The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Yom Kippur Drashah – October 9, 2019

In the Torah this morning, we read, concerning the observance of Yom Kippur:  “V’khol mal’akhah lo ta-asu, ha-ezrah v’hager hagar botokh’khem – You shall do no work, neither the home-born nor the ger who dwells among you.” Who were these gerim who we were commanded to include in our observance of Yom Kippur?

The rabbis of the Talmud understood the word ger to refer to a convert, one who had formally adopted the Jewish faith. But in the time of the Bible, formal conversion did not yet exist. In the older Hebrew of the Bible, ger meant something else: a resident alien, one who lived among us on the land, but had no place in our tribal structure, one who was our neighbor but was not related to us by blood.

Typically gerim, sojourners were landless, because land was an entitlement of blood. It was passed down through families. But as the Torah tells us, even though sojourners lacked land and lineage, when it came to covenantal matters, matters that defined our shared relationship to God, they were members of our community.

So gerim, sojourners, were included in our biblical Yom Kippur. And it was not just Yom Kippur. In the book of Exodus, we read that, on the night of Pesah, gerim were permitted to eat from the Paschal lamb along with the rest of us. We were commanded to include the ger in our reenactment of the story of the Exodus, the story that defined us as a community.

And it was not just special sacrifices at which gerim were included. The Torah tells us that, in regard to sacrifice in general – which, in biblical times, was our main form of communion with God throughout the year – “Hukah ahat lakhem v’lager hagar – There shall be one law for you and for the ger who sojourns with you.”

In other words, in God’s eyes, the stranger was not really a stranger at all, but one of us. By blood, by lineage, gerim were outsiders. In their connection to the land, the soil, they were outsiders. But, where it counted most, in our relationship with God, they were not outsiders at all. They were part of our covenantal community.

To say that gerim, sojourners, were part of our covenantal community was a truly radical statement. It meant that, even in the era when we saw ourselves primarily as members of tribes, our identity, in God’s eyes, was not tribal at all. At that level, the glue that held us together, that made us one, was not the glue of blood and soil, of lineage and land, of birth and entitlement. What made us a community, in God’s eyes, was something else: a shared covenant, a shared set of commitments that gerim could be part of too. That they stood with us when we stood before God meant that, at the deepest level, our identity was not about land, lineage and shared entitlement, but rather about shared mitzvot. Or to put it another way, we were commanded to include gerim in our community because ultimately all of us, in God’s eyes, were gerim.

That way of understanding who we were as a community had profound implications, not just for our relationship to gerim, but for our relationship to the other members of our families and tribes. If it was not lineage and entitlement, but our shared covenant, that ultimately made us a people, then even within our tribes, tribalism was not as important as we might have thought. Even in our relationship to the people who we were connected to by blood, blood was not the primary glue that made us one.  Including gerim brought us back to our own origins. It reminded us that the founder of our tribe, Avraham, had been a man without a tribe. It reminded us that, no matter how at home we felt on our land, or in our extended families, we were ultimately children of the one who was identified, not by those things, but by his relationship with God, a man who had declared to his neighbors in the land of Israel, long before it was the land of Israel: “Ger v’toshav anokhi imakhem – I am a ger, a sojourner among you.”

The idea that, at the deepest level, we are all sojourners – we are all just passing through a world that we don’t own, and hence it is our choices, not our rights and entitlements, that truly define us – is one of the great themes of the Hebrew Bible. And I believe that, if we human beings are to have any hope of meeting the great challenges that we face now, in the 21st century, we must relearn that ancient lesson, and apply it in new ways .

There are three particular challenges that I want to talk about today, challenges that weigh heavily on our world right now. And all of them are challenges that we can meet only by learning that lesson anew. The first is the challenge of building inclusive societies. The second is the challenge of preserving the earth. And the third is the most fundamental one of all:  a challenge that, in a certain sense, includes the other two. It is the challenge of renewing the human spirit, of relearning what it means to be children of God.

First, the challenge of inclusiveness. In modern times, most people live in nation-states, political communities held together by some form of national consciousness. Nationalism, the political movement that created the modern nation-state, takes many forms. But most forms of it are based in some way on entitlement of lineage, on the claim of a particular ethnic group to a particular piece of land. That kind of nationalism – what scholars call ethnic nationalism – is the kind that most European nation-states were founded on. The State of Israel was as well.

Originally, ethnic nationalism was a progressive idea. It was about throwing off the yoke of the old, decrepit European empires and unleashing the creative energy of the people, the folk, enabling national groups to determine their own destiny. But ethnic nationalism has a dark side as well. It can easily degenerate into hatred of the other, and persecution of minorities. It can easily become a nationalism of us-versus-them. In the twentieth century, toxic forms of ethnic nationalism were major causes of the bloodiest wars that the world has ever known. And today, in much of the world, divisive forms of ethnic nationalism are on the rise again. In Europe, in India and Pakistan, in China and East Asia – and even in Israel – exclusive forms of nationalism, based on blood and soil, the claim that particular ethnic groups have the right to rule over particular lands – are threatening to open up old wounds and divide societies.

