Better than a worm
Yom Kippur 5775
Temple Beth Jacob
Rabbi Larry Freedman
How do rabbis decide what to speak on for the High Holidays? There are cute aphorisms like, rabbis really just have one sermon; they just deliver it a bunch of different ways. Or this one: rabbis aren’t talking to the congregation. They’re really talking to themselves. I usually build a list of topics over the year or I’m inspired by a question you ask. This year, though, I keep coming back to community and the new ideas out there to help create that experience for everyone.
We are a small congregation in a small city that finds ourselves on the cutting edge of synagogue behavior. Relational Judaism is all the rage among Jewish community professionals these days. Radical Hospitality, it’s been called. It is a call to be friendlier, more community minded. It is a call to take a nice place and make it even more welcoming. Shameless plug for erev Sukkot. This Wednesday join us for a pot luck dinner in the sukkah. This was wildly popular last year. Same idea this year. No services. Food, fun, socializing and lulav and etrog in the sukkah. You are all welcome to join a lovely social evening.
Our Kol Yisrael project is part of the endeavor to build community. Yes, it saves money but money was never the only reason to form this partnership. Community is the driving issue. Being together even as we do our own thing is what this is all about. It is already happening even while under construction. Our community will be even stronger once the construction is complete. The very idea that two congregations are under one roof is thrilling. The idea that we can come together and respect each other enough to allow two different styles to flourish without judgment is amazing. We will be a model for other communities across the country.
However, to be completely honest, I’m really ready for the construction to be done. If you ask me what this experience is like, I’ll tell you it’s like re-doing your kitchen but much, much worse. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We are getting close. Every week that goes by, every course of brick that gets laid, every ceiling tile set it, there’s a new spirit, a revived spirit at TBJ. Committees are being renewed, projects are getting spun up. We have a vision. All we need is you. Pitch in with a short term project or just attend; join in on anything that seems fun or interesting. Doesn’t matter. We just need you. This is going to be great. Hop on board.
And that’s my message about brick and mortar that I can’t resist giving since I have a large crowd. But Yom Kippur calls for something more spiritual, yes? Yom Kippur is a difficult day, a hard day but a rewarding day. It’s not a day for guilt but it is a day for struggle. It’s a day of honesty and that can be a challenge and it’s a day of celebration because if you can keep up your fast, if you can stay focused on your goal of teshuva, if you can talk to God and the person next to you to clear the air, the finish line is very rewarding.
So let’s get spiritual and make our way.
Yom Kippur is about being honest, really honest and suffering through that honesty. Yes suffering. You thought fasting was hard? Husbands and wives, children and parents, friends need to have serious talks and it hurts to have them. It’s difficult to clear the air. It’s difficult because the goal is teshuva, repentance, a sincere desire to fix the wrong, understand how it happened and never let it happen again.
And the good news is that suffering through that process leads to reward. I’ll explain.
Why is there evil? There just is. If we want free will, there will be evil. If you want the ability to make choices, then included among those choices will be bad choices. If we want an idyllic garden of Eden where we are no different than the deer in our back yards, a world of instinct alone without free will, then we won’t have evil. But we won’t be human, either. To be fully human means we have to wrestle with evil.
The Tanya, the mystical book by the Alter Rebbe, revered by Chabad offers the Jewish mystical take on evil. Evil is a gift.
You do something wrong and it’s wrong. However, that’s not the end of the story. You have free will. You did the wrong but you now have a choice. You can fix that wrong, you can make teshuva, and that’s a great blessing. Every wrong you do gives you a chance not only to make up for it but even gain extra credit for turning evil to good. I lied but I apologized and learned never to do that again. One sin is countered by two good acts. And God is happier. The mystics teach that God is happier than if you had just been good. Being good is good but turning an evil around through teshuva is even greater because the work to do so is so much harder.
When you have evil thoughts, bad thoughts, gossipy thoughts, that’s bad. When you push them away, when you make the moral choice to ignore them, to suppress them, to choose to think positively, resist the evil impulse and choose the moral path, that is even better. The good is a good far greater than the evil was evil. You didn’t give in. You were in control of your negative impulses. That is the path to righteous behavior.
Mae West said, “When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” Who knew that Mae West was speaking in Jewish mystical terms. When I’m good, I’m good. But when I’m bad, I have a chance to flip the bad towards the good and then I’m even better. I’m sure that’s what Mae West was talking about.
The mystics continue. Who is greater, a worm or a man? In Psalms 22:6 it says, I am a worm and not a man…despised by the people. The psalmist was feeling low. The mystics flip that around to suggest that the man saying this was happier to be a worm. Strange because if I ask you who is greater, a worm or a human being you would say human. But sometimes, the worm is greater.
How can that be? How can a worm be greater than a person? Here’s how. A worm is a worm in the exact way God made the worm. The worm does exactly what God intended for the worm. God said, you are created to fulfill the best worminess that you can. And the worm does exactly that. The worm is perfect before God. The worm lives up to a complete 100% of the wormy expectations God can expect. Now the human. Does the human being live up to 100% of its potential? The human has free will and the ability to make the world a better place and make him or herself a better person. That is our purpose. We’ve even been given a Torah as a guideline to help us fulfill that goal. That is what God intended for us. And do we do that? Do we fulfill the best that a human being can be? Do we come even close to fulfilling 100% of human-ness? The worm is doing great. How’m I doing?
That is our challenge: to fulfill our potential. And it’s a hard challenge. The worm is lucky not to have free will. Alas, we are blessed and burdened with free will which leaves us striving to be the best person we can be while we struggle to stay away from bad choices. The mystical tradition offers hope.
We can take the sins we do and turn them around and that puts us well on the way to being the best we can be. We can choose to be kind and caring. We can choose to reach towards righteousness. We can show that worm a thing or two. That worm may be 100% fulfilling the mission God gave it but it can’t improve. It can’t apologize, it can’t improve, mature, learn from its moral failings because it never has moral failings. We have the ability to do all that. We have the ability to be better tomorrow than we are today. The worm will be the same tomorrow as it is today.
Don’t see a sin as a problem. See it as a possibility. See it as an opportunity. That doesn’t mean you get to run around sinning. The mystical tradition sees teshuva as fix for sins you regret and running around being bad for the express purpose of flipping those sins does not get you double credit.
I’ll tell you what does get extra credit.
We are about to see the conclusion of an extraordinary building for a project fairly unique in the entire country. We have taken two congregations and the JCC that used to work apart from the other, a real missing of the mark, and brought them together to strengthen our entire community. We are turning a negative into a positive and that’s worth double credit in God’s eyes. May this building, this Kol Yisrael experience inspire us in our own lives to turn our negatives into positives and accrue extra credit in our lives. And in that way, may you be inscribed in the book of life. G’mar Chatimah Tova.