Maurice A. Salth | October 8, 2011
When my friend Carolyn was in grade school, many years ago, her cousin Janice and Janice’s parents would come over regularly to visit. As soon as Janice’s family walked in the door, the young girls would make a beeline for Carolyn’s room. There they would immediately start creating their own make-believe games while their parents played bridge in the kitchen.
Carolyn and Janice invented many games over the course of their childhood, and their favorite was called “Movie Stars.”
Carolyn had collected a stack of eight-by-ten black-and-white glossy photos of their favorite actors. These were the days of Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, and Marlon Brando. They would line the photos along the baseboards of her room. Their plan was to each try to decide which star they wanted to pretend to be that evening so they could play-act being at the Oscars or on a movie set.
But all too often, just as Janice and Carolyn were about to make the excruciating decision about the star they wanted to be, they would hear footsteps coming down the hall. And they would panic! It was Janice’s father, Uncle Harold.
Uncle Harold would knock at the door and say, “Ok, times up, it’s over, get your coat, we’re leaving.”
And Carolyn and Janice would protest vigorously, “Oh no, we need more time, we just got here, we just started playing, we don’t even know who we want to be yet.” And Uncle Harold unsympathetically would say, “That’s tough, get your coat, we’re going.”
Deciding who we want to be is not only a game children play. It is one of life’s great challenges and it is a central question of this holy day of Yom Kippur. We take time today to reflect on what we have done with our lives and imagine what still might be.
Can a person really change and decide to be different? Many a dinner conversation and Oprah episode, may they rest in peace, have been dedicated to this very question. Our tradition clearly answers “yes”. And while the cynic in me may wonder if change is possible, Judaism does not. Judaism insists we look at ourselves and make the changes we deem significant. Foundationally, we Jews believe each person can change to become the person they choose to be.
But our tradition also acknowledges that change is difficult. Our Torah is filled with stories and laws and their objective is to motivate us to make the changes necessary in order to become who we want to be. And the Torah is persistent in laying out this core Jewish principle of change. The Torah’s first example of a flawed character who changes for the better isn’t even a person. It is God.
God as a Model for Change
Early in the book of Genesis is the story of Noah and the ark. We often tell the story as a sweet nursery tale with animals walking two by two and a rainbow. But we know the story is rated R for violence. Upset with what people did with the free will given to them, God drowns almost everyone and everything. It is brutal.
After the flood recedes and Noah exits the ark God speaks to him and says, “Never again will I doom the earth… or destroy every living being (Genesis 8:21).”
Why does God say this will never happen again? God realized the flood was a mistake. God tells Noah that “a proclivity of evil is woven into our human nature.”(1) Even God cannot change this aspect of humanity, so God changes. God never threatens to destroy the world again, even when humanity behaves terribly.
Though God had power to destroy, God determines that it is a priority to protect and teach, not hurt and annihilate. This is the God that dominates the remainder of the Torah. This reflective God is found as well throughout the Talmud. This is the God that wept over the destruction of the Egyptians who drowned in the Red Sea. The Midrash says the Egyptians were God’s people too.
We may not believe this flood story actually happened. I don’t. I think it’s fiction. And we may differ in our understanding of God. Rabbi Rubinstein spoke beautifully about this topic on Rosh Hashanah.
No matter our theology, I believe the Torah is trying to teach a core Jewish principle. God in the Torah’s narrative is the protagonist who instructs that each of us needs to decide who we want to be. We need to reflect upon our behavior, evaluate what we need to modify and then enact the change.
Our prayer book often describes God as the ultimate One; but throughout the Torah God is shown as imperfect. God models for us the change our tradition prioritizes.
I like that our Torah describes God as evolving because a God that has developed is more accessible to me than a perfect God. I can’t personally relate to perfection, but imperfection - that resonates with me all too well. God has evolved and we can too.
The Akedah – What happens if we do not have clear priorities?
What happens when we do not evolve and take ownership of our lives? What happens when we do not have clear priorities? Later in the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis, chapter 22) the Torah provides us with a chilling answer to this question. This story, known as the Akedah, is read in synagogues on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
We know the sobering tale. God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah to prove Abraham’s faith. Instead of refusing or at least negotiating with God, Abraham does what he is told. Abraham is distant, dazed, and does not say a word to his son during the three-day journey to their destination. They climb the mountain and Abraham binds Isaac to a rock. God stops Abraham from killing his son at the very last moment.
Throughout millennia Jews have grappled with this infamous and troubling text. I believe we read the story every year on Rosh Hashanah because of the terrible decisions Abraham made regarding his son. We read it each year because it is a wake-up call, a warning to all of us. It demands of us to evaluate where in our priorities are our family and friends.
The commentators say Abraham’s near murderous action resulted in a chasm between Abraham and Isaac. When Sarah hears of what occurred, she is traumatized. In fact, the Torah makes it clear that neither Isaac nor Sarah speak to Abraham again. Sadly, Sarah dies before reconciliation takes place.
In the Akedah, God seems at fault for not ending this bizarre test of faith earlier. Nevertheless it is obvious that Abraham should have taken control and protected Isaac. Earlier in the Torah, Abraham had argued with God to save the few innocents in the wicked city of Sodom. But then when it came to his son, he was strangely silent. He lost his courage to speak. He was distant, distracted and emotionless.
The Akedah has taken on new meaning for me since my son, Caleb, was born. He turns one this Monday. I do not want to ever be like Abraham – disconnected, estranged and distracted. But I know if I am not careful, it could happen. My priorities need to be focused on my family and close friends. They cannot be sacrificed along my life’s journey. I want to make sure I am present with the people I love. This is who I want to be.
