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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Yom Kippur - 2012/5773


The Answer is in the Question
Yom Kippur Morning–5773

Everything a question with us.  Why?  For concise answers?  As a way to learn?  To question authority?  Imitatio Dei?  Or as an invitation for engagement, to develop companionship, to build relationship—as an opportunity to change, perhaps to heal the world.  The answers, of course, are in the questions.

This morning, then, three Jewish stories—raising three Jewish questions.  The first is the story of a man named Jonah, the story Andrew Appel, Nikki Levin, and Scott Stern will read to us this afternoon as our prophetic reading from the draft of our new mahzors, our new prayer books.  This story is a bit odd, if you will.  Jonah ends up being the most successful of all the prophets in the prophetic books.  In just four chapters, Jonah utters only five words to all the sinners of Nineveh, all 120,000 of them, and the Ninevites, all 120,000 of them, repent.  Jeremiah, in all of his 52 chapters, never brought about repentance.  Ezekiel, in all of his 48 chapters and with all of his incredible visions, never got one Jew to repent.  And Jonah was, at best, the reluctant prophet.  He did not want to go to Nineveh.  In fact, he blew God off, if you will, and tried to hide in the bowels of a ship sailing as far away from Nineveh as possible.  God responded by bringing a great storm which ultimately got Jonah thrown into the sea.  There, in the belly of a great fish (not a whale—that is Pinocchio, a different story), Jonah is forced to confront his sin and repent and then, with the assistance of that large fish, is brought to Nineveh.  Yes, Jonah fulfills his mission–but is then distressed that he succeeds, so distressed that he would rather die.  In an odd ending, he cares more about the gourd over his head than the 120,000 Ninevites who were saved.  The story should have a happy ending.  Yet so troubling a character Jonah was and so troubling the story of Jonah is that the rabbis added some tempering verses from Micah to end the prophetic reading. 

The story raises questions galore—including many questions in the story itself.  But until I read a superb sermon by Rabbi Edward Feinstein three years ago—and had the chance to learn from him this year and then saw an article by him in the current issue of Sh’ma magazine—I missed the most important question of all.  Perhaps I missed it for we only hear the story on Yom Kippur afternoon in English—and most translations treat it as an exclamation.  But the Hebrew makes clear that this is a question—or, perhaps, an interrobang—that combination of question and exclamation that is asked with incredulity.  Jonah has blown God off and fled and, now, the world is blowing apart.  And Jonah?  Sound asleep in the depths of the hold of the ship.  In the midst of the storm threatening the boat, the captain cries out the question, “How can you sleep?”

Jonah had his arguments.  He did not want to bother trying to save an enemy, Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrians who had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  He probably would have preferred that God destroy Nineveh.  Beyond that, the Ninevites were not Jewish—why should Jonah even care?!  Jonah lived in a world that, suggests Rabbi Feinstein, was neatly divided by clear binary terms:  “Us and them, our people and those people, people like us and people who are strange, good people and evil people, citizens and aliens….No tolerance is demanded.  No understanding.”  No questions.  No change.  In short, “those people, they are not my problem.”       

Jonah, you see, has become God’s problem.  For God, as Rabbi Schaalman reminded us when we celebrated Rosh Hashanah and as our liturgy reminds us always, is melech ha-olam, is ruler of the entire universe, not just of Jonah’s world.  And, having created Adam and Eve and the entire universe 5773 years ago, God is a global God, the One who is concerned about all humanity, the One who depends upon us.  God wants Jonah to understand that, whatever differences exist between us, we are all one, we are interdependent.  God is not the God of either/or; God is the God of both/and.  God even teaches us through the prophet Isaiah, “Blessed be Egypt, my people, and Syria, the work of my hands, and Israel, my inheritance.”  So God tries to teach this lesson to Jonah.  You, Jonah, want to escape and be alone?  Welcome to the belly of the fish.  Now you can be as self-absorbed as you want to be, away from any of the worries of the world.   Adds Rabbi Feinstein to God’s words, “Oh, how does it smell?  A little like death?”  

And who is Jonah?  He is each and every one of us whenever we turn away from God’s larger world whether it be Sudan or Syria—or the 1 and a half billion people in this world without access to safe drinking water—or the 50 million Americans who may go hungry any day.  That is why sanctuaries have windows—not mirrors.  And there is nothing to see in the belly of the fish.  The ancient rabbis interpreted the words from Psalm 121, “God is your shadow” to mean:  If you stand down, then the shadow of God will be contracted and shriveled, but if you stand erect, the shadow will expand, grow mighty and be enlarged.”  Adds Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Rabbi Feinstein’s predecessor at Valley Beth Shalom, “As we stand, God will be elevated.  We live in God’s shadow and God’s shadow lives in us.” 

How can you sleep?

Now, a second story, with a second Jewish question, the story just read as our prophetic reading for this Yom Kippur morning by Amy Kazilsky and by Mark Brickman.   One can only begin to imagine what kind of a neighbor Isaiah might have been.  He should have been happy, overjoyed at his historical circumstances.  Still, it would be so much easier to have some priest as a neighbor.  Quiet, everything in its place.  But a prophet, this Isaiah?  Not a happy camper.  Thundering loudly, protesting in the street, a frustrated whistleblower uncovering hypocrisy and deception and false piety.  For this Isaiah, prophesying either during preparation for return from Babylonian exile in the latter part of the 6th century before the Common Era or even as late as Ezra and Nehemiah after the return, this Isaiah clearly was concerned about the growing gaps in Israelite society between rich and poor allowing the rich to exploit the poor, between management and labor (without making any, uh, passing references to any current labor strife), between priestly cult practices and the behavior of the people, between self-absorption and concern for others.    

