Editor’s Note: Rabbi Greenstein originally gave this sermon on Yom Kippur 5779 (Sept 2018).
“Why is this day different from all other holidays of the whole year?” For, on all these other occasions, including celebrations of the New Moon, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, we sing psalms of joy and praise, called Hallel.
But we don’t sing the Hallel on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. Why not? The Talmud presents this question in dramatic form. The sages imagine the angels of heaven using this omission of ours as a chance to criticize the people of Israel. The Talmud relates:
“The angels inquired of God, ‘Master of the Universe, why does Israel fail to sing the Hallel songs of praise before You during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?’
And God replied, ‘When the Ruler sits on the throne of judgment before the books of life and death, could Israel utter such songs?’” (BTRosh Hashanah 32b)
The story has an ironic quality to it. Accusing angels take the opportunity presented to them by these Days of Judgment to pile on another indictment against us. And God’s defense of Israel is to remind the angels that, precisely because these are solemn days of judgment, and the people of Israel are taking these days so seriously, so much to heart, they are incapable of losing themselves in celebratory songs. We don’t fiddle while Rome is burning.
Now, of course, we sing plenty on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. And if some of our songs are plaintive, many are rousing and happy. Still, Hallel is different. The Hallel praises God for all the good that God has done for us. We sing out of a feeling of gratitude and satisfaction, out of a feeling of accomplishment and completion. God has taken us out of Egypt. God has continuously sheltered us. God has given us the Torah. God has assured us that the moon will continue to spin in its amazing cycle. All these gifts are irrevocable and final. Halleluyah – Praise God!
But Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur are about dealing with unfinished business. This is not the time for feeling satisfaction for having accomplished our goals. We are called to challenge ourselves, to ask ourselves what we have not accomplished. These are days of judgment.. They seek to arouse in us a sense of questioning, of soul-searching. Hallel will have to wait a few days – until Sukkot, when we will sing it full out, for 9 days straight.
Yet, even if, for now, we are not to sing out the Hallel songs, I still think that those unsung prayers can help us in this process of self-examination and judgment. We can profit from considering some of the words contained in the Hallel prayer that we do not recite.
But first, let’s recall a different prayer, a beautiful and haunting prayer that was composed for these days of judgment. It makes the very point that – yes, God has given us so much, and, of course we should thank God profusely, every day. But these days are reserved for something else, for asking ourselves how we have made use of God’s gifts, and, God forbid, whether we have wasted them.
That prayer is called T’fillah Zakkah – A Pure Prayer. (You can revisit the prayer, on page 203 of our mahzor.) We heard it read last night:
“Master of the Universe! You have created me with ears; You have created me with tongue and mouth; You have created me with hands; You have created me with legs; You have created me with sex organs.
What have I done with these great gifts that you have given to me?”
This prayer does not look at gifts such as wealth, status, or even family, or such abstractions as intelligence and imagination and soul. It focuses on our bodies, our physical organs and senses. What are these limbs for? God gave us this amazing set of tools. With these tools we can take in the world and with these tools we can go out and change the world. The holiness in this world, the love, the joy, the peace and justice in this world – they are made or destroyed, they all depend on our acting through our flesh and blood.
And here is where I recall the words of our Hallel prayers, words composed thousands of years before T’fillah Zakkah, and that silently hover over the words of the later prayer. Psalm 115 (expanding on another psalm – Ps. 135) contrasts God Almighty with the false idols of the world:
“Their pathetic idols are of silver and gold, the work of human hands.
A mouth they have, but they do not speak;
Eyes they have, without seeing;
Ears they have, but they hear not;
A nose they have, but they cannot smell;
Their hands – without being able to feel;
Their feet – and they cannot walk;
They make no sound from their throats”
The psalmist looks over an impressive idol. The limbs are beautifully fashioned, but they can do nothing. The psalmist is not fooled by the glittering form. It is hollow – a mute, deaf, insensible and immobile imitation of a person.
