Judging Ourselves

Posted on September 29, 2017

A Rabbi and a taxi driver both died and went to Heaven. At the Pearly gates they were met by an angel who led them in. ‘Come with me’, said the angel to the taxi driver. The taxi driver did as he was told and followed the angel to a mansion. It had everything you could imagine from a bowling alley to an Olympic size pool. ‘Wow, thank you’, said the taxi driver. Next, the angel led the Rabbi to a rugged old shack with a bunk bed and a little old television set. ‘Wait, I think you are a little mixed up’, said the Rabbi. ‘Shouldn’t I be the one who gets the mansion? After all I was a Rabbi, I went to synagogue every day and I did God’s work on earth. ‘Yes, that’s true,” said the Angel, “but this is a results based business. During your sermons, people slept. When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed.’ I don’t think that this is the standard by which we will be judged, but just in case I am imploring all of you to do your best and stay awake, for my sake if not your own. Last year was my year of judgment. From the moment that I made the decision not to renew my contract with The Community Synagogue, I knew that I was entering into the rabbinic placement process, and as such I was putting myself forth to be judged. I know that we talk about an interview process, but in reality it was a judgment process. Search committees were judging me: Would I be the type of Rabbi that they wanted? Was I the right spiritual leader for their community? Was I the person that they would want to share their joys and sorrows with? Was my voice soothing enough to lull them into a blissful sleep? Two things brought me comfort as I embarked on this process. The first was to constantly remind myself that as well as being judged, I was also judging. Was this the community I wanted to lead? Could I picture my family as members here? Was this the congregation I was looking for? The second was that in every interview room, I knew that my own harshest critic was going to be me. I was reflecting on every answer I gave, every lesson I taught, every story I shared. Considering all of them on car rides and flights back home, ruminating on them long after the search committees had probably forgotten the specific details. Today is our day of judgment when we stand before God, confessing a litany of sins and misdeeds from this past year. We imagine God sitting above as judge and jury. It 2 can be a daunting prospect. As we recite an alphabet of sins, there are some we privately confess, others that we are too embarrassed to admit even to ourselves, and some that we have simply forgotten. As a community, this year’s Yom Kippur is especially difficult for us. We gather here together as a congregation in the shadow of too many young deaths, too many lives ended too soon, too many tragedies that weigh heavy on our hearts. In 2 months, we have had to bury 3 people under the age of 45. Today, as we stand together in judgment, we can express our dismay at the deaths we have witnessed. We can shout about the injustice of lives ended too soon. And we can cry for the beautiful souls that we have lost. And I believe in these moments, God is up there mourning, grieving and crying with us. We read in the Talmud that: “When the Holy One, who is blessed, calls to mind God’s children, who are plunged in suffering among the nations of the world, God lets fall two tears into the ocean, and the sound is heard from one end of the world to the other, and that is the rumbling.”1 The earthquakes are the sound of God’s tears and we can hear that sound in our community. God who is seated on high is crying with us. A Holocaust historian was once interviewing a survivor of the extermination camps, who was also a Hassidic Rebbe. Astonishingly, he seemed to have passed through the valley of the shadow of death, his faith intact. He could still smile. ‘Seeing what you saw, did you have no questions about God?’ she asked. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘Of course I had questions. So powerful were these questions, I had no doubt that were I to ask them, God would personally invite me to heaven to tell me the answers. And I prefer to be down here on earth with the questions than up in heaven with the answers’.2 With God as our judge we are the ones here with all of the questions and none of the answers. And if we don’t understand the judge, don’t understand the judgment, then how can we stand before the court? So this year, let’s stop worrying about God as our judge. We will never fully understand the system anyway. And instead, let us focus on judgment from that person who knows us the best, the person made in the image of God, the person possessing the Divine Spark within them. I was my own best judge throughout the rabbinic placement process; and we are our own best judges today. On Yom Kippur, we should be the ones putting ourselves on trial. With the limitation of 25 hours for the case, there is not sufficient time for us to consider every action or inaction. Instead, we must hold ourselves accountable to 1 Talmud Berachot 59a, translation by Rabbi Neil Janes. 2 Story is taken from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: To Heal a Fractured World, p.23. 