Why Are You Here? — Rosh Hashanah 5783

Throughout history, there have always been people who sought solace from the world as it is by hiding behind what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows” (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com).

As a people that is well over three thousand years old, Jews have collectively lived through many eras of upheaval. We have endured revolutions and conquests; crusades, inquisitions and expulsions; the rise and fall of empires; civil wars and world wars, pogroms and genocide. 

One of the tempestuous times that looms large in the Jewish consciousness is the chaotic era of the Roman occupation of the land of Israel, a period of oppression, civil unrest, and national calamity. 

The upheaval of that era did not cloud the moral vision of the ancient rabbis, who didn’t mince words when it came to their feelings about Rome. Characteristic of their perspective was Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s critique: “Everything that [the Romans] established, they established only for their own purposes. They established marketplaces, to place prostitutes in them; bathhouses, to pamper themselves; and bridges, to collect taxes from all who pass over them” (B. Shabbat 33b; cf., B. Bava Batra 10b)

In other words, the problem with Rome was that it only cared about one thing: Rome. All at the time could see that Rome was responsible for extraordinary advances in engineering, art, and architecture. One can still marvel at Rome’s triumphs in these areas to this day, as remnants of the edifices and infrastructure it built endure in all the lands that were once under her dominion. It was, and remains, difficult not to be impressed by Rome’s accomplishments. 

Yet Rabbi Shimon saw through this facade, recognizing, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “that all these splendid edifices and public institutions were not built by the Romans to aid the people but to serve their own nefarious designs,” the expansion of imperial wealth and power chief among them (The Sabbath, ch. 3). True, advancing Roman interests may have sometimes benefited those under its dominion, but that was beside the point. The Empire could not have cared less about helping its subjects unless doing so would also serve its own interests; and conversely, when the Empire saw that it was to its own advantage to oppress its subjects, it didn’t think twice about doing so. 

The ancient rabbis had a word for this quality: zadon, perhaps best translated as arrogance. In the rabbinic consciousness, zadon is about considering oneself more important than others, elevating oneself above other people (cf., Maimonides, Hil. De’ot 2:2; Ex. 18:11, Ovadiah 1:5, Jer. 49:16). A person characterized by this quality is concerned only with their own self-interest, flagrantly disregarding what is good for others; unconstrained, even, by what is morally right. Thus rabbinic tradition frequently refers to Rome with the epithet “memshelet zadon,” the Arrogant Kingdom. 

An Arrogant Kingdom such as Rome is a state that is thoroughly self-interested, one that believes nothing is more important than its own power and wealth – that there is no higher morality than its own position. An Arrogant Kingdom will therefore do literally anything it perceives as being to its own benefit, no matter who may be harmed in the process.

In honing in on the nature of Roman evil, Rabbi Shimon demonstrates that he could clearly see the mess of his moment, an era of oppression and injustice wrought by the reign of an arrogant empire. But the ability to recognize what is broken is not the same as summoning the conviction and the courage to fix it. So instead of confronting the moral crisis of his era, Rabbi Shimon ran away, secluding himself in a cave, along with his son, Rabbi Elazar. They remained in that cave for twelve long years, studying Torah all day, every day, pausing only to recite their daily prayers. 

Throughout history, there have always been people who, like Rabbi Shimon, turned to their faiths for refuge from the world as it is, seeking solace by hiding behind what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail). 

Examples of this tendency abound in all faith traditions, including our own. From the ascetic Essenes who fled to Qumran, to caves near the Dead Sea, during the oppressive Roman era; to the German pietists and Spanish kabbalists who embraced mysticism as a refuge during the terror of the crusades and the Inquisition; to the Hasidim of 18th-19th century Eastern Europe who sought shelter from the violent antisemitism of their era in contemplative practices and ecstatic prayer, many of our ancestors have turned to spirituality as shelter from the storms of their respective eras. 

And still in our time, many embrace what my teacher Rabbi Sharon Brous calls “escapist religion,” an approach that sees the synagogue as a sanctuary, a retreat from the raging fires of the outside world. Consequently, religious escapists strive to keep worldly affairs out of sacred space, secular pursuits distinct from spiritual practice, politics far away from the pulpit.

This approach is not baseless. The Essenes, for example, had a point when they noted the fundamental dissonance between worshiping a thoroughly perfect deity and living in a painfully imperfect world. And our tradition emphasizes the value of Shabbat, the importance of setting aside regular opportunities to cease engaging with our broken world, creating space for uninterrupted joy. 

This summer, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a two-month sabbatical. The term “sabbatical,” of course, comes from the concept of Shabbat, and I tried to embrace those two months as though they were Shabbat, including refraining, to the best of my ability, from my pathological urge to be perpetually productive. And, since our tradition teaches that Shabbat is meant to be a time of uninterrupted joy and peace, I also chose not to read, watch, or listen to the news or even to look at social media news feeds, since I find that it provokes anxiety and depression at least as often as it informs. 

