“Confusion of the Heart,” Kol Nidre 5775 Drash


I began to feel guilty this summer as I heard from more and more of my colleagues and friends who were spending time in Israel, including my brother. They would write blogs and e-mails and facebook postings describing with a hint of pride what it was like to hear sirens and rush down into bomb shelters.

And I thought, it’s not that I was running away from Israel, but it’s nice to go someplace quiet for a vacation. You know, someplace that doesn’t feel quite so much like work (or war).

But am I like Jonah whose story we hear tomorrow afternoon, running in the opposite direction from the place I’m supposed to be? The place God wants me to be? And if so, am I about to be swallowed by a whale?

Several of you sent me a copy of two recent articles. The most recent issue of Reform Judaism Magazine has a cover story entitled “Muzzled by the Minority,” about rabbis feeling muzzled when it comes to speaking about Israel.1 The other, from the NY Times, is entitled, Rabbis Find Talk of Israel and Gaza a Sure Way to Draw the Wrath of Congregants.2

Interestingly, none of you who sent me these articles made a comment to accompany it. Did you mean it as a warning? as a dare? as a statement, and if so, what statement? something like: can you believe this happens at other synagogues? — it would NEVER happen at BCC! Or, perhaps, you meant to say, “see, not just at BCC, everywhere!” Perhaps you sent it because you wanted me to talk about Israel, perhaps you sent it because you didn’t want me to talk about Israel. Or maybe you just sent it because it was an article about rabbis and it made you think of me.

My point is that I don’t know why you sent it. I’m kind of glad you did, but I also don’t know why I’m glad you did. Like so many communications between people, we often don’t have a clue what’s going on for the other person unless we talk about it. Have you ever mistaken what a friend or parent or child or partner said to you or didn’t say to you? It’s kind of like that.

Perhaps that’s why in the whole long list of “sins” that Jews all over the world will be reciting tonight and tomorrow — the list of the mistakes we humans make — the majority of them are about words. Errors we make with what we say or what we don’t say, and to whom, how we say it or don’t say it, what we “hear” from others without clarifying whether that’s what they intended — all those sorts of “sins” are included in our lists. In the traditional liturgy of Yom Kippur we confess errors of speech at least 194 times.3 That’s a lot of misspeaking, misreading, misunderstanding, miscommunication. Or as I think about it: it’s a lot of missed opportunities.

And then at the end of our long list, at the end of the traditional al cheyt is one that is last because it is an alphabetical acrostic, but also, I think, because it is a result of so many of the others:

Al cheyt sh’khatanu l’fanekha b’teem-hon lei-vav
“For the wrong we did before You through confusion of the heart.”

The way many people, Jews in particular, feel about Israel these days might be described as “confusion of the heart.” In those two articles one of the rabbis spoke about how Israel used to be considered a simple, unifying force among the Jewish people — the existence and necessity of Israel, and pride in how it came to be. But now Israel has become one of our most divisive forces.

Some Jews are walking away from Judaism and Jewish identity because of their views about Israel. Some hear stories of the Gaza conflict, and feel their hearts giving up on Israel.

For the wrong we did before You by giving up hope.
While others grab on tighter to Israel, allowing no criticism whatsoever.4

For the wrong we did before You by closing off dialogue.
And most of us, I venture to guess, are in-between somewhere. We who love Israel, and want it to survive and to thrive, also weep for Israeli lives lost, for the disruption to Israeli society, for the trauma suffered by Israeli children learning to live with fear; and surely we weep also for the children and innocent ones of Gaza, the ones killed and the ones living in fear there and the ones learning at such a young age to hate a place and a people we hold dear. But we don’t talk about it much. And maybe we don’t even tell ourselves about those feelings.

