The Covenant On Yom Kippur: How Do We Keep Our Contract With God? – Erev Yom Kippur
When I was nine years old, I was hired to be the boy alto in a choir that accompanied the cantor at High Holy Day services in Orthodox synagogues. To this day, I still remember a lot of the music we sang: the unison passages, the harmonies, my little solos and especially the rousing music of prayers that had a repeated refrain at the end of poetic verses. While I learned the music then, I did not know the meaning of the words. But now, when I find myself singing the words in my head, I “connect” and I think about what the words mean. One of these melodies was running through my mind as I began preparing for these High Holy Days. The words la-b’rit ha-beit: Look to the covenant, (O God), v’ahl teifen la-yetzer – Do not be distracted by our imperfections. A prayer to God: You made a covenant – a contract –with us: You will be our God and we will be Your people. Don’t judge us harshly even when our failings testify against us. When we make this appeal we are committing ourselves to face our failings and imperfections.
How do we do that? How do we measure ourselves? By what standards?
Should we rely on our intuition, nuestra intuicion? How about what we think of as our common sense, nuestra sentida comun? In these times, common sense and intuition are not clear and they are not universal. They have been splintered into countless alternatives, each one tailored to someone’s particular tastes and beliefs. Everything is debatable, from people’s beliefs to objective reality. One person’s plain truth may be fake news for others, or dismissed as someone’s tendentious pleading argumento tendencioso – for a suspicious cause – which is even worse than alternative facts. (Carina Chocano, “No Prob,” The New York Times, July 23, 2017)
We intuitively tend to look for information that confirms what we already suspect, or fear or just know. For an extremely bizarre but true example, remember the man who hated Hillary Clinton so much that he believed a news item he read on the internet claiming that she was running a child pornography ring in the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. The story of course was ludicrous, but this man was intuitively certain that it had to be true. So he drove five hours – 358 miles from his home in North Carolina – armed with an AR15 rifle, a .38 caliber handgun and a knife to rescue the children from their basement prison. Only there were no children and there was no basement. He was arrested, a dupe, a victim of truly fake news on the internet where unscrupulous people make up conspiracy stories that go viral and are believed to be true.
I’m sure you all remember and were horrified by a local example of how flawed intuition can lead to dangerous conclusions. Because the recovery from Hurricane Maria has been so slow, people began to look for someone to blame. El Nuevo Dia published an essay by one of its op-ed writers blaming “the Jew.” The Jew! As if all Jews think as one. As if we all conspire against society!
Where could such a lie, such stupidity have come from? Only from the mind of a person whose repugnant anti-Semitic beliefs override every aspect of objective truth. Based on her long-held extreme prejudices, her intuition just told her that Jews were responsible and she didn’t hesitate to express her opinions in print. Fortunately, her hate-filled ranting was overwhelmingly rejected by Puerto Ricans of every perspective. That her opinions weren’t based on facts didn’t keep them from being dangerous.
In their brilliant analysis, the cognitive psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, whose work was awarded a Nobel Prize, found that people make decisions on the basis of subjective assessment of probabilities. That’s a fancy way of saying that people act on opinions which they think are true even though the opinions have no basis in reality. To put it simply, our intuition doesn’t work for us. It is misled by what they called “confirmation bias.” We betray our own objective capabilities. We make the same mistakes as before. (See Michael Lewis, “How Two Trailblazing Psychologists Turned the World of Decision Science Upside Down,” Vanity Fair, November 14, 2016 & Ben Yagoda, “Your Lying Mind,” in The Atlantic, September 2018)
So how do we know what’s right? If we shouldn’t rely on our intuition, how should we make decisions?
How, then, can we change ourselves, how can we grow morally? How can we make our behavior patterns better, more human, more like the image of God in which we are created? Where can we look for tools to compensate for the faulty common sense and intuition that lead us to make bad choices?
The founder of the Musar movement in Judaism, Rabbi Israel Salanter, born in Lithuania in 1810, came up with an answer that can work for us. Musar means ethical behavior. Rabbi Salanter taught that study of our sacred texts must not be an end in itself but instead had to result in ethical behavior. This teaching echoed Hillel’s advice not to separate from the community. (Pirke Avot 2:5)
Withdrawing from society to study wouldn’t make you a Jewish saint; it would make you a Jewish idiot. An idiot, in the original Greek meaning of the word, describes a totally self-interested person who ignores public issues, concerns and problems, paying no attention to the chaos outside. According to Rabbi Salanter’s Musar teachings, good Jews must not be idiots. They must be fully involved in community affairs. It’s what we do that counts.
