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Yom Kippur - 2012/5773

09/10/2012 09:39:59 PM


Rabbi Howard Jaffe

“The Future Is Not What It Used to Be – and Neither Is the past”

Using the best technological tools available today, in other words, Google, as far as I can tell, it was the French poet and philosopher, Paul Valéry who is credited with saying: "The future is not what it used to be."  In context, he was referring to a rapidly changing world, the one in which he lived from the late nineteenth through the middle of the twentieth centuries, but I would submit that one could make a very good case that these words could have been written, or at least uttered, at whatever point in time that human beings became aware of such a thing as history.  Once we were given the simultaneously liberating and burdensome awareness that there is such a thing as a future, that we are, as God's partners, constantly creating the world, and most of all, constantly creating and perhaps re-creating ourselves, we would have to acknowledge, like it or not, that the future is not what it used to be.  Liberating, because it means that the world can be different than it appears it will be at this moment, and burdensome, because, as Rabbi Perlman so eloquently reminded us last night, the future is created by us, and so, like it or not, it is our responsibility.  In fact, this morning, I would like to pick up some of the themes that Rabbi Perlman brought to us last night.

The corollary to that statement, that "the future is not what it used to be," is, of course, that "the past is not what it used to be."  And I must report that in spite of living in the advanced technological age which we find ourselves, despite spending far too much time attempting to track down the origin of that particular quote, even with the assistance of Google, I was unable to identify one individual to whom that particular quote could be attributed.  Truth be told, and if there is ever a day for truth, it is today, I am actually pleased that I was unable to find a specific source for that quote, because I can imagine some smart aleck having tossed it off as a satiric, obnoxious wisecrack, when in fact, those two quotes taken together form one of the most profoundly significant lessons of this holiest day of the year.

The future is not what it used to be, and neither is the past.  We are creating and defining both.  It depends, ultimately, on what we believe, about God about ourselves.

The Torah and the Hebrew Bible brought the monotheistic revolution that changed the world, but differently than most of us think.  Yehezkel Kaufman, arguably the greatest biblical scholar of the twentieth century, argued that this revolution was not a mathematical one.  The real revolution was in the idea not that God is one, but that God is separate from nature, unlike the gods of other religions of the ancient near East.  Because Biblical monotheism saw God as apart from and in fact in control of nature, human beings were seen, for the first time, as subject to God's control, as well.  Until that time, it was believed that gods were part of nature, and if one knew just the right incantations, or other pockets of magic, one could manipulate the gods, and so the world.  The God of the Torah, the God of the Jews, was beyond all of that, and because human beings were subject to that God's will, they needed to be on God's good side.  For Jews of the ancient world, that meant offering animal and other agricultural sacrifices.  By the time the Temple was destroyed in the year 70, the rabbis had already begun to emerge, teaching that animal and similar sacrifices had been supplanted by Tefilah, Tzedakah, and Teshuvah -- prayer, proper donations and active righteousness,  and most of all, return to God.  Those three modalities, the rabbis taught, are what kept us on God's good side, what changed God's mind when we believed it needed changing.  That theology worked for a long time, all the way through the pre-modern world. 

For Jews of the modern world, it no longer does, and so, we are, potentially, at a crisis point in Jewish history.  I wonder how many of us believe that we can really change God's mind, and so change the world, by prayer.  A few months ago, when the pastor of a local  Boston area church was kidnapped in Egypt, the Globe reported that 70 of his congregants gathered to pray for his safe return.  A few days later, he was released, and several members of his congregation jubilantly declared that there was never any question as to what the outcome would be, with all those people praying as they were.  I have to admit that I am somewhat envious of their faith in prayer, and their ability to believe what our ancestors believed, that human beings can, indeed, change God's mind, as it were, and so, change the world.  I cannot.  I doubt that there are many of us here today who can.  And frankly, I shudder to think what the consequences would be if we could.  Whose prayer would God deem worthy when there are competing interests?  When facing life's greatest challenges, almost all of us have moments where we find ourselves spontaneously praying to God, somehow hoping that by doing so, the results we want will come to be, but how many of us really live that way, how many of us, outside of a moment of crisis, really believe that our prayers will lead to God changing the world because we asked?

What, then, does it mean to pray in this modern age?

Rabbi Art Green, one of the most creative Jewish thinkers of our time, wrote that "Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, prayer has taken the place of sacrifice, but that does not imply that sacrifice was abolished when the sacrificial rite went out of existence. Prayer is not a substitute for sacrifice. Prayer is sacrifice. What has changed is the substance of sacrifice: the self takes the place of the thing. The spirit is the same... The word is but an altar. We do not sacrifice. We are the sacrifice. Prayer is a hazard, a venture of peril. Every person who prays is a kohen (a priest) at the greatest of all temples. The whole universe is the Temple."  Prayer is only a hazard, of course, because of what it ultimately demands of us, to live differently than we did before we prayed.  The rabbis teach that prayer which is offered without substance, prayer which is rote, prayer in which we go through the motions just get it done is like an unworthy sacrificial offering.  It ultimately does nothing.

We already know that.  We know that prayer which does not challenge us, does not inspire us, does not lead us to a new place and an effort at a new way of being is useless at best, fraudulent at worse.  So why pray?  Or for that matter, why give tzedakah, if we do not believe that it will propitiate God, and make things go our way, or at least push them in that direction?  Why do teshuvah, work hard at returning to who we understand God wants us to be, if it is not going to change God's mind, anyway?

Well, actually, that last one may resonate the most.  As Judaism as we know it was established by the early rabbis, it was actually Teshuvah, return, that they emphasized even more than Tefilah or Tzedakah.  Both of those were important, and still are, but only to the extent that they helped us to do Teshuvah, helped us return to God, helped us return to our most authentic selves. 

A few minutes ago, as the Kolin Torah scroll was carried through the congregation, we sang , over and over again,  "Ani maamin be'emunah shleymah b'viat ha-mashaich" - " I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah." V'af al pi she-yit-mah-mayah, im kol zeh ani maamin" -- "and even if he tarries, I still believe."  We sang it, over and over again.  But I ask you: do you believe it?  I am not sure that I do.  But, when that scroll is carried through our congregation, I cry when I hear those words, because I know that they were the words that were on the lips of so many of the 6 million even as they marched to their deaths, even as they knew that their prayers had not changed God's mind.  They said those words because they hoped to believe them, chose to put their faith in them, in the absence of any evidence.  Even though the words translated as "I believe in," what they were saying was I believe that my death is not meaningless, and even if I cannot know that my faith is properly placed, it is my faith, nonetheless.

I would submit that the reason we say those words is not because we believe that we can change God's mind any more than any other prayer can do so, but by coming here, by embracing everything this day brings to us, we affirm that we can do Teshuvah, we can change, we can become who we truly want to be.  The primary purpose of prayer, of our fasting, of all that we do from Rosh Hashanah through today is to help us bring about Teshuvah - the radical notion that, with God's help, we are capable of returning to our most authentic selves, that we, each of us, are the only thing that stands in our own way.  We come here in the hope that by spending the time that we do, in the presence of others engaged in the exact same effort, we will come away with greater resolve and so, likely, greater success than if we did not come.  We need each other, we need to stand with others who are also prepared to declare that they are not perfect, that they, too, want to grow, and become more.

Did you ever notice that the traditional greeting for two Jews who run into one another, especially Ashkenazic  Jews, is an insult?  The common practice is for one to say" Shalom Aleichem!"  "Shalom to you!"  And the response is simply to invert those words: "Aleichem Shalom!" To you, Shalom!"  When you consider that the word Shalom, more than hello, goodbye, or peace, the word Shalom means wholeness, when someone greets you with the words "Shalom Aleichem!",  that person is saying that you are incomplete and imperfect.  Their very greeting is intended to convey the fact that you are a work in progress, even as they wish you success in that endeavor.

And you know what?  It is entirely true.

We are all works in progress.  That is exactly why we are here today.  Because even if we are not certain that we can change God's mind, we know that we can change ourselves, but if we look into Jewish tradition even more deeply, we can discover an even more radical notion of what Teshuvah really means.  The seeds of that idea are already found in the book of Ezekiel, in what are perhaps his most famous words "cast away all the transgressions by which you have offended, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, that you may not die, our house of Israel."  He is teaching us something extraordinary here: With a new heart and a new spirit, we are new people, and cannot, in turn, be judged according to who we were before.

Let me ask you: are you the same person that you were five years ago?  10 years ago?  20 years ago?  I know that I am not.  This past June, I attended my fortieth high school reunion.  If you have never been to one, let me tell you that I cannot imagine a more dramatic means of realizing how different you are today than you once were, and I am not simply referring to the fact that yes, I had hair then.  Being in the presence of people I have not seen in 40 years helped me realize just how different a person I am today than I was back then, and reminds me how different I hope to be next year and five years and 10 years down the line.  And let me tell you that I take great comfort in the notion that Ezekiel teaches, and that has become, effectively, central to Jewish sensibilities: if we are judged by God, we are judged by who we are, not who we were.

Do you realize that is the reason that we start Yom Kippur by reciting the words of Kol Nidre?  We declare at the outset of this day that we are not the same person we were last year, and that we are not going to be the same person next year that we are today.  We do not want to be bound to the promises and the ideas the commitments that we made a year ago, and certainly, a lot longer ago.  We know that we can change for the better, and we start Yom Kippur by declaring that we can do so.

The difference between Teshuvah and mere change, of course, has to do with the quality of change that we make.  Have our experiences made us better people?  Have our disappointments challenged us to become more resolute and more compassionate, or have they made us more bitter and angry?  Have the blessings we have known inspired us to share our bounty with others, or have we simply taken pleasure in them?  Are we really better people, or just older?

Let me share an extreme example of becoming someone else, and being judged accordingly.  Do you remember the movie, Sommersby, with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster?  "Jack" Sommersby left his farm to fight in the Civil War but has not returned home afterward, and is presumed dead. Despite the hardship of working their farm without him, his apparent widow Laurel is quite content in his absence, as Jack was an unpleasant and abusive husband.  She even makes remarriage plans with one of her neighbors who despite his own hardships has been helping her and her young son with the farmwork. One day, Jack shows up, seemingly with a complete change of heart. He is now kind, loving, and attentive in ways he never was.  Jack and Laurel rekindle their intimacy and Laurel soon becomes pregnant.  Suspicion abounds about how this man could have changed so much, and in one memorable scene, he goes to the town shoemaker, who finds that his foot is two sizes smaller than the last which had been made for Sommersby before the war.

He soldiers on, and becomes something of a hero to the entire community, selling part of his own farm to raise the money to buy seeds to raise tobacco, which those who bought pieces of his farm will work.  He is totally unlike the man who went off to war.  He is even kind and fair to former slaves, completely out of character with the man everyone knew.

Shortly after the baptism of their newborn daughter, US marshals appear in town to arrest Jack Sommersby on a murder charge, which carries the death penalty if convicted.  As the trial continues, Jack's wife attempts to save her husband by focusing on the question of his identity, whether he really is Jack Sommersby, or look-alike that met the real Jack Sommersby while in prison for deserting the Confederate Army.  Their lawyer agrees to argue that the man is an imposter, not the husband who left to fight in the war.  This would save him from hanging for murder, though he would still be imprisoned for several years for fraud and desertion.  The plot gets somewhat more complicated, as more of the previous behavior of the man we all now realize is an imposter comes to light, but reaches its climax as the judge calls the man himself to the bench to ask whether he wishes to be tried as Jack Sommersby, even if it will mean death by hanging.   He calmly states that he wants to be tried as Jack Sommersby, even though by now, it is evident to all eyes that he is someone else altogether.  He confesses that he shared a cell for four years with another man who looked so much like him that they could have been brothers, and through the process, got to know everything about each other.  It turned out that upon his release, Jack Sommersby killed another man, then died from a wound he received during the fight.  It turns out that the imposter, Horace Townsend, buried Jack, which we had seen but could not understand, in the opening scene of the film.  Laurel Sommersby then says to her imposter husband, "you mean you buried Jack." He answered, "I buried Horace." 

Deciding we are going to be someone new does not get any more extreme than that.  And amazingly enough, that movie is based on a similar, real-life incident that took place in France in the sixteenth century. 

The truth is not only stranger than fiction sometimes, but can give us useful standards by which to judge our own lives.   There is not a single person in this room who needs to go to that extreme, to bury the person they were in order to be someone new.  All any of us needs is the will to change in a positive direction.  As Rabbi Perlman reminded us last night, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can accomplish the kind of change we need to make in one fell swoop.  That is not to say that it is impossible, but highly unlikely, and even if it does occur, is probably not what it appears.  Consider the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:

Even though it may not immediately be carried out, the decision is in itself an essential step.  

As long as it is not mere talk or self-deception (one can deceive oneself as readily as one can others), every positive decision, however small, is important.

Indeed, in some cases a person's great turn may appear to be made suddenly, at a sharp angle and at high speed.

But usually such a turn is preceded by many less dramatic, less mature steps, small decisions that do not bear fruit, wishes never carried out.

When the time comes, all these small moves coalesce into a single movement.

And remember what the Kotzker Rebbe taught his disciples about teshuvah: he asked them, "What is the distance between East and West?"  One said, “A million miles."  Another said, "Infinity."  With a smile, the rebbe replied in Yiddish, "ein klein drei" -- one small turn.

No , the future is not what it used to be, and neither is the past.  Thank God.  For as long as we can make that one small turn, they need never be.

Hashiveinu Adonai v'nashuva, chadesh yameinu k'kedem.... Turn us, oh God, and we shall return.  Renew our days, as of old.

And if you are so inclined, I invite you to say,


Sat, December 4 2021 30 Kislev 5782