One of the best friendships I have is with Rabbi Danny Zemel of Temple Micah. Except that he is a White Sox fan, he is one of the best and smartest people I know, and the person who I would want as my rabbi if I didn’t get free membership in this congregation. Every year between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Danny and I go to the mikvah and share our sermons from Rosh HaShanah with each other. Then we sit around and talk about them, and out of those conversations comes great satisfaction, tremendous mutual affection and appreciation and, occasionally, a life-saving idea. Last week, Danny saved this sermon from excruciating twists and turns with his thoughts. If you like it, you have him to thank. If you don’t, take it out on me.
Every now and then I receive examples of bloopers in church and synagogue bulletins. They are usually creative misreadings of the best of intentions.
Thursday at 5:00 PM there will be a meeting of the Little Mothers Club. All ladies wishing to be "Little Mothers" will meet with the Pastor in his study.
The service will close with "Little Drops of Water." One of the ladies will start quietly and the rest of the congregation will join in.
The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the church basement Saturday.
The Low Self-Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 to 8:30 pm. Please use the back door.
Aside from the obvious humor in these announcements, and my newly-kindled prurient interest in church basements, creative misreadings of texts can often help me find an insight into the meaning of the text that might not have been so obvious. For example, there is a wonderful verse that we recited this morning in Psalm 19, referring to God’s handiwork: Ein omer v’ein d’varim bli nishma kolam. It means, “there is no utterance, there are no words whose sound is unheard.” But I like to misread the translation as a subtle expression of the psalmist’s modern skepticism: “there is no utterance, there are no words unless their sound is heard.” If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise? Not by this creative misreading. For the tree to be heard – for God to be heard – there must be someone to do the hearing.
But what happens when you don’t know how to accurately understand the meaning of a phrase? I often illustrate that question with the phrase from the Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal.” We think we know what Jefferson meant, but rereading and even intentionally misreading that claim have led to some of the most life-changing court decisions in United States history, and provoked some of the most important legislation of the past 200 years. Today, we still debate how to apply that phrase to citizens and non-citizens, women and men, fetuses and the terminally ill, whites and people of color, the disabled and the able, and baseball players and owners.
A year ago almost to the day I became intrigued with a phrase in the weekday Amidah. It comes in the midst of birkat hatzadikkim, the brakhah that asks God to include us in the merits of the righteous, the pious, the elders, the scholars, the devoted converts so that we share their blessings. And in the company of these exemplars of the highest values of faith, we then pray v’lo neivosh ki v’kha batachnu.
And now I have reached my dilemma. I have no way of knowing what the intent of that phrase was when it was composed, presumably by someone who knew the righteous, pious and devoted converts in question.
Perhaps it is a statement of fact: We will never be shamed, for we have trusted in you. Translated and intended this way, we make a profound declaration of the power of God’s sheltering presence. Trusting God is guarantees that we will never be humiliated. As a statement of the inherent dignity of faith, it is an unparalleled assertion. Quite frankly, it is also a chutzpadik statement of the highest order, for it sets up an inevitable fall: if I am humiliated, shamed or embarrassed, it is because I did not trust in God with the same level of devotion as these paragons of faith.
Perhaps it is a statement of hope: May we never be shamed, for we have trusted in you. This translation is equally accurate, but much more poignant. It implies something of a quid pro quo with the Kadosh Barukh Hu – we have given you our devotion, and we ask your protection in return. The notion of paying faith forward is an interesting one, and certainly much more in line with the position of humility we like to associate with faith. I give God my trust, irrespective of circumstance, and ask only a small thing in return – that I not be shamed. Benjy quotes his teacher Lois Ben David as saying the goal of the adolescent is to get through the day without being humiliated. Perhaps this phrase is the adult version of the same personal goal.
Honestly, I think that you could make a case for either of these readings as the original intent. You might even make a case for deliberate ambiguity, allowing both meanings to float side-by-side, one for the worshipper who is secure in his or her faith and one for the worshipper who isn’t so secure. I think you would find plenty of justification for either and both in the wealth of speculation about the benefits of faith in our tradition.
Until last September, I was oblivious to this phrase and its apparent double meaning. But in the months following the attack on our country, especially as the motivations and belief systems of our attackers have come to light, I have had to contend with a deep dissatisfaction in the smugness that these interpretations imply. Belief – however expressed, however practiced – seems to be a talisman to prevent shame. But why shame? Why not neediness or illness or persecution or a litany like we pronounce in Avinu Malkeinu – enemy, pestilence, sword, famine and sorrow? Why busha, why shame? And how does my smug profession of faith qualify me for special privilege in this regard?
