Home > Rabbi Harris > Our Sacred Knot – Kol Nidre 5778
October 4, 2017
We are living in a time in America where the divisions amongst us are pronounced, painful and growing. America’s Founding Fathers knew 250 years ago there were dangers of deep splits within the country. While they focused on the rift between Loyalists and Patriots and other issues, America’s Founders knew what bound us together was more than only an aversion to the raw authority of the British Crown. We formed our nation with a prophetic vision of justice, equality, and prosperity for all to name just a few of the founding values.
They understood the ties which formed America were both profound and fragile. For them, it was not inevitable that America would succeed. There was significant doubt if we could accept being bound together and accountable to each other rather than a far off ruler.
Alexander Hamilton wrote of his concerns in Federalist Paper 15. He even named the characteristics of a leader and characteristics within ourselves which we must guard against. In 1787, Hamilton wrote:
To the People of the State of New York…
I have unfolded to you a complication of dangers to which you would be exposed, should you permit that sacred knot which binds the people of America to together be severed or dissolved by ambition or by avarice, by jealousy or by misrepresentation.
Hamilton focused the next five pamphlets expounding on weaknesses which could destroy the Union of states.
Hamilton’s phrase is amazing – the “sacred knot which binds the people of America together” he wrote.
No matter our politics, as Americans we have been bound together by a sacred knot of shared values and vision. I am afraid we have learned that America’s sacred knot is not Gordian though – our threads have become loosened.
This past Jewish year, 5777, has strained that sacred knot and exhausted us. In the context of a hotly contested presidential election and the governing style of President Donald Trump, Hamilton’s sacred knot is frayed.
Historians and others will write about the circumstances which brought us here. That is not my job nor am I a political pundit.
While many of my rabbinic colleagues are choosing to stay on safer ground for fear of upsetting congregants, I do not see how I can avoid reflecting on the perilous times we as Americans are living in.
Trust and character will always be issues which belong in the wheelhouse of clergy.
The mistrust of trust in America predates our current President though.
A survey by The Economist magazine teaches an important insight which complicates the too easily digestible story Trump opponents like to tell. Notably, The Economist states that Trump did not originate the distrust which permeates the country today. It says:
AMERICA, which has long defined itself as a standard-bearer of democracy for the world, has become a (in their words, a) “flawed democracy” according to the taxonomy used in the annual Democracy Index…. (This 2016 survey emphasized) the downgrade (of our democracy) was not a consequence of Donald Trump…. Rather, it was caused by the same factors that led Mr. Trump to the White House: a continued erosion of trust in government and elected officials.…” the Economist wrote.
So, Candidate Trump coalesced the mistrust already present in America. In the year since the election though, President Trump and his allies have fanned these flames and often poured gas on the fires.
The President has utilized his bully pulpit to promote a mistrust of government, the media and each other. He has amplified the mistrust of trust itself.
We can see the deep fractures which exist amongst us. The cracks and divides between rich and poor, over-educated and under-educated, urban and rural are now displayed for all to see. We see more clearly the ethnic divisions, cultural differences, feelings of entitlement and feelings of invisibility, globalism and isolationism which are clashing in our midst. The undermining of trust and truth in our country is dangerous and, if unchecked, will unravel America’s sacred knot even further.
Emblematic of the fraying of our indivisibility and our growing mistrust, basic facts about science and nature are even being leveraged to divide us.
The Washington Post reported that Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that news of Hurricane Irma was ‘fake news’ created by a conspiracy between the media and retailers who sold water, batteries and generators to boost revenues and hype liberal ideas of climate change. A few days later, Limbaugh himself needed to evacuate Palm Beach due to the massive hurricane.
For millions of people still affected in the Southeast and Caribbean, they know there was nothing fake about hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Our prayers are with all those recovering.
As a child, I believed we had to try to tell the truth each day. Not telling the truth was worthy of beating our chest on Yom Kippur. Al Chet Shechatanu… As I got older, I learned that often truth is complex. I added the scaffolding of nuance, complexities and the humility of being wrong to my foundation.
In our High Holidays liturgy, we chant the Thirteen Middot of God –
Hashem Hashem, El Rachum v’chanoon, erech ah’payim v’rav chesed v’emet.
The Lord God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in compassion and truth. (Ex 34:6)
Chesed v’emet – compassion and truth
In Judaism, truth is a fundamental attribute which binds us together.
The fifteenth century philosopher and Talmudist Rabbi Judah Loew, also known as the Maharal explained:
We say God is One (in the Sh’ma) and (the Talmud teaches) God’s seal (God’s promise is) Truth. Therefore, just as there is only one God, it is impossible to say there is more than one truth…. Anything else is false. (The Maharal concludes,) There are many ways to tell a lie but only one to tell the truth.
Of course the binding nature of our core values transcends Judaism.
In a 1996 speech to the General Conference of Latter Day Saints, James Faust, the then head of the Mormon Church titled his address “Honesty – a Moral Compass.”
He said, “Honesty is more than not lying. It is truth telling, truth speaking, truth living, and truth loving.
My friends, the widespread efforts to challenge fundamental concepts of trust, factuality, accuracy, honesty and truth erode society’s connective ligaments. It frays the common values and vision which bind us together as a country. This divisiveness is costing us dearly.
One of my dear friends described the effects this has had on her as “soul sucking.”
Protests have emerged on the streets and social media platforms but they have a spinning insularity to them though. They occur within the self-selecting sphere of our own newsfeeds and ‘friends.’ After Charlottesville, I saw countless articles and posts on my Facebook page protesting the President’s response, advocating taking statues down and decrying Nazis and White Supremacists.
