Kol Nidre Sermon 2018

Kol Nidre Sermon 2018/5779

What’s the point of Yom Kippur? The customs are to afflict ourselves by not eating for the next 24 hours and to spend much of that time here at Temple praying…it seems like a lot of trouble. So what’s the point? Will spending a day fasting and praying actually improve the rest of the year for us, like it’s supposed to? Does Yom Kippur actually help us in our lives?

On Yom Kippur, we are granted atonement for all the times we “missed the mark” over the last year. Our liturgy reminds us of the litany of ways that we could have done better in the previous year, as we proclaim all the ways we wronged ourselves and those around us. Our two Torah portions for Yom Kippur contain 79 divine commands. While that’s only around an eighth of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in Torah, I venture to say that none of us were able to observe even those 79.

I’m sure of this because the last line of Torah that we read on Yom Kippur afternoon contains the mitzvah that is simultaneously the hardest one to keep, and it’s the most beautiful: to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. If you’re sitting here thinking, “I didn’t do anything wrong this past year. I don’t have anything to atone for.” Well, I’m sorry to say that you and I and everyone sitting here failed, none of us were able to love the person sitting next to us as much as we love ourselves.  But that’s why we have Yom Kippur – to acknowledge where we missed the mark and strive to do better in the year ahead. It is through this specific mitzvah that I believe we can significantly improve our lives as well as the world we live in.

The Talmud relates a story that took place around 25 BCE. “There was an incident involving one gentile who came before [Rabbi] Shammai and said to him, “I will convert to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I’m standing on one foot.” Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s measuring stick in his hand. The same gentile came before [Rabbi] Hillel. Hillel converted him and said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Zil G’mor, go forth and learn.”

According to Hillel, to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself is “the entire Torah,” the most important mitzvah, and the rest is commentary. Many people associate this mitzvah with Christianity because Jesus referred to it as “the greatest commandment.” But it didn’t originate with JC, it’s at the very heart of Torah, literally. Leviticus 19:18 reads, “Do not take revenge or bear grudges against other people. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am Adonai.” It’s the middle verse, of the middle chapter, of the 3rdbook out of 5 books of Torah. The Torah places “love your neighbor” at itsheart so that we may take it into ourhearts, the center of our being.

While that’s a nice thought, it’s not intuitive. We have so many barriers to loving others. In some sense, it’s a primal defense mechanism to be wary of those around us. Some feel that love should not be dolled out freely, that others should have to earn it and be worthy of our good feelings. And you can certainly go through life like that, but imagine the possibilities if we could actually live out this mitzvah, if we could love those around us as much as we love ourselves, with no preconditions.

There are so many instances in our day-to-day life when we get provoked into anger, or we just need to get where we’re going so we can’t be bothered with strangers. Think of a time when you were in a rush to get somewhere, and the car in front of you is going 5 miles an hour under the speed limit. Or they don’t move at a green light. Then you realize they’re on their cell phone. Rage sets in. I think driving while holding a phone is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible, and I’m always careful around those drivers. But do we need to get angry at them? They’ve made a poor choice, one that we should all avoid, but how much time should I spend being angry at them? I can’t control their poor driving, but I can avoid their car and I don’t have to spend any time dwelling on it. Even though we all give in to this kind of rage, there is ultimately no benefit to us. Imagine the possibilities if we could love those drivers as much as we love ourselves. We can acknowledge the shortcomings and dangers of other people’s actions, but we don’t have to let it rise to the level of anger and rage.

The Talmud teaches that “One who gets angry is like an idol worshipper.” If we get angry at someone else, it means that we’re forgetting the beauty and wisdom of G-d’s Creation. If we could constantly remember the intrinsic holiness of everything and everyone, there’s no way we could get angry. But it’s hard to maintain that mindset. Thus, in the Jewish tradition, G-d is the only true Judge, and so we don’t have to worry about judging others, G-d takes care of that for us. Throughout the High Holy Day liturgy we acknowledge G-d as humanity’s Judge, and the only true Judge.

Another famous teaching from Rabbi Hillel is “Do not judge your fellow human being until you have reached that person’s place.” And since we can never be in the same exact place and life circumstance as someone else, or to put it colloquially, since we can never fully “stand in someone else’s shoes,” we’re never allowed to judge anyone, according to Rabbi Hillel. Our responsibility, according to Jewish law, is to dan l’chaf zchut, to give others the benefit of the doubt in all cases.

Also, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, taught that “Just as people look into a mirror see their own blemishes, so those who see faults in others (should) know that they share some of the same faults.” He was saying that when we find fault in others, those very same faults are within us, as well. So rather than pointing out the blemishes in someone else, we should instead look inward. Instead of directing our energy toward fixing someone else, we should worry more about ourselves, who we canactually change for the better.

One of the great plagues of society today is our inability to have meaningful, transformative conversations among people we disagree with. I believe this stems from a lack of love for our neighbors, from a judgmental attitude toward beliefs different from our own, and from not giving others “the benefit of the doubt.” We all have beliefs, whether they came from our parents, our religion, the news, or reasoned logic, there’s often good reasons for the way we think the way we think. When we disagree with others, it can feel like there is more at stake than just two people talking.

I’d like to share with you a powerful moment of teshuvahthat I experienced about 4 years ago. When I first moved to Philadelphia in 2009 to start rabbinical school, I had a chance encounter with an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, and he ended up being a mentor for me for the following 7 years.  Over those 7 years, he opened me up to new worlds of learning and provided me with many powerful Jewish experiences.  In all those years, despite being on opposite ends of the Jewish religious spectrum, we only got into two real arguments. The first was about whether or not Reconstructionist Judaism is actually Judaism, and the second was about sexism.

One day, we were studying a 19thcentury rabbinic text about how we all have different capacities for receiving holiness – we’re all unique vessels. When he began to teach a line about how men are guided by reason and the pursuit of wisdom, while women are guided by emotions and prefer gossip over learning, I called him a “sexist.” I completely reject the idea that we can stereotype and make broad generalizations about all men and all women. And to say that women are less good at learning than men defies my experiences throughout my 24 years of formal education.

So my gut reaction was to call this rabbi, my mentor, a “sexist.” He was aghast. Nobody had ever called him that before. He responded, “How dare you call me a sexist!? I’m not a sexist. You just shut the whole conversation down with that one word. You cannot respect or understand what I have to teach you if you think I’m a sexist.” He went on to provide anecdotal evidence as to why this rabbinic text is valid, and ultimately, we agreed to disagree on the issue. I still think that those views are inherently sexist, but I learned a lot from this experience. By calling him a “sexist,” I really did shut him down and end the conversation. I could have disagreed with him, explaining my differing point of view, and we could have had a reasoned discussion about the nature of men and women. But instead, I wrote him off immediately, and neither of us was able to learn from the other.

I refer to this as a powerful teshuvahexperience because I learned and grew from it, committing that if I’m in that situation again, I’ll act differently. I won’t be so quick to judge, and instead, I’ll listen their reasoning. It’s too easy to write people off. Refusing to listen to someone because we presuppose they’re wrong, or stupid, or hateful – that’s the opposite of “loving your neighbor as yourself.”

We’re living in a political moment where our country is split apart, mostly along party lines. So much of what passes for news today is really just partisan bickering. I’m not saying that all news is fake, but I do lament that seemingly every news event on TV is filtered through talking heads from both sides, people who are hired to defend their own party no matter the issue. Our political discussions among one another need not be so venomous. We can be passionate, but we must also see the humanity of the person we’re engaging.

It’s unfortunately all too easy to label and dismiss those we disagree with, just as we see on TV. One side calls the other side “racists,” and the other side calls their opponents “snowflakes” or “out-of-touch elitists.” These ad hominem attacks are a way of sidestepping and dismissing the real issues that we face as a country.

When we label others, we stop seeing them as fully human. We close conversations. We stop learning from one another. The chasm of our country’s divisions deepens.

Also, when we judge others negatively, it automatically makes ourselves feel better about ourselves, giving us a false sense of satisfaction. That’s why it’s better to leave judgments to G-d. We have plenty to work on within ourselves. And if we ever hope to change people’s minds or political beliefs, we’re much better off if we start our conversation from a place of love, seeking to understand, rather than labeling them before they open their mouth.

Real racism and real sexism do exist in America, as do economic inequality and financial hardship for large swaths of the American public. These are real issues that have significant consequences in our society. It’s one thing to get involved in a movement to create change, but holding judgments and anger in our hearts won’t solve anything. And what I’m proposing here tonight is that we don’t have to love everyone in the world, G-d only asks us to love our neighbor, the person who happens to be near us at any given time. Imagine how we and our communities could be transformed if we took into our hearts those 3 words, v’ahavta l’rayacha camocha, to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.

Our country’s plague of polarization has hit the town of Wakefield. Whether you read the Wakefield Daily Item Op-Eds or the Wakefield Community Facebook page, it’s clear that anger and animosity are rampant in our local media – a symptom of our larger, national problem. I’m not here to explore the causes, but I would like to propose a solution. Love your neighbor as yourself. Or as Rabbi Hillel put it, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another.” Hear someone out before you deem their views abhorrent, it’s what you would want for yourself. It’s as simple as that, but it’s easier said than done.

I’ve offered some Jewish insights for why it’s better to love others than to judge others. But truly every major religion has wisdom to offer on this subject. There is no religion that teaches us to hate; instead, all religions preach different ways and reasons to love those around us, and to promote civil conversations. And so, this coming year, the Wakefield Interfaith Clergy Association and the Wakefield Human Rights Commission are partnering to create a series of events aimed at ameliorating Wakefield’s civil discourse. The details are still being worked out, but the current plan is to have a speaker series at the public library to offer religious insights as to why civility and respect for others are crucial to our democracy and coexistence. If we can’t talk to each other, how can we ever work together, learn from one another, let alone ever love one another? As we read from the sages in the Ethics of our Fathers: “Who is wise? The person who learns from all people.”

While I’m no sage, I ask, “who is G-dly? The person who imitates G-d.” Throughout the High Holiday liturgy, we sing of G-d’s 13 attributes of compassion. It is through these holy attributes that we get a better understanding of what the highest forms of mercy and compassion can look like. So as we’re constantly reminding G-d that G-d should be merciful toward us, we can use those same words as a roadmap for ourselves. G-d, or “me”, Compassionate and Gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and Who has the power to Cleanse.” Even if we can’t be as compassionate as G-d, we can start learning G-d’s ways through our liturgy. The heart of Torah, to love the person near us as much as we love ourselves, is not easy to attain, but it’s worth the effort. And if you try it, you’ll experience the wholesome beauty of Jewish wisdom.