by rabbilimmer

Kol Nidre 5776

Chicago Sinai Congregation

I love the reflective quiet of Kol Nidre.  I’ve always felt this eve of magnificent meditation is a strange spot for sermons.  Tonight, rather than hail down great fire and brimstone, on the onset of this sacred Sabbath I want to frame our humble self-reflection with a series of small fables for our souls. 

The Fable of the Frog and the Scorpion

 A Scorpion is waiting on the shores of a riverbank. The reason he needs to cross have been lost through the sands of time, the retelling of the tale.  There sits the Scorpion, gazing at the distant shore, when along comes a Frog.  “Excuse me, sir,” says the Scorpion, “But would you mind ferrying me to the far side of this river?”

The Frog looks puzzlingly at the scorpion.  “What kind of fool do you think I am?” asks the Frog, “The second I take you on my back to travel across the river, you will sting me, and I will die!”

“I understand,” responds the Scorpion, “Because usually it is the way with me – and all of my kind – that our pointed tails prey on animals like you. But just think,” posits the pleading predator, “Why would it benefit me to sting you while you carry me across the river? If I did, I would kill you, and then I would assuredly drown. So please,” pleaded the scorpion, “Carry me across the river. I promise we will both make it safely to the other side.”

The Frog pauses.  He, too, had ingested his share of insects from time to time. And here was another creature not only in need, but also with a thoughtful explanation of his plan. The Frog stared one last time into the Scorpion’s eyes, and ultimately assented, “Hop on my back.” Sure enough, halfway across the river, the Scorpion stings the Frog. Just before the poison kicks in and they both drown, the Frog the asks the Scorpion with his last breath, “Why did you do that?”

To which the Scorpion responds, “You didn’t really expect me to change, did you?”

The Fable of the Frog and the Scorpion is as old as Aesop.[1]  The moral of the story is clear: we cannot change our nature.  The moral of the story is antithetical to the very reason we come together this Kol Nidre evening.  The essence of our Yom Kippur rite and ritual is that we are not animals: we are moral individuals.  Not only can human beings change our nature; but our Jewish tradition provides us with this most holy of days in order to ensure—every year—we do change for the better.  Yom Kippur denies the defiant stance of the Scorpion; tonight we are not allowed to throw our hands in the air and say, “I have lived this long, this is who I am, don’t expect me to change.”  Instead, our holiest day of the year challenges us to do just that which we fear: change. Change, for the better.

Yom Kippur is a time of remarkable empowerment.  This Sabbath of Sabbaths teaches us we have the power to cast off binding shackles of bad habit, to discard the encrustation of too many days lived with too little self-examination.  This sacred evening marks a time of remarkable empowerment, because the very existence of this day reminds us all human beings possess the power to orient our lives in a new direction.  Paradoxically, this most holy of days, while recognizing our abilities, forces us to do some serious damage to our self-esteem.  We fast and submit ourselves to other limitations—what Jewish tradition calls oppressing our own soul—in order to rein in our ego, to ensure we value our sense of self less than the morals and commitments we would have guide our lives.  Our liturgy reminds us of this balance: בשופר גדול יתקע, וקול דממה דקה ישמע, The great shofar is sounded, the still, small voice is heard.[2]  On Yom Kippur, the big voice belongs only to the call of Sacred tradition.  Tonight, we must make ourselves little, small, in order to truly appreciate the greatness of the power, the moral power, that is in our hands.

We do not live in a society where the still, small voice is often heard.  Contemporary America is dominated by the biggest, ugliest, most outrageous voices of them all.  But the situation is worse than just loud voices crowding out our airwaves: everything today is about me.  iPhone, iPad, iHome, iLife, follow me on Facebook, follow me on Instagram, follow me on Twitter: it’s all about me, me, me.  Even worse than this significant solipsism, our society has succumbed to the myth of the great individual.  The great individual comes in many guises: the TV pundit we admire for so scathingly skewering the people with whom we disagree; the political candidates on whom we pin our hopes to change society all by themselves; the wide receiver who celebrates a touchdown through a choreographed dance solo, forgetting that ten teammates on the field and forty-two on the bench had roles to play in his success.  Contrary to the obvious fact that we all come from families, all grew up in communities, all are a part of civil society, the myth pervades that we have individual achievements, that we can be proud of remarkable things because—in the mantra of our age—“I did it myself”. The myth of the great individual is even more disheartening than any fable Aesop ever told about a scorpion and a frog.

