Sermon delivered on Yom Kippur Eve 5770 – September 27, 2009
by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block
The Proposal is not a high-art or intellectual film. It’s a romantic comedy, starring Sandra Bullock. If I had a single sexist bone in my body, which I do not, I would say that I saw The Proposal because, like most married men, I occasionally am dragged to a “chick flick.” But I wouldn’t say that.
If you’ve seen a romantic comedy, particularly one with Sandra Bullock, you’ve already seen The Proposal, for all practical purposes. Admittedly, the film is entertaining, something we all need.
This time, Bullock plays the publisher version of “the devil” wearing Prada. She’s a high-powered executive, who treats everybody in her office despicably. She is pleased that her assistant facilitates her life; but she regards him as though he were merely an object fulfilling her needs.
Eventually, the executive comes to see her secretary as a real person. Similarly, he comes to see her as more than the manipulative boss. Yes, she is that. However, as the secretary comes to know his supervisor, he understands her vulnerabilities. Bullock’s character struggles to forgive herself for her inhumane treatment of the man she comes to love. The secretary is angry about the way he has been treated. Nevertheless, he understands her behavior as part of a more complex human being. He permits himself fall in love with her.
The movie may be little more than a silly romantic comedy. Its theme, though, resonates with us on this Kol Nidre night. A person may appear to be just awful. And yet, in the final analysis, she is a complete person. She may have done terrible things, but she is also a human being, deserving of compassion. We may think we “hate” her. Nevertheless, as we come to know her better, we may love her. At the very least, we acknowledge that God loves her. Indeed, if the meaning of Yom Kippur could be boiled down into one word, that single utterance might be “nevertheless.”
Our prayers earlier this evening remind us: The people around us are sinful. Nevertheless, we ask permission to pray among them.
As long as human life endures, human beings will continue to sin. Nevertheless, people can also perform great mitzvot.
Some may be as sinful as King David, who committed adultery and sent the husband of his beloved to his untimely death. Nevertheless, those same individuals may be as great as King David, who united the Children of Israel in one Kingdom and established a dynasty destined one day to facilitate the salvation of the entire world.
On this Yom Kippur, we acknowledge that we have differences with people in our midst. Nevertheless, let us strive to find their goodness, for they too are created in God’s image.
On this Yom Kippur, let us acknowledge that everybody has shortcomings. Nevertheless, let us pray with the faith that God yet loves us all. Let us accept one another, and expect much good work from the people in our lives, even as we confess that all are guilty of an alphabet of woes.
Senator Orrin Hatch is about as conservative as they come. A Republican from Utah, Senator Hatch rarely strays from the orthodoxies of his party’s base. Nevertheless, even with the partisan acrimony that has overtaken Washington since Orrin Hatch came to the Senate decades ago, the Utah Senator is not disagreeable, even when he disagrees.
Last month, much was made of the friendship between Senator Hatch and his infinitely more liberal colleague, Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Hatch offered what analysts called the most emotional remembrance at the memorial service for Senator Kennedy the night before the funeral.
We could be cynical. Political events, even large funerals of major figures, could be rather staged. Perhaps talk of the friendship was overblown, enhancing the reputations of both men by demonstrating that they could transcend ideology.
However, listen to this story, told by Senator Hatch. Even the most entrenched cynic may come to see the friendship as genuine. One day, Kennedy stormed into Hatch’s office, angry as a hornet about something the Republican had said or done. In typical fashion, Kennedy ranted loudly at his friend and rival. As soon as he could get a word in edgewise, though, Hatch changed the subject. He told Kennedy that he had written a song for the Massachusetts liberal and his bride. He played the song for Senator Kennedy, who promptly forgot whatever had brought him to Hatch’s office in hot anger.
Orrin Hatch’s affection for Ted Kennedy is even more remarkable, when we consider what we know about Senator Kennedy. Like us, Senator Hatch was aware of Ted Kennedy’s unforgivable behavior at Chappaquiddick. Like us, Senator Hatch knew that Ted Kennedy had a history of boozing and womanizing. Orrin Hatch is an upstanding gentleman, with a deeply developed sense of right and wrong. Even if he could get past their political and philosophical differences, how could Hatch nurture a true friendship with such an abject sinner?
