Kol Nidre Leishev Ba’sukkah


The Rabbis of the Talmud tell a story about the very first dysfunctional congress in human history. God is about to create human beings. And, God is not sure whether this is a good idea or not. So, God consults with the angels of heaven who comprise a kind of heavenly version of congress.

And, immediately, a great debate begins. Some angels say: Absolutely, do it, God!  Humans deserve to be created because they will discover great truths about the universe. “No! No! other angels counter. It’s a terrible idea. Human beings are pathological liars.”

A third group of angels gets up and says, “Don’t do it, God! Don’t create human beings! They will tear each other apart.”  And, a fourth group of angels counter, “Yes, create them! They will perform great acts of love and compassion.”

Ad she’me’dayinim elu va’elu/While the angels were arguing with each other back and forth, God made an executive decision and created human beings all by himself.

Living in the age of gridlock, we can understand how frustrating the democratic process can sometimes be. And, there are moments when it is especially tempting to yearn for a decisive strongman who will just tell us what to do—someone who can just say ‘you’re fired’ without having to be accountable to anyone.

But, we would be making a very big mistake, if we were to conclude that our gridlock problem is a problem of uncertainty. On the contrary, we are suffering from an excess of certainty. We have a certainty surplus. And, apparently, this is a problem that runs very deep in the human psyche.  Because the Jewish people came in to the world to resist certainty. (to combat certainty, to challenge certainty).

We often speak of Abraham as a man of faith. The reverse is true. It was Abraham who introduced doubt into the world. The most important word that Abraham ever spoke was the word ‘oolai’. Oolai in Hebrew means  “Are you sure?”

When God is about to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Amorah, he lets Abraham in on the plan. And, Abraham says to God: Oolai! Oolai yesh chamishim tzadikim b’toch ha’ir/Are you sure you want to do this God?

God presents Abraham with a simple world view. There is good and there is evil. And, Abraham, to God’s delight, challenges that view? Are you sure, God? Are you sure there are no good people in that evil city?  Our first lesson in justice is a lesson in doubt. Oolai.

It’s not easy to live with doubt. Doubt makes us uncomfortable. We meet such an uncomfortable person on the high holidays. His name is Jonah. God commands Jonah to go to the wicked people of Ninveh and call upon them to change their ways. Jonah hates this idea and he runs away. He boards a ship, and God causes a storm to threaten the ship. The sailors are afraid and they cry out their gods.

Meanwhile, the captain discovers Jonah fast asleep in the hold of the ship. He says to Jonah: What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you pray to your God like everyone else? Oolai/maybe! Oolai yitashet ha’elohim/Maybe there is a possibility that God will change his mind and save us!

But, Jonah says ‘Don’t oolai me! Don’t talk to me about a God who changes His mind!” I have no interest in a God like that! Jonah lives in a world of certainty.  There is good and there is evil and there is no in between.

In his new book on Maimonides, Micha Goodman gives us insight into the mindset of Jonah. Many people assume that when Maimonides wrote his Guide for the Perplexed, he was trying to offer answers to students who had doubts about God. But, Goodman says that Maimonides had a different agenda: to teach us how to live with doubt.

We all have a desire to make sense of the world and to see the world as orderly and predictable. But, sometimes, says Maimonides, we rush to closure too soon. Our need for an answer is so great that we’ll choose any answer, just so we can persuade ourselves that all is well in the world.

Nowhere is the value of uncertainty greater than in our system of justice. Bryan Stevenson is an attorney with an international reputation. He has won landmark cases in the Supreme Court. But, in the 1980’s, he was a young African-American lawyer, who had just moved in to a mixed neighborhood in midtown Atlanta.

He was sitting in his car, parked a few doors down from his apartment listening to the radio.  And, in his rear view mirror he saw the flashing lights of a police car. He didn’t think anything of it. But, when Stevenson got out of his car, one of the police drew his weapon and pointed it at his head. “Move and I’ll blow your head off!” he shouted. Stevenson tried to stay calm, and kept repeating quietly “It’s OK, it’s OK.”

Neighbors began coming out of their homes to watch. One older white woman demanded that Stevenson be asked about items she was missing. “Ask him about my radio and vacuum cleaner!” she yelled. Another lady asked about her missing cat.

In the end, the officers concluded they had nothing on Stevenson. And, he asked them, “Why did you do this to me?” And, the older officer said, “Someone called in about a suspected burgular. Be happy. We’re letting you go.”  No apology. No ‘I’m sorry’ from the officers for scaring him half to death.

Stevenson was a victim of the kind of rush to judgment that comes from our need for quick closure. In a world where the need for certainty is greater than the need for truth, a white neighbor might not care that much which black man is arrested for the crime. Any black man will do.

This is the world view that Stevenson has devoted his career to fighting. Stevenson is a death row lawyer who has built his reputation around creating doubt about the guilt of men and women who were carelessly judged. And, in his book, Just Mercy, he tells the story of Walter McMillan, a man who had no criminal record, no history of mental illness and nothing that would remotely suggest he would be capable of a violent crime.

But, in November of 1986, in Monroe County, Alabama, Ronda Morrison, the daughter of a respected local family was found murdered. And the police were stymied. People in Monroe County began to whisper about the incompetence of the police. When there were no arrests after several months, the whispers became louder.

And, under intense public pressure, the local law enforcement officers went out and found a black man they could frame for the crime. The trial was a farce. It didn’t matter that the State’s primary witness had a long criminal record. Walter was convicted and he served six years on death row.

Eventually, Walter McMillan was exonerated. But, he was never the same man again, and all because of a rush to closure, because the public’s need to feel certainty overwhelmed the desire to know the truth. It took a Brian Stevenson to say ‘oolai’—are you sure—does your need for certainty outweigh the life of an innocent man?

To be an American has always been to resist certainty. We Americans live in the land of the in between. We are Greek-Americans, we are Italian-Americans, we are Armenian-Americans. When a non-Latino Republican presidential candidate is fluent in Spanish, this should be applauded, not denigrated. Because it is quintissentially American to defy predictable categories, to go against type.

That is why, btw, I love the state of Ohio. Ohio is my favorite state of the union. Some of my favorite people are from Ohio. And, the truth is, I have never actually been to Ohio. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even flown over Ohio.

But, I love Ohio. Why? Because, no one can force Ohio into a category. Ohio is always the state the takes the longest to make up its mind in a presidential election. Sometimes, I wonder why the candidates even bother campaigning in the other states. Save the money. Everyone knows how they’re going to vote. Just have the election in Ohio. They’re the only ones who are uncertain.

And, that’s a shame. Because, the whole premise of an election is that our minds are open, that we are not sure yet, that we live in the land of in between. But, in the country the size of America, the land of the in between has shrunk to the size of Ohio.

I had a discussion with colleagues recently on a very complicated moral issue. And, the rabbi who impressed me the most began by saying, “I feel torn. I’m not sure.” We don’t hear these words often enough. Our moral discussions are plagued by certainty.

Let’s take the example of the current refugee crisis in Syria. On the one hand, It’s ironic, but the country that most embodies American values right now is Germany. By the end of the year, Germany expects to absorb 800,000 refugees from Syria. Germany which in the Nazi era epitomized the cruelest xenophobia the world has ever seen is now announcing to the world: ‘give me your tired, your poor.’ This is the greatest collective act of teshuvah/atonement that the world has ever seen.

Since 1945, Germany has done tremendous soul searching. Germans have deep regrets about their history. But, now comes the true test. Germany is the country of certainty. It’s a nation that likes clear structure and clear rules. And, nothing upsets the applecart more than refugees. Nothing threatens our need for closure more than immigrants in desparate need.  Everything about the refugee is unsettled. She has no home, she has no job, she has no language.

And, the very unsettledness of refugees is very unsettling to the lives of the country that takes them in, especially to a country like Germany which values order. We all know the chaos that comes when even the most self-sufficient guests move in with us for even a few days. In the city of Erfurt, there is a plan to take over 13 of the city’s 68 gymnasiums. Physical education will be cancelled. Sports clubs won’t have access. Routines are being disrupted.

But, even more important than the disruption of schedules is the upheaval of Germany’s self-image. Many are saying that this experiment is an attempt to re-configure what it means to be a German. Nothing less! To expose your world view to such questioning takes tremendous courage.

Now, let’s add a layer of complexity. On the same day that refugees from Syria were streaming into Europe, a Jew was murdered in Amsterdam for being what his murderers called ‘a dirty Jew.’ The attackers were described vaguely by the press as being of Mid-Eastern descent.

