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October 11, 2019

The Wisdom Right Before Our Eyes: Know Before Whom You Stand (Rosh Hashanah 5780/2019)

Maurice A. Salth

Dedicated in loving memory of Rabbi Aaron David Panken Zecher Tzadik Livracha

This morning I looked into the mirror. I made to this special day.

And now, I get to look at all of you.  You are so beautiful.

Here we are. 

We have made it to another Rosh Hashanah. 

What a year it has been. 

Each of us knows what it has taken to get here.  We are aware of the victories, the defeats, the pain and the joy. 

We have made it. 

Now, we have work to do; there is a whole life in front of us.

Our tradition has evolved to help us enter into the unknown and thrive.  Just how are we supposed to thrive in this New Year?  The founders of our synagogue had an answer to this question.  In 1872 they opened up our glorious sanctuary and placed the answer right above our ark’s doors:  “Da Lifne Mi Atah Omed – Know Before Whom You Stand.”

Five Hebrew words, directly in our line of vision: “Know Before Whom You Stand.”  A unique and intriguing charge for us to contemplate.  One, I believe, that can help us go forward and maximize our time here on earth.

Let me ask you to take a moment and think, before whom do you stand?  This is not a rhetorical question.  I am really asking you.  Who comes to mind as I say before whom do you stand?

We Stand Before God

As I prepared this sermon, I spoke with many congregants who told me they thought that the whom in “know before whom you stand” is God.  Da lifne mi atah omed is a phrase found in the Talmud (Brachot 28b).  It echos Moses discovering God at the burning bush and Adonai telling Moses: “the place on which you stand is holy ground (Exodus 3:5).”

This summer I was honored to watch as one of our students, Eli Breyer Essaim, became bar mitzvah overlooking the walls of the old city of Jerusalem.  Eli spoke honesty in his d’var Torah saying: “I myself don’t know for sure if there is, in fact, a God out there.  But, if I was certain that there was a God watching my every action, then I might behave differently, probably, better.”

How would each of us act throughout our daily life, if we knew we were standing before God?  Probably better.  This is the paradigm “know before whom you stand” dares us to consider. And what if we struggle with how to understand God?  Many of us do.

Jewish educator Avram Infeld once had a conversation with a Jewish friend. He asked him “Bob are you religious?” and Bob, a secular Jew replied, “God forbid!”  It is a quintessential Jewish idea that one does not have to commit to believing in God in order to ponder what it would be like to live one’s life standing before Adonai

We Jews have a history of wrestling with just how to understand the Ultimate.  We are known as a people by the name Yisrael – Hebrew for one who wrestles with God. If you don’t believe in God, if you are wrestling with God or struggling with how to talk about God, you are not alone. 

As you know, the High Holy Day prayer book uses metaphors to describe God.  We just heard them as part of the Unataneh Tokef liturgy. 

God is judge, king and the author of the book of life.  And then there are merciful aspects: a God who is in search of us, the shepherd looking to care for the flock, the unconditionally loving parent.

All these images might confuse or frustrate us.  Is God deciding if I will live or die?  Is God my rock of unending support?  Would the prayer book please decide!  Who edited this machzor anyway?

Well, our editors, our Rabbis, put it all in here for us to think about, for us to use these descriptions to help us with whatever was going on in our lives.  Each of us has a vote in how we are to understand God. 

In reflecting upon this concept of being before God it struck me how public our lives have become.  Friends, family and strangers alike can know so much about us.  We share information about ourselves like never before on social media and other personal and professional platforms.  We search online for a pair of shoes for five minutes and for the next week we are inundated by shoe ads from everyone and their brother.  We are in a world where we are connected to people and technology that are following us – why not entertain that God is following us as well? 

We don’t need to witness a burning bush to become open to standing before God.  Doing so could help us make wiser choices, navigate a tough transition, find needed courage and even comfort us as we try to fall asleep at night.

This is available to every one of us.

We Stand Before Each Other

Here we are this morning, gathered with more than two thousand people.  Da lifne mi atah omed also demands we respect the person to our left and right, our neighbors in this holy congregation and in our larger world. 

We are keenly aware that we are living at a time where too many people have forgotten how to be civil.  Parts of our society are fraying and polarized.  Many of us are quick to judge, we name call and are contemptuous. 

Mass shootings1 and hate crimes2 are on the rise and anti-Semitic incidents are occurring at historic levelss.  So commonplace are these events that I’ve had to push myself to remain sensitized to what is going on in our world. 

Kurt Tucholsky, a Jewish author who lived in early 20th Century Germany wrote: “a country should not only be judged by what it does, but by what it tolerates.”4

Our Rabbis of old described people in their day behaving terribly.  They wrote of fellow Jews being consumed by senseless, baseless hatred.  Our sages offered an antidote, a response to living in such a time in the words of Pirke Avot:

“.וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ”

“In a place where people do not act like human beings, strive to be a human being (Pirke Avot 2:5).”

