October 3, 2023 -
This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple contains the Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon from Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the Congregational Service on September 25, 2014. It was inspired by the unique study/grant received by Fairmount Temple from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and the John Templeton Foundation, to explore the lifting up of middot (“soul traits”) in our congregation’s learning, worship and caring community.) As part of the study of a new middah each month, Rabbi Nosanchuk taught at the service about bechirah points, the place where our instincts and cravings meet what we know to be right as we make choices. We encourage you to share this post with friends by email, or post to social media such as Facebook or Twitter. You may also add your voice to the discussion of these topics below this blog post, or reach out to Rabbi Nosanchuk at 216-464-1330 to find out how you can become part of one of our study groups exploring middot in our Jewish lives.
Last fall, just after Rosh Hashanah, a study was published revealing that at Harvard University, one in 10 incoming freshmen self-report that they have cheated on tests and more than 40% have cheated on homework (Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times, September 5, 2013)
I imagine a high percentage of the same population hasn’t cheated but did look the other way while other students cheated! To speak these shameful truths on the High Holy Days is to acknowledge the limits of human integrity. It is to say, before God and community: that for all our striving for societal betterment, even our people who carry the brightest intellects and knowledge struggle to discern the right choice to make. We struggle at the point where what we know to be right meets our craving to win at all costs – to win a game, to make an acquisition for our company, or to earn a higher academic grade.
Centuries of study in ethics and spiritual practice remind us all equally of this place. It isn’t hard to remember a time when your instinct to gratify met your instinct to do what you know to be right. This Jewish value is called a bechirah point, a place inside us where choices are made between instinct and insight. It is the place outside of us where all the people who ever encounter us, a stadium worth of individuals who will ever care whether we were honest with them, will find out they were cheering for the real deal, or whether we were ripping them off, earning their adoration while living and playing shamefully or dishonestly
At some point in our lives, all of us have been among the discouraged by seeing someone we admired fall from grace, someone who thought no one was looking, someone who thought they’d covered their tracks. Still, we empathize. That’s because chetim (transgressions) often don’t start with a monstrous act. They begin with a person who sets in mind a creative and worthwhile goal…but then gets tempted subtly in a different direction. They miss the mark. They wander over a boundary line. When confronted, excuses are proffered. When pressure is placed on them, more profound mistakes occur- stupid errors in judgment are committed. And then, there’s no way it goes unnoticed. If you don’t believe me, ask the owner of the Baltimore Ravens.
During these High Holy Days we speak comfortably of sins caused by Ones, duress or coercion. But it comes harder to the lips to admit our sins of Ratzon, transgressions based solely on our will and our desire. We’ve wanted to be noticed, to attain the perfect body or the perfect level of income. The sins of Ratzon are the hardest ones to confess on the High Holy Days. For we knew our action was based on greed, lust, gluttony or power but we did it anyway. So today on Rosh Hashanah, let us say what we feel but often fail to express all year: just how flawed, imperfect and human we are.
There is no better mirror for Jews to examine ourselves with than Torah. For the Torah’s composers place in God’s voice the reminder that blessing and curse are in constant interplay. They are in our hands to do and our mouths to speak. None of us is a vessel of perfect truth, beyond reproach. If you write plagiarized stories for a newspaper, you curse your readers. If you failed to get your college degree without cheating, you failed altogether. And if you shot up with steroids, you may have caused a whole generation of your fans to feel they lived a lie. That’s the thing about bechirah. Blessing and curse aren’t even an inch apart from one another. There is a short distance between them. So our disappointment is deepened all the more when a betrayal emerges from our circle of loved ones. These are the people who take our spirits on a meteoric rise or push us head-first into a pit of embarrassment and shame.
Joseph Epstein, American essayist and critic, editor of The American Spectator, speaks of the way our choices link with our values. He writes: “We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch or the country of our birth. We do not, most of us, choose to die, nor do we choose our time of death…But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how to live: courageously or with cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or in drift. We decide what is important and what is trivial, what to do and what to refuse. And no matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, they are ours to make. We decide. We choose, and so are our lives formed.” (Excerpted from “Reaching for Holiness: Study Guide for Selichot and Yom Kippur,” New York: URJ Press)
These challenging words are put to the test in the way we respond to the leaders and icons of Torah and Jewish tradition as they interact with each other. For example, let’s take a look at Chapter 12 of the Book of Numbers and see the choices of Miriam, Aaron and Moses. Now I’m sure many of you realize that our Jewish tradition bids us to be among the disciples of Aaron, to follow his peaceful values. In addition, many teachers encourage us to add Jewish rituals to honor Miriam, the prophetess of Israel’s freedom. So these two leaders are lifted up on a fairly high pedestal. But in Numbers 12 we see both Aaron and Miriam, at their very worst.
