L’Shem Shamaim – Kol Nidre 2014

L’Shem Shamaim – Kol Nidre 2014

October 3, 2014

Since the beginning of the month of Elul, now almost six weeks ago, our community, here at the Jacksonville Jewish Center, has been participating in the eScapegoat program – an online, video explanation of the rituals that took place on Yom Kippur during the times of the Temple.  More than an explanation, eScapegoat has served as an opportunity for each of us to begin our own atonement leading up to today, leading up to Yom Kippur.  On the website, you can type in one of your sins – something you’re sorry for from the past year, and something for which you want to atone.  Now comes the best part.  After submitting your own atonements, you can browse a list of anonymous submissions from the community.  During the time the site was active, we had nearly 100 sin submissions.  Some of these submissions explored the lighter, fun side of atonement.

I went swimming less than 30 minutes after eating.

I took the ALS ice bucket challenge, but didn’t actually donate any money.

I left all my sermon writing to the last minute, #RabbiProblems.

Many submissions were very thoughtful hopes for the new year.

I don’t appreciate.

I’m sorry for losing my temper and yelling at my kids.

I need to be cognizant of my tendency to talk about others.  Even “venting” can have an unintentional negative impact.

All of these postings are a fun and modern way of learning about the ritual of the actual scapegoat that took place in the Temple on Yom Kippur.  As we’ll read in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest would prepare two goats.  One he would sacrifice as a tribute to God.  The other would become the scapegoat.  He would place his hands on the goat and symbolically transfer all the wrongdoings of the people onto the animal. Then it would be sent out of the city to a place known as “Azazel,” a high cliff in the wilderness where another priest would push it off the edge, symbolically cleansing all the people of their transgressions.

Listening to this ritual in 2014 can make many of us uncomfortable.  Concerns of animal cruelty certainly abound as do apprehensions over whether our own transgressions can really be transferred on to something else.  The word “scapegoat” can itself be very troubling.  How many times throughout history have we as Jews been viewed as scapegoats, only to be blamed for problems we did not cause, and made to suffer countless rounds of anti-Semitism for it?

What we know as scapegoating today, we understand to be morally and ethically wrong.  The idea that a single person or a single group can be responsible for any number of problems can only serve to lead to new forms of sinat hinam – senseless hatred.

The problem, of course, is that scapegoating places the blame in a single place, and usually wrongfully so.  It makes it so easy to feel better about ourselves by placing blame somewhere else.  It creates a collective “other,” a way of identifying a different group as problematic, solely so that we have someone to blame besides ourselves.

Over the last 50 years, we certainly have taken great lengths in addressing many of the scapegoats in our society – working to fight sexism, racism, and homophobia – but there are still those who scapegoat and those who are scapegoated among us.

How often do we rush to blame someone else for a problem?  “You won’t believe what so-and-so did at work.  That mistake caused all kinds of problems for me!”  “Did he really say that?  It’s because of people like him that we’ll never be able to do this.”  Are these conversations, is this line of thinking really different than the scapegoating we know to be problematic?  Our instinct is still to rush and place blame, and to not stop arguing until that blame is placed firmly somewhere besides ourselves.

Of course, this habit of blaming others is not limited to our own lives.  Turning on any news program, we see this rush to blame and criticize far too often.  In our highly politicized world and in our 24-hour news cycle, we are taught that arguing and debating are the only ways to live.

Turn on the TV or the radio at any time of day and we can easily find numerous pundits arguing back and forth over the given issue or non-issue of the day.  Log on to your social media of choice and you will invariably find people who call themselves “friends” trading barbs back and forth, sometimes coming just short, but many times even crossing the line, of personal attacks.  And all for what reason?

We have come to think that it’s more important that you be wrong than I be right.  It’s better for me to argue against your position than it is to argue in favor of a productive outcome.

We saw this painfully clearly over the summer, as Israel engaged in Operation Protective Edge in an effort to defend its citizens from relentless rocket fire and terror attacks by Hamas.  As rockets were launched from Gaza attempting to strike Israeli citizens, and Israel defended itself with the Iron Dome system, so too were attacks launched in the print and broadcast media.  We all experienced this and all sought to prove how these attacks were wrong.

“Did you see that horrible editorial in the New York Times?”  “Can you believe the Forward would publish that?”  “How ’bout the clip of Michael Oren going after those CNN anchors?” The media, as well as our own personal conversations, became an additional battlefield for an already damaging war – a battlefield that touched many of us personally.  I remember wondering to myself which friends could I actually talk to.  Who was I able to have a meaningful, intelligent conversation with, and who would simply resort to well-established partisan lines?

