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Yom Kippur 5783            October 5, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

     Gemar Hatima Tova, may we all be sealed for life in the Book of Life.

     Once again, let me begin with a story, this one from Rabbi Ed Feinstein from his book, “Capture the Moon.” This is how he tells the story: “There was a king who ruled his kingdom with justice and wisdom. Everyone loved him except those who wanted to do evil and injustice. Among the ranks of those who hated the king was a wizard. This wizard devised a plan to destroy the king, the kingdom and all the people who loved the king. The wizard put a curse on the harvest. Anyone who ate of the harvest for the next seven years, would be driven insane.

     In the court of the king was a prophet. The prophet learned about the curse of the wizard but not in time to stop it. He did get a chance to warn the king of the danger. As the harvest came in the prophet brought the news to the king, anyone who eats of this harvest and for the next seven years will go mad. What could the king do? He gathered the food from the last good harvest, and he gathered his advisors to search for a solution. They determined that there was only enough untainted food for one person to eat for the seven years of the curse. But who would remain sane and sober as the rest of the nation slid into madness? The king gave the job to the prophet. He would eat the uncontaminated food and stay sane as everyone else slipped into insanity. The prophet asked, “How will it help the kingdom if I am the only sane person?” The king replied, "You cannot keep us from madness, but you must remind us we are all mad. Ride through the kingdom and announce, “Brothers and Sisters, remember the curse. Remember that you are all mad.” It was a daunting and lonely responsibility, but the prophet took it on. As the people became mad, he faithfully rode through the kingdom proclaiming the truth: “Remember you are all mad!”

     One day during those cursed years, as the prophet rode through the kingdom, one of the citizens looked at him with curiosity. “If it is true that we are all cursed and insane, what good does it do for you to proclaim it? If it can’t change anything, isn’t this task your own madness?” The prophet stopped to think. Had he gone mad as well? Was he affected by the curse? He declared, “I proclaim this truth out of loyalty to my king who charged me with this duty. I proclaim it so that you might stop a moment before you act and perhaps wonder if your act derives not from any reason but from the curse’s madness. You may be mad but perhaps this once you will not choose to behave in the way of the insane. Perhaps this once you will choose the alternative and behave in a manner that is reasoned, just and wise.”

     As he rode away, the prophet began to think about all the mad behavior he had witnessed these many years. He thought of all the senseless brutality, the mindless cruelty, the self-destructive acts he had witnessed. He realized that his aspiration was probably a vain hope. Perhaps the madman was right. Perhaps he was as mad as the rest. Then he thought again and declared, “No, if nothing else succeeds, this I know. By fulfilling my charge, my never ceasing to proclaim your insanity, by warning you and begging you to behave in a manner more reasoned and more humane, this I am certain is my way to remain sane and sensible.” The madman heard him and replied, “Perhaps someday soon, we will awaken from this curse and join you on your mission.”

     Rabbi Feinstein comments on his story: “In a world gone mad, how does the sane person keep his or her senses? How does he or she keep from being seduced or coerced into accepting or accommodating the world’s insanity?”  How indeed?

     The only thing that keeps the prophet true to his duty is his own sense of integrity. The prophet is the voice of truth calling into the abyss. The king has given him a sacred mission. In our story, the king could very well represent God. In a world slipping away into madness, God gives the prophet the tools he needs to stay sane and to encourage others to choose sanity.

     Hasn’t this been the mission of the Jewish people for thousands of years? Paganism has never really gone away; people just discover new things to worship. And we Jews just keep saying, over and over, “God is one, God is unique, there is only God”

     If Yom Kippur is about anything, it is about declaring the important place that God fills in our world. The core of our Musaf service today will be to recall the one time in the year where the High Priest would enter the holiest place, on the holiest day, and speak the holiest word, the otherwise unspoken name of God. It would take a week of preparation, but the whole world would depend on the success of that one moment. We no longer appoint a High Priest. We don’t have a holy Temple in Jerusalem anymore. We have lost the proper pronunciation of the unspoken name of God; we only have this holy time together and we now have to be the priest. We need to enter the holiest part of our hearts and speak in the language of our soul, the name of God as if the entire world depends on it. Do we have the integrity to speak the name in the face of all the insanity around us?

     We have seen, over the past months, many election workers, political appointees, and others stand up for what is right in the face of ridicule, threats, bullying and the destruction of their dignity. It should not be dangerous to be an election worker. There should not be threats to health professionals. There should not be ridicule for file clerks in the National Archives. We rarely hear about the obscene phone calls made to our representatives. Only occasionally do we hear about the drive-by threats called out late into the night in front of the homes of those who work so hard to make our government and democracy work. It is a full time job on social media to eliminate threatening posts from comments and forums. And all these public officials want to do is what is right for the people and for the country.

