Kol Nidre 5774

This Day of Judgment
 A few weeks ago, a young man, Michael Brandon Hill, walked armed into the McNair Elementary School in Georgia and barricaded himself into a small office, and threatened a massacre.  The only person standing between him and another Sandy Hook was the school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff. Perhaps you heard the riveting, heart-stopping and poignant recording to 911 that was later released to the public. Tears welled in my eyes as I heard it. Were it not for the courage and level-headedness of this woman, a tragedy would have ensued. What came through in that 911 call was Antoinette Tuff’s understanding and compassion for the person who was threatening her only a few steps away.  “Don’t feel bad, baby,” she was heard saying to Hill during the ordeal, “My husband just left me after 33 years. I’ve got a son that’s mentally disabled. We all got something in life.” “I’m proud of you, it’s a good thing you are giving up. No, Michael, we’re not going to hate you ….. But I just want you to know that I love you. We all go through something in life. I thought the same thing as you. I tried to commit suicide after my husband left me. But look at me now, I’m alright. I’m working and everything. Everything’s going to be alright. Guess what Michael? My last name was Hill too. My mom was a Hill.” Notice what Antoinette Tuffs did NOT say. She did not judge him. She did not tell him he was doing the wrong thing. She expressed her understanding of what he was going through. She saw him not as a deranged person, or a bad person, but as a person in pain crying out for help.  She somehow found it in her heart to reach out in genuine love to a confused, unhinged, and dangerous young man. I do not know how she did it. “I give it all to G-d,” she said, “I’m no hero. I was terrified.” Antoinette Tuffs, in fact, treated Michael Brandon Hill like a good parent might treat a wayward child. It is an extreme example, for sure, but very telling. The Ball Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, was once approached by a woman whose son was doing something bad.  She asked him, “What should I do?” The Baal Shem Tov asked her some questions about her son. He asked her what might have led to her son to do what he was doing. He asked her about her son’s upbringing. He asked her about the role of her son’s father in his life.  Then he said to her, “Love him even more.” “Love him even more.” Some of us may not agree with the Baal Shem Tov.  The Jewish tradition has not always acted in the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov.  I want to share two examples of this.  When I was a child in Scranton, Pennsylvania, I knew of families that sat shiva for their children who defied their wishes and married outside of the Jewish faith. Do you know why parents did that at the time — and our rabbis supported them?  They made the judgment that in marrying outside of the faith, their child was rejecting them and rejecting Judaism.  Few people would make a similar judgment today.  Attitudes have changed. Rabbi Menachem Penner, acting dean at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, speaks for most when he says, “Once you’ve intermarried, it does not mean you’ve left the Jewish faith.” Yet how many were pushed away and lost to Judaism because of our severe judgments of years past?   A second example of how our tradition has not always reached out in love and understanding is illustrated in a film called “Nora’s Will.”  Two weeks ago about forty of our congregants gathered in this sanctuary for Selichot services and to watch this movie.  It deals with the reactions of family and community to a chronically depressed woman who eventually succeeds in taking her own life. The film brilliantly displays the range of thoughts and emotions that family members experience when a person they love commits suicide. It also shows how severely the family’s rabbi judged this woman who took her own life. He felt she had brazenly defied G-d’s will by taking her life. Because she had contemptuously spurned G-d’s greatest gift, she was not entitled to traditional mourning rites.  She would be buried in a section of the cemetery reserved for criminals. He represented how much of our tradition responded to suicide in bygone eras. Bewildered and perplexed, the family sought and found another rabbi who was more compassionate and understanding. “We should not judge,” said this Rabbi, “For who could truly understand what goes on in the mind of a person who makes such a choice.” By not being judgmental, this rabbi helped the family to heal from both the loss of their mother and from wounds of the past. Yom Kippur is called “Yom HaDin” the Day of Judgment. It is a day when we stand before our Creator for our final judgment. Only G-d has the right to judge us. When our children go astray, it is not the time to judge them or to punish them. It is the time to love them even more. Rabbi Jack Riemer tells the story about a friend of his, an Orthodox woman who lives in Israel. This woman has a daughter who broke with the family and broke with everything that the family stood for. The daughter gave up Shabbat observance and keeping Kosher, and all the things that were valued in the family in which she grew up. This mother could have judged her daughter harshly and could have broken with her. What did this mother do instead? She decided that she was not going to lose her child, no matter what. If her child’s home was not kosher, she went there anyway. She brought along her own food to eat, but she went there anyway. If her daughter did not go to synagogue any longer, her mother went to synagogue and then went to visit her. If her daughter did not keep Passover in her own home, she invited her for seder at her house, just the same. Regardless of her daughter’s choices, this mother remained steady and consistently conveyed her love for her child. Eventually, the daughter came back to the family, and has come back to Judaism.  