David Brooks, in his insightful book  The Road to Character, has a name for this myth of the individual.  He calls it “The Big Me”.  Brooks asserts that, “Our basic problem is that we are self-centered,” a plight perfectly captured in David Foster Wallace’s commencement address from Kenyon College:

“Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. You rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it so socially repulsive. But is pretty much the same for all of us. It’s our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”[3]

Wallace thinks our default setting is that we are the center of the universe. The myth of the young man in love with his image named this phenomenon: Narcissism.  Sociologists developed a narcissism test where they read statements to people and ask if the descriptions apply to them.  Such statements say “I am extraordinary” or “Someone should write a biography about me”.  In the last 20 years, the median narcissism score of Americans has risen by nearly one third.[4]  In 1950, the Gallup organization polled high school seniors and asked if they thought themselves to be a very important person: 12% said yes.  The same question was asked of high school seniors in 2005, and this time 80% of high school seniors considered themselves to be very important people.  If basic self-centeredness is hard-wired into our motherboards, America has done a remarkable job of nurturing this natural instinct and elevating our tendency to self-aggrandizement to our highest national value.

The Big Me—all the self-important narcissism that ignites our insistence on individual achievement—teaches that our aspirations are to become “Masters of the Universe”.  We remember these “Masters of the Universe” from Tom Wolfe’s book, Bonfire of the Vanities, those powerful protagonists who thought that they could not only buy and sell bonds, but do the same with human life.[5]   Self-styled “Masters of the Universe” are hardly a fictional fable: we see them in the powerful industrialists who pollute the earth for their own profit; we see masters of the universe raise their rhetoric and rouse the masses for military campaigns; we see masters of the universe in our sporting stars and acclaimed actors who think themselves beyond account to any moral code.  Our question, on this Yom Kippur when we try to be in touch with our still, small voice, is: do we see a Master of the Universe when we look in the mirror?

Our Jewish tradition challenges the assumption that any of us is the master of the universe.  In fact, our Torah is pretty clear about the identity of the Creator of our Universe, and—most certainly—it is not us.  If anything, what we have been taught from the time of Adam and Eve—who were put in the Garden of Eden to tend it and till it, to care for it and to nurture other creatures—is that we are stewards of this world, not masters.[6]  We are members of our universe, with remarkable responsibility to that great world we inherit.  Instead of thinking ourselves the Crown of Creation, we need to see ourselves as just one part of the creation. Our Jewish tradition would have us ignore the narcissism that dominates our day, would force us to see our role in our world quite differently.  Only a fool could contemplate all of Creation and see himself as a Master of the Universe.  Thus taught Moses Maimonides bluntly, “Only an ignoramus imagines that everything exists for his own sake; only an ignoramus imagines it is as if nothing exists except him.”[7]

Now, I need to be clear.  I do not think it is our obligation, each of us, to walk out of this sanctuary this evening believing in the actual existence of some Creator of the Universe who is greater than us.  If the Greeks can have their myths and fables, so too can we Jews: we should be free to take our great teaching, our Torah, metaphorically. So you need not believe with perfect faith that there exists a God and that God created the universe and that we are but one small part of it. The lesson is we shouldn’t think ourselves the most important, primary being in the Universe.[8]   Such overvalued sense of self is a Jewish fool’s errand, as Maimonides put it plainly, the imaginings of an ignoramus.  Our tradition demands we realize what we already know to be true: we did not create this Universe.  We are but a small part of the great chain of history.

I learned—literally, and far from figuratively—how it feels to be but one small part of the great chain of history, the great progression of humankind, that remarkable march of progress.  On August first, I found myself at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL.  It was the same famous spot from which Martin Luther King, John Lewis, James Bevel and many of my heroes departed for no fewer than three protest marches.  This summer—with members of Chicago Sinai Congregation, colleagues from across the country, and new comrades-in-arms—we set out on our own protest: together we undertook the first steps the NAACP’s “America’s Journey for Justice,” a thousand-mile trek to make the world a better place.  I was graced—truly honored and overwhelmed—by the privilege of carrying a sacred scroll of the Torah over the famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, taking about 700 of the one million steps that lay ahead on the sojourn to Washington, D.C.  I walked, double-file down the highway, 12 miles in the blazing 98-degree Alabama heat.  I have never felt more important in my entire life.

