Kol Nidre, 5782
A Whale of a Tale
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
From its very inception, Yom Kippur has taught us never to give in to despair. And there is no greater example of that than what I might call the Yom Kippuriest story I’ve heard in a LONG time.
It's been a challenging year for everyone – but few of us can match what happened to lobsterman Michael Packard this summer on the choppy waters off Provincetown on Cape Cod.
He’d been having a pretty good day, catching a couple hundred pounds of lobster when he went down for a third dive.
And he ended up inside of a whale.
“I was descending. I almost got to the bottom.” he later said in interviews to newspapers and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. “All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black. I was at about 35 feet, and it was like I just got hit by a freight truck just this bang and then everything just went instantly dark and I'm just moving traveling fast through the water and I'm like, ‘what that heck did I just get eaten by a shark?’ - I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth and I was like ‘no, shark mouths aren't that big and I don't feel any teeth - oh great I didn't get eaten by a shark.”
“I was completely inside; it was completely black,” Packard said. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys — they’re 12 and 15 years old.”
Jimmy Kimmel asked him: So you're aware while you're in there that you're inside the whale?
“Did you begin to struggle and uh and let the whale know that you were in there?”
“I was struggling and banging and kicking and just thinking there's no way I'm going to get out of this unless he decides to let me go.”
How did Packard get out?
Well, fortunately, he had scuba gear on, which allowed him to breathe – and the gear had some pointy-sharp edges that enabled him to make life uncomfortable for his host. As he thrashed against that soft tissue, the whale must have felt like he was in the dentist’s chair without Novocain, and as Packard continued to struggle, the whale began shaking its head and Packard could tell he didn’t like it.
At some point, about 30-40 seconds into his ordeal, the whale decided it was better to have fish for dinner. Because humpbacks are not particularly aggressive toward humans, it was all a big misunderstanding.
Packard can be grateful that about 30 million years ago, whales divided into the ones with teeth like orcas and dolphins, and the so-called Baleen whales, like humpbacks and blue whales, who filter their food without teeth. Thankfully for him the experience was less like being eaten than being shoved through a car wash. I’m sure he had a whale of a time. He was very lucky too. One might say that this big fella was Packard’s Whale of Fortune.
One expert speculated that the whale was likely a juvenile. Confused. A teen. Didn’t realize that he had bitten off more than he could chew, so to speak. Bygones be bygones. And with a rush of water, Packard, had a new lease on life; he was expectorated along with, probably a few hundred small fish, and, God knows, probably a few empty water bottles.
Meanwhile, no one knows what became of the whale, but rumors have it that he headed right over the Orca-dontist.
Just humor me, if I get all the whale puns out now, I’ll run out of them and that will be it. I've decided that what we've needing most this past year are more really bad puns on Yom Kippur. If I can't see your smiles, at least I can hear your groans.
When he was released from Cape Cod Hospital, Packard had “a lot of soft tissue damage” but amazingly, no broken bones. Evidently, the whale was a very gracious host.
This tale is perfectly biblical, right down to, that climactic retch heard round the world: “Vayomer Adonai Ladag, Vayakay et Yona el ha-yabasha.” “The LORD commanded the fish, who summarily vomited Jonah out upon dry land.”
When I first heard Packard’s incredible story, it sang out to me: “Jonah Jonah Jonah Jonah Jonah…”. Because of course, the key scene in the story that Jews throughout the world will read tomorrow afternoon takes place inside a whale; and it’s one of the most famous stories ever told, for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Up until now, it was widely seen as the world’s first great fish story, because in was so implausible.
No one could get swallowed by a whale and live. It couldn’t possibly have happened.
Except it did! In our lifetime. Just a few weeks ago!
And what’s even more amazing, for Michael Packard, this wasn’t the first time his life had been in the balance. Ten years ago, while traveling in Costa Rica, he was a passenger in a small plane that crashed in the jungle, killing the pilot, co-pilot and a passenger. Packard sustained multiple serious injuries to his abdomen and upper body. But amazingly, he lived!
Just saying, but if Michael Packard asks you to ride an elevator with him, take the stairs.
So now everything that I have thought about the story of Jonah up to this point has been turned upside down. Maybe it is a true story. I mean, the rest of it is plausible. Man sent on a challenging mission to cry out against the sinful Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, that they need to change their ways. An excruciating dilemma: Why should he put his life on the line to help people who live so far away, who aren’t at all like him, whose views are totally different from his, and with whom he has no connection at all – and who’s selfish actions could not possibly have an impact on his life. I mean – Ninevah is sooo far from where Jonah is, in Jaffa. 727 miles. That’s the distance from here to…. Florida.
And nothing that happens in Florida has an impact on our lives up here. Right?
There’s no connection, right?
