Rabbi Klein's Holiday Messages with the Grosse Pointe Jewish Council
The Fall Classic Erev Rosh Hashana 2019
With September almost behind us we look ahead to the Fall Classic. The 2019 season completed, the “Boys of Summer” review their failings in the year now past as the gates close today and they determine how to do better next year. I’m referring of course to the 2019 baseball season which ended today. The play-offs beginning tomorrow leading to the World Series, America’s “Fall Classic”—but I could just as well be referring to our High Holidays Tonight begins our Jewish “Fall Classic”, when we review our failings in the past year, determined to do better next year before the gates close on Yom Kippur. And as we review the past and prepare ourselves for the new season of 5780 I like to think that there is much about baseball that can and should inform us.
I remember growing up, from the time I was in 5th or 6th grade, going with my father to his family’s Conservative synagogue for morning Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. (We all attended the Reform congregation of my mother’s family for the evening services.) On one of those years when Yom Kippur fell on a World Series game day, we waited for the start of the afternoon Yizkor Service in the car with the radio tuned to the ballgame. In my filing system of memory associations, the High Holidays will always be linked to the sounds of the play-by-play and the cheering crowds as the two of us sat in Dad’s car. As our Holidays this year began to emerge out of summer and early fall, I thought about the significant similarities between baseball and Judaism. For weeks now many baseball fans have been talking about “The Series”, even as we prepared for and anticipated “The Holidays.” Like baseball, our “Jewish Fall Classic” promises a much increased attendance as we fill our sanctuaries like the stadiums of playoff and pennant contenders. Typically in synagogues the peripheral, normally-empty Shabbat seats are quickly taken by early High Holiday arrivals who hold places for family and friends. In larger congregations ushers are brought in to give preference to season ticket holders as management debates whether seating should even be made available to those who have not supported the team all year! Our “Jewish World Series” begins tonight, and like baseball, there is something special about the ceremony, the rite and ritual of our “Fall Classic” that is compelling even to the most marginal “fan.” Jewish tradition identifies Rosh Hashana as the anniversary of the first day of Creation-- we say this is the Birthday of our World. And I would remind you that right there in the opening verses of the Genesis Creation story, even our Torah declares that God recognized and affirmed that baseball and Judaism would be forecer inextricably connected, for aren’t the very first words of Torah “in the big inning”?
There is something very Jewish in the way baseball is played, in the life-lessons that the baseball fan absorbs and acknowledges. And just as Judaism is unique among the world’s religions, baseball is unique as the only sport that transcends both time and space. Transcending time, baseball is not played against a clock, it goes on until it’s over, until it’s run its course. And though some of us live our lives as though we’re racing against a time clock, in a hurry to get things done before the final bell is rung—Jewish tradition reminds us that it’s not so important what we finally gain or achieve or accumulate before we die, it’s what we’re doing with our lives today and tomorrow: have I made a difference in the world today, can I make the world better tomorrow. That’s what God wants from us. We’re not to fret or worry about the clock running out, or even what happens to us when the clock does run out. We’re to make the most of each time we come up to bat, and field everything that comes our way, and play the game well in the moment, and take life just one inning at a time. I know that baseball is not the only sport without a timeclock, tennis and volleyball come to mind—but baseball is the only sport not defined by either timeclock or boundaries, not limited to the size of the court. How does baseball transcend space? Though there is a clearly defined starting point at home plate, that’s only where the field of play begins, where the foul lines originate and then radiate outward from the corners of home plate. But theoretically those foul lines could extend forever. They only end where someone puts fences to cut them off. The left field, center and right field fences are only artificial boundaries that vary from park to park. The field of play could expand as far as one may want. Our lives too have a precise and exact beginning, but the “field” before us is not bounded, is not limited by the rules of the game. We do have foul lines left and right that remind us to stay in “fair” territory-- they are the moral and social codes that both our religion and our culture teach us. And so we build our own “Field of Dreams” bounded by wherever we want the fences to be. And though it’s certainly true that health issues or life circumstances may force us to prematurely acknowledge where our field of play ends, it’s not the set rules of the game that dictate them. The rules of our game are not limited by how far the field of life extends or how long play is allowed. Though there is a set starting place at home, we control and manage the limits of our lives.
