Rabbi Richard Hirsh
Executive Director, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association
Observations for Rosh HaShana Day 1 5762
The rush and the crush of events in the past week make it difficult to discuss generic topics of religion and repentance despite that being the focus of these opening days of the New Year. But as we gather as Jews we naturally turn to Jewish frames of reference for reflection. What follows this morning is a series of observations rather than an organic sermon -- fragments of response to help us frame some of the issues that now confront us. It is not a particularly positive series of reflections, but then the events to which they respond are not easily vanquished by false hope or simple well-meaning affirmations.
1. Weddings and Funerals
There is a problem posed in the Talmud that runs as follows: a wedding procession and a funeral procession arrive at the same intersection at the same moment. One has to yield to the other. Who gets to go first? According to the majority opinion, the funeral procession yields to the wedding.
In times past, we were fond of quoting this story as one more anecdote that proves how Judaism is a life-affirming tradition; how we are implored, as it says in last week’s Torah portion, to “choose life.”
After the events of the past week, with losses on a scale that is barely imaginable, one wonders at the applicability of this Talmudic wisdom. At some point, doesn’t the wedding have to yield before the funeral?
It is curious that notwithstanding our sadness and anger and frustration and fear that we find our way here. Surely for Reconstructionists, we are not in search of easy theological answers that will somehow resolve the very real questions that we bring to this moment. We are, if anything, realists: we cannot invoke this as an act of God’s will, nor can we assuage our grief with easy assurances that heaven awaits those whose lives have ended. If Judaism is in fact the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people, then all the alleged answers to ultimate questions are better understood as human responses instead of divine revelation. And as human responses, they are as good or as bad as the people who crafted them. And we find them more or less plausible depending on who we are.
Still, the story of the two processions at the one intersection seems valuable. It suggests that a true community is one that needs to absorb sorrow as much as it needs to celebrate joy, and that a community must find a way to accommodate both so that neither invalidates the other. After all, once the wedding procession passes by, those accompanying the dead still have a funeral to attend to.
2. Anger & Vengeance
The first and the second generation Reconstructionist prayerbooks -- including our red Shabbat VeHagim siddur and our new Haggadah, “A Night of Questions,” were careful to avoid -- some of us say evade -- invoking images of God as a warrior, of God as a vanquishing power, of God as a force that could assert justice by destroying evil. “Adonai Ish Mil-cha-ma,” “Adonai, like a man of war” is not an image contemporary Jews embrace. Our new Haggadah stubbornly resists restoring the text excised by Mordecai Kaplan in 1941, “sh-foch ha-mat-cha al ha-goyyim asher lo ya-du-cha,” “O God pour out your wrath on the nations that defy you.”
Rabbi Alan Miller, the emeritus rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in New York, used to tell the following story: it was the Shabbat after the 1967 Six Day War.The congregation spontaneously decided to recite the Hallel psalms. And the key verse they needed -- “They surrounded me like a swarm of bees, in the name of God I cut them down” -- was nowhere to be found. Kaplan had excised it as being too aggressive, perhaps impolite.
Is it always inappropriate to retain texts and liturgy that speak in a strongly negative voice? Is there not a place for such texts in our controlled environment of controlled services carried out by responsible Jews, who can safely be trusted not to burst into the street and assault “hagoyyim asher lo yaducha, the nations that defy you?” Don’t we sometimes need to quote the anger and the anguish of our ancestors simply to validate our own?
I confess that there are times when I miss the old texts, those that give voice to justice rather than mercy, those that speak of judgment rather than accommodation, those that invoke Godliness on the side of good when the battle with evil has been joined.
My colleague Rabbi David Teutsch argues that those ancient texts of anger are texts written and recited by a powerless people. Subjected to subordination by the non-Jewish world around them, angry at their God who implicitly was the source of their punishment but against whom they could not raise their voice, powerless Diaspora Jews for centuries retreated into liturgical imprecations as one of the few legitimate channels for expressing their rage at their social and political circumstances.
In our time, when the Jewish people have returned to political and military and national power in the State of Israel after a 2000 year hiatus, David argues, we must be extremely cautious about retaining, even as mythic ancient poetry, prayers and texts that invite the abuse of power. One only has to recall Baruch Goldstein’s assault on Muslims at worship in Hebron during Purim some years ago to be sensitized to the inherent danger of retaining angry texts.
Nonetheless, when standing in the shadow of evil such as we have witnessed this week, one wonders where to take the feelings of anger and the understandable desire for justice and retribution -- which I would differentiate from revenge. In the States, so much of the language of the clergy that comes through the media is of forgiveness -which seems to imply that there is no act so awful that it can’t be forgiven, a banality that hardly deserves discussion. And alongside forgiveness we are bombarded with platitudes about peace, as if somehow what this week has been about is about peace.