So Jonah does what so many are doing now – he runs from responsibility and heads to Jaffa and flees Jaffa too because the real estate is sky high - and he ends up on a boat. Not a lobster boat this time, just a ship going to Tarshish, in other words, the Other Way. He goes down to the port, down to the sea in ships (Psalm 107), down, down, down – the word is repeated many times. He’s on the storm-tossed ship. Jonah shuts his eyes to the truth – even though his very name – Yonah ben Amitai – means Jonah, son of truth. He goes down some more, into the hold of the vessel and falls asleep, while the sailors are terrified, each praying to his own god. Except for Jonah, who is trying to escape his.
So Jonah is tossed from the ship and goes down into the water, into the darkness, but instead of drowning, he is saved by a great fish, who swallows him. And there he remains for three days.
And what happens there?
A moment for some comparative religions: One Muslim commentator writes: “He is engulfed by darkness: the darkness of the deep; the darkness of the creature’s stomach; and the darkness of despair.”
A Christian commentator agrees that it was dark but then elaborates that darkness isn’t always so bad: “You see, in the dark, something funny happens. Your other senses heighten. Smell and sound become more vivid. The sense of touch is remembered as you feel the difference between a door and a wall as a hand guides you down a hallway. In the dark, your eyes begin to adjust. The smallest light turns void into picture. In the dark, we move slower. We have to. We are more aware of our breathing, our thoughts, even who we are – and whose we are. In the dark, we are given the gift of self-awareness and identity.
A commentator amplifies on the benefits of darkness. “A dark place can be intimidating, scary, and seem overwhelming – and God is there. It’s also a place of realization, renewal, and rebirth. This is the gift of the whale for Jonah and for our own lives. It is the gift of darkness.”
And in our urban society, we’ve lost our appreciation for the dark. As nature writer Henry Beston has written, “With lights and ever more light we drive the holiness of the night ever back to the forests and the sea… today’s civilization is full of people who do not have the slightest notion of the character and poetry of the night, who have never seen night.”
In the whale, in the dark, in the midst of life and death, Jonah realizes his deep connection to God and to all living things, a link that cannot be seen, only felt. The whale exhales Jonah so that Jonah can inhale air.
In Christian thought, Jonah’s three-day ordeal is a precursor to Jesus’ three days from death to rebirth. The darkness is a necessary precursor to the dawn.
It is precisely from the darkness of despair that one can find the seeds of redemption. The rabbis spoke this way about the destruction of Jerusalem.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba sees foxes scampering among the ruins of the temple and laughs, because he knows that Jeremiah said in Lamentations 5:18, "Mount Zion lies desolate and the foxes walk upon it." But if that prophecy came true, he says, that means that the prophecies of Jerusalem’s restoration will also come to pass. And they did. 2,000 years later. And just a couple of years ago, in August of 2019, foxes were recorded scampering on the ancient stones by the Western Wall.
Foxes at the Kotel, a man swallowed by a whale – maybe we’re being given signals that our dark times are about to lead to brighter days after all.
Yes, we do need to appreciate the spiritual gift that is darkness. And Jonah’s sojourn inside the whale helps us to do that.
But somehow, I find this Jewish take on Jonah and the whale, also from the Midrash, even more captivating. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the inside of the fish’s mouth wasn’t dark at all! The fish's eyes were like windows and a pearl inside its mouth provided further illumination.
And what Jonah saw there offered a reminder of home. It was decorated like a synagogue.
So this is interesting – and telling. In the Muslim and to an extent the Christian version, inside the fish is a place of deepest darkness, of despair, of a thrashing struggle between the source of life and the shadow of death.
But in this Jewish version, Jonah’s in shul. (See the Midrash text at the conclusion of this sermon)
Jonah goes on to pray, which is what you do in shul: “Out of my distress I called upon the Lord, and God answered me. From the belly of Sheol I cried out and You heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, the waters closed in over me, the deep engulfed me…weeds entwined me…Yet You brought my life up from the pit.”
It’s a very moving prayer. One problem. He’s still in the whale when he’s reciting it. He’s not depressed – the distress he mentions is in the past tense. He CALLED upon the Lord. He’s seeing life with great clarity. And he is grateful. And he’s thankful for a redemption that hasn’t even happened to him yet. So, this midrashic version of the story is optimistic. He has seen the truth and overcome despair. His quarters are comfy, like the soft gums of a whale’s toothless mouth. His reaction, in fact, is much like Michael Packard’s. Not panic, but resolve. Not hopeless at all, but clarity.
Now, it should be said that Jonah does experience despair at the end of the story, in a moment that looks strikingly like PTSD – when he witnesses the death of a plant and suddenly discovers the art of empathy – and the idea that there is a deep connection among all creatures great and small.
