Shana tova. As I was thinking about creating a High Holiday theme for this year for the sermons and Torah study I would be leading, I did what I often do: went to my online friends on social media, specifically Twitter and Facebook and asked the following:
As we near Rosh Hashana, the conclusion of the Jewish New Year, what image summarizes the year for you? The images that came in (not sharing them here but feel free to look at my twitter feed to see them @Jewishconnectiv), were those of bafflement, shock, exhaustion, and, probably my favorite: a gift box that when opened, led to a response that was basically: What the…? (fill in the blank as you wish). Looking back at 5781, I’d summarize all the responses as: How in the heck did we get here, how did we collectively get so stoopid, and how are we supposed to get out of this, and progress?
Thus my thinking going into the first day of Rosh Hashana (and my sermon): We’re created in the likeness of God, ate from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, were given insights inspired or even given directly by a benevolent God. So how, in 2020-2021, did we collectively get stupid?
Never in the history of the US, or for that matter, throughout most of the world, have we been better educated. More people than ever graduate high school, attend university and even get graduate degrees. More books are written and read, we have more access to genuine information and facts in a handheld phone than earlier generations had in the Library of Congress. We have the best physicians and medical researchers working to cure every illness known to humanity. So it’s pretty obvious what we should do: use the knowledge God gave us and work to heal our world.
After all, every day we praise God:
אַתָּה חוֹנֵן לְאָדָם דַּֽעַת וּמְלַמֵּד לֶאֱנוֹשׁ בִּינָה: חָנֵּֽנוּ מֵאִתְּ֒ךָ דֵּעָה בִּינָה וְהַשְׂכֵּל: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה חוֹנֵן הַדָּֽעַת:
You favor humanity with knowledge and give mankind understanding. Grant us knowledge, understanding and enlightenment from You. Blessed are You, Adonoy, our God, Grantor of knowledge.
But somehow we, collectively as a society, have lost our way. Instead of recognizing that the medical scientists who have worked 24/7 to make sure we stay safe, as we did in past generations, we are witnessing many political, religious, and community leaders recommending that we, davka, specifically, do not follow what science and knowledge tell us as fact, we must do to heal our communities and our world, whether that is vaccinating or wearing a mask in closed and crowded spaces. Rather than demonstrating humility towards worldwide scientists that said: we are destroying the world and changing the very climate of our planet and we need to change our behavior immediately in order to save it, we haughtily declare: We know more than scientists, we don’t believe what scientists are saying. Keep on doing what we’re doing. We know better, because we took high school earth science.
We Jews have an interesting relationship with science and medicine. Yes, we recite mi sheberach prayers for those who are ill. But we don’t believe in faith healing. Reciting the mi sheberach goes hand-in-hand with seeking the best medical care possible. One of the most interesting Hasidic groups in America are the so-called Bostoner Chasidim. They’re hard-core Hasidim. And their movement and their rebbe are known for, among other things, interceding with some of the top physicians and hospitals in the country to make sure that people who ask for their help get the medical attention of those experts. Do they pray for ill individuals? Absolutely. Do they make sure those individuals get the best medical care, darn right.
Just listen to some of the words of Tehillim/Psalm 107, talking about how God helps us and the difference between the wise person and the fool:
Praise the LORD, for He is good; His steadfast love is eternal!… Let them praise the LORD for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind, For He shattered gates of bronze, He broke their iron bars. There were fools who suffered for their sinful way, and for their iniquities. All food was loathsome to them; they reached the gates of death. In their adversity they cried to the LORD and He saved them from their troubles. He gave an order and healed them; He delivered them from the pits. Let them praise the LORD for His steadfast love, His wondrous deeds for mankind. …He pours contempt on great men and makes them lose their way in trackless deserts; but the needy He secures from suffering, and increases their families like flocks. The upright see it and rejoice; the mouth of all wrongdoers is stopped. The wise person will take note of these things; he will consider the steadfast love of the LORD.
That’s the Judaism we believe in. The one that says: Yes, God will protect and heal you. Not because we checked our mezuzot or uttered the right psalms. Those are all fine. But mostly, God heals us because it was God who gave the Dr. Fauci’s of the world and the scientists of Pfizer and Moderna the wisdom and knowledge to create vaccines and cures, it was God that gave the scientists of the U.N. and of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the insight to say: people, we need to act now to avoid climate and planetary disaster.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who passed away this year, wrote a final book, Morality. While he was to my way of thinking not a political liberal, in the book, he criticized the populism that has taken root across the world. A populism in which charismatic and often authoritarian leaders will say: Don’t believe anyone other than me. Everyone else, scientists, other politicians, the free press, even many of the clergy, are all lying to you. Only believe me and what I tell you is true. That, according the Rabbi Sacks, is dangerous populism. At the same time, Rabbi Sacks criticized the demagoguery of social media, the way in which unexamined opinions and feelings become magnified and take on ridiculous dimensions. Indeed, what do we call people on social media? Influencers. Not scientists, not experts. Influencers. Judged by how many followers or how amplified voices become, no matter how inane the opinions expressed.
Check it out: The Torah portion we read on Rosh Hashana has Abraham, a widely recognized prophet in his own generation, disturbed by Sarah insisting that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out from their home. It would have been well within Abraham’s right to say: Sarah, I know you’re to be the first of the Matriarchs. I know that in the future, Jewish tradition will say that you were an even greater prophet than me. But hey, I, and only I, know best. And indeed, he may have been going down that path when God intervenes and says “Do whatever Sarah tells you”. So, yes, Abraham is a great man. He’s recognized as a social influencer, he has strong opinions, he’s even a great prophet. But, God points out: Sir: you do not have all the answers. I’ve given Sarah specialized knowledge in this. Follow her wisdom.
The year we begin, 5782 holds great opportunities and great threats. We have the opportunity to make decisions that, in the words of the Torah “choose life”. Or we can make choices that sound simple for the short term, but lead to death and destruction.
May we make the commitments over these holidays to commit ourselves to maximizing the opportunities and to opposing the threats. May we bless those around us – in our families, our communities, our worlds, with the blessings of deah binah v’haskel, bringing God’s blessings of true knowledge, insights and enlightenment, that we and our descendants may safely and long live upon this earth.