Pride Month, which we started celebrating on Thursday, was originally established as a movement to protest bigotry against LGBTQIA+ people. Unfortunately, the need to continue protesting and fighting for equality continues. Those who identify as LGBTQIA+ still face persecution, both around the world, and indeed here in the U.S.
In recent months, state legislatures across the country have restricted access to gender-affirming healthcare, particularly for adolescents; even threatening, in some cases, to take children away from parents who believe their kids need gender-affirming care. Some states have censored learning and discussion around gender identity in public schools; restricted, and even banned, speech or performances that challenge gender norms, such as drag shows; prevented transgender athletes from participating in sports and limited the ability of transgender persons from updating gender information on official records, such as birth certificates and driver’s licenses; punished businesses that create safe spaces for members of the transgender community; allowed companies to withhold goods and services from transgender customers; and even rolled back nondiscrimination laws and other protections, placing transgender people at risk for harassment and losing their jobs.
There is no way to sugarcoat or spin what is going on here. True, our society has undergone a rapid transformation in the way we understand and relate to gender identity and expression. But even the most serious supporters of these legislative efforts acknowledge that they are intended to single out a particular group of people for their innate differences and treat them as a class of human beings distinct from the majority. And since the principles of justice dictate that “separate is inherently unequal,” the effect of these legislative efforts is inherently harmful to those who identify as transgender or nonbinary, as they relegate transgender or nonbinary individuals to a legally lesser class of person, subject to rules and standards that we in the majority would never permit for ourselves.
How would our Torah and tradition encourage us to think about these repressive acts?
Today’s Torah portion, Parashat Naso, begins and ends in ways that are obviously connected to the dominant narrative of the book of Numbers – namely, the journey of the Israelites from Mt. Sinai, where they have been encamped since the middle of the book of Exodus, to the border of the Promised Land, at which they will arrive by the end of the book.
But the march to the Promised Land, or at least the story of it, is interrupted to consider a collection of laws and anecdotes about people on the margins of Israelite society, from women who are accused – without evidence – of committing adultery, to individuals who defy communal norms to live as ascetics. The passage that serves as the pivot point in our parashah’s transition from the main narrative to issues of marginalized individuals is a strange and vague law dealing with an unspecified interpersonal offense. It can be found beginning with Numbers chapter 5, verse 5:
They shall confess the offense that they have committed. And they shall render back for their guilt the sum of its principal, and they shall add to it a fifth part of it, and give it back to the one they have wronged.
And if [the victim] has no redeemer to whom restitution can be made for their guilt, what is repaid shall go to the Infinite, [that is], to the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for [the offender].
You don’t have to be Rashi to identify the many difficulties of this passage (although, of course, Rashi does comment on the many difficulties of this passage). Most glaringly, it appears to be superfluous. The Torah has already detailed in numerous places the laws and legal processes related to various interpersonal offenses. So why do we need this one? What does it add?
Compounding this difficulty is the fact that the particular offense at issue in this passage is not specified. Instead, the text uses the phrase “מִכׇּל־חַטֹּ֣את הָֽאָדָ֔ם / any of the human offenses,” which is both unclear and unusual. In fact, as the contemporary biblical scholar Robert Alter points out, that phrase appears nowhere else in the entire Torah. What kind of offenses, specifically, are “human” offenses; and, for that matter, which are not?
From context, it would appear that the crime in question is some kind of theft: the phrase “לִמְעֹ֥ל מַ֖עַל / to betray trust or to break faith” is commonly used to refer to the wrongful use of someone else’s property. Similarly, the penalty – financial restitution plus a 20 percent fine – is a common punishment for certain forms of theft. But if this passage is about theft, we again run right back into the first difficulty, which is that the Torah has already detailed in other places laws and legal processes related to various forms of theft. Why do we need this passage, too? And why is the theft in this situation specifically called a “human” offense, especially given the fact that the text asserts that this act betrays God’s trust? If it’s a “human offense,” what’s God got to do with it, anyway?
Many of the classical commentators see a clue to solving this puzzle toward the end of the passage, where the idea of the go’el, or redeemer, is introduced. A go’el is a blood relative who seeks justice on behalf of a deceased family member. So, for example, if I steal something from you, and you die before I have a chance to repay you, then your next-of-kin, your go’el, can seek restitution on your behalf.
But what if I stole from someone who had no next-of-kin? It is precisely this scenario that seems to concern our parashah.
What kind of person has no next of kin? In several places, the Torah asserts that the individuals most likely to be in such a situation are gerim, yetomim, and almanot – strangers, orphans, and widows.
That orphans and widows would be presumed to have no kin is self-evident. But what about the ger, the stranger? In the Torah, the term ger refers to a specific kind of stranger – an immigrant. A ger is a non-Israelite who has left their homeland to seek out a new life in a foreign country, in Israelite sovereign territory.
Even in the best of circumstances – even in a case that does not involve enduring great expense or grave danger, as immigration often does; and even when a person freely chooses to emigrate, a choice not available to the vast majority of immigrants, especially children – even in the best of circumstances, being an immigrant is really tough. Immigrants have to learn the laws, customs, and often language of a foreign country. That learning learning curve can be really steep, depending on where you came from and where you resettled. And immigrants often have to navigate all these challenges without the benefit of a network of close relationships in their adopted country, something that most other people (except, of course, for orphans and widows) inherently have, but often take for granted, in family. Therefore, the Torah considers immigrants to be uniquely disadvantaged, just like widows and orphans.
Interestingly, however, the Torah goes out of its way to single out immigrants for special protection far and away more than any other group, even orphans and widows.
Why is this? Perhaps it is because, for all their vulnerability, Israelite orphans and widows at least enjoy the benefit of being insiders in their society. True, they may not have family to rely upon. And like immigrants, orphans and widows did not choose their underprivileged condition. But as native-born Israelites, they at least in principle enjoy the privileges of citizenship and the protective support network of their fellow citizens; and they are naturally more at home navigating a society where, at the very least, the laws, customs, and language are not foreign to them.
Immigrants, on the other hand, are all too often seen and treated by the native population as outsiders. Their differences, which they did not choose and that they cannot easily or completely change (if it were even fair to ask them to try to do so, which it is not), are often visible to the naked eye, if not betrayed by their facility with the local language or knowledge of local law and custom. They are therefore easy targets for exploitation and abuse.
This reality is especially pronounced because it is naturally more tempting to wrong someone like an immigrant who does not have the protective support of local kin or fellow citizens; the risk of being held accountable is much lower. For proof, look no further than the fact that, despite what some contemporary politicians say, immigrants to this country are still far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators of it.
One of the core messages of the Torah, however, is that, from God’s perspective, there is no such thing as natives and foreigners, insiders and outsiders. As the prophet Amos famously said, “הֲל֣וֹא כִבְנֵי֩ כֻשִׁיִּ֨ים אַתֶּ֥ם לִ֛י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נְאֻם־יְהֹוָ֑ה / To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Infinite” (Amos 9:7). All human beings, in other words, are equally God’s children; all are loved by their Divine parent with the exact same love. Therefore, categories like native and foreigner, insider and outsider, are at best benign legal fictions that we invent to satisfy our human need to impose order on our environment. But they can also be dangerous distortions, leading us to erroneously believe that there is some fundamental distinction – and therefore hierarchy – between natives and foreigners, insiders and outsiders.
Therefore, when a member of a dominant group abuses its inherent social advantage by targeting and exploiting people who are identifiably different in ways they did not choose and which they cannot change, and who, because they can be readily characterized as outsiders, are inherently vulnerable, it is not only a crime against those individuals – it is an assault on their very humanity.
Many of the classical commentators argue that, even though it is not stated explicitly, this passage from our parashah is about harming a ger. This, they contend, explains the very unusual phrase hattat adam. Abusing an immigrant is not just a het, an average, run-of-the-mill, sin. Rather, it’s a hattat adam, a human sin – or, to put it another way, it is a crime against humanity, for it is in its essence a denial of the victim’s fundamental equal human right to life, liberty and security, regardless of their real or perceived differences from the dominant group. To target and treat any person as an outsider is a crime against humanity. And moreover, diminishing someone else’s humanity is an act of breaking faith with God, a betrayal of the One who has created all human beings equally in the Divine image.
From the Torah’s perspective, then, laws that target transgender and nonbinary people for their innate differences, differences they did not choose, which they cannot change, and that make them inherently vulnerable; laws that systematically treat transgender and nonbinary people as a separate and unequal class of human beings – are crimes against humanity.
Restricting access to gender-affirming healthcare does not just harm individuals who may be in need of that care – it is an assault on the humanity of everyone who identifies as transgender, communicating that they are less fully human than the dominant group, whose healthcare is not similarly restricted.
Forbidding teachers from talking about nontraditional understandings of gender identity does not just harm individuals in those classrooms who may identify in nontraditional ways – it is an assault on the very humanity of anyone who might identify in nontraditional ways, suggesting that they are less fully human than those who are free express their own, more conventional, gender identities.
The same is true of preventing athletes from participating in sports or updating official records or using bathrooms in ways that align with their gender identities, or of permitting businesses to discriminate against transgender employees or customers.
These efforts not only victimize individuals, they are crimes against the very humanity of all transgender and nonbinary people, reinforcing an atmosphere in which those who can’t do those activities without restriction or discrimination are made to feel less fully human. Is it any wonder, then, that transgender and nonbinary kids in the U.S. face elevated risk for depression and suicide compared to their cisgender or straight peers? Statistics like these are the product of a climate in which those who identify as transgender or nonbinary are too often made to see themselves as worth less than cisgender people. According to our tradition, this is a crime against humanity and, therefore, a betrayal of the One who has created all human beings equally in the Divine image.
It is telling that our parashah only returns to its main story, the Israelites’ inexorable march toward the Promised Land, once we have seen, considered, and understood the experiences of those who are not part of the dominant group. So too, we must know that in our time, we cannot move forward toward a perfected world when some are seen and treated as outsiders. The only way to make it to the Promised Land is together, in a community where there is no such thing as outsiders and insiders but, rather, where the equal and infinite dignity of every human being is affirmed and secured.
As we begin Pride Month, a season for seeing, affirming, and celebrating everyone in our community, including and especially those who identify as LGBTQIA+, let us recommit ourselves to keeping faith with God and with each other in these ways, so that together we can and will make it to the Promised Land.
We usually think about human progress as the story of individuals – usually white men, if we’re being honest – that create major breakthroughs or innovations that revolutionize the way the world works: think of Edison and the light bulb, the Wright brothers and the airplane, Ford and the Model T, or Salk and the polio vaccine. But it turns out that this “Eureka Theory of History,” as journalist Derek Thompson recently called it, is actually totally wrong. Throughout history, virtually every major innovation that ended up changing the world involved, on the front end, the hard work and contributions of countless individuals; and, on the back end, a large enough group willing to adopt the innovation. It doesn’t matter what one person discovers or invents if people are ultimately unwilling to embrace it, which is precisely why it took humanity so long to eradicate smallpox, despite the fact that the smallpox vaccine was invented more than a century and a half before it was widely adopted. Innovation is certainly important, but progress only happens when people embrace it.
Something similar is at play in this week’s parashah. Parashat Ki Tissa begins with God instructing Moses to conduct a census, counting every man eligible for army conscription; in other words, those ages 20 and up. In biblical terms, that’s essentially the same as saying to count every household. According to several of the traditional commentators, the purpose of this census was less about taking a head count and more about raising funds. That helps explain why God instructs Moses to take the census in such a strange manner – by collecting a half-shekel from each person and then counting the coins, rather than by simply counting the people directly. The point of the count was to collect the money, not to determine the size of the population.
But this explanation only raises additional questions. Why levy this tax, why now, and why under the guise of a census? With respect to the first two questions – why levy this tax, and why now – it’s important to consider the placement of our parashah in the context of the Torah’s larger narrative:Following the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mt. Sinai, God commands the Israelites to build a Mishkan, a Tabernacle or portable sanctuary. For many commentators, the context makes the purpose of the half-shekel tax seem obvious – the money was to be used for the Tabernacle.
The problem with this explanation, however, is that God already asked the Israelites to contribute to the Tabernacle back in Exodus chapter 25, when God originally commissioned the construction of the portable sanctuary. That parashah is even called “Terumah,” the biblical term for a sacred contribution! If the people had already been told to donate to the capital campaign, why levy an additional tax for the same purpose?
Of course, one possible answer is that the initial round of fundraising was insufficient to the need. But the Torah itself a few chapters later will tell us precisely the opposite – that the Israelites voluntarily brought much more than was actually needed to construct the Tabernacle (Ex. 36:5-7)! Moreover, a half-shekel is a pretty small amount of money; it had to have been, since the Torah specifically describes it as an amount that even a poor person could afford (Ex. 30:15). So not only are the people commanded to contribute to the Tabernacle a seemingly unnecessary second time, they are also commanded to bring an amount that presumably would have made very little practical difference to the outcome of the project itself.
