The Best and the Worst: A Guide to Belief and Action

Rabbi Norman Patz

Temple Sholom of West Essex

Yom Kippur Morning, October 9, 2019 – 10 Tishri, 5780


To my Temple Beth Shalom family:

Naomi and I send you warm greetings on the New Year 5780 and wish you a good year. We look forward to spending the months from Hanukkah to Purim with you. I thought you would like to see the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur morning in my New Jersey congregation.

 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” These are the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ book, A Tale of Two Cities, written in 1859, the inspiration for the musical “Les Mis.” It was the time of the French Revolution, a period of upheaval in human history. 

Sounds like a description of today, doesn’t it? But it shouldn’t. We are arguably the luckiest people who ever lived, and our lives are incredibly comfortable. And yet, when we look beyond our day-to-day personal existence, we are frightened and confused by the seemingly relentless escalation of tension and controversy here and abroad. We feel cut loose from what we were sure were the secure foundations of our lives. We worry about the very future of our planet itself. Above all, we have a sense that the world has lost its moral compass: that we are living in the best of times … and the worst of times. 

The other day, Naomi and I received a new year’s card from a rabbinic colleague that offered a prescription for “How to stay SAFE in today’s scary world.” Complete with illustrations, the homemade card urged us to avoid riding in cars because they account for 20% of all fatal accidents. Don’t stay home, because 17% of all accidents occur at home. Avoid walking on sidewalks or streets: 14% of all fatal accidents involve pedestrians. Don’t travel by plane or train or bus, not to mention motorcycle. That’s 16% of all accidents right there. We’re up to 67%, if you are counting. And most certainly, don’t go to hospitals: 32% of the remaining 33% occur in hospitals!

However, the new year’s card assured us, only one one-hundredth percent –that’s 0.01% – of all deaths occur in synagogues. It’s only logical, therefore, that the safest place you can be is in a synagogue! 

It’s a funny idea, almost a shaggy fatalities joke, but it’s got a sucker punch aspect too. In a synagogue? With all the security measures we’ve had to put in place? In a synagogue, after the attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway in recent months? Or the terrorist hatchet attack on worshipers at a weekday morning service in Jerusalem suburb five years ago? (We learned later that day, of the aborted yet fatal attack on the synagogue in Halle, Germany.) Safe in synagogue? What was my rabbi-friend thinking? 

What was I thinking to suggest the synagogue as a haven of safety?

Because it is. We are inundated with information day after day: hundreds of emails, texts and alerts, many contradicting others. News analysts and opinion pundits 24/7 in the televised media and in print, screaming over one another to insist that their various conflicting views are THE truth. Who can we believe? What can we believe? Which “truths” are true? 

Look at the people opposing vaccinations, claiming the right to protect the integrity of their children’s bodies against government intrusion. Their anti-scientific stance has made vaccination hesitancy one of the greatest threats to global health. For these zealots, “science has become just another voice in the room. Science as fact has lost its platform. Now you simply declare your own truth” (Dr. Paul A. Offit, infectious disease expert, Children’s Hospital, Philadelphia, The New York Times, September 24, 2019). I disagree. Opinion doesn’t automatically equal truth. Of course we are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not entitled to our own facts! (attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan).

Then how do we know what’s right? One mother told her son: “Use your common sense: What rings true to you? What rings false?” Use your intuition. Go by what “feels right” (Brett Kavanaugh’s mother’s advice to her son, quoted in Hanna Rubin’s review of The Education of Brett Kavanaugh, The New York Times Book Review, 9/22/19). 

But that begs the question. What informs common sense? Intuition can go only so far.

I am not dismissing common sense altogether. I am only rejecting common sense which is unexamined – gut reactions not based on insight or knowledge. What I am advocating is common sense shaped by education, by learning, by self-scrutiny. It is a common sense grounded in the universe of accumulated wisdom of civilization, by the writings of our rabbis over the centuries who struggled to extract lessons from life’s endless complexity: common sense pounded, trampled, cajoled, frustrated and finally sufficiently refined to be the valuable guide to living that we absolutely need.

