Din, Chesed & the Harsh Decree

[Yom Kippur Eve sermon for Congregation Ner Shalom]

Close your books.

Last week, on Rosh Hashanah, we talked about the creation of the world – of all the worlds. Yom Kippur is different. It is about the aftermath of creation – the world as it has unfolded, as it continues to unfold, and the role we play in that unfolding.

But when I listen to a sermon, sure, I like hearing ideas. But I especially like hearing a story too. So I will start with one. It goes like this:

Many years ago, in a tiny village somewhere in one of the countries that our ancestors liked to come from, there was a baker. She had an only child. The baker had little money or learning, as you would expect in this kind of story. But she did have a particular touch when she baked; a certain way the palms of her hands would press the bread dough while her fingertips coaxed the dough’s surface to life. She could tell from the temperature and the moisture in the air whether her customers would want their challah sweetened with a touch of honey this Shabbat or made savory with the slightest dusting of salt under the sesame seeds.

When her child was still young, the unthinkable happened. The baker began to show symptoms of one of the diseases that used to stalk and still stalk people, a dreaded disease that consumes its bearer, quickly and unkindly, and whose name is, by custom, only whispered. The doctor confirmed the baker’s fears.

This was just around the time of the New Year, and the baker’s child – what shall we call him? [The congregation chose Isaac.] – who had studied the aleph-bet and knew many prayers – went to synagogue seeking guidance. He heard the chazzan chanting the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. Tears welled up in him as the cantor intoned the question, Who will live and who will die? Itzik felt a knife in his heart, for certainly God had decreed that his mother would die. The doctor already had.

But Itzik then heard the refrain that closes the prayer:

ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה

Uteshuvah utefilah utzedakah ma’avirin et roa hagzerah.

Atonement and prayer and righteous deeds can alter the evil decree.

Itzik determined in that moment that he would save his mother and avert the evil decree. He hurried home and began the work of teshuvah. He told his mother he was sorry about the times he had been disobedient. How he had dragged his heels to help her sweep the flour off the floor. How he had wished sometimes for two parents. How he’d daydreamed about a nicer house that wasn’t always hot and smelling of yeast. He told her how he had at times wondered what it might feel like to be an orphan, and how he was afraid that he’d brought on her illness with his wandering mind. He told her all his bitternesses, and she held him and forgave him and she too told him all that she was sorry for.

Itzik then added tefilah to his daily regimen. Every morning upon getting out of bed and every night before getting into bed, he’d recite all the prayers he knew best. He remembered hearing a story in which a child prayed the aleph-bet and let God assemble the prayers out of the letters. So Itzik began to add a sing-through of all his letters, in case his words had not been enough. He worked to empty his heart and his mind of distracting thoughts and to truly imagine peace when he would pray for peace, and truly imagine healing when he would pray for healing.

But his mother’s condition worsened, and she had to spend many hours each day in her bed. At last the child turned to tzedakah. At first he wasn’t certain how to help those around him in need. He didn’t have money to give. He had no jobs to offer. No skill in building homes for the homeless. As he sat wondering, he heard his mother coughing at the hearth in the center of their house. He went to see if she was okay, and there he saw, as if for the first time, the sacks of flour and bowls of yeast; the jars full of sesame and caraway and poppy seeds. He realized that he could feed the hungry, because he was, after all, the son of a baker. He began to pour flour and oil into a bowl, and his mother laughed at his clumsiness. “No, dearest, like this,” she said, and she struggled to the breadboard to show him.

Every day they stood side by side, baking bread for the poor. They talked and told their stories, little stories of things they had seen and heard and remembered. When his mother was too tired to stand, she would lie back on an old stuffed chair and continue to offer instruction.

After a time Itzik began to have a certain way that the palms of his hands would press the bread dough while his fingertips coaxed the dough’s surface to life. He noticed he could tell from the temperature and the moisture in the air whether challot sweetened with a touch of honey or made savory with the slightest dusting of salt under the sesame seeds would be most pleasing to the tongues of those he would feed.

At last one night the boy had a dream. In it a voice came to him and said, “God has seen your heart and heard your prayers and knows your deeds. The harsh decree shall be commuted.” The boy awoke filled with joy, and rushed to tell his mother the news. He found her in bed, smiling, the breath having departed her body.

Ah, not the ending you expected? Certainly not a satisfying ending, wouldn’t you say? We hate endings like this, because we want our stories to be different from the lives we actually lead. We want them to be better. We want atonement and prayer and tzedokeh to save our loved ones from suffering, to save us from suffering. And in fact the opposite is our experience. Despite our soul searching and our meditation and our acts of justice, bad things happen. Sadly, this is not a magical universe. Or, at least, that is not the nature of this universe’s magic.

