Rabbi Cohen Yom Kippur 5776 Sermon – “Sinat Chinam – Listen to How we Treat One Another”

Yom Kippur Morning 5776
September 24, 2015
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Sinat Chinam – Listen to How we Treat One Another

A 159 page document that has produced hundreds of pages more of commentary. Sounds like Talmud to me. But no, this is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, dated from Vienna on July 14, 2015; also known as the Iran Deal. It begins:

The E3/EU+3 (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and the Islamic Republic of Iran welcome this historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which will ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful, and mark a fundamental shift in their approach to this issue. They anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security. Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.

Now, before we go any further, let me fully disclose that I have not read all 159 pages of this document. Nor, do I recall any classes on Nuclear agreements, nuclear science, international political and diplomatic relations, or for that matter, congregational law 101, in my rabbinic training – which by the way includes four years undergrad, one year graduate school before five years of rabbinic post graduate school. I must have skipped that day. Yet, many rabbinic colleagues of all schools have very strong opinions about this deal, and they are not afraid to wield them.

It is clear that there are a lot of opinions about this deal and we are all quite capable of reading them ourselves. And we are well aware that nothing is just black and white. I would even venture that many who share their opinions have only based theirs on others. Without the full text and the benefit of being a part of a conversation, can one fully form a clear understanding of this deal, let alone any issue? So I am not going to stand here before you and tell you what your opinion should be about this deal. It is not that I don’t care about Israel, because, as you’ve heard me speak passionately about Israel before, I do care. In fact, I care so much that I am not only concerned about Israel’s external enemies, I am very concerned about the enemies from within. I am worried about the actions of those who love Israel, but forget how to treat others with kavod, respect and honor. I am concerned about the discourse that is happening around this issue and others within our Jewish community. I am concerned when I hear colleagues bashing other colleagues’ opinions by calling them war-mongers and questioning their commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. I am concerned when I read on select Facebook pages how one person will express their opinion and are then shot down with insults and their worth devalued. I am concerned when people cannot sit together, have a lively discussion, sharing opinions without it turning personal and name calling while trying to discredit the other in public. Forget a nuclear bomb, we as people are very capable of destroying ourselves through sinat chinam, baseless hatred and internal strife.

The stakes are high for Israel, American foreign policy and the world. The debate is emotional and complex. American Jewish organizations, from Federations to AIPAC to J-Street, are all taking very partisan positions and many are left wondering where to fall. Rob Eishman of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal agrees with the deal, but as he says, “you can turn the page of this newspaper or scroll our website and find columnists who disagree with me. The only honest approach to such a life-and-death issue is to understand that smart people with a great deal at stake disagree, and neither side has a lock on the truth.” He says that the correct path for American Jewry is to find ways “America and Israel could hedge against the deal’s weaknesses and buttress its strengths.” Instead, we see the larger organizations telling their members exactly how to vote and forgetting that without debate we fracture and weaken our community, especially at a time when we need to find strength together.

This goes beyond the Iran deal debate. This goes to the very core issue – how we treat one another! Through this debate and throughout other issues in our world and community, there has been a lack of basic human respect of one another. We worry about our children being bullies, but I can tell you, I worry about us as adults being bullies and then our children learning from our misbehavior.

Here’s the beauty of our Jewish tradition – it is so rich that yes, there is a text that can help us find a path toward peaceful discourse. It comes from the Mishnah, the oral tradition that would become the foundation for our Talmud. It begins, shnayim ochzin b’talit. Two people are grasping at a tallit from both ends. Each tries to wrestle it out of the hands of the other to lay claim to it. One says, “I found it!” and the other says, “I found it!” One says, “All of it is mine!” and the other claims, “No! All of it is mine!” How do we resolve this dispute?

The tallit is a lost object with no identifying features, unless of course it is a one of a kind or has the person’s name sewn into it. Therefore, finder’s keepers can uphold. But in the case of this Mishnah, there are two finders – how do we decide who gets the tallit? We don’t! It’s a piece of cloth, and so the only thing one can do is divide it in two and give each a piece of it. This of course is not what we can do in the case of say a lost goat, you can’t divide it – well you can, but we’ll say for the sake of our vegetarian friends, that we won’t.

Is dividing the tallit really the fair thing to do? What if one of the people really did find the tallit first? Why should they not receive the whole tallit? Because, Talmud teaches us that, “more important than ‘it’s mine’ is the fact that human beings must live together in this world, and therefore, the Mishnah claims that the tallit must be divided.

This teaching validates that there can be two contradictory points of view and that we must respect the possibility that opposing beliefs may also contain truth. In fact, the Hebrew word for truth is emet, spelled, alef, mem, tav – the first, the middle and the last letters in the Hebrew alphabet. What does this teach us? That we can find truth but only when we look fully around an argument, from its beginning to the middle and the end. Very similar to the two Jews, three opinions idea. And this alone can be so frustrating. But this is what Talmud, Jewish learning, and what participating in Jewish discourse should be – contradictory opinions piled high and our responsibility to peel back each layer.