But in the whale, he is more alive than he was on dry land, and certainly than he was on the boat. The whale gives him a chance to prove his mettle, much like Pinocchio, who voluntarily goes into the belly of the whale to free Geppetto, which he does, not with scuba gear, but by building a fire to make the whale sneeze. That’s how he proves his manhood, actually his boy-hood, his human-hood.
For Jonah too, the time in the whale is life changing. When he is expelled through the birth canal of the blowhole, he cuts the cord and realizes that he is not God’s puppet. He is a creature with a conscience. He must make his own moral choices and take responsibility for them. For the first time he realizes that he’s got no strings to hold him down.
And this helps him to understand that the people of Nineveh have the power to make their own choices too. They CAN change their ways. And as a free being, he can make the choice to care for them and help them, by warning them, as God had instructed.
There’s more to the midrash. Jonah forges a close friendship with the whale. And if you don’t think this is possible, watch an amazing film that won best documentary this year at the Oscars. It’s called “My Octopus Teacher.”
I give it eight thumbs up.
These mollusks are brilliant and capable of extraordinary courage and tenderness – like whales. So such a friendship is distinctly possible.
In this midrash, the whale tells Jonah that he expects to die soon. So, Jonah becomes a fish therapist, and in return the fish teaches him to care about those who seem to have no connection to him – like the people in Nineveh. He learns that in the end, we are all on the same boat. Or alongside it.
The Midrash then goes on to say that Jonah then makes a deal with the whale; he promises to save the whale from the Leviathan, who’s much bigger and has threatened to eat him.
So there is light in the belly of the beast. There is safety. There is prayer. There is love.
So our sojourn inside the whale can be seen as a time of overcoming darkness and fear or as a time of being nurtured, like we are in the womb. How would you choose to understand this story?
For me, the answer is both. In the Bible, the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness is seen in both of those ways, as a punishment and a time of great turmoil AND as a time when the Israelites were nurtured and given all that they needed to survive under God’s protective wing.
I think we see both of these possibilities here. Which leads us to this.
Yom Kippur challenges us to ask ourselves the question: What would you do during your precious moments inside that whale? Or, as Mary Oliver wrote in her famous poem, “The Summer Day,” And what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Covid has been our three days of darkness in the belly of the whale. In some ways, it has been dark and dangerous. And in other ways, we have been protected inside our cocoons. But either way, what we do with these precious days and months can help us in developing an approach to the rest of our life journey.
It’s been a scary time, for sure, but sometimes it has felt as comfortable as sitting in shul. We’ve seen frustration and fatigue, but at times also tremendous comfort and connection. Virtual services will undoubtedly be scaled back at some point, as we return to “normalcy,” but on another level, they are here to stay. And for so many of us they have been life savers. There has not been a single day over the past 18 months – I repeat, not a single day – when we have not had a minyan at our online services. Even during blizzards and hurricanes. Heatwaves and cold snaps. No one has had to leave the house. And we’ve been all together, saying kaddish, remembering loved ones. Laughing and crying together. Over the summer we compiled first person anecdotes of our experiences during this time. Here's the link. Look at them. They are the very stuff of community.
And now that we are going hybrid, it’s even more remarkable. Last week on Rosh Hashanah we had a nice turnout here, and a nice one online – and put them together and we had a one unified community.
By the way, Jonah had wifi in the whale. I even know his cell carrier. T-Moby.
So what would we do with our time in the whale? Grow.
We need to see the experience as Jonah and Michael Packard saw it. As a time to grow, and whether it lasted three days or thirty seconds – or two years, we need to grow from it.
Columnist Virginia Heffernan wrote in the LA Times:
That’s what happens with trauma: We forget. The mind can be kind to us in this way....But it’s also important to remember — not just the trauma but also the lived experience during the worst of the outbreak. The pandemic made room for long periods of contemplation and stock-taking, to say nothing of brooding, fighting and fretting….It is possible to hold on to the knowledge, to keep building on it, without remaining stuck in anxiety.
What else would I do in the whale? Seek connection.
This year, millions of British soccer fans at the Euro Cup finals learned again that great lesson that British soccer fans have always known: “It’s the hope that kills you.” The national team made it so far, all the way to the finals at Wembley, and the Italians dashed their dreams.
Jonah understood that too. As he prayed in the belly of that whale, he thanked God for a redemption that had already happened. He was thankful for the gift of life and for the companionship of this amazing animal that rebirthed him. It was not hope that saved him – it was the companionship, the knowledge that he was never alone.
It reminds me of a great quote from the hit series, “Ted Lasso,” “There’s something worse than being sad, and that’s being alone and being sad.”
A key message of the book of Jonah is that no one anywhere – even in Nineveh – is ever alone. No one here is never alone. And Jonah and Michael Packard taught us that home can be anywhere, even inside 30 tons of blubber. We’ve known it for centuries – and we’ll experience it next week in the Sukkah. Did you know that a whale can be used for a Sukkah’s walls? That’s true.
