The Grooves of God's Creations

Kol Nidre, 5779

            Let me tell you a story that our tradition tells.  In a faraway land a petulant and shallow woman decided that it was inconvenient to leave the comfort of her room to see her husband.  He was having a party and she was partied out or, as he assumed, she was probably just being moody and had no intention of spending her time with his friends.  She rebuffed all his attempts to join them.  Angry and hurt, he divorced her; this was the last indignity he was willing to suffer at her hands.  Yet, he was lonely and wanted companionship; and since he was a famous man, word travelled fast and reached all the available women who wanted to comfort him.

            And since he was a famous man of great means, word also got to a very different man, on the other side of the town.  This man encouraged his adopted niece, whom he took great care of, to meet this wealthy man, whom she may like and would certainly help to improve their quality of life.  She did and the wealthy man, no surprise, found her beauty to be show-stopping.  His search for a new wife did not need to go any further; he was happy.  Despite a few bumps along the way, namely some of his friends, they lived happily ever after.  After all, she married a king; her uncle… things also worked out well for him.

            Now let me tell you a story our tradition does not tell:  Once in a faraway kingdom sat a foolish and drunken king.  After a long period of partying and excess, he summoned his wife.  We know next to nothing about this queen, except that she was quite beautiful and the king wanted to show off her beauty to his drunken friends.  She refused to come; why we do not know:  neither her ancestors nor her peers got to write the story.

            The king asked his advisors what to do, and one said, “Not only has she refused you but insulted us all (1:16).”  She was banished from the kingdom, but not before letters were published in every county and public square attesting to her poor character.  The king then ordered all the single women of the kingdom to the palace so that he could find his new mate.  There was a wise and pious Jew in this kingdom.  Knowing that his young niece would find great favor in the eyes of the king, without question elevating his lot, he pushed her to join the royal pageant.

            I think we know the rest.  These are two different versions of the Purim story—the first we learned in Hebrew School, and the second is a literal telling.

            In Purim we get a wonderful holiday of noise and costumes, revelry and drink, carnivals and schtick.  But we are missing the reckoning?  Where is the sober assessing of what this story is, at least in part or from one neglected perspective, also about?  Yes, we should and need to find happiness in it—we survived, and we need one holiday that is just fun.  And yes there will always be forces, large and small, out to destroy us.  But today’s sermon is not about anti-Semitism—it’s about #metoo, the movement to stop sexual harassment and assault and to give voice to women whose voices and stories are ignored.  This sermon will seek to uncover the #metoo stories in the Torah, but not as consumers, not of a tainted art or its artist.  But as owners of a tradition that has sustained us and made us who we are, yet we have not gleaned all that it has to teach us.

            Purim is important because it is a holiday, because celebration is necessary, and because joy a value we need to embrace.  But so is the humanity of Vashti; we need to value her story before she was queen and her untold story afterwards.  So too are the unmet goals of Esther and who she was beyond her beauty and even beyond her being a heroine.  And, so is the great harm perpetrated not only by those who, in our tradition's view, literally wear the clothes of evil, Haman.  But, also by those who were excused, boys will be boys:  the innocent and harmless King Achaverosh and our beloved Moredechai, simultaneously the hero and maybe a real perpetrator of harm.

            The #metoo movement is a topic that I have wanted to talk about because of how fundamentally changed I feel by all that I have learned this year.  Of how I feel more sensitive to and aware of the potential experiences my wife, sister, and mother may have had to bear, whether it be first-hand or tangentially.  And I feel I a greater sense of urgency in teaching my daughters how to be in the world and, more importantly, that I need to be a better listener and learn from their experiences about how I need to be as a man.  But as the summer has pushed forward, I struggled with knowing whether or not this was an appropriate topic for a sermon.  Is this able to uplift or will it make people angry?  Does the sermon offer us anything tangible, does it provide space to become better people?  Will it simply make us feel worse about ourselves, or will it miss the mark because our hands are clean?  So why talk about this?

