A Sermon for Yom Kippur 2020
For months and months, I’ve been excitedly considering what I should talk about in my first High Holy Day sermon at my new congregation. I pictured myself standing on this beautiful bimah, and I tried to sense what I should use this time to say.
First, I imagined taking a soft approach and using my sermon as an opportunity just to share more about myself so that everyone could feel like they had a better sense of who their new rabbi is.
Then I imagined coming out swinging and trying to thunder from the pulpit- or as my grandfather used to say, “Why not give ‘em a little sinners in the hands of an angry God.”
Neither approach felt quite right.
I spent time thinking back over my last six years of high holy days as a rabbi, lovingly remembering my favorite sermons… which then led me to briefly yearn for the days when a rabbi’s sermons weren’t all online and were therefore easier to reuse when they found themselves in a new congregation.
But any wistful thoughts of pulling from my rabbinic archives quickly passed as the summer came to an end because as the holy days got closer and closer, it became impossible to ignore how much of our current reality demanded to be addressed.
Parts of our world are literally on fire, democracy is in peril, and hundreds of thousands of people have died from a pandemic that has reshaped almost every aspect of our day-to-day existence. The world is changing so quickly that speaking about an idea from even a few weeks ago feels out of touch… let alone trying to reuse a sermon from the far off time of 2019.
Eventually, it was time to stop brainstorming and to start writing. And so, I read through all of my notes, looked inside my heart, and decided to dedicate my first High Holy Day sermon at Congregation Shaare Emeth to a single, small, answerable question:
What can the ancient tradition of Judaism teach us about being better 21st people?
What’s that? That’s not a small question? Well, friends, it’s too late for me to make any changes… so… let’s see if we can’t come up with an answer.
Let me start by saying that I believe that there are many, many reasons to live a Jewish life.
Judaism offers a beautiful structure for living by providing rituals and context for moments both great and small. It teaches us about strength and the power that comes from living in community, and it commands us to be responsible for one another.
By belonging to a Jewish community, we are granted access to thousands of years of wisdom. And, just as importantly, by belonging to a Jewish community, we are allowed the opportunity to wrestle our way through that library of knowledge- lifting up what we find meaningful and rejecting that which weighs us down.
My great-aunt has often told me that the rabbis of her youth would conclude the Torah service by lifting their hands in the air and proclaiming, “Behold a good doctrine has been given unto you! Forsake it not!”
I love the drama of this moment and agree with this exhortation completely. The only thing that I would add is the important reminder that questioning our tradition, interrogating it and wrestling with it, even rejecting that which is harmful to our spirits - none of these actions is what Judaism defines as forsaking. Instead, in our tradition, the only way to forsake the good doctrine that has been given unto us is to fail to engage with it at all.
Those of us who belong to a Jewish community have inherited a tradition of curiosity, of wrestling, of imagining. We have been given thousands of years of examples of how rabbis and scholars have spent their lifetimes identifying gaps in the biblical narratives and then attempting to fill those gaps by creating midrashim or stories about the biblical figures or events.
As members of the Jewish community, we are trained from our first day as a Jewish person to reject any kind of one dimensional storytelling and instead to embrace complexity. We have inherited and we have developed a set of skills that allows us to show our reverence for our own story by seeking out opportunities to complicate it.
This is a remarkable heritage, and every member of the Jewish community, regardless of whether they were born Jewish or embraced Judaism later in life, every single one of us has this special skill set within us.
And in the year 2020, when the world is on fire, democracy is in peril, and hundreds of thousands have died from a world-wide plague, that skill set is INCREDIBLY valuable.
A single example of the value that our Jewish skill set has to offer is the insight that we might provide in the reckoning that is taking place around the existence of monuments.
Over the last several years, I have followed with interest the debate about who it is appropriate to honor by building a monument with their likeness or dedicating a street or a building with their name.