What would I do in the belly of the whale? Watch my home breathe.
Can you imagine what it must be like to be inside a whale, and to feel it breathing, to watch its lungs inflate and deflate – from the inside? Imagine Jonah and Michael Packard watching the entirety of the space around them expanding and contracting, with each breath.
We often talk about being mindful of our own breathing. And that’s a good thing. But if you can’t be swallowed by a whale in the next few days, how about this. Watch animals breathe. Go to the Stamford Nature Center and watch the goats breathe. Watch your pet breathe. I watched mine stop breathing this summer and it was one of the most powerful moments of my life.
And then, throughout this Yom Kippur services, try something different. Instead of saying the substitute for God’s name that we tend to use – Adonai or “Lord,” let’s pronounce the four letters Yod-Hay-Vav-Hay as they are actually written on the page.
As the well-known Jewish thinker Art Waskow writes, ““Adonai” (Lord) endorses a worldview based on hierarchy. But if we try to pronounce “YHWH” with no vowels, what happens is simply a Breath. It is a universal connector between and among all forms of life, animal and plant. It expresses an interwoven or ecological, rather than hierarchical, understanding of the world – the uniqueness of each being within the Unity of all Being, fitting together like the diverse pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in the whole array.”
We are part of that eternally evolving puzzle – that living being called Being, that organism called Earth. Watch the whale breathe. The whale’s breathing became Jonah’s salvation, his birth canal from darkness to light, from death to life. Sense that utter interdependence between host and guest, between us, our whale and our planet.
This summer we watched the earth breathe… actually, we saw it choke. Our blue skies have turned brown because of fires thousands of miles away. We watched our planet belch out unfathomable amounts of water and wind – breaking two all-time records for rainfall in Central Park in a week. So during our time in belly of the whale, let’s watch our home breathe.
Let’s also contemplate this. The largest animal on the planet cared about the fate a simple human. Jonah and Michael Packard were saved by the most majestic of beasts – who was a true Prince of Whales. How could we not care about these majestic creatures?
The whale exhaled and people lived. We are all, in a sense, survivors of Jonah’s ordeal. And we should take that gift of renewed life and do something special – perhaps come up with more whale puns for the betterment of humankind. Or maybe return that hockey team to Hartford.
So, what would you do in those precious moments inside the whale? Let that be your question to ponder over the next day – and beyond, as, over the coming weeks, God willing, we begin to crawl out of the caves where we’ve been hiding. What will we do, with our one wild and precious life? This journey we are on…. It’s dizzying, it’s maddening, infuriating at times – but if there is one thing that the story of Jonah and Michael Packard teaches us – the Yom Kippuriest story of all time, it's that we should enjoy the ride. For if we do, every moment of life will be worth whale.
Yom Kippur Day, 5782
A Default on Forgiveness
(with supplementary material)
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
After 22 years in business together, two brothers, once very close, had a bitter falling out and stopped speaking to each other for several years. This deeply troubled their families, so finally, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the brothers’ rabbi summoned them to his office prior to Kol Nidre services.
With great compassion and eloquence, he insisted that the brothers make up and give each other a second chance before the holiest day of the year. After much urging, with tears and hugs, they complied.
Hours later, when the service was over, the two brothers accidentally met coming out of the synagogue. “I just want you to know,” one said, “that tonight I prayed for you what you prayed for me.”
With that, his brother glared at him and responded, “Starting up already?”
Here’s an interesting question: What historical event does Yom Kippur commemorate? Times up! For such a HUGELY important holiday, there’s no event to latch onto. No great military victory – no miracle of a sea parting. Rosh Hashanah is tied into the Creation. Passover has the Exodus. Can’t get much bigger than that.
But Yom Kippur, the GOAT of all holidays – Greatest of All Time – commemorates literally the release of a goat. It would be as if Thanksgiving commemorated pardoning of the Presidential Turkey.
In fact, Yom Kippur reinforces the idea of forgiveness as a core value of our faith tradition. If you include the goat thing, which I’ll explain shortly, there are three biblical events that form the traditional / historical basis for Yom Kippur – and all involve second chances.
The first event: Yom Kippur commemorates the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. But, hey, you say. Doesn’t Shavuot commemorate that? Yes, it does. But you’ll recall that Moses destroyed THOSE Ten Commandments when he saw the people dancing and cavorting around the Golden Calf. And without masks, no less.
Then Moses convinces God to give the people another chance and he and God collaborate on the writing of a second set.
In life, there’s nothing like the first time for anything. And that’s true in the Torah too. The first set of commandments was written by God – directly. Charlton Heston held up the first set. The people even heard God utter the first syllable of the first word of the first.
