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The Hardest Things
Yom Kippur, 5768/2007
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

The Torah reading this morning is about goats and incense, a description of the original ritual of atonement that was performed on this most holy of days. If I could be present at any moment of Jewish history other than Sinai, I would choose to be present in the Temple when this ritual took place. For better or for worse, I must satisfy myself with the proactive description we just read in the Torah and the recollective description we will soon read in the Avodah service.

So deep was the faith of our ancestors in the restorative power of those sacrifices that they did not plan for disappointment. It's not that they were unaware of tragedy, but they believed that the whole house of Israel emerged from the Temple forgiven. Everything dirty was made clean. Everything polluted was made pure. Everything broken was fixed.

We are two thousand years removed from that experience thirty times more removed than World War II, four times more removed than Columbus's voyage to America, twice as removed as Rashi and Maimonides. There is no remnant of meaningful personal testimony of the ceremonies. And we replaced it with a narrative that, for most people, is excruciating and dispensable. My guess is that this room will be considerably emptier when we read it. We nod to the inadequacy of the experience with a single declaration halo l'mishma ozen da'ava nafsheinu, "our souls lament what our ears hear."

When the Temple was destroyed there was, initially, no Plan B. Prayer had not yet replaced the sacrifices. Long hours of lamenting and repenting had yet to be instituted, let alone codified with books and pulpits and tickets and ushers. In a very early expansion on Pirkei Avot, a work called Avot d'Rabbi Natan, is a midrash that you will read at the end of the Avodah service. The first part goes like this:

When Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins one day, he burst into tears. "Alas for us! The place that atoned for the sins of all the people Israel lies in ruins!"

I say with profound sadness that even the youngest among you understand at the deepest level where Rabbi Joshua stood. Places that we considered sacred, that is, uniquely set apart if not Godly, have been reduced to ruins before your eyes. "Alas for us!" you have cried in another September, as you watched two towers fall, as you stared, slack-jawed, at a gaping hole in the symbol of our security. "Alas for us!" you have cried in another September, as you saw a great American city dissolve into an ocean of stagnant water. Two times, four times, thirty times removed, you caught for the first time a sense of that phrase "Alas for us!" uttered by Rabbi Joshua.

Rabbi Joshua himself had a sudden realization when he uttered his exclamation. He had a sudden insight into a Biblical character who gets some deservedly bad press for having introduced jealousy, rage and murder into the human repertoire. When Cain enticed his brother Abel into an ambush and hid the evidence of his crime in the soil, God destroyed the social structure around him. The soil that Cain tilled would not yield him produce; he would be forced to wander endlessly without a home. "Gadol avoni min'so!" cried Cain. "My penalty is too much to bear!"

Some small negotiations follow, and God agrees to protect Cain from the wrath and violence he planted in the fertile soil of human innovation. God placed a mark on Cain's forehead call it a brand, a scar, a tattoo and sent him bearing his wound back into the world.

Rabbi Joshua was the victim and Cain was the perpetrator, but the phenomenon is the same. Whether witness or participant, whether receiver or protagonist, there comes a moment of realization that the ground has shifted beneath you and things will never be the same.

I know we like to think that we can do something in these circumstances. Get me a hammer and nails, I will rebuild the Temple! Take this man to a court of justice, we will settle the matter! Men in some ways, women in others like to think that you can put it all back together again. Some mending, some patching, some time and it will all be good as new.

In the reflection booklets at your seats is a contribution you have already read, probably more than once. One of our members, sitting among you, wrote a reflection on Un'taneh tokef, the prayer we recite during musaf on these days of holiness that makes the uncomfortable point that none of us can count on a comfortable year ahead. When I received the essay back in August, I asked this individual to come to my office for a conversation. In the course of that sweet and awful encounter, the author repeated a single sentence from a eulogy written for a dear relative. The sentence was this: "The hardest things can't be fixed."

As individuals, as Jews, as Americans we know the truth of that statement. The hardest things can't be fixed. Some things, once broken, cannot be repaired. But we choose not to believe it until we have no alternative but to bend before its truth.

I remember one of those moments of realization in my life, one of the too many moments of realization.

Some fifteen years ago or more, some local luminary painted a swastika and some misspelled hate message on the Jewish Community Center on Little River Turnpike. The community rose up and gathered two nights later to stand against the bigotry. As if on cue, in the midst of remarks by our Congressman, a bomb threat was phoned into the JCC. We evacuated and concluded our program outside the building. And then we piled into our cars and headed for home.

I was there that evening with my two daughters; Julia could not have been more than five or six, and had been quietly attentive all night. As we came around the Beltway past Braddock Road, she exploded in tears, and blurted out, "Why would anyone want to hurt us?"

I was behind the wheel of our car, sailing along at fifty-five. My in-laws were in the car with us, thank God, because my child needed comfort right then and there. I felt the snap deep, deep within my gut, the realization that my little girl's innocence had been compromised, that she had been forced to give up a place of safety and comfort. The ground shifted beneath me. "Alas for us!" I might have cried. "My penalty is too much to bear."