It would be ironic, indeed, if in a sincere desire to atone for the sins of the past, Germany contributed to making Europe an even less hospitable place for Jews than it already is. And, as Deborah Lispstadt asked recently: What about the impact on democratic Europe? Will the new immigrants commit to democracy? Will they accept that democracy entails the willingness to have one’s most basic beliefs challenged? Do you they understand that the freedoms of speech and expression have no ‘but’ associated with them?

Does that mean Germany shouldn’t help the refugees? Of course, they should help them.  But, to feel some level of anxiety here is not racist, and it’s not xenophobic.

It would be nice if we lived in a Jonah-world of black and white. But, we live in Abraham world of ‘oolai’/of uncertainty. The problems we face today are more complex than they have ever been. They defy a quick rush to moral closure.

We Jews have always resisted that easy closure. When Jacob finally settled permanently in the land of Israel after years of running, the Torah says: va’yeshev Yaakov b’eretz m’gurei aviv….Yaakov settled in to the land where his forefathers wandered.

Yet, there was to be no settling. Five minutes later, Joseph was sold by his brothers. Rashi says poignantly, bikesh Yaakov lashevet v’shalva/all Jacob wanted to do was have a little contentment in his life. Alas, kafatz alav rogzo shel Yosef, the tragedy of Joseph pounced upon him. To Rashi, this is the tragedy of Jewish people who just can’t seem to catch a break. It’s one crisis after another after another.

But, Nachmanides has a different view. He says vayeshev Yaakov b’eretz m’gurei aviv…..Jacob settled into the unsettledness of his ancestors. In other words, Jacob was comfortable on the uncertain path of his father and grandfather. For Nachmanides, the uncertainty of the Jewish people is not a tragic accident. It’s a heroic choice.

If we look at the blessing we say when we enter the Sukkah, it appears to make no sense. We say God has commanded us ‘leisheiv ba’sukkah’. The word lei’sheiv in Hebrew means to permanently settle. How can we permanently settle into a temporary shack?  But, as Ramban understands it, we are making a conscious choice to live with uncertainty, to live with vulnerability, to enter the arena.

To be sure, as Jews, we certainly appreciate the desire to have shalva/contentment. There are times when we have all wondered: Why can’t we just have a little peace and quiet in our lives? Why do we always have to stand out from the crowd? Why do we always have to buck the tide of history?

Herzl thought that Israel would bring contentment to a weary people. Israel has provided many blessings for the Jewish people. But, contentment is not one of them. Innovation? Yes. Cutting edge technology? Yes. Bold social experiments like the kibbutz? Radical dreams? Daring rescues? Deep meaning? Moments of deep inspiration? Absolutely. But, contentment? Not exactly. We’re too much children of Abraham. We can’t help saying to the world “oolai”/are you sure/couldn’t it be different?–even at the risk of antagonizing a world that would prefer shalva, the contentment of easy closure.

And, the antagonism is not hard to understand. According to Egyptian journalis, Mona Eltahawy, in her recent book Headscarves and Hymens, 90% of Egyptian women have been subjected to what is euphemistically called ‘female circumcision’. This is a hyper-traditional society, a society with an excessive need for certainty about its moral values, a society that does not take kindly to the question ‘oolai’/are you sure?  Now imagine the impact of placing a a liberal democracy like Israel on the borders of such a country. And, Egypt is one of the more liberal societies in the Middle East.

Not that we’re unsympathetic. It’s hard to live with uncertainty. Most of us feel most comfortable sticking with what we know. The Talmud tells us that in the arguments between The School of Hillel and the School of Shammai, we rule according to Bet Hillel. Why? Because on nine occasions, The School of Hillel was actually persuaded by Bet Shammai’s arguments and reversed their position. Nine times they came across the aisle!  Nine times!That’s out of hundreds of legal debates.

But, it’s not the quantity of change that matters. It’s the quality of change. Sometimes a single change of heart is enough to inspire us to believe that bigger transformations are possible.

Brian Stevenson tells the story of Avery Jenkins, who had committed a very brutal murder of an older man, and he was on death row. On his way in to see the prisoner, Stevenson had a very unpleasant experience with the correction officer in charge.

