Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Tells Your Story: Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk – Erev Rosh Hashanah 2016

This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is adapted from the remarks shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at the congregational service on Erev Rosh Hashanah, October 2, 2016 at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple. We encourage you to post responses and questions below, and to share this post freely on Facebook, Twitter, and by email, to continue to engender dialogue on its themes for the High Holy Days.

Who lives? Who dies? Words from the prayerbook. Right? Don’t answer so quickly. This year. Who lives? Who dies? And one more question, “Who tells your story?”were the words of the finale song of a nationally celebrated and highly coveted Broadway phenomenon. Hauling in 11 Tony awards and sixteen nominations, the Broadway musical Hamilton is all the rage!

I’m pretty sure that when you google the question, “how do I get tickets to see Hamilton?” that google replies, “Ha! Good luck with that.” And who would’ve predicted that a live-stage hip-hop musical depicting the life of our first US Secretary of the Treasury, would revive such incredible interest in our republic? The last time I remember anything quite so educational emerging from Broadway, the subject was the period after the French Revolution and this musical portrayed of the struggle for liberty and love we know as Les Miserables.

I admit. I am a big fan of Les Mis. I have seen it six times- that’s more than 21 hours of watching Jean Valjean turn from peasant to prisoner to patriarch, not counting the times I’ve performed it in my own personal version of clergy car karaoke, driving through town while singing along to its magnificent score!

Do you remember Les Mis? One of the most poignant early moments in the show is when a recently paroled Jean Valjean receives shelter from a bishop. After accepting a night’s lodging, he then steals precious silver candlesticks from him. But when authorities catch Valjean and bring him to the bishop, they are told by the kind pastor that the silver was not stolen. He says, they were a gift. I’ll never forget the bishop exhorting Valjean in song, “Remember this, my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By witness of the martyrs, by passion and blood, God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God!” The music flourishes and it’s hard not to be moved. For the next time we encounter Valjean he is a captain of industry and generous patron of his town.

I know. It figures that in an epic love and war story with Broadway ballads and fabulous costumes, your rabbi would zero in on how repentance, God’s forgiveness and a clergyman enable any old peasant to become a mensch. I admit. It is predictable. But let’s not forget- it’s yuntif, a time when rabbis writing sermons see penitence, sincerity, redemption and love every where we look- whether in epic stories of our past, or in fanciful dreams of our future.

In an essay, written by the late Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in 1948, he describes repentance, what we call teshuvah, as “redemptive love,” both divinely inspired and humanly achievable. He explained his ideas based on the narrative of Les Mis. Rabbi Kaplan explained that when redemptive love is offered it shows “the interest we take in [a person] not because of any good to ourselves that we may get out of [them.]. It is… our faith in those possibilities of [their] nature which, if realized, would enable [them] to achieve [their] human destiny.”

This is the faith shown to Jean Valjean. But if we desire, if it is in our heart at this moment, we too can act with “redemptive love” in our lives today. As Rabbi Kaplan reminds us: “It is not difficult to love [a] neighbor, if [they are] alive to the meaning of…self-fulfillment, even [if they] rarely summon enough will-power to live up to that meaning. But such must be the redemptive power of our love. It should be able to penetrate to the hidden springs of goodness beneath the hard and repellent exterior of [our] selfishness, pettiness and moral insensitivity, and by forgiveness and kindness bring that goodness to the surface.”

That’s no simple task- to love someone for the person they are yet to be. It is easier and safer to walk away from those who have in some way wronged us. It’s human. Once burned we instinctually turn away from the one who burned us. But our tradition calls on us to first look with compassion toward the people in our lives. Before we end a relationship, we must first see if we can spot them “turning” from their sins. Some relationships still end. But we also find that other relationships find their way to reconciliation.

That’s the essence of these days of awe. We gather. We sing out to God. We recite from the Torah and we wail out our cries through the Shofar, begging one another for mercy. But it’s notjust to hear the sound of our own voice! Rather we offer these cries so that they might be acceptable to God, described quite intentionally as tzuri v’goali, our rock and redemptive force.

This is what Rabbi Kaplan was teaching sixty years ago. He hadn’t seen the Broadway musical! No, Kaplan was writing about the classic Victor Hugo novel of Les Miserables. When I read it, I discovered a terribly important passage that was omitted in the version adapted for the stage. In the scene of which I speak, Valjean, fresh from being saved from by the bishop, wanders plaintively into an apparently deserted clearing in the countryside. There he comes across a savoyard, a young French boy wandering and playfully tossing in the air a few coins that might be the only items in the boy’s possession.

Without seeing Valjean, the boy throws one of his coins into the air. But the coin escapes him, rolling towards Valjean, who angrily slams his foot down upon the coin. The boy asks for his money back, to which Valjean sternly replies, “Get out!” In the ensuing argument, the boy continually protests until Valjean drops his head and refuses to answer the boy’s cries. Finally, Valjean grabs his stick in a threatening fashion. He says “Are you still here?” adding: “You’d better watch yourself!” The boy looks at him, and, seeing the rage burning inside Valjean, he begins to tremble. Finally, he runs away without turning his head or uttering another word.

