by Rabbi Evan Schultz
Yom Kippur 5778
Rabbi Shimon said:
When God was about to create Adam, the first human being, the ministering angels split into contending groups. Some said, “let him be created!” while others cried “Let him not be created!” …
The angel of Mercy said, “let him be created, for he will do merciful deeds.”
The angel of Truth responded, “let him not be created, for he will be false.”
The angel of Righteousness said, “Let him be created, for he will do righteous deeds.”
The angel of Peace said, “Let him not be created, for he will never cease quarreling.”
God looked at the four angels and what did the Holy One do, God took the angel of Truth and cast her into the ground, hiding her deep within the earth, for God knew that it would be far too dangerous for her to dwell on earth among humanity.
This tale from our midrashic tradition sits deep within me on this Yom Kippur, this day of atonement. A parable which teaches us that even before the first human being roamed the earth, the very entity known as Truth, with a capital T, cast deep within the earth, hidden within the depths, beyond the reach of any mortal being. God set free the angels of Mercy, Righteousness and Peace, fluttering before our eyes as attainable and within reach. They sit perched, upon the trees and in the grass. They call to us, even if at times we ignore them.
It is the fourth angel, the angel of Truth, the divine minister that God buried deep beneath the surface, not only that so many of us seek, but who too many of us have claimed to have unearthed from the depths, clenched deep within our arms, like a precious ruby that we lock in a vault, protected so that no other may see it or experience its radiant beauty.
Oh angel of Truth, who among us has not at some point in our lives claimed to be in sole possession of her beauty, her secrets, her wisdom? The allure of this angel, blinding us to foolishly believe that we are right and they are wrong, that I am good and others are bad, that I love my country and others do not.
Today, on this Yom Kippur, we atone for the sin of ruthlessly pulling the angel of Truth from her hidden cave, of claiming her as our own; the only path towards making amends, is to return her to her resting place, deep within the depths, for we humans were never meant to know her – God knew it would be too dangerous for us all. Three angels sit before us, Mercy, Righteousness, Peace – God prompted them to fly freely through the realm of humans, yet so many of us ignore them, our only focus, our only allure, is that of Truth- only angel we humans were never meant to know.
I fear, perhaps, it is too late to return this angel to her place of rest. Like the feathers of a pillow released into the wind, there are too many who claim her. Too many groups of individuals who feel pulled to hold this angel high in the air claiming, “see this angel of Truth, her secrets belong to us and us alone!” And then one by one, we too fall victim to her pull, constantly asked whose side we are on, like gluttons, fed and fed the notion that our side is right, our side is Truth with a capital T, and they are wrong. And how it weighs on me not only to see it happening throughout our country, but even moreso to know I am guilty of it, we are all to blame.
Today we come to atone for this sin, this sin of certainty, as Rabbi Donniel Hartman describes it. “The certainty that I have the truth and others do not, he writes. The certainty that I am right and others wrong…The hubris of certainty [that] allows one to shun and shame those who do not share in the truth as you know it.”
What have we done? What kind of world have we created? When did we mistake our morals, values, and ideas for capital T Truth? When did each of our beliefs about the proper order of society become THE ideology? When did our practices and beliefs become more sacred than those of our neighbors? At what point did our stories become THE narrative of our country? Or to us the language of the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, when did those who disagree with us become mere objects rather than fellow human beings with whom we truly engage and hear?
Sacredness is not capital T Truth, but rather truth with a lowercase t – the symbols, places, people, events and principles that bind us together as one community. It is the morals, values, and ideas that prompt us to march, protest, and speak. It is the stories and narratives of our ancestors and grandparents, the profound events that compel us to welcome and love the stranger. Lower case t truth It is what binds us together in a deep and real way, it is our compass that guides us through this complex universe. But let us not for a moment confuse that which is sacred, that which is lower case t truth, with that which is she, the angel of Truth.
Those who know me know that allowing for multiple truths does not mean sitting on the sidelines. Our ancient rabbis shout to us that we are compelled to stand up for what we believe to be right, the ancient teachings of our tradition, and sacred heritage we each hold so dear. We come from a tradition that not only allows for, but honors disagreement, multiple opinions. Open up a page of Talmud and on any give issue, you’ll not only find the majority opinion on any given topic, but often one or two minority opinions. Every voice counts in our tradition; those who composed these sacred texts too knew that over time ideas might change, the world will shift, and those minority opinions may be what we need to guide us, that the notion of multiple beliefs was necessary for the survival of our faith.
I realize I must be careful here, as I preach this message of multiple truths,I assure you that I speak specifically of discussions and debates where there truly is nuance- I, nor should you, offer a hand to those who advocate and preach hate, bigotry, or the inhumanity of the other. I refer this morning to those contemporary issues and discussions where there rightly are shades of gray,opposing ideas which have been callously mistaken by one side or the other for Truth and Falsity.
Let us take an example from this past week,over whether or not it is appropriate for athletes to kneel during the national anthem. Let us not blind ourselves our government that now claims, at least on this matter, the angel of truth as the newest member of their cabinet. “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” professed Sarah Huckabee Sanders at a press conference this past Monday. In other words, if I hear her correctly, Colin Kaepernick, who time and time again has explicitly said that his kneeling during the national anthem was a protest against police brutality and unfair treatment of people of color, is wrong. And when another player, Eric Reid, said on Monday that players are taking a knee expressly not to protest the flag or the military, but to protest the “incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by police,” he too, is wrong.
