Tzaddikim Anachnu

Rabbi Noa Kushner // Kol Nidrei 5778

1. The Mirror
Maybe it was because I happened to be in Jerusalem at the time so I couldn’t avoid all the changes. You see, I know Jerusalem. I have lived there, spent summers there, staffed more birthright tours there than I care to remember.

I’ve even seen Jerusalem when, in an extreme effort to display its modern side, the mayor shut down all the main streets and hosted a Formula 1 race through the entire city for 3 days. Here’s what I can tell you about speeding Formula 1 race cars echoing off Jerusalem stone: Very loud.

Maybe, had I not seen the entire city shut down, more extreme than when they hosted Formula 1, complete with ubiquitous posters of Donald Trump’s face plastered everywhere, each one begging for his approval. Maybe had I not seen the way every single soldier, scout, volunteer, police officer, police dog was employed as if moshiach / the messiah himself were arriving.

Maybe if I hadn’t just been to Yad VaShem myself and heard the stories of our people in the years leading up to the Shoah / Holocaust, how we were humiliated and ostracized, dehumanized, demonized,

Maybe if my heart had not been broken repeatedly there for five hours, and I knew I barely scratched the surface,  Maybe if I hadn’t heard the stories of the mothers who lost their children,

Maybe then Donald Trump’s 15 minute visit to Yad VaShem would not have effected me.

But the idea that he would not see it at all, not hear a single story, but just lay a wreath as if he did, that he would, after giving a speech using the acceptable phrases about the “systematic attempt to eliminate the Jewish people,” still write in the guest book,

“It is a great honor to be here with all my friends – so amazing and will never forget!” as if he were writing in a guest book at a wedding or a hotel, I couldn’t help it, it got to me.

Look. I don’t want all of Jewish life to be focused on what happened during the holocaust. I think since the beginning of The Kitchen I have referred to it publically maybe four times.

I tend to lean towards the position of David Hartman, z”l who used to say, (when asked to give lectures at Yad Vashem) that he would not speak there but would be happy to meet any group at the maternity ward of Hadassah hospital up the road.

So I am not upset that Trump didn’t say more emphatically how bad the Shoah / Holocaust was, nor was I offended that he did not say it more times or say it in longer sentences.

What upset me was how painfully obvious it was that the entire visit was a series of symbolic visuals, empty of any significant exchange -- visit as tweet, his schedule truncated to the point of absurdity.

What upset me was not his inability to adapt to his surroundings or possibly learn from where he was -- I expected him to mold our holy city in his image -- I just couldn’t believe how willingly we molded it to suit him.

You know there’s a famous mishnah that if you are praying and a king walks in, unless you think that king is going to kill you, you keep praying [1]. Why? Because no king is ultimate, and no king should stop us from trying to get close to what is.

This came to mind as I watched the video of the 15 minutes because all the polite smiles and speeches in the world could not cover up that we had essentially stopped our prayer that day.

We had glossed over what was ultimate and precious to us in the presence of power. We had just relinquished our history, our lost families, the significant amount we’ve learned about trying to be righteous in the world, our story. We gave up so much in those 15 minutes, and yet we asked for nothing.

Rather, we allowed Trump to treat Yad VaShem like a revolving door and it made me wonder what else we were giving up without realizing it, what else significant, and foundational had eroded while we were distracted.

I appreciate that this year has been extraordinary, that we have whiplash from the amount of news and things to protest. That there has been a swell of resistance crossing generations and ethnicities in the streets on many issues: Immigration, health care, women’s rights, and these are unprecedented times. We can’t fight everything. And I know we need America if we are going to get anywhere with the matzav, the situation with the Occupation, significant challenges in Israel. And he is the president, a busy man, what are we supposed to do? Not let him in to Yad VaShem unless he promises to learn something?

And yet, I felt at that fake moment, with Jerusalem at a complete standstill, without so much as a peep from the Jewish community, it was as if Trump was holding up a giant mirror to Israel, to us the Jewish community in America, and the gap, the distance between who we say we are and who we actually were was right in front of my eyes.

If we are shaking tonight it is for good cause.
Tonight we face the real King / the real Queen,
and in the presence of this holy day we collect the evidence and ask ourselves:
Is this who we are?
Is this who we want to be?

