What Comes Next, by Rabbi Bess B. Wohlner
By: Melinda Lejman | September 30, 2020
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Two individuals who traveled in the same circles found themselves frequently at odds. Those around them sometimes even wondered if there was just something in their DNA that compelled them to argue with each other. And even more perplexing, they seemed to enjoy it. Whenever a colleague or student would ask for advice, oh did they have answers, but rarely a consensus. Do not misunderstand, these two were friendly adversaries and spent their lives pushing each other to think more deeply, and live more fully and intentionally. I, of course, am speaking of Hillel and Shammai, scholars in the Land of Israel during the first century BCE.
While they had many famous debates, among my favorites is one that is most relevant to today, Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world. The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b, states “For two and a half years, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed.” And what was the years-long debate about? Attempting to answer one question: Should human beings have ever been created? The schools of Hillel and Shammai weighed the answers of how humans had contributed to the betterment of the world and of how humans had contributed to the destruction of the world.
We can imagine their arguments on both sides:
“Humans are the only creatures who have created war”
“But Humans are the only creatures who can stop war”
“Humans have abused the earth and its resources”
“Well humans have innovated and learned to harness earth’s resources for survival”
and on it went.
After two and a half years, the debate was settled. For once in history, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel agreed: The world would have been better off had humans never been created. How could that be? How could these deep thinkers reach this conclusion? What in the world happened during those two and a half years? Over the course of their conversations, they decided that the potential for humans to do harm far outweighed the potential for humans to do good. These were two of the most respected Jewish thinkers of their time and from what they witnessed of humanity, they concluded that humans are more harmful than they are helpful. These two scholars, who disagreed about virtually everything, were both in agreement that the human experiment had, on its whole, failed.
In a year like 5780, it is not difficult to sympathize with the conclusion made by these men. We can imagine them observing humanity in this past year, engaging in the same debate, and likely coming to the same conclusion all over again. We might even be wondering it ourselves having seen the past year unfold. We’ve witnessed so much pain, loss, and destruction on every level. Some of it, completely out of our control, and other pieces exacerbated by human decision. The Coronavirus Pandemic has revealed so much about ourselves, our families, and communities, and perhaps most significantly, it has revealed so many hard truths about humanity to us.
In 5780, we saw some of the worst of humanity. We saw a virus spread its way across the globe. We went from thinking masks were an optional accessory for Purim (the last time we were gathered in this sanctuary together) to a matter of life or death. We witnessed as the concept of wearing a mask somehow became politicized, turned from an issue of communal responsibility and pikuach nefesh (of saving a life) to an
infringement of personal liberty; prioritizing the convenience of one over the safety of the whole.
In 5780 we have seen our world on fire, literally and figuratively, as a result of human action and human inaction. Large swaths of our country are either burned to ash or being decimated by water and wind. In 5780 we heard the piercing cry of “I can’t breathe,” among George Floyd’s last words, as a Minneapolis police officer continued to press their knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck ending his life, reawakening our consciousness as a nation to the systemic racism built into the foundation of the American endeavor.
The pandemic has only further highlighted the inequity between the privileged and the disenfranchised. In this year of chaos, unrest, and pain, of seemingly unresolvable conflict, we too, may come to the same conclusion as Hillel and Shammai; convinced, ourselves, that humans are capable of so much destruction, so much carnage that the world would be
better off without us. But please, I beg of you, do not let this year, or any other for that matter, allow you to believe that. Hillel and Shammai wouldn’t want that to be your takeaway either.
While I told you the conclusion reached by Hillel and Shammai, that the world would have been better had humans never been created, I did not tell you what they thought we should do with that information. Their debate concludes: “Now that humans have been created, each person should examine the actions that they have performed and seek to correct them. And [some say, it continues:] They should scrutinize their planned actions and evaluate whether or not and in what manner those actions should be performed.” In other words, the question should not be “should humans have ever been created?” but rather: humans are here, how is it that we will live? Not only do we evaluate our past behaviors, we must carefully plan our future ones as well. This is teshuvah. This, my friends, is the central message of not only our Jewish High Holy Day season, but truly what it means to be a Jew. “I am here, how can I help more than harm? WE are here now; How can WE help more than harm?”
