A few weeks ago, our world lost one of its greatest leaders, Shimon Peres. He died on September 28th after a lifetime of service to the Jewish people and Israel. Peres was integrally involved with the creation of the State from its inception. He was a protégé of David ben Gurion and a member of the Haganah. He participated in the War of Independence, and was in charge of creating Israel’s nuclear program in the 1960’s. He was at first encouraging of building settlements in the West Bank, but later came to realize the obstacle to peace they represented. And based on this profound realization, Peres, along with Yitzchak Rabin, became the architect of the Oslo Accords, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. He served in Israel’s government in every capacity. He was a great man, known both for his strong hawkish views early in life, and for becoming Israel’s strongest advocate for peace – he never gave up his hope that peace was possible for the Palestinians and the Jews.
Peres became, in his later years, not only the model of a new kind of idealistic Zionism, but also the model for real change and growth, even in the most inhospitable of environments. The once renowned hawk turned dove offered Israel her most realistic pathway to security and peace. He said, “Sometimes people ask me, ‘What is the greatest achievement you have reached in your lifetime?’ So I reply that there was a great painter named Mordechai Ardon, who was asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted. Ardon replied, ‘The picture I will paint tomorrow.’ That is also my answer.”
Peres was not satisfied with the many accomplishments of his past, because he knew that significantly different challenges lay in Israel’s future. He also recognized that even the greatness he himself had brought to our fledgling state was not perfect, far from it. And so he was open, always open to the present moment, and to changing his mindset to absorb new realities, new information.
I read of an interesting encounter between Peres and Micah Goodman, the renowned teacher from the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem who has written extensively about Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Maimonides, and especially his writings about Teshuvah – the work of personal and communal repentance that is our task on Yom Kippur. Peres shared with Goodman, “I ask myself each day, have I brought more good into the world or bad?”
There is one text in particular which may have inspired Peres’ question. In Hilchot Teshuvah, the volume focused on the laws and rituals of repentance, Maimonides wrote, “throughout the year, a person should look at themselves as equally balanced between merit and sin, and at the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If a single person performs one sin, or one good deed, they tip their own scales, and those of the entire world, in that direction, and bring about destruction or salvation in that moment.” (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:4)
Maimonides was not shallow or simple minded. He knew people were not immediately punished for their wrongdoings, just as the righteous were not necessarily rewarded for their piety. He understood how the world actually worked. He saw that humanity was rewarded and punished according to a greater calculus than we have the capacity to understand. Often it appears as though the wicked are rewarded and the righteous suffer indefensibly. Sometimes our own lives bear out that truth: that injustice seems the norm. We do not get what we think we deserve, and we watch as others seem to benefit from corruption and indiscretion. Although we might choose to believe that ultimately we will all be held accountable, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Human beings can be terribly cruel to one another, and Divine retribution is noticeably absent. Even tonight, we admit the many ways we have missed the mark: we have lied, cheated, stolen. We have hurt one another, acted selfishly. We have withheld love, and failed to be present with our loved ones and with those who need us most. We are guilty each and every year.
Maimonides’ point about the scales in balance was not an objective statement. He did not imagine that we keep a list, nor did he believe that we should. Instead he offered us poetic and powerful prose about an approach to life. He challenged us to see ourselves as standing before Robert Frost’s two roads diverging in the yellow wood, or in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, one day, to finally know what we have to do, and begin.
Maimonides asks you to consider your life today, right now, right here, as a beginning, a moment in which you might choose your road. Imagine a giant scale, with a platform on each side. Imagine your entire past year is collected onto those plates – good deeds on one side, and all the many ways you’ve missed the mark gathered on the other. Once you’ve got that image in your head, resist the urge to count. Resist the urge to notice which pile of deeds and misdeeds, steps and missteps seems larger. His theological question is not an exercise in physics.
Atonement is something greater than a simple listing of sin and punishment. The past must be brought fully into the present in order for the process to be complete. Once we have articulated, to ourselves and to others, the many ways we have fallen down in the past, Yom Kippur and Kol Nidrei asks us to see ourselves as whole; to enter this New Year with strength and determination; to leave these services feeling lighter, stronger, more prepared to stay our own course. And the only way to do this is for each of us to see both sides of the scale – to accept the good and the bad within, to see our scales as balanced.
The text seems deceptively simple. ‘Why wouldn’t my scales be balanced,’ you might ask? But we know that the picture we have of ourselves is often skewed and out of perspective – imbalanced. We often think too highly of ourselves, not realizing the shared humanity that connects us all. And sometimes the burden of feeling less than others weighs heavily on all our shoulders.
For those who imagine themselves today to be basically good, fair and kind – this image of the scales reminds us that to be human means we all have something to atone for. Perhaps we enter this room thinking we are already doing “just fine.” “This sermon is for others, but not us,” we say. “We live basically good lives; we try hard, and anything we might have done wrong certainly does not rise to the level of transgression, or sin!”
The only way for Yom Kippur to have meaning is if we are willing to admit that we might be unaware of the hurt we have caused, that there is most definitely more we could do, we are not as “just fine” as we thought. We are challenged to approach these days with humility.
But the imagery of those scales also has something profound to offer us when we feel the opposite. Some of us only see the flaws in the mirror: we are not good enough, we are unknowledgeable, unprepared, unable to be loved. The judgement we decree upon ourselves is harsher than any liturgy we encounter.
For those of us here in this room who feel less than others – the scales remind us that to be human means we feel our flaws deeply, but must remember to count our virtues and our values as merit. Humility can also help us to lift ourselves up in kindness. We are not nearly as alone as we imagine. Our scales are balanced.
