On Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about truth, memory, and the process of teshuvah to help each of us make the most of these Holy Days; and I challenged us to look at our perceptions and actions through the eyes of others as well as our own so that we could build better selves. Tonight, as Yom Kippur arrives, let’s expand our focus and explore the Torah on how to build the kind of community, the kind of nation, we are supposed to create.
In Deuteronomy we read:
“Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery … You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ … If you ever forget the Lord your God … I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.” [Deut. 8:11-19]
With these words, Moses throws a gauntlet down before the Israelites, in effect saying: ‘Do not think that the forty years of wandering is the hard part, that once you settle the land your problems will be solved. The hard part will come afterward, when you feel safe and secure in your land, and the memory of your wandering becomes distant. Only then will your real spiritual trial begin.’
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “The real challenge is not poverty but affluence, not insecurity but security, not slavery but freedom. Moses, for the first time in history, was hinting at a law of history.” What is this law? Simply this: complacency and self-satisfaction are the beginning of the end of any civilization.
Complacency and self-satisfaction are the beginning of the end of any civilization.
What will this decline look like? Sacks continues:
“Inequalities will grow. The rich will become self-indulgent. The poor will feel excluded. There will be social divisions, resentments and injustices. Society will no longer cohere. People will not feel bound to one another by a bond of collective responsibility. Individualism will prevail. Trust will decline. Social capital will wane.”
It happened in ancient Babylonia and Persia, in Greece and Rome, in Renaissance Florence and monarchal France, and in the British and Russian Empires. It is happening now.
Moses saw it all, and audaciously taught that it is possible for us to succeed where everyone else fails. While every great civilization throughout history has followed the same arc of growth and decline, we can do better. The book of Deuteronomy dares and challenges us to build a nation strong enough to overcome the very laws of history.
This is the great spiritual challenge we face – not just reaching the Promised Land but keeping it.
Today we see the signs of decline in both the United States and in Israel. Yet none of this is inevitable. There is a way forward, which Moses delineates carefully throughout the book of Deuteronomy.
First, we must remember the Source of our bounty and cultivate both humility and gratitude. I know that many of us are uncomfortable with this, with the very idea of God. We say we are spiritual, but not religious. Some of us find our conception of God to be incompatible with our sense of personal agency, or with science, or with whatever else we may place on a pedestal before us. I respect that, and you, and I struggle alongside you. Indeed, our tradition has revolved around the idea of challenging authority and struggling with God to serve the greater good. Yet, when we go so far as to remove God from our midst, when we assume that human agency is the only power in the world, then it is a short leap indeed to societal decline. For we will worship something in place of God, we always do. Moses reminds us to stay connected with God, lest we do the unthinkable, and begin to think that we ourselves are gods. We are not. We are human, imperfect, fallible.
Second, if we put ourselves in God’s place, and assume that we are the ultimate authorities, then to whom shall we be accountable – ethically or otherwise? Torah exists to teach us that there is a higher authority, and a higher ethical standard. To beat the laws of history, we need to stay true to the ideals and values of Torah; we must hold ourselves accountable to that standard and teach our children to do so as well – even when it means swimming against the current. If we are going to be honest, we can do a better job here. Staying true to Torah requires more than just generalizations like “be a good person” – we need to teach our children better, with specifics. And I don’t mean religious school here. I mean what we teach as parents and grandparents. To do this effectively, we need to study and learn the details ourselves. We need to know Torah.
Here is just one example. In Deuteronomy, we learn how our leaders must lead. In most countries, the king was the law, but not in Israel. Torah teaches that when we have entered the land and decide that we want to appoint a king over ourselves, that the king must follow the same Torah as everyone else – he cannot be above the law. This is an amazing and radical idea. Even more, he is to be chosen from among our brothers, and must be subject to three specific restrictions: he may not multiply his horses, his wives or his gold. On the surface this seems a little archaic. I assure you it is not.
Rabbi Jack Reimer, one of the leading orators in the Conservative Movement, reminds us that in the rest of the world kings are generally seen as “above” the people, but not in Israel. In Israel, they are chosen from among our brothers. The term achi (my brother) is only used in the Torah to describe one other kind of person besides the king: the poor man. For us, for our government, for any community built on Torah, the king is not some god or almighty ruler, but a human being – just like us – and must keep our interests in mind. As for the horses, the wives and the gold — calvary were the equivalent of tanks in the ancient world. Reimer teaches that Torah limits the military might of the king – he can have enough to defend, but not to conquer. The second limit, on wives, should make us uncomfortable for a lot of reasons. However, in the context of the monarchy, marriage was a form a diplomacy, a way to build alliances. By limiting the number of wives a king may have, Torah limits the king’s diplomatic influence – so diplomatic coercion as well as conquest is removed from the king’s power. The final limit, on gold, is especially emphasized in the Hebrew. How did a king acquire wealth? Through taxation. The king must not over tax the people, taxes should only be levied for what is needed to support the government as it serves the people.
