“Baruch She’amar V’Haya HaOlam.” Blessed is God who spoke and the world came to be.1
These words, composed by our rabbis, are part of our Shabbat morning liturgy. There’s a certain symmetry to that, isn’t there? How was our world created? For Jews… through speech. Through language, verbal wrestling, and healthy arguments. Through ideas, and through attempts to speak our minds in ways that would evolve as our world evolved.
God continued, in our creation story, to fashion distinctions among what had been tohu va’vohu – unformed and void. Light was separated from darkness, sky from water, moon and sun and stars from sky.2 And then as we know of course, the jewel in creation’s crown. Human beings, who would live in harmony, with moral consciousness in the Garden of Eden. Life would be lush in its beauty and ease. Although there was the small matter of this one tree whose fruit God forbade them to taste. Every other tree was fine, but that one…
We all probably know the outcome of that part of the story. Eve, then Adam inevitably ate from the ever alluring Tree of Knowledge … as most of us would under similar circumstances! In so doing, they too became instigators of speech. They created the Torah’s first question.
It was a single word: “Ayecha?”3 Where are you?
Like children who break a precious possession they had been told not to play with, they were frightened, these first humans… and they hid among the trees of the Garden.
“Ayecha?” God called to them. Now God knew perfectly well where they were. That wasn’t the question. The real question was not “where have you run on the outside?” but “where have you run on the inside? Where have your fears and your sense of dread exiled you?”
Adam and Eve were already a long way from Eden. They just didn’t know it yet. On this holiest of nights, as we step back to consider the time between last Yom Kippur and this one, the truth begins to burn through. We are a long way from Eden as well.
It was just about a year ago, wasn’t it? That we stood here together feeling the first seismic shifts. The first earthquake-like rumblings and intimations that our nation, always a long way from Edenic utopia, was about to fall even farther. What a time we have been through, and are living through still. A year filled with everything we acknowledge and ask forgiveness for tonight: rancor and misunderstanding, bigotry, acts of violence and worse.
Consider the words of the “Al Chet” we chanted earlier. It’s amazing how many of these phrases have their roots in the language we use. “The harm we have caused in Your world through the words of our mouths… and harm we have caused in Your world through careless speech. (The) harm we have caused through gossip and rumor; through insincere apologies, and with a slanderous tongue.”4
There is an old story of a woman who goes to her rabbi before Yom Kippur to confess, in a manner of speaking, that she is somewhat of a gossip. “Although rabbi, I like to think of it more as a valuable public service. I hear things that people should know. It’s my special pleasure,” she shrugs, “and really how much harm can it do? After all, it’s not as though I were hitting or kicking someone, God forbid.”
“Oh?” the rabbi responded. He handed her a pillow and said to her, “Take this pillow home with you, and tomorrow I want you to open it up and scatter its feathers all around town. When the feathers are gone, come back and see me. We’ll talk.”
And here she thought she was going to get a lecture! This would be much easier. So, as in all good Jewish folktales, she did just as the rabbi instructed, and went back to see him a few days later with an empty pillowcase. “Good work,” said the rabbi, very impressed. “And now, I want you to go back through our town, gather all the feathers up again, and replace them in the pillowcase.”
“But rabbi, that’s impossible!” she exclaimed. “Who knows where each of those feathers is now? Who knows what all the people who scooped them up are doing with them?!”
The rabbi just nodded sagely and looked the woman in the eyes. “Now, about your gossip,” he said. That was the day the woman made a beginning in breaking her lifelong habit. Over time, she learned to take care with her words. She learned what Judaism has always taught about why gossip and rumor, insincere apologies and careless speech are indeed so harmful. “The tongue is compared to an arrow,” our rabbis teach, “because if a person draws a sword to kill his fellow human, the intended victim can beg mercy and the attacker can change his mind and return the sword to its sheath. But an arrow, once it has been shot and begun its journey, even if the shooter wants to stop it, he (or she) cannot”5
It began with marginalization of our Muslim neighbors, and then extended to Hispanic people. Soon it was all immigrants… followed by all refugees… and no reasonable amount of explaining that we are all descendants of those who came here from somewhere else, seeking something better seemed to make any difference. Next, hateful rhetoric turned its focus to the disabled. Then to LGBT people whose rights have been fought for so long, and whose victories are so recent. It goes on… to African-Americans and women. And to Jews. Through this long, dark season we have been living the poem of Martin Niemöller, Protestant pastor and concentration camp survivor who famously wrote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak (for me).
