Who By Fire: Rabbi Rachel Timoner’s Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5781
There once was a man on a journey who came across a beautiful palace, but the palace was on fire. He looked around, trying to find help to put out the blaze. He wondered, surely there must someone who owns this palace, someone who cares for it. This, the rabbis teach in the midrash (Genesis Rabba 39:1), was our ancestor Abraham. And the palace on fire, the birah doleket, was the world itself. Seeing the world on fire, the world consumed by chaos and corruption, Abraham looked around for someone to put out the flames. He asked, surely there must be someone in charge of this burning world. Surely there must be someone who cares for it. And that’s when he heard God’s voice calling to him: I am the caretaker of this palace, I am the Sovereign of the universe. Lech Lecha, go forth from your land, you will start a great nation and I will be your God.
Fire. Family and friends in the West send pictures of the orange sky, say that it’s dark in the middle of the day. Some fled for their lives, lost their homes, went looking to set up a tent somewhere they can breathe.
Chaos. Crazy conspiracy theories traverse the land, a call to arms, roving bands of white supremacists enacting deadly violence, federal forces at war with protestors on city streets.
Corruption. A leader abuses the public weal to enrich his family, prevents scientists from protecting people during a pandemic, wantonly inflicts cruelty to score points, admires notorious despots, interferes with the election, refuses to leave if he loses—and thousands of elected and unelected officials protect and defend him.
We are living in a birah doleket, a palace on fire, “Surely there must be someone in charge of this burning world” we might pray. “Surely there must be someone who can put out the fire.”
When the world feels out of control, dangerous, frightening, when our lives feel fragile, we long for the idea that someone is in charge, with order and a plan, with a happy ending for us and our children.
The idea of God as Sovereign, the King of the world, runs throughout the Hebrew Bible and Jewish prayer. From the motsi to the second line of the shema, you cannot live a day as an observant Jew of any kind without calling God King. Today, Rosh Hashanah, is the coronation.
Soon we will say in unetaneh tokef “On this day Your Kingship is exalted, Your throne established in lovingkindness; and you sit upon it in truth…You determine… who will live and who will die…who by fire and who by water.”
The first of the shofar services is called Malchuyot/Kingship: “May You rule in glory over all the earth, …Then all who breathe shall say: ‘Adonai, God of Israel is King, and His Kingship is over all of His dominion.’”
“Avinu Malkeinu,” we sing, “our Father, our King.”
Honestly, these words have been impediments for me all of my life. Maybe that’s true for you too. I do not believe that there is actually a king in the sky. I’ve chafed against Malchut (the idea that God is King). I’ve ignored Malchut. I’ve struggled to find my way to God despite Malchut.
But this year, I get it. Assuming we’re talking about a multi-gendered King, of course, I’m ready for this metaphor and I think you might be too.
Because this year, I understand in my kishkes the deep collective yearning for good governance. A recognition that when power falls into the wrong hands, lives are at stake, an entire way of life is at stake. When our ancestors decided to reify the metaphor of Malchut, to make God King in every prayer, they knew what it was to live under men who gripped power and wielded it to harm. They modeled the God King as an alternative, subversively rejecting arrogant human power. “There’s only one true King,” they were saying to the pharaohs of their day, “and it is not you.”
Of course we know that God has no shape. God is not a man in the sky. Any metaphor, any words we use to describe the Ineffable will distort and diminish. But given that words are what we have, given that our minds need images constructed through language, the image of a leader dedicated to love and justice isn’t such a bad one. And now, unfortunately, we too feel that the most heartfelt and urgent prayer we could possibly utter is for benevolent governance. “Please, let someone put out the fire and get us out of this mess, please let there be justice, please let there be mercy.”
In the ancient Near East, a king was also a judge and a shepherd, and this mixed metaphor made its way down through the generations. Our King became a Judge more fair than any judge, a Shepherd more caring than any shepherd. In unetaneh tokef, the King is the personification of justice, encompassing every perspective in the courtroom. The King is also a Shepherd who loves and counts every lost sheep.
Psalm 72 tells us that a human king should be like Melech Ha’Olam, dedicated to mishpat v’ tzedek. These terms, mishpat and tzedek, when paired, refer to justice and righteousness specifically in regard to the poor and oppressed. The psalm says, “May [they, the human king] bring justice to the lowly of the people…rescue the children of the destitute, and crush the oppressor.” In other words, when we call God Melech, we are holding up a model of governance that prioritizes justice for the vulnerable. All of these metaphors –the king, the judge, the shepherd– come together in the most famous psalm of all, the 23rd: “Adonai is my shepherd, I shall not want… You lead me on paths of justice… Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” [Thanks to Rabbi Andrea Weiss and Professor Marc Zvi Brettler for their teaching on these metaphors.]
