Derekh Eretz Doesn’t Discriminate Between the Sinners and the Saints
This sermon was given by Rabb Steven I. Rein on Yom Kippur 5779, September 18, 2018
If you are like me, you have probably noticed that on most issues the people around you always seem to be wrong. Isn’t that incredible? I remember speaking to a young cadet at the Air Force academy who had just started basic training. When I asked him how things were going, he responded that he was doing very well – so well in fact that when they marched everyone was out of step except him. You laugh, but that is how most of us think these days. We claim diversity is a value yet we run in increasingly homogenous circles. We surround ourselves with people who think, act, look, and behave just like us. Once upon a time, when you read the news, you would agree with some articles and disagree with others. Today, we select our newsfeeds so that we only read information that we will judge favorably. We select friends on social media based on similar interests, we form social circles based on shared values. Walk around your neighborhood and tell me how many people really look different than you, and I’m not talking skin color. Odds are they are all highly educated middle to upper middle class overachievers.
There is an old story of a Jewish sailor who was shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks him profusely and offers to give him a tour of the little island. He shows off the weapons he made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks his food, the synagogue he built for praying in, the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, however, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks; “why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the sailor, “this is the synagogue I never go to.” What happens if we make the decision to enter that place we never go to? What happens when we insert ourselves into an environment where the people around us think and act differently? What does it mean to be in community with those who we think are wrong, or even sinful?
These questions are not hypothetical. Because I know that there are people sitting around you, people in this room, who you believe are wrong on all sorts of issues for all kinds of reasons. Tomorrow I will address how we engage the fools around us. This evening I want to think about what it means to be in community – not just with people who you have value neutral disagreements – but with people who you truly think are misguided, stuck in their ways, or iniquitous. These are the individuals whose presence makes your blood simmer, who you avoid during kiddush, and who you try to create a buffer of at least four or five rows when you come to shul. What does derekh eretz require of us so that we can truly be in a covenantal community with each other?
One of my favorite lines in all of Jewish liturgy, and certainly my favorite line in the High Holiday liturgy, is one that often gets passed over. If you came three minutes late to Kol Nidre you missed it. It is often said as a throwaway before the dramatic performance of Kol Nidre itself, but contains a tremendous amount of truth – even radical truth – about the meaning of community. The line is: al da’at ha-makom v’al da’at ha-kahal, anu mattirin l’hitpalleil im ha-avaryanim – with divine consent and with the consent of this congregation, we grant permission to pray with sinners. What kind of permission are we granting here? Who are these so called sinners?
I am reminded of the man who comes to synagogue on Yom Kippur to see the doctor about his sick child. “Do you have a ticket?” the usher asks at the door. “No I don’t. I just need to speak to Doctor Schwartz.” “Sorry, I can’t let you in without a ticket.” “But you don’t understand – my child is sick and I may need to take him to the hospital. This is a matter of life and death!” The usher finally relents – “Okay, I’ll let you in. But don’t let me catch you praying!” For the record, if you snuck in this evening without a ticket…you have my permission to pray with us – we should have such problems. I want to suggest that there is something happening in this prayer – something vital to this community.
Anu mattirin l’hitpalleil im ha-avaryanim. This is not the rabbi giving permission for sinners to be in the room. This is giving ourselves permission to create a prayer community with people who you see as immoral and reprehensible. In other words, we are not saying: I tolerate the fact that Cohen in the row down from me is a fill in the blank. Rather, I am including this person and their sins, together with me, in the same ritual act of prayer. This is quite extraordinary.
There are, of course, endless contemporary examples that we can speak about. Who do you have in mind? Who are the people who constitute the avaryanim – the sinners – that you imagine we are trying to avoid? For fear of a riot, I won’t ask for you to share. I will give one example and it’s a loaded one, so just a little warning. About seven years ago, while working in New York, a colleague of mine at a neighboring congregation called me to share that a man who was a convicted sex offender began coming to Shabbat services. The synagogue had long discussions with their staff, board, and the social worker who worked with them. They spoke with the District Attorney’s office as well as his probation officer. According to all parties there was no law that prevented him from attending religious services. Nonetheless, out of consideration for the comfortability of the congregation, the synagogue asked that he stop attending. My colleague brought this to my attention because the man had a Conservative background and had been saying kaddish, so there was a chance that he might show up at my shul. The man never did, but we decided that he would not be permitted to enter.