And then the psalmist adds one more phrase that should give us pause:
“And just like them shall be all those who trust in them.”
Those people who put their trust in such idols will, themselves, become empty men and women – mute, deaf, insensible and immobile imitations of what a person can and should be.
We have eyes – can we see the suffering that is right in front of us?
We have ears – can we hear the voices of anguish all around us?
We have mouths – do we speak out against injustice and cruelty committed in our name?
We have throats – how do we swallow the daily betrayals of what is good and right?
What is the source of the inability to feel that something is awfully wrong with how our society functions?
More than one person – scholars and plain folk, alike – have wondered about the eerie echoes of pre-war Germany sounding in our own day. They have been chilled and frightened and they have raised their voices to rouse us from our idolatrous passivity.
Their efforts have been met by some people with outrage. “This is not Weimar Germany!” we are scolded. How can we compare our situation today with Weimar Germany? Look at what eventually happened there! The Shoah – the Holocaust – was a unique evil! How dare anyone desecrate the memory of the unique suffering of our people.
I have no patience for such outrage. Whatever limited capacity for outrage a person has, should be judiciously applied –
Choose! – to be outraged by what looks to you like an unfair comparison, or to be outraged by the destruction of innocent lives of children torn from their parents’ arms.
Choose – to be outraged by your perception of insensitivity to a past evil, or to be outraged by the ongoing promotion of and then the brazen denial of present suffering.
What if Germany of 1933 did not devolve into Germany of 1938 or 1943? What if it remained with the rhetoric, the laws and the policies established in 1933, and did not go further? Would opposition to the Nazis of 1933 only be justified by what they perpetrated later? Or would it already have been sufficient to demand that decent people stand against them, then and there? No German knew what was to come. It was inconceivable. But each person was challenged to judge for themselves whether the corruption of society at that point was acceptable.
The Harvard legal scholar, Cass Sunstein, has edited a book called, Can it Happen Here? Recently he has published an article titled, “It Can Happen Here.” In that essay he mentions a memoir written in 1933, by a young German – non-Jewish – law student named Sebastian Haffner. The memoir was published only after the author’s death in 2000, by his son. Haffner writes in real time about the unfolding situation in 1933 and how he and his friends reacted to it. He wrote:
“As for the Nazis, my nose left me with no doubts. It was just tiresome to talk about which of their alleged goals and intentions were still acceptable or even ‘historically justified’ when all of it stank. How it stank! That the Nazis were enemies, my enemies and the enemies of all I held dear, was crystal clear to me from the outset.” (NYRB, Cass Sunstein, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/06/28/hitlers-rise-it-can-happen-here/)
“My nose left me with no doubts.”
But all around him were intelligent, educated and thoughtful people who worked overtime to create doubts, to make excuses for the indecencies that were being perpetrated under their very noses – in the name of achieving greatness, in the name of national honor and pride, in the name of safety and state.
They couldn’t smell anything. They couldn’t see a thing.
What makes it possible for decent people to ignore injustice, excuse lies, defend corruption, abet iniquity? “They have noses, but they cannot smell. They have eyes but they cannot see. They have hands, but they do nothing.” Why? Because they put their trust in idols.
What’s so bad about idols? Why does the Torah care so much about statues and icons? And aren’t idols a harmless anachronism, anyway? How many times have I heard someone smugly point out that God must be really insecure if God gets upset over worshiping tchotchkes. We enjoy cutting God down to size, the way a woodworker cuts a piece of wood down to size to make an idol.
But idolatry is not some ancient superstition that we have happily outgrown. And the Torah is not opposed to idolatry because God is jealous, or because idolatry is bad theology, a mistaken set of propositions that have been refuted. The Torah regards its conflict with idolatry as a fight between life and death.
The Torah opposes idolatry because the Torah knows that the threat of idolatry is constant. It is co-existent with being human because idolatry is the most common expression of some of our deepest tendencies as human beings. Idolatry takes our own human tendencies and turns them against ourselves. Idols are to be smashed not because they are lifeless pieces of wood or stone, but because they turn us into lifeless beings, with eyes that cannot see, noses that cannot smell, hands incapable of touch.
