Erev Tov everyone, good evening. Shanah Tovah u’metukah. May we all be inscribed for a good and sweet New Year. Bruchim Habaim, welcome to all. I see many familiar faces and, happily, a few unfamiliar faces so I want to emphasis that everyone is welcome, whether you have been coming for years or whether this is your first time with us. All of the new faces and all of the familiar faces. Those of you come only a few times every year, and those of you come all the time. For all of us, at this moment, at this time of year, being here should feel like you have come home, even if you have never been in a synagogue before, or if it has been a long time since your last time. And I do mean home, with all the feelings that come with it. Tonight this synagogue is your home. You belong here and you are accepted here, unconditionally, and here you are loved, unconditionally. You matter and we care about you. Tonight we must all care about each other, that is our purpose, without each of us these services cannot go forward, they cannot exist.
I say this every year, but I feel obligated to say it again: despite appearances, this service is not a performance. We are here to be together and to pray together. With some luck, Cantor Fran, all the participants will provide some leadership and perhaps some inspiration. But what we do here tonight is a collective practice. It is participatory. It requires one to jump in. These holy days can only happen with you. So, if you don’t know what to do, or what is going on, ask the person next to you. When we invite you to sing, please sing… even if you don’t know the tune. Don’t be shy… be brave. And don’t think that being quiet means you are being polite. In fact, it is just the opposite. Tonight we believe the world is reborn and all of us stand on the precipice or a new year, one that can be good or hard, depending on the choices we make. The issues at stake are as serious as it gets. So don’t hang back. Don’t be a bystander. Jump in with both feet! When our voices blend together, the feeling of mutual support, of spiritual strength is palpable. Our prayers feel like they can ascend to the heavens. If it’s just a few of us, then our prayers remain firmly rooted to the ground.
If your mind wanders, which it might, feel free to read the odd number pages, which are thematically related to our prayers, and may speak to you. But, don’t be embarrassed by what you think you don’t know, or that your are “out of practice.” Don’t judge yourself. We are not judging you nor is the Holy One. Well, God may be judging us, but if that is so we are being judged on how we treat each other, not on how well we know the service or Hebrew. And don’t forget to turn off your cell phone.
As many of you know I went to Israel this summer and took a two week course for Jewish educators on how to teach the Holocaust at Yad v’Shem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and research center. It was a phenomenal course and I learned a great deal. But if I had to distill our 100 hours of learning over two weeks down to one idea, it would be this: that we must try to understand the Holocaust through the personal stories of individual people. The number six million is overwhelming. The magnitude of the tragedy and the magnitude of the crime causes the brain to shut down. If we want to attain some understanding of what happened (which, I would suggest, is impossible, for anyone who did not go through it, can never understand it) then we have to try to approach it from the viewpoint of the individuals who did go through it, those who left us testimonies, whether they were murdered or whether they survived.
Even more than that, the only way we can begin to remember, to memorialize, is to try to reclaim the story of each person: who they were before the war, what they went through during the Holocaust, and what happened to them. Because the ultimate goal of the Nazis was not just the annihilation of the Jewish people, their eradication from the face of the earth. Just as important to them was the dehumanization and humiliation of their victims: to strip the Jews of their humanity and their dignity. There is something else too. The flip side is that It is impossible to perpetuate such an indescribable and incomprehensible crime unless you see your victim as less than human. How else can one murder innocents, children and babies, unless they see their victim as a thing, rather than a human being? Thus, dehumanization was an essential component of the crime. So, during the course, we were reminded over and over again, that we must seek out the individual human beings who, collectively, made up the statistics. We are obligated to restore their humanity, to negate their dehumanization and their humiliation. In a word, we are obligated to cultivate our empathy.
I share all this with you, because it seems to me that this is one of the main tasks of these High Holy Days: reconnecting to the humanity in each other. Seeing each other as fully as we can as human beings. Not in the extreme sense of the Holocaust I just spoke about, but in the trivial but essential ways we take each other for granted, day in and day out. This happens each time we see another person as someone to be manipulated to get our way. Or each time we see our child as an extension of ourself. Or each time we see a congregant, or a co-worker, or a friend, and remember an old hurt or frustration, and our anger rises and we just want them to be the way we want them to be, not who they are. Or each time our life partner irritates us with some unconscious quirk over which they have no control, but that nonetheless drives us crazy. A few years ago a congregant told me, after her husband died, how she used to be annoyed by all these little habits her husband had. And now, that he was dead, how she would give anything to have him back again, for just a few minutes, quirks, annoyances and all, in his full, flawed humanness.
If we cannot see the other person as human, endowed with the capacity to do good or ill; if we cannot see them as fallible, capable of making mistakes, whether intentional or unintentional, then all we see is a projection of ourselves, our own hurt, our own experience, and we cannot forgive. Without empathy, which is just seeing others as human beings just as we are, we cannot understand another person. If we cannot understand, we cannot forgive. This is a fundamental teaching of Judaism. One that is in short supply these days. One that needs repeating… all the time: that we must see everyone as a human being, in full. In Bereshit we read, “וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃, And God created humans in God’s image, in the image of God humans were created; male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27) The Mishna develops this idea more fully in Sanhedrin 4:5, “It was for this reason that man was first created as one person [Adam], … to promote peace among the creations, that no one would say to their friend, “My ancestors are greater than yours.” … And also, to express the grandeur of The Holy One [blessed be God]: For a King strikes many coins from the same mold, and all the coins are alike. But the King, the King of Kings, The Holy One [blessed be God] strikes every person from the die of the First Person, and yet no one is like another.” Or to put it as clearly as I can, every human being is created in the Divine image, thus every human being is unique and of equal and infinite value. In our tradition, no one is inferior to anyone else, ever, period. Anyone who says otherwise is desecrating God’s name and God’s creation. No matter who they are. No matter the context. Period. Full stop.
In this sense Judaism is deeply countercultural. Empathy is in short supply. These days we cultivate and nurture our resentments and blame others for our society’s problems. Pundits and commentators get rich doing it. Politicians get elected using it. It is easy to blame someone else for our problems: Mexicans, illegal immigrants, black people, Muslims, Jews, Republican or Democrats. It is always easier to blame others than it is to look inward to find how we contribute to the problem. Just as it is easier to blame someone else for a problem in our relationship or a hurt and not look inward to find our part. Contempt, anger, and resentment are satisfying and corrosive emotions. Corrosive to our souls, corrosive to our relationships, and corrosive to our society as a whole. We know it when we experience them and we know it when we see it on the news. We know what happens to societies that turn on their own citizens. They destroy themselves from the inside out and we Jews have frequently been victimized by just this cultivation of resentment and hatred.
But tonight we begin the High Holy Days and we are challenged (I would say commanded, but I fear that may cause people to tune out, so let me say challenged) to not take the easy path and to blame others, whether for our own pain or for our nation’s problems, but to see each other as fully human. Because all of us are responsible. All of us are flawed. All of us are partly good and partly bad. All of us are capable of greatness and capable of profound failure. Perhaps, if we start there, by doing our best to see the simple, flawed humanity in ourselves and in each other. To give others the same credit and benefit of the doubt we give ourselves, we have a shot at redemption.
The High Holy Days are an invitation to look inward, to heal ourselves, to turn and return to our whole self, our best self, our genuine self. Then turning outward, to mend our relationships, and finally to take what we do here, in this holy place, in this holy time, out into the world and help heal our country. This is our challenge. It begins by nurturing our empathy, our capacity to see others as human, and thus our capacity to heal.
© Copyright 2018 Rabbi Dean Kertesz All Rights Reserved