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Dangerous Religion-Yom Kippur, 5773, 2012

04/06/2015 07:03:00 AM


Rabbi FeinsteinDangerous Religion
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Yom Kippur, 5773, 2012

A rabbi friend of mine once took a group of nursery school kids into the sanctuary of his synagogue for a tour. As they stood on the bima, he showed them the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Lamp, the seats where the rabbi and cantor sit, and then he pointed to the doors of the Ark. He asked the kids: What do you think is in there?

One kid answered: Nothing. There’s nothing in there. It’s just an empty closet.

Another kid answered: That’s where you keep all the old stuff that no one uses any more.

Another responded: I think there’s a prize in there….maybe a new car!

The last kid looked for a long time and finally said: In there, I think there’s a giant mirror.

Each of the kids was right.

For Jews who are distant and disconnected, the first child was right. The ark is empty, void of substance and meaning, the synagogue is cold and uninviting. Even without opening the doors to peek inside, they’re quite sure there’s nothing here.

For others, what is here is old and depleted. Judaism is narrow and tribal, philosophically and morally unsophisticated. It is primitive and useless. Judaism is their eccentric heirloom, the kind you keep hidden away in a closet until your crazy aunt shows up for dinner. Then it’s dusted off and placed on the mantle, but just for that night, and then returned quickly to the closet or the attic.

For many, many Jews, Jewishness is prized, but only for its aesthetic appeal: The endearing Yiddish phrases, bagels and lox and pastrami on rye, the hora danced at every Bar Mitzvah, the Pesach Seder that doesn’t last too long… warm, ethnic sentimentality without ethical demands or spiritual wisdom.

If you asked, they would tell you they’re proud of being Jewish. They’re proud of their heritage; proud of their people; proud of Israel. Pride, belonging, custom, they have. But not meaning. Because they will never ask: Is there a deeper truth within Jewish experience, a grand narrative at the heart of Jewish life?

The philosopher Eugene Borowitz called us a generation of reverse Marannoes. In Spain, Marannoes practiced Catholicism outwardly while keeping faith with Judaism in secret and in private. We have it the other way round. We proudly participate in public gestures of Jewish life, but never let it penetrate within.

The truth is, we don’t ask enough of our Judaism. Judaism was designed to give us a life of purpose, of meaning, of importance. Judaism was designed to shape the human personality -- to provide unique qualities of moral vision and moral courage. But this makes it personal. And when it becomes personal, it becomes dangerous. It becomes demanding. It challenges. It becomes subversive.

It’s the last kid who is onto something powerful. Behind those doors, he says, is a mirror. A mirror that reflects back to us all we are, all we would be, and the terrifying abyss that lies between. It reflects our highest ideals and it points to our deepest failing. It shows us our limitations and reminds us of our aspirations. It reflects the world we dream of and how very far we are from those dreams, and it demands a response. It places a claim on us. At the heart of the religious experience, taught Abraham Joshua Heschel, is the awareness that something is asked of us. That’s a very dangerous religion.

I open the doors of the Ark and I see before me a man entering the later stages of adulthood. He is burdened by question of questions: What for? What is life for? What should I be doing now? Perhaps it is the experience of launching the youngest of the children into the world and finding ourselves all alone in a big suburban house that just yesterday was filled with the sounds of children….Perhaps it’s the startling discovery of the name of an old friend on the obituary page of the morning paper; one moment he was enjoying his family, the next moment, gone. Perhaps it’s realizing that both men running for President are younger than me.

Modernity has given us so many gifts: knowledge, freedom, technology. But modernity leaves us so bereft when we arrive at questions that really matter, questions of meaning and abiding significance. But there behind the Ark doors, I discover a brother from 23 centuries ago. His name is Kohelet, and his wisdom is recorded in the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes. It is the most personal book of the Bible. It isn’t about religious rituals, or prayers, or holidays, or even about God. It is about us. And the most difficult questions we ask of life.

Kohelet lived in the 3rd century BCE, when the great cities of the ancient world rose and overwhelmed village culture. In the village, everyone has a name and an identity, every person is known, everyone is visible. In a village, our stories are told generation to generation, every life is recorded in collective memory. But once we move into the city, into the metropolis, we find ourselves living in anonymity, estranged and disconnected. Without the bounded social network of the village, no one’s contribution is noted, no one’s life long remembered. The greatest human fear is not death, but oblivion; to imagine that I might live and die, and leave nothing behind, no impression, no memory, no difference…as if I never lived.

