"Through the narrow passage" (Sermon for 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah, 2018)
The story is told of a rabbi, a priest, and an imam who all receive a message from God. The message is that God has finally had it with all of humanity’s sins once and for all. And in six months time, God is going to punish everyone with a flood, but there will be no Noah’s Ark this time. The religious leaders go to their people to share this grim news.
The priest and imam say to their people: “We now have six months to purify ourselves before we meet our God. We have six months to pray, to beg for forgiveness, and hopefully our God will be merciful to us.”
And the rabbi goes to his people and says, "Fellow Jews: we now have 6 months to learn to breathe under water."
Why was I thinking of this old old joke throughout the summer? Because of a story in the news that you certainly saw. In a year full of so many terrible news stories, with so much sadness and heartache, there was at least one news item that everyone could celebrate - even though it was so stressful when it was going on. It took place in Northern Thailand. As you no doubt remember, there was a youth soccer team in Thailand who spent what they were hoping would be a fun day exploring some local caves. However, they got seriously lost, and then the rains came and the caves started to get filled up with water. For almost 2 weeks, there were intensive searches to find them. Many feared the worst, that they would not be found alive. But then, two expert cave divers discovered them, alive and relatively safe, but miles deep in the cave.
However, this is when the real international drama began. Because so many of the cave passageways were flooded, and efforts to drill new holes into the cave were not successful, the initial plan was that the only way for them to get out of the cave was for them to engage in some of the most challenging cave scuba diving that could be done anywhere in the world, going through some narrow passages under water that were only 15 inches wide.
And so they started the process of teaching these kids the skills of scuba diving - skills that none of them had, but skills that it was expected that they would need in order to get out of the cave alive. Then in a remarkable demonstration of international cooperation of thousands of people,
after 18 days of captivity, all the boys and their coach were successfully rescued. (As it happens, the boys did not have to put into practice any skills of swimming or diving, as it was decided that it would be safer if they would be entirely in the care of professional divers during their journey.)
There are so many implications of this incredible story that have spiritual import. The 25 year old coach, who had previously been a Buddhist monk, teaching the kids techniques of prayer and meditation so that they would consume less oxygen and have an easier time dealing with their lack of food day after day. (As someone who had engaged in a lot of fasting as a spiritual discipline, he was able to guide the kids about what fasting would feel like so they wouldn’t panic.) After being discovered but before being rescued, the coach sent a note of abject apology to the parents, acknowledging that he had made a terrible mistake in authorizing this visit to the cave. And the parents sent a gracious message back to him in the cave, to let him know that they were so relieved that he was there together with their children and that they were so thankful that he was keeping them safe. (Which truly he was, in ways that the parents would not learn until after the rescue.) And after their rescue, the boys spent several days taking temporary vows of Buddhist monkhood in memory of the Thai Navy SEAL who had died trying to rescue them, and also in tribute to the role that prayer and meditation had played in keeping them safe.
So all in all, this is a story about prayer and meditation and fasting and apology and forgiveness, and self-sacrifice and cooperation and generosity, and doing acts of kindness in memory of the deceased.
Or in other words, there is absolutely NO theme from the HH that is absent from this story!
But there is yet another reason I am telling you this story. On the cusp of this new year, I am picturing these boys’ experience after they were discovered but before they were rescued.
At that point when they learned that rescue was possible - but that it would be very difficult, requiring them and others to do things they had never done before - that their survival would involve through traveling through the narrowest and most precarious of passages. And picturing the challenges of the rescue through those narrow passages, I could not help but be reminded of the ways that Jewish tradition uses narrow passages as a metaphor.
The Hasidic master known as the Sefat Emet may have been the first to notice something about the Hebrew word for the land of Egypt, where our ancestors experience slavery, and the departure from which really marks the real birth of our people. The Hebrew word MITZRAYIM , meaning Egypt, is etymologically linked to the word MEITZARIM, which means narrow places. as the book of Psalm says מן המצר קראתי יה - Out of the narrow places I called unto you. ענני במרחביה - and God answered me in an expansive place.