The second set was much messier. It was written by God and Moses collaboratively. It was written by a committee – and you know how that always works out. They tried to build a horse and ended up with a camel. There were edits. The commandments we find in Deuteronomy, the second set, are different from the one found in Exodus, the first set. The first set gets top billing.
But that second set, as imperfect as it was, has lasted. That set was never destroyed. At least until “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
So, our most sacred of holidays commemorates a once in a lifetime moment that happened a second time.
Theologian Art Green suggests that the second set is different because of Moses’ input and a special role he played. Remember, God wanted to destroy the people for their infidelity at the Golden Calf. But Moses, acting as marriage counselor, convinced God to relent. Green likes to think of this event as a renegotiated marriage. The first time around, the more powerful party to the match was dominant, dictating the terms. That sort of unequal partnership brought them to disaster, with the aggrieved party, Israel, acting out on their inability to accept those terms. Properly outraged, the powerful partner, God wants to walk away, end the marriage and seek a new relationship. And here Moses intervenes and says, “But you still love each other. And I can help you make it work.” So Moses carves while God dictates.
According to the rabbis, Moses was up there for 40 more days and came down with the second set of commandments on Yom Kippur.
While the remake of the two tablets marks what the rabbis considered the origin of Yom Kippur, another biblical second chance resonates with this holiday even more.
The second event took place on a rooftop in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago. When you visit the City of David excavation, you can actually stand right there, where it happened. You can see some of the remnants of the king’s palace – including, by the way, the royal toilet, which they know was a toilet because digested olive pits have been excavated alongside.
So if you were getting a little hungry, I just took care of that for you. You're welcome!
When you stand there and look across the valley, you can see the flat rooftops of Silwan on the other side. And it was on one of those rooftops where David first saw Batsheva bathing. He immediately knew that he had to have her, and he did. But she was married – and her husband Uriah was off fighting one of David’s wars. When she discovered she was pregnant, they didn’t need a DNA test to know who the father was. David solved his problem by having Uriah moved to the front lines and ordering the other troops to back off. Uriah was killed, David married Batsheva, and they lived happily ever after.
Not exactly. The prophet Nathan condemned the monarch and David saw the error of his ways. The baby died and never again did the House of David know peace. David pleaded for forgiveness but knew mostly misery for the rest of his days.
Psalm 51 chronicles David’s true remorse and some of that psalm was plunked right into the middle of the Yom Kippur liturgy. This poetic masterpiece reveals the depth of the tortured king’s self-recognition and despair, is breathtaking. The purity of his penitence, without even the hint of rationalizing – none of this “I’m sorry if you were offended” stuff; or “I’m sorry you can’t take a joke, Uriah!” It is so refreshing. He pleads:
“Do not cast me out of Your presence or take Your holy spirit away from me.”
“Don’t hide Your face from me - Hide Your face from my transgressions; Don’t cancel me - blot out all my iniquities.”
Interesting – the word Mechay, which David uses here, means to erase. To cancel. Yes, we invented Cancel Culture. But in Jewish tradition, it is not the sinner that is cancelled, but the sin. And that happens when there is remorse. For the sinner, there is a second chance.
At the Golden Calf, the charges against Israel would have included maybe one count of idolatry in the second degree. But here, David’s rap sheet is formidable: Sexual harassment and, arguably, rape…Also, the first-degree murder of Uriah; theft, since a wife was property back then; adultery of course, and, for good measure, he literally coveted his neighbor’s wife. David broke about half of the Ten Commandments in one fell swoop. So, if ever anyone deserved to be cancelled, King David deserved to be cancelled.
But despite all of that…
But despite all that, David was forgiven. He had a miserable family life, but he was beloved by the people. His name actually means beloved. His reign continues and his line is designated to rule forever. In the Bible, other covenants with God were conditional. It was a quid pro quo. But with David, God’s covenant was unconditional. It promised to establish his dynasty forever. There has arguably been no more beloved figure in the 3,500 years of Jewish history, than King David.
He even has a hotel named after him – and a whole lot of you out there are named for him too.
In 2 Samuel chapter 7, where God lays out this unconditional pledge, the next line often goes overlooked. “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to Me. When he does wrong, I will chastise him…. But I will never withdraw My favor from him as I withdrew it from Saul, whom I removed to make room for you.”
Punishments, yes. Afflictions, yes. But forgiveness, eternally.
The default is on forgiveness.
Adultery, rape and murder. Idolatry and infidelity. If ever a leader – or a nation – deserved to be deemed unforgivable, it’s David after Batsheva and Israel after the Golden Calf. But no!
Psalm 51 shows us the road map filled with contrition that can bring redemption even to a king who did the most despicable things imaginable – Oh did I mention that he also killed his child (though it was during a rebellion and maybe understandable)?
The default is on forgiveness.
