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Reckoning with Ourselves

What follows is my sermon from Yom Kippur evening.

Let me begin with a statement of faith. It is the most profound of Jewish teachings. It is this. We can change. We can do better. I recognize this is not always how things appear. This is not what current discourse suggests. Once a cheat, always a cheat. Once a sinner, always a sinner. Once a thief, always a thief. Commit one wrong, however large or small, and it will follow you the rest of your life. That is not Judaism’s perspective. There is always the potential for repair.

These High Holidays are a reaffirmation of this belief. We affirm that human beings have a remarkable potential for good. We acknowledge our mistakes together. We do not single one person out over another. We recount our wrongs in community. Why? So that we can do better. That in a nutshell is what all these hours of praying and fasting, of standing up and sitting down, of singing and beating our chests are all about. We can change. We can turn. We can devote ourselves to repentance. We can do better.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l tells the following story: When God begins to create the world with all of its wonders, God shares a secret with the angels. God tells them, human beings will be fashioned in God’s image. The angels become very jealous. In fact, they become outraged. Better God should give this precious gift to them, the angels. They say, “Why should humans be entrusted with such a precious gift. They are flawed. They make tons of mistakes. If humans find out their true power, they will abuse it. If they discover they are created in God’s image, then they will become better than the angels.” The angels conspire against God and God’s plan. They decide to steal God’s image. But now that God’s image is in their hands, they must pick a place to hide it so that humans can never find it. They gather for a brainstorming session—or as some might call it, a committee meeting.

The angel Gabriel suggests, “Let’s hide God’s image at the top of the highest mountain peak.” The others object, “One day humans will learn to climb—even Mount Everest—and then they will find it there.” The angel Michael says, “Let’s hide it at the bottom of the sea.” “No way,” the others loudly respond. “One day they will figure out how to explore even the farthest reaches of the oceans.” And so, one by one the angels suggest hiding places. All were rejected. But then Uriel, the wisest of all the angels, steps forward and says, “I know a place where people will never look.” “Where?” they cried. “In the human soul.” And so, the angels hide the precious image of God deep within the human soul.

And to this day God’s image lies hidden in the very place we are least likely to search for it. In our own souls. In the souls of those sitting next to us. In our neighbors’ and friends’ souls—and even in those of our enemies. Within every human being lies God’s image. Too often we forget it’s right there. Too often we forget that it’s hiding in plain sight. God’s image is hiding right before our eyes—in people.

Our faith does not believe we are inherently good, that doing the right thing comes easily and naturally, but instead there lies within each of us the possibility for good, the potential to do better. Hiding within every human soul is God’s image. Our job is to figure out how to unlock it and how to see it in others.

There is a tendency these days to look at others and allow their one wrong to label them. We see a wrong and we clamor for justice. We wish to right the wrongs committed.

The Talmud, the great repository of Jewish wisdom, wrestles with this very question. A long time ago, in the first century CE to be exact, two great rabbis argued about how to address this conflict between justice and repentance. These two rabbis were Hillel and Shammai. Being rabbis, they did not agree about much. They argued about almost everything. They debated how many candles to light on the first night of Hanukkah. Shammai said eight. Hillel said one.

They saw the world through different lenses. Shammai believed in absolute justice. He thought that the most important thing was getting it right, no matter the cost. Hillel, on the other hand, was a peacemaker. He seemed to think that justice could at times be compromised. Community, and family, come before absolute justice.

Among their many disagreements is the following: Hillel said, “Always tell the bride she is beautiful on her wedding day.” Shammai countered, “Just, tell her the truth.” Shammai must have always been screaming and shouting about truth and justice. It makes you wonder if he had any followers—or if he was able to get a long-term contract. I imagine he had a congregation of one. Hillel won the day with his counsel. He saw the divine image first. “She is beautiful to her partner. They are beautiful in each other’s eyes. That is all the truth that really matters.” Shammai stubbornly pursued truth at all costs.

A person approached the two about converting to Judaism and said, “Teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai said, “Get the hell out of here. How dare you demean Jewish learning and ask me to reduce it to a few sentences.” Hillel said, “What is hateful to you do not do to another. All the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.” Hillel opened the door. Shammai remained unwavering in his commitment to truth and justice. Each represent legitimate perspectives. Only Hillel thought to unlock the divine image in everyone.