The game that is baseball is measured only in outs. Only 27 outs and the game is over, though sometimes it extends into extra innings. The goal in baseball is: don’t waste an out. And you won’t if you keep hitting, keep challenging, keep the rally alive, keep the ball in play. Similarly in our lives we can’t afford to give up outs, let opportunities slip away, give up without taking a swing. And we only know that, recognize that, when looking back as we pass middle age we realize how many times we gave up when we could have kept swinging. Our High Holidays challenge us to look back over the past year, remembering moments when we let the pitch go by for a called strike, when we could have, should have, at least tried to swing, tried for a hit, tried to do the right thing. With each out, an opportunity is lost, unable to be made up. So Rosh Hashana, this new year, wants us to look ahead, to do better the next time we come to the plate, to make the new year a better year for our friends and family, for our community, and for ourselves. And when we do come to the plate, as we greet each new day and opportunity, we need to be patient. “Wait for your pitch” coaches remind us. Don’t swing too hard, or too fast, or too soon. Trust yourself and don’t be rushed into swinging when you’re not set and ready.
Baseball is also unique in that no other sport includes errors in its box score during the game and in the final official record book. We know that players are going to make mistakes, it’s “just part of the game” we so often hear. Yom Kippur urges us to review our box scores of last year: how many runs, hits, and errors? What were our successes, and in what ways did we fail ourselves, our family, our community? We play the game and hope that our hits far outnumber our errors-- but even then, we record them, we acknowledge them, because we need to learn from them. The record book of 5779 is closed. Our hits and misses are reminders of how and what we need to improve before our records are written for 5780.
In baseball even the very best hitters only succeed 30% of the time, and the very best teams only win 60% of their games. Judaism differs from Christianity in that ‘they’ want us to be perfect asking “What would Jesus do?”. But ‘we’, we acknowledge that to be human is to be fallible, imperfect. God wants us to do the best we can, and when we fall short we are to recognize and resolve to do better next time. We don’t deny our sins-- we confess them, we own them. Then we let go of them. On Yom Kippur we read the story of the two goats selected in Temple days: one is chosen as a thanksgiving offering to God, the other is designated “for Azazel”. The sins of the people are laid on his head, and that goat is sent out into the desert so that the nation’s sins are dispersed into the wasteland. Sparky Anderson once said “People who live in the past [regretting and reliving their mistakes] are afraid to compete in the present. I’ve got my faults”, he said, “but living in the past isn’t one of them. There’s no future in it.” And it’s worth noting that “sin” is not a black or white notion. During these Holidays we have three very different words for “sin”. On Yom Kippur we’ll say chatanu, avinu, pashanu – “We have sinned, we have committed wrongdoing, we have transgressed.”
Chatanu. Chet is a sin done unwittingly, it’s missing off target, an unintentional mistake.
Avinu. Avon is an intentional sin, where we know a thing wrong, but we do it anyway, giving in to our desire or impulses, or because we decide that the end justifies the means.
Pashanu. Pesha is the worst, a rebellious sin, an act of purposeful, willful defiance and rebellion.
We don’t deny them, we confess them, we own them, then we let go of them. Our High Holidays compel us to examine the year just past, learn from it, and then leave it behind as we enter the new year that begins today.
The baseball season is long, from Spring Training in February through September. And victory is measured over the long run, in the steady, day-to-day process of doing more things right than things wrong. There’s another game, a new game, almost every day-- another chance to do well, to play well, to advance your team. “every day a new day, another chance to do well, to play well, to advance your team”-- if that’s not a message worthy of any religion, I don’t know what is! And even though baseball is not really a religion (despite what many of its faithful declare) it promotes important life-lessons of basic decency that ought to be preached from every pulpit: Play by the rules and respect the judges who manage the life of the game. Treat the opposing players with respect and courtesy. Never seek to harm or hurt an opponent. Baseball, like all sports and like Life, is a world of order, where actions will always have consequences (sometimes good and sometimes not). And like our lives, there is a soothing rhythm to the play of the game, pitch by pitch, inning by inning. There are some that complain the game is too slow, that only occasionally does anything really happen. The game, they say should move faster. Like children waiting for school be over or a birthday to come, they want life to move faster. And looking back we realize that it went by way too fast, that there is so much, so many little things that were special, that we might have missed, or didn’t fully appreciate. Looking back, don’t we wish it had all slowed down so that we might have better appreciated each moment, even if in any given moment “nothing happened”? So in baseball we should be watching the small movements, batter by batter, inning by inning. We’re supposed to notice the coaches’ subtle signals to the batter or runner, the shift of fielders anticipating the next pitch, the drop of a well-executed curve ball or the lift of a four-seam fastball. It’s not a slow game to the watchful, attentive fan, for it’s filled with the enjoyment of single, subtle moments and movements. And isn’t that what really and truly makes our lives, each day, special and important!? Seeing the quiet smile and nod of a friend, the subtle, glancing touch of a loved one, the sun breaking through dark clouds, the sound of children laughing, the smell of baking in the kitchen—these and countless other small moments bring us quiet but such satisfying joy. They make the game of life worth playing.