That is the story Rabbi Riemer tells. I want to add a cautionary note. This worked in this particular situation only because the mother was authentic and sincere in her unconditional love for her daughter.  She was not trying to manipulate her daughter into returning to her family’s way of life. She was willing to accept all outcomes. Many stories like this have a different ending. Our children are not going to do what we want, just because we love them and reach out to them.  But love them and reach out to them we must. How many times have we made judgments about other people without knowing the entire story?  We are taught on Yom Kippur that G-d has before Him two sets of books – Sifrei Chayim and Sifrei Meitim – the Books of the Living and the Books of the Dead. We have been taught the two sets of books are open so that G-d can write our names into one of them for the coming year.  However, there is another interpretation of this metaphor of judgment. The Books of the Living contain all of the names of those who are alive today. The Books of the Dead contain all the names of those who have gone before us. G-d consults the Books of the Dead to make decisions about how to judge the living. G-d examines our past to determine our judgment. If a person has been raised in a deprived situation; if their parents’ lives, for example, were more about survival and this kept them from teaching him about Judaism and about the distinctions between right and wrong, then the expectations of him are less, and G-d judges him less severely. If a person, however, has been raised with all of the advantages of life; if his or her parents were privileged and well educated in Jewish matters and secular matters; if they got along with one another and taught him right from wrong,; then the expectations of this person are greater, and G-d judges him more strictly if he sins. Human beings do not have the capacity that G-d has to grasp the totality of a person’s life. We should therefore refrain from judging, for we know not the advantages or disadvantages that a person has had in their life, what they have had to endure, what obstacles they have had to overcome.    This principle is beautifully illustrated in this classic Chassidic story. There was once a rabbi who was a great scholar. He filled his life with acts of chesed and tsedakah. He knew he would be justly rewarded in the world to come. So he prayed to G-d to let him see who his study partner would be when he reached heaven. G-d answered by taking him to the workshop of the village shoemaker. Day in and day out this worn little man made shoes. Yet he seemed to have little to show for it. He was very poor. The man never took time to study; he badly needed to bathe and a change of clothes. The rabbi was very upset. “After all these years of study and good deeds, this man in to be my study partner in the World to Come?” he bellowed. What kind of justice is this! G-d answered, “Go talk to the shoemaker.” The rabbi introduced himself. The shoemaker answered, “I have heard of your great piety. I wish I had the time to go and learn with you. But who has the time? All day I work hard to make shoes for the rich; they pay my living. And then, when there is leather left over, all night I work hard to make shoes for the poor. Nobody should be without shoes because they cannot afford it.” The rabbi then turns to G-d. “Ribono Shel Olam,” he says, “Master of the Universe, I am not worthy to sit with him.” [1] Exercising fair, sound judgment is one of our most important life skills. Yet, we often, like the all too human rabbi in this story, judge based on initial impressions or appearances. Many times we do not take the time to look deeply into a situation or into a person. We judge others, often negatively, on the basis of superficial factors — the type of work they do, the clothing that they wear, the neighborhood they live in, the way that they speak, to name a few — and then act according to those assumptions. Let us try, this year, to judge others as we would have others judge us, as we say in Hebrew, le-khaf ze-chut, with generosity. There is a saying in Judaism that G-d judges us in the same way that we judge others. If we are kind in our judgments and give others the benefit of the doubt; if we look beyond appearances and take the time to examine the matter and examine it deeply, then G-d will be kind in His judgments with us and give us the benefit of the doubt. If, on the other hand, we are narrow- minded in our perspective and judge others unkindly, G-d will do the same with us.  I close with this prayer composed by an anonymous author, which is found on the wall of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem:                 Oh Lord, please help me, guide me and show me /the straight path so that I avoid stumbling /in unworthy pursuits and refrain from speaking/in a way that is not in accordance with Your will. May I merit to be good to everyone/and may I not seek out people’s failings./Rather, may I always use all my capabilities to find /worth in each and every person…..Through Your mercy, may I always judge others favorably; may you bestow upon me the intelligence to understand how to search for and find redeeming factors, strengths and virtues in /my fellow at all times.[2] On this Yom Kippur, on this Yom HaDin, this Day of Judgment, may we all be judged by our Creator with compassion, with mercy, with understanding and with wisdom – and judge our fellows the same way!          

[1] As told by Rabbi Michael Gold
[2] I am grateful to Rabbi Mitch Wohlberg for the prayer and the translation.