With apologies to Frank Sinatra, if forgiveness can make it with this guy, it can make it anywhere.
Here’s a very important point. The idea here is not to minimize the horror of rape. That’s not Judaism. The idea here is not to whitewash rape or murder. We saw just yesterday from our US gymnasts how certain acts deserve no mercy..
On the contrary, it’s to take the worst sin imaginable and say that even there, the default should be on forgiveness. God is calibrating that default for us. This goes beyond presumption of innocence. David confessed. He was guilty as sin.
So what makes David different from Larry Nassar or Harvey Weinstein? Genuine contrition, soul-scorching remorse and a willingness to pay any price.
Here's the main point: Why is the lesson of Yom Kippur that we need to lean just a little in the direction of second chances? Because the instinctive gut response typically is just the opposite.
We are wired for anger, revenge and grudges. According to the Cornell Family Reconciliation Project, fully one quarter of families have members not talking to one another. In his new book, “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist at Cornell asked participants, “Is there a relative with whom you have no contact?” A substantial 27 percent reported being estranged from a family member. And half of them have been estranged for four years or more.
I think that’s a low estimate, based on my own work with so many families over the years; people will naturally be embarrassed to tell a pollster that they are not on speaking terms with a close relative. I feel fortunate that as of this moment, I’m on speaking terms with all my living relatives and most of my dead ones. But it’s not easy! As Pillemer states, “This phenomenon of cutting off or being cut off from a family member is strikingly common in America.”
Hey, not just here.
The highest rated non-sports TV event of this past year? You guessed it. Oprah’s talk with Harry and Meghan. Did you watch it? Did you enjoy it? Dysfunctional families know no national, class or ethnic boundaries. It’s something we all share.
It’s important to stress that Judaism does not believe in turning the other cheek. I’m not sure I would have forgiven David, or the Israelites at the Golden Calf. But the fact that God did is a signal to us that before we declare someone unredeemable, we need to pause, for just a second, and let our better angels come forward. It’s hard. Writing in Slate recently about the hit TV series, Ted Lasso, a rare show about a genuinely nice guy, Anna Nordberg states, “Too often, compassion is associated with weakness, when in fact it’s the opposite. It takes nothing to put someone down in order to salve whatever emptiness is inside you. It takes nothing to go for the kill instead of trying to help others. But it does take courage—true, radical courage—to make the choice to be a good person every day.” In that show, the title character is betrayed by people he trusts – it turns out he was set up to fail. But he turns to the perpetrator of the ruse and says simply, “I forgive you.”
That is true, radical courage.
It’s hard to be forgiving. That’s the message here. Not that a power-driven rapist-murderer-king deserves clemency. There are some things that are beyond the pale. But very little is beyond the reach of divine love – or our love – if the plea for forgiveness is genuine.
Sometimes forgiveness doesn’t need to take the form of a dramatic apology. Sometimes it comes in with soft, catlike footsteps. Suddenly the person is just suddenly there, bearing a smile that says it’s OK. And what was it that we were arguing about, anyway?
Research on the health benefits of forgiveness shows that people who can make this mental shift may benefit in ways they didn’t anticipate—namely, by living longer.
But I didn’t need Psychology Today to tell me that. It’s in the Ten Commandments! One of the few commandments in the entire Torah to state a rationale next to the mitzvah is the commandment to honor our parents. And why? “Lema’an ya’arichun yamecha.” Honor your parents, so that you may live long.
Psalm 51 includes a verse that is recited three times a day – but always in a whisper, as an introduction to the Amida.
אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ׃ O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.
Rashi, the great medieval commentator, says, “O Lord, You shall open my lips” – means: “Forgive me, God so that I will be able to open my lips to recite Your praise.” There is so much that I can accomplish with my words. I’ve got a message to share. But I can’t share it – until you forgive me. I can’t approach the world with praise and healing, until I myself have been healed.
And then, the next verse reinforces that message.
…You do not desire burnt offerings; True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.
Like Isaiah in today’s haftarah, the Psalmist understands that fasting and ritual sacrifices are no substitute to deep personal contrition, expressed in words and emotions. King David is begging to be uncancelled.
And David was redeemed, and he rose from the depths of an unforgivable sin with a literary flourish never again equaled, 150 times over. Not even Shakespeare compiled such a legacy. Psalm after psalm, David’s words rose from the depths of his self-inflicted wounds. We can feel their pathos. That is why we so adore those who make the most of their second chances. Next time you begin the Amida with that one silent line, try to imagine the pathos of the tormented king – and let it lead us to taking more responsibility for our actions – and to put a default on forgiveness.
From the point of view of Jewish mystics, the default on forgiveness is built into the very nature of the universe.