I have to admit it felt really good to tune out all that noise and embrace the calming quiet that is the heart and soul of Shabbat, even if it was only for a few short months. But a part of me was always acutely aware that the world was still on fire, even if my extraordinary privilege enabled me to temporarily pretend that it wasn’t. 

That’s precisely what Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, come to realize. The Talmud records that after twelve long years in what Rabbi Brous calls their “pietistic dreamscape — completely isolated, free of the distractions of the everyday, immersed only in holiness,” Elijah the Prophet appears and informs them that the Roman emperor has died. Taking this as a herald of the advent of the messianic era, when evil will cease and God’s perfect justice and peace will reign, they decide it’s finally time to leave the cave and return to the world. 

But when they emerge, they see that nothing has changed. People still go about their daily lives, just as they had before they fled to the cave. The emperor may have died, but Rome, the memshelet zadon, still reigned. When Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar realize this, they become so overwhelmed with righteous anger that everything they cast their eyes upon burns to the ground. Finally, God calls out to them: “Have you emerged only to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!” In other words, God is saying that turning from the world to focus on the welfare of your own soul is its own form of zadon, a self-serving narcissism; the selfishness of religious escapism is every bit as destructive as imperial arrogance. Retreating behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows and ignoring the pain and suffering in our world doesn’t make it go away. Outside, the fire still destroys. And you can only ignore a fire raging outside one’s home for so long before the flames eventually spread and consume you, too.

One of the central themes of Rosh Hashanah is malkhuyot, God’s sovereignty. Throughout Rosh Hashanah, we pray for a world on the other side of our broken and messy inbetween, a repaired and perfected world, nothing less than the establishment of malkhut shamayim, the Kingdom of Heaven – a world aligned with God, radically loving, thoroughly just, and perfectly peaceful. Heaven on Earth. In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we repeatedly assert that such a world will only come into being ki ta’avir memshelet zadon min ha-aretz, when memshelet zadon is eradicated from the earth.  

Our mahzor, for its part, translates the term memshelet zadon euphemistically, as “the tyranny of arrogance,” rather than more directly as the Arrogant Kingdom. In defense of that choice, there is admittedly something strange about praying for the destruction of a government that hasn’t existed for nearly two millennia.  

But such a euphemistic translation, I think, obscures the real point of the prayer. We have continued to pray for the destruction of memshelet zadon for two thousand years because, on some level, we recognize that, even though the Roman Empire may no longer exist, the Arrogant Kingdom remains, and we all still live under its dominion. 

In his masterful book Moral Man and Immoral Society, the great 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out that every human government that has ever existed, in every conceivable political form, can be fairly and accurately characterized by zadon, concerned primarily with its own self-interest, doing whatever they perceive as beneficial to themselves (Moral Man and Immoral Society, 11-12). And it is this quality that breeds inequality, oppression, and bloodshed, which has, of course, been ubiquitous in human history. So long as we live in a world marked by widespread injustice and unending war, we remain subjects of memshelet zadon

From this reality, there is no escape. No cave into which we can run and hide. And moreover, hiding from the evils of our world doesn’t stop them from, ultimately, impacting us and the people closest to us. It didn’t work for the Essenes or the hasidim, and it won’t save us either. 

So what, then, are we to do? 

According to Niebuhr, while every society inherently and inevitably acts primarily out of self-interest, some are doubtlessly better than others. The more repressive, unequal, and violent a society, the more it resembles memshelet zadon. Thus, for Niebuhr, totalitarian regimes are at one end of the spectrum, while pluralistic democracies are on the other. It’s not that democracies are perfect. It’s that democracies, unlike totalitarian regimes, enable and empower individuals to criticize laws, systems, and leaders, and to work through the political process to form a more perfect union, to borrow the language of the American Constitution; to make the state increasingly inclusive, just, and peaceful. Therefore, democracy, while imperfect, is the only conceivable social system capable of advancing God’s sovereignty on earth.

But democracies are not inherent or self-perpetuating. Human beings have a tendency, in the words of the twentieth-century German philosopher Erich Fromm, 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. Right after the American constitutional convention concluded, a Philadelphia power-broker named Elizabeth Willing Powel is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin famously answered, “A republic — if you can keep it.” The gravitational pull of zadon on the human soul is great; on human societies, greater still. Without cultivating a force powerful enough to oppose our natural predilection toward zadon, we invariably succumb to the encroaching tyranny.

According to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, there is only one force capable of keeping zadon at bay; one quality that can totally and permanently eradicate memshelet zadon and bring about a world perfected under divine sovereignty. Each and every time we recite the Amidah today, we say:

וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָֽאתָ, וְיִירָאֽוּךָ כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים…

And so, Infinite our God, instill awe of You in all Your works, and fear of You in all You have created, so that all existence will revere You…

In other words, the only thing that can end the dominion of zadon is widespread yirah. 

