L’Takein et haChomot/to Repair the Walls – Yom Kippur Inspiration
by Rabbi Emerita Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, Erev Yom Kippur 5778 – 9/29/17
L’Takein et haChomot/to Repair the Walls
These are times to test faith. Not just our faith in G-d, but G-d’s faith in us. This evening our Kol Nidre recitation was our annual courtroom drama wherein the Supreme Court Justice was no other than the Supreme Supreme Judge of Judges…Melech Mal’chei HaM’lachim, G-d. The metaphoric Book of Life is open and the verdicts are ready to be recorded…and by this time tomorrow evening, the gates will draw to a close and the book will be ready to be sealed.
This day we put all our energy into prayer and fasting and by N’eilah, tomorrow evening, we will feel like we have run a marathon….these Asseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, will have depleted us. We will have felt exhausted from our face to faith meeting with G-d.
Our Torah teaches us that we are created “b’tzelem Elohim”, in G-d’s image, but that doesn’t mean G-d is to be interpreted as an anthropomorphic being. It means that we are imbued with creativity, with free will, with choice, with responsibility to stewardship. That being said, as humans, we often destroy the things we’ve created, use our free will recklessly, make poor choices, and abandon our responsibilities.
Our literary heritage is filled with examples of where we’ve missed the mark, and, likewise with examples of second chances that G-d has given us. It continues today. We are taught to go to first make things right mano-a-mano; hopefully we have done our T’shuvah with our friends, acquaintances, and family; and If we acknowledge our wrongdoings, apologize, make amends, and resolve to do better, G-d is willing to forgive as well…On this Yom HaKippurim, this Day of Atonement, we have the opportunity to make it our Day of At-One-Ment, in the Drama of the highest of the days in what we’ve come to know as our Days of Awe, our High Holy Days.
And this year, we come into the Divine Courtroom with heavy hearts. We are reeling from unnatural natural disasters; we are on edge for unpredictable terrorist attacks; we are confused by divisive rhetoric from those to whom we look for leadership; and we are smarting from the paucity of civil discourse among ourselves.
Although it has been several weeks, we are still in disbelief after witnessing the horrendous events in Charlottesville, and, after having seen neo-Nazis marching in the street and spewing hate, we are left with a frightening sense of déjà-vu,.
Although many Jews felt like Charlottesville was an attack on us, if not an attack on humanity, Rabbi Shai Held, co-founder of Machon Hadar, a traditional egalitarian Yeshiva, looked at it from a different point of view. Rabbi Held called it an attack on G-d! “One of the most fundamental claims Judaism makes about the world is that every human being on the face of the earth, black and white, male and female, is created in the image of G-d and is, therefore, infinitely valuable! … An attack on other people’s humanity is an assault on G-d!”
While we are all still able to exercise our right to free speech, the recent rise in anti-Semitism, the upsurge in overt neo-Nazism, the hate-speech of white supremacism…it’s all so disturbing, frightening, and for some…infuriating. People are indeed emotional. Our country feels so fractured and we are even seeing violence in the streets
The events of the day pose a theological dilemma. As the former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes: “How are we to reconcile G-d’s high hopes for humanity with our shabby and threadbare moral record?”
So how should we respond? Do we respond in kind—tiki lamps and pitchforks? Cyber trolling and social network blackmailing? Or do we shut our eyes to the news of the day and go about our business, impervious to the writing on the wall. Are we in uncharted territory or can we get guidance from our Jewish heritage?
We are told that it is in our DNA to be activists—l’takein et ha-olam, to repair the world. Tomorrow many congregations will read a passage from Isaiah, Chapter 58. Though written to inspire the Shavay Zion, those Jews who were returning to Jerusalem from Babylonia, perhaps it can speak to us today. Knowing they would find the walls of the city destroyed, Isaiah prophesied:
“People from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins,
You shall restore foundations laid long ago.
And you shall be called
‘Repairer of fallen walls,
Restorer of lanes for habitation.’”
Rabbi Fred Guttstein, a colleague from Greensboro, North Carolina, calls upon us to take up the task of being repairers of fallen walls, which means assigning highest priority to opposing those who are filled with bias, bigotry and racism. It means fighting prejudice against people who are different, different in sexual orientation, religion, nationality, or even political standing. Repairing the fallen walls, he says, means working for comprehensive immigration reform and security for the 800,000 Dreamers, recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Repairing fallen walls means taking Global Climate Change seriously. It means not being indifferent to the growing inequality of social classes, to the growing homeless population, to the plight of our schools, to our health care coverage…it means remembering the values upon which our country was founded.
Repairing fallen walls does not mean inflammatory speech, it does not mean, provocative rhetoric, and it does not mean knee-jerk reactions.
