Rabbi Krichiver’s Yom Kippur Sermon: Grace

In one of the most well-known Talmud stories, a man comes to the famous sage Shammai to ask if he might convert.  The man says, “If you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot, I will convert.”  Shammai proceeds to beat the man with a stick.

What is never addressed in this story, however, is what bothered Shammai so much about the request.  Was he offended that this man showed so little willingness to exert himself, so little respect for Judaism, that he would only give Shammai a few minutes to convince him of the religion’s worthiness?  Or was he offended that the man had challenged him to encapsulate thousands of years of tradition into a single sound bite?  Maybe Shammai simply wasn’t up to the task.

So the man goes to another famous sage, Hillel.  We should at least give this man credit for not giving up on his Jewish journey after having been threatened for his efforts the first time.  But this time, Hillel says yes.  He converts the man, and offers him this wisdom, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.  The rest is commentary; now go and learn it.”

We are so used to hearing this teaching as a Jewish expression of “the Golden Rule,” that we might not pay enough attention to what it really says.  Christianity offers, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  At a glance, it seems like just a positive spin on Hillel’s quote.  But in fact, it is a very different statement.

“Do unto others” is a call to action, pushing the righteous not to listen, but to talk, and to share their own truth with others.  Judaism presents a very different perspective. “What is hateful to you, do not do to another,” When someone confronts you with something less than kind, you must not respond with hatred.  That’s it.  On Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, as we spend an entire day trying to understand ourselves and our relationships – it is Hillel who illuminates the path of teshuvah.

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the critical importance of empathy in building a just and peaceful society.  We will only find our way through difficult times together.  But in the process of teshuvah – adjusting our own behavior – empathy is only a beginning.  We are, after all, only responsible for our own behavior.  How do we help the world make any progress at all, when so much venom and vitriol is entirely out of our control?

What do we do when someone acts in a hateful way towards us, is aggressive, or mean spirited? Think of the simplest interactions – driving next to someone on a city street. A stranger in a car becomes the object of intense anger and frustration, if we perceive them as driving too aggressively, or too selfishly.  We call it road rage, because our response is rageful.  We are quick to lose patience with customer service reps or grocery store clerks, and we are all too familiar with the searing anger to be found in anonymous posts on social media.  Freed from the constraint of any social norms, strangers let it fly.

It seems to be human nature to answer anger with anger, to meet aggression with even more aggression. ‘I will not be taken advantage of.’  ‘I am right, and that means you must be wrong.’  At its core, this is stubborn ego, a false sense of strength, a tit for tat which only leads to more conflict.

We are quick to turn to rage with strangers on the highway or the internet, and even more so at home.  We follow the same pattern in our families and our marriages.  Push me, and I will push back harder.  We clearly see this dynamic in politics. We are always keeping score, always considering the balance of power.  In the political arena those who yell the loudest seem to control the narrative.  There seems to be no room for those who want to listen.  The outcome is radical polarization, in our families and in the world.  Both sides argue that they are right, and anyone who disagrees is either an idiot or a traitor.

Yom Kippur asks us to step back and look honestly at our lives – on this one day to strive to see our blind spots, to intentionally look for what evades us. To take Yom Kippur seriously means to have a hard conversation with ourselves – to ask, “What have I missed?  When have I spoken when I should have listened?  What other perspectives might help me to grow?”

In our current environment we don’t even seem curious to explore other points of view.  Being open and curious feels vulnerable, it makes us uncomfortable; it scares us to think of what we might learn.  Without even trying to understand the other side, we lock ourselves in an echo chamber of opinion, convinced that our spouse, our colleague, our children just don’t understand; that the opposite political party wants to destroy America; that the enemy always seeks our destruction, We play the victim, and the problem is that we already know how that story ends.  We are attacked, and we attack back in an endless cycle.  Peace is a pipe dream, conflict inevitable.

I am asked, “But what would you have us do, rabbi?  The problems of the world aren’t going to go away on their own.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise, BDS is alive and well on campuses and in communities across the country.  Nazis march openly in city streets, and white nationalists feel empowered like never before.  Would you have us dialogue with Neo-Nazis, or attempt to understand those behind attacks on Jews around the world?  We must show strength, resolve, we have worked for decades to achieve the level of security we have now, and we cannot risk losing it.”

Demonstrating compassion and understanding is not weakness, and it is not the same thing as tolerance.  Destructive behaviors have no place in our families or in our societies.  Those who threaten violence must be met with firmness and strength.  But it is not enough to be right, anyone who has been married knows that.  Strength comes from being decent. We learn in a Mishnah, “In a place where no one will be human, you must be human.”  You must be confident enough with your own conviction, that you are open to others expressing theirs.  The rabbis ask, “Who is truly strong?  One who overcomes their own negative impulses,” Not one who overwhelms and silences dissent.  One who understands that the highest form of wisdom is kindness.
Today we are living with real and pressing issues in many arenas.   Some have lost faith in our politicians, in medical professionals, the media, and government institutions – to a degree unheard of in 200 years. The wisdom of Jewish texts is not a panacea, not an idealistic or naïve fairy tale.  The Talmud does not solve the problem of mail-in ballots or medical testing.