This is where the true value of the synagogue becomes clear. The synagogue is the home of Jewish values and beliefs. We find them in the Shabbat and High Holy Day prayer books, prayers that deserve careful reading because they give us an underpinning with which to face, to confront, the world in which we live. In this world, the synagogue can be our haven of safety. 

And yet, paradoxically, the synagogue can also be a very threatening place, shaking us out of our certainties, challenging our complacencies. How so? Because our tradition requires us to evaluate and seriously process information. The values we learn here in the synagogue should be the basis on which to accept or edit and delete the information we’re exposed to, for these are the values that should guide our admittedly largely secular lives.

On Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Groffman identified three key Jewish values as guides with which to measure our lives: kedushah – holiness; tzedakah – righteous social responsibility, and hesed –habits of gratitude and kindness. This morning, my focus is on the PROCESS of identifying and evaluating our beliefs. 

For this, I turn to the Yom Kippur ritual of the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. A powerful remembrance of that ritual is a highlight of the afternoon service in Gates of Repentance. Every year, the stark solemnity and faith expressed in its words and imagery gave me chills. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies, the innermost court of the Temple – a curtained-off space forbidden to everyone except the Kohen Gadol – and he could enter it only on Yom Kippur day and there pronounce the ineffable, otherwise forbidden, name of God.

The Holy of Holies was so sacred, we are told, that the High Priest had a strong rope tied around his waist before he went into the chamber. If he fainted or died while he was inside this kodesh ha’kodoshim – this holiest of holy places – he could be rescued, or his body retrieved, without anyone having to endanger themselves by entering the space.

The preparation of the High Priest was very carefully planned and the instructions specific because it had to be right. Three times, the white robed High Priest recited a careful confession of sins. First, he made atonement for himself: “Pardon, O Eternal One, the sins, iniquities and transgressions that I have committed before You….” Then, having confessed his own sins, the High Priest recited a confession for his family, the sons of Aaron – his priestly family. And finally, a third time, the High Priest confessed for the whole House of Israel. Only then did he enter the Holy of Holies.

When the other kohanim and the people who stood in the Temple court heard the High Priest, full of reverence, utter God’s holy and awesome Name, they fell on their faces and, prostrate, they sang Barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va-ed – Praised be God’s sovereignty forever and ever.

What drama! I found that even just the reciting that ritual in the Yom Kippur afternoon service in our sanctuary was stirring and inspiring!

Beyond the drama, though, it is the PROGRESSION that attracts my attention. The ritual starts with self, then extends to family and then, finally, moves to encompass our entire people, a process that expands, step by step: a process that ascends in holiness and, I believe, imposes on each of us a sacred task – and a   guide by which to achieve it. 

First, we must start with ourselves, each of us as individual human beings. We must compare our intuition, our “common sense” understanding of what is right or wrong, to the values of our Jewish tradition. We may be skeptical of one Jewish value or another. That’s not a problem; it means we are thinking and it’s the process of analysis that’s important because we are using Jewish behavioral values to analyze how we should behave in the world.

These values are summarized in the Hebrew precept which asserts that “just as God is compassionate” – mah hu rahum – “so too must you be compassionate” – ahf atah rahum (Talmud Shabbat 133b)

So, in the second paragraph of the Amidah, starting with the words atah gibor, we find a list of God’s values for us to apply to how we live our lives: support the fallen, heal the sick, set free the unjustly imprisoned captive, keep faith with those who came before us. 

The language is abstract, general, but the meaning is clear. These are guides against which to measure our behavior, holy imperatives for leading honorable lives, starting with ourselves.