There are cosmic forces, emanations of God, that establish a balance. And two key divine qualities that balance each other out, are hesed, mercy, and gevurah, justice. They are completely in balance, but hesed, love is on the right-hand side, which typically is the stronger side. So that is where the default lies. Love wins – by a hair.
(The next two paragraphs contain supplementary information not found in the spoken sermon).
Those forces balancing the universe also reflect what is going on inside each of us. The Talmud teaches (Sotah 47) “A person should always draw people closer by means of the right hand, and push them aside with the left.” It is an important lesson in human relationships. The stronger and more dominant feature of human interaction should be the impulse to draw people closer, to trust and to love. But enough "push" must be included to allow for people to be independent and not smothered – to give them space.
Now, let’s look at mercy and justice in a slightly different way, not as opposite forces in conflict, but working in tandem. Let’s say a right-handed person is hammering a nail into a board. The right-hand pounds in the nail, and the left one holds the board down. A sculptor's right hand chisels stone, while his left hand holds the stone steady. In these examples, the right and left hand are cooperating – even as one balances the other. Hesed and gevurah are pursuing the same objective, acting in harmony by exerting forces in opposite directions. And in the end, the goal is to build relationships, not destroy them.
Our sources take this default on forgiveness very seriously. But alas, in our society, the default is not on forgiveness, but on outrage. We shoot first and ask questions later.
We’ve been coarsened by an outrage industry whose goal is to get people so angry that they will willingly part with their money – and in some cases, their sanity. Instead, the goal should be to create a community of mutual dependence and trust, where all that matters is the fostering of human dignity and seeing our fellow human as being created in God’s image.
We’ve got to stop cancelling and start listening. We’ve got to stop accusing and start forgiving.
Our greatest heroes were significantly flawed. King David. And Moses. And Abraham. And Miriam. Even Golda Meir, who rejected an intellectually challenged grandchild. (I know because that grandchild’s mother is a cousin of mine). All of them could easily have been utterly cancelled. But they all got second chances.
We all are capable of becoming cancellation machines, if we aren’t careful. There are lots of things I’d like to cancel.
- Sponge cake. Especially dry sponge cake. Who wants to eat a cake that tastes like a sponge?
- I’d love to cancel that Kars for Kids song. The charity is worthwhile. Just the song. It has to go. And I still can’t remember the phone number.
- Robocalls. Can we agree that robocalls should be banned?
- I’d love to cancel 3 AM. If you wake up and it’s 3 AM, there is nowhere to go. You just have to wait it out. Why not go straight from 2:59 to, say, 5? Yes, I know that a sign of leadership is the ability to answer those 3 AM phone calls. I’ve gotten some of those, but mostly they are robocalls. From “Kars for Kids.”
Yes, there are times when outrage is justified. I once called for Bernie Madoff to be excommunicated by the Jewish world. Excommunication is a tool that is rarely used, and when it is used, it is most often abused. Just ask Spinoza. But more often, what’s called for is not outright cancellation, but midcourse reassessment as more information comes in. This needs to be accompanied by a whole heap of humility; and a recognition that, like David, Moses and Miriam, even our beloved country is not perfect. Which means some old practices or symbols may need to be adjusted as times change.
(This paragraph contains supplementary information not found in the spoken sermon)
The name Washington Redskins didn’t need to be forgotten or forgiven, just changed, because it’s a hurtful stereotype, and by the shifting standards of this generation, patently offensive. If there were a team called the Seattle Swastikas or the Houston Hooknoses, they would need to be cancelled too. Standards change. Then, it was the golden calf that had to go, now it’s the bronze horses bearing Confederate generals. The intent behind those symbols might have been pride for some, but undeniably for many, oppression. Last week a poll indicated that over half of Bostonians favor changing the name of Faneuil Hall, because Peter Faneuil was a slave trader. You can quibble about whether Faneuil deserves a default of forgiveness, except for one thing. Apparently, he never thought what he was doing was wrong, as King David did. Or George Washington, who toward the end of his life, looked back on his years as a slave owner, reflecting that: "The unfortunate condition of the persons, whose labor in part I employed, has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.” That means something. Meanwhile, Faneuil actually rode to Guinea on one of his slave ships the same year the hall bearing his name was built. The Cradle of Liberty, where great proponents of freedom spoke (including Frederick Douglass) was built from the profits of the Triangle Trade: Molasses to Rum to Slaves. So it's complicated. But it keeps coming back to this: King David felt remorse. Faneuil didn’t. When it comes to cancellation, then, lesson number one seems to be that remorse matters.
Just as with David, lesson number two is that some relationships are and should be unconditional. David French, the conservative thinker, argued in an essay for Time that the love for country we instill in our children shouldn’t rest on American innocence or greatness; rather we should love our country the way we love our family, which means “telling our full story, the good, the bad, and the ugly.” We should not leave anything out. We can judge and we can learn lessons, but ultimately, we still can love our country unconditionally, just as God loved David. The model is there, neither to forgive nor forget what can’t be forgiven, but to love nonetheless.