            We need to talk about this because these stories are not just about the rich and famous.  They are not exclusively about Presidents Clinton and Trump, but also about Abraham (who pawned his wife Sarah twice for his safety and ultimately allowed him to prosper) and King David (his affair with Bathsheba).  If these stories were solely “over there,” things that we would never do, then we are cheapening the bravery of those who have come forward, stopping their momentum, relegating the burden of responsibility to someone else.  #metoo is, and needs to be, about all of us; the headlines are about giving voice and name to the victims—about outing perpetrators.  It is about bringing some form of justice to those whose sins and crimes have been shielded or protected.  It may even be about bringing shame and/or at least some reckoning for those that knew yet chose to remain silent.

            Those stories are important and were long overdue, yet the news saturation with them has not allowed us to understand what this movement is really about at its core.  The headlines are not what I want to talk about; those were the stories of 5778 and, likewise, so is simply finding and naming the #metoo stories in the Torah for its own sake.  What we are after is something far bigger and more inclusive.

            From the days after Yom Kippur last year when the first Harvey Weinstein story broke until just last month with Leslie Moonves, this past year has been a cascading cacophony of men being outed and women getting to have their pain heard.  But we need to move beyond that.  Those headlines represent #metoo 1.0; we need to begin 2.0, where we all collectively delve deeper.

            First we need to do our work and find the #metoo stories in the Torah, because I am sure I am not alone in noticing how many of the people in the headlines were Jews.  This is not a form of internalized anti‑Semitism.  I point this out because they should have known better and because we should have known better as readers of the Torah and as Jews.  We need to start with the Torah, as we do with everything, allowing it to illuminate the path forward.

            The #metoo stories in the Torah are plentiful, yet I think we have left them in a space that, for all intents and purposes, does not exist.  We have left those stories out of our study sessions, out of our Hebrew School lessons, and out of our prideful boasting in the genius of our text—applauding its beauty while relegating ugliness and hurt to cutting room floor of our faith.  And neglecting that these stories were included in the Torah, or worse censoring them from a book made sacred only when it’s in its entirety, has been our lasting mistake.  Remember, the word Torah comes from the root for teach; each of these stories fill out our holy book because they too are there to teach us something.

            To be an adherent of rabbinic Judaism, each of us, means grappling with what appears to be its black and white letters yet recognizing that its sanctity comes only when we fill it in with color.  Had we seen ourselves, each of us in this room (!), as sages, as worthy of deciphering the Torah, the way Rabbi Akiva must have seen himself, would the headlines of last year been different?

            Nearly three years ago Lisa Rosen (Rodfei Zedek member) stood at this bima and gave a dvar Torah on This American Shabbat; the portion that her cohort studied together and she spoke about dealt with the Sotah.  The Sotah is the ordeal of the woman suspected of adultery by her husband.  The priest would concoct a potion, chant a curse and force the woman to drink the spell-inducing water.  If the water brought on bitterness and she got sick, she was then cursed with death; and if she did not get sick then clearly she was not an adulterer.

            Lisa pointed out that, regardless of the horrifying public spectacle’s outcome, the woman was already guilty, already condemned by its public nature and thoroughly scarred by the horrendous ordeal.  How can this nameless woman walk back into her private life, let alone into the market?  How can she exist in that community, or any other, unscathed and without trauma?  The answers to those questions are obvious, just as they were to the Rabbis who got rid of this ritual.  But, Lisa’s brilliant insight was, that we, modern and sophisticated Americans, have reinstated it.  Long before #metoo was a phrase, and long after we saw any relevance in the story of the Sotah, long after we read it with any hope that it could teach us anything, Monica Lewinsky was thrust into the public square.  Lewinsky’s public ordeal, her being found guilty in the court of public opinion, being victimized in the media and being called upon, as 23‑year-old, to answer for the sins of the most powerful man in the world, Lisa saw this and asked that we recognize that this is no different than being handed the bitter water. We should have known.

            What if Joanna Martin’s (Rodfei Zedek member) voice been recorded and her This American Shabbat talk been placed in the canon, would we not have gained insight into the sexual assaults against nameless women, and would we not have known that there were countless ones before her?  Last November Joanna forced us to reckon not only with the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, but also with the revenge enacted in her name when her brothers pillaged the city of Schem in retaliation and took its women as wives—meting out punishment through greater sin.  Joanna asked about Dinah’s voice, which we do not hear.  And she asked about all the Dinahs who came before her and about those whose fathers were not Jacob but ordinary men.  We should have known.

