Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel

85 Harrison Street, New Haven, CT 06515-1724 | P: 203.389.2108 |

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Who Can You Trust? Rosh HaShana 5763 – 2002 (Day 1)

Rosh HaShana 5763 – 2002 (Day 1)

During my years as a student in Jerusalem I rode the busses a lot. Egged busses. Every day. From one end of town to the other on bus 26 or 4א, and from Jerusalem to the coast. One of the drivers had a bumper sticker inside his bus, on the partition behind his seat. It read Yisrael betah ba-shem Jewish People! Trust God!

I would repeat that to myself, quite often, as I looked at the driver’s face in his oversized interior mirror and watched him nodding off.

Who can you trust? How about government leaders? We are very proud of our local government here in New Haven. We have several excellent aldermen and dedicated government workers. And our mayor is not in prison.

How about our Presidents? How far can you trust them? Well, how far can you throw them? What word would you use to describe a citizen who believes campaign promises? Who elected these guys anyway?

The Psalmist wrote,

Put no trust in the powerful, in mortals who cannot save. Their breath departs, they return to dust, and that is the end of their grand designs.
Psalm 146:3-4

The dilemma for elected officials is that sometimes we want them to carry out the popular will, as our representatives, and at other times we want them to do the right thing, even though it is not what the public wants. They just can’t win. Politicians, as a group, are probably no more or less trustworthy than anyone else; it’s just that they do have more power. The politician who is trustworthy is considered outstanding and is deemed a “statesman.”

To be trustworthy means, in part, to be reliable, to stand by one’s words and principles. The personal quality of character of being an ‘omer ve-`ose – one who “says, then does,” that is, does what he or she says — that quality of character is considered by our sages “Divine.”

It is a commentary on the times in which we live that the very idea of a lifetime commitment to ideals and principles is considered unusual, if not downright strange.

Jean Tilsen Brust, Introduction to Defending Principles: The Political Legacy of Bill Brust, Labor Publications, Southfield MI, 1993, p. i.

During the past year, there has been a lot of talk about making us safer after the September 11 attack. There are some good people working hard on this. And there also are a lot of people trying to make a lot of money or gain votes from this.

Rabban Gamliel said: “Be wary of the ruling authorities! They do not befriend anyone unless it serves their own needs. They appear as a friend when it is to their own advantage, but do not stand by a person in an hour of need” (Avot 2:3). Gamliel said that while Israel was under Roman occupation. But it still has a ring of truth, even in an age of democracy.

Who can you trust? How about doctors? Personally, I like most doctors. I was asked, “Rabbi, what happens if someone becomes ill in the synagogue during services on Rosh HaShana?” I’m not worried about that. What I’m worried about is, What if someone gets sick somewhere else? We have a very fine group of physicians, PAs, RNs in this room today. Now, the health care system is not what it should be; the end result is less than the sum of its parts. But the medical people are mostly quite good. Even so, many people don’t trust doctors.

My Grampa Ed didn’t fully trust doctors. When Gramma Esther was 60 years old, the doctor took Grampa Ed aside and told him that because of her heart condition, she wouldn’t be around much longer. Thirty-five years later, she was still walking and talking and taking care of Ed. She didn’t have much by way of short-term memory, but she could walk around the block and eat whatever she wanted. So Grampa Ed didn’t fully trust doctors.

Grampa Ed himself was quite strong and healthy into his eighties — he could still portage his canoe. But by the time he was in his 90s, a series of strokes left him unable to see or walk. His mind was still quite sharp. He would listen to Twins games on WCCO 830 AM or whatever was broadcast on the radio. But he had to rely on others for everything else. He had to cut back on smoking his pipe, and probably went without whisky for the last couple years of his life. Nevertheless, he still shared a room with his beloved Esther, whom he married in Ashley, North Dakota, in 1916.

When Esther’s time came, closer to age 100 than to 90, their five children were gathered around her bed as she drew her final breaths. Ed was in his own bed nearby in the same room. After a few minutes, his eldest daughter approached him, and spoke into his ear. “Daddy,” she said, “the doctor has just declared Mother dead.” After a moment, Ed responded, “Can you get a second opinion?”

Doctors are like anyone else, more or less. Listen to what they say, but get a second opinion.

So who are you going to trust? How about clergy?

Here’s a reading list — these are actual book titles: Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and The Sexual Abuse of Children; Is Nothing Sacred? When Sex Invades the Pastoral Relationship; Restoring the Soul of a Church: Healing Congregations Wounded by Clergy Sexual Misconduct; Pedophiles and Priests: Anantomy of a Contemporary Crisis; Sex in the Parish; Sex in the Forbidden Zone; Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis. Publications dates: 1992; 1989; 1995; 1996, 1990, 1991, 1995. Boqer tov Vatican City. But it is not just about Catholic priests. Sexual abuse by clergy is truly non-denominational, ecumenical and interfaith.

The most shocking fact that emerges from an unbiased study of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is that it seems to occur at about the same rate as sexual abuse by school teachers, youth group leaders, daycare workers and clergy in the non-Catholic world. Apparently, Catholic priests are no worse than anyone else in this matter. I don’t know if that makes me feel any better.

We do not have reliable statistics. My guess is that sexual abuse of children by rabbis is not common. What is common, though, is rabbis having “affairs” with members of their congregations — not at BEKI, though.

Here’s a letter I received a few weeks ago:

Dear Rabbi,

I may leave the church because the cases of terrible child molestation seem to be systemic throughout the church’s US bureaucracy. It’s disgusting—and truly evil—that the priests would prey upon little kids and teenagers, and it’s horrifying that the Catholic Bishops have been protecting the priests instead of the children. Besides the horribleness of it all, it raises many questions about the church itself. How can a priest be a conduit (for all of us) to God’s messages or (for Christians) a representative of Jesus?

Dear faithful friend,

Any organization must be run by people, with all of their imperfections. I don’t think the problem necessarily invalidates the religious message or foundation of the Church (not that I agree with it). If humans, whether priests or prophets, are a conduit between God and humanity, then there is inherently going to be some “distortion.” It doesn’t mean the message was not sent or received.

Have you spoken with a trusted local priest? It might be helpful to hear, directly, his perspective.

Even as Judaism and some forms of Christianity place more emphasis on Scripture and prayer than on priests as the “conduit” to God, the problem remains that “Scripture is written in human language” (as the rabbis put it), and in any case its interpretation is limited by our language, intelligence and experience. There is a difference between a religious teaching that claims to “have” the truth, and one that claims to be “seeking” the truth. I could only be comfortable with the latter. (June 2002)

That was my answer.

Well, I just hope the great religious leaders of the past were more trustworthy than those of today. And I hope the leaders of the future will be, too.

So if you can’t trust your government leaders, doctors, or clergy, who can you trust?

Yisrael betah ba-shem” Jewish People! Trust God!

Now my Grampa Ed trusted God. He generously supported his local synagogue and gave to every charity that asked. He was decent, honest, hard-working, and respected by those who knew him. He helped people out, in a quiet and dignified way. He never intentionally hurt anyone.

But his last few years of life were filled with bodily suffering. One of his grandchildren asked him, “Grampa, you’ve always been a good person, so why does God reward you with such suffering?”

“I asked Him,” said Ed, “and He said He was sorry, He made a terrible mistake.”

Astonished, the grandson pressed further, “Don’t you think it is time to abandon this God?”

“Listen,” Ed said. “You don’t kick a man when he’s down.” (Thanks to Steve Brust for this story.)

You know the old line: The sign in the bar that reads “In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash.” You have to put your trust somewhere. But can you trust God?

Time after time, the Almighty seems to let us down. Pogrom, Holocaust, terror; cancer, heart disease, AIDs; flood, hurricane, earthquake. The death of children. The suffering of the innocent. The God we would like to believe in would not make this happen, would not let this happen. What kind of a world is this, anyway?

The God that we want to believe in, the God we want to trust, is a God who knows our hearts and loves us, who protects us from pain, who creates a world of justice, decency, love. Unfortunately, when we look out the window, we do not see this God. This is not the God we experience — this is not the world we experience.

The God we want is not the God of the Torah, either. The God of the Torah is at times vengeful, capricious, inflicting suffering on the guilty and righteous alike.

