Picture a barren landscape strewn with garbage with only a single skeleton of an old tree. Two men explore, debate and comfort one another as they wait for… something. This is the world of the playwright Samuel Beckett, and the two men are “Waiting for Godot,” a mysterious figure with a white beard who never arrives on stage. I hope I haven’t spoiled the ending for you.
This may seem like a strange way to begin a High Holy Day sermon, or any sermon for that matter. For me, every year as we approach the High Holy Days I think of this weird and wonderful play, its tragedy and its comedy, its farce and its nonsense, as the perfect entrée into the Days of Awe. Beckett set out to create a small universe on stage – the tragedy and the comedy of life played out between two men in bowler hats. In “Waiting for Godot,” the playwright and his characters are each struggling with fundamental questions of human existence.
Perhaps this one scene will suffice: One says to his friend, “We’re all born mad, and some remain so.” (2.536) He replies, “we don’t manage too badly, huh? Between the two of us? We always find something, don’t we, to give us the impression that we exist?”
In this drama of the absurd, the search for meaning itself is fleshed out in three dimensions. It could be that in order to express that kind of ennui explains why Beckett wrote it in French.
“Life’s meaning,” he declares, “is only here, and only now.” Life is not foretold, it is difficult and a struggle, and very often we find ourselves by losing our way. We are left, like those two onstage, waiting for an answer that will never come, waiting for Divinity to reveal itself to us, like at the Sea, like at the burning bush, like at the foot of the mountain.
We are left with questions. It is these questions that motivate us tonight. What gives life meaning? Should I act differently, or for the better? How do I make my life mean something? What is it that inhibits me – that prevents me from living more fully? What am I waiting for, to actually take the next step in my life? We are on Beckett’s stage tonight. And tonight we once again gather to ask these questions together.
The most concise Jewish formulation of the question comes from the prophet Micah, who asks, “What does God demand of you?” What rules govern the choices we make? What is our responsibility to one another?
I suppose the uncomfortable word in his composition is “demand.” We don’t picture God as one who demands things from us. A demanding God feels like just one reason to reject, to ignore, to deny God. The world of obligation seem incongruent with our values of reform. We believe in choice, isn’t that right? We study and learn of the traditions of our ancestors, and we only take upon ourselves those which carry the weight of meaning. The traditions we follow are the ones we find meaningful.
Except, we know faith doesn’t exactly work that way. Our very personal belief system comes from somewhere deeper, somewhere commitments are made with the heart and not with the head. Why do I continue to make this recipe of my grandmother’s? I am compelled to do it, and yes, it is meaningful. Why do I give of myself to help the needy, to feed the hungry, to provide shelter to the homeless? Again, yes, it is meaningful. But that’s not why I do it. I am compelled to help those I can from somewhere much deeper in my history and in my kishkas. I do it because I see the Unity of all things, and it compels me. I am compelled, I am commanded, my God demands this of me.
What does God demand of you? Micah’s response seems strange at first. He writes, “What does God demand of you? Only this – to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God.” Only this. As if it were easy. As if it were the most natural thing to live life to its full potential, and to walk in the world acting justly and mercifully at all times.
Or maybe Micah is telling us something else entirely. “Do not think,” says Moses near the end of his life, “that this idea of mitzvah I give you today is far from you. It is not across the sea, or in the heavens, that you would need someone else to get it for you and teach it to you. Rather, it is in your own mouth, in your own heart, to do it.” (Deut. 30:14)
Sometimes Judaism and all it entails – foreign languages and foreign rituals, might seem more of an obligation that we are prepared to make. I believe Micah isn’t diminishing the value of his words, but rather strengthening his faith in you. What does God demand of you? What should we feel obligated to do for one another and for ourselves in this life and in the coming year? The answer is simple. It is simple in the way that the hardest things to learn are the least complicated. It is, only this…
Unlike many of the prophets, Micah experienced directly the fall of Jerusalem and the shift away from sacrifices in the Temple. Micah saw with his own eyes what it looked like for a people to wander, to fall apart by neglecting its values, its history and its wisdom. He lived in a village not far from the border between what was known as Judea and Samaria – the very location where the nation split, which would soon lead to its destruction. He understood the dangers of inaction, of waiting. He witnessed the ancient teachings of Moses fading further into the past. And while once the Israelites had been successful in creating a new nation; a new kind of nation – now they were oppressing the poor and “making crooked all that is straight” (3:9). Micah, in the great prophetic tradition, calls on his people to make a turn, to simply begin to turn back, to return, to make Teshuvah.
Micah’s plea rings loudly in our ears today. He tells us not to expect fire and brimstone for our laziness. Rather, he says – your lack of care will cause the heritage you claim to cherish, to wither on the vine; to no longer be relevant. Micah writes, “Zion will be ploughed like a field, and Jerusalem will turn to ruins, the Temple mount will grow trees through its vaulted ceilings.” (3:12)
These are not the machinations of a vengeful God; these are the natural outcomes of apathy and neglect. Judaism does not die because we are punished for wrongdoings – sin is part of being human. Judaism dies because we stop caring about it, and it falls into disrepair. Our hearts will turn away, the Temple will become overgrown; the dream of Zion reduced to a field for farmland.
During Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath in between this Holy Day and the next, we will read a different passage from Micah. During the ten days of repentance, aseret yemei teshuvah, Micah calls to God on our behalf. “Who is like You, forgiving iniquity, remitting transgression? You have not sustained Your wrath upon us forever, because You, God, love mercy. You, O God, will take us back with love, cover over our iniquities, and hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:18-19)
God doesn’t drive us away. God is not an instrument of punishment. God is the still, small voice within you, even now, reminding each of us of the Jewish values of equality and equity, understanding and forgiveness, caring for the vulnerable, empowering all created in God’s image – and of our immense responsibility to manifest them into the world, the real world.
God does not punish, we do that well enough on our own. God gives strength. God provides courage. God is the power which brings us back to ourselves and our community.
I have spoken to so many of you in recent months about the way your thinking about life, and this synagogue has changed. We no longer take this for granted – the opportunity to be with each other, to reconnect with a sense of renewal on Rosh Hashanah. Emerging slowly from a global pandemic, we see with new eyes the history we possess, the legacy we carry, and the fragility of that which we treasure most – our freedoms, our learning, our Jewish souls. It turns out they are more fragile than we knew, and our responsibility to protect.
“What does God demand of you?”
We ask, through Micah, how do we begin? Which way do we turn? How are we supposed to live? In what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the most urgent question of religious existence (The Prophets, 1962 p 102) Micah asks, “How should I approach God? What is expected of me?
It would be easy to think God needs prayer – Had I just come to Shabbat services more often in the past year I would be assured of health and happiness in the coming year. Maybe if I really buckle down in the next ten days,
I can make up for lost time. I’ll even take this day off of work to get in a few more prayers.” (see Micah 6:6-7)
Micah’s response resonates as clearly today as it would have in the declining days of King Hezekiah. “Oh you humans,” he cries, “you mortal, fallible and corruptible humans. God has already told you what is good, and what is required of you (and it is not more prayer): Only this – do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.” (6:8)
Do justice, love mercy. The words evoke a particular image. In the mystical tradition, these two forces oppose one another, or rather they balance each other. Where justice is cold and calculating, mercy is warm and fuzzy. Justice is strict adherence to the law, and mercy is second chances, and perhaps third and fourth.
The sages teach that one is not possible without the other. Were strict justice to rule the world alone, not one of us would survive – we all would bear our sins. But if mercy were too powerful, no one would ever be held accountable for their actions. The commentary argues, “There is no true justice unless mercy is a part of it.” (Zohar Kedoshim 16:98)
So God balances justice with mercy and loving kindness. And we are commanded, obligated, we owe it to one another to do the same.
So today, this first day of Cheshbon Hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, let us consider the many relationships in our lives – family and friends, co-workers and colleagues. And here are the two questions we need to ask, “Who in my life have I judged too harshly, or too quickly?” And, “Who have I let take advantage of me? With whom might I draw a firmer line, to strengthen my own stance, and strengthen the relationship?” In other words, have I found the right balance of justice and mercy, to allow the many people in my life who I care about, to help me become my best self, and to become the best version of themselves through me?
Every time we say the Shema, we reaffirm our belief that this is how the world is run. Hear O Israel, Adonai (the name for God associated with mercy) is Eloheinu (the name of God associated with justice), Adonai is One. Both aspects of God are manifest here on earth, both are vital to the very Jewish and very human project of making this world better for all.
And let’s not forget the third part of Micah’s beautiful ethic. Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God. How might we ensure we get the right balance between strict justice and loving kindness? We move forward with humility – we recognize that only God gets the balance right. We can only strive for it.
We sit here today reminded of the time that has passed since we last gathered in these numbers and in this holy space. And we are reminded of the time that stretches out in front of us, the days which seem endless even though we know they are not. And that’s it, the message you’ve come to hear, “Help me O God to number my days,” help me to pay attention to this passing moment while I am still here, let me not become complacent or apathetic.
We so desperately need this refocusing, and inspiration. We are so divided, having all but forgotten the strength in unity, patience and forgiveness which has held us together for so long. Through times of chaos, division, even violence, Jews have always known the value of standing together. It will take a collective effort this year, to return, to change, to walk humbly before God.
What does God demand of you? Here is our chance to begin to answer, to turn, right now. Turn the page and start anew.
Turn from what life has chosen for us, towards what we might choose for our own lives. Take a first step. We have waited too long to get started – the resolutions of past years echoing like empty vows. We have been waiting for Godot, just like Beckett’s fools. We wait for God, or we wait for salvation. The word Godot actually refers to death, or nothingness, and sometimes we wait for that too. We wait to find meaning; we wait for God to reveal our “right” path. For Beckett, the only sign of Godot’s presence is a young messenger who explains that he will not come today, but certainly tomorrow. More waiting.
Let us remember on this Rosh Hashanah that we celebrate renewal along with the entire world. What better moment to pull yourself out of stagnation than this anniversary of God’s creation, a time when all things begin to change – the trees, the winds, even the birds migrate. Even they know it is time to get moving.
At the heart of Waiting for Godot, having considered every possible means of escape, Beckett’s fools make an observation. One says, “We could start all over again.” The response, “That should be easy.” “It’s the start that’s difficult,” he says. “You can start from anything.” “Yes, but you have to decide.”
Enough waiting. What does God demands of us? It is nothing and it is everything. With justice and mercy as our guides, let us begin to walk with humility. For these ten days, let us start with that.