And of course we know, as players and as fans, that baseball, like Life, will also bring disappointment and frustration, downfall and defeat. Tigers fans know that all too well. But there’s always tomorrow’s game, and there’s always next season. And isn’t that the Rosh Hashana message: each day is another opportunity to do well, another chance to engage the play of the game.
In the summer of 1973 the New York Mets trailed the Chicago Cubs by 9 ½ games in the National League East. Manager Yogi Berra said at the time “It ain’t over till it’s over.” The Mets rallied, overcame the deficit and won the division title on the final day of the season. Isn’t this what Life and Living is all about? Don’t give up. It ain’t over til it’s over.
Weaponizing Abortion Rosh Hashana 2019
For months now I’ve been reading regular postings in my daily listserv and regularly on Facebook from rabbis preparing to give High Holiday sermons on Washington politics and the 2020 elections. I can only imagine what those posts will be like come next Holidays when Election Day is only weeks away. For my part, I generally prefer to not publicly promote political candidates or parties from the bima believing that the talking heads on TV do a much better and more informed job than I ever could. But often there do arise issues or topics of public concern that I find compelling and worthy of discussion. Such is the case this morning as I find myself becoming more and more upset with the way abortion has been weaponized by both the political right and left. For the moment both sides have moved away from pro-life and pro-choice diatribes, but come the congressional and presidential elections a year from now they’ll be at it again. But whether one should be pro-life or pro-choice is not what seems to me to be most important here. Rather these are the issues that should challenge us and do concern me: Why does the abortion debate so often raise its ferocious head in advance of political elections? Isn’t any abortion legislation a violation of the First Amendment? And finally, what has Judaism traditionally and unequivocally said about abortion? And in the interest of full disclosure, while I was the rabbi of a congregation in Indiana I served on the Board and as President of our regional Planned Parenthood organization.
Frankly, I find it upsetting that a woman’s right to choose has been weaponized by the Conservative Right and the Liberal Left. Because abortion is such a visceral issue, because for some it posits the murder of an innocent un-born child, ostensibly safe within its mother’s womb—it is a particularly effective bludgeon that can be powerfully and angrily wielded against we heartless, coldblooded baby-killers on the left. I find it most upsetting that this baby-killer charge is regularly thrown into the electoral ring only in order to whip up support for a candidate or political party who vow to protect the lives of the innocent unborn. What we saw last summer in Missouri, but also in the statehouses of Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Ohio, South Dakota, and Tennessee is just prelude to the presidential and congressional elections a year from now. These new laws that deny a woman’s right to choose have functionally jumpstarted 2020 campaigns of the Religious Right. And truthfully, I don’t have a problem with those who believe that abortion is murder. I understand where they are coming from. My problem is that their strongly held belief is being cynically exploited for a purely political purpose.
