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October 12, 2016

Caves, Bridges, and a World on Fire (Yom Kippur 5777)

Rabbi Nicole Auerbach

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

This past summer, I found myself at a spirituality retreat, sitting in meditation and trying to pray for Rush Limbaugh. Our teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, was leading us through a lovingkindness meditation. Close your eyes, he told us. Focus on your breath. Open yourself up to receive compassion, as you say “May I be safe. May I be happy. May my body be strong. May my life unfold with ease. May I be safe. May I be happy. May my body be strong. May my life unfold with ease.” After a few minutes, Rabbi Slater invited us to call to mind someone we loved, and to focus these intentions on them. Calling to mind my daughters, I prayed “May you be safe. May you be happy. May your body be strong. May your life unfold with ease.” We then moved to an acquaintance, and did the same. Then came the hard part. Now, he said, bring to mind someone you dislike intensely. Someone who is hurtful, who makes you angry. Because I am ardently liberal in my personal politics, I called to mind Rush Limbaugh. Now, Rabbi Slater said, see if you can pray for that person. Can you let God’s love flow through you so that you can pray “May you be safe. May you be happy. May your body be strong. May your life unfold with ease”?

I found it very, very challenging. And for that I was ashamed. I preferred to wallow in righteous anger than to wish another human being the most basic of blessings.

In the Babylonian Talmud, we read a story about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son, who had fled from the Roman government. They went and hid in a cave. A carob tree sprouted to provide them with food, and a spring appeared to provide them with water. With their basic needs met they decided they could bide their time. But why waste the hours? While they hid, they decided to focus only on the most important things. They decided to bury themselves up to their necks in sand, and study all day. They only took a break to pray. They lived like this, studying and praying, for 12 years, at which point Elijah appeared and told them they were safe. They emerged and saw men plowing the fields. Rabbi Shimon couldn’t believe it. Instead of worrying about acts of holiness and sanctification, these people are busying themselves with mundane tasks? As they looked around, every place their gaze landed immediately burst into flame and burned. They were like superheroes with lasers coming out of their eyes.

Suddenly, a voice comes from heaven and says, “Did you go out to destroy my world? Return to your cave!” So they do. They stay there for another 12 months, at which point a voice called them out of the cave again. This time Elazar still had the laser beam eyes, but Shimon’s gaze healed whatever his son’s ignited. So some improvement. They saw an old man holding two myrtle branches. They ask him, “Why do you need these?” “For Shabbat, he says. Now, this newfangled ritual was news to them. It came into being while they were in the cave. But they recognized that the people did in fact care about God’s commandments, just differently than they did. Elazar is satisfied. The laserbeams stop. They are able to exist in the world without destroying it.

So they spent 7 years, completely cut off from other people, studying only what was important to them. And when they emerge from their cave, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoyye says, their intolerance increased anger in the world, causing it to burn. So they go back. What happens in those 12 months? Rav Yaakov Yosef says that when they were sent back to the cave, they sensed that this was to teach them a better way of being in the world, a way of compassion. So they spent those 12 months learning compassion, at which point, instead of immolating people from afar, they were able to approach them, and try to understand them. Righteous indignation felt good, but it was destructive. In order to live in the world, they needed to balance it with compassion.

The idea of hiding out in a cave for 7 years may sound extreme. But is it so different from the world we live in today? In her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Hochshild – a professor at UC Berkeley – reports on her experience living among people who seem to be inhabiting a completely different reality from the one she is used to in Northern California. She goes to rural Louisiana to meet with members of the Tea Party movement, to try to understand how they see the world.

As background she notes the increasing polarization of American life:

“When Americans moved in the past,” she writes, “they left in search of better jobs, cheaper housing, or milder weather. But according to [one recent company, the more extreme their views become. According to a 2014 Pew study, the most politically engaged on each side see those in the “other party” not just as wrong, but as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s wellbeing. Compared to the past, each side increasingly gets its news from its own television channel - the right from Fox News, the left from MSNBC. And so the divide widens.”

We have retreated to our caves, and when we emerge, our righteous anger, stoked by our fellow cave-dwellers, threatens to incinerate everything in its path. The Southern Christian conservatives Hochshild interviews report feeling demeaned by the language of the Northern liberal elites. As one woman says, “Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers. They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.” A basket of deplorables, in other words. The enmity and ill-will engendered by these insults causes this woman to embrace the epithets of Rush Limbaugh as her own. She delights when he calls out “feminazis and environmental wackos,” although she allows that Hochshild herself is perfectly nice.

