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Kol Nidre 5781 - "Choose Life"

1848.  October.  The cholera epidemic has hit Vilna.  And the Salanter Rebbe is worried.

Vilna’s prominence as a center of Jewish learning in Lithuania is known throughout the Jewish world.  So much so that Vilna has come to be known as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”

And yet, here in this epicenter of Jewish wisdom, the Salanter rebbe is not on any rabbinic court.  He has no formal position in Vilna.  What he does have is a reputation as an ethical leader, a scrupulous teacher of principle.  The Salanter’s innovation is his integration of study and prayer with a new and passionate focus on mussar, or personal reflection and ethical development. 

But as the Yom Kippur of 1848 approaches, the cholera epidemic is worsening.  At great personal expense, the Salanter rents a 500-bed hospital to take care of the sick.  He convinces doctors to treat them at no charge. 

Nevertheless, the Salanter concern for his people is only growing.  Like any good rabbi, sure, he’s concerned for their spiritual and ethical health.  But he remains concerned for their physical health, concerned that fasting will make the currently-healthy more vulnerable to the deadly virus.

And he is concerned that his fellow rabbis are timid and indecisive in the face of crisis.

He knows he has a choice to make. 

And so, as the Yom Kippur morning service draws to a close, the Salanter rises to speak.  In the words of one eyewitness,[1] “his weak voice grows stronger and higher every minute, and at last it is quite loud.”

“He speaks of the sanctity of the Day of Atonement and of the holy Torah; of repentance and of prayer, of the living and of the dead, and of the pestilence that has broken out and that destroys without pity, without rest, without a pause—for how long? for how much longer?”

He continues: “when trouble comes to a [person, they] must look to [their] deeds.”  But not just ritual deeds.  The Salanter reminds his community that keeping themselves healthy is a religious obligation.  “We must act in accordance with the wise doctors’ instructions,” he insists, because “our religion tells us to walk by the light of their words.” 

His stunned community listening in silence, the Salanter concludes, “There are times when one must turn aside from the Law, if by so doing a whole community may be saved.”

And thus — “With the consent of the All-Present and with the consent of this congregation,” he declares, “we give leave to eat and drink on the Day of Atonement.”

The most important mitzvah to teach on that Yom Kippur in Vilna came at the expense of the best-known obligation of Yom Kippur — rejecting  fasting to safeguard life.  The lives of individuals, and the life of a community.

***

The year 70 of the common era.  The Roman siege of Jerusalem is becoming intolerable.  And Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai is worried. 

It’s been three years since the general Vespasian laid siege to Jerusalem.  Ever since, the city’s Jews have been subject to deprivation and degradation.  Yochanan’s neighbors, the biryonim, the Jewish Zealots, are itching for war with the Romans.  Their rage is so intense that it often flares up against fellow Jews.  Some people call them sicarii, “daggermen,” due to their tendency to mix in with Jewish crowds, sinking daggers into the flesh of Jews who they designate as “collaborators.”

The Jews of Jerusalem cope as best they can.  As the Talmud explains it, the three richest men of Jerusalem respond to the crisis by donating granaries of wheat and barley; storerooms of wine and salt, oil and firewood — enough provisions to maintain the city for twenty-one years.

The Zealots, though, are so keen on making war that they burn down the storehouses of grain, determined to hasten the revolt. 

And thus, the siege turns quickly to famine.  Yochanan sees the clear and ugly truth.  The Zealots — saturated with rage — will cut down their own people in the pursuit of war.  He knows he has a choice to make. 

Feigning illness, Yochanan tells his disciples, Eliezer and Joshua, to place him inside a coffin. 

Bluffing their way past the Roman guards, Eliezer and Joshua take the coffin straight to Vespasian.  Despite Vespasian’s protestations, Rabbi Yochanan boldly addresses Vespasian as malcha, Aramaic for “king.”  He predicts that, as Roman Emperor, the general will capture Jerusalem.

And, as they stand there arguing, a messenger arrives from Rome, with an announcement for Vespasian: “Rise, for the emperor has died, and the noblemen of Rome plan to appoint you as their leader.”  In flabbergasted appreciation, Vespasian asks what he can do to express his gratitude to Rabbi Yochanan.

Yochanan knows that Jerusalem is to be destroyed — from the outside, by the Romans, and from the inside, by the rage of the Jewish Zealots.  There are times when one must turn aside from the known, if in turning to the unknown a whole community may be saved.

Yochanan has already experienced death.  The death of his community, and a metaphorical death, leaving his beloved Jerusalem while sealed in a coffin.  He knows the revival of Judaism will not be in the Temple in Jerusalem, but in rabbinic academies throughout the land, like in the coastal town of Yavne. 

And so Rabbi Yochanan says to Vespasian: “Give me Yavne and its Sages.”

