TRUTH / EMET: Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5778 (2017)

I promise this sermon will not be entirely political, but last week, the headline in The Jewish Week read: “Rabbis to Tiptoe around Trump”. Not this rabbi! So, I do want to start with the political world, so that you can follow my thought process and together we can arrive at a more interesting question.

Whew - what a year it’s been!

I promise this sermon will not be entirely political, but last week, the headline in The Jewish Week read: “Rabbis to Tiptoe around Trump”. Not this rabbi! So, I do want to start with the political world, so that you can follow my thought process and together we can arrive at a more interesting question.

Do you remember inauguration day, back in January? Around here, the mood was pretty grim, and at Kavana we decided to deflect towards Inauguration Weekend of Service and Learning. Many of us couldn’t even bear to watch the actual event. Apparently we weren’t the only ones…photos, official estimates from both journalists and from Federal and local agencies informed that this was not a particularly large inauguration crowd. But then, when speaking on behalf of the administration, Sean Spicer claimed that this “was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”, and then Kellyann Conley referred to the president’s “alternative facts.”

Truly, I don’t care how many people witnessed that day in January. With Kellyann Conley, Sean Spicer, and unfortunately the president too, the jokes seem to write themselves… as evidenced by Spicer’s appearance at the Emmy’s last weekend.

But, I do care, very deeply, about the debates that were stirred up, and this is my serious question for tonight: On this holiday, when we affirm the foundations of the world and of our beliefs, what do we hold as truth? What is true? What is true for me personally (we might ask), and what is true for all of us together? What does it mean to believe in truth, when society is calling the very notion of truth into question?

Because the country’s moral compass is at such a risk of spinning wildly, someone or something has to remind us of our bearings.

Truth is everywhere in the liturgy, always, and especially during these High Holidays. The Hebrew word for truth is Emet. It’s spelled Alef, Mem, Tav – beginning, middle, and end of the alef-bet – as if to say that Emet reaches from end to end, and is all encompassing.

The word EMET can be like a scavenger hunt over these holidays, as you encounter the liturgy of the machzor. Here are but a few examples of where you might find it in the prayerbook:

- End of Shema – “Adonai Eloheichem EMET” bridges from the final words of shema (“Ani Adonai Eloheichem”) to “EMET V’emunah kol zot” or “EMET V’yatziv” – affirmation

- In Aleinu: “Hu eloheinu ein od, EMET malkeinu efes zulato”

- Blessing after Aliyah: “asher natan lanu Torat EMET” (Torah of truth)

- In 13 Attributes: “Adonai Adonai el rachum v’chanun, erech apayim v’rav chesed ve’EMET.”

- In Unetaneh Tokef: “EMET ki atah hu dayan u’mochiach” & “EMET ki atah hu yotzram v’atah yodeia yitzram ki heim basar va-dam”

- End of Hineni: “’Ha-EMET v’ha-shalom ehavu’ v’lo yhi shum michshol bit’filati.”

So, it sounds like truth is pretty important in Judaism.

In the interests of not overstating, I do want to offer a caveat. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says: “The world stands on three things: on Truth, on Justice, and on Peace.” But, in Judaism, Truth with a capital T is not THE absolute value. In the case of a values conflict, where two different core values go head to head, truth will capitulate, most often to Peace. Here are a few examples:

1) 3rd, 4th & 5th graders in Havdalah Club tackled this question last year: How does one dance and sing before the bride, according to the Talmud? The School of Hillel says: one should always tell a bride that she is beautiful. The School of Shammai challenges: but what if she really isn’t beautiful? Does not the Torah teach “keep far from false words” (Ex. 23:7)? Yet Hillel’s opinion prevails… with the sages concluding “one should always try to get along well with people.”

2) When God tells Sarah that she will bear a child with Abraham, she laughs and says “and my lord is old” (meaning, seriously, but Abraham is an old man!). God then reports Sarah’s words to Abraham as “Now that I am old” so as not to offend him. The sages notice this, of course, and conclude that the truth can be shaded for the sake of family peace.

3) There’s a Midrash on the creation of humanity, that was inspired by the question, “who is God speaking to when God says in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make the earthling (Adam) in our image, like us…”:

Rabbi Simon said, “When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, ‘Let him be created,’ whilst others urged, ‘let him not be created.’ Thus it is written, Love and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace combated each other (Ps .85:11). Love said, ‘Let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love;’ Truth said, ‘Let him not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood;’ Righteousness said, ‘Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds;’ Peace said, ‘Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.’ What did the Holy One do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground.” (Genesis Rabbah, 8:5)

So, Truth/ Emet can be subservient at times to other values such as Peace or Love.

But, Truth cannot always be bent. There is a limit. My colleague Rabbi Sharon Brous quoted that mishnah at rally a few weeks ago in L.A., speaking in defense of the Dream Act. These are her words:

“In the Jerusalem Talmud, we learn that the world stands on three things: on Truth, on Justice, and on Peace.* And I want to speak to that for just one moment.

First, is Truth. And I know that in some corners of our country today, the deliberate promulgation of misinformation, of lies, seems to rule the day. We cannot allow this conversation about immigrant communities to be framed by lies. While the administration claims that the reason to rescind DACA was built on the racist lie that Dreamers are members of rival gangs, and that it’s necessary to contain our immigrant populations in order to ensure safe communities and a robust middle class and economic fairness for all Americans. We know that this is deliberately false.

We know that Dreamers don’t want to be put up on a pedestal and expected to be better than anybody else, but we also know at the same time that more than 90% of Dreamers are employed, that they are more than twice as likely as other Americans to start their own businesses, that they pay taxes, that they’re not eligible for Federal welfare, and that 70% of them are pursuing or have already obtained a bachelors degree.

It’s absolutely essentially that we make sure that truth is central to the conversation that we’re having nationally about immigration today.”

So, returning to our questions: What is true? What do we hold as truth?

The word EMET has been rolling around in the back of my head for months… I’ve had a song stuck in my head (an earworm!) from Birkot HaShachar, which was taught to me many years ago by my colleague Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, who learned it at the Leader Minyan in Jerusalem. It goes like this:

L’olam yehei adam
Y’rei shamayim
B’seter u’va’galui
U’modeh al ha-emet
V’dover emet bilvavo
V’yashkeim v’yomar.

A person should always be
in awe of heaven,
in private and openly,
and should acknowledge what is true,
and speak truth in one’s own heart.
And rise up and say:

Why this has been rolling around in my head for months now? The two phrases that keep getting to me: “umodeh al ha-EMET” and “v’dover EMET bilvavo”. So, I did what rabbis do, I did a little digging into the context and meaning of each phrase, and I want to share what I learned with you now as a framing for the work that each of us has to do over the next ten days.

I’m going to take the two phrases in backwards order:

1. "v'dover emet bilvavo" – “a person should always speak truth in his heart.”

This, it turns out, is a quote that comes from Psalm 15, which perhaps I should have recognized but didn't (I often recite it at funerals). [READ PSALM 15]

In the context of the Psalm, it seems to be part of a purity check-list... these are the items that characterize someone who can dwell on God's holy mountain.

This is the time of year for re-centering ourselves. The imagery about the creation of the world is really about its foundation – the world standing firm. We too need to stand firm and plant truth, not only externally but even in our own hearts. That means having an accurate self-perception (not self-aggrandizement or narcissism), and not allowing our mind to be bent when someone else calls our core beliefs into question.

At this time of year when we too yearn to come close – to dwell on the holy mountain -- what are our truths that we tell ourselves in our hearts?

This High Holidays, part 1 of your assignment is to find your own truth. Find our collective truth. See if you can answer the question for yourselves: What ideas and values do you believe in most deeply, and root your life around? “V’dover emet bilvavo” -- What truth is speaking in your heart?

2. "u'modeh al ha-emet" – “and to acknowledge the truth”

This phrase, it turns out, comes from Pirke Avot 5:7, where it appears in a Mishnah that contrasts the wise person and the unformed person (golem)... [READ PIRKE AVOT 5:7]

In context, this mishnah seems to me to be about understanding the rules of good and fair debate – you speak to the first point first and the last point last, you must actually answer the question that was asked, you must say “I don’t know” if you don’t know. And, to that list of debate guidelines is added that you must “acknowledge the truth”… which I think really means concede the truth if someone else makes a solid argument or adds a piece of information to the debate that is persuasive.