Instead, what we know best is the harshness of the laws of the universe. We are finite, our bodies fragile. Death is inevitable, whether we are righteous or wicked. Death comes too early, no matter what age we live to. We think we are special, but at second look we are but one species competing with millions of other evolving species on the planet, including the dreaded microbes that are also children of this creation.

The harsh reality of this universe is what I think our tradition has in mind when we talk about the divine attribute of din (דין). This word is translated in our prayer books as “judgment” as if it describes a quality or action relating to the merits of particular individuals. But I think is more like “law”: God’s law, Creation’s law, the great unstoppable momentum and imperative of this Universe. And the universe has momentum, doesn’t it? Are we not still surfing the wave of God’s first word? The Big Bang that to our ears sounded like the word yehi: “let there be…” This is all din.

From the word din in Hebrew we get the word dayyan (דיין), meaning “judge.” Upon hearing of a death Jews recite the blessing Baruch Dayyan Emet (ברוך דיין אמת) – blessed is the true judge. But if we believe that God actually doles out life and death based on merits that we can’t see or understand, or according to a plan that has not been shared with us, well, that might be a God one can believe in, but it is not a God one can love. On the other hand, if dayyan means not judge, but the din-maker, the one who breathed life into nature’s imperative, well then, in saying baruch dayyan emet we are instead acknowledging the inescapable laws of Creation by which we have no choice but to abide. We acknowledge that death is the inevitable price tag for having lived.

But, thankfully, din is not the end of the story; it is not the entirety of our reality. In our tradition, din is balanced or mitigated or given perspective by the quality of rachamim (רחמים). Mercy.

The Kabbalists called these two parallel streams of divinity by different names. Din is called gevurah (גבורה) – the attribute having to do with strength, located around here, the left shoulder, on the Tree of Life, when it is mapped on the body. Across from it, counterbalancing it, is rachamim’s parent: chesed (חסד). Love. Kindness. Gevurah and chesed are not opposites (remember last week I said, “reject forced oppositions?”).

They are rather complements. In other words, in our tradition, the answer to, or partner of, the severity of nature’s law is: love.
Rachamim, chesed. Mercy, love, kindness. These will not prevent hardship, disease or death. They will not calm earthquake or hold back flood. But they soften the blow. They mitigate the effects. They promote survival by giving us tools with which to make life livable and worth living, even in the hardest of times.

We have no control over din. Nature will unfold whether we approve or not. But rachamim, chesed: these are a choice.

Surely humans don’t always respond to din with chesed or kindness. Every day we hear about, or sometimes, God forbid, we come face to face with those who choose violence or who choose war instead. Ugly human mimicries of din itself and mockeries of the suffering the force of din can cause.

But our tradition seems to tell us not to respond to severity with severity. Instead, to respond to hardship with love. Love each other. Care for each other. Apologize. Sympathize. Empathize. Listen. Really listen. Really listen. Help. Show up. Visit the sick. Make food. Give hugs. Give money. Give a job. Make community. Learn together. Sing together. Decide to be someone who acts out of chesed, out of kindness and love, and then be that person. That is the best of what it means to be human, no? As Pirkei Avot says:

במקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש

Bamakom she’eyn anashim hishtadel lihyot ish.

In a place where there are no people, try to be a person. Be a mentsch.

In his book, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote a famous essay about teshuvah, this process of atoning or returning to the person we want to be which we actively engage in this time of year. In it, Rabbi Steinsaltz makes a marvelous claim for teshuvah not just as something that makes the difficult world easier to bear, but as something that actually changes the difficult world.

How? Rabbi Steinsaltz points out that like the universe itself, our lives are driven by cause and effect.

So, for instance, let’s say I lose my temper at another person. She feels misunderstood or mistreated and feels anger also. Her anger in turn gets unleashed on some other poor schmuck. Or, perhaps worse, she internalizes my unkind words and feels less about herself, which will have its own set of unforeseeable consequences. A butterfly effect of woe.

Rabbi Steinsaltz argues, though, that teshuvah has power over the chain of cause and effect. While it can’t undo an action that has already taken place in the past, it can change that action’s meaning and significance in the present and the future.

So if I engage in the work of teshuvah, offering apology, non-defensive explanation, acts of kindness in recompense and beyond, it won’t erase my actions, but it gives me some hope of rendering them harmless, of curbing the damage, of halting the chain of cause and effect, of restoring the world to what it might have been had I acted from a place of chesed in the first place.

This is a wonderful idea, that teshuvah doesn’t merely lighten the burden of din, but can also have an actual effect on the unfolding of this World. It can make the world a better place. It is our way of participating, being partners, in the continuing act of Creation.

So imagine if we engaged in teshuvah not one day or one season a year, but every day.

A couple weeks ago, at our joint Selichot-Ramadan event, Imam Siddiqui of the Islamic Center of Petaluma gave a beautiful teaching about fasting. How fasting is a great leveler: it’s hard to hate someone else when you are both fasting and feeling the frailty of your body. Then he asked us to consider what it would be like if we could get our governments to fast!