Yochanan ensures the modes of Jewish learning and living that will safeguard Jewish community for the next two thousand years.  His decision allows the Jewish people to reinvent ourselves in interpretation and innovation, discussion and debate — like the one preserved in the very Talmud where we find this story. 

***

Over 3,000 years ago.  A new Pharaoh has risen over Egypt. And Yocheved is worried. 

Pharaoh’s demagoguery, stirring up hate of the Hebrews in the Egyptian countryside, has led to a monstrous decree.  All Hebrew boy babies are to be drowned in the Nile.

The pregnant Yocheved would ordinarily be overjoyed to birth a son.  But she knows that, in Pharaoh’s Egypt, gender is a death sentence.

But babies have little regard for decrees, from Pharaohs or anyone else.  And so the baby Moses is born.  Mother and child last three months hiding Moses from the Egyptian death machine.  But such efforts can succeed for only so long.  The Midrash tells us that the Egypt of the new king has become so ruthless, that “anywhere that the Egyptians heard that a baby was born, they would bring [another] baby there in order that it could be heard crying,”[2] which would make other babies cry.  Pharaoh’s secret police would thus discover the hidden Hebrew babies, and murder them.

Three months of nursing and nurturing this baby boy have brought Yocheved unimagined joy.  But she knows what she has to do.  She makes an impossibly small ark out of the softest reeds she can find.  Like you and I might frost a birthday cake, she spreads mushy red mud on the inside, and waterproof but pliant pitch on the outside — doing her best to ensure that the ark won’t rupture if it bumps into hard rocks or branches. 

According to the Talmudic account, inside Moses’ basket Yocheved even builds a tiny chuppah, saying to herself, shemma lo ezkeh l’chupato.  “Maybe I won’t be worthy of being present at his wedding chuppah.”

And, with daughter Miriam looking on from afar, Yocheved places her boy  in the willows down by the riverbank, somehow finding the strength to let go.

It is down-river, a short distance geographically but worlds away, that Pharaoh’s daughter is bathing in the water.  She sees a most peculiar sight — a tiny, floating basket.  Looking into the basket, she knows immediately. 

“This is one of the Hebrew boys.”

Defying decrees of both family and state, Pharoah’s daughter reaches into the water, reaches into herself, and saves Moses.   If not for Pharaoh’s daughter, and for Yocheved before her, we would not be here to observe Yom Kippur.

***

Our observance of Yom Kippur is unlike any other Yom Kippur observance in memory.  It is the first time I’ve ever given a Yom Kippur sermon into a camera.  It is the first Yom Kippur that our community has not observed in person.

We do so because of what might befall us if we did otherwise.  The threat of Covid is real, and it is fatal.  It’s why I’m speaking to pixilated versions of you via this screen, rather than looking at you directly in the eyes.  It’s what we have to do, though of course it’s not what we would have hoped for.

For us, it is unprecedented.

But for the Jewish people, facing crisis and calamity is not unprecedented.

Yocheved faced the inconceivable murder of her baby.  Rabbi Yochanan faced the unthinkable obliteration of Jerusalem.  The Salanter rebbe faced the plague of cholera.

Each had a choice to make.  Because of the choices they made, we are indebted to all three.

I mentioned on Rosh haShanah that all my drashot these High Holidays will be connected in some way to the theme of Jewish choice.  Every single moment, wherever we are, is an opportunity to make a Jewish choice.  No matter the circumstance — at work and at home, at the courtroom or the coffee house, at the bank or the boardroom or the bedroom — Jewish text, tradition, and history offer opportunities to see our Jewishness not just as a set of occasional rituals, but as a way to consider the choices available to us in every moment, and to navigate a life that supports and sustains us accordingly. 

The phrase “Jewish choice” might imply that there are clear right and wrong paths to walk.  Whether a Jewish choice is right or wrong is sometimes far from clear.  One of the reasons, I think, that Jews are known for talking so much is because we talk our way through considering different paths.  And, after all the talking, we may not all make the same choices.  In fact, odds are, we won’t.

And yet, Jews of all types are unified by one value that transcends generations and denominations.   It is our regard and reverence for life. 

This bedrock principle of Jewish choice reaches throughout generations of Jewish community.  It reaches back to Torah — where at the Torah’s end we find the dying Moses, having led his people out of slavery, having brought down Torah from Sinai, having been saved from Pharaoh’s death factory by his mother Yocheved, saved from the grip of the Nile’s waters by Pharaoh’s daughter, teaching his people a simple mitzvah: uvacharta b’chayim.

“Choose life.”  L’ma’an t’chiyeh, ata v’zarecha.  “So you live, you and your offspring.”

This reverence for life reaches back to the Jerusalem of the Roman occupation — where we find the sage, Yochanan ben Zakkai, rejecting and refusing the Zealots’ thirst for vengeance.  Instead choosing, even at the expense of Jewish rule in our beloved Jerusalem, the renewal of the Jewish people in Yavne and other rabbinic academies both in and outside the land of Israel.