The algorithms barely showed me articles from people who supported the Confederate statues or buttressed the President’s words: “…you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
The mathematical formulas which help me find my middle school friends are also designed to feed me primarily news articles and events which I am already likely to agree with. So while there are many posts, they mostly reinforce my own worldview. On social media, you and I are rarely challenged to confront other’s ideas, fears or stories that inform their choices.
We therefore retreat deeper and deeper into ourselves and thereby widen the abyss between us and those who have different viewpoints.
The political Left and Right have crafted a shorthand for themselves that expresses their own frustration and anger.
On the Right we hear phrases: ‘Lock her up’; ‘you can keep your own doctors’; ‘private servers’ ‘build the wall’ which all mean something to that cohort.
To the political left: ‘’it was the biggest ever’; ‘believe me’; ‘crowd size’ and lately any joke that has Russians involved seems to be a trigger for this subset.
We are finding crude comfort in the insularity of our language and political ‘othering’. We are allowing ourselves to be bound together by our lowest common denominators.
Al Chet Shechatanu… we have isolated ourselves, prejudiced ourselves against others, and let these binds loosen.
So, during these difficult times, how can Judaism ground us? How can Judaism help reinforce our sacred knot?
I believe the choices we make each day, in the smallest moments of our day, can move us in the right direction. Judaism pushes us to show courage; to listen and to reclaim our responsibility to each other.
In a small way, I hope I am modeling a bit of courage through giving this talk. I do not understand why it feels courageous to talk about the challenges to values but I guess when they are being challenged from so many fronts, it is courageous to push back.
This is a time to speak up. I will hear from people who are disappointed I did not go further in their direction and others who think the entire topic was inappropriate.
But we do come to shul to reflect on ethics, morality and truth.
We read Psalm 27 during the High Holiday season. The psalm, written over 2,500 years ago is amazingly profound and relevant for today. The psalmist concludes:
:קַוֵּה אֶל-ה’ חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה אֶל-ה’
Hope in God. Be strong, take courage in your heart and hope in God.
This is a time to be courageous. This is a time to be a strong advocate and get involved. Do not sit this out. No matter your politics, be involved. The stakes are too high to comfort ourselves by thinking others will speak on our behalf.
If you believe in what the President is doing, be courageous and get involved.
On the other hand, if you are concerned by what the Trump Administration is doing as it reshapes Government agencies, creates a different regulatory environment and accepts fringe voices in our center – be courageous and get involved.
חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ Democracy is better when we are strong and courageous. Our sacred knot relies on it.
But don’t be such strident advocates that we stop listening to people with whom we disagree. The second way Judaism can ground us is by teaching us we need to maintain an openness to listen to other voices, opinions, frustrations and experiences. The Sh’ma prayer admonishes us to listen – Sh’ma! Yisrael. Listen! O’ Israel. It is an instruction for us.
We can disagree but we cannot disengage from one another.
We are letting deep divisions be created between us. We need to move outside our comfort zones, our echo chambers and listen more broadly to each other. Listen to news channels we disagree with. Read opinions which challenge us. Listen beyond the social media algorithms.
This is why Proverbs teaches: The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to others.
In a Talmud text which has been taught many times before, but not yet by me today, our ability to argue and listen to each other is highlighted. In Eruvin 13b, the story is told:
For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, (the two great schools of rabbinic authority.) The first asserted, “Jewish law is in agreement with our views,” and the second contended, “Jewish law is in agreement with our views.”
Then a bat kol, a Heavenly voice, announced, “Eilu v’Eilu – These and those are the words of the living God, but Jewish law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.”
(The Talmud asks the question,) Since both are the words of the living God, why was the School of Hillel entitled to have the halakhah fixed in agreement with them? (The Talmud offers the answer,) because the School of Hillel was kind and modest in their opinions. They studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai (with whom they disagreed). They were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before their own.
Our tradition insists we are advocates of our positions AND we remain engaged with opinions we disagree with. The School of Hillel did not expunge the ideas they disagreed with but rather taught them along with their own. Thus they brought clarity to what was right and wrong.
Reclaiming our Responsibility to Each Other
Finally, Judaism teaches us we have a responsibility for each other. This is Hamilton’s sacred knot.
The Talmud teaches this in its own way.
It says, there are four parts of the lulav – the tall lulav branch itself, the palm. the willow, the myrtle and the Etrog. The Talmud says two of those elements make fruit and two do not make fruit. Despite the differences, to fulfill the commandment, each element requires the others. We hold all four parts together as we wave the lulav, willow, myrtle and Etrog in all directions. With their profound differences and varied origins, we clasp them together in our hands.
The Talmud concludes, “no person can fulfill their obligation until they are all bound together as one.” Rashi extends this by saying even on Yom Kippur, unless the community is bound together as one with the righteous and the sinner, our prayers will not be heard.
Friends, we are bound together as one yet these divisions are threatening to unravel us. We must push back against those peddling the mistrust of trust. We must reclaim our responsibilities to each other. Even as we are courageous advocates like Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai, we must have the humility to listen and appreciate that there are other viewpoints – even if they are wrong. We cannot let the fractures worsen and divide us from each other. We cannot let those who are forcing wedges between us, those who perceive benefit from this growing gulf between us, break the bonds that unite us.
That is our responsibility to each other in 5778.
We must find the courage to be truth telling, truth speaking, truth living, and truth loving.
I pray we are each up to this sacred task.
Shana Tova u’Metuka.
 https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2017/01/daily-chart-20 Underline added
 Commentary on BT Shabbat 55a
 Proverbs 12:15
 Menachot 27a