The End of Ends: Rosh Hashanah 5779
In times of uncertainty, truth and confidence are found in a moral balance, if only we will listen.
Wanda Diaz Merced is an accomplished astrophysicist. Several years ago, though, she lost her sight due to an extended illness. Challenged by the rigors of her field, one that primarily uses sight to interpret the data collected from the vast universe, she and her team devised a method of translating information into sound, called sonification. With the lilt and timber of sounds like musical notes, the information collected about some of the most rare phenomena studied by humanity was translated and reported by Dr. Merced. And in time, she was able to discover a supernova, the incredible death of a star, that released more energy in one instant than what our sun produces in 10 days. She discovered this all without sight. With the help of sonification, she was listening.
If only we could listen like this! Instead, we hear everything going on, sometimes too loudly. It's non-stop. Non-stop flow of information, non-stop communications, especially in our connections with others. Information is zooming past us at infinite speeds. What we are hearing is a sound like the one we used to hear when the phone was connecting to the internet. Remember that? Discordant, screechy, technological. It's hard to listen to that for more than a few seconds, for sure.
You only really know you haven't been listening when you escape to the mountains or to some secluded beach on a remote island to hear the sounds of nature and the sounds of your soul and begin to listen again.
It is Rosh HaShanah, and now is our chance to listen to the sounds of our heritage. There is a difference between seeing or hearing and the kind of listening we are reminded to practice today.
Listen to the beginning of our story, with all its poetry and grandeur. In the beginning, the God of the Torah gives form to the void with words. “Let there be light.” Light enters the universe. The light is defined as,”Tov.” “Good.” After each moment of creative force is manifest, the accomplishment is deemed “Good/Tov.” The land is formed, vegetation sprouts forth, light from the sun, moon, and stars. They're all “Tov.” “Good.” Animals roam the Earth, each according to its ability. “Tov” is everywhere. And the crowning achievement of Creation, the human being, is “Tov Me'od”- “Very Good.”
These words tell a simple story. Being is Good. The Human being is “Very Good.” As a story about us it affirms that our very being is exceedingly pleasing to the Author of Creation. We are glorious entities, with divine capacities. We are very good.
How surprising that very quickly, the story changes. God utters that creation is “not good” “Lo Tov” when the human being stands alone. Without a partner, the human being is incomplete. More than a physical progenitor of the species, this loneliness is of divine concern. “Lo Tov Heyot Adam Levado.” The human being is not good alone.
When you hear the story, you imagine ‘alone' means he doesn't have a human partner, especially since Eve is brought into the world after this. When we listen, though, we can imagine this loneliness is deeper than solitude. What God finds imperfect in Creation is a crisis of being. The human being is fearful, skeptical, doubting, even despairing. This is defined as alone. Man and Woman were expelled from Paradise not because they ate the forbidden fruit, but because their disobedience was borne from doubt - a doubtful existence. Even in a world with just one other human being, or 7.5 billion human beings, we can still feel totally alone.
Earlier this year, it was stunning to learn that the people of England tried to address this problem in an entirely new way. In light of the increasing numbers of people isolated and marginalized from the public fora, they created a governmental position, a Minister of Loneliness. Loneliness of this magnitude, in the words of some, is “a real, diagnosable scourge.” So, they created a position where it is a person's sole responsibility to alleviate, avert, and assuage the loneliness people feel. Should we wonder if our legislators will reach similar conclusions? The uncertainty in what we hear is making us so lonely, we have to create positions for people to help us overcome our solitude.
This is a joke once told on this bima by Rabbi Schulweis many years ago. Two Hasidim are talking and one turns to the other and says, “You know. There are only two kinds of people in this world. Jews and non-Jews. “About the non-Jews, we don't even have to talk about.” “And among the Jews, there are the Hasidim and the non-Hasidim.” The other nods in agreement. “And the non-Hasidim, why even discuss them?” “And you know, that among the Hasidim, there are the Satmar and the Lubavitch.” The second asks, “Oy! Why even talk about the Lubavitch?” “Among the Hasidim, there are those who go to our yeshiva and those who go to the other yeshiva. And from that yeshiva, the students really don't know anything from nothing.” “And the people from our yeshiva, basically there's you and there's me… and, well... you know how little you know.”
Dividing the world into ‘us and them' doesn't resolve our uncertainties. It has only driven us away from each other.
That's why it is so easy to identify who ‘they' and ‘them' are before we look at ourselves. And, sometimes we hear what we want to hear before listening to what ‘they and them' are really trying to say. We cannot eradicate uncertainty through legislation. It requires action. It requires moral balance. In other words, the uncertainty we feel is not resolved by removing the doubt, is only to be found in the truthful, confident wrestling with moral virtues.
