The Sabbath before Yom Kippur
A Sermon from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
To state this contrast, friends, is already to make the point of my message this morning. It is a point most of us have learned from bitter experience. Our best friends are not necessarily our most gracious flatterers. More often our severest critics are our truest friends. And what is true of individuals, is true of nations. Several years ago I pointed out that Balaam could not be respected as a prophet in the manner that the Jewish prophets are respected, for a real prophet helps his people to deepen their religious and moral experience, and does not lull them into a false sense of security as Balaam’s wily tongue sought to do. And Moses was the forerunner or rather the archetype of Jewish prophecy. He loved his people so much that he even fought with God in their behalf. But instead of flattering them, he ever tried to make them aware of their short-comings, he even tried to make them better.
Yet, friends, as simple as this point may be, it would surprise you to learn what serious consequences it had for Judaism. Because Moses taught us that spiritual leaders must not be gracious flatterers of their people, we Jews have never had one important problem which Christianity has faced. We Jews never had social reform movements which had as their goal the destruction of Judaism, the termination of the political power of the rabbis, or the confiscation of synagogue property. Most European countries on the other hand, had such social reform movements with regard to their organized religions. Permit me to show you why.
When a clergy is like Balaam flattering its constituents and assuring them that all they do is good that whatever is has God’s approval you are bound to have a problem. When the clergy feels that the social and economic conditions which prevail, no matter how bad, enjoy God’s assent, then anyone who seeks change must fight the clergy too. But Moses taught spiritual leaders not to nod “Amen” to everything that is, to everything their charges do. Rather spiritual leaders are to criticize and to improve the status quo. That is why Jewish spiritual leaders were always critical of the manner in which the rich treated the poor and the employers their employees. That is why Jewish spiritual leaders always advocated social and economic reform. They were always in the forefront of the battle to make social and economic conditions better, and righteous living more universal. And as such they did not have to worry about opposition from those who sought change.
Judaism, for example, did not tolerate slavery and say that if God made the slave a slave, it must be punishment for his sin. On the other hand, Judaism sought to abolish slavery. Judaism did not say that nothing should be done about poverty, hunger and disease because we had no right to frustrate what God willed. On the other hand, the elimination of hunger and disease became the greatest mitzvos we have. Our religion, instead of giving the stamp of approval to the status quo, always sought its betterment. And that is why it hurts us to hear our young people attack religion in general, including Judaism, because religion is on the side of existing power. If anything, Judaism, like Moses, was always critical of that which could be bettered. I repeat Judaism and its spokesmen were not to nod “Amen” to all that was and bless God for it. Such was our mood years ago. But what of the present?
In one way our rabbis today are not like Balaam, but rather like Moses. They could, for example, if they chose, flatter American Jews for all that was done for Israel. And the truth is that American Jews did do much. As I indicated once before, no other group in America can even approach our record for philanthropy. But rabbis do not flatter their people, for they know how much more can and should be done. We cannot be satisfied with a comparative standard. Rabbis will only congratulate Jews when they have given their very all, when they have given until it hurts, and then some more.
Rabbis could also, for example, undertake to congratulate Jews on the fact that on three business days of the year they cease completely from business activities, go to synagogue and even give generously to the support of worthy causes. But rabbis do not do this for they know that a three-day-a-year religion is inadequate and that the souls of Jews cannot be sustained by token observance alone.
Yes, rabbis could congratulate Jews, but instead, it is to their credit that they have chosen to be like Moses, and they scold and chastise. They want Jews to be still better and do more. This has been our historic role to be like Moses, and not like Balaam. I fear, however, that with respect to one thing at least, a change is setting in. I fear it, because once rabbis become like Balaam flattering Jews and assuring their people that all they do is fine we are headed for trouble. We have come to an age when Jews, for example, prefer a rabbi who says that whatever they do is fine. As a matter of fact congregations now set out to retain rabbis who will give the stamp of approval to all the liberties they take individually regarding the Sabbath, regarding synagogue services, regarding even the laws of mourning which up to recently Jews were wont to observe rather strictly. Furthermore, Jews want to join or establish congregations whose policies are such that whatever the members decide to do is regarded as permissible.
I pray that no one will misunderstand me. Just because a Jew does not observe all the commandments does not mean that I cannot respect, admire and even love him. I know many such people in this very congregation and I respect, admire and love them. But I do not believe any of these self-respecting men could respect me if I said Everything you do is fine. And even if you feel that there are some observances which you want to disregard, I will examine Jewish law to help establish a basis for proving that you are doing no wrong. And if I cannot find substantial proof I will change the law so that you need have no guilty conscience.” Nor do I feel that any self-respecting man could respect a congregation whose policy it is to help him feel that all he does is right. Such a congregation should never have come into existence.
I believe that the Jew who is not 100 percent observant ought to respect his rabbi and congregation more, when instead of saying that whatever is inconvenient or not readily understood can be disregarded, the rabbi and the congregation help the man to see the value of doing the inconvenient, or help him to understand what is not readily intelligible. If the rabbi becomes nothing more than an “Amen” nodder to all that his flock does, he will sacrifice his historic role. He will become simply an instrument to relieve Jews of all feelings of guilt.