Similarly, imagine what it might be like if we took teshuvah global! If it went viral. If we engaged readily, easily, in teshuvah not only as individuals, but as communities. As businesses. As nations. Apology. Accountability. Humility. What if teshuvah were part of everyone’s mission statement and everyone’s business plan? Every country’s Constitution? What would that world look like? Can we even imagine it? Take a moment right now to think: what are the environments to which you could bring the spirit of teshuvah?

So perhaps let’s think of our teshuvah this Yom Kippur not as an annual activity but as an annual refresher. To remind us how to do teshuvah every day, whenever needed, wherever needed, until healing hurt is as easy as causing it. None of us is so good at this stuff, but that’s why we practice.

As most of you know, in my other life I sing in a quartet. In drag, of course. We’ve been doing this act for fifteen years, and we are not a group made up of people who naturally get along. We spent much time hurting each other’s feelings and after about eight or nine years, after we went full time, we realized that we needed help or the group simply couldn’t continue. We could barely be in a room together.

We went about seeking a therapist from among the array of therapists catering to the a cappella community. And there are, in fact, quite a number of them. We went for pedigree, choosing Chanticleer’s shrink right off the bat. We went in for our first sessions, and although I try to do teshuvah and let go every year around Yom Kippur, it became clear that I was holding in my body nearly a decade of unresolved resentments. The muscles of my consciousness were sore with seething.

In our sessions we learned tools that now, looking at them from this perspective, I can only describe as a practice of everyday teshuvah. We learned and we continue to practice how to apologize in a way that actually shifts something. How to ask for meaningful apology. How to forgive shortcomings. We learned how an apology like “I’m sorry I got angry at your being such an ass” is not only ineffective, but is not teshuvah at all, but rather a next step in the chain of harmful cause and effect, most likely responded to with something like, "Yes, and I'm sorry I was such an ass, it was only because you were such a shmuck." We learned how to take accountability even if you’re not, strictly speaking, to blame.

In the process of practicing this, we began to notice quickly when our own words are hurtful, so that we can apologize and curb the harm without the other person having to sit with bad feeling and having to ask for apology. With practice, we’ve learned to do what Steinsaltz talks about, curbing or nullifying emotional harm.

We’re not always good at it, but we’ve gotten better and better because we’ve created a culture among the four of us where there is language and support for speaking this way. It’s telling that in our world, we can all find the words to be cruel to each other with no effort whatsoever. But seeking words of teshuvah, we often come up empty.

But we can figure it out. That’s what practice is for. As tomorrow’s Torah portion tells us specifically about the mitzvah of teshuvah:

לא נפלאת היא ממך ולא רחוקה היא ... כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו

Lo niflet hi mimcha v’lo r’chokah hi . . .
ki karov eylecha hadavar m’od, b’ficha uvil’vav’cha la’asoto.

Which means, more or less: This mitzvah, this making good, this power to transform experience into something good: there is nothing supernatural about it; it is not rocket science. It is already in your mouth and in your heart. Your heart will tell you when it has to happen (and if your heart is on the fence about whether teshuvah is required in a specific situation, then undoubtedly it is your heart telling you that teshuvah is in fact required, and it is some other part of your anatomy saying it would prefer not to make the effort). And when your heart says it is time, your mouth will find the words to say. They won’t always be the right words the first time out. But maybe the second time, or the seventh, or the twenty-seventh.

So, teshuvah: it’s not just for Yom Kippur anymore. It’s for every day. To heal relationships. To heal the world. To heal God. To heal our hard hearts. To turn us into the people we want to be. To soften the severity of the world we live in.

So a quick epilogue. You might be wondering what happened to the boy in the story, yes? This is how I’d like to think it went on:

At first, seeing his mother’s lifeless body, Itzik was at a loss. He had done what he thought God asked of him. He had engaged in teshuvah and tefilah and tzedakah. And he had been told his prayers were accepted. Yet his mother had died anyway. Heaven had betrayed him. He questioned God, or perhaps stopped believing in God altogether.

Relatives took him in -- kind people, but they weren’t his mother. He felt alone, even though now he was in a much larger, bustling household. One Friday morning, he saw his cousin kneading the challah dough. “No,” he said. “Like this.” And he began to bake, pressing the dough just so.

He became a baker. He was well loved and when impatience or an uncharacteristic show of temper overcame him, he found he knew words to ask forgiveness, and he knew how to forgive in return. In the morning and the evening at the times when, as a boy, he would pray, he could still close his eyes and imagine what peace might feel like or what healing might feel like or what justice might feel like, and it would inspire him. And when he would bake challah, he would set 10 loaves aside for the poor. And as he massaged the dough, he would remember the stories his mother told him as they kneaded the challah side by side, and he would smile, in love for her, and in the slow recognition that the harsh sentence – not his mother’s but his own – had indeed been averted.