We read the Akedah each New Year to remind us to protect, nurture and make primary our relationships with our family and close friends.
Engaging in the Commandments of the Holiness Code
The Akedah is one of a number of what I call the greatest hits from the Torah brought into our Yom Kippur services. These texts are here to motivate us to become the person we are trying to be. Also on our Yontif hit list is the Holiness Code from Leviticus. We read it each Yom Kippur afternoon. It sets within it high standards for all of us. Among many other mitzvot, this list includes the commandments to show deference to the old, to provide food for the poor and the stranger, and to not take revenge (Leviticus, chapter 19).
A number of years ago, Central Synagogue implemented a new High Holy Day ritual. Six congregants were asked to bring a commandment from the Holiness Code to life by writing a personal response to a commandment they found most compelling. We will hear our members’ reflections later today.
Perhaps you remember what people have shared in the past. One member, a corporate executive, reflected on the commandment “not to render an unfair decision.” He told of how he came within a hair’s breadth of devastating the career of one of his employees. He had received an incorrect report about his supervisee and planned to terminate him. At the last minute he did some research of his own and discovered that the employee had done no wrong. Relief and remorse could be heard in his voice as he humbly told his story.
Another congregant spoke on the commandment to “not bear a grudge against your family.” He told how his extended family ignored him and his sister when his mother died during his childhood. He and his sister went hungry for what seemed like an eternity. He spoke honestly of the grudge he held for fifty years against his uncles, his aunts, his cousins, young and old. After much introspection he decided that fifty years was enough. He wanted to reunite with his family before it was too late.
It is easy for us to hear the Holiness Code, but it is difficult and emotionally challenging to engage in the commandments. When we do engage, we can transform our lives and the lives of those around us.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “We stand on a razor’s edge. It is so easy to hurt, to destroy, to insult and to kill…life. For that reason we must regard ourselves as half-guilty and half-meritorious. Not only the individual but the whole world is in balance. One deed of an individual may decide the fate of the world.”(2)
Rabbi Heschel knew that beyond ourselves and those who are dear to us, we Jews are responsible for our neighbors, those we know, as well as those who are strangers to us. One of most moving stories I heard this past year was about the parents of James, a twenty-three year old who died instantly in a car accident on the Verrazano Bridge. His parents made the heart-wrenching decision to donate their son’s viable organs. Eight months later, at the request of one of the recipients, they agreed to meet with all the people who received one of James’ organs. Until then, both James’ parents and the recipients knew almost nothing about each other.
James had been so healthy before his accident, that the doctors were able to donate his heart to Christine, a thirty-one year old from Forest Hills, and both his lungs to Julie, a New Jersey woman in her mid-thirties. His liver was donated to Han, a Chinese-American in his fifties: one of his kidneys went to an eight year old boy, Joe, and the other to a nineteen year old, Ethan. The same week that James died, five people’s lives were renewed due to his parents decision.
This June, in a nondescript beige office near Times Square, the five recipients gathered with James’ family. Spread out on the table in the center of the office were photos of James as a child, James in his Navy Reserves uniform, and James smiling with his sisters. One by one James’ parents spoke to each of the people who carried a part of their son inside them. Each received a photo of James. To each of the recipients his parents made this singular request: “Make sure you take care of yourself; honor his life with yours.”
One deed of an individual may decide the fate of another and even the world. We Jews are called upon to care for the stranger. Our tradition knows that all our lives are intertwined. Rabbi Jack Stern, of blessed memory, taught that “Jews are to bring more love, more justice and more compassion into our world.” We read the commandments of the Holiness Code to guide us in doing just this. And each Yom Kippur we are reminded that these commandments are not optional: they are sacred obligations. We are asked to integrate these mitzvot into the person we want to be.
Yom Kippur is Difficult in Order to Facilitate Change
Changing ourselves is difficult. The rituals of Yom Kippur compel us to set comfort aside. We cannot drink, eat, work or play. Instead, we join together in worship. And even the worship is outside of the normal. The prayers are different, and the services and sermons, are longer and more solemn.
The change in pattern and the serious themes of this day help us transform ourselves. We are to hold a mirror to our face and ask, “What are my flaws, whom have I wronged, who do I actually want to see looking back at me?
We thrust ourselves out of our regular orbit into rigorous introspection; Today’s reflection isn’t meant to be some passive contemplation, but to impel the hard work of soul-searching.
Who Do I Want To Be?
We say on Rosh Hashanah the Book of Life is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed…who shall live and who shall die. These words dramatize the gravity of this time for all of us.
And yet Yom Kippur is a day of hope. We can begin to become the person we would like to be. We can wrestle with our imperfection and transcend it. Our tradition affirms we can do it, however difficult it is.
As this Yom Kippur approached, I thought about my friend Carolyn’s childhood game of “Movie Stars.” And I could not help but wonder: when we hear the footsteps of the author of the Book of Life coming down our hallway and knocking on our door to let us know that our time on this earth is over, we don’t want to hear ourselves say “Oh no, we need more time, we got distracted, we don’t even know who we want to be yet, we were just about to decide.”
Because we know what the Holy One is going to say.
“I’m sorry…get your coat…it’s time to go.”
Yom Kippur has begun. Let each of us decide who do I want to be, and let us make it so.
(1) Sarna, Nahum M., JPS Commentary Exodus, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1989, p. 59
(2) Heschel, Abraham Joshua, God in Search of Man, Farr, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1955, Chapters 28, 34
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