Who would be next, many of us wondered. Who would be made a mockery of, who would be cruelly stereotyped, who would be the next victim of a hate crime because words were left all over town claiming that this person, that family, this community didn’t matter. Because feathers were picked up and passed from hand to angry, disenfranchised hand, whispering: “these others are the reasons you have less than you should. If not for them, you would be prosperous and safe. You would recognize your country again. They are your problem.” All it took was one receptive ear after another, and one more mouth to pass it on. And every day it happened – every day it happens – it debases us all.
It debases us especially. Not only because of the pain and scourge of antiSemitism, fully out of the woodwork, so alive and so well. But also, because we are among the world’s people who know exactly where slander and malicious, inaccurate speech can lead. It has led there once. It can again. We have to know that.
We are exhorted through the prophet Isaiah to be or l’goyim – a light to the nations.6 This is not a way to claim superiority; moral or otherwise. It is a way of reminding us that we have a particular history filled with oppression and dispersions, as well as with wisdom and and creativity, and a certain resilience after it all. We have not only the ability, but also an obligation based on our own past pain, our own experience as strangers in a strange land, to draw empathy from those wells. Consider for just a moment, the words of an Iraqi woman who speaks anonymously to protect her life. She is a rape victim and former prostitute who has dedicated herself to rescuing vulnerable women in her country from the brothels that traffic them:
“I am hurt witnessing this,” she says. “(But I will continue my work). I am now confident and strong. I know that I am a person. My wound, my deep wound, is also my strength, because it makes me help others. Those who bear scars must help the wounded.”7
In much the same way, even as the world grows bigger and more complicated, even as grey areas multiply, the Jewish response to “who will they come for next?” must be “No one. Not on our watch.”
But tonight we are still clinging to veils of exhaustion, anger, helplessness and inaction; myself included. That’s how powerful hateful language is; contrary to the old childhood adage about sticks and stones, words do hurt. They hurt so much that tonight, on Kol Nidre, our fears and our sense of dread still hold part of our souls back in exile. Tonight, on Kol Nidre, we are still in hiding. And tonight God asks us: “Ayecha? Where are you?”
In “Leaves of Grass” Walt Whitman wrote “that the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.”8 He wasn’t speaking of Yom Kippur, but he may as well have been. On this holiest, most solemn of days, we are taught that “God opens the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for every human hand leaves its mark, an imprint like no other.”9 What will our imprint be? How will it, and how will we be remembered?
These are the questions we wrestle with on as Yom Kippur begins, every bit as much as we have wrestled with the year’s poisonous words and with the deep, unhealed divide at the heart of our nation. Are these cracks new? Or have they been here longer than we’ve understood, and simply needed the right conditions to widen and grow? To fan the flames, exposing our own worst selves. For all these failures of judgment and will, God of forgiveness – forgive us, pardon us, lead us to atonement.10
Can it be different? Can we make it so? “There’s a crack in everything,” songwriter Leonard Cohen intoned. “That’s how the light gets in.”11
How will we bring in the light?
Can our words be words of healing… words of hope?
Can our anger be righteous – motivating us to fight our way towards better times?
Can our scars lead us to help the wounded?
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief,” Rabbi Tarfon taught. “Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now.”12
The powerful play goes on… somehow. It always does. Let us help it go on, but better. Now.
Baruch She’Amar V’Haya HaOlam, Baruch Hu. Blessed is God who spoke and the world came to be.
We too have the power to speak new worlds into being — every time we stand with each other, every time we allow the divisive words we hear to spread hatred… and every time we don’t. Every time we use the gift of language to create bridges, instead of walls.
May the words of our mouths serve as a tool of uplift, and not destruction. May we bring our own souls out of exile and begin the great work ahead. And may the imprint we leave be one that reflects our best selves, as lovers of justice, and pursuers of peace.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon/ May it be God’s will.
1 Shabbat Morning Liturgy, Mishkan Tefillah p. 94 .
2 Genesis 1: 1-8 (paraphrased).
3 Genesis 3:9
4 Mishkan Hanefesh, pp. 86-90.
5 “Midrash Tehillim 120,” ed. Buber, p. 503.
6 Isaiah 49:6
7 “Letter from Baghdad: Out of Sight,” Rania Abouzeid, The New Yorker, October 5, 2015.
8 166. O Me! O Life! “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman, 1892.
9 Gates of Repentance, p. 107/ Mishkan HaNefesh p. 174.
10 Mishkan HaNefesh p. 87.
11 “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen.
12 Pirkei Avot; commentary on Micah 6:8.