I cannot tell you what will solve the world’s problems – not in congress, not for the CDC, and not in our families.  But I can tell you what won’t solve them – trying to yell the loudest; making sure ours is the only voice heard.  If an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, then trying to out-yell one another will make us all deaf.

Hillel says the answer is simple.  Religion is not difficult, at its core.  The main thing is this – what is hateful to you, do not do to another. When confronted by hatred, when the other side seems to push every button, to miss every opportunity for peace, to intentionally provoke us, we need to choose a different path.

What if instead of responding to aggression with aggression, we practiced kindness even when it was undeserved?  What if our attempts to empathize led us to introduce a new dynamic into the cycle of violence – generosity?

Moses describes God in Torah in a beautiful and poetic line that we read each year on Yom Kippur.  God, he says, is compassionate and kind, full of grace and slow to anger.  God knows us, and is with us in our struggles and failures – God is compassionate and kind.  We pray that God is slow to anger, because we are imperfect and deserve God’s anger.  And both of these understandings of God rest upon this one other word – grace.

Grace might sound like a Christian word, but it is deeply rooted in our Jewish texts.  Every time we bless our meal with Birkat Hamazon we pray to God “b’chein b’chesed uv’rachamim” for grace, love and compassion.  We bless our children each week with the words – Yair Adonai panav eilecha v’chuneka – may God’s light shine upon you and give you grace.

Grace is the concept of undeserved love, kindness and compassion.  As in “there but for the grace of God go I…”  Avinu Malkeinu says this explicitly – Avinu Malkeinu, Chaneinu v’aneinu ki ein banu maasim – be gracious to us, and answer us, even though we have done nothing to deserve it.

It feels wrong to ask God on these days for kindness when we don’t deserve it.  This is the Day of Judgement, after all, a day for us to be honest with ourselves.  We know we have not done nearly enough.  We admit our failures and our mistakes together.  We acknowledge the many ways we have let down our loved ones, failed to live up to our potential, and we accept the fact of our moral failings.

And still we insist that God offers mercy to those who may or may not deserve it.  It is the most familiar trope of our High Holy Day liturgy –“We are not so arrogant and stiff-necked as to say before You, Adonai our God and God of all ages, we are perfect and have not sinned; rather do we confess: we have gone astray, we have sinned, we have transgressed, and God said, Salachti ki dvarecha – I have pardoned as you asked (Tavo).”

Yom Kippur hinges on this idea of the gift of grace.  God offers us undeserved kindness, because God expects us to offer each other the same. We have been through the machzor enough to know this fundamental truth.  We each have one or two stories about the kindness of strangers, or an undeserved kindness that changed the course of our lives.  We know the feeling that our own generosity of spirit fills us with, and how consumed we feel when we cannot let go of hatred.  It destroys us along with our enemies.

Acting with grace, on the other hand, gives us a sense of agency, a feeling that we have control over our lives, rather than drowning in frustration, anger, and hurt.  Victor Frankl called this the last of human freedoms, our freedom to choose our attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose our own way.  Offering kindness to others when it does not feel fair might help us feel strong. It is the strength of controlling our own impulses.
It may seem to some like a radical idea. But that’s the challenge presented to us on this holiest of days..  Maybe this is what is missing from our social and political discourse.  Maybe grace has the power to show us a way forward, a way to break old habits, a way to look differently at the conflicts that plague our families, and our society.

Hillel says what is hateful to you do not do to another – do not respond to cruelty with cruelty – Even when you think you are right, even when you know you are right, even when you are certain that the other is absolutely wrong.  Life isn’t about being right, it is about being in relationship.  This is not the easiest thing to do, but it can change your life.

Our people has been met with cruelty for thousands of years, we would have every right to be angry and self-protective and cruel.  We have suffered for every reason, and for no reason at all.  Others have thrown us out, stuck us in ghettos, and tried to annihilate us.  And still we assert that being Jewish means something more than revenge or self-preservation.  We are called to rise above these desires and to become a light unto the nations.  We are called upon to respond to hatred not with love, and definitely not to turn the other cheek, but to balance strict justice with mercy.  We are called up to bring generosity of spirit — grace into the world.

In his seminal work on the Jewish sources of repentance, called the Laws of Teshuvah, Maimonides asks an important question – how do you know when your teshuvah is complete?  Is it enough to know your heart has changed?  Is the process finished once you’ve made peace with the ones you’ve wronged?  Maimonides says no.  His argument is that you cannot truly consider teshuvah complete until you are in the same situation that once caused you to sin, a situation in which it is tempting to follow old, comfortable patterns.  And once you are there, you know teshuvah is complete when you act differently, hoping for a different outcome.

Answering anger with patience, responding to aggression with inclusion, showing generosity to those who can be cruel – that is grace.  Undeserved kindness and consideration.  We ask it of God because we know God to be merciful.  We ask it of each other because we desire to live in a world where justice is balanced by human mercy, human kindness, undeserved grace.

Yom Kippur is just one day.  But the power of that day for the Jewish people is immeasurable.  We are commanded to do no less that reimagine the rest of our lives, and recommit to the repair of the world.  That’s what all this praying and fasting and reflecting is for.  To remind us that while there is so much we can’t control in our lives and the world, we can always choose kindness, and grace.