Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
When God began to create the world, all of the angels began to argue with one another. The angel of hesed (loving-kindness) said, “Holy One! You should create humankind, as they are filled with loving-kindness!” The angel of Truth said, “O Holy One! Do not create humankind, as they are filled with lies!” What did God do? God lifted up the angel of Truth and threw it down to the Earth. As it is written, “And Truth was hurled to the ground.” (Daniel 8:12) The angels immediately began shouting, “Holy One! What have you done? You have thrown your Holy Seal of Truth to the ground!” And the Holy One replied, “Truth springs up from the Earth” (Psalms 85:12). While the angels were arguing with each other the Holy One created the first human being. G-d then asked the angels, “why are you arguing? Adam has already been made!” (Bereishit Rabbah 8:5)
This parable brings forth the teaching that Truth does not dwell on high. When G-d threw Truth to the ground, Truth entered the realm of humanity. It could not remain a heavenly ideal. The story acknowledges that human beings are filled with lies which is why G-d responds by throwing Truth to the earth. God does this so that Truth can be accessible to humanity. Even more, Truth must be found within humanity. At the end of this story G-d says,” Truth springs up from the earth,” because Truth is irrepressible. Ultimately, Truth will emerge.
These days we cannot look at the news without hearing about investigations. The hunt for Truth is taking up much of the national dialogue. Every day there are new revelations. Information that was hidden is emerging at a rapid pace from multiple sources. It can be dizzying.
We live in the age of information, with access to so many stories all day, every day. Do you remember when there were just three news networks, each telling essentially the same story but through different faces? Today we have access to the stories not only of those who wield power, but also those whose lives have been marginalized in our society and throughout the world. We possess both the gift and the challenge of living in a world of multiple narratives, multiple truths.
In one day I might hear all of the following : the story of an unarmed black man gunned down in a suburban neighborhood, of violence against the police trying keep the peace, of the life a child living in Gaza and the life of an Israeli child living on the green line, of a gun owner in Vermont who cherishes his historic rights and a parent whose child was killed in a school shooting, and who is fighting for gun control legislation.
It is easy to take a side. We want to have good guys and bad guys. We like Westerns where the white hat and the black hat were predictable markers of a world we could understand. We want good and bad to be easily discernible. But unfortunately, the truth we are seeking is not a fixed, heavenly ideal. It has been cast to the ground and shattered into many pieces.
Our tradition wisely and repeatedly teaches that Truth is not monolithic. Every aspect of our tradition is rooted in the notion of multiple truths. Every page of Talmud- our legal and ethical texts contain multiple voices and divergent opinions spanning more than two thousand years.
In one famous story recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Abba said in the name of Sh’muel, that for three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued over a case. One side said, 'The law follows our opinion,' and the other said, 'No! The law follows ours! ' Finally a heavenly voice came forth and stated: " Both these AND those are the words of the living God, and the law follows the House of Hillel."
Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Hayim- both these AND those are the words of the living G-d. Both points of view, even conflicting and opposing opinions can contain truth. The Talmud then goes on to ask the following question: Since the heavenly voice declared: "Both these and those are the words of the Living God," why was the law established to follow only the opinion of Hillel? The answer given is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. And not only for this reason were Hillel’s students’ opinions favored; they went so far as to teach Shammai's opinions first! They treated their adversaries with respect. In the final analysis, where multiple truths are at odds, Jewish law is established based upon the values of kindness and respect. In our wisdom tradition the concept of truth is modified by the concept of kindness. Truth alone is not the standard by which Jewish law establishes norms of behavior. We are charged many times in the Torah and in our Bible to base our actions upon hesed v’emet- kindness AND truth.
Our world contains fragments of multiple truths. Our times demand that we somehow manage to hold conflicting truths within one human story; one story in which suffering is perhaps the great equalizer and compassion, the great remedy. In our desire and search for peace, we must understand that suffering need not be a competition. In fact, it is through the recognition of shared suffering that peace becomes possible.
Today we sit in the synagogue and are asked by tradition to confront the many truths that reside within. Each of us carry multiple narratives which can be contradictory. I think we can all admit that none of us are 100% consistent. As we move through our prayers and confessions today, let us open up, gently to the many truths that reside within. Without judgment let us simply notice the space between who we have been and who we aspire to be. On this holy day we are given many tools through which to view our inconsistencies and inadequacies. We are offered the possibility for self-forgiveness and thereby a pathway to forgive others. As lovely as that sounds, each of us will face resistance in many forms.
Like the Western films, we want to see ourselves as the good guy and those who have offended us, as the bad guy. We want our truth to be the real truth- the only truth. But Truth, as we have seen is often complex and elusive.
On Yom Kippur we are asked to lift the veils that protect the ego. We are afforded the opportunity to dive deeply into the truth of our lives, and to do so with kindness, and the support of the whole community around us. We are not alone in this task.
In our tradition, the word Emet- Truth is considered one of the names of G-d. The search for Truth, both within and without is therefore a holy task, a necessary task.
May we strive to bring more kedushah/holiness into our lives and thereby into the world. To do so, demands that we seek out the truth; that we expand our frame of reference; that we not be satisfied with simple answers that paint complex problems in black and white terms. To raise the sparks of Truth up from the earth, we must continue to ask questions, remain supple in our thinking, consider that multiple voices can reveal more of the truth. And when confronted with conflicting truths may we follow the House of Hillel and let the voice of Kindness be heard.
We all desire a peaceful world. Let us begin today.
Tonight we stand on a threshold. We have opened a door into a world that reaches back thousands of years and at the same time, opens into worlds of possibility for our collective future. At the center, on the threshold, in this moment, rests each individual heart.
Time becomes a circle as we stand with our ancestors, breathing in the same melodies and chanting the same words that like an ark, have carried our people through time and place.
For many of us the words and sounds carry only the power of nostalgia. For many of us, the concept of G-d has lost meaning. With this loss the notion of prayer has become at best, challenging and to many, simply irrelevant. Tonight I wonder: can prayer become a useful tool for our times? How might these hours spent in the synagogue become valuable, become more than just an exercise in nostalgia? And if G-d is a living concept for you, how might we revitalize the act of prayer?
Prayer, no matter its form, is designed to be an act of reconnection. Whether it arouses a reconnection with G-d, with the cosmos, with some essential truth, with the core of one’s being or with one’s highest Self, it is an act of self-expansion.
When the great Temples once stood in Jerusalem, animal sacrifice was the primary means for connecting with Spirit. In Hebrew the word sacrifice is korban and comes from the root karov which means “to come close.” The offering of a burnt sacrifice, whether flesh or grain, took something physical and transmuted it into something ethereal, which ascended. The sacrifice was described as a stand-in for the person himself . As the smoke would rise a transformation took place in the offering. Through the act of sacrifice, it was understood that both the offerer and the cosmos were transformed. After the destruction of the Temple, prayer became the primary tool used to reconnect with G-d and affect transformation. Words from the heart would serve as offerings, and when spoken with intention, could produce personal and collective transformation.
In our days, we are experiencing a profound sense of disconnection. We have, as a society become profoundly disconnected from the earth and her needs. We have become disconnected from physical contact with one another as cyber-space has become the new marketplace and town square. We live in a world that commodifies our relationships, our basic human needs, even our emotions. Hatred is on the rise in the form of xenophobia, racism and anti-semitism.
There is a palpable need for love, justice, and the value of interdependence to have a voice. And we do see these voices expressed through frequent and sizable marches, protests and new civil engagement. And this is good!
But here we sit tonight, in the synagogue, and we look to our tradition for guidance. What does our tradition have to offer for this moment and how might prayer be efficacious?
When the 2nd Temple was destroyed, 2000 years ago, our Rabbis turned their gaze inward in order to understand the cause and create repair . They concluded that the primary cause for this catastrophe was the baseless hatred that had festered within the community itself. They saw hatred as the root cause for the destruction of their world. And they saw the means to repair the fabric of their society through the establishment of ethical teachings that prioritized ‘respect’ and the preservation of human dignity as cardinal values. They looked inward and then took action.
