Kol Nidre 5783: Hatanu L’fanekha – What Reflects Back

I. What is Evil?

On Rosh HaShanah I offered you a drasha on the idea of community, and how mitzvot are the links that create meaningful Jewish community.

Of course! I want to talk about community – after not being together in the fullness of our Kehillah Kedoshah since March of 2020 (and for me even longer, since Hanukkah of 2019) we are all newly appreciative of meaningful. community, and being able simply to be with other people.

We still have to be careful, of course. But having a vaccine, having masks, having a way to overcome what has separated us is a great joy. 

 Yet it is true, we are discovering, that after two plus years of isolation and distance our lives are not “going back to normal.” No: our lives are forever changed, and not only by the pandemic.

On Rosh HaShanah I suggested that the promise – and challenge – of  meaningful community is that in some way we, as a community, act as a mirror for each one of us. As each one of us is a reflection of the holy to each other, so all of us together are a multi-faceted, super-charged reflection back at each one of us.

I know that I have a “good side” for photographs. But when I am open to the communication of community in all its various facets and prisms of vision, all my sides are reflecting back at me. And that’s not always easy to see.

What happens when so much of what reflects back at each one of us is, well,  awful? The larger communities in which we exist reflect much to make us sad:

  • Corporate greed
  • Gig economy and destruction of the middle class
  • Climate collapse
  • Rising fascism
  • Violence of the state against its residents
  • Pandemics 
  • Emotional delay and suffering of our children
  • Persecution of minority groups – trans, of color, Jews…

From those who believed that Progress was a promising one-way street, to those who are tired of being left out of the Promises that are made, many of us are asking: What is going on here? What’s gone so wrong?

On this Yom Kippur I want to ask you to consider with me a question: what if our “theory” of what’s wrong is what’s wrong? Think about it: part of the Christian heritage of Western civilization is to view what is wrong as immoral. In the Church’s teachings, our lives are depicted as an eternal battle between right and wrong, between the moral and the immoral, between good and evil.

This approach would seem on some level to be, at the very least, very useful: everything can be assigned to one side or the other of the great scale of life. But then you get into some perverse thinking, in which natural disasters, since they aren’t good, must be evil….the pandemic, for example. But all the variants of COVID-19 are not some group of thugs; not a band of white supremacists, or fascists, or even the Supreme Court. 

Yet some people honestly do see pandemics, and earthquakes, and hurricanes, as evil which must be “deserved”, and so go about assigning moral blame for a natural phenomenon. Then one gets into the complicated business of hell, and who goes there, and why. Just like concepts of god, evil is domesticated, infantilized into an existential version o “time out” and “no dessert.”

As might be expected, the Jewish spiritual approach is quite different. That which we see as evil is part of the imbalance of sefirot, i.e. monotheism…evil is more like a disease that has been allowed to flourish. And disease, such as a pandemic, doesn’t notice if you’ve been good or bad.

II. “once the Angel of Destruction is allowed to begin work, there is no differentiation between righteous and wicked.”

A frightening ancient saying comes from our ancestors in writings that date at least to the Roman destruction of Israel. 

תאני רב יוסף מאי דכתיב (שמות יב, כב) ואתם לא תצאו איש מפתח ביתו עד בקר כיון שניתן רשות למשחית אינו מבחין בין צדיקים לרשעים ולא עוד אלא שמתחיל מן הצדיקים תחלה שנאמר (יחזקאל כא, ח) והכרתי ממך צדיק ורשע

Rav Yosef asked: “What is the meaning of that which is written with regard to the plague of the firstborn: And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning (Shemot 12:22)? If the plague was not decreed upon the Jewish people, why were they not permitted to leave their homes?” Because: “Once permission is granted to the destroyer to kill, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. And not only that, but it begins with the righteous first…” (BT Bava Kamma 60a)

What our ancestors understood is that evil does not discriminate; it wipes out the good along with the bad. We  have seen in our study of Torah, in a long list of horrifying warnings, that if our society does not foster the good, we will all be swept up in the evil. It won’t be a matter of who deserves it.

Why do bad things happen indiscriminately? Why does it seem that we are being judged as a group? Aren’t we all responsible only for our own acts? Shouldn’t good people be rewarded and evil people be punished? Isn’t that what free will is all about?

