Rosh Hashanah I 5782: Head Full of Doubt

(Today and tomorrow’s sermons are dedicated in loving memory of Connie Waxman, and to all of the beloved members of Congregation Shaarey Tikvah we have lost since just before the pandemic: Joel Adelman, Donald Berman, Rolf Camnitzer, Jackie Chernin, David Foster, Susan Greenberg, Elisabeth Greenfield, Marion Gruen, Arthur Kaplan, Dr. Richard Katzman, Robert Schubach, Clive Sinoff, Annette Szabo, and Joyce Weisenthal.)

About a month ago, I was in the car with Aviva and I told her that I had an idea for a sermon topic. “I want to talk about doubt,” I said.  Aviva replied, “Why? You don’t have that.” I was surprised by her faith in me. Does my beloved wife not know me as well as I thought she did? “All I have is doubt,” I told her. “Oh, sorry, I thought you said gout!” We both laughed. “Well,” Aviva said, “I think we know how you’ll be starting your sermon.”

While gout is not one of my afflictions, doubt certainly is. It’s not just me, of course. We are living in a time of extreme confusion. This can make us feel quite uncomfortable. My goal today is to bring us all a bit of discomfort as we consider the role doubt plays in our lives. This morning’s sermon is part one of a two part sermon. Tomorrow, I plan to talk about innovation, creativity, and possibility as answers to doubt. For better or worse, you will have to tune in tomorrow to hear the rest.

 Eighteen months in, the pandemic continues to be a factor in nearly everything we do. There are so many questions we ask ourselves related to keeping safe from COVID. Shall we meet indoors, outdoors, or virtually? Are masks appropriate in this scenario, or overkill? Do I need to wash or sanitize my hands after that? Does that count as exposure? Do I need to quarantine? Should I get tested? Would that possibly put another person at risk? Can I trust that this person has been following the rules? The additional weight on all of our shoulders is massive.

This is on top of everything else going on in the world. I was going to list examples of a few literal and metaphorical fires burning around the globe, but the reality is that there are so many that I became overwhelmed when trying to choose a few to mention. Instead, what comes to mind is a scene from the recently concluded television series about the afterlife called, “The Good Place.” In this scene, the angel Michael (played by Ted Danson) is speaking to a god-like character called, “The Judge” (played by Maya Rudolph). He says, “Life now is so complicated, it’s impossible for anyone to be good…These days, just buying a tomato at a grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming. Humans think that they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making!”

Aviva and I recently discussed a piece written by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Colorado-based Lutheran minister and theologian. Pastor Bolz-Weber compares each of us to a sketchily wired electrical panel she once dealt with in an old apartment in which she lived. She wrote, “My apartment had been built at a time when there were no electric hair driers, and the system shut down when modernity asked too much of it…I just do not think our psyches were developed to hold, feel and respond to everything coming at them right now; every tragedy, injustice, sorrow and natural disaster happening to every human across the entire planet, in real time every minute of every day. The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel, and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow, or natural disaster that was happening IN OUR VILLAGE. So my emotional circuit breaker keeps overloading because the hardware was built for an older time.” Our systems are overwhelmed. I saw a cute, but powerful illustration of this recently. An artist by the name of Will Santino drew a comic in which more lemons are being poured into a roomful of lemons. At a table, there was a person with their head in their hands, surrounded by a juicer and many, many, jars of lemonade. My guess is that I am not alone in my doubts as I consider what the future holds. I would bet that I am not the only one who has unfairly doubted myself when considering the enormity of the world’s chaos.

Uncertainty can be debilitating, and is more complicated these days than ever. However, the concept is as old as Eden. At the very beginning of Torah, in Parshat Bereshit, we read, “They heard the sound of the LORD God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; and the man and his wife hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. The LORD God called out to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?’” (Gen. 3:9-11) Moments before, Adam was in direct communication with God and now Adam is trying to hide. Has Adam become so blind to the reality he was certain of in the previous chapter?

Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz is a contemporary physician, scholar, and founder of the Jerusalem Medical Ethics Forum. He outlines the bitter consequence of Adam’s behavior. After Adam attempts to hide, God calls out, “Where are you?” As if The Omniscient doesn’t know. God asks Adam, “Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” This is like my daughter, Moriyah, asking me why my breath smells like Mitchell’s ice cream when I go into her room to tell her to stop reading and to kiss her goodnight. She knows exactly why, but forces me to fess up anyway. Rabbi Tatz writes, “Doubt has entered the world…a gap has opened between God and His creation; the gap, the chasm, of doubt.” (Worldmask 94-97)

The word for doubt in Hebrew is safek, samech/peh/kuf. The numerical value, or gematria, of these three letters equals 240. Our Hasidic masters believed that there were deep connections between words of the same numerical value. In this case, the word Amalek is also equal to 240. You will recall that Amalek is the name of the grandson of the biblical Esau. In Exodus 17, we first do battle with the tribe of Amalek. This is the famous battle where Moses stood atop a nearby hill and held up his hands. Whenever he held up his hands, Israel defeated the Amalekites. When Moses let down his hands, the Amalekites prevailed. At the end of this ordeal, God tells us, “…I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven…The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” (Ex. 17:14-16)

Why such a harsh decree against this particular enemy? According to Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel and Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, both 15th Century Spanish commentators, Amalek was guilty of war crimes. Our tradition believes that Amalek attacked us without reason, trying to cut down a defenseless group of slaves weakened by our recent slavery. The 19th Century Hungarian commentator, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Sofer, noticed that the Torah describes the Amalekites as, “undeterred by fear of God.” (Deut. 25:18) God had just redeemed us from slavery and brought us across the Reed Sea. Yet, the Amalekites were still not afraid of attacking a nation who had God on their side. The Torah tells us that the war with Amalek will last, “from generation to generation” (Ex. 17:16). One might say that Amalek is not just an enemy of Ancient Israel, but rather an eternal enemy of the Divine. One whom we partner with God to defeat. The Jewish People have considered all of our eternally irreconcilable enemies, from Haman to Hitler and beyond, to be descendants of Amalek.

Haman is a particularly meaningful example of how Jewish tradition views our Amalekite enemy. God’s name is absent from the Scroll of Esther. It has been noted that Esther’s name itself means, “I will hide.” The famous words of Mordechai in the Megillah hint of God’s presence in the story. He says to Esther, “If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place…” (Esther 4:14) “Place,” of course, being one of the names we use for God. Thus, the Purim story becomes a challenge to the doubt represented by Amalek and his descendants. We are led to believe that the events of the Purim story happen by mere chance. After all, the very name Purim means, “lots”, as in a portion doled out by chance. However, if we peek just under the surface, we can perceive God’s presence.

There is a meaningful connection our sages make between the doubt Adam introduces in the Garden of Eden and the Purim Story. God questions Adam, “Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” In Hebrew, “הֲמִן־הָעֵ֗ץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר צִוִּיתִ֛יךָ לְבִלְתִּ֥י אֲכָל־מִמֶּ֖נּוּ אָכָֽלְתָּ” The verse begins with the word, “hamin” spelled heh/mem/nun, and meaning, “from.”  Without vowels and as it is written in the Torah, the word can be read as, “Haman”. Haman, as a descendant of Amalek, was there from the beginning, leading us to believe that we could hide from the Divine when things become uncertain.

Now, I admit to knowing nearly nothing about Quantum Physics. Sadly, those courses are not traditionally offered in rabbinical schools. Nevertheless, my understanding is that when scientists study the uncertain behavior of atoms, and even smaller particles, they do not really make sense. Over time, however, patterns present themselves. This idea might help us understand the famous liturgical poem, Unetaneh Tokef. “On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die…” If uncertainty is the actual structure of the universe, then our response should not be to live in doubt. We should not limit ourselves to the confusing binary of “who shall live and who shall die.” Rather, we must move beyond the either/or and toward a spectrum of creativity and innovation. Again, during tomorrow’s sermon, I will try to paint a picture of exactly what this looks like. For now, Unetaneh Tokef leads us in that direction by telling us, “Teshuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah have the power to transform the harshness of our destiny.” Out of the binary we begin to see a spectrum. The opposite of dwelling in doubt is not certainty, but rather to be open to the realm of possibility.

On the sephirotic chart, the Jewish mystical map of the universe, the left hand represents Gevurah, or power. This is the aspect of the Divine that judges and creates boundaries. Gevurah seeks stringency and the meting out of justice. On the opposite side, the right hand represents Hesed. Hesed stands in contrast to Gevurah. It represents love and grace. It was out of Hesed that God created the universe. However, though the world was built upon kindness, humankind’s finitude required that there be boundaries to that kindness. Otherwise, it would be too much for us to handle. God needed to give us a balance of Hesed and Gevurah so that we could each experience the Divine according to our individual capacity. Tiferet, the third sephira in our triad, means beauty. It represents that balance. Within Tiferet, Hesed and Gevurah, kindness and limits, blend together to create harmony. On the second day of creation, God separated the upper waters from the lower waters. Water represents Hesed. However, without this separation, or Gevurah, we would be overcome by the waters and drown.  

This concept is illustrated by a narrative in the Talmud (Shabbat 53a) about King David. We learn that at the time David dug drainpipes in the foundation of the Temple, the lower waters rose and sought to inundate the world. After debating what to do with his wise companions, David wrote God’s name on an earthenware shard and cast it into the depths. Immediately, the water subsided. What is it about God’s name that kept the waters from returning to their primordial state?  God’s name, represented by the letters Yud – Heh – Vav – Heh, represents a variation of the word meaning, “to be.” As we say in Adon Olam, “hu haya, hu hoveh, v’hu yiyeh.” The Divine was, is, and will be. David was faced with a choice. He could leave things as they were and let humankind go on without building a dwelling place for God. Or, he could risk undoing creation. David chose a third path, the innovative choice to cast God’s name into the water. By doing so, he transformed doubt into possibility. There is a hint to this third path in the root of safek, the Hebrew word for doubt. The word not only means doubt, but also at the same time can be understood to mean sufficient or possible. Built into the very word is the notion that we can transform binaries into a spectrum.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks famously said, “Faith is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty.” When we are willing to embrace the uncertainty of things, we, like King David, come closer to the One who was, is, and will be. It is doubt that obstructs our view of God. Just before Mordechai reminds Esther of God’s imminence, she doubts whether she should take the dangerous opportunity to change her people’s fate. It is faith that helps us to confront our doubts. Much like our physical enemies have not disappeared, this spiritual enemy remains, causing us to contend. When doubt is obstructing our view of God, we move that obstruction by doubling down on our faith, our trust, and our forward thinking.

As I consider why this topic has been on my mind lately, I am taken back to February of 2020 and the passing of our beloved member, Connie Waxman. We accompanied Connie to her final resting place after she gave us a beautiful example of what it is to build a life of meaning, while simultaneously battling pancreatic cancer. At Connie’s funeral, her husband Neil asked me if we could conclude the ceremony by playing a song that Connie had requested. The song is called, “Head full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” by the Avett Brothers. Neil recently told me that this song framed the realistic optimism that was so important to bringing them hope and strength throughout Connie’s six-yearlong battle. This song has been just under the surface for me for the past nineteen months. Yet, it wasn’t until recently that I could articulate why. The lyrics, in part, go:

There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
And it comes in black and it comes in white
And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it

When nothing is owed or deserved or expected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it

There was a dream and one day I could see it
Like a bird in a cage I broke in
And demanded that somebody free it
And there was a kid with a head full of doubt
So I’ll scream ’til I die
And the last of those bad thoughts are finally out

The song takes us from darkness to light, from doubt to possibility. The singer validates our dark moments and shines a light upon the efforts we make to compartmentalize them. The real solution, however, is to release those dark feelings and to wage war with our doubt. This is how we find ourselves on the promising road ahead.

May this New Year place us firmly upon that road. May we be blessed with direct connection to the Divine as Adam and Eve once were in the Garden of Eden. May we be as sure in our spiritual battles as our ancestors were when fighting the Amalekites. May we partner with the Divine to ensure the best outcome as Esther did in the Purim story. May our doubts give way so that we are overcome with the joy of hope and possibility.

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