Kohelet asks a startlingly modern and disturbingly familiar question: What is life for? If no one knows me, and nothing I do will be remembered, what has meaning? What lasts? And he laments:

Utter futility! [said Koheleth]

Utter futility! All is futile!

What real value is there for a man

In all the gains he makes beneath the sun?

One generation goes, another comes,

But the earth remains the same forever.

All streams flow into the sea,

Yet the sea is never full;

To the place [from] which they flow

The streams flow back again.

Only that shall happen

Which has happened,

Only that occur

Which has occurred;

There is nothing new

Beneath the sun!

Kohelet watches children at the beach busily building sand castles, elaborate, ingenious, exquisite cities made of sand. And then the tide comes in and washes it all away. And the next day, a different bunch of kids comes by to begin all over again. Is that life? He wonders, Is that all there is to human dreams? Is there no escape from time, no haven from death? For Kohelet, this is the ultimate question. He proposes a series of experiments. Take each of the core values of human culture and subject them to a simple mathematical test. X minus death equals what?

Begin close to home. What is it that most people spend most of their time pursuing the most? Pleasure. Comfort. Enjoyment. Listen to Kohelet:

I ventured to tempt my flesh with wine, and to grasp folly, … I multiplied my possessions. I built myself houses and I planted vineyards. I laid out gardens and groves, …. I constructed pools of water…. I bought male and female slaves…. I acquired more cattle, both herds and flocks, than all who were before me in Jerusalem. I amassed silver and gold and treasures of kings and provinces; and I got male and female singers, as well as the luxuries of commoners coffers and coffers of them. …I withheld from my eyes nothing they asked for, and denied myself no enjoyment; rather, I got enjoyment out of all my wealth. And that was all I got out of my wealth.

In Judaism, there is room to enjoy the pleasures of life. When Adam is placed into the Garden of Eden, God commands him: Echol tochal, Eat! Enjoy the fruits of the Garden! In Jewish tradition, the pleasures of life are a gift from God. The Talmud teaches that when we die and arrive in heaven, God will demand an explanation for every legitimate pleasure of life we overlooked…I gave you Ben & Jerry’s, you at tofu? I gave you Maui, you live in Tarzana? What’s wrong with you? The pleasures of life are a gift of God to be enjoyed and cherished. But that’s not life’s meaning. As a source of meaning, the pursuit of pleasure is a dead end.

You can see the paradox: You find a new restaurant. The food is great, the service attentive, the atmosphere exquisite. A wonderful night. So you go back with friends, and what happens? It’s never as nice. Why not? Because it lacks the element of novelty, of surprise. So you need a new one, a better one. That’s the logic of addiction. The second hit of the drug, the second roll of the dice, is never as powerful, never as satisfying as the first, so you need more.

What else do people spend their lives seeking? They seek wealth. They work endlessly to make a better living. It’s certainly better to have wealth than poverty. As Tevye said, it’s no shame to be poor, but it’s not great honor either! But wealth does not buy immortality. In fact, when met with death, wealth reveals one of life’s great ironies.

Listen to Kohelet: I loathed all the wealth that I was gaining under the sun. For I shall leave it to the man who will succeed me and who knows whether he will be wise or foolish? ….sometimes a person whose fortune was made with wisdom, knowledge, and skill must hand it on to be the portion of somebody who did not toil for it. That too is futile, and a grave evil. For what does a man get for all the toiling and worrying he does under the sun?

When I left for my junior year in Israel and a tour of Europe, I stopped at my parents’ bakery shop to say good-bye. The bakers who worked with my Dad asked him, how come your son gets to travel all over the world, and you’re stuck here working so hard? Dad answered, because he has rich parents and I don’t.

Pleasure and wealth are crude values. How about something more spiritual? Jews value education, we respect learning, perhaps the pursuit of wisdom will provide meaning. But again, Kohelet is disappointed.

I found that

Wisdom is superior to folly

As light is superior to darkness;

A wise man has his eyes in his head,

Whereas a fool walks in darkness.

But I also realized that the same fate awaits them both. So I reflected: "The fate of the fool is also destined for me; to what advantage, then, have I been wise?" And I came to the conclusion that that too was futile, because the wise man, just like the fool, is not remembered forever; for, as the succeeding days roll by, both are forgotten.