Taken together, these details paint an extraordinary picture about the kind of nation Torah expects from and for us: leadership as national service not self-service, power calibrated to the minimum necessary to protect and serve the people, and protections so that the people may not be taken advantage of or oppressed by their government. Our goal is not conquest, but the establishment of a just community. And, these are just some of the specific values of Torah designed to help us beat the odds and prevent our civilization from decline.
Finally, when we remember that God is God and we are not, and when we collectively work to build our lives and communities with Torah, then we can pursue justice not only for ourselves, but for all people. One of the most famous verses in all of Deuteronomy is: “ צדק צדק תרדוף – Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” [Deut. 16:20] Since Torah is incredibly economic and efficient with its language, why is the word “justice” repeated here? There are many interpretations, but my favorite is this: we should read the passage as “Justice, justly, shall you pursue.” In other words, finding justice does not mean justice for ourselves alone. True justice requires us to see not only through our eyes but also through the eyes of others, and maybe even through the eyes of God.
When we try to see through the eyes of God, we try to see the bigger picture. Astronauts, looking down on our planet, have reported how this difference of perspective has caused them to see the pettiness of some of our personal, or even national, disagreements. When we see through the eyes of God, we see that there is a higher purpose to our lives. In Deuteronomy 6:18 we are commanded to do what is right and good in the eyes of God. Doing right and good in the eyes of God means asking ourselves, based on everything we know of our tradition: what would God think of our choices? Are we pursuing our own personal agendas, or are we pursuing the greater good?
Of the three key components to creating a sustainable, ethical and just community, I think that Beth Ami is programmatically strongest here. We are known in the community for our commitment to social justice through our tikkun olam program and our Critical Issues Forum. What you may not know is that we have just been awarded the prestigious Fain Award by the Union of Reform Judaism because of the extraordinary work both of these groups continue to do. In addition to recognizing our many, many tikkun olam volunteers, the Fain Award highlights a major achievement of the Critical Issues Forum: the enactment by the Maryland legislature of the Summer SNAP for Children program – which was mostly written right down the hall with our partner congregations. We can take great pride in our achievements in this area, even as we recognize that there is still so much more to do.
This year, we are also founding members of the first annual Harvest against Hunger competition – a high holiday food drive to help fill Manna’s new warehouse so that they can feed 10,000 more hungry people here in Montgomery County. We are competing with some of our neighbor congregations to see who can increase their giving the most over last year. Please be generous and check the list of nutritional foods they are seeking from the materials we have provided. The drive continues through Sukkot, so there will be a chance for us to see how we compare after Yom Kippur. What a great way to help the hungry, and win a real-life trophy shaped like a can of food!
Our efforts to feed the hungry, help refugee families, and support those in need are important, meaningful and necessary.
And … they are not enough.
Moses knew what he was teaching.
On this Yom Kippur, let’s instill these words of Torah in our minds, our hearts, and our souls. Let’s think of them on our way and when we are at home, when we rise up and when we lie down. For, taken together, the practice of humility and gratitude (God is God and we are not), accountability to a higher standard of behavior (Torah), and the pursuit of justice beyond our own agendas – these are the building blocks of an enduring and life-affirming culture, and a society built to withstand the ravages of history. And, like so many concepts in our tradition, they represent a series of successive steps, each one dependent on the last. If we will not recognize the Source of our bounty and our own limits, then we will have no motivation to learn Torah. If we do not learn Torah, then we will have no motivation to see the world through God’s eyes and pursue the large-scale justice that is beyond our own personal agendas. Many nations have risen and fallen since Torah was first given and received at Sinai, yet our success as a people and a tradition is directly connected to those times when, despite every force in the world pushing us to do otherwise, we have kept faith: with ourselves, with Torah, and with our Creator.
Today is no different.
There is still time for us to act.
Good yuntif! It’s so wonderful to be together to welcome in the New Year. No matter how good or how difficult the past year has been, I pray that the year 5780 will be a better year … for all of us.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to read a collection of science fiction stories by author Ted Chiang. Sci fi is my favorite “downtime” genre because of the many ways it can raise meaning-of-life philosophical questions. Plus: spaceships and lasers! From the moment I began Chiang’s story “The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling,” I knew I needed to share it with you. In it, he asks: what would it be like if we could implant a chip in our brains which recorded everything we saw, heard and did, and which was easy to index so that we could have perfect recall without having to rely on our less trustworthy brains? And, what would it be like, if we could share those memories with anyone who also had a chip?