If trusting God with the fullness of heart of the truer believers is a protection against shame, then does that belief artificially shield me from shame I should feel? What are the limits on my faith? What are the limits on the faith of others?
I have a similar challenge in understanding two simple words in the Pledge of Allegiance, which was first published in 1892. As you might guess, those words are “under God.” Unlike my little phrase in Hebrew, we know exactly where those words originated, and why. It was during the Eisenhower administration, and the biggest threat to the American way of life was Communism. Today I can call it Communism, but back then it was called Godless Communism. It is true that Communism considered itself a vehicle for liberating humanity from the debilitating burden of belief in an imagined divinity, and made much of the conflict caused by religious belief and the weakness of those who could not find morality within their own beings. In 1954, to distinguish our country and its protections of religious expression from Godless Communism, the Knights of Columbus began a successful campaign to amend the Pledge of Allegiance by adding two little words with big meanings: “under God.”
It is clear what those two words were meant to convey when they were added to the Pledge. There was some small controversy over their inclusion, including the objections of the author’s daughter who claimed that her father, a socialist, having been expelled from his church for his political views would have frowned on the emendation. But in the end, the inclusion of those words was meant to express the difference between us and them.
The Pledge was not without its controversy and has been in and out of school-day ritual over the intervening fifty years. But recently, a California judge ruled that the inclusion of those words violated the separation of church and state when the Pledge was recited in a public institution, like a school. And now, everyone from the Anabaptists to the Zoroastrians are falling all over themselves to stake out a position on what it means to include those words in the Pledge.
Never mind what I think about including them. I am interested in what we mean when we say them. What is a nation under God? What does such a nation require? Here is where I am most in debt to Rabbi Zemel for his insights, for he immediately dismisses the notion that “under God” has anything to do with attendance at worship or membership in a faith community.
Instead, he notes that there are two phrases in our tradition that might be held as equivalents to “under God.” The first is tachat kanfei ha-sh’khinah, to be under the wings of the divine presence. It is a powerful image for us as a people. We use it to call for God’s protection of the souls of our dead. We ask that they be held in perpetuity under the shelter of the divine presence, where neither harm nor compromise can penetrate. In this sense, to be one nation under God is to be under God’s protection.
But there is a second sense of this phrase that is more pertinent, says Rabbi Zemel. It is not God’s protection we affirm, but under God’s sovereignty. And certainly, the Knights of Columbus would line up behind this understanding before the other one. The phrase that might explain “under God” better is kaballat ol malkhut shamayim, accepting the sovereignty of heaven. And at this particular time on the Jewish calendar, when we depict God as Avinu Malkeinu, when we being our morning worship with HaMelekh hayosheiv al kisei ram v’nisa, the Sovereign who sits on the high and mighty throne, we know what it means to be one people under God. It means to be held responsible for our actions.
What constitutes one nation under God in our tradition? The Talmud did not really know about nations the way we describe them today. The functions of government we presume in America were far more localized, and so we have a description of the kind of place a devoted Jew would consider appropriate to live. Sanhedrin 17b includes:
We have been taught that a disciple of the wise may not live in a city that does not have the following ten institutions and officials: a court that imposes floggings and fines, a charity fund collected by two officials and distributed by three, a synagogue, a [public] bathhouse, a [public] privy, a physician, a surgeon, a scribe, a ritual slaughterer and a teacher of young children. The Sages said in the name of Rabbi Akiva: also several kinds of fruit trees, because fruit gives light to the eyes.
Any place that is considered to be a fit place to live is one that accepts the responsibility to provide necessary services to its residents – a justice system with appropriate and exclusive powers of enforcement, a welfare system administered ethically and with integrity, including sanitation facilities, health care, and educational opportunities, and the roster of institutions and individuals that enable religious expression. A nation without these assets has not accepted the sovereignty of heaven. It is not a nation under God. It is a nation underperforming.
Only a nation that meets its responsibilities to every man, woman and child is considered, by our understanding, to be a nation under God. By that measure, the inclusion of the words “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance ought to be a statement of challenge, not a statement of faith, to every generation that recites it.