Wisdom has a functional value, according to Kohelet, it gets us through life. But the wise and the fool both meet the same fate. In fact, the wise man comes to envy the fool’s simplicity and the comforts of the oblivious life: “As wisdom grows, frustration grows; to increase learning is to increase heartache.”

The most popular new show in America isn’t on CNN or CBS or NBC. The most popular new show is the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. What does it say about a culture when we prefer that a comedian deliver our news. More than awareness and wisdom, we chose fantasy and escape. How much have we invested in the pursuit of escape? When I grew up, TV had seven channels. Now we have hundreds. As a kid, we went to the movies. Whatever was playing, that’s what you saw. Now we have Cineplex with dozens of movies. I was born the same year Disneyland opened. It was novelty. How many theme parks do we have now? Entertainment, distraction, diversion, are the growth industries of our civilization. Thoreau famously said that men today live lives of quiet desperation. He’s wrong. Men today live lives of amused distraction. We don’t want wisdom. We want fantasy. We want escape. Kohelet was right.

So what’s left? Well, this is the Bible. Certainly, Kohelet will find meaning in the pursuit of the holy, in righteousness and devotion. That’s what the whole of the Torah is about: Be holy, for I the Lord Your God am holy. And here, Kohelet truly surprises us:

For all this I noted, and ascertained all this…the same fate is in store for all: for the righteous, and for the wicked; for the good and pure, and for the impure; for him who worships, and for him who does not; for him who is pleasing, and for him who is displeasing; and for him who keeps his word, and for him who breaks oaths. That is the sad thing about all that goes on under the sun: that the same fate is in store for all.

Kohelet is the Bible’s in-house heretic. But there is no sense of triumph in this, only deep sadness and disappointment. The God of the Torah seems absent from our world, Kohelet laments. God is indifferent. God is unmoved by human aspirations, blind to our behavior, unaffected by human suffering. Kohelet finds himself in a universe that simply doesn’t care. So he offers a very practical wisdom:

In my own brief span of life, I have seen both these things: sometimes a good man perishes in spite of his goodness, and sometimes a wicked one endures in spite of his wickedness. So don't overdo goodness and don't act the wise man to excess, or you may be confounded. Don't overdo wickedness and don't be a fool, or you may die before your time. It is best that you grasp the one without letting go of the other, for one who fears God will do his duty by both.

The Torah demands a life of holiness, righteousness. Kohelet perceives that the world doesn’t reward that kind of life. The world doesn’t respond to human goodness. So do what the wise Fagin recommended: “You’ve got to pick a pocket or two!” Don’t be destructive, don’t be outright evil. But don’t be disappointed when your goodness fails to bring reward. The world just isn’t set up that way.

With this sad observation, Kohelet concludes. Neither pleasure nor wealth, nor wisdom nor devotion offers an escape from the trap of time and the inevitability of death. So what does one do? What is one to make of life? His answer is bittersweet:


Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was long ago approved by God. Let your clothes always be freshly washed, and your head never lack ointment. Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun all your fleeting days. For that alone is what you can get out of life and out of the means you acquire under the sun. Whatever it is in your power to do, do with all your might. For there is no action, no reasoning, no learning, no wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.

Kohelet resigns. He surrenders. It is God’s cruel joke, he believes, that we can imagine immortality and we deeply sense a need for meaning… we can’t have it. Not in this world. The satisfactions of the moment, the ordinary joys of daily, must suffice us. That’s all one can hope for under the sun.

We are left with two questions. Is he right? And how did this book get into the Bible?

Is he right? If I asked: what do you care most about in life? What drives and motivates you? What do you spend most of your life worrying about, working for, dreaming of? Where do you find your immortality? I think most of us would say, my children, my family, the people close to me, my circle of friends. Some would say, my community, my people, the causes I believe in and fight for.

It’s curious that none of that is found in Kohelet. He is alone. No family. No friends. No community. No people. No causes. Nothing but his own lonely search for meaning. And that is Kohelet’s truth. Absent a social context, with no connections to others, with no people or community or friends or family, life is hollow. It’s empty. It is meaningless. But add social context, add a community of love and concern, and something remarkable happens.

Let’s revisit his experiments: Pleasure alone is transitory, a fleeting moment of satisfaction. But who wants to eat and drink and enjoy the world alone? I like Disneyland. But I like Disneyland infinitely more with a small kid on my lap. To see the world through the eyes of another is the real joy of life. We’re here in this world to make memories for one another. Give a child a sweet memory, and you live forever in the life of that child.

