Most of you know that my wife is a writer, though I suspect that many of you think she writes fashion columns for the Jewish Week. In fact, her clients include various branches of the World Bank, business magazines, real estate newsletters, and a company that does customized sales-force training for Fortune 500 companies, among others. Like any good writer, she has both an appreciation and dread of editors. The worst editors dismantle the writer’s creative efforts and reassemble the pieces in a way that permanently obscures the point of the whole thing. But the best editors find a way to make the final product exceed the author’s private expectations.
One of Ann’s favorite editors is a guy she works with at the sales training company. His name is Paul Maxwell, and other than being a great editor, his claim to fame is that his brother-in-law is Tengger, the Mongolian rock superstar whose popularity in China is the envy of Mick Jagger, Britney Spears and Nellie combined.
Last month, Ann was struggling with a question of grammar and usage. The question had to do with a sentence that began “one out of every three people.” Was the verb that followed that phrase supposed to be “is,” in agreement with “one,” or was it to be “are,” in agreement with “three?” In others words, one out of every three people is, or one out of every three people are.
For those of you between the ages of eight and forty, who grew up without the privilege of diagramming sentences instead of playing with Legos, the very concept of “grammar” may be as foreign as the difference between hiph’il and hit’pa’el in the the mach’zor. But for a connoisseur of the English language like Paul Maxwell, Ann’s discomfort with the sound of the correct answer was an opportunity for editorial splendor.
The correct answer grammatically is “one out of every three IS.” Common usage is more typically “one out of every three ARE.” But Paul suggested, elegantly, changing the sentence to begin “one-third of the people,” allowing both grammar and usage to coincide with the verb “are.”
In the process of the discussion, Paul used a phrase that unlocked the dilemma I was having about how to frame my message for tonight. I am hoping that when he reads this sermon, he will be tickled enough about having been mentioned in it that he will share the story with his wife’s family the next time they visit his in-law’s yurt – and they indeed live in a yurt – thus making me the first rabbi to have his message carried to Mongolia since Irving and Selma Kahn visited Irv’s cousin Genghis.
Paul explained to Ann that her perception that grammar and usage were at odds in the original sentence was correct. He said, “grammar demands that the verb agree with the subject of the sentence, but most people prefer agreement by proximity.” That’s the phrase, my friends. “Most people prefer agreement by proximity.”
And when I heard it, it helped me to coalesce my scattered thoughts about what to suggest to you tonight should be on your mind in these turbulent times for our people, for our country, for our homeland and for our world. Most people prefer agreement by proximity.
The prayer books you hold in your hands tonight, like the ones you hold on other days of the year, are deceptive documents. The contents are in Hebrew, with an occasional dose of Aramaic and an English translation to accommodate the percentage of you whose medieval Hebrew skills are not quite so fluent. I set that percentage at about 100%.
The prayers speak in a language that is foreign to us, foreign to us in the same two ways that grammar is now foreign to us. The vocabulary doesn’t make sense. And the endeavor doesn’t make sense. I am not talking about the Hebrew vocabulary. With a little bit of effort, you can learn a basic lexicon that will open up the meaning of the words and phrases. I am talking about the vocabulary itself. Today and tomorrow we pray about sin and repentance so much, you would think we use those words with the same comprehension as, say, governor and recall.
And the endeavor of praying itself is something far different than we admit. Most of you were here on time today, but tomorrow morning, this room will be empty until around 10:30 0r 11:00, like you have something else to do. We have services that you enter and exit like the summer’s Folk Life Festival on the Mall, checking what time the sermon is and Hineni and yizkor, and chatting each other up while the Hazzan or I mouth comforting and unfamiliar sounds. The endeavor of prayer is foreign to us.
I always think of Steve Bodzin when I get cranked up like this, who likes to remind me that I don’t have to yell at you all the time. So let me assure you of something. I am describing our times, not trying to make you feel inadequate. We have good reason for preserving our prayer book and our traditions, even if they are, in many ways, hopelessly anachronistic. And it may surprise you to know that I don’t feel that the language of prayer is any less foreign to me than it is to you.
