Every good sermon has at least one compelling metaphor. Here is mine for this evening; it is visual (a camera shot of the empty sanctuary).
When I learned back in July that Adat Shalom would only be holding remote services for the High Holydays, I was overtaken by a deep sadness that I felt in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t a surprise and I think it was the only responsible course of action given the current state of the Covid-19 pandemic. And still, I found myself really bummed out. I was longing for face time, and I am not talking about the iPhone variety. Real face time, with each of you.
This was the Kol Nidre sermon delivered to Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation (Bethesda, MD) on September 27, 2020.
I love the chagim. I love the liturgy and the music. I love the universal themes and the rituals that are particular to our tradition. I love seeing the Adat Shalom regulars as well as checking in with those who show up less regularly, but with whom I have had meaningful interactions over the years. I love the socializing before and after services and yes, maybe even a bit during services. I love the holiday meals (my wife, Sandy, is an amazing hostess and cook). And I love all the hugs. None of that is happening this year. And I miss it all very much.
Given the scale of suffering that the pandemic has caused, my complaining about not having High Holyday face time may seem trite, or even somewhat indulgent. But maybe not. Because “face time” is a metaphor for something much larger.
Some of you know that the same year that I helped to found Adat Shalom, 1988, I also founded a national organization devoted to exploring the intersection between Jewish learning, Jewish values and social responsibility. It was called PANIM: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. Our flagship program was called Panim el Panim, which brought Jewish high school students to Washington from all over North America for programs on Judaism and social activism. The phrase panim el panim comes from the Bible and it is used to describe Jacob’s experience of seeing God’s face in Genesis ch. 32. Later it describes the way Moses encountered God in both Numbers 12 and Deut 34. So, while the modern Hebrew word panim means “face”, the phrase panim el panim suggests a deep encounter, when you come to understand a higher truth about what it means to be a human being who functions responsibly in relationship with others. To me, panim el panim is an alternate formulation of the Golden Rule: vahavta lreacha kamocha, “you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. It is, in essence, face time that leads to “beloved community”, a form of community that we so desperately need today.
This kind of “face time” has informed the communal culture of Adat Shalom since its founding. The purpose of the community was not to sponsor shabbat services, educational programs, life cycle events and more. Most synagogues do that but it confuses ends and means. The purpose of every Adat Shalom event and program was to cultivate deep bonds of community and an ethos of chesed/lovingkindness to one another and tzedek/justice to the world. Services, onegs, classes were a means to an end. This was putting into practice a core Reconstructionist principle coined by our beloved, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, that “belonging comes prior to believing”. It also is consistent with the teachings of Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th century French Jewish philosopher, who saw the Biblical phrase, panim el panim, as the way human beings cultivate a feeling of compassion and even love for the “other”, the fundamental building block of ethical living.
But I am afraid that this orientation to life is in short supply in our country today. And I believe that the manifold problems that we currently face—the pandemic, climate change, racism, poverty, the erosion of democracy– will get worse unless we make a major spiritual course correction. So, how do we do that?
I believe, as did the rabbis of our tradition, that human beings have moral agency. We have choice. And every day, each human being can decide either to exclusively advance their own interests or to act in such a way that shows concern, compassion and love for our fellow human beings and for creation. This is what our tradition describes as yeter ha-ra, the evil inclination and yetzer tov, a good inclination. These are Jewish terms for selfishness and selflessness. It is that simple. To my great sorrow, over the past few years, we have witnessed a situation in America where the evil inclination is ascendant and, as a result, every one of the crises I mentioned moments ago, is getting worse and not getting better. Alarmingly, that more selfish America, epitomized by the phrase “America First”, is like a contagion, spreading as quickly as has Covid-19. And it is seriously endangering our Republic.
The Bible seemed to anticipate periods of time when history would turn towards evil. Ironically, here too, the Hebrew word, panim, serves as metaphor. In Deut 31 God says: “I will surely conceal my face (haster astir panai) because my people have turned to other Gods.” The concealing of God’s face signals the breakdown of healthy societies and of social responsibility.
The philosopher, Martin Buber translates the hiding of God’s face, in Hebrew, hester panim, with the term “the eclipse of God” and he wrote a whole book with that title, published in 1952, to better understand the existence of evil in our world, including the Holocaust. Buber wrote: “When history appears to be empty of God, … it is difficult for an individual and even more, for a people, to understand themselves as addressed by God. … During such times the world seems to be irretrievably abandoned to the forces of tyranny.”
If that Buber passage sounds dark, it is intended as such. He was trying to make the case for God even in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust. The Yom Kippur liturgy seems designed to do something similar. First it holds up a mirror to all the ways that we have personally fallen short of living a moral and ethical life. In not so subtle ways it tells us that, because of our sins, we may not be worthy to live for another year. But then it tells us that we are capable of repentance and, if we do it with a full heart, there is the possibility of a return to a right relationship with others and with the society in which we live; in religious-speak: to once again merit to be panim el panim with God.
I don’t think it is as simple as fasting and reciting a few lines from the machzor. But, with every passing year, I become increasingly impressed how those ritual pieces remind us of the need for a course correction. And part of that course correction is relating to all people in the spirit of panim el panim, seeing the other in the fullness of their humanity.
Face Time is my shorthand for how we make our world a more compassionate and loving place. To do that, we need to be inspired by acts of hesed. Fortunately, such acts can be found virtually everywhere, made even more obvious against the backdrop of our current crises.
- We saw it in the many stories we heard about doctors and nurses putting their own lives at risk, working 16-17 hour days to treat Covid-19 patients. Thousands of health care workers travelled to New York City at their own expense in March to volunteer their time with Covid patients. Some paid with their lives!
- We saw it in the life of Congressman John Lewis who, from his early 20’s, was willing to sacrifice his life for the cause of civil rights in this country. And we saw it in the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg who, despite the discrimination she faced for being a woman early in her legal career, helped to re-write this country’s laws around gender equality.
- We see it, week in and week out, in this holy community of Adat Shalom where we have created a culture of caring; where people show up for each other in such impressive numbers in times of illness, injury, loss and need. We have created a hesed culture that is so lacking in much of American society.
I truly believe that the antidote to the spiritual, moral and political decay of our country and of the world is more “face time”, treating each and every person we encounter as mirror images of the Divine. I am longing for that kind of face time, not only because this year I miss hugging you on the High Holydays, but because these days, our world is so lacking in that kind of caring between people.
This kind of face time is not only possible during a pandemic, it is a necessity! And we must extend it well beyond the people we know because we are all now more keenly aware of how much we have allowed our country to divide itself into tribes of race, religion, class, and country of origin. We simply don’t know one another well enough to warrant the term United States of America. I dare say, we must even extend face time to those who are on the other side of today’s political divide. I know that is a big ask; I am not even sure that I am capable of it. But we must try. Our country is in desperate need of some healing and it must start with people who can see the divine image in the face of every person who, to us, is “other”.
Do it for the sake of heaven; do it for the sake of humanity; do it for the sake of the world that you want to bequeath to your children.
Gmar Chatima Tova, may you be inscribed for a year of health and spiritual wholeness.