This is what we mean today when we enthrone God as King: relief from human rulers with their callousness, calumny, and corruption. For our ancestors, who knew human kings like this all too well, there was no recourse, no election, no vote, often no escape. Prayer was all they had.
We, on the other hand, have six weeks. In the next six weeks, we have a chance our ancestors didn’t have: to use everything in our power, every ounce of will and effort, to protect a fair election.
I can hear you saying to me, “But Rabbi, I am so tired. We’ve been living through four years of viciousness, confusion, anxiety. Add to that six months of pandemic with no company, no childcare, with no end in sight. My heart hurts, my nerves are raw, I am overwhelmed, and I am lonely. It’s the most I can do to fend off depression. I have nothing to give.”
And I say to you, I see you. If what you can do is get up in the morning, put on a mask, and try to be kind, that’s good enough. It’s good enough because it has to be. And right now I tell you to forgive yourself and those you love, because we are all only human. But, if you are someone who has any energy, any time, or any resources, there is no effort too great, no dollar too much, no hour too long to be worthy of our dedication right now.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people.” Remember, Justice Ginsburg wrote the fierce dissent in Shelby v. Holder, a seminal moment in the contemporary assault on voting rights.
This is it. Freedom is on the line. Protection of this election is deserving of our most fervent prayer and our most strenuous exertion.
Don’t you dare think that this doesn’t matter now, after last night. It matters more than ever now. If we want to protect women’s bodies and women’s lives, it matters more than anything has in our lifetimes.
We have a burden that our ancestors did not have, the burden of democracy. Our leader was chosen, not by a majority of voters but close. The fact that we are here, the fact that again it is likely to be close, is something we must learn to understand.
Authors Jill Lepore, Ibram Kendi, and Isabel Wilkerson, in the books These Truths, Stamped from the Beginning, and Caste, exhaustively document how the propertied leaders in our country, from before its first day to today, have managed the damning contradiction of a national identity founded on principles of universal liberty, equality, and justice, against an underlying brutal reality of enslavement, massacre, and systematic subjugation of an entire caste of human beings. Lepore, Kendi, and Wilkerson document the numerous strategies over the years used to sustain this extraordinary hypocrisy, none of which has been more effective than the deployment of two simultaneous narratives. The first story is the one we know best: equality of opportunity for all. The second is the story told originally to landless white indentured servants, then to white wage workers and farmers, which is that their safety, their status, and their future depend upon the subjugation of black people, the massacre of native people, and the removal of foreigners.
We want the first story to be true about America. We want to be proud of our country—and there is so much to be proud of. In order to make the first story believable, we’ve participated in suspending disbelief. We’ve chosen to accentuate the evidence of progress, the examples of inclusion, the inspiring heroes battling for justice. And we’ve chosen to ignore or downplay the lock of white supremacy, the hold of caste. We’ve chosen to see its evidence as incidental, not definitional. We’ve chosen to believe that the country’s original sins are not primary to this place we love, this place we call home. Our refusal to face our foundational underside has brought us here.
The people with the red hats and the people who are arming themselves are largely the descendants of European immigrants, those white landless indentured servants, independent farmers, and wage workers. They are aggrieved. Having absorbed the idea that the safety, status, and future of white people depends upon the subjugation of black people and the removal of foreigners, they are shaken by the changing colors of this country. They are terrified at what that will mean for their place in it. For their identity, for their security, and for their belonging.
The problem with America at this moment is that there is no way forward without addressing the contradiction inherent to our founding. We can address it through civil war or we can address it through truth and reconciliation.
Three years ago, my esteemed colleague and friend Rabbi Sharon Brous gave a sermon on reparations called “Our Country Was Built on a Stolen Beam: A Call for a National Reckoning.” The title refers to a passage in the Talmud (Gittin 55a), in which the Rabbis argue over this question: What ought we do if a house, maybe even a beautiful palace, is built on the foundation of marish hagazul—a stolen beam? Rabbi Brous describes the Rabbinic dispute like this, “Shammai argues: we must tear down the house to retrieve the beam and return it to its rightful owner. You can’t build something beautiful on a lie. But Hillel has a different take. What sense does it make to demolish the palace? Let the thief pay for the beam, considering its full value as the foundation of a beautiful home.”
Given where we’ve come, given where we find ourselves, it does seem that we need to listen to Shammai, to take down and rebuild much of our palace. Because in our case it wasn’t only one foundational beam that was stolen, it wasn’t just 244 years of trading human bodies and stealing their labor, it’s been millions of stolen lives since then, from convict leasing to lynching to redlining to medical experiments and denial of health care, to mass incarceration, to police killings.