Partisan lines – those two words seem to have quite the connotation.  They certainly have the potential to create major impacts on our society, many times for good, but sadly, a growing number of times also for bad.  Here we can ask the question – are these differences, are these partisan gridlocks caused by deeply rooted passionate disagreement, or simply because we cannot allow the proverbial “other” to have its way?

This epidemic of chronic disagreement hits especially close to home when we engage in passionate discussion involving Israel.  To many Israelis, political ideologies run deep between those who would have a two-state solution this very moment, and those who would rather wait for a stronger guarantee of security.  Can someone who votes for the Labor party on the left, have anything to do with someone who would vote for Likkud on the right?  Here in America, we might phrase that same divide with are you an AIPAC person or are you a J-Street person, never minding the number of people who are active and see the value in both organizations.  This divide is especially troubling when we look at our own American political views towards Israel.  According to a study by the Pew Research Forum during the height of this summer’s conflict, 53% of Republicans felt “a lot” of sympathy for Israel compared to 22% of Democrats.

Now I am aware these are polls based on a sample size and certainly do not speak for all Republicans or all Democrats.  But still I ask the question, do those democrats who participated in this survey and rush to criticize Israel’s actions, do so because they truly believe those actions to be wrong, or simply because they cannot comprehend having the same viewpoint as a Republican?  Likewise, did the 53 % of Republicans who answered this survey, do so because they fervently stand with Israel, or because this is yet another opportunity to disagree with a liberal point of view?  While I would certainly love to believe that all these people do in fact passionately stand by the State of Israel and support it’ right to exist as a Jewish homeland, I fear that the reality is somewhat different.  That quite tragically, Israel is becoming a partisan issue.

It pains me, as I think it should pain us all as Jews, that Israel can now be thought of in the same category as campaign finance reform.  Israel is and needs to be so much more than that.  It is a matter that transcends political parties. It needs to be something we address on its own merits and not just something we view down partisan lines.

As Jews, we have a deep history with the people and an intrinsic link to the land of Israel.  We have a connection to its culture and an obligation to help ensure its legacy.  The land of Israel is centrally connected to Judaism, and for Jews in the diaspora, it’s a matter of our identity not a matter of our politics.

Over the past two years, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in the Leffell Israel Fellowship – a program run by AIPAC for rabbinical students.  Through the fellowship, I was able to attend AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington DC, and even had an opportunity to travel to Israel as part of a specially designed mission.  Among the many lessons I learned from this program, was that Israel is something that both parties can stand for.  At Policy Conference, I heard speeches from major political leaders of both parties passionately stand for the same thing.  In Israel too, meeting with Knesset members of political parties across the spectrum, I was inspired to hear that even among their differences, there is still so much they agree on.  These experiences showed me, that there can in fact be agreement across party lines, when that issue is important – and here that important issue is Israel.

Now I know what you’re thinking.  “Is he really suggesting that a room full of 1,500 Jews should actually all agree on something?”  What’s the old saying, 1,500 Jews – 9,000 opinions?  This is not what I am suggesting.  I do see many occasions and many issues on which there can be valid disagreement.  But in many ways, it is more important how those disagreements are made than what they are about.   Can we actually maintain civil, yet passionate and meaningful debate on any number of these issues concerning Israel?

Our Jewish culture recognizes the value of debate and disagreement.  In much of our traditional rabbinic literature, we learn of great sages who constantly argued and disagreed with each other.  But these disagreements were always conducted in a civil way and for a worthy cause.

There’s a famous story in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) about two great rabbinic sages.  Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish.  Reish Lakish did not begin as a great scholar though, in fact he was just the opposite – he was a roving bandit.  Until one day he came upon Rabbi Yochanan and was inspired to reform his ways.  Rabbi Yochanan then took the time to study with him and teach him Torah, and eventually made Reish Lakish into a great man.  Through this learning, the two grew to become close friends and even became study partners – chevruta we say in Hebrew, from the word chaver, meaning friend.  These sages studied together for years and years, learning together, debating together, and growing closer to each other through their partnership.

