Kol Nidrei (5780) — Adulting

07/10/2019 at 16:17 Leave a comment



Yom Kippur – Kol Nidrei

Neil F. Blumofe

8 October 2019


Over the summer, Anne and I were cleaning up our house. I came across a box that I didn’t recognize, so I asked Anne about it – she told me to leave the box alone – it was her personal box.  However, I couldn’t help myself – I was curious – when she was out, I opened the box. Inside there were three eggs and $2000. When Anne came home I told her that I opened the box and I asked her to explain what the meaning was of what was inside the box.  She told me that any time I ever gave a bad sermon, she would put an egg in the box.


So, that’s great, I said – in all the time since I’ve been giving sermons, there have only been three bad ones.  That’s not bad at all.  Anne looked at me and said – yes, however, every time I got a dozen eggs, I would sell them for $1.


This evening, on the holiest night of the year, we are here with great expectations, hoping that something will shift within us – that we will be lifted up past the hazards and pitfalls — beyond the uncertain world that we are living in – in essence, that we will be moved.  In today’s world, the things and ideas that we value — our opinions, and even our very identities are considered malignantly partisan. It is difficult to find common ground with others, without the danger of having someone send a glare in our direction with a knife glinting in their eyes.  It seems that the mob bearing torches and pitchforks are everywhere.


Do y’all know my favorite joke — it’s the one about the two Jews eating dinner in the kosher delicatessen, and the waiter comes up to them during the meal and asks – “is anything alright?”  Tonight, I would like us to consider – what if it isn’t? What if anything isn’t alright, and the sky is really falling?  Our politics, our environment, our economy, the ways that we communicate with each other and feel rooted in community, that which keeps us grounded and hopeful – what if all of this is out of whack?  What if everything is undermined and destabilized – hollowed out, so we don’t have a clear direction of where to go and how to be?


However, there is good news.  In this fraught time as Yom Kippur begins and the Gates of Repentance and Reconciliation open, the wisdom of Judaism gives us steady guidance. As extreme as everything currently feels, we have been in a place like this before.  Tonight, I want to share with you the most radical book in the entire Tanach – the Hebrew Bible – so, let us discover what we can learn from the man called Job.


This semester, I am teaching an Introduction to Hebrew Bible class at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary – 38 students, who will be future pastors, four teaching assistants, and I are moving from Genesis to II Chronicles – the entire Bible in 15 weeks.  Despite our blistering pace, when we are discussing these stories and concepts – there is an appreciation among the students that the Jewish perspective is not what they had previously learned.  You see, Christian scholars typically see the Hebrew Bible as foreshadowing of people or events to come in the Christian Bible.  We call this bias, typology – and overcoming this bias is both an important and a challenging component of the class.


For each of us, challenging and undoing our own biases, our own typologies, is the Book of Job.  The Book of Job singlehandedly challenges the entire Hebrew Bible – one book against 23, depending how you count, by criticizing the two critical ideas or theologies, found in the Hebrew Bible.  The first is called priestly or establishment theology and is the idea that our reverence for God will spare us from the harshest decrees – As the prophet Jeremiah wrote — obey my voice and I will be your God – and you shall be my people – and walk in all the ways that I have commanded you – that it may be well with you.  The second theology is what is known as prophetic Judaism – the belief that the ethics of religion are more important than the rituals of religion.  These prophets are Biblical heroes who don’t represent the establishment.  We can see an example of this theology in tomorrow morning’s choice of Haftarah – the chapter of Isaiah that declares quite lyrically that the real fast is to get outside of the establishment to fight injustice, feeding people who are hungry.


According to the Book of Job, both of these theologies are wrong.  The priests are blinded by the rituals and can’t see the forest for the trees – and the prophets are naïve, because all they do is just offer an alternative reward system and theology.  The prophets fail to realize that it is the reward system itself, and not the rituals, that is the problem.  The prophets criticize the rituals, but they leave the reward system.  All they do is define good and bad differently – they redefine the ritual and promise that this set of behaviors will work better than the other set.  Job cuts both of these examples down to size, and quite subversively says that neither the priests nor the prophets — neither ritual nor what we would call now, tikkun olamJudaism does the job.  So where does that leave us?


Job challenges us to ask the question – if I am righteous, whether by ritual or by tikkun olam, or both – will God protect me?  It is interesting that it is Job asking this question.  Job is an extraordinary figure in the Tanach.  He took care of the most vulnerable in society – the poor, the orphan, and the widow.  He was a judge, who dutifully pursued justice, and he was the eyes for people who were blind.  He fought those who had too much power and those who abused the system for their own financial gain – in short, he was an overachiever and would have won all of the scouting merit badges by the second meeting.  He was in all of this a fantastic personification of what is called prophetic behavior – he was out in the world doing tikkun olam and he was a ritual ninja at home and in the synagogue.  In short, he was both the perfect priestly Jew and the perfect prophetic Jew.  And yet, at the end, Job tells us that this kind of noble living does not protect you from tragedy – for disaster strikes him — he loses what he hold dear in the world — his health, his kids and his wealth.


