Sinai Synagogue, Tuesday AM, October 1, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
In Dara Horn’s most recent book Eternal Life, the main character is the mother of the great Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, leader of the Pharisees forecast that Vespasian, the Roman General leading the siege would become the next Caesar. When Vespasian received news that this was to become so, he offered Ben Zakkai one wish and Ben Zakkai asked, “Give me Yavneh”. Yavneh was a small town away from the fighting factions in Jerusalem. He was willing to forego the physical edifice of the Temple for the spiritual and portable message of Torah.
In Dara Horn’s telling, Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s mother Rachel cannot understand his choice but Yohanan Ben Zakkai explains: Mother, don’t you understand? When Vespasian asked me what he could give me, I knew exactly what to ask for. I asked for permission for the Torah scholars to be protected near their garrison in Yavneh. That way, no matter what happened to Jerusalem, there would still be people who could teach the Torah in the future. That way the Torah would be safe.” “But you could have saved the Temple!” “I don’t think I could have done that. If God wanted to destroy the Temple, God would destroy the Temple. God destroyed the Temple before”…“You’re like a child! You saved your favorite book!” “Yes! Because nothing matters but the story!” (Dara Horn, Eternal Life, 205-206).
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai understood better than his mother what endures and what matters. The stories we tell matter.
But not every story.
When I teach the siddur I play a game to illustrate the themes of the blessings that surround the Shema in the morning service. I have played this game numerous times over the years and the result is always the same. I ask people to list every story they can think of in the Torah. We list every one and then vote for the three most important stories in the Torah. It does not matter if the players are adults or kids. We list every story, sometimes it’s twenty, sometimes its ten. And then we vote for the most important stories from those on our list. The three winners are always the same – the Creation, the Exodus from Egypt, and the Revelation at Mount Sinai. These three represent the themes of the blessings that surround the Shema. A larger question looms however – the stories that make the list – why these stories? Why are these that the stories that people know and remember?
Because there are lots of narratives in the Torah and quite a few are really unpleasant. How often do we recall the story where the Israelites ask the Ammonites for water during the desert trek, the Ammonites say no and God tells Israel to wipe them all out? Or how about the narrative where the people complain once again about food, because they are sick of the manna, the daily gift from heaven, so God sends them quail but so much quail that they get sick and thousands die of a plague after eating the meat? Or the story of how Miriam questions Moses prophetic abilities and God punishes her with leprosy? Or the sections where God proscribes Canaanite clans?
Dara Horn’s Yohanan ben Zakkai was not completely correct – it is not that “nothing matters but the story” ; what matters is which story matters. Why do we retain some Torah narratives but not others? Why are some tales etched in our Jewish brains but not others? It is because the stories that are imprinted on our collective memories are the ones that link us to the most meaningful issues, values and virtues of our collective Jewish consciousness.
On Rosh HaShanah we tell a number of stories. What is it about these stories or images that lend themselves to the motifs and ideals of this holiday season? Allow me to address three of the most prominent images from the stories and readings we tell every year and how they illuminate for us the deeper meanings of these sacred days.
During the Shofar ceremony in Musaf we state “Hayom Harat Olam”, today is the birthing of the world. The very name of the holiday Rosh HaShanah, New Year’s, implies the Talmudic lesson that the world was created at this time in the fall.
Our understanding of the Creation of world as described in the first two chapters of Genesis is a world in which human beings are the pinnacle of creation, the most honored of all divine creations. Humans were created last, the world being organized and arranged for our benefit. But in a second version of creation in Chapter 2, humans are created to serve and steward divine creation. Nothing grows initially because there is no human to till the soil. Humanity is both master of and servant to the created world. More than that we are told humans are created ‘b’tzelem Elokim’ – the first human is created in the image of God, thus all humans that follow, indistinguishable by color, ethnicity, gender or faith, all are equal in essence because all are created in the image of God. The universality of our consideration and compassion is asserted in this basic story of origins. We are not to limit our vision of Creation to Jewish concerns alone. From our inception God looked to humans as partners. “And the Lord God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called each living creature, that would be its name.” And yet God does not force humans to be obedient. That is evident from the moment that Adam and Eve transgress the only mitzvah that God commands them. According to the scholar Christine Hayes, “Humans are going to be a force to be reckoned with. They’re unpredictable to the very God who created them.” God loves us despite the way we are.