In the articles that I’ve read and the interviews that I’ve watched and listened to, it seems that the main arguments against the removal of monuments are that these statues are symbols of our history and that by allowing a monument to be removed we are starting down a slippery slope where other, even more cherished parts of our history, could be at risk of revision or complication.
Underneath the words of these arguments seems to be a deep fear about whether our sense of self can be sustained if and when the people that we’ve regarded as almost mythic heroes are exposed to have been human beings all along.
And this is where our Jewish skill set has something to offer because we are a tradition built on the stories of very, very human people. Judaism has no saints or infallible leaders. We have only family, and each generation of that family was flawed and again, very, very human.
A few years ago, I wrote a midrash, or story, about Sarah, who the Torah says was the first Jewish woman.
In order to write this midrash, I reread the scene from Genesis where Abraham, the first Jewish man, tells Sarah that because she is so beautiful, he will be in danger if the people of the land know that Sarah is his wife. Abraham, believing that he will only be safe if others don’t see him as competition for Sarah, lies to the people that they encounter and tells everyone that Sarah is not his wife and is only his sister. Because the king’s men believe Sarah to be unattached and therefore without protection, they take her to the palace and place her within the king’s harem. The Torah does not mention anything about what happens to Sarah when she is in the palace and instead focuses on the fact that the king eventually discovers Abraham’s lie, confronts him, and then returns Sarah to him.
The question that sparked my midrash came directly from my training as a Jewish person. Because of my Jewish skill set, when I read this story, I realized how one-dimensional it felt. Where was the emotion? Where was the complexity? Throughout the ages, our rabbis had delved deeply into how Abraham felt during this episode, but their curiosity and desire to complicate the narrative had not extended to Sarah’s mindset.
And I so I asked myself, “Wouldn’t Sarah, a woman whose life was defined by struggle, a woman who was married to a man who traded her safety for his own, a woman who at times reveals herself to be jealous and selfish, wouldn’t that Sarah at least consider staying in the palace instead of leaving again with Abraham?”
I spent hours imagining Sarah, starting with the bits of information that are provided in the Torah and then allowing her to step off the pedestal of being a matriarch and instead to come into focus as a full human being.
I imagined a fully human Sarah, sitting in a room in the palace, bathing for the first time in months, and then I wrote this midrash from her perspective:
God had called to them, and they had answered. But in the months that they had wandered in the desert, Abraham had been stripped of any softness and empathy. All that was left were the hardest parts of her husband’s personality. He no longer consulted her in his decisions. He spoke to her in the same way that he spoke to their servants- offering little explanation and no opportunity for dialogue. Sometimes she would wake only to find him packing up the camp, having decided in the night that God wanted them to move.
His continuous thoughtlessness, his disregard and disrespect, all that she had experienced had shown her that he no longer understood that she had a mind and a heart of her own.
As one [of the palace] attendant[s] wrapped her in the soft, flowing fabrics that the king had sent and another braided her damp hair into a long and beautiful plait, Sarah wondered if this had been her destiny all along. Could Abraham have been nothing more than the way God had chosen to bring her to this life? Could her purpose always have been to teach the king how to follow God’s ways?
Asking that question felt like receiving a revelation. Sarah almost collapsed in gratitude to her God. “Thank you for redeeming me and for bringing me to this new place,” she prayed silently. “I promise to honor the position and the responsibility that you have given me.”
Sarah smiled, feeling her spirit and her faith grow and strengthen once again.
Just then another man ran into the room, a stranger. “Come quickly,” he shouted. “We are being attacked, and the king demands that you come to him!”
Sarah picked up the heavy, draped fabrics of her new garments, and ran after the man, following him all the way to the throne room. As she hurried, she thought to herself, “I have the chance to show my new husband exactly how helpful I can be to him. This will be the start of our life together.”
She slowed when she entered the grand, imposing hall and then came to a stop when she saw both of her husbands standing opposite from one another.
The king bellowed at Abraham, “You lied to me! You treated your wife as a harlot and brought plagues of shame and suffering onto me and my people! How could you have done such a thing?”