For the wrong we did before You, by hiding our feelings, even from ourselves.
And at the risk of committing some of those sins of speech, even in the midst of Yom Kippur when we are trying to wipe away those sins — it seems to me that we need to be talking about Israel. Not arguing about it, but allowing ourselves to feel out loud without fear of criticism or threat of violence against us, allowing ourselves to learn together and to learn from people who know a lot about Israel, and who do not necessarily hold the views we currently hold.

I am increasingly concerned, aren’t you? about how comfortable so many of us have become in getting our news from news sources that take a clear point of view, instead of a neutral point of view? As much as I admire Rachel Maddow, I can’t allow her to be my only source of news.

For the wrong we did before You by not listening to other informed points of view.
We need to acknowledge that all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are getting more and more painful and frightening, not just over there, or in Europe, but over here as well. And in here (sanctuary). And in here (heart). If we could really tell each other how we felt, without fear of reprisal, or criticism, or disdain — what would that sound like? If we felt free to ask questions aloud without worry of being dismissed or called stupid or naive, what would that feel like?
If we could learn together in more depth what has happened or could happen, without dissolving into bitter argument or crushed friendships, what would that be like?
For the wrong we did before You by refusing to listen to each other.
I can tell you some of what it would be like: Last year right after the Holy Days, our friend and BCC member Bob Levy, a Ph.D. in history with an expertise in middle east history, offered an incredible course that lasted several months giving a long and insightful history of Israel, and of the Palestinian conflict. These are the kind of endeavors I am glad for us at BCC to be involved in. Thank you again, Bob, for your generous gift that allowed a dozen or so of us to read in depth and learn and discuss and share on so tender and challenging a topic.

Another way to seek openness has happened for the past several years and will happen again at the end of this month when A Wider Bridge takes its 4th LGBT trip to Israel, with Cantor Juval as its clergy guide.

A Wider Bridge is a pro-Israel organization that builds bridges between LGBTQ Israelis and LGBTQ North Americans and allies through open dialogue and learning. And I’m pretty sure there is still room on this trip heading to Tel Aviv on October 21.

For the wrong we did before You by turning away when we should have turned toward.
After Rosh Hashanah last week an organization I admire called T’ruah: the rabbinic call for Human Rights put out a call to congregations and Jewish communities to pursue open dialogue about Israel including public, thoughtful, respectful disagreement.5 I would like to invite a few of you who might be interested — let me know if you are — to plan a session or two of conversation about Israel with people from varied viewpoints; or perhaps to go together to sessions elsewhere in the city.

Our goal is not solving Israel’s problems, that’s not our job, but we can be voices of support for ongoing informed discussion. We can actively and continually grow our awareness of the complexity of the situation and issues faced by Israel, so small a place situated in the midst of — and yet worlds apart from — all the nations who surround it, and many of the people within it.

As Jews or friends of Jews, we have thrown our lot in with this homeland for the Jewish people. Whether we do so cheerfully or reluctantly (like the prophet Jonah), the lives and future of Jews and Jewish community everywhere are tied up with Israel – we are connected to Israel, whether we feel it or not. The least, the very least, we can do is commit to learning more about it, and taking an active interest in its well being.

For the wrong we did before You by choosing ignorance.
Even a goal of talking about it won’t necessarily be easily accomplished, even among a civil bunch like those of us at BCC. The New York Times article that some of you sent me included an anecdote from our city of Los Angeles, about how the Board of Rabbis had attempted and failed to organize an event exploring how to have a dialogue about Israel. It failed in part because of logistics and in part because it was just too contentious. “It was kind of ironic,” said Jonathan Freund, vice president of the board and one of the organizers, “because we couldn’t in the end figure out how to talk about how to talk about Israel.”6

For the wrong we did before You by not being persistent enough.
So many stereotypes exist of Jews arguing — the old “2 Jews, 3 opinions” — that it may seem odd to even propose civil discourse. Isn’t the Jewish way uncivil discourse? But no, actually, it’s not. That makes for good jokes, but our tradition calls us to civility and appreciation of varying opinions from the beginning. And it calls us to discuss options, to question, to make suggestions — even to God.