So I do and you do that voodoo that we do so well. Since we cannot insert ourselves into the endeavor of prayer as it has been conceived and preserved, we change its meaning to make it more agreeable to us in our own circumstances. If I walked through this room now and asked you what you got out of services, you would use a much more familiar vocabulary: inspiration, social connection, reinforcement of memories, meditation, reflection, consolation, escape, enjoyment, and the word we love to use with authority without ever agreeing on a definition: spirituality. We come to this room with needs of our own, and we make prayer perform that function for us. What is nearest to our hearts and souls is what we harvest. And when we are successful – and tonight is another sold-out crowd, so I guess we are doing all right – we come to believe that we have framed the endeavor properly. Agreement by proximity. It meets my needs; therefore it must be right.
What if the purpose of prayer was not to give you what you want and therefore bring you comfort, but to challenge what you are and therefore make you uncomfortable? Would you still show up if we were doing it the way it was intended? It’s the grammar and usage question. The proper way is not always the accepted way.
In fact, we very often don’t want to hear the proper way about things because they will upset the comfort we have developed with the way we perceived those matters. If I spent time now telling you what prayer is supposed to be, you’d still show up late tomorrow and spend half the time in the lobby. And besides, it’s not my purpose. I want to illustrate instead how tenaciously we cling to the way we want things to be instead of the way they are.
Do you remember a few years ago, during a budget crisis in the District of Columbia, a mid-level bureaucrat lost his job for speaking English properly? In describing the manner in which a city fund was administered, he used the word “niggardly.” Some listeners, apparently unfamiliar with the word, which means “miserly,” believed he was using a racial epithet. The man in question, who was very embarrassed by it all, tried to tell his side of the story. But his critics were uninterested in hearing it. They wanted to tell both sides of the story, and so they insisted that he should have known better than to use a word that sounded like a racial epithet
For days the war of words raged until he tendered his resignation, which was promptly accept by Mayor Williams over the objections of the NAACP. Though he was later reinstated, the insistence of some folks to cling to the their anger was based on their need to hear something that wasn’t there. A sort of mob mentality took over, and people felt very comfortable agreeing to something that was plainly wrong. Agreement by proximity.
It is easy for us to snicker at the hyper-sensitivity of some people, but harder for us to acknowledge when the same principle is at work in our lives. Our nation’s capital is divided by all sorts of lines of demarcation, including the one that separates the liberals from the conservatives, by whatever name or political party we call them. Some of you may recall that 35 years ago, there was a controversy in this country over the uses of the American flag. Conservatives were outraged because young people, protesting the war in Vietnam, were using the flag in unauthorized ways. They wore it as a bandana; they sewed it onto the backside of their pants. Rock and roll stars draped it as a cape. One famous court case pitted a young man who had sewn a representation of the flag onto the back of his denim jacket against the outraged citizens who demanded his arrest. Claiming that the formal etiquette of the flag prohibited such disrespectful usage, conservatives lined up to decry what liberals insisted was the exuberant expression of free speech.
Thirty-five years later, the flag is displayed on everything from the fencing on highway overpasses to the inside of – imagine – the denim jackets of rock and roll stars. Claiming that the formal etiquette of the flag prohibits such callous exploitation of patriotic sentiments, liberals line up to decry what conservatives insist is the exuberant expression of love of country.
And if challenged, each side would gladly tell you not only their own rationale, but what the other side’s arguments are and why they are wrong. Because most people prefer agreement by proximity. We want to hear that which suits us and those around us.
We are reluctant to step back and see the bigger picture, preferring instead to build a comfort zone around our perspectives and conclusions so that the world presents less of a challenge and more of a comfort.
And, frankly, that’s our dilemma when it comes to Israel as well. Most of us have very strong opinions about Israel. We have made up our minds where we stand – we like the fence, we don’t like the fence; we champion the settlements, we want the settlements dismantled; we support a Palestinian state, we oppose a Palestinian state. We have decided what the correct answer is, and then we cull from those who disagree with us the most offensive and outrageous statements we can. We distance ourselves from those with whom we disagree and only listen to those whose views already match our own because we prefer agreement by proximity. So you have some of the people on the left demonizing Ariel Sharon as if his only reason for seeking office was to oppress Palestinians. So you have some of the people on the right demonizing Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak and accusing them of seeking to dismantle the very Jewishness of the state. And too many of us huddle around Yossi Sarid or Naomi Ragen and allow them to tell us not only what they think, but what the other side thinks as well.
What is true within our people is true about our people, only more so. We talk to each other because we are comfortable talking to each other. Even when we vehemently disagree with each other, we prefer the presumptions of our disagreements because they are proximate.
