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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Kol Nidre - 2011/5772

Kol Nidre –5772

Nine days ago, as we began Rosh Hashanah, I talked about wrongology, the study of being wrong.  Using these immortal words of Revolutionary War General Artemus Ward: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble.  It’s the things we know that just ain’t so,” and then these of Moliere: “It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right” as springboards, I took Kathryn Schultz’s witty and provocative book entitled Being Wrong:  Adventures in the Margin of Error as our guidebook to people being wrong.  And as I shared stories of people messing up, I also sought to understand the reasons we keep knowing things that just are not so.     

Take, for example, optical illusions.  We work under the assumption that we see the world as it is even though we really see the world as we are.  Our senses, much as we depend upon them for all the evidence we receive, filter through who we are.  The example I used was of a video I saw at Kellogg.  Told to count the number of times in the video a ball was passed among a group of people on a basketball court, nearly all of us missed the person in a gorilla outfit who wandered out into the middle of the court among all the players, stood there momentarily to beats its chest, and then wandered off.  We saw what we were told to look for, not what was actually there. 

So take two more famous optical illusions, so famous that I can describe them to you and you will know of them almost immediately.  Both contain single images that can be perceived in two different ways.  One—the face/vase illusion–contains an image that can be seen either as two male profiles in black facing each other or as a white vase (or, as my wife would see it, bringing herself to the picture, a Kiddush cup); the other contains an image that can either be seen as an attractive younger woman or as a much less attractive older woman.    

So, now, come with me to a magnificent piece of art, one of Tobi Kahn’s eight panels which comprise that necklace of silver and gold which envelops and embraces us in this, our sacred space.  This will, I know, be much harder for those of you sitting back in Surlow Hall—albeit I do not know what might appear on the monitors.  Still—come with me and look at this panel—take a moment–and then share with those around you what you see, what you observe, what you perceive.    

When I have done this exercise with our younger kids in the religious school, one of the first responses I hear is, ready for this, Batman.  And I guess that I can see Batman in the panel—albeit I surely never saw Batman before one of our kids was absolutely sure he was there.  I still have not found either Robin or Alfred.  But a more recent response took my breath away.  Looking at the panel, someone else called out Satan.

It was not easy for me to make, at the time, a quick response.  In fact, all I could do was move the conversation back to Batman.  But surely the Satan that child saw was, of course, the Satan we know that just ain’t so.  You know–that demonic Satan at the center of hell in the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno; that fallen angel of Milton’s Paradise Lost, with horns and wings and a tail and perhaps as many as three heads; that evil counterpoint from the book of Revelation to the good God, whose darkness threatens God’s light and whose destruction threatens God’s creation.  This Satan has become the independent personification of all evil.  This is also the Satan that has been turned on us or even, for so many anti-Semites throughout history, become us. 

Then there is another Satan we know that just ain’t so—and that’s the Satan which does not even exist in Judaism.  For we have no fallen angels, no rivals of God.  As the opening verse of Psalm 24—which is the verse over our ark doors—teaches us:  The earth is the Eternal’s and all its fullness; the world and all who dwell upon it.  So we, in our comfortable rationalism, just know that a Satan in Judaism simply ain’t so. 

Yet consider the prayer we will shortly offer unto God, the prayer we offer unto God at every evening service.  It is the last of the prayers or blessings surrounding the Shema and is called by its first word—hashkiveinu.  A request for shelter and protection through the perils of the night, you know it best by the melody Craig Taubman wrote to which we often sing its words (SING HASHKIVEINU).  So look at its words on page 258.  In fact, look at the first word of the fifth line of Hebrew—yes, the Hebrew word is S-T-N.  Used here as a noun taken from the root Shin—Tet—Nun meaning to hinder or to oppose or to obstruct and, perhaps, to spoil, S-T-N appears in our tradition as a mal’ach, as a member of God’s heavenly host of angels.  As with all angels, S-T-N has one function assigned by God.  S-T-N, then, is a servant of God whose specific job description or function is as God’s DA or prosecuting attorney.  In other words, of all of God’s angels, S-T-N got the most difficult position and, therefore, gets the dirtiest jobs.  He runs sting operations, if you will, on folks like Job.  He has to be God’s tough guy, if you will, when some angel needs to ensure the return of Moses’ soul to God as Moses’ life in this world must come to an end.  And he gets the ongoing and never-ending responsibility of reminding God of our sins constantly.   Working always under God’s direction and with God’s consent, S-T-N is, in Bernard Bamberger’s words, “a spy, stoolpigeon, agent provocateur, prosecutor, [and] hangman [whose primary task] is to test the genuineness of [hu]man virtue.”

S-T-N appears several times in Tanach, in our Scriptures, and the ancient rabbis expand his role in later Talmudic and Midrashic literature.  He confuses Balaam, challenges Job and eggs on David in Tanach; the rabbis see him vividly in akedat Yitzhak, in the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh Hashanah, teasing and taunting Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael and Sarah.  According to the rabbis, he even has to take over for the crying angels Michael and Gavriel to bring an end to Moses’ life.  In fact, S-T-N’s role so expands that he also becomes, at various times, Yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, and malach ha-mavet, the angel of death.  Time and time and time again, S-T-N does God’s dirty work faithfully and gets very little credit for his trouble.  Bothered that God thought Job was equally as righteous as Abraham, S-T-N suggested to God that Job could not be compared to Abraham until he, too, had been tested.  Thus, working under God’s orders, the sting operation if you will.  Wrote Rabbi Yitzhak:  S-T-N had more trouble than Job.  It was as if a master should tell his slave ‘break the cask, but save the wine.’ 

S-T-N can be, in Maureen Kendler’s description, “mischievous, annoying, and disruptive.”  He is a trickster who challenges our complacency daily.  And that is why S-T-N is among those perils we may encounter in Hashkiveinu.  Again, the words on p. 258:  “v-ha-seir s-t-n mei’aleinu u’mei-ahareinu—remove S-T-N from before us and from behind us…”  Why before and behind?  Because S-T-N works both sides of us.  Notes Rabbi Jack Riemer through a Hassidic text, “when we are about to carry out a mitzvah, S-T-N comes before us and says, ‘Why should you do it?  Let somebody else do it!’  Name any mitzvah and S-T-N will stand in front of us and give us all kind of reasons not to do it.  “Give tzedakah to a beggar?  Nah—he’ll only throw it away on drugs or booze.”  Then, if someone can still get past S-T-N and fulfill the mitzvah like giving tzedakah to the beggar, S-T-N will come up behind us and pat us on the back and say, ‘Wow—what a great person you are’ and we will, unfortunately, believe it.

And S-T-N is particularly active earlier in these days leading up to Kol Nidre.  So a story, albeit an ancient one, of a sage named Pelimo.  Pelimo would say every day, “An arrow in S-T-N’s eyes” to show how little he thought of S-T-N’s power.  Then, on the eve of Yom Kippur to teach him a lesson, S-T-N appears as a beggar and knocks on Pelimo’s door.  Pelimo simply brings him some bread to eat outside.  S-T-N responds, “On such a day before Yom Kippur, I should eat outside?”  So Pelimo brings him into his house and sets the bread beside him—but does not seat him at his table with his family.  Asks S-T-N, “On such a day before Yom Kippur, I should eat alone?’  Pelimo finally sits him at his table with his family.  Responds S-T-N, “On such a day before Yom Kippur, I should have to ask for a drink?”  He then begins to act repulsively, coughing and spitting into his drink and scratching at his sores. Pelimo berates S-T-N for his behavior and S-T-N pretends to die.  Word gets out the Pelimo had caused a beggar’s death.  Horrified at what he believes he has caused, Pelimo flees to hide out in, of all places, a latrine.  S-T-N, seeing how Pelimo is now hurting, reveals himself as Pelimo asks, “Then how should I speak?”  Responds S-T-N, “My lord should say: ‘May God, the Merciful One, rebuke S-T-N.’  Explained Admiel Kosman about this story: 

The Talmudic narrator reveals to us the extent to which S-T-N as beggar bothers the members of the household because they see him as such a repulsive and threatening stranger, who is unfit to sit in their company while, on the other, the narrator shows us, in slow motion, how the beggar infiltrates the very heart of the family center…providing them with a true vision of their religious world, that is so complacent and self-confident that it directs its arrogant arrows at S-T-N—and thus at God.

And if you think the story is ancient, when was the last time you closed your door, literally or figuratively, on someone who was hungry for physical or emotional sustenance, on a stranger, on one who was different or sick, on one who cried out for your help. 

S-T-N forces us to see ourselves not as we wish but as we are.  In that sense, S-T-N becomes a mirror to our souls.  No, S-T-N is not Satan, the personification of evil.  But S-T-N is surely the personification of sin that leads to death.  And while the many texts and stories and prayers regarding S-T-N enable rabbinic discussions on the nature of humankind and on the amazing ability we have to sin, S-T-N is kind of like an optical illusion.  Now you see him, now you don’t.  We may not see S-T-N, but deep within we perceive S-T-N’s presence.  Noted Ben-Sira over 2000 years ago, “When a fool curses S-T-N, he curses his own soul.”  S-T-N dwells within.  And before we go to sleep at night, we can hear S-T-N’s voice—in front of us and behind us.

From Kol Nidre through Ne’ila, S-T-N’s presence has eased a bit.  We are told that this is the one day in the year that S-T-N is powerless—perhaps that is why he was so busy these last nine days.  Some say we have fooled him by wearing white; he cannot recognize us because today we, ourselves, are looking and acting like angels.  We try neither to eat nor to drink; we reach out to God like we do no other time in the year.  Others say that God and S-T-N race around this day placing our good deeds on one pan of the scales and our sins on the other.  In what someone described as a comic struggle, God will win today simply by taking off some of those sins from the scales while S-T-N is running all over the earth gathering them.  Having won for this day, allowing us to be reborn, God then chains S-T-N  up through Ne’ilah.

But, trust me, S-T-N will be back tomorrow night.  So another story about S-T-N.  One day, S-T-N gathered all of his assistants together to discuss the best way of destroying the meaning of people’s lives.  One suggested, “Tell them there is no God.”

“Nah,” responded another.  “That won’t do much.  Tell them rather there is no judgment for sin and they have nothing to worry about.”

“I’ve got an even better idea,” said a third.  “Just tell them their sins are so great they will never be forgiven.”

Satan mulled over the suggestions and then concluded, “Nope, such things won’t make too much of a difference.  Tell them simply, ‘There is plenty of time!’”

Since Steve Jobs died on Wednesday, many of us have heard again the address he delivered at Stanford’s commencement six and a half years ago.  In one paragraph, he shared these words: 

When I was 17 I read a quote that went something like “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something. Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important thing I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.

S-T-N will tell us, “There is plenty of time.”    The Talmud writes in the name of Rabbi Eliezer:  “Repent one day before your death.”  Asked his disciples: “How does anyone know on what day he or she will die?”  Responded Eliezer:  “All the more reason to do teshuvah today for tomorrow you may die.  A whole person’s life should be spent in doing teshuvah.”

Satan will tell us, “There is plenty of time.”  So now let us go back to Tobi Kahn’s panel, the optical illusion with which I began my sermon tonight.  Look again, take a few moments—and think if what you see, observe, perceive, has changed since last you looked.  You may even wish to share thoughts with those around you.  Without any factual basis, I have always thought that Tobi used the words from the second verse of the 24th Psalm as his inspiration:  “Ki Hu al yamim y’sada v’al n’harot y’chon’nenah—for God has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.”  Tobi’s work takes us to God’s creation of this world, perhaps to those seas and rivers, those oceans and nether-streams with God’s word transforming chaos into order.  Tobi’s wife, novelist Nessa Rapoport, described this panel with these poetic words:  “First light, assembled in gold embrace, hosanna, lucent sanctuary, poured song of ascending praise.”

I see us, dressed in white, reaching out to God.  And I see God’s golden embrace, yearning to envelop us.  Repentance is that first step.  But teshuva is more, a turning to God and away from S-T-N, a restoration of that relationship that caps the restoration of our other relationships.  The repentance—we still have 24 hours left of that hard work.  True teshuva, that reconciliation of heaven with earth, teshuva we will continue to do our entire lives. 

So, S-T-N, we know you will be back—telling us that there is plenty of time.  We might even recognize you—not in the panels around us but within our hearts and souls, as we pray to God with the words of hashkiveinu

Sat, September 23 2023 8 Tishrei 5784