Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Vay’chi 5783

What is our responsibility to others, and how does this intersect with God and providence? Rabbi Timoner considers these questions with the help of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose 50th yahrtzeit was this past week. 

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Stella and Hudson, what thoughtful divrei Torah you’ve offered us this morning. Hudson, you asked about truth-telling and forgiveness. Is it OK to sometimes tell a lie? What is our responsibility to forgive when the one who wronged us does not seem to deserve it? Stella, you asked about theology. What are the implications of the idea of God’s providence on human responsibility? And this is where your two divrei Torah intersect. You both are concerned with human responsibility. What is our responsibility to others, in the words we speak, in releasing them from their wrongdoing, or releasing our own grudge, in accountability for our own actions? If we were to believe in a God who foresees what we will do, or who controls what we will do, what would that mean for our moral framework? Isn’t human responsibility the foundation of all ethics? Is belief in God, or belief in God’s providence, a way to escape responsibility for the world and our place in it?

As I was contemplating your questions, I was reminded that this coming week is the 50th yahrzeit of the greatest Jewish thinker of the 20th century and one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel died 50 years ago this week. He was born in Warsaw in 1907, the descendant of two revered Hasidic dynasties. After his traditional yeshiva education and his ordination as a rabbi, Heschel traveled to Berlin to attend the Hochschule for de Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, a school dedicated to the critical scholarship of Judaism. In 1938, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland, and only six weeks before the Nazis invaded Poland, he was rescued by Julian Morgenstern of Hebrew Union College, traveling to London and then the United States. His mother and two sisters were left behind and murdered by the Nazis.

Stella, I hear echoes of your voice in what Heschel said about the Holocaust and how we think about God:

“For us, contemporaries and survivors of history’s most terrible horrors, it is impossible to meditate about the compassion of God without asking: Where is God?
…The major folly of this view seems to lie in its shifting the responsibility for [humanity]’s plight from [human beings] to God, in accusing the Invisible [God] though iniquity [wrongdoing] is ours. Rather than admit our own guilt, we seek, like Adam, to shift the blame upon someone else. For generations we have been investing life with ugliness and now we wonder why we do not succeed. God was thought of as a watchman hired to prevent us from using our loaded guns. Having failed us in this, [God] is now thought of as the ultimate Scapegoat.
… The decay of conscience fills the air with a pungent smell. Good and evil, which were once as distinguishable as day and night, have become a blurred mist. But that mist is man-made. God is not silent. [God] has been silenced.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel lived for 32 years in the United States until his death, and in that time he taught many students and wrote many books. He was a professor of both ethics and mysticism. He grew up in a deeply spiritual home, and he carried a strong sense of God’s presence throughout his life. He advocated living life with awe and wonder, famously saying: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement: [to] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” He went on:
“Wonder goes beyond knowledge. We do not doubt that we doubt, but we are amazed at our ability to doubt, amazed at our ability to wonder. …Wonder is a state of mind in which we do not look at reality through the latticework of our memorized knowledge [instead] …each thing is a surprise; being is unbelievable. We are amazed at seeing anything at all, amazed …at the unexpectedness of being…, at the fact that there is being at all.”

On Thursday, Hudson, you asked me: who were the prophets? Well, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote what’s widely considered the most important introduction to the prophets. And it just so happens that his writing addresses the very questions of God and truth and human responsibility that you both raise in your divrei Torah.

Many of us today might have ideas about God, if we have them at all, that are impersonal, like a presence or force. But Heschel was in relationship with a personal God.
This might be surprising, but for Heschel and for the Hebrew Prophets, the reality of a personal God, a God who acts in history, and the moral responsibility of human beings are not counterveiling forces pulling in opposite directions from one another, but complementary forces pulling in the same direction. In fact, for Heschel and the Prophets, it is God’s very presence in the world that animates human responsibility. We exist to be in responsible partnership with God. God has expectations of us that we are called upon to meet. Heschel taught that the Hebrew Prophets were people fully consumed with God’s presence and power, often feeling that power in their own bodies, but also and simultaneously intent on human responsibility. The fact that God was so present for them made human hypocrisy– our lies, our rationalizations, our daily insensitivity to injustice and suffering – intolerable to the prophets. Let me give you some of Heschel’s words on this. He said:

“Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of [human beings], but our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience.” P. 5

“Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world.” P. 5

“The prophet’s ear…is attuned to a cry imperceptible to others.” P. 7

“The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility, is impatient of excuse, contemptuous of pretense and self-pity.” P. 7

“Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.” P. 16

“Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice–cheating in business, exploitation of the poor–is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”

Probably more than for any of his writings, Abraham Joshua Heschel is known for his action. He lived these words. He marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr and John Lewis for voting rights and he spoke out early against the Vietnam war. He taught that God’s presence in the world moves through our feet when we march for justice, that God’s presence makes us more responsible, not less.

Heschel’s life and the prophets’ lives, were dedicated to breaking open the idea of normal, demonstrating that often what our society has deemed normal, is unacceptable to God. Just because we’ve become accustomed to it, does not make it OK. Whether that’s violence, war, racism, poverty, or corruption.

As we mark two years since the Jan 6th insurrection, as we watch a House of Representatives that was held hostage for a week – this time legally – by members of Congress who in many cases continue to deny the election, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s voice and the voices of our prophets are as relevant now as ever. Their hatred of arrogance and corruption. Their impatience with dishonesty, their insistence on what is right and just, even if it is unpopular.

This year Rabbi Heschel’s death and Reverend King’s birth fall in the same week. Their memories will be made into blessing if we live out their message through our lives. As we end the book of Genesis we say Chazak Chazak v’nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another.