3 the two instructions at the center of our Yom Kippur Torah portions: the questions about how we love and how we live. Tomorrow afternoon, we will read the Holiness Code from the book of Vayikra – Leviticus. At its center, and encompassing all of its instructions, is the commandment: Veahvta lereecha kemocha – you shall love your neighbor as yourself.3 At its core, Judaism is about love: love of God, love of each other, love of our world. As we stand before ourselves in judgment, the first question we must ask is how did we love? To help us on our way I want you to think about the people that you love. Begin formulating that list in your heads. I am sure names and faces are flashing before us as we think about our family and friends, those for whom it is not just a feeling of connection, but something deeper – that wonderful and mysterious feeling of love. That’s the easy part: the follow-up, having established the people we love, is to ask: Did we love them well? Did we love them enough? Did we show them that we love them? We can all come up with our list of people, but as we judge ourselves, we have to really consider if our behavior is in line with our thoughts and words. I keep thinking about my grandfather in Israel. He is most definitely on my list and I feel the love for him in the very core of my being, but did I love him well? As I reflect on this past year, I cannot give the answer I want to. I didn’t make it to see him in Israel this past year for legitimate reasons, but I could have called him significantly more than I did. And I am not sure what I did this past year to show him that I love him. One of the challenges of Yom Kippur is to ensure that our thoughts, words and actions are all in harmony. I can think that I love him; I can even tell him I love him, but I must also judge myself by my actions and this is where I am lacking. I can love him better, I can love him more and I can show him. As my own best judge, I expect better from myself and I will work to be better in this New Year. The beauty of Yom Kippur as our day of judgment with ourselves as judge and jury is that we know what the verdict is and we know what our response should be. We get this day as a call to action, an opportunity for introspection and a chance to make things better in the year that lies ahead. We can love more, we can love better and we can show the people around us that we love them. The second question we must ask is “How did we live?” In tomorrow morning’s Torah portion we are instructed uvachartah bachayim – choose life. Throughout Devarim – Deuteronomy, the final book of Torah, this idea comes up again and again. The book itself is actually Moses’ farewell address to the people. He knows that he will die; he knows that he will not enter the Promised Land. And as he comes 3 Vayikra 19:18 4 towards the end and reflects on the life he has lived, I think he wants the people to learn from his experiences and to learn from his mistakes – his ultimate teaching is to choose life. Are we living well? Are we living a life in line with our values? Are we making the most of the life that we have? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the great leaders of nineteenth century German orthodoxy, in his elder years surprised his disciples one day with insistent plans for a trip to Switzerland. His students were puzzled and asked him what had brought on his sudden desire to travel. He explained ‘When I stand shortly before the Almighty, I will be held answerable to many questions: ‘Did you transact business with integrity? … Did you study Torah with regularity?’ But what will I say when, and I’m sure to be asked, ‘Samson, and did you see My Alps?’4 When I think about choosing life, I think about the moments of life for which I am truly present and those moments that I let slip through my fingers. I think about the occasions when I have been surrounded by my family, but have had my eyes fixated on the screen of my phone. I think about the times when my daughter Gabby has had to shout: “Daddy listen to me”, “Daddy look at me” to get my attention, snapping me out of a daydream or getting me to lift up my eyes. And I think about the moments I have already missed, those opportunities that have slipped through my fingers never to return. Whenever I fly home to England, I am always conscious of the limited number of hours I have available to see all of my family and friends. I try to cram in as much as possible, to make the most out of every minute that I have. And I spend almost no time looking at a screen. Why can’t I recognize that in life it’s the same? We have a limited amount of time and we need to make the most of every day; this is what I will aspire to do in the New Year that lies ahead. The story is told of a young, new Rabbi who came to serve a small town in Eastern Europe.5 He was taken on a tour of the town and eventually arrived at the cemetery. Wandering through the grounds he started reading the headstones and he began to notice something strange and disturbing; the ages on the stones. The life of one rabbi was 34 years, another 28, and yet another was 23 years! The new rabbi started to get very concerned and wondered about this community that seemed to be killing off its rabbis. His guide, sensing the growing panic within the rabbi and seeing that he was about to run said, “Let me explain and then you can decide if you still want to leave. These dates are not the span of these people’s lives; they are the number of years that they truly lived their lives.” 4 Adapted from A Fullness of Life , in Journal of Jewish Thought 1985, by Martin L. Gordon, page 123. 5 This story is adapted from a sermon given by Rabbi Heidi Cohen. 5 “You see, we have a custom in our community that each person keeps a diary and at the end of the day they write down how much of their time was spent positively, living a life of gratitude and blessing – the number of hours living closest to their highest self – living a life of love concerned with the things that really matter. And then at the end of a person’s life we add all of the hours in the notebook and that is the number we put on their headstone.” I don’t know if we’re yet ready to keep a diary like the one described in the story. But I do know that we are the best judges of how we have lived. We are the ones who know whether we made the most of the time or if we wasted it. In our hearts we know if we are living well and loving well or if we are falling short. And the wonderful opportunity gifted when we are the judges on this day is that we can emerge from it knowing our verdict with certainty. We know what we must confess, we know what we must leave behind and we know how we must change. This Yom Kippur, let’s not worry about God as our judge and let’s instead focus on the decree from the best judge that we have. And let’s make sure to act upon the verdict. Gmar Chatimah Tova