Yom Kippur - 5783/2022 Rabbi Joel Nickerson

  • 5783/2022
  • Rabbi Nickerson
  • Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur - 5783/2022 Rabbi Joel Nickerson

Yom Kippur 5783
October 5, 2022
Rabbi Joel Nickerson
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles

Sermon at the Audrey Irmas Pavilion Yom Kippur Koleinu Service

Sermon at the Main Sanctuary Yom Kippur Service

For many, Yom Kippur is defined by its restrictions from eating and drinking. But there are actually two major, 24-hour fast days in the Jewish calendar.  There is, of course, today, Yom Kippur, which tends to focus on our personal flaws.  The second is Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the two temples in ancient Jerusalem and a litany of tragedies that have befallen our people.  On that day, we reflect on our collective sins and failures.  Our tradition draws a clear connection between the moral behavior of the Jewish people and our right to exist.  Therefore, Jewish survival is conditional on our willingness and capacity to change and build a society worthy of perpetuating.  “So what was the great sin of the Jewish people that led to the destruction of the temples?” asked the ancient rabbis.  What did we do wrong?

Their most famous answer is that the ancient temple in Jerusalem, the bastion of political and religious life, was destroyed not because of any foreign power, but because of the baseless and senseless hatred – in Hebrew, sinat chinam - that existed between groups of Jews who lived in the city at the time.  Jewish societies are most threatened by dangers from within.  Divisiveness, claim the rabbis, is the internal enemy that brings a society to its knees.  It’s even one of the sins we articulate during the confessional part of the Yom Kippur service – “the harm we have caused in Your world by hating without cause.”

In our country, as we all know, we have moved into a remarkably ugly and divisive reality, where expressions of sinat chinam – baseless and senseless hatred – are infused into political rhetoric, our social media feeds, and even our personal relationships. 

In the Fall of 2020, researchers published an article in the journal ‘Science’ declaring that political hatred has become Americans’ animating faith.  Politics has become an evangelical religion.  In the late 1950s, Gallup asked a random sample of Americans whether they wanted their daughters to marry a Democrat or Republican and 72% either didn’t respond or said they didn’t care.  In 2016, a political scientist at UCLA found that times had changed.  In that year, there was more desire for same-party marriage than ever before, with only 45% of Americans not caring one way or the other.  After everything we’ve experienced in this country since that research six years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if many now consider interpolitical marriage to be the greatest threat to family and cultural continuity, even supplanting the age-old concern about intermarriage. 

I believe that one of the greatest factors contributing to this divisiveness is the fact that it is getting more difficult, and more dangerous, to engage in productive disagreement and debate.  We are becoming so closed off and so disappointed in one another that we’re starting to believe that there is little to no value in even engaging with those who see things differently. I had one person tell me recently that they’re not going to go to their uncle’s for Thanksgiving this year because the thought of sitting at the same table with some family members who voted for the other guy was just too disturbing to comprehend.  Or a friend who was throwing a dinner party but was torn about whether to invite a certain couple because the wife had posted some things on social media that had been really upsetting and the hostess didn’t want to see the woman in-person because she didn’t know what would potentially happen. 

The number of times I’ve heard someone say, “he turned to the dark side,” or “Oh, I can’t talk to her anymore – she’s just going to try and convince me that X or Y.”  How many of you have changed your plans, declined an invitation, unfriended someone online, or simply avoided a topic of conversation because of differences in opinions and beliefs?  The problem is that if we never engage, we perpetuate the isolation and widen the divide.   

I happen to be an optimist at heart, and I fundamentally believe that the majority of people are not on the extremes; that there is a quiet, and often, silent, majority who hold a complex and nuanced set of beliefs.  It’s that majority that I want us to focus on today, because today is a day during which we are supposed to reflect and recalibrate in order to prevent our personal and collective sins and shortcomings from further dividing and destroying what we are working so hard to build – a life and a society built on righteousness, love, and peace.

There’s a joke about three Jews who are about to be executed by firing squad. The sergeant in charge asks each one whether he wants a blindfold. “Yes,” says the first Jew, in a resigned tone. “OK,” says the second Jew, in a quiet voice. “And what about you?” he enquires of the third Jew. “No,” says the third Jew, “I don’t want your lousy blindfold.”  The second Jew immediately leans over to him and whispers: “Listen, Larry, take a blindfold. Don’t make trouble.” 

Right now, there is a lot of fear about speaking up and disagreeing with others.  Rabbi Steve Leder likes to talk about the Buddhist concept of tending to the part of the garden that we can reach, and it’s so true.  There’s no way we’re going to end the divisiveness and anger overnight but today is a perfect day to reflect on what each one of us can realistically do to bring about some change.

Our tradition offers some wisdom.  It centers around the Jewish concept of machloket.  Rolls right off the tongue. Machloket is translated as ‘debate’ or ‘disagreement’ and it’s at the center of our tradition’s understanding of how we are supposed to engage in the world.  The well-known adage, “two Jews, three opinions” is linked to the concept of machloket, and our stereotypical association of Jews arguing and disagreeing is probably a direct result of this ancient practice found at the center of most rabbinic discussions about Torah.  It’s arguing done right.  And right now, we could use a refresher on how to argue with one another without trying to burn it all down. 

Machloket teaches us that an argument is not designed to have a clear winner and loser – something counter to how we position arguments in today’s world.  The goal of disagreement and debate is to open up the door to the possibility of change; to plant a seed.  I actually love the way Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist puts it - “A good debate is not a war.  It's not even a tug-of-war, where you can drag your opponent to your side if you pull hard enough on the rope.  It’s more like a dance that hasn’t been choreographed, negotiated with a partner who has a different set of steps in mind.  If you try too hard to lead, your partner will resist.  If you can adapt your moves to theirs, and get them to do the same, you’re more likely to end up in rhythm.” 

We need to stop trying to win, because when that’s our mentality, we’re only going to lose.  As a parent, I am reminded of this on a regular basis.  There have been many times when I’ve argued with one of my daughters about something and we’re going back and forth, really going at it (and I’m of course, secretly enjoying it) and Julia will step in and say to me, “Joel, stop trying to win.  It’s not going to work.”  And she’s right.  It’s not that I am necessarily wrong with the point I’m trying to make, but my attempt to win just makes my daughter dig in her heels and stick to her guns even more. 

Machloket reminds us that the goal of an argument is to learn.  It’s for this reason that the full phrase used by the rabbis is machloket l’shem shamayim – an argument for the sake of heaven; in other words, an argument for the sake of the greater good.  The people who did this best, according to our tradition, were Hillel and Shammai – these two rabbis who created schools of thought that were diametrically opposed to one another and yet, they argued more than 300 times in the Talmud.

It's what our tradition teaches us about Hillel and Shammai that I believe is the key to building the skill set that allows us to walk into that Thanksgiving family gathering, show up at that friend’s BBQ, or sit at the same table with that person. 

So, what were the secrets to Hillel and Shammai’s productive and successful debates and disagreements?  The House of Hillel always did three things:

First, they were kind and gracious whenever they argued.  In other words, they were respectful. Second, they spent time learning their opponent’s argument and taught that argument alongside their own.  In other words, they actively listened to the details of the other side; so much so that they understood the details and intricacies enough to teach it themselves.  And lastly, 3) whenever they were debating with the school of Shammai, they would teach Shammai’s opinion first, before their own.  They expressed some kind of awareness about the importance of their opponent’s opinion, as if to say, “I know you feel very strongly about this and I’m going to prove to you that I’m open-minded by presenting your opinion first, before I even share my own thoughts on the matter.”  This ancient Jewish wisdom seems like a master class in debate strategy.  Respect, active listening, and empathy – the three things that our tradition upholds as the keys to a successful disagreement. 

I want to share something special with you.  On April 6, 1962, the famous composer, Leonard Bernstein, walked out on stage at Carnegie Hall to introduce the New York Philharmonic’s performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto.  The piece called for a piano soloist and on that evening it was Mr. Glenn Gould, one of the most well-respected pianists of the 20th century.  Bernstein and Gould fundamentally disagreed about how the piece should be performed and Bernstein launched into an unanticipated introduction that led that evening’s performance to be deemed one of the most controversial in the orchestra’s history.  I think it beautifully illustrates the power of our tradition’s approach to disagreement and debate and so I want us to listen to an edited version of the introduction together:

(Listen to full audio here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuxPKikM0NI)
Summary of the audio - “Don't be frightened.” He began.  “Mr. Gould is here. He will appear in a moment. I'm not, um, as you know, in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday night previews, but a curious situation has arisen, which merits, I think, a word or two.”  He went on to say that they were about to hear a version of the concerto which Bernstein felt veered far away from the original intention of the piece.  “But,” he said, “the age-old question still remains: In a concerto, who is the boss; the soloist or the conductor? The answer is, of course, sometimes one, sometimes the other, depending on the people involved. But almost always, the two manage to get together by persuasion or charm or even threats to achieve a unified performance. Then why, to repeat the question, am I conducting it? Why do I not make a minor scandal — get a substitute soloist, or let an assistant conduct? Because I am fascinated, glad to have the chance for a new look at this much-played work; Because, what's more, there are moments in Mr. Gould's performance that emerge with astonishing freshness and conviction. Thirdly, because we can all learn something from this extraordinary artist...” 
And that, to me, is the way in which we all must address this divisive and frustrating time for our nation.  We have an incredible opportunity right now - to move away from sinat chinam – senseless and baseless hatred – and move towards machloket l’shem shamayim - arguments for the sake of heaven; for the sake of the greater good.
Let’s use the skills set forth by our tradition to not only engage in some of the harder conversations, but to do so in the spirit of Hillel and Shammai.  We must learn to create music – sometimes cacophonous, sometimes out of tune, but always with the hope that by utilizing the wisdom of machloket, we can create some sort of harmony, some sort of unified performance.  

And maybe, we’ll even start enjoying the family Thanksgiving gathering once again.