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Yom Kippur Morning 2005: More Than Meets the Eye

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro
Sinai Temple, Springfield, MA

In Spring 2004, I very actively supported the legalization of same sex marriage in Massachusetts.  I organized rabbis and liberal Christian clergy to speak on behalf of making marriage possible for gays and lesbians in this state.

     Back then, some congregants asked me why this issue among so many issues drew my attention. The short answer is that I felt obliged to go public on a matter related to homosexuality for the same reason that I want you to know how inappropriate I believe it is to support so-called “intelligent design.”

     You see, I am a liberal religionist, and what bothers me about religious people who condemn homosexuality or evolution is that I think they give religion a bad name.

    When someone insists that the Bible is simply against homosexuality or that the Bible requires belief that the world was created in seven 24-hour days, I have a visceral reaction.  I spring into action because I fear those kind of fundamentalist readings of the Bible make the Bible appear foolish.

    Literal readings of the Torah miss the point of the Torah.  In fact, my job as a liberal rabbi is to offer alternatives to simplistic readings.  The Torah is too wise for us to read isolated verses without considering their context and history.  My excitement about Torah is that its teachings on subjects from homosexuality to evolution and beyond most often require me to take a first and then a second look.

    It's just like life.

    Sometimes it's obvious; more often than not, life is far more complex than we expect.  You have to look beneath the surface of the Torah and life itself in order to appreciate the fullness of the human enterprise.

    When it comes to Judaism and when it comes to just plain living, there is almost always more than meets the eye.

    I discovered this a few days ago when I was paging through our holiday prayer book.  I came across a line that repeats several times in the Yom Kippur viddui/confession.  We sing and say, “V'al kulam, eloha selichot…For all these things, o God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.”

    The text is so familiar that it's unremarkable.  But following through on this notion of taking a serious first and second look at the world before my eyes, I wondered for the first time why this old prayer is worded the way it is.  Why couldn't it just say, “For all these things, o God of mercy, forgive us and grant us atonement?”  Why does it say, “…forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement?”

    The Hebrew words don't seem to be have different meanings, but then again maybe I was missing something.

    Sure enough, when I looked at another holiday prayer book, I discovered the nuance I'd missed on a first glance at the words.  The second prayer book thought twice about the repetitious wording and offered this new gem of a translation: “For all these things, o God of mercy, forgive us, wipe the slate clean, grant us atonement.”

    There's a new meaning.

    There's a wonderful way to give voice to our hope:  Forgive us and wipe the slate clean.  Let us have a new start.

    When it comes to Judaism and when it comes to just plain living, there is almost always more than meets the eye.

    I realized the same truth in Jerusalem this past summer.

    First, I saw it in a classroom.  It happened during a two-week rabbinic seminar.   One day during lunch, Rabbi Tammy Kohlberg, the Reform rabbi from Tel Aviv who visited Sinai last April, told me I should drop in on the session she was attending.  I had studied elsewhere the previous day, but Tammy guaranteed the teacher she had met was outstanding.

    So I joined her, even though the subject matter didn't seem attractive.  The teacher was dealing with material about blessings that can be said on various occasions.  It was a text from the Mishnah that I'd studied in my first year of rabbinic school. I knew it already.

    Or so I thought, for what the teacher did that day was extraordinary.

    To make a long story short, he focused on one proof text that most Mishnah readers ignore and, when he did that, he revealed a meaning I'd never seen in the familiar words.  It turns out that the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah weren't just listing blessings the way you might seem them laid out in a how-to manual on Judaism.

    No, in the midst of listing the blessings the rabbis threw in a proof text from the Book of Judges.  Except they only quoted the first part of the verse from Judges.  If you skipped over the verse (as most people would), the list of blessings went on. But if you opened the Book of Judges, as our teacher told us to, and read the whole paragraph around the quote suddenly there was more than meets the eye.