Only now, when Valjean sees the coin which his foot had half-buried in the ground, does Valjean realize the sin he has committed. He is, in this moment, shocked to realize what capriciousness still seethed within him, even after the kind bishop had sought to save his soul. So Valjean runs in the direction of the child, seeking desperately to make amends. After running quite a distance, with a desolate voice, he cries for the boy into the night sky. But there is no answer. Finally he sees a priest riding through the path. He goes to the priest and asks for help. But this time a priest is of no help. “I have seen no one,” he responds, explaining to Valjean that such a boy has no home. He is one of many orphans who roam the countryside during the revolution. For such boys, it is as though they came out of the dust. No one knows where they dwell.

Let me pause in my own retelling of the story to let Victor Hugo’s words take over: “Jean Valjean began to run again…Finally, at a place where three paths met, he stopped. The moon had risen. He strained his eyes in the distance, and called…[for the boy]. But his cries died away in to the mist, without even awakening an echo…That was his last effort; his knees suddenly bent under him, as if an invisible power overwhelmed him at a blow, with the weight of his… conscience; he fell exhausted upon a great stone, and exclaimed: “What a wretch I am!” Then he burst into tears, weeping for the first time in nineteen years…”

“What a wretch I am!” Although Valjean blames his actions on the wretched beast that grew inside him while incarcerated, his actions do not seem so much worse than the sins to which we admit tonight. Trickery, deceit, taking advantage of the weak, greed and grudge-holding, these are commonplace sins we’ve encountered. Let’s face it- none of us just lets go of rage, betrayal or spite once born inside us. It takes root. No matter who offers us acceptance, redemptive love is only possible when we admit how mired we are in the pain we’ve felt or God forbid, caused. For Valjean, the pain inside him was indeed a monstrous burden. But what is so compelling about him is that his initial crime, stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family, was no crime at all. He even seemed to hold to his own moral compass while in prison. But once paroled, Valjean begins to use the cunning and deceit he watched and learned in prison. Even knowing it will cause pain to others, this is how he survives.

Friends, if we are honest, brutally honest, I think we see that no less than in the dramatic story of Les Mis, wretchedness is part of our human condition. We were wretched in this past year: taking actions and making accusation we’d later regret. We were wretched when we set aside our sense of decency because someone convinced us that we had nothing to lose. On these High Holy Days, we say, yes, we misjudged. We were wretched. We sinned, we transgressed, and we seek pardon. If we utter such words thoughtfully, and if we listen carefully to the cry of the shofar, we find that seeking forgiveness during these days of awe is not much different than running into a deserted wilderness searching for someone with whom to make amends.

Sure Jewish tradition helps us navigate the wilderness! The Torah describes how valuable were our loyalty and fidelity to God! But it’s not as if the Torah records a happy fulfillment of our faith. Rather Torah depicts how we have repeatedly broken God’s heart, wreaking havoc on the One who offered us safe passage to a promised land. I am so proud of being part of a tradition that ishonest about the heartbreak we’ve caused God and the pain others have endured while. For it underscores a message that in all of my studies I’ve come to believe.

In my heart of hearts I believe: that sin is the wilderness where every human life wanders…every human life. Today we admit together that every one of us has traversed the desert plain of sin and transgression. Life has been filled with opportunities to get it right and get it wrong. And in the last year or even the last hour we got it wrong. And we are lost. But teshuvah… teshuvah is our path back home! Teshuvah is redemptive love. It is believing that one’s character can grow. Teshuvah, or redemptive love, is at the heart of all relationships. We must offer it to others if we are to grow to become the persons we are yet to be. Teshuvah- as risky as it seems, the unabashed turn we make, away from sin and indifference and toward redemption and love.

We do this knowing that the redemptive love we seek is not likely to unfold as swiftly and beautifully as can be told in a Broadway show. For unlike in Les Mis, no matter how much love she holds in their heart, no bishop, no rabbi, no parent, no sibling, no lover or friend, no one can simply flip a switch of forgiveness for us, and take away the pain our sins have caused.

First and foremost, we must come to terms with our own true remorse for how we’ve treated others. Then, slowly with patient care, Jewish tradition prods us toward the offering of restitution and when possible, reparation for what has been broken. Finally there is the hardest step on the pathway home. We are taught that we must run right back into the wilderness where we once treaded. We go back to the place where we committed an offense, to the site where we failed. We look temptation once more in the eye, and we do not succumb.

To sin…to cheat… to lie… to poison the air around us… to act violently… to waste the time God hallowed… this is the essence of what is forbidden. Yet to repent for such sins is to to go right back into the wilderness where we crossed a line. There we admit our failures. There we acknowledge the damage we caused. There if we look carefully, we’ll find hundreds of perfectly good opportunities for love and forgiveness we stubbornly buried right beneath our boots.

Then we have a choice. Do we want to live and die standing in the mud of the wilderness, shouting with all our passion against demons of our past, the betrayals and conflicts and grudges that sent us to sin there? We might. Or perhaps we’ll make a different choice. Maybe just maybe this year we can decide: to try again for healing… to aim again for reconciliation… and to not only ask for “redemptive love, but to freely offer it as well.

This New Year I pray we’ll be exemplars of God’s redemptive love. This year I hope we will learn to weave integrity into the fabric of our encounters with others. For who lives and who dies is beyond our control. But what story the year ahead will tell, now THAT is something we can influence. For whomever tells our story, let it be one of renewal and honesty, redemption and wisdom, hope and love.