Let me be clear. It’s fine, it is good, to take a side on the issue, what is not ok is claiming that your side is the ONLY side. I understand those who believe that kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful. I cannot take away from anyone that sacredness imbedded in the flag, or their tours of duty protecting our country. Our rabbis teach me to listen to them, to hear their stories, to understand their truths. And on the same token, who am I to tell a black man, who has witnessed his brothers and sisters shot by a police officer for a broken tail light, a man who has every day of his life been treated differently in this country because of his skin color, a man whose ancestors were brought to this country as mere possessions, that he is wrong? That I and I alone know what it means to be a true patriot? That I alone have unearthed the angel and she has shared with me Truth?
The great Kotzker Rebbe warned of the dangers of any one group claiming the angel of Truth as their own. In response to the parable I shared with you earlier, he asks why God only banishes the angel of Truth. Why not also the angel of Peace? This angel too argued against the creation of human beings, yet God let this angel remain. The Kotzker Rebbe responds to his question – that in banishing the angel of Truth, peace is ensured. If people knew that they could somehow hold the lightning rod of “the Truth,” then we would constantly be fighting with one another. Without the angel of Truth in our presence, there can be peace and much more.
Let us not ever fool ourselves into that the angel of Truth whispers into our ears. She lies buried so deep within the earth, no human has the ability to reach her. This is the message I share with you today. This is the one great Jewish idea that I repeat over and over again to my 8th grade students every week. Ask any one of them, what is the theme of Rabbi Schultz’s class? I hope, they will answer, we explore the question of how to negotiate between two right answers, or two difficult choices, that the world is nuanced and allows for multiple truths. Each week I present them with a dilemma, a situation in which there are multiple voices, competing narratives. For example, I ask them, “Let’s say you have $100 to give to tzedakah – to whom do you donate the money? “Do you give to hurricane relief or cancer research? To an LGBTQ center in Israel or to Operation Hope here in Fairfield? I prompt them to explore the competing multiple narratives, stories, pursuits of justice – to listen, both to themselves and to those who reach out to them, to understand that both options are right, that there is not some great hierarchy of need, no angel in our midst who will make things easy and tell us of the Truth.
This is why seventy of us gathered on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in early September to embark on a year long exploration of race in America, participating in a screening of the Tim Wise documentary White Like Me. We watched as we learned of the ways that our country has systematically made it twice as difficult for a person of color to succeed in this country than it has a white person. We gathered in small groups and each shared our own experience of race in America, each person bringing a different perspective and story. We gathered because our tradition compels us to gather. The Talmud presents the minority opinion to compel us to hear the minority voice. That yours and my story is not the only story. That there are multiple truths in this world and we are guilty of the sin of blinding ourselves to those stories. We don’t have to agree. It doesn’t necessarily have to change our mind. But we do need to listen.
I too want to share on a personal note, that following our presidential elections in November, I made a point to do one thing. To sit down with every person I knew who did not think or vote like me and hear them out. I called each of them up and said, let’s not debate issues. We can argue policy another time. I want to hear your story. Your upbringing, your fears, your hopes, what scares you. And I would like to share my story with you as well. And I sat and I listened. And I like to think they listened to me as well. Did it change the world? No. Did it change any of our opinions on the issues? Maybe. Did it frustrate us at times? Yes. I do know that in the time that I sat with them, we created a space that allowed for competing, multiple truths. We summoned the angels of mercy and peace to our table, and allows the angel of Truth to rest as God intended her to.
I’d like to close this morning with a story from our tradition.
Some of you may be familiar with the Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. Two great rabbis who would argue over every detail and aspect of Jewish law. Shammai would claim that his interpretations were correct, and Hillel would respond, “I understand your point of view Shammai,but my interpretation is correct. For three years the two men would argue back and forth. One day God had heard enough.God spoke to the two men, saying “Hillel, Shammai – enough bickering already. Let me settle this. The Jewish people should follow the interpretations of Rabbi Hillel, not those of Rabbi Shammai.”
A young student overheard God’s ruling and grew confused. “Wait, how can this be,” he asked. “How can you say that Jews should follow only Hillel and not Shammai? Don’t we teach in our tradition that there are multiple interpretations of Jewish law? ” God responded to the young student, “You are correct, both Hillel and Shammai offer valid interpretations of the law” The student then replied to the God, “If they both offer valid interpretations, then why did you say that one should only follow the opinions of Hillel?” God paused for a moment, and then responded to the young student, “Rabbi Hillel is both kind and gracious. When Hillel teaches, he teaches his students both his own opinions and the opinions of Rabbi Shammai. Not only that, but Hillel teaches Shammai’s rulings first, before he teaches his own opinions. (Eruvin 13b)
Just think, if you and I were to follow the example of Rabbi Hillel, as he would teach Rabbi Shammai’s ideas before teaching his own. Imagine what better listeners we’d be, the kind of empathy we might provoke, the deeper understanding we’d have for the other – if we were to articulate someone else’s truth before we speak our own.
This morning we atone. For the sin of certainty, for falsely believing that I, or we, own the Truth and others do not. The callous conviction that I am right and others are wrong. The harsh certainty that I do not need to hear the stories of others, because I know that I am right. This day of Yom Kippur is a day of teshuvah, of return. Let us return her, return this angel, angel of Truth to the place where God cast her to hide. Angel of mercy, angel of righteousness, angel of peace, we call to you, may you return to us, may you be present to each of us, may you be the angels that whisper into our ears, that powerfully guide us on this day, and each day forward. May it be so. Shanah Tovah.