Job is a critique of the entire Bible.  The reward system promised by God doesn’t work – the deal that we have with God is false.  Doing good does not promise redemption.  Job is unlike any other figure in the Bible.  He is described as perfect, upright, one who reveres God – and one who never did anything wrong.  He is wholehearted in his conduct and in his faith.  We are even told that God believes in Job and in his inherent goodness and good nature.


God even shows Job off – bragging about Job to Satan – essentially saying to Satan, which is known in Hebrews as The Adversary, “finally – here is one who has met my standards!”  The Adversary, of course, is a cynic – a figure who believes neither in humanity nor in the intrinsic good nature of an individual human being. Satan challenges God by insinuating that Job is perfect only because his life is perfect, not because Job is perfect.  Satan maintains — when you see someone good, it is only because their surroundings are good and their life is good – they are able to fit in goodness – to schedule it in their routine of life. So, God and Satan bet on Job, to see who is right.  Satan claims that if you take away all of Job’s good things, Job will no longer be good. God takes the other side, betting that Job is intrinsically good, regardless of his good fortunes in life.  It’s a cosmic showdown – the main event at the Ultimate Fighting Championship – the UFC — between God and the Adversary – and it’s amazing that God agrees to this wager.


Long story short — a flood of bad things happen to Job, Job remains righteous and good, and God wins the bet – proving that human nature is inherently good and Job’s character remains intact.   But now there’s a problem that surfaces – we know that Job is good, yet maybe, God is not so good.  This is the real theological question of the Book of Job – asking the challenging question – is God good?  Job’s friends attempt to answer this saying, God is not bad.  Look, if something bad happens to you, then you obviously have done something bad to deserve it.  These so-called friends blame and judge Job, using theology to justify his misfortune, eventually abandoning Job as his life gets worse.  But Job is steadfast in his belief – stating — I am good and it is the system that is broken.  Bad things happen to good people.  I am suffering needlessly.


As to the disturbing question of whether God is good – we only receive a partial answer – God appears to Job in a raging storm and answers Job’s question with a question — saying to him – you know, you have really strong opinions, and yet you don’t really know anything about the world.  Job – where were you when I created the world? The secrets of the cosmos are infinite, while human intellect is finite – and you Job, or anyone else, cannot create an objective judgment with only a limited picture.


And while Job accepts God’s answer – we, who know more of this astonishing story than Job does, may answer differently.  We can turn to God and say, You are not just. Unlike Job, we do not make peace with the inscrutability of God’s ways.  For us, the answer is not cosmic – for we can turn to God and say – why did you make such a foolish bet with Satan, and why didn’t you tell Job about Your wager?  In all of his suffering, Job didn’t know that You did that, but we do.  There is a knowledge gap between the character of Job and us – we have a bigger perspective and thus God’s justification of a bigger truth than what we can comprehend misses the mark, at the very least.


The question remains — why do bad things happen to good people?   The answer given – that God possesses wisdom and perspective that we don’t have, is essentially mocking us.  We know why bad things happened to Job – and God never admits it.  God never tells Job that the Kadosh Baruch Hu made a deal with the devil to see if Job’s perfection would waver.  We see this – and we are then to ask – what the heck is the Book of Job doing in the Bible?  We have to rethink what the Bible is – in its composition, it possesses a radical pluralism that is instructive to us, in our day and age.


The beauty of the Tanach is that it asks us to critique it – and our questions, our critical examination is holy.  There are some, like the philosopher and public intellectual in Israel, Micah Goodman, who thinks that the Book of Job actually saves the entire Tanach – that because Job is included in the Bible then the Bible is larger than we can imagine.  Goodman states – that the Bible can then fit the world, as the world works – and knowing too that the Bible doesn’t work, is also a component of the Bible.  Can we say to God, that God is not good?  Are we allowed to criticize God? Job’s friends say, sha stil, being religious is doing the rituals.  Job states that his definition of religion is to speak truth to God – to develop an authentic voice in this matter, come what may. For Job, God wants our truth, not our praise.


What better day than Yom Kippur to ask this question?  To be observant of Judaism and to honor Jewish practice takes a lot of sacrifice — it is time-consuming, expensive, and a huge commitment.  Job is asking us this evening – is intellectual honesty another sacrifice that we have to make – turning on our naïveté full blast when we come to synagogue?  And the answer of the Book of Job is no – we don’t have to be willfully ignorant in our sanctuary – we must express our honesty when we want to get close to God – especially in our synagogue.


