As you can see from the translation, the music and the message are not exactly compatible. When Shlomo Carlebach wrote this music for the verse from Psalm 102, he plucked one of the very few remotely positive sentiments in the 29 verses. It is entitled “a psalm of the afflicted,” and it bemoans the pain, the wasting, the destruction of the body as a metaphor for a desolate Jerusalem.
In the middle of the lament, the psalmist takes a breath and proclaims, “You shall arise and have mercy upon Zion, for it is the moment to have compassion upon her; the time has come.”
And that’s today’s theme: the time has come.
I want to talk about Israel, and I know you need me to talk about the murderous assault on the people and the spirit of the United States. The fact is, I am not sure what to say about either one. When life in this country was a little farther removed from the state of anxiety that is second-nature to most Israelis, I got a substantial amount of advice from many quarters on what to say about Israel.
The advice fell into two categories, and they both begin with “the time has come,” ki va mo’ed. The time has come, goes the first, for us to set aside all of our bickering and squabbling about Israeli society. The message this Rosh HaShanah must be simple: unity and solidarity. Only with the unwavering support of Jews in the United States and around the world will Israel survive the enemies out to do her in. The time has come to stand and be counted.
The time has come, begins the second category, for Israel to own up to its responsibility in creating the climate of frustration and hopelessness among the Palestinians. Murder and terror are the acts of desperate people who feel they have nothing to lose. From the earliest days of Jewish return to Palestine, sins of omission and commission have made the Arabs of the region victims of the Jews. The time has come to own up to it.
And then, seven days and two hours ago, there was a quantum shift in our lives here in the United States. And those categories of advice that we discussed over Starbucks coffee or on our wireless phones with the same passion and distance we use to discuss the stock market or Jeff versus Tony suddenly became very personal. Don Melman was sitting in his office when an airplane fell on his head. It was a cliché he used to hear from an old mentor, and then he found himself crawling on his hands and knees from the rubble of what used to be his office. And now the time has come for America to shed an innocence we smugly thought we never had.
I could make some of you happy by saying the time has come for solidarity, and I could make others happy by saying the time has come for introspection. But in these disastrous days, when our hearts lie in ruins and a gaping hole appears in our sense of security, my vote is with the Psalmist. And so I want to talk about truth and faith.
Truth. Truth is uncomfortable. One way to tell if what you believe is true is to test it for comfort. If it is too comfortable, it is probably not true. The reason, I think, is that, with the exception of one truth, all truth is far more complicated than we mere mortals can comprehend. And that uncertainty makes us uncomfortable.
The one simple truth? H’ eloheinu H’ echad. The Lord our God, the Lord is One. God is the one-and-only, as our credo, the Sh’ma, affirms. And the Sh’ma concludes, in the siddur, with a phrase gerrymandered from Torah and prayerbook: H’ eloheikhem emet, the Lord your God is truth.
Those of us in this room who are Americans – you may self-define if you choose – are used to public and private anguish over what is truth, what is authentic. Did you ever wonder why we seem obsessed with finding the truth, and why we so often seem so bad at it? It is because more than truth, Americans value comfort. Because we desire comfort, and because the truth is uncomfortable, we mask the truth.
We mask the truth about race. We mask the truth about class. We mask the truth about religion, about sex, about ethics, about politics. We mask the truth about what is necessary to survive in this world and what is possible to change that situation.
May I prove it to you? Our town, metro Washington, DC , is the number one employer in the country of people who practice the art of “spin.” “Spin” is the art of making the truth comfortable. And everyone knows that “spin” means we are not getting the whole truth.
But I hope you will feel a little better to know that this phenomenon is not new. From the time that Adam blamed Eve for eating from the forbidden tree, through the circuitous plot of King David to make Batsheva a widow by sending her husband to a futile battle, and right through today, people have tried to avoid uncomfortable truths. It even applies to the people we admire, our heroes, our leaders. Our Kennedys, our Roosevelts, our Martin Luther Kings. It applies to our Goldas, our Ghandis. We don’t like to look at the truth about them because truth is uncomfortable.
May I illustrate for you with our father Abraham. Abraham was a blemished hero if there ever was one. Reading the Torah for its plain meaning gives you a roster of his shortcomings. He tried to save his life by pretending his wife was his sister and allowing her to be taken as a mistress by a hostile king – not once, but twice. He laughed at God and then lied about it. And in the sections we read today and tomorrow, he cast his son Ishmael out in the wilderness and was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac atop a mountain for no apparent reason.