And wealth? Kohelet stands with his pockets full of money facing a world filled with need, and he feels no responsibility, he hears no cry of distress, he senses no claim on himself. Money buys him all his eyes ask for. And soon he is bored. Because money becomes meaningful only when it becomes a tool for higher purposes: for relieving suffering, for sharing beauty, for advancing knowledge, for healing the world. A life devoted to higher purposes brings a satisfaction he cannot imagine. An ethic Kohelet cannot fathom: When a Jew has the opportunity to share food with a poor man, taught Rav Yosef in the Talmud, both say thank you. The poor man says thank you for extending my life in this world. The Jew who gives says thank you for extending to me a taste of life in the world to come, a taste of immortality.

Kohelet complains that devotion earned him no reward. Because that’s not devotion. In Jewish life, devotion is not a private pursuit. Devotion means opening the boundaries of the self to include the other. Kohelet doesn’t want to do that. He has good reason. Embracing the other means learning to listen. It demands growing, changing, stretching the self. It requires forgiveness, patience, discipline. It brings pain, frustration. Kohelet resists opening up to another. But Kohelet doesn’t understand that the only answer to the question of meaning is to put the self aside and give, and love, and serve. It is only in the selfless act that we come discover the meaning that comes with life. This is what the Jewish tradition calls simcha shel mitzvah. In serving a higher ideal, I come to understand the dignity of my own existence. In serving the higher ideal, I sense my immortality.

Kohelet laments that wisdom only brings frustration, and learning only produces heartache. But only for one who sees wisdom as commodity to be acquired. I love books. I buy lots of books. There were years when I singlehandedly kept Amazon in the black. But better than owning books is giving them away. There is a special joy in looking for a book on my shelves and not finding it. It means someone else has it. Someone else is enjoying it. Wisdom isn’t meant to be hoarded. Wisdom is meant to be shared. In Jewish tradition, our highest respect is reserved for the teacher. Where one’s teacher sits, teaches the Talmud, there sits God. Torah, the most precious artifact in Jewish life, Torah means teaching – wisdom shared in a book.

And here is the great irony. Kohelet also wrote a book. If he truly believed that all is futile, and there is nothing new under the sun, then why write the book? If it’s true that “One generation goes, another comes, But the earth remains the same forever,” why write a book? If we all children at the seashore, building our lives like sand castles to be washed away….why write a book?

You write a book, because somewhere in your soul you know that this wisdom will make a difference, it will change a life, even a reshape a culture. You write a book to save another soul from the pain of pursuing a dead end in life, from slavery to a false god, of falling into a life that which is false and fruitless. You write a book to reach across time and space and touch another life. You write a book as an act of love. And that brings satisfaction. It brings meaning. And it brings immortality. Here is the wonderful, sweet irony of Kohelet: The man who taught that nothing survives death….we’re still reading his book, speaking his name, debating his truth, 2500 years after his death.

Why was this book put into the Bible? Why is such a heretical book so cherished by generations of our people? Because it teaches once and for all, that to walk the world alone, to need no one, to love no one, to give to no one, to reach no one, is no life. It is death for the soul. But to walk the world seeking connection, attachment, relationship, intimacy, with all its heartache and frustration and pain, is to walk with God and to earn eternity.

There are ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, aseret y’may tshuva, ten days of repentance and personal change for the new year We will read the Book of Kohelet on the Shabbat of Sukkot, that’s ten days from now. Let’s make these aseret y’may hevrah, ten days of community and connection for the new year. Share your joy – build a hevra, a circle of friends to share your table. Share your wealth – choose a cause, a tzedaka, a charity, that you will be supporting this new year. Put their materials up on your wall. Put a pushke, a collection box for loose change next to your bedstand. Share your learning – find a class, a study group, a book group to join this year. Share your devotion – find a minyan, a meditation circle, a spiritual practice that will center you this coming year. This year, earn your immortality in the heart of community.

The wisdom of Kohelet:

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born and a time to die,

A time to plant and a time to uproot;

A time to slay and a time to heal,

A time to tear down and a time to build up;

A time to weep and a time to laugh,

A time to cry and a time for dance;

A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones together,

A time to embrace and a time to let go;

A time for silence and a time for speech;

A time for love and a time for hate;

A time for war and a time for peace.

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to ask questions. And a time to come together to find answers. Let us find our answers in one another’s lives.

Gmar Hatima Tova.

Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780