Sin is Crouched at Your Door

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk on Kol Nidre, 2020.

There is a story I enjoy about a rabbi who just before Yom Kippur was about to begin called his family to the entrance of his temple. Then he invited his Cantor, Administrator and Educational Director to join him. While he was at it, he summoned the president, the officers and the rest of the board to come. When they all arrived he gathered them and said gravely: “You are all important people in my life and that is why you are here. So before the Day of Atonement begins, I have to tell you something that’s been weighing heavily on my heart since last Yom Kippur. If there is anything I’ve said or done to offend or hurt you, anything at all, I just want you to know… you people take things way too seriously and you are all just a little too sensitive.”

It’s a joke. It’s ok to laugh. Our sages even created commentary about passages in the Torah that seemed funny or out of place. One of those things is the name for this day. The Rabbis call it Yom Ha-Kippurim, which translates as “Day of Atonements.” It is plural because in the Torah, there was more than one atonement sacrifice. But if you listen closely to the name, Yom Ha-Kippurim, you hear something funny. You hear: “Yom HaK’purim, a day that is like Purim.”

Like Purim? How could today be like Purim? On Yom Ha-Kippurim, we solemnly ask for forgiveness. On Purim, we party so hard we forget the difference between heroes and enemies. On Yom Kippur, temple is a beit din, a court of law in which we give testimony. On Purim, temple is a carnival tent we enter in clever costumes designed to shock or delight our friends. How could these days be alike? The answer is: Yom Kippur is like Purim because they both involve masks. On Purim we put masks on and pretend to be someone else. On Yom Ha-K’purim, we take masks off. Unadorned, unfed, and under rigorous scrutiny, we see what we are made of.

“For what we have done, for what we may yet do, we ask for pardon. For rash words, broken pledges, insincere assurances and foolish promises, may we find forgiveness.” (Gates of Repentance, Edited by Rabbi Chaim Stern, New York: CCAR Press, 1978, p. 250.) It is truly remarkable how much mercy we seek in our prayers tonight. No sooner do we express our contrition for past transgressions than we profess that we are going to transgress all over again next year. Perhaps that conundrum was on the mind of the late Jewish author Philip Roth when he wrote American Pastoral more than two decades ago. I read that novel the summer Joanie and I got married. I remember exactly where I was when my eyes first lay on the following passage about human fallibility. Roth wrote: “You fight your superficiality and shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias, hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be…you come at them unmenacingly…take them on with an open mind, as equals…yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get [people] wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is…a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that’s living, getting them wrong & wrong & wrong and then on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”  (American Pastoral, Philip Roth, 1997: Vintage Books), p. 35

Can you imagine? I’m sitting next to Joanie days away from our wedding. I decided to read aloud to her those words from American Pastoral about getting it wrong, and they became a catalyst for a tremendous conversation. We admitted to one another that even in the best relationships we get things wrong. It is hard to be in a relationship with a partner, a parent, a friend or even in relationship with God and go even one day without getting something wrong.

At the very beginning of the Torah, this is a recurring theme in the narratives about Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel.  In Genesis 4, Abel’s offerings receive God’s attention and Cain’s offerings are ignored. God turns to a distraught Cain and asks: “Why are you distressed? Why has your face fallen?” Then God warns: “Surely if you do right, there is uplift. But if not, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is toward you. You must master it.”

The Etz Chaim offers an unusual literary perspective on the narrative. Citing 20th century author John Steinbeck, the commentary reminds us of his novel East of Eden, in which four elderly Chinese men engage in two years of Hebrew study just to explain this one instruction from God about our contending with sin crouching at our doors. (Etz Chaim Torah and Commentary, Rabbinical Assembly, New York: Jewish Publication Society, 2004), p. 25.

In his book How Good Do We Have to Be?, Rabbi Harold Kushner explains that the men were debating “whether God was saying ‘Sin crouches at the door but thou shalt rule over it,’ as in the King James translation? [or] Did God say, ‘Do thou rule over it,’ as the American Standard Bible has it?…They decided that both translations were wrong.” (How Good Do We Have To Be?, Harold Kushner, 1996: Little Brown and Co. Publishers, Boston, MA), P. 168))

Apparently the true meaning of the verse was “You can be its master.” In other words, you have choices in life that are consequential. They matter. The sin of hatred held by Cain toward Abel is crouching at his door. It won’t go away on its own. He must master it. We today must master our hateful responses to the wounds we’ve sustained. Feeling raw and aggrieved might help us rationalize our way through one Yom Kippur. But none of us has an unlimited number of years left to atone for fires we’ve stoked and conflicts we’ve curated. So let’s get real about Yom HaK’Purim. We are likely to get it wrong tonight about atonement, and why? Because if we were wronged, cheated on, ripped off or shamed, that sticks. I know it. I have excised from my life people who are toxic and they hate me for calling them out. I don’t trust them or feel safe around them. I don’t wish them harm. But I also don’t want anything to do with them. So I admit: I’m no more sure than you what to do with discontented energies. What our tradition calls teshuvah, turning from our misjudgments and untrustworthy behaviors is hard. For a person to repent an intentional wrong, they must take responsibility for harm they caused. They must seek forgiveness and show they will not betray the other party again. Deciding to hold on to or let go of a person who has harmed you deeply feels like a heavy weight on one’s chest.