The Hebrew term yirah can be translated a number of ways: fear, awe, reverence, respect. But conceptually, yirah in our tradition is the recognition that we are merely a small part of something vast beyond all comprehension (Maimonides, Hil. Yesodei ha-Torah 2:2). It is akin to the feeling of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or looking at the images from the Webb Space Telescope of galaxy clusters that are billions of light years away. A person with yirah understands the limitations of human knowledge, even of human 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 zadon, the arrogance of granting primacy to one’s own interests, an irreverent attitude toward others’ wellbeing. Zadon is hubris, selfishness, greed. Arrogant Kingdoms are therefore inherently unequal. Yirah, on the other hand, is humility, selflessness, and generosity; the knowledge that, as Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” That’s why the Rosh Hashanah liturgy asserts that the inevitable result of widespread yirah would be “וְיֵעָשׂוּ כֻלָּם אֲגֻדָּה אֶחָת,” that all will be made into one agudah, one bundle, one single society, because we will be free from the divisions and inequities that are both the cause and the effect of zadon

And because zadon and yirah are intrinsically opposed, the growth of one necessarily constrains the other. Therefore, our tradition rejects any attempt to support, accommodate, or make peace with memshelet zadon, even through avoidance. As Rabbi Brous teaches, “either you work to dismantle oppressive systems, or your inaction becomes the mortar that sustains them.” We either advance a perfected world of pervasive inclusion, justice, and peace, or we permit ourselves and doom each other to continue to be dominated by Arrogant Kingdoms in all forms. 

The Talmud records that Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar obey God’s command and return to their cave, once again immersing themselves in study and prayer. Rabbi Elazar, for his part, is relieved to escape a world on fire in the serenity of his religious sanctuary. But God’s rebuke haunts Rabbi Shimon. Day by day, he begins to notice that the Torah he studies repeatedly emphasizes one thing above all – our responsibility to love and care for one another. And he likewise begins to notice that the prayers he recites from the siddur express a longing for a perfected world. Slowly but surely he begins to understand what God meant by sending him back to the cave: not to hide from the world, but rather to remember his religious calling to repair the world – to take the world as it is and transform it into the loving, just, and peaceful world it ought to be. 

The purpose of Jewish religious practice – study and prayer, tradition and ritual – is not solipsistic self-help. The synagogue is not a sanctuary from the world. Rather, it is where we go to cultivate yirah, reverence, 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. 

Our worship today is in this sense meaningless unless it leads us to recommit ourselves to the work of making heaven on earth; far from lulling us to retreat from the world, it’s a shofar blast – calling us to engage in the world. And that work – of eradicating the Arrogant Kingdom and advancing the Kingdom of Heaven – 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 requires us recognizing the widening gap between rich and poor, the stubborn persistence of racial inequity, the ongoing assaults on the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals, the increasing irreversibility of man-made climate change, the threats to democracy in the U.S. and around the world, including the rising specter of political violence and election subversion as we approach November’s midterms,, as moral crises, spreading fires that threaten us all; manifestations of the ongoing dominion of the Arrogant Kingdom in our own time that must be eradicated if we are to fulfill our tradition’s vision of building heaven on earth.

This recognition demands our responsibility and our engagement – yes, even our political engagement, because, especially 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. 

I get the desire for religion-as-escape. I really do. The world can be brutal. The brokenness all around us can at times feel overwhelming, even unchangeable. Arrogant kingdoms have a way of seeming inevitable. Who wouldn’t want to find some way, even temporarily, to retreat from such a weary world, whether in a synagogue or whatever cave we find to insulate ourselves? What difference does it make, anyway?

After being back in their cave for twelve more months, God finally tells Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar that they may leave. Rabbi Elazar once again finds that little has changed. And once again, he erupts in righteous indignation, destroying everything he sees. But Rabbi Shimon has been transformed. Where Rabbi Elazar destroys, Rabbi Shimon repairs. 

Rabbi Elazar is incredulous, insisting that the world is broken beyond repair, and that the only path to God in a godforsaken world is for people of God to forsake the world. But Rabbi Shimon has learned the truth: People of God forsaking the world is precisely what enables arrogant kingdoms to endure. He turns to Rabbi Elazar and says, “b’ni, my son, dai l’olam ani v’atah, you and I are enough for the world.” Rabbi Shimon, in other words, channels his inner Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”” We may just be two people, but two people can indeed make a difference; because we are either two people advancing a perfected world, or we are two people allowing the world to remain broken. 

Our worship today reminds us – you and I are enough for the world. You and I can change the world. We may not fix everything that is broken – and certainly not all at once – but if you and I aren’t doing whatever we can to eradicate oppression, we are sustaining it; if you and I aren’t doing whatever we can to pursue justice, we are abiding injustice. You and I are either building heaven on earth, or we are sustaining the Arrogant Kingdom; we are either allowing the world to remain broken, or we are advancing a world perfected. Religion, in this sense, cannot be a retreat. It must be a revolution. Even our prayer must be political. 

We don’t come here on Rosh Hashanah to escape from the world. We come here to remember what we are called to do in the world – nothing less than advancing God’s sovereignty in the world – and to recommit ourselves to the sacred and secular work of eradicating arrogant kingdoms and establishing heaven on earth. 

May this be a year of political prayer, a year of revolutionary religion, a year of putting our worship to work. 

Shanah tovah.

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