The pro-life movement is for the most part a function of the religious community. To be sure there are atheists and humanists who are pro-life, but their arguments are rather weak: “It seems wrong to prematurely end what ought to be ultimately a living person.” But the moral strength of the pro-life movement is faith based: “God declares that life begins at conception.” Which makes the pro-life argument that abortion is murder a faith-based, religious belief. But if my or your religious tradition or doctrine does not so define when life begins, if my religious tradition or doctrine does not consider the fetus a “person”-- then abortion is not murder. Therefore if the government decides one way or the other: that the fetus is a full person, or the fetus is not yet a person— either way the government has violated church/state separation! The First Amendment to the Constitution, which we know so well, begins with these words: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Should Congress of the Supreme Court make abortion illegal because it’s murder, because God declares it so-- it both “establishes” the belief of one religion, and prohibits the other’s free “exercise” of belief. Whether one is pro-life or pro-choice it must be understood that either stance is subjective and faith-based because not science nor logic nor any rational process can determine objectively when life begins! So everything depends on when one believes that life begins. Which reminds me of a story: a Catholic priest, Protestant pastor and rabbi are asked when life begins. The priest says: “Life begins at conception.” The pastor says: “Life begins when the fetus is viable outside the womb.” The rabbi says: “Life begins when the kids are gone and the dog dies.”
One might even say that life doesn’t really “begin” at all! Life does not appear de novo, from nothing! Life is transmitted—it is not initiated! A living cell: the sperm fertilizes a living cell: the egg—and the process of division begins. But “life” does not begin. But in this debate, semantics is not particularly persuasive. The issue of legislating abortion is all about the serious question of whether or not abortion is murder. If it is murder it violates God’s law and human law. But if it is not “murder” is it in any way permissible?
Let’s start with the fact that abortion is never discussed in the Bible. And it’s not as if our Hebrew Scriptures is reticent about making laws about women’s bodies. Menstruation gets a lot of attention, so does childbirth, infertility and sexual desire. There’s nothing in our Bible about abortion, but Torah does, interestingly, declare that a woman who tries to help her husband in a fight by grabbing and pulling the other man’s testicles is punished by having her hand cut off. (Deuteronomy 25:11) There is however one place in our Bible where abortion is specifically referenced. Surprisingly, it’s not in a legal code, but in the poetry of Jeremiah, one of the most depressed and depressing of prophets. He wishes he had been aborted.
Cursed be the day when I was born. The day that my mother bore me—let it not be blessed. Cursed be the man who informed my father… Because he did not kill me in the womb, that my [mother’s womb] would be my tomb (Jeremiah 20: 14-17) Jeremiah’s outburst posits the acceptability of abortion.
The New Testament could also have been an opportunity for God to say something about abortion. Jesus had strong views of marriage and sex, but he said nothing about abortion. Neither did the Apostle Paul who created Christianity, nor any of the other New Testament authors. So where does the Church get Biblical support for life beginning in the womb? They find nothing in their New Testament. Their only proof-texts are these from these Hebrew Scripture verses:
Psalm 139:13For it was You who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother's womb.
Psalm 51:5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.
Isaiah 44:24Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the Lord, who made all things.
That’s it—the only Biblical verses on which the Church hangs its Pro-Life stance. Jews however don’t derive matters of law from Psalms or prophetic poetry. The 2017 Pew Study estimated that a whopping 83% of Jews believe that in all or most cases, abortion should be legal, making us the fourth most pro-choice group surveyed (behind atheists, agnostics, and Unitarians.) While there are social and cultural reasons that liberal Jews today are overwhelmingly pro-choice, Jewish tradition and law has never equated abortion with murder. That decision was and is based on the following passage from Torah, in Exodus chapter 21.
