Embrace Complexity

Once the congregation found itself in the middle of a fierce debate. Do we stand or sit
for the Shema. Half the group was convinced that we should stay seated for the Shema, half
convinced we stood for the Shema. Not to get into too many technicalities on Rosh Hashanah,
but suffice it to say, when they approached the rabbi to ask what the tradition actually was, he
found evidence to support both claims. Either you recognize the Shema as important liturgy, in
which case we stand for its recitation, or we recognize the Shema as one part of a flow of
prayers in which case we should remain as we are.

The rabbi pondered his research, and then concluded, “I think I understand the custom
of our congregation.” They waited in anticipation. He declared, “Every year, we argue over
whether we stand or sit before the Shema. That is our tradition.”
And he was right.

We all search for simplicity, for black and white answers. If we believe something, that
must mean, we assume, that it is “right,” and by definition, all other opinions are “wrong,” and
that others should be able to see this same logic. We live, after all, in the age of science and

The problem is, the more we grow and evolve, the more we learn that life is not always
black and white, yes or no, true or false, in fact it is rarely so. Nuance, background, context all
matter. We are easily misled by first impressions. We become overconfident about what we
think we know. And when those beliefs are challenged, we double down, rather than risk
appearing uniformed, or just plain wrong.

Once there was a ship travelling the seas on a very dark night. The captain noticed a
light directly ahead and called to his First Mate, “Hail that ship that tell them they need to turn,
and quick!” “I’m getting no response, captain, and we’re now dangerously close.” Grabbing
the radio, the captain announced, “Move aside, you who are on our course.” And then he
heard a response, “No, sir, you need to turn, and be quick about it.

“How dare you, sir! I’ll have you know that I am the captain of the largest luxury liner in
the world and as such have the right to the course that I set.” “That’s very impressive, captain,”
came the reply, “And I am the humble keeper of the smallest lighthouse on this coast. Stay
your course, and I will happily help with rescue operations.”

Tonight is Rosh Hashanah, an opportunity to notice the seasons changing around us,
and the changing seasons within us as well. The liturgy offers us every chance to see the errors
of our ways, and to make necessary adjustments. Tonight we ask ourselves, do we dare stay
the course we are on, when what lies ahead becomes painful clear? In truth we could choose
any time of the year to correct course, to get back on track. But tonight the power of numbers
are on our side. We affirm for one another we can grow, we can turn, we can change.
Time and again we are reminded of the vital importance of being wrong, and being
courageous enough, and vulnerable enough to admit it. In his book, Brilliant Blunders (2013),
astrophysicist Mario Livio explores the many exceptional and famous scientists who would
never have left us their legacy were it not for a major error. Charles Darwin famously
misinterpreted the way that genetics were passed down, while his writings on evolution
seemed to completely rely on that discovery. The very first model of our DNA, made by Linus
Pauling was not only incorrect, but it ignored the fundamental rules of chemistry. But that
model allowed our knowledge to continue to grow, and that is the only reason Jim Watson was
able to publish his working DNA model.

And perhaps the most well-known example from science is the work of Albert Einstein.
He actually thought his assumption that Dark Matter existed was wrong. He embraced his own
mistake to such a degree that it took us many years to understand that in fact, he had been
right all along. No one has helped us understand our universe more.
It could be argued that the scientific method relies entirely upon this willingness to be
wrong, to embrace new concepts and even new theories, and to be open to new information.
But outside of the science lab, this is a human trait in short supply. In the world of ever-shorter
attention spans, and twitter feeds of 140 characters – we have learned to base our opinions on
a 30-second meme, rather than conversation and debate. The technology, which claims to

open boundaries, and bring us a broader world-view, has proven to do the exact opposite. Our
first impressions are confirmed, then reconfirmed and once that is done, we seem reticent to
accept any challenge. Long-standing friendships, even closer relationships have been casualties
of a difference of opinion.

Our ancestors recognized the danger inherent in this hubris. The ancient rabbis gave us
the gift of their books of law known as the Talmud. For centuries, those books have informed
and sustained our tradition.

The primary characteristic of the Talmud is the rabbis’ effort to understand every side of an
issue regardless of how critical or mundane it might be. To that end, both the majority and the
minority opinions were carefully included. Not only that, but the opinions often transcended
generations even centuries – carefully remembered and cited in the name of the one who first
voiced it. Seeking to understand their world, our ancestors attempted to teach us nuance and
complexity, informing open, respectful debate.