How many times during these past twenty years have I witnessed the quantum shift? Collectively we have cried "alas," collectively we have complained about the penalty to bear. But individually as well there is barely a person in this room who has not stood at the ruins of his own Temple, who does not bear the mark of a self-inflicted penalty.

In fact, I know from my conversations with so many of you that those moments are flooding into your memory right now. So I am going to stop talking for a moment so that you can take these few seconds to remember the hardest things, the ones that can't be fixed.


Here you are today on the other side of the event or events that you were certain would make life unbearable. When you are forced to look at the ruins, forced to remember the mark, the pain and frustration return. Is there no one, is there no way to find relief?

Two weeks ago I studied a very brief story with the members of my confirmation class, as I have with my students many times in the past. It was written by an exceptional writer of the last century, Jorge Luis Borges, who is, I will acknowledge, an acquired taste. Here is the story in its entirety; it is entitled "Legend."

Abel and Cain met again after Abel's death. They were walking in the desert and knew each other from a distance, for both men were very tall. The brothers sat on the ground, made a fire, and ate. For a while, they were untalkative, the way tired men can be after a long day's work. In the sky, some still unnamed star appeared. By the firelight, Cain made out the mark of the stone on Abel's forehead, dropped the food he was about to put in his mouth, and asked to be forgiven for his crime.

"I no longer remember did you kill me, or was it I who killed you?" Abel answered. "Here we are together again, just as we used to be."

"Now I know for sure you have forgiven me," said Cain, "because to forget is to have forgiven. I'll try my best to forget, too."

"Yes," said Abel, speaking slowly, "you're right. As long as there's remorse, there's guilt."

The story is rich with opportunities to explore. Where did the brothers meet, and when? Why was there no greeting, just an immediate falling into familiar patterns of behavior? What does the anonymous star have to do with anything? And if Cain saw Abel's mark only because of the firelight, how did they recognize each other from a distance?

You can talk about those questions later. I want to luxuriate in the fantasy of how someone almost fixes one of the hardest things. Cain, bearing the mark of his crime between his eyes, sees the mark of his crime between his brother's eyes. It is a detail not in the Torah, but from Borges' perfectly-imagined fantasy. When he recognizes himself in his victim, his brother, he awakens to the crime and is filled with dread.

Abel, now past caring about the indignities he suffered in life, recognizes himself in his killer. He remembers the act, but has forgotten the roles each of them played. An imbalance that was created by the murderous crime is restored when Abel takes on an equal share of the load.

"I'll try my best to forget," says Cain.

This story is, of course, fantasy. Think again of your hardest things. They are impossible to forget. The fact that other people bear the scars of their suffering, that they carry within them the broken hearts of their losses does not remove your pain. The hardest things live with us; they cannot be fixed; they are resolved only with death.

Not your grudge, not your resentment, not your sense of affront. Those are not your hardest things. You could resolve them if you chose to do so, if you chose to pay the price of your ego or your pride or your dignity. Not your bad investment, your irresponsible purchase, your neglected debts. Those are not your hardest things. You will somehow muddle through they are just material concerns.

The hardest things that can't be fixed the absent place that once took away our guiltiness, the irreversible damage we realize we have done to another what do we do about them? Do we have no recourse but to cry, "Alas?" Do we have no alternative but to wail, "gadol avoni min'so?"

Cain indeed lived a long life. He married and had a son. He founded a city that he named for his son and lived there long enough to see great grandchildren. He bore the mark of his guilt all his days. It became a part of him, but it was not him. Unable to return to the way things had been, he devoted himself to the way things would be. Unable to till the soil, he founded a city. Unable to restore his brother, he honored his son. Unable to renew life, he made new life and he made life anew. In the end, his penalty was not too much to bear because he accepted the fact of its burden.

The author of the essay in your reflection booklet saw the doctor this week. The news could have been a lot worse. All things being equal, there will be many more essays to write for many more reflections booklets. I am grateful to God for that kindness, but not as grateful as the author.

And poor Rabbi Joshua? Remember him standing by the ruins of the Temple?

When Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins one day, he burst into tears. "Alas for us! The place that atoned for the sins of all the people Israel lies in ruins!"

Here's the second part of the midrash:

Then Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: "Be not grieved, my son. There is another way of gaining atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement for our sins through acts of loving-kindness."

Long before the prayers and long before the pews, long before my sermons and long before the Hazzan's songs, long before the Greatest Generation and long before Columbus and long before Rambam in fact, long before Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and long before the goats there was a response to the hardest things. God showed it to Cain in spite of the blemish Cain inflicted on God's pristine world. When we are at our best, we show it to others when buildings fall and cities drown, when innocence bursts and diagnoses are made, when parents die and children die, when love fails and love betrays and love stays two steps away.

It is how everything dirty is made clean. Everything polluted is made pure. Everything broken is fixed, as fixed as it can be.

G'milut chassadim, acts of loving-kindness, acts of loving, acts of kindness. A word. A hand. A hug. A meal. A shroud. A gift. A call. A thousand other things that atone for the wrongs we committed and for the wrongs we have endured.

If I could be present at any moment of Jewish history other than Sinai, I would choose to be present in the Temple when the ritual of atonement took place. But I can't be, and that's just as well. For twenty years I have had the privilege to be with you.

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