Today, ideology and groupthink create enemies, but not for Job. Even in his isolation, his alienation, Job prays for his friends – he prays for the people who have shunned him – and this is the lesson that we can emulate as well.  We speak our truth, without diminishing our love for God and for our friends – we are to not falter when we are tested – because, like Job, we may not have the whole picture.  Nu, what else is new?  Maybe our lives are the subject of another bet between God and Satan, seeing if we will rebuke and forsake God.  We can speculate that this is the case – knowing that we don’t know, and will never know the whole picture of why things can get so hectic for us.


And here we are, on Yom Kippur, with these Gates of Repentance and Reconciliation open before us.  So many pages to pray before the stars come out again tomorrow night and our fast is over.  David Hartman, the founder of the Hartman Institute in Israel wrote – the problem with the machzor is not the language. The problem is our difficulty transcending the language.  We have to move beyond the words on the page. 


I have a friend who is a child of Holocaust survivors – who grew up observant, and beyond the trauma of the Holocaust on her family, her son died by overdose a few years ago.  When you ask her how she is, she will look you straight in the eye and respond – Baruch haShem, lousy.  Praise God, I’m lousy.  She really means it.  Both aspects – both the gratitude and the agony.  We have inherited Job’s dilemma.  How can we pray these words, when our hearts and minds may be elsewhere? I encourage you to look away from the specific words of the liturgy and rather immerse yourself in it – to see if this experience resonates with anything currently going on in your life. If the prayer makes you more loving or opens your heart, then the prayer worked, regardless of whether the liturgy is true or even believable.  Perhaps a word or a musical phrase makes us feel more alive or connected with our depths, with the world beyond – or even with God.  Can we move from being self-absorbed to more empathic?  Are we able to live ani tefilati – to be our own prayer?


Tonight, we are asked to move beyond the cosmic joke of our lives, and outwit God as we become more vulnerable, confident and composed in asking, who shall live and who shall die?  We should not attempt to blindly pursue an unattainable, absurd truth – rather, let us seek understanding and discernment in these times – and not be played for a fool or a frayer– which, for those who are not familiar, is Hebrew for a sucker or a hapless schmuck.


Elie Wiesel tells a story that happened to him as a child in the barracks at Auschwitz.  After intense suffering, the inmates convened a din Toyre– a trial that accused God of breaking the Divine sacred covenant with the Jewish people – God was put on trial for what we would now call, crimes against humanity – and after arguments for and against this resolution, one night, after back-breaking and soul crushing work, the verdict was reached.  The Av Beit Dinread the proclamation – this Beit Dinfinds God guilty of crimes against the Jewish people.  And now it is time for the evening prayer.


In his writing, Wiesel sets this accounting in the Middle Ages – in a Ukrainian village in 1649.  The Book of Job sets this same trial many, many years before that. What are we to do when we have to navigate the bluster and difficulty of today’s world – when we are left wondering what we do when the system doesn’t work?  When we worry about God’s injustice – or don’t even consider that God is responsible for anything whatsoever, including justice?  In our times, consider that this is exactly why the Book of Job is in our Bible – and what that says about gaining a fresh perspective on difficult things.


Can we accept that God and Satan made a bet – that we are pawns in their wager?  Can this make things better for us as we withstand the sadnesses, adversities, and humiliations of our life?  The Book of Job is just 42 of the 929 chapters of the Bible, and yet it is the still small voice that penetrates past the strutting and fretting of the rest of the Bible – the flailing about and hoping that ritual, good deeds, or tikkun olamwill save us from tyranny or adversity – afraid, that all signifies nothing.


So many times in the next 25 hours, we will be calling on God’s merciful name to remind the Almighty to cancel the bet with Satan, to give us more information, or to leave us alone – as Tevye said – God, we know we are your chosen people – but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?  We can walk on the narrow bridge, knowing that each step is precious. I personally believe that God regrets having made that bet, and chooses to be with us each day to give us encouragement in our confusion – especially in our unrequited love.  As our tradition teaches, know God in all of your ways — which means that we are to be a part of both theological worlds – the ritual and the tikkun olam.  We are to do both and not give up hope – I think that Job is a prototype of a Conservative Jew – not having us abandon our traditions as we look to improve the world we live in.  We continue Job’s astonishing experiment.


We are to recover, that beyond, or even despite God — everything that we do shall be for the sake of God, for everything that God has created was created for God’s glory.  We shall be selfless with a God who does not always reciprocate in kind. As we enter into Yom Kippur, let us be undaunted – let us be courageous, and let us be willing to love without return.  We know that the system is broken and that it also has limits.  We know that the fight was fixed.  Despite all of this, we plead for our life, and we plead for sense and integrity in a world gone mad.  This is adulting in a most profound way.  As the author, Samuel Beckett, writes — I can’t go on, I’ll go on.  Regarding God, we can say it and survive:


Guilty.  It is now time for the evening prayer.


Ketivah va’Hatimah Tovah

G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

Entry filed under: Judaism, Liturgy, Torah. Tags: , , , , .

Rosh haShanah (5780) — Sweetness Yom Kippur — Yizkor (5780) — The Minister of Loneliness

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October 2019

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