Hochshild says she went to Louisiana interested in walls. Not physical walls, but empathy walls. “An empathy wall,” she says, “is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that makes us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” Our empathy walls are higher than they used to be. “In 1960. When adults were asked whether it would ‘disturb’ them if their child married a member of the other political party, no more than 5 percent of either party answered ‘yes.’ In 2010, 33 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans answered ‘yes.’”

What is the answer to this divide? As in the story of Shimon bar Yochai, it is compassion, and willingness to engage with those who are different from us. Hochshild begins building relationships with people in these small Louisiana towns, which, she says, builds the scaffolding of an empathy bridge.

The key, she says, is to spend enough time with one another that we can hear the “deep story” of the other. A “deep story” is not necessarily what is borne out by the facts, but what feels true. Once we can connect with that feeling – anger, fear, shame – we can acknowledge it, connect it to our own experience, and begin to put out the fires.

The Jewish value embodied by Hochshild’s work is savlanut. Savlanut is typically translated as “patience,” but really it means something like forbearance or tolerance. Savlanut comes from the same root as “to bear” or “to suffer” and it has the sense of being able to bear a burden without breaking. Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, a 16th century Jewish mystic, describes savlanut as being “able to withstand insult and still not withhold your goodness from another.” God, he says, is the ultimate practitioner of savlanut, as people are always sinning, and yet we are the beneficiaries of God’s goodness.

Turning back to my ill-fated efforts to pray for Rush Limbaugh, the challenge posed by our teacher was one of savlanut. Could we bear the insults of someone who angered us without withholding our goodness from them? If we imagine that we are conduits for God’s love and compassion, could we tolerate our own disagreement and discomfort with that other person without letting our anger choke off the flow of love?

Many of us are used to at least attempting to practice savlanut when we interact with our family and close friends. When one of my children has failed to brush her teeth despite repeated requests, and I feel the laserbeams about to shoot out of my eyes, in my better moments, I can recognize that feeling of welling anger and ask myself, can I withstand this without withholding my goodness from her?” I can still react, and institute appropriate punishment. But pausing to ask this question sometimes helps me recognize that she is just a flawed person like I am, and I need not withhold my love from her even as I am setting limits. “May you be safe,” I can say. “May you be happy.” “May your body be strong.” “May your life unfold with ease.” “Now go brush your teeth or I will take away your iPad.”

Savlanut is also the subject of the book of Jonah, which we read every Yom Kippur.

In that book, God calls on Jonah to travel to the great city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, to speak to the Ninevites, whose wickedness has drawn God’s attention. The Assyrian empire nearly destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, so, as Robert Alter notes, this is like sending a Jew to Berlin in 1936 to deliver a moral exhortation to the Germans.

So it is not surprising that instead of following God’s command, Jonah runs away, and boards a ship headed in the opposite direction. But, after some fits and starts involving a storm and a time-out in the belly of a whale, God eventually gets Jonah to take on his mission to Nineveh. Jonah arrives there and calls out to the people that God will destroy the city in 40 days, at which point they immediately repent, donning sackcloth and ashes, and fasting. Even the cattle fast. God sees that they have repented, and rescinds the punishment.

Good news, right? Not for Jonah. He goes ballistic. “O Lord,” he says, “Isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country? For I know that you are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and renouncing punishment. Please, God, take my life, for I would rather die than live. God says, “are you really that angry?” Jonah decamps outside the city to see what will happen. God creates a plant to shade him, and Jonah falls in love with this plant. God then sends a worm to devour the plant, leaving Jonah exposed to the elements. Once again, Jonah says he wants to die. “Are you really that angry over a plant?,” God says? And Jonah says, “Yes, I am good and angry to the point of death.”

Then comes the punchline: God says, “You had pity over the plant, for which you did not toil and which you did not grow, which came and went overnight. And I, shall I not have pity for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than 120,000 human beings who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?”