Take for example this Talmudic story:

A troubled young man goes to see a Rabbi. “Rabbi,” he says, “Yesterday, for the first time, I picked up a volume of Talmud and tried to study it. But I couldn’t understand a word of it! Could you please explain to me what Talmud is?”

“I can,” said the Rabbi, “But first, let me ask you a simple question: If two men spend a day cleaning a chimney, and one comes out dirty and the other comes out clean, which one will wash himself?”

“Well, the dirty one, of course” replies the young man.

“No, my young friend,” replies the rabbi, shaking his head. “They will look at one another: The dirty man will see the clean man and think that he, too is clean; while the clean man will look at the dirty man and think that he, too, is dirty, so he will wash.

“Now let me ask you another question,” the Rabbi goes on. 
”If two men spend a day cleaning a chimney and one comes out dirty and the other comes out clean, which one will wash himself?”

The young man is confused. “You just told me, Rabbi. The clean man.”

“No, my friend,” says the Rabbi, shaking his head. “They each look at themselves. The clean man knows he’s clean and the dirty man knows he’s dirty and washes himself.

“Now, one final question,” the rabbi goes on. “If two men spend a day cleaning a chimney and one comes out dirty and the other one comes out clean, which one will wash himself?”

Now the young man is annoyed. “I don’t know, Rabbi,” he says impatiently. “I guess it could be one or the other”

“No, my friend,” says the Rabbi, shaking his head. “If two men spend a whole day cleaning a chimney, how could one of them possibly come out clean? They’re both filthy, and so they will both wash.”

Now the young man is offended. “Rabbi, you’ve asked me the exact same question three times, and given me three different answers. Are you playing some sort of joke on me?”

“Heaven forbid I should joke!,” gasps the Rabbi. “I’m trying to explain what Talmud is!

We are in the midst of turning so many issues over and over and putting stakes into the ground to say, “I am right and no one else matters!” The discourse we see, be it around the Iran deal, be it in the beginning of the 2016 Presidential campaign, be it in the strong positions we take in our own lives, is it possible that we forget to look for the truth, the emet and first observe all sides?

Let me give you one more Talmudic example: Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages, led by Rabbi Joshua, are arguing over the kosher status of an oven. Each side summons heaven to declare if they are right. One says, “If I am right, let the carob tree move; if I’m right, let the walls of the House of Study, Beit Midrash, fall in.” Rabbi Eliezer summons a Heavenly Voice to support his argument, which it does. However, Rabbi Joshua rejects the Heavenly Voice using a line that we read this morning in our Torah portion, Nitzavim, “it is not in Heaven that someone else should go up and receive it.” He says, since Torah has been given to us, it is up to us here on earth to decide the law, not the Heavenly voice. The Sages overrule Rabbi Eliezer with a majority vote, something that never happens for the law almost always follows Rabbi Eliezer.  (Bava Metzia 59b)

On the surface, this seems fine, majority rules. However, we have to continue with the text; Rabbi Eliezer is excommunicated because he disagrees with the majority.

Unfortunately, when we find ourselves in difficult and controversial discourse it can lead to mockery, name calling, and belittling others. We don’t need our enemies to destroy us, we will do the job for them. And this is not just in the political arena, this is in our every day life.

Consider what we hear in the work place or in school. How do we speak to one another? How do we treat each other? We don’t have to always agree, but we can and we should treat one another with respect and humility. Sometimes we try to position ourselves in such a way of wanting to exert power that we don’t care who we have to step on to get there. We tell our children to watch how they speak to us and others, but do we heed that same lesson? Unfortunately, no. The internet, email, social media and texting have made it even easier to speak curtly and without respect because it is not face to face with the other person. And when we get used to speaking that way in this anonymous venue, we are more easily prone to speaking that way face to face, forgetting to use courteous and descent tone and attitude. We have a lot to do in our lives and sometimes being direct may seem to be the easiest, but it is not always the healthiest. We have forgotten to consider the other’s feelings and personal concerns all in an effort to be right. But right is not always truth, emet.

I am not in a position to tell you, my congregation, what you should or should not believe when it comes to the Iran deal or who to vote for in the upcoming elections. Yes, we should be having healthy conversations about it, and I am not shying away from it. It is not from this pulpit or without the ability for us to have conversation and healthy debate that this conversation should take place. But I am here to remind us ALL that we have a moral obligation to consider how it is that we speak with one another when we discuss either hotly contentious topics or engage in mundane conversations. Every person has the right to be heard and to be listened to. Every person has the right to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter their position. Every person is created in God’s image and therefore, each of us have the responsibility to be stewards of peaceful discourse. This is how we bring peace to our people and our world.


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