The rabbis understood a critical principle. They called it eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim –
that both sides of an argument can be the words of the living God. They believed that the only
way we grow as individuals is through exposure to ideas and concepts that challenge us. We
are supposed to remember that truth doesn’t reside in the black and white, but more often
deep in the grey areas of uncertainty. God can speak to each of us or through each of us, even
when our points of view seem very far from one another.

It is very tempting this year to speak of any one of a number of subjects of national
discourse. We are confronted, as a nation, with challenging issues and divisive personalities.
I am sure many of my colleagues around the country are talking about Immigration or Climate
Change, Health care or Opioids, Women’s Reproductive Rights, Gun Control, Reforming our
Criminal Justice System, and a whole host of other key but touchy issues.
But there is an important reason why I won’t address these issues this High Holy Days.
Simply put, we have forgotten how to listen. We have lost our ability, in this historical moment,
to appreciate someone else’s truth, to step outside of our own talking points, to open ourselves
to the possibility that a difference of opinion need not reflect personhood. We are supposed to
be thinkers, open to analytical consideration and reasoned discourse.

When I consider the pulpit here at IHC, and the ways in which we choose to bring these
hot button topics to you through classes, programs, articles and sermons, I often think of one
Friday night service in particular. We receive countless texts, emails, and calls from people
about the content of our sermons, and about services in general. You might imagine that after
the last presidential election many rabbis across the country struggled with how to advocate for
Jewish values without seeming partisan, or making some feel uncomfortable. Despite what you
may think, we do appreciate the calls and emails, both the encouraging ones as well as the
critical ones. We want to know what you think. It shows you are engaged.

On this particular Shabbat, as I made my way through the aisle welcoming as many of
you as I could before services began, one congregant, a man I respect and admire, pulled me
close and said, “Please rabbi, please can you leave politics out of services tonight? I am here
seeking comfort as I mourn a loss, and I hope to get away from all the toxic conversations I hear
on the news every night. Can you please bring us something more spiritual?”

I tried to respond that I understood this congregant’s concern, and would do what I
could. And then – I had only taken a few more steps up the aisle when a woman pulled me in.
“Rabbi, I am just so upset about the state of our country. Please, rabbi, please put these events
into some context for us tonight? I need you to talk about what’s happening.” Eilu v’eilu – the
needs and hopes of different folks are as diverse as the emotions of the day and the issues that
confound us.

We are going to have to figure out how to respond to both. That is the complexity of
modern Jewish life in America. We deserve a community with space for all of these
conversations. Our work towards Immigration reform, racial and gender equality, our response
to growing trends of anti-Semitism in our own backyard – these issues will define us as religious
people for generations to come.

At the same time, we need space today away from debate, time to connect with
something larger. The Prophet Isaiah will reach out to us once again in ten days’ time – “Is this

the fast I ask of you – to sit without food and water, to prostrate yourselves? Or rather, is not
this the fast I desire – to unlock the chains of bondage, and not ignore your brothers and sisters
who are suffering? To feed the hungry and clothe the naked?” To work together, and to talk to
each other. To move towards teshuvah – that is our task. Are we courageous enough to do

Our inability to talk to one another, and to work together, is not only because of this
President, or the one before, or the presidents who preceded them. It is because of us. “We
the people” are the guardians of our values, the foundation of our democracy.

My dream is that the ideals of America might continue to thrive, not only on a national
scale, but between us in everyday conversations. My hope is that we will find more time to sit
together, with all our honesty and all our compassion, and talk about these difficult issues
facing our society. My hope is that we will converse with kavod (respect) and chesed
(kindness), patiently listening to uncover the nuance and complexity of the other’s positions –
without destroying each other, or walking away; without resorting to the many “shock and
awe” tactics so readily on display these days.

Today of all days, Rosh Hashanah, a New Year, we have an opportunity to begin with a
new intention to rise above the so called ‘dialogue’ of ratings-obsessed network television, and
the mud-slinging of national politics. And to make a promise to approach one another: our
family, our friends, and especially those we have alienated or discounted – with a new intention
to listen.

Let this be our Teshuvah for these High Holy Days. We are under no biblical obligation to
“Love thy neighbor’s opinion as your own.” But we do read, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur: “we are not so arrogant as to say before you, O God, we are righteous and have not
sinned. Rather we have sinned…” This book forces us to do what should come so naturally, to
admit we have been wrong.

Today we must obligate ourselves to ongoing dialogue with our neighbors, all of them.
We should commit ourselves to considering issues as they evolve and change. We need to
regain the ability to be open to and deal with one another and our diversity with complexity
and nuance. Today is the day we remember how to listen. We deserve this much from one