When men strive together and hurt a pregnant woman so that she miscarries, yet there is no further harm, he will certainly be fined, according to what the woman's husband shall lay upon him he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, would for wound, stripe for stripe. Exodus 21:22-25]
A pregnant woman is accidentally injured by one of two men fighting. She miscarries but there is no further harm presumably to the woman. The husband of the woman may then sue the one who caused the miscarriage and collect a fine: monetary compensation for loss of property. The fetus, the rabbis claimed, is the property of the husband. But if any harm does follow to the woman—then life for life, eye for eye, burn for burn… The unborn fetus is not worthy of the “life for life” or “wound for wound” punishment that is demanded if the woman herself is killed or harmed. This clearly means, the rabbis wrote, that the fetus is not accorded the same legal status as the woman herself, namely that of an independent human being. Further proof that the fetus is to be regarded as belonging to the pregnant woman is found in two Talmudic principles. The first involves the sale of a cow which subsequent to the sale, is found to be pregnant. The legal determination is that the fetus in the womb of the cow belongs to the buyer, and that the seller can make no claim for further compensation (Baba Kamma 47a). The second example concerns the conversion to Judaism of a woman who is pregnant. Jewish law regards the conversion valid for her unborn child as well, requiring no separate conversion for it after birth (Yebamot 97b). Already by the year 200 CE, the rabbis of the Mishna bent over backwards to proclaim that the fetus, in utero is not a person whose life must be protected. In a particularly shocking description that makes their point crystal clear they wrote:
If a woman is in hard labor, we are permitted to cut up the child in her womb and bring it forth member by member, because her life comes before that of the child. But if the greater part [of the newborn] has come forth, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another. [Mishna, Oholote 7:6]
300 years later the Babylonian Talmud is also clear: For the first 40 days of gestation, a fetus is considered “mere fluid” (Talmud Yebamot 69b) and is further regarded as part of the mother for the duration of the pregnancy. It is not considered to have the status of personhood until birth. Only then, when baby’s shoulders emerge (Talmud Sanhedrin 72b), is the child considered a nefesh, a soul. Elsewhere, in the Mishnah (Arachin 1:4) we read “If a [pregnant] woman is about to be executed, they do not wait until after she gives birth. But if she had already sat on the birthstool, they wait until after she gives birth.” Even in today’s traditional Jewish community, in situations where the mother’s life is not in danger, rabbinic courts have gone on record permitting abortion in cases when a fetus may suffer gravely if carried to term, or when a mother’s physical or mental health is in danger, or even when her psychological well-being may be at risk. Some rabbinic authorities are more cautious and conservative in their assessment, suggesting that cases must be evaluated individually, and only permitting abortion in cases of serious or life-threatening medical need. But clearly, the permissibility, and even sometimes necessity of abortion, is a possibility that runs through traditional Jewish law and literature. Without question Judaism has always held that personhood begins at birth, with first breath and not before, not at some point during gestation, and certainly not at conception. There's another reason that Jews today, particularly in the non-Orthodox communities, tend to support safe and legal abortion. It's because we have historically been among the strongest supporters of separation of church from state, and have long been wary of legal maneuvers that appear to be coming from a place of Christian doctrine. Of course, none of this means that one cannot oppose abortion. One can still believe it is wrong, since it ends the life of a potential person. The Traditional, Orthodox Jewish community affirms just this, and so generally insists that abortion may only be allowed if the mother’s life is in imminent danger. Which of course opens debate on what “imminent” means, and if “danger” applies only to one’s physical health? Traditional law is and always has been clear: while the fetus in the womb is to be protected as a potential human being, it has no personhood; it is not a viable living being, thus, it is not accorded any of the rights or privileges of personhood. And consider this: in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate has inordinate power, abortion is legal and often paid for by the state. For Judaism, our attitude about abortion is quite clear. The fetus is not a person; it has no rights.
It is crucially important that whenever we engage in discussions or debates of pro-life vs. pro-choice, we make it known that this is a “religious” disagreement between faith communities, no different than whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, whether or not the Koran is God’s last Revelation. And we are very much aware that should the State step in on either the pro or con side of those questions, it would be a serious and untenable violation of the First Amendment.
One final point. Due to the general leniency in matters of abortion within America’s non-Orthodox movements, as well as our long-standing Jewish insistence on the separation of religion and government in American life, all four liberal Jewish movements – Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Humanist – are on record opposing any governmental regulation of abortion. Indeed, many Orthodox authorities take the same position. We must ensure that women (and men!) be allowed to follow their conscience, and the pronouncements of their religion. This is a First Amendment issue and should never be allowed to become politicized. What’s important in this national debate is not which side one is on, but that abortion, an issue informed by one’s belief and faith-community, must never be decided by governmental decree, and should never be weaponized for personal or political gain. We all have the responsibility to remind our friends, family and neighbors of just that.
