Making Choices (Kol Nidrei 5781, Rabbi David S. Widzer; 9/27/2020)
In the late spring each year, the Reform Movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, hosts a full three-day, in-person seminar for rabbis who will be moving to a new pulpit over the summer. Called “The First 100 Days,” it’s designed to give rabbis tried-and-true tools to manage the transition and settle into their new position. Among the pieces of advice traditionally given: use the High Holy Days as a time to introduce yourself to the congregation. “Tell them who you are,” we are coached, “tell them what your vision is for congregational life, what you believe about God, Torah, and the Jewish people. Let them feel like they know you.”
That’s what they tell us rabbis in an ordinary year. This year, the seminar was held completely online in two half-day sessions. And after reviewing transition theory and change management ideas and giving us all the usual tried-and-true advice, recognizing the facts of the current situation, the organizers realistically cautioned us, “We don’t really know how or if ANY of this will apply to you this year. Please let us know how it goes!”
Tonight marks the end of day 89 of my first 100 days as the new rabbi of Temple B’nai Shalom. And I’ll share that much of the advice from the CCAR has been helpful, even as we all know this has been no ordinary year. On Rosh HaShannah, I spoke about being both broken and blessed, and about the boxes of our lives and holding onto hope. Not exactly a discussion of my vision of congregational life or Judaism, but not exactly not, either.
Tonight and tomorrow are the summit of our High Holy Days, this period of introspection and reflection, as we consider what our past year has been and what we hope for the future. When we contemplate the year to come and how we want to live, we realize that we each will have choices to make. And, as your rabbi, I see my role as encouraging you to think about how Judaism plays a role in those choice and in how we lead our lives.
Judaism has guidance for us in every kind of choice we will each face in the year to come, but tonight I want to explore three specific areas: choices about the words we use and how we communicate; choices about the actions we take and how we interact with one another; and choices we can make when we feel like we have no choices.
We know the potential power of words. Our Torah begins with the Creation of the world, enacted by words. “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.” Later, God brings the animals to Adam “to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name.” In Aramaic, an ancient language closely linked to Hebrew, God’s power to create using words is described as “ibra k’dibra,” which means “I have created as I have spoken.” As I learned from Rabbi Larry Kushner, “ibra k’dibra” may also be the source of a phrase that is a staple of stage magicians everywhere: “abra kadabra.” The magician says the “magic words” and things appear. We know that words have power. Kol Nidrei itself is a testament to that power. The vows and promises of our lips carry such weight that we must ask through a legal formula to be released from them if we have not been able to fulfill them.
If we are not careful, the words we choose can be used to hurt others. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” just isn’t true. Our Scripture knows better. Mavet v’chayim b’yad-lashon, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue,” says Proverbs. The prophet Jeremiah compares the tongue to a sharpened arrow, while the Psalmist imagines the words themselves to be arrows, let loose from the mouth like a bow. In explaining the text, the Talmud reasons that, while the sword kills only up close, one can kill with an arrow from far away. So, too, words can have a harmful impact, even from a distance.
We know this to be true. How many of us have been hurt by, or seen others suffer from, what our tradition calls Lashon HaRa, “the evil tongue,” gossip? Once words are released into the world, nothing can take them back. (Many of you saw me teach this lesson in a story at a Family Service with a tube of toothpaste that cannot be refilled once it is squeezed out!) Our teens, living in an era of social media, know this, too. They can tell us how easy it is to send and receive anonymous messages. Cyber-bullying is real and it is happening all around us. Internet trolls intentionally rile up people with derogatory messages. Never has it been so easy to use our words to hurt or belittle other people.
Our hurtful words have power. But Judaism teaches us to use our words for the good. In a passage from Torah that we will read tomorrow morning, we are guided to ensure that our words match our values. In Deuteronomy, chapter 30, we are told that the teachings of Torah are not too far away from us and not too difficult for us to understand. They aren’t up in the high heavens or over some sea that we’d have to send someone to get them for us. No, the text tells us, “Ki karov eilecha hadavar m’od, b’ficha uvil’vav’cha la’asoto,” “for the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you can do it.” Torah is already in our hearts and in our mouths. That’s not just Torah, as in the words on the scroll. That’s Torah as in the wisdom and values of our tradition. That means words that recognize and respect the image of God inherent in every human being. That means words that offer strength to the weary, comfort to the bereaved, encouragement to those who despair. That means words of kindness and compassion. Each one of us can open our mouths and have Torah come out. The things we say should reflect our Jewish values. The words we use should convey our ideals. Before we open our mouths, we must choose how we communicate with one another, we must choose our words with careful consideration so that we can open our mouths and let Torah come out. The choices we make in the words we use can be guided by Judaism.
Judaism can also guide us in the choices we make about the actions we take. Each day, we are faced with a hundred decisions about what we do. Some are small or less serious: Do we wear the black pants or the grey pants? Do we brush our top teeth first or the bottoms first? Do we want turkey or pastrami? (Pastrami. Pastrami is always the right choice.)
Some choices are larger and more important: how we treat other people, how we conduct our business or our schoolwork, whether or not we act morally and with integrity. Judaism has guidance for us for these choices. The most famous maxim was taught in a Talmudic story about a person who came before the sage Rabbi Hillel. “Teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot,” the person demanded. Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another person. That is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn!” Hillel’s phrasing of the Golden Rule in the negative (“that which is hateful to you, do not do to another person”) is mirrored in the Torah itself as a positive – “love your neighbor as yourself.” Positive or negative, this basic principle of Judaism tells us how to make choices in what we do and how we relate to other people.