Now I want changes in Jewish law. And I tell you that Jewish law was changed in the past, and will change in the future. But these changes were not made to relieve Jews of guilty consciences. We did not say, “Let us change the law whenever Jews don t observe it.” We did not say, Let us change the law so that instead of feeling like sinners, Jews will be saints in their own eyes.” On the other hand, if Jews had a guilty conscience, we felt it was healthy. Their guilty conscience might help them to do better in the future. But if we continue to change the law only to appease the guilty consciences of Jews, we are making a farce of religion.
And that is what I want you to understand this morning on this great Sabbath of Penitence.
A guilty conscience is a healthy thing. It is healthy for our Jewishness. It is healthy for the survival of Judaism. If every Jew and that includes everyone, rabbis and congregants if every Jew has a guilty conscience, the day may come when there will be an improvement in our ways. But if we tell Jews they can do anything they like on the Sabbath, what hope is there that they will even make the Sabbath more meaningful to themselves, more inspirational, more conducive to family togetherness? If we tell Jews that they may eat anything they please, what hope is there that they will ever recognize what Jewish consciousness and consecration is induced by the observance of dietary laws? If we tell Jews that
it is enough to pray once a week, what hope is there that they will ever experience the strength that comes from daily prayer or the dignity that is added to the table with the recitation of grace before and after meals? If we tell Jews that they may modify the laws of mourning as they please, what hope is there that they will ever appreciate the full value of the rules pertaining to Shiva and Shloshim with regard to the proper orientation of the living to the problem of life and death?
Yes, a guilty conscience Jewishly is a good thing. A man without a guilty conscience never becomes a better man. And a Jew whose rabbi has helped to deaden his Jewish conscience can never become a better Jew.
I remember during the last war how many orthodox rabbis had to counsel with soldiers who never desecrated the Sabbath or ate non-kosher food and found it impossible to continue their observance. The rabbis were wont to quote one famous sage who said, “If you have to do the prohibited, at least try not to enjoy it.” If the soldier continued to have a guilty conscience, he might some day be restored to his earlier practices.
I also recall a non-Jewish general in Europe who expressed a similar thought. Like many others, his drinking habits were hardly honorable and his morals away from his family hardly praiseworthy. One day he expressed himself to his Chaplain, I know I am doing wrong, Chaplain, but as long as you lead a decent life even here amid war conditions, you are my conscience. You are my constant reminder of what I should be. You are my reminder of the standards to which I hope some day to return. Don’t you ever let yourself sink to my level.”
And in my own chaplaincy experience I had a problem. I was stationed at Randolph Field and had no difficulty in observing Shabbos. As a matter of fact, I had regular Sabbath eve and Sabbath morning services. One day my superiors told me that they wanted me to forget the Sabbath morning services at Randolph and conduct them at Hondo Air Base 50 air miles away, for the men at Hondo could only attend services on Saturday mornings.
A plane would transport me back and forth. I need not tell you how badly I felt, but before I could do anything about it, I happened to discuss the problem with my men at Randolph at a meeting of our chapel council. And a number of them did not hesitate to express themselves. “Chaplain,” they said, “If you have to go to Hondo on Shabbos mornings we will take charge of the service at Randolph ourselves. But we hope you don’t have to go. You are the one man who represents for us resistance to the desecration of the Sabbath. You manage in spite of military duties to represent for us what the Shabbos should be. Some day we too may be able to observe the Sabbath. But if we see you flying to and fro like the other officers, we will lose the one great reminder we had of what Shabbos is like.” Their reaction floored me, and I was more determined than ever to find a way not to fly to Hondo. I moved heaven and earth and arranged for a service there on a weekday that I might personally observe Shabbos and at the same time not destroy what I represented to my men at Randolph. I was their conscience, even as they stimulated mine, and I could not let them down.
Yes, a guilty conscience is a good thing Jewishly. It helps to make us better if not now then later. Therefore, let us not ask rabbis to nod “Amen” to all we want to do. Instead, let us recognize our Rabbi as the reminder of what we ought to be and do. Instead of appeasing our consciences by seeking assurances that we are doing no wrong, let us see whether we can’t improve upon our conduct and add to our observance. Let us see whether we can’t do at least one thing better this year than we did the year before.
That is the appeal of the Sabbath of Penitence when we are to consider our potentialities of becoming better than we ever were more observant, more charitable, more learned in things Jewish. That is my appeal to you let us not deaden our guilty consciences. Let us not seek changes in the law only to appease feelings of guilt. Let us not seek different synagogues only because their policies help us to feel that we are saints, not sinners. Continue to be loyal to orthodoxy and orthodox synagogues and even if you feel guilty that you are not personally orthodox, the day may come when your guilty conscience will help to make a better Jew of you. Running away from your conscience to a place where you are told that you are a saint makes a farce of God and religion. And that no self-respecting person wants.
I pray that the day will come when all Jews will realize this, and while changes in Jewish law will come, they will come because of the demands of spiritual living not because Jews want to be flattered into feelings of security that they are doing no wrong.