Saturday, October 4, 2014

WHY (are we here)? - Sermon for Kol Nidrei/Yom Kippur Evening - October 3, 2014

 "For 2 years, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel debated whether or not God should have created humankind. Shammai's school said it would have been better if people had not been created; Hillel's school held that it was good that humanity had been created.   
Finally, they voted. The majority decided that Shammais school was right:  it would have been better if humanity had not been created. But, they said, since humankind was created, each person must examine his or her own past deeds and act carefully in the future." (Talmud, Masekhet Eruvin 13b).
    This is one of the most fascinating discussions in all of Jewish tradition. At first, this debate sounds like a harsh judgment of our place the world.  We are here, but it would be better if we weren't here.   I am sure that many of you have read books or seen portrayals of a future in which there was no more electricity, no more humanity, or, perhaps, just a few people remaining after a major worldwide cataclysm. The point of such stories is to demonstrate human beings at their worst – playing a role in their own destruction – and their best – starting over and building society anew.  
   So why would the rabbinic sages of our tradition have concluded that it would have been better if humanity hadn't been created?   Perhaps because they witnessed, even in their time, war, cruelty, oppression, bullying, physical and emotional abuse, hatred, discrimination, selfishness, greed, and people asserting power over others without regard for the feelings of their victims. The rabbis didn't say that, because of all of those failings, we should be destroyed.   They said this:  "It would have been better if we hadn't been created, but since we are here, we should be very careful with what we do."  They knew that the consequences of giving in to what they called the yetzer hara - the evil impulse - could be dire and destructive.  They recognized that it's difficult for some people to follow the yetzer tov, our good inclination, especially when it might mean that such a path would lead to less power, wealth and influence.  It seems that our sages rejected “instant gratification” in favor of  the long-term benefits of practicing mitzvot,  the commandments of our tradition.  YMASHMEISH B'MA-ASAV – promising to carefully examine our actions – assures that we will always consciously try to do our best.   The rabbis may have been sending us a warning all these generations later to look with concern and skepticism at those who see themselves as holier, superior and more valuable than others, dehumanizing people whom they consider different from them.  Perhaps the rabbis were insisting that we stand up to inhumanity whenever we see it.  Their debate was also a strong suggestion that we work for personal and communal change when we stray from a path of respect and goodness.  That discussion about our creation was like a note inscribed in large red letters on the ongoing intergenerational report card of humanity that read, "NI - Needs improvement."   What the rabbis hoped, I believe, was that we would realize that reaching our potential requires us to live with honesty, integrity, and compassion, loving ourselves, all people and all of creation. 
     We know that we don’t often get to that place as a human family and as individuals. Ernest Hemingway once said, “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."  The High Holy Days provide us with a roadmap to wholeness and holiness that first requires an admission from us.  Our prayers on Rosh Hashanah and, especially, on Yom Kippur, lead us to declare, over and over again, that we aren't perfect.   We make mistakes.  We are broken, but we have the capacity to heal ourselves and to repair and sustain our relationships, and that once we have brought resolution and restoration to those human ties, we will be stronger.    We simply have to be willing to take the necessary steps towards making a change, asking for and granting forgiveness, and charting for ourselves a new direction and mission.
     The rabbis asked, “Should we be here?”  They said no, but we can’t change that, so let’s make the best of it.  As I considered their discourse of so long ago, I found myself asking a related question: "Why are we here?" What has led us to where we are, and what values and purposes will lead us to our next destination?  Some of us may be taking a look back at our lives tonight with a feeling of total satisfaction.  Others may harbor regrets and engage in ongoing self-criticism for not taking the fork in the road that we just know would have yielded a better outcome, when that actually may not be the case.  Some people may find themselves asking the question, "Why am I here, in a place where I didn't plan or expect or want to be?"   When Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote his best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he suggested that we reframe the question, "Why did this happen to me?"  He encouraged us to ask, instead, "Now that this has happened to me, what can I do to make myself whole again?"    I believe that the rabbis in the Talmud were redefining the issue of the appropriateness of our existence in the same way.   They didn't say, "It would have been better if we weren't here on earth, so let's stop living."   They were teaching us, "Our reality is that we are here, now, in this place.  What is it that we can do to give our existence the deepest possible meaning and to generate the most positive impact on ourselves, on our fellow human beings and on the world?" 
   Recently,  singer/songwriter Alicia Keys wrestled with this very question of “why are we here?”  Her answer is embodied in her new song, "We are here." She recently explained how she came to write a song asserting a productive purpose for our existence:   “The day I wrote this song, I was sitting in a circle of people of all ages and we were asked, ‘Why are you here?’  Why am I here?? This really hit me on a deep level. I realized no one had ever asked me that question before….No matter where we come from, when we see the state of the world today, we can all feel the growing frustration and desire to make a difference. And we all have a voice - we just need to know how to make it heard. I have a vision that I believe is more than a dream....I believe in an empowered world community built on the true meaning of equality – where we are all considered one people....I believe in mutual respect and cooperation among all peoples and all nations. I believe we have an ability to end racial injustice, poverty, oppression, and hopelessness that often breeds despair, terror, and violence....And, its not about me. Its about WE....We are here for all of us.”
     In recent weeks, I asked a number of people how they would answer the question, "Why are we here?"  Their statements encapsulated many values that are central to our heritage.   Here are their multi-facted responses to my question:    
·      "I think we are here to learn to understand and care for each other.