Abraham looked so small in Sarah’s eyes. She hung her head when she heard him reply, “It was either her safety or mine. And I wasn’t worried. I knew that God would bring her back to me so that we could continue on our journey together.”
Sarah closed her eyes, allowing herself to wallow for just a moment in the grief and despair that she felt when she heard Abraham’s response. He had sold her to a man he knew nothing about. He had given her away in the hope that he would be safe.
She startled when someone spoke from right in front of her and opened her eyes which were filled with worry and despair.
“Neferet,” the king said softly, as if he meant the word only for her ears, “You must return to your husband. Your god is punishing me for your husband’s deception, and I will not barter my people’s safety for my own happiness.”
Sarah nodded in resigned understanding. Her feet felt heavy with the weight of her disappointments.
With every step she took toward Abraham, she tortured herself by silently asking another unanswerable question, “Why had she thought that she was meant for more? Why had she assumed that she would be the partner of a worthy man? Why did she imagine that, in God’s eyes, her happiness was equal to Abraham’s?” She felt like a fool.
As she took up her place next to Abraham, she couldn’t resist looking once more at the king, the symbol of the life that she had just begun to dream about. She was surprised to find him looking directly at her as well. When their eyes met, the king sighed and turned to Abraham, saying, “I will send soldiers to escort and protect you as you travel through my land.” His eyes swung back to Sarah’s as he concluded, “It is my fervent hope that you will feel safe enough that you will allow your wife to be protected as well.”
Abraham seemed deaf to the explicit condemnation in the king’s words, but Sarah heard it and offered him a small but sincere smile. As she and Abraham left the palace, Sarah clutched the knowledge that she had been seen as a person, as a woman, close to her heart. She had glimpsed another life, and she had been changed by it.
So... I wrote this midrash, and I loved it. I felt like instead of creating something new, I had successfully uncovered some of the complexity that already existed in the ancient story. I felt like I had found a piece of Sarah’s truth that I had never seen before.
Thrilled and a little giddy, I excitedly sent my midrash to a friend who is also a colleague. I will be honest and say to you that all I was expecting back was a text filled with smiling emojis. But instead, my phone started to ring, and when I answered, my friend told me that my midrash had made him really uncomfortable.
I was shocked, and I asked him if he could help me understand what he meant because his reaction was so unlike my own. He was generous with his time and his spirit, and we stayed on the phone for a long time. He told me that he was uncomfortable because in my midrash, Abraham is a terrible guy. He’s callous and disinterested. He treats his wife with a total disregard for her feelings and her bodily safety.
I listened to him, and then I admitted that I was still confused. “I agree,” I said, “The Abraham of the Midrash is not a good guy. But he’s also not always a good guy in the Hebrew Bible.” I explained to my friend that every story beat that I had included in my midrash was pulled directly from the Torah, the only difference was that my midrash shifted the narrator’s perspective to Sarah and had therefore highlighted the more uncomfortable aspects of Abraham’s character.
“But you’re making Abraham irredeemable,” my friend said, “How are we supposed to say his name when we pray if he’s the guy in your midrash.”
“But he’s that guy all the time,” I replied, “It’s just that normally we put him up on a pedestal, and we pretend not to see the parts of him that we don’t like.”
We continued talking, and eventually, I came to understand that my friend’s discomfort stemmed from his concern over the consequences of complicating the figures at the heart of our tradition- figures like our patriarchs and matriarchs. He very understandably wondered whether we risk the integrity of our tradition’s foundations if we start chipping away at the monuments that we’ve built of our biblical heroes.
We ended our conversation, and I felt like I had a good handle on his concerns.
But I also published the midrash because while I could deeply empathize with the impulse to label some figures as off limits, I truly believe that the weight of thousands of years of Jewish history tells us that our responsibility as Jewish people is to complicate the uncomplicated, to accept nothing at face value, and to put no boundaries around our curiosity.
The Hebrew Bible includes the aspects of Abraham’s character that were making my friend so uncomfortable. And so, in my mind, if he was right and the traits that my midrash explored made Abraham irredeemable, then the biblical text itself had labeled him as such.
One of the greatest strengths of our tradition is that our people’s story does not rely on the existence of redeemable, perfect, or infallible leaders. We have patriarchs and matriarchs who are all deeply flawed human beings. We have successful leaders who are terrible parents. We have mothers who scheme in order to benefit the son that they love most. We have brothers who protect their sister by resorting to incredible violence. We have legendary kings who think little of the lives of their subjects. Our stories are populated by fully human people.
And importantly, our tradition has responded to the existence of these flawed individuals by creating even more complexity around them. The libraries of wisdom that we have inherited as members of the Jewish people are filled with stories that further complicate our ancestors rather than refining them until they are symbols that are easy to revere.
And so, we have returned to the central question of what wisdom the Jewish tradition has to offer us as a 21st century Jewish community.
And amongst all of the answers to that question is this critical message: the truest and strongest way to remember our history is by embracing its complexity.
To those who say that the only way to remember a historical figure is by making an idol of them and ignoring any flaws that they may have had… the Jewish tradition responds by saying: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah- all of whom are remembered NOT because they were perfect but because they are OURS.
Claiming a historical figure is not the same thing as worshipping them because claiming is about responsibility.
When we pray to the God of our patriarchs and matriarchs, we are identifying ourselves as being in relationship with these flawed human beings. We say their names and will continue to say them because family does not need to be perfect.
When we say Elohei Avraham, Yitzhak, V’ya’akov, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, v’Leah, we are not praying through perfect ancestors. We are praying with them. We say their names as a way of claiming them and owning the legacies that they’ve left behind.
To those who say that the best way to show someone respect is to avoid asking questions, to avoid anything that could complicate the narrative, the Jewish tradition provides millenia of midrashim, each of which exists only to add further humanity, further complexity, further richness to our most sacred stories.
Many are afraid that our nation’s story will not survive questioning, that it isn’t strong enough for us to wrestle with it, but friends we as a Jewish community know better than that. We can use the skills that we have developed and inherited to help others see that allowing our ancestors to be fully human is a sign of strength.
And importantly, we can learn from our tradition that it is only when we acknowledge and claim the limitations and humanity of our ancestors that we create enough space for other people’s voices.
It was only by claiming Abraham, in all of his complexity, that I was able to see Sarah’s story. It was only by claiming Sarah, in all of her complexity, that I was able to see Hagar’s story. And so it goes. On and on.
We as a Jewish community have the knowledge and skills to help people see that when we claim our ancestors, with all of their flaws, we ensure that they take up only the space that they deserve. And when we claim them, when we take responsibility for them, we will be given access to even more stories, the stories of other people’s ancestors, the stories that have been denied and silenced, the stories that appear only when we no longer embrace the one dimensional myths that we have clung to out of fear and insecurity.
We, as a Jewish community, can teach our friends and neighbors that the only way to forsake our own story is by accepting it without question. Complexity is sacred. And we have the skills to embrace it, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
The Jewish prohibition against idolatry is something that we take for granted. But importantly, one of the reasons that God commands us not to make idols is that the great complexity of God, the vastness of the Eternal, the complete unknowable force that is the Divine can not be captured within something that is made by human hands.
And as Jewish people, we know that every person is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and so the truth of every person, the sacred complexity of their lives, is similarly unable to be captured in something that is made of stone or metal.
By removing complexity, by accepting anyone as simply a hero and no longer a person, by refusing to imagine that a spiritual, biological, or political ancestor could have been many things at once, we are denying the divinity within that person.
Complexity is sacred. Complexity is divine. And, as a Jewish community, we have the skills that are needed to address the fears that push us to say- don’t ask questions, don’t engage, just accept what you have been given as the entirety of the truth.
We know better than that. We’ve been taught better than that. We’ve inherited better than that.
Behold, my friends, precious skills have been given unto you, forsake them not.