A Prophetic Parody Erev Yom Kippur 2019
Tomorrow afternoon, as we approach the “closing of the gates” and the conclusion of our Yom Kippur worship, we will read, in its entirety, the Book of Jonah. Only 4 chapters and 48 verses, this little book contains multiple problems and challenges, not the least of which is that it ends abruptly with a question that goes unanswered. Of all the possible majestic readings found in our prophetic literature, why is Jonah the Haftara Scriptural reading for Yom Kippur afternoon? Throughout these High Holidays we’ve heard singular and memorable Biblical passages and readings: the soaring, if troubling, near sacrifice of Isaac, tomorrow morning’s final poetic proclamation of Moses before his death, and powerful prophetic readings from Jeremiah and Isaiah. And then we end these ten days of solemn reflection and rededication with the prophetic parody of Jonah?! How are we supposed to understand, much less appreciate the message of the Jonah story? I remember as a child, hearing about Jonah swallowed by a “whale”, living in its belly for three days only to vomited up on a foreign shore. I remember thinking “Really? We’re supposed to believe this?! We’re supposed to take this seriously?!” How are we to understand this story: If Jonah is God’s prophet, why does he run away from his mission? Why is he upset when he succeeds in his mission? Why is he angry at God when the Ninevites do repent, since that was the very purpose of his mission? And is he even worthy of being called a “prophet”? We have always assumed, or at least I was always taught, that we read the Book of Jonah on the Day of Atonement because it’s about repentance, but who in this story has a religious awakening, a “come-to-Jesus-moment” (so to speak!)? All the sympathetic and repentant characters are pagans, and the only one who never recognizes his faults, never reconciles himself with God, and misunderstands the true nature of the one God—is Jonah, the Hebrew prophet. And on top of all that: this is the only prophetic book in Scripture that is not directed to, or has a message for, the People of Israel. And if it has nothing to do with us, what does it have to do with Yom Kippur?!
God comes to Jonah with a standard summons. He commands him to go to Nineveh, that great city and “cry out against it for their wickedness has come up before me.” And Jonah immediately sets forth, but in the opposite direction! Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria is north and east. Jonah goes south to Jaffa and takes a boat west to Tarshish, near the Straits of Gibraltar. I suppose it’s understandable why Jonah might not want to pronounce judgement in the Assyrian capitol. The Assyrians are the archenemies of the Israelites. They’ve already destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and Jonah has every right to be afraid that the Ninevites will kill him. But none of the other prophets of Scripture are afraid of putting themselves in danger. Being God’s prophet means going with God’s protection. Or maybe Jonah runs away from his mission because he fears that the Ninevites, by some miracle, will repent and avert destruction, and Jonah doesn’t want that to happen. Jonah wants God to strike them with the punishment he thinks they so rightly deserve. Whatever his reason, Jonah runs away, and we get the storm at sea with Jonah asleep in the bowels of the boat. The pagan sailors try to save the ship, throwing out cargo calling upon their gods. Finally, they wake Jonah and implore him to call out to his god, and he confesses that this is all his fault because he’s run away from his god. Jonah tells them to throw him into the raging sea but the pagan sailors refuse and row harder. Ultimately however they have no choice but to throw Jonah overboard, after which we read: “Then the sailors feared Adonai even more[Pagans?! Feared Adonai?! Even more?!], and they offered a sacrifice to Adonai and made vows”. These pagans offered a sacrifice and made vows to Adonai?! and become God-fearers, believers in the Hebrew god?! And a great fish swallowed Jonah, and then sank to the bottom of the sea with Jonah in the bowels of the fish for three days. When Jonah prayed for deliverance the fish vomited him up and onto the Assyrian shore, and off he trudged, dripping slime and goo until he came to Nineveh. A third of the way into “that great city” he proclaims but five words in Hebrew: “Just forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And that’s it, that’s the sum total of the collected prophecies of Jonah! And with just five words from Jonah the Ninevites repent-- from the king and his court all the way down the Assyrian social hierarchy, even to the animals. Sackcloth, fasting, sitting in ashes, turning from evil — a national conversion and wholesale repentance. “And God saw that they turned from their evil ways, and God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it”. Wow! Surely this is the greatest prophetic triumph in all the Bible: just five words and a 180o turnabout of sincere national repentance, and what was Jonah's reaction? But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. So now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah is furious and would rather die than accept that God is righteous and merciful. This is God’s prophet?! This is a man who’s supposed to stand beside Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and Hosea? Jonah is a prophetic parody. He’s a nothing, he mouths the right words when he pleads with God to deliver him from the fish, but then later shouts, scoffs and sneers when those not like him are also delivered! He deserves God’s mercy and compassion but not “them”?! Jonah is the worst kind of tribal egotist—he is personally and profoundly indignant and outraged when those he dislikes are not properly punished! And only here, at the end of the story, do we understand why Jonah ran away in the first place. He knows that God will forgive the Ninevites, and he doesn’t want to look foolish. It’s all about him, all about his reputation! He cares not a whit about the Ninevites. He doesn’t want them to repent, he wants them destroyed. God’s kindness and compassion should only be lavished on him! And even though three times God mercifully protected and took care of him: when he was thrown into the sea, when he was thrown out of the fish, and when God raised a plant to shade and shield him— even then he refuses to accept that God can and will be gracious and forgiving to all living things, even the enemies of Israel. Jonah’s tribal parochialism can not and will not accept God’s universal benevolence. Jonah wants God to go back to being the God of that “old time religion”, the God of Torah whose power was regularly released to unilaterally destroy Israel’s enemies. He wants the God of Torah, the zealous and jealous God who commanded the Israelites to decimate the occupants of Canaan. Jonah wants God to be the God of Israel and Israel alone.
