Oct 8, 2011

Rabbi Creditor's Yom Kippur 5772 Drasha: "Better than Truth"

Rabbi Creditor's Yom Kippur Drasha
"Better than Truth"
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This is quite a moment.  Look around you.  There are many hundreds of people here tonight, all taking turns holding their breath, sometimes finding themselves holding their breath at the

 same time as others around them.  Kol Nidrei does that.


They're mysterious things: Kol Nidrei and the unfolding of Yom Kippur.  We wear white, we fast, we are ready for... something.  We don't really know what it is, but we show up hoping for a hint of it.  Just a few days ago we were right here, inviting the world to be reborn, to regain and grant us hope in the aftermath of a very hard year.  It is a hard time for our entire world, a hard time for Israel, a hard time for the United States, and a hard, pivotal moment for our precious community.


And so we hold our breath.


The very first blessing I wish us is to breathe out what you've been holding in.  Let it out.  Last year is over.  Yom Kippur is about acknowledging the past, knowing that it will forever be a part of us, but that we are not identical with it.  We are not our past.  [sung] "MiYom Kippurim Zeh ad Yom HaKippurim haBah Aleynu Letovah / From this Yom Kippur until the next, may we be visited by good."


Breathe in the good that begins now - for you, for your family and friends, for your community, for our country, for our homeland, and for the world.  Each needs you to be breathing in order that you may be an agent for the healing the world so desperately needs. 


And that is my message tonight.  You are necessary in the world.  We are necessary in the world. 


That demands a whole lot of each of us.  And so I suggest we start by breathing.


How do we know we are necessary?  Let's start at the basic level.  It seems possible that the universe might have been in better shape without people.  And yet here we are.  What could God have been thinking?  Two thousand years ago, a sacred story, a Midrash, was recorded:


In the beginning of God's deciding to create the first human being, there occurred a heavenly disagreement about the project.  God consulted with the angels on the question of whether or not to create people. 


The angels inquired: "What will a person be like?" 


God responded, "such and such will be the nature of a person."

  • The angel of Chesed, the Angel of Love, said, "Yes!  Let's create people, for they will bring great acts of loving kindness to the world.  
  • "No!" said the Angel of Emet, the Angel of Truth, "The human being will bring lies and deception to the world."  

Whereupon God took the Angel of Truth and threw it down from the heavens to the earth.  The other angels chased Truth, and when they finally recovered the Truth from the Earth, God greeted them with these words: "There is nothing left to discuss.  It is too late.  I have created the first human being in My Image."

-adapted from TB Sanhedrin 38b and Breishit Rabbah 8:4


What can we learn from this Midrash?  Some might react to this story by pointing to the mystery of God's Ways, suggesting that any message learned from the story is limited at best.  Some might shrug, chuckle, and say, "well, it's only a Midrash." 


But I take this story as a profound teaching for the world, and for our community, this year in particular.  In the Midrash, God casts Truth out of Heaven and created us.  We learn the deepest of lessons in this one scene: Truth is an insufficient barrier to Sacred Creation.


Truth is an insufficient barrier to Sacred Creation.


But the rabbis continued to wrestle with the question whether or not it would have been better had humanity not been created.  They and we are the result of God's seeing past Truth to create us, and yet:


For two and a half years, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated. These said: It is better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created; and those said: It is better for humanity to have been created than to not have been created. In the end, they voted on it and concluded: It is better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created; but now that we have been created, we should search our deeds.

- adapted from TB Eiruvin 13b


OK - The collaborative vision of Hillel and Shammai teaches us that, while the Angel of Truth might have been "telling the Truth," we can't elect to go back and change God's Mind.  Our responsibility, now that we're here, is to search our deeds, to be true to our purpose, to live our lives as God once only dreamt, despite all the Truth available in the Heavens.


Let's be brave enough ask that question as Jews.  Now that we're here, what's our purpose?  As Mark Twain pointed out in 1899:


..If statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. ...He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and had done it with his hands tied behind him. ...The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed; and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?" 

 - excerpted from "Concerning the Jews," Harper's Magazine, 1899


To restate the lesson of our Midrash: Truth is an insufficient barrier to Sacred Creation.  And to refine the serious question posed by Twain: What is the secret success of our lives as Jews?


We celebrated, just two weeks ago, the 90th birthday of our friend Ben Stern.  Ben and his precious wife Helen survived untellable horrors during the Sho'ah.  The answer we seek is not only in their souls, it is the very community we comprise.   The answer we seek is manifest in Ben and Helen, in their daughter, Charlene, one of the mothers and fathers of Netivot Shalom. 


  • Does it make any sense that Ben and Helen's choices would one day create a sacred Jewish home to more than 1,000 people in Berkeley, California? 
  • Could they have seen the unfolding of their daily commitment to live? 
  • Would the truth available in the aftermath of the Shoah ever have envisioned a thriving traditional shul for Jews and non-Jews, for straight and gay and bisexual and transgendered and black and latino and white and Sephardic and old and young and adopted and single - and the rest of us?

No!  None of the truths we are were available then.  But here we are, thanks to the Jewish impulse to create.  We have learned, over the course of our history, the lesson of that Midrash.  Truth is an insufficient barrier to Sacred Creation.


