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Kol Nidre 5779 - "Care What Other People Think"

September 18, 2018

“Basically, you know, like, be yourself.”

The speaker is a 14-year-old girl.  Her name is Kayla, and she’s a character in Bo Burnham’s recent film titled, appropriately, Eighth Grade.

“And don’t care about what other people think about you.”

She’s speaking into a camera, recording a YouTube video she’s pretty sure almost nobody will watch.

“And everything will work out if you’re just being yourself.”

In the movie, at that point, almost no things are working out for Kayla.  Let alone everything.  No matter.  She presses on.

“Don’t care,” she counsels, “about what other people think about you.”

On the surface, this sounds like good advice.  Be authentic.  Be true to yourself.

And it sounds like good Jewish advice.   The Torah, in fact, goes to great lengths to say, “hey Jews, be careful.  Wherever you go, don’t forget to be yourself.”

Take this verse, for instance, from Leviticus.  “Don’t do like the doings of the land of Egypt where you used to dwell — nor the actions of the land of Canaan where I’m taking you.”[1]

But there’s a difference between don’t copy the people around you and don’t care about what those people think.

And on a day we’re thinking about who we are and who we want to be, what other people think about us can be important.

It may actually be crucial. 

In fact, Jewish tradition discusses, sometimes in great depth, what people think about us.

Consider, for example, the prayer we prayed tonight, and the service it’s named after — Kol Nidre.

The declaration that we made in that prayer reflects the deep Jewish ambivalence about vow-taking.  Swearing a vow to God is a serious thing.  If we swear a vow to God and don’t come through, we’re taking God’s name in vain.

This, my friends, is trouble!  It’s violating one of God’s Top Ten rules!

Kohelet, the book of Ecclesiastes, goes even further, saying Tov asher lo tidor mi’she’tidor v’lo t’shaleim.  “Better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.”  The next verse continues, “Don’t let your mouth bring a sin to your flesh.” 

In other words, don’t let your mouth write a check that your body can’t cash.

Kol Nidre the prayer then — at least since the 1100s — has attempted to nullify all vows we make miyom kipurim zeh ad yom kipurim haba.

“From this Yom Kippur to next Yom Kippur.”

It’s a preemptive strike against the dumb promises we make, the vows we can’t fulfill.  God knows all the bugs in our programming.  Cuz She’s the programmer!

But there’s one problem, and it’s a pesky one — anti-Semitism.  For centuries, Jew-haters pointed to the Kol Nidre prayer and said, “See!  You can’t trust the Jews in business!  They don’t keep their promises!  They even announce it in their synagogues!”

Right now, you can go over to davidduke.com and read for yourself (well, maybe not right now… maybe not ever) warning non-Jews to “be aware that the Yom Kippur celebrations have a very different meaning to Jewish Supremacists than that portrayed by the Zio-media.”

Duke is, tragically, the inheritor of a hateful and vile tradition.  In fact, Kol Nidre was cited as justification for something called Oath More Judaico, a humiliating and legal vow Jews were forced to swear, until not too long ago, before testifying in European courts.

Throughout those centuries, Kol Nidre survived.  But not without controversy — even within the Jewish community.   Due to the negative attention it brought from non-Jews, both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements considered eliminating Kol Nidre.

But the power of the prayer made that impossible.

Now, you may say: who cares what the non-Jews say?  Like Kayla says: “don’t care about what other people think about you.”

Of course, part of the answer stems from our status as a historically persecuted people.  For the majority of our history, attention from non-Jews was negative attention.

“God bless and keep the Czar — far away from us.”

But there’s another aspect to our relationship to the people around us.

Our tradition actually says that how people see us, and how we look to them, not only matters.  It’s actually essential.  We want non-Jews to think well of us.

Given that we have been persecuted so savagely for so many centuries, part of this effort is related to our desire for safety.

You can see this in the use of the Yiddish phrase shande far di goyim, literally “a scandal or embarrassment in front of the nations.”  At various times, all sorts of people have been called a shande far di goyim — gangster Meyer Lansky, shyster Bernie Madoff, the “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz.

The implication is that the person who is a shande does damage twice: a Jew who dishonors Jews by not only doing something bad, but doing something that confirms the worst fears of others about Jews in general.

The antidote, of course, is that we do the opposite.  Do nice things, be a positive force in the world, and — we hope — they’ll think better of us. 

But not everybody thinks this is a good idea.

Some people, in fact, deride this effort, dismissing it using the term “respectability politics.”

The term comes from a 1993 book, Righteous Discontent, written by Harvard African-American Studies professor Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. 

