Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons
Rosh HaShanah 5781
by Rabbi Sydni
Sunday, September 20th, 2020
Be A Reed, Change Your Mind
Our Rabbis taught: Adam was created on the eve of Shabbat, [the last of all created beings]. Why? So that if a person’s opinion of himself should become conceited, he would be reminded that the gnat preceded him in the order of Creation (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 38a).
Al heit she-hatanu l’fanekha b’imutz halev - for the transgression we have transgressed before You with hardness of heart. V’al heit she-hatanu l’fanekha bintiat goren. And for the transgression we have transgressed before You with stiff-neckedness. B’einaiyim ramot - with condescension. B’azut metzah - with arrogance. B’kashiut oref - with stubbornness.
You may have studied at the highest ranked university of anyone here. You may be the best-read person in this room. You may be among the oldest in the room, those with the most life experience. And yet, as surprising as it may be, you are not right about everything. You are both the pinnacle of Creation, and you have no more right to be haughty about your origins, knowledge, or experience than a fly on the wall.
Yesterday, we spoke about the importance of knowledge in repentance and atonement, that saying “I didn’t know” is not enough of an excuse to right a wrong. Learning more can teach us to do right, but the terrifying thing about learning that we didn’t quite arrive at yesterday is that it can also prompt us to change our mind. Those opinions we hold onto for years - whether they be about ice cream flavors, dogs versus cats, or even politics, are subject to shift once we grasp how small our concept of the world is in the vast sea of truth within which our being is situated.
In a completely different section of the same tractate mentioned before, our Rabbis teach: A person should always be as yielding as a reed and not as unyielding as a cedar.
A reed grows in a well-watered area. Its stock keeps driving up young shoots. And because its roots are many, even if all the winds of the world come and blow at it, they cannot uproot it from its place, for it sways to and fro with them. And once the winds have subsided, the reed resumes its erect stance.
On the other hand, the cedar does not grow in a well-watered area, it does not drive up new shoots, and its roots are few. Still, even if all the winds of the world come and blow at it, they cannot move it from its place. If, however, a particular south wind blows at the cedar, it uproots it at once and lays it flat on its face (TB Sanhedrin 105b-106a).
In the Rabbis’ eyes, changes in opinions and feelings are not only inevitable; they are to be applauded. The flexible reed has established roots in different worlds - we could say that this reed watches both CNN and Fox News. When another plant comes around to argue, it listens and truly considers the other’s opinion before it responds. And if the reed knows that now is the time to stick to its original ideals, the reed has explored enough opinions that it knows how to explain why it believes what it believes. The cedar, on the other hand, stays in its own lane. It only knows how to stand on its opinions and how to break; it lacks that integral practice in flexibility and understanding.
We each have ideals with which we were raised, some of which are so ingrained in our psyches that we cannot fathom even questioning them. But then a friend or an article or a documentary comes along to challenge our basic notions of goodness, and the easiest way to move forward is to either ignore what we have heard or to lash out against it. What I am asking today is, first, that when we hear a statement or a plea from the “other side,” that we grew new roots by listening, just for a moment. And if we like what we hear, we dig deeper. But my second, more challenging task that I have for this year is for each of us to abandon our egos enough to change our mind about something significant.
In this particular time, so much of what we see on the news and social media is violently polarized. On the one hand, we’re told face masks are the only way to save lives, and on the other hand, we’re told face masks do nothing but remove our civil liberties. We’re told abortion is murder, and we’re told abortion is a woman’s human right. But the reality is that so many of us sit in the compassionate yet tenuous middle. So many of us are scared to admit that we are still searching for the truth, that we are not quite sure exactly what God wants from us in every arena, and that we are willing to be nudged in a different direction when we hear heartfelt, yet rational presentations of truth.
Know that we as humankind do not only derive our need for humility from comparison to the other objects of Creation; God, too, shows humility through changing God’s mind! When the people Israel build and worship a golden calf at Mount Sinai, God proclaims to Moses to stand back so that God can destroy the entire nation. In a series of conversations, ranging from the rational to the impassioned, Moses convinces God to spare the people. In gratitude, God passes before Moses with the following proclamation: “ה׳ ה׳ אל רחום וחנון ארך אפיים ורב חסד ואמת נוצר חסד לאלפים נושא עוון ופשע וחטאה ונקא” - Adonai, Adonai, is a God who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving of iniquity, transgression, and sin!
On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we repeat these words as a reminder to God about God’s ability to change plans and opinions. Although our wrongdoings may make us liable to be written in the book of death in the year to come, we plead to the Divine that God makes corrections in the book, that God be a role model to us as someone who can shift for the sake of compassion. In next week’s Yom Kippur Minhah service, Tyler will read for us God’s command to be holy, because Adonai, God, is holy! Part of that holiness, part of that emulation of God must include an ability to take on the flexibility of the reed more than the firmness of the cedar.
While even changing one opinion can seem like a daunting task, let us not forget that neither you nor I are strangers to change. Many of us have had more than a single romantic relationship in our lifetimes, someone not sitting here today with whom we believed we would spend the rest of our lives. And some of us have changed our career path after years of thinking we knew exactly where we were heading. Just in the past year, so many of us have bitten the bullet and accepted parts of technology we had been avoiding for so long, just so that we could get in touch with our families or buy groceries in ways that help us feel safe. As the world around us shifts and as we age, whether or not we notice at the time, we adapt and grow to fit our newfound surroundings and our newfound selves.
Ultimately, the change in opinion for which I ask today today can be anything from a change in favorite movie to a change in philosophies of justice. But that change can also start at the personal level. That change can be taking names off of our list of people to whom we refuse to talk or reevaluating our opinions (positively or negatively) of the colleagues and loved ones in our lives. Even if our moral core is strong, even if most of our beliefs are vibrant and well-founded, the simple practice of flexibility, of changing just one opinion, can give us new comfort with humility. The more we search for reasons to change our minds, the more we find out about those stances from which we cannot waver. The more we listen to ideas, the more we show we are able to learn and adapt, and finally, the more those around us will pay attention when it is our turn to fight for our ideals. L’shanah tovah!