The officer was a white man, about six feet tall, of muscular build, and steely blue eyes. He looked like a character out of Cool Hand Luke. He insisted that Stevenson be strip searched before he enter the prison (not customary procedure for a visiting attorney). And, then the guard put Stevenson through a whole variety of useless protocols just to harass him. Finally, the guard let him know that the truck out in the parking lot with the Confederate flag and gun rack was his. One of the bumper stickers read “if I’d known it was going to be like this, I’d have picked my own damn cotton.”

After this hostile introduction, Stevenson went into to see Avery Jenkins. Jenkins was like a small child in a man’s body. He asked if Stevenson had brought him his chocolate milkshake, and he seemed unable to focus on anything else. When Stevenson returned to his office he found out that Avery Jenkins’ father had been murdered before he was born, and his mother had died of an overdose when he was a year old. By the time he was eight years old, he’d been in nineteen different foster homes. He began showing signs of intellectual disability at an early age. He had behavioral problems that suggested schizophrenia.

When he was ten, Avery lived with abusive foster parents. He was frequently locked in a closet, denied food, and subjected to beatings. When his behavior didn’t improve, his foster mother took him out into the woods, tied him to a tree, and left him there. By fifteen, he was having seizures and experiencing psychotic episodes. When he was twenty, while in the midst of a psychotic episode, he wandered into a strange house, and thinking he was being attacked by demons, brutally stabbed a man to death.

Over the next three days, Stevenson presented all of this material in court. As it happened the Confederate loving correction officer who had strip searched him was in the court that day.

About a month later, Stevenson decided to go visit Avery in prison. He pulled into the parking lot and he saw that horrible truck with all the Confederacy stickers. So, he braced himself for another confrontation. Sure enough, the guard approached him again.

But, this time, his tone was different. He was polite and accommodating. He didn’t demand a strip search. And, he tried to make things as easy as possible for Stevenson. Stevenson was confused by his kindness.

Just before Stevenson entered the prison, the guard put his hand on his shoulder, and said to him: “I need to talk to you about something. I was listening for those three days of Avery’s court hearing. And you know, well….I appreciate what you’re doing, I really do. It was kind of difficult for me to be in the courtroom to hear what y’all was talking about. I came up in foster care, you know. I came up in foster care, too.”

“Man, I didn’t think anybody had it as bad as me. They moved me around like I wasn’t wanted nowhere. I had it pretty rough. But, listening to what you was saying about Avery made me realize that there were other people who had it as bad as I did. I guess even worse.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think it’s good what you’re doing. I got so angry coming up that there was plenty of times I wanted to hurt somebody….I made it to eighteen, joined the military….and I’ve been OK. But, sitting in that courtroom brought back memories, and I think I realized I’m still kind of angry.”

“(And, there’s something else that’s been bothering me)… the doctor you put up said that some of the damage done to kids in abusive homes is permanent. That made me worry. You think it’s true?”

And, Stevenson said, ‘Look…the bad things that happen to us don’t define us. It’s just important that people understand where we’re coming from. I want you to know, I really appreciate your saying what you said. It means a lot. …sometimes I forget that we all need mitigation at some point.

As Stevenson turned to leave, the guard said, “oh wait I’ve got to tell you something else. I did something I probably wasn’t supposed to do…I know how Avery is. Well…I took an exit off the interstate on the way back, and I took him to Wendy’s and I bought him a chocolate milkshake.”

You couldn’t have a more black and white picture of evil than these two men. A black man who had brutally stabbed someone to death. And, a mean-spirited, Confederate-flag waving white racist. But, it turns out, if we don’t rush to closure, there is a lot more to both of these men than that.

Brian Stevenson is right. We all need mitigation at some point. That’s why we are here tonight. If Stevenson could find humanity in people who appear to be so far gone, what do can we learn from him about how to approach our friends, our neighbors and our family, whose perceived infractions pale by comparison?

Change is really hard. Bet Hillel only changed their minds nine times out of hundreds of chances. But, if Germany could become like America, if a hardened racist could open his heart to a black death row inmate—what is so fixed in our lives that we cannot change it?

It’s no coincidence that Kol Nidre comes at twilight, that in between space  where we can re-define ourselves, where we can burst through the simplistic categories that don’t do any of us justice.

Karev yom asher who lo yom v’lo Layla. God, Hasten the day that is neither day nor night. May we find the courage to live in the in between space of the sukkah. May we brave enough to live with doubt, not to rush to judgment, not to rush to closure, but to keep an open mind and an open heart to the people around us.

And, may be surprised at what we learn and how it changes us.