     The real question is how do we know what the right thing to do is? How do we know if we are standing for something worthwhile and not some self-serving action? It is almost impossible today to separate the real facts from the ‘alternative’ facts. We never know if what we read, see, or hear is real or a fantasy from the mind of the insane. In a world that has gone mad, how can we know which side of insanity we are standing on?

     The first requirement for bringing integrity into our lives is honesty. Like the prophet in the story, we need to speak the truth. Truth does not come easy. Our world is full of half-truths; we never know if we are being told something important or if someone wants to sell us something. Conspiracy theories abound and what is true and what is dangerous seem to come wrapped in the same paper. What is honesty today and where can we find it? Singer Billy Joel in his song, “Honesty” writes:

I can always find someone
To say they sympathize
If I wear my heart out on my sleeve
But I don't want some pretty face
To tell me pretty lies
All I want is someone to believe

Honesty is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue
Honesty is hardly ever heard
And mostly what I need from you”

     The first rule of integrity is to be honest with others. We can’t rely on honesty from others if we are not prepared to tell the truth ourselves. This is extraordinarily hard. Just try being brutally honest when your partner asks the question, “Does this make me look too fat?” And yet we all too often become way too dependent on lies. Rather than face the truth and face the results of truth, we rather tell a lie and avoid the conflict or the consequences. Or as the teenagers say, it is easier to lie and get forgiveness than to honestly ask for permission.

     Imagine the High Priest preparing to enter the holiest place to stand in the presence of God. There can be no falsehood here. God knows exactly if what inside of us is true and where we are hiding our sins. On this day of Atonement, we have to be truthful with God and with ourselves about who exactly we are, where we are deluding ourselves that we are not as bad as we think we are, and where all our failures are hiding. I do want to be clear. Nobody is perfectly evil. Nobody is perfectly bad. Only God gets to be perfect. On this holy day we try to cast away our sins and turn our focus on the good that also resides in us. We need to tell the truth that we have done well at times during the past year. And as for the failures, we do get credit for trying to do well, even if it didn’t work out quite the way we wanted.

     Rabbi Lawrence Kushner of San Francisco makes a point of reminding us to be particularly honest with our children. Sometimes they ask us hard questions, especially about religion, and we create some “safe” answer that doesn’t really answer their questions. We give these lies because we really don’t have answers ourselves to questions like; “What happens when you die?” “Why do good people suffer?” “Why doesn’t God look like something?” “What does it mean that God is one?” Rabbi Kushner, writes, “Unique to spiritual education, indeed, perhaps its defining characteristic, is that the great, Jewish, unanswerable questions are simultaneously relevant to adults and children. This is why we must recite the Shema every evening and every morning. As the people who ask them change, so do the meanings of the spiritual truths themselves. And sometimes the fresh insight of a child can hold more wisdom than that of a teacher. … Tell (the children) the truth – especially if it is only that you don’t know the answer. Because, if you don’t know, most likely no one else does either. (Indeed, if they did, you would’ve probably heard about it by now.) There are only truthful answers and those given out of a well-intentioned desire to give the “right” answer, which are false. You might say, there are no “right” answers, only “truthful” ones. The next time a child asks you a real, spiritual question, try saying, “I don’t know the answer. I’ve been wondering about it ever since I was your age.” It’s a holy question.

     I am confident the kid can handle it. Maybe you can too.”

     Today is the day for honesty. It is the first sign of integrity, honesty with others, and honesty with our children and honesty with ourselves. Sometimes the best answer, the honest answer is just “I don’t know.”

     We need to speak the truth and the foundation of truth is the way of the Torah. Judaism teaches us that Torah was the blueprint for the creation of the world. Torah is the place we can return to when we want to be assured that we are going in the right direction. When we are not sure what is true or how we should decide, Torah is a map that helps us find our way.

     I believe that everyone has the experience of standing their ground, only to have that ground pulled out from under them. We are sometimes shaken to our core, when what we believe in with all our might, turns out to be a lie. We are sometimes so invested in what we believe that when the truth is finally revealed, the hurt inside cuts deep and needs help to heal. When we learn Torah we hear the voice of the king again. When we learn Torah we hear the voices of our ancestors who committed themselves to these words and ideas. Human beings keep reading the words of Torah because they always ring true. They are a compass that continually points us in the right direction. Torah is our straight path through the endless noise and madness that fills the world. Torah is the example we hold up so that even the insane can understand that there is a different and better way to live our lives.

