An Affirming Flame | Congregation Beth Am

An Affirming Flame

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
September 6, 2002

We begin tonight with a telephone conversation that took place just a year ago. It was one of several hundred calls made from the twin towers in the last desperate minutes before they collapsed in the flames of hate.

"Mom," asked Jeffrey Nussbaum. "What was that explosion?" Twenty miles away, in Oceanside, New York, Arline Nussbaum could see on television what her son could not see from his office in Carr Futures, on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower. She recalls their last words: "The other tower just went down," Mrs. Nussbaum said. "Oh my God," her son said. "I love you." Then the line went dead.      [The New York Times, May 26, 2002]

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night. . .

      A year ago those lines were heard everywhere - on television, on the radio, at memorial services and public gatherings all over the country. W. H. Auden's poem, "September 1, 1939," composed at the outbreak of the Second World War, seemed to capture the mood of our country in the wake of a new and savage attack: stunned, grieving, frightened. Waves of anger and fear burst into our private lives, and for so many weeks we could think and talk about little else.

      New Yorkers bravely took up the work of clearing away the wreckage, but as the year went on we could not seem to escape from images of falling and collapse. In Israel there were buildings and busses smashed to bits, and with them a decade's hopes for peace; and everywhere the foul odor of death. And here at home there was another kind of collapse -- the stock market in free fall, hopes crashing down and lives painfully disrupted as the bubble burst.

Our institutions, too, seemed to totter and sway as each day's newspapers revealed their rotten foundations: we learned to recite the dreary litany of Enron and Tyco, WorldCom, Adelphia, Global Crossing, Merrill Lynch and Arthur Anderson. Along with the news of corporate corruption there were other disturbing revelations that smacked of moral collapse: about the Catholic Chuch; about an international ring of pornographers, some of whom preyed on their own children; about noted historians, one with a Pulitzer Prize, who admitted to plagiarism.

      The high and the mighty fell during this past year; some of us who thought we were secure found ourselves on a frightening downward slide; all of us felt the ground shifting beneath our feet as it became harder and harder to find something to trust, a firm and solid place to stand. Even the simplest truths about our own bodies were cast into question. We thought we knew something about hormones after menopause, and about mammograms; we thought we knew something about low-fat diets and high carbohydrates. These certainties, too, dissolved in frustration and confusion.

By the time summer came we were weary of a world that seemed to bring us nothing but new things to worry about. As one writer put it in theNew YorkTimes last week: "It was the summer of disbelief, also of despair. It was the summer of missing children and forest fires, of pretty girls with bombs on their backs, of a few men's greed and a market's sloppy tumble, of Martha Stewart and Ashleigh Banfield. It was the summer of menace in the headlines and faith under seige and the creep of tensions among citizens who began to argue about peace. . . "  [Beth Kephart, Op-Ed Page, August 31, 2002]

What can Rosh Hashana mean for us, after a summer so disheartening, and a year marked by falling away and collapse?

Our Sages teach that the shofar summons us home at this season - not just home from our summer vacations, for those who were lucky enough to have them, but home from other kinds of wanderings as well - from wanderings in desert places of cynicism, moral confusion and despair. The shofar is a call to come back from places where we have gone astray, to the place where we belong, and to begin again. [Based onLikkute Etzot Hadash III, cited in Agnon'sDays of Awe, p.75]

Auden, in his dive on Fifty-Second Street, spoke of the human desire to shield ourselves from pain, to hide in drink or escape into pleasure and blot out the fearful realities of the world:

"Faces along the bar," he wrote, "Faces along the bar

Cling to their average day:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home;

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good."

This is a fearful world, and there are plenty of us who want the same things from religion that we want from a bar: sweet music, comforting words, a soothing atmosphere that relieves our anxieties and seals us off from the menacing shadows of the night. Especially in times like these, we want our religion to be a fort that shelters and protects, that gives us strength and keeps us safe.

Therapy - the soothing of the bruised and harried self - has always been an inescapable part of our faith, as it is of all religious faith. And the synagogue should be a place where we can bring our broken hearts and our broken dreams, a place where together we can bind up our wounds.

But more and more today we are apt to reduce our religion to nothingbut therapy. We go to synagogue looking for an experience that will help us to feel good. And part of the reason to go, of course,is to make us feel better about ourselves and about the world.

But the shofar of Rosh Hashana does not summon us here solely, or even primarily, to meet our personal needs. We do not come together tonight for a kind of ritualized group therapy or for stress management. The High Holy Days are ultimately aboutdoingbetter, not justfeeling better.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a scientist at Hebrew University and an observant Jew, taught that in Judaism our aim is not to know God and to find peace but toserve God, to answer the call of the Most High. The proper question to bring to our religion, he says, is not, "What is this giving me?" but  "How must I respond?" And he adds: "What makes the Jewish people unique is the obligations [we] must observe." [Quoted inThe Jerusalem Post, July 15, 2002, p.49].

Obligations. That's not a word we take kindly to, we Reform Jews - especially here in the West, where we're suspicious of all authority figures and resistant to being ordered around. We don't much like the idea of a God who's demanding and judgmental, or a religion that gets in our face; we'd much prefer a gentler spiritual practice that lowers our blood pressure and boosts our self-esteem.

But our Sages insisted that religion is not, fundamentally, about what we would prefer. The Jewish God, they said, not only shelters and comforts our wounded spirits; the Jewish God challenges us and sets forth demands. At the core of our faith is a God who is more thanAvinu, the Source of infinite love; God is alsoMalkeinu, the transcendent voice of obligation. Even in a broken world -especially in a broken world, when we are heartsick from what we have seen and experienced - something is expected of us. 

On this Rosh Hashana, at the end of a fearful year, let us come back from our wanderings in desolate places, back to where we belong, to hear the words of our God.

"Higid l'cha Adam ma tov, uma Adonai doresh mimcha. . . You have been told, O man, what is good; and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" [Micah 6:8].

The prophet Micah offers here the essence of Torah in a single verse. Regarding this verse, the Talmud teaches: Moses was given 613mitzvot at Sinai. Micah came and expressed them as three [Makkot 23b-24a]. It is not that the othermitzvotdo not matter. But this is the heart of a Jewish life - the purpose behind the 613, the reason the Jewish people is here.

So what is required of us in the year five thousand seven hundred and sixty three, when each day's newspapers bring us something new to worry about? The few words that Micah uttered in the eighth century BCE sound so simple and basic. All you really have to do is be a good person, a nice person, a decent person. That's all there is to it. Or is it? Let's unpack the power of these ancient words.

Our Sages interpreted the verse as an ascending series of obligations. So the first and minimal requirement is la'asot mishpat - to do justice.  Jews must not bend or break the law. We can't lie, or cheat, or steal, or play fast and loose with what is right. One commentator, Radak, says thatla'asot mishpat refers specifically to our obligations in financial matters.

It's interesting that there are 24 commandments in the Torah that have to do with the dietary laws, but there are more than a hundred that have to do with economics. Ours is a religion that gets in your face, and the Jewish God is a God who cares about the details - especially the details of how we handle our own and other people's money. "I shall walk before Godinthe land of the living," says Psalm 116 [vs.9]; and the Talmud [Yoma71a] teaches that the "land of the living" means the marketplace, where you make a living, where real life happens.

There is a voluminous body of Jewish law that deals with how to do justice in the marketplace of real life.  But we don't have to be Talmudic scholars to be revolted by the spectacle of high-level corporate looting and fraud that we read about in the headlines this year.

The failure to do justice isn't confined to the high and the mighty. A survey of businesses, government agencies and nonprofit groups found that losses from employee theft more than doubled from 1994 to 2000. Firms now lose five times as much in goods from employee theft as from shoplifting [KPMG accounting firm, cited in "The Lie of the Land," by David Perlmutter,Jewish World Review, July 11, 2002].

"Cheating became rampant in the 1990s," wrote William Black, a visiting professor at the Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "And because it was the norm it was no longer seen as wrong. Indeed, it became seen by competing CEOs as clever. Many firms practiced the same scam: Sell the product just before the end of the quarter and get the product back a week later as a return. This created phony profits for scores of Silicon Valley firms" [Newsday, July 7, 2002].

"How can I be ethical when the company isn't?" one of our congregants asked me this year. "What can I do when we have to get the product onto the market even if I don't think it's ready yet?"

"Over and over, story after story, the pattern is the same," writes teacher and journalist David Perlmutter. "Companies list and preach often voluminous ethical rules or guidelines. Then everyone is put into situations of customer pressure, deadlines, sales-volume demands, profit maximization targets and productivity quotas that make following the ethical path impossible, or at least career-dampening" [ibid.].

One news story this year particularly caught my attention. Christine Pelton, a high school biology teacher in Piper, Kansas, gave her students an assignment to collect 20 leaves and write a report about them. The classroom syllabus - a document that both the students and their parents signed - stated clearly the school board policy that cheating would not be tolerated, and that the punishment for plagiarism would be no credit for the assignment, which counted for half of the grade. 28 of her students turned in assignments that seemed suspiciously similar; she did some research on the Internet and confirmed that they had indeed copied their papers from the web. Ms. Pelton issued 28 zeroes.