We enter the story on some kind of fast day as the people gather for a convocation.  Look back on page 347, the third paragraph of the reading.  Storms Isaiah, “Because on your fast day you think only of business, and oppress all your workers!  Because your fasting leads only to strife and discord, and hitting out with cruel fist!  Such a way of fasting on this day will not help you to be heard on high.”  And then the question:  “Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies; is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes; Do you call that a fast?”  Isaiah knew that people, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, “may not drown out the cries of the oppressed with the noise of hymns, nor buy off the Eternal with increased offerings.  The prophets disparaged the cult when it became a substitute for righteousness.” 

But Isaiah is not yet done; he is prepared to tell everyone what kind of fast God desires.  And the list is powerful.  A fast to unlock shackles of injustice; to let the oppressed go free and break every chain; to share food with the hungry and housing with the homeless; to clothe those in tatters and to reach out to one’s own kin.  No, Isaiah is neither critical of fasting nor of priestly cultic practices.  What angers him most of all is hypocrisy.  In short, praying and fasting are not enough.  Sometimes we even have to take our fasts into the public domain.  Ultimately, fasting is to bring one closer to God—and closer to all of God’s children. 

And to whom is Isaiah thundering?  Not only to those who have returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia.  Isaiah is speaking to us and demanding to know.  Again, the answers are in the questions.  Just as God led us from bondage to freedom, so, too, must we break the bonds.  Just as God’s first act for Adam and Eve after God created them was to make them coats of skin, so, too, must we clothe the naked.  I know, you may have pictured God as a liberator but never as a tailor.  Why the concern for clothing?  For to be without clothing is to be poor.  Thus, we are like God when we clothe the naked.  God has ensured enough food for all, even in this crowded world.  To be like God, we must ensure its distribution.  And just as God tries to spread over all of us a sukkat shalom, a shelter of peace, so must we attempt to shelter all of God’s children.   So begin when this day is over.  After you fill your stomachs when this day is over, take the bags you received from our congregation and fill them with food; then bring them back here to make sure it goes to the Jewish Food Pantry and to the Hunger Task Force.  Fill the MAZON envelopes minimally with the amount reflecting the money you did not spend on meals today to help feed those 50 million Americans and the nearly 25% of all Israelis who stare at food insecurity every day.  Talk to my wife about joining the Crop Walk next month.  Become engaged with our Salinsky program; come learn with Neil Salowitz of Mazon’s Board.  Yet, even as you do, know that thousands will die, this day alone, from hunger and from lack of shelter.

Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?

And now, the third story, the one we read earlier this morning back on pages 304-308 of our mahzors, the one we read each and every evening and morning every time we pray.  (You can look back at those pages if you like; however, if you want a more faithful translation, take a look at pages 167-173).   In fact, the story constitutes the heart of our ma’ariv and shaharit services, our evening and morning services.  The story can be found in the three blessings which surround Shema; in fact, this section of the service is known as Shema u’virchoteha, the Shema and its blessings.  The first blessing comes right after Barchu, the call to worship.  It describes the relationship between God and the world; in simple terms, God created the world.  With slight variations between the evening service and the morning service, this first blessing praises the One who brings on the evening, the One who forms light.  The second blessing continues the story.  For it describes the relationship between God and Israel; in simple terms, it is all about love.  God so loved us, the children of Israel, that God gave us Torah.  Ahavat olam, never-ending love, in the evening; ahavah rabba, lots of love, in the morning as we move from creation to revelation.  The mantra of Shema along with a list of ways we can love God back interrupts the story.   But the story concludes with act three.  Imagine a triangle or, for that matter, a magen David, a star of David, with two lines emanating from God, one to the world and the other to the people Israel.  Creation marks the first and revelation the second.  They sit on the points of the reverse triangle in the star.  That leaves the line between Israel and the world.  Do you know what that relationship is, that third point of the reverse triangle?  Well, here is your hint—this is where we sing Mi Chamocha, the words we sang out when God saved us at the Sea of Reeds.  The relationship is redemption—and redemption is our task.  Just as God redeemed us, saved us, in the past, we must now redeem, we must save the world by making this the world God desires.  And the Star of David map I just tried to draw with my words is, basically, German-Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption. 

Yet more.  For we generally tell this story here, in this place, in the synagogue, with our congregation.  And this setting adds to the story.  As we sit together here–young and old, rich and poor, straight and gay, believer and agnostic–we know that our divisions diminish.  For we are all God’s children, all of us equal.  As the old line goes, nine rabbis a minyan does not make, but ten shoemakers surely.  And we come here to observe our most important times, thus imbuing them with eternity, with sacredness.  A kehilla kedosha, a holy congregation is, in Fran Chortek’s words–“connection, reciprocal responsibility, transcendent purpose.”  You see, nothing is in isolation.  Everything is in engagement.  The question is the invitation; the story, the building block; the relationship, the result.  The answer is in the question.

How can you sleep?  Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?  Oh, the third question?  Not in the story—but in each and every one of you.  It is the first question, the question Rabbi Schaalman taught us, the one God asked Adam and Eve, the one we often ask God, the one I ask you.  Ayekah—where are you?  In other words, what questions are you asking?  With whom are you learning?  What are you doing to save the world?

Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784