     Like everything else, Torah does not come easily. Its words have meaning beyond just what we read in the text; Torah needs to be studied, and we need to study it ourselves. We can read and hear what generations of scholars have found in this holy text, but we also need to examine the words of Torah through our own lens. It is through the study of the text of Torah that we can hear the voice of God encouraging us on our way.

     Certainly, Torah has been used in unscrupulous ways. Those who believe in evil and injustice in every generation have tried to twist the words of Torah into a trap for fools. They can give thousands of “proofs” that Torah is not true, and religion is dangerous, and Judaism is the ultimate conspiracy. That is the path of idolatry. Once Torah is defamed, then anything else can be designated as a god. But there is only one God; there is only one Torah. Our Torah is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. When we study Torah, when we make its words our own, it is our source of life, of real living in this world. When the madness of the world seems to take everything away from us, it is Torah that brings us back from the brink. With Torah we don’t have to fight anymore. We learn that the paths of Torah make this world more pleasant, and all her paths are peace. Everything we need is found in our faith in Torah. We are not called upon to end the insanity. Torah only calls upon us to lives of truth and peace. These are the fruits of the tree planted for us long ago. The tree of life, the Torah. And we become the prophets who must spread sanity no matter how mad the world may be.

     Finally, as our world goes more and more insane, we have the untainted food from the past year to help us ride out the curse that envelops us. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and from our ancestors we can find the truth that eludes us. To live with a sense of integrity we need to know where our sense of integrity comes from. Our Machzor is filled with references to people of integrity who lived a long time ago. We don’t call up their names in order to use them as models of what a life of integrity looks like. Our patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the matriarchs; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, our ancestors Moses, Aaron, Deborah Elijah and all the others were not always perfect when it came to integrity. They all had their flaws, and we learn from both the good and the bad in their lives. The fact of the matter is that no matter how good they might have been, we have, in our own day and age the ability to surpass their examples.

     One of my teachers in rabbinical school would always remind us that no matter how wise a sage might be, we students have the capacity to be better than they ever were. How is that possible? They might be intellectual and spiritual giants, but we can still see farther than they could because we sit on their shoulders. Those who came before us are the foundation upon which we sit, and from our vantage point, many more things are possible.

     We all have people from our past who were our mentors; they are the shoulders upon which we built our lives. I sit on the shoulders of my father who taught me the value of a good name. I sit on the shoulders of my mother, who taught me the importance of kindness. I sit on the shoulders of the old men who were regulars at the first minyan I attended as a rabbinical student, who taught me about the wisdom and dignity that comes with old age. I sit on the shoulders of my teachers who opened my eyes to the wonder of the world in which I live. As the Midrash says, others planted trees so we could enjoy the fruit. We must plant our own trees so those who will come after us will also have fruit to enjoy.

There is a song by Doug Cotler, a Jewish songwriter and singer, together with Lanny and Steve Cotler, which speaks of this; Here are his lyrics for the song Standing on the Shoulders:

In the garden there's a tree
Planted by someone who only imagined me.
What love! What vision!
I marvel at the gift.
No fruit could be sweeter than this.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me
As my people went from land to land,
Something passed from hand to hand.
And it isn't just the words and stories
Of the ancient laws and golden glories.
It's the way we study
The Book we study.
It's the way we study the way.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me
Today my life is full of choice,
Because a young man raised his voice.
Because a young girl took a chance,
I am freedom's inheritance. 
Years ago, they crossed the sea,
And they made a life that's come to me.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me
So, in the garden I’ll plant a seed,
A tree of life for you to read.
The fruit will ripen in the sun.
The words will sound when I am gone.
These are the things I pass along:
The fruit, the book, and the song.
I’m standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before me

     Integrity means being true to those who came before us and holding that teaching so we can pass it on to the next generation. It does not mean that we don’t change it or grow it or shape it for our time and our situation, but we must be true to its charge and true to our duty to pass it along to keep ourselves and those who came before us alive.

     On this holy day of the year let us not just recite Yizkor, but reflect on the lives that came before us, the shoulders upon which we stand. This is no wobbly base; it is a solid foundation. When the world is full of madness, these shoulders we stand on are the rock that keeps us from washing away like some ship that has lost its anchor. No matter which way the winds might blow, we stand firm and certain on the shoulders of those who loved us.

     On this day of Yom Kippur, we imitate the angels. We don’t eat, we dress in white, and we offer praise to God. Now is the time to thank God for those who came before us. Those who planted trees so we could eat. Who taught us lessons to make us wise and who gave us our song to sing. The time of Yizkor is here. Before we can look ahead for a good new year, we need to look back at those who made our lives possible. Now is the time to remember them. Now is the time to honor them. Now is the time to remember our love for them. Please rise at this time, as we prepare to remember those whom we loved with the words of Yizkor.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784