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High Holidays Sermons

Back to Basics: Values / Integrity – Kol Nidrei 5781

As I hope you have noticed by now, the theme for this High Holiday sermon series is “Back to Basics.” In the context of the pandemic, our options for Jewish engagement have been somewhat limited (as with every other sphere of life, of course). As such I am taking this opportunity to go “Back to Basics”: to consider the essential items of Jewish life. These essential items are halakhah (Jewish law), minhag (customs), values, and story. We spoke about halakhah and minhag on Rosh Hashanah, and this evening’s subject is values. (If you missed them, you can read them on this blog, and you can also hear them on our podcast, the Beth Shalom Torah-Cast.)

Once upon a time, American Jews loved to play the game, “Who is a Jew?” We were filled with pride to see Dinah Shore or Kirk Douglas on our screens, looking so beautiful and strong and goyish, but we knew the truth. “He’s one of us,” we would boast to each other. I know that many of us are bursting with pride, alongside the grief, as the first Jewish female Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lay in state last week. 

But then there are plenty of Jewish people of whom we are not proud, members of our tribe who are among the highest-profile criminals and detestable public figures today. I won’t mention any names, but I am sure you can come up with a list in your own head.

(BTW, Christians have it easier in this regard: they generally only count church-goers as Christians. But we count people differently: once a Jew, always a Jew. We could excommunicate these people, like we did with Barukh Spinoza (actually, we lifted the herem / excommunication on Spinoza a few years back), but we cannot deny the Jewishness of people whom we would rather not claim.)

And that hurts. Because we like to think that our Jewish values are universal; that somehow we all acquire them in Hebrew school or they are instilled in us by our parents; that even if we eat treyf (non-kosher food) and proudly violate Shabbat in public that the pintele yid, the tiny spark of Jewishness within us, will somehow keep us connected to the fold.

But it does not work that way. Our values will only hold if we act upon them, if we teach them to our children, if we model them for each other, if we remember that the Qadosh Barukh Hu is paying attention to our behavior.

I think it is very hard right now, six-and-a-half months into a worldwide pandemic, with maybe another year of isolation in front of us, and then coupled with all of the other chaos in the world, political and social and economic and spiritual, to be optimistic about the future. Many of you know that I am a self-described optimist, and yet I have found myself severely challenged by our current predicament. Everything is not OK.

And then I remember that we have a spiritual framework. Our Jewish heritage of learning, of action, of values is there to uphold us in times of trouble. Our ancestors, who survived many centuries of turbulence and upheaval, pogroms and genocide and dispersion, did so by leaning into their tradition. Etz hayyim hi, they sang, lamahazikim bah. The Torah is our Tree of Life if we reach out and grasp it. Our great-great-grandparents grasped and grasped and held on for dear life, and as a result, we are still here.

Part III: ערכים / Arakhim / Values

So tonight’s subject is values. Upholding our values at this time is more important than ever. If we are going to pull through this pandemic as a society, we have to remember that we have guardrails on our choices and behavior, not only from halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (Jewish custom), but also drawn from our values. Values like:

  • Honesty
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Taking care of the needy among us
  • Gratitude for what we have
  • Justice
  • Seeking peace
  • Pursuing the common good
  • Seeing the Divinity in all of Creation, including all people and all of God’s creatures

All of these have sources in Jewish text, in the Tanakh or in rabbinic literature. I am going to focus on one essential value this evening, one that I think is absolutely the key to all of them: integrity. While there are many sources on integrity from the Jewish bookshelf, here are a few that resonate with me:

Micah 6:8

הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָֽה־ה’ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֤וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ׃

God has told you what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.

Some of you may know that this one is on my list of “refrigerator-magnet” texts – those that are just so pithy and essential that you should have them on your fridge. The prophet Micah tells us that the most essential path is that of acting from a place of justice and hesed, lovingkindness, but also to approach life modestly, that is, to approach all of your interactions with others from a place of holy humility.

Devarim / Deuteronomy 25:16

אֶ֣בֶן שְׁלֵמָ֤ה וָצֶ֙דֶק֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֔ךְ אֵיפָ֧ה שְׁלֵמָ֛ה וָצֶ֖דֶק יִֽהְיֶה־לָּ֑ךְ לְמַ֙עַן֙ יַאֲרִ֣יכוּ יָמֶ֔יךָ עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃

You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the LORD your God is giving you.

The key to a long and happy life, says the Torah, is to deal with all others fairly. The essence of living a just life is treating everybody equally, not only measuring out your goods in the marketplace in an honest way, but also by measuring out your love and deeds and favor honestly and fairly.

Pirqei Avot 4:1 

אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד, הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת

Who is honored? The one who honors all of God’s creatures.

The way that we gain honor is not by expecting others to submit to you, but exactly the opposite. If you interact with the people around you from a place of respect, from honesty and good intentions, then those things will come back to you.

What does it mean to act with integrity? It means that we treat all people fairly and respectfully, regardless of who they are. It means that we are honest with ourselves and others in all our dealings. It means that we model upright behavior for others, and understand that the image of ourselves that we put out into the world should be one that others want to emulate.