So against the arguments of my friend David Teutsch, I remain in awe of the wisdom of the ancient authorities who put together the traditional Haggadah. They had the insight to allow us to articulate our anger at the injustices visited upon us -- “shfoch hamatcha al hagoyyim asher lo yaducha, pour out your wrath on the nations that defy you” -- but placed those words in the context of opening the door for Elijah and anticipating the Messianic era, a time when the need for God’s vengeance would be replaced by the vision of God’s universal presence. Saying it, in other words, doesn’t have to mean doing it. But not saying it may suggest that we are not entitled to feel it. And we are.
3. Sin and Sinners
There is a sweet Talmudic story (I in fact included it in the Darchei Noam High Holiday supplement of 1981) that goes like this: Rabbi Meir lived in a tough neighborhood. He was frequently harassed, often mugged, and generally had his life made by miserable by miscreants. So he prayed for their demise. His wife Bruriah, overhearing Meir’s prayers, admonished him thus: “Don’t pray for sinners to cease, pray instead for sins to cease.” In other words, pray for their teshuvah, not their deaths.
In the past week, so often people have been seeking ways to understand and explain in rational terms what could possibly drive people to acts of evil such as those visited on thousands of innocent people. For Jews, the pain of hearing the inevitable suggestions that if America would only abandon its support of Israel, then the rest of the world, specifically the Muslim world, would then abandon its hatred of America, is only matched by incredulity at the inanity of the argument. Could one have talked Hitler out of his hatred of Jews? Would we have somehow been safer if we had only understood the forces that combined to make a Hitler into a Hitler?
The contemporary Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein has observed that one of the mistakes made by the modern Jews of Europe was their failure to recognize that with the rise of Naziism, the rules had changed. Earlier, Jews managed to navigate and negotiate their way through adversity; their enemies did not like them, but neither were they above bribery and other accommodations. The Jews, after all, often played an important buffer role between the ruling powers and the general population. They may have been a nuisance but they served some function. So when the Nazis came to power, European Jews misread them as but the latest in a line of powers to be endured and perhaps appeased. By the time the Jews realized the rules had changed, argues Rubenstein, it was too late.
We perhaps need to think about this same question. Have the rules changed? And if so, how do we respond? One wonders what Rabbi Meir and Bruriah would have had to say about those who conspired to create last week’s terror. Is there a point at which reason fails, and the only recourse is to pray, and even to act, for the death of sinners in order to save the innocent from more terror?
4. Avenging Angels
On the night of the tenth plague on Egypt, the Torah suggests that God let loose an avenging angel, the “Mashchit,” “The Destroyer.” Having let loose this overwhelming power, God, as it were, now has to position Godself in the Israelite doorways to deflect the Destroyer.
The rabbis were puzzled by this. Why, they ask, couldn’t God simply program the Destroyer to hit the Egyptian homes and avoid those of the Israelites? Their answer: once the Destroyer is let loose, it cannot differentiate between the guilty and the innocent.
In the justifiable and understandable need to collect a coalition against terrorism, and to bring the battle that has been launched against us to the enemy, the wisdom of this rabbinic insight remains valuable. We Jews are justifiably proud of the evolution in Judaism from the biblical “eye for an eye” to the rabbinic alternative of adjudicated verdicts of compensation for loss. This evolution marks the moral march from vengeance to justice.
Whatever military, political and diplomatic responses may emerge in the fight against terror, it is prudent to remember that the Destroyer, once let loose, cannot differentiate between the guilty and the innocent.
5. “Only Human, The Eternal Alibi”
Rabbi Milton Steinberg was a disciple of Mordecai Kaplan and a contemporary of Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, zichrono livracha. He once gave a brilliant sermon entitled “Only Human, The Eternal Alibi.” He describes a father slapping his young son, who then explains by saying “He made me angry; I’m only human, what else could I do?” He next describes a man who runs into a burning building to save trapped people-- an image so powerfully familiar to us from this past week. When asked how he could risk his life thus, he says “I’m only human, what else could I do?”
What is human nature? Christianity would have us believe we are fundamentally sinful, that we are born in original sin, and that God’s grace alone can save us. Modernity has often seemed to suggest we are fundamentally good, born in innocence and destined to be humane. if only the correct educational processes are applied. Judaism suggests that we are born free to choose the good but are often unwilling to do so.
Often Jews mistakenly dismiss the reality of sin, substituting the gentler but weaker image of ‘missing the mark.’ Reducing sin to the status of an almost inadvertent error hardly seems tenable in the light of our awareness of the horrors of which humans, individually as well as collectively, have proved capable.
There is a dark side to human nature, an impulse to evil which distorts and corrupts our best intentions. Rabbinic tradition teaches that each of us has a good as well as an evil inclination, the Yetzer HaTov and The Yetzer HaRa. Sin is not only what we do, or do not do; it is also a question of who we are.
We look to acts of generosity and caring as evidence of our humanity. And certainly in the past week there are, thank God, many stories of rescue and resolve, of people placing themselves in harm’s way for the sake of helping others. We turn to such stories not only for solace but also for strength. We want evidence that in the face of inhumanity there yet remains humanity -- or as it says in the Mishnah, “in a place where people descend to depravity, determine to be decent.”