What happened next is astonishing. The students' parents were enraged. Some of them made harassing, post-midnight calls to Ms. Pelton's home. She offered her students the chance to do make-up work and pass the class with a D. They refused. Under the pressure of angry parents, the school board overturned Ms. Pelton's decision and ordered her to raise the students' grades. She went to school the next day and found her students celebrating their victory, jeering at her and claiming that they no longer had to listen to a teacher. That very day she quit her job. [Story by Leonard Pitts, a writer for theMiami Herald, that appeared in theMercury News June 25, 2002]

Anyone can write an ethics code. Everyone can agree that it's important to be a good person. But what does the Lord require of us? To do justice - to act with honor and integrity "in the land of the living" - in the real world, under the heat of real pressures - marketplace pressures, academic pressures, political pressures like those faced by the Piper, Kansas school board.

Ahavat Chesed - to love kindness. Micah asks us to go above and beyond the letter of the law.Ahavat Chesed has to do with the way we look at other human beings. A congregant said to a colleague of mine earlier this year, "The basis of all religion is probably 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' But in industry it's the opposite. It's 'Get them before they get you.' You have to get what you can out of people."

This predatory worldview echoes the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, who wrote that "each man is the other man's wolf." Micah's message is meant for those of us who move through the world with a certain kind of tunnel vision -- focused on getting what we can out of people; preoccupied with our own concerns; living our lives as what one scholar calls "the sovereign self."

As Adrienne Rich wrote in 1991:

"In those years, people will say, we lost track

of the meaning of we, of you

we found ourselves

reduced to I

and the whole thing became

silly, ironic, terrible:

we were trying to live a personal life

and yes, that was the only life

we could bear witness to 

But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged

into our personal weather

They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove

Along the shore, through the rage of fog

Where we stood saying I"

On September 11th the great dark birds of history plunged into our personal lives and showed us how essential it is that we not forget about we, about you. We did not climb out of the World Trade Center disaster by saying I, by seeing the world as Thomas Hobbes saw it. And we know that the way of the sovereign self leads ultimately to hell. For over the gates of Buchenwald, where 56,000 were murdered, were written these words: "Jedem das seine - every man for himself."

Ahavat Chesed, to love kindness, is not a greeting card cliche.  The words of our Jewish tradition, words that relentlessly remind us that life is not about every man for himself but about loving your neighbor and loving the stranger and widening your tunnel vision - these words demand that we care for and sustain one another. These words, taken seriously, keep human beings from building a Buchenwald.

I want to ask you forchesed, for kindness, tonight. Many members of our congregation have been hurt by the economic downturn in the Silicon Valley. Being out of a job for months, on top of significant medical expenses, can devastate a family quickly. One of our Beth Am families is in immediate and urgent need of financial assistance or housing. They need our help. If you are in a position to provide some help - if you own rental property, for instance, or know someone who does -- please be in touch with me right after Rosh Hashana.

". . . No one exists alone," wrote Auden, on September 1, 1939. ". . . we must love one another or die."

Auden was wrong, of course, and later in life he realized it. He changed the line of his poem to read "We must love one another and die." For we do die, and that is the inescapable reality that Micah addressed at the end of his famous verse. "To walk humbly with your God," he said. To walk humbly, to walk modestly and unpretentiously, to the very end.

The Talmud interprets this phrase to mean escorting a bride to thechuppah - that is, providing a dowry for a needy bride - and escorting the dead to the grave [Makkot 24a]. But to me, "walking humbly with God" means a life spent striving to do God's work, in joy and in sorrow, and in all the times in between. 

"Make yourself a good name and you can lie down in peace," says a Ladino proverb.  And so it is that Jews speak of those who have died by recalling their goodness. "Zichrona livracha," we say. "May her memory be for a blessing." Or "zachur la-tov" - may he be remembered for good."

Is it really possible to live in this way? Is it possible to do God's work until the very end of life? We know that it is.  We know it is possible because we know the ones who have done it: men and women who stood straight and tall and held on to their integrity in "a low dishonest decade"; men and women who thought not of the "sovereign self" but of "we," and of "you"; and who blessed the ones around them with their kindness and their love. 

They were our grandfathers and our grandmothers, they were our parents, they were our beloved husbands and our wives, our partners and our friends. Teachers and shopkeepers, business people, working people, devoted volunteers - ordinary people who walked upright all the days of their life and lay down at the end with a good and honorable name.

We must love one another and die. Because we die, and because all that survives us is the good that we do, we must love. That's why Jeffrey Nussbaum told his mother that he loved her the moment he learned that his life was about to end. That's why hundreds of brave, scared people trapped in rooms filling up with smoke spent their last moments on the phone with the people they loved. Despite the smoke, they saw clearly at the end what mattered.

Our world is darker this year, and much that once seemed firm and secure has fallen away. On Rosh Hashana the shofar summons us to begin again; to defy despair; to affirm the sacred truths that stand forever. "You have been told, O man, what is good; and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

Let us end, as we began, with "September 1, 1939." These are the last words of the poem:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

May we, may all of us, in this new year, show an affirming flame.

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We strive to live as a holy community whose study and practice of Judaism inspires and challenges us to "do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8).