On Yom Kippur we are given this opportunity to do the inner work of self-reflection. Our most basic task is to take personal responsibility for the way we think about and interact with one another. Do we jump to anger too quickly and then become attached to our judgments? We all know that anger and hatred are contagious and can all too easily expand into a destructive wildfire.
In response to the destruction of the Temple and what the Rabbis perceived to be G-d’s anger, the Talmud tells the following story about anger and about the efficacy of prayer. The story begins with a discussion about the paradoxical idea that G-d, like us, also prays.
Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Yosi: How do we know that the Holy One prays? It comes from a verse in the Bible that says: And I will bring them to my holy mountain and make them rejoice in the house of my prayer. The verse does not say in the house of their prayer, but rather my prayer/tefilati. From this verse the Rabbis conclude that God is referring to his own prayer.
( So naturally the next question follows) And what does G-d pray? Rav Zutra bar Tovyah quoted Rav: Here is God’s prayer: May it be My own will that my compassion subdue my anger and that my compassion prevail over my other dispositions; and that I conduct myself with My children according to the attribute of compassion and that I deal with them beyond the measure of justice.
(And now the Talmud records a story: ) Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, said: Once, I entered--before and within— (note this language; we will return to these words) to offer the incense in the Holy of Holies and I saw Akatriel Yah, the Lord of Hosts, sitting on his throne, high and exalted and He said to me: Yishmael, my son, bless me/ barecheyni. I said to Him: May it be your will that your compassion subdue your anger and that your compassion prevail over your other dispositions; and that you conduct yourself with your children according to the attribute of compassion and deal with them beyond the measure of justice. He nodded His head to me.
We learn from this that one should not take lightly the blessing/ beracha of an ordinary person. (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 7a)
In this amazing story we see, at the surface level, that G-d needs the support of a very particular kind of prayer. A prayer that supports G-d’s inclination toward the side of compassion rather than anger: to stand in another’s shoes, to still G-d’s reactive Self, and take the high road. ( so to speak)
This is a wild text. And the Rabbinic imagination is famous for its creativity. We can analyze this story from many perspectives. I once taught this text and a woman responded, initially, that it made her feel dizzy and queasy. I hope that is not the case for anyone here. I am bringing this text to illustrate a deeper idea about prayer.
To begin, we know that the story takes place on Yom Kippur because that is the only time that the High Priest would enter the inner sanctum with incense. We know that his task is to confess his sins and the sins of the people and bring about expiation- forgiveness for everyone. He enters the Holy of Holies. In this most intimate of spaces, alone with himself and the Divine Presence, the High Priest must confront the truth of his own life, and the life of the community.
Now let us take a closer look at these two words mentioned previously in the Talmudic story- “Before and Within”. The High Priest enters “Before and Within” in order to confess the sins of his household and his community.
The word ‘before’ begs the question: before whom? All we know is that at this moment the High Priest has come into a relationship. I am suggesting that the High Priest comes into relationship with the Truth of his life and of his community. The High Priest confronts Truth.
And then the text says, he enters within. It is reasonable to ask- within what? I would suggest that he enters a space within himself in order to confront the truth. So we might understand the moment as follows: The High Priest enters into a relationship with the Truth that resides within him. It is from that place, that he is able to offer a prayer that the quality of compassion should overcome the quality of anger.
Throughout this Yom Kippur we will sing the 13 attributes that define G-d’s qualities; those of patience, compassion, kindness and forbearance. Adonai Adonai EL Rachum V’chanun… It is taught that we are reminding G-d of these qualities so that we might achieve Divine forgiveness. When we chant these words I encourage you to go, as the High Priest did, Before and Within. To use these and all the other words of prayer throughout the day to come closer to your Truth, to remind yourself of your capacities for compassion and patience.
In Hebrew the word for pray is L’hitpallel. This is a reflexive verb, meaning that it is something done to oneself, like getting dressed or washed. L’hitpallel therefore, means getting prayed. What could this possibly mean- getting prayed? We generally think of prayer as a communication between oneself and the Divine. But Prayer may be , more importantly, an internal dialogue, a tool for transforming the Self. This is the meaning of getting prayed.