Steinberg’s sermon always reminds me of that wonderful scene in the movie “The African Queen.” Humphrey Bogart, as Charlie Allnut, indulges in a night of drunkenness. Katherine Hepburn’s character, Rosie, responds by throwing the remaining liquor overboard. Bogarts complains; “it’s just nature, Miss.” And Hepburn replies with an icy assurance: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put here to rise above.” Indeed.
It was inevitable that we would hear many people speak of their escape from death as a miracle. Equally inevitable was the number of reports of people thanking God for sparing them: they missed the planes that were hijacked, they stopped for an extra cup of coffee before going to work in the World Trade Center, their train or subway was late getting them to the office.
I do not begrudge anyone the gratitude that comes with realizing how close one came to losing one’s life, or being exposed to serious danger. I do not deny anyone the right to feel as if they have been the personal recipient of God’s benevolence.
But many years ago, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein taught me that there is a profound difference between being “grateful for” and being “grateful to.” The human impulse in the wake of deliverance is to express gratitude. Having been raised, at least in the West, to believe that God’s hand lies behind history, it is natural to express that gratitude as gratitude “to” someone, specifically, presumably, to God.
A bit of reflection, however, makes it apparent that such gratitude carries within it a theological problem of no small significance. Because while God was presumably busy saving some people, other people were not so lucky. I would never ask a survivor of a tragedy who is thanking God why she or he thinks that others were not so lucky. I don’t believe people intend to be cruel or unkind when expressing gratitude.
But Reconstructionists must approach the issue differently. We are more self-consciously grateful “for” than “grateful to,” but we share with others that appreciation for the gift of life. Life is no less precious for it being the luck of the draw than for it being the will of God.
I would like to think we Reconstructionists thereby have an advantage. Seeing God as a power or force working in and through us, but not as a personality acting upon us, we are not backed into those awkward theological problems that go by the technical term “theodicy.” In simple terms, “theodicy” means trying to explain how a good God can allow such bad things to happen. Asking how God as a power or force can “allow” things to happen is thus like asking how, for example, “gravity” allows things to happen. It is sort of a non-question.
But we Reconstructionists also pay a price for our theological comfort. We have to acknowledge that the world is more or less random; that what happens may have an explanation -- for example, that bridge fell down because of faulty engineering -- but often doesn’t have a “Reason” -- as in “How could God let that bridge fall down?” There is no cosmic explanation why one person misses a plane that another person manages to get on. It is just what happens to happen.
Can we bear the implications of being this honest about what we intuit in moments such as this past week? Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his popular book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” says: there are really only two kinds of people: those for whom any answer is better than no answer; and those for whom a bad answer is worse than no answer.
Reconstructionists by and large fall into that second category. We take little comfort in the well-intentioned but often damaging explanations of God’s ways with God’s world. We seek comfort not in explanation but in meaning: in the audacious human attempt to impose structure, narrative, poetry, art, esthetics, language and values on naked human experience. In short, we celebrate the human ability to create culture, to make, as Claude Levi-Strauss put it, the “cooked” out of the “raw.”
That is why the most powerful prayer of the High Holidays is Unetaneh Tokef -- “who will live and who will die.” That prayer tells us that we simply have no idea, and no control, over what the future will bring. But nonetheless, while we ultimately cannot control for the potential randomness of reality, we can impose on reality, a model for how to live. “Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedaka maavirin et roa hagezerah.” “Repentance, prayer and just actions diminish the randomness of reality.” The awareness that we impose meaning on reality does not diminish the value of the meaning that we create. If anything it may make it more precious.
7. “Sound The Shofar On The New Moon”
When does Rosh HaShana begin? Is it determined on high or down below?
Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Hilkiah taught in the name of Rabbi Shimon: When all the ministering angels gather before the Holy One and say “Master of the Universe, what day is Rosh HaShana?” God replies “Why are you asking Me? Let us ask the court on earth.”
Rabbi Hoshia taught: when an earthly court decrees “Today is Rosh HaShana” God tells the ministering angels, “Set up the judicial bench. Summon the advocates for prosecution and defense. My children have decreed that today is Rosh HaShana.” How do we know this? It says in Psalm 81, quoted before the Amidah of the Rosh HaShana evening service, “Sound the shofar on our new moon; It is a decree of Israel; an ordinance of the God of Jacob.” From this Talmudic legend, one would almost deduce that we, not God, have the final say about when Rosh HaShana begins.
Fortunately, in addition to the decree of the earthly court, we have the determination of the calendar and the rising of the moon to tell us that, ready or not, this is indeed Rosh HaShana. We don’t get to pick our place in time or space; we can only respond from where we are. Emotionally as well as cognitively, it takes some extra effort this Rosh HaShana to bring ourselves together, to bring us into focus, to bring us to teshuvah in light of the events of the past week. Were it up to us, the earthly court only, my guess is we would have decided to wait a week or two for the New Year to start.
But what else can we do? We have arrived at the same intersection: life and death pause before each other, and one of us has to proceed. May we go forward with courage and compassion, walking close beside one another, as we begin the journey of a new year on uncharted roads.