Irene Sendler was in her late twenties, just at the start of her career as a nurse and social worker, when World War II broke out in her hometown of Warsaw.  She was Catholic and she knew many Jews living inside the ghetto.  Faced with the horrors before her, she began to rescue Jewish children.  She wound up negotiating safe passage for hundreds of them.  When she was arrested, she withstood torture and did not reveal information about a single child. 

Ms. Sendler and the more than 25,000 documented heroes like her who risked their lives to save a Jewish person during World War II set the bar for how to behave in the most extreme of circumstances.  “In a place where people do not act like human beings, strive to be a human being.” 

Da lifne mi atah omed encourages us to see the humanity in the person next to us.  Recently the comedian, Sarah Silverman, was subjected to a crude attack on social media from a man.  Instead of returning fire or ignoring him, Ms. Silverman reviewed his account.  She learned he was suffering tremendous pain due to a back injury and struck up a dialogue with him.  A mutual respect was forged.  He told her he was sorry.  Through their conversation she discovered that he had no health insurance and Ms. Silverman helped him raise funds for his medical procedures.  So much money was donated that he gave the excess to his community.  He told his local newspaper: “Sarah showed me the way.  Don’t get me wrong, I still have a long way to go, but it’s a start .”5 

When we refrain from instantly striking back, from being defensive, when halt our cynicism and instead attempt to know the person before whom we stand our world can open up in significant and beautiful ways.

Often the most difficult people to know and treat with the utmost of care are those who stand closest to us: our partner, our children, siblings, parents and friends.  It is so easy, at least for me, to become irritated and impatient with them.  We justify our reactions by saying, “We have been treating each other like this forever.  It’s just our way.”

“Know before whom you stand” challenges us to be better.  We are charged to step back from those closest to us to gain a clearer view. 

We can listen more carefully. 

We can find space in our hearts to be kinder to those we say are precious to us. 

If they truly are the most important people in our lives then let us treat them that way. 

Let us show them, them us show ourselves, we know before whom we stand.

We Stand Before Ourselves

The American psychologist Carl Rodgers wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”6  Sometimes we have to acknowledge that the person we see in the mirror is the hardest to know. 

One of the most poignant stories in the Torah takes place the night before our forefather Jacob is to reunite with his estranged twin-brother Esau.  Jacob has been living for more than 20 years in another land.  He had run away after Easu threatened to kill him when Jacob deceived his brother and their father Isaac.  Jacob is compelled to see his brother again, but has yet to address his lifelong history of being a first-class jerk who always put himself ahead of everyone else. 

During the night before he sees his brother, instead of sleeping, Jacob wrestles a mysterious being.  When dawn breaks Jacob’s hip is wrenched and he has acquired an additional name given to him by his adversary – he is now Yisrael. 

The nineteenth century Chasidic rabbi, Yehudah Alter, explains that Jacob wrestled with his own conscience that night; torn between the trickster he has always been and the mensch he wants to become.  Rabbi Alter imagines Jacob saying to himself: “until now I have responded to difficult situations by lying and running, I hate myself for this but I am afraid of facing up to the situation.”  Rabbi Alter explains that by the end of his struggle, Jacob is depleted but he is anew.  He is done avoiding and manipulating.  As Yisrael he contends honestly with people and with God.  He is at peace with himself and possesses an integrity he never had before.7

Jacob, Yisrael, apologies to his brother.  Esau, for the first time in his life, experiences Jacob’s genuine remorse and the brothers reconcile. 

This charge to “know before whom you stand” above our ark tasks each of us to do what Jacob did. 

We are called to stand in our own skin;

to try to know ourselves;

to make peace with ourselves. 

This can be the most demanding work of our lives. 

Here at Central we clergy are always ready to listen and help you and as Rabbi Buchdahl reminded us on erev Rosh Hashanah, this community is one that is striving to support and nurture each other. 

As we enter this New Year, it is time for each of us to stand before ourselves; 
to take an honest look;
then to take action so that we can do our best within our given time. 

My Prayer for the New Year

Rabbi Larry Kushner tells the story of being on the bimah in his congregation with a gaggle of preschool students from his synagogue. 

He asked them, “What is right behind the doors of this ark?”  One girl answered: “a Jewish holy thing?”  Another boy: “is it a brand new car?”

And then a little girl said: “I know….a really big mirror!” 

Sometimes the guidance we have been looking for has been right in front of our eyes all the time.

My prayer this New Year is for each of us to know before whom we stand so that if one day we did open up our ark and there was revealed a great, giant mirror, what all of us would see in its magnificent reflection is:

a synagogue humbled, inspired and supported by God;

a congregation meeting the challenge to see the humanity in their sisters and brothers;

a community of individuals each with the courage to look honestly within themselves.

It would be the world’s greatest selfie.

And my friends, we can make it so. 

Shanah Tovah.

4 From an exhibit at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, Israel and
6 Carl R. Rodgers from his book “On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy”
7 Lieber, David L., Senior Editor, Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York, NY, Jewish Publication Society, 2001), p. 201

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