to look inward in response to mortal peril mirrors Rabbi Green’s inclination, in the wake of Islamist brutality, to examine similar tendencies on the Jewish side, or, for that matter, the indictment of Israel by the Rabbinic sages who said: “the Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred among the people”—even though the Rabbis knew full well that no amount of local resistance on the part of the insignificant province of Judea could have stopped the might of Rome, the greatest superpower on Earth at the time.

Although I reject Louise Hay’s spectacular claim that curing illness is a matter of healing the soul, I have no doubt that many who embraced her teachings braved their situation with a stronger sense of empowerment. The Mi Shebeirach prayer ends with the words: “bless those in need of healing with refuah shleimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit.” Shleimah means “complete”—a complete healing—and is related to shalom, the word for peace. Even when renewal of the body is no longer possible, renewal of the spirit is always possible. Isn’t that what we all want: a peaceful death, a sense of wholeness and completeness when our work on Earth is concluded?

The Unataneh Tokef does not guarantee that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah will prevent disaster. Rather, these practices ensure composure and instill resolve to face adversity, no matter how grave. When we read of the latest instantiation of climate change, from President Obama’s recent visit above the Arctic Circle, say, where entire Alaskan villages must relocate miles upslope because of inundating seas, what is demanded of us? First, that we reassess our own patterns of energy consumption, then, implement ways to reduce it. When we view pictures of Syrian refugees streaming into Europe, how should we respond? First grieve; then act—perhaps by contributing to a relief organization such as HIAS, the Jewish group that advocates for, protects and resettles refugees nationally and internationally.

We are not helpless victims. That is Judaism’s frontline response to calamity. Even when we cannot change outside circumstances, we can still change ourselves. The injunction that overarches the entire High Holiday season, uvacharta bachayyim, directs us to choose life, no matter what. As one recent correspondent put it: “My first instinct upon seeing any news report of violence and mass killings is to ask myself: how are we connecting to each other? What are we doing, each of us, to look one another genuinely in the eyes and see ourselves reflected back? What energy do we bring to our communities? Who are we excluding, physically or psychologically, on daily basis? It takes each one of us to seek to understand the core of our own motivations and emotional responses, to be vulnerable and open with others, knowing that all of us feel betrayed, undermined, or rejected at times. And yet, we can find love and contentment, maybe at first in fleeting moments, and only later, by changing our patterns, we can create love through us and cultivate compassion. We can fear one another, or we can love one another. The choice is ours, everyday.”

We occupy a terrifying world. Every instant finds us a hair’s breadth away from annihilation. We construct a life of seemingly secure surroundings and familiar routine, of work and play, of money and material comforts, but, in fact, we have much less control over what happens to us than we care to admit. An email, a phone call, just opening the newspaper in the morning is all it might take to pierce the veneer of order and security. The basic function of the High Holidays is to rouse us from our complacency and instill a sense of urgency. “Sleepers, awake from your slumber, you who waste away your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save!” cries the Shofar.

What does profit and save us? When we have the courage to turn inward and see the violence that fills the world reflected within ourselves. When we nurture the compassion to see the divine image reflected in every encounter with every human being. When we respond to random evil with a simple act of goodness. Do we want God’s reputation to be left in the hands of jihadists and religious extremists? No! God is counting on us to redeem the holiness of the Divine Name, and, in so doing, to redeem ourselves from insignificance.

Our lives are precarious, our future is uncertain, and our days are numbered. Here are two pieces of wisdom with which to leave you: one from the Native American tradition, and one from our tradition. Unlike the Western mind, which views life as a line that extends from point A to point B, the Native American views life as a circle. The circle itself may expand as we progress through life, but at any given moment it is boundless and complete. Therefore, the Native American wakes up in the morning and says: “today is a good day to die”—not with morbidity, but with the serenity that comes from knowing that there is nothing more she needs to accomplish in order to be whole. Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer used to admonish his students: “do teshuvah, return to your goodness, one day before you die.” “But Master,” replied a disciple, “how are we to know the day of our death?” “Therefore, return today, lest you die tomorrow,” said the Rabbi, “and so you will spend all your days in teshuvah.”

Shanah tovah.
In the coming year, may you spend every day, every moment of every day, in shleimut, in fullness and joy.