Friday, September 17, 2021

Yom Kippur Morning 5782: We Become Our Choices

The liturgy for these Days of Awe can be hard on the ears and heavy on the heart; the onslaught of language around sin and judgment can be overwhelming.  Sometimes we need to find different and more accessible ways to read the ancient words.  I think this is especially true of passages that seem to focus on Divine reprimand and retribution.  Here we might note that while we often speak of punishment and consequences interchangeably, there are significant differences between the two.  Punishment is fear-based, employing physical or emotional pain to coerce behavior.  Consequences flow naturally out of our choices, whether positive or negative.  Discipline grounded in consequences helps us recognize the relationship between our actions and their outcomes.  This awareness enables us to learn and grow.  

Understanding this distinction between punishment and consequences can significantly shift our approach to these High Holy Days.  Upon first consideration, the season’s readings are saturated with fearful imagery of an all-knowing Judge who exacts retribution for our transgressions.  In Avinu Malkeinu, we plead for Divine mercy, despite the unworthiness of our deeds.  And in Unetaneh Tokef, the paradigmatic prayer for these holy days, we proclaim: “In truth you are the Arbiter, Prosecutor and Expert Witness who writes and seals the fate of every living being.”  

For some Jews, a straightforward reading of these passages works just fine.  If the doctrine of reward and punishment suits you, gey gezunterheyt, no problem.  But for me—and I suspect for many of you, too—this theology does not work.  I cannot worship a God who demands fealty through fear.  Such power comes at too high a spiritual, emotional, and psychological cost, darkening the light of our better angels and isolating us from one another. Lest you think this a radical position born of secular modernity, note that a millennium ago, Rashi wrote that it is significantly better to serve God out of love than out of dread. [Rashi on Deuteronomy 6:5]

So what might it look like to read this season’s sacred texts through a lens of consequences rather than punishment?  Can we cultivate a theology of accountability that draws upon hope instead of fear?  Might we yet envision a God who disavows coercion and, instead, runs the world as a kind of classroom that rewards wisdom gained through experience and reflection?  The subtle moral universe in this scenario evades the easy algorithm of tit for tat.  Yet it affirms an elegant ethical calculus that the poet Jane Hirschfield describes beautifully in her poem, “Rebus”:

You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after. . . 

As water given sugar sweetness, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues. . . 

If we reconsider Unetaneh Tokef from this very different perspective, we might understand the text not as a threat designed to scare us into submission but as a reminder of how much our own choices determine our fate.  The God in this re-reading doesn’t author the Book of Life; instead, She metaphorically holds it to our eyes to show us the story we’ve written for ourselves:

Va-tiftach et sefer ha-zichronot u’m’aylahv yikarei v’chotem yad kol adam bo—You open the Scroll of Recollections which reads itself aloud, for the seal of every person’s hand is in it.


When we approach our own lives this way, we shift responsibility from a supernatural God to our ourselves and our communities.  In the magnum opus of Jewish medieval philosophy, the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides leads us in this direction, suggesting that 
much—though not all—the suffering for which we blame the Creator is actually an outcome of our own poor decision-making.  As he notes: People lament over their misfortunes, yet more often than not, we are afflicted due to our misguided actions.  Were he alive today, Maimonides would undoubtedly see the worsening pandemic for what it is: less an act of God and more the result of human folly that keeps half our population unvaccinated and unmasked, thus promoting the spread of the virus and the proliferation of new variants.

Or as our Torah portion for this morning asserts, we all decide, every day, between life and death, good and evil—then deal with the consequences of our choices, which affect both ourselves and those around us. Choose blessing and life, God urges us, so that you and your descendants may endure on the good land I am giving you.  Our sacred calling is to do everything in our power to embrace the blessing rather than the curse—and to learn and grow from the times when we fall short and choose poorly.  


In this spirit, I’d like to conclude by turning to a passage we read earlier this morning.  For some of you, it may be unfamiliar, though it is an ancient Torah text that comprises the second of the traditional three paragraphs of the Shema.  You won’t find it in Reform siddurim, because the progressive rabbis and teachers who edited those prayer books could not stomach the literal message, in which, following the translation in the Conservative Siddur Lev Shalem, God proclaims:  

V’haya im shamoa—If you heard and obey my commandments. . . I will grant seasonal rain for your land, each autumn and spring.  I will provide grass for your herds and you shall eat and be satisfied. . . But if your hearts stray and you do not listen, God will close up the sky so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce and you will quickly disappear from the good land that God is giving you.

I can empathize with my Reform rabbinic forebears that chose to omit these verses because they read them as an anachronistic theology of reward and punishment that is not borne out in the world we inhabit.  Yet I believe the time has come to reconsider their decision, because if we re-read the text through the lens of consequences, its message has never been timelier.  Here is Richard Levy’s translation from our machzor, On Wings of Awe:

If we can hear the words form Sinai. . .If we can serve all that is holy, we shall be doing all that humans can to help the rains to flow, the grasses to be green, the grains to grow up golden like the sun, and the rivers to be filled with life once more.   And all the children of God shall eat and there will be enough.

But if we turn from Sinai’s words. . . then the holiness of life will contract for us.  Our world will grow inhospitable to rains from heaven, and the produce of the earth will not be ours.  Or worse, it will be ours unjustly, and our acts shall isolate us from the flowing waves of green and gold. . .  Let us therefore teach these words to our children, listening to our children teaching us—that our generation may be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the dust of the earth, as faithful as the living waters that unite them all.

With this reading, Torah directly addresses the existential question of our age—catastrophic, human-caused climate change.  The choice couldn’t be clearer, or more urgent: if we heed our better angels, future generations might yet survive and thrive.  If we turn away, they will face one disaster after another, imperiling all life as we know it.

This is not about punishment; it’s nothing more—or less—than the high stakes consequences of our decisions.  And let there be no doubt—our children and grandchildren will surely see this critical moment in that light.  If we bequeath them a dark, diminished world perpetually battered by fire, flood, and famine, they won’t fret that God is punishing them for their sins; they will, instead, angrily note that we, their forebears, knew the cost of our actions—and inactions—and nonetheless failed to change.

Our time for teshuvah is quickly ticking away and our opportunity to preserve the earth’s beauty and security for future generations is drawing to a close.  Yet if we muster the collective courage and will, we can still act on their behalf, and on behalf of all of God’s creation.

As Hillel taught: If not now, when?

My friends, this is the hour to let go of the archaic language of Divine wrath, of reward and punishment, which diminish our powers and weary our hearts.  It’s all about consequences—where the choice is still our own, and we might yet learn and grow.  The future is in our hands.  Let us hearken and choose life, for ourselves and our posterity, so that they might long endure on the good land gifted to us.

Ken y’hi ratzon

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