This past May, my Rabbi passed away and so I dedicate this sermon to his memory and to his teaching. He taught me many things, but there is one that I would like to share with you this morning.
We live in difficult times. People are suffering and divisiveness abounds. I find that there is one word that provides some basis for looking into the heart of why there seems to be such animosity in the world. This word is disunity. People seem so terribly divided; at times outright hostile to each other. What can we offer on this Yom Kippur to a world that seems so fragmented and filled with such animosity, hatred, and where there are attempts to find common ground, it so through leveraging that has leads often to brinksmanship and danger.
This is what I want to address from our tradition. What can we learn this morning about unity of purpose and how might we get there in our personal lives, in our communities, in the United States, the Jewish people, Israel, and the world? Is there a path to unity that would eliminate the rancor that surrounds us and that is at the heart of Yom Kippur?
One Dimension of Revelation
Let us begin with a journey to when Moses encountered God at Mt. Sinai. God speaks to him:
ויאמר יהוה אל-משה עלה אלי ההרה והיה שם
ואתנה לך את-לחת האבן והתרוה והמצוה
אשר כתבתי להורתם
And God said to Moses Come up to the Mountain and be there
And I will give to you the tablets of the stone, and the Torah, and the Commandment that I have written in order to instruct them.
Moses Maimonides began his Mishneh Torah with this passage. He establishes that two Torahs were given at Mt. Sinai. One was written and that is shown by the word תורה. The other was oral and that was discerned from the word מצוה. The written תורה and the oral תורה as embodied in מדרש and משנה. The word לרהורתם to instruct them refers to the תלמוד. Hence four Torahs were given.
What does this have to do with unity? My great teacher, Rabbi Wacholder, used the analogy of a cake that is made up of many ingredients. When we mix and then bake them, it becomes a unity and we are no longer capable, nor do we desire, of separating them. These Torahs are a unity and it is our task see it in this way and then to help others to do so.
This is not a simple task. At every page, there is argument. The Ramban, a 14th century scholar, would write about Rashi, the great 12th century biblical commentator par excellence. He would often say about this Master’s understanding of a particular passage, זה לא נכון בעיני or זה בתמיה – this is not write in my eyes or this is astonishing that Rashi would write such a thing, seemingly suggesting that Rashi was an עם ארץ – an ignoramus. How can we be expected to create a unity when the Sages that preceded us seemed to be in such disagreement?
Yet, the lesson seems to be that in Judaism diversity in thought and practice enhances unity.
A Word on Unity
The word unity is recited every day when we recite the “”שמע. שמע ישראל יי אלהינו יי אחד – Here O Israel the Sovereign is our God. The Sovereign is One. God is unique; singular, an undivided, indivisible whole.
We are taught to believe that each person reflects the Divine Image and likeness. Each person is unique. We share the same genetic imprint and likeness that is Divine. The overarching Jewish purpose is to preserve this feature and we do so by standing at a Sinai that can only be known through study and then to act accordingly which represents מצוה. As prologue, I urge you to commit yourself to discovering this אחד – a unity of spirit that mirrors the imagery and the likeness of that which is Divine so that you too will hear a בת קול – a heavenly sound as the students of Hillel and Shamai once did.
Hillel and Shammai
Hillel and Shamai were the last of the זוגות – pair – of Rabbis before the destruction of the 2nd Temple. They were contemporaries and they disagreed on nearly every subject of Jewish law and practice. These divergent views fill the pages of the תלמוד and the משנה – this Oral Law – that I referred to previously. The תלמוד, composed four hundred years after their deaths, asked, “How did it come pass that we follow Hillel’s views in nearly every practice?” The Talmud answers that a בת קול – Heavenly Voice – proclaimed it so because Hillel would always recite Shamai’s opinion first out of respect before teaching his own position on a matter of Torah.
Hillel understood that divergent views could strengthen the unity of Judaism – as an ideal – as a way of life – as it received these four gifts from God. These gifts were based on loving difference and we can love the difference in our world only to the extent that we have knowledge of it.
The road to Unity – to אחד – begins on travelling the path of that which we do not know. To borrow Robert Frost’s metaphor, we must travel on the road not taken.
But, to borrow a line from Robert Nash in the film of “A Beautiful Mind,” Frost’s idea was correct, but incomplete. The “other road,” the one we did not choose, must be understood in addition to travelling down the path we have chosen. Frost did not teach the importance of understanding the road more frequently trodden in addition to choosing the one less traveled.
This is the first Jewish step in achieving a unity of people, a unity of faith, a unity of the world. We are encouraged to understand the roads that we have chosen “not to take.” There is goodness and there is humanity in most every road, and what can help us discern what is right for us, what we must cry out against, and what is still a good road though one not chosen is done through study, reflection; in other words learning. This is a life-long enterprise, and when we do so, on occasion, our own inner בת קול will cry out, “Your path is right” even if different from the path of your neighbor.
