Yom Kippur Sermon 2022, Rabbi Debra Rappaport
One of my teachers in rabbinical school used to say that all rabbis have basically one sermon that they continue to give in different forms throughout their rabbinate. Of course that made me really curious about what the essence of my one sermon might be. Sometimes I think it’s some variation on “be kind” and/or “be conscious;” it’s certainly about the importance and potential of community. I also believe what Richard Bach wrote: “we teach best what we most need to learn’’ – lest you think I come in with all this figured out. I share these perspectives on my sermon writing because I do tend toward practices for wellbeing and cultivating positive traits in ourselves for the sake of the highest good for our communities and world.
But on Yom Kippur, I find the dark side compelling. Maybe it’s the scapegoat story we just read, prodding at my psyche, wanting to know – what are those sins and what does it mean to confess them onto a goat to sacrifice to God and onto another goat to send into the wilderness? The story raises the aspect of the numinous, the aspects of forces of wickedness or evil that perhaps defy neat categories of sin and confession and the possibility of teshuvah. The trends of the past several years have also forced me to do some rethinking of my theology, that godliness is in every one of us and we just have to make good choices. Because so many humans are making bad choices – ranging from unkind to harmful to cruel. Hate-based speech and actions are on the rise; violent gun attacks on crowds and schools are on the rise; Putin’s heartless war on Ukraine is the most Euro-centric example we’ve had of stunning, inhumane cruelty inflicted on fellow human beings. There are so many more ordinary instances of human evil, including domestic violence, limiting access to voting, banning books and curriculum topics. It’s harder to be in a state of mind in which I believe these are simply differences of opinion and I believe everyone wants the highest good.
I don’t use the word “evil” much. It seems to evoke the demonic, like there is some force, the devil out there that might get us – which I don’t really believe. Yet our tradition uses the word “evil” rasha frequently, including in today’s liturgy and Haftarah.
Here’s my question: According to Jewish sources, is evil a force in its own right, that we can annually send away on a goat to Azazel? Or is it in each one of us, something to reckon with and integrate? What, if anything, do our sources offer to help us combat the forces of wickedness, of cruelty? It doesn’t feel like my place to tell you which places of wrongdoing or the evil of collective negligence need your attention. There are so many to choose from. But it does feel like my place to offer up Jewish sources in the hope that they can inspire you to do your part. We’ll start with some of what we encounter directly on Yom Kippur, then I’ll offer a brief survey of Jewish teachings – which have a lot to say about it!
Specific to the High Holiday liturgy, the Unetaneh Tokef poetic prayer talks about all the ways we could die, then offers: u’teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah (repentance, prayer, and doing justice) ma’avirin et ro’at-ha’gezerah, lessen the evil of the decree. I think this use of evil refers to our human vulnerability, or the fact of death, more than to human wickedness. Bad things just happen in the world. This is the sort of “evil” in which children develop cancer, families die in car or plane crashes, a pandemic takes millions of lives. In these instances, our clear obligation is to respond, to call upon our spiritual and material resources toward healing, loving, resilience and choosing life. Asking “why” in these moments, while a natural place for our minds to want to go, is not fruitful because we can’t know.
In the Haftarah we just read, Isaiah 58:6-7 “No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness – rasha, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him..” Here, rasha wickedness is equated with heartlessness toward the suffering of others.
The Biblical story that involves human evil begins with the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil. When Eve and Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, childhood innocence ended. Humans were now in a world of consequences, and even more importantly a world of self-consciousness, having to take responsibility for our actions. We have access to knowledge of good and evil, to a conscience.
Satan, or HaSatan appears in the Hebrew bible not as a devil or evil incarnation, but as an adversary. The word’s root means to obstruct or oppose. In Job, HaSatan (the Satan, not a proper name) is translated as the prosecutor. In all cases, haSatan is one of God’s servants or angels. The notion of opposition is clear, he’s more like your partner “playing devil’s advocate” than the devil himself. Facing an adversary, we are then called to recognize that that too is God, and to bring our most exemplary selves.
The rabbis following the Torah developed the idea of wickedness within each and every one of us. They called it the yetzer-ha-ra, the evil inclination, which we can imagine sitting on one’s left shoulder arguing with the yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination on our right shoulder, like in the Capra movie. Our job is to keep the yetzer ha-ra, our wild impulses, under the yoke of the laws of Torah.
Medieval philosopher Maimonides understood both God and God’s Created world as essentially good. He understood evil as the privation or absence of God. “Evil in comparison with good is like darkness in comparison with light. It is not the contrast between one being and another being, but between a being and its absence. …For Maimonides, to speak of good and evil as two independent entities would have been as if we offered a child a partnership: come, let us bake a bagel: you supply the flour and water and I supply the hole. This example would face us with the absurdity of comparing a void and an entity, evil and good. The hole is not something which exists in its own right. It is merely the result, and accompanying symptom, of a certain structure of the universe, which is itself good.” (Shalom Rosenberg, p. 29) In Maimonides’ worldview, human evil is the consequence of stupidity, ignorance, blindness, and irrationality – all related to the lack of knowing God. Human evil stems from distortion of our subjective lens. Unlike God, we can never see the full picture. So in this model, because evil does not exist as an independent force or power but as the absence of God, humans have the obligation to learn about the way of the world and thereby choose good.