And yet, Abraham is loved, admired and emulated. From the very beginning, he was honored patriarch of our tradition, the first one to acknowledge God and to set us along a path we have trod for 4000 years.
Because of that love and admiration, our commentators have attempted to smooth out Abraham’s flaws. It is not enough that he had the courage to wander to unknown lands in pursuit of a grand idea, he had to have been able to perceive the idea full-blown. Abraham is depicted as having intuited the entirety of Torah. His manipulations of Sarah were merely his wise plan to teach the errant kings some moral lessons. His laughter was delight, not derision. Ishmael deserved to be cast away, and Isaac was never in any real danger. As generations pass, Abraham becomes a model Abraham, a perfected Abraham, a comfortable Abraham – but not a true Abraham.
Because Abraham was not perfect. Abraham was a human being. It is precisely his imperfection that makes him a hero. In his triumph over his flaws, in his willingness to persevere in his grand idea despite heartbreak and disappointment, he illustrates our own potential. Abraham was not meant to be a paradigm. He was – he is – a role model. And role models must be accessible.
Until we embrace Abraham for who he is, warts and all, we do not embrace the true Abraham. You know this challenge from your own life. The people you love can drive you crazy. They constantly disappoint you. No matter how much you try to straighten them out, they keep making the same mistakes. Or so I have been told. It’s not my experience in my own family, though I suspect it may be my family’s experience with me.
But you love them, you take them as they are, even as they make you uncomfortable. And you know that about the only thing that can drive a wedge between you and someone you love is if the other person won’t be truthful in return.
Abraham’s faults make his goodness real. Abraham’s flaws make his righteousness true. If Abraham were some supernatural extension of God, if Abraham could not, by definition, make a mistake, then his shortcomings would be as sacred as his triumphs, for they would be part of the very nature of God.
That’s the very definition of religious extremism, of fanatic fundamentalism of any brand: a belief that one who represents God can do no wrong in God’s eyes, and anyone who disagrees in word or deed can do no right. Liberal fundamentalists may allow the heretic to wallow in his benign sinfulness, polite fundamentalists may legislate but stop short of enforcement, but those who commit body and soul to the infallibility of Moses, Jesus or Muhammad – or any other flawed human being – feel comfortable in eliminating those who do not.
Truth is never comfortable. Every truth is uncomfortable. However, not everything uncomfortable is truth. And sometimes, when someone is shaken from complacency by the discomfiting truth, it is easy to confuse the two. It can be terrifying. But, my friends, the time has come for truth. And what will sustain us as we try to deal with our discomfort?
I wish I had a simple equation for faith, a recipe I could post on a web site. Three parts fact, one part hope, and a dash of optimism. Not too much fact, or the faith won’t rise. Not too much hope or it is likely to collapse. Don’t forget the optimism or it will be sour and no one will take a bite. But too much optimism and the sweetness will make people sick.
It’s not bad. I could get my own show on the Lifetime network with a philosophy like that one. The problem is, it is a pop definition of faith. It is also false and misleading. It makes it sound as if you’ve either got or you haven’t got faith. There’s a pastor across town at the McLean Bible Church by the name of Lon Solomon. He is a wandering Jew – he wandered a long way and built himself a ministry that includes passing out the testimony of his conversion on CD to kids at rock concerts. At a vulnerable time in his life – and with his brain addled by drugs, according to his own story – he found faith he had never had. Through the years, he took great pride in bringing his brother, his father and his mother to that same faith, a faith he claims does not exist outside of his own theological perspective.
Lon Solomon grew up at a Conservative synagogue in Tidewater Virginia. He went through their Hebrew school, he read Torah and led services all through high school. But when he needed to rely on what he had been taught, he found it wanting, and went somewhere else. His success and satisfaction spoke to the similar insecurities of his family.
The Hebrew word for faith is emunah. It means trust, and various forms of it mean support, confidence, skill and nurture. And, quite honestly, I mostly think of faith as having trust in an external set of values – something that will support me, something upon which I can lean. I think it is what Lon Solomon was taught, and I am sure it is what most of you think. Faith is something we find to be hard because we believe it to be something outside of ourselves.
But in order for faith to be dependable, in order for it to be confident, supportive, nurturing, in order for it to be emunah, it must be internal. We must not just pay lip service to our values, and we must not substitute performance for integration. We must have the courage to depend on the beliefs we profess and permit them to seep into the very fiber of our beings. We must invite them into our hearts, to borrow a phrase. If someone had talked to young Lon Solomon that way when he was a kid, he might be standing in this pulpit right now.