But what if the whole point was the universal affordability of a half-shekel contribution? After all, a person of modest means might naturally hesitate about contributing to a capital campaign, especially for a project like building a Tabernacle. Giving up precious resources to build a portable sanctuary is not likely to be a priority to the person struggling to make ends meet. And given that the initial fundraising was so successful that it produced a surplus, one can easily imagine poorer Israelites feeling that their modest contributions would have been unnecessary in any case. Who would choose to help build a Tabernacle if doing so would make it harder to feed their family, especially if they knew their contribution wouldn’t really make much of a difference at all?
The problem with this dynamic is that the Tabernacle was intended to be for the whole Israelite community: a physical reminder that God was perpetually present in their midst, a place that anyone earnestly seeking spiritual connection could access, and experience intimacy with, the Divine. If the only people who contributed to the construction of such a space were the wealthiest Israelites, then many – both the rich donors who bankrolled the project and the poorer Israelites who felt parting with their meager means wouldn’t make enough of a difference to matter – might naturally feel that the Tabernacle belonged only to those who could afford to get their names emblazoned on a wall.
In a related sense, wealthy individuals who contributed a lot to the initial capital campaign might have felt that they had fulfilled their obligations vis a vis the project, and were therefore exempt from any future involvement with the Tabernacle. But for the Tabernacle to actually serve its intended purpose, every Israelite had to feel an ongoing sense of ownership over it. God therefore needed every single Israelite, regardless of the size of their bank accounts, to contribute equally to its construction and operation, whether for the first time, or in addition to what they had already contributed.
Something similar is at work a little further on in the parashah. At the beginning of chapter 31, God singles out a person named Betzalel ben Uri to lead the work of actually constructing the Tabernacle, explaining that Betzalel possessed “skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft” necessary to implement the designs laid out in the preceding chapters. But then God also appoints a person named Ohaliav ben Ahisamakh, as well as “every wise-hearted person,” to work alongside Betzalel. If Betzalel was so extraordinarily gifted, why did he need all these partners? According to a midrashic tradition, it’s because Betzalel hailed from the tribe of Judah, which was the largest and arguably the most significant of the twelve tribes. If a Judahite was singularly responsible for the construction of the Tabernacle, then many might feel that the Tabernacle belonged more to those from large, prominent tribes than to those from smaller, more peripheral ones, like the tribe of Dan. Therefore, God assigns Ohaliav, a Danite, as Betzalel’s partner, and also instructs every Israelite who is willing and able to join in the work, symbolically affirming that the Tabernacle belonged to the entire community, not just to one privileged segment. A sanctuary that truly belongs to everyone requires everyone’s investment and involvement.
What was true of the ancient Tabernacle also holds for modern sanctuaries, including our own. Just as the Tabernacle couldn’t fulfill its intended function without the participation of the whole community, this renewed sacred space requires all of us for it to truly serve the purpose for which it was redesigned and refurbished.
With all the focus that has understandably been placed on the mechanics of our extraordinary renovation project – raising the necessary funds, monitoring the progress of the construction, navigating the logistical hassles and inconveniences of being temporarily displaced from our building – it is easy to lose sight of the reason we undertook this initiative in the first place. That means not only considering what we envisioned for a renewed Temple Beth-El Grove Avenue campus but more importantly remembering why we envisioned it the way we did in the first place.
So I actually went back and reviewed the document in which lay leaders and I initially outlined a vision for a revitalized, 21st century Temple Beth-El campus at Grove Ave. I was amazed to discover that, between inception and implementation, our initial vision has stayed remarkably consistent. We of course knew that we would need to make significant improvements to our infrastructure – our roofing, plumbing, electric wiring, HVAC system, and the like – for our space to remain basically functional. We have actually needed these improvements for decades, and for various reasons we have always had to put them off.
But beyond these practical improvements, we envisioned a campus that exudes our community’s passion for dynamic Jewish life: a space that honors our past while boldly stepping into our future, and moreover that reflects our congregation’s commitment to nurturing an inclusive, supportive, and deeply intertwined community – a space that was totally accessible for people of all abilities and disabilities, and that facilitated connections among congregants of all backgrounds, ages, and stages. That’s why, for example, we lowered our bimah and made it fully handicap-accessible, created flexible space at the front of the sanctuary for more intimate gatherings, and built our “prayground” – a special space for young children and their grown-ups at the rear of the sanctuary. And it’s why, when all phases of the project are ultimately completed this summer, all our entrances and restrooms will be fully accessible for congregants of all abilities and disabilities, we will have two all-gender restrooms, and our new atrium and social hall will provide congregants and guests with space that better facilitates connection and relationship-building.
Like the ancient Tabernacle, our renewed sacred space was designed with our entire community in mind, and intended to be a space that better enables all of us to deepen our relationships with each other and our faith. The catch to all of this is that, like the ancient Tabernacle, our newly refurbished Temple needs all of us for it to truly serve its intended purpose. It’s not enough to build the thing. A Temple that truly belongs to all of us requires everyone’s ongoing investment and involvement.
This fact means that even those of us who were deeply involved in the process of designing and executing the vision, or who made significant financial contributions to make that vision a reality, have not fulfilled our obligations through those past actions, however generous or extraordinary those actions may have been. If you contributed generously to make this vision a reality, words cannot describe how grateful we are for your involvement; this project literally couldn’t have been possible without your support. However, it’s not enough to simply have your name emblazoned on a wall. We also need to see your face here.
Similarly, all of us, regardless of the extent of our previous engagements with this project, must commit to embracing the purpose for which this space was intended. Unless we all perpetually show up here for one another in order to deepen our connections with that which is deepest within us, woven between us, and greatest beyond us, we have not fulfilled our obligations. The promise of this place is that it is for each and every one of us, our entire community. But only our actions individually and collectively can ensure that promise is upheld.
Ultimately, what is important about our renewed building is not the ingenuity or beauty of its design. What’s important is whether and how we embrace and utilize it. As we celebrate this extraordinary milestone in the history of our congregation, let us remember that this beautiful place is for all of us. And a Temple that truly belongs to all of us requires us to rededicate ourselves to be invested and involved in the ongoing work of bringing that vision to fruition – for our next 90 years, and beyond.
These remarks were originally shared a speech to Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, VA, on March 8, 2023.
Last year, I came and spoke to the faculty and administration about rising antisemitism in America and around the world; what it means to be Jewish, especially during this era of upheaval; and how people of conscience from all walks of life can stand in solidarity and partnership with the Jewish community.
The fact that I was asked to return this year to speak again on this topic to the wider Germanna community is itself evidence that, dishearteningly, not much has changed in the past twelve months. If anything, matters have only gotten worse: Attacks on American Jews and Jewish communal institutions are at an all time high, and a new survey finds that “classical fascist” antisemitic views, pernicious conspiracy theories about Jews as a powerful conspiratorial faction with bad intent, are increasingly widespread.
In Virginia, we witnessed firsthand how far-right antisemitism led to deadly violence in Charlottesville in 2017; and in the years since, that emboldened and empowered far-right hate has seemed to metastasize, spreading to places like Pittsburgh, where in October of 2018 a white supremacist gunman killed eleven Jewish worshippers as they gathered for Sabbath morning services; Poway, California, where in 2019 a shooter hoping to perpetrate a similar massacre ended up killing one worshiper and injuring three others; and in 2021, where far-right groups steeped in ethno-nationalist antisemitic ideology stormed the United States Capitol in a deadly attempt to overthrow the government.
If recent months are any indication, this disturbing trend shows no signs of abating, as celebrities with enormous platforms and widespread influence like Kanye West normalize antisemitic tropes, and one of our two political parties caters to and courts a core constituency that too readily embraces antisemitic ideas and language by featuring tropes about Jewish money and political influence in campaign ads, echoing antisemitic dog whistles in the media, and elevating and emboldening those who harbor antisemitic views, as former President Trump recently demonstrated by having dinner with Ye and prominent neo-Nazi Nick Fuentes.
Of course, American Jews have not been exempt from the pernicious and persistent tendency on the part of our country’s majority population to deny or fail to secure equal rights to many minority groups. Throughout the history of this nation, Jewish Americans have faced both legal discrimination and social bias, as well as bigotry, harassment, and persecution. Still, despite the painfully uneven application of American liberty, despite the injustices and indignities and injuries that American Jews faced throughout our country’s history, the story of the American Jewish community over the past century has been one of increasing acceptance into the American mainstream.
Admittedly, Jewish Americans have been aided in this process because the vast majority of us benefit from the privileges of having white skin in a country founded upon the principle of white supremacy where race continues to impact socioeconomic outcomes. But even if we happen to be a minority group that is uniquely privileged, rising antisemitism is a problem because, after all, we are human beings and just as deserving of concern and protection when we are imperiled as any other group would be.
And that’s not the only reason all of us must care about the welfare of the Jewish community and do what we can to combat antisemitism. Rather, antisemitism goes hand in hand with other forms of bigotry. When one form of bigotry rises, others tend to rise in tandem with it. A society in which antisemitism thrives is typically also a society in which other forms of oppression flourish. And where racism or xenophobia or homophobia or any other type of discrimination proliferate, Jews are also more likely to become targets. In this sense, the resurgence of antisemitism in America is not only a threat to Jews; just as the rise in racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia, is not only a threat to African-Americans, immigrants, Muslims, and the LGBTQ+ community. When one of us is targeted for our differences, all of us are threatened. As Martin Niemöller, a prominent German Lutheran pastor who spent years imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for his vocal criticism of the regime, famously said: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” We all must work to eradicate antisemitism and hatred in all its forms – not only because it is morally right, but also because it benefits us all.
In order to fight against antisemitism, however, we must first define it. In her essay “Dimensions of Antisemitism,” the historical sociologist Helen Fein defines antisemitism as a set of “hostile beliefs towards Jews” as a whole that can manifest in different ways: in individuals as attitudes, in culture as myth, ideology, folklore, and imagery, and in actions — social or legal discrimination, political mobilization against Jews, and collective or state violence — which results in and/or is designed to distance, displace, or destroy Jews as Jews.
Building off this definition, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt identifies the core of these hostile beliefs as, essentially, a conspiracy theory claiming that the Jewish people constitute an international “cosmopolitan alliance” which compels far more powerful entities to do their nefarious bidding. That bidding invariably involves aiding Jews or Jewish interests at the expense of non-Jews or their interests. That helps explain why antisemitism often goes hand in hand with other forms of bigotry, because the Jewish community’s values and interests are often aligned with those of other marginalized groups like immigrants and racial minorities.
The 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh is a painful illustration of this: the shooter, a white supremacist extremist, believed that there was a vast, global Jewish plot to replace white civilization with black and brown refugees and immigrants. His racism and xenophobia fueled his antisemitism, which in turn propelled him to murder innocent Jews. The same conspiracy theory motivated the terrorist who targeted Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas last year – he targeted the synagogue and its rabbi because he believed that Jews controlled the world.
The conspiracy theory at the heart of antisemitism, Lipstadt argues, has been remarkably consistent throughout history, even as it is fundamentally irrational. While its “outer form may evolve over time,” while it may manifest in different ways in different contexts, while its power and prevalence may wax and wane, and while it even may at times lay dormant, the essence of antisemitism always remains the same. And, moreover, antisemitism is persistent. It never goes away.
The thing about conspiracy theories like antisemitism is that they are elastic. Because antisemitism may be expressed differently in different contexts, it is sometimes difficult to identify and easy for the person invoking it to deny.
Additionally, conspiracy theories by their very nature can be stretched to encompass many data points, even when those data points contradict each other. They are also often stretched to incorporate or accommodate other irrational conspiracy theories. In these ways, conspiratorial beliefs can offer comfortably and attractively simple explanations for extremely complex phenomena.
That helps explain why antisemitism tends to rise during periods of great uncertainty and upheaval. Moments of social crisis make a straightforward explanation quite attractive, even if that explanation is fundamentally nonsensical and thoroughly dangerous.
The most obvious example of this is Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, where people increasingly turned to antisemitism in response to political upheaval and economic depression. It is also true of a horrific but lesser known episode that occurred in my hometown of Atlanta just over a century ago, in which a Jew named Leo Frank was falsely accused of murder and lynched by a white supremacist mob. I think the Leo Frank case is helpful in illustrating why and how antisemitism manifests, why it is so dangerous, and how it can happen just as easily here in modern America as anywhere else.
In late April of 1913, a night watchman at an Atlanta pencil factory discovered the bruised and bloody corpse of a 13 year-old employee named Mary Phagan. As news spread through the city that a little white girl was raped and murdered, the public demanded quick action and swift justice.
Despite having no real evidence, the authorities bowed to public pressure and accused the northern-born manager of the pencil factory named Leo Frank, a prominent member of the Atlanta Jewish community.
