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Erev Rosh HaShanah 5783: Shared Humanity

Rabbi Sidney Helbraun

September 25, 2022 - Erev Rosh Hashana 5783

Five years ago, parts of Illinois experienced a full solar eclipse. It was an event. Thousands of people traveled to small towns downstate to experience ‘night’ in the middle of the day, while TV and radio stations broadcast live reports, describing the steady progress of the moon as it slid between the earth and the sun.

Although I was not able to travel down to see it, I still have unique memories from that day. For when the eclipse reached its apex and the clear blue sky turned murky and gray, I was standing in an old section of Waldheim Cemetery. And even though I spend a fair amount of time in graveyards, I’ll admit that the atmospheric conditions left me feeling a bit unsettled.

As you might have surmised, I was there to officiate at a funeral, but the family was late, so I waited for them in the gloom. Eventually, I heard the sound of tires driving down a gravel path and watched as a car and a couple of pick-up trucks rolled to a stop. One of those trucks had a confederate flag placard in its license plate holder. And as I looked through its windshield, I spied a filled gunrack mounted in the cab. As the passengers unloaded and headed toward the gravesite, I noticed that their looks reflected the style of those cars.

The family I was waiting for came from West Virginia, and it was the first and only time I would meet them in person. They had come to bury a man who was close to them; a man who had been the companion of the family’s matriarch for many years. That man, Bob (Kand), was an only child who grew up in Park Ridge. His parents owned a tree farm and a motel, and he lived with them till they passed away. Besides helping with the family businesses, no one knew if Bob had ever had another job. But when he decided to head out to West Virginia, he had enough money to get by.

In my conversation with Bob’s companion, she told me that he had some strange habits, but that he was a good person. And her daughters said that over the years, he’d helped them out with financial emergencies. Clearly, the family appreciated him, because all of them: Bob’s companion, her daughters, the men in their lives, and the grandchildren, all drove out to Chicago for the funeral.

Once we were situated, I introduced myself and gave the family an overview of what would happen. Because they weren’t Jewish, I invited them to ask any questions that might arise along the way.

When the service was over and the grave was filled, Bob’s companion thanked me for being present. And then, with a voice full of concern, she asked why I didn’t believe in Jesus. It was a question I took to mean: Rabbi, you were so kind. You should merit the world to come. But you don’t you believe in Jesus. Why?

I explained that, while Christianity teaches that a person needs to believe in Jesus to be saved, Judaism teaches that every good person merits the world to come. While I’m not sure that my answer convinced her, she and her family thanked me again before returning to their cars and heading towards home.

For me, it was a day of striking contrasts. It began in a setting that could have been an opening scene in a horror movie. But when it was ended, though the sky was still gloomy, the atmosphere had lightened, and the emotion I was left with was that of appreciation. The appreciation they felt for the help I’d provided, as well as the concern that they’d expressed for me and my wellbeing.

Over the years, when I’ve thought back to that day, I can’t help wondering how differently it might have turned out if, instead of meeting in a graveyard, we’d met on a street in their hometown. And I can’t help feeling that if I’d been walking down a road on a gloomy afternoon, and a couple of guys in a pick-up truck bearing a confederate flag jumped out and started walking towards me, that I’d have hightailed it back to my car, or at the very least, crossed the street, afraid that if our paths crossed, they wouldn’t be nearly as appreciative of me as they were at the cemetery.

And to be honest, given the state of our country, it’s a bit hard to believe that that funeral experience even happened. In a country driven by culture wars, it seems more likely that my memory came from an episode of The Twilight Zone.

And yet it happened. At one of the most powerful moments in life, when broken hearts were torn open, people from different parts of our country, brought up with different religious traditions and values, who surely hold opposing political views, came together to work through one of the greatest challenges a person can face. And in the process, we each, in our own way, expressed our humanity and concern for the other. In that moment, what was most important was not our labels, not our political party, but our shared humanity and common need.

How different that moment was, from what we’ve seen in our country these last years, the tragic loss of shared humanity. Our society has become so divided, that we’re unable to look past our differences and see the human beings standing on the other side. It’s an issue that’s been exacerbated by our leaders, who willingly sacrifice our common humanity and the unity of our country – seeking to tear down and dehumanize those with different points of view; all for the sake of gaining power for themselves.

Far too many of today’s leaders continue to commit political malpractice, launching premeditated attacks against ideological opponents. Rather than bridging gaps and bringing our country together, rather than calling on us to see the human decency of our fellow citizens who are dealing with challenges in their lives, they demonize their opponents and strive to turn every issue into an all or nothing, zero-sum game, where one person’s success becomes the other’s loss, where one person’s victory leads to the other’s defeat; a worldview that inevitably turns all of us into losers.

While I’m sickened by this current state of our republic, we should recognize that, actually, it’s nothing new; that if we reached back in time and spoke to Charles Darwin, he’d probably tell us that this ‘zero-sum’ mindset is encoded in our DNA; that it’s part of the natural order of the world, a result of evolution’s ‘survival of the fittest.’