Whether it’s our father Abraham asking God to reconsider the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will you kill the righteous along with the wicked? Far be it from You to do this thing, to kill righteous with wicked… far be it from You. Will the judge of all the earth not do justice?” [Genesis 18:22-25]

Or what about Moses, who numerous times talks God down from a fit of anger. We quoted one of those moments just a little while ago, as we finished the Kol Nidre. “Forgive the wrongdoings of this people,” I read, quoting Moses when God had threatened to kill all the people Israel for their lack of faith, and God replies to Moses exactly as we heard it tonight: s’lakhti keed-va-re-kha “I have forgiven as you have asked.” [Numbers 14:19-20]
For the wrong we did before You by being too quick to anger.

And for the wrong we did before You by assuming change is NOT possible.
If Abraham and Moses engaging in persuasive arguments with God, in whose image we are all created, aren’t enough for you, then I invite you to jump to the Talmud, created many generations later, and take careful note of the way it reports not only ruling opinions, but also minority opinions — where do you think the Supreme Court got the idea? In Talmud many voices are heard and recorded, and sometimes no one wins, they just report the different views and we are left to decide with whom to side. And sometimes no conclusion is reached, and in such a case the passage in Talmud will end with the word Teku, meaning in Aramaic, “let it stand.” Let the contradiction stand.

Teku is also said to be an acronym for tishbi yetaretz kushiyot v’ba’ayot – “the man from Tishbi (Elijah – Eliyahu haTishbi) will solve difficulties and problems.” In other words, since, according to tradition, Elijah will announce the coming of the Messiah, Teku also basically means “when the Messiah comes, we’ll know the answer.” Some say that means we’ll know the answer soon; and others say that means we’ll never know the answer. Someone in LA has teku on their license plate — I’ve seen it around town!

I love the Jewish idea behind Teku — that the various voices have equal standing. That no one voice rules. That many paths seem possible, and sometimes no path seems clearly the way to go. And yet steps must be taken.

For the wrong we did before You by our unwillingness to live with contradictions.
There’s another famous story from Talmud when a bat kol, a voice from heaven, comes to tell us why we follow the school of Hillel and not the school of Shammai even though both schools of thought were considered to be “the word of the living God.” Explains the Bat Kol: the school of Hillel rules because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the school of Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before their own.7

For the wrong we did before You by dismissing or belittling the work and the views of our opponents.
And that message comes to us tomorrow morning too in the Torah portion we’ll be reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. I wrote about this passage recently in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, for it’s one of my favorites, in part because of a Talmud story that goes with it. (Bava Metzia 59b)

It seems a group of prominent rabbis were debating a matter of law.
Rabbi Eliezer stood alone but firm in his opinion, bringing forward every imaginable argument, none of which was accepted by his colleagues. So Eliezer tried to bring others to his side by calling in supernatural forces, in the process getting a carob tree to uproot itself and move, a river to flow backward and the walls of their study house to lean in as if to fall.

When the walls lean in, Rabbi Yehoshua questions the walls, asking, “what business is it of yours if scholars argue?” This may be the origin of the expression “the walls have ears,” for upon hearing Yehoshua’s question the walls do not fall — “in honor,” says the Talmud, of Rabbi Yehoshua. BUT neither did the walls fully straighten up — “in honor” of Rabbi Eliezer.

Instead, they remained inclined but still standing, still providing a meeting place for study, discussion, prayer, community — a meeting place with a constant reminder that every voice carries weight — that no one voice rules. In the sanctuary in our own BCC down the road on Pico, you can see that one wall behind the bima slants in – in tribute to this story (and also for better acoustics!).

