Rosh Hashanah sermon: Rabbi Jonathan Aaron
If you don’t know our theme phrase by heart yet, I’m sure that by the end of the days of awe you will. “In a place where no one’s acting Human, strive to be human.” It seems like a pretty straightforward phrase. But tonight I want to show you four approaches to the verse from Pirke Avot, with the hopes that you may relate to at least one of them, and make it a part of your process during the 8 hours or so we will congregate here in this room over the next ten days. For me, our theme, and the themes we have introduced over the years, is a big kavannah, a direction of thought. It is like a liturgy and poetry filter, a way to think about this whole through a distinctive lens. But each of us comes into this room from such a different perspective, and we go out of this room, after the introspective process, with different areas that we need to work on in our lives. So here are four ways to enter into the High Holy Days this year.
The first approach is the way we have introduced the text through our translation. “In a place where no one’s acting human, strive to be human.” When a place is devoid of morals, be moral. Someone put it more bluntly to me, “When people are morons, be a mensch.” This leads us to social action, social justice. Reading it this way is about standing up for the rights of others when they can’t stand for themselves, about standing up for injustice and inhuman behavior, and turning injustice to justice, the inhumane to the humane, the inhuman to the human. This is how we translated it, this was a big part of our online High Holy Day message. Feed the hungry, care for the elderly, attend public rallies, be human. There may be some of you here who are unsure how you want to react to the actions of certain people or groups. You’re affected by Charlottesville and racism and sexism and any other “ism,” discrimination, intolerance, hate, genocide, and the subversion of the rights of those who cannot help themselves. But you are unsure as to how or where you can participate. Perhaps these ten days can be reflections on what really matters to you, and where you want to make a difference in the world. That is our opportunity. That is our challenge. (by the way, bringing food for the hungry and diapers for refugees is a great start)
For the Second approach I have to point out the Hebrew wording of our theme. In our translation, we say, “In a place, where no one’s acting human.” That is certainly a valid translation/interpretation. The actual words in Hebrew – she ayn anashim – means, “where there are no people” (it’s actually “men,” but we are in the year 5778/2017, lets take the gender out of it), hishtadeyl l’hyot ish, “Strive to be a person” (or, man). So if I use similar wording to our translation it becomes: In a place where there are no humans, strive to be a human.
Consider how Hillel, who said this phrase two thousand years ago, became the head of the Sanhedrin, the court in Jerusalem made up of 21 great scholars and leaders. It is said that he only agreed to became the head of the Sanhedrin when he realized that there was no one else more qualified than he to answer questions of Jewish law regarding the Pesach offering. For him, perhaps the phrase meant: “In a place where there are no people to lead, take it upon yourself to be a leader,” or, “In a place where there is a vacuum, fill the vacuum.”
I think reading it this way offers the opportunity to search through our lives to identify those places where you feel you can step up, where you can fill a void, perhaps become a leader, even a reluctant one. This void could be at work, could be in an extra curricular activity, or volunteer work, could be here in the synagogue, could be in our homes or within our larger family. Sometimes it is difficult to take the reigns of leadership. We are all afraid to fail, and there are times when it is intimidating to be thrust into a leadership role. We may feel that we are not worthy. But to summon the courage, to open ourselves up and put ourselves out there, to become more, that is our opportunity, that is our challenge.
The third idea focuses more on the first line: “In a place where there are no people.” If we take this line literally, then no one is around, and we are left with a basic question: Who are we when no one is there? What do we act like, “when there are no people?” According to this text, we must still “strive to be human.” Even though no one is looking, even when there isn’t a person around, that doesn’t mean we can just throw all morals out the window. Pinchas of Koretz wrote the following: “A person can act as purely innocent, and yet be involved in all types of devilish schemes, or he can pose as the most humble of all men, while pride rages within him. The Torah stresses that in both the cases God, as it were, tests you, and while you may be able to fool others, you cannot fool God.” Isn’t that the same idea that the High Holy Days sets up? There is a book, and all of our deeds are found in that book, because nothing escapes the view of heaven, and whether there is anyone around or not, we still need to live up to the standard.
It’s like the Jewish folktale of a man who takes his young daughter into a neighboring field to steal corn. He asks her to be his lookout. After a minute or so, she says, “Daddy, someone sees you from the North!” he stops what he is doing, looks to the North and doesn’t see anyone. He throws her a look and goes back to his business. Minutes later, “Daddy, someone sees you from the south.” He looks, no one there, he throws her a perturbed, suspicious look. “Daddy, someone – “ He stops her. “Sweetie, why do you keep saying someone sees me, there is no one around.” She looks up at him and says, “God sees you.”
Now it may or may not be a part of your theology to imagine that God can see us, but it does beg the question, “Are we the same when we feel like there is no one to see us, to judge us?” Perhaps for some of us, we need to reflect on whether we are who we are at all times, when we are in public around others, and when we are alone? The opportunity and challenge is to align both our public outer selves, and our private inner selves.
The last concept really ties them all together. It is the word hishtadeyl. We are translating it as “strive.” I like that translation because it encompasses the essence of the root of the word. All Hebrew words (with some exceptions) have three lettered roots, and those three letters have a core meaning. In this case SHADAL has a couple of meanings that work. First, in its simplest form, it means, “to be wide open” (like a door opening). Another active form means, “to persuade”. But the form of the verb is the key. It is reflexive, we do it to ourselves. We open ourselves up, we persuade ourselves to act. So I have news for all of us. This will not be easy. It is difficult to stand up to injustice. It is hard to take on leadership, even when you need to be that leader. It is not always an easy thing to be the same person when no one’s looking as when you know you are being seen. We need to open ourselves up to the possibility, and we need to persuade ourselves, convince ourselves to do what we need to do.
That’s why “strive” is our word. To strive towards something is to exert yourself, to make the effort – to “convince” yourself to contend in opposition to something. It is an effort towards a goal. And the effort comes from within us. Striving is a process, not a destination. We may never be able to solve injustice completely, we may not become that leader, we may not achieve parity in our private and public selves – this week, month, year, or ever. But we can strive to get there, we can move the arrow in the right direction. And it only comes from inside of us, not from anyone else. To strive, in the hishtadeyl sense, is to open yourself up to the possibility of making things happen, convince yourself to act, persuade yourself to be human independent of others.
This is the work we have in store for us over the next ten days of honest reflection. May we find what we strive for: a place to combat injustice; a place to become the leader we need to be, where we need to be it; to a place where we can be proud of our public and private actions. May we find that place, and open ourselves up, convince ourselves, persuade ourselves, to be that person we want to be. This is our opportunity. This is our challenge.
Jonathan Aaron is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.