Jonah didn’t want to carry God’s message to Nineveh because righteous anger feels good. He was so angry that if he could have, he would have burned everything he saw with laserbeams, like Shimon bar Yochai. He was angry because he knew God would be compassionate, and he saw this as a denial of justice. He knew that God would practice savlanut, allowing God to bear the burden of the Ninevites’ sin without withholding God’s goodness from them. But God knows that justice without compassion is just vengeance.

Jonah’s full name is Jonah ben Amittai. Amittai comes from the same root as Emet - truth. Jonah was so insistent on his vision of the truth, and so hungry for vengeance, that he could not bear to see God’s compassion for those who had sinned. Jonah was on the other side of an empathy wall.

So what does God do? He gives him something easy to love. A plant. Start there, says God. And once you are able to have compassion for a plant, perhaps you will better understand the need for compassion toward your fellow fallible human beings. God gives him the scaffolding to build an empathy bridge.

Why do we read this on Yom Kippur? Because as long as we allow ourselves to wallow in our own need for vengeance, and delight in seeing others punished, so long as we walk around with laserbeams coming out of our eyes, we will assume that there are lasers trained on us, too. If we spend too much time inhabiting vengeance, we will never really believe that we are worthy of compassion. And on Yom Kippur, when we examine all of our own deepest faults, we really need to believe that if we repent, we might be deserving of compassion. We need to forgive and ask forgiveness, knowing that although we have all hurt one another deeply, we will not withhold our goodness from one another.

Over these next 25 hours, and the next year, and the rest of your life, I invite you to practice savlanut. To expand your capacity for dealing with the hurtful acts of others without withholding your goodness from the world.

What does this look like in practice? Here are a couple of examples.

Earlier this year, an African American Jewish activist and teacher, Yavilah McCoy, came to Central to facilitate a conversation about race. She told a story about having been pulled over by the police, which was terrifying for her, and which she recognized as a larger problem with systemic racism in this country. One participant raised their hand and said, “Those cops, they didn’t see you has human.” And she stopped him. “Actually, she said, I have no idea what they were thinking. I don’t know their stories. I only know mine.” She could speak on her own behalf for truth, and justice, without withholding her goodness from her adversaries. My guess is, if you had asked her, she could have prayed for those officers: May you be safe. May you be happy. May your bodies be strong. May your life unfold with ease.

Just a week or so ago, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a Chabad synagogue in Florida was vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti. In response, the rabbi said this: “My message to the Jewish community is that, whenever we are faced with these acts of terror and violence and intimidation, we should all respond with acts of goodness and kindness and light.” May you be safe. May you be happy. May your body be strong. May your life unfold with ease.

But we don’t need to start big. Jonah, after all, started with a plant. Maybe our practice of savlanut can begin by coming out of our cave a little, so we don’t just stoke the fires of an anger that will only bring more destruction to the world when we emerge. Maybe we need to be broaden our media diets, so we hear stories other than our own. Or even talk to people who are different than us! Little by little, we can build an empathy bridge.

Or it might mean being mindful of the delight we take in others’ misfortune. Recently, the folks in my very blue-state Facebook feed delighted when they heard that tragedy had struck a conservative Christian lobbyist. You see, he had preached that God sent natural disasters to punish gay people, and now his own house had been destroyed in a flood. You could practically hear the cackling through screen. It felt so good to see him get his. Because, as Jonah knew, vengeance feels good. Seeing this story, I found myself deriving joy from the destruction of someone’s home, instead of seeing him as a Ninevite – deeply flawed to be sure, but also a human being deserving of compassion. Instead of reposting those articles, I wish I had been able to pause, and say “May you be safe. May you be happy. May your body be strong. May your life unfold with ease.” I can still oppose his deeply offensive views without withholding my goodness.

What Arlie Hoschild discovers when she crosses the empathy bridge is that there is a lot of fear and pain on both sides, which is only exacerbated when people on the left and the right look at each other with contempt. As a result, the world is burning. Perhaps if we could practice savlanut – if we could truly wish for the well-being of those who are different from us, and recognize them as broken and flawed people worthy of compassion – we could tame the fires that are consuming our culture.

As we prepare to stand before God on this day of Judgment, let us remember that compassion is the difference between vengeance and justice. And let us remember, as Jonah did that God is compassionate, and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in kindness. May we experience such compassion and kindness in the coming year, whether we deserve it or not. May we all be safe. May we all be happy. May our bodies be strong. And may our lives unfold with ease.