But we do not listen to Palestinians any more than the Palestinians listen to us. They have a story that needs to be heard, their story. We won’t listen to it. We tell their story for them because it is closer to us.
Maybe you think I am talking about the right-wing Zionists among us. I am not. Over the summer, during the brief period that Abu Mazen was Prime Minister Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, he came to the United States and he met with Jewish leadership. I was there by virtue of my friendship with the guy who organized the meeting. Some tough questions were asked – but they were not answered. You would expect a certain antagonism when the Palestinian Prime Minister side-stepped questions of terror and corruption and dishonesty in negotiation. When he gave a history of the peace process, it went like this: first there was Madrid, where the ice was broken. Then after many false starts on an official level, the talks as Oslo broke through the deadlock. For a number of years, Oslo was pursued. And then, what happened happened. And now here we are today trying to follow the road map offered by President Bush.
Prime Minister Abbas summed up three years of homicide bombings and unrelenting bloodletting with three words: what happened happened. I expected outrage.
But not from the leaders of Federation and United Synagogue and UAHC and half a dozen so-called major Jewish organizations. They applauded him and heralded him as the person who could deliver peace. Because there he was, sitting with us and chatting. Agreement by proximity.
I needed to hear the story. I needed to hear him say, “You are interlopers, you are colonialists, you have taken our land and shattered our dreams of autonomy. How do you expect us to live peacefully next to you when your shopping malls and skyscrapers and water parks and discos are in our faces as we live with decaying buildings and communal wells and checkpoints.” That anger is shouted at a distance, marched on the streets on Saturdays when we are in shul, presented in power-point to sympathetic and naïve Christian seminarians, hissed from Friday sermons in area mosques. The Palestinian story, wrong as we think it is, uncomfortable as it is to hear, is part of the bigger picture. And when we don’t listen carefully as they tell their own story, then we tell it for them in a way that reinforces what we already believe. We say: To a person, they hate us. They want us dead. They poison the minds of their children. They prefer death to life with us. We choose to hear only their hatred because it justifies our own, and we choose to ignore their hatred because it justifies our yearning for peace. We do not want their pain, their history, their dreams or their stories.
We draw near only what we want to hear. We don’t want to deal with other information. We do not want to step back and see the larger picture. We accept only our version of the story. We prefer agreement by proximity.
We are not alone, of course. We live in a world of people tossed about by the hurricanes of information that uproot the familiar landmarks of life. We chase from home to work to market and home again six or seven days a week, covering more ground in a single cycle of daylight than most people in history traveled in a lifetime. Our families live in distant places; our friends are heard but rarely seen. And if you assembled the labels from the clothes on our backs and the food on our tables, their points of origin would form a quorum for the General Assembly of the United Nations. Maybe we live in a society that overemphasizes the individual, but that overemphasis is result, not cause.
Why shouldn’t we prefer agreement by proximity? Our thoughts and opinions are about all we have left that’s local. Take them away, and what is left of me? Of what worth is my very existence?
I have an answer. And I hope that when you hear it, you will not be afraid to step back and see the bigger picture when there is a bigger picture to see – to allow for agreement of subject and verb, as it were.
Anu amekha, v’ata eloheinu; anu vanekha, v’ata avinu;
Anu avadekha, v’ata adoneinu; anu k’halekha, v’ata chelkeinu
“We are Your people and You are our God; we are Your children and You are our parent;
We are Your servants and You are our Master; we are Your congregation, and You are our only One.”
You are here tonight, whether you know it or not, because you matter in the world as a Jew. Here is where you will find agreement by proximity, and on this night sacred among the sacred you will find the courage and strength to acknowledge that the world is larger and more complex that we would like it to be. It is our mandate – to be God’s flock and faithful, God’s vineyard and voice – hard work and troubling though it may be. Tonight, by drawing near to each other, we strengthen ourselves to go into this world in our many guises, the pious and the impious, the liberals and the conservatives, the militarists and the pacifists. But we emerge with the assurance that we need not be limited by those roles, because however big the picture we need to achieve agreement between subject and verb, we have the biggest picture of all holding us in gentle embrace.
I know how hard it is. It’s hard for me, too. That’s why I come here so often, and why I carry with me every day what tonight represents. Let go of your preference for agreement by proximity. But please, please – for your sake, for my sake, for God’s sake – stay close.