by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, September 18, 2018
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says “Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of creation, is about what it means to be human under the [kingship] of God. But Yom Kippur is about what it means to be me, this unique person that I am.” What does it mean to be the unique person that I am?
I, like all of us, possess a unique set of traits. I have my strengths and I have my weaknesses. My outlook of the world is formed by the unique convergence of parenting, economics, luck, friends, the broader society around me, the education that I have received. All this factor into who I am, to my potential. Yom Kippur is a moment where I turn inwards and ask myself, where have I fallen short in the past year? No one knows better than me, and perhaps God. I am called to not waste my gifts, not waste my potential. To be the best unique person that only I can be.
Most of us set out each day to do good, to make the world a better place. As Jews, we are called to do our best, in all we do. And that action, when it misses the mark, can do harm, and hurt other people. For this, on Yom Kippur we ask God for forgiveness as a community, and we ask those around us for forgiveness as individuals. Says Rabbi Sacks, “Better to fail while striving greatly than not to strive at all.”
What drives each of us to “strive greatly”, to better ourselves? Why aren’t we like the deer or the cows, satisfied to graze on the grass in the late afternoon sun?
Earlier this week I spent time with a 94-year-old man named Sam. I met him through my work at Hebrew Free Loan. Sam and his wife received a Hebrew Free Loan in 1952 to buy a chicken farm in Petaluma, CA. He came to this country in 1948 after WW2. Sam was born in Dubno, Poland, which in 1941 had a Jewish community which numbered 12,000 souls. Sam is one a handful of people from Dubno who survived the war; the rest were shot and buried in mass graves outside of town in 1942. He lost his mother and his baby brother there, but he survived by escaping into the forest, hiding out with the partisans, and then blending into the German population under an assumed name and “Hiding in Plain Sight” for 3 years. It’s an incredible story of survival, grit, luck and fortitude. Sam came to speak to our board last week and as I drove him home afterwards, through the ever-expanding numbers of skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco, we marveled at the amazing grandeur of the skyline and the graceful lines of the new Bay Bridge. “Yes”, said Sam, “Human beings are the only animals that have the capacity to control our environment… we build beautiful cities… the flip side is that is we also destroy on a massive scale.”
Our conversation got me thinking about the nature of what it means to be a human being, different from all the animal creatures on the earth. Some animals build, such as beavers which build dams, but they do not build on the scale that humans do, they do not dominate the landscape. Some animals hunt and kill, like the lion who eats their prey. But lions do not go to war on the massive scale that we do. This dominance of all that surrounds us seems like a unique quality of our humanity.
According to a recently published article in Scientific America, “The emerging consensus is that humanity’s accomplishments derive from an ability to acquire knowledge and skills from other people. Individuals then build on this pooled knowledge over long periods. This communal store of experience enables creation of ever more efficient and diverse solutions to life’s challenges. Perpetual, relentless copying and innovation – that is the secret of our species’ success.”
A second trait unique to our species is our sense of morality. Morality refers to principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. Judaism isn’t the only world view to hold itself accountable to a moral standard. What are the origins of morality? According to Michael Tomasello, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, “If evolution is about survival of the fittest, how did humans ever become moral creatures? If evolution is each individual maximizing their own fitness, how did humans come to feel that they really ought to help others and be fair to them? … individuals who live in a social group in which everyone depends on everyone else for their survival and well-being operate with a specific kind of logic. If I depend on you, then it is in my interest to help ensure your well-being. More generally, if we all depend on one another, then we must all take care of one another.”
Morality, which is based on cooperation and interdependence, evolved out of these groups.
Returning to Yom Kippur, Rabbi Sacks’ asks, “How is it possible to live the ethical life, [a moral life] without an overwhelming sense of guilt, inadequacy and failure. The distance between who we are and who we ought to be is, for most of us vast…”
The Jewish people achieve this through repentance both as a community and as individuals. Repentance begins when we recognize our actions were off target, we caused harm. This admission, and the accompanying remorse, is followed by confession. Speaking out loud the wrong you cause, how you missed the mark. The last stage in repentance is to change your behavior and given the same set of circumstances, you would do things differently.
In biblical times, repentance took a different form. The Torah portion read in traditional synagogues on Yom Kippur morning is taken from Leviticus 16. Liberal communities choose to read Deuteronomy 29 and 30. What are the differing messages implied by the two readings?
In the traditional reading, of the two goats, one would be sacrificed to God in the ancient belief that animal sacrifice could achieve divine ablution from sin, and the other goat literally became the “scapegoat” upon which the High Priest would symbolically place all the sins of the Jewish people. This scapegoat would then be sent off into the desert, thus carrying away the sins of the people. This text illustrates a communal process which absolves the Jewish people as a whole of its sins. There is no concept of individual guilt or individual punishment.
In the text which liberal communities read, we hear “For I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that are about to enter and possess.” The text speaks much more to individual responsibility and the role that each one of us plays in creating a just society; a society that repairs the world and builds a better world to come.
As we confess our transgressions as a community, and as individuals, we at Congregation P’nai Tikvah take to heart the words of Deuteronomy 29 and 30, to build a community that is active in the world, that is a force for good. And may we each, as the unique individuals that we are, not waste our gifts, not waste our potential and be the best unique individuals that each of us can be.
Ken yihiye ratzon, may it be Your will.