    The full passage was asking if God was a just God and could be counted on to keep faith with the Jews.  Why make a hidden reference to that issue in a list of blessings:  because the Mishnah was created after the Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE and after the loss of Jewish independence.  At that time Jews everywhere were in shock.  They were wondering if there was any future for Judaism at all.  The clever proof text admitted that there were reasons for doubting God and the Jewish future, but said, that in spite of it all, it was still worth saying blessings.

    I.e. Judaism should have a future.  This was the unexpected message of the Mishnah we were studying.  It's the kind of message that gave our ancestors the stamina to continue life as Jews so that we could quite literally be here today.

    When it comes to Judaism and when it comes to just plain living, there is almost always more than meets the eye.

    So there I was in a Jerusalem classroom at the very time when Israeli politics outside was heating up to an incredible degree.  Do you remember last summer's hot button issue?  Anywhere you went in Israel everyone was debating:  Should Israel withdraw from the Gaza Strip?

    After all the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, it may be hard to remember how pressing that issue was, but if you can turn your clock back to August, I bet you will remember those television pictures we saw when Israel did pull out of Gaza:  settlers refusing to stop prayers in the Gaza synagogues, demonstrators shrieking at Israeli soldiers, soldiers dragging settlers onto buses.

    It was intense and extreme.  Israel was most certainly front and center on television screens around the world.

    But let me follow through on this morning's theme.  Even with all that commotion, there is more than meets the eye.  Real life in Israel involves more than painful politics.  Look beneath the surface of the Gaza dilemma.

    Of course, that was a struggle over the borders of Israel.  The obvious question  was whether or not the withdrawal from Gaza made Israel safer or more dangerous.  But the Gaza debate was based on much more than a different approach toward tactics.  Israelis took their positions because of the philosophies they have about the meaning of Zionism.

    Under the frenzied headlines, the settlers were living out a vision of Zionism that has vast implications for Israel.  For these primarily Orthodox Jews, the very land and soil of Israel are holy.  They link themselves directly to the Torah and see any decision about Israel in terms of Torah and the will of God.  A Jewish country for them can only be really Jewish if it is a country ruled by Torah, and, as you would imagine, that is a claim which has vast consequences.  A pure Torah country would be a country where Orthodoxy (or probably right-wing Orthodoxy) would determine who marries whom, how people are buried, how holidays are observed, what is taught in every school to every child, plus much more.

    As you would imagine, there are other Israelis with other visions for Israel.  Professor Michael Meyer of Hebrew Union College contrasts the settlers' Zionism with what he calls post-Zionism.  These are a group of Israelis who, at the extreme, argue that Israel should simply be a democracy.  Now that Israel has been established and has acted as a refuge for millions of Jews, the post-Zionists believe the Jewish aspects of Israel are outmoded.  Some would eliminate the Law of Return; some would eliminate the Israeli flag with its resemblance to a tallit.  Let the country move to post-Zionism, a nationalism beyond Judaism.

    Finally, says Professor Meyer, there is a Zionism that tries to blend Jewish roots and values with modern democratic values.   It runs right up the middle between Settler Zionism and Post-Zionism, trying to make Israel into a Jewish state that always remains a special home for Jews and Judaism but also separates between church and state and understands modern  liberal values.

    When it comes to Judaism and Israel, you see there is more than meets the eye.

    That's why Israel is such an extraordinary and ordinary place.  Great questions of political philosophy are being worked out every day for this 57 year old country while average Israelis (and tourists too) are roaming around making a living, raising families, visiting remarkable historic sites, creating fine jewelry, and baking fabulous chocolate rugelach.  

    This is the complicated, charming, challenging country I would like you to meet next summer on a trip to Israel.  This is also the country described in its complexity on the brochure you have, which was prepared by Rabbis Fred Hyman, Herb Schwartz, and myself.  The three of us as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews prepared the brochure for several purposes:

    First, we wanted to remind you that Israel does not solely mean the Israel-Palestinian struggle.  Look at the brochure and you'll discover more than meets the eye.  You'll see a variety of ways in which our homeland can be understood.

    There is the Jewish National Fund with its concern for ecology. There is the region of Afula in the Galilee where our Federation has made connections to the Ha-emek Medical Center, the Max Stern College, and a school for the disabled, called Beit Uri.