The Talmud reports about their argument concerning stolen property and in particular what we should do if that stolen item is now used for another purpose (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55a). “What happens,” the Talmud asks, “if a palace is built with a stolen beam?” Shammai responds, “Knock the house down.” It is, in a sense, rotten to the core. Its foundations are propped up by thievery and dishonesty. Hillel responds, “The thief must be pay for the value of the beam.” The house can remain standing. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah we examined this text and discussed it at length. Many liked Shammai’s approach. To be honest I do as well. It gives one a sense of justice. Imagine what the person whose beam was stolen might think when looking at the palace. The Talmud of course anticipates these feelings. Why does Hillel rule in this manner? Why does Jewish law side with him rather than Shammai? Because his approach leaves open the possibility for repentance. And the Talmud, and Jewish tradition, want to leave that door open. It wants to leave open the possibility that someone can change and that the community can be made whole. Destroy the palace might seem like justice but all it really accomplishes is burning the house down. Then no one can use the beam again. And then, there is no possibility that the wrongdoer might change.

Shammai makes this day of Yom Kippur meaningless. He leaves all of us homeless. Sometimes all strict justice achieves is to take back what is rightfully ours or to take away what does not rightfully belong to another. It does not, however, accomplish the thing we most hope for, and what we most believe in. And that is repair. A person can change. That’s what this day is all about. And while none of us have stolen beams propping up our homes, all of us have done wrong, and have made mistakes. All we need to do is acknowledge these wrongs and seek repair. We have to figure out where those stolen beams of our lives might be. We have to acknowledge them. We have to figure out how to pay for them.

Among David Ben Gurion’s most controversial decisions was the reparations deal he brokered with Germany in the early 1950’s. By then Israel had resettled 500,000 Holocaust survivors. Leaders calculated that six billion dollars worth of Jewish property had been plundered by the Nazis. It was only a small majority of the Israeli Knesset that approved this reparations deal. It was an intensely controversial decision, and one that was accompanied by vociferous debate. Those on the right and left opposed it. Menachem Begin, a Holocaust survivor, led sometimes violent protests. People argued that accepting any money would be tantamount to forgiving Germany for its sins. Ben Gurion was a practical man and pressed forward. His fledgling country needed financial support. And so today, many of the buses and taxi cabs on Israel’s streets are Mercedes. In fact, Mercedes Benz is one of the few companies that reached a separate deal with Israel. In that 1988 deal the company admitted guilt and complicity for their WWII crimes.

I understand when people say that they will not buy any German products. I remember once hearing someone say she will never forgive the Germans, their children, grandchildren and even their great grandchildren. I understand and appreciate the emotion. I get the desire for justice. But Judaism also teaches about repentance and repair. I do not imagine that Ben Gurion was thinking about such Jewish principles when he advocated for this reparations deal. I reckon that all he was thinking about was his small country’s great needs. And yet his decision seems in keeping with Jewish tradition and belief. Of course justice for Eichmann y”s and all his henchmen, but leave open the door for change. These days there are a number of exchange programs involving Israeli and German youth. And now in the heart of Berlin, there is a striking monument to the murder of six million Jews, to the slaughter of six million of our people. It is a remarkable transformation. Germany erected a memorial to commemorate not its triumphs—there are no statues marking the bravery of Germany’s soldiers—but instead one to mark its sins.

This summer I ventured to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. I recognize this might sound like a strange destination for a rabbi, so let me explain. For two days a group of approximately fifty rabbis journeyed to Bryan Stevenson’s remarkable Legacy Museum and the National Memorial to Peace and Justice. We toured the prominent sights of the civil rights struggle, visiting Martin Luther King’s home and walking across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge where the 1965 voting rights march began. We met with Dr. Shirely Cherry who took us through Dr. King’s Dexter Avenue Parsonage. She has now retired from a life of teaching. She told us how she managed to go to college. Her mother worked day and night in a cleaner’s. And there, on many occasions she was forced to press and iron Klan robes. Imagine that. An African American woman having to iron KKK robes during the early days of the civil rights struggle. Dr. Cherry then said, “You need some humor when you’re fighting against wrongs,” and she then quipped, “I am proud to say I went to college on a Klan scholarship.”

