Yom Kippur Day Sermon 2018

Reaching Out To One Another
There is nothing that comes easier to us than speech.  And yet, our tradition understands how fraught speech actually is — how hard it is to speak words that build up and enrich and not words that put down and devalue; how hard it is to speak words that heal and repair and not words that denigrate or shame, how hard it is to disagree without being disagreeable. That is why we conclude our Amidah with the words “My God, guard my tongue from doing evil, and my lips from saying words that are deceitful.”   And that is why eleven of the forty three sins enumerated in the “al cheyt” prayer, the confessional prayer that we say on Yom Kippur, are committed through speech. This morning I want to focus on a subset of those sins — scoffing, contempt, derision, arrogance, hardening of our hearts, stubbornness.

And that is why an article in this month’s Hadassah magazine entitled, “Politics in the Pews”caught my attention. It opens with the story of Michelle Szpilinger, a 39 year old Orthodox Jew who is finding it difficult to find an Orthodox synagogue in her neighborhood where she feels comfortable. Michelle identifies herself as politically liberal,  but the Orthodox community to which she belongs tends toward the politically conservative. When she attends synagogue she feels lonely, she feels like an outsider.. She feels that she no longer fits in. Fortunately, she eventually found a Facebook community of like-minded Orthodox Jews, and joined it.

Then there is Andrew Smith, a registered Republican who moved to Arizona from New Jersey in November of 2016. He is a Reform Jew. When he moved to Scottsdale he sought out a Reform synagogue. He was so offended by the rabbi’s sermon critical of the administration’s immigration policy that he walked out and never returned. He felt that a person with his political views would not be welcome in that synagogue. He now attends Chabad. “They leave politics out of it,” he explained.

It makes me feel sad to hear that a politically liberal woman feels so disconnected and isolated that she felt she could not find a home in an Orthodox synagogue. It pains me to hear that a politically conservative man is so distressed by a rabbi’s sermon that he felt he could not find a home in a Reform synagogue. It made me wonder — are there members of our congregation who feel equally uncomfortable coming to our synagogue because of their political views? That thought concerns me, as it should all of us. We pride ourselves on being a “welcoming community” — but are we really equally welcoming to everyone across the political spectrum?

This is the world we live in. Whether it be in our families, our synagogues, or our country we have difficulty tolerating the tension that comes with being in the same room with someone who holds political views that are different from our own. Social science research bears out that we are an increasingly divided country.  In 1960, just 5 percent of Republicans and 4 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy if a son or daughter married someone from the other party. Today, half of Republicans and a third of Democrats say they would be unhappy if a son or daughter married someone in the other party.

I think this stems from our belief that we, and only those who think like us, have a hold on the truth. Polls show that significant numbers from each political party consider members of the other party exceptionally ill-informed, unprincipled and dishonest! We approach one another with our minds made up, our positions set, our defenses raised for battle. Many of us have no interest in truly listening to what another person has to say. We avoid saying things that might be unpopular or controversial because we don’t want to deal with the pain of having someone call us out, attack us, or shame us. While we cherish our freedom of speech, we have forgone our capacity to listen.

The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, zichrono livracha, wrote a poem expressing the sterility of talking with one another when either or both of the parties has foreclosed the possibility of being influenced by the other.

From the place where we are right/ Flowers will never grow/ In the spring.

The place where we are right/  Is hard and trampled/  Like a yard.

But doubts and loves/ Dig up the world  /  Like a mole, a plow…….

The poem is telling us that in order to engage in a productive conversation from which we, and our understanding of an issue, can grow, we must leave room for doubt in our own position. Nothing can sprout in  ground  hardened by our convictions. “Doubt and love dig up the world,” he writes. We must not only leave room for questioning our own position, but we must engage with those who hold different positions with love in our hearts. Our disagreements should not come from a place of aggression and a desire to destroy a person or their positions, but from a place of dignity and honor for a fellow human being.

We all know very well that listening to one another is not easy. Yet, often we can learn the most from those who have divergent ideas and have different experiences in life from our own. The story is told in the Talmud about the relationship that developed between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lachish. Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lachish were from completely different backgrounds. Rabbi Yochanan was the pre-eminent scholar of his day. Resh Lachish was a highway robber. Yet they became fast friends. Resh Lachish repented and became a great teacher in his own right. Rabbi Yochanan once said that whenever he would interpret a text Resh Lachish would pose twenty four objections to his position, to which he, Rabbi Yochanan, would furnish twenty four solutions. This forced Rabbi Yochanan to hone his own thinking as he addressed his friend’s challenges one by one.