Now, let us imagine how much more that potential is amplified when we lend our voices to one another. There is power in community when we join together to express our highest ideals. As we sing and pray together during these many hours, may we build an ark that lifts and supports one another. May we connect and reconnect with our True Selves, with our families, with our neighbors and our community so that we might serve the highest good.
And May we all experience the blessing of a sweet new year.
This Rosh Hashanah each of us enters this room from different worlds of experience and with different needs. Some of us are full of gratitude and joy, some have recovered from illness or escaped misfortune and we rejoice with you. Some of our hearts ache with sorrow and grief; for some, our loved one’s lie in bed, ill or ailing, and for many of us, death has taken those whom we have cherished. May our presence together in community and in prayer bring some comfort.
Some of us arrive with hearts embittered; having searched for answers in vain, having felt betrayed by teachers, by our leaders and by religion too. For some, life has lost meaning and value. May the knowledge that we are All seeking, that we have come together today and through these many sacred days to come to enter into a journey of reconnection, that hopefully opens our eyes and our hearts to new possibilities; may this awareness help to restore the hope, that there is indeed something to find.
Let us take a moment for all of us to acknowledge this community with whom we gather- some who are present each week, some who return for these annual services, some who are here for the first time. Let us take a moment to greet those sitting nearby who you may not know. To introduce ourselves and give welcome to each unique individual that sits with us today.
Did you know that RH has many other names? One of them is Yom Hazikaron- A Day of Remembrance. This year, like every Rosh Hashanah past, we are called to remember: to re- member-that is to put back together that which has been become broken. We usually think of this in terms of relationships. Today I want to reframe that imperative, so that we might attempt to put back together the way we see, the way we view the story of this year. Like Hagar whose eyes were opened to seeing in a new way, we too carry that potential.
There is no doubt that we are living through extreme and trying times. Uncertainty and instability have oddly become our most reliable conditions. So many of our societal structures and the systems that we have relied upon, are breaking down. Every day the news brings another “unprecedented” story. The fabric of communication that should bring people together, continues to divide us. Our communities, our friends and even our families have become increasingly polarized. On a larger scale we see that Nationalism is on the rise, which is never good for the Jews, and to top it all off, we are facing ever more extreme environmental threats each season.
In the face of such uncertainty, I ask myself, how do I/we manage to maintain inner balance and move forward each day with a positive contribution?
In considering this, I had to acknowledge that this is certainly not the first time we Jews have faced this kind of question. So, perhaps, there is some wisdom our tradition may be able to offer.
We might learn from Hagar’s story which we read earlier today. Rather than turn away and seal ourselves off , let us try to open our eyes even wider. Amid the stories of pending disaster are also the stories of hope, ingenuity, kindness and human spirit at its best. We simply don’t see or hear these stories as frequently, if at all.
I recently learned about a man named Nasir Sobhani, also known as the ‘Street’s Barber’.
He gives haircuts to homeless people. He walks through the streets and offers grooming to the poorest among us. I watched a short video about him and saw him truly transform people. It was not simply a physical change, he rekindled their spirit. He describes his experience this way: People walk by them like they’re nothing. Sometimes they feel like they don’t even exists. But it’s a good feeling when you can make someone feel like a human. I’ll do what I can to make someone feel clean. I am hoping with a clean cut, I can spark a clean start in someone ‘s life. If its not just a haircut, I’ll do a face shave. If its not just a face shave, I’ll do a full treatment, dry shampoo, put essential oils in their hair. It’s a beautiful experience, to connect with someone on the streets while grooming them, making them feel good. I don’t think anyone can really understand the feelings I get when I’m on the streets. And what we are destined to do as human beings, is to find our talents, and through our talents, use that to benefit mankind . I don’t wake up every day with birds singing in my window or money in my pocket, but I do what I love and I love and I do. Its simple.”
There are countless stories of people contributing in unique and beautiful ways, supporting one another and the earth herself. Our task is to open our eyes. To be on the lookout for goodness.
And not only that- when you see it or hear it, share it! Because that is how we lift each other up. The Me’or Einayim teachs that when we share good news, we are invoking an aspect of Elijah the Prophet. Elijah, we are told will herald the Messiah. So when we share good news, we are already engaging in the work of redemption by magnifying the goodness in our world.
