GOD’S COURTROOM – Rosh Hashanah Morning
Feliz nuevo año dulce y tranquilo.
As I did at the evening service, I greet you again this morning with my wish for the new year: May this be a good year for all of us, a year of health and happiness, of spiritual and moral growth, a year of satisfaction, of fulfillment and peace – the richest of God’s blessings – in a world that sends us so many mixed signals.
Our prayer today is y’hee ra-tzohn mil’fa-neh-kha Adonai eh-lo-hei-nu vei’lo-hei avo-tei-nu v’eemo-tei-nu sheh-t’ha-deish aleinu shanah tovah u-m’tukah – May it be Your will, our God and God of our ancestors, to bless us with a good and sweet year.
One of the bestselling books on the mainland recently was Colin Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. It is his sixth published novel, the first to become famous. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 2016, and it got him an invitation to give the commencement address at the University of Connecticut. He spoke to the graduating seniors and their families as an author, telling them the story of a story.
Every good story, he said, has three parts. Part I – act I, introduces the main characters and provides us with the background information that the author wants us to know. It sets the stage for the second part, Act II.
Act II is where the complications – las complicaciones – begin. Unexpected, unforeseen and troubling events are described, all of which challenge the characters who captured our attention in Act I.
Act III, Mr. Whitehead said, is where all the chaos and confusion of Act II is resolved: the bad guys get punished and the good guys triumph.
Of course, Mr. Whitehead’s speech was longer. It was rich in illustrations that engaged his audience. At the end of his remarks to the graduates he said: “Congratulations on finishing Act I. Welcome to the complications!”
But there’s a problem with making life sound like a novel that ends “they lived happily ever after.” In real life, “happily ever after” simply doesn’t exist. There is no “feliz para siempre.” “Vivieron felice para siempre” rarely happens. Complications don’t go away. They change and get more complicated and challenging.
True reality rejects promises that cannot be kept: the end of evil, for example; or the elimination of pain and suffering; sunshine instead of shadows. The best novels come to an end, but – while some complications are resolved – it is clear to the reader that more complications lie ahead.
Our Jewish faith recognizes how complicated our lives are and it makes one promise that we need to hear today on this Yom HaDin – the Day of Judgment – El Dia del juicio: We are not alone! No estamos solos!
But how can I say that we are not alone when the traditional liturgy for Rosh Hashanah says that we come into God’s presence unescorted, each of us very much alone on this day: B’ein meilitz yosher mul magid pesha – There is no defense attorney to rebut the accusations against us. (Musaf on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, following U-n’taneh tokef)
That’s not the way most of us picture a courtroom. Of course there’s a judge, but there are also defense attorneys, prosecutors, witnesses for and against, often a jury. And the proceedings are usually very slow-moving. Trials can go on for days, weeks, months! But not here! Not on Rosh Hashanah. Not according to the traditional liturgy.
And yet we are not alone. Our prayers – the words of our mouths, the words of our hearts, the words of our thoughts – speak for us. They are our character witnesses. They urge the Holy One to remember the faithfulness of Abraham; to take into account Isaac’s willingness to obey his father; to credit us with the persistent loyalty of Jacob – all the merit of the patriarchs can be transferred to us to plead on our behalf.
But the merit of our ancestors can plead for us only so far, because God is the ultimate Judge. God is the Witness. God is the prosecuting attorney, the authority that summons us to court. And God is all-knowing. God does not forget. We have no one but ourselves to blame for our actions, no one else. We cannot shift the responsibility for our failings to others.
At the moment we stand before our Creator in judgment, it is as if we are alone in the world – each of us alone, each individual alone. We each are responsible for what we did and what we did not do. (Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe – 1914-2005) Whether we take the concept literally or figuratively, it’s scary!
How, then, can I assert that “We are not alone?”
For me, the answer emerges when we consider the character of the Judge. Yes, God is the majestic judge, the Sovereign seated on a high and exalted throne – ha-melekh ha-yoshev ahl kisei ram v’nisah – and today is Judgment day!