So far, so good — until one day Resh Lachish was teaching a class at the Academy. Rabbi Yochanan disagreed with him about a point of Law. Rabbi Yochanan lost his temper and became frustrated. Rabbi Yochanan said, “You must be right after all, Resh Lachish, for a robber knows his trade.” Resh Lachish was hurt. Rabbi Yochanan had brought up his past in front of the students of the Academy and had shamed Resh Lachish publically.  “And how have you ever helped me,” Resh Lachish retorted. “When I was a robber they called me ‘Master’ and in the Academy they call me ‘Master’”. Now Rabbi Yochanan was hurt. After all he had done for Resh Lachish, to be treated this way! The falling out between the two friends was complete.

As a result of their harsh words to one another, Resh Lachish became gravely ill. But Rabbi Yochanan, angry, hurt, and proud, refused to pray for his healing. When Resh Lachish died, Rabbi Yochanan became deeply depressed and remorseful. He died shortly after of a broken heart.

It is a tragic ending to a wonderful relationship. That’s what can happen when stubbornness, pride, jealousy, suspicion and public shaming interfere with the honest exchange of views. It need not end that way, however. Fortunately, our tradition offers us another model of relating to those who hold opinions different from our own.

The Mishnah, an early compilation of the Oral Law,relates the following:  For three years the students of  Rabbi Hillel and the students of Rabbi Shammai were at loggerheads over an issue of Jewish law. These issues are not of just academic interest. The Rabbis debate issues of law because they seek to discern how G-d wants us to live our lives. One group of students insisted, “The Law is according to our interpretation” and the other group insisted, “No, the Law is according to our interpretation.” Finally, a divine voice from heaven rang out and declared, “Both of your opinions is right, but the law should be enacted according to the Students of Rabbi Hillel!”

The rabbis of the Talmud, who lived three hundred years after the event  just described, are perplexed. If both the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai were correct about an issue of Jewish Law, why did the Blessed Holy One decide that it was the interpretation of the School of Hillel that should prevail? They answer, “The students of Hillel were good listeners and patient; when they were insulted they showed restraint. When they taught, they would cite not only their teachings but the teachings of the students of Shammai as well. Moreover, they honored their opponents. They presented the students of Shammais position prior to stating their own understanding and analysis of the Jewish law in question. The qualities demonstrated by the School of Hillel that merited that their interpretations be enacted — patience,  restraint, and understanding– are all clearly lacking  in much of our discourse today. It is all about, as Aretha Franklin put it — R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Respect for the dignity of every human being, listening to their positions and remaining open to the possibility that we still have something to learn from those who hold opinions that differ from our own.

A moving example of this in our own time is the relationship between former Secretary of State John Kerry and the late Senator John Mccain. As you may recall, Kerry, a decorated Navy veteran, was a spokesperson for a group called “Vietnam Veterans Against the War.” that sought an end the war in Vietnam. McCain, of course, was held prisoner of war in North Vietnam and endured years of mistreatment and torture by his captors.  At McCain’s passing, Kerry wrote, “”We met 32 years ago. We both loved the Navy, but had opposite views about the war of our youth. We didn’t trust each other, but really we didn’t know each other. After a long conversation on a long flight, we decided to work together to make peace with Vietnam and with ourselves here in America……..We traveled together to Vietnam and together, we found common ground in the most improbable place. I stood with John, the two of us alone, in the very cell in the Hanoi Hilton where years of his life were lived out in pain but always in honor………John McCain showed all of us how to bridge the divide between a protester and a POW, and how to find common ground even when it was improbable. I will be grateful for that lesson every day of my life.”

In Hebrew this attitude is called “Kavod Bri-oot” — honoring all human beings. It is the recognition that we are all created in the image of G-d and all human beings, no matter what our religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, or political opinion, have an inherent dignity that we should embrace, uphold and expand. As the Jewish sage Ben Azzai says in Pirke Avot “Do not scorn any person, and do not discount any thing — for every person has his or her hour, and every creature of G-d has their rightful place in the world.”

G’mar Chatimah Tovah