Actually, it seems that the God of the Torah is remarkably similar to the God we experience — the God we see out the window. The God of the Torah is, in many ways, “realistic.” I know that there are many here who believe in a Supreme Being, “The Force,” but not necessarily in God as presented in the Torah. It is at this point of faith that the question of Jewish religious identity becomes problematic.

Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century addressed this dilemma by maintaining that the single essential teaching of Judaism is that there is One God and this God demands ethical behavior of us. The halakha, Jewish law, and ritual practices, were deemed largely irrelevant. The Torah itself was understood as a human attempt to infer the Divine will — a noble but outdated document. They chose the God we wish above the God we wrote.

There are a lot of things in our world that we don’t understand. We don’t understand the larger context, if any, of our lives. We don’t understand the physical world in which we live — quantum mechanics, creation, gravity, time. We can’t explain our world. But it is a mitzva — a religious imperative — to investigate and try to understand how our world works, whether it is quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, the origin of life or the nature of human consciousness. To the sages of Israel, science is a religious quest (see Maimonides, Mishnei Torah, opening chapters).

People say, “Life isn’t fair.” That is absolutely true. But never should this fact be used as an excuse to perpetrate or perpetuate injustice. As Ezekiel (18:25) prophesied:

Va’amartem lo yitakhen…

Yet you say, The way of Adonai is unfair.
Listen, O House of Israel: Is My way unfair?
Is it not your ways that are unfair?
Repent therefore and live.

There is a lot that we don’t know about our world and the meaning of our lives. We are playing a game and don’t know the rules; we are in a play but don’t know our roles. Our eternal lives may depend on our answer, but we are not sure of the question.

Our Creator is the original “‘omer ve-`ose” – one who “says, then does,” that is, “does what he or she says.” It’s written right there in Genesis: “God said, ‘Let there by light,’ and there was light.”

There are certain things about our world that seem to be pretty consistant. They are laws of nature, or pattern of existence. Here are some examples.

  • If you drop a stone on earth it will fall
  • If you do not feed a child enough he or she will starve
  • If you harm someone, the victim will be angry
  • If there are no jobs, people will suffer from unemployment

Someone should get an award for these discoveries.

A good music teacher engages the students’ attention, and motivates them to learn the elements of music, the techniques of the instrument, to play the scales, and only then are they able to create the symphony. The student has to have faith. A good story teller may place intriguing clues and cast interesting plot lines, but only at the end of the story does it all come together and make sense. The reader has to have faith.

My father used to tell me about one of his Hebrew School teachers, Mar Gordon, who would tell the class captivating stories about his adventures. My father noticed that when class time was running out, Mar Gordon would die — in his story, that is. At some point my father concluded that the stories probably were fiction.

Is our world fact or fiction? I am convinced it is supposed to be real. I act accordingly, despite doubts and occasional incredulity. Thus is my faith in God.

Because of the Khurbn [Holocaust], some people lost faith in humanity. And some people lost faith in God. I’m not sure which is worse.

We have been given an extraordinary world. This is the world God created. It is as real as can be. Indeed, Maimonides defines truth as that which God creates. Our world is “true” and real by definition. There is a peculiar passage at the end of the Torah account of the week of creation:

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done.

God finished God‘s work. But the earth was not at all finished. It was not the way it was supposed to be, not in its final form. It still needs to be completed, to be fixed up, to be made the way it should be. We are supposed to make the world ourselves. We are to deduce our own purpose, we are to accept the assignment. “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make a safe, happy, caring world for everyone. I have given you a true Torah, an inquisitive intellect, a loving heart, a strong hand.”

Like a dance, like a religious ritual, like music without words, our world has patterns and structures, but we must deduce, impute or supply meaning. My trust in God is that there can be meaning, that someone will pay attention to the story.

Your life is a mystery boat ride. You don’t know where you came from or where you’re going. You don’t know why you’re on it, or what’s below the surface or around the bend. You do know the water is wet and the air is sweet. Don’t make a hole in the floor, and don’t lean too far out the side. Don’t fight the boat. Just row your boat, gently down the stream.

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