I make no claim to resolve the culture wars in one sermon (here’s a good analysis, from the Atlantic, of the shunning that predominates). In no way would I belittle the impact of triggers on people who have suffered. I would never suggest that one who was abused forgive the abuser. All I’m suggesting is that Yom Kippur calls on us to take extraordinary steps to listen, with a focus not on the sinner, but the sin.
And always remember that when we repent, we do it in the plural. We all take responsibility for what transpires around us.
At the outset, I noted that there are three biblical events that account for Yom Kippur’s origins. The first was the “Ten Commandments, Take Two” and the second, King David’s trifecta of theft, rape and murder, with coveting thrown in. Now the third origin story is even stranger than the first two – it also involves another second chance – this time for a goat.
Leviticus speaks of the Yom Kippur ritual involving two goats. One was sacrificed. Nothing unusual about that in those days. But what about the second one? The high priest would “lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the transgressions of the Israelites...” The goat would then “carry those sins to an inaccessible region; and then be “set free in the wilderness.” (See some historical commentaries on the scapegoat).
The Mishna indicates that the goat was eventually led off the cliff of a ravine outside Jerusalem. But that’s not in the Torah, and let’s take the Torah at its word. The goat was freed. This goat, burdened with an entire nation’s sins, was let go. Perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us that the key to our forgiveness walks on four legs.
There’s something about animals and second chances. I was playing with my dogs outside and accidentally hit Casey in the face with a tennis ball. Stunned, he looked at me as if to ask what he had done wrong. And he forgave me immediately. He forgave, as dogs always do.
One Atlanta rabbi wrote about his dog: “Jack is a paragon of forgiveness. I’ve locked him in the basement accidentally. Kicked him in the dark accidentally. Left him outdoors on the deck in the chill of winter accidentally. But never is he vindictive, nasty or cold. He doesn’t pout nor storm away into another room. He is quick to forgive. Dogs can help prepare us for Yom Kippur. Though occasionally wronged, they quickly move on with a lick and a wagging tail."
OK - this guy needs to be reported!
Jennifer Skiff, author of “The Divinity of Dogs,” wrote, “Dogs, for a reason that can only be described as divine, have the ability to forgive, let go of the past and live each day joyously. It is something the rest of us strive for.”
Proverbs 12 states, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast.” Even Pope Francis has gotten onboard this gravy train. In 2014, Francis, while consoling a distraught little boy whose dog had died, told him “Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.” While this was called by some “a repudiation of conservative Roman Catholic theology,” Jewish theologians have long debated the matter of whether dogs have souls, with no decisive verdict. I vote yes.
But whether or not they have souls, they’re certainly good for our souls. We know that animals have empathy, for instance. There is a documented account of a humpback whale sweeping a seal on its back out of the water, away from the killer whales. And when my dog Chloe looked up at me just as she died several weeks ago, it was as if she was saying, “I forgive you.”
So the scape-goat bears the burden of all our transgressions, because only an animal can. And imagine the power of the moment as our ancestors watched that chosen goat escape over the horizon, knowing in their hearts that if this creature could buck the odds and gain a second chance, so might they.
So, when we are place our sins onto the scapegoat, it’s because the animal is so pure that it can bear that burden. We highlight the innocence of the animal so that we might emulate it. Only another living being whose innocence exceeds ours can carry the burden of all our shame into the wilderness, affording us all a second chance.
In Jewish tradition, only an animal can achieve that level of Hesed. Only a creature like a goat can be the G.O.A.T. of forgiveness.
For the High Priest, who gave the goat a second chance, the default was on forgiveness. For the whale, who gave Jonah a second chance, the default was on forgiveness. For God, who gave the people of Nineveh a second chance, the default was on forgiveness. And when we line up all of these Yom Kippur origin stories: the second ten commandments, David’s trifecta, and that wandering goat, the lesson of second chances is itself given a second reading – and then a third.
It drives the message home through repetition. Again and again and again. three times we are reminded that the default is on forgiveness. It's a reminder that we desperately need, because...
We are inflexible.
We are intolerant.
We are dogmatic.
We are schadenfreude addicts.
We are insecure.
We are knee-jerk responders.
We are purveyors of malicious gossip.
We are hyper-critical.
And we are so darned judgmental.
But we are also capable of breathtaking kindness.
We just need a little reminder. Or two. Or three.
Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed famously that the “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” For Jews, the arc of the moral universe must bend, at least as much, toward forgiveness, kindness and love.
May we all find the peace of mind that only a true teshuvah can provide, an unconditional forgiveness; and a world reborn in God’s image, where sins can be cancelled and kindness always prevails.