Because what concerns me, is that in this historic moment, no matter our political positions, we’ve inadvertently accepted certain rules of the game without reflection, without even knowing we’ve accepted them: Things like: Using slogans and images over engaging with moral complexity,
Concepts like: “Us vs. Them”
Or: We are only here to win, so pick the winning team, because losing is the biggest disgrace of all.

Regardless of what side we think we’re on, when the rules create a short hand like this, a shorthand that forces the kinds of distortions we saw in Jerusalem, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. By accepting rules such as these, we may score but the game is destroying us.

So tonight I don’t want to discuss the points or the fouls or even who is winning, tonight I want to change the rules, tonight I want to change our game.

Tonight I want to talk about the foundational beliefs, the premises that have eroded, premises that would make unwitting participation in such a game impossible, or least trigger more self inspection.

I want to begin to bring our teachings back to us, and remind us of the answers to the questions: Who are we in the world? Why we are here, and How must we be with one another? For if we cannot begin to answer these questions, it doesn’t matter who is in power, for we will always be chasing our own shadows.

You see, no election can define us. Only we can define us. We’ve just been giving all our attention to the wrong kinds of kings. Tonight we will begin to put the crowns back where they belong.

I bring you three ideas, three teachings:

Idea #1.  Our needs will consume us unless we recognize we are also needed.   

Because The Kitchen has a sort of cool website and a memorable name, anyone who wants to work on innovation in the Jewish world calls us.

I remember a few years ago one such consultant working for a fancy urban synagogue, with apparently an unlimited budget, called to ask me about how to market some Jewish programming to young adults (which, I’ll let you in on a little insider’s secret, is generally anyone under 55 give or take a few years).

And I remember, in the course of the conversation, she asked me, “How would you describe the ‘value add’ of Jewish life?” An innocent question, no malice intended on her part, so I am quite sure she did not expect the response I unleashed on her.

“What is the value add?” I asked, “Don’t you understand? The minute we frame being Jewish, trying to be a tzaddik / a righteous person in terms of ‘value add,’ it’s all over!”

“It would be like asking what the “value add” is of your own family! Sure, your family probably does add value to your life on some days and likely on other days they cause you nothing but pain and aggravation, but that is not even the point. The point is that the question assumes that somehow, if there was no value, less value, you would leave your family, that you are a family member because of the value it provides, and if another family or another activity that provided more value came along you would trade, but you wouldn’t and I wouldn’t because we are not only here to have needs met all the time!”

“So don’t tell them the value add,” I said, “Don’t try to fulfill their needs. Tell them the demands. Tell them that being a tzaddik / agent of righteousness is nothing less than the work of connecting heaven and earth, and it will take all of their resources and time but as a result they will know they are needed and their lives will no longer be trivial.”

(I wasn’t actually invited to participate in the second round of the focus group but I am sure it is just because I answered all the questions so well in that first call.)

And she hung up before I got a chance to tell her I was quoting one of the greatest teachers of Torah, R. Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Heschel taught that that phone call I had was inevitable, because in our world, we’ve become so overly focused on our needs, we think our whole life only consists in needing, being fulfilled, having more elaborate needs and fulfilling them. It doesn’t occur to us that there might be something else [2]. 

And he teaches that through the lens of needs the aperture of our lives has become so narrow, everything a closed circuit that always ends with us, we’ve come to see everything only as something that will or will not serve us, or we are blind to it and each other altogether [3]. 

In his words: “We ask again and again, ‘What will we get out of life? but what escapes our attention is the fundamental, yet forgotten question, what will life get out of me?" [4]. 

When we received Torah at Mt. Sinai, it was covenantal moment, a famous moment: Thunder, lightning, a mountain top.
But interestingly, no interview process.
The only thing that could count as an interview is that years and years before, when we were still in Egypt, we finally cried out under slavery. Not exactly an internship at a five star law firm.

There is a midrash / teaching that suggests that God tried to give the Torah to virtually every other nation but ours and one by one, they (reasonably) wanted a preview, and when they got the preview, they didn’t want the Torah any more because committing to Torah required way too much work, it required a radical change from the lives they were already leading [5]. 