Some early Kabbalistic theology actually saw sitra achra – the dark side – as a force independent of God. This dualism didn’t last. The dominant theology of the mystics emerged in a story of creation in which longing for companionship inspired God to create. Only Adam Kadmon, the original creation, could not contain God’s brightness – so sparks of God scattered throughout the world, encased in klippot, shards or shells which appear to contain evil but actually contain sparks of redemption. Our work is to free the sparks of holiness from their klippot through teshuvah, and bring more holiness into the world and thus to heaven too. In other words, in every negative encounter, every place that’s difficult or where suffering is experienced, there is a spark of holiness somewhere within that, and our job is to find and free that spark.
Zooming forward a millennium, I want to share philosopher Hannah Arendt’s observations after covering the Eichmann trial in 1961. After living through the Holocaust, arguably the most radical evil in human history, and hearing the testimony of one of its most horrific perpetrators, she came away with the understanding of evil as banal – NOT trivial, she spent the rest of her life clarifying. What she meant by describing evil as banal is that it is not deep. Here I quote her:
“It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never ‘radical’, that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the
surface. It is ‘thought-defying’ as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its ‘banality’. Only the good has depth and can be radical.” (The Jewish Writings, p. 471)
“Precisely because these criminals were not driven by the evil and murderous motives we’re familiar with – they murdered not to murder but simply as a part of their career – it seemed only too obvious to us all that we needed to demonize the catastrophe in order to find some historical meaning in it. And I admit, it is easier to bear the thought that the victim is the victim of the devil in human disguise – or as the prosecutor in the Eichmann trial put it, of a historical principle stretching from Pharoah to Haman – the victim of a metaphysical principle, rather than the victim of some average man on the street who is not even crazy or particularly evil.” (p. 487-88)
This is chilling. The worst human evil is perpetrated when people are being shallow, unwilling or unable to connect with the depth of our interbeing. It’s happening in our world. We can blame the explosion of social media, making everything about image and ratings. We can blame reducing communications and relationships to Twitter. We can blame late stage capitalism. But all the energy we might spend blaming is wasted.
What Hannah Arendt said most succinctly, and all of our tradition teaches, rings true to me. Evil is simply not a force that we can sacrifice to God or send away with the scapegoat, as our Torah reading described. Rather, the story invites us to think about what wiping the slate clean might entail. We need to put our energy toward responding, and each of our sources points in a direction that supports a balancing and healing response.
Adam and Eve brought us conscious awareness. Let’s not hide from it or bury it in business.
Isaiah reminds us to tend to the suffering of others, now!
Interpersonally, when we’re faced with wickedness or simple frustration, we have the choice to look for and lift up the presence God or of good, the holy sparks in husks of wickedness. I recently heard a story of a cab driver whose ride didn’t come out right away. It was a poor neighborhood, and he knew his fellow drivers would have waited the obligatory two minutes and left. But he decided to give the person the benefit of the doubt. He rang the doorbell; inside was a frail elderly woman; and all the furniture was covered as if no one lived there. He helped her out to the car. She shared that she was on her way to hospice care, and didn’t have any living relatives. He ended up taking her around to the various places that had mattered in her life; and he refused to charge her anything. That is lifting up the sparks. The driver himself was nourished, by having responded with love in such a tender moment.
Maimonides taught that we should each consider ourselves as well as all the world half meritorious and half culpable all year long. And we should believe that if we were to commit just one sin, we would incline ourselves and the entire world toward guilt and bring about destruction; and, contrarily, that if we were to fulfill just one mitzvah we would incline ourselves and the entire world toward merit and bring about salvation and redemption. Every choice, every action can have that impact. I walked in Nichols Arboretum yesterday. I witnessed the difference made by a few people’s attention to the natural environment, generations ago. The biodiversity in there was remarkable.
The Musar movement gives tools for practicing responding well in each moment, through cultivating middot, values. Musar acknowledges that all worthwhile values exist on a continuum. In the mussar worldview, “evil” and wickedness come from an extreme at either end of a virtue continuum. For example, at one end of a continuum of humility would be excessive pride, and at the other end, excessive self-effacement. Neither extreme is in service of the highest good; evil applies when one is off-the-charts in one direction or the other – megalomania on one end, or at the other end the kind of invisibility that leads to despair or violence. Musar, while not focused on evil, understands wickedness and harm as coming out of the extremes of good qualities each one of us has. It is our soul’s work to practice moderation where we tend to the extremes. Each one of us must find our own soul curriculum within the context of each value, like humility, patience, giving the benefit of the doubt, kindness, and so on.1
Hannah Arendt offered this: “We resist evil by not being swept away by the surface of things, by stopping ourselves and beginning to think.” she adds, “the more superficial someone is, the more likely he will be to yield to evil. An indication of such superficiality is the use of clichés, and Eichmann, God knows, was a perfect example. Each time he was tempted to think for himself, he said: Who am I to judge if all around me – that is, the atmosphere in which we unthinkingly live – think it is right to murder innocent people?” (479-80) Again, a chilling example of what can unfold if we don’t stop some of the trends happening in the public square.
Yom Kippur is the time to reflect on what we are mindlessly doing or colluding with. What are you willing to see and respond to you that you weren’t last year? What are you willing to speak out about? Where are you willing to put your time and other resources? As we progress through this season, may we be mindful of all the little choices that make the entire world tilt toward merit. As we are called by God, let’s Choose Life!
L’shanah tova u’metukah!