But Rabbi Eliezer doesn’t give up, “If the law is with me,” he says, “let heaven prove it,” whereupon a heavenly voice, a bat kol, called out, “Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that the law is always with him?”
Are the other rabbis defeated by a voice from heaven? Hardly. Rabbi Yehoshua stands up and quotes Moses himself from the Torah portion our Reform leaders chose for us to read tomorrow morning, on Yom Kippur, when more people will be there to hear it than any other time of the year: “Lo vashamayim he — It is not in heaven!” (Deuteronomy 30:12) he shouts.

And here’s the context of Rabbi Yehoshua’s response to Rabbi Eliezer, the passage we’ll read again tomorrow morning:
“For this commandment (mitzvah), which I command you today, is neither beyond you nor far away. It is not in heaven, causing you to say: ‘Who will go up to heaven on our behalf, get it for us, and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ And it is not across the sea, causing you to say: ‘Who will cross the sea on our behalf, get it for us, and let us hear it, that we may do it?’ No, this is so very near to you — in your mouth and in your heart — it can be done!”8

The story in the Talmud continues, and I’m sad to say it has an unhappy ending – though I won’t tell you all the details tonight. But even though the walls bow in deference to Eliezer and to Yehoshua in this story, neither really wins — not Eliezer with his insistence that God is on his side, and not Yehoshua and his team who insist that even if God is on someone’s side, group cohesion – group think – is more important. In fact what happens is that Eliezer and Yehoshua’s leader, Gamliel, break each other’s hearts, because even though the walls of the beit midrash — the house of study, the house of community–saw fit to honor each voice, they could not find it in their own hearts to do so.

al cheyt sh’khatanu l’fanekha b’teem-hon lei-vav
“For the wrong we did before You through confusion of the heart.”
Tonight and tomorrow we will recite many times the lists of communal sins, wrongdoings, missing of the mark — and some of us will follow the custom of striking our chest, our heart, when we do so. It’s a Jewish custom so there are many explanations. But my preferred one is this: this gesture is not to beat ourselves up so much as it is to revive us — if we’ve distanced ourselves from the world, from ourselves, from God, if we are experiencing contradictions (that can stop us in our tracks) but not acknowledging them, — with this gesture [a fist thumping our chest] we wake ourselves up . . .we bring ourselves back, alert, ready to engage again in the world, to live in its contradictions, despite its injustices and all that is inexplicable. On this day when the presence of death weighs so heavily, can we look at each other, can we reach into our hearts, can we find the strength, the Will, the desire to engage with one another, with God, with Israel, with Jewish tradition that calls upon us to bring light, to bring learning, to bring peace to Jerusalem and to the world?

Ken y’hi ratzon, let it be true.

G’mar chatimah tovah — may we be sealed in the Book of Life for a good life and for peace.



[1] http://www.reformjudaismmag.org/muzzled-minority

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/23/us/rabbis-find-talk-of-israel-and-gaza-a-sure-way-to-draw-congregants-wrath.html?_r=0

[3] Yael Greenleaf, Where are You? The Inventory of the Soul in Preparation for the Days of Awe, 1991, p.36

[4] In Tel Aviv in July right wing demonstrators physically attacked left wing demonstrators while police stood by. No arrests were made. In reflecting on this situation, blogger David J. Steiner remembered Eli Wiesel’s famous comment: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.

[5] http://org2.salsalabs.com/o/5149/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=18494

[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/23/us/rabbis-find-talk-of-israel-and-gaza-a-sure-way-to-draw-congregants-wrath.html?_r=0

[7] “This and this are the word of the living God.” In Tractate Eruvin (13b), the Bat Kol explains why we follow the school of Hillel and not Shammai, despite the fact that both were considered the “words of a living God.”

[8] (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) See more at: http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/torah_portion_lean_in#sthash.qO4jY8uw.dpuf

[9] This drash was delivered the same day our congregation received the news of the death of beloved BCC member Will Korthof, a fierce and gentle advocate for peace, for sustainable solutions to global warming, for becoming good caretakers of God’s earth.

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