Here we have a category mistake. To think about being judged for sin in this way is not Jewish; it’s Christian. Years ago my Rabbi and teacher Dr Byron Sherwin ז”ל was schmoozing with his friend the Cardinal of Chicago, when the Cardinal said to the Rabbi: “Byron, I think I’ve figured out what the problem is with my people. They all speak Protestant; Catholic is their second language.” Byron told me that he suspected that it’s the same with us Jews: Protestant is our first language, our cultural “mother tongue.” Many of us don’t even realize how different the Jewish perspective might be  from what we might assume is Jewish. We’re Jews, so isn’t the way we think Jewish?

No. Not necessarily. Okay, so, in Jewish, how are we to understand good and evil, and why do good people suffer, and why is wheat so often swept away with chaff? The challenge is to actually be willing to see good and evil as all part of one great wholeness.

Consider how our mystics understand evil: an uncontrolled growth that comes out of a normal process, an extreme that becomes too much of what might have otherwise been a good thing. In this way of understanding, evil is nothing more or less than an excess of Gevurah, of the part of our world which is necessary for strength, for boundary setting, and for discernment.

An overdose of Gevurah is not in itself evil, although it opens the gate to evil, according to the mystics. But the overgrowth of Gevurah is a disease in the same way that cancer is a disease. Not a moral failing. Not an ethical lack. Not something that is “deserved.”

To understand how mixed up our categories have become, consider the definition of cancer that I found in the American Heritage dictionary:

  1. Any of various malignant neoplasms characterized by the proliferation of anaplastic cells that tend to invade surrounding tissue and metastasize to new body sites.
  1. The pathological condition characterized by such growths.
  1. A pernicious, spreading evil.

Our society confuses the technical with the moral to the extent that there is no distinguishing between them in the dictionary definition.

Some months ago now I was invited to join a national organization which uses a curiously Jewish approach to violence. Cure Violence Global works  from an epidemiological model. The model holds that violence cannot be eradicated by incarceration, but is a disease that it can be ameliorated, and stopped altogether, if we look at it as a deadly contagion. 

What’s wrong with punishing those who do violence? Why not use gevurah to control gevurah? Simply that when we look at the punitive response that we’ve been using in the United States we can see clearly that it’s not working. Neither mandatory minimum sentencing nor death penalties have stopped violence. As a matter of fact, something we’re doing is causing it to get worse, because the U.S. has the highest percentage of its residents incarcerated in the world. 

We often hear that the only way to create peace in our midst is to increase “law and order,” but so far that approach has not worked, and there’s no reason to believe that it ever will. The sin here is not someone else’s moral failing; it’s our own willingness to let the scar tissue of our lives numb us to the pain of others.

*Putting our faith in “law and order” instead of compassion and creativity, out of frustration and anger because one’s own business is affected. *Believing that as long as we can’t see it happening, then somehow it’s better. 

*Building higher walls and gating communities works about as well on the actual underlying issue as enforcing surface calm in a dysfunctional family. Sooner or later, the tension between misery and pretend peace explodes…much like a raisin in the sun.

III. Hevlei haMashiakh

Disease is not a moral fault. Trauma is a fact of life. But as those who have experienced truth and reconciliation exercises have discovered, sitting across a table and talking to your loved one’s murderer is somehow more healing than watching that murderer writhe in agony in an electric chair.

Disease is not a sin. But allowing the spread of contagion is. Choosing to turn one’s head, to gaze only at one’s own pain, is the moral failing here. Declaring the pandemic is over just because one is sick of wearing a mask requires a pretty hard shell over the heart, not to feel for those who are immune compromised and fearful of what we don’t yet know about COVID.

On this Yom Kippur eve, I ask you to join me in considering the sins of our society, the world of which we are a part, as they reflect ourselves back at us; like a funroom mirror, only the distortion of the divine image is not funny but tragic. And it’s a true reflection.

This is the meaning of wholeness in Jewish tradition; it is about finding a way to embrace every aspect of our collective being as us. Evil is part of the system just as goodness is; evil is too much Gevurah, too many anaplastic cells, an imbalance in the Wholeness. The imbalance is not healed by more violence meeting violence; only applying the opposite – grace, mercy, love – can do that. 