There’s a remarkable passage in the Talmud where the Rabbis portray God as saying, “I don’t care if they believe in Me or not, so long as they keep My commandments.”
Which brings us back to the problem of how to synchronize our actions with standards that are more reliable than intuition, which we now learn is very unreliable. Rabbi Salanter and his followers laid out a spiritual path for self-improvement and character development. It’s a three step program.
First: study of important texts.
Second: systematic evaluation of our behavior.
Diligent practice of new habits of thoughts and actions. (See Mishkan HaNefesh Yom Kippur afternoon service, page 354 note.)
This is a program that connects the repair of the external world – tikkun olam – with the mending of our inner world of being – tikkun ha-nefesh. Social justice rests on spiritual awareness.
Again we ask, “How?”
The first part of this three-part program is studying important texts. Among the most important study texts are the prayers we are reading today and the prayers of our Shabbat siddur, texts you encounter regularly. My teacher Henry Slonimsky said that if you want to know Jewish values, what’s in the Jewish soul, it’s better to look in the siddur, our prayer book, than to search in our Bible. “The Bible is too grand”; what we need day by day “has been squeezed out of [the Bible] into our daily prayer book and made our own, a more personal expression … of Jewish sufferings, Jewish needs, Jewish hopes and aspirations… The Jewish soul is mirrored there… the individual’s soul in private sorrow and the people’s soul in our historic burdens, heroic passion and suffering, our unfaltering faith through the ages.” (Henry Slonimsky, “Prayer,” in Essays, 1967)
It is especially the repeated refrains in the prayers that linger in our minds: avinu malkeinu, evoking God’s justice and love for us, or the verse I cited earlier, la-b’rit ha-beit – look to the covenant. Only now, it’s not only a plea to God to judge us mercifully, it’s a reminder to ourselves to look to the covenant for guidance that compensates for failed intuition. V’ahl tefen la-yetzer – and not let ourselves surrender to the temptation to give up on our efforts to repair ourselves. La-b’rit ha-beit — mira al pacto – v’ahl tefen la-yetzer – no te metas en tentación. Aveinu malkeinu – nuestro padre, nuestro soberano.
With these phrases in our heads we can evaluate our behavior: How do we measure up to the expectations of our covenant responsibilities? Are we compassionate as God is compassionate? Are we gracious as God is gracious? Are we just as God is just? Are we kind and loving as God is kind and loving? To walk in God’s ways, to keep the covenant, to resist temptation, we must be guided both by avinu malkeinu, mercy and justice, and by la-b’rit habeit v’ahl tefen la-yetzer – we must not give in to the temptation to abandon the effort to change.
Keeping in mind avinu mal’kei-nu –God’s attributes of justice and mercy – start by memorizing the first two words – la-b’rit ha-beit. Remember their meaning and say them to yourself. They are the signal to review your own behavior. Say the words out loud with me now in Hebrew – la-b’rit ha-beit, English – look to the covenant, and Spanish– mira al pacto!
Once we complete the first two steps – purposeful attention to our important texts and systematic evaluation of our own individual behavior, we can take the third step – diligent practice of new habits of thought and action. This is the hardest part: changing who we are for the better.
We may excuse our failures by saying to ourselves, I can’t change even though I recognize that I need to. I’m frozen the way I am.
But that which has been frozen can be thawed! (Israel’s Chief Justice Miriam Naor)
Lo que esta congelado tambien puede descongelarse!
Rosh Hashanah gets us to appreciate the world we are in. Yom Kippur calls us to respond to it properly: la b’rit habet – mira al pacto y no te metas en tentacion – Look to the covenant and don’t give in to temptation.
When these values are part of us, part of our innermost being, then we can be God’s witnesses, God’s hands. “When people are merciful and render loving help, we assist in shaping God’s right hand, and when people fight the battle of God and crush evil we assist in shaping God’s left hand.” (Slonimsky, “Prayer,” 1967)
Consecrated to God’s service day by day, decision by decision, act by act, we are God’s witnesses, God’s hands, and thus repair ourselves and help to repair our world. May we be worthy.