Two days after the grand jury returned the indictment against Frank, one of the men who would eventually be selected as a juror for the trial was quoted as saying, “I’m glad they indicted the goddamn Jew. They ought to take him out and lynch him, and if I get on that jury I’ll hang that Jew for sure.”
The trial began swiftly, and the proceedings were a circus: White Atlantans surrounded the courthouse each day, cheering the prosecutor, jeering Frank’s lawyer, railing against northerners and Jews, and intimidating the judge and jury. The prosecution presented contradictory and fabricated testimony from so-called witnesses. The judge permitted Frank to be portrayed, without evidence, as a sexual pervert who preyed on young girls and young boys. The mob outside the courthouse celebrated wildly when the jurors found Frank guilty. And the judge sentenced Frank to death by hanging.
As the case made its way through the appeals process, antisemitic sentiment was unleashed throughout Georgia, fueled in large part by a populist newspaper publisher named Tom Watson.
Georgia’s governor, John Slaton, however, eventually became convinced that Frank was innocent. He bravely commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. In response, protesters burned Slaton in effigy, calling him “King of the Jews and Georgia’s Traitor Forever.”
Two months after Slaton commuted Frank’s sentence, a mob of twenty-five men, which called itself the “Knights of Mary Phagan” and which included many prominent Atlanta-area citizens, stormed the prison where Frank was incarcerated and kidnapped him. They drove several hours through the night to a grove near Marietta, now an Atlanta-area suburb. After failing to extract a confession from Frank, the mob lynched him. Later, hundreds of people would come to see Frank’s suspended body, taking smiling photographs with the hanged Jew, and even tearing pieces of his nightshirt for souvenirs.
It’s important to note what was going on in Atlanta at the time: The city was on fire — reeling from crime, violence, desperate working conditions, and race riots. Frank was lynched about a year after the outbreak of World War I, a time of unprecedented unrest and anxiety that brought nativist sentiment to a fever pitch. And most notably, during that era, a campaign of terror and intimidation against African-Americans in the South had reached a horrific crescendo. White political leaders ignored or, more often, encouraged, the violence.
So this is the first point that this story helps illustrate: antisemitism doesn’t simply emerge in times of unrest. Rather, it grows and flourishes when other forms of bigotry proliferate, and when cynics and opportunists nurture and cultivate it for their own strategic purposes.
This was true in the case of Leo Frank’s lynching: Hugh Dorsey, the prosecutor who secured Frank’s conviction, was elected Governor the following year, defeating and ending the political career of John Slaton, the governor who commuted Frank’s sentence. And Tom Watson, the populist newspaper publisher who incited the lynch-mob, was elected to the United States Senate. After his death, he was memorialized with a bronze statue outside the Georgia state capitol. Dorsey and Watson may or may not have themselves been antisemites. But they sure knew how to weaponize it for their personal advantage.
Similarly, today’s reawakened antisemitism isn’t occurring in a vacuum. In recent years, minorities have been increasingly targeted, marginalized, attacked, and even killed because of their differences. Assaults and incidents of bias and discrimination against religious, racial, and ethnic minorities are all on the rise, as are incidents targeting those who are minorities by virtue of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Meanwhile, powerful officials within our government, as well as prominent entertainment and media personalities, are doing just the opposite, emboldening malign actors — whether passively through silence and inaction, or actively through incitement and encouragement.
Of course, it’s not just about our leaders or celebrities. This is the second point that the Leo Frank affair illustrates: In a healthy society, dangerous bigoted demagoguery generally fails to gain traction. But instability creates the fertile ground necessary for leaders, whether they are calculating or merely careless, to exploit antisemitic sentiment and other forms of bigotry for their own ends.
This explanation of the nature and persistence of antisemitism in no way excuses antisemitism or other forms of bigotry. But these observations do help us understand the conditions that tend to breed, embolden, and unleash bigoted and antisemitic rhetoric and violence.
No wonder, then, that antisemitism has been on the rise over the past two decades, and in particular in the U.S. over the past three years. Ours is a time of extraordinary flux: a rapidly evolving economic order, dizzying technological progress, widening inequality, political instability, rampant terror, forever war, the largest refugee crisis in human history, increasingly irreversible climate change, and a once-in-a-generation global pandemic. But rather than confront these intersecting challenges in all their complexity, many are seduced by comfortable, simple solutions that too often involve identifying, marginalizing, attacking, and indeed destroying the enemies we claim are responsible for the tumult.
Now, when I usually give this speech, this is often the point in which I begin to argue that the way to defeat antisemitism is to diminish the conditions that allow antisemitism and other forms of bigotry to emerge and flourish and fester and threaten in the first place; that none of us can be truly safe and free unless and until we make this world a world of justice, truth, and peace. I still think that’s true, but I have become increasingly mindful that repairing the world in these ways requires something even more basic, which brings me to the third point I think the Leo Frank case illustrates:
The hatred that was unleashed and that ultimately proved deadly during the Leo Frank case was rooted in a willingness to see Frank not as an individual human being whose Jewishness was a part, but not the totality of, his identity, and who may or may not have committed a horrific crime. Rather, he became Leo Frank the Jew, whose Jewishness inherently made him a more likely suspect. The fact that he came to be seen as a Jew accused of raping and murdering a young girl – playing into age-old antisemitic tropes which falsely and insanely claim that a core aspect of the nefarious “international Jewish conspiracy” against white, Christian civilization is the ritualistic murder of Christian children – rather than just some man on trial, ensured that he could not receive the presumption of innocence until proven guilty that is central to any claim of fairness in our criminal justice system. The fact of Frank’s Jewishness was itself enough to overcome the reasonable doubt of those prone to antisemitic beliefs.
That’s because the essence of antisemitism, like every other form of bigotry, is the tendency we have to see people primarily as manifestations of and definable largely by one aspect of their identities, especially when those people are members of minority communities, rather than seeing every individual as a unique constellation of many characteristics. In our American context, a country rooted in a history of the dominance of white, Christian, straight, cisgender men, and where white, Christian, straight, cisgender people still constitute a sizable plurality of the population, if not an outright majority, we tend to see and categorize people based on their deviation from that norm. So we tend to see individuals who happen to be Black primarily as Black people, as manifestations and representatives of a particular racial group, rather than as individuals whose racial identity is but one aspect of that individual’s identity, however central that one aspect may be to them. Similarly, we tend to see individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ primarily as manifestations and representatives of a particular group, rather than as individuals whose gender identity or sexual orientation is but one aspect of their identity, however central that one aspect may be to them. And even though most American Jews by virtue of the color of their skin and their ancestors’ European descent present, if not outright identify, as white, because we are outside of our country’s Christian norm, we can be too easily categorized as Jews, rather than as people who happen to be Jewish.
It is for this reason that Lipstadt, with tongue somewhat in cheek, defines an antisemite as someone “who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary…Imagine,” Lipstadt argues, “that someone has done something you find objectionable. You may legitimately resent the person because of his or her actions or attitudes. But if you resent him [or her] even an iota more because this person is Jewish, that is antisemitism…” In other words, don’t hate me because I’m Jewish. Hate me because I’m a jerk. Hate me because I’ve insulted or injured you in some way. But it wasn’t “The Jews” who did that to you. In my jerkishness, I am not a representative or manifestation of the Jewish people writ large. I alone am responsible for my jerkitude.
I love the way Tina Fey once put this. In one of my favorite TV shows, 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, is set up on a blind date with a Black man named Steven, played by Wayne Brady. Liz has a terrible time on the date. The pair have literally no shared interests. But when she tries to tell Steven that she doesn’t want to go out with him again, Steven claims that Liz is rejecting him because he’s Black. So to prove that she’s not a racist, Liz reluctantly agrees to go out with Steven again. But when Liz continues to feel no chemistry with Steven, she again tries to break up with him. Steve again asserts that Liz only dislikes him because of his race, and Liz responds by saying, no “I truly don’t like you as a person.” As inspirational music begins to play, Liz continues, “Can’t one human being not like another human being? Can’t we all just not get along?!”
If you leave tonight with just one takeaway, let it be that each and every one of us has the right not to get along with others. But let us hate one another as individuals, and not as avatars of one aspect of our identities.
OK, obviously I don’t want anyone to hate anyone. As a person of faith, I believe we are all of us called to, in the words of the Bible, “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves].” But, perhaps ironically, the essential point of “love your neighbor as yourself” is the same as “hate one another, just not more than necessary.”: To love my neighbor as myself, I have to recognize that my neighbor, like me, is not reducible to any one aspect of their identity. Just as I know intuitively that I am a unique individual, not defined by any one aspect of my identity, the same is true of my neighbor, regardless of whatever group they present as and with which they may or may not identify. After all, every group or community is, at its core, just a collection of individuals who have certain features in common. Therefore, no group or community is ever uniform. In other words, just because I present or identify as a member of a particular community, because I see myself as sharing some important characteristics in common with other members of that community, does not mean that I give up ways in which I may be distinct from others in that community. In this sense, every community is in some meaningful ways diverse, and no member of any group can be solely or even primarily defined by the group with which they are associated. That means both that I must not hate someone because of one aspect of their identity, and also that I must not love someone because of one aspect of their identity – which is why I am just as uncomfortable with someone who claims to “love The Jews,” or who claims to love me on that basis, as I am with someone who hates “The Jews.” Don’t hate me because I’m Jewish, but don’t love me because I’m Jewish, either.
Consider this: Today, there are between 15-20 million Jews in the world – which, it must be noted, is less than half a percent of the global population. About half of the world’s Jewish population lives here in the U.S., and most, but not all, of the rest live in Israel, with smaller communities of various sizes in other countries all over the world, including throughout Central and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Consequently, Jews come from virtually every racial, ethnic, and national background you can imagine (as some like to say, there are Jews in all hues). While estimates vary, somewhere between 6-15% of the American Jewish population identifies as people of color. About half of Israel’s Jewish population identifies as Mizrahi or Sephardi heritage, meaning that they and/or their ancestors are not of European descent; and about a third of recent Jewish immigrants to Israel hail from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Our racial, ethnic, and national diversity is matched by our socioeconomic diversity. While many Jews have indeed achieved extraordinary success in America and in Israel over the past century, success that is virtually without parallel in Jewish history, it is also a fact that between 16 and 20 percent of Jewish households in the United States earn less than $30,000 per year. As of 2015, the federal poverty level for a four person household was set at $24,000. And in Israel, 21% of the population lives in poverty, including nearly 1 in every 3 children.
There also is – and indeed has always been – a lot of diversity in how Jews think about and practice our tradition, including many Jews who don’t think about or practice our tradition much at all. As a matter of fact, our diversity means that there isn’t much we Jews have in common, other than a sense of belonging to the Jewish people, meaning that in one way, shape, or form we all identify as Jews. So, as I like to say, if you hate organized religion, you’ll love Judaism; we’re a very disorganized religion! We Jews disagree with each other all the time; asking tough questions, discussing and debating big ideas, even protesting and arguing with one another is not just allowed, it’s encouraged! That’s another reason why I would find the antisemitic claim of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy somewhat humorous, if it weren’t so dangerous; because while Jews may be overrepresented in the film or financial industries – a reality that owes itself largely to the fact that Jews were deliberately excluded from other professions that were once deemed more respectable – it is patently false to claim that Jews wholly dominate those industries, and even more ludicrous to argue that Jews could ever be organized and likeminded enough to exert singular control over anything. The Jewish individuals in Hollywood and on Wall Street are as ideologically diverse, contentious, and disorganized as the rest of their co-religionists. There’s an old joke that tells of a Jewish person who was stranded on a desert island. When rescuers finally found him, they discovered that he had built two synagogues on the island. They asked him why one person needed two synagogues, and he responded, “Well, one is where I go to pray, and the other is the one I refuse to step foot in.” I find that joke funny because it’s so true. Jews don’t agree on anything. How, then, could we ever orchestrate a vast global conspiracy, even if we wanted to?!