In fact, our sages also understood the emergence from Egypt as analogous to birth - that מצרים also refers to the birth canal, that narrow place from which most of us emerged at the beginning of our lives.
Going through narrow passages can be an appropriate metaphor for each of us as we begin a new year. Because there is not one of us who is not facing a significant challenge in the year ahead that will involve passing through a narrow passage: whether it’s the challenge of getting through busy day after busy day of work, and care for the people around us, or whether it’s the challenge of illness or caregiving, or a family loss, or a difficult family relationship, or financial stress, or loneliness. Some of us may be focused less on our own narrow passageways, and more on the narrow passageways of groups with which we are aligned - the United States; Israel; each dealing with its own challenges of remaining strong while remaining true to its values.
For all these categories of challenge, may the new year will be a time when we can move from narrowness to breadth.
I had always associated this concept of the passage from narrowness to breadth with the holiday of Passover, when we mark leaving Mitzrayim - Egypt. But I have been surprised to learn that traveling from narrowness to breadth is also a theme that is found in the traditional literature for the holiday of Rosh HaSHanah, and especially connected to the blowing of the Shofar. Our shofar blowing service earlier today began with those same words drawn from the book of Psalms - min ha-meitzar karati yah annani ba-merchav yah. “Out of the narrow places I called to God; God answered me in a place of expanse.”
Why is this juxtaposition of narrow and wide also associated with the Shofar? IF you think about it for a moment you can probably figure it out.
Believe it or not, there’s a passage in the Shulchan Aruch - the classic code of Jewish law from nearly 500 years ago - that tells you which side of the Shofar you’re supposed to blow into.
It says: אם תקע בצד הרחב של השופר לא יצא If you blow into the wide side of the shofar - you’re doing it wrong. And you have not fulfilled your obligation. Frankly, we should have been able to figure this out, because it’s completely impossible to get any sound out of the shofar if you blow into the wrong end. In fact, of all musical instruments that one blows into - I looked this up - if there’s a narrow part and a wide part, you blow into the narrow part and the sound comes out the wide part. Without exception.
The Jewish legal commentary known as Turei Zahav, the Taz, adds that if you had not been able to figure it out by simple logic, you should have been able to figure it because blowing into the narrow end of the shofar, and having the sound emerge from the wide end, is in fulfillment of that same verse מן המצר קראתי יה, ענני במרחביה -- “Out of the narrow places I call to God; God answers me from the place of breadth.” Sound travels through the shofar from the narrow side to the broad side is because that is the way our prayers should travel. They begin in a narrow place and gradually travel to a place of breadth.
This is also the usual trajectory of the focus of our concern -- from narrowness to width. When we are very young children, we focus only on our individual selves. As we grow, we make more and more room in our lives for family members, friends, others with whom we share the world.
Continuing to grow is often accompanied by a widening of our circles of concern as we move throughout our lives from narrowness to width. And often, societies are much the same way - starting out with a narrow focus on people who resemble us - and gradually growing to have a wider and wider outlook until we realize that we understand our interconnectedness with the entire world.
So is this also true about Judaism? Does Judaism also demonstrate a movement from a concern for members of its own society, to a broader concern for all of humankind?
You may know that there is a debate raging right now about to what extent Judaism follows this trajectory from particularism to universalism, from a narrow focus on the Jewish community to a wider focus on all of humanity. A book was published this summer to some fanfare, that suggested that at its core, Judaism is really NOT interested in promoting justice in the world at large, and that Jewish communities are misrepresenting Judaism when they claim that Judaism encourages doing things like volunteering at the homeless shelter or helping non-Jewish refugees. This line of argumentation says: actual, real, authentic Judaism is primarily interested in the performance of the mitzvot, and ensuring the welfare of the Jewish community in Israel and around the world, and actual, real, authentic Judaism is NOT particularly interested in repairing the world, and certainly not interested in the ideal of “social justice” as it is usually expressed today in Jewish communities. (Admittedly I am oversimplifying the perspective of this book - but not more egregiously than the book oversimplifies my perspective.)
You might have some guesses about what I think about this argument. First of all, anyone who starts talking about what ‘real Judaism says’ is just not speaking with historical sophistication. Jewish tradition encompasses the Torah, the prophets, ancient and medieval Jewish literature including the vast works of the Talmud and other works of Jewish law, plus works of Jewish theology and philosophy and homiletics and poetry and more, as well as the entire Jewish historical experience. The literature is so vast that anyone seeking to say anything at all about “real Judaism” is, to some extent, picking and choosing - whether they are from the political left or the political right. I certainly don’t think that Judaism consistently favors one political perspective over another. But it is simply false to claim that Judaism lacks a universalistic vision and that the universalistic read of Jewish tradition is not a valid read. The single commandment repeated most frequently in the torah is אהבת הגר - love and protect the stranger in one’s midst. The ancient Israelite prophets consistently spoke about their concern for the welfare of all human beings and all nations.
And even today there’s a consensus across the Jewish spectrum that part of what we mean by ‘Jewish values’ is kindness and compassion to all people. Just one example from this year: In recent memory there have been so few causes about which the entire American Jewish community has been united -- but earlier this summer, Jewish organizations from Reform to Conservative to modern Orthodox to to centrist Orthodox and even to the Agudath Israel - the most important Haredi (ultra-orthodox) rabbinic organization all issued statements condemning the American policy of family separation at the border as being contrary to Jewish values. That would not have happened if “real” Judaism was not interested in the promoting compassion in the world at large.
And even the people who are skeptical about whether traditional Jewish sources really have a universalistic outlook Are often convinced by the experience of Jewish history. One important lesson from some of the bleakest periods in Jewish history is that a world where more people are looking out for the welfare of people from ethnic and religious groups other than their own
Is a world that is safer for Jews and safer for everyone.
At the same time, there is a consensus that part of what we mean by ‘Jewish values’ is that there should be a Jewish people that should continue to exist in freedom and safety. Figuring out exactly how to balance the concern for the Jewish people with the concern for the rest of the world is not easy or straightforward, and it shouldn’t surprise us that reasonable people disagree about where to draw the line and how to balance these imperatives. I am fond of Rabbi David Wolpe’s formulation: “There is no such thing as a person in general. Each individual grows up with a certain family, land, heritage, language and culture. To deny it is to cast off a piece of oneself. Jewish is not opposed to being human; rather it is an ancient and beautiful way to be human.In every age there are those who dream of homogenizing the world. It is an ignoble dream. When we honor difference we honor the One who created this diverse, multicolored pageant of a world.”
And thousands of years ago, it was Hillel who enunciated much the same idea, requiring us to come to the most appropriate balance between the needs of the self and one’s own group, and the needs of others. Im Ein Ani li, mi li? If I am not willing to take a stand for myself, who will be for me? u-chshe-ani le-atzmi -mah ani? But if I am ONLY for myself, what am I? ve-im lo akhshav - eimatai? And if not now, when?
The Shofar needs both sides, the wide and the narrow.. WIthout the wide side, the sound of the shofar would not be amplified. But what creates the sound of the shofar in the first place is the thrusting of air through a narrow passage. Without the narrow side of the shofar, there wouldn’t be any sound to BE amplified. And similarly Judaism needs both sides of the Shofar. Without the narrow focus on Jewish distinctiveness, there would be no Jewish message to be broadcast to the world. Just as each of us needs to develop a sense of self before we can go on to reach out to others.
So let me tell you what keeps me up at night. (in addition to the future of American democracy, the future of the planet… and … and … and…. ) When I look at the Jewish community, I wonder: who in the future will be prioritizing both sides of the Shofar? I see a growing and increasingly assertive traditional side of the Jewish spectrum who are primarily interested in the needs of the Jewish community and less likely to expend energy at implementing Jewish values in the world as a whole. And I see that people in the segment of the Jewish community that does have a universalistic vision are less likely to be making the kind of intensive Jewish choices, in terms of Jewish education and communal involvement, that are most likely to lead to the strengthening and perpetuation of this segment of the community. And if this means that the Judaism of the future will be less likely to prioritize the universalistic vision -- I think this is sad and concerning.
iI find that this theme comes up in many conversations I have in this community -- like when people ask me “Why should my child learn Hebrew?” Or “Why are there so many hours of Learning Center?” Part of my answer is that here at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, we expend a lot of energy demonstrating that we have to value both sides of the shofar. This is especially demonstrated in our educational programs for kids. We expend a lot of energy in helping kids to develop a strong Jewish identity and to acquire the distinctive tools to live a Jewish life and bring it to the next generation. And we also communicate that Judaism has plenty to say about our society and our world as a whole and encourages us to put Jewish values in action in the world. It is imperative that we not try to fulfill one of these goals without the other.
When I think about this year in the United States and in Israel, in some ways I see some disturbing movement from breadth back to narrowness-- as I see the growth of groups that appear to be primarily interested simply in the needs of people who resemble themselves - and this seems like a regression in the overall movement from narrowness to breadth. But I also note that in times to come, people will think of the ways that our society has moved from narrowness to during the Jewish year 5778 - And I have no doubt that people will consider the broadening of our society’s perspective with regard to gender.
I invite you to think back to last Rosh HaSHanah, which wasn’t that long ago - and to realize that you can probably name at least 10 powerful and famous men who, last year at this time, were still using their positions of power to harass women and to shield themselves from all consequences for doing so. Last year at this time, it was simply an assumption that powerful men - at the tops of their fields in movie production, politics, tv news, entertainment, journalism, academia, writing, comedy, architecture, and other fields - could wield power over women and behave with callous disregard for the feelings of the women in their midst - and that because of their power they could essentially act this way with impunity.
It is astounding to think of the changes in our society truly just during the last year. It is shameful to think that our society put up with this - not just last century, but one year ago. And it’s a problem that resulted in part from narrowness - In that, as a society, we have continued to have a narrow and constricted notion of who gets to play a real leadership role. And this led us to tolerate the intolerable for far too long.
This is not to say that this problem has been solved - far from it. (And of course not all victims have been women and not all perpetrators have been men. ) But it highlights one among many ways that a narrow understanding of the world is hopefully - gradually giving way to a wider understanding.
My friend and colleague Rabbi Mary Zamore is the director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, which advocates on behalf of women in the rabbinate. I am delighted that she and her husband Terje are here davening with us today as they often have on Rosh HaShanah. Rabbi Zamore recently wrote a reading for Yom Kippur inspired by the strides that have been made to combat sexual harassment in our world and in the Jewish community - but at our shame at how long it has taken and how far we have yet to go: I would like to read it now, so that these words can reverberate in our souls until Yom Kippur. It’s called “A #MeToo/#GamAni Confession”.
Al cheit shechatanu
For the sin we have committed before You . . .
- by not believing the victims
- by being silent while women were bullied, harassed or undermined
- by claiming to be ready to listen when we were not
- by claiming equality exists for all
- by not supporting victims
- by not providing sexual harassment prevention training
- by accepting the sexist comments made every day
- by blaming the victims
- by claiming our workplaces, synagogues, and organizations were safe
- by contributing to an environment that allowed harassment
- by explaining away harassment
- by believing the victims but not acting to make change
- by worrying about our community’s reputation instead of the victims’ needs
- by not reflecting on the past and present behavior within our community
- by denying that gender harassment has many faces
- by allowing victims to suffer retribution
- by not noticing when women simply walked away from our community or institution
- by making the reporting of harassment difficult and hard to engage
- by promising change and not fulfilling this promise
Al cheit shechatanu
For the sin we have committed before You, we ask forgiveness.
Every new year involves navigating difficult narrow passages - sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with the help and support of others - and hopefully moving from narrowness to breadth. We pray that this new year 5779 will be a year when each of us will be able to praise God with the words from the Psalms: “ מן המצר קראתי יה From the narrow places I called out to God; ענני במרחביה God answered me with the freedom that comes from a place of expanse.”