If we don’t want to take down the entire palace — because there are things we really like about this house, because we know there are good and reliable beams, because some of its foundation is stable and worthy — at very least we must perform a full inspection, a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of all of the stolen beams. And then we need to listen to Hillel, and make reparation, actual reparation, for all those sins, for all that theft.
That is a tall order, but that’s not even enough. For “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” If my whiteness was just not-blackness, if all that made me special was that I was better than black, and then black becomes beautiful and black becomes equal, who am I? And if I’ve been working my whole life, waiting my turn for a place on an upper floor of this palace, with air and light and a view, and now the people in the basement beneath me are rising, will I lose my place? Will my children end up in the basement? Will they become the despised caste? Black people are not the only ones deserving of change in this country. Poor and working white people are too. Until we address greed, poverty, and economic inequality — the concentration of wealth at the expense of everyone else– we will not succeed at truth and reconciliation, we will not have good government, we will not have peace. In the conspiracy theory that leads to the chant, “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” Jews are the ones who are scheming to replace white people with black and brown people in the hierarchy of castes. There is dangerous fear in our land.
Masha Gessen, the author and New Yorker columnist who studies Vladimir Putin and the birth of autocracies, taught me that in a time of fear, appeals to greatness often win over appeals to goodness. The same instinct that leads to the metaphor of God as King leads to the yearning for a strongman, the desire for someone to take control when everything feels out of control. Our prayers express that very longing. The wisdom of our prayers, however, is to direct that longing away from the human realm toward God. But Gessen also taught me that in times of fear, we must create a vision of a beautiful future, we must unfurl the banner of true greatness: that true greatness is goodness. Moral authority is the antidote to autocracy. True greatness is justice and mercy, love and forgiveness. True greatness uses power to redeem the poor and oppressed. True greatness builds a palace where everyone has air, light, and the freedom to breathe, move, grow and be all that we’re here to be, where Black Lives Matter and every life matters. True greatness is strong and stable, fair and kind. True greatness is Malchut.
Yes, the beautiful palace we call the United States of America needs a reconstruction. We have to tell the truth about every stolen beam, pay for every theft, repair every breach. And we must find a way to reassure our aggrieved white housemates that they will always belong here. No one needs to live in the basement. There’s room for everyone above ground.
There is no other way to make America great. Civil war will not accomplish greatness. The only way to national power is truth, reparation, and reconciliation, economic fairness, and good government. Let us never again allow the words “politics” and “government” to become dirty words, for politics is what happens when free people negotiate how we will live, and good government is the only way we can live together in peace.
The midrash of the birah doleket, the palace on fire, contains an element of protest, rebuke. What kind of caretaker doesn’t put out the fire, but lets the palace keep burning? If the King is so good, why is the world on fire?
In the Jewish imagination there are actually two palaces. The palace below is on fire, and it’s our fire. We lit it, we feed it, and we are the ones who can put it out. The palace above, God’s palace, is aglow with a supernal light. In God in Search of Man, Heschel argues that in the birah doleket Abraham saw both palaces, both a world on fire and a world aglow with the light of the Holy One. His mission became bridging those two worlds. And that’s our mission too.
In this view, the King/Judge/Shepherd is in the upper palace separated from us, yearning for reunification, that we would turn our hearts and put out the fire and come home. We, in the palace below, with smoke in our eyes, are unable to find each other, or the light. But on Rosh Hashanah, we see through the haze and we see the palace above and we crown our King, who in turn sees us, each lost sheep, and brings us home.
In the Kabbalistic view, Malchut is the sphere where God and humanity, heaven and earth, meet. Malchut is Shekhinah, the feminine presence of God within us and among us. It is the inner compass that directs us when we’re lost. It is the aspect of God that stays with us when we’re separated. It is what weeps with us when we suffer. It’s what we feel between us when we come together. And it is the power running through us to put out the fire and heal our burning world.
Malchut, Melech Ha’Olam, is not just leadership we pray for above, it is leadership we pray for within. Out there and in here are not separate. Our prayer for a benevolent ruler, for proper governance is a prayer for proper self-governance. Each of us is meant to find Malchut right here, when we say “Hineini: Here I am.” All of that goodness we pray for, that kindness, fairness, love, truth, mercy, that relentless pursuit of justice and freedom—right here. We are the caretakers we’ve been searching for.
Uvchein…we’re about to pray, “Uvchein! And then! Violence shall rage no more, and evil shall vanish like smoke; the rule of tyranny shall pass away from the earth, and [God] alone shall reign … as it is written: The Eternal shall reign forever.”
Ken Yehi Ratzon.