Some of you may know that the Kol Nidrei prayer is among the more controversial pieces of liturgy in our tradition. Yes, we the Jews like to argue, even over what’s in the siddur / prayerbook. 

But Kol Nidrei is one of the few prayers in the Jewish canon that was controversial from the outset. It first appeared, as far as we know, in the 10th century, and its purpose was originally to nullify vows that one made with oneself and did not fulfill in the past year, vows like, “I’m going to learn to speak French this year,” or “I’m going to go on a diet, right after Simhat Torah.” A few centuries later, the renowned scholar Rabbenu Tam, one of Rashi’s grandchildren, changed the tense from past to future, making Kol Nidrei a pre-emptive nullification of such vows. 

Vows, promises that we make to ourselves, to others, or to God, are important; in addition to passages in the Torah about various types of vows, there is a whole tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, devoted to issues surrounding vows. Right up there with being a person of integrity is the principle of keeping one’s word.

However, Kol Nidrei also provided material for anti-Semites. Misunderstanding the point of the prayer, which nullifies only those vows that we make with ourselves, the Jew haters of this world took Kol Nidrei as evidence that you can’t trust a Jew. And some rabbis railed against Kol Nidrei for centuries, because they thought that the less-scrupulous among us would take it as license not to live up to one’s word with impunity.

But you might think of Kol Nidrei today as a kind of relief valve, in particular for the very difficult kinds of resolutions we make with ourselves on Yom Kippur, like, “This year I’m really going to make peace with my estranged sibling,” or, “I’m going to give more tzedaqah.” The promises that we might make to ourselves, when we know that the Book of Life is closing, and we know that we really should do these things, but maybe we have tried and failed at self-improvement in the past. And we might very well fail again.

Keeping your word is very much a part of the value of integrity. And our tradition wants you to keep your word, especially to the others around you. Kol Nidrei does not excuse you from that.

OK, Rabbi, that all sounds very interesting. I want to act on this Jewish value of integrity. How do I do this?

I’m so glad you asked! Here are some ways we can act on this value:

In the personal sphere, that is, in your most immediate relationships, with your children, family and friends:

  • Do what you say you’re going to do.  Be the parent/friend/sibling/spouse that everybody can count on.
  • Follow through on promises, both the good (“I’ll be there to see your baseball game / play”) and the bad (“If you do that again, you’ll be punished.) The Talmud teaches us (BT Bava Metzia 49a) “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.”
  • Model the behavior you know is best for the others around you. Teach integrity by acting with integrity.

In the communal sphere, that is, in interacting with the people in your neighborhood, your synagogue, your school, your workplace:

  • Decide what are the three characteristics for which you want to be eulogized.  Then consider if your actions and words reflect those characteristics.
  • Integrity means respecting your interlocutor and trusting that reasoned arguments are the only honorable way to have discourse. It is very easy in today’s world for disagreements to devolve into insults. Remember the spark of qedushah/holiness in all people when engaging in this way.
  • Do not criticize unless you are willing to be part of the solution. Always be prepared to offer up suggestions alongside criticisms, and be prepared for the possibility that others may not want your suggestions.

As a citizen of this nation and of the world:

We may not be able to solve all of the complicated problems in the world right now (I do not need to enumerate them for you), but if we were all to take a leap forward on the integrity scale, I think there is a good chance we could at least ease some of the pain. The world needs a good deal of healing right now, and although you might feel quite small, remember that you have real power, which you exercise every time you interact with somebody, whether it is your neighbor, a store clerk, or a stranger on the street. 

You have the potential, with your words and your deeds, to make someone’s day brighter or darker, to build up another’s confidence or to destroy it, to lift up your community by working for the common good or tear it down in your own self-interest. This power demands that we always act with integrity. 

At least three times per day in Jewish prayer tradition, we say, “Elohai netzor leshoni mera, usfatai middabber mirmah.” God, keep my tongue from evil, and my lips from deceit. The Talmud (BT Berakhot 17a) tells us that we should conclude every Amidah with these words. It is a reminder that our words count as much as our actions in creating a world based on integrity.  This is an effective daily meditation on our potential to impact others.

The Zen Buddhist priest, angel Kyodo williams, says the following in her book, Radical Dharma

We cannot have a healed society, we cannot have change, we cannot have justice, if we do not reclaim and repair the human spirit.

If we model integrity in the personal, communal, national and worldwide realms, we have the potential to heal and uplift the human spirit. If we act out of selfishness, deception, bias, prejudice, and fear, we will only continue to see our world crumble. 

The choice is ours. Pick the road of integrity, for the benefit of all of our fellow people. Remember your obligation to raise the level of qedushah / holiness in this world. Seek the betterment of yourself and others. I am confident that, by acting on the Jewish value of integrity, we can regain a more civilized world. We are all in this together.

Shanah tovah! 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, evening service of Yom Kippur 5781, 9/27/2020.)

One reply on “Back to Basics: Values / Integrity – Kol Nidrei 5781”

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