Faith allows us to face truth and live – thrive – on the uncomfortable nature of it. Faith allows us to make mistakes and accept that there is a chance to apologize, resolve to do better, and attain forgiveness. Faith allows us to trust that not only can we be wrong, but that with the integrity and consistency of the truth we acknowledge, we can also be right.
And the time has come for faith. The time has come on our calendar – this day of reckoning for the world and for your own soul has arrived. The time has come in our lives as Jews who are citizens of the United States, the Jewish people and the human family.
Israel has been in the process of facing some very uncomfortable truths. In its fifty-three year journey from struggling underdog to military and technological wonder, supporters of Israel have clung to some comfortable beliefs. Among them is the notion that Israel has been completely righteous in its dealings with its citizens and residents – almost an instrument of God, whose shortcomings are also sacred, and can therefore do no wrong. For many years, that belief held sway in Israel itself. But Israeli society has been struggling for many years, long before the peace process began and failed, with an acknowledgment of its mistakes, old and recent, in the treatment of Arab citizens and non-citizens.
It was Golda Meir who said, to our pride, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their sons.” And we have done better yet.
It was also Golda Meir who said, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian. I am a Palestinian.” And we have done worse yet.
A segment of American Jews still believes that Israel can do no wrong. They are organized under the banner of what was once the greatest Zionist organization in America, but is now a parody of itself. They see the honest and painful acknowledgment of truth as treason. They are Jewish fundamentalists, willing to sacrifice those who disagree as surely as haredi Jews who are willing to rely upon the secular Israeli soldiers but not serve with them. They love a fantasy, and they mostly love it from a distance because they will not love its flaws.
They don’t have faith. The belief in the righteousness of Israel and its humanity has not penetrated their bones. They prefer to be comfortable because they have nothing to sustain them if they are not.
Thank God Israel’s real interests in this country are represented by Jews and other Americans whose Israel public affairs commitments flow from a necessary willingness to live with uncomfortable truths – including the need to take risks for peace, but none for survival.
A smaller segment of American Jews, and a much larger segment of Americans, though far from the majority, believe that the Palestinians can do no wrong – or at least that the wrongs they perpetrate are excusable. They have fallen prey to the notion that everything uncomfortable is truth. And it isn’t.
They, too, embrace a perfect fantasy: that if we but confess our sins and ask for forgiveness, that Isaac and Ishmael will reconcile. It fits our American desire for comfort. But it isn’t true. The truth is still available on-line on the United Nations web sites that document the regional conferences leading up to the conference on racism in Durban, South Africa. Some Muslims, and more Arab Muslims than any other Muslims, hold a deep, abiding and mortal hatred of you because you are a Jew. And given the money, the technology, the training and the opportunity, they would be very comfortable in eliminating even the most assimilated, non-identifying, non-Zionist Jew.
And if you cannot acknowledge that uncomfortable truth, I would like to show you some office space in lower Manhattan, one of three places in this country where Americans were snapped from their sense of comfort with stunning brutality.
As Jews and also as Americans, like those Jews who are not Americans, and those Americans who are not Jews, we must continue to have faith in the values we profess, values that have been tested and found trustworthy by history and by people of conscience everywhere. We must not be afraid to embrace the truth about our triumphs and our shortcomings, nor to act to preserve the way of life we live that is loved, admired and emulated.
In the midst of Psalm 102, a psalm of the afflicted, the psalmist takes a breath and proclaims, “You shall arise and have mercy upon Zion, for it is the moment to have compassion upon her; the time has come.” And that’s what we need. To show mercy to suffering Zion, compassion to an angry and injured America. The time has come for a show of trust. The time has come for a show of confidence. The time has come for a show of faith.
I don’t like to tell stories about my kids from the pulpit, but I must share with you part of a conversation I had with my son last Wednesday afternoon. I struggled to find the words to reassure him of his world and its stability. He is, after all, the same age as I was in November 1963 when the assistant principal entered my classroom to tell me the President of the United States had been shot.
I said, “At times like these, we have to take care of each other and have faith in God.”
He looked at me very tentatively, and glanced away before he said, “I hate to say it, but at times like these it’s hard to believe in God.”
Yes it is, I said.
And only later, as I struggled with the uncomfortable truth my son had spoken, did it come to me that it must be hard for God to believe in us.
The time has come, my friends, for us and for God to restore our faith in each other. The time has come.