And when Jonah lashes out at God for taking away the bush that protected him, the bush that God personally grew for him-- even the compassionate and forgiving God has had enough. Just two verses says it all: “You’re sorry for that plant! You didn’t labor for it, you didn’t make it grow; it grew in the night and perished in a night. [It was nothing!] But Nineveh-- shouldn’t I be concerned about Nineveh, that great city of more than a hundred and twenty thousand souls who do not know their right hand from their left, and so many animals?!” God says ‘you’re as upset that I pitied them, that I felt sorry for them, that I saved them, as you are that I took away your bush?! Is that all that matters to you?! Are you so self-centered and self-righteous that you can’t see that I, Creator and Sovereign of the Universe, have every right to be sorry for these people who don’t know their right hand from their left?’ And here, right here, the book ends! There’s no response from Jonah! But then, what could he say?
The Book of Jonah is a prophetic parody, it’s a ridiculous story that makes a very serious point. It was written 2500 years ago for a tribal Israel that was unwilling to accept a new theology that had emerged after the Babylonian captivity in the 6th C BCE, 2500 years ago. The zealous and jealous God of Torah who unilaterally blessed Israel and punished her enemies, who chose Israel above all the other nations was a parochial theology that ended with the Babylonian destruction of Judea and Jerusalem. And from out of those ashes arose a new theology, it came to be called “Judaism”, the religion of the returning Judeans. Judaism proclaimed that Adonai was not only our God, but God of the universe who could be worshipped wherever Jews gathered, and who cared about and for all peoples. 2500 years ago the process of changing Israel’s parochial theology was difficult but necessary. And so the Book of Jonah was written in the 5th C BCE proclaiming this new universalist view of a merciful God who cared for the entirety of God’s Creation. And to ensure that this “Good News” would be noticed and received by the people, its very serious message was disguised within the humor of this popularly received parody, insuring that it would be read and heard.
The rabbis, 1500 years ago, wisely decided, and recorded in the Talmud [M’gillah 31a], that Jonah would be the Haftara reading that concluded the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This Day of Atonement is a serious and solemn day, its liturgy is pointedly personal. This is the day I stand before God, pleading for mercy and forgiveness. Tonight and tomorrow it’s all about me and God. Rosh Hashana, on the other hand, is all about “us”. We came together as community in recognition and celebration of God’s majesty and sovereignty. But before we lay our souls bare in the hope and expectation that God will be gracious and bless us, before we walk out of the sanctuary self-satisfied and perhaps even smug and complacent that I’m tight again with God-- we briefly break the solemnity of the liturgy with this rather humorous self-parody that reminds us that in the end it’s not all about us, that we are not as special as we might have thought. The only Israelite in this story is not its hero. At best Jonah is an anti-hero. We are meant to identify with the Ninevites who are quick to repent and revere God. We are to identify with the “other” lest we forget that all of us, Jews and non-Jews are God’s children and worthy of God’s, and our, forgiveness, mercy and kindness. If we live our lives safely within our parochial tribes, waiting and hoping that evil will befall our enemies, blessed by our God and secure in the thought that “they” are not-- then we have rejected the message that was first voiced and proclaimed as “Judaism”, 2500 years ago. The Psalmist wrote: Adonai is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Adonai is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. All your works shall give thanks to you, Adonai , and all your faithful shall bless you. They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. Adonai is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. [Psalm 145: 8-13]
Jonah is a little book, only 4 chapters, 48 verses, an imaginary and humorous parody, a little book that carries a message particularly important for us today.
