Kol Nidre – May our Compassion Conquer our Anger

The spiritual call for our times is noble anger synthesized with rachmanut – compassion. 

The Holy of Holies that stood in the second Temple was an empty room – no curtain, no ark, no cherubs.  In her book, A Bride for One Night, Ruth Calderon writes: “there was just the power of the place itself: the foundation stone of the world and the pulsing heart of the universe.” One day each year on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter to ask forgiveness for the Jewish people.

In a daring text, the rabbis of the Talmud imagine the High Priest, Rabbi Yishmael, entering that space.  Ruth Calderon imagines his mind filled with the details of the day as he carefully walks in.  As he walks into the thick darkness of the Holy of Holies, he senses a presence.  It is God, sitting on the high throne.  What should he do? Throw himself on his face? Turn back?

And God addresses him. What does God say?

“Yishmael my son, bar’cheni – bless me.”  God in this text is not grand, majestic or full of awe.  God is lonely, in need of company and blessing.  The text suggests an intimacy; God calls Ishmael, “My son” as a parent would speak to a child.  Yishmael is no longer a High Priest with official garments and duties.  He is only himself, engaged in a personal and intimate moment with God.

God saying, “Bar’cheni -Bless Me” is a radical theology, changing the direction in which blessing flows.  We are no longer requesting blessing from God, rather God requests blessing from us.

Ruth Calderon writes: “Suddenly he understands. Yishmael is filled with blessing, and he is ready to bestow blessing on others.  The words come to him with love: “May Your compassion conquer Your anger.  May Your mercy overcome Your stern attributes. May you behave toward Your children with the attribute of compassion.”  With that, God nods and Rabbi Yishmael exits to greet the people and tell them all would be well this year.

Rabbi Yishmael’s blessing to God is the blessing our world needs right now.  It is a text that I need personally, as I seek to face this moment. May our compassion, rachmanut, overcome our anger.  How these concepts interact and manifest are a piece of the spiritual work that I ask us to work on together in coming days and months.

I appreciate that Rabbi Yishmael does not dismiss God’s anger. Rabbi Yishmael does not ask God to reject anger, but to synthesize anger with compassion.  Our anger is real.  Who can look at our world and not feel angry, frustrated, upset, anxious, fearful, sad?  The condition of our country, and our world, generates anger.  Almost every single line in the Al Chet has been violated, and our anger at this situation is real.  We must acknowledge it and not deny it.  I am angry! I am angry at injustice, racism, inequality, anti-Semitism, violence in the name of righteousness, lies, slander, the despoiling of our environment, the toxic culture of intolerance, an inability to talk to one another, at how we vilify those with whom we disagree! How can you look at our world and not be angry?!

Anger has an important role.  It catalyzes activism.  It motivates.  It has the potential to create change.  The protests we are seeing, the demand for change, our times cry out for noble anger.

But anger can also be dangerous. There is a cost to the long list of things about which we are angry.  I see it.  I feel it, in myself, in our community and in our world.   That anger can take over, defining everything.  We see people only through the lens of our anger.  Anger seeps into relationships and defines our essence.  Connection and joy get lost in the name of indignation.  Anger narrows us.  To paraphrase Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a November 2016 address: “The world is moving into a new and dangerous phase” that he called “the politics of anger and despair.”

We have to assess the toll that anger takes on us.  We need to ask again and again: Is our anger a spark to action, or has it grown so large that there is no longer room for compassion?

I believe that the spiritual call for our times is noble anger synthesized with rachmanut – compassion.  Tonight I want to explore what that might mean. The word rachmanut comes from the Hebrew word rechem, which means womb.  Rachmanut is mother love, embrace, connection, tenderness.  When we see the world through the lens of rachmanut we respond with kindness and see the potential and the good in the other.   We seek to understand rather than rush to judge. We feel and respond to the pain of the other.

Rachmanut is an orientation to life, involving attitude and action each and every day.  It is the little acts of everyday caring, where we see the needs of others and go out of our way to help.  Listen to this teaching: “What does it mean to walk in God’s ways? As God clothed the naked, as happened with Adam and Eve, we clothe the naked.  As God visited the sick, as happened with Abraham, we visit the sick.  As God buried the dead, as happened with Moses, we take care of the needs of the dead.” Rabbi Shai Held teaches that the things on this list are things of which we are afraid, sickness, death, loneliness, and suffering. They are things from which we might want to run away.  Rachmanut stretches us to areas of discomfort and anxiety as we move toward that which scares us.  Think about what it means to stretch compassion into areas of discomfort.

The texts I have discussed are about personal, daily acts and attitudes.  We translate that mindset and those attitudes to the communal, national and international world as we seek to view each situation through these lenses.

Rachmanut does not mean we forgive or condone those who do evil. Every fiber of our being should be devoted to challenging what is wrong, speaking out against hate, prosecuting terrorists and standing for what is just. Every call to rachmanut must also hold onto the wisdom in the Midrash that compassion in the wrong places only allows evil to fester.  Rachmanut is NOT demure acceptance, forgiveness or withdrawal.  Rachmanut is living with an orientation toward fellow human, giving benefit of the doubt, forgiving when possible, being curious about behavior and motivation. It gives us the ability to pause in a moment of heated anger, to take a step back and rethink our behavior before moving forward.  This orientation changes us.