We are part of that system; each one of us is affected, even if we are not incarcerated, or redlined, or bullied into suicide. 

On Yom Kippur we ask not to be judged for our sins but to find mercy and forgiveness. We sing in the collective plural: HaShem, forgive us for we have sinned. Judge us in the scale of merit, be compassionate, have mercy upon us. Help us balance the gevurah in which we participate with the hesed, the mercy and gracewe so badly need, for healing, for wholeness. We’re praying to the common Self that we share to help us all heal.

Look for it: the ways that violence has touched you. Has it caused you to become harsh rather than kind? Has it made it difficult for you to feel compassion? When were you last able to act with mercy regardless of whether someone “deserved” it?

Is the effect of our society’s violence in your words? 

Has it infected your assumptions? 

What does our society reflect back at you, upon serious contemplation? 

Where does it hurt?

Remember that we’re not talking here about it being your moral fault. We’re diagnosing spiritual hurt here. We are all human. Every one of us was born pure. Punishing won’t help what’s wrong, but setting our intention to look for the pure spark in each of them, in each of us, might just keep us all from catching the violence contagion.

Are you cynical? Do you feel despair? Are there people you’ve given up on? Is there anger in you that you consider righteous, because you’ve judged that whoever you’re angry at is immoral?

Jewish ethical tradition teaches that the most dangerous of all emotions is anger.

כָּל הַכּוֹעֵס – חָכְמָתוֹ וּנְבוּאָתוֹ מִסְתַּלֶקֶת, 

Anyone who gets angry loses their wisdom and foresight.

הַקָּדוֹשׁ־בָּרוּךְ־הוּא אוֹהֵב לְמִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ כּוֹעֵס וּלְמִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ מַעֲמִיד עַל מִדּוֹתָיו

The Holy One loves a person who keeps from getting angry, and also one who does not insist on retribution. (Nahman of Bratslav, Sefer HaMiddot, 1810)

What does it mean to say that the Holy One loves such a person? Don’t let the language put you off: it’s just another way of saying that if you do not let anger rule you, if you do not insist on retribution, you will live a more whole, more peaceful life. No matter what happens to you.

תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אֱלִישָׁע: פַּעַם אַחַת, נִכְנַסְתִּי לְהַקְטִיר קְטוֹרֶת לִפְנַי וְלִפְנִים, וְרָאִיתִי אַכְתְּרִיאֵל יָהּ ה׳ צְבָאוֹת, שֶׁהוּא יוֹשֵׁב עַל כִּסֵּא רָם וְנִשָּׂא, וְאָמַר לִי: ״יִשְׁמָעֵאל בְּנִי, בָּרְכֵנִי!״ אָמַרְתִּי לוֹ: ״יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, שֶׁיִּכְבְּשׁוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ אֶת כַּעַסְךָ, וְיִגּוֹלּוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ עַל מִדּוֹתֶיךָ, וְתִתְנַהֵג עִם בָּנֶיךָ בְּמִדַּת הָרַחֲמִים.״ וְנִעְנַע לִי בְּרֹאשׁוֹ.

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, said: Once, on Yom Kippur, I entered the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies, to offer incense, and in a vision I saw HaShem seated upon a high and exalted throne.

And HaShem said to me: Yishmael, My child, bless Me. 

I said to HaShem: 

“May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger, 

and may Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, 

and may You act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy.”

The Holy Blessed One nodded. (BT Berakhot 7a)

If we are all created in the Image of the Divine, then on this Kol Nidre:

May it be our will that our mercy overcomes our anger.

May our mercy prevail over our other attributes,

And may we act toward all other creatures with the attribute of mercy.

May our acts of mercy and of grace help us all find the way to refu’ah shleymah, complete healing, from the violence that infects our souls and causes us pain, and causes our world so much misery.

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ יְהוָ֖ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ

May you feel the blessing in your life strengthening you

יָאֵ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ

May the holy Oneness of life illuminate your struggle

יִשָּׂ֨א יְהוָ֤ה ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם

May you lift your face toward Life and may you know wholeness, shalom, peace.

BaMidbar 6.24-26


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