I need to start my sermon to you here today by breaking the fourth wall. That term, if you aren’t familiar with it, comes from the world of theater. Wikipedia refers to it as “a performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot.” You may not have realized it, but there is a fourth wall in sermon-giving, though obviously it’s different. I’m speaking to all of you directly, so clearly the wall separating us doesn’t exist right here, somewhere between the amud, this table, and the first row of pews. In my case, the wall I need to break is, in a sense, behind me. You see, I usually show up on the High Holidays, as all rabbis do, with a fully prepared and polished sermon, ready to deliver. (Unless I’m pretending to have the wrong speech…) The writing of it was effortless, the words flowed forth like a well-spring… and it’s goooood.
Folks, I struggled this year. I mean REALLY struggled, and that’s actually saying something, because last year my son was three months old and wasn’t sleeping. Our house was then plagued with mold, so much so that we had to move out and descend upon Amy and David Pollack, who so, so generously and graciously allowed us to bring a 3.5 year old bull in a china shop and a screaming infant into their home for weeks!! And this year’s sermons have been harder to write than last year’s!!
I’m breaking the fourth wall to share a little about WHY it’s been so challenging. Like my sermon yesterday, today I want to continue to talk to you about emotions, and about how most of us aren’t fully utilizing our feelings as well as we could be. As you can imagine, I interact with a lot of people. In my office, in services, in our wider community, I have noticed MANY people apologizing for tears, doing their darndest not to get too angry, being passive-aggressive in various relationships, or feuding with family members. And those are the high-functioning, well-adjusted ones! I also speak to colleagues regularly - other rabbis, but also priests, imams, and other faith leaders - and we all see it. I confer with psychologists, social workers, and teachers, and they see it too. I’m also not preaching this message from up high on my pulpit; I’ve been seeing a therapist weekly for nearly all eight years I’ve been here, and believe you me, I struggle to find a balance between my emotions ALL. THE. TIME. Anxiety, anger, disappointment, frustration, but even joy, praise, and pride. I’m working on all these just like the rest of you!
Let me pause here for a second. One of my most well-known High Holiday sermon topics was “Guilt-Free Judaism” from a few years back, and even now, every so often, when I tell someone I feel guilty about this, that, or the other thing, they seem surprised, and remind me of my sermon series on No Guilt. And my response is always, “Why do you think I devoted all those sermons to that topic?? Because I struggle with this! All my sermon themes - pride, mindfulness, love of self and others, sustainability, and now this year’s topic: harmony - I chose them all because I’m in the trenches WITH you. And I know I’m not alone. But the reason this subject is so hard for me is not because I’m uncomfortable sharing my own vulnerabilities. That isn’t easy, mind you, but I can handle that part. I have no problem telling you I see a psychologist; I think everyone should! We all definitely need it, and investing in a therapist is self-care, it’s an investment in yourself and your mental health. If you want to talk more about this, PLEASE let me know.
Instead, the reason why this is hard, is because I genuinely think you all need to work on these issues too. Today’s sermon is about anger. In the time that we have together now, I want to share some Biblical quotes and some statements by researchers, and I want to make you aware of one particular issue that worries me, that we should all think more about, AND more importantly act to try and change… BUT I also really want and need you to hear the underlying message about you and your emotions. Some of you may even be tempted to come up to me after services, or after the holidays, and tell me how you’ve absolutely worked on this for years and you’re in complete balance with your emotional faculties. Yesterday I talked about emodiversity, the importance of feeling a deep, rich variety of emotions, and being able to cycle between them mindfully, intentionally, and without judgment. You may want to come and tell me you’ve hit it, you are emodiverse! I’m just not sure it’s something we ever complete; we’re always a work in progress. But you can still tell me that, if you’d like.
Rav Avraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, corroborated this statement nearly one hundred years ago. We are ALWAYS a work in progress was Rav Kook’s opinion as well, stating that teshuvah, repentance, is so important that if we strive for perfection, if we think we’re ever actually going to be perfect, whole, complete, and flawless, we’re actually undermining the process of teshuvah. Aiming for perfection, rather than just improvement, is actually a sin in-and-of-itself, because it somehow suggests the process of changing, evolving, and repairing has an end-goal. It doesn’t. But even if there is no perfect, final product we’re seeking, we still have to keep working on ourselves. Pirkei Avot, the 2,000 year old rabbinic work known as Ethics of Our Fathers, adamantly insists, “You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Are you starting to see why these sermons were so hard to write this year? This is a TOUGH balancing act! I don’t want to convey an over-arching, macro-level message about the world and people in general; I am trying to speak to YOU. But I know that’s uncomfortable, and I know that’s a harder message to receive. Hence my borrowing from a lot of Biblical prophets, who ALSO found it hard to get through to people. I don’t think you’re TRYING to resist; I don’t imagine you’re unwilling to change or that you’re not interested in hearing this message from me, specifically. But change is hard. Change is ALWAYS hard... for all of us.