Many of us truly want to repair fallen walls; we want to stand up for justice and for what is right, but, it’s not easy to stand up and, to be honest, it’s not always clear as to what is just and what is right. It seems like every day there’s something else to challenge our morality, let alone our understanding of what’s what. We are not only confused; we are in pain. Once again, we turn to the beliefs upon which our Jewish traditions stand.
We are taught that the Divine has infinite love. When we are in pain, G-d feels our pain; and when G-d feels our pain, G-d pours more love into the world. We have only to look at how first responders and even strangers are coming to the aid of the victims of the spate of devastating hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and now Maria in Texas, the Caribbean islands, Florida and the Southeast or the Mexican earthquakes; how firefighters are running towards danger in the firestorms burning in California and Oregon; or how people of conscience have gone to the streets, demonstrating on behalf of the threatened Dreamers. We see people putting aside differences to help one another…even while others are seeking to divide.
How do you feel about the news of the day? I know that there are many of us who prefer to turn off the news. But hiding ones head in the sand does not stop the ongoing trials. Maintaining civil discourse has become very challenging. And there are some of us who are fighting mad, ready to lash out at others. For those who pray, they don’t even know for what to pray.
We are taught that it is wrong to retaliate, to take revenge, to try to even the score.
And here we are in community, gathered for 25 hours of prayer…some of us in a congregational setting for the first time in a year…and we’re not even sure how to pray or for what to pray.
The Talmud teaches that even G-d prays. What does G-d pray? G-d prays “May it be My will that My mercy may subdue My wrath, and may My attribute of mercy prevail over My attribute of justice, so that I may deal with My children with the quality of mercy and enter on their behalf within the line of strict justice.”
So don’t bother praying for G-d to help you harm someone. If we’re utzing to confront someone, we have to find a different prayer. Maybe one that asks G-d to help others let go of their rage, fear, or pain; or perhaps one that asks G-d to strengthen our endurance, patience, ingenuity, or negotiating skills.
The Divine way of “getting back at” someone is to offer rachmoness/rachamim…compassion. The late Rabbi Samuel Dresner once said: “Compassion…is the eternal mercy of the Lord toward the folly and misery of man.” If we want to be more spiritual, a better channel for divine qualities, here’s what we need to do: Whenever we feel the impulse to take revenge, we need to express the impulse through an act of compassion.
When someone lashes out, they may imagine us as the enemy. If we take revenge, we confirm their image. As confirmed enemies, harm becomes the mode of interaction. But if we refuse to play that way, we thwart the game. We turn it towards good. Kindness becomes the new interface.
It’s a beautiful teaching. Sometimes it works. But it seems simplistic. Revenge is not a linear act of cause and effect, with a neat node of self-reflection in the middle. When we act out of hurt, we may take revenge in all directions. The human heart is complex.
Disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov agreed. So they added complexity, spinning the teaching into a provocative parable.
Once upon a time, a royal minister wanted to arrange the assassination of his king. When the king heard of it, he promptly and surprisingly promoted and rewarded this minister. Can you imagine how the royal minister took the news of the promotion: well, as the parable goes, the minister was actually so overcome with shame that he killed himself.
What a terrible, unexpected resolution! How should we understand this parable? We are left with so many questions. Why did the minister seek the king’s death in the first place? What did the king hope to accomplish by rewarding the minister? Why was the minister ashamed? And, of course, why did the minister kill himself?
Let’s try to figure it out: Perhaps the king was cruel, unethical, and destructive. By killing the king, perhaps the minister hoped to save the nation. But the king distracted the minister with wealth and power. Ashamed of compromising his principles, the minister could not live with himself.
Perhaps the minister, nursing a grudge, simply personally hated the king. But the king responded to hatred with kindness. Thus, the minister became ashamed of his own interpersonal skills. He doubted his ability to work through regret. Lacking compassion for himself, he took his own life.
How are such wildly different interpretations possible?
Because every Chassidic parable has two storylines: a literal one and a spiritual one: Literally, we read here about a human king, a cunning political operator, who defeats his enemies while appearing generous. Spiritually, we read about a Divine King, an ideal figure, powerful and generous, untouched by politics or enemies. A fountain of love, flowing into us, never blocked by our flaws — only by our lack of receptivity.
The parable invites us to imagine ourselves in the role of the minister: a pained human being in a broken world. We are, in fact, pained human beings in a very broken world. But, on this Yom Kippur, we are asked to remove our armor, let go of our grudges, breathe out our frustration, our annoyance, our anger. Over the 25 hours of this Day of Atonement, we, gathered in community, gain strength from our liturgy and from one another. We open our hearts and minds to the possibility that Divine love can flow in our world. Using the love shared with me, I can reach out to others in love.
Perhaps then we will be strong enough l’takein et ha-olam, to repair the world…or to repair the walls.
May this new year of 5778 give us the strength, the wisdom, the clarity to work together to repair the walls.
May our fasts be meaningful and may we be sealed for a good year. G’mar chatimah tovah.