·      "We are here to do mitzvot and hasten the coming of a Messianic time."
·      Quoting George Elliot: "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?"
·      So WHY do we exist? I believe life is an experiment just to see what we would make of this world….Maybe it’s possible that our collective purpose is to find out the answers to WHY and HOW we came to be here.
·      We are here to evolve spiritually, to bring peace to the planet, and to learn to LOVE!
·      We are here to find and share the unique gifts, with each other and with our world, that were breathed into each of us upon our birth.
·      We are here to seek communal and congregational support as we acknowledge we are far less than perfect. We need to grow and improve. As a congregation we can nurture and support each other in this facet of life's journey.
·      We are here to be a part of a caring community to make sure that our heritage continues into the future.  Each of us who participates adds one little piece.
·      We are here to support each other, and to partner with God to make this world a better place.
·      We are here for the Eternal One to challenge our souls, to show that we can maintain our commitment to kindness…in a topsy turvy world, to cross the narrow bridge with faith and without fear.
·      "We need to be reminded that we are but a mote in the  universe, cosmic dust, and as such, we are here to be conscious of what a small place we occupy in the infinite.  With that comes a large responsibility to be accountable for our community.  We must be…reminded of this perspective that we are not the center of the universe, which is quite humbling.
·      "Socrates is reputed to have said,  "The unexamined life is not worth living."  We are here to have an "examined life" that leads to considered, thoughtful, moral, ethical and humane action to assure our survival and for the betterment of humankind."
·      We are here to prove that you can move from one side of the country to the other and know you can find a home… There can be a feeling of warmth and welcome in a new place. For the “we” that is the Jewish people, I strongly believe in the importance of the continuity of Judaism. Support of congregations that are welcoming and inclusive is vital if we are to continue as a people.
·      We are here to try in our own way to improve the world and to teach this to our children.
The principle from the V’ahavta paragraph, V’SHINANTAM L’VANECHA, "teach them to your children," is fundamental for any community.    Children see what adults do and the behavior that they model. In turn, younger children see what older children are doing.  We are all watching each other.   Perhaps that is what Rabbi Chanina meant when he said, "I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but from my students I have learned most of all."   We are always simultaneously teachers and students.  Any person of any age has some lesson or wisdom to offer to help us grow in knowledge and to sustain a caring approach towards the people who are part of our lives. 
    Rabbi Joshua ben Parachyah, quoted in the Sayings of the Rabbis, Pirkei Avot, also recognized that learning and teaching are bound up with being a member of a community that seeks wisdom.  He said, "Find yourself a teacher - a RAV, and get yourself a CHAVEIR, a colleague, study partner, or friend."   Friendships often develop because we find ourselves able to discuss life's important questions with those people who are closest to us.  In that case, our reason for being here is to make a solemn promise to partner with each other as learners and teachers.   
   Rabbi Joshua didn't stop there in his ancient declaration.   He concluded by saying, "Give each other the benefit of the doubt."  He may have meant that we need to provide one another with space and time to grow. Being a member of a community requires us to be patient.  Rabbi Joshua believed that we should be accepting of what our friends or study partners say even if they end up disagreeing with us at some point along the way.   He was also reminding us that living with each other in a community carries with it times when we will be angry with each other, when we will say the wrong thing, when we will upset each other, or when we will say one thing and appear to do another.  These eventualities are part of life with people, so, to keep our relationships intact, we need to be able to "give each other the benefit of the doubt."   That doesn't mean that we should refrain from offering constructive criticism in private, but it does mean that we need to forgive, and, especially, to let go of feelings from the past and to move forward with a renewed sense of trust in  the people who mean the most to us.   
   We know that, sometimes, we have a hard time letting go.   About 40 years ago, a rabbi went to visit one of his congregants who hadn't been at Temple for awhile.   He said to her, "I haven’t seen you much lately at Temple.  Is there a possibility you would come more often?"   The woman replied, "No, rabbi, I am still angry about the building fund." 
    The rabbi said, with great surprise in his voice, "The building fund was in 1953 - don't you think enough time has passed since then?"  She said, "Rabbi, I was NOT talking about the building fund of 1953.  I was talking about the building fund of 1925!"   
    Resentment from 50 years ago or more can seem like yesterday, but these High Holy Days call on us to give each other and ourselves the benefit of the doubt, to seek and offer forgiveness, and to admit when we have made the wrong choice so that we can try to right a situation or relationship as best we can.   The past can't be undone, but we can learn from what has happened and move into the future with a new sense of resolve to accept where we are at any given moment and proceed  from there. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said,  "Life must be lived as it is and you cannot live at all if you do not learn to adapt yourself to your life as it happens to be."  
    So we are here to live, to love, to learn, to teach, to care, and to make life easier for each other. 
    We often sing the words from Pirket Avot, Al shloshah d'varim haolam omeid - al hatorah, v'al haavodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.   On three things the world stands – on learning, on tending to the life of the spirit through prayer and meditation, and, finally, on showing kindness by doing loving deeds.     

    At this moment in my life, as I begin a new decade of my own, I would answer the question "Why are we here?"  with a simple phrase:  We are here to be kind.  We need to be kind even when we disagree, and even when we know that such kindness may not come back in return.   My prayer for 5775 would be that we bring more kindness into the world that can lead to greater contentment, hope, and peace.  And may our attitudes and actions provide a new outcome for that vote of the rabbis so long ago.  Was it good for humanity to have been created?  May our answer, and the response of people all around the world, be a resounding yes!   So may it be - and let us say amen.   

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