There is also a second reason why my sermons this year were more challenging to write; namely our world and our country right now. Like all of you, I have concerns and fears. (That’s kind of a peak behind the fourth wall too, but I doubt that statement comes as a shock to anyone…) But what can I say about it? How can I address the turbulence and uncertainty that is EVERYWHERE, when it’s also so divisive, and people in this room probably have strong feelings on BOTH sides of, well, EVERY issue??? Another challenging juggling act… I recognize that some people come to synagogue to find a calm from the storm, to get away from all that mess out there, to find Sanctuary. But even the very word “Sanctuary” has become political! I find it so fascinating that the term for our holiest space, our sanctuary, has become an emblem of the struggle between federal and state law, or federal ICE officials and local law enforcement, with sanctuary states and sanctuary cities. This co-opting of a word is a good analogy for my dilemma. Even our sanctuaries are no longer sanctuaries. There’s no place to hide; we are forced to engage.
Furthermore, my wife sent me an online article, written by Jan Zauzmer, a former president of a large Reform Congregation here in the Philadelphia area, entitled, “Dear Rabbis: Please Talk Politics During the High Holidays.” Zauzmer writes, “I believe this is the reason you became rabbis: TO teach the community in unsettling times. To stand up for truth when others twist facts like pretzels. To demand that those in power denounce and defeat the ugliness of neo-Nazism and racial prejudice… to cry out when, in contravention of every message in our Torah, political leaders insist that we not welcome the stranger, that we not care for the less fortunate, that we not treat others as we want to be treated.”
She’s right. I know it, you know it… it’s just hard to stand up here, in front of all of you, and speak to political matters, even when there’s a moral and/or Biblical dimension to them. It goes against a lot of what I was taught in rabbinical school, and what some of you may think a rabbi is meant to do. But I lean on the words of a colleague and good friend of mine, the Rev. Peter Friedrichs, who is the pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Media. He said there’s a difference between being political and being partisan. We shouldn’t be partisan… but we kind of have to be political. He’s right too. I don’t want to endorse any candidates or decry any specific politician, but you and I DO need to talk about some tough, political subjects because of our moral imperative. We must! Fourth wall be damned.
All of this might make you angry. What you’ve heard so far in, essentially, the first half of my sermon, may already have made you mad and frustrated. Well, maybe that’s good. It’s all part of our emodiversity, and we need to get it out there. I censor anger in myself. It’s not a very flattering trait. We prefer to keep things level-headed, calm, in control. But anger burns hot, doesn’t it? It simmers for a while, but then starts to churn and boil. The prophet Jeremiah talked about it as “a blazing fire shut up in my bones.” We think we are in control, until we are not. And sometimes we may even be tempted to point out that our Jewish tradition frowns on anger. Our Judeo-Christian Bible has a lot to say about it, and it tells us NOT to get angry... doesn’t it? Several times in these High Holiday services, we’ve sung the 13 attributes of God, “Adonai, Adonai…” From Exodus, 34:6, one of God’s top-13 traits is “Erech Apayim,” slow to anger. See, see! The Torah says “don’t get angry”! Well, that’s not exactly what it says, does it? In actuality, the Torah is doing the opposite; it’s admitting that God DOES get angry, that anger IS a normal emotion for all of us, we just need to have some control over it, bring it into harmony with our other emotions, our other traits, and be mindful when we DO choose to bring out our anger.
The Book of Ecclesiastes does the same thing. In chapter 7, verse 9, it says: “Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, For anger resides in the bosom of fools.” We may be eager to use this too as proof that the Bible frowns on anger. But I see it as a reminder that it can get away from us. When left unchecked, when our anger rules us and we don’t rule it, it CAN make us look foolish and chaotic. But Ecclesiastes still knows it’s there. Anger isn’t an unflattering trait, it isn’t one of the “bad” emotions; it just is. And it can actually be a very powerful weapon when we need it, when we NEED to get furious, bring out our inner Incredible Hulk, and tear down injustice, oppression, and intolerance! (HULK SMASH!!)
I wonder if, like me, you do this too, if you keep the anger hidden under the surface, maybe even from yourself? It could be doing a lot of damage under there. At this High Holiday season, when we make resolutions and try to be better in the New Year, I encourage us all to dig a little bit and face some of those scary, unwanted, labeled emotions, and think about how to instead wield them as tools of creativity, kindness, and activism. Because there are REAL issues out there that SHOULD make us mad! We shouldn’t tolerate them. Let’s speak, for just a little bit, about one of them, though there are many more we could tackle. So, I still find myself mystified that climate change has become a political issue! How did it come to this? Our distrust and paranoia has gone so deep, that even the signs that our very planet is sending us, that it’s emphatically flashing at us in giant, neon-colored, billboard-sized letters, get ignored. We suffer massive hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean (poor Puerto Rico...), so-called “1,000-year storms,” and even though technically that doesn’t mean we should only get one in a millenium, it is also pretty clear that this is NOT normal. Forest fires, rising tides, massive earthquakes in Mexico, animal extinction; these are all messages, being conveyed loud and clear… but who’s listening?