To be a Jew is to believe our actions can have a positive impact on our world. No matter what destruction we have seen, or even contributed to, in the year that has passed, our High Holy Days remind us that this is not the path we have to continue to take, individually or communally. There is hope for a different future. Teshuva, repentance, as we are reminded every year, is our chance to turn. And not only that, but also that we can turn at any time. Although this year feels different, the words and lessons that we recite every year are as relevant as ever.
In 5780 we were introduced to questions we never thought we’d have to answer: Do we have enough toilet paper? Will we ever find Clorox wipes again? Should I risk going to the grocery store? Do we need to sanitize everything we bring home? How long will my employer allow me to work remotely? Will I still have an employer?
A year ago, who would’ve imagined that we’d no longer feel safe eating inside a restaurant or running to Target without a second thought? Or that we would worry: what if I unknowingly transmit this potentially deadly virus to a loved one? Who would’ve thought that before leaving our homes we’d have to ask ourselves: Do I have my keys? My cell phone? And my mask? And perhaps our biggest lingering question: When will this end?
While our list of questions about how we live through this period of history
continues to grow, the High Holy Days arrive just in time to remind us of the essential questions that underlie all others, those that help us recenter: Why am I here? What is my purpose? How can I do better? As we recite the Unetaneh Tokef tomorrow morning, we may feel as though we don’t actually need the reminder of our mortality. This year, the words are far too real in a way they may not have been in years past: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed: Who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water;…who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague.”
This theology, always troubling, particularly stings this year as our anxiety spikes and worry dominates about our safety and health in the year to come. But as that prayer ends, we are reminded that while we cannot control many things that occur in any given year, we do have choices when it comes to the actions we take, as we are reminded with the words: “u’teshuva, u’tfillah, u’tzedakah, ma’avirin et ro-ah hagzeirah; “but repentance, prayer, and pursuing justice, temper judgement’s severe decree.” It’s a strange theology that on the one hand states that we cannot control how or when our lives will end and on the other hand reminds us, that we still have power and control over the decisions and actions we make while we are here.
As Hillel and Shammai tell us, we did not have control over whether or not we were created, but here we are. Let us not throw our hands up and say the world would be a better place without us in it. It isn’t true. Let us instead consider how it is we can build a stronger and more just world in 5781. Every time we witness destruction and hatred, may we use the tools of teshuva (of repentance; of reaching inward), of tefillah (of prayer; of reaching toward God), and of tzedakah (of righteous acts; of reaching
toward others), to restore our hope in humanity, and most importantly, our faith in ourselves to imbue this world with light, hope, and love, our purpose on this earth. Remember, the debate between Hillel and Shammai went on for years, there were arguments defending humans too.
Humans are capable of good. YOU are capable of good. In fact, Hillel is also credited with saying, “In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.” Humans are capable of being good, no matter what choices we see others make. Let our lives in the coming year be an argument for why humans should have been created. Let us be those who tip the scales of the debate to being, “of course humans should have been created, look at what we have built together.” Our purpose as humans and as Jews is to put goodness into the world. A purpose that takes honest self-reflection, a commitment to change, a growth-mindset, and follow-through.
I hope and pray that in a year from now, when we reach 5782, we will look back on the year that has been, knowing we remained committed to bettering ourselves, our community, our city, and our world, no matter what was happening around us. I implore you, do not be like Hillel and Shammai (tradition does not even reveal who took which side), do not be like them and give up on humanity. If 5780 taught us anything, it’s that
we need you too much for that.
I want to close by sharing “An Alternate Unetaneh Tokef” by Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler, written for this year in particular. In it, in his own words, he “attempts to take a more empathetic approach to our mortality…” focusing on the Book of Life we each will write this coming year. He writes:
On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur, it is sealed:
That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So if not now, then when?
For the things we can change, there is t’shuvah, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is t’filah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read.
Kein Y’hi Ratzon, may it be God’s will.
Wishing you a year of remembering and working toward your purpose, to tip the scales of the world for good. Do not give up on humanity. We need you too much for that.
L’shana Tova U’metukah.