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah told this story:


Once I was traveling, and I met with a child at a crossroads. I asked him, 'which way to the city?' and he answered: 'This way is short and long, and this way is long and short.' I took the 'short and long' way. I soon reached the city but found my approach obstructed by gardens and orchards. So I retraced my steps and said to the child: 'My son, did you not tell me that this is the short way?' Answered the child: 'Didn't I tell you that it is also long?'

- TB Eruvin 53b


We are a special shul on a 'short and long' path.  And truth be told, there are times it could have been shorter, and times that were, perhaps, too short.  But look where our history has led us.  We have tonight's magic, and we'll have tomorrow's, and more and more people are finding their hearts and souls lifted, comforted, cherished, and inspired by the deeds we search ourselves to do day-in and day-out at Netivot Shalom.


Mark Twain was correct about us.  A Conservative/Masorti shul in Berkeley suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky way, never to be heard of. 


But we are heard of. 


  • It is no accident that the Contemporary Jewish Museum inaugurated its new Torah here at Netivot Shalom, nor that
  • the soferet of that Torah soon afterwards joined Netivot Shalom. 
  • It is no accident that Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service specifically asked to speak here, no accident that
  • Anat Hoffman, International Chair of Women of the Wall is coming here in February. 
  • It is no accident that we count among our shul members not one, not two, but 3 out of the 20 East Bay Wexner Fellows, dedicated to re-imagining our entire Jewish community. 
  • It is no accident that in the last issue of Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, 4 CNS members were contributors. 
  • And perhaps it is no accident that, among our newest members, we are blessed to now count the editor of Sh'ma, Susan Berrin, and her husband Professor Steve Zipperstein. 
  • We are been blessed to count over 40 rabbis, cantors, and Jewish professionals in our membership.


We are heard of.


And, regarding the impact we are having on the Masorti/Conservative Movement:


  • It is no accident that the Rabbinical Assembly tested the prototype of our Machzor in our community before its release, no accident that
  • our stunning Aron HaKodesh was featured in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism calendar last year, no accident that
  • the National Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs Rabbinic Keruv think-tank took place in our shul this summer. 
  • It's no accident that the Masorti Foundation brought the CEO of the Masorti Movement to our shul last year, that
  • the Hayom Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism counted Netivot Shalom as a founding partner. 
  • It is no accident that the regional office of USY, the Conservative Movement's Youth Group, just relocated and is renting space in our shul this year.


Yes, we are facing our moment of truth this year as a shul.  And your response will determine the future of what we've built. 


We have always faced our moments of truth as a shul, and as a people.  What is the secret success of our shul, of our People?  What is our answer to Mark Twain?  What response can we possibly offer the Angel of Truth who said we should never have been created?  What lesson have we that we can share with the child who warns us of our chosen long/short journey?


  • We have learned that being a Jew is living the commitment to shatter any barriers that stand in the way of Sacred Creation. 
  • We will build and protect our shul. 
  • We will speak and share our loving truths.
  • We will ensure the life of this shul for generations to come.


Any and every barrier to this goal is insufficient in the face of sacred power.


My dear mentor, Rabbi Bill Lebeau, recently recounted to me wisdom that he gained from his teacher, Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser z"l.  Rabbi Bokser taught a homiletics class at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he instructed rabbinical students on the way to deliver Drashot.  He suggested to his students that they write every sermon, word for word, and then, 5 minutes before Shabbat began, rip them up.  He promised that they would remember 90 percent of what they had intended to say, and that in fighting to remember what was so important, so precious in their message, their passions would be apparent to all who heard them speak.


That is what needs to happen here, starting tonight.  Kol Nidrei is us calling upon God, and us upon each other, to take all the prepared remarks we usually like to pretend are conversation, and rip them up.  They are not more true than what pours out from your souls when you look someone else in the eyes, even if it doesn't always come out polished and perfect.


We read in Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah (5:2), an ancient collection of Midrash, "God says: My children, create for me a small opening of Teshuvah, as tiny as the head of a pin, and I will open for you openings that even wagons and chariots can pass through." 


That's our job.  Breathe in, breathe out.  That's the air God breathed into us, the difference between the lifeless form we were and the living being each of us is today.  If you're breathing, the Divine is within you, and you've got work ahead.


We are called tonight to return to what we have always been, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of our parts, no slowing of our energies, no dulling of our alert and aggressive minds. 


This Yom Kippur, we are called to re- create a small opening in ourselves, and unleash torrents of sacred creative power from within.


Truth is, maybe things would have been OK without us.  But it's no accident that we're here.  Hope is available and waiting for the activating with every breath.  Take your whole self - including all your fear and pain and memory of this last year. Harness all of this to change the world, starting with yourself. You have untold power within.


  • May our journey bring us to moments of gratitude.
  • May we be granted, through processing and surpassing our past, an inspired, purposeful life.
  • And may all those who ache for a safe, Jewish home, find their way into our arms.
  • May we exercise and flex those very arms so that our love can live.
  • May the future of our sacred home here at shul shine ever brighter.