And the veneration for life reaches back to nineteenth century Vilna — where we find the Salanter rebbe, publicly defying the other rabbis of his community, teaching that we do not fast, we cannot fast, if it puts the life of the community at risk.

This principle of placing a primacy on human life might seem obvious.  And yet, a cursory look at the news — and maybe a look outside your window — might suggest otherwise.

As I sit down to write this, we’re approaching the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.  But there is no doubt in my mind that by the time I deliver it, we will have reached 200,000 deaths due to Covid — in eight months, the equivalent of more than sixty-seven 9/11s.

And, as shocking as that number is, perhaps more shocking is that we are getting used to it.

Such that, as the months stretch on, as we become inured to the growing body count, we may be tempted to ease up on the restrictions that lower the risk posed by exposure to Covid —the risk that we will catch it or the risk that we will spread it.

But as exhausting as it is to maintain distance, to stay away from the gathering, to wear masks wherever we go, to use one-way aisles in the market — as the return of cold weather means it will be harder to gather outside, and we will find ourselves increasingly isolated — we are reminded by the Salanter rebbe, by Rabbi Yochanan, by Yocheved and Pharaoh’s daughter, by Moses himself: uvacharta b’chayim.  “Choose life.”

We are in the first days of the Jewish year, the season of teshuvah.  We often translate teshuvah as repentance, but it literally means “return.”  It’s what we do when we’ve lost our way.  We go back.  When a person loses their way from God.  When two people lose their way from each other.  When a society has lost its way. 

When Covid deaths become normal.  When mass shootings, which once shocked the conscience, now barely mention a headline.  When deaths of immigrants in detention sometimes don’t achieve even that.  And when citizens dying of hunger and abuse in the richest country in the world never cross our radar.

It’s clear.  We’ve lost our way. 

And it’s also clear.  We need to make our way back.  To return to our core values, to our core truth, that every human life is sacred. 

In a corrupted empire that treats human life as expendable, led by men who choose to score political points at the expense of public safety, we need to keep choosing otherwise.  It is the Jewish choice.

I am not the first rabbi to speak of Jewish choices.  “It is obvious to us that we will respond in particular ways to particular events,” writes 20th century Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler.  The decisions we make in the course of our normal lives, the choices we face, in Dessler’s words, are “within our territory.”  There are “other choices,” the rabbi continues, “we have never had to make and likely will never have to make. They are beyond the realm of our experience. They are firmly out of our territory.”

The place where these two areas meet, teaches Dessler, is what he calls a nekudat bechirah — a choice point. “On the spectrum of what we know to be ethical and what we know to be unethical” — that is the choice point.

The struggle Dessler so elegantly describes is an internal one.  And thus, the High Holidays spur us to keep looking inward, checking and rechecking the landscape of our choices.

But sometimes events conspire to move the frontline of these choice points.  Sometimes a cholera epidemic comes to your city.  Sometimes Zealots plunge daggers into your neighbors.  Sometimes a Pharaoh comes to power and brings mass death to the countryside.

Sometimes a virus infects millions of global citizens.  Sometimes our leaders lie about it. 

It’s in times like these that the choice is brought to us.  We stumble through this crisis in a country without a consistent and coordinated system to test for COVID-19, to trace who has come in contact with people who’ve tested positive, a country that’s neglected to articulate appropriate treatment or prevention strategies.  Public health agencies are politicized.  Information is inconsistent.  Testing rates fluctuate.  The turnaround time for results is unpredictable at best.

And, in the absence of national and state leadership, decisions devolve.  They fall upon individual businesses, schools, synagogues.  They fall on you and me.

The burden is so heavy.  It shouldn’t be like this.  Sometimes it feels like it’s everyone for themselves.

But in these days of decision, we are not alone.  We are accompanied by the choices made by our ancestors.

The Salanter rebbe stands behind us, his attenuated voice holding firm against a tide of timidity.

Yochanan ben Zakkai journeys beside us, supine in his coffin, placing himself in a position of essential vulnerability, committing himself to the rebirth of his people at Yavne and beyond.

Yocheved walks before us, taking the ultimate leap of faith, placing her baby in the water.

And Pharaoh’s daughter sustains up, standing at the edge of that water, eyes overflowing with love for a baby she’s been taught to despise, defying a corrupted empire of death.

Choosing life.

These days, and in days to come, we each be called on to make that choice.  Every moment.  Over and over.

As a Jewish community.  As Jewish individuals.

Because our land needs it.

Because the world needs it.

As our ancestors did before us, let us choose life.

That we and our children may live.

 
[1] David Frischmann, “Three Who Ate”
[2] This and following references from Talmud, Sotah 12a-b
Sat, July 24 2021 15 Av 5781