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Kol Nidrei 5774/2013
Cries from the Ground

© 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! My apologies for any typos. Jack Moline

Kol Nidrei, 5774/2013 - Cries from the Ground - ©Rabbi Jack Moline

We have just concluded a beautiful and inspiring Kol Nidrei service. The mach'zor in your lap is filled with words designed to make your soul both soar and tremble. The musical settings captured from God's own court by our Hazzan have insinuated themselves into our hearts, turning the legal declaration that began our worship into poetry, the confession of the most heinous of sins into plaintive devotion, the pleas for forgiveness from a silent God into a symphony of hope. Our president, Joel Goldhammer, has shared with you a vision of our synagogue renewed for another year, maybe even another century.

I have not come to ruin the mood. But the ethos of the day is not about beauty and poetry. It is about honesty. And being honest, if all of us, most of us, any of us had nothing for which to repent, then this community and maybe all of humanity would be redeemed this night and able to feast without inhibition rather than fast with contrition over the next 23 hours.

Cast a glance to the year behind you, the days past, the weeks past, the months since last Yom Kippur. To be sure, the time was filled with accomplishment. Some of you graduated, published, achieved recognition, were promoted or celebrated a bar or bat mitzvah. Some of you were privileged to hold a new child or a new grandchild. Some of you embraced a new family member or were reunited with someone lost and rediscovered.

To be sure the time was filled with challenge and even tragedy. Some of you failed, disappointed, lost out, had your heart broken or, God have mercy, received a diagnosis. Some of you let go of a loved one too soon and others after too much suffering. Some of you tucked a dear one into their last resting place with a blanket of earth.

When we sit in this room, cocooned from the outside world, it is easy to fall into memory. We count our blessings. We shed a tear over our losses. We maybe bargain a little bit - we bargain with the God we do not believe in, the one who is willing to consider a quid pro quo for a little more piety or generosity. We bargain with ourselves, promising again to do better, to work harder, to be more loving, to care for ourselves and to volunteer more so that next year's reflections are just that much more positive than this year's remembering.

Perhaps this focus on our selves is as it should be. After all, for so many people in this room in their professional lives and for all the rest of you because you live in the political epicenter of the human race, being concerned about the world in whatever iteration is the preoccupation of the other three hundred and some days of our lives. An evening, a whole day of personal reflection is not a luxury but a necessity. Taking personal stock of a life so blessed, no matter its challenges and pitfalls, is something that might otherwise fall by the wayside. We need these moments of inspiration and beauty, this self-reflection, this spiritual nurture.

It's all true, and though you accurately anticipate that I am going to take you in a very different direction, let me affirm wholeheartedly as the rabbi who has loved you for more than a generation that you deserve this time of personal intimacy with the liturgy, with the music, with the Holy One of Blessed Name. I hope you took that time over the past two and a half hours, and that you will take that time for most of the day ahead. But the next twenty minutes or so are mine, and I am grateful to you that you offer them to me, even if it is somewhat involuntarily.

You see, overwhelmed as we are with getting from one end of the day to the other, from Saturday night to the next Shabbat, from the start of the school year, the fiscal year, the calendar year or the Jewish year to the end, we shrug at our inability to do anything about the bigger picture. And I would like to talk about a little piece of the bigger picture. And I offer thanks to Chancellor Arnold Eisen of JTS for inspiring me to do so.

I want to talk about the first murder in the world. It was fratricide, you will remember. Cain and Abel had each made a sacrificial offering to God. God accepted Abel's, but not Cain's. We don't know why God took pleasure in the one and found fault in the other, and the Torah does not explain. It says only that Cain was angry and crestfallen at the rejection.

This past year a couple of people in my household read John Steinbeck's novel East of Eden. It is a riff on this story and it hinges on the meaning of a single Hebrew word in God's response to Cain's resentment. We had some amazing conversations.

But tonight's conversation is about what happens after Cain entices Abel into the field with a conversation also glaringly omitted from the Torah's narrative. Vayakom kayin el hevel achiv vayahargeihu; Cain rose up against his brother Abel and murdered him.

We do not know how it happened. Most speculation is that Abel was struck with a rock or an implement - the blood spilled on the ground seems to preclude strangling or smothering. Almost immediately God asks Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?"

Cain responds almost cavalierly, "I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

I have had a lot of conversations with all sorts of people about Cain's response. With predictable frequency, our law-obsessed people point out that murder has not yet been prohibited, that no one has yet died, and that the "sin that croucheth at the door" has never been defined. Though ignorance of the law is no excuse, if there is no law, Cain cannot be held liable for legislation that has yet to be enacted.

No matter how passionately they argue on behalf of poor Cain, I have never had anyone suggest to me that the answer to Cain's impudent question - "am I my brother's keeper?" - is "No, of course not." Just the opposite. Most everyone concludes that at least one point of the whole story is that I am my brother's keeper. And this is just an awful way to learn what can happen if we don't keep that in mind.

God, as you remember, gets furious. "What have you done?" says God. "Kol d'mei achikha tzo'akim eilai min ha'adamah! The voice of your brother's blood cries to me from the ground!"

At least that's how we prefer to read it. But a couple of thousand years ago, Rabbi Shim'on ben Yochai understood this verse very differently (B"R 22:9). He read the unvocalized text of the Hebrew with one small but defensible change. Instead of "the voice of your brother's blood cries to me from the ground, kol d'mei achikha tzo'akim eilai min ha'adamah," he reads, "kol d'mei achikha tzo'akim alai min ha'adamah, the voice of your brother's blood cries out against me from the ground."

Rabbi Shim'on explains that the matter is like the king who pits two gladiators against each other. Each is trying to kill the other. Before one is successful, the king could save both lives by separating them, but he does not. Therefore the king is the responsible party.

Since prophecy and revelation ceased before this midrash was taught, we have no way of knowing what God's reaction to such a suggestion might have been. But I imagine - and when it comes to God you have to use a lot of imagination - I imagine that God would have been pretty furious all over again.

"I'M responsible? ME? This is MY fault? Where do you get off pinning this on ME? Cain sweet-talked his brother into the field. Cain jumped Abel and beat him to a pulp. Cain spilled his blood and took his life. The only thing I did was give a little honest feedback - Abel brought me a beautiful side of beef and Cain didn't even bother to wash the dirt off the beets he pulled out of the ground. And for this you kill a person? O-M-M, what's the matter with you?"

But allow me a moment of kiv'yakhol, of preposterous supposition. God is wrong, kiv'yakhol, and R. Shimon ben Yochai is correct. By validating this new technology and not tending to the hearts and souls of the people using it, God created the context for Cain's anger and resentment. The prize - God's approbation, which was as close as one could get to power and celebrity back in the day - became more important than the reason for the prize, which was righteousness and gratitude.

I would like to suggest, as long as I am on this road to blasphemy, that God learned this lesson as well. For a while, the early generations of our people, Torah reports that God's interactions were most personal. God no longer presumed that the human being came with a moral navigational system, and so relationships were more personal, more intimate. God tried to refine a few individuals, manufacturer's reps, as it were. Noah. Abraham. Jacob.

But people kept reproducing and a few good men, even a few good women, could not compensate for the baser inclinations that lead us to transgression. If you need proof of that, it is today - a day set aside to think about and repair the damage caused by our ignoble instincts.

Nowhere was that more evident than in ancient Egypt. Joseph's wisdom and wiles had saved the nation, and now Joseph's children were rewarded with enslavement. A man awakened to the plight of his brothers and sisters found himself before a burning bush listening to instructions from God, who had apparently taken enough time to consider the consequences of human history. God made one more attempt to send an emissary to save the innocent, but Moses did not succeed. And it was then that God shook off all pretenses.

"I am Adonai," God says, "and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as 'Eil Shaddai,' but I did not make my proper name known to them. I have heard the groaning of the people." This time, God hears the cry. And with that introduction, God enters history instead of observing it or critiquing it or merely giving commands.

Now, says the long speech, now Pharaoh will see what I can do. I will bring you out of bondage and redeem you with a long arm and great judgment. I will make you my people, says God, and I will deliver you to the land.

This great saga of our redemption is a mixed blessing. Perhaps there were other possible outcomes to our need and desire for liberation, but the choice that God made was to intervene. It was a precedent. In every generation, we have waited for God to intervene in history, not the long sweep of history, but at the moment necessary for rescue, redemption, liberation. The generation passes and we make our rationalizations and our explanations. We defend our impotent God, we excuse God's inexcusable choices, we fall out of faith and we reinvent faith. And we insist it won't ever be repeated because we won't let it, never again. We will hold God accountable and we will act as if we are the agents of that accountability.