Our Torah teaches us that loneliness occurs when doubt lodges a wedge between humanity and God. “Lo Tov Heyot Adam Levado.” God doesn't want us to doubt, to stop listening, to be alone. And we haven't been listening.
Left with the sting of punishment for what must have felt as a divine flaw, we have become experts in stamping out all forms of doubt. Totalitarian rule? Stamp it out. Origins of the cosmos? Stamp it out. Diseases, poverty, homelessness, being a stranger? Stamp it out. Loneliness? Create a ministerial position and stamp it out too. It is as if we experienced the sting of punishment once and we are obsessed to avoid it once again.
Judaism has much to say about this. In one respect, the Torah is the long answer to the problem of loneliness. In the Torah we find a second and equally compelling message - a call for faith - of discovering and trusting the goodness that lies within - in the face of isolation and despair.
We've heard this trusting, faithful sound before. We heard it no so long ago... in 1943.
During the rage of the second world war, the forces of good and evil battled on the fields of Europe. In France in 1943, Germany and the Vichy regime collaborated and turned over Jews to the German forces, sending thousands and thousands of Jews off to death camps. In one small hamlet in the southern central region of France, Protestant Pastor Andre Trocme and his wife Magda knew the terrifying threat posed by those who sought to expel Jews, and the danger in disobedience. They knew what it meant to be persecuted themselves. Their small community had long taken refuge from a hateful society to protect their religious beliefs. The Trocme's and the citizens of Le Chambon willingly and consistently took in Jews who fled persecution and came knocking at the door. The school in the town had 18 students at the outbreak of the war. There were 350 students by 1944. Anyone who could count knew what was happening. Even after authorities arrested Trocme and detained him for several days, he vocally expressed his commitment to protect the Jews who sought refuge in his town. “I do not know what a Jew is. I only know human beings.”
There are so many stories like this and in some ways even more heroic. What is particularly remarkable about this story is how Magda Trocme reflected that it never occurred to her to say no when people sought refuge in her home, in her community. “I did not know that it would be dangerous. Nobody thought of that.” Malcolm Gladwell, in his 2015 book, David and Goliath muses on her words, “I did not know that it would be dangerous? Nobody thought of that? In the rest of France, all people thought about was how dangerous life was. But the people of Le Chambon were past that. [emphasis added](David and Goliath p. 269)
As religious people, the Trocme's and people of Le Chambon drew upon a wellspring of wisdom. What did it take for someone to get past their fear, their uncertainty, their doubt? What ‘that' means seems unclear.
It's not so unclear at all. ‘That' is very simple. ‘That' is when we see the other as means to an end, when we allow the crisis of loneliness to suppress and isolate one another, to see the other as less than the goodness of being we were created to embody. ‘That' is when we stop listening and hear voices of fear, of dissent borne from doubt. ‘That' is when the will of others is too great for us to rise up against and speak out in a clarion call for goodness. ‘That' remains the crisis of modernity.
And yet, ‘That' is what defines moral courage. Moral courage is a fundamental recognition of right behavior when it comes to care for our fellow human beings. Regardless of background, religious or worldly experience, and education, the essential truths of dignity for all human beings and the protection and safety of those who are vulnerable are inalienable rights. Moral courage is when you remember the way we were created, B'Tzelem Elohim, and to fight for and protect that image from any kind of danger. There was no loneliness in the decision to save Jews. In fact, the people of Le Chambon and the countless others who saved our people in the darkest of times were never alone. These are the people who restore hope for us. Jews seek out morally courageous people, because they're listening carefully.
There is an old tradition our people have carried through times of uncertainty. In these times there are a select group of people whose righteousness sustains the entire world. We call them Lamed Vavnik's - the idea that the world is sustained by 36 (lamed vav in Hebrew) righteous souls whose care and responsibility for humanity is unparalleled. They embody moral courage.
Moral courage is built into the Torah. It is our root story. Abraham, Moshe, Miriam, Devorah, Jeremiah, and countless others are the characters we listen to when we seek certainty amidst ambiguous social climates. This great country and society have been grappling the capacity to act with moral courage as the scions of leadership, thought and culture are dissolving by their deeply personal failures every time we turn on the news.
But we should not confuse anger with moral courage. ‘That' is coming to an end.
This was once heard over the tranquil waters of Walden Pond, just outside of Boston in 1843, an anecdote worth telling again and again. On one bank of the pond, Frederic Tudor was collecting ice from the lakes of Northeast, on his way to making fortunes shipping it around the world. Tudor was known as the ice king of Boston in those days. On the banks of the opposite shore, the philosopher Henry David Thoreau watched as industrious workers toiled to retrieve huge blocks of ice from the frozen waters. He was an entrepreneur of a different sort, eschewing material success and contemplating big ideas as the means to a fulfilling life. Imagine what the two heard from the other sides of the lake. The quiet naturalist saw the industrialist on the other side of the pond and heard the operations of selfish gain. The industrialist saw the naturalist on the other side of the pond and assumed that a protest was about to begin.