I distinctly remember those difficult conversations. Of course there was legitimate anxiety to be in community with this person. If the man is a threat, the answer is obvious. But what if he isn’t? Was it safe to imagine that he had been punished for what he did and was now just another Jew in the pew, or was he still entrenched in his own criminal misbehaviors? There was a piece of me that kept thinking about our prayer. Can it be that part of the bigger ask that l’hitpalleil im ha-avaryanim is making of us is not just “can I focus with this person around” or “I prefer not to be in a spiritual community with people who have done really bad things,” but is my community compromised here. Perhaps this prayer is saying to us: no, there's no such thing as a community that's compromised. Perhaps we have to do the work of figuring out how to pray in an environment like this. Most examples of avaryanim are not as transparent or obvious as this particularly crude one. But in the present moment that we're in, in which there is a growing hyper awareness of iniquity in our society together with a culture of calling out that iniquity, what does it mean to create a religious community with the individuals who have been called out for their sinful behavior?
One of the natural consequences of religious communities is a need to discriminate between, if not the sinners and the saints, than at least the sinners and the non-sinners. Our liturgy suggests there is an anu – a we – and avaryanim – sinners. It is very difficult to live in community together with those who don’t behave properly. If we constitute the foundation of good behavior around which religious sincerity can live out in the world, than someone else in the room who doesn't buy into that core set of convictions makes us seem as though we're performing something illegitimate. Building a religious community across difference is extremely difficult. We simply don’t want to sit near, or even be in community with, someone who doesn’t share our moral compass.
To build on the strength of this difficulty, Maimonides, in the 12th century, writes that “a judge cannot sit in judgment with a colleague who is a wicked person.” And then comes an amazing anecdote. “Jerusalem’s judges of refined character would not sit in judgment unless they knew who would sit with them. They would not sign a legal document unless they knew who the co-signers were.” And this is where it gets pretty dark: “they would not sit at a feast unless they knew exactly who was sitting with them” (Rambam, Sanhedrin, 22:10). I recognize this seating problem. We moved very quickly from the realm of justice – disqualifying a corrupt judge – to social settings. Suddenly we are in the business of the kind of litmus testing that makes any community unimaginable. Maimonides then goes a step further: “Two scholars who dislike each other must not act as judges together…owing to the hostility between them, each will be inclined to refute the other” (ibid, 23:7). This is not about the other judge being wicked or corrupt. This is: “I don’t want to be in the same room as you.” Now think about coming to shul. If you’re sitting next to someone who you don’t like, I can imagine all sorts of ways in which your prayer responds negatively. Try davening next to someone that you really dislike…it’s hard! I’ve tried…it’s hard to focus. Yet, the minute I start evaluating whether I will enter a room based on who else is present, the possibility of building community becomes nearly impossible.
Anu mattirin l’hitpalleil im ha-avaryanim – we grant permission to pray with sinners. I want to suggest three possibilities for why this prayer is so important and how this prayer can influence the kind of community we seek to build. The first possibility is that this is a way of saying we are all avaryanim – we are all sinners. Reciting this prayer is essentially giving ourselves permission to enter this room. We are all flawed and we are entering into this religious experience together in order to exonerate ourselves of our sins. That feels nice. But, the fact that there is a distinction between “us” and “them” suggests that there has to be more than that.
A second possibility is the begrudging possibility. We are the non-sinners and “they” are the sinners. We are paternalistically allowing them to sit in our community. This is probably the historical antecedent of the prayer. The text itself was probably written in reference to conversos– Jews forced to convert – who had returned to the community. The prayer was a kind of political licensing for the people in the room who were wondering “why are those people allowed back in” and for the community leaders to say: “We want them back in our community and we're giving them permission to be here. We are hoping that they will do the work they need to do in order to justify retroactively the decision that we've made.” From a positive historical perspective knowing where the text came from could be sufficient…ok, that’s where it came from. From a spiritual perspective – the fact that this text persists in our mahzor demands us to think beyond the historical context in which the prayer was created.
I want to suggest a more radical third possibility. A community requires avaryanim – or put differently, a community requires people who act and think differently than you. Why? Why would it be necessary for a religious community to not just tolerate difference but in some way become strengthened by the presence of difference?
The first reason is that creating a sacred community is predicated on the existence of difference. In the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, the High Priest purifies the most sacred of spaces, the Holy of Holies, with incense. This incense included the herbs “stacte [stacked], onycha [onyka], and galbanum – together with pure frankincense” (Ex. 30:34-35). If you don’t know anything about these herbs, these words are basically meaningless. But our sages teach us something very interesting. They teach us (Keritot 6b): any fast that doesn't include sinners doesn't count as a fast. How do we know? Galbanum has a foul smell and yet the Torah requires it among the ingredients for the sacred incense. I’ll give you a modern example. We are a community that loves music. Along with the voice of our Hazzan, we create sacred melodies together. Now, what happens when you are sitting near “off-key guy.” Wouldn’t it be better if “off-key guy” wasn’t trying to harmonize? He’s ruining our religious experience. And then our sages tell us that a true religious experience is one which incorporates that which smells bad and that which sounds bad. There is no such thing as a religious community without difference in it – be it religious difference, physical difference, political difference, or intellectual difference. Our fast will not be meaningful without the rainbow of differences trying and failing together.