Critics of respectability politics argue that this kind of effort is doomed to fail.

The stories of wealthy and educated African Americans denied service at stores, stopped by law enforcement, or denied entrance to social events are, by now, all too familiar.  In a particularly ironic example, Higgenbotham’s Harvard colleague, Henry Louis Gates Jr, was arrested at his own home trying to open a stuck front door, when a neighbor, assuming he was a burglar, called the police. 

It doesn’t get more “respectable” than a Harvard professor. 

And it should be noted that this happened not more than 20 miles from our front door, in Cambridge, here in “liberal” Massachusetts.

For Jews too, all the good deeds in the world can’t keep hate at bay. Tales of Jewish values, tzedakah and gemilut chasidim, would most likely be wasted on the “Jews will not replace us” crowd. 

Which brings us back to Kayla.  “Don’t care about what other people think about you.”

Why not be like Kayla?

Because, as it turns out, we’re not trying to make people think better of us.

We’re trying to make them think better of God.

As I said on Rosh haShanah, the thread running through my remarks on these high holidays has been stories.  The stories we tell about each other.  The stories we tell about ourselves.

But our stories are not our stories alone.  They are testimony.  They are evidence, evidence in a cosmic courtroom.

The question before the court is whether there is any meaning in our world.

And the verdict — whether there is a Force of mercy and justice in the world, this world of ragged miracles and violent beauty, where the softest of hearts feel the sharpest of pains —

That verdict is in our hands.

Because on Kol Nidre, we face the reality that every Jew in the world, no matter their profession, is in the PR business.

And the PR we do is PR for God.

While the rest of the world sits and discusses the reality of God, we are told that the stories of our lives will be entered into the record as evidence.

That the reality of God is really up to us.

It might be comforting to be Kayla-ists, to not care what other people think.

But on Yom Kippur, of all days, we realize the story of our people.  It’s not our job to be comfortable.

It’s our job to be ohr lagoyim.  “A light to the nations.”

You may have heard the phrase before.  It’s pretty famous.

It’s from the book of Isaiah.  And on this day of confession, I’ll confess to you — I never fully read the text it comes from.

So, in preparation for this drash, I checked it out.  And in an era when Jews are concerned about survival — understandable, living as we do in the shadow of genocide — Isaiah says that survival is not enough. 

Nakeil mih’yot’cha li eved, according to Isaiah.  Nakeil.  “It’s too inconsequential, says God, for you merely to be My servant.”  It’s not enough even “to restore the survivors of Israel.”

Untaticha l’ohr lagoyim.  “I give it to you — to be a light to the nations.”[2]

“At any given juncture throughout Jewish history, the prospect of Jewish survival was open to question,” writes historian Henry Feingold.  By all accounts, “Jewish civilization should have vanished a long time ago.” 

That we survive is improbable.  That we thrive is miraculous.

But really, after all the struggles and the suffering — why bother?

And Isaiah answers — be a light.  Shine holiness into the world.  Magnify honor and dignity for all people.

Be evidence.  For Divinity and Dignity.

Isaiah is not the only one who talks like this.  God does too.

At the very end of chapter 22 of Leviticus, the Israelites are reminded that God saved them from Egypt.  God puts this is in holy terms.  Ani YHVH m’kadishchem.  “I YHVH sanctified you.”

In saving us from oppression and injustice, God made us sacred.  A holy remnant.  A tiny scrap of the sacred, in a big world of oppression.

And our job?  Return the favor.  Lo t’chal’lu et shem kodshi.  “Don’t profane My Holy Name.”[3]

Nikdashti.  Sanctify Me.

From these texts, we get two phrases that represent two roles we can play in they world.  The two terms are kiddush haShem and chillul haShem.  You may have heard them before.  Kiddush haShem means the “Sanctification of the Name.”  And Chillul haShem means the “Profanation of the Name.” 

Bernie Madoff certainly was a shande far di goyim, but he wasn’t just that.  His actions were a chilul haShem.  As a Jew, he not only dragged his name through the gutter.

He dragged God’s Name.

Our actions in the world don’t just reflect on us.  They reflect on the Name of the very Architect of the Universe. 

A century or so after Isaiah tells his people to be a beacon of goodness, the prophet Jeremiah checks in on that same people.  He finds them decidedly lacking in the “light to the nations” department.   He finds that not only do they keep slaves, but after they free them, they recapture them to be slaves again.