There’s an old story that probably applies equally to serious religious leaders of any faith, but of course we tell it about a rabbi. And because it is an old story, the rabbi in the story is a man. A young rabbi, just out of rabbinical school, is filled with grand ideas and elaborate plans. He’s going to change the world – social justice, Israel, immigration, the environment — everything! After a series of inevitable disappointments, he reconsiders. I’ll improve my congregants! More disappointments. His family? Even harder to do. Finally, more mature, he realizes that he had better start with himself! That’s the first step for us to take in the process of identifying the values that truly matter, the ones we need to live by, the ones we want to be remembered for.

The High Priest’s second confession was for his family. Every family, even the most loving and forgiving ones, experiences rocky times. Which family doesn’t have to cope with unrealized hopes and dreams? Who among us doesn’t have painful, even wrenching, memories we can’t shake? Unpleasant events, divorce, illness or death that force unexpected changes in our lives? 

Or long-simmering resentments that blow up in symbolic moments at inappropriate times, like an extended family Thanksgiving dinner. Remember the oldest brother in the film “Avalon”? Every year, when he and his wife and kids came late, he’d say: Don’t wait for me. Just start. But one year, they actually take him up on it and begin to eat. “You cut the turkey? You cut the turkey!”, he shouts. Mortally offended, he stalks out and they never speak again. 

And we all know families that don’t talk to each other over arguments whose details none of them remember.

In the haftarah of the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the prophet Jeremiah describes God as a parent who always takes back His children in love: “Even when I reproach you, I think of you with tenderness. My heart yearns for you; I will welcome you back in love, says the Eternal.” (Jeremiah 31:20) 

Can we each be agents of love and reconciliation, of thoughtful and habitual kindness in our own family?

The High Priest’s final confession was on behalf of his people, the House of Israel. That’s us. We are Israel, the Jewish people. And we are Americans. Dual loyalty? Of course! Everybody has multiple loyalties, and it’s fair to say that American Jews have two promised lands. And that creates a tension that needs examining. 

In recent years, we’ve been troubled by the right-wing settlers and ultra-religious overreach in Israel. We need to understand how to understand our distress. 

For example, many Americans, Jews included, think of the Palestinians in the West Bank in terms of human rights, but most Israelis think in terms of sheer survival. We don’t live in Sderot on the volatile Gaza border, or in K’far Yonah, nine miles from Tulkarm in the West Bank, where a missile-making factory was discovered two week. Or in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or Netanya where suicide bombers have killed hundreds of innocent Israelis over all the years of the State’s existence. We need to understand that difference and respect the existential concerns Israelis have.

The Israelis are our family. We may not like a current government there, but we must not walk away. How will history judge us if we did? How will our grandchildren judge us? How could we live with ourselves? 

And when white supremacists in America who shout openly “Jews will not replace us” create websites featuring the number 109 or 110, antisemitic shorthand that claims that Jews have been expelled from 109 countries and that the United States should become the one hundred and tenth, does that affect/alter our assessment of Israel? How do we react when the hard Left conflates ant-Zionism with overt antisemitism? “No more left, no more right,” I said from this pulpit years ago. We have no friends on either side. How scary it is that these opposites agree on two issues: hatred of Jews and dismissal of centrist democracy! In the light of this reality, how should we relate to the Jewish value that says all Israel, all Jews, are responsible for one another? 

Or to the prophet Jeremiah’s exhortation to the Jews in exile in Babylonia to “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to God on its behalf; for in its prosperity shall you prosper.” (29:7)

In this work we need allies – and to secure the durability of American democracy, they need us as well.

I offer this presentation as a conscious process for us to use in identifying and assessing the values by which we can actually live. This is the path to wholeness: knowing what we believe and acting accordingly. That’s how to give our lives the meaning they should have and to make it more likely that the consequences of our behavior will be in line with our beliefs. We have good reason to be nervous. All the more reason to be better Jews, better Americans, better people – better members of a society that at its best cherishes individual life and liberty and human dignity. 

On this Yom Kippur day, may we resolve to be worthy of our heritage and our future and thus merit being inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for the new year.