What a message as we commence this new year – we are expected to partner with God in the development of our world, even though God knows and accepts that we will not be perfect. God has set us above all other creatures on earth, endowing us with abilities the other creatures cannot fathom, but only for the purpose of serving as good stewards of the earth. And finally we Jews are to know that while we are obliged to review, at this time of year, our relationship to God and our fellow Jews, our focus cannot be limited to that narrow range. Our perspective must be larger – how we treat non- Jews, and the non Jewish society in which we live; and how shall we treat the environment that all of God’s creations inhabit.
The second most compelling story we read over Rosh HaShanah is the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, this morning’s Torah reading. Of all the stories you could read at the opening of the year, why this story? Some of us, as we get older, it is true our memories are not what they used to be. But our memories are not that weak that we forgot that just yesterday we read of the miraculous and joyous birth of Isaac, the child chosen to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that his children would be as numerous as “the dust of the earth”. And today God says, “Make him a sacrificial offering”. Why read a story that presents God as malicious and irrational on a day we are praying to God to forgive?
The novelist Dara Horn writes regarding this narrative that “to read for the plain meaning of the text is to engage in an interpretive act”. We Jews are interpreters of texts. We assert that Torah is not confined to the inked letters on parchment. The sages proclaim “Hafokh bah vhafokh bah d’colah vah” Turn it over and over for everything is contained within it. At the turn of the year our initial scriptural readings demand that we dwell on the words to seek meaning. We do not read Torah literally, we read it midrashically, and this opening reading demands that of us.
Eric Auerbach, a literary scholar, in a seminal article distinguishing Greek and biblical literature describes biblical narratives as “all foreground - thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed”. We have to add ourselves into the text. Or as Sara Hurwitz, author of the book Here All Along, puts it “we become implicated in the story because we must wrestle with the silences.” We read the story and questions arise immediately: Why does God demand this? Why does Abraham accept without protest? Where is Sarah? Is Isaac complicit in the sacrifice or is he terrified. Is he clueless or is he aware of what is to come? This story more than any other in Torah forces us to question, interpret, struggle.
But it is the substance of the reading that is also fundamental to our psyches at this time of year. Our tradition demands that at Rosh HaShanah we are to take a heshbon hanefesh, a spiritual accounting, an unrelenting and honest review of who we are and of the distance between our convictions and conscience and our thoughts and behaviors. This narrative that we read today places the existential dilemma of the human soul at the forefront: We are Abraham – do we listen to God or to Isaac? Do we trust the promised future or our immediate reality? To whom do we owe our greatest loyalties – To God?, to our principles and our truths? OR to our family? to our children or to our companions?
This story reminds us of a reality that we face every day – life is not rational nor tidy. And yet the narrative seems to conclude – have faith in the process, for in the end, what is right and proper will unfold. We may exit this sacred space with more questions than answers but the impact of this story compels us to confront the voices within us that determine our resolve.
The final image I will share this morning is the image of a trial. The Unataneh Tokef prayer that we will recite in the Musaf service conveys the image of a cosmic court room. Today is Yom HaDin, the day of judgment. The traditional perception of God as hoary headed Lord sitting in judgment over all creation is invoked. “Ki atah hu dayan umochiah v’yodea v’ayd.Vkhotev v’chotem vsofer umoneh. V’tizkor kol hanishkachot” In the translation found in the mahzorim we used to use it reads “We behold Thee, as Judge and Witness, recording our secret thoughts and acts and setting the seal thereon. Thou recordest everything; yea, Thou rememberest the things forgotten”. The emotion that this image evokes is one of awe and terror – “even the angels are dismayed ; in fear and trembling they cry out, “The Day of Judgment has arrived!” They too are to be judged. And all of humanity, not only us Jews, are to be judged at this time of year. One by one we all pass before God. According to our translation – like sheep to be counted as they enter the fold, or as other translations suggest like soldiers trudging up a narrow mountain pass in single file.