What does rachmanut mean in those situations where the person or idea we encounter has no rachmanut for us?  Let me share a puzzling, yet instructive story from the Talmud.  Robbers are harassing Rabbi Meir and he prays for God to kill them.  His wife Bruriah objects, marshaling Biblical texts to prove to him that instead of praying that they die, he should instead have prayed that they repent from their evil ways.  She quotes a verse from Psalms asking that sin cease from the land, rather than sinners.  The story has a seemingly Pollyanna-ish happy ending.  Rabbi Meir prays and the sinners repent.  Would that life worked that way! But it rarely does!

But there’s more to the story.  When we pray that sin ceases, we look at the circumstances that can change the dynamic around the wrongdoing. There are better and more effective ways to do away with “sinners” than literally getting rid of them.  Bruriah asks Rabbi Meir to see the big picture, and seek to change the sin. Praying that the sin ceases helps imagine the world differently than it was before, better.  Bruriah asks her husband to look inward and to seek a different path.  I understand this to mean that we seek to understand the person and their situation, and affect change in deep and lasting ways.  Rachmanut – Compassion is the search to impact the world in order to address the sin that is real.  And more than that, Bruriah asks him not to become that which is hurting him.  Rather than turning into the robbers at whom he is angry by praying for their death, she asks him to look inward.  She foreshadows the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s teaching: “We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means.”  Without that, we turn into that which we oppose.

While it is rare that people change, Bruriah’s insight asks us to see people in terms of their potential.  When we pray for their death, we get so caught up in justice and anger, we lose our perspective for the potential to change, to cultivate a spark of goodness that might exist and grow.  Compassion is seeing people in terms of their ability to change, believing in the possibility of teshuva, whereas anger clouds our ability to see people, to open ourselves up, to create different realities.  We need rachmanut.

Abraham Davis’ life is an example of what happens when hearts are open.  One night this year, drunk and fueled by friends enmeshed in hatred, the twenty-one year old drove to a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and drew swastikas and curses on the mosques’ windows and doors.

He watched his mother sob as the police arrested him.  Sitting in jail, he regretted what he did.  Part of him was ready to change.  He began to have the time to think about who he was.  He thought about the brother whom he loved, and ultimately expressed regret to the mosque, whose leaders responded with forgiveness.

Listen to the note he wrote to the mosque: “I know you guys probably don’t want to hear from me at all but I really want to get this to y’all. I’m so sorry about having a hand in vandalizing your mosque.  It was wrong and y’all did not deserve to have that done to you.  I hurt y’all and I am haunted by it.  And even after all this you still forgave me….. I wish I could undo the pain I helped to cause….All in all, I just want to say I’m sorry.”

I am certain people at the mosque felt angry and scared. I imagine that lifting up those thoughts and emotions were part of what they needed to go through.  But they found a way to put things in perspective. They saw Abraham Davis in a broader light.  That is rachmanut.  One of the leaders said, “If one of my kids did something stupid like that I would want them to be forgiven.”  By opening doors to forgiveness, and refusing to be defined by anger that could grow and spiral into acts of ongoing retaliation, the story teaches that rachmanut causes ripples.  People at the mosque began to reach out to others in community who supported them, including the Jewish community. Many have gone out to teach about Islam to those who have never met a Muslim. The ripples of rachmanut change us.

I know this story, and others like it, are the exception.  I know that people who perpetrate evil usually continue in their ways without regret. But can we leave doors open?  Can we create opportunities to understand?  Can we open our hearts to listen and connect?  Rachmanut does not mean there are no consequences.  Abraham Davis has to pay fines and make restitution. True rachmanut requires boundaries and accountability; knowing what those are is an important part of our work to internalize rachmanut.

We learn to apply rachmanut to our world as we live it every day.  The spiritual need for this moment is rachmanut held together with noble anger. The gift we can give to our world right now is to realize the name we are called in the Talmud: rachmanim bnei rachmanim – compassionate children of compassionate parents. Our world is desperate for rachmanut.  It starts with us and then it ripples upward and outward.

I am afraid for our country if we allow anger to define and separate us. I am afraid for myself and our community if we let the moral outrage we feel turn into rage.  Let’s refuse to let anger cause us to turn away from one another.  Let’s be sure our anger is noble and leads us to act to create change.  Let’s work on cultivating rachmanut every day and know that small acts ripple.  Practice compassion.  Pray for compassion. Imitate the God who is Compassionate.  It changes those with whom we interact, our communities, perhaps even our country.  And mostly, it changes us.

“What is your prayer for me?” God asks Rabbi Yishmael.  “May your rachmanut conquer your anger.” This prayer was not only a prayer God needed, but a prayer we all need. “May our compassion conquer our anger.”  Gmar Chatimah Tovah.

(Sermon written in collaboration with Rabbi Barry Katz)