When Moses marries Zipporah, the Torah portrays Aaron and Miriam in the heat of gossip and slander. They each nastily speak against Moses and particularly mention the fact that he has married a Cushite, a non-Israelite woman. It is worth noting here that the Cushites were of a dark skin color. For after God directly rebukes them, as God departs from their tent, Miriam is stricken with snow-white scales. Her skin becomes white and leprous and she becomes ill and white as death itself, all as a result of her potentially racist slander against her sister-in-law.
As we examine this troubling text, when we read of the conflict Aaron and Miriam bring to their family, it hurts. For what kind of disciple of Aaron can we be expected to be when we witness him engage in such thoughtless behavior? Why should we see Miriam as worthy of praise when she takes cheap shots at a new member of her family? Our challenge is greater doubled if we in our own lives have been victim to such animosity when we joined the families of our partners!
But the response of Moses to the choices of his siblings is instructive. When he is informed of Miriam’s illness, does he foreswear a relationship with her, the sister he looked up to? Does he tell her she deserves her punishment? Does he abandon any admiration for her, saying she has wiped out the good she embraced throughout her life? No! Moses faces this bechirah point in a unique way… seeming to realize that estrangement from family would only add loneliness to the list of challenges he faced.
Of course he admired Miriam and Aaron! But the truth of their imperfections were exactly what made them human and worthy of both admiration and continued affection. Knowing his sister’s influence on his life had to be larger than this moment of disappointment, Moses chose to prayerfully cry out for her the very first Mi Sheberach in our tradition, five poignant soulful words, El Na R’fa Na La – please God, heal her, please.
Now some have said, “Of course Moses was willing to look past Miriam’s speaking against him. She was his sick sister!” But I will tell you from experience: sometimes the hardest people for us to show our grateful spirit, especially when it means forgiving them of serious flaws, are the ill, even dying members of our families. In the hospital rooms of Greater Cleveland, I’ve seen children and stepchildren, nieces, nephews, friends and partners, lash out at the ailing people in their lives. It is not out of malice. Instead what I see is a choice made out of a fear of abandonment or a tendency to see people we admire as weakened should they not be supermen and wonder women, capable of perfect strength and protection no matter the odds.
But where did we get that image? Where did we get the idea that the strength of a person’s substance ought to be measured against the record of a fictional super hero? We surely didn’t get it from Torah! In fact it is from identifying with the weaknesses of our ancestors that we learn the powerful values that help us grow. In Jewish spiritual practice, we examine the bechirah points of our ancestors as honestly as possible. For among the most powerful and valuable teachings in Judaism are those based on reconciliation, forgiveness and repentance. These values led our sages and can lead us to a deeper understanding of the human decency of which we are capable. That is why our rabbinic tradition seeks any possible opportunity for a sincerely repentant and contrite person to be accepted. For the prophets teach: what is good and what is required of us is not only to do justice and love mercy but to walk humbly with God.
To walk humbly with God…this is a lofty ideal for us to accept. But the prayers and ideals of our people are meant for us to aspire to all year long. Living justly and showing mercy are not enough– humility is required to serve God.
Another option is to accept that the people we admire who are facing a trauma or pain are waiting with us in a kind of a line. They are just ahead of us. Soon it will be our turn to go through some degree of pain, anxiety or heartbreak…and in that moment, what will we want? Only the tender care, mercy and willingness to reconcile that is within every person if they only find it and use it.
During the High Holy Days, we all admit to all of the transgressions in a communal voice. Al Chet Shechatanu, we say on Yom Kippur, we committed each sin. This ritual is the great Jewish “equalizer,” for it demonstrates how capable we are of committing the very sin about which we have complained. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin writes that this ritual communicates that we are not “to judge another’s misdeeds more harshly than we would judge are own. We should not look over our shoulders or down the aisles and say to ourselves, “My mistakes are not half as great as theirs.” To string [our] confession in one long alphabetic chain reminds us that we are not here to measure and compare…we are to support and strengthen one another.” (Cardin, Nina Beth, “In the Shelter of One Another,” in The Tapestry of Jewish Time (New York: Behrman House Publishers, 2000, p. 76-77)
A story. A personal story. It occurred when I had just completed my first high holidays as a rabbi in Baltimore. A few days after yuntif, I was struck with a piercing head pain and a sudden chill in my neck and severely high temperatures. The tests at the urgent care and the local emergency room pointed toward my having viral meningitis.