Jeremiah, the prophet we mentioned earlier, stated in chapter 6, verse 10: “To whom shall I speak and give warning? No one will listen to me! Behold, their ears are closed and they cannot hear. Behold, the word of Adonai has become offensive to them; they do not want to listen at all.” Our political and business leaders do NOT want to listen. They withdraw us from international, global environmental treaties, like the Paris Accords, because they aren’t a good deal. They build giant pipelines under our homes and communities, like Sunoco’s Mariner East II, despite massive public outcry and tremendous concerns about safety hazards and environmental impacts. Even when the media DOES tackle this issue, and calls out Sunoco, the company just plows on through… literally! A few weeks ago, I wrote on my blog about Houston, and the disastrous impact of Hurricane Harvey. The damage was SO much worse, because the fourth largest city in the country has grown incredibly quickly and each new mall, each convention center, each housing development seems great. What’s the big deal? How does one more Walmart make a difference? Well, eventually the entire city is encased in concrete, one parking lot next to another, and flood waters that used to get soaked up by marshland and swamp have nowhere to go but people’s homes.
Issues like these SHOULD make us mad, they have to. Yesterday, I quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote extensively about the Biblical prophets, but also railed against injustices he saw in the world around him. Heschel wrote that we should be MORTIFIED by the inadequacy and superficiality of our own anguish when we witness the suffering of others. Exasperated, Heschel wrote: “We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.” Can this be true? And is this hard to hear? I hope so. It should be upsetting and disheartening, AND it should make you angry and want to change the script. If Heschel’s words are wrong, let’s prove him wrong, and if he’s right, well, then we have even more work to do to create a new narrative.
Let me remind you, Pirkei Avot informed us two thousand years ago - or should I say, what’s supposed to be two millenium-sized hurricanes ago - that we are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it. “Lo Alecha…” We’re not going to solve climate change, but that doesn’t absolve us - any of us - from doing our part. Here at Ohev Shalom, we’ve tried to make changes with our CSA, community-supported agriculture, with recycled paper in our newsletter and less paper mailings in general, and with other energy-saving changes around the building and in our practices. It’s hard, especially with a 50+ year old facility, but we’re trying. I especially want to acknowledge our Sustainability Task Force, led by Annie Fox, that is really trying to raise awareness at Ohev and get people involved. At the end of next month, we’re doing an entire weekend on Food Waste Awareness (Oct. 20-22); you should have received flyers about it in your holiday mailings. Food waste is another massive issue in this country, and the statistics on this are staggering. We can’t fix this issue, but we still don’t get a free pass either. Rav Kook reminded us, don’t aim for perfection! Nevertheless, we all have to do our part, and we need to take ownership of our communities, our country, and our planet.
One of the very first commandments in the entire Torah comes in the story of Creation, directed to the original humans in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 1:28, God blessed them and said: “ Be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth, and subdue it.” “Subdue it,” “Chivshuha,” what a terrible word. What horrendous damage it has caused throughout our history. A single word that gave us, human beings, license to destroy the earth at will, to encase its marshlands in concrete or bury a pipeline full of explosive natural gas liquids in its soil. In his book, “Judaic Ethics for a Lawless World,” Robert Gordis talks about the traditional Christian understanding of this verse, for centuries upon centuries, and how it was “giving men the license to use and abuse the natural world and its resources as they see fit, without limitation or restriction.” Gordis writes about how misguided this is, how it fundamentally misunderstood our relationship to our world, and our obligation to be stewards, guardians, keepers of our earth.
Two years ago, Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, published an environmental encyclical, Laudato Si, in which he too referred specifically to this infuriating verse in Genesis, this one devastating word. We humans, wrote the pope, broke our covenant with God. “The harmony between the Creator, humanity, and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to ‘subdue the earth.’” We got it wrong, and we’re still getting it wrong. And that SHOULD make us angry. But what are we going to do about our anger? We can’t ignore it, but we also can’t let it explode like a fire from inside our bones, or like an oil rig burning combustable material.
Maybe, instead, we can be Erech Apayim, slow to anger. We can let it build and develop, so that we can both control it and direct it where it needs to go. But we MUST direct it; we need to make use of it and break down the walls of our superficial, inadequate anguish. Our Sustainability Team needs your efforts and your passion. The people of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean need our help, but they also need to be careful and intentional when they rebuild so as not to keep perpetuating their, and our mistakes. And we all need to hold our lawmakers and leaders accountable for the decisions they make and the oaths they’ve sworn to uphold. Maybe Climate Change isn’t your thing, and you have other concerns at the top of your list. That’s ok. There are LOTS of causes and issues that need our attention, our energy, and our angry tools of change. But we DO need to get involved and become more informed and more intentional. This is me, pushing you, to strive a little more in the year ahead. Rav Kook reminded us we don’t need to be perfect. I know you aren’t, and believe me, neither am I. It’s just that, it’s not a good enough excuse. We are simply not free to desist from this task.
On Rosh Hashanah we sing “Ha-Yom Harat Olam,” “Today the world was created.” It is the birthday of our planet. Is that a scientific fact? No, it isn’t. But it IS a day to think about our world and our role in relationship to it. We are stewards of this place. God has entrusted us with it; not to take God’s place, but be partners with God and with the very planet itself. Please take that partnership and that stewardship seriously; don’t waste it. That would make me angry. And you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry…