Rabbi Jonathan offered this sermon at Kol Nidre services at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation on September 15, 2021.
Download sermon text HERE.
My friends, as you are well aware we are living in frightening and disturbing times. I do not want to offer reassurances that I cannot guarantee, or mutter platitudes about how things will get better. Things in fact may not get better in the coming years. As climate crises mount and if the fabric of our society continues to unravel, we may very well find ourselves in the coming years coping with disruptions to our lives that we never imagined.
Our species as a whole does not seem to be very capable of collective foresight and action. Yet I do not counsel despair. Almost anywhere we look we can witness heroic and dedicated efforts to keep our planet and our society intact. And if we look even more closely we can witness the countless daily acts of love and kindness that keep us all going.
Still, this is clearly not a time for complacency. This evening I would like to share some central axioms of Judaism that give us a foundation to support our continued engagement with the challenges ahead.
The first axiom of Judaism is that the Universe is not neutral about human beings. The heroes of the Torah are our founders because they hear YHVH, Life Unfolding, calling to them – and they respond. The message is irrefutably clear. The Creator wants us to bring holiness, righteousness and equity into the world. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers and activists of the 20th century, Holocaust refugee and civil rights icon, poet and mystic, expressed this experience eloquently, and I want to quote him at length. He says:
Over and above personal problems, there is an objective challenge to overcome inequity, injustice, helplessness, suffering, carelessness, oppression. Over and above the din of desires there is a calling, a demanding,…an expectation. There is a question that follows me wherever I turn. What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?
What we encounter is not only flowers and stars, mountains and walls. Over and above all things is a sublime expectation… With every child born a new expectation enters the world.
This is the most important experience in the life of every human being: something is asked of me. Every human being has had a moment in which he sensed a mysterious [expectation of] him. Meaning is found in responding to the demand, meaning is found in sensing the demand.
Heschel’s words ring true: to be Jewish means that you are committed to responding to this sensed demand: something is asked of me. This commitment does not make life easier; it makes life more meaningful. Our ability to respond – our response-ability – is called in Hebrew teshuvah. As you know, teshuvah is our main focus and task during this season of High Holy Days, the Days of Awe. We are here precisely to refine and recalibrate our ability to sense what is demanded of us, and to respond as we did earlier this evening, Hineni mukhan u’mezuman, here I am, ready and willing.
Which brings me to the next axiom of Judaism: we humans are by definition a mixed bag. Endowed as we are with free choice and strong wills, there is no guarantee that we will hear or heed that existential demand. Therefore to fulfill our potential we need to continually monitor and work on ourselves. This is the mitzvah we are fulfilling together by observing Yom Kippur. We are here to engage in humble and honest kheshbon nefesh, self-assessment; to acknowledge the ways we have missed the mark; to grow in awareness; and to hone our intentions for the New Year. If we were perfect, obviously we would not need to gather in this way. But as we just chanted, “we are not so prideful and stiff-necked as to say, ‘We are completely righteous and have not sinned, for of course we have sinned.’”
The Torah ascribes our conflicted nature to our very origin, as God forms us out of the soil of the earth, and then breathes spirit into us so that we become living beings. We are a combination of earthy desires and spiritual and moral aspirations. Our ancient sages named these competing urges the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov, the urge toward evil and the urge toward good. I temper the starkness of that language by describing the yetzer hara as our primal needs and desires, which if unchecked lead to selfishness and greed, and by describing the yetzer hatov as our unselfish awareness of the needs of others, and therefore our capacity to delay or moderate personal gratification in favor of a greater good. This constant struggle defines us as human beings. Judaism demands that we rise to the challenge. As Heschel wrote so eloquently, “Over and above the din of desires there is a calling, a demanding,…an expectation.”
Judaism harbors no illusions about our repeated and abject failure to rise above our selfishness and to pursue equity and compassion. From Noah’s ark and on, Jewish stories portray God as wondering whether creating human beings was in fact a bad mistake, even a tragic error. I again want to quote Rabbi Heschel, a refugee from Nazi Europe:
I speak as a member of a congregation whose founder was Abraham, and the name of my rabbi is Moses. I speak as a person who was able to leave Warsaw, the city in which I was born, just six weeks before the disaster began. My destination was New York, it would have been Auschwitz or Treblinka. I am a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people was burned to death…I speak as a person who is often afraid lest God has turned away from [humanity] in disgust.
As witnesses to the abominations of the 20th century and modern warfare, and now to the once-unimaginable prospect of humanity actually ruining our entire planetary home, we can understand Judaism’s sometimes dim view of our species. And yet, Judaism never gives up on us, and claims that God never gives up on us either. Which brings me to the next axiom of Judaism: while we may be a mixed bag, we are never a lost cause. For we are generous as well as selfish, loving as well as hateful, visionary and courageous as well as small-minded and petty. We can always do teshuvah, always hear the call, always raise ourselves up. That is why we gather on this Holy Day: to once again summon our best selves, together, as we prepare for a new year.
This brings me to the final axiom of Judaism that I want share with you this evening: we cannot do this alone. For Judaism, individuals do not exist apart from the society that shapes them. We are formed by our interactions, by our teachers, by our families, and by our communal laws and norms. Therefore the Torah legislates for a good society, one that privileges generosity over selfishness, the collective good over self-interest, and equal justice over the brute exercise of power. The Torah legislates for a society in which the needs of the poor are always considered, and in which the powerless are treated with dignity and fairness.
A good society supports each individual in their lifelong effort to strengthen their better nature, their yetzer hatov. Those raised in such an environment embrace doing right as the expectation of their community. Rabbi Heschel taught: “It is right that the good actions should become a habit, that the preference of justice should become our second nature. A good person is not one who does the right thing, but one who is in the habit of doing the right thing.”
A failed society encourages our basest and most selfish impulses, our yetzer hara. Judaism specifically demands that we continually work for the upbuilding and maintenance of a society that protects and promotes justice, equity and compassion, so that doing right is maintained as the default expectation of all. If we do not, the yetzer hara will likely prevail. The Talmud (Shevuot 39a) describes how one sin can encourage the next, in a cascading effect. The Talmud concludes that “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh” – “All Israel is responsible one for the other,” meaning that it is our collective responsibility to minimize sinful behavior. We cannot do this alone; we must act together.
Yom Kippur is a somber day, a day when we Jews examine our lives with care, so that we can recommit to the highest path. And so I am asking us to do that today. That seriousness of purpose will not preclude rejoicing – Sukkot arrives in just a few days, awaiting our joyous presence. But we will arrive at Sukkot together with a clarity of purpose, thanks to this Day of At-one-ment.
I would like to conclude with one more statement of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
English was for Rabbi Heschel perhaps his 5th or 6th language; he learned it only as an adult refugee, and he spoke it with a thick Yiddish accent. Yet his command of his new tongue resonates within me. He wrote, “The world is not a vacuum. Either we make it an altar for God or it is invaded by demons. There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil.”
This is the Jewish way.
— Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre Service, 5782/2021