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.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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