Our tradition is rich with guidelines of what to do or not do and the values that guide our actions: the 613 mitzvot, commandments, in Torah, aphorisms in Pirkei Avot, rabbinic rulings in Mishnah and Talmud. As a non-Orthodox, modern, progressive Jewish community, we have the opportunity to learn from this tradition and choose how these teachings play a role in our lives. The range of behavioral areas covered by our texts is quite extensive: how we run our businesses and grow our crops; how we treat workers, the poor, the elderly, the stranger, and others in need of care and assistance; family affairs; other aspects of civil and criminal law. In all of these areas, Judaism offers guidance in what actions we take.
I tell my 10th grade Confirmation students: when you find yourself in one of those situations where you need to make a choice about what to do, I don’t really expect that you will stop everything, sit down and ponder, hmmmm, what does Judaism say about this? What does the Talmud say? What would Rabbi Hillel do? But, I tell my students, I do expect that the Jewish values we have imparted to you, that you have been learning and living your whole lives, that these are embedded in you and will be part of your calculus in thinking about what you will do. And that, we pray, is true for all of us.
Now, I’m likely not the first rabbi to share with you the ideas that Jewish values and teaching can guide our choices of words and actions. And there’s no question that we will face challenging situations in the new year about how to use our words or what course of action we should pursue. But Judaism also give us guidance when we HAVE no choices, when things befall us or we are susceptible to the machinations of the world around us. This feels particularly important at this moment.
There is certainly a strain in classic Jewish theology that believes in a pre-ordained world, where God is in control of each and everything that happens. But even among our sages who hold that theistic view, there are those who nevertheless embrace the notion of free will, of human choice. The Talmudic Rabbi Akiva taught that everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice exists. And Bachya ibn Pakuda, a twelfth-century Spanish Jew, believed that even if things are pre-ordained by God, we nevertheless have the obligation to make choices as if we had free will. Believing that we can influence our own morality, believing that our choices make a difference, is fundamental to what it means to be a human being.
The modern Jewish philosopher, Viktor Frankl, taught that there were always choices to be made, even when it seemed there were none. As Rabbi Harold Kushner explains in his forward to Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl believed that “forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you feel and do about what happens to you.” Given that Frankl was a survivor of multiple concentration camps during the Holocaust, that is a remarkable sentiment. We may not always be able to control what we are subject to, but we can control how we react to the situation and what attitude and actions we adopt.
There’s an oft-told parable, not explicitly from Jewish tradition, about how we handle situations that are beyond our control. Imagine three pots of boiling water. Into one, place a carrot. Into another, place an egg. Into the third, place a handful of coffee beans. After 20 minutes, the carrot will become soft and squishy. The egg will become hard-boiled. The coffee beans will have infused the water around them with, well, coffee. In the parable, all three face the same adversity, the boiling water, but each undertakes a different reaction. The strong sturdy carrot becomes softened and easily squashed. The fragile egg becomes hardened. The coffee beans change the nature of the situation by sharing of their essence. When we find ourselves in a situation we cannot control, we have choices to make about how we respond. Does our steely resolve dissolve? Does our sensitivity harden? Can we find a way to change, not the situation itself, but how we experience the situation, infusing it with our own true nature?
Even when things are hard, and there’s no denying that things are hard these days, we nevertheless have choices about how we respond. We can chosse how we face challenges and circumstances beyond our control. We can be scared or brave, or scared AND brave. We may be anxious or fearful, resolute or resigned, troubled or tranquil. Judaism gives us tools to cope with what happens to us. This isn’t always easy. And we don’t always succeed, not every second. But tikvah, hope, emunah, faith, and kehillah, community, can endow us with the ability to face those things we cannot change. In installing Joshua with the leadership of the Israelites when he knew he was going to die, Moses tells Joshua “Chazak ve’ematz,” “Be strong and of good courage.” We can heed those words, as well.
Even if these were ordinary times, which they clearly aren’t, even if the year ahead turns out to be an ordinary year, which it won’t be, we will face choices in our lives. We will have to choose how we use our words and communicate with other people. Do we engage in Lashon HaRa, the evilness of the tongue, or do we open our mouths and let words shaped by Jewish values emerge? We will have to choose how we interact with one another and what actions we take. Will we let ourselves be guided towards goodness by the precepts and teachings from our tradition? And we will surely face circumstances where we have no agency except in how we respond to situations beyond our control. Will we be determined and resolute and face them with hope, faith, and the strength of the community around us?
In all of these situations, Judaism offers values and tools we need in order to make good choices.
May we take advantage of the wisdom of our heritage.
May we find the right way, for each of us, that Judaism plays an important role in these choices and in how we lead our lives.
In this new year, O God, may we choose well and may our choices be for good.
Kein yehi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
And let us say, Amen. Genesis 1:3.  Genesis 2:19.  Prov 18:21.  Jer 9:7; Psalm 64:4.  Arachin 15b. An interesting discussion about Judaism and the power of words can be found at http://www.aish.com/jl/i/s/84939897.html. Many of this article’s ideas were helpful in shaping this sermon.  Deuteronomy 30:11-13.  Deuteronomy 30:14.  Shabbat 31a.  Leviticus 19:18.  Maimonides has a famous list of the 613 commandments. It is encapsulated, for the most part, here: https://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm  Pirkei Avot 3:15.  Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press), forward by Harold Kushner, p. x.  See Rabbi Eric Gurvis’s exploration of this topic, “Choosing in a Time of Uncertainty,” https://wupj.org/library/uncategorized/27771/choosing-in-a-time-of-uncertainty-parashat-nitzavim-vayelech/  There are several versions of this story on the internet. See https://www.huffpost.com/entry/carrot-coffee-egg-parable_b_1107628. Thanks to Rabbi Melinda Panken for sharing the parable with me.  Deuteronomy 31:7.