And how does Jeremiah register his disgust with his people?  V’tashuvu vat’chalalu et-shmi.  “You have turned back and have profaned My name.”[4]

And before either Isaiah or Jeremiah, it was the prophet Amos — the Amos who was famous before Famous Amos was famous — who tore into his people for “trampling the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and making the lowly walk an obstacle course”

And, in doing so, Amos reports God as saying, chalel et-shem kodshi.  “You profane My Holy Name.”[5]

The theme continues through our rabbinic writing.  In the Talmud’s tractate Yoma, which is specifically about Yom Kippur, there is a discussion about Chillul haShem.  It’s a serious debate.  There’s even a question about whether Yom Kippur can do anything at all for someone who desecrates God’s Name. 

So it’s no surprise, given those stakes, that the rabbis of the Talmud ask, “So uh, yeah, what exactly constitutes chilul haShem?  Asking for a friend.”

And Rav, a teacher so great that he’s just known as Rav, “teacher” — Rav says, for “me? If I take meat from a butcher and do not pay him his money immediately.”

Rav knows that he is a model, a symbol of his people.  He knows that his people will be judged based on his actions.  He knows his God will be judged based on his actions.

You will note that the actions that bring dishonor to God’s Name are not ritual actions.  They’re social injustices — economic and interpersonal sins.

It isn’t breaking kashrut that’s the chillul haShem.  It’s the breaking of the promise to pay a man for his work.  It’s the breaking of the social contract that disgraces God.

As then, so now.

Jews who cheat in business, Jews involved in rapacious payday lending, Ponzi schemes, obscene interest rates, Jews who pay poverty wages, Jewish slumlords aren’t just “bad for the Jews.”

They’re bad for God.

Because as Jews, when we move in the world, we tell a story about Who God is. 

When we act with dishonor, we bring dishonor to God.  Shameful acts bring shame to God’s name.

Even for non-Jews.  Especially for non-Jews.

“One thought above all is impressed upon us,” wrote the great 20th Century German Rabbi Leo Baeck,  “The slightest wrong done to the follower of another religious weighs more heavily than a wrong done to a fellow Jew, for it profanes Godʼs name by degrading the honor of Judaism."

Rabbi Baeck would know.  In 1943, he was deported, with his community to Terezin.  He refused all offers from American Jewish institutions to help him escape.  His teachings, which he continued inside the camp, are credited with giving his community the will to survive their confinement.

A Kiddush haShem if there ever was one.

Some of you know that when I was in my early 20s, I went to Israel for the first time.  And it was intoxicating.  I walked the streets, and those streets were filled with Jews.  Those streets were named after Jews.  The signs were in Hebrew, the rhythms of life were Jewish rhythms.  I wore a kippah in public for the first time.  I loved that it wasn’t weird.  I loved that it was me, and that me was OK.  Better than OK.  It was great.

But when I came back to the States I had to decide: would I keep wearing a kippah?

And on the tarmac at JFK I decided — yeah, I would try it.

Something happened that I didn’t realize.  It made me think about my actions in a different light.  It suddenly dawned on me — I was now a public representative of Jews.  And thus, I found that wearing a kippah made me more thoughtful.  It made me better.

Except, of course, for the times when it didn’t.

Like when I lived in Manhattan, and had to park a car there.  Now I don’t know what the whole parking ticket situation is like in Boston, but in New York?  It’s a nightmare.  Ticket fees routinely run into the triple-digits.  And if you don’t pay them, expect your car to be towed.  And where you pay the ticket, and the towing fee, may all be in completely different boroughs.

And when you discover this harsh reality, you may be in a grimy warehouse, on the West Side of Manhattan, waiting in line with other miserable New Yorkers.  And, if you’re like I was in my 20s, scraping by and mad at yourself for getting into this predicament — again — you might find yourself staring into the face of a stranger behind a smeared plexiglass window.

And yelling.  Loudly.  Like, really loudly.

But if you‘re lucky like me, you will be approached by an elderly woman who will say, simply, “The angels, baby.  The angels.”

I don’t know what she meant by that.  But I do know that, suddenly, I realized I was a man in a kippah, making a jackass of himself in public. 

And I was screaming at people who didn’t make the rules.  People who were just trying to get through their day. 

In Baeck’s words, I was “profaning Godʼs name by degrading the honor of Judaism."

I realized I needed to do better.  Especially when other people could see me.

Today, other people see me a lot.  Most of you know that I do my share of advocacy work out in the world.  Some of you have asked about that work.  What do I do when I go to a rally, or a march, or meet with our Senators and Representatives?