Today we will sing a familiar song that repeats the words Hayom many times. Hayom means Today. It is a call out to the Universe that says: Hayom! Today! Bless us!
Hayom Today! Answer our prayers.
Hayom! Today- Lift us up.
The key to the prayer is the word Hayom- Today. It calls to us- be Present to this very moment! Today is what we have- Today is really all we have. Today- let us open our eyes.
Hagar’s story beckons us to look closely for the wells of living water that already exist, and are usually closer than we imagine. Hagar’s story tells us to open our eyes to the blessings that exist in the present moment. This is tool #1.
Judaism offers a beautiful and simple practice to anchor our vision and frame each day. When we awaken in the morning we recite a prayer called Modeh Ani which expresses our gratitude for this new day, for another chance to live our best self. It is a morning mantra that focuses the mind and heart on gratitude for life. But that is not all. The prayer concludes with the words- rabba emunatekha- which means “ how great is your faith in me.” The prayer reminds us, not of our faith in G-d, but of G-d’s faith in us! How radical an idea!
I give thanks to the greater wisdom of the universe for putting me here, for having faith in me. Which tells me- that today- each day is a gift. And if the great and awesome source of life has faith in me, then, I too must have faith in myself and in the unfolding of the human story before me.
Emunah/Faith is tool #2
What is faith? Faith from a Jewish perspective is an attitude backed up by action. It is the persistence of the belief in goodness in the face of evil. In Hebrew the word for faith is emunah. It comes from the same root as the word Amein. Amein or Amen is an affirmation. Emunah is an affirmation of a reality much greater and more awesome than our own personal stories. Emunah expands the frame of reference from the local to the cosmic.
For many of us- the word faith may cause an allergic reaction!
But I am asking you to expand your frame of reference. Faith is a belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity and the goodness of life. This kind of faith provides the engine to continue to engage in self-refinement and repairing the world with acts of kindness and beauty.
A friend and Rabbinic colleague recently told me of his childhood Rabbi-
Arthur Lelyveld, who wrote in his book "The Steadfast Stream," that the definition of faith for Jews is not necessarily a doctrinal belief; rather emunah for Jews means "persistence." That was the "emunah" of the prophets -- to keep on speaking, keep on working, despite the obstacles and uncertainty.
This audacious persistence is what has given strength to the Jewish people throughout our many trials. It should not be overlooked as a tool for our times. And so I ask you to consider right now, what do you have faith in?
Think about this for a moment.
Perhaps some have faith in the transformative power of love, perhaps some of us have faith in the goodness of the human spirit. Perhaps for some of us, nothing comes to mind. And if so, I would say- you are not alone. But , then I would ask you to consider, What do you wish you could have faith in?
During this High Holiday season we have a practice to recite Psalm 27 or part of it during each one of our services. The psalm concludes with these words.
Lulei He’emanti lirot b’tuv Hashem, B’eretz chayim.
Kaveh el Adonai Hazak v’ameitz libekha v’kavei el Hashem…
The transation: If only, I could believe in the goodness of G-d- in the land of the living, nevertheless, put your hope in the Eternal, be strong in your heart, and trust.
This first words- Lulei he’emanti- If only I could believe, indicates that even the psalmist had doubts. Rashi specifically comments on this word, saying in effect, that we don’t really know if our actions will have any ultimate effect, nevertheless, the psalmist continues by saying, “hope with all your heart” and continue to do good.
Even if we cannot find in ourselves that ultimate sense of faith, let us at least hope for it with all our hearts- and continue to do good. For that itself is a powerful force.
In extreme and uncertain times, we need an anchor. Today, I offer us 2 tools to center and anchor ourselves. Each involves vision- what we see and how we see it. Let us open our eyes and Stay Present to the blessings that surround us every moment.
And then let us expand our vision to cultivate emunah- an ongoing persistent faith in the goodness of life and humanity.
As we do so, may our actions be aligned with our vision.
Let our actions represent the best of who we can be.
I came upon this Native American Pueblo prayer, that I offer as a closing blessing on this teaching:
Hold on to what is good,
Even if it's a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe,
Even if it's a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do,
Even if it's a long way from here.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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