Shimon Peres searched each day for an answer to the question, “Did I bring more good into the world today, or bad? Are my scales balanced?” Can we honestly ask ourselves that question, and not assume the answer? Can we shine a bright light on our relationships and our actions and admit the truth we find?
Your scales are balanced, writes Maimonides. Know this no matter what you thought of yourself yesterday. Today the entire world is renewed and you along with it. The total combined weight and mass of your good deeds and bad equal each other, right now, in this moment.
And this metaphor, this beautiful symbol of the balanced scales, also leads us to another equally important realization about Yom Kippur, and Teshuvah. Balanced scales are very sensitive to influence. If our scales are in balance, it means that the very next action we take, the next word we speak; the next interaction whether good or bad has profound significance. It is an action toward repair, toward healing, toward lifting, toward divinity; or it is an action that damages, hurts, distances. Our next action, our very next word will tip the scales, for us and for the world!
It is easy to imagine that a private conversation, a joke, a sideways glance might not matter much in the grand scheme of things. To be human is “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” “Rabbi,” you might ask, “is it really so important to consider the weight and meaning of every word, every action, every person, every relationship? Do I really need to consider myself and others every time I move or speak?
The Proverbs exclaim, “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” (Prov. 18:21) God spoke and the entire world came into being – all of Creation, and our continued existence, hinge upon the way we use even the smallest word, the slightest glance. The rabbis did not consider this hyperbole. They recognized something we do know from our own experience – a hurt that seems very small to the one who gave it, is usually not so small to the one receiving it. Our memory is long when it comes to insults we have received, wounds we have sustained, whether from a spouse, a parent, a teacher, a rabbi, a friend. Maimonides reminds us of this tremendous power that exists in every moment, every word we choose to share or withhold in our relationships.
It can be devastating to realize how we have hurt the ones we love. And so the balanced scales open our eyes to the ways we have transgressed, or missed the mark, and they also confirm for us that we are in good company. Each of us, human beings damage the spirit of others. We confess these sins together, in the plural, ready to take responsibility. Seeing others beating their chests next to us during the Ashamnu prayer, makes us feel as if we are not alone in our own suffering; not alone in our humanity.
At the beginning of our service tonight we read, “no matter how far some of us may have transgressed… we pray as one on this Night of Repentance.” (pg. 251) The Kol Nidrei service asks us to see ourselves as members of this kahal, the community in which we pray. We are challenged to see ourselves on equal footing with those sitting all around us. We are equal, whether we sit far in the back or right here in front, whether we count our IHC membership in days or months, or generations. We are equal, whether we bring our young children here, or whether those children are grown and gone. We stand on equal footing with those who do not and never will have children. We are equal: singles and couples, straight and gay, Republican, Democrat and undecided, those with money and those without, those who were born Jewish, those who chose Judaism, and those who simply support those who choose Judaism – we all stand before God even as we stand before one another. Our weaknesses make all others weaker. Our strengths strengthen us all. We symbolically and literally take responsibility for each other tonight.
We don’t know, we cannot know, the reality of sin or suffering weighing heavy on the hearts of our neighbors sitting only a few seats away. But we set an intention that no matter who we are, no matter where we are along life’s path, we each carry the weight of mistakes and the comfort of our mitzvot, our good deeds in equal measure: our scales are balanced tonight.
Once there was a very wealthy man who was as mean and selfish as he was rich. One day he saw a wagon overturned in the mud. A farmer and his family were stranded by the side of the road. For some reason, and despite his character, the wealthy man not only helped the family into his fancy carriage, but he gave the farmer money to replace his broken wagon. When the rich man died and his life was being considered in the Heavenly Court, the scales of justice were heavy with his miserly, sinful deeds. But then an angel appeared who reminded the court of the one time he stopped to help a farmer in need. “Very well,” cried the Prosecutor, “We will add the farmer and his family to the good-deeds side of the scales.” And yet the scales still leaned toward his wrongdoings. The angel flew away and returned a moment later with the mud from the road which covered the man, the farmer and his family when he stopped to help them. With the mud added to the scales, the man’s good deeds finally outweighed a lifetime of sin.
Each and every action has merit – the way we greet one another as we enter the sanctuary; the way we treat the sheriffs who volunteer tonight to help us park and keep us safe. Each and every action has potential – the way we ask a friend about their day and then actually wait for their response; the way we slow ourselves on the High Holy Days to notice our family and friends, when most other days we do not make the time. The way we stop our busy lives to pay attention to the way we are with others, and the way we are deliberate with our kindness and our love – even the mud on our shoes might clamor to jump on the scale and advocate for our goodness and righteousness. One moment of realizing our human potential for good can transform our lives, and the change is permanent. Every minute matters.
Recognizing the power of this moment to turn and change is the critical first step in our work of Teshuvah. Just acknowledging the ways we have missed the mark does nothing to move us forward. It takes humility and strength of character to envision our scales as balanced, and then to step forward towards that all important next moment. That is the only way we might walk through the Gates of Teshuvah on this Awesome Day.
There is an openness and a potential that exists within us right now. This day we have been given is the path diverging in the woods, a beginning, a choice. The only way we know to accept the lessons of yesterday, and to stretch and grow towards tomorrow is to allow ourselves to fearlessly and humbly face today; to awaken in the morning and ask ourselves, “will we bring more good or bad into the world today?”; to accept and bless our past, the best and the worst of it, as balanced. Hayom harat olam, today the world is created anew, and we are created anew with it. May we be inscribed for blessing this day.