Instead, we mostly elect to imbue those words with a sense of privilege rather than a sense of responsibility or obligation, as if our faith alone brings God’s protection upon us, as if to say “we will never be shamed for we have trusted in You.” Or we affirm that because of our faith, we are deserving of God’s endorsement, as if to say “may we never be shamed, for we have trusted in you.”
I suspect that most Americans, and especially most American politicians, prefer this understanding. It makes the fewest demands for the maximum result. And for almost fifty years, even when we went through social upheavals and long hot summers and deep chasms of dissent, the competing claims to rectitude did not compromise the universal claim to our enjoyment of God’s protection. When the world of Communism collapsed, the prescience of the Knights of Columbus seemed to be confirmed. But the chutzpah of that claim is called into question by the world as it changed a year ago last week. Three thousand sacred souls did not enjoy the shelter of God’s divine presence in this world. And a gang claiming to be righteous and pious, and supporters claiming to include devoted converts to a different tradition that insists their actions were under God.
Perhaps it is time to shift the debate from what our God can do for our country to what our country can do for God.
And if faithfulness should generate limits on what we believe to be the magical benefits of religious belief, then I need to find a different reading of my phrase v’lo neivosh ki v’kha batachnu.
So perhaps it is a statement of sacred doubt. Perhaps it should be translated: May we never be shamed for having trusted in You. Or, as a very famous rabbi paraphrased it, “Don’t make suckers out of us.”
I have to look in the mirror every morning and like what I see or there is no point leaving the bathroom. Since September a year ago especially, but not just since then, I have had to face the reality that lots of people who profess my trust in God have done horrible, horrible things. I believe in a loving God who, out of that love, acts in ways that must cause the divine heart to break, as it were. God allows us our mistakes, and keeps the world running consistently if not always predictably, and even watches silently as we suffer the consequences of our choices and the free-will choices of others. But a laissez-faire deity opens the door to those who would abuse that liberty. Like the politicians and parochial religious leaders and tee-shirt salesmen who use “under God” as a slogan for their personal profit, this world is populated by some people who confuse their own appetites with God’s will. They do not submit to God, they subsume God, but they do it in the name of God.
The brakhah that precedes birkat ha-tzaddikim is called birkat ha-minim. In it, we plead with God to frustrate the designs of the wicked, to strip them of hope, to uproot evil in our world and to overturn the forces of malice. We call on God’s power to shatter our enemies and humble the malicious. But even as I make that statement of faith, the evidence is all too abundant that the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. And so we follow our plea for justice in a sometimes unjust world with a cautionary admonition: Don’t disappoint our trust, don’t make fools of us. May we never be shamed for having trusted in You.
Even so, we know it will happen.
I don’t know if my reading is accurate, if I can attribute this level of faithful cynicism to rabbis of a time I only know through legends. But in my experience, especially lately, it is the only way to understand it that makes sense – not theologically, but in the aftermath of a Temple destroyed, of Roman persecution, of exile and of national decimation.
If the Amidah ended with this blessing, we could all go home right now and close up shop. Instead of a nation of priests and a holy nation, we would be a nation of fools and a delusional nation.
But we are here today to do teshuvah, to atone for our shortcomings before God, literally to turn around. In doing so, we throw down the gauntlet before the One who judges and forgives.
The blessing that follows this phrase, v’lo neivosh ki v’kha batachnu, may we not be shamed for having trusted in you, begins with the words v’lirushalayim irkha b’rachamim tashuv, to Jerusalem Your city may You in compassion return.
The root letters of neivosh, of shame, are bet-vav-shin.
Reverse the root letters of shame and disappointment and you have shin-vav-bet, the root of teshuvah, the root of return. With God’s visible return to Jerusalem, especially in compassion, our trust will be justified. Any doubts we may have about that trust are reversed to pride and gladness.
My friends, don’t let God off the hook. Let us, at least as Jews, be a nation under God, showing our trust that by meeting the responsibilities to society – to justice, to caring for others, to meeting our sacred obligations – and by proclaiming to God’s face, IN God’s face v’lo neivosh ki v’kha batachnu, may we never be shamed for having trusted in You.
And my God, don’t make suckers out of us. Turn to us as we turn to You today, a real turning that affirms our trust. It’s not about slogans and it’s not about formulaic prayers or pledges.
It’s about believing in each other and upholding our fragile trust.