The way I’m reading “modeh al ha-emet” here is that it’s about conceding a point when someone else possesses truth in a debate. Modeh al ha-emet is responsible for a lot of the change that we make over time.

We gain new information and new “truths” all the time… but the tricky part – to do teshuvah, meaning to allow oneself to change -- is about how we assimilate that into our world views.

I’ll offer a couple of personal examples:

Growing up, I remember a time before recycling, when taking care of the earth basically meant picking up trash from a park or adopting a stretch of highway. Experience and science have given us new data, and if the research wasn’t enough, this stretch of months with hurricanes and monsoons and droughts and wildfires has driven home the point that our climate on Planet Earth is changing. Data points to the fact that it’s the human impact on the planet that’s responsible, and this has gradually emerged to be a pillar of truth for me. To “modeh al ha-emet” means to figure out how to change my behavior accordingly.

A second example, and this one feels a bit more incriminating or perhaps even embarrassing: As many of you know, I grew up in South Carolina, long after the Civil Rights movement, in a household and community that explicitly taught that racism was wrong. And yet, when I was in high school and joined BBG – a youth group for Jewish teens – there was a Confederate flag at every meeting and convention, as the kids from South Carolina and Georgia constituted a regional group known as “Dixie Council”. I was never really in favor of that flag, but I didn’t stand against it either… honestly, I just didn’t get it. Over time, I’ve come to hear the truth of others like Bree Newsome – who scaled the flagpole outside the SC state house in 2015 and pulled down the flag. Through her words and actions, I started to see exactly what that flag means to those who were oppressed. And I have to “modeh al ha-emet”… I could never in good conscience repeat that behavior that happened so mindlessly in my youth.

There are countless other examples – waking up to the suffering of the Palestinians and the hands of Israel as an occupying power, waking up to understand new truths about gender as not always binary and having to feel out the implications. Sometimes we need to repent that we didn’t catch on sooner… but meanwhile, “modeh al ha-emet” is all about the human power to concede, to grow, and to change, and that’s why in Pirke Avot it is the characteristic of the chacham/ the wise person.

So, those are the two assignments for these holidays. Ask yourself these questions:

1) This year: what will be my truth? What will be our truth? Where will I plant myself, and what will I rally around? Where do I put a firm stake in the ground and know that I’m standing unshakable?

2) And – simultaneously – what truths do I need to concede this year? What have I been unable to see, or see fully -- about myself, about my relationships, about my priorities, about my sense of right and wrong?

Go personal. Go deep. This space is safe, as we’re all in it together.

One last text – as I simply can’t resist sharing this one. There is a Talmudic text about what will happen in the time before Mashiach comes (Sanhedrin 97a):

It is taught that Rabbi Yehuda says: During the generation that the son of David comes, the hall of the Assembly of the Sages will be a place of prostitution, and the Galilee will be destroyed… and refugees who flee the neighboring gentiles will circulate from city to city and will receive no sympathy. The wisdom of scholars will diminish, and sin-fearing people will be despised. And the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog.

And the truth will be lacking, as it is stated: “vat’hi ha-emet ne’ederet,” “And the truth is lacking [ne’ederet], and he who departs from evil is negated”(Isaiah 59:15). What is the meaning of the phrase: And the truth is lacking [ne’ederet]? The Sages of the study hall of Rav said: This teaches that truth will become like so many flocks [adarim] and walk away. What is the meaning of the phrase: “And he that departs from evil is negated”? The Sages of the study hall of Rabbi Sheila said: Anyone who deviates from evil is deemed insane by the people. 

Maybe this is as dark as it will get, this time when TRUTH seems to be getting up like a flock of sheep and walking away from us. We pray on these holidays for redemption, and commit ourselves to working to make it a reality.

At a time when our society’s moral compass is spinning out of control, these High Holidays come to remind us of our bearings. EMET. EMET. EMET.