Rather than a full sermon, I decided to engage the congregation in text study on Yom Kippur Day, with some opening and closing remarks:
We love this text from Isaiah, and believe he is speaking to us. His emphasis on ethics over ritual, right behavior rather than right performance, this is something we can understand. And, it is something that we think we do. But, as is the theme of this day, we fall short. We mess up.
For while we think we don’t do it we very often do the simple rather than the right, toe the line rather than break formation. Sometimes doing the ethical thing is more difficult, it is easy to do something else.
That puts us in a bit of a quandary, we as human beings. For here we are, in all our imperfection. And we look at all the ways we have gone wrong. On the smaller scale we hurt our loved ones, insult our friends, alienate our family. On the large scale, we create war, we damage the environment, we oppress based on power and difference.
So, what do we do with ourselves? What do we do with these creatures we call humans?
I want to try something different this Yom Kippur, rather than me speak to you, I want you to speak to each other. So we are going to do a little study. I love text study, it is part of our regular weekly practice here at TBH. Study is a sacred activity, along with prayer or ritual.
There is a famous text from our tradition, from the Talmud. It is in the context of the arguments of Hillel and Shammai, two rabbis who were great teachers, and even better sparring partners. They often times had conflicting rulings on practice, most times Hillel won the argument, but yet they remained in respect to each other, their students married each other, and God famously said of them “these and these are the words of the living God”—while they disagree, and one argument won out, both of their teachings are valid, an important lesson in how to have meaningful and respectful dialogue and argument.
In this teaching, they come together to debate the theme of human existence. Was it right that humans were created? The text is from the Talmud, the next major Jewish text after the Torah and Tanakh (Bible), written as a dialogue among rabbis one Jewish law and lore, ritual and ethics, using both reason and imagination to come to their conclusions:
The Sages taught: For two and a half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel disagreed. One said: It would have been preferable had humans not been created rather than been created. And the other said: It is preferable for humans to have been created rather than not been created. Ultimately, they were counted and concluded: It would have been preferable had humans not been created rather than been created. However, now that they have been created, they should examine their actions. And some say: They should investigate their actions. (Eruvin 13b)
[We studied the text in small groups. You can find my study sheet with the discussion questions here.]
There is of course a certain irony in a bunch of humans debating whether or not they should have been created, and ultimately deciding that humans should not have been created. But as long as we are here, as long as humanity is around, they say, we might as well continue to be the best humans we can be.
I find this statement to be a check on human arrogance. The world was not created for us, we are partners in creation. One of the most arrogant statements we make all the time is that we need to “save the planet.” That we need to save the earth. We do not need to save the earth. The earth will be just fine. What we are really saying is that we need to save ourselves.
That is what we tell ourselves this Yom Kippur. As long as we are here, let’s make the most of it. Let’s fulfill our obligation to be our best selves. Let’s hold others and ourselves accountable. Let’s make life better for each other and the other inhabitants of the earth. Do we examine our past or better plan for the future? The answer is yes to both.
To admit that we should not have been created, it’s very liberating. It is an admission that one of our main jobs on this earth is to mess up. And our second main job is to learn from that messing up. Yom Kippur is the day which we hold both of these ideas together at the same time. And so we note our misdeeds but also recognize our gifts. We acknowledge our failures and celebrate our successes.
It is why when we realize where we went wrong, and who we have hurt, we don’t wallow in regret or self-pity. Because we would not be who we are in this moment without all that came before.
Teshuvah is a process. Forgiveness is a process. Healing is a process. It may not happen today. But we use this day to set or reset our intention. And it begins, as the text teaches, with us.