And I have never felt more unimportant.  Such was the sensation of carrying the Torah on that historic highway: I have never felt smaller or bigger.  I was one small person carrying the Torah down a remarkably long road for one brief time; I could hardly see the end of the day’s walk, let alone the final destination.  Carrying a sacred scroll down an open highway—playing a small literal role in a massive literal journey—erased any capacity for me to relate to the situation metaphorically.  I have never stood so proud and tall as I did as the clock approached six and my feet were blistering.  Yet I was humbled—in the most gratifying way—to know that others were arriving that night to carry the Torah the next day, the next step of the great journey.  I carried the Torah proudly, served my role, played my small part of being but one of over 200 rabbis carrying the Torah, one among thousands of people praying with their feet in this march of protest.  Then I watched, day by day on Facebook and Flickr, as that Torah was lofted high through Alabama, into Georgia, towards South Carolina, then North Carolina, via Virginia into our nation’s capitol. I was amazed, last week, to land in D.C. and touch that Torah again. During the precious moments when I carried that sacred scroll across the Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, I couldn’t stop thinking of the many hands and hearts that had helped it travel its historic path.  I knew I played just a small part in the great Journey.  The awareness of being but a cog—yet still a vital part of the machinery making our world a better place—brought me a deep sense of Awe at the majesty of the Universe.

ראשית חכמה יראת ה’, taught our Psalmist: Awe at Eternity is the beginning of wisdom.[9]  We discover wisdom when we understand our relationship to Eternity, to Adonai, to the Eternal Oneness of all being.  On these days of Awe, we Jews are meant to feel that deep Awe, to sense that Great Transcendence uniting all life in a cosmic oneness.  Some call this God, some specifically Adonai, others Nature; I think of it as a profound sense of Awe.  That experience of the truly Awe-some should lead us to discover our still, small, voice; our experiences of Awe should lead us to be humble.[10]   Humility, in the Jewish tradition, grows out of our assessment of ourselves in relationship to the Universe, to the Cosmos, to God.[11]  We discover our humility when we sense the incredibly important, yet remarkably small part we play in the epic of the Universe.  As the Proverbs preach: עקב ענוה יראת ה’, Humility follows in the footsteps of our Awe.[12]  The only path to wisdom, to any Jewish enlightenment, is to be able to listen to our still, small voice, to follow it on the path of discovering our humility.

We humbly gather on this remarkable night to have our souls pierced by the cry of Kol Nidre that we might be able to assess ourselves in relation to the Cosmos.  On these Days of Awe, it is our job to discover Awe.  We need to move beyond the myth of the Big Me in order to understand the Little Me: our still, small voice, our place in the Cosmos.  And that is where our part in paradise returns.  It is precisely when we understand that we are not Masters of the Universe—but rather role players who strut and fret our hour on this stage—[13]that we understand our moral duties and our daily actions cannot reflect only our personal desires but also the part we must play in continuing to create our majestic, transcendent Universe.  Humility leads to Awe, Awe is the beginning of Wisdom, and Wisdom leads us to do for others instead of only for ourselves.[14]  The Big Me would privilege our personal needs and wants; the still small voice understands our desires should be informed by the needs of the many.  The Big Me is committed to the particular point of view that the individual is the apogee; the still small voice cries out that only a community can achieve what is best for our world.  The Big Me argues we do all for ourself and all by ourself; the still, small voice paradoxically preaches that we reach our greatest heights when we work as a collective.  The key on Kol Nidre is to find Awe on our Days of Awe, and then to act accordingly in terms of how we think about ourselves, and what we do for others.

It just so happens that there is a Jewish version of the fable “The Scorpion and the Frog.” It is told in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Nedarim, page 41a. The fable appears, in abbreviated form, at the end of a series of discussions regarding the futility of trying to escape our human mortality.  The consistent refrain of this passage is that when one’s final day has arrived, we have no power to escape our fate.  For example, a story is told about a man who tried to run from the Angel of Death, mounted a mule, and came to a crossing in the river the Angel couldn’t pass.  At the foot of the bridge, the mule shied and threw the man down: despite his best efforts, his fate caught up with him. After learning of this man’s failed attempts, we encounter the terse Jewish version of The Scorpion and The Frog:  Samuel saw a scorpion borne by a frog across a river; it stung a man, and he died.[15]

Samuel saw a scorpion borne by a frog across a river; it stung a man, and he died.  Our Jewish version of this fable doesn’t seem to be about the nature of the scorpion or the gullibility of the frog, but focuses on the mortality of man. A man tried to run from death and somehow these enemies, the scorpion and the frog, came together to serve the Divine Plan and execute judgment.  It’s as if a miracle was wrought to remind us that human beings cannot escape mortality.  Perhaps.  But I see the story slightly differently. That is because, unlike a fable of Aesop, our Talmudic tale has two morals.  One moral of the Talmudic tale of The Scorpion and the Frog is that we are not Masters of the Universe: we are mortal.  We are born into the world and even our greatest efforts cannot prevent us from leaving this world.  But that is only half the story.  The Jewish version of The Scorpion and the Frog also teaches that despite our lack of control over the universe, we are nonetheless in full control of our character.  Even a devious scorpion, when attuned to the Divine Plan of the universe, can withhold his sting and swim across a river on a frog’s back to perform the part he is meant to play in our world.  In the Talmud’s tale, even the scorpion can change his character when he senses a plan greater than his instincts and desires.  In Aesop’s version, the scorpion is the paradigm of arrogant, self-destructive narcissism; in our Jewish fable, the humble scorpion controls his character and acts out of wisdom, because understands the role he is meant to play in our universe.

During the Days of Awe we are inspired by the sounding of the great shofar to listen to our still small voice.  Even though that still small voice is not meant to be the arrogant Big Me, “Master of the Universe”, our still small voice nonetheless has remarkable power. The power of our still small voice is humility, Jewish humility, understanding that because we do not control the universe, we need to do everything in our own limited power to perfect the universe. On this most holy Day of Awe, may we be moved by that awe to the beginnings of wisdom that allow us to understand our place in the cosmos.  May the sounding of the great shofar aid us in hearing our still small voice.  And may our still small voice—from a place of great humility—join together with all the other still, small voices in our world dedicated to justice and peace and righteousness and good.  And may our still, small voices unite into a remarkably humble yet powerful chorus committed to changing ourselves so, together, we might change the world.

[1] Although this fable is often attributed to Aesop, there is academic dispute regarding that notion.  However, all agree the ancient Greek Aesop tells a similar tale, “The Farmer and the Viper”.

[2] The language of קול דממה דקה, the “still small voice” comes from I Kings 19:13; it has been juxtaposed with the sound of the great shofar by the Unetane Tokef prayer of our High Holy Day Liturgy.

[3] David Foster Wallace.  The previous citation from Brooks as well as this extended excerpt from Wallace are found in David Brooks, The Road to Character, p. 10.

[4] This, and all the data in this paragraph, are from Brooks, The Road to Character, pp. 7-8.

[5] Sherman McCoy was the wealthy New York bond trader who considered himself a “Master of the Universe”, and who serves as eponym for the first chapter of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

[6] Genesis 2:15.

[7] Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, III:12.

[8] In this sense, first century scholar Shimon bar Yochai taught that every arrogant person is like an idolator.  Babylonian Talmud, tractat Sotah 4b.  Much of that entire page of Talmud is occupied with the excesses of arrogance.

[9] Psalm 111:10.

[10] Humility in Judaism is far from what we might often associate with a religious sort of self-abnegation, any humiliation.  Often people erringly associate humility with thinking that their destiny is be eaten by worms, that they should allow themselves to be abused or mistreated by others, sometimes in fantastic ways.  Judaism doesn’t identify abstemious acts at all with being humble; it labels those humiliations as lowliness, a degradation of the spirit.  These specific examples are found in Rabbinic Literature, and are described by the Hebrew phrase שפל רוח, meaning “lowly in spirit”, which also carries a sense of the downcast or degraded.  The phrase about being “eaten by worms” comes from Mishnah Avot 4:4.  The notion of suffering abuse to make peace comes from the Midrash Kallah Rabbati 3.  Fascinatingly, Maimonides, in his commentary on the Mishnah, Avot 4:4, gives the example of a person who is “lowly of spirit” as one who allows others to urinate on him.

[11] Thanks to Moshe Halberthal for his helpful teaching on this issue:

In the [Jewish] tradition of humility, the lowly self-assessment doesn’t reflect a comparison of the modest person to other people; instead it reflects the sense of awe, which leads him to assess himself in relation to the cosmos or God.

Moshe Halberthal, Maimonides: Life and Thought, p. 160, slightly abridged.  I am particularly indebted to these pages in the chapter “Nobility and Saintliness” which informed my thinking and supplied many textual resources for these thoughts about humility.

[12] Proverb 22:4

[13] Thanks, William Shakespeare.  Macbeth, Act V, line 24.

[14] According to Frank Zappa, “Wisdom is the Dom of the Wiz”.  “Packard Goose,” Joe’s Garage, Act III.  I am inexplicably indebted to that particular song for the formulation of the cited sentence.

[15] Babylonian Talmud, tractate Nedarim 41a.