            Next week we will read the book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, an enigmatic book that we quote or reference at every funeral and many other times of the year.  But if we paid attention to the book and its Talmudic commentary, we would have known its insightful teaching, “that those who are kind to the cruel, in the end, are cruel to the kind (Kohelet Rabbah 7:16).”  That is, Harvey Weinstein and so many others.  So many #metoo stories were about those who were complicit, those who traded the safety and comfort of the vulnerable for the friendship, financial gain, or assumed dignity of the sinner—stepping out of the way was just easier.  We should have known better.

            We should have known, and not because we have thoughtful, smart and clear-headed sages here; we already knew that.  And not because we are yeshiva educated and know obscure commentaries on a prophetic book.  No. We should have known because we are Jews and because Judaism’s essential, most core teaching is that we are made b’tzelem Elohim.  Each one of us here is made in the Divine Image.  And this is where #metoo movement 2.0 begins.

            Yet the self-doubt kept coming back; the very loud voice in my head and the pain in my lower back for the last two months have been shouting to me, “This is the wrong topic.”  This will fall flat.  Or perhaps the biggest obstacle I felt, thank God, was that this will not work because it does not apply to us; I didn’t do anything wrong.  But if you are shaking your head and saying you were right, I am asking you to sit back in your chair and lean‑in:  This #metoo sermon is not about remembering that Abraham, twice, pawned off his wife for his safety and financial gain.  It is also not about recognizing that Eve was in the original Creation story and then taken out of the second, only to be added in because Adam was lonely.  Nor is it about there not being a single woman’s name recorded in the Flood story, when, as the Torah makes clear, God destroys the world because of the sexual immorality that pervades earth—namely these semi-divine male beings, of supreme power coming down to earth, and taking said nameless women, as their wives.  This sermon is not about painting our tradition in a negative light; it is in truth about applauding the Torah for their inclusion.  This sermon is about us and reminding ourselves to read these stories more clearly, and the take-away must be how we move forward.

            But I will tell you that the voice in my head and the pain in my back, they went away.  Two weeks ago we did Slichot, the service comprised of prayers of forgiveness, which signals that Rosh Hashanah is approaching and now is the time to repent.  I woke up the next day with clarity.  That night we said a prayer that I only now fully understand, a prayer that we will all say numerous times over the next day.  Ashamnu, Ba’gadnu, Ga’zalnu, Hamas’nu—we abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we steal through violence.  The prayers of apology and forgiveness are not said in the plural to put us at ease, nor to shed light on sins that may have been committed by someone out there—but because they have been committed:  full stop.  We are our Brethren’s Keeper.  We say them because we are guilty; we all have helped to obscure God’s image in those we work with, those we see on TV and those we choose not to see.  We are all guilty because we have fooled ourselves into thinking that these sins are not carried out by those we admire or to those we care about.

            The sins our sages and newspapers unearthed focus on one person; but if those headlines are to disappear, we all need to strike our chest together, testify to our sins and reconcile to ourselves, that now will be different.  Now I will be a part of our communal act of Teshuvah, of returning God’s image to each other.

            This sermon is about doing a personal, communal, and societal hesbon nefesh, a checklist of the soul.  It is about assessing the state of our souls as knowing human beings.  It is about judging our humanity and elevating it because the mark of God’s creation is still visible in our hearts.  And, if we are bold and confident enough to trust that God’s handiwork can be seen in ourselves, then and only then can we know that that is true for the person sitting next to us.

            We need to be more knowing human beings, we need to take note of each other not on a mundane level to be more polite, not on a political level to be engaged or socially in one order to see those who are more vulnerablethat all comes much later.  This is a sermon dealing with our own divinity.  We are all tasked with ensuring that the divine spark is eternally lit in everyone and that a lack of care or concern with that, abdicating or neglecting your sense of responsibility, is a serious violation of our covenant.

            If we look carefully and closely into the mirror, we can see God’s fingerprints in the molds of our soul.  Do not let that imprint become fossilized; do not let it be filled in with dirt or grime and we must not allow sin to fill in its grooves in our neighbor.  Each of you, every one of us here, was sanctified with God’s everlasting blessing.  This year, and every year moving forward, let us remember that when we look into the face of a lover, child, parent, colleague, and anyone who serves us, that person too was designed by God.

            May it be a year of reflection, care and awareness of yourself, and the blessing of knowing each other.  Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf