Truth, God, and Community

Truth, God, and Community
Erev Yom Kippur - Kol Nidrei 5780
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

A dark moonless night near a small, Jewish village, somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime in the 1500’s.

The Jewish villagers were restless and worried. They heard from their cousins nearby that a mob in an anti-Semitic fury had been rampaging through the countryside. They had seen this before and worried that their village would be next.

The rabbi from the village, desperate to protect the people, worked on the banks of the river, in the dark. Fashioning a rough statue of person from the mud, turning it into a clay imitation of a person, the rabbi said a prayer and then a mystical formula. In the dim light of dawn, the rabbi inscribed three Hebrew letters into the forehead of the statue, writing the word “EMeT”, truth. Once completed, the word sunk deeply into the clay and transformed the statue into a Golem, a nearly indestructible magical creation that would defend the Jews of the town. The Golem would fight without tiring and would save our ancestors from the mob, from another pogrom.

The word that animated the Golem is “truth”.

Truth brings life. Truth protects us.

What is truth and what is true?

There is the scientific perspective. Truth is measurable and observable. A thing is or is not, it is this thing or that thing. This is Hydrogen and that is Helium. The temperature can be measured and is described as truly seventy degrees, no matter how it feels. A color can be measured as a wavelength, and is thus one thing or another. A fact, is a thing that is observable and measurable, and used to be something that most of us could agree upon. We used to be able to say: this is true, and that is the truth.

Now we can argue about everything.

Remember way back when, four years ago, when we were arguing over the colors of a washed out photo of a dress on the internet? Was it blue and black or white and gold? Turns out that the actual dress was in fact blue and black in a clearer photo, a surprise to me, I could have sworn it was white and gold, but this accelerated the idea that all truth is debatable.

While we may see colors as different based on our eyes and our brains, there are in fact “true” colors. They are measured in wavelengths. They can be described mathematically. There are objective truths to color that we rely upon, just as there are objective truths to everything around us that we must agree upon in order to do anything.

Truth is taking a beating.

Science is no longer accepted as reliable. Statistics are used merely to make a point and seldom to describe anything in a way that we can all agree about. Everything has become a matter of opinion.

We regularly validate our own perspectives as if they cannot be reconciled with someone else’s. Bias, individual brain chemistry, different ways of seeing blue and black and white and gold - we separate ourselves out from each other the more we think we can’t see eye to eye about anything.

We are in total agreement about a number of things that are only true because we agree about them.

Take time. We accept time as a standard that we create and uphold together. It is an agreed upon “fiction”. There is no objective nine o’clock. There is only the one that we say is nine o’clock, whether it is “Verizon Standard Time” or Jewish Standard Time - we have to agree upon when in order to all be there at the same time. I had a running group in Cleveland that met at 5:50 AM. They would say, “if you’re there, you’re there”. If I was late, I would be running fast to catch up. We set 5:50 AM by Verizon’s time on our phones.

Truth is the source of life.

And truth is dangerous.

After the Golem saved the small town, it eventually got out of control. A nearly indestructible protector become trouble-maker. When the rabbi admitted defeat at trying to make the Golem work after the crisis, the rabbi erased one letter from the Hebrew word for “Truth”. Rubbing out the ‘alef’ the word “truth” is transformed from “EMeT” into “MeiT”, “death”, and the Golem fell to dust.

Like the Golem, there can be too much truth. We can say too much, share too much of our feelings, and destroy the people around us by being overly truthful and lacking in compassion and kindness. Revealing things that need to be kept concealed can harm people, communities, and nations. Concealing too much that needs to be out in the open can do the same. Truth is like fire - the right amount warms, too much burns, and without it we are left in the dark, defenseless.

A seventh grade class once argued that all religion is just an opinion. Since it can be argued it can’t be a fact.

I asked them whether or not laws were facts or opinions?

Is “Thou Shall not Kill” only an opinion?

Eventually they were convinced that when we agree to hold something as truth - like a law, or an ethic, or a teaching, then it becomes truth, that is it is more than just an opinion.

That we can agree to make truth as a community means that we can agree to unmake it too.

Truth is fragile. Erasing only one letter erases it entirely.

When we attack the truth, claiming that there is no truth, we begin to destroy the common area that we hold together as a community. When that place between you and me comes under attack we not only stop sharing truth, we stop sharing common cause. We need that “true” place in the middle. This “truth” is not so simple.

In this shared space, we need to be kind and caring and we need to figure out how to tell the truth and how to preserve a relationship at the same time. No relationship can handle everything that we think, every truth that we observe. We must filter our thoughts and emotions so that we can get along, so that our relationships will survive and thrive.