And then we are faced with suffering and oppression, faced with the potential for violent death, faced with movie theaters and elementary schools and marathons that become killing fields. When there is blood on the popcorn, blood on the desktop, blood on the street corner, we want to know where God was. The voice of the blood of our brothers and sisters cries out against God from the ground. And we wave our hands in the air and start all over again.

Maybe you want me to add Syria and Egypt to the list. Maybe the horrors perpetrated in sub-Saharan Africa ought to be here. Maybe the various ways dictatorial authorities are preserving their version of domestic tranquility in North Korea or Tehran or Chechnya deserve a finger pointed.

Let me be clear about two things. First, every victim is just as much a child of God as you are. Second, for the most part, you care less about a school child outside of Damascus than you do about one in Newtown. If public opinion polls are to be believed, a fraction of Americans support action to prevent the murders in Syria compared to those who support action to prevent the murders of children, co-workers and family members. You wouldn't object to divine intervention over there, but you pull harder for it over here. I will say only this: if a dictator gassing children does not shake you from your insularity, then you have no more legitimate tears to shed for our lost generations.

If I had any real worth as a theologian I would have an answer for you instead of the tired rehashing of how we responded to Amalek or the destruction of the Temple or the Spanish Inquisition or the Shoah. The Torah, the Bible as a whole, offers no specific guidance on God's whereabouts in times of tragedy. It will not surprise you to hear that I actively disbelieve in the kinds of personal protections that some claim to have from the Holy One that kept them out of the World Trade Center or persuaded them to leave the finish line at the Boston Marathon. When tragedy occurs, as it inevitably will, we should cry and shake our fists and then comfort the victims, and it helps me to think of God doing the same.

But I would like to think that God's entry into history on our behalf was there to teach an eternal lesson, just as God's appearance on Sinai once and only was there to teach eternal truth.

When God redeemed us from Egypt, it was messy, very messy. The mess was sometimes just disgusting - bloodied water and dead frogs. The mess was sometimes disabling - crop destruction and boils. The mess was sometimes terrifying - darkness and clouds of locusts. The mess was sometimes cruel and unusual - death of cattle and slaying of the first born. God's intervention was not by flying carpet or transporter beam. God intervened in history to alleviate more than the suffering of the moment. Hard decisions had to be reached to persuade people, Egyptians and Israelites alike, to give up long-held presumptions and to make changes that were hard because they formed misguided foundational values of Egyptian society.

What's the cliché to use here? You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet? No pain no gain? Or from the Psalmist, lie down in tears and awake in joy? That's only the second half of the lesson. The first is a lesson in courage. We have to enter history and make the changes that are necessary. It won't be done by prayer and it will be very messy, but when lives are at stake, we must.

At the other end of the plagues, when the Israelites believed they were getting out with the bounty of their neighbors and some matza on their backs, the lesson was made clear. Trapped between the advancing army of Pharaoh and the seemingly impassable sea, Moses and the Israelites raised their voices in despair, hoping that God would hear the cry of their blood before it was spilled. And God responded through Moses with an echo of the exchange with Cain.

Mah titz'ak eilai? Why are you crying to me? Dabeir el b'nei yisrael vayisa'u! Tell the Israelites to go forward!

I am no Rabbi Shim'on ben Yochai, but if he can change a vowel, so can I. Mah titz'ak alai. Why are you crying out against me? Why are you making this my fault? Before it is too late, before you ask me to do what you won't do for yourself, lean in, go forward, do what needs to be done, even if it means getting wet and muddy and thinking out of the box.

The capacity we human beings have for creativity is one of our most profound blessings, but the fact is we use it too often for wrong. Once Cain struck Abel with a rock or a stick, there was no pretending that rocks and sticks were only for building and digging. Once poison gas or chemical explosives or nuclear weapons were deployed against human beings, there was no pretending they were for disinfecting or building demolition or clean energy. At the critical moment of this country's founding, a technology in its infancy was considered state of the art, so much so that our founders sought to keep that technology open-coded and crowd-sourced, protected by the Constitution. It became one of the foundational values of our country - A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

I have seen a series of videos posted by a police chief from a Pennsylvania county. He displays and fires a variety of weapons modified to spray bullets faster than anyone has reason to need. He as much as dares anyone to try to take his privately-held automatic assault weapons from him, and he specifically names the highest officials in the land, spewing obscenities. The man owns those guns legally, his rights protected by the Second Amendment and enforced, well, by himself.