Until one day when they began to discuss swords and other similar weapons.  Rabbi Yochanan believed that a sword was formally completed when it was tempered in an oven.  Reish Lakish felt it was not completed until it was cooled in water.  The two sages debated this until Rabbi Yochanan said, well you were a bandit once, so you should know about matters relating to swords.  At this point, the debate stopped.  Reish Lakish was deeply hurt by this.  Even after all the work, and all the study that he had done, Rabbi Yochanan was still viewing him as nothing more than a bandit.  He quickly shot back, “if you’re still thinking of me as a bandit, what did you ever do for me?”  At this, Rabbi Yochanan was offended.  “What did I do for you?  I reformed your ways.  I brought you under God’s protection.  How dare you not appreciate this!”  The two men departed, both deeply offended and personally hurt by the other’s reaction.  Reish Lakish was so upset, and so crushed internally, that he fell ill, and eventually died because of it.

Stopping here, the story is already powerfully tragic.  But it doesn’t end at this point.  Rabbi Yochanan was upset and grieved greatly for his departed friend.  The other Rabbis saw this and wanted to pick him up.  They knew that Rabbi Yochanan was at his happiest when he was studying with Reish Lakish, so they began a search to find the most brilliant scholar they could, and would pair the two together as new study partners.  They found a tremendously bright student, who for every teaching Rabbi Yochanan would bring, would give a long list of reasons why he was correct.  But this did nothing for Rabbi Yochanan.  “I don’t need this,” he said.  “What I need is for you to tell me why I am wrong.  That is what made Reish Lakish so special.  That for every teaching I brought, he would tell me 24 reasons why I was wrong.  It was through that discussion and that debate, that we each came to see the other’s viewpoint, and together we were able to finally learn what a correct answer might be.”

The lesson here, is that argument, debate, and passionate disagreement are in fact worth striving for.  They can lead us to great answers, wonderful solutions, and in many instances, close friendships.  Part of the reason why each Rabbi was so distraught when they offended the other, was that they did have such a close relationship – a friendship that had been created and built upon their disagreements.

But what is also vital to remember are the limits of that relationship.  Where is the line in these debates that cannot be crossed?  In this story, the line was when Rabbi Yochanan took a personal attack at Reish Lakish.  He stopped criticizing the position and started criticizing the person.

As Talmud scholar Jeffrey Rubenstein writes about a similar passage, “If there is nothing more rabbinic than argumentation and debate, there is nothing more human than to feel pain at rejection and disgrace. In the heat of the debate it is easy to turn ad hominem, to reject the person rather than the position he advocates, to become frustrated and annoyed, to slip from legal discussion to insult and offense, to treat a stubborn opponent with hostility and contempt.”

How we engage in debate is just as important to consider as what we debate.  We learn (Eruvin 13b) of the two great rabbinic schools Hillel and Shamai, that although each school would teach and argue for different, legitimate positions, we follow the teachings of Hillel because of the manner in which they debated.  They were kindly and modest in their arguments, they would study their own opinions as well as those of Shamai, and they would even teach Shamai’s opinion before their own.

What a model this is for how we can approach our own debates and our own disagreements, about ourselves, about our politics, and yes, even about Israel.  To be kind and modest in our arguments, to seek to understand the viewpoints of those we are arguing with, before rushing to blame them and point out why they are wrong.  And to remember that every person with whom we engage in debate, is worthy of our respect and their own human dignity.  It’s fair to say that I disagree with what you’re saying, but it’s unfair to to rush to blame that person and treat them as a de facto scapegoat.

There’s a short teaching in Pirkei Avot (5:17) – the great collection of ethical teaching from our ancestors.

כָּל מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, אֵין סוֹפָהּ לְהִתְקַיֵּם. אֵיזוֹ הִיא מַחֲלוֹקֶת שֶׁהִיא לְשֵׁם שָׁמַיִם, זוֹ מַחֲלוֹקֶת הִלֵּל וְשַׁמַּאי.

Every dispute that if for the sake of Heaven, will have a constructive outcome.  Every dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not have a constructive outcome.  And what is a dispute for the sake of Heaven?  The disputes of Hillel and Shamai.

We must always be sure that all of our disputes, all of our debates, and all of our disagreements remain l’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven.  Keeping God in mind, even as we engage in these arguments, reminds us of where our values lie, and where we truly need to place our focus.

There is a great deal that we feel passionately about, that we know strongly to be true.

We know that scapegoating is wrong, that it only leads to placing false blame.

We know that Israel is intrinsically connected to our Jewish identity, and forever needs to remain a homeland for all Jews.

And we know that everyone, even those with whom we disagree, must be treated with the respect and dignity that all people deserve.

On this day of Yom Kippur, and for this new year of 5775, let’s make sure that all we do and that all we discuss, is l’shem shamayim – for the sake of heaven.

Shanah Tovah