The great Jewish sages Hillel and Shammai argued about truth. They argued about what we should say to a bride at her wedding.

Shammai was a stickler for the truth and insisted that we should describe her as she is - truth must prevail and anything else would be lying.

Hillel countered, that we must always say that the bride is beautiful.

The rabbis almost always agree with Hillel and remind us that we should always be sympathetic - meaning that we should say that a bride is beautiful.

[Babylonian Talmud, 17a-b, adapted]

Judaism teaches that a bride, and a groom, are beautiful because that is what defines them on that day. To get married is to be beautiful and our sympathy for the couple helps determine our presentation of the truth.

Truth is important and getting along with people is as well. We can even create a truth that we all agree on for the sake of getting along better. And yet we can destroy truth so easily that it will also destroy any sense that we have sympathy, that we are connected at all, with other people. We show our love for one another by calling all babies beautiful - it is absolute truth that there are no ugly babies. Who will argue with that?

And here we stand, on the evening of Yom Kippur, baring our souls before God, stripping away all of the filters all of the trappings so that we can be true to ourselves, true to our Creator, and then, hopefully, true to each other.

We declare truth a vital and central Jewish idea every time we recite Sh’ma and V’ahavta.

Most of you are familiar with these paragraphs that start: “Listen up Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!”

What then follows is the commandment to love God and all the things that will help us behave in ways that show how we love God. We are supposed to make all the teachings of Judaism into everyday parts of our lives, speaking about them in our homes and when we are traveling, teaching them to our children, writing them on the doorposts of our houses. V’ahavta tells us that we do this so that we will always remember the place of God in our lives, to do the things that show that we love God, that elevate our behavior and our thoughts, that remind us that God brought us out of Egypt, and then we conclude with the statement, “Adonai Eloheichem Emet”, three words that we can translate as, “Adonai your God is truth.”

We tie the mandate to behave well with the idea that God and truth are the same. We come together to understand what God asks of us and we come together to declare truth to be a shared idea and value.

Good conduct, ethical behavior, and truth, are linked in our prayers, and linked in reality. We must agree upon truth in order to get along.

When we allow our conversations with each other to devolve into a debate about whether or not something is true we have left behind civil discourse. Without a reasonable agreement to talk about things in an area of agreed upon truth we are competing bullies, yelling at each other because the louder person wins since they must have a stronger feeling about their own sense of truth.

In the heat of the moment, I feel all sorts of things are true. If I give heed to these feelings then I might be both unkind and disrespectful to the shared space in which we decide upon truth together.

I want to be a good person all the time even when I don’t feel that way. I want to be kind and loving even when I am occasionally, admittedly, tired and irritable. So which is true?

I am what I do.

I practice the truth that I want to live.

I try to build habits that create a “me” that is truer to the person I want to be.

This evening, Kol Nidrei, when we disavow the promises that we made to ourselves that we haven’t kept, when we confess our flaws and mistakes out loud, to our selves, to our families, to our community, this is our moment of truth. When we strip away all that we have aimed at over the past year and missed, we find the core of our beings, all those values that we work so hard to uphold, and we return to that place of truth within ourselves. 

In that place of truth we begin again.

From this evening we start again on our true selves.

I must work on my truth, my sense of truth, refine my true self, and try again by putting it out there, better than last year. Both more loyal to the truth and kinder than before.

Remember the truths we share - from time, to wedding couples, to babies. This is easier than we think.

Truth is the source of life for the Golem, and it is the source of life in Jeremiah, who wrote:

Adonai, God is truth, the God of life… [Jeremiah 10:10] 

And truth can burn too brightly, too hot, and destroy as well.

Are we ready for the truth?

We come here tonight to find out.

The true self within each of us longs to evolve, to get better, to be the better person that Judaism and God asks of us, that we ask of ourselves.

Will we hold ourselves to a higher standard, a more truthful and more compassionate standard, a shared standard that lives in the intersection between our inner convictions about right and wrong and the communal lives that we must build together?

Can we set down the burdens of the past year? Can we leave behind the things that we thought were true that turned out not to be? Can we set down our pride in arguments offered in passion, and our self-interest, and admit that there is truth to be found between where we stood then, and where we might go together tomorrow?

The truth is out there and in here, in our hearts and minds and souls, and most importantly in the immense places in between you and me. Between us is something bigger and better than either of us could only do by ourselves. Between us is God who is truth. God who is asking us to love the world by doing with our best selves.

As we do at every Kol Nidrei, we start tonight, united as seekers of what is good and what is kind and what is true, together to uncover truth and build a better tomorrow.