Somewhere between the ratification of the Constitution and those YouTube videos, the blood of our brothers and sisters, of our children, of our movie-goers, of our campus police, of our co-workers, of our estranged spouses, of our African-American and Hispanic teenagers cried out against us from the ground. Somewhere between Thomas Jefferson and George Zimmerman the words "well-regulated" were obscured and the right to bear arms was sanctified. I am sorry to tell you that if there is someone in this room right now with a concealed firearm there is nothing in the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia or, at the moment, in the bylaws of this congregation that enables me or anyone else to suggest that it is illegal.

I want to say I understand it. As Jews we should understand it - too often the power that has rested with others has left us defenseless and afraid. And a good argument, a strong argument can be made for the deterrent nature of privately-held firearms. This is not a call for the repeal of the Second Amendment and a confiscation of anything with a bullet, any more than the murder of Abel should have resulted in a prohibition against rocks and sticks.

But firearms do not exist outside the context of the rest of America. Just miles from Newtown, Connecticut is the Southbury Training School. Founded as a state-funded home for people with mental retardation, it eventually became a residential facility for people with psychiatric needs. In 1986, admissions were closed. It might have been a place to take Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter. Had he been living there, he would not have collected what police found in his room: several firearms, more than 1,600 rounds of ammunition, 11 knives, a starter pistol, a bayonet, 3 samurai swords, photographs of what appeared to be a corpse smeared in blood and covered in plastic, as well as a newspaper clipping that chronicled a vicious shooting at Northern Illinois University.

Instead, his treatment was managed by a distraught mother, a gun enthusiast. He spent his days in front of a video war game, "Call of Duty," and taking target practice in his basement.

He was a graduate of Sandy Hook Elementary School.

We might very well suggest how atypical that tragedy was. Our attention was drawn to it because it was atypical - middle-class Connecticut suburb, little white children, negligible crime rate. But to do so is to ignore the blood of others that cries out against us from the ground. Homicide, almost always by firearms, is the leading cause of death for African-Americans between the ages of 12 and 19. While we take our kids to tutoring for their bat or bar mitzvah, while we celebrate them on the bimah, while we guide them through confirmation and college applications and USY, while we pack them up and send them off to campuses with admonitions to avoid overindulgence, parents of black children are teaching their kids how to avoid being shot to death, usually by other children, but sometimes by a legally registered concealed weapon in the hands of a mistrustful volunteer neighborhood patroller, because we have validated as constitutional laws that permit private citizens to stand their ground.

With so many problems facing us today, why do I bring this one to your attention? Why not our compromised environment, why not the murderous radicals who pervert Islam, why not the tenuousness of our economy, why not our deteriorating infrastructure of roads and bridges, why not any of the swords of Damocles we have suspended, willing or unwilling, over our heads?

The answer lies in our responsibility, the kind of responsibility upon which we reflect individually in this day's liturgy. The success of the so-called gun lobby is not a function of dollars or influential advocates. It is a function of our willingness to allow our fears and insecurities to be addressed in the fantasy of an AK47 preventing a communist Islamist immigrant drug-dealing rapist from despoiling a flaxen-haired child while on his way to poison our water supply and blow up the Superbowl. Our responsibility as Jews and as Americans is to pray for the welfare of the government of the people, by the people and for the people, and not to consider a deadly weapon to be an ornament, a symbol of potency, a substitute for the presumed evil of those who are elected to secure the blessings of liberty to us and our posterity.

This issue, this devotion to defining our worth by destructive power, this substitution of a murder weapon for meaning, this neglect of the least among us whose value we have dismissed is the very cry Abel's blood hurled against God, and it is the cry of our brothers' and sisters' blood against us today.

The likelihood of a firearm intruding in your life is very small. In 99 years, to the best of my knowledge, no firearm has been discharged in this building. Not counting the BB holes in a few windows, no one has ever shot at Agudas Achim. One hundred other calamities are more likely, God forbid, poo poo poo.

All the more reason to resolve to seek a wise and effective approach to these preventable causes of death and injury. Because by this time tomorrow you will have promised to live a better year. Because the sins that can be contained in this room can be resolved in this room, but others cannot. Because the unalienable right to life is a more important value than the legislated right to bear arms. Because we are our brothers' keepers.

Because whether to us or against us, the blood of our brothers and sisters cries out from the ground.

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