This image is intended to shock us, to scare us straight, as they say, so that we understand what is at stake. But the image is problematic. For those Jews who don’t believe in God and there are plenty who question the concept (the Pew report suggests we Jews have by far the highest number of agnostics than any other faith tradition in the US) it is this image that probably turned them off. Even for those who believe in a transcendent Being, the idea of a vengeful old King sitting on a throne who controls all aspects of life may have been powerful for a pre-scientific, pre-modern, pre-deconstructionist world, but is no longer compelling in the world we inhabit.
How can we make sense of such an image, and more importantly how can such an image impact on our attempt to achieve the goal of self-reflection and self-renewal that this time of year demands?
By seeing the image as an attempt to induce focus on two indispensible lessons – that everything we do, every deed counts and that ultimately we are responsible for our actions.
“Thou recordest everything; yea, Thou rememberest the things forgotten”. Rather than old timey religion, we who live in the age of social media understand more deeply than our ancestors what it means that nothing is forgotten. Ask Twitter users who have lost their jobs because of foolish tweets written years before what it means to say that nothing is forgotten. Rabbi Jack Reimer shares a terribly embarrassing moment in one of his sermons when he did a wedding with the cantor of is congregation. The microphone was not yet switched on and they were making comments during the processional about the outfits the wedding party were wearing. Unfortunately they did not realize the videographer was standing behind them and filming with sound on. The parents of the bride were not exactly pleased when the video was produced and the rabbi and cantor’s comments were picked up. What does it mean to us that everything is recorded and retained? It means everything we do counts. And not just the embarrassing or the inappropriate or the transgressive behaviors but the good stuff too. The acts of kindness that no one else sees. The times where we refrained from acting on impulse that no one could ever know. The exceptional deeds we do that don’t get acknowledged or rewarded. Like this story that was in the news in Maryland: A woman saw a dress in a consignment shop that she knew her granddaughter would love. But money was tight, so she asked the store owner if she could hold it for her. Another customer came forward and asked “May I buy the dress for you?” “Thank you, but I can’t accept such a gracious gift,” the grandmother said. Then she told me why it was so important for her to help me. She’d been homeless for three years and had it not been for the kindness of strangers, she would not have been able to survive. “I’m no longer homeless, and my situation has improved. I promised myself that I would repay the kindness so many had shown me.” The woman paid for the dress, and the only payment she would accept in return was a heartfelt hug.
All of these deeds count. Our Sages inform us that at this time of year the whole world, not just our individual souls, hang in the balance. One additional good deed can tip the universal scales. Everything counts.
The other lesson from the courtroom image of Unataneh Tokef is that ultimately we are responsible for our deeds. V’hotem yad kol adam bo – the record speaks for itself : the seal of every person’s hand is set there. To acknowledge that it is human agency that attests to the truth of the affidavit is incredibly freeing and empowering. For if we must face the consequences for our deeds, we can also alter and correct the record as well. Of course, we are not the exclusive author, events occur that we did not expect. But we get to write the response.
This is the intent of the concluding lines – Repentance, Prayer and Deeds of loving kindness can remove the severity of the decree. Whatever happens to us in the coming year, and the list the Unataneh Tokef offers has some less than pleasant possibilities, our deeds will define our reckoning.
These are the pivotal stories we tell on Rosh HaShanah because these stories embrace the concepts and values that are most essential to us at this time – the opportunity for renewal and growth, the awareness that we are responsible for our deeds and the enigmatic reality of living.
Just as our tradition highlights particular stories over others on this holiday, so too we emphasize and call attention to stories of who we are. What stories in your lives define you? When I was in therapy, my therapist would ask me to share my earliest memories. He would say “don’t search for the memory, tell me what comes immediately to mind because those memories, out of the billions of memories we gather during our life time, are the ones that tell us about ourselves – about our values, our fears, our pride and our anxieties.”
Those memories tell us something about who we are. But as this new year dawns we have the ability to create narratives about whom we aspire to be. What will stand out in the stories we seek to create? Will it be our generosity? Our sensitivity and willingness to help and contribute? Will it be our temper? Our selfishness? Our fierce need to be successful at the expense of human relationships?
If Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is correct, that nothing matters but the story, what story shall we inscribe in our great book of life, this year of 5780?