    Here's something else unusual.  For a person-to-person connection, you can actually join a synagogue in Israel.  On Monday, Marsha and I sent a check off to Kehilat Ra-a-nan in Tel Aviv.  For $180, we've become associate members of that congregation which represents the third stream of moderate, progressive, religious Reform Zionism.  Rabbi Tammy Kolhberg is their rabbi.  She's one of the rabbis I studied with last summer, and our congregational trip will be visiting her synagogue next July.

    And, of course, because Israel has such variety, you can also buy an Israel Bond.  Don't look for the details right now, but as you do every year, make a commitment to Bonds because Bonds build roads, dams, and all the infrastructure that makes for a healthy country.

    Don't spend more than you can.

    Don't give away a cent either. Remember Bonds are guaranteed to give you all your money back.

    Some people can purchase a Zero Coupon Bond.  Almost everyone can purchase a Mazel Tov Bond for $100.00.

    And, for the first time ever, let me say that even if you don't buy a Bond this year (which I hope you will), don't finish today or this week without giving some thought to the other options on our Israel brochure.  Join an Israeli synagogue or learn more about any of the other possibilities.

    When it comes to Judaism and Israel,  there is more than meets the eye.

    Indeed, when it comes to Judaism and us on Yom Kippur,  there is more than meets the eye. Or should I say there is a way in which we on Yom Kippur need to be looking for more than meets the eye.

    You see, I forgot something last night when you and I talked about sin.  I presented a Jewish way for us to take our failures seriously.  I presented you with that alphabet of sins.  I had B for betrayal of trust.  There was L for lying and M for manipulating.

    But for “U” I think I could have made a better choice.  I didn't present the failing that starts with “U” and links together so many other sins.  I didn't mention the trap into which we fall when we stay at the surface.  When we only react to people's actions and don't look for more than meets the eye, we too quickly have our egos wounded and we too quickly judge the person opposite us.

    For us, U stands for unforgiving.

    On Yom Kippur, we may admit what we have done wrong, but letting go of our anger and forgiving someone?  That's a tall order.  Maybe the toughest act of repentance called for in this whole day is to forgive those who we believe have hurt us.

    I once had a teacher who offered an explanation for why forgiving is so hard.  He suggested that most of us live by assuming that everyone around us has free will while we do not.  As a result, we innocently or inadvertently do what we must do, while around us others purposely choose to act as they do.

    So, then, how do we forgive people who are malicious?  It goes back to looking beneath the surface and believing there is more than meets the eye.  Forgiving people requires a huge leap on our part.  We need to believe that people mostly aren't malicious and, like us beneath the surface, wish at their best that they hadn't done the wrong they have done.

    To forgive I think you've got to be willing to give other people the benefit of the doubt.  You've got to look at others with eyes wide, wide open appreciating other people as fully and generously as humanly possible.

    Let me paraphrase Shylock from the Merchant of Venice (3:1) -  Forgiving someone means looking beneath the surface to recognize that everyone you meet is fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, bleeds as you do, weeps and laughs as you do too.  Give them a break.  If it doesn't change them, it will certainly unburden you.

    By the way, did I mention the following thought before?

    When it comes to Torah, Judaism, Israel and life itself,  there is more than meets the eye.

***********

    A final story about eyes-

    A little boy went to visit his mother at the office.  His mother was busy preparing a presentation.  “Mom,” the child exclaimed.  “Guess what!”

    “I don't know - what?” the mother asked, not looking up from her desk.

    “Mom, you're not listening.”

    “Yes, I am, honey,” answer the mother as she put away some paper.

    “But, Mom, you're not listening with your eyes.”

   

    All of us can listen better.

    We can look more carefully at the Torah for its treasures.  We can look more thoughtfully at Israel for its rich complexity.  We can certainly look at other human beings with generosity and forgiveness.

    When we do see the world with eyes wide open, I guarantee you it can become a more subtle place, a more interesting place, and a more loving place.

    There is always more than meets the eye.

    Look well today.

    Look well tomorrow too.

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