This diagnosis was frightening- but worse was that the residual headaches from the virus lasted for five months. During that time, in a guarded and subdued state, I went back to work and tried to convince myself not to be scared of what all the medications, ultrasounds, cat-scans and spinal taps were about. Surely I was lying to myself. And the stress it caused was not helping me to get better any better. What’s worse? The test was scheduled early on a day I would officiate in the funeral of a colleague’s young husband. So fiercely as I hold to a distinction between my work and my personal life, that day I was in no position to do so. My wife Joanie sat with me the night before the test and taught me to visualize and meditate during the exam. She held back what I’m sure were her own fears about what the test might reveal. And her confidence got me through the MRI, at least the first half of it.
Then the technician taps me on the shoulder and looks at me and recognizing my name says, “You’re a rabbi, aren’t you?” I nod. Then she says with a growing edge in her voice, “So I’m trying to figure out… Why do some religions say they are better than the others? I mean how can God want one people to try to act better than others? Do you think that Jews and other religions will ever just work or get along or are we all headed for more conflict?” It took my every strength to stay composed as I said the following words. I said, “You’ll need to make an appointment.”
It seemed like only seconds later I was sent back into the MRI. But I had lost my concentration completely. I could immediately feel the muscles in my neck and shoulders starting to tense. As the MRI began again, tears flowed from my eyes. As hard as I tried to visualize the peaceful mountains that Joanie and I once visited in the Rocky Mountains, I failed. All I could visualize for the next 15 minutes were images of my body growing thin and gaunt, not being able to walk or talk or think, and the mental picture of my son standing at a graveside, pointing at my name. I’ve carried that memory with me for a long time…long enough. For I have long since returned to good health. But my deep anger at a complete stranger who simply wandered into my sense of security, my deep anger at her stayed.
Trapped in a machine, I resented my subordination to her control. And I’ve sinned, holding that grudge in my heart as though I was exempt from what my faith teaches…to let it go.
Let it go… Judaism says. For anger and hostility no matter how righteous never truly lead you to a place of contentment. And rage only seems to beget more rage. One day, if I have to submit to such a test again, I’ll need my trust and faith much more than my old undying hostilities toward a person who may have meant well but who made the wrong choice. So this yuntif I want to make a choice- I choose to remember that moment at that MRI not as a betrayal, but as a lesson.
Here’s the lesson: we all hold others all the time in that very same position that technician held me. We are shelters to one another- to our lovers, partners, children, parents, friends, and even strangers, the things we say or don’t say bring about unintended but nonetheless very real pain. We are all powerful and we are all vulnerable… and the only way we learn is by getting it wrong. Yes, Jewish tradition tells us to put our attention at this season of repentance on when we got it wrong. We may place on our walls photos of our accomplishments, degrees, and memory triggers of our most exhilarating triumphs. But the lesson of Judaism with regards to mindfulness and the growth of our spirit is that what we should be paying the closest attention to is the moment in which we are in… the moment we are in… when we win or lose a powerful client or lucrative account, when we succeed or cheat as an opportunity arises to do so and not get caught.
When I told that woman to “make an appointment,” I thought: “How dare she take power over me?” Still, as I look back on that time, I realize: any of us could be just as thoughtless. Any of us, could face a bechirah point and fail to choose the path that would most honor and shelter the humanity of the person who is standing or sitting or lying right in front of us. We are human. Human. We strive and fail, aspire and fall, hurt ourselves, others and in a way, God. This may especially be true when we hold strangers in our care and decide to show them our sensitivity to their honest human frailty. When we hold others, it is most often with our hands extended – to connect with them, to embrace them, to steady them.
Perhaps that is why we were ever given hands – to stretch them out and connect with others, embodying the goodness our prophets taught us to do in this world. Daily we realize that with our hands we can also commit awful sins: we can commit forgery or carry out an assault. With our hands we can point and click our way into all kinds of trouble. We can raise our fist to threaten another person or heaven forbid, menace another person by holding a weapon pointed at them. With our hands we can heal as well- but not because we are superhuman, but rather because our hands reveal our humanity- all the lines, wrinkles, scars and tremors that arise, all the times that things were beyond our grasp, and even the times where we knew what to do with our hands- but chose to sit on our hands and thus embodied only apathy and indifference.
El Ha-Rachaman, O sweet God, God of Miriam, Aaron and Moses, God of Micah and Isaiah, God of all humanity, bless the work of our hands this coming year. Help us to know in the year ahead that there is a great reservoir of decency of which all of us are capable. And as we face points of bechirah, times when we must choose – help us to know that our record will most certainly be flawed. We will strive and fail, rise up and fall down. But that doesn’t mean we can’t rise up again. But God we need your help.
So we beg of you, O God, Malei Yadenu Mi-birchotecha, fill our hands with your blessing, so we may leave your world knowing every time we stood up to bat we were the God’s honest real deal. Keyn Y’hi ratzon. So may it be.