According to the 9/11 Memory Project, we remember far less accurately than we think. Under two of the world’s leading memory experts, Bill Hirst of the New School for Social Research and Liz Phelps of NYU, 3246 people were asked the same three questions about 9/11 for ten consecutive years, beginning right after the event itself: where were you, who were you with, how did you feel? To my surprise, they tracked an average 60% decline in memory consistency over ten years. The level of detail, however, would sometimes grow. Even more, the subjects remained highly confident about the accuracy of their memories over time. When confronted with what they had written in previous years they could not understand why they would have presented answers which they knew were wrong because they were in conflict with what they clearly remembered now. You see, how we rehearse our memories, external influences like social contagion, and conflation of different memories, all influence our memory recall.
Ted Chiang’s story challenges us to imagine a different reality, one where we have perfect recall of the facts, on demand. Not the narrative we attach, but the actual repetition of what happened, which we could play over and again in our minds, or perhaps even on screens.
How would you act if you knew that absolutely everything you were doing was being recorded?
What would happen to our society?
What would happen to our relationships?
Not that we should all get these chips (assuming they actually existed). Like any technology, they could be used to affirm life or to destroy life. However, this idea raises important questions for these holy days, and for our lives. How much do we change what we remember to fit a more satisfactory narrative? Which memories do we emphasize, and which let go?
In other words, how honest are we, really, about ourselves with ourselves?
That’s the question.
How honest are we, really, about ourselves with ourselves?
The Mussar tradition, a Jewish ethical piety practice, teaches that we each have a series of soul or character traits, like patience, humility, courage, gratitude and many more. It also teaches that most of us are out of balance, each in our own unique ways. While each soul-trait is connected to the others, one of the most central is ‘truth.’ If we are not honest with ourselves and with each other, we will never correct our imbalances.
We all have our own ways of distorting or even manufacturing the truth. Alan Moranis, the founder of the Mussar Institute, links dishonesty to fear. We manipulate or manufacture the truth because we are afraid: maybe I won’t get the job, maybe I won’t pass the test, maybe they won’t like me, or I won’t like them, maybe they will judge me. When we are truly honest with ourselves, we confront the underlying fears which get in our way, in deed and in memory. Most of the time, we discover that our fears are more trivial than we thought.
While our tradition generally condemns lying, we are Jews, so it gets complicated. The famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai asked, “What do you say to a bride who is not beautiful?” Shammai taught: do not lie, ever; instead of commenting on her beauty, search until you can find something else that is true and positive, and if you cannot find something, try harder. Hillel taught: every bride should be complimented as being “beautiful and gracious.” Hillel teaches that we should be more concerned with how our words impact another person than with how our words correspond to our perceptions of reality. For him, kindness is a higher truth than a personal opinion, and the preservation of human dignity is higher still. In other words, not all “lies” are false.
Similarly, not all “truths” are true just because we say they are. We should question our biases and opinions if we seek true honesty.
And we should especially avoid distorting the truth for personal gain or satisfaction. Our tradition understands that, more often than not, our lies will eventually catch up with us. Yet, even if we don’t get caught, we still damage ourselves through dishonesty. Moranis writes:
“Deceit undermines the soul of the person who is not dedicated to truth. When we habitually lie, flatter, boast, cheat, and otherwise deny truth, the impact registers at our deepest internal level. Soul-traits that are out of balance are kept that way, or driven even further toward pathological extremes. In The Path of The Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato tells us that lying is a spiritual illness. Ultimately, contact with the soul is lost completely. It is taught in the Talmud that a habitual liar is unable to perceive the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) [Sotah 42a].”
On Rosh HaShanah we consider the truth of our lives as we have lived them over the past year. Shammai teaches us to use our personal perceptions as our guide to truth. Hillel, challenges us not only look through our own eyes, but also through the eyes of the other people who “were there.” Hillel teaches that we are not the singular arbiters of truth, and that speaking accurately is connected with seeing accurately – which brings us back to the primary question before us.
How honest are we, really, about ourselves with ourselves?
Have we recognized our wrongs, felt regret, attempted to make amends? Have we determined not to repeat our mistakes, and considered how we might act differently under similar circumstances? Are we really performing teshuvah?
Sometimes, I think that it’s just too hard. How can I remember a whole year in a day? How can I trust that I haven’t re-framed what I do remember? In the end, we can only do what we can do, for we are imperfect beings. Yet, while we Jews always begin with memory, we end with hope. I have hope in “us.” I have faith that if we put our minds to it, that we will remember at least some of the past year. I have faith that if we put our hearts in it, that we can become more honest with ourselves. I believe that we are capable of becoming more than we are now.
That said, hope does not replace action. So I would also like to offer something practical that you can take home with you. Literally. It is printed on a refrigerator magnet which you can take on your way out today.
Since it is difficult to remember a whole year at once, I adopted a practice, years ago, which I try to do every Shabbat. I figured that since Yom Kippur is called Shabbat HaShabbatot, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths, that I could use Shabbat as a weekly check in. After all, a weekly check in is much easier than waiting until the end of the year. So I took a page from one of my teachers, Rabbi Levi Kelman, who began each Kabbalat Shabbat service at his synagogue in Jerusalem with a review of the week. Let’s try it together right now.
If you are comfortable, I’d like to invite you to close your eyes. If not, then please at least let your eyes go out of focus, so that you are not looking at anything in particular. Let’s go back in our memories one week, to last Monday. Try to remember where you were, who you saw, what you did. If it is difficult, that’s ok. That’s just a sign that we aren’t paying as much attention to the lives we live as we think we are. It gets easier with practice. Sometimes, it helps me to think about what I ate. Then everything else seems to fall in place. In any event, work your way through the day in your memory, starting with waking up. Did you leap out of bed to greet the day or did you groan, roll over and cover your head with your pillow? Try to remember your day in the order that you lived it. Each activity, each person you saw or spoke with. What did you do that evening? What was the last thing you said before going to sleep, and to whom did you speak those words?
Then day by day, continue to work your way through the week. And, while you are doing it, try to identify three kinds of memories. If you want a deeper challenge try using Hillel’s frame – looking at your week through more than just your own eyes.
The first kind of memory is something that you did, which you think you got right – in your eyes and in the eyes of the people around you. Something, that you would do exactly the same way the next time around. It is important to celebrate our good choices, and remembering them with intentionality reinforces this behavior.
The second is something that you did, but wish you could get a do-over. Think about the mistake you made, and how you would handle it differently if the opportunity arises – which it will. It is important to consider how we can make better choices in order to improve our chances for the future.
The third kind of memory is something, someone, some moment, for which you are grateful. Even if it was a difficult week, try to find those moments, and label them, and then offer your thanks heavenward. Regardless of how we did this past week, we should always count our blessings. This reinforces and strengthens our sense of hope and satisfaction.
Perhaps now it is Thursday …
Taking time each week to think about how we have lived in these three ways helps us to cultivate greater awareness of how we move through time; how we impact the people around us; how we use the precious time we are given. It helps us to feel good about the positives we bring to the world, and helps us correct ourselves along the way. It is Jewish mindfulness at its best.
Perhaps now it is Sunday. Yesterday. Think about where you were, who you saw, what you said. Think about the beginning of Rosh HaShannah last night. Did you celebrate at home, here in the synagogue or both? Or were you distracted? Or did other pressures of life take precedence? Whatever is true, this is what we should recall, note, acknowledge, and consider for the future.
Now it is this morning. We are waking up, getting dressed, and coming here to synagogue to bring in the New Year.
Take a deep breath … and slowly open your eyes.
Hineynu. We are here. It is a New Year. May we use this precious gift to look inward with honesty, so that we can grow in spirit and in love and do our best to make the year 5780 a year filled with success, meaning and joy.
 I first learned about the 9/11 Memory Project from Malcolm Gladwell’s Podcast: “Revisionist History” (Season 3). I highly recommend episode 3, “A Polite Word for Liar (Memory part 1)” and episode 4, “Free Brian Williams” (which is part 2 – they need to be listened to in order). Much of what I included here comes from these podcasts first, and then my review of the actual 9/11 Memory Project report second.
 Hirst, William and Elizabeth Phelps (et al), “A Ten-Year Follow-Up of a Study of Memory for the Attack of September 11, 2001: Flashbulb Memories and Memories of Flashbulb Events,” Journal of Experimental Psychology (American Psychological Association): General 2015, Vol. 144, No. 3, p. 604-623.
 Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 16b-17a [The literal question is: “How does one dance before the bride” but the meaning is as stated above.]
 Moranis, Alan. Everyday Holiness, Trumpeter Press (Boston and London: 2018), p. 168. [translation of Luzzato by Feldman, p. 94]
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras