What follows is my Yom Kippur morning sermon.
A Hasidic story. In the wealthier sections of Rophshitz, the town where Reb Naftali was the rebbe, it was common for homeowners to hire night watchmen to guard their property. One evening, the rebbe went for a walk in the woods. On his return to town he walked through this wealthy neighborhood. A watchman saw him coming through the forest and called out to him to halt.
When he drew closer, and the rebbe’s face was illuminated by the street lamps, the watchman said, “I am sorry, Rebbe, I did not recognize you in the dark.” The rebbe smiled and then asked, “For whom do you work?” The watchman told him. Then he asked the rebbe the same question, “And for whom are you working this evening, Rebbe?”
The question hit Reb Naftali like a lightning bolt. He stepped back and grew startled; he stammered, “I am not working for anyone at the moment.” The rebbe continued pacing back and forth under the street lamps. Suddenly he stopped, turned to the watchman, and said, “I would like to hire you.”
“Me?” the man said. “But I am just a watchman. I know nothing about rabbis and what’s important to them. All I know how to do is protect what matters most to my master. What could I possibly do for you?” “The very same thing,” Reb Naftali said. “What matters to me is my soul, and to protect it I must be certain I continue to work for God.”
“I do not understand. What would my job then be?” The wise rabbi responded, “To remind me. To ask me questions such as, ‘For whom are you working this evening?’ To make me halt. I need someone to keep asking me questions.”
People think that religion is about answers. It is not. It is instead about the question. Who do we really work for? How can our lives have meaning? How do we make sense of all this? Why is this happening? Why?
I understand how people come to think religion is about answers. We write books—lots and lots of them—about what we are supposed to do and what we are supposed to believe. Judaism certainly spends a lot of time talking about what we are supposed to do. There can even be found some measure of agreement about the answers to such questions. How long is the Yom Kippur fast? What should you do if your health does not allow you to fast? Our tradition offers answers to every imaginable question about what we are supposed to do on this day. What are we supposed to do on the upcoming holiday of Sukkot? How many walls must your sukkah have to be called a sukkah? How many branches of the willow do you need so that your lulav can be called a proper lulav? We ask more and more questions. After mixing the flour and water together how many minutes do you bake it in order to create matzah rather than bread? The to do lists become longer and longer.
The fact that Judaism agreed upon the answers to questions such as these gives people the impression that our faith is about providing exactitudes. Say the Shema in the morning and the evening. But is that prayer really an answer to our questions? “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one.” Is it even a prayer? We say it sometimes, even when there is doubt in our hearts. We think as well that because every synagogue is reading from the same exact Torah portion every week means that we have it all figured out. The Torah is the answer is the implication. But all we have figured out is that everyone should be reading the same page and arguing about the same verses. The Torah portion is not an answer. It is the beginning of our discussion. I am fond of telling my bar/bat mitzvah students that their sermons begin with their questions about their portion. Go home and read it, I instruct them. Come back with some questions. Come back with some reactions. Come back with a list of what you liked and what you didn’t like. And then we can talk Torah. Then maybe after weeks of discussions we can figure out our responses to your questions.
That has always been my view of the sermon. It is an attempt to grapple with a question. People think the sermon is also about answers. They think it is all about the rabbi telling people what to do and what to believe. It is an understandable impression because the rabbi often raises his or her voice and occasionally even shouts. Oh, what passion. Let’s be honest. The sermon as we know it is really the least Jewish part of our entire service—even though I must confess on this day devoted to honest introspection, I really, really like standing up here in front of all of you and talking for twenty minutes. You don’t become a rabbi if you don’t like talking and you don’t like talking in front of crowds. So where did this sermon come from?
Protestant Christianity. In that tradition the Bible and the prophets are more central. The prophets thundered about injustice. The earliest of prophets, Amos, preached almost 2,800 years ago. He said: “Because you impose a tax on the poor and exact from him a levy of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted delightful vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I have noted how many are your crimes, and how countless your sins—you enemies of the righteous, you takers of bribes, you who subvert in the gate the case of the needy.” (Amos 5) You can hear Martin Luther King’s inspiration in these words. You can find what so moved my hero, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and propelled him to march with King and declare on another occasion, “When we find a drop of blood in an egg, we abhor the idea of eating the egg. But often there is more than one drop of blood in a dollar or a lira and we fail to remind the people constantly of the teachings of our tradition.” You can feel the inspiration for Heschel’s activism within Amos’ chords. It is almost impossible to read yesterday’s words and not think they still apply. Take to heart the prophet’s words. They have relevance for today.
Still Heschel also rightly noted that the prophets were always screaming. He remarked that they always spoke an “octave too high.” The prophets were ignored in their own generations. The prophet Jeremiah was even jailed. Even their families felt cursed by their husbands’ and fathers’ singular obsession with God and God’s justice. People were often turned off by the prophets’ certainty, their self-righteousness and their sense that God speaks to me and not to you. And yet the brilliance of the Jewish tradition was to preserve the prophets’ words for future generations and to read them as the Haftarah selections on Shabbat morning. It is best to keep such indignation at a distance, I imagine our ancient rabbis reasoned. And yet take note of this fact. They allowed Amos to continue his thundering. His own generation might have ignored him, but we still have a chance to listen and heed his exhortations.
The prophet Amos continues, “Why should you want the day of the Lord? Surely the day of the Lord shall be not light, but darkness, blackest night with a glimmer. I loathe, I spurn your festivals. I am not appeased by your solemn assemblies. If you offer Me burnt offerings—or your meal offerings—I will not accept them; I will pay no heed to your gifts of fatlings. Spare Me the sound of your hymns, and let Me not hear the music of your lutes. But let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5). We still chant these words. People still elevate the Haftarah as the defining moment of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Do we take to heart their words?
This is why our Reform movement highlights the prophets’ sense of justice. They provide us an answer for what we are supposed to do in this world, for how we are supposed to address the concerns of what we see before us. How can we make sense of all this? I sometimes feel called to speak with their voice. The prophet appears to address contemporary challenges. So, it would seem. But look at this morning Haftarah. Isaiah who prophesied during the sixth century BCE says, “Is this the fast I am looking for? A day of self-affliction? Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58)
The final word on this morning’s fast is given to a prophet. And thus, even our fast is punctuated by a question mark. Do you think this is what really matters? Do you think all this praying and all this fasting is what matters most? After hours of reciting the prayers our ancient rabbis labored to create, they send us off with a question. That’s my heroes for you. Always a question. Never a final answer. They left the sermon for others to say. They left chastisements for their predecessors to offer. The term sermon is problematic. It implies answers rather than questions. It suggests moralizing and pronouncements. But the Hebrew for sermon is drasha. It comes from the word to search. A sermon giver is a darshan, a seeker. That is where I think we all should reside. We search together.
Rebecca Solnit in her fantastic book with an equally fantastic title, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, offers this observation. “There is a strange crossroads these days, between the actual and the known. Biologists estimate that about 1.7 million species are known, but that there are between 10 and 100 million on earth. Our discovery and categorization of species increases at a manic rate, but so does the disappearance of both known and unknown species. More is known; there is less to know; we lose both what we know and what we don’t. It is certain that species are vanishing without ever having been known to science.” It is an observation that takes your breath away. Nothing can be entirely known. The world is too vast to quantify. Creation is too mysterious to categorize. We are racing to answer questions as they disappear before us.
That is why I wish every sermon could conclude with a question mark. That would seem so much more Jewish than the expected exclamation point. And so we must learn to embrace the question, to wrap our arms around the unknown, the ambiguity and the uncertainty. More often than not when meeting with those who are considering conversion to Judaism this is exactly what they say they best like about Judaism. When I ask them, why are you attracted to Judaism, more often than not they answer, “I love that it does not tell me what to think or what to believe. I love that it encourages me to keep asking questions.” For those born into a Jewish life we often forget this novelty. We would do well to take to heart such a reminder. The question mark thunders louder than the answer. Perhaps, we might even say the question is the answer. It is why of course they choose to become Jewish. It is what I continue to believe is most wonderful about our tradition. I admit, questioning might not seem so comforting, but it is our inheritance. The certainty of the prophets remains for days of old.
My teacher Rabbi David Hartman z”l always taught us about the importance of the search. He modeled two values: be courageous and ask questions. He even saw questions where others saw answers. Every summer he would remind us of his favorite Talmudic teaching. The rabbis asked, what is the minimum amount of food one must eat before one is required to say a blessing and give thanks to God for being satisfied? The rabbis answered their question. K’zayit—an olive’s worth. Reb David reasoned, and I can still hear him shouting—he sometimes thundered with prophetic inspiration—who in the world is satisfied after eating an olive? That’s not enough to constitute a meal in any one’s book. And so, he taught us, this must mean that the rabbis wished us to embrace imperfection and uncertainty. Even when you are still hungry you say thank you to God. Even when you are fasting you ask is this really all God wants from me. Every sermon should end with a question. Because only the question can lead to a more thoughtful and courageous Jewish life.
A final story. Years ago, when I was a much younger rabbi than I am now, a congregant called and asked for some help. She explained that her next-door neighbor was dying of brain cancer. Her husband approached her asking for advice. She was overwhelmed by the request. She said, “I don’t know what to do. But my rabbi will know what to do. He will have the answer. I will call him for you.” And so, she called me and told me about this tragic situation. “You told them what?” I screamed. “No one knows such answers.” But she had more confidence in me than I had in myself. “You will know,” she said. I called the man and listened. He told me about his wife who was in her fifties and was dying. He spoke about his son and daughter in their twenties. I felt his sadness. I offered to visit them in the hospital.
The next day I drove to Memorial Sloan Kettering. I soon found the room. There was the man and his son standing by the door, their faces shadowed by pain. Lying in bed was the woman, and alongside her in the hospital bed, was her adult daughter, with her arms wrapped tightly around her mother who was in a coma and near death. I introduced myself. I spoke about how I was sent by their neighbor. I had scarcely finished these introductions when the young woman looked up from the bed and asked, “Why is this happening?”
I blurted out, “I do not know.” I could offer nothing else. We spoke some more. They told me about their mother. He spoke lovingly of his wife. I offered that they could call me any time and that if they wished I would make myself available when she dies. I left them with my phone number. I still remember this moment as if it was yesterday. As I walked along the street to my car, I reviewed the conversation in my head. They asked me a serious question and I could not even offer a partial answer. What kind of rabbi am I? What kind of answer is “I do not know.” I did such a terrible job.
They called within a few days explaining that she had died. They asked that if I was willing they would like me to officiate at the funeral. I agreed. We arranged for a time when I could come to their home and speak about their mother and wife. I arrived the next day. They greeted me with thanks for visiting them in the hospital. And then the daughter said, “I really want to thank you for what you said and your answer to my question.” I looked at her with puzzlement. “But I did not give you an answer.”
She then said, “Everyone else who visited—every chaplain, every rabbi the hospital sent to us— gave us some theological mumbo-jumbo like ‘This is happening for a reason.’ You were the only one who said, ‘I do not know.’ And we figured that if you don’t know then we don’t have to know too. And that felt better than all those silly answers and feeble explanations.”
That moment has stayed with me for nearly fifteen years. I had unknowingly stumbled upon an important truth. The question is the answer. In attempting to lessen someone’s pain we often find refuge in clichés and aphorisms. When we don’t know what to say, when faced with unanswerable complexities, we grab hold of simplicity. “Because of this you will grow stronger,” or, “God only gives you what you can handle,” we say. We think we offer comfort but too often add pain. The clichés only assuage our own feelings. “I have to say something,” we think. Better to say nothing. Better to throw your arms up and say, “I don’t really know what to say.” Perhaps just say, “I love you.” There is no theology that can fill that void, no thundering pronouncements that can heal. It is only the quiet affirmation that can soften.
We must learn to affirm the question and embrace the uncertainties—together. The question lingers. Most can never be answered. We have no choice but to affirm them and embrace them together.
And so, I conclude where I began. I conclude with our questions left unanswered and the night watchman prodding us with his questions. How can our lives have meaning? How do we make sense of all this? Why? Why? Why? I do not know. I do not know. I do not know.
The uncertainties linger. The question is the answer. Let us pledge to embrace these questions and uncertainties—together.