The permission being granted here is part of what is being demanded on all of us. You know that person that offends you, that offends your sensibilities, that makes your blood simmer? Well, the burden is now on you. You have to tolerate what it means to build community together with people who you find to be metaphorically foul-smelling. But remember, the person who smells bad today probably won’t smell bad indefinitely. We are all on our own journeys. I don’t think that the people that you have in mind in 2018 need to be the same group of people you have in mind in 2027. Maybe I don’t like you now, but perhaps by the end of Yom Kippur you will change. Allow others to be in their process, to get to where they need to get to. In the meantime, we have to see people you believe are sinners – truly nasty people – and know that you can't actually build a religious community without them. I admit, this is hard! We have to know that community offers us something greater than the filter of religious purity. Real community is only constituted with and through difference.
I think there is also a second reason why we are strengthened by difference. There are people who are avaryanim, they are absolutely sinners. But maybe they help us gain access to those pieces of our own moral failures that we can’t even see. To illustrate this I want share a wild rabbinic story (JT Ta’anit 64b). It appeared to Rabbi Abbahu in a dream that Pantokakos [Greek for Mr. Completely Evil] should be the one to pray for rain. Rabbi Abbahu sent and had him brought before him. The Rabbi said, “what's your profession?” He said, “I commit five sins every day. I sweep the theater. I hire out prostitutes. I carry their garments to the baths. I clap and dance before them. And I clash the cymbals before them.” The Rabbi said to him, “What good deed have you done?” The man replied, “One day when I was sweeping the theatre, a certain woman entered. She stood behind a column posing as a prostitute and wept. I said to her, ‘what's the matter?’ She said, ‘My husband is incarcerated and I want to see what I can do to free him.’ So, I sold my bed and bedding and gave her the money, and I said to her, ‘This is for you. Free your husband and do not sin.’” The rabbi then said to him, “You are worthy to pray and be answered.”
The simple reading of this story is that no one is completely wicked. The reason we allow sinners in is because everyone has something good that they did. I think there is something even richer here. What that rabbi learns is that there are moral considerations being negotiated in corners of the community that many of us can't even see. The rabbi has to learn from Mr. Completely Evil what the whole sphere of good and evil actually looks like. In other words, avaryanim flesh out the moral universe of religious community by giving us vision and access to how religious sincerity and performance can be enacted. If you're in a room of people who are wholly pious you don't even know the standard and thresholds under which you’re operating. Maybe it’s actually quite easy for you. Doing good when you're not in the prostitution business is quite different than when you're actually in that line of work. I would expand this to include all of our differences. If you are in community with everyone who acts and thinks exactly like you, pretty soon you won’t even know who you are. We can all make noise as individuals, but only together can we contribute to the harmony of a glorious symphony. Perhaps this prayer gives us the ability to expand our horizon and see what a religious community can ultimately look like.
I want to conclude with the words of Israeli author Shai Agnon. He suggests something that I think we know about our community and about Yom Kippur but is frequently lost in the shuffle. He writes: “The divisions that exist among us are public and well known. We do not behave like members of one nation, having one tongue, as we should; do we not all have one Father, and did not one God create us all? Then why are we not united, all the seed of Israel? How much more ought we to be one, dwelling as we do in the lands of our foes, literally like one lamb among thousands of wolves! Is it not enough that all the other people hate us – why should we hate one another too?” (Days of Awe, 162). We all know that Yom Kippur alone cannot atone for our transgressions against each other. For that we must approach those we have wronged and make amends. Agnon is forcing us to remember that this is not enough – it's not enough to do good things for other people. Yom Kippur is also about the community itself.
Yom Kippur is not an individual holiday. It’s not about wrapping yourselves in your tallis and having a religious experience – seeking forgiveness from God and others – and emerging pure on the other end. Yom Kippur is meant to be a collective act of purification. It was the whole House of Israel that the High Priest prayed for. Our field of vision on Yom Kippur is not about tolerating difference in order to have a religious experience; our field of vision on Yom Kippur is about embracing the beautiful mosaic of this community. Yom Kippur reminds us of the work we have to do together to achieve purification – for the community to be sealed once again in the Book of Life.
Friends – I see all of you for who you are and you are all part of this sacred community. Take a moment and look around this room. Look. This is who we are, let’s own it. We all have our baggage, but we are in this together. Over the next 25 hours we're going on a journey. It won’t be easy. But if you stay with us, if you embrace your fellow travelers, warts and all, then perhaps we will be able to accomplish something. Yom Kippur is most certainly a time for internal introspection, but it is also – and perhaps more importantly – a time to look at our community and decide collectively who we want to be. We are Agudas Achim – a band of brothers and sisters. So let us now begin Yom Kippur together, as one family, and as one community.