It is perhaps this fact more than any other that demonstrates no one Jewish person, organization, or communal group can authoritatively speak for any other. To give a common example, just because I happen to be Jewish doesn’t mean that I can be expected to answer for the actions of the Israeli government, any more than I can answer for every action of the U.S. government just because I happen to be American. To be sure, Israel’s government is – at least for now – still democratically elected by Israel’s citizens, the vast majority of whom identify as Jewish. But in a representative or parliamentary democracy, not every single policy decision will be supported even by the voters who elected the majority responsible for enacting it, much less the substantial portion of the electorate who voted for other candidates or parties. This is even more true when it comes to American Jews. While many Jewish Americans describe themselves as supporters of the state of Israel – they may, for example, give to Israeli charities, buy Israeli government bonds, and even lobby American officials to support foreign policy positions favorable to Israeli interests as they understand them – we don’t get to vote in Israeli elections. We might have opinions about Israeli politics, sometimes very strongly held opinions. But while many of us may strive to support Israel, influence American foreign policy in ways that we perceive as helping Israel, or even do what we can to move Israeli society in a direction that aligns with our ideals, no individual Jewish American – and even, to a large extent, no single American Jewish organization or community – can be expected to answer or speak for the actions of the Jewish State; most Israeli citizens can’t even be expected to do that. For this reason, discriminating against or targeting Jews because of our real or perceived association with the State of Israel is an example of antisemitism as we’ve defined it – hating Jews more than is absolutely necessary. The same, of course, is true in the other direction: embracing Jews because of our real or perceived association with the State of Israel is also an example of antisemitism, even as it masquerades as philosemitism. It may sound strange, but philosemitism makes me just as uncomfortable as antisemitism. Loving me primarily on account of my Jewishness is in fact a denial of my fundamental humanity. That doesn’t mean you can’t agree or disagree, love or hate, my views about the State of Israel, or any other beliefs or ideologies I may have for that matter. By all means – tell me that my views are loathsome. Plenty of people do! But you can’t know what my views are unless you get to know me as a person, not simply as a manifestation or representative of a particular group that you perceive as a monolith.
As a matter of fact, the Jewish tradition elevates this idea to the status of a core religious principle. According to the Talmud, the great compilation of ancient Jewish law and lore:
“The first human being was created alone…to tell of the greatness of the Holy Blessed One, since when a human stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But the supreme sovereign of sovereigns, the Holy Blessed One, stamped all people with the seal of the first human, and not one of them is similar to another.”
In other words, it is precisely our diversity, the fact that each and every one of us is a unique individual, that proclaims God’s greatness. This just makes good sense. Why would God have made humanity so wonderfully diverse if God wanted us to all be the same? So Jewish tradition therefore holds as fundamental the belief that human diversity proclaims God’s majesty.
It is arguably for this reason that Jewish tradition has historically been so adamant about forbidding us from depicting the Divine in images; to portray God with any one particular form necessarily implies that certain things are more godlike than others, that this one thing, whatever it is, more closely resembles the Divine than that, or that, or that. And it is precisely this mindset that is at the root of all oppression. Rather, Jewish tradition has historically insisted upon the radical notion that each and every unique one of us, with our singular constellations of qualities and features, is fully, equally, and distinctly a manifestation of the same Divine image.
Refusing to reduce one another to any one particular aspect of our identities or personalities is in this sense a sacrament; and honoring the diversity that exists even among groups of people who share certain qualities – whether those common qualities are beliefs, practices, ancestry, cultural heritage, skin color, gender, sexuality, or anything else – is a holy act. And, conversely, it means that failing to see each and every human being as a distinct and irreducible individual is, from the perspective of Jewish tradition, a cardinal sin.
Consequently, Jewish tradition argues that we must strive to encounter and know one another as individuals, and not simply as manifestations or representatives of any particular group with which we might associate ourselves. At the same time, coming to know one another as individuals requires us to strive to understand the various aspects of our identities that make us who we are. For example, you can’t know or appreciate me as an individual unless you have an understanding and appreciation of the Jewish tradition that has had such a significant role in making me the person I am and remains such an important part of my life. Similarly, I can’t understand an individual who identifies as African American without knowing something about the history and ongoing reality of racism in America, or the cultural heritage and contributions of Black Americans.
However, I must always bear in mind that even if I knew everything there was to know about those subjects, it wouldn’t be enough, because the individual who identifies as African American is not reducible to that identity alone, and the African American community is not, has never been, and indeed can never be uniform and monolithic. Similarly, even if you were an expert on Jewish history or the Jewish tradition, it would be insufficient to know or understand me, because I am not reducible to my Jewishness, and the Jewish community – indeed, even the collection of beliefs and practices that we might try to identify as “Judaism” – is not and has never been in any way homogenous.
Therefore, the first step we all must take to combat rising antisemitism is to honor individuality and diversity, cherishing and embracing with pride those aspects of our identities that are indelible parts of our unique personalities while, simultaneously, approaching others with curiosity, humility, and unshakeable respect.
Of course, we must not stop there. While nature abhors a vacuum, antisemitism loves one. In the absence of active, persistent, good, evil will rise, spreading to fill the empty space. Unless we infuse our world with compassion, callousness will emerge, as it flourishes in every inch of real estate it is given. There is no place in between, no room for neutrality. We are either repairing the world or we are accepting its brokenness. We are either advancing goodness, justice, and peace — or we are ceding ground to cruelty, oppression, and division.
In this moment, that of course means we must speak out against bigotry and antisemitism wherever they manifest. We must also hold all our leaders, both those with whom we typically disagree and those with whom we are generally aligned, accountable for the roles they play in amplifying hateful ideas and rhetoric.
And we must also be vigilant in defending ourselves and each other against acts of violence too often inspired by words of hate. This includes working to restrict access to dangerous weapons, lest they fall into the hands of dangerous people, as they invariably do.
But none of this will ever be enough if people of conscience from all backgrounds don’t do something more fundamental and systemic. We will always be waiting around for the next Charelston or Pittsburgh, Charlottesville or Collyville, if we don’t diminish the conditions that allow antisemitism and other forms of bigotry to emerge and flourish and fester and threaten in the first place. Since antisemitism, and other forms of bigotry that so often rise in tandem with it, loves a vacuum, then our task is to make sure that there is no space for it to enter by filling our world with goodness, compassion, and justice.
And the way we begin this work is by recognizing that each and every one of us is a unique and irreducible individual, equally and infinitely dignified because of, and not despite, our differences. The path to a perfected world is through striving to know, appreciate, honor, and celebrate everything that makes each of our neighbors unique, loving them as ourselves. Or at least not hating each other more than is absolutely necessary.
Antisemitism is a serious and growing problem in the United States. Attacks on American Jews and Jewish communal institutions are at an all-time high, and a new survey finds that “classical fascist” antisemitic views, pernicious conspiracy theories about Jews as a powerful conspiratorial cabal with nefarious intent, are increasingly widespread. In Virginia, we witnessed firsthand how far-right antisemitism led to deadly violence in Charlottesville. Navigating this new normal, my congregation in Richmond has been forced to decide between utilizing our scarce resources to support congregants’ spiritual well-being and ensuring their physical safety, and our commitment to welcoming the stranger and our need for stationing armed guards outside our building.
As a Virginia rabbi, I am grateful for the efforts of our elected officials to combat this rising peril. But some recently introduced bills in the General Assembly seem more about scoring political points than actually combating antisemitism. These bills distract attention from the real threat and, in the process, endanger our shared American value of free speech.
The bills are an outgrowth of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s Commission to Combat Antisemitism, which he established as one of his first official acts. In principle, studying the problem of antisemitism and proposing solutions is praiseworthy. But in practice, the commission was problematic from the start.
For starters, Youngkin filled the committee with like-minded political allies rather than a more diverse group of experts and Jewish Virginians who would have better represented the breadth of perspective in our community. Additionally, antisemitism today too often emanates from the far-right of our political spectrum. Moreover, mainstream conservative politicians, including Youngkin himself, and media personalities too often echo — or at least refuse to disavow — these views. For this reason, the many Democratic allies of the Jewish community should have a role in any conversation about combating antisemitism. But, prioritizing political advantage over the well-being of Jewish Virginians, Youngkin refused to include progressive voices on the commission.
Despite this flawed process, the commission actually ended up recommending many commonsense solutions, such as amending hate crime statutes to cover Jewish Virginians and better training for law enforcement, that will doubtlessly save Jewish lives. But some of its recommendations — such as codifying the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA)’s definition of antisemitism and barring the commonwealth from doing business with contractors that support boycotting Israel — are misguided and potentially dangerous.
While it would be impossible for the commonwealth to fully combat antisemitism without providing a legal definition, codifying the IHRA’s definition is problematic. Some of the examples of antisemitism included within the IHRA definition focus on the intersection of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment. It is certainly true that rhetoric used by some critics of Israel, such as targeting the wider Jewish community or denying the right of the state of Israel to exist, evokes long-standing stereotypes and antisemitic tropes. But conflating antisemitism with all criticism of Israel endangers legitimate free speech and distracts from the primary antisemitic threat, namely white supremacy. For precisely this reason, the IHRA’s lead drafter, Kenneth Stern, has testified in Congress and elsewhere that this definition was a “working draft” intended for educational purposes, and never meant to be codified into law.
Similarly, legislators have proposed codifying the commission’s recommendation that the commonwealth be prohibited from doing business with contractors that endorse boycotts of Israel. As a supporter of Israel, I vigorously oppose the BDS movement, the international effort to influence Israeli policy by financial means. But as a Jewish American, I am committed to our country’s bedrock principle of free speech, even when I find that speech objectionable.
Our First Amendment freedoms are precisely what has made my people’s experience in America unique to Jewish history, and they provide critical safeguards for all minority groups. We permit them to be eroded at our peril. Already, states have used anti-Israel BDS laws (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) as a blueprint to prohibit states from doing business with companies that touch other hot-button issues. West Virginia, for example, won’t do business with companies working to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Texas won’t do business with banks that stop investing in guns. Florida has threatened to stop doing business with companies that oppose anti-LGBTQ legislation. Virginia should not go down this slippery slope.
The moment calls for people of conscience across the political spectrum to join together and combat antisemitism and all forms of bigotry. But eroding our constitutional rights while diverting focus from the real threat is not the path forward.
As a new far-right government takes power in Israel, a debate among Jewish Americans has erupted about what it means to be “pro-Israel.” This is not new. Even before the First Zionist Congress convened over 120 years ago, there were multiple competing visions of what a renewed Jewish homeland could and should be.
Debate, of course, is deeply Jewish. Jewish holy texts celebrate diverse perspectives and productive disagreement. However, in recent years, there has been a concerted effort within the American Jewish community to define “pro-Israel” in the narrowest possible terms, casting as inherently “anti-Israel” individuals and organizations like J Street that publicly criticize Israeli policies and Israeli leaders, thereby silencing and even ostracizing legitimate critics.
In light of our people’s history of persecution, and Israel’s role as a place of refuge and security for a people perpetually threatened, many supporters of Israel fear that public criticism gives ammunition to those who seek Israel’s destruction, especially at a moment of rising worldwide antisemitism.
But casting liberal Jewish critics of Israeli policies as “anti-Israel” is not only contrary to Jewish values but also contrary to Israel’s own best interests. Those who circle the wagons in times like these by denying the legitimacy of criticism and critics often seem to fail to consider that Israel’s leaders, and the people that elect them, are, like all of us, fallible; and those imperfect leaders can act in ways that, even with the best of intentions, jeopardize the survival of the state.
For example, Israel’s new government has advocated for policies that undermine its independent judiciary and that threaten the equal rights of women, LGBTQ+ individuals, non-Orthodox Jews, non-Jewish citizens and other minority groups. These policies alarm many liberal Jews, especially in the Diaspora, not only because they are antithetical to Israel’s founding principles and our understanding of Jewish values, but also because they raise serious concerns about how Israel as we know it can survive if ceases to be a true democracy.
Similarly, the new government has pledged to expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Many Israeli military and security experts have repeatedly warned that the settlement enterprise threatens Israel’s long-term security and survival as a Jewish democracy. Many of us criticize policies like these as de facto annexation of the territories Israel captured in 1967. But we do so not because we seek to undermine Israel’s security, and certainly not because we are “anti-Israel.” To the contrary: because we love Israel, we fear policies like these undermine Israel’s founding values and even threaten its survival.
For as long as I can remember, Israel has been an inseparable part of my Jewish identity. I loved it before I made my first pilgrimage as a teenager, when I first kissed the ground of the tarmac at the old Ben-Gurion airport. I spent some of the best and most formative years of my life in Israel. I first met and fell in love with the woman who became my wife while we were living in Jerusalem. Beloved family members and some of my most cherished friends call Israel home. As a Jew, I believe Israel is essential, and I shudder to envision a world without a Jewish state. As a rabbi, there is little I love more than helping Jews deepen their relationships with the land, people and state of Israel.
Watching Israel being led in a direction that I believe is both antithetical to Jewish values and dangerous to its long-term survival has propelled my involvement in organizations like J Street, which expresses its loving commitment to Israel by opposing actions that it sees as harmful and advancing policies that it believes to be beneficial. I am proud to partner with others who believe that uncritical support can cause harm, and that loyalty can sometimes require opposition.
I do not believe, however, that those who disagree with me are “anti-Israel.” Any of us can be wrong, and that’s exactly the point. We can interpret the same facts differently without assuming the other is approaching the issue in bad faith or with malicious intent.
Throughout history, the Jewish people has been enriched by a culture of impassioned but respectful debate. In the coming year, I pray that we recognize more than one way to express our love for Israel and more than one vision for what Israel ought to be. The global Jewish community and state of Israel are strongest when we disagree without questioning one another’s loyalties.