So God gives Torah to us because we, being slaves, having nothing, didn’t look at it in advance, we just took it sight unseen. The rabbis say we accepted it out of faith but, let’s be honest, one could just as easily argue that being slaves in the middle of nowhere, we figured it couldn’t be worse than the nothing we already had. So it wasn’t that we asked for it, we just didn’t turn it down.

Not only that but in fact, Heschel points out that the minute we had a little time on our own to articulate what we really wanted at Sinai, what we really thought we needed, we skipped Torah altogether and went for something more in the golden calf section of the proverbial store [6]. 

So we see what happened at Sinai is dafka not that we got what we thought we wanted or needed, rather, what happened is that we were needed for the first time. We saw that Torah couldn’t be brought into the world without us. And in that moment we saw that we were more than our needs, we now had the responsibility for refracting the great light of Torah in any way we possibly could.

Maybe if we focused less on what we need, maybe if we shifted our horizons beyond the equivalent of winning political volleys and collecting golden statues, we would understand more ways we are needed. Maybe it would have changed that one day in Jerusalem, maybe it could have helped us have the strength to tell the story of who we once were in the world, and who we are trying to be now.

Idea #2:  Morality is not an extracurricular activity.

I had a talk with a woman who is a big activist in Oakland. She asked all about The Kitchen and I told her about you incredible people, the energy, the trust that we were building through Shabbat, through study. I told her we were talking about what is going on in the public square but I wanted us to do more ‘justice.’

“Oh,” she said, “You’re organizing. You just didn’t know it. Your problem is that you think being involved in justice is something you do outside of everything else you do. Start connecting the dots and you’ll see.”

In the popular imagination, we think that if we are indeed needed, the next step would be to make the time to isolate the moral problem we ourselves are destined to solve, raise the money to solve it, and then lecture world wide about it when we’re done.

But part of what’s been crashing down in the Trump era, a premise that has failed the stress test, is our passive understanding that our morality is somehow separate from the rest of our lives, a controlled arena to engage at will.

Rather, in the past year, as we felt under attack, we quickly realized we could not wait to carefully select where to put our moral energies. Instead we found ourselves resisting, sometimes in incomplete or incoherent ways, physically, emotionally, all at once. And through this messy resistance, and our frequent, high alert reactions that we neither could turn on nor shut off on demand, we saw how a moral challenge effects, not the moral part of us, but the all of us.

It is not that we cannot seek to answer big calls and entrenched problems. It is just that, as Heschel teaches, it is impossible to remove morality from the massive network of miniscule decisions and emotions we undergo every moment [7]. 

So to be a tzaddik (a righteous one), or to aspire to be a tzaddik, means that we accept that in everything we do, we see that we have been given tremendous power and we have the opportunity to use that power with great care. To be a tzaddik means that we accept our morality blends into everything else: who we learn from, and when we turn on our computers, and what makes us cry, and what we eat, and who we talk to, how we conduct our sex lives, and what stories we tell ourselves, and how we run our businesses, and how much we spend, and how we fight for things we care about on the streets, and at home in private when no one can see.

This is one reason why the game of the symbolic moral shorthand, is so destructive. Not only can one easily cheat, as Trump did by taking a short cut through Yad Vashem, it does not allow us to consider options other than gaining or losing points. It does not allow us to take into consideration what is happening in contexts off the field. It does not allow us to take into consideration, as Torah does, that there is no field, because all of life is the field.

Last idea for remembering who we are, why we are here and how we must treat one another:

#3:  The opposite of silence is not always protesting but also sometimes arguing.

Once my father, when he was a young rabbinic student in the 1960’s, was eating at an old school kosher restaurant on the lower east side of New York. An older chassid came in and sat down next to him. “Nu?” he said, “Let’s have an argument.” My father, who was raised in the polite Detroit suburbs stammered out, “What do you mean?”
“Tell me something you believe,” The old man said.
“Okay… I… I believe in God and following Torah,” my father said.
“Okay, so I don’t,” the man began, and they argued for the sake of arguing all afternoon.

Compare that to what happened to me a few years ago. I was teaching about perspectives on God and religion in another far away city to a well-heeled group and as always, there were disagreements in the room and they were welcome and encouraged by me.

But something changed when the topic of Israel came up. Someone had googled me and found out that I was on a J Street something. Apparently that was shorthand for something bad. I was peppered with questions by the adult students as if I was suddenly interviewing for a job and the interview was not going well. Or maybe it was a deposition. “Did I support the UN resolution?” “Did I support BDS?” and so on.  

There was a pall over the room as the class discovered the “truth” of who I was. The mood changed. It got quiet. No matter what had happened over the past few hours, I had been tested for my allegiance and had not passed.

Fast forward a few weeks. I was part of a coalition, a very left wing mission / coalition to Palestine to help re-establish a Palestinian village that had been torn down in the 90’s. I was pretty to very uncomfortable most of the time, because it is a tragic situation to see up close and because the Israeli army we were expecting is made up of kids of Israelis I know and love, many of whom wish the occupation would end as much as I do.

I was exhausted after just a very few days of moving rocks and got a ride with some Israeli activists back for Shabbat. One was asking about The Kitchen. “But of course you speak publically and often in favor of BDS?” he asked. We were smushed against each other in the back seat of a tiny car. I told him the truth, which is that we don’t. “We don’t recommend any specific policies,” I said. Not that this mattered to him or anyone else in the car.

It was quiet after that. No matter what had happened over the past few days, I had been tested for my alliance and had not passed.

And we know that I went through is minor compared to the people who are fired, who have their names dragged through the mud because of something they said or didn’t say, because of the rule of short hand in the Jewish world, because of code words that are taboo or demanded, in Israel, here.

And I am not equivocating these two experiences, either. The fact that Jewish progressives in Israel have endured smear campaigns and threats and are now being held in customs at Ben Guerion would make Ben Guerion turn in his grave. I am not equivocating but tonight I am simply marking the increasing amount of red lines, codes and shorthand that can be dispensed at any moment by anyone to make an enemy, no matter what has happened before.

I always laugh when I hear the expression that in polite company one should avoid religion and politics, because the job of religion is to bring up the stuff that no one wants to talk about: Death and wrecked relationships and violence,

Heartbreak and the kinds of injustice that everyone tolerates but knows is intolerable, religion is supposed to make everyone uncomfortable, that’s why we need religion.

But the point of religious agitation -- or politics for that matter -- is not to destroy relationships or create a million different splintering factions but rather so we might learn from one another.

Do we disagree about BDS? Maybe, maybe not. How about racism? How about talking politics in shul? Maybe we, in fact, do disagree.

But if we do, for the love of God, let’s have an argument. Let’s reject, “Us vs. Them” and slogans and grandstanding. Let’s fall in love with discussion, with the combination of narrative and ideas and beliefs once again. Because for us, a disagreement has never been a slight, only a compliment.

Not to mention, in the words of R. Arnold Jacob Wolf z”l, our position is incomplete without the other.

He wrote: “Our rabbis taught that ‘These and these are the words of the living God,’ meaning [not that the words of] Hillel and Shammai were equally true and equally false, nor that we cannot know whether the school of Rabbi Akiba or that or Rabbi Ishmael was right. Rather, what this doctrine asserts is that truth is found only when the two opposites coexist, the majority and the minority, the right and the left, I and you. …We need each other’s dissent and each other’s critique. …[Only] Distance and relation together …can make us free" [8]. 

So let’s say what we believe to be true soon and often. And then, rather than only pressing return and releasing it to a million strangers, let’s say it again, while looking into the eyes of another person, or a few people,
maybe at a table,
maybe disagreeing over Kiddush lunch with some bagels, and scotch,
maybe over time as we go through things together: births, deaths, holidays, presidents,
maybe while inviting people to come from other places so we can expand the conversation,
maybe referring to things that happened in a time not our own, places not our own, you know, just for perspective, maybe referring to our tradition,
maybe altering our ideas as we go
so we can remember who we are in the world, that we are tzaddikim, and we are needed to do nothing less than connect heaven and earth and shine the great light of Torah.

I hear they call it organizing.


[1] Mishnah Berakhot 5:1

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Insecurity of Freedom, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1966) see pp. 5-9.

[3] Ibid., [See also Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, (Schocken, 1991). Vol 2:308, “The Darkness of the Soul.”]

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] Pesikta Rabbati 21

[6] Heschel, Insecurity of Freedom, p. 8.

[7] Ibid., p. 11.

[8] Arnold Jacob Wolf, Unfinished Rabbi, “A Theology of Activism,” (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998), p. 78.