"You Want It Darker" Yom Kippur2019
The song “You want it darker”, by Leonard Cohen (9/21/1934 – 11/7/2016) was released on October 21, 2016, 19 days before his death.
[This was presentation/discussion within the congregation after hearing Cohen sing his song, and was followed by a discussion of Psalm 139]
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame You want it darker. We kill the flame.
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name Vilified, crucified, in the human frame A million candles burning for the help that never came You want it darker Hineni, hineni. I’m ready, my lord
There’s a lover in the story, but the story’s still the same There’s a lullaby for suffering, and a paradox to blame But it’s written in the scriptures and it’s not some idle claim You want it darker. We kill the flame.
They’re lining up the prisoners and the guards are taking aim I struggled with some demons. They were middle class and tame I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim You want it darker Hineni, hineni. I’m ready, my lord.
Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name Vilified, crucified, in the human frame A million candles burning for the love that never came You want it darker. We kill the flame.
If you are the dealer, let me out of the game If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame You want it darker Hineni, hineni. I’m ready, my lord. Hineni Hineni, hineni Hineni
Psalm 139 1 I said, “I will guard my ways that I may not sin with my tongue; I will keep a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence.” 2 I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, 3 my heart became hot within me. While I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: 4 “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. 5 You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight. Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. (Selah) 6 Surely everyone goes about like a shadow. Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; they heap up, and do not know who will gather. 7 “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you. 8 Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool. 9 I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. 10 Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand. 11 “You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath. (Selah) 12 “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears. 13 Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more (Eineini).”
Yizkor Readingbefore El Moleh Rachamim Yom Kippur 2019 As we close our Yom Kippur worship with Yizkor and N’eilah we also are about to complete our year-long Torah reading cycle. In just a little more than a week we will roll our scrolls back to its Genesis beginning. But today, we’re still clinging to the story at the end of Deuteronomy witnessing the transfer of Israelite leadership from Moses to Joshua. We read this morning Moses’ great speech encouraging the Israelites: “You stand here today, all of you, before Adonai your God…” An inspiring message, but we sense a sadness as Moses stands on the mountain, watching as his people are about to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land without him. Moses dies “by the mouth of God” and by the hand of God is he buried there on the mountain. And the attention of Scripture turns to the first chapter of its sixth book, the Book of Joshua.
Yizkor, it seems to me, calls upon us to assume a Joshua-like role, that is—we are to complete the work of those we hold in sacred memory. We come here this afternoon not to mourn for those who have died, but to fulfill those lives we honor. We are to move beyond mourning, to consecrate ourselves to the completion of the tasks that have fallen into our hands, completing the work left to us by our friends and family. The Yizkor of Yom Kippur calls upon us to hold high the ideals of the generations of Jews who preceded us, to cherish their dreams and more importantly to fulfill them. There were goals which they had set for themselves which they could not reach, they had visions that were not realized—and now it is for us to continue the work.
Kaddish is a sacred and beautiful prayer which touches that place deep within our souls, and stirs up both memories that warm, and memories that hurt. The origin of the Kaddish has many explanations, but its emotionally tangible effect on us is clear. But today, let us come to the Kaddish as a pledge. We will shortly stand as individuals and as a community for Kaddish. Let it be a declaration that we will fill the void left in our families by our friends and relatives. We pledge that the work which parents can do no more will be completed by their children, that the dreams of those who came before us will become our own to fulfill. It is this communication of common ideals and shared goals between the living and the dead that brings continuity to human existence, and immortality to the human soul.
This afternoon we pray: Grant us O God that as we remember our loved ones, we learn from their lives what best to do with our own. Give us wisdom to fill our own lives with noble purpose, consecrated living and worthwhile achievement. Strengthen us to seek the things which death cannot take from us: faith, love, kindness and the riches of a good name. May the memories of our loved ones remain with us for a blessing, and may we so live that future generations bless us for the memories we leave with them.
May God bless us, even as we have been blessed by those we lovingly remember. AMEN