And of course it’s happening in this country as well. Lots of voices in America argue today, more openly than they have in a long time, that people of Northern European lineage have a particular entitlement to rule this country, that being a real American is a matter of ethnic heritage.

But, unlike other nation-states, America was founded on a very different idea. The ideology of our founding fathers, the nationalism at the heart of the American ideal, was not ethnic nationalism, but something very different– what scholars call civic nationalism. It is the idea that what makes us a nation has nothing to do with race or ethnicity – with the idea that particular people have a particular connection to the land – and that therefore no particular race or ethnic group has a special entitlement to be here, or to rule. What makes America a nation, according to our founding idea, is that we all share a commitment to particular political principles – the principles of Constitutional democracy, of equality under the law, of individual freedom and so on. We are a nation, not of blood and soil, not of lineage and land, but of shared political commitments. That is why, when Presidents and other Federal officials take the oath of office, they do not swear to defend the people or the land, but to defend the Constitution. Our nationhood lies in a shared set of rules that we agree to follow. American nationalism, at its best, is an inclusive nationalism, in which anyone can participate.

American civic nationalism, in other words, is a kind of secular version of the biblical idea of covenant community. America, at its best, is a community that is based not on lineage and land, on blood and soil, but on the commitments that we share.

 One of the great challenges that this country faces, at this time when racial, ethnic, and religious hatred is on the rise – here and around the world – is to return to the inclusive brand of nationhood that America originally invented. If we can relearn the ideals that this country was built on, we can once again make America the inclusive political community that it was meant to be, and once again teach the larger world about inclusiveness as well.

And maybe we Jews have a special role to play in that work, because we have a language for expressing that ideal that is much older than the American language, one that can root the American ideal in a deeper spiritual soil. It is the language of gerut, sojourning. Thousands of years ago, we taught the world that the most important kind of community is not about lineage and entitlement, but about covenant, about the choices that we make together. In that kind of community, we all are gerim, sojourners to one another.

Perhaps, by relearning that lesson ourselves, in our own Jewish communities, and taking it to heart, we can play a special part in helping America to live up to its own inclusive ideals as well.

The second great challenge that humanity faces today is the challenge of preserving the natural environment. We have reached the point where, in the next few generations, the damage that we are doing to this planet – particularly to its climate – may become truly devastating. It is an urgent challenge for us to find less damaging ways of living in the world. Part of that is practical. We have to learn to use this planet’s resources more efficiently. But there is a deeper challenge as well, a moral challenge – you might even say a spiritual one. It is to rethink our relationship to this planet in general, to reflect on what our role here really is. It is to move beyond the sense of entitlement that we have come to feel – especially in modern times – our sense that the natural world is ours to do with as we wish, and to recognize that we have a moral obligation to care for nature, that we have no right to exploit this planet’s resources without limit.

Here too, I think the language of gerut, soujourning, can help us. In the book of Leviticus, the Torah used exactly that language to challenge the sense of entitlement that we felt, even then, in relation to the natural world, to teach us that our right to profit from the land is limited. The Torah taught that lesson through the law of the Yovel, the Jubilee year. In biblical Israel, the Yovel came each 50 years. It was a year of amnesty, when all land sales that had taken place in the previous 49 years were cancelled, and the land reverted back to its original owners.  In other words, in biblical Israel, land sales were not really sales at all, but only temporary transfers. The seller was not selling the land itself but only the use of it until the next Yovel. And therefore the price that the seller could demand was much less than what would have been the actual market value of the land. The seller could profit only so much from the sale.

And why was the seller not allowed to sell the land permamently, to extract its full value from the sale?  God explains to Moses: “V’lo timakher ha-aretz l’tz’mitut, ki li ha-aretz – the land may not be sold in perpetuity, because the land is mine.” Ultimately, we cannot sell the land – we have only a limited right to exploit its value – because it is not ours in the first place. And the Torah goes on: “Ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi.” For you are gerim, sojourners on God’s land.” Here, the Torah extends the language of the ger, the sojourner, to refer not to the landless alien, but to the property owner as well. It says to us: You may own the land – or think you do – but you are really just sojourners on the land, no different from the landless people who work for you. You are living, the Torah tells us, on God’s land, and therefore there are limits to what you can do with it. You cannot dispose of it in any way you wish for your own gain.

 It’s such a simple message, but it is exactly the message that humanity needs to relearn in our time. This world is not ours to dispose of as we choose. We have only so much right to exploit its value because we are not its true owners, only its caretakers. We are, all of us, sojourners in God’s world. That the world is not ours makes us morally responsible for taking care of it.

So the language of gerut, of sojourning, is a language that can help us not only with the challenge of inclusiveness that weighs on us today, but also with the challenge of environmental stewardship, which weighs on us perhaps even more heavily. Here too, that ancient vocabulary has an urgent contemporary relevance. It offers us a way to understand what our real challenge is.

And then there is the third challenge – maybe the deepest one – that our world struggles with today, a challenge that may really be at the heart of the other two. It is an explicitly spiritual challenge. Contemporary culture offers freedoms that our ancestors could never have dreamed of. But ironically, for all its openness and expansiveness, it is a culture that constricts our souls. Our secular vocabulary offers us no way to speak about the things that matter most. It tends to reduce everything, including human life itself, to a commodity. It teaches us that everything has a price and nothing is sacred. It suggests that the value of everything – even that of a human being – can be measured by the standards of the marketplace. In a culture with such a constricted vocabulary, how can we maintain our sense that human life is something ultimately holy? And how can we remain connected to the greater source of that holiness? In a relentlessly materialistic world, how can we bring God into our lives?

The Hasidic masters taught that, when God seems far away and inaccessible, it has little to do with God, and everything to do with us. The problem is not that God is actually far away – in fact God is present in all things. It is that our ego takes up so much space that there is no room left in our consciousness for that which is larger than us. Our sense of entitlement shortcircuits our capacity for gratefulness. Our sense of ownership – ownership of our creative power, our possessions, our achievements, even of our own breath, our own heartbeat – leaves no room for the awareness that those things – all of them – are blessings that we did not earn and do not really own. When we are filled with our own sense of entitlement, there is no room within us for the presence of the one who truly owns all that we have, all that we are.

The spiritually deadening effect of human entitlement, of our sense of ownership, has always been a problem. But it is particularly so in the modern world, because today, we human beings have so much more than human beings used to have. In a time when we have the ability to build skyscrapers, cure diseases, replace limbs and organs, travel through the air at 600 miles per hour, it is easy to imagine that we actually do own this world.

That is why this era is a time of such deep spiritual alienation. In general, we modern people find it harder to experience God’s presence than our ancestors did, because our own sense of entitlement and power takes up all the spiritual space.

That is the great irony of modern life. In a time when we have achieved so much, when our freedom and technology give us the power to invest our lives with so much dignity, we tend to feel so spiritually empty. It is precisely because of all the power that we have today. It crowds out the true source of our dignity, which is larger than ourselves.

The Hasidic masters taught that the key to all spiritual searching – the key to finding meaning in this world – is to make ourselves smaller, to shrink our psychological footprint on this planet, to take up less space. As Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk taught, “God is where we make room for God to be.”         

The Maggid of Dubnov taught that same lesson through the language of gerut, of sojourning. He did it in a comment on the passage from the Torah that I mentioned before – the one that teaches that we cannot sell the land in perpetuity – we cannot exploit it for its full market falue – because the land is not ours, because “gerim v’toshavim atem imadi – you are sojourners” with God.”

The Maggid understood those words – We are sojourners with God – to mean that either we must be sojourners in this world or God will be. It is one or the other, a zero sum. If we claim ownership over what we have, and what we are, then God will have never have a chance to be a permanent resident in our lives. In that case, God can only be transient sojourner, with only a small footprint in our world. But if we renounce our entitlement, if we make ourselves small, if we understand ourselves as transient sojourners , then God will have the room to be a permanent resident in our lives.

In other words, to make room for God to take up residence in our souls is to give up our sense of entitlement and cultivate a sense of gratitude instead. It is to recognize that what we have, what we are, is not by right, but by God’s grace.

More than anything else, that is what Yom Kippur is really about. When we stand before God on this day and confess that we stand empty-handed, that we own nothing, when we say to God: “Mah anu, meh hayeinu — What are we? What are our lives, our attainments, our power, our might? Compared to you, all the mighty are nothing, the famous are non-existent, the wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason.” – it is not to humiliate ourselves, to crush our dignity. It is the exact opposite. By deflating our natural grandiosity, our tendency to place ourselves at the center of our world, we make room for something much more precious, for the deepest source of dignity that we have. We make room for God to be present in our lives.

We read this morning: V’khol mal’akhah lo ta’asu, ha-ezrah v’hager hagar b’tokh’khem – You shall do no work on this day, neither you nor the ger who sojourns among you. By including gerim in our Yom Kippur, we all became gerim. Or, rather, we remembered that we always had been.

And we still are – on Yom Kippur especially, but throughout the year as well. And it is by taking that lesson to heart that we have the potential, together, to redeem this world: to build inclusive societies, to fulfill our responsibilities to the planet, and to rebuild our spiritual lives and spiritual communities.

In the coming year, may we continually relearn what our earliest ancestor, Avraham, taught us: “Ger v’toshav anokhi imakhem – I am a ger, a sojourning in this world.” And may that knowledge, as it did for Avraham, help to make our lives a blessing.