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“The Spiritual Revolution”
Erev Rosh HaShanah 5779
Rabbi Joshua Hillel Strom

There is the story of the man wandering, lost, in the desert. Desperate for water, stumbling through the sand, wondering how much longer he can survive, he comes upon a lamp. Upon rubbing the lamp, a genie appears. Hoping for three wishes, the man is granted only one. The caveat, the genie tells him, is that whatever he wishes for himself, his worst enemy will get double. The man thinks long and hard about it, considering his current dire straits as well as a worst enemy he may never see again. Finally, after what felt like hours, the gears stop turning, he looks up into the genie’s eyes, and calmly says to him, “Gouge out one of my eyes.”

Hmm. Funny? Horrifying? Maybe both? Maybe because it’s true. The man in the joke is so consumed by a hatred so deep, so all-encompassing, that it transcends the needs of the moment, even his own necessities for survival. It’s hard to believe that given the opportunity to wish for anything – absolutely anything – even with such a thought-provoking caveat, a person wouldn’t choose something to their own benefit. But, for some of us, that’s how deep our well of hate goes.

Sure, it’s just a joke. But sadly, it resonates with us today perhaps more than ever. It feels like hatred is literally everywhere, doesn’t it. It feels like the world is just teeming with it, bursting at the seams with hate. Spewing from our televisions, the news broadcasts, the halls of Congress; consuming our workplaces, our places of leisure, even our homes. Hatred so palpable, so venomous and deeply felt, that it threatens to poison us, and sometimes it does.

We can try to point the finger, if we wish, attempt to assign blame for the nastiness we all feel so tangibly in the world around us. We could lament the current political climate or scapegoat certain figures or celebrities, believing that this escalation can be simplistically reduced to a few philosophies or behaviors we could then just address in order to eradicate the hate. But while it is indisputable that crimes of hate, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny have spiked tremendously, it is clear as day that the hatred has been there all along – simmering, festering just beneath the surface, just underneath the skin; the only difference now is we see the manifestations of that hate everywhere we look. And that is perhaps the scariest truth in all of this. This isn’t new. It was always there. The only difference is now it’s all out there. Now, we all know it’s there.

Mia Irizarry knows it. Over the summer, the Cook County, Illinois resident had rented a picnic area in a local park for a family celebration. Setting the tables and preparing for the arrival of her guests, Mia was accosted and harassed vehemently, persistently, and, at least initially, with impunity by a middle-aged, white, self-identified patriot. Why? What had so riled this man up? What had so raised his ire, had so deeply offended and infuriated this man to the point of instigating an altercation? Mia was wearing a shirt that said “Puerto Rico” on it. Amid her pleas for the intervention of the completely disinterested park ranger – there supposedly to ensure the peaceful usage of the park and facilities for all – the man confronts her, “Why are you wearing that shirt?” And from there, and for entirely too long, the ridiculous question posed now turned to pointed verbal and even physical harassment. What had Mia done wrong? Why was her humanity erased, her existence challenged by this man, overlooked as insignificant by the park ranger?    

Hatred. A t-shirt. A piece of clothing. And a man who seems to believe that, as a proud American, he not only has the right, but perhaps even some misguided sense of patriotic obligation, to harass and shout down another human being, someone exercising her own fundamental, and constitutionally protected, freedom of expression. Let’s put aside for the moment the mind-boggling stupidity and blistering ignorance of this man, whereby he seems to think that Puerto Rico is a foreign entity and not, in fact, a commonwealth of the very same USA whose “honor” he is so eager to defend. When the mere presence of a woman wearing a t-shirt triggers such hostility, such ugliness, could there be a more stark illustration of how deep and wide this reservoir of hate truly is?

This is what our sages in the Talmud called sinat chinam, usually translated as “baseless hatred.” While hating someone or something is generally frowned upon, our tradition recognizes and even accepts the reality of human nature, whereby a person’s deeds might render him or her the object of another’s disaffection. In those instances, our Torah and texts point us towards a path of conflict resolution – of recognizing the anger within ourselves, identifying the person at least partially responsible for inciting that anger, and assertively but respectfully confronting the individual with what he or she did wrong.

But the key word here in the Hebrew is chinam, meaning completely and totally without cause. Meaning hating someone because of what they look like, their skin color, their sexual orientation or gender identity; hating someone because of where they come from, which political party they support, what they spend their money on, even what sports teams they root for. Sin’ah, hatred, is one thing. Sinat chinam, baseless, causeless hatred, that is entirely another. And this isn’t the first time it has threatened to completely tear us apart.

The first time was in 586 BCE, on the 9th, or Tisha, B’av, when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and conquered the Kingdom of Judah, sending the Jewish people into exile from their Holy Land. You know the song “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion”? That’s from the Psalms, which was penned sometime before the 1970 version now in your heads. And that’s why they were crying. Their homeland conquered, their homes vacated, their holy temple, their spiritual center – gone. Demolished. That is why they wept.