We want the world to be understandable. But, when that desire becomes idolatrous, then, in our quest to bring order into the world, we impose an order that puts out the light instead of spreading it. We suppress questions and oppress those who raise questions. In our idolatrous desire for understanding without questions, we oppose science and every discipline that can help us learn something. Because we turn our desire for knowledge into an idol, we create a dead knowledge instead of a knowledge that can live and grow. We unquestioningly demand the familiar and dread the unknown.
This applies to our attitudes toward inquiry, to facts, to ideals and to people. Democracy, for example – is predicated on openness to the unknown; it is based on trusting in human dignity. Therefore Democracy entails expanding the opportunities for people to vote, not in curtailing them. Democracy is not about counting votes, but about getting people to vote. It is about encouraging everyone to have their say because everyone has that right. No majority can deprive others of their human rights. What kind of philosophy grants full human rights to unborn fetuses and corporations, but to no one in the middle? To reduce democracy to a game of power politics is to turn the process of democracy into a truncated idol, a blunt instrument of death.
When idolatry takes hold of our desire to know, it petrifies it. It insists on the known and is furious with anything that complicates its frozen knowledge. It fears and abhors the unknown.
But God is unknown. God is not understandable. “Mi khamokha ba-elim Ha-Shem … nor`a t’hillot, `oseh feleh – Who is like You, God, awesome in praises, making wonders, `oseh feleh, constantly making what we cannot know, but only wonder about. Wonder is open-ended. Wonder is expansive. Wonder welcomes that which is strange.
We want to know what the future has in store; we want to have some control over our fate. But when idolatry takes over that desire it shrivels our vision of the future into a exclusive program that cuts off all possibility.
But the God Who makes the unknown calls Abraham and beckons – “Get out of your land and familiar home and go to a place – that I will show you later, but I will not tell you where it is right now.” Abraham is called the Hebrew – ha`ivri – “the border crosser.” Abraham was told to wander until his descendants would be able to settle down and create a society where every stranger and every wanderer who crossed into our borders would feel safe.
And when the people of Israel are on the banks of the Jordan, Moses tells them that they will have a central place of holiness wherein they will be able to meet God. But that place will be chosen by God later. We enter the land without a clue about where it will be.
We want the world to be defined and formed, like we are. When idolatry infects that desire we hoard it all for ourselves and we deny it to anyone else. We cannot then abide those who have a different form or who wish to give the world a form different from the one we have established.
But God has no one shape or form or definition. “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh – I shall be whatever I shall become – that is My Name,” says God, just at the moment when God establishes the people of Israel by giving them the gift of freedom.
When we make our deep, human impulses – the desire for stability, for definitive shape, for certainty – into idols, we give those desires absolute standing and urgency, and then we must grasp at concepts, philosophies, political systems and leaders who promise to fulfill those needs. But their promises are empty. Worse than empty, they are poisonous. They have eyes that cannot see and ears that cannot hear, and they turn us into the same empty creatures.
It is precisely because we have a body, that the God we worship cannot possibly have a body. It is precisely in order that we resist the deadly lure of idolatry, so that we will be able to use our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our noses to smell, that we must put our trust in an unknown, formless, wondrous God who demands that we use our eyes, our ears, our hands and legs and our noses – to raise up the poor and unfortunate, to shelter those in danger, to sense when power is being used unjustly, to protect this one earth put into our care.
We live at a moment when these obligations are being betrayed constantly. The stench of moral rot infecting the highest levels of our government, seeping into our justice system and selfishly pursued in our corporate sector pollutes the air. Do you have a nose to smell it?
The books of life and death are open. May we place our faith in the God Who gave us noses and ears and eyes and hands and feet. So that we might use them – for life and for blessing.
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Latest posts by Rabbi David Greenstein (see all)
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