Democratic decline should be particularly worrisome to Jewish Americans. Historically, as democracies falter, persecution and violent extremism against minority groups, including and especially Jews, tends to rise. Indeed, the erosion of American democracy in recent years has coincided with a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents in the United States. Kanye West’s recent outbursts and with the hate it unleashed are but a terrifying case-in-point. But the Jewish obligation to democracy goes beyond the physical safety of our immediate community. Rather, preserving and strengthening democracy is central to our more overarching responsibility to repair the world.
Back in 1932, as the forces of fascism were beginning to take hold around the world, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed that selfishness is the defining characteristic of every conceivable form of government, particularly authoritarianism. Democracies are not perfect, but democracies, unlike totalitarian regimes, enable and empower individuals to criticize laws, systems, and leaders, and to work through the political process to make the state increasingly inclusive, just, and peaceful.
But democracies are not inherent or self-perpetuating. According to German philosopher Erich Fromm, who witnessed the rise of Nazism firsthand, human beings have a tendency to “escape from freedom,” to gravitate away from the messiness and uncertainty that are part and parcel of diversity and liberty, toward homogeneity and authoritarianism.
The gravitational pull of selfishness on the human soul is great; on human societies, greater still. Without cultivating a force powerful enough to oppose our natural predilection toward selfishness, we invariably succumb to the encroaching tyranny.
According to Jewish tradition, there is only one force capable of enabling and empowering individuals to think critically about their own self-interest and care about the welfare of others: yirah.
The Hebrew term yirah can be translated a number of ways: fear, awe, reverence, respect. But conceptually, yirah is the recognition that we are merely a small part of something vast beyond all comprehension. It is akin to the feeling of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon.
A person with yirah understands the limitations of human knowledge and even imagination. A person with yirah comprehends the pettiness of self-interest, and the equal importance of the needs of all other people; indeed, the equal importance of the needs of all the rest of creation. A person with yirah by definition possesses a sense of broad responsibility, a recognition that the wellbeing of others is no less important than my own and that, in fact, our wellbeing is bound up together.
Yirah is, therefore, the opposite of the arrogance of granting primacy to one’s own interests, an irreverent attitude toward others’ wellbeing. And because yirah is intrinsically opposed to self-interest, its growth within a population necessarily constrains society’s selfish impulse. Thus, unless we are actively cultivating yirah and advancing the inclusive, just, and peaceful world that reflects it, we are permitting ourselves and dooming each other to continue to be dominated by the tyranny of arrogance in all forms.
The purpose of Jewish religious practice – study and prayer, tradition and ritual – is to help us cultivate a sense of our place in and responsibility for the world. And we nurture this awareness not as an end unto itself, but as the means through which we, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, take ourselves out of the narrowness of our own self-interest, recognizing our relationship to and responsibility for one another.
Jewish faith and practice is in this sense meaningless unless it leads us to recommit ourselves to the work of making our world ever more just and peaceful. And that work is not theoretical and abstract. It’s practical and concrete. It requires systemic change and societal transformation on every level – local, state, national, and international. It therefore demands our political engagement because, in a democratic society such as ours, politics is the process through which the change envisioned by our tradition can be achieved in our world. And it also means we must not treat our synagogues as sanctuaries, retreats from the raging fires of the outside world. We must bring worldly affairs into sacred space, consider secular pursuits part of our spiritual practice, and recognize the place of politics in the pulpit.
As this election season draws near, I pray that my fellow Jewish Americans, along with all Americans of faith and conscience, draw upon their yirah in order to preserve our democracy, protect our collective wellbeing, and pursue a more just society. This is no time for neutrality. Now is the time for people of faith and conscience to pray through our political action, to put our worship to work, to raise our voices and cast our votes. Democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s the best path we have for pursuing our sacred responsibility of establishing heaven on earth.
My friend and drumming teacher, Chris Parker, once taught me a lesson about music that has always stayed with me: “Music,” he said, “is sound organized in time.” In other words, sound without time is just noise. Time without sound is silence. But when sound is organized in time, that’s when it becomes something meaningful and beautiful. Music, therefore, is only music if it has a beginning as well as an ending. There is no song that does not end, for if it did not end, it would not be a song.
Today is about endings. This day on the Jewish calendar is known as Shemini Atzeret. The strange thing about Shemini Atzeret is that no one knows exactly what it is. Of course, the command to celebrate this holiday comes from the Torah itself, but the text, which we read just a few moments ago, is notoriously short on details. The Torah doesn’t even dedicate a single full verse to the holiday. Instead, it simply teaches that immediately after the seven biblically prescribed days of Sukkot, an additional day should be set aside as sacred, with its own attendant sacrifice to be offered at the Temple.
Throughout the ages, our sages have pondered and puzzled over this holiday, debating endlessly its meaning and significance. Is it part of Sukkot, or its own holiday? If it’s part of Sukkot, then why is it mentioned separately, and why does it have its own sacrifice? If it’s not part of Sukkot, then why refer to it as the “eighth day,” which implies a direct connection to Sukkot. Even the word that the Torah uses for the holiday, עֲצֶ֣רֶת, is mysterious. No one knows exactly what it means.
Rabbinic tradition, in the end, basically responds with a shrugging emoji: we don’t know what Shemini Atzeret is, but we know we must observe it. So they refer to it by its own unique name, Shemini Atzeret, but call it “z’man simhateinu,” the season of our rejoicing, which is the same epithet they use for Sukkot. Because it might be part of Sukkot, the rabbis say we should err on the side of caution and eat in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret, but because it might not still be Sukkot, they say we should err on the side of caution and not recite the blessing for dwelling in the sukkah, lest by reciting an unnecessary blessing we inadvertently take God’s name in vain. It’s bizarre.
Some commentators argue that Shemini Atzeret is – as my friend, contemporary commentator Emily Jaeger colorfully puts it – like a private after-party. One of the many possible meanings for atzar, the Hebrew root of the word atzeret, is “to hold back” or “detain.” Picking up on this definition, Rashi imagines God as a king who throws a large banquet. After all the other guests start to leave, the king urges his beloved children to stay one more day, too painful is the thought of parting with them. Following the lengthy and exhausting weeklong rager that is Sukkot – which according to some traditions is meant to be a holiday for all of humanity – God asks us, the Jewish people, his most cherished guests, to linger a little longer (Rashi, commentary on Lev. 23:37).
To be sure, there is something quite heartwarming about envisioning God as longing for intimacy with God’s children. However, I suspect the true meaning of Shemini Atzeret may be precisely the opposite of this, that the holiday is actually about ending the party, not keeping it going. After all, another definition of atzar is “to stop.” On modern Israeli roads, for example, cars know when to stop when they see a red sign with the word atzur emblazoned on it; or, at least they would in theory, if Israelis actually considered such signs more than mere suggestions. Perhaps, then, God is less like a king who urges his beloved children to remain at the banquet for one more day, and more like Josephine turning on the social hall lights to not-so-subtly signal that she wants us to clear out at the end of a long night. Perhaps, in other words, Shemini Atzeret is God’s way of saying, “Party’s over, friends. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
This is precisely what happens in today’s haftarah, from the biblical book of Kings. The story is set immediately following the construction of the first Temple, which Solomon son of David, arguably the greatest of the kings of ancient Israel, commissioned to be built atop Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. After the Temple is built, King Solomon invites the entire kingdom to Jerusalem to celebrate its consecration. The party lasts through Sukkot. And then, on the 8th day – meaning the day immediately following Sukkot – Solomon sent the people away (I Kings 8:66): בַּיּ֤וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי֙ שִׁלַּ֣ח אֶת־הָעָ֔ם. The 8th day, in other words, is when the king officially ends the celebration, telling everyone to go home. The king doesn’t keep the party going. Quite the contrary, the 8th day is when the king proclaims that the party’s over.
What’s noteworthy, however, is that neither the people nor the king are sad about the end of the celebration. When King Solomon tells them to leave, the people bid the king good-bye and go to their homes joyful and glad of heart, “וַֽיְבָרְכ֖וּ אֶת־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיֵּלְכ֣וּ לְאׇהֳלֵיהֶ֗ם שְׂמֵחִים֙ וְט֣וֹבֵי לֵ֔ב”. Why would the party’s conclusion be cause for joy, rather than sadness? Because just as sound can only be music if it has an ending, an endless experience cannot be joyful. As Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “Only that is precious which passes away. Only that is priceless, which will not last forever.”
The television series The Good Place, which ended in 2020, illustrated this idea perfectly. Briefly, The Good Place followed the journey of four unlikely friends through the afterlife. In the last season, when the friends finally make it to the actual “good place,” the show’s euphemism for heaven, they are surprised to discover that the inhabitants are all miserable. They wonder: how can this be? How can souls be sad in a realm overflowing with endless delights? Eventually they discover that it is precisely because the delights are endless that they are, sooner or later, rendered utterly joyless. When everything is always amazing, nothing really is. Paradoxically, then, true joy can only be experienced if it comes to an end. And while we may be saddened by the conclusion of any enjoyable experience – whether that be an incredible party, a beautiful piece of music, a delicious meal, a tender relationship with a dear friend or loved one, a life – we might take some comfort in recognizing that it is the very fact of its ending which made the experience enjoyable in the first place.
The Sukkot festival is known in our tradition as z’man simhateinu, the season of our joy. We are commanded to rejoice on Sukkot; indeed, as the Torah says, we are “to have nothing but joy / v’hayita akh sameah”. Beyond this, Sukkot is the culmination of a nearly month-long High Holy Day celebration, a season that can be physically and emotionally taxing, but simultaneously is also – if you’re doing it right – saturated with deep meaning, extraordinary beauty, and joyful exaltation. We may wish this holiday season would never end, that we could, as the psalmist puts it in the passage we recite twice daily during this period, “dwell in the Infinite’s house all the days of my life.” But the truth is that the heights of the High Holy Days and the joy of z’man simhateinu can’t last forever. If they were unending, they would in fact be rendered flat and dull. In order for these days to be high and holy, in order for our festival days to be joyous, they must end. So we have Shemini Atzeret, the period at the end of this long sentence, the silence at the end of the symphony. And while the end may be sad – or even, for some of us, a relief – our tradition also calls Shemini Atzeret z’man simhateinu, the season of our joy, because if the end is what makes joy possible to begin with, then the end itself is, in some important sense, joyous.
Perhaps it is for this reason that, according to tradition, we recite Yizkor during Shemini Atzeret, calling to mind the memory of departed loved ones on this day in particular. There is profound comfort, perhaps even joy, to be discovered in the symbolism of Shemini Atzeret. If endings render meaningful all that precedes them, then the fact that our loved ones’ lives have come to an end is precisely, even if counterintuitively, what made them so special in the first place. If our loved ones lived forever, their time with us would be less precious; their impact upon us would be less pronounced.
On Shemini Atzeret, we fondly recall, sing, and celebrate the songs our ancestors composed with their lives. Like all beautiful music, we never want those songs to end. But on this festival that is at its core about endings, we remember that the end is what makes it music in the first place. Let us listen, then, to the songs of our loved ones on this day. Let us commit them to memory; let those songs stir our souls and stay in our hearts; and let those songs move us to make our own beautiful music, for our loved ones shared the music of their lives with us so that we might make our own.
And as we conclude these high holy days by singing the songs of our lost loved ones, let each and every one of us come to understand that all life, like all music, must end; including, of course, our own. Let us ask ourselves: What will the music of our lives be? What notes will we write on the staff? What will the song sound like, when it is all finished? Only when we are mindful of the fact that our lives are finite can we truly become the composers of the songs of our lives.
May the music and the memory of our ancestors endure as a source of inspiration and blessing. May their souls and their songs be bound up in the bonds of everlasting life. And may this day inspire us to make beautiful music of our precious and passing lives.
The 19th century hasidic master Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa famously taught that a person should always carry a note in each of their pockets. On one should be written the biblical verse, “anokhi afar va-efer / I am dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27), and on the other should be written the rabbinic dictum, “bishvili nivra ha-olam / for my sake was the world created” (M. Sanhedrin 4:5).
Like many people, I love this teaching; but it occurred to me recently that the texts written on these respective slips of paper are not exactly parallel. Remembering that we are but dust and ashes certainly instills a sense of humility, as Reb Simcha Bunim intended. But I’m not so sure that asserting the world was created for my sake is as empowering as the master thought it would be. After all, if the world was created for my sake, then, logically, couldn’t it also be destroyed on my account as well? This is the question that occupies Moses in Parashat Ha-azinu.
Parashat Ha-azinu is, of course, the penultimate portion in the book of Deuteronomy and indeed the entire Torah. As such, it represents the culmination of Moses’ parting words to the Children of Israel before he dies and they cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. The last parashah, V’zot Ha-b’rakhah, is less a final teaching than the benediction that follows it. In Parashat Ha-azinu, Moses frames his climactic lesson as an epic poem that describes God’s relationship with Israel through dramatic metaphors, prophesying that Israel will eventually betray God and that God, in turn, will spurn Israel.
To understand the meaning and message of this poem, let’s spend a little time unpacking its language. Moses begins by describing how Israel’s relationship with God was formed, and how God tenderly cared for us from our earliest days as a people:
God, in other words, relates to Israel as a mother eagle to her young, hovering nearby and watching over them, protecting them, nurturing them; it’s an intimate image of concern and care. But, if you’ll pardon the pun, you eagle-eyed readers out there may have noticed that the Hebrew verb translated as “gliding,” יְרַחֵ֑ף, is actually a very rare word, used only one other time in the entire Torah. Side-note for you grammar nerds out there: there is actually a Greek term for a word that only appears twice in a text: “dis legomenon.” Who knew? In any case, the only other instance of the verb רחף in the Torah is at the very beginning, all the way back in the book of Genesis. In Genesis chapter 1 verse 2, we read that, as God began to create the world:
the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep and God’s spirit was מְרַחֶ֖פֶת over the water.
Different translations render the term מְרַחֶ֖פֶת in various ways: sweeping, soaring, flitting. But all recognize that the image evoked by the word is that of an eagle protecting its young, noting the way it is used in our parashah. Rare words in the Torah are quite meaningful; and when a verb, like this one, is used in only two places it is extremely likely that the Torah is deliberately trying to draw a connection between those two passages, between God’s relationship with the Jewish people and the creation of the world.
And, as a matter of fact, the language of Moses’ poem here in Deuteronomy evokes many parallels to the story of creation in the book of Genesis. For example, in verse 10, Moses says that God first encounters Israel v’tohu, which our chumash translates as “in an empty [place].” If you’re paying attention, you will likely remember that the same term, tohu, appears in the very same passage from Genesis, often translated there as “void.” Again, the Torah deliberately connects God’s relationship with the Jewish people to the creation of the world.
And later, when Moses predicts that Israel will eventually reject God, the poem utilizes similarly cosmic language: the fire of God’s wrath will descend all the way to Sheol, to the deepest depths of creation before leveling mountains and ultimately consuming everything on earth. As a consequence of Israel’s betrayal, they will experience “wasting famine, ravaging plague, [and] deadly pestilence” (32:25). The animals over which God gave humanity dominion in Genesis will be loosed destructively against their former masters, before they will finally be “reduced to nothingness, making their [very] memory cease” (32:36); the result of Israel’s rejection of God will be that it was like they never existed. The question thus emerges: in what way is God’s relationship with the Jewish people connected to the creation of the world?
In order to answer this question, we must first examine the nature of the betrayal to which Moses envisions Israel will eventually succumb. According to Moses, Israel will betray God by turning to other divinities: “They incensed Me with no-gods,” Moses imagines God saying, “and vexed Me with idols” (32:21). Now, I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t seem to me at first blush that the punishment fits the crime here. Does Moses mean to tell us that God is really petty enough to utterly annihilate the Jewish people, and maybe even to destroy the whole world, simply because we started worshiping other gods? When rabbinic tradition considers what sins led to the first major cataclysm in Jewish history, the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians, they said it was not only because of idolatry but also because of widespread bloodshed and sexual violence. Similarly, the rabbis identify unfettered hatred as the transgression that led to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. For these sins, we can certainly understand God’s righteous indignation; and whether as punishment or as inevitable consequence, national catastrophe would seem a quite fitting result. But in what way is idolatry itself a sin worthy of such intense divine wrath?
It is important to know that the Jewish insistence on monotheism is not simply a mathematical concern. It’s a moral one. To believe in only one God is to believe in only one creator. And if there is only a singular source for all creation, then everything that exists is precious to the Creator, and, even more importantly, every human being is inherently and equally a child of God. To believe in multiple divinities is to relate to the world as inherently divided and hierarchical: some things, and indeed, some people, are of this god, while others are of that god, which invariably must mean that some are greater and some are lesser, some more worthy of consideration and concern, and some fundamentally less valuable.
I want to be clear here that I am not talking about religious traditions that envision one God manifesting in many different ways, or that use the metaphor of divinity to identify natural forces and processes. When I say “idolatry,” I’m talking about believing that there is literally more than one God, or else venerating someone or something other than God, considering someone or something that is not God on a level that is equal to or higher than God. And from the Torah’s perspective, the problem with idolatry of this sort is that the one who believes in multiple divinities must of necessity also believe that anything which doesn’t resemble, or isn’t of, their preferred deity, is inherently less than that which resembles or comes from that deity.
The one who venerates a particularistic image of God therefore inevitably denigrates anyone and anything that they believe is distinct from that divinity. Either I believe that the same God who created me also created you and everyone else – and that therefore your life and your needs are not only as important as my own but also that your welfare is bound up in my own (and vice-versa) – or I believe that we are fundamentally separate and inherently unequal. The former belief leads to justice and peace; the latter to oppression, violence, and, ultimately, destruction. In other words, monotheism by definition results in equality and harmony; idolatry to injustice and annihilation. Which also means, crucially, that tolerating inequality and bloodshed is tantamount to idolatry, whereas embracing monotheism is evidenced only by the extent to which one actively pursues a just and peaceful society.
Seen from this perspective, creation itself depends on humanity’s exclusive loyalty to God, in principle, but more importantly in practice, because our deeds are what ultimately testify to our loyalties. Regardless of what we profess to believe, if we treat every human being equally as a child of God, pursuing justice and advancing peace; indeed, if we treat all of creation as thoroughly precious to God, then creation itself will be sustained. And if not – again, regardless of what we might profess to believe – creation will unwind into chaos, existence will be reduced to nothingness.
But Moses’ message isn’t directed to humanity as a whole. It’s directed to Israel, because the Jewish people’s loyalty to God is meant to serve as an example to all. As Moses says earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, when others look upon the kind of society Israel has created by putting monotheistic faith into practice, they will marvel at, and seek to emulate, us. This is the essence of our covenantal relationship with God, to be a mamlekhet kohanim, a nation of priests; just as a priest brings people closer to God, Israel is charged with connecting all humanity with their Creator. “Imru ba-goyim Adonai malakh,” says the psalmist, “proclaim to the nations that there is but One sovereign” (Ps. 96:10).
Again, this is less about principle than it is about practice. It ultimately doesn’t matter what we or anyone else believes in our hearts. What we do reveals what we really believe. The Jewish people are not tasked with converting the unwashed masses into our faith. Rather, we are charged with inspiring and leading others through our example to live in such a way that reflects a recognition that God is one. The stakes of our rejecting this responsibility are grave; all of existence depends upon whether Israel succeeds at its mission; the world needs us to lead by example. That’s what Moses means when he asserts, כִּ֛י חֵ֥לֶק יְהֹוָ֖ה עַמּ֑וֹ, we are God’s very stake in creation (32:9). The integrity of the entire world is undergirded by our loyalty to God, demonstrated by our deeds.
But what of the claim that the chosenness implied by our parashah undermines the moral message I am claiming is inherent to monotheism? If God indeed has the uniquely intimate relationship with Israel that Moses is describing, doesn’t that imply a human hierarchy and justify inequality? Isn’t the Torah teaching, to paraphrase George Orwell’s classic line in Animal Farm, that all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others?
In a word, no. If Israel is defined by its loyalty to God, and loyalty to God, in turn, is about behavior rather than belief, then anyone – regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, or even religious identity – is an Israelite so long as they act in the world in a way that reflects the monotheistic ideal. And conversely, anyone whose behavior betrays an idolatrous worldview forfeits their claim to be part of God’s people, even those whose Jewish ancestry is unimpeachable. “הֵ֚ם קִנְא֣וּנִי בְלֹא־אֵ֔ל, those who incense me with no-gods,” Moses imagines God as saying, “וַאֲנִי֙ אַקְנִיאֵ֣ם בְּלֹא־עָ֔ם, I will avenge them by rendering them as no-people.” God, in other words, disowns and disavows anyone whose actions reveal an idolatrous mindset, whereas God’s chosen people are those people who demonstrate, through their deeds, that they are choosing God.
Any person who is loyal to God is therefore part of God’s people. And the more of God’s people that there are in the world, the more creation is held together; the fewer of God’s people that there are in the world, the more creation collapses into chaos.
When the rabbis of the Mishnah taught “bishvili nivra ha-olam,” that every person must remember the world was created for their sake, they were not speaking metaphorically. The world indeed depends on each and every one of us. Through our choices and our deeds our world can either be sustained and, indeed, perfected; or plunged into chaos and, ultimately, destroyed. The question our teacher Moses poses to us in our parashah, then, is – which path will you choose?
By now, you’ve heard quite a bit about my sabbatical; perhaps more than you wanted to know. Apologies if that’s the case.
On Rosh Hashanah, I talked about how I tried to embrace the spirit of Shabbat by refraining from productive work, and avoiding the news as much as possible; relearning how to be still, but also realizing the challenges inherent in retreating from the world.
Last night, I talked about the parashah comic book series I began writing; how it took me down the Rabbit Hole of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and how that led me to think deeply about the idea of true self.
I have to say – writing a comic book is harder than it looks. It required me to study an art form with which I had only casually engaged in the past. Most of you know that I love many movies based on comic books, especially superhero movies. But I had never really read many of the comics themselves. There was something about the format that never really grabbed me.
So this summer, I read a lot of comic books and graphic novels, seeking to understand their unique language of storytelling. That means I spent a lot of time with hero stories. In the process, I began to see the concept of heroes everywhere I turned:
I watched many movies and TV shows, which were, of course, filled with stories about heroes.
I listened to more music than usual, including a deep dive into David Bowie’s discography, especially the excellent albums he recorded while living in Berlin in the early 1970’s, the best of which is arguably, you guessed it, “Heroes.”
I also read voraciously, and even picked up a biography of Hank Aaron, one of my all-time favorite baseball players, the kind of book I likely would never have read were I not on sabbatical. And want to hear something eerie? The book’s title is…The Last Hero. We’re through the looking glass here, people.
As the idea of heroes became increasingly inescapable, I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t receiving a message from on high, that I was for some mysterious reason being called to consider the meaning of heroism.
So with my copious quantity of sabbatical free time, I bought a copy of literary scholar Joseph Campbell’s famous book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces – something I’ve always wanted to read (and, if I’m being honest, have often pretended to have read) – in the hopes it might offer some insight.
In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell teaches that stories about heroes are remarkably consistent across space and time. Campbell calls this narrative pattern “the hero’s journey.” The journey always begins with the hero experiencing, and refusing, a “call to adventure.” And the pivotal moment of every hero’s journey is when the hero goes through a trying ordeal that leads them to embrace their calling, transforming the hero into someone different than they were at the beginning of the journey. Campbell refers to the challenging experience that causes the hero’s transformation as “The Belly of the Whale” – which is, of course, a reference to the book of Jonah that we read each Yom Kippur afternoon.
But is Campbell right? Is Jonah a hero?
That question is urgent for us to contemplate today. Rabbinic tradition considers the Book of Jonah central to Yom Kippur. To understand Jonah, then, is to unlock the meaning and power of this day. So, is Jonah a hero? Let’s consider the story:
God tells Jonah, an Israelite, of the wickedness of a great city called Nineveh and instructs him to go there and proclaim God’s judgment upon it.
The city’s name may not mean much to us moderns, but for an ancient audience, Nineveh was as well-known as New York or Paris. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, one of antiquity’s most powerful empires. Importantly, the Assyrian Empire was a mortal enemy of ancient Israel; in fact, Assyria utterly decimated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE.
God therefore gives Jonah not only the task of prophesying to a population of non-Israelites, a charge that is literally without precedent or parallel in the rest of the Bible, but also specifically to prophesy to a nation that is utterly hostile to his own.
So Jonah runs away, clear in the opposite direction of where he is supposed to go. God tells him to go east, and instead he gets on a ship bound for Tarshish, the westernmost edge of the known world at the time.
Now, one could perhaps understand if Jonah flees out of fear. Presumably, the Assyrians of Nineveh would have been a very tough crowd for an unknown Israelite prophet bearing bad news.
But Jonah doesn’t run away because he’s afraid. As he reveals later in the book, “I fled to Tarshish because I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (Jonah 4:2). In other words, Jonah flees because he knows that God is a big ol’ softy who, when push comes to shove, won’t execute Nineveh’s sentence; and, spoiler alert, that is precisely what happens.
So Jonah runs away not to save his own life, but to try to ensure the people of Nineveh won’t be able to save theirs. Jonah believes in law and order, in crime and punishment. Those who sin deserve to get zapped. Don’t want to get zapped? Don’t sin. That’s why, when Jonah defies God’s command, he fully expects to get his just desserts, and accepts this fate.