Well, I do lots of different things.  But there’s one constant.  I always teach Torah.  Because I’m not just Mike.  I’m a public representative of Jews.  I don’t go to migrant shelters in Tijuana because MSNBC says I should.  I go because the Torah says to love the immigrant.  I don’t go to speak against the Muslim Ban in DC because someone Tweets about it.  I go because the Torah teaches that Ishmael is our brother.  I don’t go to anti-racism conferences to score social media points like an eighth grader.  I go because the Torah insists that all people, white or not, European or not, Jewish or not, are created in God’s image.

I go to honor God’s Torah.  I go to honor God’s Name.

You should also know that I go to honor your name.  This house is called Beth Elohim.  “God’s house.”

Wherever I go in the world, I know I take this community with me. 

Some people I meet are surprised that I do what I do representing a “suburban congregation.”  Sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, they must be very progressive.”

Yes perhaps, I say, you could call them that.

But usually, I say that they’re very Jewish.

I say that they take seriously the mitzvah to make justice, the mitzvah to help to the poor, the mitzvah to plead, plead, for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant.

Because to do that is a Kiddush haShem, a public sanctification of God’s Name.

And to do the opposite?  To ignore the needs of our neighbors, to refuse to come to the aid of those treated as less than because of who they are, those hated and harassed because of their country of origin or religion or gender expression, when we know our people and our history and our texts?

That’s a chilul haShem.  A desecration of God’s Name.

Now, by this time, you may be asking yourself: what if I don’t believe in God?

What if I don’t think that there’s a Throne.  Or a Ruler.  What do I do about all this sanctifying God’s Name talk?

Even if we don’t believe in God, we believe in each other.  Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously taught that before believing, or even behaving, comes belonging.

We belong to each other. 

And if I as a Jew do something shameful in the world, it reflects badly on all Jews.  And, of course, vice versa.

We pray that what we do in the world sanctifies, at least, the name of Jews.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon teaches about three crowns, three awesome Jewish crowns: keter Torah, keter Kehuna, keter malchut — “the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of monarchy.”

But at the last minute, Shimon sneaks in another crown.  Keter Shem Tov.  “The crown of a good name” he says, is above any other crown.[6]

Of course, we may see all of our God-on-a-Throne talk as metaphor.  Another story we tell ourselves.  That there isn’t a literal Throne, but rather that coming before God’s Throne is the way we talk about raising ourselves, lifting ourselves up, to make meaning in the world.

To make the Name of Jews into a Good Name.

This way of seeing the world is actually not too far from the characterization of God in the Kabbalistic conception.  Kabbalah, the received tradition of Jewish mysticism, does not posit a distant God zapping people in isolation from humanity.

Instead, it tells us something remarkable.  That — in our broken world —God too is broken.

And that this broken is God is waiting, waiting to be healed and unified.

And the job of doing that universal healing — that’s our job.

Every single one of our actions affects the Divine realm, either promoting or hindering the healing of God.

“The secret of fulfilling the mitzvot,” taught Moses de León, the 13th century Spanish kabbalist, “is the mending of all worlds and drawing forth blessing from above.”[7]

The world is waiting.  God is waiting.  For us.  For you and me.

In this cosmic drama, we have the starring roles.  How the play ends depends on us.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov famously taught, Im ata ma'amin she’yekholim le’kalkel, ta'amin she’yekholim le’taken.

“If you believe that it’s possible to break, believe that it’s possible to heal.”

Whether you’re in an eighth grade classroom, or you’ve just passed eighty, you know we live in a broken world.  You know that there are in groups and out groups, and that who’s in and who’s out is random, and sometimes ruthless.  Whether you gather in a lunchroom or a conference room, whether at a yearbook committee or a Senate committee, whether at a school crossing or a border crossing, you know that all too often the in-group humiliates those in the out-group, excludes them, ostracizes them.

Sometimes it feels like torture.  Sometimes it is torture.

Sometimes it feels that, in such a world, there’s no God.

So this year, let’s make a vow.  A vow, this time, we’ll keep.  A pledge that, in the sight of all creation, wherever people fight for justice, wherever businesses are run with honesty, wherever the hungry are clothed and the worker is paid fairly, wherever people act with integrity, wherever the lonely and the lost are brought close, beloved brothers and sisters and cousins — Jews will lead the way.

That, in a world that seems Godless, we as Jews will testify to the existence of God — and our very lives will be the evidence.

 

[1] Leviticus 18:3

[2] Isaiah 49:6

[3] Leviticus 22:32

[4] Jeremiah 34:16

[5] Amos 2:7

[6] Pirkei Avot 4:13

[7] Sefer haRimmon / “The Book of the Pomegranate”

Fri, March 22 2019 15 Adar II 5779