But the humor felt uncomfortable. I felt as if I walked across a bridge into a country with which I was unfamiliar. It was a shattering experience. Walking through the streets of Montgomery on our way to find a good cup of coffee, Susie and I stumbled past what was once the slave market. Meandering along the river walk I was struck that this very place was once the bustling heart of our nation’s slave trade. Twelve million people were kidnapped from their homes in Africa and brought here to be enslaved in America’s South. After the international slave trade was outlawed, the slave owners came to Montgomery to buy and sell people. I read of this history in books but felt as if I was unaware until seeing it with my own eyes.

The memorial in particular is striking. It marks this history of lynchings committed throughout the South. The names of counties where these barbaric crimes were committed are etched on large iron, rectangular fixtures suspended from on high. There were seemingly innumerable towns hanging above us, as if swaying from trees. Mirror images of these are arrayed in horizontal rows nearby. And there one is confronted by a sign that reads, “These are intended for the counties to take and erect in their town squares.” There is not one empty space. No county or town throughout the South has taken the Legacy Museum up on its offer. There remains little acknowledgment of past misdeeds. I longed to see but one empty space.

I returned home determined to acknowledge more and learn more. I remain determined to change. Prior to leaving I sought out our local clergy. Reverend Linda Vanager and her husband Harry from the nearby Hood AME Zion Church agreed to meet with me despite the rather peculiar nature of my request. “I am about to go to Alabama to learn more about our nation’s history. Will you meet with me and help me prepare for this mission?” They could not have been more gracious. They came to the synagogue. We peppered each other with questions. I learned more about their faith, their ministry, their personal stories. We came into our sanctuary. I unrolled a Torah scroll for them. We embraced after hours of conversation. I returned from my trip and now visited their church on Summit Street. I must admit. I had driven by this church on countless occasions but rarely if ever took note. And yet here it has stood since 1848. How, and why, was it established along with its nearby Pine Hollow cemetery? Because the church founders’ white employers did not want sit next to them or church, and pray alongside them, or even be buried next to them.

I want to learn more. These days in Alabama were embarrassingly revelatory. There are certain images I cannot get out of mind. I want our young people to travel there. Our nation has not come to terms with its history or its racism. I am not sure of the path forward. I have determined it begins with acknowledgment. Looking back, even the smallest of things must be examined.

I confessed to my newfound friends. I said, “I have been a swimmer for most of my life. There was never a person of color on any of the swim teams in which I participated. The reason why, we would repeat to each other, year after year, on every swim team of which I was a member, is because blacks have a different body chemistry than whites. They have too much muscle mass to be good swimmers.” Our high school locker room discussions became heated on the one occasion when we swam against a team with a black swimmer. We contorted facts to fit our long-held theory. That belief was repeated over and over again. We were convinced of its truth because our lives stood apart from another reality. Linda and Harry stared at me. Their eyes seem to say, “We thought you were smart.” The obvious answer never occurred to me. Swimming requires pools. It means having grown up boating and sailing. For God’s sake I won’t even swim laps in a hotel pool if it is not regulation length. Can you get any more privileged than that? You fool. You need access to pools in order to learn how to swim. It never occurred to me before this summer that one of my greatest joys is not accessible to far too many people. I feel fortunate, and lucky, that Linda and Harry still want to be my friends.

And I am left searching for those hidden, stolen beams that prop up my own life. And I do not know how to effectuate repair. I do not even know where to begin. I am trying to listen to the voices of others. This day of Yom Kippur is about acknowledging our errors. And so, I begin by making this small confession. This day is also about believing that people can change.

There is a path to repentance. Acknowledge the error. Look for the divine image within others. Search for the divine image within yourself.

Rabbi Shammai added, “And always greet everyone with a smile.” That seems odd coming from him. Everything I know about Shammai would suggest that he grimaced more than he smiled, he shouted far more than he spoke measured words of softness. I imagine that Shammai had a mighty struggle within himself. He was preaching to himself. He seemed to be saying, keep on searching for that divine countenance. He so believed in truth and justice that sometimes that hidden, divine image became obscured from view. Sometimes it even obscured the divine image within his own soul. Perhaps the best sermon, and the best advice, is the one that you have the most trouble observing and doing yourself.

I am left searching for the image in myself. I am searching for the image in others.

Judaism believes in people. It does not believe that people are wholly good. It also conversely does not believe that people are wholly bad. The stain, and error, does not forever mark us. There is however a potential for good in each of us. We have to search for that good in ourselves and in others. We have to look for that divine image. It may be hiding. But it also can be found.

That search begins tonight. That search begins on this Yom Kippur.