Jonah boards the ship to Tarshish, and God sends a powerful tempest to destroy it. Jonah, however, has made his peace with the fact that the ship will be his casket and the ocean, his tomb. He goes down into the hold and takes a nap. When the panicked captain rouses Jonah from his slumber, and demands that he join him and his crew in their fervent prayers for salvation, Jonah instructs the crew to save themselves by throwing him overboard. He knows he has willfully done wrong, and therefore deserves to die.
But God doesn’t let Jonah drown. Instead, God sends a great fish to swallow him up.
Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days. In the putrid bowels of the great fish, Jonah offers a prayer. Some commentators have read Jonah’s prayer as a model for repentance, what our tradition calls teshuvah. But according to our tradition, teshuvah is about rejecting wrongful behavior and returning to a path of goodness. It requires one to acknowledge their wrongdoing, admit their guilt, seek forgiveness, and commit to changing their ways (Cf. Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 1:1, 2:2-3, 2:4). Repentance, in other words, is about transformation.
But if one looks carefully at the words of Jonah’s prayer – a pastiche of canned quotations from the book of Psalms – Jonah notably doesn’t ask God for forgiveness or to be saved. He neither expresses remorse for disobeying God nor promises to follow God’s orders in the future. Rather, Jonah simply accepts that he got what he deserved. What Jonah does in the belly of the fish is decidedly notteshuvah.
God orders the fish to spit Jonah out, and the reluctant prophet goes to Nineveh. But he doesn’t obey God’s command because he has been changed by his experience in the fish’s belly. He goes because he has no other choice: Running away didn’t work; trying to get himself killed didn’t work. What else could Jonah do? As a matter of fact, we can see Jonah’s lack of transformation in what happens next: Instead of repeating God’s message as instructed, Jonah goes rogue, delivering his own prophecy: “Od arba’im yom v’Nineveh nehepahat / Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” These are not God’s words. They’re classic Jonah: crime must be punished; criminals must pay; no salvation, no forgiveness, no mercy. From the beginning of the story until its very end, Jonah refuses to change.
The book of Jonah is therefore quite deceptive. It has many characteristics of what Campbell calls “the hero’s journey.” But according to Campbell, the hero’s journey must be transformational (Campbell, 23). Jonah isn’t changed by his experience in the belly of the fish. He doesn’t embrace his mission; he goes to Nineveh only because God coerces him. Once there, he delivers his own message, not God’s. When God ultimately refrains from destroying the city, Jonah becomes extremely angry and lashes out at God for failing to bring down the swift hammer of divine justice. To the very end, Jonah remains unchanged. Jonah is no hero.
Transformation is central to the hero’s journey because it takes conviction, strength of character, and power of mind and spirit to recognize one’s failings and strive to overcome them. Succumbing to one’s baser instincts is easy; recognizing the error of one’s ways is hard. Rare is the person who can master themselves. To make mistakes, even to fail, ishuman. To strive to learn from those errors and change for the better? That is heroic. As Rabbi Abahu teaches in the Talmud, “מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין — צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִין / In the place where the person who has done teshuvah stands, even the completely righteous do not stand” (B. B’rakhot 34b). Being perfect doesn’t make one a hero. A hero is one who learns from their mistakes and changes their ways.
So, if Jonah is not the hero of the book, who is? Well, if the defining quality of a hero is transformation, then there is only one character in the book who fits the bill: the people of Nineveh.
In chapter 3, immediately after Jonah’s pronouncement, the people of Nineveh proclaim a fast, don sackcloth and ashes, admit their guilt, cry out to God with sincere remorse, and commit to changing their ways. In other words, the people of Nineveh repent, spontaneously and voluntarily engaging in the process of teshuvah. Jonah may not change, but the people of Nineveh sure do. Jonah is not a hero. But in their willingness to change, the people of Nineveh are the very definition of heroism.
But the Ninevities’ heroism is about more than just their willingness and ability to change.
As I mentioned earlier, this summer, I read Howard Bryant’s excellent biography of Hank Aaron, The Last Hero. Aaron, of course, is best known for breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. But as I read the book, I discovered that, beyond the fact that Aaron hit 755 homers, I actually knew very little about the man. For starters, it turns out he much preferred his given name, Henry, to the moniker Hank.
I also hadn’t fully appreciated the uniquely challenging conditions in which Aaron played: he cut his teeth in Alabama at the height of the Jim Crow era; when Aaron signed his first big league contract in 1954, there were still very few black players in the majors, and the ones who did make it experienced horrible bigotry and discrimination.
As Aaron closed in on Babe Ruth’s home run record in the early 1970’s, now playing for the first major league team in the Deep South, he was subject to unimaginable racist abuse, including torrents of hate mail and death threats. He was forced to hire round-the-clock security and rely on the FBI’s protection.
That he was able to accomplish what he accomplished in such a brutal environment is extraordinary. And, as Bryant points out, Aaron’s career is even more exceptional when contrasted with the player who ultimately surpassed his home run record, Barry Bonds.
Bonds was, of course, also a great hitter, quite possibly one of the best all-around players in baseball history. But Bonds – like many other players of his era – was so obsessed with being the best, and acquiring for himself all the fame and fortune that went along with it, that it ceased to matter how he went about pursuing that goal. So Bonds ultimately beat Aaron’s record in 2007 – with the help of copious quantities of performance-enhancing drugs.
Both men’s “how’s” reveal something about their “why’s.” For Bonds, pursuing the home run record was solely about naked self-interest. Certainly Aaron had his own selfish reasons for seeking the record; he was human, after all. But no one perseveres through what Aaron endured for ego alone. Aaron – who risked his life not just to play baseball, not just to hit the most home runs, but also to become active in the civil rights struggles of his era – had his sights on something bigger: showing a society still mired in racism that every single human being deserves respect and equal opportunity’ and showing those who are systematically degraded as he was that they, too, are infinitely dignified and worthy of pursuing their dreams.
Ultimately, it was Aaron’s capacity to see beyond himself toward his broader responsibility that made him a hero. And in a world in which too many of our leaders – in sports, entertainment, even in religion, and most definitely in politics – seem increasingly unable to think past their own self-interest and unwilling to see how their actions affect others, it may well be that Aaron is worthy of being considered “The Last Hero,” as Bryant calls him. Heroes like Aaron are indeed in short supply these days.
It’s not just the ability to change that makes one a hero. According to Campbell, the hero’s transformation is not an end to itself. The hero’s transformation must inspire and enable them to help others (Campbell, 23).
According to our tradition, our inborn inclination to serve ourselves first and foremost, what Jewish tradition calls our yetzer ha-ra, is the root of all wrongdoing. Despite how the term is often translated, the yetzer ha-ra isn’t inherently evil, per se. Our tradition acknowledges that, without a yetzer ha-ra, no one would ever have children, or engage in productive work, or enjoy the delights of the world. But unchecked by an opposing force, the strong gravitational pull of our yetzer ha-ra can lead us to harm ourselves and others, ultimately producing inequality, oppression, and bloodshed.
That opposing force is what our tradition calls yetzer ha-tov, the altruistic impulse, an innate desire to help others that we all inherently possess alongside our selfish instinct.
When our yetzer ha-ra outweighs our impulse for altruism, we harm others and ourselves, deepen social inequities, and even precipitate violence.
But when our yetzer ha-tov triumphs over our yetzer ha-ra, we act in ways that are loving and just.
Our tradition teaches that we can control these inclinations. We have the ability to overpower our yetzer ha-ra with our yetzer ha-tov, to transform from being mostly concerned with ourselves to taking responsibility for the wellbeing of others, to change our ways from selfish and uncaring to loving and just.
But it’s not easy. It takes both will and work. One of the primary aims of Jewish religious practice is to help us cultivate and strengthen our yetzer ha-tov and diminish the power of our yetzer ha-ra. Jewish religious practice, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, serves to take us out of the narrowness of our own self-interest so that we might recognize our relationship to, and responsibility for, one another, enabling and inspiring us to act in ways that make the world more loving, more just, and more peaceful.
That’s why the person who has done teshuvah, rejecting wrongful behavior and returning to a path of goodness, is our tradition’s paradigmatic hero. The person who does teshuvah is making an active choice to strive to overpower their yetzer ha-ra with their yetzer ha-tov, committing to the work necessary for their altruism to triumph over their selfishness. The person who has done teshuvah is not only a person transformed, but a person who deliberately undergoes a transformation in order to help others.
If a hero is a person who makes the conscious choice to change from being self-centered to living a life of service, one who chooses to set aside self-interest and embrace a life of helping others, then the person who has done teshuvah is the model of heroism; and therefore, the process of teshuvah, the process that Yom Kippur invites us to embrace, is the real “hero’s journey.”
Jonah not only fails to complete the hero’s journey because he doesn’t change; he fails because, from the beginning of his story through the end, he only cares about himself. The nature of the transformation of the people of Nineveh, on the other hand, is from selfishness to widespread concern for others: “ וַיַּ֤רְא הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶֽת־מַ֣עֲשֵׂיהֶ֔ם כִּי־שָׁ֖בוּ מִדַּרְכָּ֣ם הָרָעָ֑ה / And God saw their deeds, that they turned from their selfish ways” (3:10). They take responsibility for themselves and each other. Even the king, who might be expected to have been the most self-interested Ninevite of them all, who could have easily found a way to just save himself and his own family, takes pains to help everyone in the city avert destruction – not only the city’s human residents, but also all its animals. Jonah, selfish from beginning to end, is no hero. But the people of Nineveh, who do real teshuvah, choosing to set aside their self-centered ways and commiting to serving others, most certainly are.
So the real question for each of us on Yom Kippur is, therefore: which will you be? Will you be like Jonah, or the people of Nineveh? Will you become a hero?
The book of Jonah ends without a resolution. God gets the last word, and we don’t know if Jonah will finally acknowledge the error of his ways and commit to changing. We don’t know whether Jonah will ultimately choose the hero’s path of repentance.
But maybe Jonah’s journey is left unresolved to remind us that God’s invitation to change is perpetually extended not only to Jonah, but to each and every one of us. No matter the choices we’ve made in the past, we can, each of us, right at this very moment, choose to change.
We don’t read about Jonah on Yom Kippur because he’s a hero. We read his story to remember that, like the people of Nineveh, we can embrace God’s ongoing invitation for us to become heroes ourselves.
The power of Yom Kippur – this day that invites us to consider with genuine regret the ways we have failed to live up to our highest ideals, sincerely seek forgiveness for our wrongdoings, and wholeheartedly commit to living differently in the year to come – is to remind us that we can change. And in changing, we can be heroes.
It need not be a permanent transformation. As imperfect beings, it most likely will not be. But even if, to quote David Bowie, we are only heroes just for one day; even if it is only for this one day – one is better than none. And tomorrow, we will have yet another chance, because the invitation for transformation is extended to us each and every day; indeed, the opportunity for teshuvah exists in each and every moment. The process is perpetual; the choice to be a hero is one we must make continuously.
So – are you a hero? If you’re anything like me, probably not. At least not yet. But today is a new day. This moment is a new opportunity. We can be heroes. And God knows our world needs heroes, now more than ever. Will you choose to be one?
May this be a heroic year for each and every one of us, and indeed, for the whole world.
During my sabbatical this summer, I began finally putting pen to paper on a project that I’d been dreaming about for some time – a series of comic books based on the weekly Torah portion, with at least one volume for each parashah. The concept, in short, is that a girl from our time gets transported into each parashah, discovers how the parashah’s message relates to her own struggles, and then returns to the present day.
As I was workshopping the concept with some partners – including my dazzlingly creative daughter – I found myself thinking a lot about a story I loved as a kid, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which also tells of a young girl who is mysteriously transported to an unknown realm, and has to find her way through – and, she hopes, out of – this strange world.
Shortly after tumbling down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland, Alice encounters a large blue caterpillar sitting on top of a giant mushroom, its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah. After staring intently at Alice for some time in silence, Carroll writes that, “at last, the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. ‘Who are You?’” Alice is taken aback by the unusual question. “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” she replies, continuing, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
The Caterpillar’s question, and Alice’s reply, are obviously intended to have several layers of meaning. At the most basic level, the Caterpillar merely wants a stranger he encounters to identify herself. Alice, for her part, is confused about how she ended up in this curious land, in which she has literally transformed several times, drinking and eating items that somehow have caused her to grow and shrink.
Of course, we all know that Carroll also intends the Caterpillar’s question, and Alice’s reply, to register as existential questions. The Caterpillar is effectively asking Alice, “Who are you, really? What is your essence, your nature?” And if this is indeed the meaning of the Caterpillar’s question, Alice’s answer reflects a profound uncertainty that I suspect resonates for many of us, as it does for me. Who am I, really? Who are any of us, at our core?