The Second Step Towards Unity
The Jewish wedding involves a union between two individuals. There are two parts to the ceremony. One is כתובה – the marriage contract. The other is the חופה ונשואים – the spiritual part. This is where the couple stands under the Chupah and celebrates the מצוה of marriage. The word נשואים contains the root נשא, meaning to elevate. It points towards the divine and holy aspects of our sacred nature and hope. But the word כתובה comes from the word כתב, which means writing. It is the “שחור ולבן” – the black and white – of marriage. It grounds the marriage. I agree to “negotiate” with this person such things as “who is going to make dinner” and “who will do the dishes.” Who will do the grocery shopping? Who is going to pick up Hannah and Joshua from school and take them to the soccer practice if we are so fortunate and blessed to have children? With the כתובה, the חתן and the כלה, the bride and groom, have their feet on the ground. With חופה and נשואים, their eyes look towards the Heavens. Together, there is a unity, and Heaven and Earth are joined.
Let us take this union, and apply it to the world. To live Jewishly, there are two components. We must have a Sinai, a sacred story, so that we can lift up our heads and our hearts, to go up to the Mountain of God, and say – ואהבתי את יי אלוהי – that I love the Lord my God with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might.
At the same time, we must remember that our feet are always on the ground. We are not puppets on a string. We are independent, free-thinking human-beings, and so we are חיוב, obligated to ensure that what it is we pray for, hope for live for, is reflected through our speech, through our journey, and in our home. This is what the phrase ודברת בם בשבתך בבתיך ובלכתך בדרך ובשכבך ובקומיך – And you shall speak of them when you are sitting in your home, and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.
Unity begins with the individual and the unity of her/his the head that is lifted towards the Heaven, yet fully realizing that our always on the ground. Rationality and spirituality must be in every bite that we take from this cake that we are baking.
Experiencing the Other Road
Experiential learning is the third and most difficult part; at least for me. In religion, I too want certainty. Particularly as I age, it is becoming increasingly difficult to have that flexibility that I had when I was twenty and the world seemed filled with possibilities and yet new experiences are so important unless we are committed to a theology, an ideology to the extent that we believe we are prohibited from doing anything outside those boundaries.
Sometimes, it is important to experience the road that one chose not to take. It is so hard, at least for me to do something that I am opposed to and I can feel that rigidity and I must fight this inner resistance many times. Others are more facile at this. On more occasions than I wish to recall, a parent will tell me that they are allowing their child to choose whether to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The urge is to tell them what a mistake that is, but I do not. The reason is that I also believe that parents know their child better than anyone else does. They know ultimately, what is best. I resist it greatly, and I try, hard as it is to see the world from their eyes and from that of the child’s. But I try.
Before I could ultimately decide on whether for me it was right to do intermarriages, I had to actually experience as a Rabbi doing one and then going through a period of reflection and other experiences to determine when and where and under what circumstances I would do them. I had to have the experience of Project Preservation where I experienced in a deep sense the vast wasteland of destruction of our people and of our history and the need to preserve and nurture it wherever possible. Hillel’s great maxim that is recorded in the Talmud was another tipping point. There, he is recorded as saying that as Jews, we are obligated to always bring holiness, and never diminish it from life’s experiences. I cannot put ideology above the needs of people who believe that they have found the person who they wish to spend the rest of their lives. I am obligated as a Jew to practice ואהבת לרעך כמוך – to love thy neighbor as I do myself. I find this a great challenge, and yet it too is the only path to unity so we can overcome the great challenges that await us.
We seem to be living in a time of terrible fragmentation. The individual who screamed out on CNN during the Presidential Debate “Yeah” – when a question about permitting someone to die from cancer because he didn’t have health insurance was for me distressing beyond words. When, during this same telecast, a Presidential candidate said he slept well with the knowledge that over 250 people had been executed under his state’s death penalty statute simply made me shake my head in disbelief, knowing how imperfect our system of justice is. I shook my head because our own tradition teaches that if the Sanhedrin had issued a death sentence once every 75 years, it was to be considered a Court that had blood on its hands. In that same teaching, a great Rabbi, that if this was really so, murderers would run rampant throughout Israel. There are usually no clear solutions to the very difficult problems that afflict society.
Unity begins with acknowledging the imperfection, the incompleteness of our own truths that we hold so dear. We must be able to state clearly the view of those whose truths are different and the wisdom to know when something does not reflect the Divine image and likeness. For this, we need Sinai to help. While our feet must be on the ground, we need to look upward – our gaze fixed to the Heavens for that is where such help may be found. Finally, we must overcome our fear of the different.
When we can do these four things with ease, I believe with all my heart and with all my soul and my might, that we will see the wholeness, the unity that my teacher Rabbi Ben Zion Wacholder professed so many times and thus experience and fulfill the true meaning of:
שמע ישראל יי אלוהינו יי אחד
Here oh Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is one.