You know that feeling you get, when you are driving in a construction zone and the lanes get thinner and a truck drives next to you and hogs up the highway? You know that trepidation? You hang up your call or turn off your music to concentrate because you realize the stakes are high.  That feeling of trepidation is how my gut feels in the hours before Kol Nidre. Even last night my body just seemed to know the day of atonement was near along with the enormity of the tasks of leading you through the gates repentance. In such moments, I realize more than any other day of the year that sin is crouching at my door. Will I master it? Will I repel it? Or will I die trying on a crowded highway of wrong-doers? Will I get it wrong, utterly ultimately wrong? I don’t know. As Yom HaK’Purim draws near, part of me wants to cut and run for the Purim carnival. I want to sing, play, laugh and pretend. It’s not my best look. But today is about taking off masks and revealing that the person underneath has not always protected and been kind and accepting to others.

There is a story I once heard about the late Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal.  Over the 97 years of his life, he worked tirelessly to bring to trial the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He personally tracked down commandants, guards and commanders at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Madjanek. The men Wiesenthal called to account committed atrociously sinful acts. Exposure to these Nazis and the burden of carrying the memory of Holocaust victims had a lasting effect. His relentless pursuit of men who committed inhumane acts, large and small, did not always paint him in a positive light. He could be cold, stubborn, obsessive and unforgiving. He once told a story that after WW2, a man living in a Displaced Persons camp borrowed $10 from him.  The man assured him he had a package coming from a relative any day, and he could definitely pay him back.  Each week he had an excuse for non-payment for nearly a year.  Finally, one day the man came up to Wiesenthal with a ten in his hand and said:  “My visa has just come through. I am leaving for Canada tomorrow.  Here’s your ten dollars.”  Wiesenthal waved him away saying, “Keep it.  For $10, it’s not worth changing my opinion of you.”

This cautionary tale about him being unwilling to let go of a $10 grudge makes Simon Wiesenthal seem sad, small and petty. But somehow it makes me identify with him even more! For I hold a position of respect and am expected to live out Jewish ideals. But I can also be sad, small and petty. I am sorry. I wish I could say these faults serve some greater good. But I’d be lying. If there is a God, I hope God will examine my whole character and not just the times I chose small when my world needed big. I don’t claim moral superiority. To paraphrase novelist William Faulkner,  I am not trying to be better than my contemporaries or predecessors. I am trying to be better than myself. This means admitting that neither Wiesenthal nor I are the first ones to have trouble letting go of a $10 grudge. Our history is beleaguered by tensions between Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Miriam and Aaron with Moses, and the Israelites with God many times over. Our Torah records multiple times we got it wrong.  To atone for our wrong-doings, God didn’t need us perfect. We only needed to be sincere, intentional and worthy of compassion. God needed us to at the very least, try to master our instinct to create chaos and foment conflict.

This means taking Yom Ha-Kippurim personally, which makes me so wish I could physically see you tonight. For I’d convey to you in every way a rabbi can that you CAN master your instinct to sin and cause conflict in the new year. It will be hard. But you can start trying right now! Before bed tonight, open the front door of your home like you would for Elijah on Passover. Stand at an open door or by a front window to feel the autumn breeze. Take a moment to notice that sin is crouched at your doorway. Breathe. Be cautious in its presence. Don’t get tackled by its enormity. Just pay attention to the trepidation you feel. You are on a highway that is crowded and under construction. You are scared. But you are more than the sum of the sins you’ve committed and those you may yet do. You can turn from your sins and live. You can.

Adonai, Adonai El Rachum Vchanum, Oh God help us to be seekers of your mercy and grace. Help us accept the transgressions committed against us, when the perpetrators of wrong-doing stand before us in genuine contrition. Strengthen our efforts to win the challenge you set out for Cain. This will be hard for us. We will want to cut and run for the nearest carnival. We will be afraid of getting it wrong. Our capacity to act like a tank in battle will get in the way of our living with the gentleness you require. But with your grace and your mercy locked in our backpacks, every way we walk with intention and sincerity, every path we choose can lead us to a place of blessing. Keyn Y’hi Ratzon.

May every path be blessing, Amen.

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