Most Americans are not like Orrin Hatch. We saw Senator Kennedy through our ideological lenses. The progressives among us saw him as a great man, however flawed. The conservatives in our nation mostly saw him as evil, personally and politically. When Senator Hatch looked at Ted Kennedy, though, he saw so much more than a liberal lion or an immature son of privilege. Yes, Senator Kennedy was those things. Nevertheless, the man Orrin Hatch embraced was so much more.
Senator Kennedy, like his friend, was faithful to his principles. Nevertheless, he could see where compromise could help achieve his goals. Like Hatch, Kennedy was fiercely partisan. Nevertheless, each respected the views of others. Each knew himself, and the other, to be flawed. Nevertheless – and let’s be honest, Senator Hatch had more to overcome here – each could look past the other’s misdeeds and embrace the other as a person who could achieve greatness, and as a person who could help him to achieve his own goals. Each could see the other as a friend.
And, if Orrin Hatch can do it, if Ted Kennedy could do it, then surely we can say “nevertheless.” We, too, can overcome ideological and personal differences, seeing each other as complete people, serving God together across whatever divides us.
Washington is not the only American city that has become polarized in the last two decades. We are blessed to live in San Antonio. Our city remains peaceful, at so many levels not achieved elsewhere. At the same time, our Jewish community – around the world, nationally and even locally – strains at the seams.
The stress is about Israel. The Jewish State is the greatest glory of our people in modern times. Nevertheless, Israel is also the subject of our most acrimonious disagreements.
Much has been written of late about a wide gulf that has formed between Israelis and American Jews. A decisive majority of American Jews voted for a Presidential candidate who was not the choice of many Israelis. Polls show increasing numbers of Israelis to believe that our President is bad for the Jewish State, an opinion not shared by most American Jews. Some Israelis charge that we do not have their best interests at heart.
Among American Jews, debate on that same subject is increasingly heated. Perhaps emboldened by the recent election, the self-styled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” Zionists have become more vocal, better organized and more successful at raising funds. Perhaps embittered by the 2008 Jewish vote, some supporters of long-standing Zionist organizations have been more strident in charging that the President and his supporters are anti-Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu denies having said that our President’s top aides include “self-hating Jews,” but some American Jewish critics of President Obama surely have leveled such vile attacks. Newly ascendant leaders of “pro-peace” Zionist organizations have issued intemperate critiques, claiming that other American Jews are enemies of peace. If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that the animosity has reached even our usually united San Antonio Jewish community.
This year, some Israelis and many American Jews support the President’s call for an end to all growth in Jewish settlements on land that was not part of Israel before 1967. This year, most Israelis and plenty of American Jews believe that the President’s focus on settlements plays into the hands of terrorists who would like to see Israel destroyed. This year, some of us look at each other and hiss, “anti-Israel.” This year, some of us look at each other and mutter, “enemy of peace.”
Nevertheless, this Yom Kippur, we have an alternative. One can look at the other and say, “I know that you deeply treasure the Jewish State of Israel. I know that your support for peace is part of how you love Israel. I disagree with you on the specifics, but I know our ultimate goals are the same.”
This year, one can turn to the other and affirm: “I know you dream of Israel at peace. I know that your objection to President Obama’s proposed settlement freeze comes not only from your loyalty to Israel, but also from your love of America. I disagree with you on the specifics, but I know our ultimate goals are the same.”
On this Yom Kippur, let each of us, like Orrin Hatch, remain true to our principles. Nevertheless, let us also celebrate what we share. Let us acknowledge the goodness and the humanity in one another. Even as we see past our own goodness to acknowledge our sins, let us look past our negative perceptions of the other to find goodness.
On this Yom Kippur, as we say “nevertheless;” let us pray that God responds: “Amen.”