But that’s not the whole story. One of the opening prayers of Selihot, at the beginning of these Days of Awe, describes a very different aspect of God: God, the Sovereign, is seated on the throne of mercy! Eil melekh yoshev ahl keesei rahamim – rahamim – mercy.
Remember the Rabbis’ explanation of the different names of God that appear in the two creation stories in Bereshit/Genesis? The name Elohim describes God’s quality of justice; the name Adonai denotes God’s quality of mercy. If God governed the world solely by the standard of justice, human beings wouldn’t last for long. But if God governed the world only by the standard of mercy, human beings would take such advantage that soon there would be chaos. So God mixed the two: justice tempered by mercy and mercy stiffened by justice. (See Bereshit/Genesis Rabbah xii.15)
Apply that lesson to the concept of Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment. We appear before the throne of justice, but we know that God will judge us with mercy, that God is the Friend behind the phenomena, the loyal friend who is with us whatever happens (as I said in my sermon last evening).
How can we be so sure that mercy will win out? Here, in the sanctuary, during these Days of Awe, as we look back over the year and try to assess our own flaws and good deeds, it’s difficult for us to remember that God is judging us through both the prisms of love and mercy AND the prism of strict justice at the same time. We know that a loving parent is inclined to forgive. And yet objective, fair-minded people know that wrongdoing must have consequences.
So here is how I believe we can reconcile justice and mercy: We call God avinu malkeinu – our Parent, our Sovereign. We say the phrase so often that we take it for granted. Yet we also call God “ruler of the universe” and think of God as divine. Those are not terms we use for parents (although sometimes we’d like our kids to think we are – or even, ourselves, forget that we aren’t). The terms avinu – parent – and malkeinu – ruler – seem like a contradiction. But they are not. The Holy One, the Divine Ruler is neither a human father nor mother. God is not subject to human limitations. In saying the words avinu malkeinu, in singing them, we are portraying “a power in the universe that seamlessly unites infinite love, understanding, mercy and forgiveness with absolute fairness and an objective assessment of our virtues and our flaws.”
Rabbi Ishmael said: “I once entered the innermost part of the sanctuary … and saw Adonai seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me, ‘Ishmael My son, bless Me.’ I replied, ‘May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger … in order for You to deal with Your children according to the attribute of mercy’.” (Berakhot 7a)
“On Rosh Hashanah we are called upon to judge ourselves with love [and mercy]; to love ourselves, and also [at the same time] to face the truth about our shortcomings and grave misdeeds.” We try to judge ourselves as we imagine God judges us. “The One who cannot be fooled by evasions or excuses, the One to whom we are responsible and accountable; the One who cherishes us for who we are and all that we can become.”
That’s why our tradition bids us greet this day with both solemnity and joy, [seriously yet optimistically, filled with hope,] knowing that on this day we will contemplate matters of life and death, [and also that] … we are celebrating “the world’s creation and our own moral [and spiritual?] rebirth.” (Jerome Bruner, from Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, 1986, p. 51, cited in Mishkan HaNefesh, Rosh Hashanah Morning Service, page 105)
A final image: One of the best known sculptures of modern times – an iconic image that began as a series of paintings – is by the pop artist Robert Indiana, who died this past May. LOVE is four red metal letters –L O V E – stacked two letters on top of two, with the O leaning forward, resting upon and supported by the V and the E below to make an interdependent square. The original is in New York City; his LOVE sculptures are installed in public spaces worldwide. A postage stamp with the image of his LOVE painting was issued by the U.S. Postal Service.
The artist also created a Hebrew version for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It uses the four letters aleph, hei, vet, hei to make the word ahavah – love.
Everybody loves LOVE because it is so optimistic, seemingly so simple and so solid. But the sculptor himself apparently wasn’t totally satisfied with LOVE as his ultimate version of humanity’s best future. Nearly 40 years later, Robert Indiana created a second pop sculpture shaped like the first – four letters, two on top of two – but this time the word he depicts is HOPE, the value he called “love’s close relative.” In this sculpture too, the letter O leans forward, propelling us to look forward to the possibility of a more peaceful, better world.
My hope is that we will be inspired to enter the new year with confidence – confianza, optimism – optimismo, love – amor, joy – alegría and esperanza— hope!