But Thoreau spoke differently, “The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta, drink at my well... The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
Here, a great image was born, that of the moral citizen. Pursuing industry to enjoy material success and pursuing the contemplative life, discovering fulfillment in the interpretations of experience go together. It is what makes us an exceptional people. Moral citizenship is the centering force of our tradition and our society. It's a concept of balance that helps us act our best. Industry and nature. “Shamor v'Zachor b'dibur Echad.” To protect and preserve in one breath, just as we say in our Lecha Dodi prayer on Erev Shabbat.
It's a balance between building and creating, between serving others and plumbing the depths of the interior life that is woven into the most brilliant threads of our social fabric. Lamed Vavnik's live their lives in balance.
And without that balance, we unravel into a colorless monotony, a hollow definition of self that stands for nothing and uncritically complies with a popular will. We are not these kinds of people. And it does feel like we are out of balance. For good reason. There is so much uncertainty in our days, we're not sure where the scales should tip.
The great image of balance is the equally weighted scale. Take a visit to the US Supreme Court in Washington DC and you'll find the iconic scales of justice displayed throughout the impressive building. You won't find the scales leaning too far one way or the other. Yet, we are desperately seeking a hand to tip the scales of justice in favor of compassion and safety, health and vitality for all. Lady Justice is a symbol that reminds us this value. You will find a blindfold over her eyes. Justice is not a sense of vision. It is the elegance of listening. In Hebrew the word for balance is Moznayeem, and is rooted in this very same word, Ozen - the ear, a sense of listening that brings balance.
Today, our conventional sources of support to restore balance in times of uncertainty are at best unreliable. Worse, they turn us into cautious skeptics. Where trusted sources of news are thrown into question, where upper echelons of leadership are under the constant threat of legal issues, where leaders who inspired us, cultural artists who enlightened and entertained us are falling down under the weight of accusations of harassment and abuse, it's hard to find certainty anywhere in this world.
It is hard to know what ideas we should be listening to. It is harder than ever before (and this is not hyperbole). In a time when everything seems to be updated and improved every two years, listening carefully is a challenge. When voices constantly shrill that the media is fake, or when the steady onslaught of noise in the form of salacious discoveries of impropriety dominate our consciousness, we don't know what or who to really listen to. Just last week, listen to what Adrian Chen wrote in the New Yorker:
“...there has been a growing sense among mostly liberal-minded observers that the platforms' championing of openness is at odds with the public interest. The image of Arab Spring activists using Twitter to challenge oppressive dictators has been replaced, in the public imagination, by that of Isis propagandists luring vulnerable Western teen-agers to Syria via YouTube videos and Facebook chats. The openness that was said to bring about a democratic revolution instead seems to have torn a hole in the social fabric.” (Adrian Chen “The Fake-News Fallacy” Old fights about radio have lessons for new fights about the Internet. The New Yorker 9/4/18)
This calls for a different moral virtue of our day - that of moral listening. It was just last week that our country mourned the passing of Senator John McCain. Listen to his words:
"We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been."
These words are more powerful because the one who said them understood the conflict and uncertainty when staring down the face of doubt. Our heroism is defined when we have the courage to listen carefully and make choices based on what is right, not by what is convenient.
Rabbi Schulweis beckoned us to seek out and celebrate those courageous heroes who listened carefully in times of great uncertainty and acted with conscience. He encouraged us to practice the Jewish value of “Hakarat HaTov.” Recognition of Goodness.
He based this action on the deep listening of Jewish tradition. It is not the strong willed expressions of moral courage, nor the witty eruditions of the moral citizen that compel us to practice ‘hakarat hatov' to recognize goodness. We are meant to become the masters of moral listening.
Moral listening is a sensitivity to hear through the fray, to focus on essential concerns of human beings worthy of defense and protection. Through the debate and conflict, argument and dissent, the moral compass points north, toward the dignity of all humanity.
In these times of great uncertainty, look and listen for the lamed vavniks. They are the voices speaking for balance. They are the embodiment of wisdom through careful considerations and patient and measured responses. The greatest truth of the Lamed Vavniks is that they can be anywhere around us. It is quite possible, there's a lamed-vavnik or two even in our holy congregation. They could be right next to you. It is even more possible that the Lamed-Vavnik could be you.
Now is the time for the Lamed-Vavnik's to stand up and be recognized. Now is the time for their courage, sense of balance, and deep listening to enlighten and inspire us all. May this new year, bring you inspiration, confidence and certainty that you can become a master of listening, a lamed-vavnik - for you and yours. L'Shanah Tovah.