If you’re anything like me, you might have a very difficult time answering the Caterpillar’s question. We may, like Alice, push back against it, arguing that there is no such thing as an essential self. Echoing Sartre, we might say that our existence is what determines our essence. Who we are today is not the same as who we were yesterday or who we will be tomorrow. We are in each moment defined by the sum total of the steps we have taken that have brought us to that moment; we are what we have done, defined not by our essence but by our actions. We therefore may know who we are when we get up each morning, but by the end of each day, like Alice, we may recognize that we are no longer the same person; one day’s choices and deeds inevitably make us different than we were when the day began.
The idea that our lives are truly what we make of them – that we can do anything we set our minds to, that we can become anything we want to be with the right combination of ambition and determination – is deeply embedded in our culture. But is it really true? [pause]
The evidence suggests the opposite. Consider, for example, the story of Jim Lewis and Jim Springer. Lewis and Springer were identical twins who were separated at birth and raised apart. When they were 39 years old, they reunited, and found that they were both the same height and weight; both also habitually bit their nails and got frequent tension headaches. Now, that may not be so earth-shattering. We might expect two people with the same genes to have the same body shape, health history, even habits. But here’s where it gets really weird: as kids, they both owned a dog named Toy; as adults, they both worked in law enforcement, drank the same kind of beer, and smoked the same brand of cigarettes. And that’s not all: both independently gave their firstborn sons the exact same name, James Alan. Lewis and Springer are not an anomaly. Since the 1950s, researchers have done numerous studies on twins raised by different parents, and the results consistently show that identical twins turn out very similarly, regardless of their upbringing. This research reveals a simple, if perhaps challenging, truth: each of us comes into this world with an inherent nature, an essential self.
What modern science has discovered, Jewish tradition has long believed to be true. בְּטֶ֨רֶם אֶצׇּרְךָ֤ בַבֶּ֙טֶן֙ יְדַעְתִּ֔יךָ, וּבְטֶ֛רֶם תֵּצֵ֥א מֵרֶ֖חֶם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּ֑יךָ, writes the prophet Jeremiah; “[God] knew you before you were formed in the womb, and before you were born, [God] sanctified you” (Jer. 1:5). Religious extremists misconstrue Jeremiah’s words as biblical proof that life begins at conception. That’s not what this verse means. What the prophet is really saying is that the nature we will exhibit once we are born is deeply rooted, encoded into our very DNA, implanted within us from the earliest moments of our formation; moreover, Jeremiah is asserting that our fundamental selfhood is both a genetic inheritance from our biological parents and, also, a sacred gift from God.
Those of us who have children of our own likely discovered this truth early on, for better or worse. Watching each of my children from their earliest days on earth, it was readily apparent to me that, as the writer and master teacher Parker Palmer put it in his extraordinary book Let Your Life Speak (which I read no fewer than four times this summer; it’s that powerful), each of my children “arrived in the world as this kind of person, rather than that, or that, or that.” Each had inborn “inclinations and proclivities,” an intuitive sense of what they liked and disliked, what they were drawn toward and repelled by (Palmer, p. 11). Each naturally moved in the world in their own distinct way.
The countercultural, perhaps uncomfortable, truth, is that none of us come into this world as raw material to be shaped into whatever we, or the wider world for that matter, might want us to become. We give voice to that truth in our worship tonight. A little later in our service, we will sing:
As clay in the hands of the potter, who thickens or thins it at will, so are we in Your hand, Guardian of love.
This piyyut, this liturgical poem, is both very famous and very misunderstood. In it, the poet compares us to clay, to stone, to iron, to glass, to cloth, and to silver; God, in turn, to a potter, a mason, a blacksmith, and so on. Traditional commentators tend to interpret the poem to mean that an omnipotent God can mold us however God desires. However, as my teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, points out, “anybody who has worked with clay knows there are things you can do with clay, and there are things the clay will not let you do. Anyone who has worked with cloth, or with metal, or with jewelry, knows that the matter you are doing your work with constrains the results you are able to achieve.”
Similarly, each and every one of us is made of a unique material. We can therefore only fashion ourselves, or be fashioned by others, into whatever form is possible given the distinct potential and limits of our essential selves. God, according to the piyyut, knows this. According to the Mishnah, God’s ability to recognize our uniqueness is precisely the divine quality that testifies to God’s greatness (M. Sanhedrin 4:5). And, as Rabbi Artson warns, “It is our frailty to forget.”
While the widespread cultural belief that we can do anything we want to do, be anything we want to be, is meant to be empowering and hopeful, it can also lead to harm. A failure to understand or honor our unique nature leads to us trying, and invariably failing, to be that which we are not. Failing to understand and honor other peoples’ unique nature, including and especially our children, leads to us trying, and failing, to get them to be that which they are not. No two people are the same. Try as I might, I cannot force myself to be someone I am not, nor can I force someone else to be someone they are not. Seeking to build lives for ourselves, or to push others to make lives for themselves, without understanding and honoring the material we’re working with, is like trying to build a working suspension bridge out of clay, or a ship out of stone. Not only won’t the finished product turn out right but, as those examples illustrate, trying to do so may well be dangerous, whether for ourselves, or for others.
And yet this is precisely what happens to most of us. As the author and activist Robert Bly, who passed away just last year, once put it, we come into the world:
…‘trailing clouds of glory,’ arriving from the farthest reaches of the universe, bringing with us appetites well preserved from our mammal inheritance, spontaneities wonderfully preserved from our 150,000 years of tree life, angers well preserved from our 5,000 years of tribal life—in short, with our 360-degree radiance—and we [offer] this gift to our parents. [But] they [don’t] want it. They [want] a nice girl or a nice boy…Our parents [reject] who we [are] before we [can] even talk.
Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, p. 24
I remember encountering Bly’s observation shortly after having my first child, and it has haunted me ever since; not only as a parent, but also as a child myself.
It took me many years – and a lot of therapy – to finally realize that I am fortunate to have loving, if imperfect, parents, who tried their hardest and did the best they could with the tools at their disposal to raise me right. By and large, I like to think they succeeded – though you can tell me what you think!
But, like virtually all parents, my parents had myriad expectations of me and for me – and, indeed, they had expectations about parenting and life that were placed upon them, by their own parents, by their extended family, by their community, by the broader culture – that had little to do with who I really was and am.
I am certain that this was not in any way my parents’ intention. As Bly observes, “We do the same thing to our children; it’s a part of life on this planet.” We “arrive in this world with birthright gifts,” Palmer teaches, and then “we spend the first part of our lives abandoning them, or letting others disabuse us of them…we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability…” (Palmer, p. 12)
Being taught from our earliest days to deny our fundamental selves, is, for many if not most of us, a source of deep emotional pain; a powerful, and lingering feeling of rejection, of feeling as though we have to be, or strive to become, something we are not in order to be thoroughly accepted by and pleasing to the most important people in our lives. I know it has been for me. And as I come more fully to terms with it as an adult approaching – God help me – middle age, the more I realize that the particular perniciousness of this pain is that it produces more pain. Because we end up either trying to live with the painful dissonance of trying to be something we are not, or else being in a context where we are rejected for being who we are.
Before we chant Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, many have the tradition of reciting a prayer called “Tefillah Zakah,” a prayer for purity, composed about 200 years ago by the modern Lithuanian sage Rabbi Abraham Danziger. The prayer is deeply personal, with the author reflecting on the ways in which he has not lived as God created him to live: “You created me with a tongue and a mouth…to speak the words with which You formed heaven and earth…But [instead] I [have embarrassed] people, [laughed] at others, [gossiped, lied, and caused] arguments. You created me with hands…to transmit tenderness and comfort, but I have often used my hands for hurting others…” and so on, Rabbi Danziger reviews all the parts of his body, acknowledging the various ways he has betrayed his God-given gifts.
What Rabbi Danziger is pointing to here is a universal human truth: on some level, we all deny our essential selves. We strive to be something we are not in order to fit in. And what’s more, we try to get others, often the very people we love the most, to live in ways that are incompatible with their nature, selfishly – even if unintentionally – forcing people in all their infinite uniqueness into the finite and uniform boxes into which we feel they should fit. What suffering we cause ourselves and others through acting this way! What pain we cause our Creator by rejecting God’s infinitely precious gift of our singular souls! How grievous this sin; perhaps even the very root of all transgression!
The Torah calls Yom Kippur shabbat shabbaton, a complete cessation, a moment for us to stop everything about our lives – to stop wearing the clothes we normally wear, to stop being concerned about our body odor and our stinky breath, to stop numbing our pain with physical pleasures, to stop eating and even to stop drinking water. Is it possible that, by asking us to so thoroughly interrupt the momentum of our lives, our tradition is offering us an annual opportunity to take a good, honest look at ourselves and ask: Am I living the life I was meant to live? Have I been who God created me to be? If I look at my life, will I find a life that’s mine, the unique child of God who came into this world “trailing clouds of glory”? Or will I find someone else’s life, one that is unrecognizable to my singular soul? And beneath all of this is the one question that must be answered in order to address any of the others, the most basic question of all: Like the Caterpillar in Wonderland, on Yom Kippur we must ask ourselves, “Who are you?”
I don’t know about you, but I find those questions haunting to consider; painful, even. That’s the point of the whole holiday, of course: When the Torah discusses Yom Kippur, it commands, “v’eeneetem et nafshoteikhem” (cf. Lev. 23:27, Num. 29:7) which can be literally translated as, “you shall afflict yourselves.” This day requires not only forgoing creature comforts but also leaning into the discomfort of confronting the deepest pain in our hearts – our guilt, our regret, our longing. And the pain we are asked to lean into on Yom Kippur is profoundly purposeful. It is precisely what tells us that we are not in fact living the lives we should and could be living, that we have strayed from who God created us to be. It is the voice calling us to return – to return to our true selves; to who we really are.
The problem, however, is that because we spend the first part of our lives being trained away from our true selves, and abandoning our birthright gifts, for the sake of belonging, most of us have lost sight of who we really are. When we channel our inner hookah-smoking Caterpillar and ask ourselves, “Who are you?”, we are likely to answer, just as Alice did, “I hardly know” anymore.
So how do we recover who we are, deep down? How do we hear the inner voice of true self that is calling out to us?
The answer, of course, is that we must listen. It is no coincidence that our tradition’s guiding principle has long been, “sh’ma Yisrael,” listen, O Israel. In order to hear the voice of our godly soul calling us in each and every moment, we must listen for it.
True, our souls don’t literally talk to us; at least, not in a way that is audible to our ears. Rather, as Palmer writes, our souls “speak through our actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states of being” (Palmer, p. 6). Like trees that grow in the direction of available sunlight, our souls speak in the ways we intuitively recoil from certain experiences and are drawn to others; in the ways we wither in certain environments and thrive in others.
But however our souls speak to us, hearing their voice requires us to do something even more basic: to listen, we must first be quiet. It is again no coincidence that we cannot utter the Torah’s command to listen, “sh’ma,” without first telling ourselves, “shhh.” We can’t hope to hear the divine sound of our soul without first being quiet.,
Perhaps this is why our tradition has us recite the sh’ma no less than twice daily; morning and evening, we remind ourselves to be still so we can listen for the godly voice within. The daily practice of sh’ma has a weekly parallel in the Sabbath; the Hebrew word for which also, helpfully, begins with the sound “shhh” – Shabbat. On Shabbat, we “lay down the profanity of clattering commerce,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once put it, so that in the silence we might hear our souls speak.
But for most of us, even those daily and weekly practices are not enough. We are so accustomed to silencing our souls that we have all but forgotten their sound, even as they long for us to listen to their voices. So once a year, we have Yom Kippur, a shabbat shabbaton, a supreme sabbath, a day to cease not only our labors, but all aspects of quotidian living; a desperate measure – for desperate souls.
It is fitting, then, that we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a prayer that reminds us that all our many words are and ought to be b’teilin u’mvutalin, utterly null and void. Yom Kippur is a day for the supreme silence we need to hear the speech of our souls. So we start Yom Kippur by telling ourselves, in effect, to be quiet; because if we are to listen to our souls speak, we must first embrace the stillness.
Only when she steps outside the life she was supposed to be living does young Alice confront the most basic and most important question there is: “Who are you?” On Yom Kippur, we are like Alice in Wonderland. By inviting us to break radically with our routine reality, Yom Kippur enables us to peer beneath the people we’ve become to inquire about and discover who we truly are – to stop and be still so we can hear the sound of our souls, to discern the distance between who we were meant to be and who we are today. As Alice discovered, navigating this Wonderland is not easy. But it is nothing compared to the pain many of us know all too well of living lives that are not truly our own, seeking belonging by losing our selves.
This day invites us to healing and wholeness: reclaiming who we truly are, embracing our singular souls. This day invites us to ask ourselves, “Who are you?” to answer “I am Me,” and to live in the year to come in such a way that honors ourselves as the unique gifts from God that is each and every one of us.