Sign In Forgot Password

Rabbi Everett Gendler Shabbat Shuvah 2020

Rabbi Everett Gendler

Audio File included.

Toba, thank you so very much. It was a beautiful service. Both of you and all of you who are present are very generous in welcoming me to your community. You know, in some sense,  I haven't the proper qualifications to be speaking to you right now. After all, I'm not physically present, though, I suppose none of us is in that sense, but I've not had the pleasure of actually visiting your wonderful temple of seekers.

 And I certainly benefited from the contemplative focusing service, led by Rabbi, Toba this morning. I've not been able to worship with you, but your generosity manages somehow to include me in your community, and for that I am genuinely grateful. I don't do so much speaking these days, and I was really honored and challenged by this invitation.

What possibly could I contribute to your own soul searching, to your own contemplation for your own discoveries on Yom Kippur, that the day of atonement that invites us tomorrow night. And I thought best might be to share with you a striking interpretation, or translation, of a familiar phrase in the Yom Kippur liturgy.

 Universally translated as you shall afflict your souls, or you shall afflict yourselves, you shall deprive yourself of certain pleasures, certain necessities, even with the fast and so on.

 But in the course of working on the the writings of a little known Eastern European Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares. I have full disclosure, I was the primary editor and translator. I was the editor and primary translator of his recently released volume of the central writings of tomorrow's.

He was a rather distinctive individual who served a small community in Eastern Europe in Poland, and lived from 1869 to 1931. He has a translation and interpretation that is unique and I believe revelatory. It really startled me, and I think it may contribute to your thoughts as well. Both theologically and equally, or perhaps more important societally because it invites and approach to issues that we don't universally manage sometimes. So it begins by dispelling the notion that Yom Kippur, is a gloom and doom holiday.

]He is very sensitive to nature. He lived literally across a small road from the last remaining primeval forest in all of Europe, and he reports that for almost 40 years most days from springs through autumn weather permitting, he would spend out of doors in the forest.So he cautions us Yom Kippur is associated with a time that could depress our spirits.The sun grows less strong, the bounty of summer is at an end, and we all know the signs of approaching cold weather. And this could of course add to the sense, along with the fast of Yom Kippur, as a gloom and doom occasion.

It takes a moment to make sure that we have a basic understanding of what in fact Judaism and the commandments are about. He says, Yom Kippur can shed light on to differing explanations for the commandments of Torah to worship God. One is that they fulfill a divine need, so to speak, providing benefits to the divine, analogous to servants fulfilling the needs of their master.The other is that they fulfill a human need for worship that will improve and sweeten the quality of our lives as human beings.

Tamares is emphatic: worship the commandments are not in order to serve or provide necessities for the store of bounty which is the divine, they are intended for the enhancement of our lives, even though, as he points out, the divinity may derive pleasure from our comportment. 

 So, it establishes this in order to make clear that Commandments especially relating to Yom Kippur are to enhance our lives, not to punish us for misdeeds. And he has some wonderful citations that I'll omit, simply because we need time also to do our own reflections. But Tamares goes on to argue that it means "You shall humble yourselves. You shall adopt a stance of humility.You should be in the sense, as the Bible puts it, you shall be lowly or meek. It can and in fact it equal validity mean, you shall humble yourselves.

Humility, rather than affliction, is the core meaning. And I wanted to look at that for a few minutes and we'll have a chance, even to try it out, so to speak, within our societal context today. Now I'm a couple of clarifying words, first of all, the root if you check Brown Driver Briggs or Mandel current lexicon to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, you will discover that the root can mean both affliction and lowliness or humility. So Tamares has actual grammatical foundation for his interpretation. Our immediate reaction is waiting for the humble, the meek, the meek. Wait. And we, all of us, probably think immediately of the meek shall inherit the earth, which we associate with the Beatitudes in Christian gospel and, indeed, there it is.

 But listen, friends, some big words of some millenia earlier, if I may quote psalm 3711

"But the meek shall inherit the earth, and shall the light themselves in the abundance of peace."

Those that's the wording of King James, the traditional Jewish Publication Society rendering of Psalm 3711: "but the humble shall inherit the land and they light themselves in the abundance of peace."

So, don't be afraid that there is something of religious transgression about advocating humility.  And let me also now quote, so that you're not lost totally in the past, I'd like to quote from an article in the New York Times literally two weeks ago in the weekend review by Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard, a political scientist on democracy.

"Humility is the virtue we need now. It is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethics of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a a less rancorous, more generous public life."

 The entire article by Sandel focuses on what he calls the diploma device. I'll say a bit more about it because I think it may be a very good occasion for us to break into groups and see whether it has application today or not.

 But Tamares himself in talking about you shall humble your souls, talks about the fact that by virtue of no material engagement on Yom Kippur, when even our physical necessities are set aside. Because of that, we are able, both to identify more closely with the divine, and with our fellow human beings.

He says rivalry stems from the anxiety of there not being materially enough. God the Creator assures us that on this earth there is indeed sufficient for us along with all our fellow creatures.

 This is the implication of I Am the Eternal that concludes the mandate "love your neighbor as you love yourself."

 So come Tamares recognizes that material anxiety can distort our basic decency and our more generous impulses. Now let's focus on Sandel on Tamares' proposition.

And he says, "building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a precondition for dignified work and social esteem has a corrosive effect on democratic life."

It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma. This prejudice against less educated members of society, effectively, excludes most working people from the elective government and provokes political backlash. And he gives them illustrations: by the end of the Second World War, 25% of Congress was composed of those without a college degree. In the United States today, about half of the labor force is employed in working class jobs, defined as manufacturing, service industry and clerical jobs, but fewer than 2% a members of Congress worked in such jobs before their election.

 And he goes on at considerable length and appropriate social science terms. Suggesting that this is both dangerous to democracy and to decency, that this the moving of the value of contributions, other than intellectual and diploma credentials, are really harmful to the society. By the way, talk to your electrician or your plumber about their kids, and whether they're interested in following the father's tradition, or whether they look elsewhere. It's very interesting and "Do It Yourself" may may work for small weekend tasks, but when it comes to plumbing and heating and electricity, we're in great trouble if somehow we've devalued those without diplomas.

In any event, both on theoretical grounds and on practical grounds, there are questions to be raised. Tamares, I suggest, with astonishing insight, understands the point of view of Yom Kippur being a leveling of all of us to our basic situation, which is blessing beneficiaries of the gift of life on this wonderful planet from a beneficent creator.

I actually I wanted to give two or three examples of current societal issues and your Education Director looked quizzically and said, "within your allotted 20 minutes, I don't think you can do that.". I see I'm already at 23 minutes and I promise to stop within a minute. He was right, but it may be that the question of the diploma divide does explain some of that alarming free floating resent in our society.

And it may come close to where and how we live and who we are. So let's, I think for Earnest. you have some ideas about how we proceed for a few minutes and move into the next phase of the discussion. But here, laid before us, is Tamara's suggestion that the core meaning of the essential Yom Kippur Commandment, is not to torture, your body. No, it means adapt a spirit of humility, of lowliness, that can enable you to appreciate fellowship with all fellow human creatures.



Fri, February 23 2024 14 Adar I 5784