Actually, we need look back no further than the Torah to see that it’s true; for our biblical ancestors operated from this ‘zero-sum’ mindset no less than we do today. Turn to the book of Genesis, where we find the stories of Abraham’s wives, Sarah, and Hagar, who struggled for the primacy of their sons. One would win, the other would lose. There’s the story of Rebekah’s twins, Esau and Jacob, whose struggle for supremacy began while they were still in the womb. In the next generation there’s the jealousy that consumed Jacob’s sons and led to Joseph’s removal from their family circle. In each of these cases, rather than cooperation for the benefit of all, we find conflict. In fact, we can go all the way back to the dawn of creation, the story of Adam and Eve’s children, the first humans born on earth, to see that this ‘Zero-Sum’ mindset was present even then.

Let’s take a moment to look at that story, which comes from Chapter 4 of the book of Genesis: “Now the man (Adam) knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, [saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of Adonai.] She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to Adonai from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. God paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering God paid no heed. Cain was much distressed, and his face fell” (4:1-5).

In this story we have siblings: Cain, the elder, and Abel the younger; two men who choose different career paths. Cain became a farmer and tilled the soil and Abel, a shepherd, who raised flocks of sheep.

These two brothers could have chosen to share the bounty of their labor with each other. But instead, they chose to compete, a decision which created conflict; for the land that Cain tilled, was needed by both. One, to grow produce. The other, to graze his flock. And no farmer wants to see the fruit of his labor being fed to the sheep.

As the story continues, the competition between the brothers grows. Rather than joining together to bring an offering to God, they each bring their own. And when God accepts Abel’s sheep and ignores the produce, Cain was distressed.

God asks Cain: ‘Why are you distressed, and why has your face fallen?’ (4:6). In this passage, God acknowledges Cain’s disappointment but doesn’t appear to know why. But we do. Cain is distressed because he brought an offering that was ignored, while Abel’s was immediately accepted. From Cain’s point of view, Abel snatched victory away from him. But in the confines of a family, where brothers work together, cooperate, and share their bounty, it would have been equally possible for Cain and Abel to share their accomplishments: to share both the bounty of their labors, as well as the blessing of God.

“Why are you distressed?” God asks, “Why is your face downcast? Surely if you do right there is uplift” (4:7).

While Cain saw himself in competition and viewed God’s action as a win for his brother and a loss for himself; from where God sits, there never was a competition. When God accepted Abel’s offering, God wasn’t choosing a winner or naming Cain a loser. That’s why God takes note of Cain’s feelings. His distress is out of place. It’s unnecessary.

This story teaches that, while we might be Zero-Sum creatures, God did not intend to create a Zero-Sum world. And this is what God means when He says: ‘Surely if you do right there is uplift”.

God tells Cain that he need not live in competition with his brother. He was given free will, the ability to choose his own path. He’s telling Cain that he has the power to overcome his nature; the ability to let go of the disappointment he feels and see life through a different lens. If he does, if he’s successful, he will be lifted up; for there is more than enough in this world for us to share. But if he cannot let go of this mindset, if Cain’s ego, if his drive for glory is too strong, then he’s putting himself in a precarious position. “Sin crouches at the door,” God says, “but remember, you can be its master.” This Zero-Sum mindset might be embedded in your DNA, God says, but you have free will. You can choose to overcome it.

In the very next verse, Cain acts. His free will, his power to choose is no match for his natural inclination. We read: “…Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him” (4:8).

When you read the rest of the story, you’ll see that Cain gets off easy. Probably because God realizes that he didn’t provide Cain with the proper tools to overcome his DNA. Which explains why God gives us a Torah to live by and a land to live in. A land of plenty, where there’s no need for competition because everyone will have enough. And a Torah which teaches a different path for us to follow. Rather than allowing our ‘survival of the fittest’ nature to guide us, we receive mitzvot that command: “When you find your fellow’s, or even your enemy’s lost animal, you shall surely return it”; “Do not remain indifferent”; “Don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds”; “Love your neighbor as yourself”; “Justice, justice shall you pursue”.

These laws have no application in a Zero-Sum world, but are the foundation for the world God aspires for us to live in. A world where people are called not to compete, but to care, not to dominate but to share. Not to seek power for your personal glory, but to seek justice for all. To seeing others, not as our opponents, but as other human beings, striving to manage the challenges and overcome the trials of life. To putting aside our labels and reaching out in kindness.

“Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day. It is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and teach it to us so that we many observe it.’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross over to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe” (Deut. 30:11-14).

I’m often challenged, asked why we need religion. The answer is clear. Those who are free to follow their own path, we don’t always make the right choice. A guidebook is helpful, a book that reminds us that, though we have the capacity, human beings were not created to live like the fiercest animals. We were made to be something more.

We’re taught that life is not about winning or losing, it’s about striving to reach our potential, remembering that we are made in the image of God and that each of us has a spark of the divine within us; that each of us can choose to be good, to be kind, to strive to be holy. This is our message. This is our mission. This is our calling, as individuals, as families, and as a community. May we strive for holiness together. Amen.

 

 

Wed, February 1 2023 10 Sh'vat 5783