Living with Ambiguity

Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah Day 5761, September 30,2000, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

This past year has been the happiest of my life, as Toni and I have welcomed Robert into the world and enjoyed watching him grow for the last nine months. We love having a baby, but I have to admit that I’m somewhat apprehensive about his entering Kindergarten, a few years from now. Toni just realized that the kids will call him “Blockhead.” Having been a Kindergartner with the name Block myself, I already knew.

Kindergarten humor, though, goes beyond teasing. We all remember those first jokes of childhood: “What’s black and white and ‘red’ all over?” “A newspaper,” of course, or “a zebra with a rash.”

Today, I would like to ask a similar, but actually very different, question: “What is black and white and gray all over?” The answer: “life.”

Entering the new year at this High Holy Day season, we encounter the language of black and white, of good and evil: “Who shall live and who shall die?” We feel called to ask: “Am I a good person?” Contemplating our sins, we may declare ourselves to be wicked. Recounting our triumphs, we are tempted to self-congratulation. We consider the verdict: “Am I guilty or am I innocent?” The truth, though, lies most often between those polar opposites. We meditate on the last year, realizing: I have often behaved righteously, but sometimes have failed to live up to my highest self. I have repeated distressing patterns of behavior, but I have also performed many good deeds. How, then, are we to judge ourselves? How will God appraise us? Worthy or wicked? Good or evil? Black or white? The answer would seem to be gray.

And yet, my mind is plagued by thoughts of a man I’ll call David. Several years ago, David endured months of unemployment, after being laid off unexpectedly. With his wife supporting the family financially, David felt like a failure as a husband. Sitting at home all day, depressed, David began to see himself as useless even to his children. I tried to remind David that his wife loved him, and that his children adored him. He was a giving and loving and kind person to everybody he met. He used his spare time to help our around the Temple and at his kids’ school. And yet, David saw himself as a failure. He evaluated himself negatively. He did not see the good in his life. All was black in his eyes.

How different David was from Thomas, a middle-aged man who drives around town with great confidence. Thomas is well aware of the good he has done, and indeed he is worthy of significant praise. He has given of his time to charitable causes. He has made generous financial contributions. He continues to enjoy a long and successful marriage, and his grown children are doing well. Thomas has a rather high regard for himself, and he lets the people around him know how good he feels about himself. And yet, the truth is, not many people like Thomas. He is arrogant and caustic, rude to people he views as inferior and childishly stubborn when he doesn’t get his way. In reality, Thomas has good and bad points, but he will not work on his failings, because he refuses to see them. Thomas does not notice his own room for improvement. He is perfect in his own sight.

Like David and Thomas, we often see ourselves in sharp relief. We should not be surprised. From early childhood, most of us were raised on a steady diet of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, with heroines and wicked witches, good guys and bad guys. Entering our religious education, we were told versions of Bible stories that were very much like fairy tales. Each biblical character was portrayed to us as thoroughly good or utterly evil. As we grew older, we were introduced to literature with more complex characters, but the images of early childhood remain with us for life. Popular culture, in movies and on television, frequently provides the adult version of fables, like cops and robbers, with over-simplified personalities, either wonderful or wicked. With all of life’s challenges, we may find comfort in the apparent certainty of good guys and bad guys, of heroines and wicked witches. We may look back to the biblical stories of our childhood for a sense of security that our adult experience lacks.

In reality, though, the Bible is far more complicated than we remember. We know that Cain murdered his brother Abel. It’s simple, right? Cain is bad; Abel is good. David, whom I described earlier, thought of himself as cursed with “the mark of Cain.” And yet, when we examine the Book of Genesis, we may lose our confidence in Cain’s utter wickedness. The brothers’ story begins when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice but rejects Cain’s offering. Interpreting the story in later generations, some of our ancient rabbis attempt to brand Cain as malevolent from the get-go; they charge that he presents God with inferior produce, keeping the best for himself. And yet, the Bible itself levels no such indictment. Cain does not seem to be wicked until he murders Abel, an act that is certainly evil. God punishes Cain severely. Later, though, Cain appears to live his life appropriately, in keeping with God’s expectations. The evidence is that this biblical figure, guilty of the most heinous of all crimes, is not without merit. God appears to give him another chance, and not to treat him as thoroughly evil. If God can see Cain as something other than completely wicked, are we to judge him more harshly? We begin to realize that what seemed black and white may be better characterized as charcoal gray.

Few among us have committed sins that equal Cain’s. Compared to him, we may judge ourselves saints. And yet, we all have transgressed. We have ignored our children. We have been dishonest in business. We have been inattentive or even unfaithful to our spouses. We have uttered a racist joke, perhaps maligning our own Jewish people. We have been rude to a waiter or to a salesperson. We may be wracked with guilt. Like David, we may feel that we are failures. We may even believe ourselves to be scorned by God. Harking back to a childhood sense of good and evil, we may imagine our souls to be black, our lives without merit. Remembering Cain, though, David and so many of us may revise our self-appraisal. We must accept responsibility for our moral failures, and sometimes even punishment. We must repent. We have hard work to do. We have done wrong. But God yet loves us. We are not without merit. We can change our ways. We can live out the rest of our lives with goodness. We can ultimately be forgiven. At the appropriate time, we may even forgive ourselves.

But remember Thomas, the unpopular man who thinks too highly of himself. He does not need to hear about Cain, for he already knows he’s not as bad as his detractors would have us believe. He may think his biblical role model is Moses, the greatest of all the heroes of the Bible. Moses bravely presents himself to Pharaoh, demanding that the Children of Israel be freed. He leads the Israelites through forty grueling years of desert wandering. He teaches the Torah to the people in the desert, and ultimately to every generation of our Jewish people. Can there be a greater man than Moses? Surely, none compares to God’s human partner and agent in history’s greatest act of liberation.

And yet, Moses is deeply flawed. He neglects his wife and family, even failing to circumcise his own son. He lashes out against the Children of Israel in anger. On one occasion, his rage takes hold of him so strongly that he defies God’s direct order. In some instances, our ancient rabbis offer apologetics, attempting to excuse Moses’ apparent missteps. Occasionally, the rabbis seem to whitewash Moses, to portray him as wholly righteous. I well remember one Bat Mitzvah here at the Temple, when the celebrant described some of Moses’ failings, found in her Torah portion. One visitor to our Temple stormed out, enraged that Moses would seemingly be maligned from our bimah. And yet, Moses’ transgressions are acknowledged in the Torah, even by God, who punishes Moses by preventing him from entering the Land of Israel with the people.

Who among us is as great as Moses? Who so righteous? Who so knowledgeable in Torah? Who so gifted in leadership? Who so loyal to the Jewish people? Who so faithful to God? And yet, we do have our goodness. Even at this season of penitence, most of us are entitled to affirm merit. We have been faithful to our families. We have been good parents, loyal children. We have given generously to tzedakah. We have studied our Jewish faith. We have been dutiful to our employers, trustworthy to our employees, and committed to our work. We have given our time to the needy. We have served God and humanity. Harking back to a childhood sense of good and evil, we may imagine our souls to be pure, our lives without blemish. Remembering Moses, though, we may revise our self-appraisal. We may celebrate our achievements. We may acknowledge our righteousness. We have done good. But God knows us in all our complexity. Like Thomas, we are not without sin. We do have room for improvement. We must admit our faults together with our excellence. All of us, no matter how worthy, need to be here on these High Holy Days, to ponder our lives, to consider where we missed the mark. Let us hear the calls of the shofar and the message of our God: We, too, can do better in the year ahead.

As we embark on a new year this day, may we resolve to leave behind our over-simplifications of life. Let us no longer characterize ourselves and the people around us as purely heroic or thoroughly villainous. We are not cartoon characters – Batman or the Riddler, the roadrunner or the coyote – but human beings. We are not unidimensional personalities of good or evil; instead, we possess both. Acts may be entirely meritorious or repugnant, but people are more ambiguous. This year, let us live with that ambiguity, in our lives and in others. May we thereby make our lives, and ourselves, better.

As we examine ourselves at this season, let us consider the words of Rabbi Moses Maimonides. The Rambam taught that we should view ourselves, and indeed all human beings, “at all times, as if we were half innocent and half guilty. If, then we commit one more sin, we press down on the scale of guilt against ourselves and the whole world and cause destruction. If, on the other hand, we fulfill one commandment, we turn the scale of merit to ourselves and in favor of the whole world, and bring salvation and deliverance to all our fellow creatures and to ourselves.”

Sometimes, we human beings take a terribly dim view of ourselves. Knowing full well his sins, David despaired of doing any good. At other times, we see ourselves too favorably. Thomas thinks that he has lived so admirably that he may commit a transgression or two with impunity. But Maimonides and the Torah caution us: Like David, we are not so evil as we think. Like Thomas, we are not so righteous as we think. We must live with the ambiguity that defines us. We are neither good nor evil. We live ever on the cusp. Our very next act will define us. We can be exemplary or we can be despicable. The choice is ours. Our actions determine our evaluation, in our own eyes, in the sight of others, and in the eyes of God. And so, our High Holy Day prayers remind us: “Repentance, prayer and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.”

But there is one final, and even deeper lesson, in recognizing our ambiguity. Yes, we need to take righteous action ourselves. At the same time, though, we need God. Being both saint and sinner, living always on the sharp divide between good and evil, we human beings are not so wicked as to be altogether estranged from God, but neither are we angels, at one with God. We ask God to reach out to us, as a parent lovingly guides a child, as a shepherd patiently herds the flock, as a ruler benevolently protects a nation. God is the force, gently nudging us over the cusp toward the good.

In 5761, and every year, we must live with the ambiguity of human life. Even as we wish for the simplicity of black and white, we shall see gray all over.

In 5761, and in every year of our lives, may we view each action as the one that will define our lives, characterizing ourselves righteous through each act of goodness.

In 5761, and in every year of our lives, may we experience the grace of God, our Creator. God compassionately understands our human condition of ambiguity. May God move us, and receive us, with favor.