And while there was no stopping the Babylonian armies, the Sages of the Talmud say that their deepest sin against Israel, what really, truly did us in was the sinat chinam, this baseless hatred we’re all too familiar with. They tell us the story of a man whose dear friend was named Kamtza, his enemy Bar Kamtza. Sending his servant to invite Kamtza to a feast at his home, the servant accidentally invites Bar Kamtza, the man’s enemy. Angrily stunned to find his sworn enemy sitting there, partaking of his feast, accosts him: “You are my enemy. Why are you here? Arise and leave.” Fearful of public humiliation, Bar Kamtza says, “Since I have already come, let me stay and I will give you money for whatever I eat and drink. Just do not embarrass me by sending me out.” But he is told, “No, you must leave.” “I will give you money for the entire feast,” Bar Kamtza says to him, just please, let me stay.” Again he is told that he has to leave. Finally, the text tells us, the host takes him by his hand, stands him up and physically removes him from the gathering. Upon his unceremonious ejection from the feast, publicly cast out and completely humiliated, Bar Kamtza wonders to himself how, witnessing the entire exchange, everyone there, even the Sages themselves, just sat there. No one said a thing. No one uttered a word of protest. That particular Jewish community – the entire world at least as far as they knew – was so utterly and bitterly torn apart by this baseless hatred, this sin’at chinam, that perhaps, the Sages seem to say, perhaps even more devastating than the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies, was that they had they lost their own way, long, long before the Babylonians came to their gates. By the time Jerusalem came under siege, their very soul, their very essence as a people of moral fiber and integrity, had been torn from each others’ shoulders and trampled beneath their own feet. A community already so filled with hate, so deeply divided among ourselves, the conquering came naturally.          

My friends, is that where we are now? Does this ancient story perhaps hit a little too close to home? Have we become so deeply inured to this nastiness, so beaten down by this all-encompassing hatred, so used to the ugliness of the world we’ve come to know that we feel not only powerless to stop it, but the pointlessness and futility of even trying? Is that really why we’re here? Is this really what God intended when we were made?       

No. It’s not. God made Adam and Eve from the same flesh and bone; each of them, both of them, fashioned b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. And they were fashioned, most importantly, for each other. “It is not good for a person to be alone,” God declares, “I will make for him a partner, a helper, a counterpart.” Mia could have used a partner like that. Bar Kamtza could have used a partner like that. And so could we all, couldn’t we?

And that, of course, is the answer. The answer is that, ultimately, at the end of the day and its beginning, we need each other. The answer is being in relationship – somehow, some way, shape or form – with each other. And the answer is obvious, isn’t it. As my teacher Dr. Kravitz would say, “I’m not teaching you Torah you don’t already know.”

But, really, how do we do that? And how often is the answer really, truly lived?

For the great 20th century theologian Martin Buber, among the greatest privileges allowed to us as human beings is the opportunity for an I-Thou moment. In an I-Thou moment, there is a moment of profoundly felt connection with another person or being; a true encounter which each enters fully and authentically and by which each is strengthened and raised up by the other; a moment transcendent and suspended out of time. Sometimes through deep conversation, sometimes through just a look. Sometimes through laughter or tears, sometimes without a sound.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you. We’ve all experienced these I-Thou moments. They are the very best stuff from the heart of life, moving us within ourselves, pushing us beyond ourselves, on the path. It could be with a friend of 30 years or the stranger you pass on the street, someone with whom you agree or vehemently do not. What they have in common is that they all begin with a recognition of the humanity, the tzelem Elohim, the spark of the Divine within *every* *single* *human* *being,* an acute awareness we all need each other, need to live in relationship with each other, because there simply is no other way to fully live and experience the lives we’ve been blessed with.

Now I’m not saying you’re going to share a belly laugh with or cry tears on the shoulder of a random tourist in Times Square. But, think about it: wouldn’t the world be at least a bit better if we all started from there – acknowledging, at the very least, the existence of the living, breathing person across from you, beside you, a human being of flesh and blood just like you, hopes and dreams and challenges and history all their own? Wouldn’t that world be better than the one we’ve got now?

If you agree with me – and I know I do – then let’s make it happen. Let’s be the change we want to see in the world. Let us not say “that day will come;” let us bring on the day! Let us come into every human interaction, every possible point of connection, with an innate understanding of and appreciation for that spark of the Divine, that image of God, that core of humanity within us all.

Tonight is 9/9/18, and most of you know I don’t believe in coincidences. “Coincidence,” Einstein once said, “is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” So on this night, on 9/9/18 on the secular calendar, as we have completed another revolution around the sun, I’m calling for a spiritual revolution, a Great Awakening, for humankind to be both human and kind, to strive for and rise up towards the best we can be, or at least better than we were. And each of us is a 9 – perhaps on a scale of 1 to 10, but even if not – each of us is half of the equation, half of the I-Thou that imbues our lives with the power of spiritual synergy. Each of us is a 9 in need of another 9. Because we need each other. We need each other to get to 18, to chai, a life of meaning and fulfillment, of purpose and direction, of wholeness and holiness.

A new year begins tonight. The revolution begins tonight. And the invitation is open to all:

Won’t you join me?

I hope you will.

I pray you will.


Mon, July 15 2024 9 Tammuz 5784